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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Midnight Swims: A Legacy

I am writing, I am writing. For the past few months I have been teaching, and slipping in a little writing now and then, but now I am reversing the schedule.
Writing loosely, freely. I was talking to a friend the other day about the blocks that come up, and how many of them have to do with the lack of time--wanton, wastable time. When I was young I never felt blocked at all. I had every night after the house went to bed to sit in my room with my black candles and my records and write poem after poem, then copy them with my quill pen, burn the edges of the paper and drip wax on them to make them look like ancient artifacts.  This took a lot of time, but it was time that passed without notice. 4 a.m., 5 a.m. Then the dawn, mine alone, the way any poet feels.
It was a deeply pleasurable way to be, and it is a muscle memory. After all these many years I have finally reproduced a scenario where I might feel like that again--a room of my own. I am not the first to point out the advantages of such a place for a writer. For the last 25 years I have longed for it. Now--it's here. A bed, a desk, a window. This has taken me back to my old ways.
Not burning parchment or using sealing wax--but writing in messy letters without my glasses on so I can't read or judge. Pressing into a story, then tossing all the crabbed pages aside and writing into it more truly and deeply. Wasted pages, wasted time. Daydreaming indolently. It takes this, to get down to it. It is the fun, the pleasure, when there is the time for it. The nervousness about not getting another chance lifts, and the notion of a writing block is as odd and quaint as it sounded to me when I was a teenager. How could that be? Words were a lazy river, plentiful, mine to dip into and walk away from, dripping. Completely natural.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Within, Christmas Without

I was talking to a friend today about Christmas. She only celebrates it vicariously. (She remembers one year going to a family friend's house with me where everyone was talking about the many men they knew who had slept with Grace Kelly. This is a Philadelphia story I have heard many times, and not a particularly credible or charming one.) We were discussing how there really is no comparable holiday, and no comparable set of memories or nostalgia. Is it the music? At school the practice for Christmas singing began early in the fall, the same at church. Did my lungs ache more from desperately practicing to be chosen to sing the descant parts in various carols or from all the hours of hockey? Too hard to pin down the essence of what makes Christmas the most piercing day. She said the high expectations, but that isn't applicable for me--yet I have Christmas heimweh to a degree hard to describe.  I miss it all year. I wanted my son's name to be Christmas (he was conceived on Christmas, so there was some justification for that, but the husband wasn't going there.) So here it is again. I've done a good job of making the house look a way that is lighted up enough for me. But the inner light is guttering wildly. There has been a lot of really painful loss this fall--two women I knew all my life who died just within the past two months, and recently a deep friend who is a death in life. What do you do with that at Christmas? What could possibly be the story I could tell myself that would light those losses bearably? The story of the birth of the baby Jesus? I am writing a story against the grief. It is a throwback, a linear narrative that believes in tragedy rather than irony. It believes in sad. I wouldn't say this is exactly an act of faith, to go ahead and make something, when I feel so unmade, so messed up. Heimweh, maybe. I am homesick for not knowing what will happen. I can't see Easter from here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Without Moving I Can See

candles shining in 5 windows
a stuffed gorilla
A Walking Tour of Asbury Park Map & Visitors Guide
three Chinese lantern slides
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
5 bottles of perfume
a black scherenschnitte picture of Lynchburg
a wedding photo (Morgan Le Fey dress)
a small aluminum Christmas tree from the '50s
a hand carved duck decoy
a Shaker child's chair
a diptych by Dahlia Elsayed
2 Japanese prints
one Japanese Otsu-e painting
a miniature dachshund
a glass of wine
a stuffed dog from Charles Kirby
a handcolored photo of the Coney Island boardwalk
5 Maine pine pillows
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
2 needlepoint pillows sewn by Margaret Adam
a Rubic's cube
a bottle of Klonopin
a woodcut of Chaco Canyon by Loren Batt
a pair of brown velvet slippers

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Rules

How often I think of the convent of San Marco in Florence and the Fra Angelico frescoes painted on one wall of each cell. From that memory, on to that life, one so constricted yet so rich in detail.  A cloister with dripping fountains, a kitchen garden with espaliered pear trees against the confining walls,  and the Divine Office: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. A wall beyond which lives a city, a town, a surrounding countryside, a world beyond reach, yet cared for through prayer.
I love the stories of wild women who became nuns so they might have freedom rather than marriage. The ecstacies and inventiveness, the intensity of the relationships, the mad midnight writings and recalibrations of sexuality, the teeth gritting obedience to the men who came along every so often to make sure the convents were shipshape.
Yet that is not the monasterial life I imagine. It is the Rule, the predictable passage of the body through time, the attempt to shape the mind. 
I am nearly finished cleaning up the room where I will write. It has taken all fall. The walls are grey, the shelves cherry, and the bed covered with an old postage stamp quilt. It's very small--only a couple of steps from one side to the other. I have a painting on the wall done by my mother, and a map of Mount Desert Island. A painting made for me by a friend, of the back of my head--the French braid I wore at my wedding.
When I lie in bed at night I often try to figure out how how many replications of my body it would take to fill the room. Even in such a tiny space, it is so many--thirty, at least. Maybe more.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Block Breaks: A Story

For most of her life she'd carried the print around in her wallet. She wished she could get rid of it, but every time she threw it out, another version of the same print materialized. There were variations in the density of the ink, in lightness and darknesses, but they'd each been pulled off the same block--a simple linoleum block cut into with a small curved blade. The image was fairly simple, but it had fantastical properties--a Rorshach inkblot with a pulse. Some saw a chasm, some a vortex, some a view to the unmapped universe, some a simple garden, some a golden door to heaven. She couldn't predict or control what anyone else would see in it. She would have preferred not to show it at all, but eventually anyone she got to know well wheedled it out of her. Oh that old thing! she said as they stared at it. I hate it but I can't seem to get rid of it. Some of them shrugged as they handed it back. Some of them looked at her funny, though. She told them to pay no attention and warned them about what the artist was up to. Sometimes they heard her. Sometimes they became so entranced by the print they couldn't stop staring at it. When this happened, she heard the artist laughing. 
Then, one day...one day.
The story backs up here, to the creation of the block itself. What a blunt, crude artist it was who carved it, an amoral artist, feelingless and merciless. No mature person would ever accept a piece of his work, but he could trick small children into it. Oh boy. He crept into her room one night and gave her the block.
Why did he come to her room? Because he knows when a child is vulnerable. He knows when the worst has happened. He knows his chance. His intention is purely and only to harm. I know--it is hard to believe there are such creatures. Yet not to believe in them is to be fooled by them. He was very pleased with himself when people who saw his work were afraid of it. That was all the payment he ever asked for.
Forward again.
One night decades after his first visit he crept into her room to do a little touch up work on the linoleum block. Some of the grooves had worn down over time from being pulled at for so long. He went to work, carving and cutting away, and when he was satisfied that she'd get a few more years of prints off of it, he handed her the block again. But this time he'd miscalculated. She looked the artist straight in the eye. Yes, you have harmed me enormously, I'll give you that, she told him. But now I see--how very banal it is. There's nothing here at all, see? She turned the block to him, and he blanched--for all of his markings had disappeared. Infuriated, he grabbed the block away from her and stomped it to bits. She opened her wallet: the print was gone.