In The Hand of the Maiden: Work Discovery
The slowing down of life in order to tell story allows for better context. The essence of the storyteller is able to flourish. The distance of time between writing and the sharing makes room for all that is grace. Is the living easier than the telling? Ask the listener.
“The meaning of a text is one thing and its calligraphy quite another, but on occasion they are closely linked.”– Hassan Massoudy
“It is more valuable to write books than To plant vines, since he who plants a vine Feeds his stomach, while he who writes a Book feeds his soul.”– Alcuin
“This story houses within it the entire universe, by virtue of this very sentence.” — Deborah Cowell
Q: What is imagination?
A: A dimension children see, and one adults remember
N°. 412 Arenaria
The woman in the parlor sits and she waits.
There are no curtains on the windows. She learns to look out. She sits quietly among thousands of books. She reads Khalil Gibran, a book about butterflies, and another about a young girl, a pig, and a spider.
The woman in the parlor does not pace. She listens
to the footsteps overhead. She watches the leaves change color on the trees outside of the picture window. She watches as it snows and tells no one that she waits for springtime.
The woman in the parlor dances after midnight.
Sometimes a little before. She wakes up to birdsong
and the sound of clashing garbage cans — because the sound of birdsong and the sound of garbage cans do clash.
She sees people watch her singing when they think she is not looking. She actually lip syncs — a secret game to keep them guessing.
The woman in the parlor sat quietly for hours one day and scared the man across the street who was doing work on the grounds in front of the storefront church. The next day, when she sat for hours again, gesticulating with her hands in the air as she spoke to herself,
a little old lady in a cute little hat swept the steps
of the same storefront church and, when she finished, appeared to say a prayer.
The woman in the parlor watched over the course of days
as two gentlemen — craftsmen — replaced an old wooden door
on the house next to the store front church
with a raw piece of wood they turned into artwork.
Sanding. Staining. Waiting. Sanding. Finishing.
The woman in the parlor knows breaking free from chains does not lead to walking around like a runaway slave.
Translation of the Italian calligram Brownstone N°. 412, by New York Calligrapher Edith Minton (original text appearing on parchment in gold leaf, written in the form of a house).
Text written May 2011
You’ll have to excuse me for not taking your phone calls. I have grown weary of that sort of thing. I’m glad to see you have it in you to be persistent. And yes, your life does sound a bit like mine. So thank you for asking, and thank you for your patience in awaiting a response. You knew I’d come around and that’s nice.
The way I see it, every apartment building needs its scandal of love. Someone who says, “I will not hang my head in shame. This is love.” I do not regret one step. Not one. There were so many pages I decided not to look through that I sent up in proverbial flames. Because I remember the beautiful walk and that can never change.
There’s a story brewing here so leave as soon as possible. When you put things down on paper you have to live them. Because the words are not just air anymore. The life we live prevents them from being empty. Each one of us are words through our given names. Our lives are the definition. I have a whole world inside my head that I enjoy living in. All I have to do to get there is be myself. The quiet comes. Naturally. There is so much that I just listen to and do not record because so much is just day to day living.
It is raining outside. That makes today beautiful.
The leaves are mostly gone from the trees. Rain — light rain — has a way of highlighting stillness. People rush to get out of it, leaving the streets calm. A bright gray sky is the equivalent of soft light and today it is birdless also.
I guess the reason I have taken to this is the silence. It gives me an opportunity to hear the sound of my own thoughts. I’ve learned I prefer hearing them so much more than I do the sound of my own voice. Days like these — times like these — are when I have an opportunity to think about how stunningly beautiful a gray sky can be and then write about it.
Nom de Plume…
Eliza carefully folded the letter, placed it on her lap, and thought back to when she’d first received it. The old woman had said she wouldn’t reply to email…in an email. What she’d meant was that she’d wanted Eliza to sit down and write. “A letter please,” was all the response said. A follow-up garnered the reply, “And what makes you think I’d ever agree to respond to ‘a set of questions’? Everything you want to know requires conversation. Of the intimate kind. Sit down and write a letter.” Email addresses and networking websites weren’t a sign of the times. They were a necessary evil and somehow this woman found the courage to make the experience of ‘posting’ finite. Enough information for Eliza to track her down and say, “You don’t know me but…” and receive the terse reply. Eliza had only recently discovered she was a long lost niece. Edith? She recognized the name and knew instantly.
I go by the name ‘Liza now. On paper. Think “Eliding Eliza.” That is what I tell folks so they remember. It is hard to say exactly where I am but you get the gist. I mean, from the fact that this is a postcard. I am coming home. Shortly. Soon. When I finish this. I guess I just have some stuff to figure out first. You understand. I don’t have to explain.
The address I left for you on the phone is where I can be reached by mail. I promise to write you a letter. Soon. I just wanted to let you know that I am here. I exist. That I take what I do seriously. All this time I had no idea we were family. Knowing that helps. A lot. It changes things. It lets me know I can do this.
This can’t be a case of looks being deceiving. The only way to guarantee that is to make sure your work can be read at a glance. Your glance. Be comfortable as you do this. Specifically your hand. Make sure there is no stress on either your neck or your back. We are not meant to be hunched over our work. When your hand is relaxed you will see that it all becomes fluid. As you think and pour it out on the page, warmth is necessary. Paramount. It leads to patience. The writing — the actual writing — is not “busy work.: The writing, before all, is the primary work. The foundation. All that surrounds it? What naturally follows.
A simple Facebook page with a sparse timeline, too many emails, a few voicemails, and a couple of postcards for verification is how it all began. This rediscovery. An aunt reconnecting with her sister’s daughter.
Thank you so much for sending me an actual letter! I have a much better sense of things now. Nonetheless, I ask again for you to show me who you are. The facts of a situation certainly are one aspect of things. Take a long hard look at what you have done — what you have out into this world — and be clear about what I am asking. You’re supposed to feel exhausted, ‘Liza. That’s actually a good thing. Your body is telling you to slow down for a while. Slow doesn’t mean stop. Rest ‘Liza. Close your notebook, move away from your desk, and go outside for a while. Look at where you are and let me see it in you when you write to me next time. Let me feel it in the words you choose.
The holding pattern you feel like you are in is not really a holding pattern. It is your moment to breathe. A walk in the wilderness that is the real deal.
I can tell from what you’ve told me that you are okay. But I don’t think you get what I mean when I say for you to take a look at where you are. There’s a saying…a proverb, actually…that I sincerely hope doesn’t end up silk-screened on a bunch of polyester tee shirts and then is forgotten:
Before Zen, mountains were mountains and trees were trees. During Zen, mountains were thrones of the spirits and trees were the voices of wisdom. After Zen, mountains were mountains and trees were trees.
You, ‘Liza, are living this proverb. Right now. In this very moment. You have not lost one second of time. When you’ve had more time to rest you’ll see that you are gaining momentum. It is not as though you don’t know. Go outside and take a look at where you are.
Thank you so much for respecting my request to continue this conversation on paper. And thank you, too, for realizing in the purest sense what I mean when I say that our ties of kinship and how we build on them are so much more than amusement park tokens of entitlement to be networked with reckless abandon. I am completely aware of how we are related although your mother and I have never spoken. Your questions about what happened have been noted. You’ll see that expressing our thoughts like this helps. As in, it can only help.
Get a bit more down on paper. Continue showing me who you are, but only as you see fit. In this moment I am not asking you to trust your judgment. I am asking you to trust mine.
Your aunt, Edith
Eliza realized when she’d gotten her first sealed letter from her Aunt that the connection made was real. Things would never be the same going forward. “The culture of writing is what I’d like to see us all get back to,” is what Edith Minton had been quoted as saying. She was one of few people who’d received a Master of Arts degree in Penmanship and the History of Writing. “The things that take place surrounding the development of written text. That still involve writing, nonetheless, and make us who we are.”
The actual letter Eliza received had been written on heavily weighted paper and sealed in a matching, yet somehow nondescript envelope. There was an actual seal. Edith Minton’s message had been about the use — the respect and the care — of the paper. As expert, none less than her could suppose, “The better the quality of the paper, the better and more refined the quality of the writing.” She made her living quietly, producing elaborate calligrams written in Italian for private collectors, the content of her work studied mostly in English translation. She travelled discreetly to procure the finest papers, she made her own inks, and she managed her own production of gold and silver leaf.
“The first piece of correspondence I sent to Edith Minton — the Edith Minton — to tell her that we are related…was an email.” As an instructor, Edith made it a point to demonstrate, “Pay attention to detail that most people will never, ever see if you’re going to call yourself an artist,” rather than speak it aloud. Edith Minton hardly ever said much. When Eliza Simon initiated contact with the most serious living writer to influence her work, who just happened to be her blood relation, she realized she’d made a school girl’s error she now feared made her look like a hack. “I need to rewind,” she thought to herself.
got your note.
just when i kinda needed to meditate on some beautiful
right about now
’Cause it was “that kind of day”
for a while
needed to pass.
About to take a deep breath in a second
Decided to put these thoughts in a poem I’ll call
“A Small Piece of Written Correspondence I’m Sending Off to You.”
Thank you so much for understanding.
More in a minute.
Edith smiled. She placed the postcard on her refrigerator door with a small magnet and looked once more at the careful print before drawing cold water from the tap to start a pot of water. She waited for the sound…a rolling boil… before deciding what she would cook.
The following day, Edith Minton took a walk to the Post Office. An envelope too large for her box had been delivered, so she had to stand in line. The clerk handed her an ivory colored package. Edith could tell by looking at the dimensions that the paper inside was A4. The next thing she noticed was the wax seal stamped with the letter ‘E’. In Chancery script. And finally, the lettering. “Nice,” she thought, as she slowly walked back to her apartment to take a closer look at her niece’s work.
It is clear that something happens when we choose to live our lives as poetry. I did not know how to say that before or who to say it to for fear of being looked at like I’m crazy. Being talked about is something that perhaps I have gotten used to. I am a writer, not a typist. I bristle when people call me ‘Luddite’. Because I am not anti-technology. Like you,I believe that there are some things that become more defined with age the more they stay the same. Select things. Time adds value in subtle ways. Writing, for me, is about the study of culture that leads to discourse.
I know that most people do not understand what I mean when I tell them what it is that I do. Immediately their mind goes in the direction of ‘commercial’ story. It is hard to say, though, “I am not actually a storyteller,” because I do also tell stories. But specifically for the sake of writing them. Someone once labeled me ‘philosopher’ when they heard that and I responded, “Why not just call me ‘mathematician’?” I have come to a new understanding of what it means to master the script when almost everyone else seems to have stepped away from it but you. All of the things that I’d been thinking about when I set out to do this were all disconnected, and somehow it just came together for me as soon as I left home. What you hold in your hands is what it is. Me? I simply hold a pen.
“To live one’s life as poetry,” Edith thought as she leafed through Eliza’s pages. “That’s exactly it. Leave a girl alone to write who says she writes and most likely she’ll just write. The work she produces will show you what she does and what she means. She’s got it.”
Eliza’s Pages —
I woke up this morning resolute. It did not feel magical. It felt special. But not magical. I cannot really explain the feeling except to say that every time I am on the way to the airport — any airport — there is a sense of relief. Because I feel so comfortable just being in the air. I absolutely love flying. I love the safety I feel being in an airplane, the smell of the air conditioning (though not the feeling of the cold), and I love the sound of the jet engines. They let you know you are indeed on an airplane and not the Greyhound bus. It is more that the feeling of going to a particular destination or travel. Specifically, it is the flying that I adore. Today’s flight was seventeen hours.
There is something wonderful about belief. It can get you absolutely anywhere. The reason this morning was so special is because it was filled, more than anything else, with belief, hope, and love. There was a profound certainty in what the future would bring. Because belief, hope, and love are powerful. Today was my maiden voyage.
Everything has been definitive. There is conviction. I tell you what, though — I hadn’t realized how strong I’ve become. Or that somehow I would manage to become stronger through heat and tears and through so much that made me feel isolation and loneliness rather than the welcoming embrace that was not awaiting me upon landing.
I have to say that I am proud of the decision I made. I am not a failure. I have done nothing wrong. Above all, I have come all this way by myself not so that I wouldn’t wonder, “What if…” but, because there was absolutely no doubt in my mind. One of the things you learn — one of the things I learned as I have gotten older — is that not having doubt does not always make you right. At the same time, the fact of the matter is that life is nothing without taking risks or chances. There are no sure things. That, I suppose, is the most beautiful thing about love. It rests on the most volatile and unstable foundation — belief.
I would have been a coward if I did not get on the plane this morning. And, with respect to love, I would have been a liar. I am no coward. And I am no liar. What I realize, though, is that this is nowhere near the end for me. Because there is so much more and when you think about it, what place isn’t a tiny little piece of island in the middle of a great big ocean once you make it to the water’s edge?
The meaning of rainbows are real. So, too, the meanings in the richness of the colors in, and that come out of, the earth.
There are mirrors. There is the court of public opinion. There is the heart, and the soul. There is also the beauty of time and the universe. In taking this flight I have found… discovered…the silent truth of life. And — just like that — my life has been changed forever. This is not about ‘eventually’ or ‘some day.’ I live. Now. In the now. This is not about me anymore.
It always begins with an exercise. The first thing I wanted to do this morning is wake up, take a shower, and then write. Waking up is a blessing. Taking a shower is a luxury. And writing is a gift that I do not take lightly. The rest of the day, such as it will be, has to take care of itself. There are little things that I have to do. A bit of laundry, mostly. For me that is a lot. The only reason I leave the premises is to get something to eat. And then I come back to write. Sometimes — often — I wake up and I write first. There are so many ways to move oneself into action.
The morning sun is absolutely beautiful and that is what wakes me up when I wake up early and sit outside. Like clockwork, though, a line of clouds sets in. Rain always comes. The earth has been shaking every day also. And somehow these things make me wonder about the forgotten. There are so many people whom time seems to forget that used to belong to…someone. They are everywhere. Some of them walk. Some of them sit quietly. Some of them reach out, and still, the keepers of time do nothing. Some of them are called ‘aimless’. Some of them are called ‘transient’. Some of them think of planet earth as their home. It is painful to think that what is happening is that your work as an artist is actively being ignored. Hope is what is known as the bright side. A plate of healthy food never hurts.
I was a child when I first started looking at the faces of the nameless. I started first with their shoes…I always tried to imagine what they must have looked like when they were new. I do not know if it is something that all children do, but I do know that it is a prism. Perhaps a mathematical formula of some kind: what did ‘x’ look like when it was new? Not, “What did x look like when it belonged to somebody?”
From the shoes I think my gaze went directly to the hands. You learn from them, without even realizing, how people take care. There wasn’t anything in particular that I was looking for. Now I am certain that what I was doing was just learning. There were some types of hands that I liked and some kinds of hands that I did not like. The same holds true for the shoes. It wasn’t a matter of old versus new in either case. It was more a matter of how they were worn in the case of the shoes and, in the case of the hands, how the person held them. And, too, how they were worn, I suppose. I have always thought hands are beautiful. I suppose because I have always been around ones that make things. It is easier to absorb when you are smaller — the reason for the purpose of things. There are all kinds of indicators on pairs of hands that work. Just like shoes, there are no pair that are exactly the same. And, neither is there symmetry. There can be the suggestion of it but in the end that is only imagined. Take, for example, a drummer. His or her hands make sound. That sound translates, for the listener, into language. What you hear mostly is rhythm. Through percussion. You don’t hear one hand or the other. What matters, in terms of language, is the sound. As an adult I have the language now to interpret what I hear. Translate. The sound of hands to me, first, is drums. Not clapping.
What do drummers hands look like? They vary. Not all drummers use sticks. Not all drummers use bare hands. Not all drummers use drums. The most skilled don’t even use their hands. For me, it will always be the sound.
When I was a kid I had no idea what calluses were. Not on hands. Nobody that I knew or grew up around ever had them. From that I guess I learned that the most serious among us never give them time to build up. Which means in some way, that someone is somehow taking care. I learned to associate working hands with softness, be they male or female. Strength is strength no matter what. It takes time to build. Often it happens with the subtlety of a repetition that some call work and, others, practice. Power? It can get cut off. It can be imagined instead of real. I don’t suppose that most people draw these conclusions from hands. Especially not as children. But what I am certain of now is that on some level we do pay attention.
I pay attention now to the fact that there are a bunch of different ways to apply meaning to the word ‘nameless.’
There was a man standing at the basement entrance to our neighborhood McCrory’s department store. Everyone of a certain age always remembers and talks about the blind man who played the accordion every day out front. He was always there until one day he wasn’t. I only saw the man at the basement entrance once. His shoes were so old. They looked like the word ‘comfortable’ to me but I would later learn that the ‘proper’ description in slang terms was ‘turned over.’ His clothing was more like rags. He wore a hat, slightly to one side, and from underneath that came white puffs of hair. Pristine. Cotton. In the man’s hand was a cup. ‘Grizzled’ is the cliché people might use to describe his fingers. They looked more like ‘tired’ to me. And quite possibly stiff. Like somehow they had not been used for a long, long time. I’ll never forget that this was the first time I’d ever heard the word ‘bum’ although I was confused by its actual use.
The man did not ask for a dime. Or a nickel. And he did not shake his cup. He just stood quietly and he smiled. I have no idea how many people walked past him.
I have no idea how many people called him the man a bum, either to his face or under their breath. Or in their heads without making a sound. What I know is that the man’s eyes were consoling. “May you never use the word you just learned against another,” they seemed to be saying. This, I learned, is the strength of language. And also memory. There are different ways to look back while moving forward. There are different ways to define ‘subject position’. There are different ways to think about when you first started paying attention to shoes.
My hands do not betray me in this moment. Neither do my feet. There are certain things I realize that I do differently when I only have one pair of shoes that some call slippers and others call flip flops. I pay attention to the word ‘calluses’, and where I do not want them to build up. Because of so much I am mindful of when and where I should not go barefoot. I think about the word ‘comfort’ and what it feels like. I think about words like ‘movement’ and ‘home’ and ‘everywhere’. And how they make me feel in relation to the elements. How sunlight cause things to dry and how water can make things decay. I wonder if this is really about shoes or hands at this point and so I go back to the word ‘movement’. And that everywhere, the eyes of the old have looked into mine. The old who would pull me aside and tell me things. Their backgrounds did not matter. In a lot of cases neither did the language. I always knew to first look at their hands. The hands that spoke of wisdom. That said, “I have already seen.” That say there is an absolute certainty about life.
Hands, no matter what, are proof.
As rain falls in the distance a rainbow starts to get bigger. From my vantage point it is being drawn from left to right. After what feels like the longest day in life, I look to the sky for a clue and a rainbow just happens to be… Thoughts of cards being drawn or ‘pulled’ or dealt or played are what become the tangents I decide not to go off on. A full day’s meditation can be exhausting. No one tells you that. The following day won’t be a meditation on strength. It will be a demonstration of it. The beauty? All you have to do is just be. Sometimes rainbows do just appear. And it is within each and every one of us to just watch them appear without question.
A meditation that is only a few paragraphs or a few lines is no less intense or wrought with meaning than one that goes on for hours and for pages. Perhaps the life of the poet holds the deepest secrets to enjoying life and simply taking it as it comes.
“…and so forth.”
Focus on the narrative thread. What would actually happen if more of us thought of the pages in our respective notebooks? There is something beautiful about developing a narrative thread through the art of meditation we call writing that weaves its way into every aspect of our lives. Belief equals focus.
Last night I went to sleep with one thought on my mind. “Believe.” Just ‘believe’. There was no hidden meaning attached. I wasn’t thinking of one particular group. That is, not one particular group outside myself. Truth be told, I was thinking mostly about my own empty stomach and what it means to be focused. ‘Belief’. ‘Meditation’. ‘Focus’. It all just seems universal within the context of language. No dogma. “What am I striving for?”, “What is my goal?”, or “What do I hope to accomplish?” become questions that get asked at the start of every day, with a realistic chance for there to be positive results, every day, by the time the sun goes down. There are imaginative and productive and sublime ways to approach, “Making it through the day.” It doesn’t have to be a requirement that life is always hell or a rat race. A goal can be living just one day. And then another. Living and then finding a way to share it.
Being connected and staying connected, for some of us, has less to do with electricity and more to do with kinship ties. We use words like ‘friendship’ and ‘family’ because it is what we actually believe. Family, friendship — kinship ties — are what hopefully remain most important as we develop to focus our ambition every once in awhile, for whatever reason, to sit down and unplug. Folks speak about the ability to watch the sun set as though it were a luxury and not something we have the ability to do every day. Sun’s rise?
To say, “Tomorrow is promised to no man,” invokes symbolism. The sun does rise. Actually, it just kind of stays there… . If we take a giant step away from the dogma while maintaining belief, what sorts of things might we focus on instead? A bus driver might feel more encouraged to request to drive a solar powered bus. A postal worker may decide to go back to walking his or her route. A doctor may decide to use a less invasive procedure on a patient. The possibilities are limitless in industry.
What sorts of things do we think about before we ‘plug in’? What informs our thoughts as a world community of individuals? A well-fed mind may very well give thanks with the finished product of a concentrated ideological apprenticeship. It is togetherness in harmony, regardless of what or how you do whatever it is you do that is the real proof of give and take. We lay claim to the success rate of any attempt at harmony, first, through our children — there is no country, culture or society that doesn’t have them. How many can plug in? Look at how many want to. Are we positioning ourselves to ask, “What will we sell them?” or “What will we show them?” No matter what we think we can come up with as answers it is our own actions, collectively, that teach — family and kinship ties. It is our own actions that teach our true relationship to one another cross culturally in a digital age which increasingly knows no bounds. What can we learn from children?
Quietly, this is just one perspective on the meaning in the words ‘belief’, ‘meditation’, and focus. Meaning that includes an overall notion of wellness — walking, eating properly, quieting the mind, and possibly a bit of running around on the handball court if you are fortunate enough to find one. Unplugging or turning the power switch off for a bit of conversation or, perhaps, to watch and feel the sun as it rises, too. The beauty of morning warmth — anywhere in the world — has the ability to astound limitlessly. The principle of solar energy does not change, no matter what you call it. What I also know is that today’s discussion started, and finished, focused on the word ‘believe’.
The Truth in the Maiden Voyage
Last night I thought about what today as a writing meditation would actually be. I decided that no matter what, it would be about faith. I woke up this morning to no food. It is never when the refrigerator is full that we get tested. The key is to give thanks always. Because even an empty refrigerator is an indicator that there is, at the very least, a roof over one’s head.
The fact of the matter is that everyone does fall on hard times. It is not ever a matter of what we do to get out of them anymore as much as it is how we conduct ourselves while we are in the midst of them. This has nothing to do with people watching and everything to do with how we feel about ourselves. During the bad times and in the long run.
I look at people in my darkest hours and I try to see the best in them. And I hope they can see the best in me. It is no different than when I am at my best, but who is to say when that is, really? Darker days are about learning that it can all be subjective and all we are ever doing, truly, is learning. And so what does that have to do with faith? For me it has been a bit of a struggle to say, “I have faith in myself.” Part of me is concerned about it being hubris. The possible arrogance in the phrase is what I reject, mostly. Quietly, though, I am trying to rebuild faith. In myself. And it is hard because there are times when life feels like it deals blow after blow after blow. One too many can kind of make you dizzy. And then you feel like the boxer who just won’t stay down. Is the boxer waiting for the referee to step in or are they still looking to fight? What if you don’t fight and you just happen to find yourself in the ring taking blow after blow after blow? This, sometimes, is more like what our darkest hours feel like. I guess I feel, because of the violence that implies, that I really don’t like to “fight”. It sounds too much like hurting someone. More specifically, hurting someone in order to win. And in the larger scheme of things that is just not a good way to practice good care for one another. Language matters. When faced with the choice of the ruthlessness of ‘fight’ or the simplicity of ‘faith’, I would rather choose faith every time. What kind of heart chooses to be ruthless, especially in their darkest hour?
Because I am learning to begin again to have faith in myself I think I have a new understanding of what it means to make the most of bad situations. Honestly, I never lost courage. There was no moment where I said I cannot do this. And by ‘this’ I simply mean rising to the occasion. Falling down means standing up. Standing up means looking for definitive answers to the questions, “Where do I find my strength?” and, “Who among my peers are my primary examples?”
I believe that I have a responsibility to pour it all out on the page. Mainly because that, to me, speaks volumes about where my faith actually exists, even if I can’t see it all the time. In these moments — in this moment — it still has to be about the work. There are so many peaceful and innovative ways to make the most of our existence on this planet. I say this after having spoken briefly about a refrigerator being bare when in fact there was an onion. On a makeshift shelf there was a bit of olive oil. An onion and a bit of olive oil can be a meal. When there is faith. This is nothing to brag about. It is just what is happening now. On the heels of an evening filled with the knowledge that the following day really would be a test…of what I thought was gone that never left.
How many of us go to the farthest reaches of our minds in search of answers? How many of us come back satisfied? How many of us realize that we always already knew where we were to begin with? There are so many ways to talk about experience and journeys.
This is not a ‘questioning of faith’. It is simply the discovery of one simple truth. What you are witnessing with your own eyes, dear reader, is one human being making the transition from living in the past to an active present that is. A life’s beginning, from which to build. This is what being a writer teaches. A writer in the purest meditative sense that involves penmanship as an art. Each pen stroke we take is the equivalent of the drawing of a single breath. We write our lives. We live our lives. I find that it is best to live life…simply. The writing aspect is not a chore but a blessing. With regard to form and also craftsmanship it is also serious, painstaking work. It has a literal history that spans some six thousand years. “From the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates to the shores of the Mediterranean. From hieroglyphics and cuneiform to the invention of printing and the rich world of lettering,” as one scholar so aptly put it.
I went from wanting to write an epic poem to wanting to develop my own epic calligram in the shape and form of a book while studying all the varied uses of language. Humble study.
I watch the way my hand develops as I do this. The way the writing takes shape on its own. Fluidly. As a design element that comes from doing this for hours at a time. The words are the story. Each letter. Each mark of punctuation. This kind of self-discovery is like finding a needle in a haystack. To get to it we live our lives. We actually live our lives.
There is something about an onion for lunch, sautéed in a bit of olive oil, that just kind of puts things in perspective. Especially when you, nonetheless, have an opportunity to sit outside and think about so much on a beautiful summer’s evening.
A man was being interviewed, rather than giving a lecture about his justification for an ongoing war, in front of a group of college students. The audience remained silent as he spoke. The man was a General. His use of language, firm. Precise. Unyielding. He spoke of revenge. He spoke of pain. He spoke of reciprocity in terror. When the time came for the audience to ask their own questions it was clear that while the group of students was mixed, ideologically speaking, all were in agreement that there had to be a better way than war.
The General, as he’d listened to the students’ questions and tried his best to respond matter-of-factly, also tried his best to hold back tears. The man, a General on the field of a war that had long ago spilled onto civilian streets, was also a mourning father. As he spoke to the group it became clear that he was not talking to the cameras.
Or to the interviewer. Before the questions from the students it had not seemed as though he was talking to them either but, instead, to some unseen, “Whoever is responsible for this!”
As the man began looking around the room once the students began to speak, actually observing their faces, something changed in his voice. In him. As he answered questions about possible resolutions. About ending war. He took a moment to compose himself and then he spoke. Softly. As a General who was also a man who’d lost his son to war. “I held my son in my arms,” he said. “And I saw the hole in his chest where his heart used to be…” His words… specifically the sentence, “I held my son in my arms and I saw the hole in his chest where his heart used to be,” brought forth the thought of Michelangelo. La Pieta. The passion in the man’s voice…
No parent should ever have to hold their child this way translated across time. Space. That is no way to have to use language. Strength can take the form of a question: When was the last time a commander gave the order, “Lay down your weapons,” to their own troops because, “we have no enemy here”? Isn’t that also revolutionary?
Edith stood up from the dining room table where she’d been reading quietly. She walked into the kitchen and picked up the receiver — she dialed the number Eliza had given her in the first correspondence she’d sent to tell her everything in response to, “A letter please.”
“May I speak with Joan Simon?”
“This is Joan.”
“This is Edith Minton calling. I’ve heard from your daughter. She’s okay.”
“You have?…I mean…she’s…who is this?”
“My name is Edith Minton. You might recognize the name Hyacinth. Hyacinth Simon.”
I just put down the pages you sent me for a moment because I wanted to get a letter off to you. What you have written makes me think about a lot. Mainly, how I was able to come to the place I did and how I’ve been able to continue. “Walking out” was not an option for me. Where I grew up was a bit…different. When. A vivid childhood memory is a sound I was reminded of daily walking across my college’s campus. In my neighborhood there were church bells. In school it was the library tower. They made me aware of how long I had been realizing time…as music. The ticking of a clock as a sweet rhythm to me. In daytime. At night it keeps me awake and so I prefer an hourly chime.
I don’t know if there is any such thing as daytime quiet in the city where we are from anymore. It is all daytime noise. Car alarms and sirens. I do not understand the use of a constant siren. Or car alarms. I watched a man steal a car once. I was on the cross-town bus, coming home from school. He jimmied the lock and jacked the ignition in a matter of seconds while my bus was standing idle at the stoplight. The alarm wasn’t even an issue. It sounded for less than a second and that’s what made me turn my head. The stop. And what I saw looked like it was out of a movie. Only it was real. And before cell phones. The owner of the car knew his own license plate number, I’m sure…The man who jacked the car fit a stereotypical description. In short, he looked like half the guys walking down the street at the same time who were either going in other directions or somehow otherwise distracted. When car alarms go on for a second and then shut off, chances are highly likely that someone is driving away momentarily.
There are parts of the city that actually do go to sleep at night in fall and winter. Nature, in some places, can be loud. Frogs and crickets are creatures that can make you insane without discipline. Perhaps they are what make you concentrate even harder when you are in a place where they are so confoundedly noisy. There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that makes you want to go outside and see them at night. There are multitudes of them after a rain. In the morning the ones that got squished by cars smell just as bad in quite the same way as the worms after a heavy rain in the place where I went to school. That is something you never get used to.
The quiet in New York City at night is amazing. You can hear the airplanes in the distance and then nothing. The occasional car passing by and that’s all. Savor the quiet you’ve found, Eliza. I can assure you that it leads to a place much more profound than a little bit. I’d like to share with you something that I carried around with me in one of my notebooks for a long time. I read it every once in awhile. Whenever I thought of conversations I had with people who thought it best to call me crazy because they didn’t understand:
Remember, therefore, that outcasts must never be afraid, and that to a writer, courage should, before physical courage, signify moral courage — during wars a quality often at a discount, whatever the packs of journalists may bleat to the contrary. As an artist, the only crime you can commit is to fail to support and uphold your peers, to agree in your heart with the herd, and, above all, to be afraid of ideas, afraid of beauty. You must never take heed for the morrow, never be afraid of the morning, for you have no more to lose than you brought with you.
That is from Osbert Sitwell’s Letter to My Son. I was deeply rooted in a particular kind of passion around the time I first read that quote. It is a passion that has never left me. I am happy to say that passion shifted into something else. Had it not, I don’t know where I’d be. Which is why I say to you go outside and take a look around. Look at where you are. There is the figurative. There is also the literal. When you think about what we do, as calligraphers who see art in language and in writing, a door to the world of the history of story opens up. We get to look at all kinds of things, see them in different ways, and describe them as we see fit on paper — and with words… which makes us sort of like painters with our own individual palates directly linked to the ones of whoever decides to read us in addition to admiring our work. I looked among notes I have from what is beginning to be a long time ago and I found a little sketch that I’d made after a short walk. It is only a few lines, really:
A man standing in a park after attempting and failing multiple times to light a cigarette says out loud to no one in particular, “What is wrong with this cigarette?” I say to him in my head, “It’s a cigarette.”
The day was absolutely beautiful. It felt good to be outside just taking a walk. I was in Washington Square Park. I’d slowed my pace enough so as not to appear to be “going anywhere.” The “rapid step of folks who have somewhere they must be” is a pace I find distracting. Especially when I find myself caught up in it. What I like most about slowing down is the ability to notice color. Even the different shades in asphalt. While there is definitely the color of the sky and the way the leaves change into fireworks displays here in the North East, Have you ever looked at the colors of New York City’s buildings? The colors of marble? The granite? It’s not all metal and glass. The buildings that surround Washington Square Park are absolutely beautiful The architecture, to be sure. But also the color. Everything is just so rich and full-bodied in the natural light of autumn. The entirety of that felt like an opportunity waiting to be described. As I saw it. The days you choose to sit down and write, ‘Liza, are the days that have chosen themselves to be seen by you. The reason? Because you do this. You know how it feels to look at books — about what they hold inside. Remember what brought you to that point.
I won’t go on quoting a whole bunch of authors to you. There is something John Updike said, however, that just sort of necessarily follows:
The book industry scarcely needs glamour when it has at its command something better, beauty — the beauty of the book. Though visual imagery is in a sense more absolute — more vivid, less arguable — than the printed word, electronic projectors are clumsy and prone to obsolescence compared to the physical object that bound paper forms….[A] book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human brain, and to the human spirit.
The work we do has always formed a boutique industry, ‘Liza. That is something that will never change. For a reason. Because there will always be a small group of us crazy enough — in a good way — to love what we do. The Internet makes the whole notion of counting a moot point when you put something somewhere online. The hand you write in, ‘Liza, is your own. Specifically you.
So please, keep going. The calligraphic aspect of what you are doing is part of it. By now you know that the use of language is as important. You are correct when you say that we are writers and not typists. You are also not a scribe. Living that fact and having it come forth in the work you do will allow you to ignore once and for all the phrase, “You must be crazy.”
More to come.
Friendship. It only makes sense that some kind of meditation on it is what follows. There are all kinds of ways to define it. Millions of books. Millions of songs. In each country. Millions and millions of poems across the history of every city. If the question becomes, “What makes this any different?” the answer is, simply, the same thing that makes each one of those books, each one of those songs, and each one of those poems different. And that is the individual human beings…and friendships. They are like fingerprints on the hands of culture. We often forget that when we sit down to read, listen to music, or watch a play, we are looking to the content to fill a space and we have chosen outside interaction. Something outside ourselves. That’s a complicated way of saying that sometimes we need a bit more in our lives and we go looking for something…more.
That is how I am going to define it. What the writer of the book, the song, the play or the poem hopes is that the person who listens has heard what they needed to hear. And that they came to a deeper understanding of themselves as well as the person reaching out through the music of it all. The question is not, “Did you like it?” but, “Did you feel it?” And when the answer is yes, the question does not need to be asked. That is harmony. I am not going out on a limb but standing on firm ground when I say it is the evidence of things not seen to understand true feeling. People talk about love all the time in the course of being romantic. So much less time is spent on love in friendship.
From Reader to Writer
It is hard to explain to someone because of what they have not seen that when you make the switch from reader to become a writer that you are just doing what comes natural. In fact, you have always been what you already are. A good way to say it is that you prefer to remove all the fire and brimstone. There is still right and wrong to be measured on your own conscience. By you, though. That is what is known as having agency. You find you have a better sense of things in writing your own world and organically gravitate toward right and not wrong. A lot of this is hard to put into words, but gone are the days when we could call ourselves “thinkers”.
Oddly enough, I find myself in the strange position of having to talk about gender. About preserving the creativity among women. In so many places, women are simply not afforded the opportunity as a collective to have a creative space outside of parenthood that they can call their own. There’s nothing made available for women to have access in order to thrive. We continue having to steal away to teach ourselves. That, for me, has gotten tired. Old hat. Dare I say that it has even become bad form? Yes, I do dare. I don’t have to be a nun to state the obvious.
My step toward a culture in writing has been precipitated by the fact that, increasingly, the culture built solely around reading continued to fail me. There was never a discourse that allowed for me to see the world exactly how it is and be myself. An outside force supposedly holding all the answers failed to hold my interest. There is too much in-fighting and I have grown weary waiting for the dust to settle and absorb the blood on the battlefields.
I suppose I am a bit frustrated right now because I feel as though I am in a constant state of having to make points of clarification. “Too high end with the theory.” I am upset with the high end readers having gone too low in their consumption. Somehow they seem to be the first to break every rule they want you to follow whenever things get too hot for them to handle. Writing culture teaches you to stay cool. Picking up a pen does not cease to be a birthright — not under any conditions.
I have two packages of macaroni left. And some green bananas I picked from the tree out back. There is also a bag of rice here. I’ll be okay. My body knows how to make the adjustment. “Lie and say you’re on drugs,” one person told me as a suggestion to get food. In addition to food what you also get is drug treatment and to me, that is crazy. And dangerous advice.
It is not that I have written off totally the traditional ways that readers come to a work, but within the context of writing, getting beyond the “suffering” stage is what helped me as a person. Bananas and rice are actually quite good. A little salt, a little garlic and a pot of hot water and you’ve got quite a meal to sustain you. It brings honor to the phrase, “You get what you deserve.” How do you say to folks, “I’m quite content with the bananas and the rice, and some beans to go along would make it perfect,”? You don’t. You live it. Quietly. You see how long it takes for them to realize you don’t mean you don’t like seasoning. Or vegetables. Or fruit. You see how long it takes before people realize that being able to live in a shack with a one pilot stove and makeshift pipes for running water does not mean you belong in one, no matter how grateful you are for the shelter. You see, as the finest threads turn into rags, how those who welcome you with open arms will kick you — how the ones you love wait to see how long it takes for you to become a beggar. And you watch what people do when they learn you can sew without a machine. Fashion sense? Writing fuels all industry. As a whole. Natives of the world are born where? More readers writing and more writers with time is what changes absolutely everything.
I look carefully at the narrative drive in my life that is story. After so much, what remains. This is about gaining in love and in friendship. There is no way I could have ever written one single word as a weapon. You learn from mistakes about arguing. How it leads to fighting. There has been an internal struggle. So much of who we are starts out feeling like loose pages.
I look at these tiny words written in pencil. I pay close attention to when they shift. When sentences elongate. I wonder if instead of continuing to transcribe them I’ll just burn them. Or throw them away. I have absolutely no idea in this moment. And I like that I’ve learned not to be so literal about the word ‘unplug’. Because what I am seeing is that my own use of the word is actually doublespeak for ‘read more’. ‘Books’ is not doublespeak for ‘content’ in every instance, but when I specifically use the word there is an expectation — that the ideas be carefully mapped out; that the thoughts be carefully strung together; that the reading experience also be a learning experience. In the end the motivating factor for me is that I really want to see some amazing books written. Something happens when you set out to write without all the bells and whistles. Am I writing, more than anything else, to make my case as a reader? I suppose. Because as a writer I do get exhausted. And even if I never do sit down to weave a tale that becomes “The Great American Novel”, I’d like to say that recognize one, and that the books I read by contemporary writers are what have continued to inspire me. I’d like to see a literary genius become a rock star. I want to see and hear people go back and forth about books by talented writers. I want to witness intellectual debate. I want to see a renaissance in full sway, across all genres. I want to be moved to tears by another reader’s description of a book they just read that changed their lives and absolutely everything they thought they knew about the world. In a good way. I want to feel as though the way I have romanticized the possibility in book culture is real and not ‘crazy’.
As a particular kind of book lover I bought into an idealistic dream. It lead me to the world of writing.
I believe that reading and writing can be life saving. Not just for the reader or the writer, but anyone truly dedicated to the infrastructure. Because it seems like anyone who is truly dedicated somehow finds a way. The energy of who they are reaches you and grabs you and pulls you into their discourse of discovery. They don’t have to ‘say’ a word. Think of the person sitting engrossed in a book. Think of their body language. Think of yours. Part of you may want to ask them what they are reading. And part of you may want to continue watching them because they have become statuesque as a result of reading. I want to know that there are legions of writers prepared to inspire that. Because, in this moment, that is what the word ‘possibility’ means to me. And ‘culture’. That is not to say this is not happening — a mass unplugging as people immerse themselves into the world of books.
Let me be clear, as a former book editor who decided to live life on the other side of the desk. As a reader who went into the world of books because she believes.:
I want to read something — anything — that inspires me to believe again in a lover’s kiss. I want to look back on these pages and say, “I gambled everything for love and won.” I want to feel secure in my use of the word ‘I’, not “justified”. I want my ability to love with reckless abandon kept in tact. I want to savor the writer’s victory quietly, as a reader. A book is a sculpture with words — some people spend more time apprenticing and it shows. If you decide that you want to find beauty in marble you don’t just pick up a hammer and chisel and start chipping away. You study form. You study anatomy. You study the beauty of the world around you. You walk through the museums and you walk through the forests. You question the depth of the ocean and the limitlessness of the sky. You have dreams of wonder and terrible nightmares. You love passionately. You have your heart broken. You love again. You search for your subject in stone and you create mounds and mounds of rubble. You fail. You cry. You tear your hair out. You bathe every day but change your clothes occasionally. You curse everyone. You curse everything. You let everything go and then you find God within you. Only then, if the process has not taken up your whole lifetime, can you begin. There cannot be any difference between those who write books and the sculptors of stone. I believe in heaven. Heaven is what happens when you gain complete control of your thoughts.
— Deborah Cowell
“You’re saying my daughter is on some island in the Pacific writing a manifesto after finding you and I should not be worried?”
“No…I’m saying your daughter had been studying for a long time before contacting me and she left to write a treatise that she’s designing as a calligram in the form of a book, and it is taking shape as an editorial letter of love to publishing.” The shock in the silence on the other end of the line to the words that just poured out was…palpable. “Look Joan, this is a lot of information. Your daughter has been through a lot. She told me everything. About what happened. About getting up and walking away from her desk. About packing a bag. About just leaving.”
Joan Simon wasn’t cold when she responded. Her tone, mostly, was filled with concern. “Miss…Minton? Please forgive me if I don’t leap into calling you Hyacinth.”
“No problem…,” the warmth of feeling reciprocated.
“Eliza just left…days after she said she tracked you down. Something about being sure…of ‘having to do this’ is all she said. She didn’t take her phone. She left most of her clothes. She left her laptop — Eliza never leaves her laptop.”
“I’m not defending what ‘Liza did, Joan. But I do understand it. I’ve seen her work. And it’s not like she doesn’t have computer access.”
“I’ve seen her work too. Her handwriting is almost completely enciphered.”
“Because she writes for hours and hours and hours at a stretch…have you ever read any of her stories?”
“I have,” Joan replied. But what’s that got to do with…?”
“ ‘Liza just wants to be left alone to write for a while. To figure something out. She has something she needs to say. She doesn’t want to start a cult or join one. And…,” Edith took a deep breath, sighed, and said quickly, “she wants to study writing as an art form.”
Joan Simon felt dizzy. She looked around herself to regain her center. At the pictures of her daughter Eliza, that she’d carefully placed in her living room over time. Elementary school photos, mostly. Some middle school. A couple from high school. And one from Eliza’s time at university that was snapshot of Eliza and three of her school friends mugging for the camera. What mother doesn’t have pictures of their children up as a reminder of how the years have passed? Joan steadied herself with the brief walk through time reflected in photographs, seeing her daughter grow up and moving them all toward this moment. “You know, Miss Minton, we’re talking about Eliza like there isn’t a big gorilla in the room.”
“I know,” Edith said quietly.
“We knew about you, but…”
Edith interrupted, “Joan, we’re all grown. This is something that I made peace with a long time ago. It’s not like any of us were underneath rocks as the world has been changing. It was only a matter of time before someone made the connection and got in touch.”
“I don’t even know what to say.”
“Neither do I. Not really,” Edith said softly. “Call it fate.”
“I mean…I have a big sister…you have a niece…do you…?”
Edith chuckled. “I live quietly. I’m single. I’m happy. I like my life. And please, call me Edith.”
There was no real tension between the two women. What it appeared to be on the surface was, in fact, the reality of what it was. One woman had been given up for adoption at birth. Another had not been. One woman went on to have a child — a daughter. The little girl grew up to be a professional young woman who chose the esoteric world of book publishing to answer her call to art. She also took the connection she discovered about herself and her family as a sign. Beautiful things can happen behind closed doors in the story of a person’s life when there is no drama.
“Your daughter — Eliza — was able to find out all about me through my work. And the fact that I’ve got some relevant information posted on a social network. I take it you don’t do that much.”
“No. No, I don’t,” Joan said.
“You’re not missing anything. Really. It’ll make you go nuts.”
“I just go online to read the news now, mostly. The novelty for me has worn off.”
“For me, too,” replied Edith. “Eliza seems to be completely done with it. But her writing has taken off as a result.”
“That’s the part I can’t figure out,” said Joan. “What do you mean…‘an editorial love letter’?”
“I made a few calls when I got your daughter’s letter and, from what I can tell, she just loves books.”
Joan beamed, “Always has!”
“That’s fantastic. And you know a lot went on…” Edith said more than asked.
“She didn’t really tell me anything. There’s so much I only started learning when I began reading the work she posted.”
“That’s the thing. How long has ‘Liza been writing?”
“Edith, Eliza has always been writing.”
The two women spoke for a while longer. Mostly about Eliza. What kind of little girl she was growing up. What seemed like the straight and narrow path she took into book publishing. How, one day, she “went off to be a writer.” And how nobody would know exactly what that meant until Eliza came back. “Eliza is not raging against the machine, Joan,” said Edit, softly. “She really does just want some peace and quiet. She’s not trying to figure anything out. She’s already got it.”
“You know, Edith, if this were one of those bad ‘made for television’ movies or ‘straight to video’ releases we’d be on an airplane right now and this would be the start of something strange.”
“I know. I know. But it’s not. Thankfully.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Joan.
“Like I said, we give Eliza a little bit of space.She’s working. She sent me a chunk of the work she’s turning into calligraphy. I am writing to her. And I’ll help her find a collector. I know someone who’ll definitely be interested in her work.”
“It feels kind of strange talking to my long lost sister about my daughter who up and left one day…” Joan’s voice trailed of and there was one beat of silence before the two women laughed. “Is there a number where I can call her?” Joan then asked.
Edith replied slowly, making sure to remove any tone from her voice that could be mistaken for anything other than mutual concern. “Eliza wants you to wait until she comes back, Joan. As a fellow writer I’ve got to respect her wishes.”
“It’s that artist’s thing, huh?”
“Yep. It’s that artist’s thing.”
Joan and Edith — Hyacinth Simon and her younger sister, Joan, behind closed doors, agreed to set up a time to actually meet. Face to face. For the first time. They also agreed that sending pictures over the Internet before would be in poor taste. Theirs was not that kind of story. At all.
The biggest mistake I am certain I can make is to be a fair weather recorder. The shift from ‘reader’ is not easy. There is an internal struggle based primarily on discipline. Eventually it becomes a reflection of truth telling and integrity. “The chicken is already dead and no one will know,” is not an excuse for a vegan to eat a chicken wing if no one is around, and you think no one is looking. There can be no half-stepping. Similarly, when we go from a reading to a reading and writing discipline, we are opening up and demonstrating the way we have made peace with ourselves. We are making it clear how we are answering the call — to art.To service. To consciousness. Keep practicing.
You’ll know what you are looking for when you see it. You’ll know it when you feel it. Keep writing.
The best way to describe what happens is that it is like a gong being struck. There is the initial sound, followed by the reverberation. Another would be the tossing of a pebble into a pond. There is the initial ‘ploop’ and then there are all the rings. These are also two of the best ways to describe Om once you’ve heard it. You realize that there is proof of it everywhere. It is a frequency. It is a pitch. The majority seek to find it by looking for the sound of the initial strike. That is like trying to find the beginning of infinity when it is better to start with the notion that we are already living. In the midst of it. That is the epiphany of the writing life. As it relates to sound, with the gong. As it relates to the surface of water, with the pebble. Think of raindrops. Multiple concentric circles being formed is the pattern we see that multiple concentric circles sound like with multiple strikes of a gong. Raindrops on water.
Now imagine each one…as a book.
Be writing and be ready. There are a lot of people who focus on the writing part and not the being ready. Some focus on waiting until every single outside thing is in its exact place before laying down the perfect set of sentences on the page. Which means the writing happens almost never. Reading all different kinds of stories and narratives — not just books — teaches how to be ready with whatever it is you want to do. We pick and choose what is favorable to us and then we do our own thing in ways that become specific to us as we practice. This is how we develop our own style. Learn all the rules and then break them properly. Making this transition across all aspects of your life is what makes you a writer living. There are times you’ll want to scorch the bottom of a pot and then stir it up into the stew. There are times when you’ll want a specific stitch to be off center. Just a bit. There are times when you’ll know that it is all right to skip a step without missing a beat. This is the writing life. This is life.
Little things begin to show in the way you organize that reflect who you are inside your specific circle. A verbal tick on the page can become an idiosyncrasy you may not be aware of but that somehow displays itself in a bowl of oatmeal you make from scratch that tastes delicious. Sometimes there is overthinking. Thinking way too much about every single flower that has ever existed may prevent you from just planting sunflowers. Rain water, for the writer, is not every single written text ever. It is one drop. And then another. The creative spirit in any discipline is a cross-section of different kinds of work from all disciplines. Some flowers are books. Some flowers are sculpture. And some flowers are pots of coffee. Each task that we perform has the potential to be a flower and our approach to completing them — or finding a solution if they become a puzzle — is a demonstration of how we use rainwater — the culmination of what is otherwise known as the mind.
How we care for the rainwater speaks volumes.
Without all the metaphor, a writing life teaches, simply, to finish what you have started. In necessarily leads to places that are beautiful. It also teaches that not all epic poems need to be a thousand pages. There are epic poems that are also Haiku.
When I sit down to talk on paper about why I just left, it is a demonstration of the work that necessarily was already in progress so that I could begin. It is about so many things already having their own place.
I think about all that has taken place with me…in the place that I call home. I marvel at the beauty. And I feel I have a responsibility, based on so much, to share how I have been able to reach a place of inner freedom because of books. There is no fear of fire and brimstone. The alchemist is full of parlor tricks and nothing more. The discipline of writing teaches that the best way to prove it is the work.
This all comes back to the phrase, “Be writing and be ready.” Because being ready means being prepared. As a maker of anything — not solely as a writer of words — have you done the reading? Have you put in your time? It is not about what you say you are going to do once you “get the money”, but what you demonstrate you are capable of without having to say a word.
There are all kinds of things I suppose I could have done instead to demonstrate exactly what I mean — and that is the center of an absolute point. There are any number of things I could have done. To have seen and come back a master chef. To have seen and come back a shop keeper. The images that appear on the cover of books — how were they created?
I continue to be a writer, ready. I see sculpture as life…although I think it is best that I not go out and get a real slab of marble to prove it. For me that’s what blank pages are for. Notebooks. Where we place the value in what we do doesn’t necessarily determine what will be printed without a whole bunch of other variables in place. To have written work printed is no guarantee that it will be read. It is proof, though, of the investment that others will make in you when you show how you care for and value your time.
To show you believe in the fire of truth and the sweat of love — to be able to sit down quietly and map out your thoughts in a notebook of the analog kind is hard work, but it is also a luxury that must be earned. The answer to the question, “What are you doing?” must be read. When you complete your work and it stands up to all kinds of necessary tests, it has the ability to put any number of people back to work. A book editor has something to acquire. The production department has material for which they can create a schedule. A copy editor has something to read and discuss — perhaps a writer’s egregious misuse of the comma, no matter how hard she tries. An interior designer can research fonts to make the book come alive as an object. There are cover design meetings and a person has the ability to sit down, read your work, and become inspired looking for different ways to present it. Manufacturers sell paper. Printers buy it. Buttons are pressed. Copies are made and orders that have been sold into stores by a sales force made up of actual human beings who read get shipped. Mail carriers get put to work. When books get delivered is when the work begins. Think of all that must be in place for the reader to find…you. Synergy. Word of mouth. All for the book.
How often do you think of these things when you say, “I’ll finish one book”? As a write(reade)r? There is no question — that is the formula. Books are the prism for the design of a functioning society. A disciplined writing structure teaches us how to be while we simply do our part. There are so many ways to participate. In order for writing to be how you are active, make it sing. In order to make it sing you have to be doing it. No matter what. The reasons become clear with each narrative you finish. These must be the steps you take as you walk. “Be writing and be ready,” means that you are prepared, and won’t find yourself in the awkward position of explaining why you need to start with nothing — not even the semblance of an idea — from scratch.
Dear Aunt Edith,
I decided to send you a note instead of a postcard to tell you what I wanted to say. Today I left my bag inside and took a walk with “my arms swinging.” It felt good to be walking and looking around completely free.
There is this one stretch of “highway,” if you want to call it that. It is absolutely beautiful. Bewitching is more like it. There is something about when you get to it that makes you feel like you’re inside your own postcard. And that maybe someone else has an outside view of the whole scene. Perhaps they do. That one little stretch gives me solace. Because that one little stretch never seems to change. And maybe that’s the part that’s bewitching. Every night I give up, but every morning it all makes sense.
There was no elaborate pronouncement. Eliza Simon was sitting behind her desk one afternoon and came to terms with the fact that absolutely nothing she was looking for would be found there. This was not a grand epiphany. Her life had been building up to that moment. She hadn’t been looking for a bunch of books in one specific genre, or one particular book. Eliza Simon was looking for stories. Stories she could find herself in to fuel her imagination. Ones she could wrap herself and get lost in to find wonder. Properly conjugated verbs minus a writer’s soul was no display of passion as far as Eliza was concerned. The side of the desk she was on would not even allow her to have that kind of conversation. Eliza was looking for language that used story as art and art as language and she knew that where she was had become a morgue.
“Get up and get out of here. Leave.” Eliza knew she had to become, to the best of her ability, what she had been asking for. Nothing would ever come from waiting. She decided she would be the question that life poses. “Nobody gives you that,” she thought as she pressed the elevator button to take her to the ground floor. “You have to take it.”
The history of what it means to earn a master’s degree is what Eliza took most seriously. She never said,“I went to graduation.” It was commencement. She made it clear the accomplishment she held was conferred upon her. She took to heart the writing principle. There was so much she kept to herself for the sake of learning. As in, “Why ask questions when you can watch and learn and then decide what is best for you?” Possibilities become solutions.
Eliza only asked questions to factor in opinions she thought were relevant. Few were surprised when she left one day without saying a word.
At four-thirty in the afternoon one summer’s day, Eliza Simon’s pace camouflaged her fluidity as she merged with early bird commuter sidewalk traffic. Things may have seemed ordinary from the outside, but Eliza Simon could finally see.
“It’s not like I won’t be coming back,” Eliza thought to herself as she leaned back into her window seat. “I just need to get the fuck out of here. I need to hear myself think.” Eliza didn’t need permission to breathe. When the plane leveled off she felt herself become still. Calm. And then she fell asleep. Finally. After having stared for hours into blue.
“I use stories to draw pictures to tell stories. If you plan to step into the world of books as a writer, you have to be prepared to leave the ordinary world behind. We do this to preserve imagination. It is never about what “they” are looking for. When you come back with something wrapped in a box to be opened with care instead of chimes, bells, and whistles, you know that what you have is special.”
Edith Minton, Solo Si Verra: An Annotated Collection of Calligrams, Essays and Short Stories (from the introduction to the English translation)
The Nineteenth of ____mber
Doing this, this way, teaches me that there is indeed a lifestyle to which I have grown accustomed. One of simplicity. My hope is that people will see the value in it. When I think of all the crap I had that held me back. I make no apology for my books — it’s all the other…stuff. And now it is just one backpack. The books are somewhere.
I woke up this morning thinking about all the ways I got to this place. The place inside my head. It is literally where everyone says they want to be when they say they want to be creative. Most people hardly ever make it. Too many get discouraged. It is not being told, “No.” It is about somehow being convinced that the creative mind is not worth it. And that’s a shame. We teach our children way too much about hope in every culture to just dash it away as soon as they become teenagers.
Across the board, everywhere needs to be more in tune with preserving nurturing environments. Not everyone can tune out negativity. Not everyone can see negative messages as examples of what not to do without somehow falling under negative influence. What makes some people want it more than others? That is an age old question. Finding the answer requires that we just let people be who they are from the very beginning, and when they get old enough we can ask them. The answers won’t be convoluted. I just love book culture. I like being happy. I like looking at things. I like culture. And I love using words. For thinking. To paint pictures of life.
I guess I got to the space I am in because I have always wondered about the world. There is something about it that has always been very beautiful to me. We should never allow ourselves to be convinced that we don’t have a right to think about how beautiful the world is. Or that we don’t have a right to somehow figure out a way to make a living catching our dreams and putting them to work for us. Imagination fuels commerce. There is, indeed, a business end. This is industry. This is how it works. For each book you read, someone stood up and said, “Let me fill the blank page.”
The human body can be pushed to some extreme limits. This isn’t necessarily anything to brag about. Some of the limits that we are pushed to physically are absolutely unfair. A healthy body, though, will never let you down. Something much different can be said about a healthy mind because a healthy mind has no limits. The objective in pushing a strong healthy mind is not to get it to push back. You want it to keep going. Do you want a powerful body or a strong one? Now ask this question of the mind. Strength builds. Raging against the machine is rage. The machine keeps chugging along. Something somewhere in the mind inevitably explodes. Because it is in competition with the machine. There is a way to learn how to slow things down by speeding things up when you operate at your own pace. In your own time. When it is a demonstration of innovation then the machine, whether it likes it or not, is required to fall into rhythm. It will try to break you. The machine is part of the collective that doesn’t like change, of which innovation is change in the extreme.
We don’t set out to be innovative. We can’t. There is no way to plan to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it happens, though. When we least expect. Folks don’t like the word ‘chance’. Innovation is more than “necessity being the mother of invention” or the system randomly correcting itself. Somebody, somewhere, literally has to wake up and be driven, no matter what, to create a new state of being. It has a lot to do with searching for our own comfort zone when the machine somehow failed us. A healthy mind is a strong mind. A strong mind is a limitless one. That is amazing.
My body is telling me to remain practical and to not go overboard. I’ve still got an issue with chocolate. The problem has everything to do with how delicious it is. And that I have to go out of my way to find it sweetened With just cane juice. Dark, handmade tree bark with almonds is something I took for granted. I make no apology for this weakness. None whatsoever. It is better than having an insatiable desire for cheese.
Today I learned quite by accident that a Buddha’s tear is actually a semi-precious gemstone. I’d been thinking about using the phrase as a title I’d planned to embroider the narrative of onto sheets of mulberry paper. But then I’d have done what with that?
What I know is that as I worked on making…I don’t even know what you’d call it besides a piece of art…I would also be writing a much longer story. An embroidered calligram and a companion work about how the title The Buddha’s Tear came to be. A thought. An idea. A way of making something special while practicing with my pen. But how do you explain to folks what that is? There comes a point when the truth of something — the pure essence of a thing — needs no explanation. The actual gemstone is so profoundly beautiful, though, that I have since changed my mind about it as a title. For that particular text. The Buddha’s Tear remains a tear. The text? Pages.
People go out seeking all kinds of things and “come back” disappointed because they don’t open themselves up to the fact that you can make a transition. You can let certain things go. The writing life is everywhere. These are words. This is language. And it can be limiting. But only if you feel that you need to explain it. Real time requires an object for commerce when using the editorial process. “Art” is way out there. Books are tangible.
I gave my life to the love of books. I suppose you could say I died for it. I willingly allowed my enchantment to be betrayed in its hallways of physical production. The people I loved most were the people at my now former publishing house. I never thought of that place as a job. They were — are — people who matter because of who they are. I chose them when I chose to do this thing that I do on the other side of the desk. As an industry. As commerce. As an institution of something higher. Books are my foundation. And so is chocolate. One piece — perhaps two — every couple of years. Of decent size. Of respectable size. Books. Chocolate. “Is she saying she’ll work for chocolate?” No. I’m saying chocolate will be my comparison. This is all part of one giant prism. I get to choose the word. The word I choose is ‘chocolate’. And in winter? A cup of hot apple cider.
The pages that The Buddha’s Tear have become are real. They are not about “making” peace. They are about living in it. I have learned to listen to my own voice. I have learned to observe. I have learned to be more quiet and appreciate what the benefits are for me to slow down.
It is late now. Closer to evening. The day is becoming something different as the air turns cool. I make a mental note not to romanticize this place. Ever. I remind myself that aside from the sky, a banana tree, and a mourning dove one time, that none of this will ever be written about. That is not why I came here. The address will soon disappear. I am no longer new to this. If I look back at all it is only on the day. Which is exactly what I needed. To be here. Quietly. Writing.
Talking about making the transition from a reading life to a writing life is not something to take lightly. The writing, after all, is meditation. The preparation is fierce because this is how you sustain yourself and folks who are serious need to understand that in the beginning it doesn’t mean money. Sustenance is, first, food. It is also running, potable water and access to a sink. Shelter helps. Shelter helps a lot. The description here could potentially speak of transience in the worst possible way when you are not able to be productive. No matter what, you need paper. There won’t always be electricity; you have to always be able to function if you are required to take it back to the basics. Doing it all on paper is the equivalent of the acoustic album for a writer.
Care must be taken on pages without lines. Pages without lines require discipline. I think in this moment of Michelangelo’s drawings. What must they have been like — the thoughts he committed to the universe instead of stone?
Dear Aunt Edith,
There is a leap my work took that I cannot explain.
I believe the most promising way to approach this is to have the need — the craving — to share story. That is exactly the phrase I mean: share story. You have to let it take you where it wants. And you have to let it shape itself as you write. We learn from our writing and our writing learns from us. That is true discovery.
What took place with me is something that takes some people decades to discover. I suppose you could say I walked through a doorway that was there just for me. The idea that people can follow is an illusion. But it is one that can help them find their own. However they choose to look for it. Each doorway is a doorway, not a floodgate.
I took some time over the past few days to clarify some things in real time. I had to let my former employer know that I do not think I am Jesus. I also had to let a friend know that some of us really do need to do this so that we may continue. It is hard for me right now because I feel as though I am being extremely judgmental. Perhaps that is because I know way too many background stories.
If there must be a battle, it is with ourselves. That is when the stakes are highest. It is really a writing lifestyle that teaches us how to finish. It is what necessarily develops when you learn how to read — when you start finishing books on a regular basis you understand, quite literally, why we do this. The writing part makes it deeper. The writing part makes it stronger. Staying, instead of leaving when I did, would have killed me. I needed to take this walk and I needed to be able to say, “I did this…because I am serious about this.” What this becomes when it is finished is not anyone’s “guess.”
It is destined to be the result of hard work. This is how it is supposed to be to work. This is how it used to — work. This is industry. Someone standing up to say, “Let me fill the blank page.”
I remember having a conversation with someone about how Gotham loves books so much — we become giddy over the purchase of new ones. And really old ones. We read. Because there is something amazing about being in a quiet room and not only hearing the crack of a book’s spine, but also feeling it. There’s something wonderful about being anywhere — a subway station, a bus stop, waiting in line at the bank or post office — and turning that place into a quiet room just by reading…
Very little of this is figurative. Most, if not all of it is extremely literal. Over time you learn that what matters is being able to express it. Making a place for yourself if necessary — at the expense of much, but not in a way that costs you a debt you should never have been asked to bear. Too many people look to mountains to become grains of sand, and not enough look to grains of sand as mountains. And just about everyone takes the flow of water for granted.
I look forward to meeting you my dear ‘Liza. When you come back, my home is your home for as long as you need.
The two women held each other’s gaze in a long moment of silent recognition. Of course they were sisters. Edith was the first to smile. Filling in spaces of absent memories over tea, in a matter of hours they became like old friends. The magic of it all was how they caught up, with time. Tears became laughter. Laughter, joy. Joy became side splitting laughter. A mother’s patience. An aunt’s tempered reassurance. A daughter’s plane would soon be landing.
There is a heaven. My mother and the people she loves most are there now — my father, my aunts, and a whole bunch of extended family. They are sitting around in a giant living room drinking scotch with milk in it. They are laughing. Heaven is memory. Not all of it is childhood. Heaven is what happens when you gain complete control of your thoughts.
– Edith Minton
Remember the history…of paper.
Also by Deborah Cowell: