Familiar

Going through my father’s private papers and files after he died, a well-worn folder slipped to the floor. Faded to a pale blue, I could only imagine how thickly covered it was in my father’s prints. I picked it up gingerly and breathed it in – it smelled like Dad – a stab of grief. It was chock-full of pithy quotes written on various scraps of paper, match book covers and the backs of random envelopes; my dad had kept these over a lifetime. If my father had religion, then this was his bible and I was holding it in my hands.

—Meredy Benson-Rice

Come again, be again

1.

Jez and I talked about bonsai trees a lot tonight. He’d gone to the Pacific Bonsai Museum. We talked about creative work that becomes a conversation between a craftsperson and a living being—a conversation that will outlast its originator. A conversation across multiple generations.

The oldest tree he saw dated from 1850.

2.

Lives stop, but life keeps going. Flesh begets flesh.

Great cathedrals were built by generations of stonemasons to whom the architect was a man who might once have greeted their grandfathers’ grandfathers. How agreeable, then, to believe in God.

To set stones on stones not for the architect but for eternity.

The Latin epitaph in one seventeenth-century cathedral translates: Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.

The words are carved in a disk of black marble set beneath the center of the dome. The disk was placed there by the architect’s son.

It’s easy to imagine the great man, but try to imagine the son who knows his father’s cathedral will be loved longer than the flesh of his flesh.

Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

3.

I’m in a cathedral. My dad is in the cathedral. Our friends and neighbors—we’re all in the cathedral, eighteen-foot tall and wool-woven. Ostensibly we’re saints, but anyone from town would look around and just see people they knew. She lost her house in the Thomas Fire. He passed away last Christmas from pneumonia. This is the real record.

A panel from John Nava's communion of the saints tapestry from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. A group of pious-looking figures all face to the right, hands clasped in prayer, wearing a variety of garments. In their midst in a young girl with blonde hair.

I posed for the portrait in 1998. Before Y2K, but after the release of Spiceworld. When we saw the Cathedral open its doors in 2002, I was 13 and felt so worldly compared to the child self hung high on the yellowed walls.

September 4th 2002

The truth is: she’ll outlast me.

I haven’t been back to the Cathedral since, but I think about it all the time.

Maybe I’ll go.

5.

The Seed Jar.

6.

It was by this making of comparisons to analyse her feelings that Taryn returned from her period of healing to who she was, what mattered to her, and what was inescapable. Her troubles had pressed on her for weeks, not just ill health caused by the demon but the Muleskinner’s slow approach and what she thought she owed him—or worried he’d think she owed him. And there were other failings: how she took her former husband’s generosity for granted, and how little kindness she seemed able to show to her father. The rest of it—her book, the festivals, her agent’s and publisher’s expectations—receded. But what had taken the place of the pressures wasn’t Taryn’s own tranquillity; it was the land itself, the Sidh, promising always to be there, always to be the same. Promising also that it would be the same Taryn who stepped out with sound knees and clear eyes from this blue lake, or stone hearth, or apple shade. Come again, be again—that was its promise, a sense of permanence Taryn hadn’t felt since she was under ten years old and only able to imagine that she would always stay at Princes Gate with her grandparents, always find the same old Monopoly set, quoits, croquet hoops and mallets, the familiar punt, the cats—only a little indifferent whenever she arrived—but all as it should be, the same, permanent. The Sidh was turning Taryn into a child again, a child who knew everything sustaining would last. It gave her back that knowledge beyond faith—what the faithful meant when they said ‘faith’.

Elizabeth Knox, The Absolute Book

7.

I got a card at the Ojai Library last week. Walked into this building for the first time since I was a child and breathed the particular scent of spines and plastic and dust. Things were different, of course. Fewer shelves in the children’s section, no more chunky CRT monitors blinking green on black, keyboards shrouded in that satisfyingly tacky plastic skin. Keys you really had to punch to pull up the author of your choosing.

When I went looking for the books I remember devouring as a young reader, I found the same phalanx of Nancy Drew titles intact.

The Moomin novels, though, the ones I really wanted to see again, they were gone.

Commonplace

Piper Haywood wrote one of those very good posts last week—a cross-section of personal interests that manages to be both minutely specific and widely resonant. It was full of thoughts about female furniture designers I’d never heard of and Joan Didion essays on notebooks and ideas about the distinction between personal blogs and…whatever else it is that we do to try and share ourselves on the internet. I loved reading it. It also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about here.

It seems silly to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how often I’d come face to face with the things that made me now that I’m living at home.

A black and white photograph of a small notebook with a handwritten quote on Monday the 14th of November. "The future may always be uncertain. But paradoxically, the future holds an irrefutable certainty: we know that we don't know what will happen. This grim absurdity diminishes all chatter." (British sculptor Herbert Ward)

My dad never taught me about Commonplace Books or Zibaldones, but he kept one religiously.1 He was always hunting for quotes and anecdotes to fold into his teaching or add to his column in the local quarterly magazine. He also inscribed them on the collaged, abstract bookmarks he made for everyone he met. A great deal of his creative expression boiled down to this magpie tendency—a delight in gathering raw materials and mashing them together into something new.

Piper shared a quote from Didion where she talks about the notebook as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” This certainly seems to have been the way my dad approached his pocket-sized collections. His penmanship makes every page feel like a work of art, but I don’t think they were primarily made to be shared—at least not in this form.

And yet below every quotation about children or parenting there’s a note:

An open spread of a tiny diary with many quotes written in differently colored pen. "McCarthy said he would not have written the novel (The Road) had he not had a son as an older man. "It wrenches you up out of your nap, and makes you look at things fresh. It forces the world on you, and I think it's a good thing." (Hello Lucy!) "Not knowing something essential makes you more involved." (Divisadero by Michael Ondaajte) "It is a wonderful thing to be taken seriously and to be taken seriously for who you already are, without your having to perform." (Robert Lloyd, on Apted's Married in America 2) "Man must sit in chair with mouth open for very long time before roast duck fly in." (Old Chinese Proverb, @ Theater 150) "What's braver than a brave face?" (Aimee Mann, Singer/Songwriter)

There’s no way he could’ve known I’d open to this page, having just read Ondaajte’s poetry for the first time last November. Having listened to Aimee Mann in college. Line after line, I see so many names and themes that have showed up in my own obsessive collecting.

When Didion lists the kinds of people who keep notebooks, she closes with “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” It makes me shudder in recognition.

Growing up, I was all too aware that my parents were the age of my friends’ grandparents. My extended family weren’t down the road, but scattered throughout England and South Africa and Canada. I didn’t have siblings. I’ve been bracing for as long as I can remember to try and make sure I’ll be able to survive on my own. (No wonder I placed such a high value on independence in my career.)

I think I felt that keeping my parents had to be an act of willpower—one I could fail at and therefore had to approach with constant vigilance. But when I see these notebooks, something shifts in me. These words are confirmation of something I’m trying to learn in my bones: I couldn’t lose these people even if I tried. Their patterns made my patterns, at least in part, and as long as I pursue those patterns, I carry them forward in the world.

My inheritance is ubiquitous.

Commonplace.

1. I don’t know how to do tenses with him. He doesn’t do these things anymore, but to speak about any of it in the past tense makes it sound like he’s dead. He’s not dead, but vast parts of him are no longer present. How do I talk about that? I don’t know.