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Writing out of the Box

After many months away, I am somewhat ambivalently trying to reenter the blog world. I feel sure I am not the only one who asks the question, “Is there anything I need, or even particularly want to say?” This is my excuse or rationale for posting so infrequently. On the other hand, I have thought it might be somewhat enjoyable for me and perhaps for the person who happens to land here, to post some visual stuff, with a little commentary. Blocks of black type on the computer put me to sleep–reading them or writing them. If our blogs were lifted out of those visually r e p e t i t i v e and m o n o t o n o u s boxes, illuminated (decorated? brought into the light), written in COLORS in a variety of fonts and sizes, I believe it would be a different and much more interesting/compelling/engaging story.

One of the ways I have found to break out of the box is writing, drawing, and illuminating text with multi-colored threads. Having worked at memorizing scripture, including the Psalms, most of my life, I have a distinct sense that they are physically imbedded in my body. So in my way of thinking, it makes sense to render that inner reality in some visible, tangible form. The embroidery below is one of several of Psalm texts with which I have engaged in my hobby–exploring historical traditions in embroidery while recasting them according to my personal artistic ability and sensibility. The Book of Psalms has become my designated arena. I hope that this give and take between the craft, the text, and my personal experience of them may perhaps serve others to bring the Psalms into a form that more truly conveys their timeless spiritual gifts than what is possible through the undifferentiated blocks of black and white in just about any Bible available post-Gutenberg.

This piece is done on an open-weave linen using drawn and pulled thread embroidery with cotton stranded floss, with cross stitch letters varying somewhat in tonality to emphasize certain words. My alphabets are usually, of necessity, my own design, or modifications of the nearest thing I can find to fit the constraints of the thread count and length of the quotation. I nearly always end up liking my version better. Designing the letters and arranging the text in the space is usually the biggest technical challenge in these pieces.

I have recently uncovered a fascinating, engaging and beautiful book that has given a sort of authenticated coherence to an assortment of my practices and inclinations that I had only vaguely sensed were not purely random and and idiocentric. The writer/designer of Goodbye Gutenberg is Valerie Kirschenbaum, a teacher in an inner-city New York high school. Her bold postulations–considered by critics alternately regressive or outrageous–somehow lend validity to my own precious compulsion to transcribe large excerpts from what I read through my own hand into journals–a way of owning and incarnating the text. I have at times, used different colors of ink to differentiate various aspects of the text according to a variety of criteria. This may change based on such factors as running out of a color or starting a new journal. It often happens, in this process, that the unbidden resonances stirred up in the juxtaposition of various “unrelated” texts I am reading shows them to be, after all, profoundly related to each other, and to what is going on in my life at the moment. I don’t consider this experience unique to me, but still, always a source of great wonder. When I feel more playful, I enjoy transcribing the words into shapes (other than rectangles of consecutive horizontal lines) to find and show relationships that are not necessarily apparent in the printed text. The process of transcription is above all one of discovery.

And another thing Kirschenbaum’s eye-opening treatise has helped me articulate is the underlying impetus for my unrelenting desire to draw, paint (watercolor) and stitch these Psalms, in a way that reflects their incarnational nature and purpose and helps make it possible to stand in that reality. I believe and firmly hold that understanding/knowing the Psalms is increasingly possible when we experience the word in the most palpable physical way–with our senses, hearing them, seeing them–breathing their incense, tasting their “finest of the wheat”, which reading black and white text alone can never provide.

If you get hold of Ms. Kirschenbaum’s book (see at Amazon.com), you will be treated to an amazing sampler of pre-Gutenberg delights–including illuminated manuscripts from all over the world and history. You may even, as I am, begin imagining where the colors might be in what you read, and wondering why, in a time when color printing is no longer technologically complicated or prohibitively expensive, we continue to settle for the default and endless black and white rectangles of type, which hold sovereign sway on our bookshelves and in our consciousness.

I just bought my own copy of Goodbye Gutenberg, Global Renaissance Society, LLC, New York 2005, for $.01 + shipping. It is hardcover, 400+ pages, mostly in unabashed COLOR.

Speaking of which, Please forgive these very black and white rectangles, which I am not blog-savvy or financially able to circumvent at this time. If I continue to write here on a regular basis I may invest in some program which will give me more sovereignty over the shape and color of my posts. In the meantime, I’m determined to learn the available techniques for making my blog more visually engaging with photos, drawing, etc. If you like it, let me know. If you have any help to offer, please do.

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The Illusive Vision

Here is another passage from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard–the impossibility, the cross, perhaps, of the artist/ writer:

…you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrranical; the page in made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replace by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.

Then why…? How does this sinner dare…?

The Old Man and His Puzzle

This is my latest little poem. It is really a collaboration, as it has been pulled out of my earlier more wordy and less focused version, by my friend, a poet of rare gifts, who is encouraging me and nudging me in my writing life, and has inspired me to return to my neglected blog. We’ll see how this goes. I need someone to teach me how to put drawings and photos into my blog.

The Old Man and His Puzzle

Hour upon hour most days,
with no picture to go by,
he shuffles, shifting and selecting,
rearranging and regrouping,
making multiple minute modifications
scouring for clues that may converge,
allotments of decipherable witness
to the image that might be there,
or that has always been there
biding its time.

I found some wonderful words today in The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. As I’ve mentioned before, I own things by copying them. This is from today’s journal entry. She is talking here about the lines that the writer is writing.

The line of words fingers your heart.
The line of words feels for cracks in the firmament.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

I was sort of startled when I read the second quote, as I recalled clearly having copied it into a journal several years ago. Lately I’ve been rereading some books I’ve read in years past, and find it a strangely encouraging phenomenon, that in revisiting them, I find them so familiar, so like the shape of my own experience, it is like a homecoming. This reminds me that we do ineffably become what we ingest.

I am trying to articulate what it is I want, expect, hope, or intend to do as a writer/poet, looking for the kind of poetry that does something like what I want to do. This is a wonderful sort of new adventure for me, which I hope to explore here. I am eager to hear from other Orthodox poets. I am thankful to Scott Cairns for his podcast: Flesh Becomes Word, that provided a key to a door I have been wanting to go through for years. The Word of God is surely the greatest poem, and so as creatures made in His image, let us also become poems!

Change and Loss

My mother had her 87th birthday this week. We had a long conversation. Two more of her peers–friends from my childhood, have fallen asleep in the past week. She is making plans to move out of the house we moved into just before my ninth birthday–52 + years ago, and into an elder community with provisions for graduated care as time goes by. Anticipating this, I wrote this poem some time ago.

You have always taught us that everything
in its earthly form will change.
So I am not surprised when I see it in a dream
But I wake up, if not weeping, still forlorn
at seeing my dead brother in a strange room
looking only vaguely like himself
and a beautiful tall and gifted young friend,
now with crippled, withered, truncated limbs.
But in the dream I am the lost one
and she makes light of the despair I feel
at having lost myself and my way out
of this dilemma.
I have again–as many times in dreams before,
lost my car–my means of transport, and as if it follows naturally,
my way in life.

Nothing is familiar.
Distances and obstacles grow before my eyes.
Friends are dying every week.
It is the old ones, dear ones.
When hometown friends are gone,
can it still be considered home?
Home is the place of being in communion,
and that is with persons.
It will be my mother some day–soon or later.
A call one day–your mother is ill,
is dying, has died. Come quickly.
And home–the house, the neighborhood,
still mine till now for walks,
for coming back to,
will lose its way of being mine–
No longer except in memory the place from which I went out
and to which I have returned
and gone out and returned again.
“My room” with the same paper on the walls–
and so on throughout the house,
the patterns I have followed without having to reconsider,
the habit of my feet, even in my mind a well worn path,
will be ploughed under for new paths to be worn
under the feet of strangers.

Do I weep now for loss that is to come?
Perhaps it has been happening all along,
and in this gradual way, will be a mercy.
The crossing from the substance which feeds but fades
to the communion that transforms us into its life
will always be saving us.

Fall 2004

Sunday of St John Climacus

The past few weeks I have been reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus (“ladder” in Greek). In the Orthodox Church, each Sunday of Great Lent is designated for veneration of a particular saint or (last Sunday) the Precious Cross. Today’s saint is John of the Ladder, so I was right on that page. One morning last week I was reading Step 22, On Vainglory, and the following passage loomed large, so I copied it into my journal. The next day, on ancientfaithradio.com in a program on the saints we remember during Lent, the discussion was on John of the Ladder. Out of the whole book, nearly 300 pages, the passage she chose to offer as a selection was this same paragraph. So it must be potent.

Like the sun which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this: I fast, and turn vainglorious, I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and am vainglorious in either case. I talk or hold my peace, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.

This is only discouraging when I am preoccupied with my own sinfulness or self-righteousness in the image of some spiritually appealing or “correct” rules or precepts. It definitely reminds me that I am tossed about–hopelessly defeated without Christ–not some interpretation of His “teachings”, but His PERSON. So that any righteousness that I ever “attain” will not belong to me, but to Him, so it’s back to boasting only of my weakness through which He reveals Himself to me. It is ONLY CHRIST that helps us “do better”, so then, it is not to rack up points, but only to magnify Him (“for His sake”, “according to His will”).

I can’t resist including a few more passages which I copied. As always, it seems the truth is revealed in the paradox, the irony, the seeming contradictions.

When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor.

I think this is pretty interesting in the light of conventional wisdom–“stand up for yourself”, “don’t let anyone put you down,” “pamper yourself, you deserve it,” fighting for recognition, position, measuring ourselves by achievements, rank, etc. Surely it is the great and essential truth of Christianity that the only real glory is in losing our life (“the old man”, the idea of self we have fabricated according to our own will and imagination) for His sake, whereby we are transformed into His image and likeness. Because in the Cross His glory is revealed. In His death he defeated death.

The following are from Step 23, On Pride. John puts Pride and Vainglory next to each other because they are similar. Vainglory is the beginning, where Pride is the extremity.

…it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of GOD.

Pride is utter poverty of soul disguised as riches, imaginery light where in fact there is darkness.

A proud man needs no demons. He has turned into one, an enemy to himself.

The strongest opposition to us [pride and vainglory] comes from the contrition of heart that grows out of obedience.

In a monastery, obedience is to the abbott or abbess and to the others with whom one lives, not because they are “right” or we agree with them or like them, but because we trust that GOD is using them for our salvation.
Sometimes it seems hard to discern “in the world” in what sense I am to be “obedient”–to whom, in what context, and perhaps more so without the more obvious structure of living in a family. I can’t give an answer. But I think the key is in I Thessalonians 5:16-18:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

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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