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.

Thanksgiving

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

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.

(Needs a Title)

 

Lying in bed last night, he turned to ask what I was thinking about. “Vegetarians.”

I’ve been reading too much. I plunged headlong into JM Coetzee’s Disgrace earlier this week, spurred on by a friend’s disgust. This is generally a sure way to get me to do something. Say you hate it, I’ll hate it, the world must hate it – and I will love it to spite you, me, and the world. And that’s just what’s happened. I am sunk deep in this book. Coetzee has kept me up late, staring at the ceiling, considering vegetarianism. Cruelty and compassion. The many different meanings of the word ‘disgrace’.

This is how I drifted off to sleep.

And this is how I awoke, four hours later. I picked up Kirk Curnutt’s short stories thinking to shake off the solemnity. No idea why. I’ve read most of them already; they are not light-hearted. But I like them. In fact, I like each one better than the last. Kirk commented that they were dark and my first instinct was to disagree. They’re certainly not light though. What they are is thought-provoking. Hopefully Kirk won’t mind my reading some of Down in the Flood to you.

 

A dead man’s face tells you all you need to know about his life.              That’s what my dad told me the first time I was around to see the Chattahoochee bust the levee and drown up my hometown…

…I had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the water, not on her face. There was just something so exposed about her, though; I couldn’t help myself. I mean, I couldn’t get over the fact that here was someone I’d twice touched, once in life and once in death, and she’d brought out more in me now than she had then. I couldn’t figure why. Maybe death, even after you’re dead, can still strip you down one more layer of vulnerability…

…Some nights, the ones I can’t sleep, I find myself wondering what expression I’ll be wearing when I go. I even go so far as to practice. Silly as it sounds, I’ll purse my lips together and clamp my eyes shut, real stone like, or I’ll just lie back and try to let the most peaceful, relaxed feeling I know stretch out my skin. I do it, I guess, because I want to believe that whatever I’ve been through in my life can’t be summed up in a sentence or two. I want to think there’s a mystery to me that’s beyond observation, a meaning that can’t be reduced by a glance from a stanger’s eye. Maybe there’s not, I don’t know. But for now I’ll assume that there is, just so I don’t have to deal with knowing somebody’s going to claim to read me as I’ve claimed to have read so many others. My story’s mine, after all, and I’m taking my secrets with me.

 

Much as I’m enjoying Kirk’s stories and much as I’m fascinated by Coetzee’s ability to affect me, I need some fun. I remarked to a friend the other day that this is actually the kind of fun I like. Serious, cerebral. And that’s true. But sometimes just plain FUN fun is better for your soul. To be made light.

Walking alone at night in a foreign city I passed buskers on the sidewalk. The song made me pause and smile. I’d never heard it anywhere but on my own ipod. I swung round and called out “That’s my favorite song! How did you know?” and walked back to drop the last of my coins in a battered guitar case. I was delighted. They were delighted. We laughed and sang and that was about all they could do in English, but it was fun. Back in my hotel room I turned the TV on and was immediately treated to an advertisement for iplayer. The same song! It’s everyone’s favorite – Everywhere! I laughed at myself. Cavorting around the world, adventure after adventure, yet clearly I need to get out of my own head more often.

Tonight I turned the music up loud and watched my daughters dance. The boy shook his head and tried to cover his own enjoyment in watching them. He didn’t last long. I put down my book and made him dance with me.

Outlander

 

 

eilean-donan 

Last night I came home from book club, sat down with a cup of tea, began to type… and chickened out. The book? Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. A fellow reader’s favorite quote:

It was a “warm” Scottish day, meaning that the mist wasn’t quite heavy enough to qualify as a drizzle, but not far off, either. Suddenly the inn door opened, and the sun came out, in the person of James. If I was a radiant bride, the groom was positively resplendent. My mouth fell open and stayed that way.
A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight – any Highlander, no matter how old,  ill-favored, or crabbed up in appearance.  A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored Highlander at close range is breath-taking.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Outlander and I’d forgotten that passage. In truth, my favorite lines have nothing whatsoever to do with kilts. But I can assure you Diana knows what she’s talking about there. A tall, bekilted, and handsome Scotsman at close range is quite breath-taking. Yes. Quite…

Back to the book. I’m often ashamed to admit I’ve read – let alone loved – this book. I shouldn’t be. I’m a grown woman and can read what I want. I have no qualms about telling people I’m reading a 640 page book about Emerson, that I’ve read Mein Kampf,  that the biography of General Joshua L Chamberlain sent me into spasms of history geek happiness. And, believe me, I’ve gotten some strange looks when I’ve said those things. I don’t mind. This is different though. It’s… How shall I put this? Can I whisper it? Come closer.

(They enjoy one another. Thoroughly and at every opportunity.) (Extremely hot.)

This seems to bother some people.

Smut, they say. To which I shrug. I kind of like a little smut now and then. The dialect could be sprinkled less liberally as it is in later books of the series, but the characters are convincing, the historic aspects are well researched, and the whole thing gallops along with an energy that kept me rapt from beginning to end. The author doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects and that’s made for some great conversations with both men and women. With myself as well.

So take a wild romp across Scotland. Dare. Surrender and lose yourself in a story.

Magical Realism

 

wind-from-the-sea

 

Last Sunday morning I was pretending to write something of terrible importance here while furtively checking my e-mail. I drank my tea, picked out my password with two fingers of my right hand, and considered going to church. Then I found out about the Andrew Wyeth tribute at the Brandywine River Art Museum. ooooooh…

Not that the Brandywine River Museum normally highlights artists who aren’t Wyeths. This was something special though. Christina’s World was on loan for the weekend from the Museum of Modern Art. It rarely leaves New York City. This is not one of my favorite paintings honestly, but the chance to see such an icon of American art up close and personal in a setting as intimate as the Brandywine made me more than a little excited. I vibrated with it. And, of course, it’s Andrew Wyeth. I am a self-confessed Wyeth-ite. I know. What could be more obvious, right? A serious artist would eschew such rustic realism. This is not the stuff of great art. It’s too provincial. Too acceptable to the masses. But I do consider myself a serious artist and I love Wyeth’s work. It’s realistic, yes. There’s more to it than that though. There’s an element of mystery often that verges on mysticism. Something other-worldly and slightly surreal. Magic. And in Wyeth’s paintings there’s always a story unfolding. You have to look quietly, to listen with your eyes. Someone’s just left the room, there’s a breath taken, a pause…

“It’s a moment that I’m after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment.”

That’s the quote that was next to his Snow Hill. Again, not a favorite of mine but I like the quote. I came across another quote paired with a painting and searched the room for someone with a pen. The man I spotted making notes of his own handed me his pen as if he had some choice in the matter. It was cute. He even tried a little small talk. He’s never been to a gallery with me.

“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Although I don’t really prefer winter (At all! It’s cold!) to any other season, I read that and thought: Yes. Exactly. And then I remembered I’d drug four children and a husband along. Not hearing them made me nervous. But there they all were, admiring Christina’s World from a respectable distance, held back by stanchions and rope. The sight made me smile. My nine year-old and I had had a scholarly discussion of that very painting on the drive to the museum. There’s a print of it hanging in the art room at school and so she knew all about it. “Are you going to buy it, Mom?” she had asked. And there she was, reveling in the fact that she was standing within two feet of it. She could tell her teacher and say “My mom decided not to buy it”. She asked a lot of questions. This child has a gift for interrogation. She’s verbally interactive. Her mother frequently is not. But she’d hit my weak spot. I could have gabbed about texture techniques and negative space till they died of boredom. Catching my son’s eye I knew they were close to it. But they were good and as we walked he admired the realism of the water and assorted livestock. The nine year-old kept up the barrage of questions. “Who’s that? What happened to her? Is she naked? How did he get those pumpkins stacked like that? Is that dog asleep? It looks like he used white paint. I thought you said it wasn’t cool to use white paint in watercolor. Is this a watercolor? What’s egg tempera? It looks like white paint…”

sigh

We made our way through, wondering at an elderly man that painted motorcycles at stop lights and at the mastery of his last painting – aptly titled Goodbye. Then we visited his father, NC Wyeth. Left the white on white of the special exhibit gallery, filled with the seeming lightness of watercolor and egg tempera, and entered the dark, barnlike gallery of huge, heavy oils depicting shipwrecks and swordfights. My son stepped in and his eyes grew big. “Wow!” Scenes from Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, Last of the Mohicans, and more surrounded us, including my personal favorite, RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The pixie shouted “Is that guy dead?” and patted The Siege of the Round-House, a huge painting of a scene from Kidnapped. All five fingers and a palm. She leaned. Hard. The canvas sagged inward. I was twenty feet away and paralyzed by horror and – I’ll admit – awe. This child of mine has touched an NC Wyeth painting. Completely and totally touched it. Loved it without reservation, left her imprint upon it and made it her own. It’s a sight I hope I never forget. This is the way she lives. Fully. When I say to friends that I fear for the world for her sake, this is what I mean. There’s no moderation in her. She consumes life and everyone in it whole and all I can do is watch in horror and awe. This is the way NC Wyeth lived; The way Andrew Wyeth was raised. Beneath those fine fairy features she is brilliant, wild, genius, and I have to remember to rejoice, if tremblingly, in it.

 wyeth-collage

Readers

 

My pixie is a reader! Well, technically she’s a writer; She only reads what she herself writes. She has no interest in reading published material. I’m still supposed to hold the book and read aloud while she relaxes, sucking her two middle fingers thoughtfully and picturing the story in her own way. Who needs illustrations? But she writes. She carries a little notebook pilfered from my desk and whenever inspiration comes she writes a word or two. The other day she announced “I’m going to write HOT” and she did. She knows all the letters and she sounds out whatever she’s decided to write. Her funny accent makes for some odd combinations, but when she says the word it makes sense phonetically. Four is spelled F-U-R, store is spelled S-T-U-R, and floor sounds distinctly French, as in F-L-E-U-R.

It was important to her to learn to write her siblings names as soon as she learned her own. She listed them in large, perfect print on an oversized sheet of paper. A bold border gave the list a poster effect and she taped it to the wall. “There” she announced. “Now you can stop calling us the wrong names.” It’s an easy mistake. Their names all start with the same letter. Try saying “She sells seashells down by the seashore” a few times. Try it when, instead of selling seashells, she’s stolen your lipstick and painted her sister’s face with it or systematically broken a dozen eggs to see what’s inside. 

My son reads voraciously. He reads before school, on the bus, at lunch, after school in the tree house, while swinging on a rope, at the dinner table if I let him, before bed, in bed… A week ago he came home from the book store beaming with three new books in his hands. Now he needs more. I came home with new books as well, but I’m still savoring Kirk Curnutt’s short stories in Baby Let’s Make a Baby and I’ve started War Music, which is Christopher Logue’s very fine account of Homer’s Iliad. It’s a book I’d like the luxury of reading straight through, all at once. It’s poetry, after all. The pixie picked it up yesterday and flipped through. “Your books are all filled up with words! Cool. S-E-E. See. Is this a story about the beach?” I was reminded of a quote by Victor Hugo: To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.

Very cool indeed.

Flowers for the Soul

At dawn I snuck out of the house. At eighteen I was sneaking in with the light. How life has changed!

Grocery shopping is fun with kids. Especially when you drive into town and find that someone forgot shoes. My daughter, the young Imelda Marcos, has more shoes (and better) than I have owned in my entire life and yet she can’t remember to wear them. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how many times she’s left her shoes at other people’s houses and come home barefoot. Then again, maybe you would. She’s probably left a pair at your house. The pixie seems determined to follow in her sootsteps, literally. Luckily, they also leave shoes in the car constantly so if we dig under the seats two or three shoes usually turn up. They’re bound to fit someone.

Before anyone can leave the car we review the rules. There’s an oath to be sworn.

“How do we behave in public?”

“Like human beings.”

“And what are we NOT going to do?”

“Scream.” “Cry.”

“And?”

“BEg.”

“Excellent. What else?”

“Fall on the floor and act like idiots.”

“Exactly. Will there be running?”

“No.”

“Will we act like pirates, punks, mangy mutts, aliens, swarms of killer bees -”

“No! It’s hot out here.”

“I know what little lawyers some of you are. I want to be sure to cover everything.”

“We’ll be good! Can we go in now?”

“You have to promise.”

And, after all that, they are good. Most of the time. When they’re not we leave. Immediately. No threats, no discussion. It’s over. I’m tough.

I hate being tough. So much easier to go while they’re sleeping. Quiet. The car radio still doesn’t work but – surprisingly – my mind does. As I pulled into a parking spot I found myself admiring the sunrise over a big boring box of architectural disgrace and wondering at things larger than myself. I grabbed a cart and looked down at my list. The realization hit me full force. I don’t want any of these things. Eggs? Sugar? Flour? Who cares? Who. Cares. This wasn’t a list of my needs. It looked like a list written in another language to me right then. I didn’t write it. Someone else must have. Had I written it, it might have said:

  • time
  • freedom
  • a studio
  • plane tickets
  • chai (latte)
  • intimacy
  • understanding

Not all this domestic nonsense. Someone bumped me with their cart, interrupting my thoughts. Just as well. The first thing I saw in the store though were flowers and I was reminded of my pal Sheila’s wonderful poem. Sheila’s poem had reminded me of this old friend of mine:

If thou of fortune be bereft,

And in thy store there be but left,

Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,

Buy Hyacinths to feed thy soul.

Moslih Eddin Saadi

I will have flowers. Whether I can afford them or not and even if no one ever sees them but me. I will.

They were the gaudiest flowers I’d ever seen. Day-glo colored roses. I wavered. There were gladiolas in slightly softer colors. Not quite as hideous as the others, but my mother always hated glads. She said they reminded her of my sister’s funeral and so I came to hate them too. You know what though? I have no memories of my sister’s funeral. Diana died thirty-four years ago today. Why not celebrate her? I put the yellow gladiolas in the cart without ever looking at the price tag. Then I went in search of eggs.

Another really swell thing about shopping for groceries at six in the morning? No one else is shopping then. I had the store, with its newly stocked shelves, all to myself. I had the cashier, with her disdain for canvas bags, all to myself. Here’s a special note to all you checkers and baggers in groceries across America: It’s not that hard and you’re getting paid to do it. Roll your eyes at the wrong tired mother trying to leave a little space in the landfill for her children’s children and you’re liable to get a fat lip. I didn’t have any kids hanging off me at the moment though so I just laughed as she struggled with my floppy bags. I had bright yellow flowers in my cart. What did I care what she thought?

My girls came downstairs as I was fitting the flowers in a vase. “Are those flowers for you, Mom?” my pixie asked. Yes. They are.