M Train

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On a quiet Thanksgiving morning, I’m finding the space to finally watch the edited, televised Patti Smith interview on PBS that I saw live in early October. I’m struck anew, and on this day, by her gratitude. “I’m grateful all the time that Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women; I’m grateful the New Testament was written. I love books, and I love what the hand of mankind produces, whether painting, or music, opera, I just think it’s wonderful that we have that in our life.”

M Train is one of the most luxurious books I’ve ever held; it’s an object worthy of reverence, as much for its construction, for how it feels in the hand, as for what’s inside. I probably spent as much time running my fingers across the silky brown cover, just sitting and turning the pages for hours, listening to the wisp and scratch, thumbing the paper like money, as I did reading it. Anyone who thinks the book is dead should hold this one; touch it; take it in.

As Patti writes in the book, “as an object it had already manifested a sacredness …”

These are stories of movement and stillness. Her adventures – to graveyards in Japan, to visit Sylvia Plath, to the burial place, finally, of Genet, traveling to the North African seaside to present him a gift more than twenty years in the making – balanced by quiet moments in the corner of her café, along the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach, in a cold Tokyo hotel room, or buried beneath the covers in her New York City bedroom, fumbling with the remote.

What I wanted, and what I found, is this: Her images. Her words. How she sees the world.

Sylvia, in a cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return.

I sat quietly by the grave, conscious of a rare, suspended peace.

I slipped the photographs into my pocket. My mother was real and her son was real. When he died she buried him. Now she is dead. Mother Courage and her children my mother and her son. They are all stories now.

And rare moments of moral turpitude, the kind I love, when someone takes her café table. “I stood there mutely,” Patti writes. “If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.” But then: “Such dark thoughts for the sake of a corner table. My inner Jiminy Cricket spoke up. Oh, all right, I said. May the world’s small things fill her with delight.”

This is where I am, filled with delight by the world’s small things: creamy vellum, a deckle edge, a handful of words, artfully arranged. Whether she’s in the whirlwind or in the eye, the book is filled with her patience, despite the fact that she – above all – knows that there is never enough time.

When she’s in motion, though, caught up in the rapture of something so simple as crossing 6th Avenue on the way to her beloved café, that’s when I was most captivated. Especially then. Because that’s where she did the hard work of doing what sounds so simple, and yet what becomes, here, divine. “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café.”

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My bookmark is a ticket stub, admittance to the reading Patti Smith gave at Lisner – as I read her words it peeks over the pages like strange divination, an invocation. Like a dare.

Because the Night

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She had on a pair of worn, faded jeans, black boots, and a white t-shirt with maybe the name of a band on it. I couldn’t see it clearly because she also, despite the warmth of an early October day in Washington, wore an oversized calf-length burgundy pea coat, the pockets of which were bulging with objects: a glasses case, wadded up napkins scratched with handwriting, a small plastic bottle of water, and other trinkets that formed a towering pile when she emptied her pockets onto the table before changing into a smaller black jacket for the interview that had brought her to the library.

A few minutes earlier, waiting for her to arrive, I’d wondered to myself: do I say it’s a privilege to meet you? An honor? I’m so pleased? How nice? How do you convey the utmost respect, sheer thrill, and awe in a salutation? My colleague Beth and I escorted her and her publisher’s rep across the lobby toward the elevators. I love that you requested to be interviewed in a library, I said. I joined your fan club when I was thirteen, Beth added. Oh! Patti brightened. Then you must have received a letter from my mother.

A man I recognized but did not know got on the elevator with us, and as we rode up to the 7th floor he nudged me gently with his elbow and mouthed, is that who I think it is? I nodded professionally, the glimmer in my eyes giving it all away. As we stepped out of the elevator he turned to her and said, I have been a fan and followed your work since the ‘70s. I’m sure she hears this all the time, but she turned to him and said, quietly, thank you so much for telling me that. He turned to walk through a nearby doorway and Patti called to him. Wait, she said, what’s your name? Bill, he said. She held out her hand for him to shake and said, Bill, thanks for saying that. It means so much. She was so generous – with her time, with strangers walking up to her, with me having asked my friend the Communications Director (who set all this up in the first place) to nonchalantly intercept us so that she could (I had begged) take our picture!

Can I get a quick photo before we go in? Robin asked.

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Once inside, Patti quickly discovered that it was to be a television interview and not one, I suppose, for radio or print. She was not dressed for television, she said, so I left them to escort the publisher’s assistant back downstairs so that she could retrieve Patti’s suitcase from her waiting car.

Later I implored Beth to tell me: what did y’all talk about while I was gone? Beth, far from recovered, replied: I have no idea! Photo evidence of those fifteen or so minutes suggests that Beth asked Patti if she would like to look at some of the rare books they had brought out for her visit: beautiful, well preserved copies of Louisa May Alcott, Our Lady of the Flowers, others. I’m only guessing at what they were, but Patti paged through each one and had something to say about them all. She signed some of Beth’s personal Patti Smith Fan Club memorabilia, photographs and letters and zines. When we returned with her suitcase she threw on the black jacket and the interview began.

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At the conclusion of the interview, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later, she looked at Jeffrey Brown and said, I love talking to you. I love talking to you, too, he said. And there were so many things I wanted to ask you about. Bobby Fischer, for instance, to which she immediately replied: all true! Roll the tape! Brown cried. And they filmed another six or seven minute segment in which she told the story of meeting Fischer in the dead of night in Reykjavik.

When they called it a wrap Beth and I escorted Patti back downstairs. I could listen to you talk about books and reading all day, I told her, as we descended out of what felt like, to me, the clouds. When you go to Paris will you play the Olympia? I asked her as the doors opened and we stepped out of the elevator. She said she would. My partner and I saw you play the Olympia several years ago. What an incredible night! she said. I mean, not that I was incredible, but the whole evening. I agreed. You ended the night, I told her, by saying Paris! You fucking wore me out. Je t’aime! She laughed and said, I’m afraid Paris is going to wear me out again.

That’s when it happened. Afterward I went upstairs and said to a colleague, Patti Smith just said the most incredible thing to me. Did she tell you she loved you? Tracy asked. Better! I cried. She turned to me just before she walked out the door and gently reached out and grabbed my sleeve, ran the fabric slowly between her fingers, looked me in the eye and said, I love that jacket.

I found it several years ago in a thrift shop in Paris and had worn it in her honor. I wish I had told her that, but she was gone. And besides, would that have been one step too far? Would that have been the moment I morphed from quiet handler into creepy stalker? I didn’t have to tell her about the jacket; she knew. And she reached out and gave it her own benediction.

The whole day had been like that, quiet moments of humility, observance, and gratitude. I had to speak that morning at a conference on teaching, so I awoke nervous and somber. Nervous because I’d been working on my remarks for several days and now it was time to give them, and somber because my grandmother had been slowly dying over the course of the previous two weeks. I went through all the familiar motions – I caught the bus downtown, declined coffee (nervous stomach), found my colleagues and prepped for our panel, posed for a quick photo and then, suddenly, we were done. It was during a workshop later that morning that my phone exploded. Missed call and voicemail from my brother. Missed call and voicemail from my father (who never calls me). Missed call and voicemail from my mother. Despite the fact that I was sitting a thousand miles away in a sterile conference room listening to someone speak about active engagement, the message was clear: my grandmother had died.

I slipped out the back of the room, called my mom, and then went over to the library to meet my colleague who was coordinating Patti Smith’s visit later that afternoon. I told her my grandmother was dead, and I sat with her and two other colleagues as they finished their lunch. I asked her to cheer me up: tell me the details for this afternoon’s interview with PBS, I said. I had been invited to be a fly on the wall during the interview. Robin explained how things would go: Patti will arrive around 2:30 (she’s a rock star, Robin said, so she’ll probably be late); she will be escorted upstairs to the special collections reading room where she will be interviewed for half an hour, and then she will leave. Who is meeting her when she arrives? I asked. Robin’s expression told me what I needed to know.

Do you think you can handle it? She asked. I had confessed to her my previous inability to remain sane in front of celebrities I admired, but this was the gift that my grandmother had given me: the lingering perspective of loss, which balanced any innate proclivity I might have had to freak the fuck out. As we waited for her to arrive, I said to Beth: I’m not sharing this widely, but I wanted you to know that my grandmother died this morning. I wanted Beth, the person who was alongside me for this incredible encounter, to know what I was bringing to it. And in some ways by saying it out loud, in that moment, it elevated my grandmother’s passing to something more than a going away, to something more than flesh and finitude, to a transcendence of things: time, loss, experience. When Patti Smith climbed the steps moments later and stepped through the revolving doorway into our presence, I felt like I could greet her not as a goddess of music and the word, but as a person walking through a door. A person who happens, like me, to love books.

That morning as I rode the bus downtown, I didn’t feel like listening to the radio, to any of the shows I normally listen to: Morning Edition, podcasts of Fresh Air or the Diane Rehm Show. I turned on my music instead, and began shuffling through the songs. After a while I stopped on the Ten Thousand Maniacs performing “Because the Night” off their 1993 MTV Unplugged album. Just like I’d picked my jacket for Patti, I listened to that song for her as well. It was the starting of a day that would turn out to be filled with sorrow and magic in so many ways. So it felt like a holy bookend when she concluded her reading that night, some thirteen hours later, by performing an a capella version of “Because the Night.” It seemed right, she said, because it had been her gift to Fred long ago, and because she’d just been talking about her wedding ring.

And so she sang, standing in the light at the edge of the stage, her voice rising through the dark auditorium. Then, at her invitation, right where we were, those of us in the audience, craving her energy, her melody, her every word, joined in and sang along with her.

20th

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I recently bought tickets to fly to Memphis in October for my 20th high school reunion. About the same time two other things happened: I sat down in front of my bookshelf one afternoon late and took down the first journal I ever kept. I started writing in it when I was working as a volunteer counselor at summer camp the year I turned seventeen. The other thing that happened is that I started reading Sally Mann’s righteous new memoir, Hold Still.

We learn in the prologue that much of the source material for Mann’s book came when she “began this Knossian epic by cutting, one by one, the strings securing the boxes that I had hauled back from the nursing home after my mother died.” She also kept journals. In the first chapter she quotes from the first entry in her earliest journal:

It has been a mild summer, with more rain than most. We work hard and grow tired. The evening is cool as we watch the night slide in and hear each sound in the still blue hour. The silver poplar shimmers and every so often the pond ripples with fish. The mountains grow deep. They are darker than the night.

My first journal entry, which I wrote when I was the same age Sally was when she wrote that, said: Campers arrived and we got to know each other in cabin. Met as a camp & played get to know you games as a community. Went on scavenger hunt as a cabin. Dined on Lakeshore’s fine cuisine and had fishin’ with Trina and Chad. Progressive games: placed second. Given minute free time and gathered for worship. Closed with personal cabin devotion.

Later, from the same journal, Sally wrote, We reach the top pasture and you are ahead and spread your arms wide. I run to catch up and it opens to me. There is no word for this; nothing can contain it or give it address. There are no boundaries, no states. The mountains are long and forever and they give the names, they give the belief in the names. The mountains give the name of blue, the name of change and mist and hour and light and noise of wind, they are the name of my name, the hand of my hand and the sight of my eye.

Here’s what I wrote later: Josh called me today. As I sat ready to turn left onto my street I said that it would be awesome if Josh had called while I was out – and he had. … My prayer was answered and I thank you, Lord. I could not be happier than I am at this moment.

Clearly I was working some stuff out.

There are two problems with my early journals, one stemming from the next. The main issue was that, even though I don’t think I intended them to be, over time they became prayer journals. I know I’m not the only one who’s done it, but I wrote down my prayers. Which leads to the second, central, problem: keeping a prayer journal as a seventeen year old conservative Christian who believes that God knows (and absolutely cares about) everything that’s happening in your life means you don’t actually describe a damn thing. It’s a big, angsty middle finger to the historian, the preservationist, to anyone who wants to remember more than Be with everyone who needs you. You know the needs. I close. Twenty years later I have this treasure trove of joy and worry in equal measure, and yet I have no idea what happened, no idea what I’m blithering on about, no idea what all the fuss was over. Who is everyone?! What were their needs?!

With Sally you get lush description, a clear sense of place, and an idea for the things she cared about.

With me you get:

Thank you for letting me finally find a senior quote that I like. Please let me continue to like it.

Lord, please be with Amanda this weekend. I hope she got something out of it. Please let her have. (Gotten something).

Please be with me as I take my French Quiz tomorrow. Also, please don’t let me have much work to do on the 29th of this month as Trina is coming to see me.

Please also be with my research paper as I continue to work on it. I got a thesis last night and I thank you so much for that.

Thank you for tonight. I really had a good time with them tonight. I am excited that we talked about senior trip. I hope and pray and think that I’ll be able to go. It’ll be fun.

It’s all so narrow. And it’s all so desperately important. Sitting here more than twenty years later seeing it all written down, it would be easy to think that it all sounds so silly. And maybe it does, but that doesn’t mean it was insignificant. People killed themselves over it, whatever it was for them. We felt so mature, so sure of ourselves – and it was all just a mask for the chronic feeling of being lonely and afraid.

One of the reasons I’ve been looking back is because of the upcoming reunion. It’s a natural moment for reflection. It’s been twenty years since these things I’m describing – or not describing – occurred. At the time I thought they were the most important things on earth: new friendships, summer camp, the suicide of a friend, the death of my grandmother, leaving home. What I know, looking back, and what I value and cherish and respect, is that despite the simple faith and awful writing, it mattered. It all mattered. And I appreciate the kid who took the time to write it down, even if all he wrote was Thank you for all you do and have done and will do. You know whats [sic] on my mind and in my heart. Please be with me. I close with prayers in my heart.

84, Charing Cross Road

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What a nugget! A tiny little book. It’s less than a hundred pages, and yet it’s taken me forever to read – in part because I took my time, savoring every paragraph, and in part because I got halfway through and went back to the beginning and started it all over again. They’re letters, after all, so they’re meant to be read and re-read. I think Helene Hanff would agree. In one letter she talks about her yearly ritual of spring cleaning her bookshelves, and throwing out anything she’s not going to read again. “My friends are peculiar about books,” she writes. “They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible … And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.”

This is a good and proper ode to bibliophilia if ever there was one. A genuine celebration of books, not just what they contain – words, ideas, personalities, histories of their own – but the thing of the book itself. “I’m almost embarrassed to handle the soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboardy covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch,” Helene writes in November of 1949, about a new Stevenson Frank Doel has sent her from London.

In another letter she writes, “The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it.”

A reverence and light-heartedness go hand in hand.

On receiving as a gift Elizabethan Poets, she replies: “Thank you for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book before with pages edged all round in gold … I shall try very hard not to get gin and ashes all over it, it’s really much too fine for the likes of me.”

New books; old books – there’s a distinct appreciation for both.

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to `I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered `Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”

Another time she writes, “I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.”

Her ALL CAPS outbursts are absolutely fabulous – as hilarious and unexpected as they are jestfully frightening.

WHAT KIND OF A BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?

WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?

AND I NEED READING MATTER, NOW DON’T START SITTING AROUND, GO FIND ME SOME BOOKS.

DO YOU MEAN TO SIT THERE AND TELL ME YOU’VE BEEN PUBLISHING THESE MAMMOTH CATALOGUES ALL THESE YEARS AND THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER BOTHERED TO SEND ME ONE? THOU VARLET?

It’s proper bibliorage, and I say: WHAT COULD BE BETTER?

Her voice, especially in these moments of delighted outrage, reminds me so much of my friend Janet; I think that’s been part of the pleasure I’ve taken in reading this, and part of the reason that it took so long. She felt present, somehow, through Hanff’s wit, her affection and generosity, her playful bossiness (Frank! Go find me Tristram Shandy!), her high standards, and her joy.

84, Charing Cross Road is a celebration, but it’s more than that; it’s a recognition of the role books play, the company they bring, and the life that they give. “Have you got Sam Pepys’ diary over there?” Hanff asks in a post script in October 1950. “I need him for long winter evenings.”

Someone on Goodreads said you could read it in about two hours; Hanff’s obituary in the Times suggested just one. It took me two months. I just liked knowing it was there – unfinished – waiting. I wanted it to last. Now that I’ve finished reading my library copy the only thing to do will be to go out and buy one of my own like she would have done – so I can keep it on the shelf and pull it down from time to time and read it all again.

Thanks JJ.

Who would it be and why

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People sometimes get asked, in Miss America interviews or at parties or during ice breakers, if you could meet any [fill in the blank], living or dead, who would it be and why? Who’s the actor or musician or philanthropist or writer. At various times I’ve thought, Meryl Streep, Julia Child – especially during the Paris years – Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Queen of Scots (I’ve got some questions), Barbara Kingsolver, and I would totally have a beer with Sandra Bullock (it strikes me just now that this list is all women). But the more I learn about him the more I think, it would be William Maxwell. I only heard of Maxwell a few years ago, but everything I have read and learned since makes me wish that I had known him (and his wife, Emmy, too). Like this, from Alec Wilkinson’s My Mentor.

“He was sometimes difficult to talk to, because he had no interest in facile or socially polite conversation, lunch party talk. His conversation was about things that mattered to him, and he was not made uncomfortable by hesitations or breaks in exchange. His silences appeared to be measuring and sometimes made me anxious. It was years before I understood that his habit was to brood until he felt moved to respond. No one’s conversation was more literate or informed or compressed. His remarks had the candor and perception and quality of profound thought. Often he said no more than a sentence. In general, as people get older they talk more and become insensitive. As Maxwell got older he talked less and listened more, a form of kindness and an expression of his never-ending interest in the world.”