The exchange of gifts

I sometimes think that my vocation as a human being is simply to pass on what I’ve found, particularly in books. Originality is overrated. Too much beauty and truth to be found in other people’s stories. The following is from the last pages of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which is a fine sort of parable in and of itself, brimming with epiphanies.

In an essay called “Childhood and Poetry,” Pablo Neruda once speculated on the origins of his work. Neruda was raised in Temuco, a frontier town in southern Chile. To be born in Temuco in 1904 must have been a little like being born in Oregon a hundred years ago. Rainy and mountainous, “Temuco was the farthest outpost in Chilean life in the southern territories,” Neruda tells us in his memoirs. He remembers the main street as lined with hardware stores, which, since the local population couldn’t read, hung out eye-catching signs: “an enormous saw, a giant cooking pot, a Cyclopean padlock, a mammoth spoon. Farther along the street, shoe stores—a colossal boot.” Neruda’s father worked on the railway. Their home, like others, had about it something of the air of a settlers’ temporary camp: kegs of nails, tools, and saddles lay about in unfinished rooms and under half-completed stairways.

Playing in the lot behind the house one day when he was still a little boy, Neruda discovered a hole in a fence board. “I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared—a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvellous white toy sheep.

“The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went in the house and brought out a measure of my own: a pine cone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

“I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now…whenever I pass a toyshop, I look furtively into the window. It’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.”

Neruda has commented on this incident several times. “This exchange of gifts—mysterious—settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit,” he once remarked in an interview. And he associates the exchange with his poetry. “I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that come from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

“That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together…It won’t surprise you then that I have attempted ot give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood…

“This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.”

from The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde, pp. 366-68

So this is me quoting Lewis Hyde quoting Pablo Neruda. Just the way a gift ought to go.

Kansas Day

“I know we Kansa people have been accused of being unable to talk about anything else. We have been accused of ‘blowing our own horn’ to excess. They say we are much given to hot air and statistics. However, you and I know better. We know that half has not been told of Kansas, nor ever can be…”
–Arthur Cooper, 1915

And with that, I fondly wish you the Happiest of Happy Kansas Days. Okay, it was actually Tuesday (January 29, 1861), and I tried all day to get to this, but potty training sticker charts took my morning hostage, and the day became a series of mad dashes to the bathroom. I lost track of how many times I pulled G’s unders up and down or how many pee puddles I mopped up.

Back to Kansas. The best I can say the poet William Stafford says better. He spent most of his childhood in Kansas, so he’s got cred. Here are a few pieces of poems to commemorate the people as much as the land.

Mine was a Midwestern home—you can keep your world.
Plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.
We sang hymns in the house; the roof was near God.
The sun was over our town; it was like a blade.
Kicking cottonwood leaves we ran toward storms.
Wherever we looked the land would hold us up.
–from West of Your City, 1960 

You couldn’t analyze those people–
A no-pattern had happened to them;
Their field opened and opened,
level, and more, than forever,
never crossed.  Their world went everywhere.
–from “The Peters Family” in Stories That Could Be True

We ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love where we are, sturdy for common things.
–from “Allegiances” in Stories That Could Be True

roadside grass

I feel I ought to include a few words that some might appoint to the “negative” column concerning the place; admittedly they’re just as true. It’s all how you go at a thing I suppose. Or maybe how it (that being Kansas) goes at you.

Kansas is herself again. The wind blows and the dust and sand flies, but no rain descends. A newcomer asked one of our fellow townsmen if it  always blew this way in Kansas.  He replied that there were perhaps two or three days during the year that it did not.
–from the Salina Journal, 1880

O, dear this is a hard place to live, this Kansas is. I wonder what in the world will become of all of us, anyway.  –Anna Webber, Mitchell County, 1881

Every school history of the present day tells under what stormy and peculiar conditions Kansas began to shape itself forty years ago. From the outset it was a Mecca for the eccentric people now commonly known as cranks, and from that day to this not an ism has presented itself to the sisterhood of States that Kansas has not felt its full force!”
–Roswell Martin Field, 1892, in The Sunflower Land: Stories of God’s Own Country

But in his veins the blood of sturdy pioneers
Ran cool,
And he seasoned by the endless wind,
The blazing sun, the drought, the lonely plains,
Looked at the ground and said,
“I aim to try again.”
–Edna Becker, “Dust-Bowl Farmer”, 1955

tree frame

Postcard from nowhere near the edge

In the quiet annals of my adulthood, I have hated Sundays—until I loved them. Loving them took years. There’s a blueness about Sundays, intensified when I miss church, especially the liturgy. Especially communion.

John’s been away since Thursday (Dostoevsky symposium in Kansas), and I was pretty sure there was no way I’d be able to get the boys ready for church this morning and get them to the church anywhere near on time. But here we are—back from church (the only near-crisis being the moment when Gabriel unzipped my dress as I carried him up to communion), enjoying a fine lunch of fried cornmeal, pretend sausage, and a plate of cheesy arugula scrambled eggs (that’d be me).

Considering I was approaching a state of near-desperation last Wednesday thinking about how I would survive the long weekend solo, this is a pretty great place to be. The boys and I found our rhythm, aided, rather than hindered, by the both of them sick and home from school on Thursday. The snow helped, its silence somehow permeating our little tribe. Yesterday we managed to go sledding (G was content to stay in the car with the iPad after one powder-in-the-face bumpy run down the hill), get my lopsided haircut evened out, shovel the sidewalks and driveway (the second time in two days), and watch the movie Arriety (a magical version of The Borrowers). Right before bedtime, Gabriel pooped in the toilet for the first time. Ever. (See the celebratory lollipop party pic below.) He then proceeded to go five more times (in the toilet, or therabouts). Okay, I started to lose it a little at bedtime, but then it was bedtime, the day done.

“I’m going to be *Normal! Me I am!” proclaims Jonah as he trots to the basement, having finished an episode of Garfield. G (stands for Garfield in this moment) begins to chase him wielding two hammers. I lick the maple syrup clean off my plate as I peruse a review of Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” This is some kind of miracle, I think, right before I hear a skull hit a doorframe, followed by screams and apologies and the prohibition of the “chasing game” with a ten foot piece of tubing G calls his firehose. The chasing recommences. Like I said, some kind of miracle, this being nowhere near the edge.

* [Normal, I learn, is another cat on the Garfield Show, not an existential question to ponder. In the car on the way home from church J asked, “Mom, do you like Normal?” To which I responded, “I like normal okay, but I like different better.” “Who’s Different?” asked J.]

lollipop celebrationbathtub escapades

You received gifts

It snows and it snows. I’m tucked into a table by the electric fire at Starbucks and don’t want to leave. There’s water softener salt to procure and Astro Boy to fetch from the library (Jonah’s been eagerly awaiting our request that it be transferred from another library “forever”). Who knows what the roads are like. I’m astounded at the general public’s inability to drive in weather. Really, it’s a wonder.

I’m anxious about a handful of things today, most of them involving money. I hate money. I know, it’s a juvenile thing to say, but I hate money. And so what I’m given in this moment of apprehension is a book (for review). Of course, a book! Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which I’ve hardly started but in the first chapter came upon this epigraph, taken from a long poem by Czeslaw Milosz. It follows on the heels of my thinking about enchantment, and it gives me the gumption to lug that bag of salt through the blowing snow, and navigate the grocery store parking lot besides.

You received gifts from me; they were accepted.
But you don’t understand how to think about the dead.
The smell of winter apples, of hoarfrost, and of linen.
There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor Earth.

from “Treatise on Poetry” in The Separate Notebooks

coming down

Enchantment, or, A little patch of yellow wall

I haven’t read Proust, but I intend to remedy that in the near future. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I can’t quote Proust, because people are always quoting him in this book or that, which is one of the reasons I feel compelled to read him. One day, when I’ve become an entirely different person (less the crow I am now, ever caught up by shining bits of things), I will not quote a book I haven’t read. Wouldn’t that be something?

But first, a word from Matthew Del Nevo, who wrote The Work of Enchantment:

…for to be captivated by the right things is to be enchanted. A child can be enchanted by almost anything, and even quite terrible things will not disenchant a little girl or boy…So we are prone from the first for enchantment; we are geared for it, and by that I do not mean a childish “magical” sense of enchantment with fairies or scary monsters, but enchantment in the strong sense, which we will also call metaphysical experience; it comes through art as the quintessence of life…

Jonah is a case in point for enchantment, especially the “quite terrible things”. Zombies, ghosts, Dementors and a certain level of bloody action. Death (which many would argue isn’t one of the quite terrible things—though just as many would argue it is), hospitals, and Voldemort all rank high. He will watch the Wicked Witch melting, the Tangled mother falling from her tower, and the final transformation of Anikin into Darth Vader (via a river of fire and robotic assistance) until I set the timer and say “five more minutes until enough.”

Is enchantment the why behind my love of Patty Griffin’s terrifically melancholy songs? I would contend yes, a good majority of the time. The woman “with the voice torn in all the right places” (Pierce Pettis) paints with her words and her instrument, in much the same and unique way as Chagall, Rothko or Vermeer. I’ll be returning to Vermeer directly, but let’s do Proust for the moment.

Del Nevo devotes three chapter to him, and this passage (Del Nevo quoting Proust) gets at that “quintessence of life” I quoted earlier. It’s from The Captive (1923) and centers on the character Bergotte gazing on a painting by Vermeer called A View of Delft*— “a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart.”

view of delft

But Bergotte learns from an art critic that “a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself.” Bergotte is terminally ill, but he rouses himself out of the house to look upon that yellow wall:

At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else that he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he remarked for the first time some small figures in blue, that the ground was pink, and finally the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His giddiness increased…

[Cut here to Bergotte considering his life’s work:]

“That’s how I ought to have written…My last books are too dry. I ought to have gone over them with several coats of paint, made my language exquisite in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition.

As Bergotte sinks into death before the painting, he mutters, “Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.”

Looking (Del Nevo says we must gaze, which is a receptive ability matured through culture and education) at the Vermeer above, it’s virtually impossible to discern which patch of yellow he’s talking about. But I agree with Lorenzo Renzi when he says, “what in Proust has been unified in a single detail, in Vermeer’s painting is strewn out over the whole painting.” This isn’t about pinpointing a detail, it’s about knowing some one thing absolutely—which isn’t the same as knowing everything about some one thing. As Del Nevo puts it, “to know [one thing] even more intimately than one’s own creations, one’s own offspring; this is something great. This is enchantment. It is a metaphysical experience. This is an exemplary death.”

Here we are at death again. Enchantment seems to me a being-led-on, even if it be (as it will always be, one way or another) to death. “Short of a tragedy or a ruinous childhood,” writes Del Nevo, “we die of what we live for…so that, despite all consequences, even the most ultimate, we are moved, literally moved, if we hear something about it that we cannot remember and do not think we ever knew.”

My often quite literal mind leads me here back to England, to a vegetarian cafe a friend and I would meet up at. It was situated on a narrow street, and some days I would go there alone just to stare out the plate glass at a worn down brick building of a wall across the way. I loved that wall. I loved it like I love my dogs, if not quite how I love my children, though maybe like I love my husband. Matthew Del Nevo’s exploration of enchantment names what that wall was. Even then I would have told you (however irrational it may have sounded) that the wall was “something the soul cannot do without unless it is to starve” (Del Nevo). It was some thing by which I took my own measure—of who I was and who I wanted to become.

*[Del Novo mistakenly references Vermeer’s painting, Street in Delft, as the work of art attended to in The Captive, which I only discovered after attempting to find the painting myself. Personally, I’m more taken captive by Street in Delft (see below). I could gaze all day at those patinated shutters. The green of it!]

street in delft

And then he was three

With age comes awareness. Okay, not always, but in the case of Gabriel Keats this maxim continues to prove true. It was tough, waiting until after Jonah came home from school to eat his cake (flourless chocolate o-my-gosh-delicious like the best Ding Dong minus the cream filling cupcakes you’ve ever tasted). Not to mention open his presents. We were on high alert and still didn’t see him swipe a couple of the chocolatey treats, even trying to light his own candles and singing himself Happy Birthday in the process. So yes, this year, G understood what “birthday” means.

flourless delightblockhead bogle

I was more, um, circumspect. No. I was flat out cranky. Won’t get into that now (or probably ever), but the last few days have been of the keeping-your-head-above-water sort. But in a good way, even a helpful way. Which is just to say (geesh, I use that phrase a lot—why don’t I just come out and say it already?), while I’ve been cranky, I haven’t gotten away from myself. Make sense? Embody the cranky, I say.

Quick side note. When Jonah knows I’m cranky, magical things happen. In part this is because he can’t stand to see me sad or in a bad mood. The slightest turn in my voice and the I love you moms start rolling. We get each other, J and I. We can inhabit the same emotional space: manically sad, prone to meltdown and tantrum. Depleted of nutrients or sleep, the ride is swift and debilitating. Sometimes, Jonah is the only one who can pull me out. “Would you like to talk mom? Would that make you feel better?” He’s said that. My autistic son has asked me that question; and when I responded, “No Jonah, I’m just too sad and mad to talk right now,” he said, “It’s okay. Wanna hear about my dreams last night?” Excuse me Simon Baron-Cohen, but you can stick your theories about autism and empathy where the sun don’t shine.

Enough about that. Gabriel is three. And so pleased was he with his wheelbarrow and his new red rubber boots (which nicely match his new red Blockheads). He flipped over his very own small (also rubber) knife. He was over the moon over his new trash truck. It’s the bomb. Three hatches that open. A front loading dumper, a back loading dumper and a dump the whole bed back option. It even has a handle you can (manually) crank to simulate an engine sound.

John: “That’s one bitchin’ trash truck!”
Gabriel: “It sure is!”

my own knifebitchin' trash truck

Thinking about the birth of the boys and the blessed fact they’re still alive and fairly well-adjusted is a good way to spend any day. I don’t want to make a habit of posting my poetry online, but I wrote this in the spring, and it seems appropriate to the day (which was actually Tuesday). An ode of sorts—to books and boys.

Happy Birthday G. Thanks for keeping me afloat J. Mama loves you.


Ode on Books and Boys

She turned
the page and thought
she heard above
the baby wake—the creak,
the rumble of sturdy baby-
weight shifting
the slats and bolted wood.

She stopped
the way a mother stops
who senses trouble: a child
troubled from sleep
by dreams or sickness, a woman
troubled to dread
the small hour be disturbed.

But silence prevailed, prevailed
until she turned the page
and hearing felt the tree that pulped
the paper of the book. Its creak
in a quiet wood, sun streams
throwing their straight arrows through
thatching limbs, hitting

their marks on the darkened floor.
The mulch came alive, sent
up a spark of shoot. The motes of
unseen traces moved the way
the boy moves: an atomic
beauty of disorder not so
much bouncing as rebounding from

every met resistance. She turned
again, and again rubbing
the paper between her fingers, feeling
the shifting trees, seeing
the boys among them scrambling
to the top. A script of muscle,
nerve and bone.