These images are from a book called What You Know First –an achingly beautiful children’s book by Patricia MacLachlan, with engravings by Barry Moser. For those of you out there with children, this is a feast for the heart and soul, as well as the eyes – a story about a family who must leave their farm, and the young daughter that narrates, who does not want to leave. For those of you without children who love engravings, and masterful storytelling, this is simply brilliant. Moser engraved his images using Resingrave, a synthetic wood engraving medium that is manufactured here in California. The snapshots I’ve taken above do not begin to bring out the exquisite detail present in each and every engraving.
This is such a hauntingly poetic book; it spills out a life mostly untold, while simultaneously allowing us, the readers, to engage deeply in the loss this family is experiencing, through its beauty, and through the whispering of the open land that these images capture. I am from the midwest…I’ve secretly, and not so secretly, longed for a farm in my life since I can remember…and as I read this (which I do often) I can so vividly remember the open fields surrounding our sweet home, the sound of the wind moving through the tall meadow grasses, the big bold skies, the endless plain. My children, however, were born (and are being raised) in Los Angeles, and yet, they love this book as much as I do…a testament to the depths that this spare book brings to the reader with such simplicity and grace.
This book would make for a marvelous gift, and with Christmas coming up, you might just buy one for that special someone, and one for yourself :)
Lately I’ve been thinking about space, about how wide open, uninterrupted space in nature affects the human body on the atomic level. I know how wide open space affects me emotionally and psychologically – but how about physiologically?
For the past few years, I have had deep physical yearnings for the expanse of nature. More than yearnings really – more like an overwhelming, powerful, need. This photograph was taken by me on a solo camping trip I took this past spring, in the beautiful wilds of the Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree – one of my favorite places on earth. The open space here is absolute…seemingly endless, and with that space comes the amazing, restorative, beautiful hum, of silence…which, of course, is never really silent. For in silence we hear the surrounding world; perhaps the call of a bird, the movement of wind, an acorn falling, the clap of thunder, the patter of rain, the airplane passing overhead. But without exception, the one thing we are always certain to hear in the truest of silence, is our breath, the inspire and expire of it…the essence of life itself, as we pull the invisible history of earth into our bodies, thus connecting us to the space and time that surrounds.
Perhaps it is the reminder of this connection, of this interactive give and take, that my very life is connected to the space around me, that pulls me to exist for awhile – as often as I can – in the open, vibrating, uninterrupted expanse of the natural world, and the silence that this allows. Perhaps my need has to do with living in a major metropolitan city, where the noise and bustle constantly presses closer to one’s everyday experience…perhaps it has to do with my upbringing in the midwest, living in a house set on several acres in the wood, a pond in the backyard, deer, fox, geese, ducks, muskrat, pheasant our regular visitors, room to roam, dirt roads, agate hunting, open fields all around…perhaps I am simply longing for my origination, to interact with the natural world as I did as a kid, when I was being formed. Perhaps it is simply our natural state of being.
The human body is made up of 99.9% nothing. There is no solid matter. We and other matter are almost entirely empty space, as we are made of atoms, and atoms themselves are almost entirely empty space…so, this gets me to thinking that perhaps, on the deepest level of our human experience, our very atoms yearn for – or at the very least, are affected by – the body’s physical surroundings, and when we place our body in the center of the Grand Canyon, or in a wide open meadow, or the depths of a forest, our atoms actually respond to this splendor, as they revel, and meld into the vastness of natures expanse.
I am certainly no physicist, atomic or otherwise, and I was unable to unearth any probings into this line of thinking in my quick search online…but if I am asking this question, I am certain someone else out there has probably asked as well, or perhaps is studying this now. I would be very interested to know – so if anyone out there knows anything about this field of study – please do send me a link :)
For now, what I do know is that open space, silence, the natural world, feeds my spirit, my body, my soul – and without the canyons, fields, ocean and its endless shoreline, the mountains, its trails, the lakes, desert, and mind-opening beauty of our natural parks…all here in this magnificent, glorious, state called California – I would be physically unable to live here. For open space that feeds the soul, feeds the creative spirit, and without that food, how would I ever create.
One of the greatest things about having kids is that they consistently teach us precisely and exactly what we need to be reminded of. Patience? No one will remind you of your need to instill patience in your life, your practice, your being, as a child will. Living in the moment? One moment, your child can be throwing a tantrum, angry at their sibling with a fury, and the next moment, they are happily playing with each other – the episode, forgotten. Simple pleasures? Ice cream is about as simple as it gets, and talk about joy! :)
How about Fear? This is my son, Orion. He is 9 years old – reminding me about the rewards of what it means to look your fear in the eye, and Do ItAnyway. This is his first time “dropping in” into one of the large pools at the skatepark. He stared that drop in the eye for a couple weekends, unable to let go of the edge…and then, on this bright sunny Sunday morning, he let go…
…and it was smooth sailing, his muscles remembering just what needed to be done, as they had done each and every time he had dropped into the shallower pools before. It was a proud moment for him – and for my husband and I, as we watched and cheered him on. These “small” (though never small at the time) advances are so deeply deeply important for our forward progression – they are the training ground for us to conquer our larger leaps. In yoga, this is the “vinyasa” – the step by step process that moves us forward, and deeper into our own pursuits. And the cool, amazing thing about this process, of moving into something, one step at a time, is that it allows us to develop our very own contemplative practice – a practice that requires our full attention, intention, dedication, and “present” self. Of the many gifts that this kind of practice brings, one of the most wonderful is that it allows the very essence of who we are, to expand, to grow in awareness, patience, and compassion… as we are kind to ourselves, and to others, during those moments that we attempt to leap our hurdles, and fail.
Whether our challenge is physical – like dropping down a nearly 90 degree carved slope made of concrete (like my son did), or emotional – like presenting your novel to the world for the first time (as I am preparing to do) – the initial act can be a scary proposition. What if I fall and break my body into pieces? What if I publish my book and no one reads it? or likes it? or is affected by it? These are understandable fears, normal even. But if we allow ourselves to be ruled by them, to be stopped before we even try, then we allow fear itself to have the power – and of course, this hurts no one more, than ourselves. So here’s to doing it anyway :)
……There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting. – Buddha
In honor, and celebration, of Alice Munro receiving the Nobel Prize for literature (!), I pulled out one of her books last night and read The Progress of Love (the title story from the book The Progress of Love). It is so hopeful for me, to see a writer that explores the minutiae of the human experience…the everyday, simple, complex, experience of relationships: of living, loving, aching, wanting, wondering…to see that writer recognized for the necessity of this work by being bestowed with this highest honor.
Munro’s kind of narrative has fallen out of favor it seems, replaced instead (in our country in particular) by more “exciting” works that focus on driving plots, action, events. And while I do enjoy, on occasion, books like these, they will never transport me the way these quieter fictions can, and do. Munro often reminds me of Eudora Welty, one of my favorite writers of the short story form. Both women have the incredible gift of being able to present a fully formed picture of the life within their characters: their minds, their hearts, their faults…and yet leave so much left unsaid, and un-examined, at the same time. In lieu of answers, their stories provide windows, open doors, so that the story may continue long after the final word has been read, allowing it to live on inside the reader. And what better gift can a writer give, than that?
…an excerpt from The Progress of Love:
My father did not stand in the kitchen watching my mother feed the money into the flames. It wouldn’t appear so. He did not know about it – it seems fairly clear, if I remember everything, that he did not know about it until that Sunday afternoon in Mr. Florence’s Chrysler, when my mother told them all together. Why, then, can I see the scene so clearly, just as I described it to Bob Marks (and to others – he was not the first)? I see my father standing by the table in the middle of the room – the table with the drawer in it for knives and forks, and the scrubbed oilcloth on top – and there is the box of money on the table. My mother is carefully dropping the bills into the fire. She holds the stove lid by the blackened lifter in one hand. And my father, standing by, seems not just to be permitting her to do this but to be protecting her. A solemn scene, but not crazy. People doing something that seems to them natural and necessary, and the other believes that the important thing is for that person to be free, to go ahead. They understand that other people might not think so. They do not care.
“The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” (taken from an article in the New York Times). This sums up the vast, endless territory from which Munro draws from to construct her stories. And we are the lucky recipients.
I just finished reading Becoming Abigailby Chris Abani – a beautiful, harrowing little book that tumbles through the readers ears like music, and rakes over the heart like nails. I read this in one sitting, while soaking in the tub after my family had gone to sleep (my favorite…and mostly, only, time to read:).
As Abani’s language danced through my mouth (I read many passages out loud – this book screams to be heard, like so many of Virginia Woolf’s books do…I highly recommend you do the same) I could hear the influence of jazz in his writing. Abani is not only a writer of books, he is also a poet, and a talented jazz musician. (He often begins his readings with his saxophone; I also heard him read once with a full band behind him…definitely get out and hear him if you can). The way he assembles language is often percussive; it pops and hops, leaps unexpectedly…“And even light can become dirty, falling sluggish and parchment-yellow across a floor pitted by hope walked back and forth, the slap of a slipper on concrete echoing the heat gritting its teeth on the tin roof, the sound sometimes like rain, other times like the cat-stretch of metal expanding and contracting” (p. 31). …and then flows into the languid river of softness, like a breath…“She dipped her finger in the pool of him and brought it to her lips. The salt of him. The sum of him. There is no way to leave anything behind. She soaked her hands in him. Brought them wet and shiny in the sunlight to her face. Smeared. But water is just that. Nothing left behind but the prickle of his evaporation and the faint fragrance of loss.” (p.. 84)
Abani is a consumate wordsmith, and this book is a showcase of his deep love for language itself. As I read, I often felt like I was chewing my way through Abigail (the story’s tragic heroine), consuming her, along with her strength and despair – which was perfectly fitting, because Abigail herself, is chewing her way through her own life, through her horrifying existence, her thread-bare hopes, her painful losses.
I love that language can be used as timber – solid hard wood splayed out on the page in the shape of words. I do not find anything ethereal about writing; to me it is the hard work of hammering down beam after beam – the same as an architectural scaffold, a skeletal structure built and constructed in order to house occupants – and in the case of literature, those occupants are words. Words tell story, they create picture, they transport us through time and space; they evoke feeling, pathos, ethos…Becoming Abigail has done all of these things, with great artistry, skill, and humanity. A beautiful read.
*check out the above links, one will bring you to the book (Becoming Abigail) and the other will bring you to an interview with Abani where he discusses his history of imprisonment as a boy and young man while living in Nigeria, for challenging the “establishment.”
These are the immortal words of my Dad, forever reminding his kids, all 6 of us, to remember what is important and to keep our attention on that! Simple words, loaded with wisdom – and words that have helped me repeatedly, time and time again, to return my focus to the task at hand.
Lately, for many months now…(all right, let’s just call it like it is – YEARS now, it’s been YEARS) my “prize” has been the completion, and publication, of my first novel – The Burden of Light. I have my Dad’s words posted on my corkboard in my writing room, and whenever I feel myself getting impatient, or forlorn, or downright filled with despair over the amount of time this book has required from me – I roll those words around my tongue, swallow them whole, feel them tumble down my esophagus and spill into my stomach where they begin to digest, nourishing me, filling me with the fortified strength needed, so that I might continue on…
…and on I do, upward and forward, I write, and on I write.
I recently stumbled on this photograph, taken on a summer trip past, and I thought – That’s It! That’s how I feel! Like I’m staring up into the depths of a towering climb, and there are no ropes, no notches or ledges, nothing to show me I am headed in the proper direction, to guide me, and deliver me, home…
…but of course there is…there is patience. there is language. there is dedication…and determination. there is silence.
When we writers begin to listen to our characters, to listen to the story they have for us to tell – we come to realize that they are the rope that pulls us forward, they chisel the notches for us to find our way home. It is our job to be still enough, open enough, patient enough, and quiet enough, to hear them.
Tara Ison, my wonderful first mentor at Antioch University Los Angeles, where I received my MFA in Creative Writing, gave the commencement speech for our graduating class, and she reminded us to never forget the importance of staring out a window. “A great deal of my writing happens without a pen or paper anywhere nearby” she told us, and I couldn’t agree more. Silence, letting the mind run free, invokes the spirit of creativity; it is an open invitation to our “mysterious possibles” to step inside our room…so that we may listen. So here’s to all you writers out there…find a window and take a peek, your stories are patiently waiting :)
* (an aside: speaking of Silence, please do check out this wonderful podcast from the brilliant radio show On Being, with Krista Tippett – it’s called “The Last Quiet Places” by Gordon Hempton…it is certain to make you want to “listen”)
Please share experiences of your writing life! Mantras, favorite walking places, special cocktails! :) I’d love to hear from you.