COPYWORK

A few months ago Charlotte (my link to literacy) lent me a little book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. I was at first attracted to it because of the bright red shoes on the cover, and the title, my being a seamstress, neither of which has much to do with why I am writing this. This is a peculiar, sometimes hilarious, and highly ironic tale of reeducation in Mao’s China. Two young men, exiled from their home to a remote farming village under hard labor, have discovered in the possession of another boy, a suitcase, which is full, they are sure, of smuggled western novels. Through their wits, determination, and sweat, they manage to get hold of a copy of a Balzac novel, thereby opening the door to a forbidden world of “ desire, passion, impulsive action, and love”. Here, in the words of the story’s narrator is the fateful moment.

“I did not rise from my bed until I had turned the last page…Then I was seized by an idea: I would copy out my favorite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desire to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper, but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents.

“I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat. The short coat, a gift from the villagers when I arrived, was made out of skins with wool of varying lengths and textures on the outside and bare hide on the inside. It was hard to find suitable passages in the book, as the limited space afforded by my coat was further reduced by areas where the leather was too cracked to be of use. I copied out the chapter where Ursule somnambulates. I longed to be like her; to be able, while I lay asleep on my bed, to see what my mother was doing in our apartment five hundred kilometres away…Better still, like Ursule, I would visit, in my dreams, places I had never set eyes on before…

“Writing on the skin of an old mountain sheep was not easy: the surface was rough and creased and, in order to squeeze as much text as possible into the available space, I had to use a minute script, which required all the concentration I could muster. By the time I had covered the entire inside of the jacket, including the sleeves, my fingers were aching so badly it felt as if the bones sere broken. At last I dozed off.”

This was my favorite passage from this book, and I copied it into my journal word for word. I recognized myself in his impulse–in this necessity of somehow entering concretely, personally, into the words, the descriptions, the longings, of etching the very experiences into his cells, into his body’s memory, blazing a trail from this seeing of his eyes, from the recognition of his mind, down through his hand so he could feel them, onto a surface where he could see them, take hold of them, wrap them about him.

I know this for I am a copier–a late-into-the-night writer. Due to various chosen and unchosen circumstances, I have been divested of most of my possessions including my libraries, more than once. Perhaps because of this, I have gradually grown a different sense of what made something “mine”, and have mostly lost my urge for acquisition, so that whether or not I have a particular book–even a favorite book–on my shelf is usually of little consequence to me. On the other hand, having the words in my body–laid up in my cells–has become my necessity. A byproduct of this is the growing number of journals stacked in shelves and on tables. I seek out books to borrow, and as I read, I copy. If the writing is terse and clean, this can be difficult because there is no excerpting passages that are well honed. In my journals I indicate the beginning page of each new transcription with a paper tab with title and author, so I can return to it, as I would to the book itself. When I reread the journals, I often make transcriptions from the transcriptions, or may be encouraged to retrieve the book, and make a new set of transcriptions, which may or may not be similar to the previous one. The copied parts are sprinkled with personal comments and copied short passages from several books which I do own and read in small portions on an ongoing basis. All of this quite clearly recalls to me the particular context of my life in which it was written.
The copyings are various, but do not, at least to me (and no one else sees them) seem at all random. I am amazed, when I return to them, how much they are of a piece, reminding me where I have been and am going, and to whom I belong. The copying is not an intellectual exercise. Nor is it for the sake of storing information. I believe it is rather a kind of trail blazing, a way of praying, of listening, the stretching out of my hands to what is beyond the limitations of my own understanding. In it I experience a growing and insatiable longing for paradise–for participation in the very life of God.

Psalm 84: 1-2, 5-7
“How lovely is thy dwelling place, O LORD of Hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God….

Blessed are the men whose strength is in Thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca [a desolate place],
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength:
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.”

Psalm 27:4
“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
and that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple.”

I have a funny thought, in this simple act is an unseen world—like the place of the mandorla in the icon. This has been given to me–I could not have contrived it, invented it, or really even intended it. I just find myself here, and am grateful for this way of listening, of tasting and seeing, of “inquiring in his temple” and of offering thanks. I find in the act of writing one of my greatest pleasures, but more than that, a deep satisfaction: just forming the letters, transforming a blank page into something meaningful and perhaps beautiful–not so much as an artist or a calligrapher, although that is part of it, but more as a lover.

I am reminded of the words of the disciples reflecting on their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus:
”Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

What makes our hearts burn must also be shaping us, marking our path, taking us where we are going. In the story, the boys hearts longed for the home from which they were exiled, and burned for a mysterious world beyond the confines of their drudgery and captivity–for them the unknown, the unpredictable, the forbidden which, with an ironic twist, came about.

I hope that in the end I will simply be able to say with Saint Paul:
“Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal 6:17).

A short note: I am very interested in the issue of writing as an integral and integrating aspect of education. I have two homeschooling friends who consider copying a crucial aspect of their curriculum for multiple reasons. Another who has taught only minimal formation of letters and numbers, emphasizing rather comuputer skills.

In the next few days I may make a list of some of the books I’ve copied from.

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2 Responses to “COPYWORK”


  1. 1 Tia February 6, 2007 at 8:15 am

    Ah! Wonderful treat to see this today! I love how your journal habit is organized; it’s the kind of thing I’d buy everything to set up and then not stick with it, getting angry with myself for not doing so. I can see why the events in your life would lead you to, “hold all things loosely”. And if you have not yet seen the film 84 Charing Cross Road, I recommend that you waste not a moment more, and if it’s an old friend like it is at our home, then I’d not be surprised for our spirits are very kindred. 🙂

  2. 2 marthajaneinortn February 6, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    This is truly amazing. My friend Charlotte, on my last visit, also loaned me her copy of 84 Charing Cross Road. It just knocked me over, and I have begged people to watch it. It absolutely unseated me, shook me into consciousness. Of all things, that you would mention this….


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