Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Altered Books... More Than Words

I am still timid about the idea of altering a book, still timid about taking a published volume and wielding scissors and water colors and glue and producing an object whose message extends beyond the words originally intended for its pages.

I am taking cautious steps in my exploration of this art form.

It helps to have a friend like Maryanne to whom, as a fellow reader, this art form also appeals on so many levels. Her birthday this past year seemed the perfect occasion to launch a first effort.

What I determined that I would "alter" for Maryanne's birthday was a visitor's guide to a church in France. I had bought two copies of that handsome guide, one to help me remember what I had seen that day this past spring when I first walked into this beautiful building in a small French city with sturdy medieval roots, one to give to Maryanne -- in one form or another -- as a tribute to her ability to appreciate this sort of church and this sort of book and this sort of friend.

As her birthday approached, I returned to a poem that Maryanne had written almost twenty years ago and that she may have thought that no one remembered. A ten-line poem based on the letter "M," the poem had been Maryanne's attempt at the start of a work year to speak a word of truth to herself, to her colleagues, to her friends. I printed the text of her poem, one line per half page on white card stock, each line against the background of a watermark of the letter "M."

Working with old-fashioned photo corners, I affixed each line of her poem to a different page of the visitor's guide. The final product, a creative take on a scrapbook, delighted Maryanne. What had originally been bought as a tribute to the sophistication of her ecclesial self-understanding metamorphosed into a tribute to her aesthetic sense. She had little idea that anyone still knew where that early poetic effort of hers had lain hidden over the years. She clearly appeciated the nod to her history, to her identity, to her journey with friends into ever more fresh, ever more complex claims on a religious tradition.

I love Maryanne. I love what in her inspires me and other friends to such an effort. I love what generosity in her welcomes those efforts into her heart and into her history.

If I alter other books in the months and years ahead, I will take courage and energy from this first effort. I hope in time to claim my own history as a landscape on which the pages of earlier volumes can be led creatively to comment and passionately to reflect.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Re-reading "On Losing a House" by Mary Oliver

I lost it.

Like someone tired from searching for a misplaced photograph or an early journal, I am testing out the words – “I lost it.”

With my previous blog I had a way that I was taking photographs of my life with Marc. I had a way that I was keeping a journal of my days. And I lost it.

For a week the situation felt like finding out that someone had been using information from bank cards I didn’t realize were no longer safe in my wallet. The only thing was to cancel the cards and start fresh.

What I didn’t realize was how long someone had been intent on taking what I wrote and using it to undermine, to hurt, to trap.

I don’t know when the loss will settle into the final contours that narration and memory can give it. I frankly don’t know if this is too early to write about it. I do know that sentences have been forming in my mind this past week. I think I know how to plot it, how to pace it – a first record of this loss. I think I hear familiar rhythms as the paragraphs unfold.

I have salvaged what I could. What got lost is a particular place for reflection that people got used to visiting. What got lost is a particular place where I could re-read what I had written months earlier and relive the feel of those days.

Yesterday I re-read Mary Oliver’s poem “On Losing a House.” It helped me realize that what got lost is a home.

Goodbye, house.
Goodbye, sweet and beautiful house,
we shouted, and it shouted back,
goodbye to you, and lifted itself
down from the town, and set off
like a packet of clouds across
the harbor's blue ring.
the tossing bell, the sandy point -- and turned
lightly, wordlessly,
into the keep of the wind
where it floats still --
where it plunges and rises still
on the black and dreamy sea.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing Cabin

Can the autumn leaves of New England be captured by black and white photography? It was an issue for naturalists like Edwin Way Teale who saw their writing published in the years before color photographs appeared regularly in books and magazines.

I recently spoke with a work colleague who helped me recall that turning point in the early 1960's when color plates began to be common features in newly published books. My early visits to the local library had provided me with a chance to handle such books on the New Acquisitions cart. For a considerable amount of time, however, my book pleasure was still derived from black print on white pages, occasionally enlivened by the earnest efforts of illustrators and playful typographers.

My image of the writers themselves came from the dust jackets of their books. Smiling up at a camera from behind their typewriter, they looked unlike my parents or my aunts and uncles. They looked like adults who thought about their lives, who probably spoke about them around a dining room table in the evening, and who took pleasure in writing about them. They looked like adults who might be willing to take an interest in my life if they ever learned that I had taken a reader’s interest in theirs.

When Marc and I visited the 200-year-old farm house once owned by Edwin Way Teale, we spent time in his study, kept by his wife Nellie exactly as it had been when he died in 1980. The walls of bookcases, the solid desk, the rocker by the fireplace all bespoke a delight in the life of the mind, the life of words, the steady rhythms of observation and reflection. We later took pictures of the rustic writing cabin he had built by a pond on his property.

When you acknowledge the role writing plays in your life in the way that Teale did, you dare to dream. He and his wife bought their Connecticut farm house when they were turning sixty. It was their intention to concentrate their observations as naturalists, to become acquainted with this particular plot of land over the years ahead of them, to create a record of a place on this earth where they would live their days’ beginnings and their nights’ ends – together.

I’m getting ideas.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reading "The Florist’s Daughter" by Patricia Hampl

By the end of nine days visiting with my 88-year-old mother, I was gasping for a sense of self, for ease and patience, for perspective and any other form of self-protection that I could find. It was a sense of humor that I most needed to regain and to revive, the surest strategy for being able to present to my brothers and to other members of my family a real me when they asked about my mother and the visit.

Near the end of that summer week in 2002 I realized that basically I was just tired – tired of adjusting to another household, another schedule, another horizon of expectations and topics and entertainments and foods. I missed my cats and their neighborly accommodations to a human companion and provider. I had brought with me a remnant of the shower gel that I used at home, providing a sensory reminder every morning of the kinds of things I ordinarily like and do when the choice is mine, a reminder of the me that I tend to cultivate in my adult life at home. I ordinarily seek a certain amount of solitude even in a committed relationship with all its rhythms and pleasures and compromises and plans; the solitude available in my parents’ home in New Orleans that summer – grabbed and protected by silences and creative privacies – was a hard-won thing. The renewal of gratitude and generosity that daily prayer could sometimes afford at home seemed limited in this particular family setting.

I wished during that week five years ago – a week in what would be my mother’s last summer – that I had understood more clearly the kind of companionship that she needed. Maybe I used to make that companionship sound more difficult than it was because I was so sure of being unable to provide it. A better son or daughter would have eased those days with a mother nearing ninety, would have lavished attention and patient understanding and somehow would have helped awaken gratitude and generosity to make those days and weeks for her a welcome time of summing up.

But even then I suspected the oversimplification that was turning my thoughts askew. I was forgetting what must be the hard work of nearing ninety, of adjusting to a vastly different horizon of expectations and entertainments and even foods. No one is automatically good at the work of approaching the final years of one’s life. Serenity may come but it may not. The struggle it is may be clear to others but it may not. Even the best intentions of sons and daughters may not prepare them to let be what they see of a parent’s accommodation of the latest changes in a long life.

And no one has to be good at that accommodation. Being good at it is not a requirement or a moral imperative.

Just as no one has to be good at being a companion to an aging parent. It may happen. But it may be somewhat out of our control. It can be a goal, a hope, a prayer, but being a good companion to anyone is so much a grace.

As the month of my mother’s birthday approaches, I am reading the first chapters of Patricia Hampl’s recently published memoir of her mother, The Florist’s Daughter. What I was not there in New Orleans to do for my own mother on her last day, I am able to imagine as the author describes sitting by the side of her mother’s hospital bed, holding her mother’s hand in one of hers, and writing with the other about the woman whose imminent departure would leave Ms. Hampl “nobody’s daughter.”

When really do we become “nobody’s daughter,” though, or “nobody’s son”?

It hasn’t happened to me yet.

Nor is it likely to happen as long as November comes along each year.