Touring a house of endless rooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOKS

From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night;
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.

I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.

I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.

I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.

I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;
when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boys and his sister receding into the words.

-Billy Collins

Johan van Hell – Boekenstalletje

This poem was the perfect one for me to find right now, because I myself have been acting out all the verbs: following, straining, hearing and touring… and listening hard, to the humming of a choir. This choir of authors aren’t all consciously “singing” in harmony, or even intending to write about the same things, but their voices, the sounds, the crumbs I am following “across a page of fresh snow” all seem to be parts of a whole. The rooms I am touring are all in one house; it must be the place where the human soul lives.

My “circles of light” sometimes seem like a 60’s light show, beautiful and confusing, when I am waiting rather for illumination and clarity. So many authors have shined their little lights out into the world, but how many reveal the reality of things?

Over the last several months I have been reading a lot, with no resulting book reviews and few even small illuminations of the sort I might write about here. The Eucharist was very focused and wonderful and I do want to say some things about it eventually, but instead of stopping for that I kept working my way through Irrational Man, which is such a tour de force that it’s hard to know what to say about — everything.  It mostly makes me want to read more books that William Barrett reminds me of.

Like Flight From Woman by Karl Stern, which I read some years ago and thought brilliant; but at the time I knew I needed to read it a second time to digest it. Barrett explains the duality of selves in Sartre’s philosophy, how he considers not the ” fruitful, excessive, fruitful blooming nature” to be the true self, but only that of the radically free and active man who has projects. Now I want to go back and read Stern on this topic.

But I am determined to finish a couple more books first. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is like another long chapter, maybe the closing chapter, of Western Philosophy, so it will be good if I can move right on to finishing it after Barrett.

On my recent road trip I listened to Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson, a title so embarrassing on several fronts that I considered leaving this accomplishment unrecorded. But even this book, which was about as deep as I could go on all that freeway driving, provided a few revealing glimpses of how ideas from the other books I mentioned play out in real life, especially the central one: What is the self?

About halfway through The Cross of Loneliness I began to have a difficult time knowing what these two men were talking about, but I will finish that book, too, before long. My really easy, small book to read under the covers right now is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I found in the little free library up at the lake.

And then, the sweetest, which will be easy to finish, as it’s like swimming slowly through a small and refreshing pond to the other side: The Scent of Water, which our book club is reading together. It is coming to an end way too fast.

Oh, yes, there are a dozen more sitting nearby, that I plan to continue with eventually, but they are not at the moment as current as these, these rooms full of delicious crumbs that I trust are leading me always to brighter places.

In regard to my own life and reading, I don’t relate to the progression of Collins’s poem, in its hearkening back to the experiences of childhood and youth, and the mood of evening and shadow descending. I am just very thankful for all the good writers I have at my disposal, and for the lovely song that they are trying to learn and to sing.

Romantic rocks in the head.

A long time ago I read that the forces in play in a highway accident are so powerful that you can be killed by something as insignificant as a Kleenex box flying from the back seat to hit you in the head. I always think about that when I am loading rocks in my car to carry home from anywhere. I already had my car stuffed full when I picked up these rocks on my way down from the lake, so I tucked them in the space behind boxes and bags just inside the hatchback. Smaller stones were back there, too, in paper bags. Would that be romantic or what, if I were killed by a stone I had gathered myself from the mountaintop or stream?

You may say in response that I have rocks in my head.
Is that similar to having rocks on the mind? Because that I admit to.

There is nothing so pretty as succulents and rocks together. Big rocks for the in-ground succulents — and other plants — to drape themselves on, and little stones, preferably flat, as I understand, to lay on the soil in pots of succulents.

You can see that I didn’t have any small flat stones last year when I potted these plants, so I had to use whatever I could find, including mussel shells. Today I saw this pile containing several stones that would have been perfect, and I don’t remember why they are there or why I didn’t have them when I needed them. It’s this kind of forgetfulness that makes me want to bring home more every time I visit a Good Rock Place. Stones seem to be easy to misplace.

The Sacramento River and its tributaries are excellent sources for nice smooth stones. I’ve collected there several times with the Professor and Pippin. This one was first admired by my late husband at the confluence of the Sacramento River and Castle Creek in 2014. He jokingly called it a Confluitic Rock, and we brought it home; it’s still here somewhere in my garden, but a plant may be hiding it right now, large though it may be.

My largest rock is this one below, which my brother lifted out of the lake bed and put in his pickup, 15 or more years ago, to carry it up the hill and to our car. I let my toes be in the picture for size comparison.

This week I gathered the best rocks from the dry bed of the winter stream that crosses the road, downhill from the cabin a ways. In this picture you can see in the upper left that there is still some water standing, though none is running across the ford at this point.

Lora and her mother helped me collect small stones from in front of the cabin last week, and combined with the ones I picked up on my own the last day, they make this new pile in my utility yard:

Other than Raffi’s mention of “a little wee stone” in a shoe, I don’t know of any songs about stones that aren’t about stony hearts or love on the rocks, and other such negative connotations. It seems to me there should be a jump-rope song that goes like this:

Rocks in the car,
Rocks on my mind,
Rocks in the head,
Rocks in my H-E-A-R-T!

The very thing.

Web photo

The hawk dropped down to the shoulder of the road just ahead of where I was driving down the mountain. It was at the elevation where you start to see the elderberries that don’t grow much higher, about 6,000 feet. He carried something in his talons that touched the ground just before he did.

I didn’t see any cars in my rear view mirror, so I slowed to a stop in the middle of the road and looked out the window at him, a few feet away on the other side of the road. He looked calmly at me. I should say, he looked in my direction, because I don’t know… what if I were the first human he had ever seen? Does a bird focus on another creature’s face and eyes, the way a human baby does? I stared and he looked a little bored, for ten long seconds, and then he flew into a tree nearby.

salsify

That meeting was one of the exciting events of my drive down from the mountains this week. I’d stayed at the cabin two more nights after my family departed, and had anticipated that when I finally left I would do my typical stop-and-go meandering for at least the first few thousand feet of descent, say, from 8,000 to 5,000 feet elevation. Because in July there are many more wildflowers than in September, the month in which I most often have visited this part of the High Sierra.

When the rain began to fall, and fell harder the morning I was to leave, it seemed my plans would have to change, and I might only be collecting rocks for my garden, instead of wildflower pictures. I always love rain at the cabin, so I did not complain at all. And it surely wouldn’t be a bad thing if I got home sooner rather than later. But — about the time I’d finished closing up the place and packing my car, the clouds began to break up, so that this was my last view of the lake:

The first wildflower I found, one I hadn’t seen for years, was Mountain Pride, bordering the road. It and Wavyleaf Paintbrush had few flowers remaining, but they provided a bright contrast to the sky, water and granite. This is a picture of them taken four years ago nearly to the day, in the same place. The snow melted earlier this year, as there was not much of it, so the bloom peaked before I got here.

I noticed or met for the first time no fewer than 18 different species of wildflowers that day, most of which I wrote down in a little notebook each time I got back into my car to drive further along the road, going slow and keeping my eyes open for spots of color, or whatever else might appear. Some of the flowers that I won’t show you were:

Spreading Dogbane
Arrowleaf Senecio
Goldenrod
Deer Vetch
Ranger’s Buttons
Spanish Clover
California Aster
Delta Sunflowers
Groundsmoke

My favorite flower of the day by far was Bigelow’s Sneezeweed, a darling thing which I first saw in this area many years ago. I pulled over for it several times, and the last time was the best display, with bees and two kinds of butterflies drinking at the blooms.

One of them was the Field Crescent, of whom I didn’t get a good shot, but here is one I found online of this little insect:

Field Crescent Butterfly [Phyciodes campetris]
Mormon Fritillary

Should Nature at times, on our awakening, propose to us
The very thing to which we were disposed,
Then praise at once swells in our throats.
We feel we are in paradise.

-Francis Ponge

The corn lilies were blooming, and a beetle was on site for that glorious event, seeming to have lost its head over pollen:

Fireweed waved its purple flowers in the breeze. “It earned its name because this plant is the first colonizer in the soil after forest fires.”


This next picture shows an area ripe and ready for some fireweed to sprout and grow; it is a landscape resulting from the Creek Fire last fall.

That was the huge fire that necessitated closing the highway that we use to get to our cabin, the same week that Soldier’s family and I had planned to be up there. We went to the beach and took smoky pictures instead.

Already I saw wild roses blooming among the stumps, and this healthy milkweed:

I often have run across wildflowers with buckwheat as part of their common name. This page shows you how vast is that family, called Polygonaceae, that includes mountain sorrel, curly dock — and rhubarb, of all things. But the strange species I saw a lot of on my drive was Naked Buckwheat.

It has strong, wire-like stems that are tall and bare for most of their length, with white puff-balls at the tip.

Bridges’ Penstemon

I wanted to get a nice picture of the elder bushes in flower, and when I squeezed in close this bright and rather large beetle got my attention:

I began to think of all the fascinating and complex creatures that live their (often short) lives in “obscurity.” I bet no one else had ever seen that bug. God lavishes the earth with life and beauty as an expression of His generosity and love.

As I went down the mountain, it was like an hours-long birthday party with Him saying, “Stop here. See that flower? It’s one of the special gifts I’m giving you today.” Then, “Look there! A red and black bug I chose just for you.”

He gave me sneezeweed because they are my old friends. He introduced me to a hawk for something new. Butterflies fluttered, proposing the very thing to which I was disposed. This place was not paradise, we can tell that by the fire damage, and many other aspects. But there was a little taste of Paradise in my soul, and praise swelling in my heart.

Guests make thank offerings.

Roger and Izzy had to leave early morning to catch a flight in Los Angeles this afternoon. When you are traveling with a toddler you need to give extra time for stopping proactively at places like parks, and time for unexpected events of various sorts. We mostly said our good-byes to them last night. So they weren’t there at breakfast when the remaining six of us gathered for the last time.

During the months that I’ve looked forward to this family time at the cabin, my mind has been buzzing with ideas of things I’d like to say, topics I wanted to discuss with my college-age  grandchildren while we were together day in and day out. I didn’t really trust those ideas, because I’m not the kind of person who brings up topics for discussion! The phrase “some spiritual gift” vaguely expressed what I wanted to give in person, separate from my ongoing prayers for them.

As the week went on, the fantasy faded, and I just enjoyed them immensely, and loved listening to them and being with them. We got to know each other a little better. Philosopher’s girlfriend C. I had never met before; I quickly fell in love with her.

This morning I discovered that the new prayer book from St. Tikhon’s Monastery includes the “Akathist Hymn of Thanksgiving: Glory to God for All Things.” As I read this prayer alone on the deck, it dawned on me that sharing it might be a kind of “spiritual gift.” After Nate blessed the food, and everyone was beginning to eat, I read several portions, beginning with these:

“I was born a weak, defenseless child, but Your angel spread his wings over my cradle to defend me. From birth until now, Your love has illumined my path, and has wondrously guided me towards the light of eternity. From birth until now the generous gifts of Your Providence have been marvelously showered upon me. I give You thanks, with all who have come to know You, who call upon Your Name.”

“O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest. Breeze full of scents — mountains reaching to the skies — waters like a boundless mirror, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing depths of Your tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love. Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry: Alleluia!”

This thankful spirit was expressed by the three teenagers who wrote in the cabin guest book before they left for home. Excerpts:

“The cabin is such a sweet place to simply be, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to do that with so many people that I love.”

“I’ve never seen so many stars so clearly, nor have I been able to see the Milky Way. The Sierras are a wonderful place to be! …This time being up here, I could really take in the smell of the pines, marvel at the granite domes as the sun sets on them, enjoy the clear blue water of the lake, the cool nights and breezy evenings… and enjoy being out in the less-altered land of the beautiful world God gave us….”

“There is so much peace at this cabin to the point where it feels like an oasis. When I figured out that there was no service at the cabin I was nervous. I quickly realized, though, that having no connection to the rest of the world is part of what makes this place so special.”

“You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on your earth. It is a pleasure to be your guest.”

“I see Your heavens resplendent with stars. How glorious You are, radiant with light! Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars. I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side: Your right arm guides me wherever I go.”

If you look closely at the railing in the second photo from the top of this post, you might be able to see the green fencing that has been installed over it, for the protection of little ones and the peace of mind of their elders. Lora could freely run around in and out of the cabin at will, and she did. I held her up above the railing so she could throw seeds down to the chipmunks that scurry around under the deck.

There have been lots of changes and improvements at the cabin since the last time I was here, including a new generator to replace the WWII veteran, and a new propane stove. The old one I think was the original stove installed in the cabin when it was built in the 1950’s. The thermostat was broken, the burners often had to be lit with a match, and the oven door would fall on your feet if you didn’t hold it up when looking inside.

Pearl made good use of it all week to make fabulous meals including shakshouka, a dish I’d never heard of. She had eaten it in Israel, and brought all the ingredients up to the cabin to try making it herself for the first time. We ate it for breakfast, including pita bread she made from scratch that morning.

And “the kids” made dinner twice. An addictive dish Izzy contributed was rice cooked with butter, lime, and cilantro. This experience of having other people cooking for me every day was pretty wonderful!

Last night Nate and Philosopher were gone fishing for a few hours, and they came back with six rainbow trout. This made Lora extra happy and she hugged herself again. The trout were featured at breakfast this morning while we contemplated God’s providence.

On this departure day of my family, a huge blessing has been bestowed on me in the clarity that this prayer hymn provides about spiritual gifts. I felt and experienced and learned again what I had somewhat forgot, that the most precious gift we can give each other, out of that abundance that has been given to us, is LOVE.

“Glory to You, ceaselessly watching over me.
Glory to You for the encounters You arrange for me.
Glory to You for the love of parents, for the faithfulness of friends.
Glory to You for the humbleness of animals which serve me.
Glory to You for the unforgettable moments of life.
Glory to You for the heart’s innocent joy.
Glory to You for the joy of living, moving, and being able to return Your love.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.”

(If you squint, you might see me walking in the middle of the picture.
Izzy took the shot on her way up Gumdrop.)