Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An Adult Room

Sitting last night with a late dinner in front of me, I felt I was back in New Orleans.

I felt a Southerner again.

It was not the food before me – a plate of black beans and rice flavored with slices of kielbasa. No, I would not have seen that dinner served at my parents’ table in New Orleans. The foods that I prepare these days only occasionally speak of my home state of Louisiana.

I was thinking of the guest that I had invited to the apartment for a simple meal this coming Saturday. Born in Maine, this guest has lived some of his adult life in Louisiana. Sitting at the dining room table last night, I was attempting to see these rooms through that other pair of eyes. I kept feeling that New Orleans was written all over the place.

Of course, there is a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster hanging on one wall of the dining room. It is a purchase that I had made at the festival in 1978, the year I moved to Boston. I had brought the poster up North in a sturdy mailing tube and taken it to a do-it-yourself frame shop in Cambridge. Familiar with the framing process, my sister-in-law had accompanied me that August day; she helped me choose the blue matting.

But, no, not just a Jazz Festival poster – there is more that spoke to me last night of the city where my parents had spent their adult lives. Displayed in different places in the room are photographs of my mother and my father as well as photographs of aunts and uncles. Behind glass doors of two built-in china cabinets are vases from my mother’s bedroom, serving pieces, gifts of stemware from my brother.

In the end, though, I think it was the quiet of a room in the evening, large potted plants, the mirror over a side table, lamps with their colored shades. Last night this room had felt an adult room. Not cluttered, it had space for a guest to sit and relax and talk over a meal. There will be enough room this Saturday for me to lean over and pick up a finished dinner plate and take it into the kitchen.

Last night I realized this was an appropriate room for such adult rituals.

I have lived in New England for thirty-five years now. I have lived in New England ten years longer than I lived in the South of my growing up. I think of myself as a Southerner, though. Any home that I create would have to recall some of my earlier history – to me at least.

I wonder what it will say to others.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Harboring the Unexpected

Believe it or not, I like how quiet it is.

I am fine that most people who “know me well” do not regularly come to Writing Cabin. I presume they have their own ways of knowing me, some of them ways that may not yet have occurred to me but that have proven perfectly reliable and effective over the years.

Would anything I write here prove unexpected to those people who know me well?

On my part, I like when I meet someone who can recite a new poem to me or the text of an unfamiliar hymn. Words that I have not learned, words that have not yet found a customary place in my heart, can summon a silence within and I come to attention. I become aware of the unexpected.

I suspect I need the unexpected. I suspect I count on the possibility of there being something I have not even imagined.

Two weeks ago a friend was driving me through the mountains of North Carolina. We began talking on a topic that would have been unexpected in most car rides on a Saturday morning. We were talking about experiencing the peace of God when my friend recited a line from a hymn in the Episcopal hymnal: “The peace of God, it is no peace…”

At signs of my interest he recited all four stanzas, his hands on the steering wheel, eyes on the road:

They cast their nets in Galilee
just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk,
before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen,
before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts
brimful, and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
homeless in Patmos died,
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
the marvelous peace of God.

On the passenger’s side of the front seat, I felt silence within when the end of the second stanza mentions the peace of God and how it breaks the hearts of the first disciples. I felt the silence deepen at the close of the hymn when the summons comes to pray “for but one thing --/the marvelous peace of God.”

The car kept up its speed over the interstate highway through the mountains.

Home in New England, I kept thinking of the hymn without being able to recite its four stanzas the way my friend had. An online search brought me face to face with the words composed by William Alexander Percy. It brought me face to face with another name, a familiar one – that of novelist Walker Percy, whose uncle and guardian this Will Percy had been.

On a visit to a favorite used-book store on Cape Cod two summers back, I had purchased a one-volume history of the Percy family of Greenville, Mississippi. At the time my interest had been in the forebears of Walker Percy. This past week I went looking through the apartment for the soft-cover edition by historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. I was curious whether something as unexpected as a mention of “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee” might occur there.

Of course it did.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Book Sculptures

I sensed the passenger next to me taking out her Kindle before I actually saw her. Yes, wise move, I understood – this woman knew how to travel, knew how to pack a carry-on, knew where to situate her Kindle so that it was easy to reach. Settling in to her read took no time at all; figuring how to hold her “book” on her lap was no trouble; finding her place in the text would call no attention to itself.

I looked at the library book I had brought with me for the flight to North Carolina. Softbound, call number visible under tape, unidentifiable smudge on the back cover, Lost Classics opened onto pages of a familiar toughness, some dog-eared, some stained, all perfectly readable and all previously read. In my hunt for a more recent publication entitled On Rereading, I had discovered on the library shelf this 2001 volume with its playful subtitle: Writers on Books Loved and Lost, Overlooked, Under-read, Unavailable, Stolen, Extinct, or Otherwise Out of Commission.

As the passenger at my side read cleanly and quietly through screen after disappearing screen, I paged through the seventy-four short essays. Compiled by the editors of a Canadian literary magazine called Brick, these essays were the work of authors invited fifteen years ago to recount each of them a book memory. I got to hear again and again how someone who was used to reading wrote about that experience.

What characterized most of the essays was the sense of a physical text lost – or almost lost – uncelebrated oftentimes, sometimes – it would appear – unknown by anyone beyond these seventy-four authors.

If two different reading worlds were travelling side by side – Seat 25D and Seat 25E – over the Appalachian Mountains last week, still one other book world awaited me in Asheville.

I had an appointment at the studio of a book sculptor in Grovewood Gallery.

The creativity and imagination of Daniel Essig had been familiar to me from the time I first discovered altered books and artists’ books six or seven years ago. I had purchased books with photographs of Daniel Essig’s sculptures. His were not books to be read in any conventional way, but Daniel Essig was indeed again and again creating books that call to those of us who are readers. We recognize pages, spines, covers, bindings when we see these book sculptures – we just need to stop and mull and examine what Daniel Essig is saying with them.

So there I was with the Asheville friend I was visiting and we were entering this man’s workplace, this artist’s studio. And you know what? Daniel Essig’s books did what books do – they stand, they lean, they lie on their side, they take on the shadows of a rainy afternoon, they allow themselves to be overlooked or ignored or neglected unless someone takes them off a shelf and handles them and maybe talks about them.

So we talked about books.

Yes, far from any Kindle, we talked about books in Asheville.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just Go

Sometimes you just go.

It was Friday evening in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, and I was following the lead of the friend with whom I was staying. He had been right to recommend the weekly Drum Circle in Pritchard Park. After driving in from barbeque at Luella’s, we had joined the crowd in the dark surrounding the drummers, my friend instinctively swaying with the rhythms and occasionally rubbing against me.

Walking afterwards, we passed other musicians, small tour groups standing on street corners, children running around a city fountain. When my friend asked whether I wanted to go past the Thomas Wolfe House, I figured proximity was in our favor. It was a favorite site that I had toured on two other visits to Asheville decades earlier. The old boarding house was down a quiet street, the only rambling Victorian structure left in a neighborhood of office buildings and restaurants.

The porch that wrapped around the front and side of the house reminded me of chapters in Look Homeward, Angel. The boarders visiting the mountain health resort used to spend evenings rocking on that porch, sometimes engaging the Wolfe brothers and sister in conversation late into the night.

When the house was open to tourist visits during the day, I used to cross the porch without thinking and head straight for the front door. Friday night I could see that the house was closed, but it seemed someone might actually just walk up the front yard path, climb the steps and enjoy the view from the porch the way the boarders used to. There were rockers and even a porch swing in view, but I could barely believe they would not be chained in place for security.

I checked every sign on the lawn. Nothing warned of alarms. Could I really do this? Could I really just go up the steps? Could I have this pleasure to myself? Could I really enjoy something just by going up to it and being there? Could I really have what I wanted?

A wary adult self was not sure, but I looked at my friend. “Let’s go,” I said.

In no time I was on the porch swing, still startled by the sheer luck of it – a place on the porch for me and for the friend with me.

I told him, “This is where Tom and his brother Ben used to sit in the evenings.”

My friend had already driven me a few days earlier to sprawling Riverside Cemetery. We had stood in a light intermittent rain next to the Wolfe family plot. We easily located Tom’s marker. It took a while to find the low stone where Ben is buried next to his twin brother Grover.

A little while later the rain had let up. My friend filled his pipe and lit it. I recalled having wanted to get here from the first days of planning the Asheville visit.

Three days later I was on the porch swing. I had not planned on anything just like this.

Sometimes you just go, though.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Heading to Asheville

I was making vacation plans for next week with someone on the phone this morning.

Suddenly he remarked, “A clock is chiming.”

I was taken aback by his comment until it registered that a clock was indeed chiming, that I could hear it still chiming, and that the clock was on the mantelpiece in the next room in my apartment. It was that perfectly normal phenomenon of no longer being conscious of hearing something that I have grown accustomed to hearing every fifteen minutes for years.

Once I began to describe the mantle clock, I realized that FaceTime would make it very easy to show what I was attempting to make familiar to someone who had never seen the clock. I would not have to worry about what my words, what I chose to mention and what I presumed must be obvious by my calling this a mantle clock, might fail to make clear.

Sometimes you just have to see something if you’re going to make headway in knowing it.

Next week I get to meet someone with whose writings I have been familiar since 2005. One blogger to another, he and I have read what words we have each chosen to describe the tenor of everyday life and eventually a significant transition in each of our lives. Over time our communication moved into other media, phone calls and text messages and Facebook.

It seemed time for us to sit across a table from one another, order barbecue and beer, and watch how the other fits in a chair and surveys a room and makes his points and names his dreams.

Sometimes you just have to see someone if you’re going to make headway in knowing him.