The Naming of Things

These days I move furniture around rooms in the new house using a marginally accurate graph paper drawing or a map in my head. The rooms have pragmatic by-purpose names.

By labeling book boxes to indicate destination, I hope to direct the movers to the bookcases on the landing, in the living room, or my workroom (more a space than a room). The upstairs bedroom will be my husband’s study, a guest room, and the television space (known in some circles as an adult lounge). For now I write “upstairs bedroom” on the boxes.

And there are so many boxes of books – my new neighbor came one afternoon, and we filled 19 boxes, a number since doubled. Piled up in stacks, they surround little islands of ever-shrinking comfortable regular life.

In a recent adjustment to my mental map, Granny Trudy’s desk will go on the landing. My father-in-law shipped it to us in Alaska, and it became the place for family business. The slanted, drop down desktop made a good place to write checks, back when we paid bills with paper.

Thinking about that desk being forever Granny Trudy’s desk made me consider how families identify things. We had “Jake’s cabinet” in the house in Anchorage, glass-fronted shelves with drawers below, built long ago by Jake the carpenter. In that house, ownership of bedrooms shifted around so many times that names changed frequently (sometimes rooms are identified by cardinal direction no matter who occupies the south bedroom).

A wicker chair, always Frances’s chair, is now downstairs, substituting for an armchair gone to a clever seamstress to be slipcovered. Inspired by Mrs. Hughes’ advice and the designer Anna Spiro, the newly covered-in-ticking chair might be called after Spiro or maybe Simone for the seamstress!

Traces of the past will remain in the garden nomenclature here – the Buffalito bed, the bride’s garden, the quad garden. Front and back of this house has always been difficult to label – is the front toward the drive or toward the bluff? There is a clear front to the new house, car parked right near the front door.

Some impulse to fill the new house in comforting familiarity operates on me, but it is countered by reminders to enjoy the chance to rearrange – and rename!

Saying Goodbye

Two paintings by the English artist Mary Newcomb depict a woman and her dog in a rowboat just at dusk. In the first panel, the rowboat goes one way, and in the other, with dusk deepened, it returns. In Christopher Andreae’s book about Newcomb, he includes Newcomb’s words (and punctuation) about the scene:

“After half an hour when more light had gone she returned past us, rowing slowly, turning to talk to the dog. The dog sat on like a little black mountain Both were very peaceful and companionable to one another It was a perfect moment.”

Before we even moved to Washington, and the dog Bill and Frances the cat were so much a part of life, I painted an “after” from Newcomb’s painting, replacing the black dog with Frances and Bill. The little painting is tucked in a bookshelf, right by the nightlight we use to keep the stairs lit after dusk. So most days, twice a day, I see it. When Bill died, it was hard to look at it.

And now Frances is gone as well. Because so many of you have read about Frances since the very beginning of “Her spirits rose…,” I wanted you to know.

Frances was abandoned in an apartment with a litter of kittens, and lodged a long time in a vet’s office cage before living with us in Alaska for three years, and then 12 years here on the bluff (“arriving in a little soft-sided satchel and ending in command of all she surveyed” as our older son said). I’m thankful for all the good times she had – and there were many – she loved living on the bluff, patrolling her garden courtyard and sleeping in warm spots and with us.

A friend wrote afterwards to remark how willingly we enter into these arrangements with pets, knowing full well what we’re signing up for (and getting so much), but feeling such pain when we have to say goodbye.

It was time and it was peaceful, but the house is hollow and empty. Not so companionable.

 

Books: Take Rooms In Your Heart

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the Wordsmith sent an article by Karen Joy Fowler (Ten Things I Learned From Ursula K. Le Guin). Looking back on all this reading, I find myself thinking about one of Le Guin’s lessons: “There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.”

Philip Pullman’s Lyra is truly one of those characters. Our young friend brought me the U.K. edition of the first book in Pullman’s new series, titled “La Belle Sauvage.” (It’s a dazzling physical book – printed watercolor blue waves for endpapers, embossed golden “Dust” glittering the book cloth, and a spine so fat it holds a long quote from the book.)

La Belle Sauvage is also the name of Malcolm Polstead’s canoe, a canoe that carries him, his daemon, and the baby(!) Lyra on a journey along a flooded River Thames. This book is the first of a planned trilogy (“The Book of Dust”) set in a parallel time when Lyra, the unforgettable heroine of Pullman’s singular trilogy (“His Dark Materials”) is but a wee babe.

It’s all here in the new book – a shadowy reflection of our own scary times, enchanting daemons, strange devices for manipulating time and space, big adventures, and spies. If you read and loved the earlier trilogy – welcome back – and if you haven’t, well, there’s a lucky project for the new year!

From the Trail Boss I found a tiny volume in my stocking, “How to Walk” by Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is wise, comforting, and instructive in the best way: “Walking is a wonderful way to calm down when we are upset. When we walk, if we focus all our awareness on walking, we are stopping the thinking, storytelling, blaming and judging that goes on in our heads and takes us away from the present moment.”

Walking meditation, mindfulness aide – perfectly illustrated by the sumi ink drawings of Jason DeAntonio – Hanh’s voice stays with me (“yes yes yes, thanks thanks thanks”) as I walk back to health.

And, when it first came out, I read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” – characters so despicable they’ll never occupy my heart. And I fervently wish they didn’t occupy the White House.

 

Lights For The Darkness

Sweet Baby’s parents recently sent a little video of Sweet Baby sitting on the floor next to her dad, surrounded by toys. She has a plastic flip phone with a realistic (old-fashioned) ring, even a fax tone, and she answers and initiates calls:

“Hello, I’m playing with daddy until Christmas! Bye!” Her dad asks who she’s talking to, “Poppa Jim!” When offered the phone to call back, she says, “No, I call Granny Kaytee.” “Hi. Playing with daddy. Christmas lights in the dark.”

When her parents ask for clarification, she (with a little sigh of exasperation), grabs the phone to “redial,” “Hi, Granny Kaytee. I’m just playing with daddy and Christmas lights in the dark. OK? Bye.” She snaps the phone closed with authority.

Well, OK, she’s right! For those of us who live where darkness comes early in the evening and stays long in the morning, dark defines December. And on a morning dim from clouds and rain, when Sweet Baby was here for Thanksgiving week, we lit candles at breakfast. To my delight, each day thereafter Sweet Baby requested that glow.

All the celebrations and realities of the season call for light – warm lamplight, twinkly outdoor sparkles, firelight – and trees! This year will be magic for a nearly three-year old, reading books, decorating the tree, cutting out cookies – and yes, Christmas lights in the dark!

 

Armchair Series – Outdoor

Today I will be sitting in a fine armchair like this to watch the Bainbridge Island Fourth of July parade. The current administration and its congressional minions seem intent on providing a new list of “freedoms” to celebrate: to be sick without the burden of insurance, to enjoy dirty air and water unencumbered by environmental regulation, to deny logic and science, to practice intolerance. The list goes on. But it isn’t who we are or what we celebrate!

A Thank You to Barack Obama

So I have been drawing house moments, chairs and a “settle” and a kitchen dresser, trying to shut out what’s happening, but emotion builds. In part because of the possibilities lost with the loss of the election, and the stark contrast we now face. No grace, no thoughtfulness, no kindness. I don’t even like the present and the future office holders in the same paragraph.

I’m grateful for years of that beautiful smile and sense of humor, for the best example of parenting I could imagine, for being a genuine consoler-in-chief when needed over and awfully over. You can’t delegate compassion and goodness and empathy, you sing “Amazing Grace” at the Charleston church because it’s who you are.

I appreciated not ever doubting that the best interests of the country’s people came first, and that there would be dignity always. President Obama was a grown up (is, it’s only Tuesday), making decisions by listening to the smart, knowledgeable people around him, and then figuring it out with his own set of values, his own formidable intelligence.

A huge part of my gratitude is that because of Barack Obama, we got to know Michelle Obama, that shining star of how to behave in tough, nasty situations and rock a stylish wardrobe, and the only redemption in crying my way through the farewell speech came in realizing he isn’t going away. We won’t have him in charge any more, making White House decisions with calm and reason – but we have him with us politically, to be a citizen as he said, to figure out how to go forward.

Have you seen these photos and captions by the White House photographer Pete Souza? http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2016/11/the-obama-years-through-the-lens-of-white-house-photographer-pete-souza/508052/

Or these:

https://medium.com/the-white-house/behind-the-lens-2016-year-in-photographs-9e2c8733bbb3#.bowsyxffm

Thank you, thank you President Obama from the bottom of my heart.

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Just A Few Days To Go

Emotions fill the holiday season, I know that. But this one is different. I write while preparing for the arrival of our younger son, Sweet Bride, and Sweet Baby – and I recognize the privilege of time and space to make merry. Writing helps me wrestle my thoughts away from the anxiety that much cherished is threatened in the new year.

I had planned to write about Ann Patchett’s new book “Commonwealth,” to say that I read all six hours back and forth to Alaska, finishing as the plane landed in Seattle. In the beginning I was confused, chapters back and forth in time, characters I couldn’t quite keep straight, but by the end it seemed perfect to finish with Christmas and a family cobbled together by love.

I cried watching Patti Smith sing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony, and I thought of my blue-eyed sons and wanted to write about them, about how astounded I am by them and how grateful for them. They are accomplished and hardworking, and when I watch them care for their own “darling young ones” or hold their wives’ hands, I am undone.

And then today I read “How Does It Feel” in The New Yorker, the wonderful piece Smith wrote about the Nobel event. The link includes the song, and she tells of how she came to sing it, from artful choices and rehearsals through breakfast the next morning. It all fits together to honor art and science, family and friendship. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony.

Most of all, at the year’s darkest point in the season of lights, I write to wish you all kindness, beauty in art and nature, and love.

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