Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dropping a bull.

I know I'm not going to have time or energy to write much tonight, so I thought I'd at least show you what's been occupying me all day--introducing one group of my students to the events being depicted in the image below: the lowering of one of the great winged bulls at Nimroud, so that it could be shipped to London and housed in the British Museum, where it remains today. (The bull at right, on the other hand, lives at the Met in Manhattan.) That guy at the top of the cliff, standing all by himself, directing things? That's Austen Henry Layard, for whose Nineveh and Its Remains (1849) this image was the frontispiece. Layard's book has been in print in some version or another ever since its first publication. The things he excavated are now all over the world.

source for tonight's images:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monday, February 27, 2006

To sleep, perchance to dream.

My workday stretched from 8 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. today, with only a few minutes of downtime, maybe an hour total, scattered throughout. When the group of male students who constitute one of our literary societies showed up on my front porch at 10:40 p.m., because Kenyon is that kind of place and I'd told them that I might be able to make it to their evening meeting, I had to draw a line, though part of me was a tiny bit tempted to just keep on going. Why not have an impromptu literary society meeting in my living room, since someone had lost the key to their originally scheduled meeting place? Well, for lots of reasons, but chiefly because it would have launched me into a fifteenth straight hour of work. And that just didn't seem necessary or even slightly reasonable tonight.

I'm listening to a magnificent album that I've just gotten. I usually don't read Entertainment Weekly's music reviews, even when I do let my celebrity magazine reading go as highbrow as EW (as opposed to Life & Style; I don't slum with OK, just in case you're concerned; and I'm still pissed off that the bookstore stopped carrying US Weekly). But for some reason, when I dipped into this week's trashy offerings, I lingered over the music reviews, seeking something new. The Arctic Monkeys have debuted, of course, but I find that I'm not as enthralled by the samples of the whole album as I have been by their first single. EW gave Teddy Thompson's Separate Ways, released last month, an A. (You may recognize Thompson from his duet with Rufus Wainwright on "King of the Road," for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. I myself will never love any version of "King of the Road" more than the drunken R.E.M. cover that shows up on Dead Letter Office [1987].) After listening to thirty seconds of "Everybody Move It" last night, I was pretty certain that I'd be downloading the whole album today. And indeed I did do, during one of my flying breaks--I believe it was somewhere around the time I made it to 170 pages of reading for the day, on my way onward and upward to 215 or so. iTunes categorizes Thompson's album as "rock," but this categorization all but proclaims to me that iTunes is worse at musical taxonomy than even I am; while some of Thompson's tracks (like "You Made It," which just came on) do sound rock-ish, the prevalent genre would seem to be the alt-country we've also gotten from people like Kathleen Edwards in the past year. Then again, Edwards's Back to Me (2005) got categorized as "folk." So, perhaps what I should (re)learn at this point is that labels will only take me a short distance in life.

In short: if you're looking for something that seems to straddle genre boundaries and make it into rock and country and probably also some pop and occasionally even some folk--but that, most importantly, features achingly gorgeous instrumentation and beautiful vocals (including backing vocals by Martha Wainwright, you guys)--Thompson might be your man. Those of you with whom I've danced at one hepcat event or another may especially love "Everybody Move It," which features lines like "bump and grind / have a
good time" against an incongruously lovely melody. Rolling Stone didn't like the album much, but then again, the RS reviewer tried to insult Thompson by comparing him to Neil Finn of Crowded House. I love Neil Finn and Crowded House. As I would tell my students, this sounds to me like a question of taste, not quality.

As I got ready to come upstairs and get ready for bed, I paused for a few minutes in front of one of the framed pictures on the living room wall, near my front hallway. It's a contact print my father made of the first roll of film he took of my mother and me after I was born. In the pictures, my twenty-six-year-old mother sits in her bathrobe beside a window, with me, swaddled, in her arms. She and my father were hoping I'd wake up so that they could get a picture of me with my eyes open. Instead, no matter what
position my mother moved me into, I slept on, making some funny faces (sticking out my tongue, yawning) but keeping my eyes clenched tight.

Ironically, the Thompson song on right now is "I Should Get Up," about needing to get out of bed.

What you have to know to get why it's so funny that I wouldn't open my eyes for the pictures: I was born asleep. My poor mother was in false labor for about a week before I finally made up my mind to get on out, and then she had to go through about a day of hard labor, and then I made my debut still crashed out. She's told me many times that I opened my eyes, looked around as if to say, "Are you kidding me?" and then closed them up again. The doctors worried that I was going to turn out to be slow. They were right--just not in the way they meant, at that moment. I did not get the kind of Apgar scores that would have gotten me into Princeton. But when they stamped my foot, I apparently got just as cranked off as I get now when
I'm disturbed from my rest; my yowling made everything seem all right again, leaving aside the fact that it was probably at about this time that the doctors noticed the sixth toe on my left foot.

"We knew right then what you would be like for the rest of your life," my mother has told me. I can see what she means. I tend to do things on my own timetable. I tend to sleep late. I tend to be unreasonably irritable when annoyed by pointless things, like impertinent foot-stamping. Perhaps I'm even more irritable now that I only have ten toes than I was when I had eleven.

I don't know whether I'm still brow-furrowed in my sleep. I certainly was on that first day
. I already look as though I might be working something out while I'm unconscious, which tends to be a crucial part of my modus operandi (and of yours, too, so don't deprive yourself of your sleep; your long-term memory encoding happens while you're out, and if you cut back too far, the sensory impressions you gathered in over the course of your day won't process back from your brain's frontal lobe into its middle, your medial temporal lobe, where they'll take deeper root).

Among my favorites of the things my mother taught me when I was growing up: that people have a deep sleep position or series of deep sleep movements that can be detected when a baby is still in utero. My parents discovered this phenomenon over a sequence of events. Partway through her pregnancy, my mother pointed out to my father a strange thing that was happening to her abdomen: from time to time, something would ripple from one side of her belly to the other, making a kind of visible wave. They didn't know how to account for it until one night after my birth, when my mother watched one of my arms drift up and across my body, making a rippling motion as it traveled. When she was pregnant with my brother, my mom says, there were times when her abdomen would protrude even further out than usual, as though he was all concentrated in one place. She would massage him into more convenient positions when necessary. After he was born, she checked on him one night and found him sleeping with his legs drawn up and his knees sticking up in the air.

One of the curious things about living alone is that I don't have any way of knowing what I am like when I sleep; a good seven or eight (or, when I'm lucky, nine or ten) hours of each day go by when I'm not visible or audible or really present in any way to anyone else. I don't know whether I snore consistently, though I've awakened myself (sometimes in public places) with snorts or snores. I don't know whether I talk in my sleep. I know that I usually wake up pretty much exactly where I fell asleep, having moved almost not at all in my sleep. I know that in the past I have had an incredibly difficult time sleeping if another person in my bed has wanted to hang onto me through the night; I know that some of the best sleeping I've ever done involved sleeping back-to-back with another person, making enough contact to feel assured of a presence but not enough to compromise my solitude. But that sleeping happened years ago; I've just realized that it's been more than half a decade since that relationship ended.

Of all the songs on this album, I think I love "Think Again" most of all, despite the portentousness of that declaration at this point in my semester. I am a sucker for particular movements in music--a certain chord progression, a particular bass line, and, I rediscover through this song, 6/8 time and triplets. One could do a lovely, lovely, terribly sad waltz to this song's rolling acoustics, its chorus's melancholy rises and falls.

sources for tonight's images: 1) ye mighty Amazon; 2) Sleep Eval Research, whom you have to love at least a little for posting Henri Matisse's "Nature Morte à la Dormeuse" (1940).

Sunday, February 26, 2006

And I saw a bird fly away...

I'll tell you the origin of today's post title right off the bat, because I don't know how many Dar Williams listeners are in the house. My beloved Brooklynite put me on to Dar Williams a few years ago by playing the wonderfully unsanctimonious life-after-death ditty "Alleluia" for me. In case this fact whets your appetite, know that "Alleluia" features a heavenly cafeteria that's going to drive the song's singer (not Dar W.; the kid she's created in the song) mad because "it looks just like a big Hawaiian party that my mother had." Also, the line "Don't be like me, forever young, forever stupid." It's a pretty excellent song. On The Beauty of the Rain (2003), Williams has a song called "I Saw a Bird Fly Away," and that's what I'm referring to.

Yesterday was a day of fourfold good times. My father hung around later than planned, so that I had a chance to show him off at the village coffee shop during breakfast (hilariously, one of my students from last year was there and, upon being introduced to my father, started telling him about how I am as a professor, proving that the impulse to compliment a person's children in order to make connections with that person upon first meeting him or her is not confined to faculty here). I then segued neatly into an afternoon of trying to do some work in tandem with somebody else but ending up being gifted, of all things, a new dartboard--because when someone says to you, "Let me buy you a dartboard," you say, "Right on," and you ride off to the next town with him, and you end up with a board not unlike this one. Lest anyone reading that sentence should think that I'm just an idiot, given the disastrous effects of my last experiment in dartboard ownership: know that some of the walls in this house are like rock and that I've already blunted the steel tip of one dart by missing the board. The walls are safe this time, and the floor will be covered appropriately in anticipation of those inevitable occasions when I will bounce darts right off the wall. Seriously. They bounce. I proceeded to lose a game of cricket, but just barely (two more hits in the bullseye and I'd have had it).

Following the departure of my Delaware friend, I had about ten minutes to get ready for a play. Following the play, I had about ten minutes to get ready for a facult
y/student affair that I can't really even talk about because it's so strange an event. By the time I got home at the end of the night (and threw darts until I finally hit a bullseye), I had done almost no work over the course of the day, which leaves me with a long stretch ahead of me before tonight's finale of my favorite show (and if you saw Thursday's episode, you know that Drew really should take it all, though he should also be publicly chastized for his idiotic response to a suggestion that he was ready for Brokeback Mountain: The Musical).

So, for yet another morning in a row, I woke up before my alarm rang, something that only really happens when I'm under one kind of stress or another. I padded down to the kitchen to make my coffee and bring it back up for some reading, and while I waited for the kettle to boil, I stared out the kitchen's patio door. Suddenly, a flash of blue scissored through the air and came to rest on the birdhouse in the backyard, and I realized I was looking at my first bluebird. This area has an active, widespread bluebird conservation program; driving around in the county, one sees bluebird boxes everywhere, once one knows to look for them. But I've never actually seen one of these birds. Their blue is terrifically surprising and absolutely unmistakable. It is not the gradated blue, cut with black and white, of the blue jay. It is a deeper version of the blue of good fountain pen ink. It is the color of the eastern sky about forty minutes after sunset. I'll let you think up further connections to this bird's coloring; those two are what I've got for now. The bird poked around at the birdhouse for a few minutes, then shot off to the south and disappeared.

Somehow, this bird felt like a revelation, though of what, I'm not sure. Excitingly enough, it seemed to be checking out the birdhouse, so I can only hope that (though the birdhouse is all wrong for bluebirds, as far as I understand their ideal nesting situations) the bird will return from its reconaissance mission and get some more bluebirds to come back with it. Perhaps this bird will be the city bird to its country cousins who are nesting down at the edge of the cornfield across the highway. I wouldn't mind watching that color slice and dip through my close proximity as we get closer to summer.

sources for today's images: 1) a link from somebody's LiveJournal; 2) Central Missouri State University's Nature Central; 3) Gasoline Alley Antiques.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Another one joins the world!

One of my faithful readers is a new father yet again, and so I'm taking a break from our usual reflective routine to say congratulations to him and his wife, and welcome to the new small person.

Now, far be it from me to offer parenting advice, but may I humbly suggest that every baby should have at least one of these bunnies (in addition to the book, of course). Pat is the uberbunny--and he is so, so soft. Now you pat the bunny!

source for today's image: Dark Childe's bunny pages.

I never promised you a rose garden.

But I did bring you home a sign. This sign is not, incidentally, the one I've been looking for this week. I nearly choked when we passed it on the way to Bellville this afternoon.

Friday, February 24, 2006

An abstract feeling of geography and voyaging.

My father, whom I'm more like than anyone in the world except for one other person, is on his way here even as I type, and our plan is to blow town the moment we're able and go out exploring my neck of the woods, something I don't get to do as much as I'd like. After several weeks of gritting my teeth and groping my way through a relentlessly busy but surreally manageable semester, I am suddenly, crushingly in need of an escape from Gambier; my town works this way on people, cocooning us up until we slam into a breaking point, which often comes about three days before leaving town is possible. I'm ready to get out for a little while. Even a few hours will help.

Not far from here is an area full of antique stores--and I'm hoping that at least some of those stores are on the more junk-oriented end of the antique store spectrum. I've never actually pulled off the amazing antique store find (though my father has, and in my favor, no less). But today, inspired by Joseph Cornell (from one of whose 1941 letters today's title comes), I'm in high hopes that I'll find something wondrous. It won't be anything this great:

but a girl can dream. And yes, I know that the last place I'm likely to find something this fine is in a junk-antique store. I just couldn't find exactly what it is that I think I'm seeking this afternoon; somehow, I am hoping to find some birds, or perhaps some maps. Or perhaps maps of birds, though I may have exhausted my lifetime quota for bird maps with the National Geographic migration map I found when I lived in Ithaca and have had hanging on my wall ever since. What my father may not yet know about this afternoon's trip is that he'll be driving, because I'll be taking the pictures, which means I'll also be doing a lot of saying, "Oh, wait! Stop!" The last time he and I took an excursion like this, I was ten and we were hunting down outhouses just after dawn in southern Indiana. That's a story for another time.

source for today's image: UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

If you can't make your mind up, we'll never get started.

In honor of tonight's finals round of my favorite show, this morning you get a few early moves from my life as a wannabe dancer.

First, you need to know that when I was four, I wanted to learn to dance. My best friend across the street--the girlish friend who wore patent leather shoes always, even when we were playing in the rocks outside my house's front door--took tap, as did my equally girlish next door nei
ghbor. I did not. I suspect that my mother had a tough gig, sorting out what I really wanted to do from what I really thought I really wanted to do. I have inherited this tough gig now: I tend to be overexcitedly interested in a lot of things that come my way, and if I had the energy of eight of me, it would be fine. As it is, I have to pick and choose.

When I was eight, my new best friend took ballet. She spent an afternoon teaching me the four basic positions. I started feeling a hankering for dance yet again. By this time, though, I was four years into my career as a child pianist; once again, the dancing did not happen. I started to have dark, tempting visions of myself as a cheerleader. Fortunately, these visions were cut with visions of myself as a soccer player or a member of the basketball team.

When I was twelve, my family moved to a new town, one where things were a little more chi-chi than our first Indiana town. (One of my friends said to me on the last day of seventh grade, about a month before I moved, "You're going to the promised land!" It was a twenty-mile move.) My father's boss's sons had all attended a cotillion run by a stately, white-haired woman who traveled down from Indianapolis once a month to run this deportment-and-dance class. My father's boss's wife suggested to my mother that signing up for cotillion would be a great way for me to meet other people my age. What you have to know in order to understand my excitement about this cotillion option: I was nervous in the extreme about this move, because I was not exactly the coolest kid on the block at age twelve. I was rocking the full mouth of metal, replete with giant rubber bands to correct the mysterious gaps that had opened up between my upper and lower teeth (the orthodontist could only assume that I'd been thrusting my tongue between my teeth in my sleep); I also wore enormous, squarish, purple-framed glasses--up until the moment I traded them in for contacts, which kicked my self-esteem up quite a few notches. And I had short, short, short hair (the many-months-later result of a disastrous haircut early in seventh grade--one of that variety that starts with an extremely near-sighted kid saying, "Take about this much off," and ends with her putting her glasses back on and bursting into tears). Overall, I was pretty sure that the other eighth graders were going to think I was a big dork.

Now, of course, I know that I'm a big dork. In fact, I tell my students, particularly my youngest students, that they never have to worry about seeming like big dorks at the seminar table, because I've got the biggest dork in the room territory covered. But back in 1988, I wasn't so secure in this status.

And so, my mother and I ventured out to the local fancy-clothes-for-teenagers store and found a dress. I half wish that I had the dress here so that I could take pictures of it for you; it was vaguely like the dark dress in this picture, but far nicer. It was a Jessica McClintock in black, flowered cotton, with a dropped waist, a snug bodice, puffed short sleeves, and an enormous lace sailor collar. This description makes it sound hideous, I fear, but it really wasn't--especially not for 1988. My mother was already helping me realize my best physical attributes--the small waist, the "ample bosoms" (as my grandmother would call them)--and this dress showed them off. We bought the requisite white gloves (yes, white gloves) at the suggested store, and I was set.

Cotillion turned out to be a pretty crazy experience, equal turns exciting and demoralizing. In the exciting column: at every class, everyone had to dance with everyone else, and so at least once every class, I got the chance to dance with the person for whom I nursed an undying and totally baseless affection for the next four years. In the demoralizing column (leaving aside the fact that at 12/13, most of us women were taller by about a head and a half than most of our male counterparts): at the last class, we received old-fashioned dance cards, the kind with the pencil attached, and we were supposed to line up five dances. The fourth dance slot was the one that yielded our partner for the year-end dance competition. I had a difficult time getting five dances together; even without the glasses and even with the braces' having been removed at Christmastime, I was still pretty awkward, and I've never been good at small talk, particularly with people my own age, so chances are pretty good that I was trying to waltz and cha cha with short thirteen year olds while talking about how much I loved Ray Bradbury and classical mythology. Those suspicions aside, the mathematics of this situation were pretty simple: there just weren't enough men to go around. Ultimately, I only ended up with four, and my fourth slot was the one that went unfilled. And so, when everyone else started the dance contest, I sat out in one of the chairs that ringed the room's edge, waiting for someone to get eliminated and then put back into the contest with me. Which happened. And then we won.

My ballroom dance career screeched to a halt the moment I left that last cotillion meeting, clutching my championship trophy, but my dream was nutured in secret by the release of Baz Luhrmann's utterly, unrestrainedly excellent Strictly Ballroom (1992), which screened at my college in 1994 or so. And the dream restarted in increasingly pleasant ways once I was in graduate school. In preparation for a friend's wedding, my Floridian friend persuaded me that we should take one of Cornell's wackier physical education offerings, Introduction to Ballroom Dance, and so we did, and it was nuts.
We were champion merengue dancers (cf. my earlier explanation about hip dancing). We were also quite good at swing. We sucked a lot at polka, but then, who didn't, in that class. And you've heard the story about how my New Yorker friend and I taught some other friends to rhumba and fox trot for their wedding. We had such a good time that we met up and danced on our own for hours at a time that summer, working out rhumba turns and cha cha routines in the basement of Cornell's theater building late into July evenings. Some of my favorite evenings in graduate school happened that summer; when we were done with the dancing at midnight or so, we'd take our sore hips and feet back to my car and drive off to pick up my soon-to-be-Chicagoan friend, and the three of us would go sit at the diner with the flip-down seats, or at Friendly's, where we'd inevitably be challenged to say "kickin'! Buffalo chicken!" to the waitress, which none of us ever did. On a balmy late-July evening, Cornell Cinema screened Strictly Ballroom (which by this time I'd seen probably ten times, two of them on that year's birthday alone) outside, on a terrace overlooking the valley and the lake, and it was all a small-scale version of one paradise I can imagine. When Doris Day started singing "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps," I half-expected my friends to spring into position and do their rhumba, a la Pavlov's dogs, since their practice song was Nat King Cole's rendition of "Qui Sas, Qui Sas, Qui Sas."

By the end of the summer, I was actively scoping out formal dance shoes, hoping that we were going to continue the dancing into the school year and beyond. I still want the shoes--not to mention the dancing. In December, some of my students who dance ballroom here tried to convince me to come to their practices. I can't quite imagine how that would work--though I can well imagine how melancholy it would make me to be back on the edge of a room, watching couples work towards championships. So, until I find the next entry point--and they seem to come around every few years--I'll settle for Dancing with the Stars, even though no TV show really gives me a good excuse to get a pair of heels like these.

sources for today's images: 1) an AOL site devoted to answering that deepest and most crucial of human questions, "Why dance?"; 2) Grandma's House; 3) the Helsinki City Museum; 4) Amazon.com, of all places. I don't know whether it's good for me to know how many of my addictions can be fed at Amazon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The joy of cooking.

By the time I left my office this evening, things were looking pretty grey and aimless, yet again. Fortunately, I'd driven to the office this morning so that I would have the car there, ready to take me to the grocery store. And so to the grocery store it took me. Even though it was 6:15 as I headed north out of town--since the grocery store is in the next town to the northwest--the sky was still light: deepening blue to the east, a greying blue overhead, and a pinkening to the west where the sun had recently been. There's a stretch of road on the way to the store that I love. To the south of the road (which runs east-west) is a cornfield. From the road, it almost looks as though the field is level. But it's actually bisected by a valley that creates an effect of many hills. The swells and falls of the land work together with the parallel evenness of the field's harvested corn rows in a rippling repetition that I've always found strangely fascinating, even comforting. In summer, passing a field of fully grown corn feels to my eye like watching water flow. My childhood best friend, who grew up on a farm, always responded to my awe with dismissal. "It's just corn," she said. "It's all like that." For her, the rows were about machines and labor. For me they were always aesthetic. Tonight, they were just what I needed to see, even in their winter barrenness. As usual, the colors were what grabbed me. In winter, what's left of the corn is golden stubble, and in the particular dusk through which I drove this evening, that gold was the perfect complement to the sky's soft, strong blue. And then the Simple Minds came on the radio, with that telltale "hey hey hey hey," and I rocked out to "Don't You Forget About Me" all the way to the intersection just before the store. We were at "la lalalalaaaa lalalalaaaa la la la la la la la la la la" by the time I made it to the light.

Singing along (and yes, I'll admit it, doing a little car dancing that also involved hand motions) to that anthem, I was reminded for not the first time this week of a story from my childhood that simultaneously amuses and distresses me, a quarter-century later. When I was in kindergarten, my parents attended their first parent-teacher conferences, while I stayed home with a babysitter. I have vague memories of their coming into my bedroom after they arrived home; I must have been just on the brink of going to bed. One of them had my first report card in hand. It turned out that I'd gotten all "E"s except for the "N" (for "Needs improvement") in social skills, of all things. When my parents asked what needed to be improved about my social skills, the teacher revealed that I was being disruptive every day when I left the classroom to head off and read with some older kids. "When she leaves, she says, 'Goodbye! I'm going!'" the teacher told them, "and when she comes back, she always says, 'I'm back! Did you miss me?'" My parents asked whether the teacher had told me to come and go more quietly. She looked to one side (or at least I imagine her looking to one side, suddenly embarrassed not to have thought of that herself) and admitted that she hadn't. My parents assured her that I was very tractable and would have changed my ways had I known they weren't appropriate. And in fact, when they came home, they told me that I was being a bit too noisy in my departures and arrivals. I remember feeling self-conscious the next day, trying to slip out of the classroom as quickly and quietly as I could, and to slip back in silently when I returned.

This story used to make me laugh, because it seemed so silly. And then about three years ago, I realized that I haven't actually changed a bit. When I leave, I don't want to be forgotten. When I come back, I want to have been remembered and missed. Thinking about the story this way made me start to dislike it, to be angry with it and all it entails, for having taught me that there was something wrong with wanting to be remembered--instead of that some others would know I'd been gone, even if they didn't tell me so, while others probably wouldn't know (or care) even if I told them.

Somehow, by the time I made it to the store, I had slipped back out of musing yet again on this story. Amazingly, the store was relatively quiet, and I was back out on the backroads before the light had fully gone--even though it was nearly 7 p.m. by the time I reached home. Glass of chianti at my side, if not quite in hand, I busted out a favorite meal in fairly short order. Somehow, thinking back over all the times I've cooked for others as a way to try and ensure that I stick with them even compounded the pleasures of a knife crunching through hot peppers, an orange hushing over a grater, shrimp slipping out of their shells.

sources for today's images: 1) The St. Petersburg Times Online; 2)
Linda Mahoney's paintings.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A door. A gate. A door.

Some days, particularly at this time of year, when the sun is starting to set so much later and in such a lovely way, I wander a bit after finishing my office hours. This evening, I finished a coffee with a colleague and then wandered to the bookstore, a not-uncommon destination for my rambles. I'm feeling a little out of sorts this evening, a little displaced and prematurely done, as though the evening is over even though it's just begun. And so, as I wandered around the bookstore, I was browsing not only for books but also for some kind of direction.

I've been a sometimes reluctant believer in signs for quite some time now. When I was trying to decide on a graduate school, I had two equally attractive options. My heart and self-interest tugged me from one to the other to the one to the other until I was exhausted and overwhelmed, worried that I would make the wrong choice and deform my life forever afterward. Finally, in a moment of utter resignation, I asked my mother what she thought I should do. "Pray for a sign," she replied. I told her that I didn't think praying for a sign was a good idea this time. "Just do it," she said. So I did. And just so you know, when you roll your eyes while you pray for a sign, this kind of stuff happens: you go to your campus bookstore thirty minutes later to make some photocopies, and while you're paying for those copies, you look down, and you discover that (bearing in mind that Cornell was one of the two options) the bookstore has twenty copies of Anita Desai's Journey to Ithaca in the showcase under the cash register. You didn't even know there was a showcase under the cash register. In three years on campus, you've never seen this case. And now, thirty minutes after you asked for a way to decide between Cornell and another school, you've been told--twenty times, no less--to journey to Ithaca.

I journeyed to Ithaca.

My peregrinations tonight landed me in front of the Kenyon Authors section, where I had hoped to find a couple of James Wood books, since I'm gathering together essayists. Alas, no James Wood, though he was a Kenyon faculty member for a semester several years ago, and usually that's enough to garner one a space on the Kenyon Authors shelf. While I was crouched near the ground looking at the Ws, though, I rediscovered copies of Grace and On Nantucket, the two books of photographs that my provost, Greg Spaid, has published. I want to show you pictures from Spaid's book, but they're only available in good reprints on a gallery's webpage, and I really, really don't want to pull any of them off the site (even for you, even with credit), since they're directly connected with my chief academic officer. Follow the link, and you too will love them. You may even want to buy them. I know I do. (The images I am giving you, by the way, are from a web announcement of a lecture he did at a nearby university, several years ago. I'm offering them because they're tiny and you'll need to get his book(s) in order to see more clearly what all my fuss is about.)

I decided I would try an experiment, one that's often had interesting results for me: I'd do some bibliomancy, open one of the books to a random page and interpret what I found there. If I couldn't find direction out in the bookstore, maybe I'd get some help within one of the books. Though it was Grace's title that put the idea in my head, I slipped On Nantucket off the shelf to see what would happen. I closed my eyes and dropped the book open to the portrait of a white door. A door. I closed the book. I closed my eyes. I dropped the book open to another portrait, this time of a gate, set into an ivied wall. A door, and a gate. I closed the book. I closed my eyes. I dropped the book open to a third portrait, this time of a door in a shingled wall. A door, a gate, and a door. I've paged through this book before, but not for a couple of years, and so I found myself wondering whether it's actually a book of doors and gates--of ingress and egress, comings and goings. In fact, it's not. I just happened to hit three of them in a row. Comings and goings. Ins and outs. Openings and closings. It's tough to interpret a door; it's a figure of liminality itself. Three threshold spaces in a row, on an evening when I'm looking for some kind of sign, feels like being told to sit tight and look around for just a little while more, until I can ascertain what kind of threshold I'm on, and which direction I'm going.

The last bibliomantic experience I remember clearly happened when I was studying at an English university ten years ago. This university had two libraries, conveniently (if not originally) called the Old Library and the New Library. The Old Library was a fine place to work, because its primary workspaces were divided among enormous tables in the center of the main floor and individual desks set into small bay windows popped out of the building's side (in a very industrial way, since this building was a product of the 1950s). I loved the window desks; there's little I like more than a desk at a window. I will rearrange rooms to get a desk near a window if I can. One night, I'd been working in the Old Library, taking notes for a paper on dangerous knowledge and despair in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and was heading out for dinner. While I waited for a friend, I stepped into the university's chapel, which was across a small courtyard from the Old Library. I was worried about this paper, worried it wouldn't be very smart, worried that I didn't have enough time to write it, worried that the ideas weren't coming together as swiftly as they did back in that mythical time that never actually happened, when the ideas came easily, thick and fast and brilliant.

And so I was looking around a little bit for a way to think through my worry--to numb it out in order to keep working, actually. I picked up a bible from the pew in front of me and thumbed it op
en at a random place--where my eye happened to fall first on a passage exhorting its reader not to worry, not to fret. I thought that was strange but also kind of hokey. So I closed the book. I closed my eyes. I reopened the book. And I faced this moment from Genesis: "The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised." Thus does the writer of Genesis mark the transition from the revelation that Abraham's aged wife Sarah will bear him a son, and from her laughingly disbelieving response to that revelation, to the fulfillment of its prophecy. This second passage gave me some pause; I put the bible back in its rack and went back outside, into the cold November night, to walk home with my friend.

One of the things I like about Greg Spaid's photographs is the intensity of their solitude; he captures that razor's edge between beautiful solitude and desolating loneness in photograph after photograph. My favorites aren't among the images I can show you tonight--except for this perfect one, of a barn in mid-Ohio--but if you enjoy these, you should seek out his work. Look for Grace's image of a gravel road stretching from the foreground into the distance, with cornfields on either side, and you'll know where I live, in more ways than one.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Seeing spots.

It has been suggested to me that my last few writings here have been a bit on the melancholic side. It's possibly true: February is a raucous month in Gambier, though not nearly as much as April will be, and my brain is probably more scattered and tired than I'd like to admit, and that probably shows up in ways I don't intend. Moreover, the materials I'm teaching right now are almost uniformly grave, full of meditations on and spectacles of characters striving to forget their pain and then inadvertently causing more pain, or of figures searching for their lost pasts and getting severely wounded, or disfigured, or otherwise damaged in the process. Plus, the more I teach, the more I feel that I have a solid grasp on what I want to do every time I'm in the classroom, which seems to have raised the stakes even higher for me. Now that I have a clearer vision, I want even more to get it right. More than melancholy, though, I feel concentrated, intense, absorbed.

I will tell you that tonight, as I prepared for my evening seminar, I was so taken with the sunset's light that I couldn't stop myself from leaning over and staring out the window at it. I'd stare for some time, then realize that that probably wasn't a good idea and stop. And then I'd realize that I couldn't see anything but afterimages, spotty phantom sunsets. Just about the time my eyes would clear out the spots,
I'd realize how lovely the light was, and I'd lean over and look again. (Did I mention that I'm teaching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind this week? Can I now claim to have enacted some demented version of that title's implications in my own office?) Though I took many pictures of the sunset and its aftermath after I left my office and headed out for dinner, I would have to retrieve a cable from downstairs in order to upload them, and I'm more fond of this Kandinsky painting, "Einige Kreise" ("Several Circles") (January-February 1926), anyway. I found it on the Guggenheim's website the other morning and couldn't believe I'd never seen it before. What I love is its measured exuberance, which is something of the emotional combination I'm feeling a lot these days, in between meeting various obligations. "Einige Kreise" is a meticulous painting, you realize the longer you look at it, and yet the range and richness of its colors helps it feel less restrained than it might. It reminds me of an excellent sonnet. Or perhaps it reminds me of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, a topic for another night. I imagine Kandinsky's singing along to his brushstrokes as he gets that orange just so, laps the blue over the blue over the black, creates the feeling of motion with his shading there at the left. I imagine him surveying the penumbra around his largest circle, after all was done, and approving of its eclipsical rightness.

The sun wasn't down until well after 6 tonight, and when my seminar pushed off from shore, we could still see the dying of the light over the western hills--both fit reminders that we're now only a month out from the equinox.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

House that we used to live in, house where I left my heart.

In the ugly fall of 2001, right before I started only wanting to eat toasted fontina on bread, my OhioanIowan friend (then just Ohioan) flew to Ithaca for a long weekend in October. On the Saturday of her trip, we packed a gargantuan picnic lunch and headed westward to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. We took our passports along; we'd been warned that drivers' licenses, much less simple word of mouth, wouldn't be enough to get us in and out of Canada anymore. And she wasn't going to see the Falls only from the American side, not when the Horseshoe Falls are so very fine. Not when the overlooks on the Canadian side put you so close to the water falling over the rock ledge that you can actually imagine needing the warnings posted in pictures, that circled-and-cross-hatched stick man (universal symbol of someone about to do something hideously stupid) with one leg thrown over a railing, headed for the water. Every time I stand at that railing and watch the water, I lose myself, transfixed. Just before it plunges, becoming white and iconic, the water seems to pause at full speed, never to stop but always to become preternaturally calm, its bottle-green surface impossibly clear, impossibly shallow. It looks as though one could wade, could walk right out onto those rocks and feel the water rushing against one's ankles but never need to think about withstanding its force.

Given the weird persistence of my Falls-walking fantasy, it's no wonder that the first time I waded in the gorge north of Cornell's campus, I was worried I'd get swept over a cliff.

It's probably a good thing I'd never seen this image before tonight:


This post is not about Niagara Falls.

Or at least it won't be anymore, after I show you this picture, which I really think is marvelous (not least because damn! it's cold at Niagara Falls most of the time, even when it's not winter, and the guy who took this picture not only visited the falls but even went on the tour under the falls--in February):

In a way, what I'm doing with this post replicates, in reverse, what I did to my friend on our way to the Falls. That day, we took a detour on the way to the Falls, instead of detouring at the Falls (which I'd highly recommend, if you ever have the chance--even if you just do a quick drive-by, it's worth the effort). When I was little--from about 13 months until about 7.5 years--I lived in suburban Buffalo. Upstate New York, you're starting to see, was my stomping ground several times. In fact--I should have mentioned this yesterday--I have photo documentation of the fact that my loyalty to Wegmans was well developed by the time I was four. (The picture: me, standing on a kitchen chair, beside a kitchen table covered in brown paper Wegmans bags. And a six-pack of Tab in glass bottles.)

And so, when my friend and I headed west to the Falls, we first swung a little ways north, to East Amherst. I had printed out directions from Mapquest; the last time I'd been in East Amherst, I wasn't yet old enough to drive, and I wasn't sure I'd remember my way. As we drove up Transit Road, though, something strange happened: I did remember. There was the Wilson Farms on the corner of Transit and New. There was t
he weird not-quite-right turn back onto Dodge Road, and then the left onto Old Oak Post. And then, I said, "There's our house." We were coming up to it from behind; it's a two-story yellow house on a corner. My friend said, "It looks like it's in pretty rough shape." And indeed it turned out to be in more than rough shape.

We found out part of the story about what was going on with the house when I saw my old babysitter--the one you know as the woman who introduced me to MTV and David Byrne, when I was six--come out of her old house, eighteen years on from the last time I'd seen her. Because I have a constitutionally low level of self-control, I parked the car and ran over to greet her. After the inevitable shock had passed (and I understand this shock better, now that one of my own babysitting charges has shown up as a full-grown adult here where I live and work), she explained the strange saga of the empty yellow house. Its owners had left town and the house had started to fall apart; the city persisted in posting notices (like the one we could see from across the street), detailing the repairs the house required, but the owners were equally persistent about ignoring those notices. The basement had, somehow it was
known, flooded. The place was possibly not structurally sound. (Trying to find you a good image of this subdivision a few minutes ago, I instead came across a series of articles about East Amherst's sinking homes, many of which are in my old neighborhood. That structures are sinking in East Amherst comes as little surprise, really; one of the bowling alleys my mother and I frequented when I was small suffered a similar fate. As did the older Wegmans in Ithaca, come to think of it.)

After we left my no-doubt-relieved former babysitter to head off on her drive, my friend and I crossed the street and started prowling around the house. Peering in through the family room's front windows, I saw the American Eagle wood stove my parents had installed when I was three; now it was sitting in the middle of the otherwise empty family room. I craned my neck and pressed my face to the glass, but I couldn't see much more than that one room. We walked around the house, and I described the rooms that corresponded to each of the house's windows. I stared at the backyard willow tree, on whose lowest branch I repeatedly skinned my palms while trying to swing in my youth. I told the story about the time I left my red sled in the backyard for a few minutes during a snowstorm, only to lose it altogether until the snow melted a week later.

Finally, my friend pointed out that we needed to head toward the Falls if we wanted to have a decent amount of time there before nightfall. We didn't take any pictures; we just got into the car and drove away.

It wasn't until we were on our way back to Ithaca after the Falls excursion (which, I have to add, garnered me one of my favorite objects, a small plastic snowglobe reading "Niagra Falls," courtesy of my friend) that it occurred to me that we could probably have broken in to the house without much trouble. It was such a strange thought that my friend finally pointed out that I hadn't stopped talking about the abandoned house since we'd left it hours earlier. "It's really under your skin, isn't it?" she asked. I tried to explain why:

When you leave a house and others move in, that house becomes theirs. This particular house had become its next owners', back in 1983. I'd seen it in 1984, and it was no longer mine. I didn't belong there; I didn't even particularly want to be there. The place that had known me knew me no more.

But when subsequent owners, however far down the decades, leave a house behind, it can become yours again. My wandering memory slipped in at a crack at the side of a window, slithered around the wood shutters in the family room and up the little half-step into the kitchen hall, up the green-carpeted steps, past the dark blue-stripey-flowery-patterned wallpaper, past the nook where the old trunk used to sit--the trunk on which my mother and I are sitting in the picture my father took after we got home from my preschool graduation, while I was still wearing not only my Burger King crown mortarboard but also my new Timex digital watch--and it ended up back in my bedroom, back in my bed, back in a re-placed series of sounds and sights: the trees full of birds in the yard in the summer, my father shaking the trees in that darkening blue dusk, so that the birds would fly around the block before flocking back into the trees and starting all over; the sound of the bug zapper outside my bedroom window; the passage of headlight illuminations around the edge of my ceiling; the sound of a plane going by, far overhead, absolutely confirming my conviction that I'd be able to hear when my mother passed over us on her way to her first quilt retreat, in Nantucket.

In short, I had retaken imaginative ownership of the old house.

My parents swung past the house during their October excursion a few years ago, while I was living in Rochester. It was reoccupied and seemed to have been refurbished. My imagination still hasn't moved all the way back out.

This post wasn't meant to be about the house in East Amherst at all. It was meant to be about hinges. They'll wait for another night.

sources for tonight's images: 1) Daredevils of Niagara Falls: A History; 2) a Flickr photostream; 3) a site featuring vintage postcards of Buffalo and environs; 4) the site of an MIT student to whom I really have to hand it for having braved the cold and ice to see the falls in February; 5) an Illustrated History of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Les morceaux de moi.

Tonight I wish my French were better, so that I could capture more exactly the line that gripped my heart and tied it in a knot, as I started watching Kings and Queen with my excellent friends last night. (To be sure, I was asleep within half an hour of the line, but that wasn't the movie's fault.) A dapper, self-assured gentleman writer goes into his bathroom just after his grown daughter arrives at his flat in Grenoble. Studying a picture of herself as a little girl, she realizes that he's sobbing in the other room. He confesses to having had blood in his stools for a week and chokes out to her, "Je vais perdre des morceaux de moi." I feel as though I'm losing bits of myself. (I'm thrown off by the fact that the subtitler's translation is obviously idiomatic, and the man's speech is broken by his sobs, so that it's all but impossible for my rudimentary skills to put the English back into French.)

I'm facing the first moment of real self-division since I started this project two months ago, because I want to write about something else, but tonight's topic is sitting beside me on the couch, needling me, poking me under the ribs, tweaking my ear, pulling at my toenails. I have pictures and notes, bits and pieces I've been picking up all day--a decidedly different collection of morceaux, to be sure--and yet I think I'm going to succumb to what obviously wants to be written, if only so that it will leave me the hell alone, let me get in the car and go to the grocery and then come back here and hunker down with Charles Dickens, my sweetheart tonight.

I have lost my appetite again.

Those of you who know me in real life know that I go in cycles when it comes to eating and not-eating. I'm roughly the same size I was in high school, sometimes five pounds heavier, sometimes five pounds lighter. Usually, my weight changes with the seasons and the rhythms of the academic year: I get skinny by Thanksgiving, and by Spring Break, I'm back wearing the jeans that started falling down in November. But every few years, something goes a little more haywire than usual. In fall 2001, I could only rouse myself to eat a particular kind of cheese, toasted on a particular kind of bread. In 2003, I went on my first weight-gain diet. I may need to initiate another one right now.

It feels absurd to be a grown person and have to attend so deliberately to a very basic bodily function, which is why the weight-gain diets have often been short-lived (though relatively successful) in the past, and why I've ended up here again. Particularly at busy times of my semesters, particularly when very exciting things are happening in my life, I lose my interest in food. I forget to seek it out. My ability to imagine meals that excite me starts to slip. If good food--particularly good-smelling food--ends up in front of me, I will eat heartily and happily. But if that good food is protein-packed, I may go a startlingly long amount of time before I take in another sizable meal.

I find all of this as bizarre as the next person, and the last thing I need right now is a food intervention or nutritional advice. I know the things to put before myself in order to get the maximum healthful benefit from a meal, and I know well the drawbacks of having an unfull stomach too much of the time. I keep a bag of walnuts in my desk at work and get my protein and my omega-3s on a regular basis. One of the things that has always frustrated me about this particular quirk of my being is that I have no language available to talk about it without risking pathologizing myself in a way that's utterly inappropriate to my experience--which is by no means to suggest that such mismatches of language and life don't happen in far more serious ways all over the place, all the time.

I think that what grabbed at me about Nora's father's line in Kings and Queen was the way he captures the strangenss of realizing how the body changes, how it can seem to discard itself without our participation or willingness. I remember putting on a pair of my jeans in spring 2003 and realizing that they were now two sizes too big. If you've ever put on clothes that are two sizes too big, you may have had this experience: you wonder, did I take up that space before? How is it that I have shrunk? Where did that mass go? I've had the same experience going in the other direction: how is it that I have grown so gradually that I didn't notice? How have I come to occupy so much more room?

When I lived in Rochester, I was as thin as I've been since junior high school, almost entirely because I simply didn't feel hungry, ever. I'd never had such a life: I was residing in a city (if a relatively small one) for the first time, seeing a skyline on my way home from work every day, taking two different interstates to reach the grocery store. My own possessions were packed away, tantalizingly close to where I was living my daily life, and I was emphatically in transition from my first moment there until my last, living in a borrowed dwelling and using borrowed things. I was also living with a virtual stranger whose sense of boundaries was far different from my own, particularly where kitchen stuffs were concerned. These things conspired to keep me edgy, at best, when it came to food and drink. (At exactly this time, my beloved Brooklynite was growing her lovely son; she grew and grew, so purposefully, while I shrank and shrank, so bereft of apparent purpose, and it was, overall, a strange, dislocating season, our bodies doing their own things while we looked out for each other from afar.)

By mid-winter--about this time, actually--I had figured out a fairly effective way to sabotage my gustatory apathy. The grocery store in Rochester was part of the same magnificent chain to which I'd become wedded in Ithaca, and the flagship store's floorplan was a near-exact mirror image of the Ithaca store's. And so the Pittsford Wegmans became my home away from home, my kitchen and dining room. Being there was medicinal in a way that I can now identify as neo-Proustian: I'd walk in the automatic doors, and the same rush of forced hot air that had welcomed me in Ithaca would carry me out of Rochester. The same smell of fresh bread would drift over from the same weirdly elaborate brick oven while I chose a bagel for breakfast or debated with myself about whether to buy a white or whole-grain baguette. I'd linger over the cheeses for an excessive amount of time, even though I always bought the same kind. I'd put together a plastic tub of olives; I'd smell the soup selection; I'd check to see what whole fish gaped forth from the butchers' cases. Sometimes I'd make a Tuesday evening Wegmans trip to buy three things last an hour before getting back on the interstate, and then the other interstate, to return to that place I called home.

I'm a little bit at loose ends, as far as this strategy goes, here in mid-Ohio. If I could swing it tonight, I'd hop in the car and drive to Whole Foods, but it's over an hour--and, again, two interstates--away. Generally, as soon as I'm within sight of the local Kroger, I'm clenching my jaw for reasons too puerile to elaborate upon, almost all involving driving and poor parking lot layouts (though some also involving magnetic ribbons bearing pseudopatriotic inanities). I know that I'm being a child, every single time. And feeling silly about being so uncontrollably petulant only makes me less excited to be heading for the food. By the time I'm inside, I might as well be five, insisting that I'm not tired. And so tonight I am going to be my own mother. Instead of lying down for ten minutes, I'm going to gather up the things that seem most appealing. It will undoubtedly be a weirdish mix: yogurt, bread, shredded wheat, cheese, shrimp, and pasta seem likely candidates. But even making this list reminds me of the strangest thing about these cycles: not that I put on a pair of jeans in the middle of a school week and realize that they've stopped fitting--that I might be able to pull them off without unbuttoning them, which is a nice trick but not a very practical one, most of the time--but that I can remember so clearly going to the grocery store and actually wanting the foods around me, whereas tonight I'm buying them for myself out of a firmly lodged sense of duty to this only body I've got.

sources for tonight's images: 1, 2, 5) Vintage Vending; 3) Fabunique Avenue; 4) the Cayuga Nature Center Compost Project's photo album site.

Friday, February 17, 2006

These fragments I am shoring, on a cloudy night.


Open the book of evening to the page
where the moon, always the moon, appears

between two clouds, moving so slowly that hours
will seem to have passed before you reach the next page

where the moon, now brighter, lowers a path
to lead you away from what you have known

into those places where what you had wished for happens,
its lone syllable like a sentence poised

at the edge of sense, waiting for you to say its name
once more as you lift your eyes from the page

and close the book, still feeling what it was like
to dwell in that light, that sudden paradise of sound.

-- Mark Strand

from The New Yorker (February 13 & 20, 2006)
source for tonight's image: Dark Horizons

Thursday, February 16, 2006

El primer de mil besos?

Edvard Munch's "The Kiss" (1892), part of the new Munch show at MOMA, from this evening's The New York Times on the Web. It's the color that moves me--moves me enough that I'm not even more than a twinge bothered, for now, that she's lost her head altogether to his kiss, that he's subsuming her completely. Instead, it's the blue I'm seeing, so much and so many.

You will perceive that I am as often talking to myself, perhaps, as speaking to you.

I am in training, as some of you may already be sussing out. I am in training for something as big as running a marathon, building a boat, walking cross-country, writing a villanelle. I am turning, heliotropic as I've already confessed to being, back toward something from which I fled half my life ago and to which I haven't looked back in any sustained way since. These posts are my practice laps, my technique shapers, my ways of relearning how certain flows and drags and slices through a given medium feel. I am in training for an audacity that I can feel coming closer. I am going to be ready to meet it this time. It will still be frightening, but now I know better what kind of fear I'll be facing: the fear not of failing but of embracing yet another part of what I'm actually meant to be doing with my life, and of having to admit that perhaps those old dreams of mine knew better than I've known since what my life's vectors would actually be.

It's not been uncommon for me to whinge about a lack of models for my life--some of you have gotten this earful first-hand--as if no woman in the history of the world had ever been single at 29 or uninterested in having babies. Nor has it been uncommon for me to realize, with relief, that some of the figures from whom I draw my greatest sustenance are, in fact, still viable models, chronologically speaking (which is to say, in the least intellectually rigorous but perhaps most knee-jerk emotionally satisfying way possible). Virginia Woolf's first novel? Published in 1915, when she was 33. George Eliot's elopement with the love of her life? Happened in 1854, when she was 33. Her first fiction? 1857, when she was 36. Elizabeth Barrett's elopement with her poet-lover Robert Browning (penner of the single best opening line for a first love letter, ever: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett")? 1846. When she was 40. After which her father never spoke to her again.

This morning, I'm warming my brain up for an onslaught of Jane Eyre (for the section we're discussing this afternoon is truly the onslaught, simply exhausting in the extravagance of its anguish) by reopening the slim volume I bought the day of the pageant, Henry David Thoreau's Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. Thoreau's age while writing the earliest of these letters to a friend, chiefly about figuring out what he's going to do in the world (make pencils in order to live? do surveying projects in order to feed himself and pay off the debt from an early book's utter failure?)? 31-33.

The main point of all this circling is to get you to the passages that look as though they'll be talismanic today, as the weather lowers and the wind picks up and I continue striding around purposefully, doing my daily work but also bearing around a pretty great burgeoning secret, a plan for myself that gets me downright giddy when I think about it, not least because it feels so utterly possible, even necessary, and yet has hit me up so unexpectedly, just when I thought everything in my life was settling down into patterns, fixing to be a particular way for the long haul. It continues to be a reassurance to me that both Woolf and Eliot also abjured child-bearing, for one reason and another; I add this point lest anyone misread my brazen cooptation of language that chiefly gets used for biological reproduction.

So, Thoreau. The rest of this entry will be yet another addition to this online commonplace book, because now the time is here, and then some, for learning yet again how Jane responds when Rochester seems "a man who is just about to burst an insufferable bond and plunge headlong into wild license."

Letters to a Spiritual Seeker is a selection of Thoreau's decades-long correspondence with a slightly older man named Harrison Blake, who wrote to Thoreau about six months after he'd finished his sojourn at Walden Pond and asked of him, "Speak to me in this hour as you are prompted." The aphorism-seeker in me is gleaning as I read--fully aware, in case you're concerned, that my earnestness has always conjured some of my most dangerous temptations:
March 27, 1848.
Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life as a dog does his master's chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so.

May 2, 1848.
I am too easily contented with a slight and almost animal happiness. My happiness is a good deal like that of the woodchucks. [Which is a particularly interesting thing for this particular writer to say, since one of the most famous lines from Walden--the line about how in wildness is the preservation of the world--immediately precedes Thoreau's expressing a blazing desire to eat a woodchuck raw. As one of my dear friends here once pointed out in a lecture I was attending, L.L. Bean and the Nature Conservancy and all those other groups that put "in wildness..." on t-shirts and bumper stickers tend to leave out the part about the woodchuck.]

May 2, 1848.
My only integral experience is in my vision. I see, perchance, with more integrity than I feel.

April 3, 1850.
Let things alone; let them weigh what they will; let them soar or fall. To succeed in letting only one thing alone in a winter morning, if it be only one poor frozen-thawed apple that hangs on a tree, what a glorious achievement! Methinks it lightens through the dusky universe.... It is not when I am going to meet him, but when I am just turning away and leaving him alone, that I discover that God is. I say, God. I am not sure that that is the name. You will know whom I mean.

April 3, 1850.
[This bit is my favorite for today.]
Men make a great ado about the folly of demanding too much of life (or of eternity?), and of endeavoring to live according to that demand. Is it much ado about nothing? No harm ever came from that quarter. I am not afraid that I shall exaggerate the value and significance of life, but that I shall not be up to the occasion which it is. I shall be sorry to remember that I was there, but noticed nothing remarkable.
Never flinch. Be sorry to remember that you were there but noticed nothing remarkable. I am talking to myself, perhaps, more than I am speaking to you. Remember that moment in Beloved when Sethe remembers being told, as a child, the story of her mother's middle passage? "I am telling you, small girl Sethe," says Nan, the woman who is telling her the story, "I am telling you." This morning, I am telling myself, and I will keep telling myself, and eventually, you will know that I am telling you, too.

sources for, and a note about, today's images:
I had the perfect Thoreau image to give you, but I don't want to flout the "do not reproduce" instruction at the bottom of its originating page, and so I'll let you find your way there yourself. What I love about this one is that it's so close to the way I spend every one of my mornings, except that instead of a pencil and notebook--and, you know, the top hat, which I only wear some days--I sit here in bed with my laptop and whatever I'm teaching later in the day. Instead of this image, you're getting a couple of Henry Fox Talbot's "photogenic drawings" and early photographs. Henry Fox Talbot, in case you don't know, was the English counterpart to France's Daguerre; the two men basically invented photography at the same time. 1) "The Oak Tree" (mid-1840s) comes from The National Gallery of Art; 2) "The Oriel Window" (1835) (which may well be upside down, something that I also like) comes from ThisPublicAddress.com; 3) "The Handshake" (1842) comes from Hans P. Kraus, Jr.'s member page at PADA; 4) "Wrack" (1839) comes from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The created world can be both reliable and surprising.

I've just finished having my afternoon possessed by Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place, which is well-nigh undescribable. More than anything else, I suspect I'd call it a thinking book. It discovers strange life everywhere; like the world (as described in the title of today's post, a line which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the novel), it unfolds in images and sensations to which one becomes swiftly and yet somehow never certainly acclimated. Any novel that relies as much as this one does on Julian of Norwich is, I suppose, bound to seem simultaneously beautifully inviting and unutterably, unplaceably foreign. Rather than try to build a structure of my own words around the novel, though, I'm going to offer you a few of the stones I collected as I made my way through Davis's pages. For the most part, these bits are non-narrative, because the non-narrative bits are the ones that announce their unexpectedness most strikingly (and also won't ruin the plot, should you follow my lead and pick this one up):
In the beginning it was beautiful.... It was beautiful and it could have stayed that way, but Nothing reached its beautiful endless hand-that-is-not-a-hand into the infinite Nothing of itself and turned itself inside out, giving itself form. The hand of God, which has no shape, no up or down, no end or beginning, drew the world from itself like a rabbit from a hat.

Lichen speaks a language like some music, repetitive and incantatory: manna star fold star. star star fold reindeer. fold fold fold fold. starlight starlight.... So many things are alive: lichen, moss, grass. Also people. So many things are alive and that's what's strange, not that things like stones aren't, especially when you consider how everything's made from the same materials.

Life has nowhere to move, being everywhere, doesn't move though it's always in motion, is the leaf is the trash is the girl's pierced navel the worm the cat's paw the lengthening shadows.

When Thomas thrust his hand into Jesus' side, what he really wanted to feel was his own flesh and marrow. That's curiosity: the wish to know exactly what we're made of and to determine how fragile we are, or mortal, or even--clinging to that most romantic version of hope that's nothing more than wishful thinking--immortal.

The sea was calm, the sun shining. An iceberg drifted past to the east, the sunlight turning it to a world that seemed not only possible but also irresistible to enter, a shade of aquamarine verging on no color at all, crystal clear, like heaven. In the water, capelin and seals. In the air, razorbills and gannets.
It's the passage about lichen that stuck with me all day, fastened tight to me like the stuff itself. Our weather kissed 60 degrees yet again; a student met with me wearing a miniskirt and t-shirt and didn't look one bit cold. Even I threw the winter coat over for my leather jacket, its lining pulled away from its bottom seam, leaving the unparalleled soft of the leather's underside readily reachable on an already overstimulating walk home for lunch.

Who knew that some trees' new spring growth comes in red, marking the break between last year and this? I would like this image not to have so much of a utility pole in its background, but at least you can see what I saw, which in this case is more important to me than the quality of the shot. The whole way home, I double-checked the trees and the bushes I've been watching since January: the newest shoots, the nascent leaves, the shaping berries. Everything is turning scraggly, heedlessly throwing out and up and beyond. I continue to fear these growths will turn out to be flails, prematurities--that something is creepily, grimly slouching around some dark corner we'll push up against when March roars in, if not sooner.

And perhaps that's the most interesting thing about Davis's novel, to my mind: its theology--for theology it undoubtedly is, replete with struggles between good and evil, unexpected angels and unmistakeable fiends, even if you walk in forty pages without fully getting what you're getting, as I did--posits the fiercest and most remorseless of devourings, consumptions, needs, and fears, casts them relentlessly as chances and accidents and indifferences that are obviously patterned and willed, though in what order or for what purpose she rarely, if ever, has the arrogance to presume to know. And yet, in a novel where people get stabbed, have car accidents, and drown, where small animals are trapped, eaten, or heart-broken, the overriding feel of it all is fiercely, hopefully resolute:
Consider the souls of the extinct creatures.
Suppose there are many universes, each one called into being at the slightest touch, an action no stronger than a flower? Suppose our galaxy and all the others, instead of drifting more and more slowly, reluctantly even, away from one another, with heavy hearts and a lingering backward glance, are instead speeding up, as if the process isn't a long drawn-out endgame but an excited rush toward something? As if the end itself could be the exciting goal, even if that something is the complete extinction of space and time?
Would there be anything left over?
The rush of the central paragraph here--the hurtle, the push, the not-knowing, the curiosity--somehow makes the imperative (Consider) and the final interrogative (Would there?) both less final, less conclusive than they might otherwise have been. And much of The Thin Place works just this way. There's an unsparingness, a refusal (if not an utter inability) to flinch, steeling some of Davis's lines: "One being sacrificed to make to make way for another." (Be sure you read "being" as a noun, as the thing that is sacrificed, not as part of the verbal phrase "being sacrificed.")

My favorite line from one of my favorite poems, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse-novel Aurora Leigh, is almost ridiculously simple: "Never flinch." I once organized the whole first page of a take-home exam so that that part-line would obtrude itself into my students' gaze right away and, ideally, would not let up until they'd taken it into themselves, even if they weren't aware of it. Something about reading Davis both early and late today is giving me a different (though still potentially pathetically fallacious) way to read the resolute springing of my landscape. The yellow flowers in my yard don't have the agency to stop or start their growth; the signals come, and they grow. The noon sun hits them, and they open. If I were to flash-photo them when I reached home in a little while, my images would be differently washed out than this last one you'll get from me tonight, but the center of their overexposure would be tightly closed buds, perhaps turned back, ever so slightly, to whatever vestige of warmth these stones may have caught and then started releasing over the course of the day. They may well get cut down when the next cold shudders in tomorrow evening--the high wind advisories are posted already--but then again, they might not. They've made it through one snow already, after all. And if they do die early, there won't necessarily be a legible reason or bigger meaning behind their being sacrificed--but now, due to Davis, I'm wondering whether something else might not have to be making its way in to take their place.