The Perfect Book

 

You know I like books. This gem – a little antique companion I could carry in my pocket – arrived at cold Christmas and I was transported to a Persian garden. I lay on the floor under the glittering tree and read:

AWAKE! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Roses, wine, and time suspended – the imagery of romance… Contemplation, celebration, and carpe diem… Old Omar has it all. Words well-known to me in a book that had been loved but not too much, used but not too harshly. The perfect book.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

With me along the strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot –
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne!

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Poetry

No, it’s not over. I’m still here. And it’s not that there hasn’t been plenty to say. I just haven’t. The assigned theme for poetry group last week was writer’s block. This is what I wrote:     

                            

                              *   

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                              *   

                              * 

  

A variation of what I wrote in November. October had enough inspiration in it to keep me making poems for years to come, but I’m better at finding poetry than at making it. Yesterday I found it in the sky; birds. They were not geese and there was no V formation. No MC Escher imitation of birds turning in sync, now snowy breast, now silver wing. Just birds. Black ones, plain and graceless and all the more beautiful because. They reminded me of this by Gerard Manley Hopkins:      

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things–      

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;      

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;      

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;      

Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;      

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.      

All things counter, original, spare, strange;      

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)      

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;      

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:      

Praise Him.

Thanksgiving

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

Book Lover

There is tranquility in a second-hand bookshop. Libraries are quiet because they must be. This is different. A kind of peace. Whatever it is, it suits me. I feel at home. It could just be the dust. Anyway, there I was kneeling in the art books, pulling them out and pushing them back. Have it, read it, not interested… I made my way down the row that way and swung round to continue on the shelf behind me. It was low. It was low and I am short and – on hands and knees – I still had to bend down to see. I was Carter making the tiny breach into Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Yes, I see wonderful things.” Little books. Little books that fit in my hands. Little books that fit in my pocket. Little books that fit under my pillow at night. Rows of little books running along the wooden floor of the bookshop like a literary baseboard. I wondered what perverse person put them there.  A brilliant short person, no doubt. I imagined them laughing maniacally: Bwahaha! Finally! Tall people will need us!

Obviously this is more about the gold and green 1902 volume next to me than the story inside. You can read about that anywhere. The Warden is the first of the much loved Chronicles of Barset by Anthony Trollope. The theme of the book is the clash of ancient privilege with modern social awareness. Blah, blah, blah… What no one else can tell you is this: It is the exact size of my hand! How fantastic is that? The exact size! It was made (and re-bound by Alison Leakey, so states the inside cover) for me!! These are the things I love about it:

#1

#2 There’s a small stain on page 329. Tea. I know exactly what caused it.

When the archdeacon left his wife and father-in-law at the Chapter Coffee House to go to Messrs Cox and Cumming, he had no very defined idea of what he had to do when he got there. Gentlemen when at law, or in any way engaged in matters requiring legal assistance, are very apt to describe such attendance as quite compulsory, and very disagreeable. The lawyers, on the other hand, do not at all see the necessity, though they quite agree as to the disagreeable nature of the visit; gentlemen when so engaged are usually somewhat gravelled at finding nothing to say to their learned friends; they generally talk a little politics, a little weather, ask some few foolish questions about their suit, and then withdraw, having passed half an hour in a small, dingy waiting-room, in company with some junior assistant-clerk, and ten minutes with the members of the firm; the business is then over for which the gentleman has come up to London, probably a distance of a hundred and fifty miles. To be sure he goes to the play, and dines at his friend’s club, and has a bachelor’s liberty and bachelor’s recreation for three or four days; and he could not probably plead the desire of such gratifications as a reason to his wife for a trip to London.

Married ladies, when your husbands find they are positively obliged to attend their legal advisers, the nature of the duty to be performed is generally of this description.

Shocking. No, I’m telling you, it had nothing to do with the warden resigning. The chapter’s titled The Warden Resigns, for crying out loud. The warden resigning can’t have been a surprise. But something made a long-ago reader’s tea splash over the edge of the cup and onto the page. Only this page. Was it disbelief? Or recognition? Perhaps a married lady suddenly remembering: I have GOT to get to my lawyer.

#3 There are pages where every line begins with a single quotation mark. Sometimes it goes on for two or three pages. Every single line. Although Trollope was a great lover of punctuation (a semicolon on every page – sometimes as many as six), I don’t think this was what he had in mind. Clearly the typesetter is trying to get my attention. Page 228, with its 30 quotation marks (and 4 semicolons), is a serious poke in the eye to, well, pretty much everyone: government, church hierarchy, and especially journalists. Noted. Thank you. Highlighted by 100 single and seemingly meaningless quotation marks, pages 320-323 contain Mr Septimus Harding’s resignation letters and give you the man’s character in a nutshell. It’s like Cliffs Notes by Typesetters. The whole point of the book in a few pages. So why bother to read the rest?

#4 Because it’s fun, that’s why. Trollope knows people and his characters are memorable. Yes, they have ridiculous names that make me laugh, but that’s the intention. It’s satire. Playfulness with a point.

I did wonder if being an American who knows nothing of 19th century church politics would make the story less accessible or even irrelevant to me. Would I get the jokes? Yes, it’s accessible. It’s written in a realistic style and I didn’t need anyone to explain the archdeacon setting the scene as if he were writing a sermon, locking the door, and pulling Rabelais from a secret drawer. My only question is what else was in that secret drawer. Yes, it’s relevant. People haven’t changed. And yes, I got the jokes. At least I think I did. If not, I was laughing at something or Trollope was laughing at me and either way I don’t really care; it was fun.

God, I love semicolons.

School Days, part two

My girls had their first-day back-to-school outfits laid out well in advance. The spanking new jeans, faux tartan top, motorcycle jacket, and FEDORA were enlisted to dazzle the masses like so much sparkling vampire flesh. The Pixie’s choice of Cinderella dress and silver slippers looked downright dull in comparison. But, given the fact that it was still very much summer at the time, my young fashionista went off to school the first day wearing an emo looking vest with cheerful skulls over a t-shirt with shorts and bright blue high top sneakers, to which I said: Whatever. We’ve already established I’m fashion challenged.

She loved her outfit, loved her school, her new teacher, her friends. She left excited. She came home disgusted. The fourth grade teacher read The Little Engine That Could to the class. To be fair she’d been a kindergarten teacher up until that day. She’s since overcome her first-day faux pas by being “the nicest teacher in the whole world” and my daughter continues to go off to school eagerly every morning in adorably bizarre outfits with hair styles culled from teen magazines.

Her brother? I have no idea where he goes each morning or what he does there all day. He’s a closed book. His sister had been the intermediary but now they’re at different schools. I have him mostly to myself at the crack of dawn and have been trying new conversational tactics. Direct questioning rarely works. Instead I shock him into talking with references to health class or by teasingly poking his armpits and asking if he remembered deodorant. Deodorant has become a big issue here. My ever-helpful husband picked some up for the kids. Did he buy some for himself so I could have mine all to myself? No. But the boy and girl got theirs. Adidas – very sporty – for her and Axe for him. Yes, Axe. I had to sneak out to the store for something prettier smelling for the girl and something just plain less smelling for the boy. I glanced over my shoulders, surreptitiously sniffing deodorants like someone deranged. For the record, Teen Spirit is my favorite. Axe? No. Not so much.

The Pixie needs no prompting. She comes off the school bus talking, although it’s usually about someone else.

“I have something really, really, really, really bad to tell you.” Dramatic pause wherein I imagine she’s been expelled already. “Two boys had to go to the office today.”

Whew. “Why?”

“How should I know?”

“You are polite to your teacher, aren’t you?”

“Yesss. But guess what. One girl in class cries like a baby. All day.”

“That’s awful. Do you try to cheer her up?”

“No. She wants her mommy. She’s not the only one either.”

“Do you miss me at school?”

“No. Silly. What’s for dinner?”

The first day of kindergarten I was dutifully snapping pictures while she waited for the bus. There are several shots of her hand blocking the lens. It made me feel old. Unnecessary. The bus came and she got on. No hesitation, no glances back. I remembered my cousin’s daughter on her first day of kindergarten eleven years ago. She climbed on the bus and turned back to wave to her mother. My Pixie walked straight to her seat, sat facing directly forward, and waited. I wondered if I should cry. And then I realized: She was on an adventure.

It occurred to me her teachers are on an adventure too, they just don’t know it yet. When she came back that afternoon she was full of guess-whats and guess-what-elses. But the first thing to come out of her mouth? “Kindergarten has a LOT of rules!” I wasn’t too surprised to find a note from the teacher in her backpack a moment later. Apparently one of the rules is that you must wear shoes. I immediately bought her shoes with laces, hoping to slow down the kicking off of shoes at every opportunity. The next day was spent showing off her shoe tying (and untying) expertise. Everything is an adventure when you’re five.

School Days

 

Tomorrow the Pixie will go to school. She’s ready. All paperwork has been filed, immunizations given, pink butterfly book bag appropriated. Gymboree, Gap, and her sister’s dresser drawers have been picked clean. She knows the alphabet and can read and write a handful of words. Mostly our names – including MOM, proof of which is in black permanent marker on the kitchen counter. Yes, she wrote MOM in big, black letters and then grew wide-eyed when I asked her who did it. She looked from one sister to the other as if in horror they could even contemplate such defacement. What an actress! Luckily, I have a pretty good sense of humor and my husband is a cabinetmaker so, like the cobbler’s barefoot children, our kitchen is a serious candidate for Extreme Home Makeover. My faked signature adds character. Because, you know, we didn’t already have enough.

Tonight she’s sleeping with the pink butterfly book bag and matching lunch box. If she’s sleeping at all. Giddiness came free with the set and she skipped through the house all afternoon singing about the joys of owning a book bag – set to the tune of Polly Put the Kettle On. From the top bunk her sister is probably still trying to convince her not to humiliate her, not to ruin her life, not to wear the Cinderella dress and silver sparkle slippers on the first day of school. She’d like her to wear something grown-up and fashionable. A tunic. Not a shirt, a tunic. With leggings. This discussion’s been ongoing the past few days and has made a few people ask what a tunic is. The idiots. She rolls her eyes. I asked if the item in question weren’t more of a swing shirt rather than a tunic and got a glare so hot my skin peeled. My daughter is a fashionista. Do not mess with her.

The Fashionista is fun to shop with though, assuming you have enough money. She loves clothes. She loves to accessorize. She loves to love the clothes I hate. I’m told this is my fault. I have no fashion sense. Possibly true, since she’s not the first to say so. What’s fun about shopping with her is that she’s enthusiastic. She spots a black motorcycle jacket and gauzy red plaid tunic and has to have them. Has to. I hadn’t even noticed them, but now they look kinda cute together. “See? See? Mom! They’re adorable! I can wear this jacket with everything. I can wear the tunic by itself. I can wear them the first day of school. No, it’s not too hot. It’s never too hot to be stylish. And look! The zipper is asymmetrical! Asymmetrical, Mom! Can you believe it?” Before long I want a black motorcycle jacket with a diagonal, asymmetrically placed, unbelievably cool and hot zipper. What’s not fun is shopping with her with the rest of the clan in tow. And they must be towed. They are not willing participants. The Pixie gambols through shops like a young gazelle, leaping in the air and crashing down, clearing shelves with a delighted shriek. Or she drags herself behind us, sullen, sweeping her arms out idly now and then to clear the shelves. She’s unpredictable. It’s like carrying a lit fuse in your purse. She may seem like a perfect little lady at the moment, but you’d be wise to remember she has dismantled window displays and been caught dancing with mannequins. It’s only a matter of time. The Boy is completely predictable. He is not a shopper. We spent days searching for clothes and he liked one shirt. A wide striped one he wanted to buy in six colors so he wouldn’t have to shop anymore. I had visions of Charlie Brown, wearing the same shirt forever. This would suit my son just fine since variety is not the spice of his life.

The first day of school he wore an old t-shirt anyway. The Fashionista deemed this so cool it was uncool, as if he cared. The first day for them came a week ago and that made the Pixie wail. All summer long she’d been waiting and now she had to wait a little more. The day is almost here though and I’m excited for her. I hope I can sleep.

The Sea

THE SEA! the sea! the open sea!

The blue, the fresh, the ever free!

Without a mark, without a bound,

It runneth the earth’s wide regions round;

It plays with the clouds; it mocks the skies;

Or like a cradled creature lies…

We’re on a tiny strip of land caught between the sound and the sea.  It’s a magical place. Here my running acquaintance husband turns into a surfer and my children change back into the mermaids and mermen they really are. They’re splashing in the pool now, laughing like seals, happy. A magical sound.

 

aaah… New books. Yes, I know that’s not what you’ve come here for (yes, you), but it’s all I’ve got at the moment. I cling to them. They’re a means of escape. Here’s how I filled my basket at Borders this week and how I’m now filling my nights:

Anthology of American Literature, volumes A and B, because, well, I’m American and the price was right.

Twinkle the Tooth Fairy because we have need of another tiny purple bag for exchanges with the Tooth Fairy (and the book that goes along with it).

Stephen King’s On Writing, because deep down I’ve always loved Stephen King – despite the many times he’s scared me so that I couldn’t go to the bathroom alone, much less read the next chapter. Also because I’m afraid of loving the borrowed copy so hard I’ll be ashamed to return it.

Kit Donner’s The Notorious Bridegroom because it’s sexy!

And Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, hot off the press and into my hot little hands. But there’s something wrong. It’s not just the cover. I can deal with that. There’s this bleed of pink neon on the inside jacket at either side of the book, but I know that’s just for atmosphere. No, the problem is I think I understand it. Has there been a mistake? Is this some other “enigma shrouded in a mystery veiled in anonymity” Thomas Pynchon? The words still swirl around my head, but more staccato than the strange music of Mason and Dixon. Staccato suits it though. Thus far a seemingly hard-boiled/noir detective story, set in the psychedelic sixties. Psychedelic is the catch word used to describe this book but, when you’re reading things like

*

and that pink neon is glaring at you from the edges, ‘psychedelic’ is all that comes to mind.

Other books came home with me as well, but it was the Pynchon I went for. I was hoping for the kind of endless, erudite, mad sentence-paragraphs that, in Mason and Dixon, made me swoon. These do not make me swoon. They tickle. Not what I was hoping for, but it’s fun.

 

 

*What, are you crazy? I can’t quote anything from this book! My dad might see it!

County Fair

 

After more than an hour of hunting for two matching shoes in a child’s size 8 (or 9 or 10, just make them match please!), I pushed four kids out the door. I locked it. Deep breaths were taken followed by a ninety second pedicure. I opened the door and blinked. The number of kids had doubled.

We live close enough to the fairgrounds to walk and so we do. We like to say it’s fun. When it’s 88 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity and the tarred road is sticking to our shoes with every step we say nothing. Just keep walking. We kept walking. By the time we reached the next door neighbor’s drive the kids had tripled. Another fell in with us at the end of the street. They were like bees swarming toward the entrance, but once we paid they separated and went their own ways. My sister and I took the smallest ones to the kiddie rides. We stood watching while our children spun round and round in giant red apples. I was holding her baby – affectionately known as Mealworm – wondering why apples. It’s an Alice in Wonderland feel putting your child in a giant apple and watching that apple lurch and spin away. It made me dizzy. Sweat ran down my back and my hair clung to my face. Mealworm poked me in the eye. This is the moment my high school boyfriend chose to step forward and say hello. Lovely. The last time I ran into him I was enormously pregnant and wearing flip-flops in February. He asked politely what I’d been up to and I burst out laughing. So much for dignity.

Summer of Our Discontent

 

 It’s true. I may never write here again. I was thinking this morning of what Virginia Woolf said. “A woman must have money (for babysitters, cooks, laundresses, maids…) and a room of her own (far from home, without a phone) if she is to create fiction (or anything else – like a complete thought).”

We have been to the beach. This is a sand-ridden, jellyfish stung, sunburnt self-torture for mothers. There is nothing relaxing in it. We have been to the playground. The one set in a desert of recycled rubber surfacing with no shade trees for miles and the twirling monkey bars where my son broke his arm. We have been to the county fair. Will summer never end?

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