Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

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                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for creative types, thus our tolerance of “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I only peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a dirt buster handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Four fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, an old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new votives. A box of matches was in a coffee can along with two ripe bananas. I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire hazards but I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath the crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen the flickering glow from the sidewalk. I backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

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Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a wooly bear caterpillar between us.

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I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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The Book Stall

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It took awhile until Sy Teverstein found a man who could take care of his book stall business every Tuesday. When he did he thought how excellent; he could now visit his frail mother without fretting so much. The guy had been a regular customer over the past year, buying a monthly gardening magazine. Sy thought that odd since it was clear the customer lived in the neighborhood and there was no land for gardening around there. But, hey, it might be the window box sort that he enjoyed looking at, or maybe there was a rooftop the man had the privilege of filling with a square of plantings. It could be a whole vegetable garden feeding a family of ten for all he knew. He enjoyed speculating.

But Sy knew next to nothing about such things. He was the book seller, had been since his fifty-second birthday which gifted him with a lame ticker. Went from fat cat accountant to skinny book seller with pacemaker. It was a most simple job. The magazines were contracted by an outside publishing service. Books were courtesy of (for a fee plus agreements signed and sealed) a chain bookstore by the river walk. You’d think the store would be grateful for the chance to sell them on the street but they wanted it the other way around. Sy did okay. People liked to buy coffee at next door and then get reading materials. Sy took their money and got to know people. He still liked it at the end of most days.

But about that garden lover. The two of them got friendly over time. His name was divulged some time after Sy’s comment on the cover of his new gardening magazine.

“Nice picture, all those flowers.”

The man openly sniffed the pages and Sy appreciated that: new paper and ink. “Yeah, looks good, don’t it? Wish I had a backyard like that. A big fountain like that would keep me company at night, too, ya know?”

Sy’s eyebrows wiggled up and down. He hadn’t heard that idea before. “I suppose so.”

“I don’t sleep well,” the man said by way of explanation. “Water, it calms.”

“Ah. Me, neither. Wife snores like a banshee. Or a man, take your pick.”

It was the man’s turn to raise eyebrows. “That so? My wife has her own bed. Can’t manage us both. She’s a real good size. I miss her at night… ”

So it went each month, a little of this and that talked over, a few laughs, until in late June Sy stuck out his hand and introduced himself properly.

“Sy Teverstein at your service.”

“Harlan, Harlan Z.”

“That it? Z? Okay, Harlan Z.”

“Well, the Z part is much harder for folks to say. I started to leave it off; it’s worked out fine.”

Sy thought that was an efficient way to handle it. They got to talking about weather, horse races and living close in city center. Harlan was semi-retired, a machinist who was relieved of his job earlier than planned. He was looking for jobs but not much had turned up.

Sy got the idea shortly after. He had to travel a couple hours to and fro to see his mother in the suburbs, one of those decent, bland retirement places. She was heading toward eighty-five at a speed he wasn’t prepared for, at all. In fact, he feared her imminent death. She had been a good mother, not easy but well-meaning, with a flair all her own, not always around. But still. He badly missed her just thinking of her leaving for good.

The problem was that he hated to leave his book stall and he also didn’t like to give up his Sunday afternoons–the one day he had most of the day free since he closed up shop around eleven. So when Harlan seemed like a reliable sort, he approached him with his idea.

“I would just be gone until around two o’clock. I spend the morning and take her to lunch if she can manage. What d’ya say? Or if you want, I’ll give you the whole day. I’ll pay fair. Say, you can count money alright, yes?”

Harlan nodded vigorously and didn’t think twice. The deal was completed with a handshake and a plan for the following week.

It went well despite Sy’s wife berating him for not doing a background check. His mother was visited each Tuesday and he was relived the book stall was manned by a regular sort, a person who liked print and liked working even one day a week. The weeks went by. No one complained. In fact, some of the customers said the change was refreshing and found it commendable he was tending to his ancient mother. Sy thought, who wouldn’t do that if they had any heart at all?

Then one August Wednesday morning, Mr. Calhoon stopped by earlier than usual for his daily newspaper. He seemed in a rush but bent toward Sy with his ice blue, heavy-lidded eyes. A familiar scent of expensive aftershave wafted into Sy’s nose and made his eyes water but he smiled at him, grateful for the routine one buck tip.

“Say, Sylvester, I think there is a problem. Your man, Harlan. He can’t actually read.”

Sy’s shook his head to get it clear of fancy fumes. “What d’ya mean, can’t read? Of course Harlan can read. He loves books and magazines, gets his own here. That’s how we met.”

“So you said. But I’m telling you, you are in error. I asked him for a certain title, if it had come in yet, and he looked and looked. I spotted it near the back and pointed. He still couldn’t find it. I said, ‘The one with the blue and black cover, it will bite you if you get any closer!’ He finally put his hand on it after I described it in detail. I nearly went back there and grabbed it myself.” He opened his hands wide. “He is illiterate.” He folded the paper. “Bad for business.”

“Wait a minute, he just couldn’t find it.” The thought horrified him. Had he been duped? His wife would let him have it for this one.

“Suit yourself, see you tomorrow,” Mr. Calhoon said as he loped away.

Next Tuesday morning Sy stayed back. He decided coming straight to the point was best. He shared the complaint and waited for Harlan to respond with a laugh and good explanation.

Harland half-hung his head. “I read a little. Not so much, really. I never went to school after I left at thirteen. I had to work on the farm. I know a lot about llamas, for one thing. I do my best work with my hands, not my head. But I get by.”

Sy considered the man. Harlan had taken off his cap and held it by the brim. He looked down at the sidewalk, his round face pink with embarrassment.

“But what about the magazines you buy?”

Harlan lit up. “Oh, I love the pictures. They remind me of growing up in the country. We had gardens, not fancy but kitchen gardens. I helped my ma cook for years after my sister died. But flowers, too. I love to look at them. My best memories, if you need to know.”

A customer came up. Afterwards, Harlan asked if Sy was going to see his mother or not.

“Have I lost my job or what?”

Sy wiped his brow. It was blasted hot already. He looked across the street, at kids already running out to enjoy the last days of summer, at a fire hydrant at the park spraying cool water on a stray dog, garbage men doing their work like they did every week. He waved at the woman, Thelma, who always sat on her stoop watching.

“You like it here? Good, I like you being here. I’ll be back by four.”

Harlan watched him go, bald head shining in cheerful morning light. He thought Sy Teverstein was a good and more than fair man. Harlan chatted with a customer, counted the change carefully, then realized bundles of fresh new magazines were due in that afternoon. He looked forward to it.

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(Another good fiction prompt from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.)

Decorating with Books

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(Photograph from Public Domain)

I had reason to survey my bedroom this summer, to take stock of what makes it liveable. There are aspects that could benefit from better design; it is a big square room. At the least some items might be put in smart boxes or on hidden shelves. For example, I have perhaps thirty scarves, the overflow of which currently dangles from a broad, ugly hook on a closet door. (I finally shopped at World Market for an attractive pewter owl hook; it is waiting to go up.) There are pictures and postcards stuck around the frame of my dresser mirror. I can glimpse a partial view of myself if I need to determine my presentability. It is mirror enough; I would enjoy more pictures, visual art glutton that I am.

Atop the massive, old desk which fits between bed and closet are stacked folders categorized by writing, ripped out magazine items, medical information, drawings by grandchildren, tax documents, and special interest topics like the Roma. A photo of spouse and myself taken along a riverside walkway ten years ago has taken center stage. I like how we look: alert, breezy, young. Next to this is an aged photo of two aunts and my mother showing off their smiles and their ironed print shirtwaists. Above the desk is a poor quality but beloved print of a multi-generational line of female dancers. They are more than a chorus line to me, a testament to longer life maintained by joi de vivre. I have a good print and original art on the walls as well as a poster of Crete on the door. Or it might be Santorini. The point is, it is beautiful. There is a tulip design woven through a wool area rug from my sister. It frankly outclasses many other objects.

The reality is, this is a room shaped by things that make me a contented woman, not a chic style icon. Well, shabby chic might be appropriate to describe the space.

There is one dominating element not yet mentioned. Upon entering, I am surrounded, almost inundated by books. I don’t mean just two decent-sized bookshelves that are stuffed full two-book deep, with books wedged on top of others. There are books stacked against the floor by open wall space. They are lined up like sentinels by the door, and there are stacks of a half dozen each camping by an electric heating board. In winter when the heat threatens to singe paper, I push them back a couple inches, leaving just enough room to get into bed. Once in, I plump the pillows and settle in with the current intriguing story taken form the bedside table. In that way I am no different than others who lean toward sleep with a fresh hardback or well-used paperback in hand.

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But I have to admit it may be a bit out of control, at least to some. In defense, I am not a collector. I don’t have a china cabinet boasting rows of Lladro figurines or a room transformed by model trains, tiny trees and people. I am not so nostalgic that I want to search out matchbooks from the sixties or tinted glass from the Depression. I find things I appreciate when my sister and I go to estate sales from time to time. But what I head for, always, are the books in subterranean corners or sad, stuffy attics. Most of my books have been bought at bookstores but also have been gifts, not to mention books traded with others.

I evaluated the room before two of my daughters arrived for a family reunion. I needed to tidy it up a bit more, put on a more presentable face, or so I thought. I had been meaning to do something about all those volumes, namely, take a good number to Powell’s Bookstore and trade them in or, maybe for once, just get a nice check. I blew off the dust from the higher volumes and took some down. Here was Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and whose novels reflect her love of a certain place and time. There was Pearl Buck’s adventurous life revealed in story and John Steinbeck’s truth-telling. Wallace Stegner. Madeline L’Engle. Charles Dickens. John LeCarre: more current novelists have lured me, as well. There are mystery and thriller shelves, and general non-fiction and poetry sections. A section about writing and about religion and spirituality. Nature and a few about flamenco. There are travel writers’ tales that can take me away from chill January rains to come.

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When did I last read Denise Levertov or Neruda? I stepped back, a Mary Oliver collection held close. There were so many of them, writers who experienced history unfolding, imagined worlds within worlds, shared heartbreaks and epiphanies. The dust jackets were brash, beautiful or somber as they leaned together like old cohorts.

But I couldn’t believe I would read them all before my own life was done, before, one day surely my eyes would lose their already corrected vision. What was I doing with all these books? How much money had gone to my inordinate passion for books and reading? It seemed a grave disservice to them, waiting for someone to pull one down. A wave of irritation prickled me. I took a breath and dug in; sorted, rearranged. Re-shelved.

I could not seem to let them go, not yet. I needed these tomes, even–or especially–the orphan books with bent and slightly dirty pages. After more dusting I thought about their place in my life.

It was when sitting on the balcony one evening, enjoying a waft of summer fragrance, imagining moving to a house that had suddenly become available. Wondering how there would be room enough for all those books–I didn’t even mention my husband’s separate beloved library–in those narrow, truncated spaces. My mind ran over titles and authors that populated shelves, tables, desks and floor space throughout our apartment. Magazines are cousins to books so they had their own spots. These were all part of our way of life, the wide-ranging seeking and learning, reading aloud to one another a humorous insight, a poetic turn of phrase making the moment better. As a writer, I read with an innermost ear that longs to hear more. My best mentors have been other authors. Books meliorate the quality of my living.

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And then it occurred to me: I keep buying, reading and stacking books out of interest, it’s true, but there was something more. Since I could not possibly read everything I wanted to read, maybe it was also a stay against the shortening of time, the awareness of mortality that arises as years pass. Each book said: take me home, give me room to unfold my story, offer me time and attention in your busy life and I will keep yours moving forward another quiet night, another daybreak.

Maybe books have been part of my hope of living well past any reasonable time, the desire to keep throwing myself into the thick of life with open arms. I want to still awaken with a rapturous hunger to see, do, become more. I need to stay alive long enough to read every single book I own. So the more books bought, the longer I get to stay. No, it is a pact: I cannot be discharged of my duties here until the last book is investigated.

It may seem odd to use the idea of books as an analogy for a talisman, an epiphany about life. After all, I started this essay wondering over my lack of good taste in decorative style. What to do about those scarves (and jewelry that overflows wooden boxes and handmade ceramic containers)? What about the stacks of folders that contain some of what matters to my daily living or the pictures jammed along edges of the mirror?

Nothing, nothing at all. I am keeping it like it is. It makes sense to me. The room with its random textures and colors delights every time I scan its configuration. I would rather stumble over books in the middle of a sleepless night than have a wide berth to nowhere of note. This way I can still reach the window, crane my neck to see the moon, return to comfort with a choice book propped up on my knees and sail away. I will awaken armed for a new day, the languages of heart, mind and soul at the ready as I carry on with it all. My daughters’ visit? They get it; they have their own books and more.

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Where Life Begins

changing-hands-book-store-001We were wending our way through the bookstore, when out of the corner of my eye I noted a bold sign with an arrow stating: Life begins here. I kept on, thought how remarkable, then stopped and turned. Of course the sign didn’t say that, but it was worth tucking away for a pensive hour.

It was instead the start of a line for customers toting boxes and bags of well-used or unwanted books for possible resale. They might have needed quick money (though I would like to think not) or more room in a smaller habitat. Perhaps there was an ended relationship and the now-unshared books were thorny reminders. An expansive estate sale may have rendered more yellowed pages than desired. Or better yet, perhaps their cargo was meant to be circulated the world, offered to those who may not have had the pleasure of delving into a wealth of poems by Muriel Spark or escapades shared with Rumer Godden’s wise, slyly humorous characters. I had stood in that line many times feeling somewhat traitorous (weren’t these lovely books? didn’t I need a re-read?), yet relieved to hear: “Cash or store credit?” This meant I could wander the aisles more freely again.

That sign was only a directive for orderliness. Simple, yet it was a mind trick, one of those moments when language flip-flops from eye to brain and the information is altered.  In this case, I thought as I headed to the blue room (literature) and then the red room (non-fiction), the skewed interpretation made sense. I was in one of my favorite places-a bookstore-and I had changed direction in my life, having left my job.

I found myself thinking of the incident for days, starting with the line to sell books, a favorite material good of mine.

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Books were a significant addition to the foundation of my early years. I don’t recall a good-sized bookstore in the small Michigan city of my childhood and youth, though there must have been. We didn’t buy books very frequently; we checked them out at the library. But though I can vouch for the fact that our home did not have an overabundance of books, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room that was packed with volumes, mostly about music and composers; history such as ancient Greece; travel; scholarly studies of the Bible; a collection or two of famous art.

And Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I recall the last as I read it several times, mesmerized by his seafaring vessel and distant lands. (I think I fell in love for the first time looking at the brave author’s picture.) My parents read to us at bedtime when they had the time. Dad liked to read interesting paragraphs aloud at the dinner table that engendered discussion or a good laugh. My mother, not so inclined to sit and read for long, entertained us with her own stories, and I later learned she sometimes wrote them down in spiral notebooks.

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I may not recall a bookstore but I do recall the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library. It was considered very modern, all sharp geometry with brick and much glass defining its lines. Built in 1953, it was designed by Alden B. Dow, a noted, homegrown architect. The moment I entered the heavy double glass doors, whatever was not right with the world was transformed, or at least quelled. The clean-lined, open floor plan invited me; there was a huge wall window at the back that looked out over lush landscaping at the edge of Dow Gardens. It encouraged dreaming. Stairways took me to ever-intriguing rows of knowledge. I took the books into my hands and my mind entered realms that challenged and fulfilled my desire to learn. There was always one more page to read, one more quiet nook to poke around. Whether for research or recreation, the books in this library enlarged and underscored the present, and heralded a future that had few bounds. I took notes for schoolwork but that wasn’t the main reason I spent hours there.

This sanctuary, which housed endless rows of bound pages almost intoxicating upon opening them, helped refine my  own fledgling stories and poems. I was another neophyte on a quest. I was a guest in a  place whose primary inhabitants were books. When it was time to leave, I was reluctant, and counted on the next chance to lean into the modern leather and metal chairs and investigate things.

It was intellectual freedom, as well as emotional, that I was given. I tried to use it wisely. The books that informed my life were a gateway to adulthood. From Kierkegaard and Sartre, to Hermann Hesse and Sherwood Anderson (whose Winesburg, Ohio is still with me); from Kurt Vonnegut to Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See: they confounded while also defined ideas and longings. Books ignited hope, assured me I was not alone, demanded a better intelligence, gave me good reasons to laugh.

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“Line begins here.”I have stood in these lines, arms full of worthy, seemingly necessary books. I spend a good part of my budget on books. Not all authors’ words have enthralled. Some have shown me how not to occupy my mind, how not to put pen to paper. But ignorance is not preferable to an occasional error. Besides, I can bring those shabbily written tomes back to some stores. Then I am on the hunt for more, whether in bookstore or library.

“Life begins here.” Not an original thought, yet the message stuck because I suspect my one true life–the one that gives me a thrill of discovery, the fortitude of knowledge and helpful clues for my soul’s well-being –did begin with language I could hear, speak, read, write. For some it might be another memory of earliest years, a scent or sight. I recall being held and sung to, words buoyed by lilting melodies. There were my mother’s true, astounding farm life tales at bedtime, then my own books read under cover with a flashlight or a diary written in ’til fast asleep. Most of the family took books to the table until my mother decreed no more. There were conversations in our household that originated and ended with words on paper, as well as words held aloft by our attention. Language, spoken or written, was important. It charged the mind and cradled the heart. It made bridges between people, found solutions and provided entry to secret places.

And so I have once more concluded that in order to live authentically, deeply, I have to jump in and fully utilize the language I gather and adore. I am taking back my right to this passion for  writing (and the reading, too), every day or night. It has required leaving work that mattered to give myself to the wonders and conundrums of better learning the trade of wordsmith. It’s a risky thing. But I have time for risk and its outcomes, not for inaction.

A book is a myriad things to those of us who love them, including  language given room to romp and breathe. Those words are nothing less than alchemical. They alter our sense of being and our place among others within the universe. They are keys to an internal destination we choose. At the very least a story, a book, is a meandering walk down the road, where anything can happen. Where life scintillates with the slow turning of a page.

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(Room with wall-sized window overlooking trees and gardens at my childhood library. Thanks, Alden B. Dow.)

Writing the Life of a Novel

They had a dream of a simpler life in Michigan’s northern woods after years in upper class Boston. But Sophia Swanson, a dancer for thirty years, cannot dance or even speak now. Thomas, a renowned biologist and her husband, pursues her relentlessly although he mysteriously drowned. And Mia, their adolescent daughter, tries to reconstruct her life far away with relatives, bit by salvaged bit. Keeping watch over everything is Daedalus, a Husky-German Shepherd mix who lives in the woods with Sophia. A year after the drowning, famous photojournalist Calvin Rutgers returns to Snake Creek after a lifetime away. He has lost his mentor to the depths of Amazonia and needs peace, a reconnection to family and history, and inspiration. He is welcomed home but Sophia isn’t so impressed. She waits to see who he really is and what he wants.

Other Than Words is a mystery,  psychological drama, and romance about lives being reclaimed; about trauma and healing; and about the arts as powerful medicine. It tells of a village that hums with seasonal rhythms and the complicated lives of its residents, who demonstrates a willingness to embrace the suspect and eccentric. Beautiful Snake Creek and Ring Lake are where old friends, new inhabitants and uneasy neighbors coexist.

I know this territory so well I can see every inch of the village, every part of the surrounding woods and waters. I am the creator of both place and people, or perhaps I am only the chronicler of their stories. I am a most happy captive.  They have been my dear companions.

In 1999 I became ill with a virus that left me literally reeling. I tried to get out of bed one morning and crashed against the wall and to the floor. Any light reaching my eyes made the room spin worse, so I covered my face with a blanket and blindly called my sister. I crawled to the front door when help arrived. At the ER, my diagnosis was labyrinthitis, a disorder of the inner ear. It took a good six weeks to be able to walk across a small room in a  straight line, but five months to recover enough to return to work.  In the meantime, I discovered if I sat very still at the computer desk and hold my head at just the right angle, the dizziness mostly abated. I could miraculously write for hours. And so, an old idea for a novel came to fruition and my life became a writing life, full-time.

Other Than Words was the result: twenty-five chapters told from two different points of view, with a surprising five hundred and seventy-two pages. I have revised it fully eight times and counting.  I have pitched it at a writers’ conference and had one agent “nibble”, so I went back to work on it again.  And again. An excerpt was published in an anthology, and then nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  I want to publish this novel. I love the characters and their rich life stories. Still, I have put off the tedious business of innumerable submissions and more revisions. I have a job as an addictions counselor and don’t get home until eight-thirty each night. The hours left over are few. But on Fridays when I do not work,  I try to sit down to write by two o’clock and generally write until nine o’clock or later. But it isn’t enough. I want more time to work diligently at the craft–to bring this passion for the written word into a potent, more elegant state of being. To make the stories vividly alive, moving, truth-telling.

Because I need  time to work on more fiction, I will be posting fewer posts on this blog, likely twice a month at most. That is, unless a very, very short story idea grabs hold and won’t let go,  or my addictions work presents something I find intriguing, or my heart disease/recovery experiences strike me as worth putting out there for others who share the diagnosis. There is always one more good reason to write; I run out of time, never topics!  But the desire and intention is to sail this novel into the world so it may reach people who love to read settle-into-your-chair fiction. There is already another novel ready for more revision, and a third waiting for release from my head and onto white pages.

Today I want to share with you the opening paragraphs of Other Than Words. I hope you enjoy them. Let me know what you think if you are so moved, or if you would be interested in reading more.  Another blog might spring up about the novel and the writing process, or perhaps even a website. I’ll stay in touch. But right now I better get back to work.

Other Than Words

Part I-Sophia

Chapter 1

After Thomas died, I stopped talking. I had everything to lose by not speaking, but muteness, unlike speech, is a force that can’t be controlled. It took charge and relegated me to tenant status because I had nowhere else to live but in this body. I was caught between “Before His Death” and “After”. It was disorienting, but not an impossible way to live.

His body was retrieved from Ring Lake not far from the place we lived, the chapel-house, so named because it was originally a chapel here in the northern Michigan woods. Thomas’ mother and my family–parents, two brothers, a sister–came from the east coast to mourn and provide my daughter and myself with rudimentary care.  They tried to make sense of the disorder they found. They wanted to think I had lost my mind from the shock, but were closer to believing I had just decided to stop speaking. I was, after all, a dancer and choreographer, given to strange fits of introspection and moments of  theatrics. It didn’t occur to them there might be things I could not say aloud. Not yet; maybe never.

Janice, my younger sister, paced back and forth, her muddy shoes leaving dark stains on the wooden floor. I shared the couch with Daedalus, who looked more Siberian Husky than German Shepherd. He watched her with mild interest, his blue eyes like cool oases in the humid afternoon. The footsteps reminded me of Rorschach ink blots. I interpreted fear, extreme impatience. Hers, not mine. I felt porous as a sea sponge, everything drifting through me, leaving barely a trace.

Copyright 2011 Cynthia Guenther Richardson