The major task at my studio this week has been to make packages of bound, pre-publication review copies of Thaliad, forthcoming in November from Phoenicia, for the big review lists: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal. These outfits are very selective and only review a small percentage of the books they receive. Then there's the effort and expense of pulling all the required elements together into a presentation package -- ISBN and technical info, author's bio, previous credits, blurbs and comments on previous books, illustrations and cover art -- and essentially "making" the book itself three to four months prior to publication.
After a couple of years running a tiny publishing house, I understand very well why bigger publishers have staffs, and interns, and larger budgets, and also why so many of them go out of business.
And I see why it continues to appeal to me. There's such pleasure in collaboration, made tangible when I see my own work coming together with Marly Youmans' words, and Clive Hick-Jenkins' collages. But there's more to it. As I was remembering yesterday while I printed and cut and bound these copies, I've been "making books" ever since I was a little girl. I found an early one when we were moving from Vermont: it was about 2 1/2 x 2/12 inches square, with a text written in pencil and illustrations in colored pencil; I must have made it when I was about seven or eight. There's something about the whole process, from conception to holding the finished object, that is deeply satisfying to me; it's part of what led me to write and do art, and certainly what led to my interest and, later, professional career in calligraphy, typography and graphic design, and the book arts.
It all felt like a particularly appropriate process for this book, too, because so much of Thaliad is about re-learning the old ways, the handcrafts and basic skills and wisdom, after an apocalypse. Clive picked up on this in his choice of a folk-art motif, drawn from early-American quilts, for the illustration style.
Some things about us, deep inside, simply don't change very much over the years, but technology certainly has. I would have given my best swirly glass marbles, half a century ago, for the ability to do what I was able to do this week in terms of computer files and ease of printing multiple copies right in my own studio. But the most satisfying part was still the handwork: feeling the pages under my fingers, hearing the swish of the papercutter blade, watching the cut sheets pile up to become a book-block, and finally, binding them into a book that could be paged-through and easily read. It's an elemental process, one that connects me with medieval scribes and woodblock printers and even further back, and still feels somehow miraculous and very human, emerging as it does out of our desire to create, to communicate, to share.
This is my submission to the next Language/Place blog carnival, to be hosted by Steve Wing. If it's included I'll put a link here. The theme is "Translation." The story is a recounting of a day in the spring, and is an excerpt from the long manuscript about Montreal and Iceland that I'm currently working on.
Over the weekend, I worked with one of our upstairs neighbors to prune the four Camperdown elms that grow in the garden along the side of our building. Francine was born and raised in Montreal and then married a Lebanese man who had come here to escape the civil war. They’re both a bit older than we are, with two grown children and a grandchild. She speaks some English, but unlike many Quebecois who immediately switch to English — which can either be out of politeness, or out of a desire to show how well they handle the language — when I am with her she only speaks French, and expects me to as well. As with some other francophones, I’ve never been entirely sure if it’s how she’s comfortable, or a deliberate way of indicating a political opinion that French is the language I should be speaking since we are here in Quebec. As a result I’ve always felt tentative and apologetic with her, slightly ashamed that I’m not becoming fluent faster, and have sometimes avoided longer encounters. But Francine is also one of my language touchstones; each year, as we work on the garden — a job I had volunteered for at the annual meeting of the condominium co-proprietaires, under the illusion that here my French deficiencies wouldn’t matter too much — it gets a little easier, a fact that she notices too.
She had said, on the telephone, that there were some shrubs that she wanted to discuss removing and replacing, so after collecting me at my apartment, we went outside and she showed me the ones in question. The hydrangeas, she said, never bloomed well, and the junipers were overgrown; what did I think? We pulled the branches apart to see how big the trunks were; I asked about the soil –il y a beaucoup de sable, she said – lots of sand – and learned the word for clay – argile. She said the soil was easy to dig, but that we had to get all the roots, or the hydrangea would becoming up everywhere.
Oui, I said, nous avons eu un grand hydrangea au Vermont…les hydrangeas sont très difficiles d’éradiquer.
Eradiquer! she exclaimed, and gave me a teasing half smile. Deux étoiles!
I looked at her, startled, and then we both laughed. After that things went more easily. I asked what the difference was, in French, between hydrangea and hortensia: the latter, she explained, is the name for the decorative blue and pink ones, but in Quebec this kind — she prodded the sprawling shrub near her feet with her secateurs — c’est un hydrangea. We decided to dig up the shrubs later on, when we had gotten the right kind of tools – there was no pointed shovel in the basement – and to try to enlist the aid of my husband if not hers, after discovering that they both had bad backs. Les maris! we cried. Husbands!
Then we began with the pruning – she had never asked me to help with this before, so I listened carefully and asked questions about how she wanted it done – but as we clipped the small branches that had died over the winter, and lopped off larger ones with the secateurs, we also began, tentatively at first, to exchange more information about our lives. She wanted to know what sort of work my husband and I did, and where our studio was. I knew that she painted, so I asked her if she was working on her artwork, and in what medium – watercolors, she said — and what style –a combination of figurative and abstract. What medium did I work in, she wondered, and what type of subject? Landscape, I answered, j’ai oublié le mot...Le paysage, she supplied. Had I had exhibitions in the United States? What was I doing now? She asked about our renovations, which everyone in the building knew about, were they done? what had caused the problem? And we talked, of course, about gardening; I had told her before that we had had a big garden in Vermont, and she asked if we grew vegetables; I said yes, we had, but I was pretty much through with that, although I had thought of trying some tomatoes on the roof, to which she shrugged and said the problem was so much wind up there, sur le toit, and I agreed, now that we could buy such beautiful produce in the city, what was the point? and we talked about the Middle Eastern market where I knew we both shopped, and its newly opened branch on the South Shore — comme il est grand! et merveilleux!
It was around then, as we began work on the third tree, that she switched from vous to tu. I noticed immediately, but said nothing, even though my heart registered its surprise with a silent little flip. A few sentences later, I answered back with tu.
I asked if she had gone to Beirut this past winter, as they often do, but she said no, they had gone to southern Spain for two months, and that it had been beautiful – ciel bleu et clair chaque jour, chaque jour, incroyable! She explained that her husband’s family was very close and talked constantly, but she herself spoke no Arabic so it was very hard for her, très isolée, and therefore she didn’t enjoy being in Lebanon; sometimes her husband went alone. I told her my sister-in-law was living in Beirut now and loving it, doing a lot of hiking in the mountains, and she stood up, her face glowed with a sudden memory, and said one of the most beautiful places she had ever been were some caverns near Beirut, in the mountains, the anti-Lebanons. It was like something you’d see in in a Disney film, she said, so unreal, but you are there, you are in the film yourself!
Before, I’d thought she was possessive of the trees and the garden, but as we worked and I saw how carefully she pruned, how she stood back now and then to check the progress, hands on her hips, the way she touched a limp rhododendron stem that had been hurt by falling snow, or sighed whenever she had to cut a large dead branch, I realized it was simply the love that most gardeners have for the plants they tend over many years. And for most of those years, she had done it all by herself.
We finished for the day and gathered our tools, and Francine promised to stop by later on when she had called her son about borrowing a shovel. I was in the kitchen when I heard her knock on our door, and opened it to see her grinning like a smug cat. J’ai trouvé un pelle, she announced, and then paused for dramatic effect: et une hache! She mimicked lifting an axe and bringing it down on some hapless victim: pour les racines! she added. I burst into laughter, which caused J. to leave his desk and come down the hall. What are you two laughing about? he asked. Francine has a shovel and an axe, I said. An axe? he repeated? Oui, we both said. Pour les racines – the roots!
Ok, he said, looking from one face to the other. Whatever you say!
There’s to be rain this week, Francine said, and I nodded, I had seen the méteo; Which day shall we meet, then? We agreed on Wednesday, at nine a.m.
A mercredi! I said.
A mercredi! she replied, and pulled open the door to the stairwell, smiling at me.
It's getting very blue-and-white around here as Quebec's National Day approaches: tomorrow, June 23, the feast day of Quebec's patron saint, John the Baptist.
The 23rd hasn't fallen on a Sunday for a while, but tomorrow we Anglicans are celebrating with special music all day long to commemorate John the Baptist. If you'd like to listen to Evensong, it will be broadcast live at 4:00 pm, eastern daylight savings time. Here's the program, which includes the magnificent Second Service (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) by Orlando Gibbons and his verse anthem, "This is the Record of John" in which the verses are sung by our alto/counter-tenor soloist, Simon Honeyman, and the refrains by the entire choir. Sadly, it will be Simon's last time with us; he's moving -- and we'll miss him and his wonderful voice very much.
It's also our last choir date for the season -- now we've got two months of "pick-up" choir with half our soloists each week, until we return in September. It's been a very good year for me but as much as I love to sing, I'll be grateful to have some time off, and some free Sundays.
The dreaming mind is very odd. I've always been curious about how dreams arise, and from where, and have often searched my memory for clues and associations from waking life. This one had quite a few.
The morning before the dream, I was talking to a friend in the community garden who has grown a huge spiky plant with brilliant blue flowers. It wasn't exactly a thistle, but reminded me of a much smaller native planted called viper's bugloss. I asked him what it was and he handed me the planting tag: "Great Wyoming Bugloss." Where did viper's bugloss grow? At the Boat Lot.
The evening before the dream, I had a FaceBook exchange with my cousin, who was often with me at the lake when we were kids, and who lives there now. We were speaking of our mothers, who were sisters: this week marked the anniversary of my aunt's death.
I'm going to the lake next week.
And just before I went to sleep, I was reading The Saga of the People of Laxandall, from the Icelandic sagas. I don't remember any mention of sturgeons, but certainly of fishing, and of shape-shifting. One of Haldor Laxness's modern novels of Iceland is actually about a woman who changed herself into a fish, long hidden Under the Glacier.
So the dream didn't arise from nothing, but who knows how these ideas and memories managed to combine themselves into one of "those dreams" that seem to be telling me something? I wish I knew! But I do believethat we all have within us ancient wisdom, whether it's hidden under the glacier, under the water, or just under the many layers of our busy waking lives.
So who are these people and what are they telling me? I think Mike had it pretty close in his comment on the previous post. Although I don't know for sure, I suspect that my companion is my mother; it was with her that I most often visited that place and looked down into the water. There are no sturgeon in that lake, but this one seems like it must have been present in the lake forever, to have grown to such a size. I think it represents something very ancient: probably wisdom that the lake -- my subconscious, or the unknown, or maybe actual wisdom from ancient sources-- wants to show me. That the fish then turns into a woman, and the scene shifts to an interior doesn't feel odd or frightening to me; this doesn't represent a death but a transition, though how I know that is never clear.
The older man may be my grandfather, who I often saw in such a place; in fact I have a photograph of him in a grey barn-boarded interior; nevertheless he wasn't physically recognizable in the dream, but in the man's kind, protective, caring manner that created a feeling of safety. Now it gets more difficult: was the blonde woman my mother? My mother was an artist, but stopped doing artwork when she had me and never went back to it; still, it was he great love and she shared it with me. She had dark hair; she died of cancer. The dream woman looked nothing like her; the artwork on the walls looked nothing like hers. Is she an angel, a spirit, perhaps my mother but in a different form, different realm? I think so, and whether these two beings -- appearing to me like the angelic messengers who appeared to Abraham as visiting travelers -- are recognizable or not, the message of the dream seems to be a reassuring one. This life is terminal, our bodies die, but life and spirit continue, and creation -- represented by the art -- continues. I am encouraged by these two beings, both by their manner and what they show me; I should keep creating. Both the ancient fish and the messengers seem to indicate that wisdom is always available, if I look closely and listen for it.
Do you see anything different, or something I might have missed?
Tomorrow: parsing daily life for some sources of the dream
Last night was fitful. It was hot and humid, and I woke again and again, finally going out to the living room to try to sleep on the couch. I did sleep, but was awakened again around 3:00 am by a group, led by a loud male voice, singing Celtic music. It was not a peaceful night.
During its course, I had many complicated, disjointed dreams, but one of them came to the surface of my mind this morning and stayed. It was another in the series of infrequent but significant dreams I've had about seeing things in or above the water of the lake where I grew up.
In the dream, I am standing near the Boat Lot, an unbuilt piece of land held in common by the Lake Association for the purpose of launching boats by people who didn''t have water frontage. As it was when I was young, the sandy lot is covered with short scrubby weeds, and sloped downward toward the lake. There used to be a short dock, from which you could often see large carp in the warm shallows, gliding under the lily pads that covered this small cove, but there is no dock in the dream. Instead, I am standing up on the bank. Someone else is beside me, but I don't know who it is. Looking down toward the water, I see a large fish -- a huge fish -- moving slowly among pond weeds of the same brownish color as its back. Aloud, I say to my companion, look, look at that huge fish. The fish is the size of a dolphin, as mall whale, and it's definitely not a carp. It has a thick bony back with spiny protuberances, and a long tail. In the dream, I don't identify the fish, but on waking I know: it's one of these.
Then the sturgeon changes into a woman. I don't know how this is accomplished, and I don't exactly see it in the dream; I simply know it. Next I am in a dark room paneled with barn boards; perhaps it actually is a coverted barn or shed. The walls are covered with artwork: artwork done by this shape-shifting woman. My companion is no longer with me, but there is anolder man in the room; he is the woman's father who seems responsible for her. Somehow I learn that she has been ill -- some sort of cancer -- but she has recovered and continues to do this work, which I study on the walls. Although the images do not remain in the morning, in the dream I am moved by them, and tell her father that they are very powerful and beautiful. Only at that point does the woman herself enter the room; I encounter her indirectly, as if in my peripheral vision. She is in young middle age; has short blond hair and is wearing a white blouse; her presence is extremely beneficent. I repeat my feeling about her work and she smiles but does not speak, and I wake up.
Tomorrow: my interpretation -- but feel free to offer yours!
Today's sole comfort
the invisible caress
of the whirring fan
I've been feeling, actually, like I wanted to make a new dress. I spent some time at the end of last week looking at patterns online, and thinking about fabrics -- the ones I've got in my stash, and some I had seen at a favorite shop while shopping for sandals. My enthusiasm (when in the throes of such a desire I often feel like a horse in a starting gate) was dampened a little because, in the enduring tradition of knitters and sewers, I already had a partly-finished dress that I started last summer. So, over the weekend, I actually sat down and finished all the little fussy hand-sewing details. And felt extremely virtuous. It's made from a Liberty of London silk crepe print: fabric I bought at least twenty years ago, and it too matches the cat.
But for new, potential projects, I chose four new patterns online from SewingPatterns.com and decided to buy them as printable e-patterns. This morning I printed one of them -- all 41 tiled pages -- and have been taping the pages together prior to cutting. The jury is still out on whether I'm going to like this method or not. It's great to have a huge selection of patterns available, instantly, from many different manufacturer, some not available locally; it is a bit of work to print and put them together, but then, I've always liked kits, especially things made out of paper. Today as I worked on this, it felt simultaneously like a throw-back to the late 50s and 60s, when my mom and I used to order paper kits through magazines like McCall's Needlework and Crafts or spread dress pattern tissues out on the dining room floor together, and absolutely current, since this is only the second such downloadable pattern I've ever used. Printing patterns on tissue and supplying them to stores, where many languish in those heavy metal file drawers and never sell, must be very costly, and the pattern companies -- as J. pointed out, over lunch -- have to bear not only the printing, advertising, and catalog costs, but also probably have to accept returns. It's yet another aspect of the publishing industry that is changing, for very good reasons, and probably forever.
It seemed like these crafts were dying away, but for a while now I've been following the growing resurgence of interest in sewing, knitting, and other textile crafts among young women. There are some terrific blogs and websites now, both for makers and for supplies. I love looking, and always get ideas, but my life hasn't included a lot of such crafts for a long while. Needlework used to be a big part of my life, though, and I'd like to try to make at least a little room for it. Last week, encouraged by a visiting cousin who is an avid sock knitter, I also took up and nearly finished a pair of knitted socks that were begun even longer ago; another evening should do it on those. It feels so good to finish things! (Don't ask me about that half-done quilt.)
The real point, I realize, isn't the choice of whether to sew or paint or practice the piano or cook a nice meal -- it's that making time every day for creativity, for making things, is a major thread connecting me to my very core, and I ignore, deflect, or stray from it at my own peril. I was reminded of this when I listened recently to a commencement address about creativity by Makoto Fujumura, linked on Marly Youman's website. In it, he repeats a question asked every day by a progressive school in New York City: "What do you want to make today?" I know that my life has been more centered on this question than many people's, but also, for certain, that if I asked myself that question every single day of my life, and acted on the answer, I'd be even closer to living the way I really want to, and being the person I'm meant to be. And it's not a selfish question, because making things for other people, or with other people, is just as wonderful. We can know all of this and still get sidetracked by demands and responsibilities, and therefore we don't write that one line of a poem, sketch our feet, or turn routine dinner-making into something beautiful and creative, even when we know those acts return us to ourselves.
Why? How does it work -- or not work -- for you?