Sunday, November 30, 2008

Crafting a Christmas Card

People don’t usually get to explain why they send the Christmas card that they do. Truth be told, they usually don’t want to. Enough that they found a card, got the envelopes addressed and stamped, and got them to a post office in time for a Christmas Eve delivery at the latest.

On November 29, the day before the First Sunday of Advent, I met the deadline that I had set for myself two months ago. Contact information that needed to get to the people to whom I usually write Christmas cards is on its way to them.

In the best of worlds, the exchange of Christmas cards takes on some of the spirit of an exchange of gifts. The choice of card is no haphazard thing because the potential recipients are no haphazard addressees. I always have had the hope that people opening the envelope that I addressed to them will find a card whose design and message cause them to pause, to evaluate, to conclude, “Ah, now there’s a John card par excellence. And with a John message!”

The yearly exchange is made. Two parties get once more to enjoy the expectation, the execution, the satisfaction of recognition and even gratitude for a worthy exchange.

Except... I know the speed with which I myself work my way through the stack of cards arriving any one day of December. Skipping summarily over envelope and address label, I briefly register the image on the front of the card, ignore the printed message inside, and head for any handwritten comment prefacing or following or facing their signature.

If the goal of the person sending the card had been to spend time with me via card stock and letterpress, I have thwarted their aim to delay me in the busy press of December duties at the end of each day.

They may know, however, that I am someone who will re-read their greeting after the evening meal, read it again before placing it in a basket in the front room, and potentially read it a third and fourth time at a moment of Yuletide reverie with eggnog in hand and sugar cookies on a plate beside me. Their efforts then will pay off – I will even wonder why this card, why this wording in their message, why this Christmas meriting just this greeting and no other. Why a photo card? Why a religious card? Why a funny card – again?

This analysis may give the lie to the time and planning that preceded my own trip to the post office on Saturday, plastic bag in hand with stamped envelopes safe from any weather that might have smeared an address or loosened the postage stamp with its Botticelli Madonna.

These cards that were two full months in the making were intended to get to recipients in a few days and make them pause – despite that fatigue at the end of a December day, despite that eagerness to finish with the holiday mail and get to cocktails and online shopping. If only because of its early arrival, my card wanted to get people to think a little longer about me than usual, about the things important in my life these days.

Will I succeed?

Will the chocolate brown envelope trump the white and red and green envelopes amid which it will lie? Will the texture and weight of the paper out of which the envelope is made recall the importance of formal announcements rather than the seasonal frolic of snowballs and holly?

A chocolate brown envelope begs for an address label lighter than chocolate brown. White labels are certainly available, but a special envelope is no longer special when the label reduces it to the status of one more piece of bulk mail. In an online search I found labels in the rough texture of kraft paper, a tan that shows up fine against the chocolate brown.

So... will the oversized kraft paper shipping label stand out in the way it was intended? Will a recipient briefly enjoy the exalted font size for his or her name in bold above the centered address? Will the smaller return address label on the flap of the envelope appear clearly linked in design to the label on the front?

Will the photo card inside the envelope surprise by not showing a face shot of me or anyone I know? Will the image of Willoughby Elliott's oil painting of two trees in a late summer landscape get a chance to make an impression when the card is placed on a mantle lined with red candles and brass stocking holders?

christmas 2008
in the open
in the light

Will the three lines in the tan message panel to the right of the image of trees seem unnecessarily cryptic or poetic or self-congratulatory when no sender’s name appears printed beneath them?

Even heavy with
art and
a tree
of its summers
in the open -
of the light
toward which it faithfully aimed
its every newest growth.

Will the poem on the enclosed cream-colored card get a careful enough reading? Will it appear to justify the earlier three lines as a message about Christmas and the way the radical hope at the center of that feast can enlighten and change real lives?

Will it make sense that I had something to say that may have needed two full months to become clear to me?

Will the multi-layered gift that the card attempts to be find a moment with each recipient and call forth from each of them a prayer for the power and hope of this feast in their own lives?

Two Warm Trees by Willoughby Elliott from Harrison Gallery

Monday, November 24, 2008

An Unsettled Anniversary

Last week a friend sent me word that his grandfather had died the night before. The grandfather had not lived at home for two years; nevertheless, his final hospitalization had been sudden and unexpected. My friend’s grandmother was the only person whose voice had seemed able to summon the briefest of acknowledgements from the ninety-year-old man in his comatose condition.

I wanted to be supportive and asked questions that would give my friend an opening to talk about this loss if he wanted to. I had no idea whether the tie between the two men had been a close one. I recalled my own parents’ reactions to my grandparents’ deaths, though. I knew that if someone had not witnessed a parent’s grief before, the funeral of a grandparent – even one who had not been the special friend that some grandparents manage to be – could trigger an unsettling sense of apprehension.

At a funeral the generations of a family reveal themselves as a moving, transient reality – not eternal and unchanging as early childhood sometimes expects.

My friend’s response to one of my questions stays in my mind. Asked whether he were ready for what the day of the funeral might demand of him emotionally, he replied: “I don’t know what to expect.”

It is a statement that should have been on my own lips last week as this Monday before Thanksgiving approached. Last year on this first day of a short work week I had experienced a discomfort in my chest while walking upstairs after lunch. Following the directions I had received at a recent cardiologist’s appointment, I contacted a nurse in my building.

Within fifteen minutes I was being rolled down the hallway on a gurney by paramedics. At no point were there any severe pains; it was determined fairly early that I was not indeed having a heart attack. The look of my day, however, and indeed the look of my year changed as I watched the ceiling of a work place corridor passing overhead.

Three days and a heart catheterization later, I was home. A wedge had been inserted, however, between me and what should have been the utter familiarity of the setting to which I was returning.

So I should not have been surprised by the mild unease that began last week to characterize the approach of this first anniversary – the first Monday before Thanksgiving since my hospitalization last year.

Another friend sent a text message this morning after an earlier telephone conversation between us: “Are we a bit on the tired side today?”

Yes, I admitted to myself with sudden recognition. I was indeed tired. Truth be told, I was probably most tired of the uncertainty with which I had approached this first anniversary. I was tired of keeping at bay the unsettling sense of apprehension that accompanies all the more pointed reminders of the reality of time’s passing.

I am grateful for the patient understanding of good friends on days like this.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Fair

An international book fair is worth a little travel, and so this past Saturday a friend and I arranged our schedules to meet for the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Hynes Convention Center in Back Bay.

Coats and umbrellas dutifully checked at the door, we entered a book lover’s dream. Briefly we checked our notions of frugality and economic realism at the door as well. The price of admission had purchased us the right to handle some remarkable first editions and old maps and manuscripts. We practiced nodding sagely at booksellers’ courteous presentations, letting some of the higher figures like $20,000 and $35,000 elicit from the two of us the merest roll of the eyes.

The love of reading is a strange catalyst in a setting like this. A favorite author or two and many authors who had never figured in our favorites’ list got us wondering whether we might be willing to part with a couple of hundred dollars for the ownership of a first edition with dust jacket virtually intact. With such a purchase we would have felt entitled to weave a narrative with which to entertain and possibly impress future guests to the house and friends at work.

“It was a little bit of a surprise to see this volume by Auden and Isherwood at the book fair last November…”

“I know I don’t need another edition of Anne Sexton…”

“Yes, see how well the print in this early edition matches the coarseness of the paper on which it appears…”

The book itself as object of reverence and desire and even financial speculation – how far from the experience of reading with which some of us first experienced the liberating potential of an articulate author’s view of life! I still remember what freedom had seemed possible when I first saw a television production of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I had realized that my own stifled sense of home life was not unique in the lives of men and women who were considered intelligent and successful.

Almost three hours after we entered, we were at the door ready to leave. I suddenly asked for five minutes. Briefly postponing the falafel sandwich I pictured waiting for me at nearby Cafe Jaffa, I hurried down the aisles and rows of book fair stalls, looking down one and then another for a certain booth at the edge of the conference area. Earlier I had seen something that seemed an affordable memento of the day – and even an enjoyable if quirky read.

Within the requested five minutes I returned to my friend waiting at a booth near the exit. I had decided to purchase for fifteen dollars a 1960 children’s book titled Amelia and the Angels by Muriel Hooper. It was designated “scarce” in the bookseller’s pencil jotting on the flyleaf. Appropriately, it seemed to me, it was about a church mouse named Amelia.

I looked forward to the simple pleasure of reading the tale later at home, but for a short time I could relish the satisfaction of walking out of the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair with a brown paper bag secured by a yellow sticker identifying the contents as a purchase made at the fair. No one needed to know whether those contents had cost me fifteen dollars or fifteen thousand dollars.

They simply needed to know that I loved books. Seriously.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Other Landscapes

I have written here before about a retreat I made two weeks ago. One of my fellow retreatants recently made available photographs she had taken on that October weekend.

When I first saw this picture of hers, a picture of the old seacoast home where the retreat had taken place, it didn't register that my car was no longer in the parking lot. I had already left, heading off to Sunday lunch with a friend who had made the retreat with me.

By the time the picture was taken, the retreat house had resumed its utter independence of me and my life and my hopes and my fears.

Today at morning services I had a chance to reconnect with some of the people who had accompanied me on that retreat experience. Three people had worked particularly closely with me on organizing the talks and structure and goals of that weekend. Their company has proven playful and full of energy since that October weekend, marked by fervent commitments to meet outside our Sunday morning setting and taste one another's other lives.

There is a kind of hope there for an opening into places we had not shared when our eyes were on other landscapes.

The chance for new friends is always a welcome one.

On the Walls of My Home

When I don’t post for almost two weeks, even I start asking what is in the air. Something other than writing must be exerting an exceptional pull on attention and energy.

The answer this time is walls. At least, what is on them. Or what was not yet on them two weeks ago.

A framing project has claimed my occasional attention for several months, and the past week finally got me shopping for frames, matting the pictures, buying the hangers, measuring for the exact places on the walls to hammer the nails.

My particular challenge was the size of the images I wanted to display. The largest of them measured no more than three and a half inches by five and a half inches.

My interest was in exhibiting some of the found photographs that I have purchased in the past several years. Up till now I have kept most of them in albums, affixed to pages by black photo corners.

Then this past August I was at the downtown Portland museum of the Maine Historical Society and got to view an exhibit called “Snapshots.” I learned later that the curator of the museum had designed the framing for a collection of small amateur photographs that captured some key events in local history. What was unusual was that each photograph, no matter its dimensions, merited a standard 16x20 inch frame. Four inches from the top of each cream-colored mat a window had been cut to the exact measurements of each snapshot, allowing a half inch border around the edges. Clear photo corners held the pictures in place.

The effect of the framing design was to give the impression that the walls of the museum lecture room had been dedicated to a significant collection of folk art. The uniformity of the black metal frames and the expanse of matting conveyed a message.

Two months passed before I thought to contact the museum for the exact details of the framing. My voicemail query elicited two return voicemails with a generously detailed set of directions. In a subsequent phone call from the museum curator, I even got the name of the frame shop that had been entrusted with the cutting of the mats.

My creative juices were stimulated, I'll admit. My credit card, however, balked at the expense of the museum-quality materials that would have been needed for framing five small photographs.

My eventual solution came after several forays to Target. I bought five identical gallery-style frames with white mats. Inside each 5x7 window cut into the top half of the white mat, I subsequently secured a black 5x7 mat cut to display a 3.5x5 image.

Over several days last week I worked to get five of my favorite black and white images up on the walls – a family posing on a front porch, two men in their Sunday white shirts and ties sitting and talking earnestly by a back door, a lit Christmas tree on the table in a vintage living room, a nun cheerily visiting a man and his wife and son near a wooden fence that needed his attention, a man asleep in a rocker on a porch after dinner.

The overall effect on me, I realize now, was a focus on my external surroundings that temporarily eclipsed the kinds of interests and reverie about which it is easier for me to think up something to write.

I will claim, though, a visceral response to these new walls and their new hangings. I am seeing something different and something that works and something that has my name all over it.

Isn’t that what home should be about?

Photo of Gallery-style Frame from Target