Ordinary Sojourners

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It wasn’t my plan to stop at a neglected used book store but I needed a cooling breath or two and a drink from the water cooler. I’d been hurrying through a busy part of the city when I spotted it: Parson’s Bound Words and Fine Art the swinging wooden sign bragged, as if there were arcane, prized items beyond its dirty green door. It was proclaimed awkwardly, I thought, and it put me off but I noted a young woman and child appearing to enjoy heat relief as they browsed. I hesitated at the door. Perspiration made a beeline down back and chest. I turned the dented brass knob and went inside.

I had just been to lunch with Emory. It’s a date we manage every six months to keep a civil line open for our three adult children and six grandchildren. We don’t talk on the phone or, heaven forbid, text; Emory doesn’t believe either is good authentic communication and I can’t say I entirely disagree, at least in his case. Emory is not one who can grasp or respond well without the talking partner’s face providing constant and helpful clues. This was still true for us despite being married to one another for thirty-seven years. We’ve been divorced for ten. His need to clarify via constant overt signals might in part explain why we didn’t have patience enough to endure, much less fully enjoy each other, until death do us part. I don’t need to be duly examined, nor to regard another with full force in order to chat about an update on life. I don’t even need to be in the same rooms; I like to move about. Use your imagination, I used to urge him, listen to vocal inflections.

Still, we’ve somehow managed to talk without fisticuffs and it seems a useful meeting twice a year. Emory is not unpleasant from afar and close up he still looks pretty good. He says the same of me so that much we continue to agree upon. We each remain single. Just less complicated.

Although seeing him still can increase my blood pressure and thus, internal temperature, the city summer had already scorched us all. So that bookstore beckoned. I entered, the obligatory little bell on the top tinkling in a frenzy. A waft of cool air welcomed me immediately. Mr. Parson, I presumed, looked up from an opened notebook by the cash register, nodded, then returned to his writing or tallying. His black taped glasses perched on top of his head; he squinted at whatever was being entered in his own bound pages. He must have felt me staring at him–he was grizzled and rumpled but had a scholarly air about him, much like Emory. He looked up, tried on a smile with eyes that I suspected looked perpetually quizzical. He loved books, after all.

“May I help you this ghastly August afternoon?”

“Water first!–how generous of you to offer it– then to general browsing,” I said and headed to the cooler. He grunted in a congenial manner and let me be.

After a paper cone of lukewarm water was drunk, I glanced at section headings and went for visual arts, mostly because it was dimmer and farther back so perhaps cooler. There were three others besides the woman and child, each bent over a book in the aisles; I excused myself along the way. I  pulled out a few art tomes and thumbed through the pages. Seen one, seen them all, I felt at the moment, though at home was a sagging shelf devoted to classic and contemporary painters and a collection each of Mexican and Native American potters. Bored with books that held little interest I moved on to two long shelves of photography, fingers slipping over smooth or cracking spines as I dallied.

Henri Cartier-Bresson–that name so renowned but it had been years since I had even glanced at his work. I contemplated a heavy-looking book and pulled it out. Parson was passing me and pointed at a table and chairs alongside a window.

“Take a seat, have at it,” he said, then disappeared through a swinging office door.

It was pleasant there despite the predictable dry, musty smell of aging, oft-handled bindings and pages. The book I held needed to lay flat to be appreciated and so I sat and opened to the first pages. Though I knew he had died in 2004, Cartier-Bresson meant something to me still.

During the onset of the 1970s I had studied photography, before Emory and the bit and bridle of married life, and had had the good fortune to spend a year in Paris. There I’d wanted to practice certain techniques, to at the least mimic the sort of spontaneous shots which made the master photographer famous. I shamelessly shot every place and person I could, trying to not provoke. It was a time of unfettered days and nights, made of dreams I’d held close until they had come true, time in Paris with camera in hand: the extraordinary light and shadow, charming scenes and grand old architecture, revelations of life unlike any I’d witnessed or even suspected before. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and so embraced Paris with high expectations, a growing adoration.

I wished more than anything to become a female Henri Cartier-Bresson. I knew I had some basic talent but did I have the creative mind and eye it took to offer views that spoke volumes even remotely like the master’s? Roll after roll of film was shot, developed that year and so much of it was no good. But some of it was.

I turned more softly yellowed, slick pages, studied the pictures. Street life, fresh and fascinating. People paused to gaze into a long, bright alley; strolled hand in hand along the busy Seine; hunched over food at outdoor cafes or on a dock; loitered at street corners beneath glowing lamps; kissed in parks; toiled in the grime; dozed and gossiped on benches. The artist found the extraordinary in all that was ordinary, recorded subtle or dramatic changes in much of the world. Some of that time was mine, was where and when I lived.

I sighed, happy to have taken a few moments to come into the little dingy store. How could I have forgotten such treasures as these? I flipped through more pages, absorbing them with a flick of my eyes. I had to get home to feed Dana, my dachshund. The past only held so much magnetism for me, anymore. What had gone before was done. I hadn’t wasted time grieving over the cameras I put away, then sold; I had made a choice.

And as I about closed the book, I stopped.

There was a young man with aviator sunglasses, patterned bandanna snug about his forehead, books pushed aside as he lounged atop a ponderous stone wall, likely part of many steps to an immense building, his back to a pillar. Arms around a girl pressed deeply into the embrace, his fingers entwined for a stronger hold on her.

The boy was Phillipe and the girl he held was me, Natalie.

I gasped and my hand clasped my open mouth. The young woman with child looked at me with a small concern as she scooted around the table, hand clutching her daughter’s. But I just bent over the page and remembered.

How was that possible, to have had our picture taken and not know it, to never have seen it all these years? The thrill of this threatened to bring me to a faint and I took in and released long slow breaths. Parson walked by; I kept my eyes down. I couldn’t possibly inform a stranger that I was in a picture made by a famous photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken many thousands of photographs. We were just one more couple with a passerby eyeing us and perhaps disapproving on a sunny afternoon. We were in the master’s viewfinder, then he had moved on.

Phillipe was a student at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and music. We had met at a cafe one afternoon when I was trying to not cry  over my espresso, feeling homesick despite the wonders found, wishing for someone with whom to share it all. He’d picked up my sunglasses from the ground as he walked by; we began to chat. He, too, missed his small town of Ornans but said this lessened as his studies became more interesting. Phillipe was studying music theory and composition, was working on a piece. I’d felt relief and gratitude that he had taken an interest in me, a foreigner, and he’d shared his struggles adjusting to living on his own.

I racked my brain –where was that taken? What had we been up to? It was like any romantic afternoon we shared in Paris; it may have been at the university after he got out of class. But I knew Phillipe such a short time, only three and a half months, and time trickled away so fast I kept a diary of our stolen and intimate days and nights, our falling easily into a tender love. He, the romantic French boy I’d longed to know; I, the American student he found so open and independent. I was afraid no one would believe me, or that I would forget somehow, so  I wrote it all  down each day. And took some pictures of him.

Where did all that end up? Crammed into taped up boxes in the attic, no doubt. I was twenty-one then, now sixty-seven.

I smoothed the page, tapped his hands. Recalled the weight of my hair in summer warmth, how he loved to hold it to his face; the prickle of his stubbly cheeks against mine. The books we read to one another, my French just passable, his English better. The music he played for me, very good songs. But I soon came to the end of my stay, the end of money left me by a beloved uncle. Phillipe had to continue at the Sorbonne. His carefree lust and easy affection for me were nothing compared to his passion for music. And though I found his words and touch gentling as well as incendiary, I suspected photography would bring me great comfort long after he was gone.

Yet it had stung, how could it not in 1971 for a young woman in Paris studiously snapping pictures while seeking a soul mate? He had walked into my life, we’d clung to one another in a free-fall of delights, then simply parted.

I took a last look at his face. It was so long ago it seemed impossible. I slowly closed the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson had frozen for all time one ordinary Phillipe, one everyday Natalie.

“Find something interesting? I couldn’t help but notice…” Parson grasped the back  of the wooden chair, leaned on it as he looked at me with interest.

I rolled hunched shoulders luxuriously–they needed a good stretch. “Oh, the past, it sneaks up on you at odd times. Or wallops you.”

“It can. May I ask–are you a photographer? I mean, since you poured over his work?” He patted the volume as if an object of his affection.

I considered the man. He was older than I, had a white trimmed beard and eyebrows that could scare you if he scowled. But he seemed more the benevolent sort. The poorly repaired glasses slid off his head, a hand catching them at the last moment. I wondered if he’d ever traveled or had only labored away in this little book shop all his life, an armchair sojourner. Did he like other things or only words and pictures he could catalog, keep handy in their places?

“I was once. At least thought so–or that I could be. I so admired Cartier-Bresson. I hoped to emulate his style. Then I stopped. You know, how we stop doing something because there seems no good reason to keep on? One thing just replaces another.”

He considered this, looking out the window. “Yes. I sailed and lived all over the world for over a decade and then I was done. Have not been on a boat since. I bought this store and stuck with it. Lately there are far fewer customers. But it’s what I enjoy still. For now.”

He acted as if he was about to pull out a chair and make himself comfortable, so I stood up. I had to feed Dana, it was getting late and I was tired out.

But Parson persisted. “What about your pictures–do you miss taking them?”

“I haven’t thought of it in a good long while. Until today. Perhaps I have, after all.” I started to move away from the table.

“Well,” he said, “maybe start again.”

I picked up the book and took it to the counter. “I for certain know I want to buy this.”

He grinned at me, crooked teeth homely but nice. “Good. Which one did you especially enjoy?

“Page sixty-four.”

He turned to it, peered at it a bit. “A fine capture of young lovers, in Paris, perhaps.”

“That was me… and Phillipe,” I said to my surprise and sudden embarrassment.

Parson raised those big eyebrows and his eyes grew huge. “That right? That’s marvelous, then, isn’t it?”

I paid for the book, a lot more than I expected. “Yes, I guess it really is. Quite a good memory but I value it because it’s by my idol. Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

“As well you should, Ms….”

“Just Natalie.” I half-winked at him, I don’t know why but it just seemed the right thing after all that.

“As well you should, Natalie, a wonderful find.”

“Yes, I’m so glad I came in. It’s a good bookshop. Thanks, Parson.”

“Jack, and I thank you, too.”

He offered his hand and I took it, held it a second or two, his palm slim but firm if aging, fitting into my bony, aging one.

“Goodbye for now, Jack.”

“Come back any time.”

I closed the door behind me and was swathed in a blanket of humid heat. But I hugged the book all the way home. I felt quite lucky at times in my life. Even with Emory, who had been kind if quite hard to bear as well. Weren’t we all. I did wonder what I’d find next at that bookstore. First I wanted to buy a good, cheap camera. I might tell Emory about that. Or even Jack.

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.

bookshelf

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.

Grace A. Dow libray

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.

Windesburg, Ohio

“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.

back window wall at library

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