30 March 2007

Lost words and found turtles

I'm not going to dwell on the fact that I just spent over an hour writing a post, inspired by my hectic and slightly insane recent travel schedule, about ground stops and snowstorms and airports and hotels and thinking of the beauty expressed by Ezra Pound's In the Station of the Metro and the gloom of riding the PATH into the WTC station on a cold, dark rainy night. Although still in draft, I thought it was very good. But IE just bombed on me and I lost it all before I could hit 'SAVE'. But I won't regret it's loss; I had fun writing it and maybe I'll recreate it soon. Maybe it will even be better than the first attempt.

It's Spring here and I've been shut indoors for too long. It's glorious listening to the birds chirp, to see the wildflowers starting to bloom, to be able to arrive home from work in the evening while there is still time for a walk or a bike ride before or after dinner.

I rode about 5 miles this evening. The air smelled new. Some children were trying to pick up a large old turtle from the trail and put him back near the water. Two laughed with joy, one screamed in terror. The poor turtle just stayed in his shell, maybe glad to have been rescued from the edge of the road, but still uncertain if the kids were an okay trade-off. The water has receded from the flood of a few days ago. And suddenly most of the trees have small leaves just starting to unfurl. Being able to enjoy this Spring weather is fun!

I used to have an acquaintance, a very wise and humorous man, who would frequently ask me what I had done recently for fun. I would sometimes avoid him because I wouldn't have an answer. It took me awhile to realize that he wasn't trying to put me on the spot, but rather was making a subtle point that I should be doing something for me, something that was fun, joyous, a means of recreation. He was wise -- and I was a bit more foolish than I am now.

I've been thinking about that a lot recently, about how important it is to laugh and enjoy rather than to gripe about little things that don't make a difference in the long term. Like having fun when you're snowed in somewhere although you'd rather be home despite being in one of the greatest cities in the world. Like enjoying a late afternoon bike ride in early Spring. Wanting to tell the children to leave a turtle alone, yet remembering the thrill of finding turtles near creeks when you were a child and remembering how reclusive and mysterious they were.

What about you? What have you done for fun lately? I hope you've found a few minutes to be joyous, to be grateful, to enjoy a few minutes of early Spring sunshine, even if it's raining (or even if it's early Fall where you are located).

24 March 2007

Little Cat Feet, With The Ferociousness of a Mountain Lion

The fog comes/ on little cat feet
-- Carl Sandberg

Sandberg was correct: fog can be stealthy, like a cat, quietly moving in, hovering for a short time, then, uninterested, moving on. But not always.

The fog this evening came with the roar of the flooded creek, as if the sound of the rushing water was made as the stream released molecules into the air. Freed by the transformation, the fog kept up with the water's flow, tumbling downstream, swirling around the branches in counterpart to the water's eddies around the lower trunks. Elsewhere, in small, quieter pools on newly swamped banks, it lingered, hovering over loose leaves and branches, beer bottles, an old shoe, and other detritus loosened from the mud to be cast ashore further downstream.

I was standing on my drive, looking at the daffodil blooms, recent additions with the warmer weather, when I looked south across the road. At first I thought there was a fire in the woods, that the fog was smoke billowing along the greenway trail. As I hurried towards it, I realized that it was both to the east and the west in thick patches that obscured the road. As I neared the banks I realized that much of the trail was underwater and that the creek -- in summer shallow and calm enough to cross by stepping on a few large rocks -- had breached its banks and was almost to the road.
I sat on a portion of the trail still above the water's edge, but close enough to feel that it was just a little dangerous. A misplaced foot in the mud might have landed me too close to the water, but I not only wanted to snap these photos, but also to feel the power of the water flowing quickly. An out-of-place, bright orange construction fence, not removed after the trail was completed in late fall, was the only marker of where the bank usually is. A pair of ducks stood on a narrow hump of land around a tree. The female was distressed. Her nest, once thought safe near the tree, must have been underwater. As a new batch of fog neared me, I could feel the change in the air temperature. The cloud was preceded by an earthy smell of mud, fish, water. My skin tingled as the fog surrounded me on its journey downstream. I was awed by this phenomena of nature, refreshing as being caught in a sudden summer storm.

"Water is the most corrosive element there is," a plumber told me once. At the time, I didn't understand the wonder in his statement.

Corrosive. Powerful. Swift. Awesome.

16 March 2007

Musing about Museums...and a poem inspired by an artistic muse

A few days ago Bloglily wrote a wonderful travelogue about the Getty Museum. I commented on her blog that I felt like I had visited two museums that day -- her virtual tour of the Getty and my in-person tour of an Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant Guard exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. (see here for info on the exhibit).

I agree with BL that museums can be tiring. I love going to museums, but I've learned that I enjoy them more if I go with the intent of only seeing a few things. That is why I only saw the exhibit at the AIC, although I have to admit that had the Chagall windows, one of my favorites at the AIC, been in place, I would have had to sit for a few minutes in front of them. They are in storage now during renovations and won't be back for several more months. It is jarring walking by where they have been for years and not seeing them.

When looking at the permanent collection in a museum, I like to let the art just wash over me. You can't do that with too many works; it causes one to shut down in a defensive move against emotional overload. But, when I go to an exhibit, I like to listen to the audio presentation and read the exhibit notes. I find the background information interesting. I like to understand the curator's point of view, to learn what informs the exhibit, what are the unifying forces in the collection, whether it be a certain theme, a particular artistic movement, a cultural or political movement. I was a little disappointed in the audio tour for this particular exhibit. I felt that it was really dumbed down and did little to indicate why these particular works were illustrative of Vollard's choices and subsequent influence on the modern art world. Why did he choose to promote certain artists? Were his choices based on his taste or was he just pragmatic? For the works that he chose not to represent, but were later considered masterpieces, why did he not choose them initially? The exhibit didn't explore these questions to my satisfaction and I thought that the audio tour made the assumption that the listener only wanted sound bits, not additional information. Nevertheless, I did enjoy looking at some of the amazing works of art in the exhibit. To think that one man was lucky enough to have had all of those works pass through his hands is amazing. I wish I could have understood more though about his choices.

One of the topics in the exhibit was Vollard's commissioning of lithographs and illustrated manuscripts. I could spend time walking through an exhibit focused on just these items. One of the series of lithographs that caught my attention and held me entranced for several minutes was by Maurice Denis. Called Amour, it is a series of lithographs that Denis considered a visual love poem. The lithographs were beautiful, but I was also captivated by the titles of each piece. I thought they made a poem themselves. The image at the top of this post is one of the lithographs, the one below was the cover for the series. What follows is a poem I wrote based on the titles. It wasn't my intent when I started, but I think that the speaker in my poem has a more cynical attitude than the attitude Denis portrayed in his visual poem.

We all know the allegory
of easy attitudes,
chaste as morning bouquets
with the scent of tears like dewdrops,
with a faith in mysteries of knights
who do not die on crusades
in the twilight of soft old paintings.
She was morning beautiful,
more beautiful than dreams,
a caress of her hands languorous
gestures touching your soul.

Her hands, reaching across the table
holding an empty tea cup of love.
Too soon life becomes precious.
Too late we discover the many bouquets
of tears have chased the liquid-silver light,
sitting on a pale silver sofa,
a painted dream of floral chintz against wallpaper
and slanting walls of fading night.

We are too restrained once we learn
the heart beats too fast towards the end of day.

If you're interested, here are the titles of the works in Denis' series: Allegory; Attitudes are easy, and chaste; The morning bouquet, tears; It was a religious mystery; The knight did not die on the crusades; Twilights have the softness of old paintings; She was more beautiful than dreams; And it is the caress of her hands; Our souls, with languorous gestures; On the pale silver sofa; Life becomes precious, retrained; But it is the heart which beats too fast.

06 March 2007

Book (Ab)use, My history of

Dorothy posted about book abuse, referencing an article in the New York Times Book Review. Reading her post & the comments led me to thinking about how I have treated books in my life and what the physical presence of books means to me.

I have always loved to read books but I haven't always had hundreds of books surrounding me. When I was a child, I would sometimes look at the books my mother had in a small case in her bedroom. I can only remember three: a poetry anthology with a pearly pewter binding and bright turquoise lettering, a book about Pope John XXIII, and a memoir about a widower with a very large family. I used to visit the bookshelf, half expecting something new, but there never was. Magazines would float in and out of the house, seeming to arrive on their own, but books had a presence, a sense of sitting on the shelf from the start of time. They were hallowed items, seldom held in one's hand. They were almost as untouchable as the glass figurines on the living room coffee table.

Then one day they arrived: the Readers' Digest Condensed books. The brown faux-leather bindings lined a new shelf in the living room. Three or four appeared at the same time, a new one following every few months thereafter. They looked serious to a 8-year old, awed by four entire books bound together in one. I used to touch them gracefully, imagining that I could feel the words beneath my fingers.

A few years later I started to read some of them. I had to request permission at first, approval that the book was suitable for me. "I can't keep you from reading that first one", my mother would say, "but you don't tear pages out of a book. I better not catch you." And I had to promise that my hands would be clean and that I wouldn't mess the pages.

That was okay for the first volumes. Many of the books didn't hold my attention beyond the first 10 pages. But, then one day, one arrived that I knew wouldn't be allowed. I would have to sneak-read Love Story. And sneak I did, every day after school, for about 15 minutes before my older sister or my father came home, I would take a flash light and that volume and read in the back of a coat closet. I would be careful to not bend a page, to not break the spine -- tell-tale signs that I had read the contraband material. Mostly, I was confused by the book. What did Ollie mean by calling his father a sob? That he cried a lot? That didn't seem right. But, I finished the book, envious that my older sister had been able to see the movie and almost giving my secretive reading away by trying to correct her on plot points.

I continued to read other Condensed Books and to peruse the shelves expecting other new books to arrive. James Mitchner's book Centennial was published and was a R.D. Condensed choice. I knew it must be important because there was only one or two other books in the volume, not the usual four or five. I gobbled it, loving every word. I told my mother daily for weeks that it was the best book I had ever read, recommending that she read it right away. I'm not sure that the book ever moved far from the coffee table, my mother always exhausted at the end of a long work day. Books she read would sometimes slip from her hands as she started to nod. She was always upset later that she might have dropped the book and "ruined" it.

Then, two things happened that made me realize that these treasured books were not the 'real' thing. One day I overheard my father referring to someone as an S.O.B. An SOB? A sob! Just like Ollie's dad. I knew what the abbreviation meant; it meant that kids weren't suppose to know about it. I realized that something wasn't right in the book -- there were shorthand words in a book, just like parents used. Soon thereafter I was at the mall with a friend. We passed a display of Mitchner's Centennial. I realized that it was three times the length of the Condensed version. What had I missed?! Not only did my family not have many books but the ones they did have were not quite books, not quite truthful to the intent of the author, I thought. I never read a Readers' Digest book again.

As soon as I started working in high school, I started making trips to the record store and the book store every payday. My knowledge of books, like music, was very limited. My budget was too. Vinyl was cheap -- a couple of bucks would buy a new album. Paperbacks were about the same, but they were more confusing to me. I knew what my friends were listening to, but they didn't offer reading suggestions. Each book I would buy was carefully chosen, taken home and carefully placed on my dresser or night stand. I would often hold the books, turning them over, paying attention to how the pages were stitched into the binding. I noticed how they looked and how they smelled. I read the front page copyright material. I read dedications in the front and colophons in the back. Every word was mine! I owned them. I treasured them! No longer having to be carefully of being found out for having a book I shouldn't have read, I still gingerly held each book as I read it.

A turn-of-events: I wandered upon a used book sale. Miles and miles -- the whole mall -- of tables of books. I had never seen so many books for sale before in one place. I kept picking up books, until I couldn't hold any more. One of the vendors gave me a box. I filled that up. And that was the start of my library. 50 books for less than 20 dollars (an enormous amount for my earnings). As I looked through each I realized that there was a reason that they looked so dogeared. These were obviously books that had been read, underlined, passages read aloud to others, pages turned down, highlighted, underlined, fondled. They had character. They had been read. And they were beautiful.

I think I stopped caring then about breaking book bindings or turning down corners. I like to take a paperback and fold the back cover behind the front as I'm reading. If I'm reading a hardcover, I have to remove the dust jacket so I don't mangle it. Rarely do they find their way back to the volume, usually landing on the bookshelf for awhile, later to be discarded. I read with a pen in my hand. I outline my thoughts and reactions in the margins, as if leaving notes to a future me who will re-read the book. My husband frequently comments about how I will break a binding. It never gives me pause. I will continue to do so. When I read a book, it conforms to my hands physically, as my brain tries to bend with or around what I am reading.

My books are treasures. I have them in every room of my house. There is always one or two in my car or my office. I like having books. I like the physical presence of them. But they are meant to be read, not to sit as an object d'art. A few years ago because of extensive water damage, I had to dispose of a book collection of about 1000 books. Seeing them piled into trash bags and thrown into a dumpster was heart-wrenching. I miss having many of the volumes. Sometimes I will think of something from a book and want to re-read a passage. Before, I could go to my library shelves, find the work, and lose myself in its pages. I miss that ability, but I don't miss the essence of the books that remain in my memory.

Turning pages, breaking spines, leaving coffee cup stains on the cover? Is that book abuse? Not in my book. A book can be written in, have its binding broken; it can be lost, mutilated, or destroyed by a flood. But, if it has been read, it isn't really gone. Book abuse is having books on shelves like sacred objects, like museum pieces on display. Book abuse is being concerned about the ideas in a book being too dangerous to introduce. Book abuse is worrying about the turned down page or the coffee cup ring, instead of opening your mind to the beautiful ideas of the words between the broken spine.