Stones in My Pocket:
On Grief, Change, and Myths of Death & Rebirth

A winter day in Devon


Winter

The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw


Van Wyk Louw's poem "Winter" has become a touchstone for me during the dark part of the year, for it reminds me not to measure my days by action and accomplishment only; it reminds me that life is also "served by rest," and that winter is the natural time for retreat, hibernation, and introspection. I seem to need a lot of rest these days -- obstensively because I am healing from an illness, but my spirit is in need of rest and healing too: of time in the dark, in the underworld of the psyche. It is winter. It is not yet time to bloom.

One year ago I was in Arizona closing down the Endicott West Arts Retreat, which was my last and longest home in the desert, and the final home of my American life. The closing of E-West was anticipated, planned for, and accomplished in the best possible way -- and yet I mourned its lost, and I've continued to mourn with each new season of the passing year. In folk wisdom it is said that the sharpest phase of grief must be weathered for a full year and a day, and I find this prescript strangely accurate, as though loss must be carried through all four seasons before its weight begins to lighten and life goes on.

 winter day in the desert

I didn't, however, expect to be quite so rattled that E-West had come to its end. "It's just a life change," I tell myself firmly, exasperated by the strength and persistence of the feeling. "You wanted to move to Devon full-time. For heaven's sake, no one has died."  

But, in fact, someone has died: the person I used to be in Arizona. My desert self. My younger self, who seems so different than the woman I am now, for she was physically stronger and thus quicker, bolder, In Arizona, 1990smore intrepid in adventure than I am today...if also less wise, less tempered, less steady: the gifts of age and experience. That young woman is inside of me, of course, but I am not her; I will never be her again; and packing up my last home in the desert brought me face to face with this "little death."

For many months I have carried the weight of loss like stones in the lining of my pocket -- stones rubbed smooth by handling -- finding comfort in their feel, their rattling sound, their familiarity. But eventually we must empty out our pockets, for life is full of these "little deaths" and if grief is left to accumulate, then the garment of our soul becomes threadbare, misshapen, and our spirit just as heavy as the stones. Death, as myth constantly reminds us, is not an end point but a station one passes through as life turns on the Great Wheel of renewal: each self (representing the stages of our lives) dies so that the next one can be born; death and birth, endlessly repeated. We can't move forward (with our lives, our art) without these endings, these little deaths, these acts of letting go, which create the space for new ideas and fresh momentum.

Saint Francis holding stones

In the mythological calendar, the passage from winter into spring is the perfect time for giving stones back to the earth. The Corn King/Year King/Winter King has died, and will be re-born with the greening of the hills: a virile young consort for the Goddess, his seed ensuring the land's fecundity...until he, too, withers with the dying of the year and emerges again next spring.

This ancient theme of an agricultural king who dies and regenerates each year is reflected in the traditional British folksong of John Barleycorn:

          
There was three men come out of the West

Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John's sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They've left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he's grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man . . .

(Read the full lyrics and hear the song here. )


Mythic scholars have linked John Barleycorn to Beowa (the Anglo-Saxon god of barley, grain, and agricultural), and to Byggvir (the Norse god of barley, grain, and the art of milling),  for similar stories of sacrifical death and resurrection are associated with all three figures.

Persephone by Virginia Lee

Persephone by Virginia Lee

One of the best known stories of death and re-birth is the Greek myth of Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility, and patroness of marriage. (Demeter's name derives from "spelt mother," spelt being an early form of wheat.) When Persephone is abducted to the Underworld by Hades (god of the dead), her mother's grief causes the seasons to stop, love-making to cease, and all living things to fail to grow...until Zeus intervenes and Persephone is returned, but only for six months of each year. The girl has eaten pomegranate seeds in Hell, binding her to Hades in the autumn and winter. Each spring, she returns to her mother, and the greening of the earth begins anew. 

The veneration of Demeter, Persephone, and the cosmic cycle of death and re-birth was at the core of the Eleusinion Mysteries, whose initiatory rites took place each year just as the crops were sown. Beginning in an old cemetery in Athens, the participants walked in procession all the way to Eleusis, stopping at certain places along the route to shout obscenities. (This was in honor of Iambe, an old woman who's earthy stories had made Demeter laugh during her season of sorrow.) In Eleusis, the initiates fasted for a day (as Demeter did during her period of grief), then broke their fast with a special medicinal brew of barley water and mint. Little is known about the final rituals as the participants (sometimes several thousands of them) gathered together in the sect's great hall, for it was strictly forbidden for such sacred things to be spoken of in public.

Demeter Mourning Persephone by  Evelyn De Morgan

Demeter, often pictured wearing a wreath of wheat or corn, has much in common with Selu, the Corn Mother of the Cherokee Nation, also associated with agriculture, fertility, and the sanctity of marriage. When her grandsons break a strict taboo and spy on Selu's mysteries, she tells them she will have to leave them and die -- but that even in death she will look after them, provided they restore the harmony they have broken by performing certain rituals. "Clear a circle of land in front of the house," she says. "Take my body and drag it seven time around the circle. Then you must keep watch all night and see what happens."

The boys follow their grandmother's instructions, and from the places where Selu's blood speckles the ground comes the very first crop of corn, a sacred food which is still an important staple of the People today. In some versions of the story, however, the lazy boys clear only a small piece of land, and drag Selu's body only twice around the circle, which is why corn doesn't grow everywhere and we must work hard to cultivate it.

Selu sculpture by Raymond Moose on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina

Many carnival celebrations around the world are rooted in older pagan rites honoring the passage from winter to spring:  anarchic, riotous affairs in which laughter and satire are given a social outlet and a sacred context. Alan Weisman described carnaval as it's still practiced in the villages of northern Spain:

"In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido: introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval. Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from 'carne va'—'there goes the meat.') Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox -- resurrection of the pagan sun god."

This, notes Alan, is the  one time of year when authority figures are ignored, or mocked, and the people reign. "Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and -- most prized of all -- fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again."

(To read Alan's full article, go here.)

Spanish Carnaval

Photograph by David Bacon

Re-enactment of the mythic cycle of death and re-birth can still be found in many sacred traditions, from the ritual practices of Siberian shamans to the Easter pageants of Christianity. In the Border region of southern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and European American cultures all come together, the Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme) tribe contain a fascinating mix of religious traditions (similar to those of the Mayo and other tribes of northern Mexico).

Private spiritual rituals practiced in the months between Christmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminate in a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ's Passion, blending ancient Yaqui mystical  beliefs with 17th-century Spanish Catholicism. The "three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are Yaqui Deer Dancerguarded in an open-sided church by hymn-singing women, matachins (a dance society of men and boys), pahkola dancers (a kind of holy clown), and the deer dancer -- an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion of the woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos, dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, strings of rattles, and painted wooden swords.

These dark figures march and dance around the church for many days and nights...and eventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bells ring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers. The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march...and then attack once more. Again they're driven back. On the third attack they are overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers. They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned on a huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safety of the church -- a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forces of good.

The deer and pahkola dancers have been incorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe's pre-Christian past. They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the borders between the human world of the Baptised Ones, the modern Yaqui, to the flower world of the ancestors, a magical people called the Surem.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

When we look at traditional folktales, it's striking how many address the subject of loss. A sizeable number of tales begin with the loss of a parent, a sibling, a fortune, a home, or an identity -- and rarely does that which is missing return, intact and unchanged, at the end of the story. Instead, loss is the catalyst that leads to transformation. 

The older versions of fairy tales were unflinching in their portrayal of calamity: kings abruptly beggared, queens dying young, children orphaned, cursed, and disowned. In The Handless Maiden, the heroine's hands are cut off at the wrist by her own father. The subsequent story of her journey through the world, rendered nearly helpless by her loss and yet still possessed of kindness and courage, speaks to everyone who has ever felt the wound of a loved one's betrayal. In The Seven Ravens, retold by the Brothers Grimm, seven princes lose their humanity due to their The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanekfather's carelessness. Salvation comes from their young sister, who bravely suffers a loss of her own: she must cut off her little finger to make the key to unlock their prison. Beauty gives up her home and future to save her father from a beast; Cinderella is transformed by the loss of her mother from a coddled daughter to a kitchen drudge, until the simple loss of a shoe transforms her again and she becomes a princess. Sleeping Beauty loses one hundred years of life; her parents lose a precious daughter as the vines grow high and her bedchamber is shrouded in roses and silence.

These were tales, in their older forms, meant for adult audiences, not the nursery; and in some of them, the depiction of grief and loss is sharp and brutal. This is particularly true of the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which were beloved by adult readers across Europe in Andersen's lifetime. Here, unlike Disneyfied fairy tales today, we're never assured of a happy ending; here, the Little Mermaid is forgotten by her prince, the Brave Tin Soldier melts in the stove, and the Little Matchgirl dies alone, frozen by the breath of winter.

Though children also experience grief (and sometimes love the saddest of tales), the subject of loss as a literary theme becomes more and more resonant as we age -- as the passing years bring with them the inevitable loss of friends and family members; of homes and jobs; of innocence; of wild lands lost to development and memories lost to the ravages of time; of the many things we cling to, mourn in passing, and learn to live without.

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing.

"To live in this world," advised poet Mary Oliver, "you must learn to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Like myth, the great fantasy tales of our day have much to tell us about "loving what is mortal" and then letting it go. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for example, and Ursula Le Guin's early "Earthsea" books, revolve around the adventures of young heroes -- but loss, change, and the impact of life's "little deaths" are also major themes. (In "Earthsea," the aging of the heroes is beautifully explored as the series progresses.)

Ellen Kushner -- who entered the fantasy field, like me, as a young writer/editor in the 1980s -- has pointed out that our generation of fantasists is now middle-aged or beyond. "Our concerns are different now," she muses. "If we stick to writing fantasy, what are we going to do? Traditionally, there's been the coming-of-age novel, and the quest novel, which is the finding of self. We're past the early stages of that. Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever? I don't think so. Tolkien's books are not juvenile. The Lord of the Rings is about losing things you've loved, which is a very middle-aged concern. Frodo's quest is a middle-aged man's quest, to lose something and to give something up, which, as you age, is what you start to realize is going to happen to you. Part of the rest of your life is learning to give things up."

The Scribe by Alan Lee

Learning to give things up.... 

I'm thinking now of my last night at Endicott West, saying goodbye to a place that had held so much of my life and so many of my dreams. I'd wanted to let it go lovingly, gracefully, and I was surprised by just how hard that was. The ghost of my younger self stood beside me, growing thinner, paler, more insubstantial with every moment that passed.

My partners and I lit one last blaze in the campfire circle beneath the stars, and thanked the spirits in the old tribal way: with sage, cedar, and the desert tobacco that I'd grown and cured on that beautiful land. Then we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and reminisced about the days of building the Retreat, acknowledging all the blessing we'd received there, all the blessing we'd carry on from it. This is what I wanted to take back home to Devon: this good fellowship and these good memories, not the stony weight of loss and grief for a phase of life that had reached its natural end. But of course we don't control these things. Grief comes when it will, and takes the time it takes, and there's no short-cut to moving through it. Grief must be honored. It's the heart's clear measure of the value of what we've loved, and what we've lost.

Endicott West fire circle at dawn.

Mesquite kindling, reading to be lit

"In my own worst seasons," wrote our former E-West neighbor Barbara Kingsolver (in her essay collection High Tide in Tucson), "I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.''

Stones

Well, I've not been in "despair" exactly, I've just been feeling a little bit...off. Blame it on poor health. Blame it on the weather, which is wet and cold, unlike the winters of the desert. Blame it on exhaustion; I've been carrying these stones for a full year and a day, and it's time to put them down.

Here in Devon, it's been a long grey winter...but every now and then the sun breaks through. I put on muddy boots, whistle for the dog, and we squelch our way through hills that glimmer "in the rustling wet" (to quote Van Wyk Louw's poem) like the saturated colors of a watercolor painting.  These colors remind me that grief will pass. Winter will pass. The months, the seasons, the Great Wheel will turn. I have re-learned joy many times before, and I am simply doing it one more time. The land that is now my home lifts and sustains me.

And spring is coming.

Woodland snow.

The first wild daffodil shoots in the woods.Image credits and descriptions are in the picture captions. Run your cursor over the pictures to see them. This essay is dedicated to Ellen & Delia.


Embracing uncertainty

The edge of the woods

From Carl Jung's "Memories," an autobiographic work written in his eighties, published posthumously in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

"I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am depressed, distressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgement about my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about.

Merlin in the woods by Alan Lee"The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. Probably, as in all meta- physical questions, both are true: Life is, or has, meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning with preponderate and win the battle.

"When Lao-tzu says: 'All are clear, I alone am clouded,' he is expressing what I now feel in advanced old age. Lao-tzu is an example of a man with superior insight who has seen and experienced worth and worthlessness, and who at the end of his life desires to return into his own being, into the eternal unknowable meaning. At every level of intelligence this type appears, and its lineaments are always the same, whether it be an old peasant or a great philosopher like Lao-tzu. This, too, is my experience of old age, a letting go of life-long certainties. Yet as they go there is much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in ourselves. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things."

Border patrol

''The range of the human mind, the scale and depth of the metaphors the mind is capable of manufacturing as it grapples with the universe, stand in stunning contrast to the belief that there is only one reality, which is man's, or worse, that only one culture among the many on earth possesses the truth. To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, 'There could be more, there could be things we don't understand,' is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right.''

- Barry Lopez (Of Wolves and Men)

''When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novel teaches us to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.''

- Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

"I try to remember that the job -- as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy -- of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it." 

- Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils & Pleasures of a Creative Life)

Beech leaves in autumn

"There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of  Woodland spirit by Alan LeeInspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say 'It is yet more difficult than you thought.'  This is the muse of form.

"It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey."

 - Wendell Berry (Standing by Words)

Woodland spirit

So let us embrace baffflement and uncertainty for the role it plays in all our lives -- a role that can be alarming, but also filled with creative potential. We don't ever really know where we're going; and for artists that's a very good thing. In the tension between certainty and doubt (or, to use yesterday's language, between hope and despair), we often find, strangely, that our best work is born....sometimes out of the very situations that seemed to threaten our ability to work the most.

As Mary Oliver says in her poem  "Yes, Mysteries" (which is worth reading in full):

  Bird fairies by Alan Lee            Let me keep my distance, always, from those
              who think they have the answers.

              Let me keep company always with those who say
              'Look!' and laugh in astonishment,
              and bow their heads.

Fallen beech leaves

The art above is "Merlin in the Woods," "Woodland Maiden," and "Bird Fairies" by my Devon neighbor Alan Lee. According to ancient Celtic texts, Merlin (the wise and wily magician of King Arthur's court) autumn leafwent mad after the disastrous Battle of Arderydd and fled into the forest, where he lived like the wild boars and the wolves, eating roots and berries, sleeping in the rain. In the Welsh Black Book of Carmarthen, Merlin says: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild...only lack keeps me company now." Through his period of shamanic madness, Merlin learned the speech of animals and the secrets of wood and stone. By the time he emerged from the forest, he'd come fully into his magical powers.


On time, technology, and a celebration of slowness

Bunny Girl Time (sculpture by Wendy Froud)

From Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001):

"[My friend] Sono's truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that although everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the more stately pace of time one has on foot and on public transportation, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors -- home, car, gym, office, shops -- disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than interiors built up against it....

The Look

"I had told Sono about an ad I found in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago that I'd been thinking about ever since. It was for a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and the text that occupied a whole page read, 'You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedias. We're pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.' I think it was the kid's walk in the rain that constituted the real education, at least of the senses and the imagination. Perhaps the child with the CD-ROM encyclopedia will stray from the task at hand, but wandering in a book or a computer takes place within more constricted and less sensual parameters. It's the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value. Both rural and urban walking have for two centuries been prime ways of exploring the unpredictable and incalculable, but now they are under assault on many fronts.

My desk

Bear & woman image by Katrina Plotnikova

"The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time between. New time-saving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued -- that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced....

"The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be transversed with all possible speed, as well as by electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary. As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them -- a truck, a computer, a modem -- myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival. I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness."

The Look, again

Bunny girl sculpture by Wendy Froud, collage by Lynn Hardaker, card by Jeanie Tomanek

Solnit returned to the subject of time in an essay for the London Review of Books last year:

"Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)

"The older people I know are less affected because they don’t partake so much of new media, or because their habits of mind and time are entrenched. The really young swim like fish through the new media and hardly seem to know that life was ever different. But those of us in the middle feel a sense of loss. I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

At the studio door

"It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces."

Studio

"I wonder," she muses later in the piece, "if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken."

(I highly recommend reading Solnit's essay, "In the Day of the Postman," in full.)

Spying on cats

In "7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living," Maria Popova notes:

"Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, 'how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.' "

(This is another article I highly recommend reading in full.)

Stairway to the stream

Behind the studio

A stairway of roots

Terry Tempest Williams, too, has questioned our culture's emphasis on speed, ease, productivity, and consumption. In her beautiful essay "Ode to Slowness" (Red, 2001), she reflects on her transition from the urban pace of Salt Lake City to the quiet rhythms of a village in the Utah desert, using language that echoes my own transition from Boston and New York City to the Arizona desert and rural England:

"My husband and I were comfortable in our urban routine," she writes," but one night over dinner her said, 'What if we are only living half-lives? What if there is something more?'

"We wanted more.

"We wanted less.

"We wanted more time, fewer distractions. We wanted more time together, time to write, to breathe, to be more conscious with our lives. We wanted to be closer to wild places where we could walk and witness the seasonal changes, even the changing constellations. And so we banked on the idea of a simpler life away from the city near the slickrock country we love. What we would lose in income, we would gain in sanity."

Dog and sun

Time, she discovered, (as I, too, discovered), moves differently outside of the city.

"I am not so easily seduced by speed as I once was," says Williams. "I find that I have lost the desire to move that quickly in the world. To see how much I can get done in a day does not impress me any more. I don't think it's about getting older. It feels more like honoring the gravity in my own body in relationship to place. Survival. A rattlesnake coils; its tail shakes; the emptiness of the desert is evoked.

"I want my life to be a celebration of  s l o w n e s s ."

Woodland gate

As do I. Oh, as do I.

Hill and sun

Works by Terry Tempest Williams, Maria Popova, & Rebecca Solnit

Tilly, being slow

Bunny Girl (by Wendy Froud)The Bunny Girl on my desk (and in the grass) is by Wendy Froud, the collage art by Lynn Hardaker, and the "woman with dog" card by Jeanie Tomanek. They were gifts, all of them, and much treasured.


Tempering the spirit

Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane

From Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard:

Goddess of the Sea by Arthur Rachkam"Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, a dawn fast over the mountains split....

"I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures ; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.

"Today's god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin."

Dreamland by Florence Harrison

Sea Fairies by Florence Harrison

Water Nymphs by Arthur Rackham

"I came here to study hard things -- rock mountains and sea salt -- and to temper my spirit on their edges...[And what I face is] sea, and unimaginable solid islands, and sea, and a hundred rolling skies. You spill your breath. Nothing holds; the whole show rolls....Land is a poured thing and a time a surface film lapping and fringing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and receeding blues."

"Here is the fringey edge; where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.

Mermaid by Arthur Rackham

19

Devon coast

"The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon row, do not quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves. The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew. Time is eternity's pale interlinear, as islands are the sea's. We have less time than we knew and that time is bouyant, and cloven, luscent, and missile, and wild."

Mermaids by Arthur Rackham

Devon coastThe illustrations above are by Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, and Florence Harrison. (See the picture captions for individual credits.) The photographs are not of Puget Sound, but of sea-loving Tilly on the north Devon coast.


Openings, entrances, reminders

Ancient moorland gate, summer

One of the most gorgeous essays I've ever read is "(En)trance" by Chris Arthur (The Litery Review, 2008). It's a mediation on the entrance to the grounds of Shandon, his family's estate in Northern Ireland, consisting of two brick pillars (minus an iron gate that was melted down in World War II), a curved stretch of boundary wall, and the laurel thickets close by. Despite this tight focus, we are gifted with vivid flashes of Shandon's long history while also reflecting on the nature of time and myths of borders and edges...all so beautifully written that I felt breathless and a little light-headed when the essay was done.

Arthur, whose chosen form is the essay, compares himself to the kind of writer he'd assumed he would be when he was younger: a novelist; and thus "(En)trance" is also an exploration of the differences between these literary genres, and the ways that different writers might make use of the Shandon setting.

"Since writers of the sort I'm not aren't constrained by the boundaries of what happened, " he tells us, "it would be easy to invent all manner of stories about love and lust, about class and religion, about Englishness and Irishness, war and poverty....It's tempting to succumb to such diversions, to sweep through the pillars dramatically, making an entrance that draws the eye toward the unfolding of some vivid story, baited perhaps with rape or murder or the compelling simplicity of some other violently eye-catching beginning. But, for whatever reason, my interest is set in a key that eshews the racy harmonics of such narratives, even though I'm partial to them and often like to hum along.

Cottage gate, summer

O'er Hill gate, summer

"The entrances that intrigue me lead to less obvious destinations than the Big House with its cast of characters. For me, the pillars don't just suggest the domestic scale of a habitation and its dwellers. They also bring to mind pillars as ancient religious markers erected on the earth to make some claim to the numinous, to post a reminder of entrances beyond the obvious. These upright markers can be found scattered through the landscapes of many countries. Their style and date may vary; they may have been raised on the occasion of covenant, sacrifice, or worship. But for all their seeming variety, and despite their dense solidity, such pillars serve a similar fuction -- to act as apertures, bore holes, openings, entrances, reminders that mystery lies just beneath the crust of the quotidian.

Gate with poppies, summer

Bumblehill Gate, summer

Commons Gate, late summer

"In Japan, the gates of shrines are guarded by pairs of stone dogs called koma-inu. These sit facing each other at either side of the entrance, creating an invisable barrier that visitors must cross. One dog has its mouth open; the other has its mouth shut. The one with its mouth open is breathing in and is called A. The one with its mouth closed is breathing out and is called Un. The phrase A-Un-no-kokyu ("A-Un breathing") has come to describe a relationship between people that's so close they can communicate without words.

Woodland gate, autumn

Nattadon Gate, autumn

Crossroads stile, winter

"For me, invisable dogs stand at Shandon's pillars, their shared respiration symbolizing the intimate and mysterious connection that exists between the known and the unknown, between the telegraphic attenuations of the names we give things, the descriptions we offer -- superficial, partial -- and the significance that's coiled intricately within them. Passing between the pillars, I trip on this invisible unbilical of breathy connection and, as I fall, sometimes catch a glimpse of the endless sands of being upon which the mirages of common diction sparkle out their little images.

Blue gate, winter

Woodland gate, winter

Lower O'er Hill Gate, late winter/early spring

Sheep field gate, late winter/early spring

"We exist in a world of multiple registers that allow us to move through it in a variety of modes, but we sometimes forget the links between them. The no-nonsense world of facts and figures, at once useful and obscuring (perhaps useful because obscuring) skitters its way across the surface created by its own computations. Yet for every Un there is an A. Even if we are oblivious to it, in the breath of every sentence we inhale dormant complexities, their unnerving plenitude is only temporarily suspended by  the icy hold of words; the promise of a thaw of complication-into-wonder remains whenever we pause for reflection."

Crossroad stile, spring

Beverly gate with apple blossoms and bluebells, spring

You can read Arthur's essay in full in The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin). All of the essays in this volume are excellent, but "(En)trance" is the stand-out. It's completely, well, entrancing.

Gate behind the studio, spring

Woodland gate, spring

At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.

- Czeslaw Milosz  (from "The Blacksmith's Shop," translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass)

Woodland gate, yesterday


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).


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.


What it means to be a grown-up

Dorothea Lange

From Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet:

"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me.

"I am part of all the people I have known.  There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that  forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one.

"Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."

As do I, but it's what I strive for.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

The images in this post are, of course, by the American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) -- best known for her work among migrants, sharecroppers, and displaced families during the Depression years, and among U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage forced to live (to our country's lasting disgrace) in internment camps during World War II.

"Art," said Lange, "is a by-product of an act of total attention." And she was a great artist indeed.

Dorothea Lange


Earning age

Isak Dinesen photographed by Peter Beard

From May Sarton's Journal of Solitude:

"In a period of happy and fruitful isolation such as this, any interuption, any intrusion of the social, any obligation breaks the thread on my loom, breaks the pattern. Two nights ago I was called at the last minute to attend the caucus of Town Meeting...and it threw me. But at least the compionship gave me one insight: a neighbor told me she had been in a small car accident and had managed to persuade the local paper to ignore her true age (as it appears on her license) and print her age as thirty-nine! I was really astonished by this confidence.

"I am proud of being fifty-eight, and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced, and potent than I have ever been. I mind certain physical deteriorations, but not really. And not at all when I look at the marvellous photograph that Bill sent me of Isak Dinesen just before she died. For after all we make our faces as we go along, and who when young could ever look as she does? The ineffable sweetness of the smile, the total acceptance and joy one receives from it, life, death, everything taken in and, as it were, savored -- and let go.

"Wrinkles here and there seem unimportant compared to the Gestalt of the whole person I have become in this past year. Somewhere in [my novel] The Poet and the Donkey Andy speaks for me when he says, 'Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.' "

Crofters Hands by Paul StrandPhotographs: Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen, age 82) by Peter Beard, and "Crofter's Hands" by Paul Strand.


Today's morning reading

Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet

"So my hope, each day as I grow older, is that this will never be simply chronological aging -- the old 'bod' over half a century has had hard use; it won't take what it did a few years ago -- but that I can also grow in maturity, where the experience which can be acquired only through chronology will teach me how to be more aware, more open, unafraid to be vulnerable, involved, committed, to accept disagreement without feeling threatened (repeat and underline this one), to understand I cannot take myself seriously until I stop taking myself seriously -- to be, in fact, a true adult."

- Madeleine L'Engle (The Crosswick Journals, Book One: A Circle of Quiet)

Amen.