Sunday, November 30, 2008

Not So Commonplace Books

Writers are word collectors, quote collectors. I know I am. I like to hand write favorite quotes into notebooks. One name for such a collection is: a commonplace book. Wikipedia tells us that commonplace books are a way to compile knowledge, scrapbooks if you will. Quotes, prayers, proverbs -- each collection is unique to its creator's interests and intentions.

A friend who attended a spiritual seminar recently came back with a suggestion to do this as a spiritual practice and/or starting place for further revelations: enter meaningful quotes into a notebook or journal. Plenty of ministers must do this as part of their perpetual search for sermon material.

My commonplace books reflect my obsessions. About a decade and a half ago, my entire social life revolved around writers' groups and poetry readings, etc. So it was natural for me to collect quotes about writing. Here's one from Leonard Cohen: "Poetry is just the evidence of a life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." (Look magazine, 6-10-1969) I used that quote sometimes when I gave poetry readings.

And this one from Annie Dillard: "I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better." (from The Writing Life, Harper and Row, 1989)

Any reader runs into those special sentences that beg to be read again and again. You can't turn the page or go on until you capture them for all time. Such as this from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Euxpery: "And here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see. What is essential is invisible to the eye." In fact, I found I had written this down twice in two different notebooks.....

As a person who requires a fair amount of alone time, I love this quote from May Sarton: "Solitude itself is a way of waiting for the inaudible and the invisible to make itself known." (Plant Dreaming Deep, W.W. Norton, 1968)

And this one which is applicable to so many situations in life, said to be a cowboy saying: "Good judgement comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgement." As a manager, I try to remember that when anyone makes a mistake, me included.

One final offering, this from Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776): "Reading and sauntering and lounging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme happiness."

And so the commonplace notebook grows thicker and thicker until it is full and time to start another one. Taking up not but a few inches of shelf space on one's bookshelf or tucked into a drawer, such collections are invaluable, surely anything but common. Wikipedia makes the point that some writers see blogs as analogous to commonplace books. I'll take both. The notebooks are essentially for me, and the blog goes out and beyond. As Linda Ellerbee would say, "And so it goes...."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cherished and Inherited Books


A poem by Emory & Henry College professor Felicia Mitchell published in a recent issue of Blue Fifth Review provided me not only with a moment's pause and subsequent delight in her fine-tuned sensitivity, but also with the inspiration for this blog post. Here are some lines from the middle of her poem, "Zen and the Art of My Brother", a poem inspired by her brother's copy of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Inner peace is a state of mind.
I value quietness as much as my brother did,
the two-dimensional world of the book.
Inside his books, hard edges seem rounder,
like worry stones or river rocks.
When I am inside them,
I am almost inside my brother inside himself.

Felicia, a long distance friend and pen pal, lost her brother, John Henry when she was 20 and he was 21. In a short essay accompanying the poem, she tells how she keeps this book of her brother's on her desk at college, "as much for the fact that his hands held it as for what it contains."

I couldn't agree with her more on the tactile resonance of books which used to belong to people we loved. By the time I was age seven or eight, reading Little Women and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, or the Little House books, not only did I very much want to own and keep my favorite books on a special shelf, I became fascinated by the books on my father's bookshelf. I loved to study their titles. I sensed they had totemic powers. Some of the books were well worn, as if Dad had carried them from pillar to post, and I knew they meant something to him. You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe: that title mystified me until I got a little older. Dad was from North Carolina, and he had a complete collection of Thomas Wolfe. The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso: to me that seemed like a good book title since that was what I most liked about the newly discovered joy of reading chapter books, that I could get inside someone else's mind (and life and soul).

I own a few of Dad's books now. He passed away in 2003. I especially value the ones he wrote his name in. Also, if there were clippings or bookmarks left in the books, I keep them. My mother has more of Dad's books, which I'll probably inherit some day. I took down his copy of Butterfield 8 by John O'Hara from my bookshelf last night and the paper cover turned to dust in my hands. But the binding and book pages are in excellent condition. I have been meaning to read that book ever since I adopted it....

There is much debate in the library world and elsewhere as to whether the book as we know it will continue much longer. I hear my fellow librarians (as well as Oprah) extolling the virtues of Kindle, an electronic book reading device. Nothing against the thing, and it seems to make them happy, but I am a real book with real pages person. I like the heft and weight of books, their covers, their pages with or without deckled edges, even their aromas when freshly printed. If books are no longer three dimensional objects, they can not be passed along from one to another in quite the same way. I like turning the pages of a book my Dad once read. Call me sentimental, but loving books is in my blood. Inheriting someone's Kindle doesn't quite inspire the same warm, fuzzy feelings.

So kudos to Felicia for her poem and essay, both fine forays into the multiple connections we make reading and turning the pages of a book once owned by someone we have lost. The intimacy of reading the same book they loved, the very same book, is one of the most therapeutic ways of grieving I've ever heard of. As well as bushy eyebrows and the shape of my feet, my Dad passed along his love of reading. I think it's time to read Butterfield 8.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Passalong" Plants


I forget where I first acquired one of these little succulent plants some twenty-odd years ago, but ever since then, I have not been without a few pots of them. They easily make pups and have become one of my favorite "passalong" plants. Probably one of the haworthia species of succulents, they are easy to grow. All you have to do is ignore them and keep them out of the hot sun.

Wikipedia tells us succulents are also known as "fat plants" because of their water-storing ability. My haworthia don't seem to care if you water them or not, although a little rain never hurts. Their roots don't seem very tenacious. The plants sit loosely in their soil. Yet they are alive, and I appreciate their steadfastness.

I learned there is a Haworthia Society. They even have a plant exchange for their members, and publish a magazine for their members called the Haworthiad. Perhaps when I retire in a year or two, I will join and become even more of a plant geek than I already am.

Aloe vera plants are also easy passalong succulents to grow, and very good to have on hand for burns. I love the whole concept of passalong plants. The last passalong plant I received was some oxalis triangularis, which seemed to die out but then came back last spring. I was elated, because this particular kind of clover is very odd-looking. (I tend to have the "one of everything" plant disease.) Often passalongs are old fashioned species not usually found in retail stores, such as antique roses. Legend has it you don't thank the giver for such a plant or it will die. Now that's just plain silly in my book (if you have good manners, saying thank you is just natural!), but an alternative may be giving thinks to Mother Nature. I feel grateful to live in a relatively frost-free locale where it is easy to keep lots of plants alive over the winter. The Houston winter is not so much a cold season as it is "not summer". And that's fine with me!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. I am proud to say I am longtime member of this particular Smithsonian museum. I have not been to the NMAI on the National Mall in Washington DC, but I do visit Manhattan often enough that I’ve been able to get to the George Gustav Heye Center, a smaller branch of the NMAI. Both locations are currently running an exhibition called “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian”, which I plan to see this January.

Born in 1937, Scholder grew up “non-Indian” in Minnesota and South Dakota. He was one-quarter Luseino, a California Mission tribe. He was the fifth Fritz in a family of primarily German ancestry. The family story goes that his German ancestor wandered around California after the Civil War, and when he got lost in the desert, he lay down to die. He was found by a Native American woman and later married her. What a romantic story.....

In high school, Fritz Scholder was mentored by Sioux artist, Oscar Howe. During his college years he studied with Wayne Thiebaud (one of my favorite painters). After exhibiting his early paintings in shows around California, he became involved with the Rockefeller Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona during the 1960s. In the 70s his fame rose following the exhibition of his “Indians Forever”, a series of lithographs. For the rest of his life, his work was often controversial (he vowed to paint "real, not red"), but his success was large. He lived in Santa Fe and Manhattan.

Many people recognize Scholder as the painter who presented Indians in an almost pop-art context; a painting that comes to mind is one he did of a Native American man wrapped in an American flag. (I learned this painting was based on actual 19th century photographs of Indians dressed in surplus flags after their tribal regalia had been confiscated.) Other artifacts found in his paintings along with his native subjects were beer cans and cats. He strove to break down sentimental stereotypes of Indians as “noble savages”. He thought of himself as an “American Expressionist”. His paintings celebrate the medium of paint, drips, smears and all. His method of working often involved playing music and painting wildly late into the night. He loved to do research, read and prepare for his paintings. He was also successful in many other mediums: sculpture, photography, collage, etc. He passed away in 2005.

Here are a few more particulars I picked up researching this venerable American artist. He collected artifacts, including animal skulls, mummies, taxidermic creatures, and Day of the Dead stuff. He loved ancient Egypt. He owned a 1979 gold Rolls Royce. He said he woke up happy every morning and was a natural optimist. Critic Malcolm Margolin said that Fritz Scholder had “a greatness of spirit” and a “deep, dark playfulness”. In an article published in the National Review (4-2-1976), Ruth Berenson said “his figures have an uncompromising monumentality and strength”. The Fritz Scholder webpage and Artcyclopedia are further places to find out more about the artist.