A Commonplace Book

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I’m selective about which books I buy now, there’s not enough shelving. I’m careless, anyway. Once finished, I’d toss the book under the bed until no more fit and pages spilled out into the aisle. I tripped on hardbacks in the night. The dog made a den under the bed and hides mangled toys there, so that’s no longer an option. I borrow books from the library. Sometimes I pay fines. There’s no excuse for it, but it’s true. It usually happens when no renewals remain, someone else requested the text, and I’m not ready to surrender.

Though confessing to carelessness with my own books, I take great care with borrowed ones. I do not fold down page corners. I flip through the pages to remove scraps of gift wrap or newsprint bookmarking before returning a library book; most solemnly, I do not mark the text or margins. It is dismaying to open a book and find underlining, bracketing and marginalia that is not ones own. It is distracting and rude. (Another confession: Not a fan of David Foster Wallace footnoting for approximately the same reason. However, I’m intrigued to find a previous borrower’s bookmark scraps to scrutinize for hidden messages.)

I read with a pen at hand, a fidget of concentration. I keep a small spiral notebook, the size of a generous postcard, with unlined pages as a commonplace book. I record notes and copy passages into this book. Although transcription is slow, and my handwriting is careless, tracing a sentence word-by-word tattoos it to memory’s skin whether or not the point is mastered:

“We are the wind chimes, not the wind,” a poet wrote about crafting her art.

“In essay, avoid the use of personal pronouns, although the essay must be personal,” Donald Hall writes in his “Essays after Eighty.” (I contemplate this advice while still unraveling it, obviously.)

 

Ice Storm 2016

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Waiting

The storm was stalking before it hit, at least a week, if one looked to notice. It was lurking. It was lying in wait and testing. December ended with tires spitting grit off the pavement and howls of chainsaws shredding the thin winter light.

I was called for jury duty December 6th.  A pool of 300 jurors was ordered to report Tuesday morning. Freezing rain was forecast. My number was 286. I packed a bag as though traveling overnight, in reality, sequestered in a dim basement room lined with hard plastic chairs. I joined my peers in the American justice system, a jury pool brought and bound together by randomly drawn voter registration and driving records. Wet coats and hats dripped and puddled on the linoleum soaked from the rain slashing outside bordering on sleet. The room smelled of steam and hair. We slouched in tight rows and watched a video on the workings of the court and our responsibilities as jurors. I took out my book and ate the chicken sandwich I packed. Then we waited. This was the true beginning of the storm: waiting in the basement on hard plastic chairs to be called.

[The following week were we caught unaware? Weren’t we distracted with the coming holidays, by menorah candles, Christmas trees, Kwanzaa corn, boughs and swag, desolate and uninspired over gift lists and grocery lists, how much to tip the newspaper carrier? There was time to snap the torpor, remember the daily ritual of the advent calendar, find gifts and wrap them—festively!—time aplenty to stir walnut fudge. The weather sites posted banner advisories with backgrounds shifting from orange to red trying to flag our failing attention:  pay attention, notice how dark the days, notice the stealthling cold.]

On Wednesday the 14th, it started to rain. The rain froze. The ice took hold of the trees by branch and stem. Limbs and twigs grew great ice fangs and claws. Fir trees sank. Birches bent and broke. Oaks split from their roots. Trees toppled under the weight of the ice to rip down power lines and crash through roofs and automobiles. Branches succumbed to the great weight and were rent, only to be caught and cemented in ice to their fellows. That night we watched over Amazon Creek basin as transformers exploded and power lines snapped surges of orange and white flame. The sound of exploding trees was an artillery report. The city lost power. We went to bed.

I woke in the dark and silence. I woke because of the darkness and silence. The power was out. The clock was dark. I listened to the cold. For a few moments, the power came back, then another explosion, very close. Everything went black. The dog leaned against the bed and nuzzled. I whispered in her ear. We went back to sleep.

We had no power for days. We had no heat. We kept the wood fire burning to hold a center of warmth, a bunker from which to huddle against the cold. We set up the propane camp stove outside to boil water and brew coffee. I inventoried the candles scattered around the house and set them out on the borders of our bunker next to the wood stove. The south hills were dark and silent.

There is the elasticity of waiting. There is the tedium of the cold and the strain of darkness. What are we, without light, without heat?

Ice

Day did not break on Thursday. Ice shrouded the trees and grass, decks and steps, cars and sidewalks. Dawn brought a day of vaguely lighter shades of gray, bounded in a snow globe of freezing fog. There was not enough light through the southern windows to read at midday. It was Jack-the-Ripper-weather to seize you by the throat and probe below the clavicle sheltering your heart. The fog magnified and conducted the cold emanating from the ice. Power lines and fallen trees blocked roads, limbs continued to succumb and split from their trunks. The public was advised to stay home, stay off the streets. We stoked the wood stove. We conserved the battery charge in our phones.

700 years ago, in exile from Florence, Dante wandered a dark wood. He was confronted by three savage beasts. “The Divine Comedy” is the original metaphysical guidebook, comprised of 100 cantos, leading from the dark wood into the depths of hell. The tourist must pass through Satan’s navel into purgatory to finally ascend to heaven.

It is the first book, “The Inferno,” that still tempts our distracted modern minds. The enduring human impulse to gape at suffering and torture, an inherent voyeurism mesmerized by the agony of others, ensures The Inferno will never be quaint. What interest does the present world have for the painful trudge laboring up the purging mountain, expiating sin over millennium? Or the blandishments of never-ending glory before God, the smallest possible perfect circle?

There are nine rings of hell, spiraling and descending according to the gravity of the sin, each featuring a torture uniquely tailored to the transgression against God. Poetic justice is the theme of this Comedy. In the very pit of the Inferno, sinners are imprisoned in solid ice up to the neck. This is the realm of traitors: those who betrayed when trusted most. Dante believed that eternally burning by ice was the harshest punishment possible, greater than any torments of fire. With these sinners imprisoned in the paralyzing cold, Dante watches Virgil kick at the frozen heads as they pass. I’ve forgotten much, but not the boot heel striking the frozen chin.

Our text was laid out on facing pages: Italian on the left and English on the right. Professorio instructed the intimate seminar. Though small in stature, he was a man of large and lavish gesture. As we stumbled through the Italian, he conducted with great flourish to keep the proper cadence. A professor of Romance Languages, he was in fact a Greek from Rhodes, though an Italian scholar. Twice each week we trudged along with Virgil and the rookie Dante, our fellow apprentice in this exploration of the cosmos. At the bottom of the bottom of the pit, Satan was bound in ice forever.

The McKenzie River claims the watershed down from Mount Washington, through Clear Lake, into the Willamette Valley. In December, the river is full and furious, trimmed with rime. The torrent grinds out agates from the mountain rock and sweeps them downstream. Ice edges the banks daring the water crashing over slick black rock. In my memory, it was December. I remember thinking how dark the water would be, how snow would define the banks.

Why a proud man would be so desperate to choose the black water of this river, I have pondered for many years. Professorio, a man who conducted the torment of the ninth ring of hell, leapt in to that inferno, weighted with metal chains, to be sucked down into an icy maelstrom forever.

I stoke the fire as night falls, wait and watch the flames. There is nothing else to do.

 

 

Stone Willow

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Janus is a Roman two-faced god. He looks backward upon the path traversed whilst surveying the shrouded future, a guardian of gateways and thresholds for whom this month is named.  It’s a long climb up from the bottom. The mountain goat’s hooves spark striking stone hoisting a coiled serpent tail from the black waters of late December. Twenty-one days have passed since the sun stood still at solstice.

The dog and I go out in the morning seeking, in fog, in rain, in frost. We search for tracks and signs, delimit fleeting clouds, eavesdrop on the crows gossiping between the fir and the oak. Walking in the rain down the steep hill to the park before Christmas Eve, I slipped on wet leaves and pine needles. I stumbled to the pavement, falling down to one knee and the heel of my right hand. We finished our tour, Mercy’s leash loose in my left hand, and came home. I bound up the wrist in an Ace bandage to support and immobilize it. Each day it improves, but there is a click inside now close to the bone that reminds me I am not young.

The new is waiting tightly as the old falls away. Last year’s leaves lie sodden against fences and curbs, spinning slowly away in the rain showers, down the hill.  Today we saw willow buds beginning to crack their pods and green tips of daffodil and crocus jaunty in the mud. Exhale now. The light returns.

Dog Magic

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When I palm the tennis ball a new dog is confounded. I whisk the ball into a crook of the elbow and challenge the dog to find it. He lolls his tongue and shifts his eyes in a show of uncertainty. An inexperienced dog is baffled by sleight of hand. (Sleight: the use of dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive. A useful word.)

Mercy, the one-eyed pirate, grew up sitting through my tricks applauding with a thump from the tip of her tail. She knows them all now. She studied on the sleights. She knows a ball does not simply disappear, it is concealed somewhere nearby. New feints and magic ruses are met with skepticism. She trusts her nose, not her eyes.

Writing slowly, writing by hand. I type a fierce 90 words per minute, but what use is the page? Layers of bubble wrap is all it is; there may or may not be something valuable wrapped inside.

Common writing craft advice is “just write.” There is a post today on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog advocating exactly this approach. It compares forcing out a first draft to purging after a night of binge drinking: write a draft, vomit words onto the page, go back later, edit, revise, rewrite. I understand. Some days I agree. Often trash sentences are better than freezing, better than no words at all. However, once words take up residence on the page that space is claimed by squatters. The mind settles on the done-ness of things, whether the work reads or not. We are easily misdirected. It’s dog magic.

 

Solstice | 2:23 PM December 21, 2018

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The winter solstice is the moment the sun halts its southern descent and hangs holding the horizon on the Tropic of Capricorn, the place of the fish-tailed goat. The word solstice, a noun, derives from Latin and means simply the Sun stands still and there she lingers. Located halfway between the equator and North Pole on the 44th parallel, southern declination is sharp. By Christmas Day, the sun climbs north by an astronomical minute, a fraction of a degree.

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

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There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

–Robert Graves

Woolgathering | A Note on Craft

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Woolgathering once literally referred to the act of gathering loose tufts of wool caught on bushes and fences as sheep passed by… by mid-16th century the word woolgathering came to suggest the act of indulging in purposeless mind-wandering.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Gather wool: hands forever stiff with plucking tufts from stiles and bramble.

Many or most get lost at the beginning, wandering about to find wool, a flock of sheep. Sheep do not volunteer to be stripped of their riches. Gathering wool is the chaotic business of first drafts, of culling a beast from the herd. The bleater must be driven through a chute into a small stifling shed. (Having a dog bred and trained for this purpose helps, but weaving a collie into this extended analogy is awkward.)

With the bawling sheep secured in the shearing shed, there is a tussle to throttle the beast and pin it to the straw. I confess I’ve never sheared a sheep, though I’ve hacked many dreadful first drafts. I’ve seen it done. It’s hot, dirty, bloody business, both for the shearer and the sheep. Words must be brawled down like fleece into a heap of filthy wool.

When the fleece is finally stripped and spread across the shed floor, the trembling sheep is allowed to return to pasture, a naked rustic muse. The creature spent the winter grazing in muddy pasture, dragging her belly through weeds rife with burrs, dribbling poop down her backside. Fouled wool will never do for knitting, no.

The fleece must be cleaned. First it must be skirted and then it must be washed. Skirting is vile work, but it is a first draft. Print out the pages, spread them across the kitchen table, and scan for chunks of dried poop, clumps of hay, cockleburs and caked mud. (Don’t overthink, we are nowhere near killing our darlings.) Pick out the noxious bits. A snippet from the Craftsy website applies so literally:

“Yellowed or brittle sections should be removed. You can always set some aside and come back to it later to see if it can be salvaged for other uses.”

Compromised wool unsuited to the current piece at hand might be recycled into a poem. While it’s wise to preserve a first draft intact in the raw original form, I am guilty of continually overwriting while revising. Someday I’ll open a folder for every project and save each file version. Perhaps one day I’ll organize my sock drawer and spice cabinet as well.

Toss aside the nasty bits. Throw them out. Passive voice, “to be” verb formations, tense disagreements, blundering word choices, all go into the black plastic bag. Next, stuff all the skirted wool into a mesh bag to wash. At this stage in writing, one pauses to ruminate, considering on the structure and thesis of the entire project. I ponder in the shower.

Sheep wool is covered in grease called lanolin. This natural oil is excreted from the body of the sheep and saturates its coat. Due to this oil, sheep are waterproof and able to contentedly graze over many days of soaking rain. One needs to wash away excess lanolin. We come to divide the worthy wool, the words that will stand, from the dross.

Fill a tub with hot water and squirt in a generous measure of liquid soap. Do not use your own washing machine as this will only result in remorse. Go for a walk. St. Augustine wrote that solutions arrive when walking (solvitur ambulando) and he seems trustworthy. Let the wool absorb the water and soap, but don’t let the water cool or the lanolin will not wash away.

Repeat four or five more times. Rinse well. Spread the wool out flat to dry for several days. Print the piece of writing. Place it on the kitchen counter, near enough to scribble in the margins between peeling carrots and chopping them. Let it sit. Make notes. Re-read the paragraph you were so proud of and strike it.  Reconsider and write “stet” in big block letters.

Once the wool is dry, comes teasing and carding. I have never done this. I am relying on the internet to help extend this metaphor as far as it will go. I do knit, however. I have observed other hardy handy souls carding wool and spinning it into yarn. Carding wool further cleans, straightens, and separates the fibers, hence the apt cliché of going over a page with a fine-tooth comb. It is here, finally, when you return to the work to restructure it, reinvent it, and rebuild it to be both worthy and whole.

After the wool is carded, it’s spun into yarn. This is an art unto itself, one that requires rhythm and tactile intelligence. This cannot be taught. This might be learned. Spinning is the nebulous writing gift talent. We will leave the spinner, a Clotho of the dark sisterly Moirai, to work her magic.

Only now and finally, is there a skein of yarn. Do not knit from this skein, as it will only tangle. Wind the yarn into a ball that will not ravel as it unrolls. As you wind, dream the words, hear their music, and smooth the stray strand back into the twisted fiber. Select the needles and note the pattern, count the stitches as you cast on.

Read the piece and read it again. Read until you know the words without reading them. Print another copy to leave at hand near the kitchen sink. Consider the root of each word; reconsider that phrase, chain by chain, stitch by stich, row by row, work through the yarn’s tension until the skein is dealt, the work ready to cast off. Bind it well.

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