I like to read multiple books at once. I’ve been doing this since I was a child, checking out a tall pile of library books and carefully bringing them home on my bike, titles jolting out off the basket whenever the tires hit a bump. Those few blocks were a slow and careful journey home.
Out of the pool of current reads (doubled due to last spring and summer’s reading drought: I’m still catching up!), I picked the ones that most remind me of spring, this time of fitful sunshine, rain, and snow time; packed with flowers and (sometimes) floods; a burgeoning moment towards summer and deep green; sometimes tragic but more often abloom.
A Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings by Bashō, trans Sam Hamill: I came across Shambhala’s pocket library edition at my favorite local indie bookstore and couldn’t resist. And so began my journey with the Japanese poet Bashō (and Sam Hamill, one of my favorite translators). Page by page, we walked through mountain passes and villages, meandered along beaches, sailed coasts, met fellow poets, stopped at temples, hot springs, and historical sights, all the while scribbling down poetry to note different occasions of being. Spring marks the time for travels, leaving home and going somewhere new after the long dark winter, be it long distance away or a beloved spot nearby.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I started Walden last summer for bookclub and thought I’d finish it quickly as it’s a slim read. To my surprise, I’d read a few pages at a time and then spent days afterwards pondering Thoreau’s views, philosophies, and observations. This is one of those rare books that is intensely thoughtful and joyful. It pairs well with Bashō, two artists who looked closely at the natural world and wrote deeply about it.
How to Know the Ferns by Francis Theodora Parsons. I came across this exquisite book while browsing through the Sterling Library, a tiny library at the Morton Arboretum. Parsons’ guide book contains the usual identification points for keying out ferns but also includes beautiful illustrations drawn by her friend, Marion Satterlee. The best entries center on Parsons’ personal experience on hunting for certain ferns, entertaining moments with fellow fern aficionados (both fern hunting together and arguments included) and some beautiful quotes by Thoreau. Parsons was a naturalist in the 1890’s and one of my heroes—she tramped everywhere in upstate New York, identifying plants and trees and delighting in nature. She shared her love of nature through her massively popular books and made a living this way as well. Her books were coming out around the same time that Elizabeth von Arnim (Enchanted April) published her first book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a memoir on gardening, which skyrocketed her into popularity as well.
Orphic Paris by Henri Cole. I picked this up during one of NYRB book sales, started reading it last spring, put it down, and have returned to it once again. It is a travelogue of sorts, one that comes from walking the streets of Paris while also journeying through the mind. The two are joined through Cole’s act of writing, so that they cross, diverge, and meet up again. He visits Baudelaire’s gravesite, considers Oscar Wilde’s last days, recalls his own mother’s life and last words. His walking continues: he visits friends, contemplates monuments, films, parks, and memories. A deeply melancholy tone pervades the book but it doesn’t feel out of place for Paris or spring; life is everywhere but also mortality too.
Another book about walking through Paris but from a completely different point of voice, is Violette Leduc’s The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. This was one of my last orders from Book Depository (RIP, BD! You are missed) and so far one of my favorite reads for this year. We follow an unnamed woman, elderly and close to destitution, as she wanders the streets of Paris, starving and alone. This could be a story of absolute despair but under Leduc’s brilliant and empathetic hand, it’s not—the nameless woman possesses a brilliant and glowing imagination. Resting against a post, she becomes a peasant woman from a hundred years ago, taking a breather before she goes on to the market to sell her horse. From time to time, the pain of starvation forces her to huddle down, but she revives once more and carries on. Remnants of papers and oranges in the train station’s waiting room become little gifts left just for her and she chooses to take a train ride and skip her daily meal instead. I’m half way through but I’ve already decided to read all of Leduc’s translated works. She is not to be missed.
The Music at Long Verney by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I was completely captivated by Warner’s droll humor and witchy sensibilities, coupled alongside a deep empathy for nature and human beings. The Music at Long Verney is a carefully curated collection of her short stories and the perfect follow up to Lolly Willowes. It has that same humor and empathy but also showcases her other moods too. Her imagination, compassion, and sarcasm are a joy forever. I look forward to reading more of her work.
I look across the river and catch sight of the willows, lost in their own world. They have no regard for me. They are speaking to each other in whispers so I hear nothing clearly but I see their long golden-yellow chains wavering over the water. It reflects their light.
There are presences in this world that are not human but sometimes, a human being comes across one of these presences and this is when poetry happens—when we interact with the strange divinity that moves through the world.
I caught sight of the willows and so complete were they within themselves, so beautiful to behold, that my mind stopped dead in its tracks and my heart eased. In the presence of an Other, human commotion becomes impossibly silly and pointless. The past and future converge into the present and there is only now.
I exhale the stress I’ve held this morning as I watch them. The willows, their long hair hanging over their faces, disregard me totally and completely and talk in their slow tree way, something to do with the air, water, and earth. I cannot hear much but what I do hear makes me recall there were other beings on this earth other than myself, older than myself. They exist in this time, in many times, living, dying, always reappearing. The willows hang their hair over the water as they have done for centuries, listening to the currents and moving with the breezes and eddies of the wind.
With a gratefully diminished self, I thank the universe for the ancient poetry that is the willow tree and move forward, reborn, into the bright day.
the tea smoke
and the willow
(Trans. David G. Lanoue)
Sometimes the brain needs a rest, a small vacation enjoyed with the night. Tonight the vacation is with Prince and his first album, “For You.” It’s a sweet groovy album and as he plays, I sew, my fingers darting with need and thread as my mind stills.
Now playing — So Blue by Prince
The difficulties loom large as I transition out of survival living and into a living where I am able to take the time to look around me. A large part of being a survivor is ignoring large swathes of life for sanity’s sake. The terrible occurrences and ongoing abuses are glossed over so that we can survive. A grave side affect to this is that slowly but surely the day to day annoyances are skimmed over too– the cooking, the cleaning, the self-care. Soon everything is lumped under horrible things to ignore and by then, everything is ignored and hardly any living is done at all. Surviving is happening. Reaction is happening. But not interaction. Nor action.
Even when the abuse and the abusers are left behind and the baggage has been unpacked, the half-living continues. It hurt to look at anything for so long, it was not possible to live and look and still function, and now the habit runs deep.
One way of lessening the fear of living is looking at art. Art can be like honey, it can be the healer, it can look when we’re too scared to look but would still like to. It takes what could could be an image of every day grimness and it can make the image sweet, make it worthy of examination.
This is Garrowby Hill by David Hockney. It is just another hill in Yorkshire, England, one that has to be driven along to get from Point A to Point B. It stands in the way for a lot of drivers who just want to get to their destination. The boredom of driving along this road day after day must be interminable and undeniable. But under Hockney’s gaze the road and landscape become joyful and alive. For Hockney, this is a view of rich possibilities. The possibilities here are endless, the life is endless, and the joy is endless. Hockney’s art teaches that looking with an open heart is worthwhile and can be a palliative to our sadness and pain. It’s scary to look so joyfully at anything with a wounded heart and so his art looks for us. The art beckons us forward to new kind of living.