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July 2014

Tangles and threads

Machiko Agano

From Eudora Welty's On Writing:

"Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.

Machiko Agano

“Both reading and writing are experiences -- lifelong -- in the course of which we who encounter words used in certain ways are persuaded by them to be brought mind and heart within the presence, the power, of the imagination."

Machiko Agano

Machiko Agano

"We do need to bring to our writing, over and over again, all the abundance we possess. To be able, to be ready, to enter into the minds and hearts of our own people, all of them, to comprehend them (us) and then to make characters and plots in stories that in honesty and with honesty reveal them (ourselves) to us, in whatever situation we live through in our own times: this is the continuing job, and it's no harder now than it ever was, I suppose. Every writer, like everybody else, thinks he's living through the crisis of the ages. To write honestly and with all our powers is the least we can do, and the most."

2004_50a

2004_50d

The images here are by the Japanese installation artist Machiko Agano. Born in Kobe and trained as a weaver at the Kyoto City University of Arts, she hand weaves her site-specific sculptures using a wide range of materials, including silk, bamboo, and fishing wire.

"I am attracted by the mysterious shapes of nature," she says, "patterns made by the wind on desert sands; shapes of eroded rocks on coastal shores; clouds driven scross the autumn sky. This is my art: the exploration and expression of the fundamentals of nature."

Machiko Agano


The spaces we create with words

Tilly beneath the old oak

"A kind of writing solely meant for a public forum," said Harold Brodkey, "is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of address, in the tone of the language -- where the address is new and as if in private. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone. There’s a very complicated idea that lies behind the notion of the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. It’s an idea that has to do with language being actual, being temporal and spatial, to be Kantian about it. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language is no actual physical space, but it should carry the implication of a physical-social location.

Limbs and leaves

"If you’ve been to a large Edwardian house," Brodkey continues, "you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs -- not a formal, large room where you can carry on, but one where you can sit and talk. It’s where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he’s arrived at such a large house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there’s no tinge of social class in it whatsoever.

"Jane Austen’s writing suggests a drawing room sort of space; Hemingway’s, on a bar stool or in a club car -- it changes, he’s complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn’t based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space thing too drastically and is churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway . . . No order in it at all."

Tilly, notebooks, oak

I want to create a public space in my writing that looks something like this: sun-dappled grass beneath a fairy tale oak...with a flash of modern steel running behind it.

Or else one consisting of mis-matched chairs gathered 'round the kitchen table in an old country house, the pearly light of dawn streaming in, coffee freshly poured, and a black dog dozing by the hearth.

Notebooks in the grass

What would you like the public space created by your writing or art to look like...?

Tilly


What places make of us

Tilly and the oak elder

After finishing Olivia Laing's To the River, in which the author walks the River Ouse from its source to the sea, my next re-reading project is to revisit two of my favorite books about walking -- Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane -- before moving on to another first-time read: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

What better time of year could there be for walkers' tales of holloways, hedgerows, green roads, ghost roads, pilgrim ways and nights under the stars? Every time I ramble through the woods with Tilly my feet want to carry me on and further on, the flag of her tail waving jauntily ahead...until I catch myself succumbing to the "rapture of the pathway," stop, give a whistle, and turn for home; work must be done and life attended to, as the clocks tick tock, and the telephone rings, and nevermind how sweetly the sun filters through the trees, nevermind, nevermind. Come along, dear girl. We must away.

Woodland path

But in my imagination, we don't turn back, we keep on climbing through ash, old oak, thickets of holly, tall stands of pine, while the little woodland grows large around us, becoming a proper forest now, and the trail and the tale wind on and the tree tops shiver and the story begins:

Once upon a time....

Woodland path

"I have long been fascinated," writes Robert Macfarlane, "by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place, and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thoughts, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.'

"As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded by its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places -- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us.

"For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? and then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"

Old oak

Yes, those are, indeed, the right questions....but I'm troubled by Macfarlane's use of the word "vainly." What precisely can he mean by this? That the question is a narcissistic one, with its assumption that the land gives a toss about us? Or that it's a question asked in vain, to which we will never have an answer? 

It's my belief that the second question can be answered, for it is possible to have a conversation with the landscape and to hear (at least to the degree we are capable of hearing) what the land around us has to say. Art is one time-honored way to facilitate such a dialogue; another, used by animist cultures around the globe, is through sacred rituals specifically designed to mediate between the human and nonuman worlds. The conversation requires a relationship with the landscape...and patience, time, the ability to truly listen, and a certain humility...but there's nothing extraordinary or supernatural about it. Young children talk to the land instinctively. It's only as adults that we forget.

"Tell me the landscape in which you live," said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset,  "and I'll tell you who you are."

His quote is written in gold on my studio wall, for it sums up everything I write and paint.

Hiding in plain sight


Tunes for a Monday Morning

With so much conflict and sorrow in the world right now, I'm going to start the week with the heart-centred music of Mali, which has a very long tradition of using songs and musical rhythms in support of physical, spiritual, and cultural healing.

Above: "kakKar," peformed by the great Boubacar Traoré, from Kayes in western Mali. His songwriting is rooted in the traditional music of the Mande cultural region mixed with influences ranging from Arab music to American blues.

Below: "Wassiye," performed by Habib Koité (and his band, Bamada), who comes from a long line of Khassonké griots in western Mali. He grew up listening to his paternal grandfather play the kamele n’goni, a traditional four-stringed instrument, and developed his distinctive guitar style (tuned to a pentatonic scale and played on open strings, like the kamale n'goni) while accompanying his griot mother.

Above, "Tinki Hiiri" performed by Afel Bocoum (and his band, Alkibar), who comes from Niafunké, on the Niger River in central Mali.  Bocoum, of the Sonrai people, grew up with the se galarare style of traditional music, which he learn from his father, a performer of the njarka and njurkel (single and double stringed instruments). At only 13, Bocoum went on tour with his uncle, the legendary Ali Farka Toure, playing in his uncle's band for ten years before striking out on his own. Bocoum sings primarily in Sonrai, his native language, but also in Tamasheq (the language of the Tuareg) and in Fulfulde (the language of the Fula people).

Below: a gorgeous song in which 40 musicians from different parts of Mali, and different ethnic cultures, join together in a call for peace. The musicians involved include Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka Toure, Djelimady Tounkara, Toumani Diabate, Khaira Arby, Kasse Mady Diabate, Baba Salah,  Tiken Jah, Amkoullel, Habib Koité, and Afel Bocoum. The project was created by Fatoumata Diawara, a singer/songwriter who blends the Wassalou traditions of southern Mali with jazz, soul, and other international influences. Diawara was born in Ivory Coast, spent her youth in Bamako (Mali's capital city), and now lives in France.

Go here to read about griots in modern Mali, and here to read about the threat to this tradition in Islamist areas where music has been banned.

And last: East meets west in "Chamber Music" by Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Ségal (of Bumcello). Sissoko is the son of  the great kora player Djelimady Sissoko, and, like most musicians from the griot caste, began playing and performing at a very young age.  He comes from Bamako in western Mali. Vincent Ségal comes from Reims.

Kora

In addition to the musicians mentioned above I also recommend Yaya Diallo, Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté (father & son kora players), Bassekou Kouyate, Kokanka Sata, and the Tuareg music of Tinariwen and Tartit -- though there's so much good music coming out of Mali that it's  impossible to list it all.


The capacity for awe

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

From Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life:

"Too often, our capacity for awe is buried beneath layers of perfectly reasonable excuses. We feel we must protect ourselves -- from hurt, disappointment, insult, loss, grief -- like warriors girding for battle. A Sabbath prayer I have carried with me for more than half my life begins like this: 'Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles.'

"We cannot afford to walk sightless among miracles. Nor can we protect ourselves from suffering. [As writers] we do work that thrusts us into the pulsing heart of the world, whether or not we're in the mood, whether or not it's difficult or paintful or we'd prefer to avert our eyes. When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity. They turn away from the minutiae of their lives -- and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They enjoy surprise."

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

From Paul Bogard's The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light:

''Most days I live awed by the world we have still, rather than mourning the worlds we have lost. The bandit mask of a cedar waxwing on a bare branch a few feet away; the clear bright sun of a frozen winter noon; the rise of Orion in the eastern evening sky - every day, every night, I give thanks for another chance to notice. I see beauty everywhere; so much beauty I often speak it aloud. So much beauty I often laugh, and my day is made.

''Still if you wanted to, I think, you could feel sadness without end. I’m not even talking about hungry children or domestic violence or endless wars between supposedly grown men...but ‘you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you even seen,' said Rilke, 'you must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in it hand and will not let you fall.' ''

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

After five years on the flanks of Nattadon Hill, it is deeply familiar, and eternally surprising. Tilly and I never know what we might find: tall spires of foxglove flaming among the trees, badger prints pressed into the mud beside the leat, or a herd of wild ponies resting in the shade at the woodland's edge. Every day there are wonders, large and small. If I stayed inside intent on screen and keyboard, how would I see them? And if I numbed myself against sorrow and despair, how would I feel awe and joy?

Come, says Tilly, it's time to go out again, and she's always right. The world calls us, in all its dark and bright and sun-dappled shade. Full of hardship, yes, but also moments of magic: a quiet, daily, domestic kind of magic. A bright summer day, and a good dog at your side, and wild ponies in the woods.

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods


Solitude à deux

Books by Iris Murdoch

Dame Iris

In a fascinating chapter of her book To the River, Olivia Laing reflects on two literary marriages:

Iris & John"John Bayley and Iris Murdoch were married for 43 years, until her death in 1999, and for most of that time they lived in a sprawling and quite spectacularly filthy house near Oxford, where with a grand disregard for health and safety John dug a swimming pool in the greenhouse and heated it by dangling an electric radiator by its flex."

In the latter years of Murdoch's life, when her mind was ravaged by Alzheimer's, she took to "collecting pebbles and scraps of silver foil and asking again and again When are we going? The house -- a different house by now -- is filled in addition to its usual chaos with odd objects she's gathered on her excursions: dried worms, twigs, bits of dirt; the indiscriminate final mutation of a lifetime fondness for inanimate objects....

John & Iris at home in Oxfordshire

"This marriage, in which a clever and kindly man takes care of his more brilliant wife, bears a distinct resemblance to that of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who also lived rather sluttily. Virginia, Leonard once wrote, was a ferocious creator of what he called filth-packets: 'those pockets of old nibs, bits of string, used  matches, rusty paper-clips, crumpled envelopes, broken cigarette-holders, etc., which accumulate malignantly Virginia and Leonard Woolfon some people's tables and mantlepieces,' while Leonard himself had a marmoset call Mitz that regularly relieved herself down his back.

"Grubbiness aside, the resemblance goes deeper than the superficial similarity of trajectory, for all marriages must end in bereavement of some kind. Instead, it's something about the mechanics of the two relationships, for they each resemble delicate instruments that rely on careful weighing and judicious use of space. Both women were pulled in opposing directions throughout their lives: inward, toward the intense, almost febrile life of the mind; and outward, towards a melange of external love affairs and passions. Despite this both felt their husbands to be the steady centre of their lives, something I think [Martin] Amis had in mind when he wrote that Iris settled, in all senses of the word, for Bayley.

"These two couples nurtured a kind of fertile separateness, a solitude à deux that seems totally at odds with our modern concept of marriage. It is striking how frequently Virginia Woolf and John Bayley in particular write of the pleasure of writing alone in a room, knowing that somewhere else in the house, in their own private sphere, their spouse is also happily at work."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed

Roses at the window of Monk's House

Two Stories

Virginia & Leonard's home in London

I love the term solitude à deux. I find it deeply pleasurable, too, to be working in the blessed solitude of my studio while music drifts from Howard's cabin, which is just over the hedge from mine. As Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet (1929):

"The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky."

If you're interested in literary/artistic marriages and partnerships in all their permutations, I recommend Significant Others, an anthology of essays on the subject edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron.

The Little Cabin by the Wppds

The studio

The photographs just above: Howard's "Little Cabin by the Woods" (his office and theatre/music/puppetry rehearsal space), and my studio next door, reached through an opening in the hedge between them. Solitude à deux.

The other images in this post, starting from the top: Books by Iris, the Dame hrself, and two photos of Iris & John at home in Oxfordshire (the first one by Eamonn McCabe). Virginia & Leonard with their dog Pinka in their Tavistock Square house in London (which was destroyed during the Blitz); Virginia's writing shed in the garden of  Monk's House (their country place in Sussex); roses in the garden at Monk's House; the first book published by Leonard & Virginia's Hogarth Press; and Leonard & Virginia's earlier London home (where the Hogarth Press began).


Nature's gift to the walker

Dragonfly

Details from Unity by Marja Lee Kruyt

From To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing, in which the author walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea:

Unity by Marja Lee Kruyt"It was a day of uplift. Everything was rising or poised to rise, the mating dragonflies crashing through the air, the meadow browns clipping sedately by....

"I was getting into one of those trances that come from walking far, when the feet and the blood seem to collide and harmonise. Funnily enough, Kenneth Grahame and Virginia Woolf both wrote in praise of these uncanny states, which they thought closely allied to the inspiration writing required. 'Nature's particular gift to the walker,' Grahame explained in a late essay, 'through the semi-mechanical act of walking -- a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree -- is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -- certainly creative and supra-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it.'

"As for Woolf, she wrote dreamily of chattering her books on the crest of the Downs, the words pouring from her as she strode, half-delirious, in the noon-day sun. She compared it to swimming or 'flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this is churned up into a fine sheet of perfect calm happiness. It's true I often painted the brightest of pictures on this sheet: & often talked out loud.' "

Chattering her prose. I do that too. Thank heavens there's only Tilly to hear me as we roam the hills on these bright summer days.

To the River by Olivia Laing

To the River by Olivia Laing

ChatteringThe beautiful painting above is by my good friend and Chagford neighbor Marja Lee Kruyt.


In praise of re-reading

Re-reading May Sarton's Plant Dreaming Deep in the garden at Bumblehill

Over the last several months, I've been re-reading my old, dusty copies of memoirs, letters, and essays by women writers and artists -- works that I first encountered in decades past, when I was much younger. Returning to them now, I seem to be reading different books than the ones I remember -- although, of course, it's not the books that have changed with the passing of time but me. Vera Brittain's Testament of Experience and Testament of Friendship, Nancy Hale's The Life in the Studio, Dorothea Tanning's Between Lives, May Sarton's various memoirs,  Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswick Journals, essays by Carolyn Heilbrun, Susan Cooper, and Virginia Woolf' -- these were all written by women close to my current age, give or take a few years, so my dialogue with them now is a conversation of peers, not age to youth...and there are other differences as well.

Three books by May Sarton

In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton recounts the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature's beauty, and solitude. I first read her book in my early 30s when I, too, had just bought my first house: a 16th century cottage in a tiny village in rural England; and I, too, was deep in the work of renovation. My previous decade, like Sarton's, had been rootless and urban; I'd never lived any one place for long; and moving from New York and Boston to Devon was as complicated and impractical as it was romantic. I was single then, liberated from a long, confining early relationship; I was back on my feet after two cancer operations; and I was determined to re-build my life as I wanted, now that it was wholly mine again.

What Sarton's book gave me was validation of my decision to settle down and make a real home without marriage or children as my goal. Though life had changed for women between the time Sarton bought her first house in 1955 and I bought mine in 1992, it hadn't changed entirely. Single women were still quietly pitied for our presumed failure to find a mate, even those of us with rich romantic lives who simply enjoyed living alone. (I should mention that during the winters I shared a house in the Arizona desert, so although I valued my independence, I was hardly a hermit.) A colleague fretted that I was in danger of "turning into Virginia Woolf, " by which he meant an accomplished but dried-up old spinster -- oblivious both to my complicated love-life and the fact that Woolf had a long, close marriage. The idea of single women as either sexless or desperate was proving a remarkably hard one to shift.

Reading at Weaver's Cottage

Plant Dreaming Deep chronicles the reclamation of Sarton's farmhouse, the planting of its extensive garden, and the slow adjustment of an intensely intellectual woman to the seasonal rhythms of country life. The book is a celebration of the bittersweet virtues of solitude, independence, and self-reliance -- and yet Sarton, too, was not a hermit. Her life was amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings ... but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that it caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

Hamlet's Mother & Other Women, essays by Carolyn C. Heilbrun

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and the book was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own work after marriage and children and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden, not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer. Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this book, she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges in these pages is prickly, moody, often exasperating...and thoroughly human.

When I first read The Journal of Solitude, I appreciated its craft and intent -- in many ways it's a better book than the first -- but I was, I remember, dismayed by the strain of bitterness that runs all through it. I could not help but wonder: would the independence I deeply craved leave me this bitter at Sarton's age? As I finished the book, I felt obscurely let down, for it seemed to suggest that the price for a work-focused life was high indeed.

Journal of Solitude by May Sarton

Returning to Sarton two decades later, however, I see what I somehow failed to see before: The Journal of Solitude is not a book about the loneliness of the single life, it's a book about depression. This fact is so glaringly obvious that it's hard to fathom how I missed it back then...but at that time I didn't yet know the signs of long-term, clinical depression, whereas now I know them all too well due to a close family member who has suffered beneath its crushing weight.

And with this knowledge, I find myself reading an entirely different book this time, with different insights, observations, explications, and resonances. Instead of dismayingly bitter, Sarton comes across as irascible, yes, but also remarkably honest, tenacious, and brave, pushing through the grey clouds to return to the light not once but again and again. The pain that the poet is never quite rid of is no longer solitude's dark twin; it's the pain of the illness she is coping with, making her periods of solitude both necessary and healing.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle

Likewise, Madeleine L'Engle's four Crosswick Journals speak to me now as they never did before, written in a language of age and experience in which I've become more fluent.

When I read the first three books back in the mid 1980s (the fourth was not yet published then), I found the author's life interesting but alien: her glamorous parents, her international upbringing, her marriage to a Broadway actor and soap opera star, her children, her dogs, her homes in New York City and rural Connecticut...it was all so removed from the life I led as a struggling young writer/editor that we inhabited different worlds altogether, even though we actually lived within blocks of each other on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I read L'Engle's journals with a certain detachment, for other than our shared taste for fantastic fiction we seemed to have very little in common. I underlined a few choice passages about writing, then put the books back on the shelves. I kept them, but I had no urge to re-read them until this year.

Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L'Engle

I opened the first volume, A Circle of Quiet, expecting to re-read it with the same mixture of interest and distance, the same wide gulf between the author's focus (marriage, children, church) and mine. But L'Engle had changed in the intervening years; the very words printed on the page had changed; and yes, I know that is quite impossible but so it actually seemed to me, for now her books had much to say that I was finally ready to hear. 

A quarter of a century has passed; I am roughly the age that she was then; and, surprisingly enough, her life and mine are not so far very apart now. I, too, have an actor husband, a family, a house in the country, a shelf full of published books...all of it on a much smaller scale than L'Engle's, yet close enough to share similar concerns about juggling conflicting commitments to family, community, and creative work. My life took an unexpected turn when I married my husband and became a parent; now I come to these books from a whole new direction, through a door I could not even see, much less pass through, when I first read them. In this re-reading, it is only the third volume (a meditation on Christianity, and how L'Engle's faith intersects with her work as a writer) that I still read with my early detachment...and who knows? In another quarter century a door might open into that one too.

Between Lives by Dorothea Tanning and In the Studio by Nancy Hale.

Terry Tempest Williams and others

I am speaking here of books that reward re-visiting, revealing new aspects of themselves each time you return: Vera Brittain's fascinating, heart-rending memoirs; Virginia Woolf's brilliant diaries; Terry Tempest William's gorgeous books, falling somewhere between memoir and nature writing. (If I expanded this essay into fiction, then authors ranging from Jane Austen to Ursula Le Guin would certainly be mentioned here.)

Other books, however, remain stuck in time -- eloquent and profound at one stage of life, but stubbornly mute when you try to go back; the door that stood open for the person you were has slammed shut for the person you are. Anaïs Nin's diaries fall into that category for me -- so influential in my late 20s that it's no overstatement to say I would not be the woman I am without them, and yet I can no longer read Nin with that youthful hunger and uncritical pleasure. This doesn't diminish her work for me; the diaries remain a classic of the form, and they still have a place of honor on my shelves. But some books -- and it's different books for every reader -- seem to belong to a certain age, a certain stage of one's development. Re-reading them is an exercise in nostalgia rather than one of discovery, and although that has its pleasures too, it is a melancholy kind of pleasure, tinted the sepia of loss.

Every so often, however, I take Nin's diaries down from the shelves again, breathing in the scent of the young woman I once was. Perhaps one day a new door back into those books will stand ajar.

Anais Nin and others

"I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read," remarks a character in Italo Calvino's great novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, "but at every rereading, I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern?"

I'd say that it's both those things, at different times, for different books, for different readers.

Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot is an especially lovely tribute to the fine art of re-reading. "There are books," she writes, "that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree."

Italo Calvino, Rebecca Mead, and Patrcia Meyer Spacks

Patricia Meyer Spacks notes that the pleasure of re-visiting our favorite books is one of mingled familiary and surprise. "By definition, rereading reacquaints us with the familiar. It does so, often, by defamiliarizing. The book we thought we knew challenges us to incorporate fresh elements in our understanding. The book we loved in childhood provides delights we never anticipated. We thought we already knew what it was about, but now it tells us that it is about something else. As our memories inform our understanding, that understanding changes. We who love rereading love it for its surprises as well as for its stability." (I recommend her book On Rereading if you'd like to explore this subject further.)

"We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading,"  C.S. Lewis states provocatively in his essay "On Stories" (1947). "Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Til then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words."

Read it again, children demand when we close their favorite storybooks. Read it again. And again. And again. One reading is simply not enough.

As adults, many of us have a book (or books) that we've re-read not once but countless times ... and I suspect you can learn quite a lot about a person by finding out what it is. Working in the fantasy field, it's assumed that I'm a re-reader of The Lord of the Rings, but I hereby confess that I've read Professor Tolkien's great epic exactly twice: first in my teens and again in my twenties when I was commissioned to write about it. The book I've re-read so often that I've long lost count is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- which I didn't even particularly like on my first encounter as a sophmore in high school, but which has dazzled me with its clarity, depth, and wicked humor in every reading since. Re-reading the book in my 20s (thank you, Ellen Kushner!) was the key that unlocked its treasures.

Re-visiting old friends

Dream and Wishes by Susan Cooper

So let us praise the distinctive pleasures of re-reading: that particular shiver of anticipation as you sink into a beloved, familiar text; the surprise and wonder when a book that had told one tale now turns and tells another; the thrill when a book long closed reveals a new door with which to enter.  In our tech-obsessed, speed-obsessed, throw-away culture let us be truly subversive and praise instead the virtues of a long, slow relationship with a printed book unfolding over many years, a relationship that includes its weight in our hands and its dusty presence on our shelves. In an age that prizes novelty, irony, and youth, let us praise familiarity, passion, and knowledge accrued through the passage of time. As we age, as we change, as our lives change around us, we bring different versions of ourselves to each encounter with our most cherished texts.  Some books grow better, others wither and fade away, but they never stay static.

"No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities," writes Patricia Meyer Spacks, "but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.”

Do you feel guilty for re-reading? I never have -- just frustrated that this one short life is not nearly long enough for all the books that I want to read and re-read. Revisiting books over years, over decades, is a multi-layered experience that first-time reading can never match -- though it has, of course, pleasures of its own. Re-reading is a different art than reading, but not a lesser one.

So today, let us praise re-reading, since reading itself has less need of champions; let us praise old books that are dog-eared, creased, cracked, and marked by years of handling. New books are fine but give me old ones too: underlined, coffee-stained, hiding pressed flowers and old letters faded into illegibility, and containing the ghosts of the woman I was and the woman I will be, the next time I read them.

Let us praise re-reading, which only gets richer and deeper with age. Take heart, young readers. The best is still to come.

More old friends

Re-reading on the garden bench

In addition to the books mentioned above, I recommend Lisa Levy's essay, "The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading";  Anne Fadiman's charming anthology, Rereadings: 17 Writers Revisit the Books They Love; and Francis Spufford's memoir of a reading life, The Child That Books Built.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Thank you all for your kind, kind messages while I've been gone, which have touched my heart more than words can express. The "Life Stuff" that has been dominating my time is not quite over yet, but I'm going to try to post again, at least as often as I'm able to.

The songs today are for the bumblebees that gave our house its name, Bumblehill. And for bee lovers Amal El-Mohtar (author of The Honey Month) and Chagford fabric artist Angharad Barlow (creator of Sustainable Stylings and Atelier Bee).

Above: "Save the Bees" by the brilliant Anglo-Scots folk trio Lau, filmed in 2012.

Below: "The Hum" by the Yorkshire folk duo O'Hooley & Tidow, filmed earlier this year in Leeds.

Above: "Beekeeper" by singer-songwriter Aoife O'Donavan, from Boston, performing solo at McCabe's in Santa Montica last December.

Below: "Beeswing," performed by the Irish band Caladh Nua in in Castle Gurteen, Kilsheelan, Co. Tipperary, 2013. The song was written by the great Richard Thompson.

In the last video today, Andy Letcher (another Chagford friend) explains the inspiration behind his band  Telling the Bees. I highly recommend both of the band's CDs (with cover art by Rima Staines for an added bonus). Their lovely song "Telling the Bees" is not online, but you can listen to an equally lovely song, "Blackbird" here.

"Telling the bees" is an old English folk custom -- which many still practice today -- in which bees are kept informed of all significant events in family and village life.

Telling the Bees drawing by Rima StainesDrawing by Rima.

Tilly & Amal on Nattadon HillAmal with Tilly at the top of Nattadon Hill a while back. They've been good friends since Tilly was a pup. "We have, " Amal says, "each of us, a story that is uniquely ours -- a narrative arc that we can walk with purpose once we figure out what it is." (Tapping the Long Tale)

Atelier BeeAngharad in her beautiful bee coat. "The earth bee," she says, "enables the energy, spirit and ideas to exit the cloth, so that nothing can get trapped and the magic can flow in and around the wearer.