“Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.” – Herman Hesse
James Baldwin once said about writers: “The importance of a writer is continuous… His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.”
Time management: it’s been awhile since I’ve thought much about it. Back in the days when I did think about it, the problem was simply not having enough hours in the day: there were simply too many things to do and prioritization was essential. Some things just weren’t going to get done. Period.
Now, the days have enough time in them–though there are still too many things to ever get done, and there are still many things that never do get done. The truth is that many things just don’t need to get done.
But there is another time management sort of problem. It’s of the type that Harold Klawans wrote about in his story, Chekhov’s Lie: one simply cannot do justice to both one’s wife and one’s mistress. In other words, the mind has room for only one obsession at a time. An obsession, by definition, is all-consuming.
Of course, in order to bring anything to fruition from nothing more than thought–which is what creation is–obsession is required. If one takes off in a new direction (finds a mistress), it isn’t that one intends to leave or neglect one’s wife (one’s previous interest), it’s that something important has come up and has, at least for a time, captured one’s attention.
How then does one support both one’s wife and one’s mistress, metaphorically speaking? The answer to that question, if there is one, gets back to the notion of time management. Or, more correctly, it gets to the notion of obsession management. If anyone has written on how to manage multiple obsessions, I’ve not run across it. But that’s the problem. And it’s a problem that has kept me from writing much.
Let it be known, that though I do love my metaphorical mistress, that I also love my metaphorical wife, and intend to re-instate my wife to her rightful place in my life somehow. I do not intend to forever neglect her: my writing life. A wife, after all, has a superiority before others, a central position, a traditional preeminence. A wife, even a metaphorical wife, is central to one’s life. A mistress . . . well, a mistress is often just a passing fancy. In my case, interest in my metaphorical mistress is more than just a titillation. She is important and I’d like to keep her around for as long as possible. But she has to make peace with my wife. Somehow.
M L S Baisch
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein
I’ve been gardening, and to a limited extent I’ve been writing. But mostly I’ve been gardening for awhile now. My writerly life has been ‘light’–not superficial, exactly; but I’ve been writing short children’s stories while I’ve been finishing the edit to a longer, more substantial book–Leona the Part-Time Fairy: also a children’s book, but a pithier one than the stories I’ve been writing in tandem to the edit. A writer has to be writing something in order to keep the “writing ligaments” limber. (Not my phrase: it was used by Steinbeck and, I believe, by Virginia Woolf. There is no better way to describe the process: when a writer stops writing, the mental muscle that is needed to write atrophies.)
My writing life has been taking a back seat to my gardening life for awhile but it’s still alive. The final edit for Leona the Part-Time Fairy is complete–the story re-read and last edits made to hard copy. Those edits are now being incorporated into a final Scrivener word document. I do believe Leona will FiNALLY be on-line by May.
But editing isn’t exactly a writing life, is it? It’s an important part of writing, but it isn’t the part that goes exploring in the cave that is the mind: the most important part. Only interior exploration keeps new words and new thoughts coming to life, alchemizing them into new characters and new stories. Early mornings I’ve turned my mind to writing a little book about a small cat. I’m calling the book WHISKER.
Whisker will be illustrated, I think, although it’s not exactly a picture book. It will be too long for that–about 10K. It’s about a kitten who doesn’t have an easy start in life. Here is Chapter One.
WHISKER – by M L S Baisch © 2016
At the end of a long narrow alley, boxed in on both sides by very tall brick buildings towering so high above that when you finally saw the sky it was only as big as an envelope you might find in your mailbox, behind a garbage can sitting close by a green door, there was a kitten. It was huddled close to the ground trying to stay dry, as it was pouring rain. The wind raced down the alley in a hurry until it hit the brick wall, ricocheted off it, and was redirected back again—but not before it found its way behind the garbage can where the kitten crouched. It was a very small, and very gray kitten. And it was shivering, probably because it was frightened as well as because it was cold. The day was very gray and the cold was very harsh, and the shivering kitten was in a very bad place. This was no neighborhood for a small kitten, even on a good day, and so far this hadn’t been a good day at all.
Yesterday, was a better day. In fact it was a delightful day full of good things like a warm bed with the warm bodies of his brothers and sisters snuggled close, and warm milk, and sunshine coming in through the window, and his mother’s warm tongue washing his ears. Then, this morning, while the brothers and sisters still slept, his mother hissed quietly that he was to follow her. One thing led to another until here he was abandoned in this terrible circumstance.
“I’m sorry,” Mama had said, “but you are an embarrassment. You don’t fit in to the family. I’ve waited, hoping that you would change. But you are two months old now and still just as strange as the day you were born.”
Hearing that didn’t make the kitten feel very good. In fact, he hung his head feeling terrible. His mother was ashamed of him. He didn’t really understand why, and so he asked her, “But, what have I done? What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I fit in?”
“Done?” she repeated. “I don’t imagine you’ve done anything at all, son. It’s just what you are. I don’t suppose you can help it.”
“If I can’t help it, how can it be so terrible?”
“It just is, that’s all,” Mama said. “And I can’t have it. When you’re older and can’t be kept out of sight, people will laugh at you, and they will make fun of you, and it will be very hard for your brothers and sisters.”
“I can see that it will be hard for me,” the kitten said, “but why will it be hard for my brothers and sisters?”
“And me,” said Mama.
“Yes. Me too.”
“I don’t want anyone to have a problem because of me, but I don’t understand why they would. Why you would.”
“Have you looked in a mirror, my son?”
Well, the kitten didn’t have any idea what mirrors were, and he hadn’t looked into one. If he had, perhaps he would have understood what his mother was talking about. After all, he knew what his brothers and sisters looked like, and his mother. If he had seen his own face, he would have noticed. He had only one whisker. It was rather high on his right cheek, closer to his ear than his nose. He knew it was there: how could he not know? In fact, he liked to stroke it, especially when he was going to sleep. But he had no idea that it was strange to have just one whisker or that anyone would be ashamed to know him because of it. Now that he did know it, he was feeling very low. All he could think of to say, once he understood the problem, was, “Oh.”
Mama cat wasn’t feeling very happy either, but she had to do what she felt was in the best interest of the family. Still, she didn’t want to leave her strange son without a few words of comfort and advice.
“You will be fine if you just don’t draw a lot of attention to yourself. Cats like the nighttime, anyway. In the dark, no one will see that you only have one whisker. It would be a good idea for you to stay out of sight in the daytime.”
“I think I will be lonely,” the kitten said. “I’m already lonely. I like to play with my brothers and sisters. And I like warm milk and the sunshine coming through the window.”
Not wanting her son to be completely demoralized, Mama said, “I’m sure you will find a nice life and many comforts. It will just take some time.”
The kitten felt a little better hearing those words.
“Now, I have to be going. It’s starting to rain.”
It was starting to rain, but Mama gave her little son one last fond lick and told him to be a good kitten.
“Wait!” the kitten called as Mama turned tail to go. “Who am I?”
“What do you mean? You are a kitten.”
“But what is my name?”
“You want to have a name?” Mama cat had to stop and think about that. Names were given to kittens by people, not by mother cats. She didn’t have the heart to tell her little son that he didn’t have a name. His life was going to be hard enough. She said, “Why your name, of course, is Whisker.”
2016 © M L S Baisch
This book will be published by shooflyranchpress
I have no graphics for WHISKER yet. But I love this series of watercolor and ink cats by Endre Penovac. There are more of them than I’m including here. These Penovac cats prove how effective simple can be. To achieve simplicity is actually very difficult.
Georgia O’Keefe said it: “Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.” Well, we’ve not had a microwave for about 10 days now. It does take a little getting used to not being able to warm up a cup of coffee. That’s the worst of it. We do very little cooking with a microwave–none, in fact. Still, we have become accustomed to using it many, many times every day–lots of coffee left in cups needing to be reheated AND it’s also the device that compensates for not planning ahead. Who knew that being able to defrost something to cook for dinner had become so important?
Somehow generations of cooks have managed to plan ahead. I wonder what else, in the modern world, has become so habitual that it’s going on below the level of conscious thought? Now I know why, as a kid, every neighborhood had a corner grocery store. No microwaves, but you didn’t have to drive across town to find unfrozen hamburger.
M L S Baisch
Be prepared. This is a meandering, philosophical sort of post.
Once, a very long time ago, I walked out of a church where the sermon had been on the joy of suffering: I remember it very well. I don’t mean that I got up and walked out in the middle of the sermon, rather that when I left church that day something in me had turned a click–and it’s never exactly clicked back. Moreover, ever since that time there have been occasions where I find myself reconsidering the relationship between joy and suffering.
It happened again this morning. I came upon a quote by Frida Kahlo–about love, actually–but that’s irrelevant. It’s what she said and how my mind immediately juxtaposed what she said to some bit of grit inside me that hasn’t yet become a pearl. She said, “To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.” She pointed out that the banks of a river don’t suffer because they let the river flow: of course the banks of the river may suffer if the river overflows, and she didn’t say that. She pointed out that the earth doesn’t suffer because of the rains . . .
You see, it was Ms. Kahlo that first assumed that somehow anything compensatory to something else might be seen to involve suffering.
Now, I’m not sure that human suffering can, or should, be explained by anthropomorphized rivers or planets. But it surely did get my attention. It does seem true that a vessel can hold something without suffering–that seems okay for milk jugs, toothpaste tubes, and the like; and some vessels allow safe passage to things–blood vessels, for instance. Thinking of the banks of a river as a vessel is interesting; the analogy seems flawed, but interesting. Flawed how? Well the river, for instance, created its vessel, the river bank. The river bank wasn’t just there waiting for the river. The river took the land and shaped it to its own purpose.
It’s unclear if Ms. Kahlo was thinking of herself as a vessel ready and waiting to receive; or if she was made into the vessel. Either way, she obviously believes that she did not suffer for her relationship with the great Diego Rivera or, if she did, not more than the banks of the river, and there were natural compensations. Suffering might never have been brought up except, of course, that she was the one who brought suffering into the conversation as she talked about her relationship.
I remember another time in my life when I wrote a poem, one that I no longer have but I remember it–not word for word, but the essence of it–and the essence of that poem, written when my world was about to change forever and I knew it, was that I was a vessel. That I was empty and wanted to be filled up: with knowledge, with the sort of knowledge that brought meaning to life. My version of the metaphorical vessel, at the time, was the sort that held things–the milk jug–and not the sort the allowed things to flow–blood vessels or rivers: interesting, that. It seems to me now that allowing something to flow unobstructed is preferable to keeping something contained. In that regard I definitely agree with Ms Kahlo.
Back to Kahlo’s quote: ” . . . everything has its natural compensation.” It’s hard to disprove. Or to prove. Still, there is a flow to things, to life. One thing does seem to beget another. Endlessly. And it’s a flow that makes hoarding a virtual impossibility–containing everything that comes along is not possible. It’s the word compensation that I have to wonder about. If you’re the river and not the banks, you like the idea of using the banks to get where you’re going. If you’re the banks, you’re not going anywhere anyway, so why not let the river flow?
On the other hand, how does the river know that the bank isn’t suffering? Isn’t eroding, losing itself, being washed away, diminished. Only the bank knows for sure. Not the river. Ms. Kahlo seemed to have a good feeling about being the metaphorical banks that contained a metaphorical flowing river, but does that make it a universal truth? I give it to Ms. Kahlo that she knows the truth for herself (which, by the way, she allows: that she speaks for herself).
So, I’m back to where I started: what is the joy in suffering? And, if everything has its compensation, what, if not joy, is the compensation of suffering? Does suffering take physical form, actually? Or, when I suffer, is that when I most surely know that I am more than a vessel?
And are compensations ordinarily thought of as things–things that exist in the real world; or are compensations–of the type the banks of a metaphorical river might expect–more likely to be ephemeral, emotional, the chemical response of nerve endings?
It would seem that the river might want to compensate the river bank in some tangible way–something the river could take to the metaphorical bank, maybe compensate the river bank its losses and not just tickle its sides as it flows on through. But, still talking in metaphors here, my own desire to fill up a vessel (myself, with knowledge that led to giving life meaning) was intangible. I was wanting to know what gave life meaning, when mine had become meaningless. I was not wanting knowledge to, for instance, pass a driver’s license test.
It’s safe to say, from this distance, that I still question the joy of suffering. And that I still value knowledge. There are definitely compensations that come with knowledge.With knowledge of the right sort you can pass a driver’s license test, get a Ph.D. in anything you choose; or you can choose to let those things pass you by, tickle the sides of your metaphorical banks in passing, and find meaning in another kind of life, secure in the knowledge that you have chosen well. And in the knowledge that you can always change your mind. The river flows on. And on. And on. Anytime you choose, you can jump off the bank and become one with the river. It’s finding a foothold to get back on the bank that can be tricky.
M L S Baisch
IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO MAKE A RESOLUTION FOR 2016, and here are a few famous suggestions from people you may have heard about:
Walk and be more present – Thoreau
Keep a diary – Virginia Woolf
Make your life wider rather than long – Seneca
Define yourself – Anna Deavere Smith
Break free from your ego – Alan Watts
Cultivate a growth mindset – Carol Dweck
Turn haters into fans – Benjamin Franklin
Think rather than know – Hannah Arendt
Let go of perfectionism – Anne Lamott
Master critical thinking – Carl Sagan
Get lost to find yourself -Rebecca Solnit
Be like water – Bruce Lee
Choose courage over cynicism – Maya Angelou
Cultivate true friendship – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Live by your own standards – Eleanor Roosevelt
The photo: taken near Donnelly, Idaho some years back. The world is a beautiful place. Remember to enjoy it. (That’s a suggestion of my own.)
M L S Baisch
Digression, as part of oration has been around since, at least, Cicero; and as part of composition since, at least, Homer. In other words, It’s been around forever. Laurence Sterne famously said (or wrote):
“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer – he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.”
In that one sentence, Sterne both validated the use of digression in his Tristram Shandy and, more important, laid bare a most important essential to a good life: a life lived without digressions is, of course, impossible but it is also just those digressions that make life interesting.
This is the time of year to consider. To look forward to the new year. To make resolutions. To see where we’ve digressed from our paths, and to make corrections. Or, perhaps, to take off on a new path altogether. To discover that some digression we’ve inadvertently made is worth pursuing; is worth our effort.
No life is a straight trajectory from beginning to end. Rather it is a wandering. It is only the foolish mind that believes it controls the steady heart. (That’s putting it romantically!) Of course, it’s the mind that is always in control and it’s foolish to think otherwise. (That’s putting it more exactly.) When our minds take us off in odd directions, when we digress from our main purpose, it is often the wise, quiet part of the mind (the part of our mind often confused with our heart), that knows us best, that leads us on.
There is a time for will power, of course: for having a set goal and taking the driven path. But keep to the driven path by will power alone at your peril. You may succeed to ‘stick to it’ but at a great cost.
Life needs its digressions. Think of a digression as a little test–a proof when you return to the driven path that the path is the right one. Or think of a digression as a little holiday–a rest from the everyday. Or think of a digression as an inevitability–because it is.
A life, in fact, can be seen as a chain of diversions strung together like pearls in a necklace. Good pearls are connected and separated by small knots, tied to protect one pearl from rubbing up against another. Life is like that. We protect ourselves from thinking too much about the places where we change directions; we keep ourselves from rubbing up against our inconsistencies–because we see our changes in direction, our diversions, as bumps in the road, as wrong turns, when all along they were simply knots between the pearls in our string of life.
M L S Baisch
“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks – the “poet laureate of contemporary medicine”
“I don’t write for children. I write and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Maurice Sendak, prolific illustrator and writer.
There are several things I take from his story–of course we all take what speaks to each of us personally. What most applies to me is: LET IT RIP. Most of us take far too long to do far too little. I suspect that I am one of those people. Perhaps that should be my NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION! Yes, I believe it is!
Following is his list of works (from Wikipedia). The moral of this story is, among other things, LET IT RIP. Most of us take far too long to do far too little.
Kenny’s Window (1956)
Very Far Away (1957)
The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)
The Nutshell Library (1962)
Alligators All Around
Chicken Soup with Rice
One Was Johnny
Where the Wild Things Are (1963)
Let’s Be Enemies (written by Janice May Udry) (1965)
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (1967)
In the Night Kitchen (1970)
Fantasy Sketches (1970)
Ten Little Rabbits: A Counting Book with Mino the Magician (1970)
Some Swell Pup or Are You Sure You Want a Dog? (written by Maurice Sendak & Matthew Margolis, and illustrated by Maurice Sendak) (1976)
Seven Little Monsters (1977)
Outside Over There (1981)
Caldecott and Co: Notes on Books and Pictures (an anthology of essays on children’s literature) (1988)
We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)
Maurice Sendak’s Christmas Mystery (1995) (a box containing a book and a jigsaw puzzle)
My Brother’s Book (2013)
Atomics for the Millions (by Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff) (1947)
The Wonderful Farm (by Marcel Aymé) (1951)
Good Shabbos Everybody (by Robert Garvey) (1951)
A Hole is to Dig (by Ruth Krauss) (1952)
Maggie Rose: Her Birthday Christmas (by Ruth Sawyer) (1952)
A Very Special House (by Ruth Krauss) (1953)
Hurry Home, Candy (by Meindert DeJong) (1953)
The Giant Story (by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers) (1953)
I’ll Be You and You Be Me (by Ruth Krauss) (1954)
The Tin Fiddle (by Edward Tripp) (1954)
The Wheel on the School (by Meindert DeJong) (1954)
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm (by Betty MacDonald) (1954)
Charlotte and the White Horse (by Ruth Krauss) (1955)
Happy Hanukah Everybody (by Hyman Chanover and Alice Chanover) (1955)
Little Cow & the Turtle (by Meindert DeJong) (1955)
Singing Family of the Cumberlands (by Jean Ritchie) (Oxford University Press, 1955)
What Can You Do with a Shoe? (by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers) (1955, re-colored 1997)
Seven Little Stories on Big Subjects (by Gladys Baker Bond) (1955)
I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (by Ruth Krauss) (1956)
The Birthday Party (by Ruth Krauss) (1957)
You Can’t Get There From Here (by Ogden Nash) (1957)
Little Bear (by Else Holmelund Minarik, there was also a TV series based on this series of books)
Little Bear (1957)
Somebody Else’s Nut Tree (1958)
Father Bear Comes Home (1959)
Little Bear’s Friend (1960)
Little Bear’s Visit (1961)
A Kiss for Little Bear (1968)
Along Came a Dog (by Meindert DeJong) (1958)
No Fighting, No Biting! (by Else Holmelund Minarik) (1958)
What Do You Say, Dear? (by Sesyle Joslin) (1958)
Seven Tales by H. C. Andersen (translated by Eva Le Gallienne) (1959)
The Moon Jumpers (by Janice May Udry)(1959)
Open House for Butterflies (by Ruth Krauss) (1960)
Best in Children’s Books: Volume 31 (various authors and illustrators: featuring, Windy Wash Day and Other Poems by Dorothy Aldis, illustrations by Sendak) (1960)
Dwarf Long-Nose (by Wilhelm Hauff, translated by Doris Orgel) (1960)
Best in Children’s Books: Volume 41 (various authors and illustrators: featuring, What the Good-Man Does Is Always Right by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrations by Sendak) (1961)
Let’s Be Enemies (by Janice Udry) (1961)
What Do You Do, Dear? (by Sesyle Joslin) (1961)
The Big Green Book (by Robert Graves) (1962)
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (by Charlotte Zolotow) (1962)
The Singing Hill (by Meindert DeJong) (1962) (Harper Row)
The Griffin and the Minor Canon (by Frank R. Stockton) (1963)
How Little Lori Visited Times Square (by Amos Vogel) (1963)
She Loves Me… She Loves Me Not… (by Robert Keeshan AKA Captain Kangaroo) (1963)
McCall’s: August 1964; VOL XCI, No 11 (featuring The Young Crane by Andrejs Upits, illustrations by Sendak)
The Bee-Man of Orn (by Frank R. Stockton) (1964)
The Animal Family (by Randall Jarrell) (1965)
Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes (traditional nursery rhymes) (1965)
Lullabyes and Night Songs (by Alec Wilder, edited by William Engvick) (1965)
Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (by Isaac Bashevis Singer) (1966)
The Golden Key (by George MacDonald) (1967)
The Bat-Poet (by Randall Jarrell) (1964)
The House of Sixty Fathers (by Meindert De Jong) (1956)
The Saturday Evening Post: May 4, 1968; 241st year, Issue no. 9 (features Yash The Chimney Sweep by Isaac Bashevis Singer)
The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm: Volumes 1 & 2 (translated by Lore Segal with four tales translated by Randall Jarrell) (1973 both volumes)
King Grisly-Beard (by Brothers Grimm) (1973)
Pleasant Fieldmouse (by Jan Wahl) (1975)
Fly by Night (by Randall Jarrell) (1976)
Mahler – Symphony No. 3, James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – album cover artwork “What The Night Tells Me” commissioned by RCA Records (1976)
The Light Princess (by George MacDonald) (1977)
Shadrach (by Meindert Dejong) (1977)
The Big Green Book (by Robert Graves) (1978)
Nutcracker (by E.T.A. Hoffmann) (1984)
The Love for Three Oranges (The Glyndebourne Version, by Frank Corsaro based on L’Amour des Trois Oranges by Serge Prokofiev) (1984)
Circus Girl (by Jack Sendak) (1985)
In Grandpa’s House (by Philip Sendak) (1985)
The Cunning Little Vixen (by Rudolf Tesnohlidek) (1985)
Dear Mili (written by Wilhelm Grimm) (1988)
Sing a Song of Popcorn (by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers with various illustrators including Sendak) (1988)
The Big Book for Peace (various authors and illustrators, cover also by Sendak) (1990)
I Saw Esau (edited by Iona Opie and Peter Opie) (1992)
The Golden Key (by George MacDonald) (1992)
We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy: Two Nursery Rhymes with Pictures (traditional nursery rhymes) (Harper Collins) (1993)
Pierre: or, The Ambiguities: The Kraken Edition (by Herman Melville) (1995
The Miami Giant (by Arthur Yorinks) (1995)
Frank and Joey Eat Lunch (by Arthur Yorinks), also has additional illustrations by Ky Chung (1996)
Frank and Joey Go to Work (by Arthur Yorinks), also has additional illustrations by Ky Chung (1996)
Penthesilea (by Heinrich von Kleist, translated and introduced by Joel Agee) (1998) ISBN 0-06-095632-1
Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (by Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard S. Marcus)
Swine Lake (by James Marshall) (1999)
Brundibár (by Tony Kushner) (2003)
Sarah’s Room (by Doris Orgel) (2003)
The Happy Rain (by Jack Sendak) (2004)
Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale (performed by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra and narrated by Maurice Sendak) (2004)
Bears! (by Ruth Krauss) (2005)
Mommy? (by Arthur Yorinks, Sendak’s only pop-up book) (2006) ISBN 0-439-88050-5
Bumble- Ardy; Illustrated and written by Maurice Sendak (2011)
My Brother’s Book Illustrated and written by Maurice Sendak (Released posthumously, February 5, 2013)
This is the Christmas season, a time of wonder and hope, festivities and life. And it’s life that I’m interested in. It is also a season when most everyone gives some thought to the coming year–to resolutions, to thinking about life. In that spirit my mind has wandered down a path, looking back from a distance of almost 74 years. I have some thoughts on the matter of choices. If I were to live my life over, I would likely make one elemental choice differently.
Which is not to say that I have regrets or sorrows for choices made: most every choice can be turned toward a good life. And all choices bring rewards, experiences and pleasures otherwise not to be had. Still, some choices preclude other choices and, without exception, certain choices are made so early in a life as to be choosing blindly.
The following two quotes are meant to be explanatory. They say what I mean better than I could ever say it myself:
Excerpt from a letter to Willa Cather, then a journalist, from Sara Jewett, her writer/mentor friend:
“Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.” – Jewett
Cather, at the time, was working in an office, a journalist, earning a good sum and making a good life–but she wasn’t doing much writing. And she knew it, too: but it held her captive. This letter helped her to break from that life. Which she eventually did.
“Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange” – Cather
There is a choice: creativity or productivity. It’s best made before one has already committed too much to choices that prevent a clear path. For it’s true that there are lives that are duty-bound. Those are also good lives. But it is a choice often made too soon. And the other choice–creativity–may become an almost impossibility.
M L S Baisch
I’ve been making these stick-horse tree-hangers for a very long time now. Somehow, even though everyone in my family has gotten tired of them, I continue to bring out my boxes of trims and sticks every year: it just doesn’t feel quite like Christmas unless i do. I see that, without noticing, I built these horses on a page of obituaries: what could that mean? Nothing sinister, I think. Rather, a reminder that life is, indeed, fleeting. It is meant for each of us to live according to our best purpose. Oh, and isn’t that hard to figure out? The daily conundrum.
“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.” — Joni Mitchell
I often find myself quoting musicians. Music, it seems to me, is akin to writing in many ways. Both do, or should, access deeper layers of the soul. Putting words to those layers is difficult; but I imagine that finding the notes for them is equally challenging. Except, of course, when they flow from the puddled middle where they lie in wait for the exact moment. So, tell me someone, why it is that I prefer silence to music most of the time.
M L S Baisch
Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to Theo, talked about fear and how it keeps a person from acting, of how intimidating the blank canvas could be. It’s pretty much the same with anything, especially anything new a person undertakes to do. Where to begin? What is right, and what is wrong? And, does it matter?
“This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.”
And that, people, is how to write a book.
M L S Baisch
My mother would have been 98 today; she died at 83. Seems like yesterday. My newest piece for the Iowa Writing Workshop is biographic fiction–there’s some truth to it, but it is not true: much is imaginary. However, I kept journals and did refer to them. It would be impossible to remember some of the things that happened: they were too bizarre. Memory prefers to go where it is comfortable.
Lost Moments Come Out to Play
If the day had gone according to plan, it would have disappeared under the weight of days like all others. But it didn’t.
I called to say happy birthday. My mother had been living with me until she requested the ultimate birthday present: to spend her last years living near her brothers. It was her twin brother Clarence she was especially missing.
So I arranged for her to move into a retirement community in her old home-town: her name was on a short list, though it had not yet come to the top. She wouldn’t be home to celebrate her 80th birthday with her twin.
But there was a niece willing to take her in.
“I’d love to have Grandma live with me,” Jewel had said. “It will be loads of fun.”
“She’ll wear me out,” my mother had told me as she packed her suitcase for the trip.
“Do you think I should wear shoes?” Mother asked, bringing me back to the present.
Understanding her to mean dress shoes, I replied, “Just don’t trip. Wear sensible heels.”
“Oh,” she said. “Do you really think so?”
If I had been listening to the subtext of the conversation, it was there to be heard. My mother was shouting it out so clearly. “Oh, sanity, which I trust with my life, where are you going?”
She appeared at the door dressed for dinner wearing no shoes.
Her face has softened into lines and shadows. Occasionally there is a smile, impish; like it must have been as a small girl. Impressions distort it as thoughts flick through her mind. Furniture cannot be trusted to stay put. Two and too have come to have the same meaning. People fade completely away to be replaced by ghosts.
“Do we have a dog?” my mother wants to know.
And there is pain. Mercifully, the pain has no reference; it is just there, somewhere.
“How are you today, Mrs. Morris?” the nurse has arrived, swishing cheer in the door.
“Good,” Mother says.
“Wonderful!” The nurse is busy straightening blankets, strategizing for the busy part of a hospital day, while my mother continues to watch the snow falling where it piles up on the flat roof outside her window.
“See the sheep.”
“What?” The nurse stops plumping pillows. “Where?”
My mother lifts a thin arm from under the blanket to point.
“Oh, I see,” the nurse says. “Those aren’t sheep. That’s just snow drifting into corners.”
“Do you know where you are, Mrs. Morris?”
My mother turns her attention to her bedclothes, fumbles with them until she finds what she is looking for and then reads from the imprint stamped onto the sheet. “Mercy Hospital, Great Falls, Montana.”
“Oh, mercy,” Uncle Clarence mumbles. To me. We sit waiting in the corner. It has been a long night.
“Go home,” I tell him. “You need some sleep. I’ll call you.”
“I suppose,” he says. I had learned to listen on two levels. He also said, “I can’t stand watching Clara lose her mind.”
Mom must have understood the nuance too, because she answered him, “People who listen to bird songs listen before six a.m. After that they’re too noisy.”
That made perfect sense.
My mother put her French fries inside her fish sandwich and ate a whole cup of gravy with a spoon in the parking lot at Denney’s. Then she reached inside her purse, took out her lipstick, and drew bright red over her eyebrows. Everything was wrong today—the fish was too sour, the fries were too sweet. But her new perm did look nice; her hair snow-white and lovely.
“I want to go camping,” she says. “I think I’m good for one more.”
She was remembering. We had set up camp in a downpour, snuggled in sleeping bags while water ran through the tent under our lawn chairs. How we laughed!
“This is my last camping trip, you know?” Mother had observed.
“Of course it isn’t,” I had replied, not understanding the future. “We’ll still be camping as long as we can get in the car and go.”
“I need to get my things together,” Mom says now, opening the car door. She is moving out. Again. “I’m too old to live at home.”
My answer is to help her pack her suitcase. We set up camp in the dark.
The lake stretches out flat, partitioned into slabs of colors reflecting the sky and the land in the split second before dawn. She will wake up wet; I smell urine from where I sit outside the RV drinking coffee.
“It isn’t right that they keep all those people in rooms with nothing to do,” she said last night. My mother had had a lot to say, sitting here by the fire.
“You’re here now,” I reassured her. “We’re together.”
“I threw a salad at her. That’s why she stole my socks. You really need to talk to Winifred.”
I have lived in my grandmother’s skin for several years now. I have come to know my mother’s mother in an intimate way, through my own mother’s eyes. It was always her sister Winifred she believed I preferred.
“I’ll speak to her.”
That had made my mother happy.
We sat together, three generations of women, watching the moon rise over rocks along the shore, sticky with spider webs, sticky with memories. The living and the dead.
Now, in the early morning, I cherish memories as close as yesterday. I hear my mother stirring. She isn’t speaking yet, but I hear her saying, “When time begins to crush days into days, the hours slip away to sleep. Perhaps forever. I’m wandering through old gardens, down old streets. Once again a child because, before time finally stops, lost moments come out to play.”
M L S Baisch © 2015
Photo collage: as my mother might want to be remembered. © 2015 M L S Baisch
This is the first assignment: Iowa Writing Workshop
Madelaine held the letter as she watched the door swing shut. The engine was chu-chu-chu-ing in a repetitive beat, vibrating even the envelope between her fingers. Garish reflections pulsed across the window shield keeping time to neon signs and immobilizing her mind until she heard the psssss of the air brakes releasing, and felt the bus move away from the depot.
The letter was a complication. It was serendipitous that Madelaine had noticed it, for there had never been mail delivered for her. Only junk mail and, occasionally, something for Edward Carnes or current resident. After all this time with nothing coming for her, she had not troubled to either forward mail or to stop delivery.
After all, the nondescript apartment was only a stop-over, never any place she intended to stay. Her purpose had been to become lost, and Madelaine had successfully been lost for exactly three years, four months, and ten days. She asked herself if she stayed so long from a resolve not to be found, or was it simply to delay the inevitable conclusion. In the end she had counted the days down, measuring her time in dollars and cents.
To be embarrassingly frank, there was no money for rent. A Walmart greeter was never intended to support a life; rather to have something to do, away from a dismal life. There had been a gradual diminution of savings until there was only money for a one-way bus ticket to Newport with enough left over for an all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner at Sizzler: not much more.
She would eat her shrimp as she watched the Pacific Ocean disappear into darkness. Of course, Madelaine wasn’t on a bus, traversing three states, in order to watch the ocean dissolve into night while she ate shrimp. It had been a long time—three years, four months, and ten days—but if Robert was still fishing out of Newport, he would be at the Sizzler at eight o’clock on any Friday night of the world.
Madelaine didn’t look anything like the Madelaine Robert would remember. Leaving Robert had not been a game of hide-and-seek. She had re-invented herself, intending never to be discovered. An overweight, mousy, blowsy brunette sitting in a corner eating shrimp would not attract his attention.
Watching him, unobserved, would corroborate her decision: or not. She must be sure, as there could be no do-overs. Madelaine had imagined herself disappearing under unforgiving water, being swept away; imagined it over and over again and was no longer terrified. To drown was her expectation. She didn’t expect that the slick wash of deceit could be expurgated, because she deep-down knew Robert. Still, Madelaine wanted to believe in miracles.
The letter was a complication. Madelaine found herself feeling remorseful–not for Robert, not for herself, and it was too late to be sorry for Barbara—only for Emily. She would sit in the corner booth and spy on Robert. If he was still in Newport he would be there—he was a predictable man. Then she would read Emily’s letter and decide if there was, perhaps, could possibly be, a different inevitability.
M L Spaulding Baisch © 2015
Literary fiction is a lovely way to say things that are hard to say, tell things that are hard to tell, and impart the sense of something, or someone, that escapes words altogether. This is literary fiction. The bracelet is real. Much here is real. But much is fiction.
“I forget what a lovely thing you are! How my mother loved you,” I say this to myself, remembering this gift given to my mother on her sixteenth birthday. It was an exorbitant gift, this bracelet, alternately twined about in segments of spinach green and burnished gold.
In 1933 there wasn’t much money for necessities. Imagine how precious were bracelets. Duncan Robertson, though not a reader of books, was a reader of hearts. He wrapped his family round with the things that kept them truly warm. For my mother, this bracelet charmed her life until the end.
“What are you, exactly?” I wonder. “Bakelite?”
“You know that I am,” the bracelet seems to say. “For years, many years now, I have lain casketed in this drawer, no satin lining mine, surrounded by the detritus of time tossed in upon me—an old watch, a broken chain, an earring separated from its mate: we mourn: here in this dark place, we mourn: laid to rest, one at a time, waiting for who knows who, but remembering that once we were loved; once displayed circling a slender wrist, strung around a lovely soft neck to dip into a cleavage suspended, clasped onto a plump rounded lobe among tresses of tickly delight—but there was a time when I was cherished.”
“I see that you are cracked,” I observe.
“I am not cracked!” The bracelet is offended.
“That looks like a crack to me,” I say.
“I have one crack,” it says. “Think of it like a wrinkle. How many wrinkles do you have, old lady? I am much older than you, and I have only one crack. Hardly noticeable. You could put me on your wrist and no one would ever see the crack. If your wrist weren’t so fat!”
“My mother had a slender wrist, then?”
“Absolutely! She was not fat!”
“Still, she was only sixteen.”
“The perfect age for bracelets.”
“When did she stop wearing you?”
“Some things are better forgotten,” the bracelet says. “I have forgotten.”
“We have both forgotten things, haven’t we?” I say, meaning to comfort the bracelet.
“True,” it admits. “We have. And we both miss her, don’t we?”
“Well, I miss her,” I say. “I didn’t know you were missing her, too.”
“What else would I be doing? No one has rubbed a finger over me for a long time. Why don’t you try?”
“You’re very smooth. Someone has made you with care. You’re not a knock-off, are you?”
“Whatever do you mean? A knock-off?”
“A cheap imitation,” I say. “You’re not one of those. You were made carefully. Six separate pieces, each laid on the diagonal; carefully fitted together and rising and falling like valleys and hills.”
“Of course. Your mother was well-loved by her father. He would never give a cheap imitation.”
“You do know, of course, that my mother also loved cheap imitations.”
“Of course I know that! Don’t be stupid. How many years did I reside in her jewelry chest? Two less than seventy! Your mother simply loved jewelry.”
“Don’t go there.”
“The point is that her father loved good jewelry. He did not love imitations. Put me away, you silly woman! I think you’ve forgotten what it means to really live. I’m too old to bother with the likes of you.”
“My mother wouldn’t like to hear you say that,” I tell the bracelet.
“Bother! Your mother put me here didn’t she? Forgot about me. Left me to rot in a drawer.”
“Bracelet, I really doubt that’s true. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. My mother never forgot a single piece of jewelry. Every one was precious. I’m quite sure you were more precious than most. Likely you were the most precious of all.”
“Well, then, smarty. What are you going to do with me? Try to think of something better than putting me back in that drawer.”
A silence engulfs us, the bracelet and me; a silence with tendrils reaching back through generations, for that is how time is told–in generations: an emptiness emanates from the delicate touch of my finger on the bracelet, stroking, barely touching, touching nevertheless a corporeal memory seeped into the helix of old gold and green Bakelite; I trust that memory lives on in a well-loved thing. More than a trinket. Much more.
Trinkets forget themselves in memory and are lost to time. Trinkets find themselves tossed out onto a heap to be trunked off to the thrift store or the dump. Trinkets tug no memories from the living when they cease to play their small role in the life of the beloved, now dead.
“I am no trinket.” The bracelet divines my thoughts.
“I wasn’t thinking that you were,” I say.
“You were considering the possibility,” the bracelet tells me. “Thinking there was no better place for me in this life of yours than to toss me out.”
“You said you didn’t want to go back into the drawer,” I remind the bracelet. “Remember? And I understood that you didn’t like the forgotten darkness.”
“I was angry. Even bracelets say things they don’t mean when they’re angry. I didn’t mean I wanted to be thrown away to rot in a garbage heap or in someone else’s dark drawer; some drawer where no one even knows what I have been.”
“You still are, you know?” I remind it. “Still are a bracelet.”
“Much more than that!”
The bracelet is hot with resentment at the thought that it means so little to me. Still, that is the truth. We share few memories and no love for one another larger than the memory of my mother.
“You prefer to go back into this drawer, then?”
There was no answer. I wait, thinking to give the bracelet time to find its voice; imagining what a bracelet might prefer; knowing something of what it means to be shuffled from one drawer to another—in a metaphorical sense; and intuiting the inevitability of it: what is life really, but finding oneself tucked away in the dark waiting for the next time the drawer will open?
When I think the bracelet has nothing more to say, has left the choice up to me, I open the drawer and reach to put the bracelet back, thinking to find it a resting place more appropriate to its status; a place of its own without the inadvertent poking of a sharp brooch or the strangling loop of some out-of-control necklace.
Had I but thought a moment—what bracelet, after all, talks; and when it talks, speaks of memories, shares a sadness from a place seeped deep into its bones –I would have had a caution. But since I wasn’t cautious, I suddenly find myself inside the drawer with the bracelet, just a specter there, seeing the drawer from the dark inside.
“How do you like it in here,” the bracelet smirks.
In all truth, I don’t know. It is a dark place, claustrophobic; a smothery sepulcher for the discarded remnants of lives.
“The top drawer!” the bracelet chortles. “You see the irony in that? The top drawer!”
“Oh, stop it.”
That voice wasn’t mine! I’m not the only specter in this drawer! It’s a voice I know well.
“Mother?” I venture to say.
“You finally came. I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve missed you.”
“Well, you’re going to have to wait a little longer!” I am appalled at the thought that my mother wants me dead!
“You’ve missed me,” my mother says. It is a statement, not a question. My mother knows I miss her. “I’ve missed you, too. Don’t you think it’s about time to come with me?”
“Why would she want to spend eternity in a drawer?” The bracelet speaks before I gather my wits. “Think about it. She wouldn’t even want to visit us here. When has she ever thought much about bracelets or rings or any of the foo-foo trappings you love?”
“For a bracelet you’re hard,” I say. “Mean. Why can’t you be nice?”
“Nice!” the bracelet hisses. “Why should I be nice? I’m tossed in here and forgotten. My time for nice expired a long time ago.”
“I’d wear you if I could,” my mother soothes. “I still love you.”
It was true. I could feel my mother’s love engulfing me, reaching back into a life she no longer lives, back through a generation of lives, of loves; a life of substantial meaning placed in special things—like this bracelet; a life where the love of things outlives the love of persons: people disappear: people go so far away they can never again be touched. People live on only in the remainders left behind.
Before my mind returns from the drawer from its wandering backward path, my mother is gone. She’s left me here this time. Left me wondering about the love of mothers for bracelets and daughters.
“I suppose there is a message,” I say, expecting the bracelet, at least, to have something to say about that.
The bracelet isn’t talking.
“Not the drawer, then,” I mutter, placing the bracelet on the bedspread. “I’ll think of something else. But you have to remember, bracelet, that I’m not my mother. I don’t wear jewelry often. And it’s been years since I’ve worn a bracelet.”
“Your wrist is too fat, old lady. Don’t even try it.”
The bracelet is speaking after all.
“Tired of safe,” the bracelet continues.
“I don’t want you ruined.” I consider the possibilities. “Eventually, I’ll answer to my mother.”
“She cracked me. Remember that.”
“How did that happen?” I ask.
“I was rolling over and over and over, having the very best time!” The bracelet was animated.
“But what was my mother doing?”
“How should I know! Ask her! What I was doing was rolling over and over and over . . .”
“Just the same, I don’t want you ruined.”
“What’s to ruin? I’m Bakelite. Almost indestructible.”
“I imagine you would fade if I left you on a windowsill in the sun, or scratched if you were shuffled around, even cracked again if you were to drop. Aren’t you getting a bit brittle?” I ask.
“Think about it, old lady.” The bracelet speaks, resolute now. “No matter how safe you keep me, there is no forever. Even for bracelets.”
It is at just that moment that the cat comes into the room. The inquisitive kitty, seeing the bracelet on the bed, goes to investigate. Just a moment ago, I would have no no-ed the kitty. Now I understand that this is a bracelet longing for escapades. Starving for the lack of living! I leave the cat to sniff and paw until the bracelet flies off the bed, lands to take off rolling over the carpet, wings out the door tickety-tacking on the linoleum in the next room, and is away out of sight with the cat racing after.
“Whooeee!” the bracelet cries out: perhaps its final apostrophe.
M L Spaulding Baisch © 2015
“If a canvas remains in progress for years in my studio, that doesn’t worry me. On the contrary, when I’m rich in canvases which have a point of departure vital enough to set off a series of rhythms, a new life, new living things, I’m happy.
“Without music life would be a mistake.”