Seeking Stillness

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there.”  –Wallace Stegner


The holidays are past, now to begin the quiet descent into winter, the chance to burrow deep into books and memory, to see if the mind, so accustomed to dogpaddling in the shallows, has forgotten how to go slower, deeper.  I never make New Year’s resolutions, but my goal for 2012 is to seek out stillness, of both mind and body.  The best route to that, I think, is in nature.  I find immeasurable gifts in the most unlikely plot of blighted earth. My spiritual guide this year may be a mud turtle.  On a sunny day in November, I discovered Eastern river cooters, freshwater turtles, basking in the sun in a nearby creek that flows into the Tennessee River.  I think they are cooters, but I am vastly deficient in the sciences—they could be pond sliders.  They are small, only three or four inches long, and are totally camouflaged when sitting on half-submerged limbs and logs.  They are extremely skittish and always see me before I see them—I only hear their tiny plops, no louder than a small pebble, as they dunk back into the water—but if I stand perfectly still for five minutes or more, they will very slowly emerge and creep back onto the limb.  I don’t know why this is so satisfying, why the sight of this tiny creature creeping like an arthritic geriatric onto a rotting limb in a stinking creek and craning his wizened neck toward the sun should be so mesmerizing.  All I know is that it is very calming and uplifting.

photo by Gary Loucks

Eastern River Cooter, photo by Gary Loucks

These turtles make me think harder about what it means to live with moral responsibility for the environment.  They, along with writers who grapple with difficult moral choices or point out the damage and, yes, the criminality of vain, money-inspired development will keep me mindful.  The great environmentalist Wallace Stegner called this kind of writer declared enemies of their society.  Stegner, who founded the creative writing program at Stanford and taught the likes of Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, and Edward Abby, said, “There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream.”

I am fortunate to live in a city where bits of wilderness are within easy walks, spots that have not yet caught the calculating eyes of developers, what I like to call original dirt.  Despite the fact that many of our creeks are neglected, that they are often polluted, stagnant, and uninhabitable to most wildlife, they are, for those very reasons, more compelling than traditional recreational spots. They still retain remnants of a long history, a history that I and all other humans are connected to in the most fundamental way.  This little mid-crusted turtle dates back 250 million years—surely, he can teach me more about connectedness than Facebook.  Stegner said rightly that we have lived too shallowly in too many places.  So much of our society is focused on fun.  Places that are touted as tourist attractions are usually artificially manipulated to provide entertainment, externally generated pleasure that feeds the need of illusion and not the deeper hunger for self-generated contentment.  There is an imbalance between fun and contemplation, like a diet with too much sugar. To know a place deeply is to feel an obligation toward it.  Maybe watching turtles is a way to live more deeply in the place I call home, an East Tennessee river valley that, like most American cities, is quickly losing its original contours, sometimes in soul-crushing ways.  I am speaking of Mountaintop Removal which is happening on Zeb Mountain only an hour’s drive from here.

Stillness can still be found, but it is very hard to find silence. I feel blessed to have grown up in the remote rural community of Snowflake, Virginia, and remember the silence of those woods and ridges along Big Moccasin Creek.  As Stegner says in the quote above, I will always have that memory, it serves as a standard to remind me how much we have lost in terms of real sanctuary.   Lyman Ward, Stegner’s protagonist in Angle of Repose, reflected on the profound silence of his grandparents’ life on the American frontier in the 19th century, before electricity, compared to his own time.  “1970,” he said, “knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence.”  His list of modern electrical conveniences has only multiplied in the forty years since; and, although our clever inventions, ever smaller and more sophisticated, may no longer smell of oil or coal and make jarring noise, each has its own buzz, hum, beep, or ringtone that, taken together, have now reached a drone so bothersome that we have had to create yet another machine, a white noise machine, to mask it.

I have always admired those for whom solitude in nature is more than just an occasional spiritual practice, who shape their lives around those moments.  I have a friend who is a kind of freelance corporate psychologist.  He helps ease employee anxiety due to economic or industry-based transitions and mediates departmental conflicts for small and mid-sized companies in the Southeast.  Because the work is often intense and emotionally draining, he makes his own rules of engagement.  He chooses his clients and his hours and will only take on contracts he can reasonably drive to.  And he drives there slowly on back roads, occasionally stopping to explore places of local interest.  For many years, he drove an ancient postal delivery truck that, even floor boarded, could probably not have exceeded his preferred speed of fifty-five.  He would often tack on an extra day to fish some river, always tossing the catch back in.  He knows intimately all the major rivers and most of their tributaries within a five- or six-state circumference and, in his many hours of solitude along their banks, has thought long and deeply about himself and his relation to them.

Few of us, though, can take credit for whatever good impulses we may have.  It is possible my friend is just as self-motivated as I am, using nature as therapy, a way to calm our anxiety over the horrors of the daily news, the constant thrum and babble of people and machines, the pain of personal loss, and the guilt of simple human inability to care deeply for anything.  We have reached a point in history where our guilt, often a great motivator for good, must encompass the environment.  More and more, we live surrounded by disposable-everything.  We are pinched and pulled at every turn by the monster of retail that invades public space, makes us feel deficient in order to sell us the things it determines we are deficient in but which turn out to be the things that leave us feeling most bottomed-out.  Nature is the only true counter to the vast meaninglessness of what Stegner called our termite lives, the most visible and accessible source of renewal when we feel most hopeless.  Every green growing thing, every unfolding petal and mud-crusted turtle is a perpetual marvel of the world, ever renewing proof that we are part of something greater than all of our vain and transient creations.  I look forward to the new year, to seeing where these inward journeys may take me.



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Montaigne and the Sweet Death

Everyone wishes for his own good death and envies the rare ones that seem to qualify. Of all the deaths of people I have known, the one I envy is that of my mother’s best friend Phyllis. She had spent most of the day in her flower beds, weeding and mulching and thinning her Boston ferns. For some months, she had been experiencing some dizziness while working in the sun but ignored it. Gardening was her passion. That evening after her husband had gone to bed (they always retired hours apart), she sat down in her rocker to watch a late TV movie. The next morning when her husband saw her there, so peaceful, he thought she was still asleep. How awful for him but how good for her.

My idea of death has changed somewhat after reading the French philosopher Montaigne. I was led to his Essays by Sarah Bakewell’s thoroughly engaging introduction, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, the winner of this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. Bakewell made Montaigne so appealing I had to know more, and I have not been disappointed. Michel de MontaigneOne test, they say, of great literature is that it passes the test of time. Montaigne’s Essays was a bestseller over four hundred years ago and is still amazingly accessible and relevant.

As Bakewell says, he is likeable. How can you not like someone who tells you right up front that to read his book would be a waste of your time? His writing style is so personal, as if were speaking to a very close friend, you, telling you about his inadequacies, his laziness, his poor memory, his small penis. You feel you know him and that he knows you, you want to visit his castle in the Dordogne and walk through his library in the tower where he spent so much time thinking and writing and look out at the views he saw: the garden, the courtyard, the segmented fields through the seasons. If he were alive today, there would be countless women trying to insinuate themselves into his life as did Marie de Gournay, who was so successful he adopted her. In many ways, he reminds me of Charlie Chaplin, his brilliance most visible in the way he endeared himself to his readers by his complete ease in acting silly, of guilelessly reflecting back to us our own humanity.

Montaigne reminds us time and again that he was far from perfect, but he seemed to possess many of the qualities we most admire. Even his self-absorption is admirable because its impetus was self-improvement not self-aggrandizement. You guess that someone so gallant, so accepting of himself, so blessed with sociability, affability, humility and generosity, could surely help you become a better person. Certainly less troubled about your own end. He took Socrates’ maxims “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living” to heart. Inscribed on his library rafters were these and other Greek and Latin quotes from his favorite books. The one at the center reads, “I do not comprehend. I pause. I examine.” He found that holding a microscope on himself and dissecting his moods and motivations, his flaws and fears and doubts with a pen was therapeutic. Instead of running from his demons, he laid them inkerized upon the page and boldly probed them, an exercise which weakened their power over him and allowed him to live more fully.

Montaigne did not equate title and wealth with superiority over the common man. He thought most humans incapable of clear judgment because of their pretensions, and he was determined not to have any. ‘I prefer the company of peasants,” he said, “because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” He thought that most of our problems in life stem from vanity. If he were alive today, he’d be the guy who, even though he’s office manager, is not above making the morning coffee. He would be the perfect travel companion: the guy on the train who strikes up a convivial conversation with the baggage handler, who is as inquisitive about the life of laborers in the field as of monarchs in the castles, and who follows no strict itinerary and will detour at the slightest inducement. When in Morocco, he would not be hunting down an American hamburger but a supply of saffron to replicate the native dishes back at home. Because of his feelings toward animals, he would be vegan and, in memory of his beloved cat, bequeath half his fortune to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He would be a statesman, never a politician, which means, alas, he could not exist today because, apparently, it is not a world in which a statesman can be bred.

Even though Montaigne developed the courage to look closely at himself, he didn’t start out that way. He, too, came to the Greek and Roman philosophers the same way I come to him—wanting help with a fear of death. Like Montaigne and most of us, it’s not being dead I fear, but the getting there. Montaigne initially believed that in order to accept death, one must prepare for it by thinking about it a lot. Seneca and Lucretius, though, said that it’s foolish to let fear make your life miserable; learn instead how to live. If you have lived well, your death will be easy. Montaigne reached that conclusion himself,n but it wasn’t due solely to Seneca and Lucretius; he had personal concrete evidence. At about age thirty-six, he had a near fatal fall from his horse. According to Bakewell, his companions who carried him home “later told him that he was vomiting blood and clawing at his chest, violently, as if to tear himself from his body.” This physical state was in dramatic opposition to his mental state which he remembered as being one of “infinite sweetness.” From then on, he was convinced that dying was nothing to fear. Nature takes care of dying; one should focus instead on learning how to live.

But dying, like living, is unique to each individual, and Montaigne, although a Skeptic, became the eternal optimist concerning death. Could his theory possibly hold true for all deaths? I think my father had the death Montaigne came to believe in. My father had Bright’s disease, and one night, at age 43, his kidneys shut down. Death came in no more than ten minutes. He never seemed to be in pain and, after the initial fear of losing his sight, seemed calmed and comforted by some vision. “I see my sweet Jesus,” were his exact words. He was not a religious man, had never attended church. I continue to believe that Jesus was the only word in his vocabulary that came closest to what he was seeing. I don’t know what he saw, but I believe that whatever it was, it was infinitely sweet.

But then there was the very painful death of a favorite older cousin. He died at age 68, his body knotted and twisted by forty years of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease not uncommon among Korean War veterans who had spent so much time sleeping in and wading through rice paddies fertilized with human feces. He was in a wheelchair for the last twenty years of his life. By his early fifties, my mother was sewing Velcro closures on his shirts because he was no longer able to manipulate buttons. The ravages of the disease and the years of meds resulted in heart disease. His daughter said he screamed for interminable minutes before he died, before paramedics arrived with morphine. That was troubling to imagine, because he was always a smiling, soft-spoken man who never complained, never mentioned his infirmities. Montaigne, who said that the highest form of wisdom is continued cheerfulness, would have called him wise. Such a good man who had suffered so much should have had an easy death.

Montaigne himself, according to personal accounts by his wife and a good friend, did not die the way he might have wished. He had suffered for years from painful kidney stones and, at age 59, one failed to pass and infection set in. Without antibiotics, his body swelled, including his throat, which, too, became infected. To the observer it was a torturous way to die, but if Montaigne was right, his mind had already detached from his body and had entered that state of infinite sweetness. The physical manifestations of the dying process were only the body’s reflexive reactions; what registered in the subconscious, or perhaps at the soul level, was only a soft drifting toward sleep, a sedating-like euphoria invisible to witnesses.

Montaigne tells us to reflect on everything and regret nothing. He said that so many people who are near death despair that they are being cheated out of time, prevented from gaining some great victory or witnessing an important event such as a child’s graduation or marriage, when their only business at that moment should be with themselves. “For my part,” he wrote, “I am, thanks be to God, at this instant in such a condition, that I am ready to dislodge, whenever it shall please Him, without regret for anything whatsoever.” Of course, he added, “We are all born to action. I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of his life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden’s not being finished.”

So far, Montaigne hasn’t lessened my fear of death, but I can’t imagine any words, in today’s frenetic pursuit of diversion and achievement, more comforting than his. If I am not lucky enough to dislodge while chopping vegetables, sitting at the computer thinning an essay, or scooping out the litter box, maybe the “how” doesn’t matter. Even if he was wrong about Nature taking care of our dying, he was right about one thing: “Seeing [that] we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them?”

Like Montaigne, I tend to forget most of what I read. Likely, if someone asks me a year or two from now for an example of his excellent advice, I won’t be able to say. But I will remember the feeling of acceptance I have while reading Montaigne, that it is okay to feel ridiculous, to doubt, to have poor judgment, to pursue some frivolous and vain activity; of not having to adapt myself to his company with explanation, apology, or dissimulation. If there is any residue left of him, I hope it is the muscle memory of the Ah-loose-breath moment that came from reading this: “Who­ev­er shall consider, as in a painting, that great im­age of our moth­er Na­ture, in her full majesty and lus­tre, who­ev­er in her face shall read so gen­er­al and so con­stant a va­ri­ety, who­ev­er shall ob­serve him­self in that fig­ure, and not only him­self but a whole king­dom, no big­ger than the least touch or prick of a pen­cil in com­par­ison of the whole, that man alone is able to val­ue things ac­cord­ing to their true es­ti­mate and grandeur.” It relieves you of having to try or pretend to be something you are not while, at the same time, making your imperfections integral to something bigger and grander. That, in itself, will be a gift of infinite sweetness.


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The Magnitude of the Magnolia

I love flowers for their treachery
their fragile bodies
grace my imagination’s avenues

without their presence
my mind would be an unmarked

–from The Spring Flowers Own by Etel Adnan

May, my favorite month, the month of ambrosial blossoms—jasmine, honeysuckle, catalpa, clover, and magnolia, the flower Neruda loved, comparing it to a wave, a seagull, an onion (an onion??). Onions aside, he celebrated the magnolia’s perfume. That nose jolt of heady, honeyed air always makes me stand still and take long, deep breaths, fully present.

I rarely encounter a blooming magnolia tree without remembering my mother-in-law, the quintessential Southern woman. Despite having lived the last fifty years of her life in Tennessee, she never stopped pronouncing her r’s like h’s. She grew up in Tallahassee but was always quick to point out, “I was bohn in Chahleston, and ouh family is descended from Govnuh Bull, the first govnuh of South Ca-uhlina.” She was especially proud of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, perhaps because it compensated for the sorority she was cheated out of as a young woman.

At first, I didn’t think she was keen on the idea of having me for a daughter-in-law. I was not in the same social class. My mother was a working widow with a sixth-grade education who had never heard of the DAR, and, even if she had, wouldn’t have been impressed. As for me, I was a little uneasy in the presence of a woman so meticulously groomed, so well-versed in Emily Post etiquette, afraid of using the wrong fork or of spilling something on all that linen or creamy carpet. She was the only woman I had ever known who hosted teas, owned a mink stole, and employed a housekeeper.

But she was not a reader, and that fact alone soon made me feel superior. Only a non-reader, I thought, could hate having Ophelia as a middle name, Hamlet’s fair Ophelia who inspired all those beautiful Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Libby was the only name she acknowledged. Still later, when I was mature enough to realize that biology rules everything and that who we are is mostly luck, I was more understanding of her literary apathy. I believe she may have had, like all of us on that troublesome continuum, a mild form of ADD which caused her to avoid tasks that require sustained concentration. As I came to know her better, I also realized that she and I had something fundamental in common. Our fathers died when we were teenagers, and there was not enough money to send us to college. Because of that, we became adept at reinventing ourselves through our innate talents, for me art and literature, for her social graces. She wasn’t a reader, but she had refinement, classic taste, and a joyful personality and was popular and admired in her small town in East Tennessee.

Her favorite perfume for as I long as I knew her was L’Air du Temps.L'Air du Temps parfum Nina Ricci launched that fragrance in 1948 to commemorate the end of WWII and to capture ‘the spirit if the times’ which marked a return to optimism, elegance, and romance. A frosted glass dove perched on the stopper, symbol of peace and love. Libby would have been 29 then, a young wife with a five-year old son (my future husband) and a husband establishing a career as an electrical engineer. After piloting a fighter bomber during the war, he earned an engineering degree with honors in only eighteen months. Like many starting from scratch, there was no wasting time.  She probably wasn’t able to afford that fragrance for several more years, but it was in her sights as surely as the success her generation knew would come with hard work and frugality.

I can still see her spraying it on the insides of her wrists and saying, “I feel so rich.” She said that often, whether wearing a new outfit, tasting a rich dessert, or opening a birthday or Christmas gift, but I don’t think she ever really did feel rich even after my father-in-law’s engineering firm became successful. Maybe it was just her generation, but she rarely bought anything that wasn’t on sale. My husband used to joke about how her kitchen counters were always covered in paper towels spread to dry for re-use. I can’t imagine her ever buying the expensive L’Air du Temps parfum, certainly not in the Lalique bottle created in 1951; I only remember her using the eau de toilette.

When I met her, L’Air du Temps seemed a bit old-fashioned to me, like Shalimar and Chanel No. 5. I was into White Shoulders and Estée and, later, Je Reviens, Paris, and Rive Gauche. I was fickle where perfume was concerned but now realize that all the fragrances I have loved are, like L’Air du Temps, florals, all formulas rich in Southern white flowers—gardenia, jasmine, magnolia. Over the years, I saw my and Libby’s taste overlap in other areas, not just in perfume—we both loved finding bargains, beautiful old-fashioned things, hot tea, Chopin, fresh flowers—and we were both born in May, our birthdays four days apart. I no longer wear perfume because 95% of the chemicals used in affordable fragrances today are synthetic, mostly toxic compounds derived from petroleum, and I doubt Libby ever knew about the cheaper reformulation of L’Air du Temps in the 80’s; but I miss wearing them. And I miss Libby.

She was socially active until the very end when she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage alone in her assisted living apartment. She was 82, had been a widow for fourteen years, and was dancing the night before she died. Certain things will always remind me of her—peignoirs and Daniel Green bed slippers, porcelain eggs and demitasse cups, Limoges china and Hummel angels, Jif Peanut Butter, saltines and instant grits (which she carried with her whenever she traveled)…and, of course, L’Air du Temps, her signature perfume, and the fragrant month of May.

It comes on like a flower from the earth
advancing with decisive aroma
up to the magnitude of the magnolia;
but this flower from the depths already burst
brings along all the light ever abolished,
all the branches that never burned
and all the spring-source of whiteness.

–from The Wave by Pablo Neruda

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What is the Grass?

What is the grass?  A child asks Whitman that question in “Song of Myself,” the best-known poem in Leaves of Grass.  At first, he says he doesn’t know, but, being Whitman, soon takes up the metaphorical challenge.  He offers a series of possibilities—perhaps the grass is the hopeful green flag of his disposition, perhaps the handkerchief of the Lord—before concluding, “now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”  He was, I imagine, strolling in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn when he composed those lines.  Green-wood is one of a series of rural cemeteries developed in Northern states following the exemplary model set by Boston’s Mt. Auburn.  The rural or garden cemetery movement was a response to a burgeoning urban population and growing concern over the unsanitary conditions of existing city graveyards.   Bodies were exhumed and relocated to these new park-like settings, and tourists came in droves to escape the noise, chaos, and pollution of the city.  Green-wood opened in 1838 and, by 1860, was attracting 500,000 visitors a year. The popularity of garden cemeteries spawned the urban park movement beginning with Central Park which opened in 1857.

Whitman, who, starting as early as age 16 spent several years as a freelance journalist and editor for Brooklyn newspapers, wrote several articles about Green-Wood.  It is not surprising that his meditative time there should have greatly influenced Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.  I am lucky to live in a city with a smaller version of the garden cemetery, Old Gray Cemetery, founded in 1850.

Old Gray Cemetery, Knoxville, TN

Old Gray Cemetery, Knoxville, TN

It is my favorite place for meditative walks.  Today, Old Gray’s uncut hair of the grave is confettied with spring wildflowers—buttercups, violets, white and pink clover, and blue lyreleaf sage, a type of salvia.  As Whitman said of the grass, the flowers, too, are equalizers of social hierarchy:

… a uniform hieroglyphic . . . Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

The grass and flowers adorn the unmarked paupers’ graves at the far end of Old Gray as well as those with beautiful statuary, like that of Lillian Gaines, who died in 1876 at age seven.  Why she died we don’t know.  Lillian’s monument, a statue of a little girl in mournful pose, is a sentimental favorite with visitors.Old Gray Cemetery Often, I have seen flowers in her lap; on occasion I have put a wildflower bouquet there myself. Today, I see that someone has tied a Raggedy Ann doll.

Lillian’s premature death saddens me, but it would not sadden Whitman.  Whitman was very Buddhist in his ideas about death.  His Victorian pronouncements on the subject are only slight variations of passages in the works of the modern-day Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. Essentially, they both say that the body, like the grass, is merely a manifestation, that before they were body or grass, they were something else and will be something else yet again and again. Both men find in nature validation for their beliefs.

What do you think, Whitman asks his reader:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

And then tells you what he thinks:

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Hanh, in his book, No Death, No Fear, asks the same question—“Where do we come from?  Where do we go?”—and gives the same answer.  There is no coming and no going, he says, only manifesting if the conditions are right or not manifesting if they are not.  Coming and going, birth and death are merely ideas; once we liberate ourselves from ideas, then we will have no fear. To see deeply, he says, we have to first learn the art of stopping.

Old Gray CemeteryThe Buddha is often portrayed as sitting on a lotus flower….. If we’re capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower—whether that is at the base of a tree, on the grass, or on a stone bench. When we’re really sitting, we’re free from all worries, from all regrets, from all anger.… With every breath, we can generate mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Insight is our liberation. Insight liberates us from our fear, our ignorance, our loneliness and despair. It is this insight that helps us to penetrate deeply into the nature of no-birth and no-death, and the interconnected nature of all things.

I love reading Whitman and Hanh, kindred spirits writing the same message across time and continents.  They offer such a comforting (and, to me, rational) explanation for the mystery of death, much more than Christianity has ever offered.  But, unlike them, I am not yet able to live the inter-being, to liberate myself from ideas.  I can only intellectualize.  Visiting cemeteries has become a kind of mindfulness practice for me, a way to be present and not floundering continually in ideas.  I’m not very good at it even there, but a cemetery seems the best possible setting in which to ask these questions, to ever hope of reaching a deeper understanding.  Contemplating the hair of the grave seems a fine starting point.

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National Library Week 4/10-16/11 – Dispatches

Lawson McGhee Library, Knoxville, TN

Lawson McGhee Library, Knoxville, TN

January:  A warmer than usual day, lots of sunshine. It’s after lunchtime on a quiet Sunday in downtown Knoxville, and I’m out for a walk. Down the block, I see a small gathering on the library steps, waiting for the doors to open at one o’clock. No special event, just the usual library lizards, a scene that always affirms my belief in democracy.

Rothrock Used Book Shop, Lawson McGhee Lib., Knoxville, TN

Rothrock Used Book Shop, Lawson McGhee Library, Knoxville, TN

February:  A slow day in Rothrock, the library’s tiny used bookshop. Only one customer, a man on his knees browsing the boxes of vinyls lining two walls. Vinyls and sheet music are the specials of the month. “Now this,” he says, holding up an LP in its blue cardboard jacket, “is worth much more than a dollar.” An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer is the title. I have never heard of Tom Lehrer, a fact which must be apparent in my blank gaze. “1959,” the man goes on, “recorded live at Harvard. Lehrer was a songwriter for a TV show in the mid-Sixties called That Was the Week That Was.” When I say I remember the show but not anything about it, he begins singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” Nice voice—obviously he knows all the lyrics, but I’m glad he stops before the security guard notices. By the time he leaves, after buying a half-dozen or so albums, I have added another genre, songwriting, to my limited knowledge of political satire.

March:  Standing at the circulation counter, I hear a yell, a staccato discharge cracking the silence, something like I imagine the barbaric yawp Whitman made over the rooftops of the world. I look around and see only one other person near the magazines whose expression must match my own. Everyone else, library staff and other patrons, seem not to have noticed. Then I see him, a tall, thin young black man wearing a windbreaker and ball cap loping out of the fiction stacks, his low-slung, baggy pants flapping like sails. He yawps again.  I soon realize that he probably has Tourette’s or Asperger’s and that everyone knows him because he is a regular, that he is a regular because he feels comfortable here, that he feels comfortable because no one judges him. There are many things I love about libraries—their free access to knowledge, their amazing music and film collections, their bookish, no-nonsense personnel (Lily Tomlin: “if truth is beauty, how come no one in the library has their hair done?”)—but what I love most of all is that libraries are non-discriminatory. They welcome people of all ethnicities, interests, backgrounds, social or economic classes, physical or mental capabilities.

April:  Another beautiful spring in Old Gray Cemetery just north of downtown. I’m walking past the gravesite of Mary Utopia Rothrock, the city’s first library director. You wouldn’t know it was here unless someone pointed it out. Typical of Topie, as she was called by friends and family, hers is no fancy monument, just a small flat marker totally obscured by a mass of Lenten roses. Rothrock was born in Trenton, TN, in 1890 and graduated from the New York School of Library Science in Albany in 1914, a school

New York School of Library Science, Albany, NY

New York School of Library Science, Albany, NY

founded by Melvil Dewey himself and which he directed until 1906. In 1916, at age 26, she was hired as Chief Librarian of the Knox County Library System, a position she held until 1933. From 1933 until 1948 she served as Supervisor of Library Services at TVA where she was responsible for establishing small circulating libraries in remote Tennessee communities.  Many of these  4-5,000 book “libraries”
were in unlikely places–post offices, stores, even filling stations. She died in 1976, five years after construction of the new downtown library. I hope she got to see it.  I sit down on the new green grass flecked with wild violets and small white clusters of star of Bethlehem. I open my library book. I read.

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Tennessee Williams at the Copacabana

Today, I am here with 88-year-old mother in the nursing home dining room for Friday Happy Hour. The beverage highlight is a Fuzzy Navel with rum. All of the resident attendees, my mother included, are in wheelchairs. I am thinking that we could all be characters in a Tennessee Williams play. The scene is a sober reminder of many of Williams’ themes—loneliness, confinement, abandonment, mental illness; he certainly would have approved the palliation of these conditions with a weekly happy hour.

Sharing our table are two of Mom’s neighbors from the third floor. Joy is like her name, a bright spirit who shines her smile on everyone, dimples even. Her husband died before she retired as an elementary school teacher in Indiana. Like my mother, she is here in Knoxville because her daughter lives here. Joy is more engaged, more active than most of the residents. She has a portable sewing machine in her room, is always making something for her grandchildren or giving someone here one of her little crocheted cross bookmarks. Despite being on dialysis with liquid intake restrictions, she cons visitors into bringing her lattes from Panera’s. Southern Travelers Gospel SingersCharles is a black crooner from Jacksonville, Florida, who, as a young man, was part of a gospel singing troupe called the Southern Travelers and toured Europe in the late 40s. He says he loved Paris, loved the French, and the French loved him. I have no doubt of that. Like Joy, Charles has never met a stranger. He is small and wiry and still able to walk short distances. Many times I’ve seen him pushing, rather than riding in, his wheelchair. He always wears dress slacks and long-sleeved shirts with sleeves rolled and a black felt hat. He embodies that rare gallantry of another era. Some days I can hear him across the hall singing “You Are My Sunshine” to his wife Helda. Helda, who is bedridden and mute due to strokes, came to the nursing home six years before him. Someone told me he visited her almost every day. Now they are roommates once again.

At the table next to ours is Joanna, a tiny woman who literally shines, from her gold slippers and pink sequined sweater set to her blonde wig. She is the only woman I see wearing makeup beyond lipstick—most aren’t even wearing that—and the only woman I know who wears big Hollywood sunglasses indoors. When I first saw Joanna, I thought, why, it’s Blanche DuBois, as I live and breathe. I could hear Blanche’s Southern accent in my head, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.” But after getting to know her a little better, I realized that Joanna is no Blanche. Joanna is not the type to ask directions nor depend on the kindness of strangers.

Joanna takes her rum straight, no fuzz, no schnapps. Joy tells me that Joanna bartended in Miami for over twenty years. I look at her again, trying to imagine her petite figure behind a bar pouring shots and highballs and, amazingly, can. “Hey, Joanna,” someone yells across tables, “how’s the Cutty Sark?” She shakes her head and gives a thumbs-down, her gold bangles jingling. Barry Manilow is singing “Co-pa, Co-pa-ca-ban-a.” I wonder if anyone else notices the poignancy of the lyrics:

Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was thirty years ago,
When they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in the dress she used to wear,
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined,
And drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind!

Mom will not touch anything with alcohol and sips her Sprite. She has already removed the little paper parasol from her glass, consigning it along with, I’m sure, Happy Hour itself to that broad category of foolishness she calls “too much sugar for a nickel.”

“I don’t like their music,” she says. She may not remember the recent past, but she is clear about what she likes or does not like and is not shy about saying so. I know that her objection is not to the lyrics—she probably can’t hear them—but to the style. She grew up on country music and never ventured into other genres. I know she doesn’t like living here either, although that is something she has never expressed an opinion about. Like most of her generation who grew up during the Great Depression and married during World War II, she accepts her fate without bitterness or whining.

My mother always said that she did not want to die a long, lingering death; she wanted to just fall over. Whenever she said that, I immediately thought of the man riding a tricycle on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a sketch comedy television program that was popular in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The man, wearing a yellow raincoat and hat, is furiously peddling away from the camera, and then, for no apparent reason, tips over, Splat! then freeze-frame—dead, as my mother would say, as a door nail. At some point, maybe in her late seventies when she began to tire easily, the image seemed less comical. I began to picture myself in that scene, a little desperate, running behind that tricycle, arms flailing, hoping to be there to catch her.

Neither of us is getting our wish. After three falls, none the fatal keel-over she wished for, she is now in a nursing home five minutes from my home. She has been here five years, slowly but steadily disappearing. Her broken bones have healed, but silent strokes have left her with some short-term memory loss and paralyzed legs. She also has some age-related dementia, mainly a loss of social inhibitions which frees her to say, “Shit,” when Charles, being cute, asks, “Would any of you lovely ladies care to dance?”

I look around the room, ponder so many once-vibrant narratives that have now been reduced to the barest essentials and feel like Tennessee Williams, who said, “I am haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.” Before this year is out, Joy, Charles, and Joanna, and others whose names I do not know, will be gone. Such sudden and quiet disappearances, even of people I’m not close to, are hard for the mind to comprehend. I am grateful for writers like Williams who were (and are) not afraid to address the unspeakable, whose works are part personal protest against life’s terrors and society’s inequities, part defiant attempt to breach the unfathomable abyss.

I can almost see Williams here now, sitting in a far corner signing autographs for staff. He is wearing his party attire—white Panama hat and sunglasses, loose embroidered Key West shirt open to the chest, light canvas slip-ons. He motions to one of the servers and asks if, by chance, anyone here knows how to make a Ramos Gin Fizz. Joanna would know.

“I’m ready to go home now,” my mother says. I don’t ask her what she means by that, just roll her out to the elevators. I don’t want to know; it’s kind of a Catch 22 question, sad answer both ways: home is either her little house on Cross Street in Kingsport which she bought with her hard-earned money and lived in for thirty-five years after my father died and which was sold five years ago, or the tiny room she shares with Mrs. Perelman, age 93, who plays her keyboard every afternoon and likes the thermostat at 80.

Whenever I ask her what she’s thinking about, she says her mind is blank, and I guess that’s a good thing. In Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Flora Goforth, an eccentric widow who is writing her memoirs, asks her friend, “”Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going?” If old age is a backward flowing river, a regression from adult to child then infant, the only difference is that from that blank slate a baby will add new memories; an elderly person frequently will not. Dementia, then, is probably Nature’s way of making death easier. Otherwise, how could one die peacefully with a lifetime of memories calling one back? Maybe my mother’s will be a “good death” after all, one that I hadn’t considered until now, one that occurs after all memory has been erased.

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, about Mom’s bedtime. As the elevator door closes, I hear the fading voice of Frank Sinatra singing, “…the memory of all that. No, no, they can’t take that away from me,” while I am just as hopelessly trying to write all this down in my head.

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Sanitarium of the Mind

Some days the news is so bad, circumstances so dire, or personal loss so devastating, I long for one of those old-fashioned health resorts, an open-air sanitarium from the days before psychotherapy mushroomed into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a compendium of over 300 mental disorders, each with its own designer drug. Sometimes I long for a medical vocabularial regression, back to a time when, if you weren’t insane or suicidal, you were simply suffering from a case of ‘nerves’ and sent off to one of those calming retreats to regain your emotional footing.

Sanitariums (not to be confused with sanatoriums, medical facilities for treating tuberculosis) were prevalent in the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most in the Northeast. Several of them were a little too big for my taste—too many people, activities perhaps too micromanaged, bordering on cruise ships which seem to me like floating prisons of enforced gaiety. T. C. Boyle’s novel, The Road to Wellville, spoofed what was probably the most famous (and flakey) of them, the Battle Creek Sanitarium founded by Dr. John Kellogg. Kellogg was a Seventh-Day Adventist whose health notions seemed radical at the time but have since gained merit (except, perhaps, for his fixation with colonic hygiene). Another of those large sanitariums was the Jackson Sanitarium in Dansville, NY, known as “Our Home on the Hillside” where ‘granula’ was invented by Dr. Jackson in 1894. Jackson Sanitarium, "Our Home on the Hill," Dansville

I suppose my idea of a perfect sanitarium came from a much-loved Elia Kazan film, Splendor in the Grass, in which Deanie, played by Natalie Wood, is sent off to a sanitarium in Wichita to recover from a broken heart after breaking up with her boyfriend, Bud, played by Warren Beatty. The screenplay was written by American playwright William Inge, a native Wichita Sanitriumof Kansas, where the film is set. At the time, late Twenties, sanitariums were following the “milieu treatment” developed by the Menninger Sanitarium in Topeka. Milieu treatment replaced the old “rest cure” and was an all-encompassing approach, engaging patients in such physical activities as exercise, gardening or creative arts and involving all of the staff, from psychiatrists and social workers to housekeepers and gardeners, in a patient’s recovery. A decade later, all of this changed with the appearance of electroshock therapy, surgical lobotomies, and Thorazine.

In the film, we see Deanie in a landscape painting class and the young doctor she becomes engaged to, also a patient, making a metal sculpture. The building was like many of the sanitarium facilities of the time: inside and out, it could have been someone’s Victorian country home. The French doors of the visitors’ parlor opened onto a wide, columned veranda with white wicker furniture and beyond a spreading lawn dotted with old oaks and patients and nurses strolling or sitting in white Adirondack chairs. Everything was very slow, serene, quiet, the staff kind and attentive. Beyond the trees, there was water.  Most all sanitariums had water nearby or on the grounds, either natural or artificial.  The Wichita Sanitarium had a 1.5 acre artificial lake.

Of course, that was the movies, and Kazan who made even depression romantic. Still, there was some historic accuracy re amenities. A typical ad is this 1913 pictorial brochure from Dr. Givens’ Sanitarium in Stamford, CT:  Located near the seashore off Long Island Sound, fifty minutes from New York City by train or steamboat, the grounds consist of 100 acres laid out in walks and lawns especially arranged for lawn tennis, croquet, baseball, and other out-door games. The residences, although described as cottages, were big and homey with long, white banistered porches and lushly landscaped lawns. A garden and orchard provided seasonal fruits and vegetables. There must have been cows and chickens because there were fresh eggs and milk daily. A walk followed the banks of a little river called the Rippowam, and several buildings had a commanding view of the Sound.

Some might say it would be depressing to be around so many depressed people, but I disagree. You might not want to stay for two and half years like Deanie, but what a relief to periodically be surrounded by a whole community of sad people. We live in a culture that does not know how to do sad. There is far too much emphasis on happiness.  In a sanitarium, there would be no need to pretend when people ask, “How are you?”  No one would presume:  “You seem to be doing so well.” People mean well, they really want to know that you’re moving right along, but it can be exhausting trying not to disappoint them, like walking around with contracted muscles.

Writers seem to have a need for such facilities. Mclean Hospital in Belmont, MA, is known for its literary residents and was, for some, literally a last resort—Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and David Foster Wallace all spent time there. It was the setting for The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted. Sexton tried several times to get herself admitted and used to joke, “If only I could get a scholarship to Mclean.” Of course, these writers all had serious mental disorders, and McLean is a psychiatric hospital, not a sanitarium; but from its opening in 1818 until 1892, it was known as McLean Asylum and operated very much like a sanitarium with treatment stressing tranquility, a healthy diet and exercise regimen. As late as 1944, it was still a self-sustaining community, operating a farm, an upholstery shop and a blacksmith shop.

Robert Walser, a kind of W. G. Sebald of Switzerland, spent some twenty years in a sanitarium there. He did nothing creative in those years—he came there, he said, not to write but to be crazy—but kept busy at various jobs such as sorting and tying string for the local post office. He helped the nurses clean the ward, and in the afternoon, during the regular work shift, he gathered lentils, beans and chestnuts, or glued paper bags. In his free time, he liked to read yellowed magazines and old books. And he did write—microscopically small pencil handwriting now museumed as Microscripts and viewed more as literary oddities than literature. He could get five or six short stories on a postcard.

Louise Bogan, 1897-1970Louise Bogan, acclaimed poet and reviewer for The New Yorker for 38 years, spent time in 1931 at Cromwell Hall, a sanitarium in Connecticut much frequented by another poet, Sara Teasdale. There, Bogan found healing in weaving and concluded that, for her, time and fate were the things to be overcome, not only the irrevocable past but the inexorable passing of time, how fast it goes, how little one accomplishes in the brief allotment. She found peace at Cromwell; as Elizabeth Frank writes in Louise Bogan, a Portrait, her peace came not from “a passive resignation, but a willingness to live, work, and create as mortals within the confines of the finite.”

T. S. Eliot finished his most famous work, The Wasteland, while recovering from a “mental collapse” in a Swiss sanitarium in 1921. There, he broke through a serious writer’s block, an experience he later described in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism as the “sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life…. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden.”

Sanitariums had pretty much disappeared by the mid-Fifties following the appearance of the first antidepressants. Institutionalized treatment gave way to the consumer/survivor movement. Nowadays, the seriously ill can still go to a psychiatric hospital. Those with less money and/or health insurance are served by community medical clinics which identify a patient’s particular disorder then send him or her home with medication and instructions to call the doctor if they experience dry mouth or insomnia. For the merely sad, the nerve-frazzled, there is no longer an in-between facility like a sanitarium. It’s more or less a DIY project—self-help books, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, herbal supplements, and, let’s face it, alcohol—you must pick yourself up and work your own way back into normalcy. Oh, you can spend a week or two at a spa where everything is done TO you—massages, facials, pedicures, mud baths—but, for me, the very fact of all that self-indulgent idleness would just make me feel guilty and more depressed.

For more solitude, you can still travel via cargo ship like Thomas WolfeThomas Wolfe, who made seven trips to Europe between 1924 and 1936. Real freighters, not, as mentioned previously, floating carnivals. On them, expect to join a taciturn crew for dinner in the mess hall and help wash dishes afterward. Wolfe loved them but didn’t find them conducive to writing: I can’t write a good letter on a ship—the movement, the tremble of the engines, and the creaking of the wood destroy concentration. I’ll write later from Paris. A problem exacerbated, no doubt, by the poor quality of his writing instruments: This is not a tear—only a damn French pen.

Writer/artist retreats and monasteries offer some respite, kind of bare-bones versions of sanitariums. A poet friend goes regularly to a place in rural Virginia called The Porches, a historic farmhouse built in 1854 overlooking the James River. You’ll find solitude there, nature walks and porches, but no solicitous staff, no vegetable garden, no meals but those you prepare yourself in the communal kitchen. For more involvement in creative arts (and more money) there are week-long retreats. I have friends who teach poetry and painting at retreats in small villages in France and Italy. But not everyone at these retreats is recovering from a nervous breakdown; you might still have to put on a face. If someone reinvented the sanitarium, I think artists and writers would be flocking to it. When I explained sanitariums to a friend, she said, “Oh, where is one, I want to go. I could take sick leave.”

The dharma gods tell us we don’t have to travel to find peace. Lao Tzu in his Tao te Ching said if you are living right, even though the next country is so close that [you] can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, [you] are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it. Emily Dickinson was totally and happily insphered in her home and garden. Some go even smaller in their escapist models. Joyce Carol Oates, after the death of her husband of 47 years, made a kind of nest of her bed and lived and worked out of it for six months.

Siddhartha said do not seek peace outside yourself, peace is within. Buddha, too: the mind is everything; what you think you become. Writers, artists, musicians, creators in general, have a genetic predisposition to internality. They hide out in their compositions, worlds constructed to their own specifications. Proust did that, loved being in his imagined world so much he spent fourteen years completing it. Some go smaller still in essays, little forays into a subject that soothes. I can say honestly that I have spent several pleasant days and parts of nights in this one, eating granula and yogurt for breakfast, gathering beans and gluing paper bags in the afternoon, sitting on the porch at sunset watching the water change colors.

Maybe, as Louise Bogan found, a sanitarium is a necessary reprieve from time, but you can’t stay there indefinitely, because time is as inherent as oxygen—to wish to escape it is nothing less than a death-wish. So, good-bye, little sanitarium of the mind, where the rooms are light-filled and the gardens verdant, where all your ghosts meander the dirt walkways or sit on the blue-planked porch looking out to sea…sad, but resting.

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My Ideal Bookshop

I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the evening…like a light in the midst of the darkness. — Vincent van Gogh

I’m in escapist mode again, sitting here mentally constructing my ideal bookshop when all across the country independent booksellers are closing in alarming numbers. I’m emotionally incapable of writing about insanity in the world; for instance, big box chains that confused books with commodities, glutting the market then tanking, taking indies down with them. Or Republicans cutting sixty-some billion dollars from Federal programs when the annual military budget is 527 trillion, approximately equal to the military spending of all the other countries in the world combined. Any attempt would be sputtering. It was probably the same for Emily Dickinson who never mentioned the Civil War in her poetry, even though some 600,000 American men died during her most prolific years. So, I’ll have my fantasy. What would my ideal bookshop be like?

Well, my models will have to come from experience; I’m no J.K. Rowling who, I’m sure, could conjure up a bookshop that even Borges would feel at home in. My bookshop, like my religion, is an amalgamation of all the best aspects of others I have encountered. First of all, it would be small, small enough that it could only be called a bookshop not a bookstore. The word store is too modern, too impersonal, too consumerist sounding. It would be in an old building, time-tested like the books it carries. The books would be mostly used, some so old, so heavy with history, you imagine you can hear the worms gnawing. There would be no catering to bestseller lists, no postings of bestseller lists, no interest in customers who want what the masses are reading.

The place would be a bit disorganized, a bit cluttered, kind of how I imagine Brightman’s Attic, the bookshop in Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies. Or something like the bookshops in the films Funny Face and 84 Charing Cross Road, bookshops that convey by their mere lack of ambition a reverence for the thing that gives them legitimacy. They are, in fact, places as spiritual as cemeteries, memorials to writing and writers and sobering reminders of mortality, their modest displays of books and ephemera nothing short of shrines.

Lighting would be soft, a warm sepia glow falling on lots of old dark wood. The air would smell slightly musty, like the earth the books are slowing disintegrating back into. There would be worn but sturdy wooden chairs tucked in cozy corners and a maze of tiny rooms, each devoted to a different category, alcoves one could disappear in undisturbed for hours. Oddments and antiquarian paper would be scattered throughout—boxes of vintage greeting cards and postcards on countertops; stacks of outdated art and literary journals; old posters, photographs, maps, and hand-addressed envelopes with foreign stamps, yellowing with age, stuck to the walls and behind the cashier’s desk. There would be no cash register, just a handheld calculator and a receipt pad. And no fancy gift-wrap or shopping bags, or shopping bags at all. It might be possible, if you have a long journey ahead and the book is fragile or rare, to have it wrapped in brown paper and string.

There would be worn Persian rugs and random stacks of books on the floor and at least one sliding ladder. The shop would not sell food or drinks which tend to put people in a festive mood. For proof of this, visit Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar in Asheville, NC. It’s a party with pretty books as a backdrop. As a party venue, it’s great; if you’re looking for books as interior decoration, it’s also great. But the ideal bookshop fosters above all else an island of calm for the mind, or, to paraphrase Paul Auster: a vault of contemplation, a noiseless sanctuary where a soul can find a measure of peace in an America gone to hell in the clamor and crush of an ever-growing mountain of machines and money.

Okay, music is allowed but only if it is New World, Old World, Folk or Classical, mostly instrumental, soft, unobtrusive. It’s hard to be in another century or even in this one with electroacousticacidpunkraptechnoid noise. In the same vein, it would not be a place for young children. Children have that other kind of book outlet, the independent bookstore, which is a fine invention, necessary not only for children but also for adults who have occasional need for human contact, for social gathering, a place to meet friends in a slightly giddy atmosphere with live music and a background buzz of book/knitting/origami groups and book signings/readings, where everything is bright and colorful and smells new and you can buy all manner of reading and writing paraphernalia from bookbags to umbrellas. I also love indies and have taken great pleasure in the few my city has been blessed with over the years—AppleTree Books, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Carpe Librum Booksellers—and when they closed, I was saddened and felt Knoxville was greatly diminished without them. But these were bookstores, not my ideal bookshop.

Finally, the shop would not employ large personalities, overly friendly types who feel compelled to engage patrons in empty conversation. Staff would be serious book people themselves, i.e., slightly hermetic, slightly off the grid, polite but reserved, happy to assist but never pushy or presumptuous. They might be like Vincent Van Gogh, who, as a young man, worked as a bookseller’s clerk at Blussé and Van Braam in Dordrecht, Netherlands—an oddball, the owner’s son, Mr. Braat, remembered him decades later, always making silly little sketches, pen-and-ink drawings of little torqued trees with many branches and twigs.

Scheffersplein, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1905, by Meijers

Scheffersplein, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1905, by Meigers

“What young gentleman would think of sitting about in a smock? He looked like an immigrant….” You can imagine how that went…after Vincent was long-gone and something of a celebrity, the Braats went searching through the little desk where Vincent had stood each day selling letter paper and halfpenny prints but found not a scrap of that silly doodling. And the corn chandler across the square who let a room to Van Gogh over the cornloft was sorry he trashed all those “childish landscapes” that Van Gogh had hung with nails “ruthlessly driven into the good wallpaper…..” Now the little square boasts a statue of him. You can see it here in a photo taken in 1905, ten years after his death.

These oddball clerks would be smarter and better read than ninety percent of their customers but never say what they are reading or who their favorite authors are. Their primary motive for working in the shop would never be money or retail or even books but simply because it’s where they feel most at home and, unless a customer has a specific request or is ready to check out, would be just as happy to be left alone. I imagine the same could be said for librarians. In fact, ex-librarians would make ideal bookshop clerks.

Whenever I travel, along with libraries and cemeteries, bookstores are at the top of my to-see list. I have spent many pleasant hours in many fine establishments—Strand Books and the original Barnes & Noble in NYC (which I hear is closing), Boulder Books, Harvard Book Store (forgiven for ‘store’ in its name because it opened in ’32 before the word acquired a negative connotation), Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, Balfour Books in Toronto, Wolf’s Head Books in St. Augustine—but only a few have felt like home: City Lights in San Francisco, Lion Bookshop in Rome, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, Argosy Books in NYC, Downtown Book & News in Asheville, NC (yes, I prefer it over the much-touted Malaprops). Sadly, I know there are many more I will never experience. Where would I like to travel just to visit a bookshop? Maybe Atlantis Books in Santorini, Greece, definitely Antikvariát Valentinská in Prague where I could also visit the old Jewish Cemetery and The Strohav Monastery Library, and most definitely Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal.

I feel sublimely fortunate to be able to say that I don’t have to travel very far to be in an authentic bookshop where I feel very much at home. For about 15 years I have been a devoted patron of The Book Eddy in its various Knoxville incarnations: a small concrete building in the Bearden community, in the back of Jackson Avenue Antiques in Old City, on Melrose Place near the UT campus, and on Chapman Highway. I feel especially fortunate after recently reading an online review of The Book Eddy by a long-time book collector who lives 200 miles away. He says he’s only able to make two or three visits a year, but the all-day travel is well worth it…“[it’s] very much like the bookshops in London, my very own 84 Charing Cross Road.” What he said. And I am only a 10-minute drive away.

Owner John Coleman has just closed the Chapman location and relocated to a smaller space a few miles North on Central Street where he is refining the model. The Book Eddy has now morphed into Central Street Books. I stopped in the new space recently and, although the shelves aren’t yet full and the smell of new paint overpowers the mustiness, it already has the familiar look and feel. Wonderful music was playing from fip, a French radio station that has no advertising. I don’t know if the yen-yang shop cats will come or the fossilized mandible and flying paper mache dog, but some of the old Book Eddy’s esoteric collections have started to appear—manual typewriters and folder cameras, a couple of birdcages, a ceramic Hotei the Happy Buddha, vintage bookends, and bins of vinyls. And, oh, yes, books you won’t see just anywhere—rare, out-of-print, affordable classics and cheap entries into other dimensions. This is a bibliophile’s paradise devoted purely to the Book and not to socializing, shopping, or noshing; a place that is nowhere and everywhere, that makes you forget who you are or what time it is, a place you leave feeling rejuvenated, as if you have traveled to some Farawayistan with Herodotus’ Histories your only guidebook, half expecting to find foreign dust or exotic spice still clinging to your sleeves.

John says, “Central Street Books’ goal is to become the physical portal to the best of the world of used and rare books, ephemera, and other interesting curiosities in East Tennessee.” I think he could have left off “in East Tennessee,” but that modesty is part of the package. Something the bookstore chains and America in general seem to have lost sight of. It’s the real deal, a light in the midst of the darkness.

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The Blind Leading the Blind

Thoughts after Reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness

Reading tastes are as individual as food preferences. It is, after all, biology that governs individuality, so what is it in my DNA that makes some books resonate while even critically acclaimed others do not, why scenes from some novels read years ago are as fresh as if I had just read them and whole plots of others have disappeared. This question was prompted after reading Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness

After hearing Myla Goldberg’s ardent endorsement on NPR’s You Must Read This, I made a mad dash to my to-read bookshelf—if Blindness wasn’t there I could search the library online (our amazing little library is a block away and open until 8pm weeknights, thank god for libraries). Yes! I had it! Squirreled away with a stack of other promising getaways.

Goldberg said she does not re-read books but read Blindness three times. Wow, I thought, I don’t know anyone who has read a book three times. I, too, do not re-read books, not even the ones that held me captive in other worlds in which I left little pieces of myself, like Magic Mountain, sitting bundled up in a deck chair in the sun and cold of the Swiss Alps where time had stopped and death and decay of both body and terrain were tied, trying to figure out if and why we really exist. Goldberg said just talking about Blindness made her want to read it yet again. I had read only one other Saramago, All the Names, which left only the impression, hmm, okay, interesting but not enjoyable, memorable only for its style.  Maybe Blindness was The One.

So, I started reading Blindness. Slowly. Laboriously. It made me tired just to pick it up at night, to see what fresh hell those miserable characters would find themselves in next.  This resistance may have been partly due to the fact that I have never cared much for dystopian fiction. I felt the same way about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I appreciate the message both McCarthy and Saramago are sending—wake up, you people, before it’s too late. At the end, in case the reader hasn’t gotten it, Saramago even spells it out. The doctor, upon recovering his sight, tells his wife, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.” But, for me, message alone is not enough.

About halfway, I started skimming, reading just enough to see that things were not getting better, were, in fact, getting progressively darker and more desperate.  The characters are not dehumanized, just the opposite, the final violation they suffer is the stench of their own body odor.  I didn’t find it disturbing; I wasn’t engaged enough to be disturbed.  I was simply bored.  Reduced to mind-numbing torpor.

I’m sure it was intentional on Saramago’s part to match the writing to actual blindness. Reading Blindness was like being blind, like trying to find a foothold in a narrative that is itself a maze, long sentences and paragraphs broken only by commas and occasional periods, run-on dialogues and no quotation marks. I didn’t have a problem with that; capital letters worked fine in signaling a new speaker. My main problem was that I couldn’t connect with the characters. I did not find them, as Goldberg said, “beautifully rendered”…well, yes, they did “represent a wide spectrum of human nature.”  But they were featureless, flat, a wide spectrum of human nature, sure, but faceless droids.  If I could hear them speak, I’m sure it would be in a monotone.

I concluded that my reading tastes are governed to a great extent by my learning style, and I wonder if this might be true for other people. My learning style is visual. Reading a good novel is like dreaming, like a movie playing inside my head. Blindness was like having sound but no picture. My favorite authors have acute descriptive powers—they place me in a scene so fully that I lose reality. When Newland Archer in Age of Innocence stands at land’s end looking out at the figure in the pagoda at the end of the pier, I can still see the bay at sunset, the back of Ellen Olenska as she leans on the railing, and the lighthouse past which the sailboat glides, marking the time he will give her to sense his presence and turn toward him, his sign that she cares for him. The charged emotion in the scene is realized by a convergence of his thoughts with the scenery in which they arise and evolve.

When I think of the opening chapter in Agee’s A Death in the Family, I can still see Rufus and his father walking home in darkness from the movie, crossing the viaduct and stopping to sit on a rock in a vacant, weedy lot overlooking the tracks of the Southern Railway, the mountains to the north and the stars through the leaves of the tree overhead. The deep, unspoken affection between father and son, the brevity and fragility of life on earth and the mystery and infinity of the universe are inextricably bound in that lovingly rendered scene.

After hearing Goldberg, I wish I had gotten a second opinion. I wish I had read this Saramago review in The New Republic by John Banville, a writer whose work I greatly admire. Banville said that if a writer is given signs it is “our duty to make the meaning of our signs as tangible as possible for those who come after us. Otherwise all we will have done is put impediments in the way of the blind. Vagueness may be fashionable, but clarity is timeless.”  I have satisfied my curiosity about Saramago, at least his later work, and will happily return to books inspired by story, not style.  Seeing, for me, is believing.

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When I think of Araby, the “splendid bazaar” in James Joyce’s short story of the same name with its countless booths of exotic wares (or so the narrator, as an innocent, imagined), I think of those treasure palaces of long ago, the Five and Dime stores that were the delight of poor children in the South and across Appalachia. They have disappeared, but many of the beautiful old Kress and Woolworth buildingsKress Bldg, Knoxville, TN, photo by Lumierefl remain, ornate oddities from an era when people dressed up to go to town. The old discount concept survives, of course, in Ben Franklin, Wal-Mart, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree stores, but how could these possibly compare when global commerce and the glut of mass production have taken the wonder and anticipation, the mystery and uniqueness out of junk?

There is no surprise left in shopping in the US anymore–you can go to any mall in America and see the same things.  I rarely go to malls unless I need something practical—sheets or shoes or underwear—even when traveling.  My favorite place to shop in New York is not Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s but the flea market on Columbus Avenue and West 77th in the Upper West Side.  That is a real bazaar, with everything from plants and food to furniture, clothing, antiques, and pretty much anything.  I see things there I’ve never seen before—things made when handicraft was valued, things with histories, things stamped ‘made in Portugal,’ or England, or France, or, something one rarely sees today, ‘made in the U.S.A.’—and I get to haggle.

My mother’s treasure palace in the Thirties was Shanks’ Variety Store in Gate City, Virginia.  It was, I imagine, a smaller version of the one in one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  During the week Francie, the young protagonist, and her younger brother, children of immigrants, scavenge the garbage in the two buildings where their mother is janitress and sell their collected finds to the ragman on Saturday morning.  Francie collects her five pennies and heads for the retail district.  Her first stop is always the Five and Dime.  When the floor clerk gives her the eye, she holds out her palm with the coins and says defiantly, “I’m only looking; I have a right.”  Five and Dimes were some of the first retailers to move merchandise out from behind the counter and allow customers to handle and select without the assistance of sales clerks.  It was a social equalizer in the retail sphere; one didn’t have to buy anything or even have money to feel privileged.

I was probably in Shanks’ at some point but don’t remember it—we moved from Virginia to Tennessee when I was six.  My strongest memory of downtown Gate City is of the legless man whose stump body balanced on a small square of nailed boards on rollers.  He pushed himself along the sidewalk with his hands and arms and on Saturdays parked himself in front of Nickels’ Department Store to sell pencils.  I didn’t see it then because I was young and afraid of anything remotely grotesque, but in those days there was a dignity even to homelessness.  I never knew how he came to lose his legs, whether he was born that way or lost them tragically in a farm accident or World War II.

In Tennessee I had my own childhood Five and Dime and occasional quarters to spend there on useless things—rhinestone rings that turned my finger green, paper dolls and, horrid thought, candy cigarettes.  I also had what may have been a life-changing moment there, although not the kind of epiphany that Joyce made famous.  One day in the early sixties, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I walked through the store and was suddenly mesmerized by the music.  At that time, the Five & Dime had bargain bins of $1.99 LPs—Columbia or Reprise or Decca labels—and always had one playing on a demo turntable as promotion.  These were albums that hadn’t sold well in record shops but were one of the main draws of price-point stores.  The music playing was like nothing I had ever heard before—symphonic, sweeping and melodic and infectious.  It was possibly my first real experience of art as transportive.

I found a clerk and asked what the music was.  He handed me the empty album sleeve.  It was “The Blue Danube” and other Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss.  The picture on the front was of ballroom dancers in a great palace. Strauss Waltzes, London Philharmonic, cond. Antal Dorati I bought it and played it over and over at home on my three-speed record player, dancing through the house as if I were somebody.  My parents, children of dirt farmers whose early exposure to the arts was limited to cowboy movies and country music smiled at this latest oddity but didn’t see what was so great about it.  They didn’t have an experience to hang it on.  Not that I had a lot, but we had owned a television for a year or two, and I had probably seen an old Busby Berkley musical or two.  I had read Little Women and been on the stairs with Amy and Beth watching the twirling dancers through the banisters.

I could say that two dollar LP offered an enlarged view of the world and my potential in it, that it made me realize there was more beauty out there to be experienced, even if the only means was through music.  I could say that to this day, whenever I hear “The Blue Danube,” I feel that same euphoric happiness that enveloped me then, lifting me above the scent of grilled cheese and chili dogs, the bins of cheap bric-a-brac, the aisles of bolted fabric and plastic flowers, paint-by-number kits and caged parakeets.  I could say that…if I weren’t, like the narrator in Araby, now eons removed from that time and place and acutely aware of how the mind sentimentalizes the past.

Shanks’ Variety Store went out of business in the Fifties.  Ironically, both it and my old Five and Dime now house antique malls selling used and ragged remnants of things sold originally—emptyFlyer for Araby 1894 Blue Waltz perfume bottles, plastic hair combs, rusted razors—only for much higher prices.  Araby, in reality, was a one-time charitable fundraiser in 1894 to aid the Catholic Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin.  Even more ironically, the site of the old hospital is now the Jervis Shopping Centre, a large, glitzy, multi-level mall.

When I think of those old main streets, it’s like viewing time-lapsed photography—the cars speed back and forth, their rounded lines giving way to boxy angles, colors getting ever bolder.  Shoppers clip up and down the sidewalks, faces, clothing and hair styles modifying in milliseconds; bodies grow larger, crowds thin, then multiply.  Wheelchairs appear, trees disappear, extra lanes appear, surrounding green spaces are asphalted over.  Buildings disappear, are replaced, grow taller, facades and signs become more modern, more sterile.  Five and Dimes morph into mega-marts (or junk shops), fueled by vanity, the impossible promise of Araby.

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