Saturday, December 19, 2009

Solitude With a Difference: A Guest Post from Michele Slung

Michele Slung's 18th century farmhouse near Woodstock, New York.

Robin writes:
I've spent a week in tribute to my remarkable mother. Now it is time to return to the world of Christmas, with its annual beauty and its promise of renewal. Thus, I asked my friend, writer and editor Michele Slung, for a guest post from her East Coast farm, which, like Michele, is beautiful, old-fashioned, traditional and warm.

Woodstock, New York, December 2009
Snow & Commonplace Books

by Michele Slung

Last week was the first snowfall of the season in my corner of upstate New York. Here in the Hudson Valley, at the edge of the Catskills, every rise in the roads around my house comprises its own microclimate. Up at my friend Bob’s house --- higher than town but still at the foot of the mountain, Overlook, that looms above it --- where I stopped for a quick visit around 6pm, it looked like your cliché Currier & Ives Christmas scene. The fir trees were tall marshmallow-coated silhouettes in the moonlight, and every bush and stone wall glowed whitely.

But such a perfect glimpse of the winter landscape actually wasn’t a sure thing: if you were only a quarter of a mile lower than Bob’s or traveling in a different direction, you were just as likely to be greeted by that old weatherman’s staple, “snow mixed with rain.”

Bliss, however, doesn’t accompany a sleety drizzle.

The moment of suddenly glimpsing the year’s first snowflakes cascading down outside the windows has been, since I was little, an ecstatic one. The beauty is so transformative: what was banal --- a car, a wooden lawn chair, a forgotten rake, a clothesline, a clay pot holding a dead plant --- becomes simultaneously exciting and hypnotically soothing.

What’s taking place is the most basic of earth-magic, and few fail to experience the spiritual as well as the physical line between the pre-snow and post-snow world.

Michele, with her 15-year-old friend Minnie.

Thus, it bothered me quite a bit, when once, more than twenty years ago, waking to a beautifully blanketed outdoors, I for the first time felt nothing. “I noticed the absence of joy in myself. (I’m very worried, as a consequence.)”

How do I know exactly my sensations of that morning? The answer’s easy --- I found the above entry recently while browsing in my commonplace book, a personal patchwork of quotations, ideas, phrases, interesting words, observations and other prose bits which to this day I continue, irregularly, to maintain.

Different from a diary, a commonplace book is meant to be a compendium of wisdom, and, for centuries, people copied their favorite passages down into these journals. Explains the ever-helpful Wikipedia:

"Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests."

Not unlike a blog, you might say. In fact, my own commmonplace book actually offers the occcasional News from Myself --- bulletins from my state of mind --- along with notable quotations jotted down from books I once was reading. (There’s even a lock of my 40-year-old hair taped in --- and I stare at it sometimes, hoping to find there a glimpse of my former self, as if reconstructing the person I was back then from this DNA-filled snippet.)

I learned about the practice of keeping commonplace books from W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, published in 1970. It was, he said, as close as he “would ever come to writing an autobiography,” calling it "a map of my planet." It took a while, though, to begin following his example; my own opens with a line copied from Persuasion in the spring of ’77.

Today, on Planet Michele, I’m pleased to report my failure that day to respond to the sweet stimulus of snow was a short-lived phenomenon. It didn’t last til the next winter, although it did signal change. And, meteorologically or otherwise, there’s nothing but inevitability about that.

Before I disappear to haul in more wood for the stove, here are just a few samples from my commonplace:

“To be free is not the result of a moment’s decisive action but a project constantly to be renewed. More than anything else, freedom requires tenaciousness.”
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage

“There is no collection so valuable as a collection of adjectives. Everything depends on adjectives.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, Through One Administration

“Her peace of mind was dependent on lists . . . “
May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

“Dreams have always had an importance for me: ‘the finest entertainment known and given rag cheap.’" Graham Greene

“To have her meals, and her daily walk, and her fill of novels, and to be left alone, was all that she asked of the gods.”
Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

“She had known no one --- but her solitude had had a difference. Then, as she walked about the streets alone, she walked an adventurer.”
Olivia Manning, The Doves of Venus

“It occurred to me as I gave her hands a quick clasp that hell was not, as Sartre had proclaimed, other people. Hell was being obliged to pretend to be someone quite other than one’s true self.”
Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths

“‘But this is something quite new!’ said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts and was especially attracted by those that are portable.”
E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

Robin note on 12/19/09: Just after Michele filed her report, a huge snowstorm began to drench the East in snow. We will check in with her, just to make sure she can shovel her way out.

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