During the past few years, I’ve kept
a detailed record of my reading and shared it annually as a quiet
celebration of the printed word. This year, though, the list fell by
the wayside. Making it simply didn’t seem interesting or feel
necessary. You know I read, I know I read. You know I collect old
books, and I know it. As for remembering what I read, that has never
been a big concern of mine. I read it, and, like the very life I
live, I love it, I savor it, and it goes.
Still, there were a few highlights this
year, beginning with the Sir Thomas North translation of Plutarch’s
Lives, which I enjoyed immensely in a beautiful limited edition
published in 1928 by the Houghton Mifflin Company and printed in
eight volumes, in its original spelling, by the Shakespeare Head
Press at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
I also read all of Thackeray’s major
Since July, my book-reading has been
almost entirely in Spanish. This change in gears caught me completely
by surprise. One day, I simply decided out of the blue that I was
going to switch languages. I have no real goal, other than fluid
reading, proper pronunciation, and reasonable comprehension. It’s
going quite well. I’ve read books for children, books for young
adults, a translation of Machiavelli, several volumes of literary
criticism focusing on the novel, from the late nineteenth century to
the mid-twentieth, and a few other things. This quiet, solitary
process gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. It has revealed to
me a lot about learning, and about how I learn in particular. Don
Quixote is waiting in the wings. No doubt Cervantes will have the
last laugh, but what could be more fitting?
Anyway. There you have my bookish year,
in all its vague and unremarkable glory.
I do love the short days, the early
closing in of the dark, the long nights beginning in the afternoon,
the afternoons even earlier on the rooftops through the firs. There
is so much light in everything everywhere I turn, in objects, faces,
and books, the darkness in its abundance and wealth seems to me like
rich chocolate, like kissing, sightless and soundless, and wholly and
holy through touch.
Ten. Maybe twelve. I don’t know.
Somewhere around there. And so the shaving mug is a good fifty years
old. I say shaving mug, but my father never used it as such, because
it was too small. It was so narrow inside, his round Colgate soap
couldn’t even rest on the bottom. What he needed, and what he
already had, and had been using for years, was a heavy coffee mug, as
wide almost as it was tall, with ample room for vigorous brush-action
— ah, that sound, I remember it well. Anyway. That’s what I gave
him that year. He liked it well enough for its form, though, and who
wouldn’t, really? A mug with an old Ellis Island sort of face, part
Greek, part Norwegian, a little French — he could be one of the
family. And is. Do you understand me? No worry. No matter. He’s
here among my books, atop two old smelly German volumes published in
the 1830s, looking at me, through me, and beyond, out the window,
down the street. Waiting? Content? Both. That’s it, Pa. Nice. And
easy. Oh, how I love your dear mug.
Snow. And then a hummingbird at our
kitchen window. A flower inside, on the windowsill. Begonia. Pink.
Tiny yellow center. Poised. About to fall. The bird, right up to the
glass. Pondering the impossibility. The implausibility. Next, a
sudden shift to where I was standing. Eye to eye. Face to face.
Graceful space. Present tense. Presence past. Winter fast. And to
this place we come at last.
I love the little chores, and think not
a one beneath me. Dishes, dusting, washing, sweeping, wiping,
cleaning. Indoors. Outdoors. Rooftop. Windows. Garden. Gutters. Worn
out rugs. Scratched floors. Blinds. Corners. Each says, “You are
here. You are lucky. You have food. You have shelter. You have shade.
You have warmth.” I commune with keepsakes. I admire the wear and
tear on our old family silverware, the chips in everyday cups my
parents used and that we still do. To me, housework is a time to
marvel at the beautiful, mysterious lives of what are thought of by
many as “ordinary objects.” It is not a job to do, but one more
opportunity to be grateful. I never say, Now I’m writing, Now I’m
drawing, Now I’m dreaming, Now I’m cleaning, Now I’m shopping
for groceries. I say, Rejoice. Each breath is a poem.
When I stand, I marvel at the
almost-feeling where my appendix used to be. It’s as if its ancient
forgotten function is still in silent operation, or willing to be.
The faint dimple of a scar left behind after its removal some
thirty-odd years ago is like a baker’s thumbprint in oven-ready
dough. It reminds me of our family doctor and surgeon, who liked to study his patients over his half-lens reading glasses, waiting to
see if they understood the humor that permeated his being and which
rose to the surface in the subtlest ways. Quite simply, you had to be
alert. You had to be ready. You had to realize that the gurgling
sounds in your innards meant that the entire universe is predicated
on humor, even as its foundation is musical, and its fleeting nature
is represented by wings. And when he passed by our house in the
country in a hearse on his way to the little Adventist cemetery at
the corner of Road 64 and Avenue 408, where dust prevails and coyotes
howl, we removed our hats and said he was the best doctor the town
ever had. Dead at sixty-six after a clean life, a man who knew us
inside and out, and who said my father’s gall bladder was beyond
his surgical ability, meaning my father himself. Well, you see now
why I marvel, and how. Ripe and ready to go, I could just as well
have been dead at the age of twenty-six. As I’ve said often since
then, I’m living on borrowed time. Half-joking, of course, but
completely serious too, because each and every one of us can go out
like a light this very instant. And I must say, that is one of the
things I love best about this life, this grand poetic recycling
experiment, this almost, not quite, surely it can’t be, but must,
because it is and it isn’t, all at once. And in the cemetery there
is a thumbprint, if you know what I mean, and we’re all in the
oven. When I sit? that’s another story.
Yesterday morning in the kitchen we
were talking about our old cat, Joe, and how at peace with the world
he was in his declining years, which he spent in our backyard staring
off into space, simply listening and taking it all in — the bird
song, the sounds of the neighborhood, the opening and closing of
doors — and what good fortune it was for him, and for us, that he
was so calm and secure in his present absence and absent presence. He
died and was buried on a cold night in November. I rake over him
every so often, lightly, through the fir needles and birch leaves
between the ivy and the big rhododendron, near the massive fir root
that keeps his grave from floating off into space, and when I do I
always think of him, his life, and his funny ways, and know that he
too was, and remains, one of the countless angels in our lives. And
anyone who thinks human life has more value than a fellow creature’s
of this earth, is sadly missing the value of his own. But that
misunderstanding can change in an instant, and will, and the
revelation will be grand — like a poet’s cup of tea when the last
and best of him is up in steam.