Thursday, April 21, 2016

House series #10: A Loft

              A master in the use of space, my son designed a loft for me by extending the ceiling of the storage closet over the entryway. The roof peaks four and a half feet above that floor.
            Unfortunately, the county doesn’t like lofts and says so in its building code, and it especially doesn’t like ladders, so there was a question both of what I would do with the space and of how I would access it.
            Nothing in the building code says I can’t walk up a set of shelves in my house if I am so simian, so when Richard built shelves at the writing-nook corner of the closet, he gave them some decorative holes, which I have found very useful when I climb my shelves to get to the loft. There is no ladder in my house, Mr. Inspector, just a set of shelves.
            I envisioned the loft as a cozy, secretive space that my granddaughter might want to sleep in when she came to visit. After I moved into the house, I slept there a few nights. It was fine, but the precipitous slant of the ceiling meant I had to knee-crawl everywhere, which, even after I carpeted the floor, was not very comfortable. So the loft turned out to be not a spare bedroom but a spill-over library.
            Instead of getting rid of books that wouldn’t fit in my library, I asked Richard to build shelves across the entire back wall of the loft. There I put files of tax-relevant materials, children’s books, photo albums, years of journals, and history, biography, and other nonfiction books, including the two or three science books in my humanities-heavy library. Two antique wooden milk boxes store CDs, DVDs, and other old-fashioned media. A long tin box from my mother’s house holds my collection of post cards.

            Holding up the ceiling at the edge of the loft is a beautiful, peeled fir pole, unusually round and uniform. Richard had been saving it for years, but he gave it to me for that spot in the house. On my moving-in day Christopher (who had advised on the house design; see post on February 25, 2016) suggested I attach some manzanita limbs to that pole and hang from them two metal sculptures Ela had made when he was in college. 
            I don’t really do things in the loft, but I go up there from time to time to get something I need. I’ve gotten pretty good at climbing the shelves and pulling myself onto the floor of the loft. Sometimes I spread photo albums on the floor, looking for particular pictures. Sometimes I pull out old journals and sit on the floor, searching through them for a particular memory or piece of writing. Sometimes I need to put away some post cards or look for a CD. So I climb the shelves into the loft, and usually, when I’m there, I lose myself for an hour or so in this other special place in my house.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Pause: At the Beautiful Oregon Coast

            When we think we’ve done grand things, when we think our lives are important, when we feel ourselves powerful and mighty, we need to sit by the ocean for a while and feel ourselves in our place. 
The gray-green water stretching to the horizon (and, we know, even beyond) casts a spell of infinity, as do the ceaselessly pounding, splashing, foaming waves, barely audible to the one small woman on a bench on a cliff so far above the ocean.

            Earlier I had slip-slid down a long, steep, deeply sandy bank to a pocket beach bound on both ends by impassable mounds of rocks. From one end of the beach to the other, stacked against the uphill cliff, stretched a wide swath of tangled, sun-bleached driftwood (and I remembered all the downed trees on the ski trails this winter). 

The surf surged onto the beach, dragging loose rocks back with it, creating one of the most beautiful sounds in the world: the gurgling laughter of small rocks as the ocean pulls them into its depths only to have them dash back up on the beach with the next incoming wave so they can be pulled into the water again, like children who run again and again from the bottom of the slide to its steps just so they can have the joy of sliding down again, chattering and laughing, chuckling and giggling.

            In case one reasserts one’s sense of importance upon leaving the coast, a hike through the redwoods will once again bring one down to size. The redwood trees, centuries and even millennia old, just magnificently are. Their beingness dominates, their cynn, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon concept of the way of being that each individual inherits according to the kind of thing (the species) to which it is born. The Anglo-Saxon poet-monk would rhapsodize about the powerful feorh, or spirit, of the redwoods. Walking among them, even one small twenty-first-century woman feels that feorh, and words like “cathedral,” “divinity,” “sacred” rise in her mind. Her feorh instinctively adjusts to that of the trees. The age of an individual tree staggers the imagination; its height goes beyond sight, its girth beyond comprehension. There may be small creatures here, too – bugs and worms, rhododendrons and red sorrel – but only dinosaurs could compete for space and attention among the coastal redwoods. The redwoods carry with grace the distinction, of which they do not deign to be proud, of being the tallest trees in the world. They simply speak for existence, theirs, yours, mine – that of all of us who gratefully share the space of this earth with them.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

House Series #9 – The Library

            I am one of those people Alan Powers describes in Living with Books who, “in case of sudden nocturnal literary deprivation,” go to bed with books immediately available. Therefore, my bedroom flows borderless into my library. 
            I had planned floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the library, but the cedar wainscoting is so beautiful my builder couldn’t bear to cover it, so I sacrificed book space for wall space, and Richard built half-height shelves. Because the bookcase on the west wall would be at the top of the stairs and therefore the point to which the railing would draw the eye when one entered the house, I told Richard to do something creative there. I gave him Living with Books for inspiration and left the details up to him.
            What he gave me was a bookshelf that featured, in its center, a ceramic mask that once belonged to my mother. The shelves end in curved cuts, like syncopated beats. Highly polished, deep red, square manzanita posts hold up the shelves. 

            I would like to have put my most beloved books – English and American literature – in that beautiful bookcase, but they are such a motley collection! Adam Bede's spine is torn, Ulysses's jacket has a rip in it, David Copperfield is altogether spineless, and so many Faulkner novels are missing spines and covers, their pages held together with rubber bands, that the whole clan from Yaknapatawpha County (even they) would be ashamed. I couldn’t bring myself to put such unsightly books on such beautiful shelves.
            So “most aesthetic collections,” not "most beloved literature," became the criterion. The annual Best American Essays – all the same size, each a different color, from the moss green 1988 edition to the baby blue 2015 edition, all years inclusive – sit prettily on the bottom shelf. John McPhee cozies up next to them, a respectable clan with only two or three unsightly relatives included that couldn’t be omitted from the family reunion
            Rising above McPhee is Nabokov, another author whose complete works I own. Above Nabokov is Shakespeare, who generously shares his shelf with the work of other playwrights, the six volumes of my Norton Anthology of English Literature (heavily annotated for teaching), and a sizable collection of food writing. On top of the bookcase a fine leather-bound edition of Moby Dick keeps strange company with T. Coraghessan Boyle, Alice Walker, and Doris Lessing, though Ahab’s Wife sits suitably alongside it. The two bookends that hold that line of books upright – statues of a boy stretching to reach the top of a high stack of books – came from the living room of my childhood home.
            On the south-wall shelves I paid attention only to logical order. American literature flows left to right from Nathaniel Hawthorne through to Vonnegut and Pynchon (Faulkner in a bookcase on the other side of the window), while on the shelf below, English literature keeps pace through the centuries: Defoe, Austen, Hardy, Bronte, and now let us linger over the incomparable George Eliot before going on to Dickens, Woolf, and Joyce. The contemporary novelists, British and American, that wouldn't fit on those shelves have leapt the divide to reside above the food literature on the west-wall shelves. The arrangement isn’t logical, but I know where things are.
           Poetry is in my writing nook, but art books have a shelf here, and nature books two shelves. Adjacent to these books France rubs elbows with Italy; Russia with Germany, Chile with Scandinavia, Japan with China, all in fiction. Pamuk represents Turkey, Mahfouz Egypt, and Saramago Portugal. The tongues have mostly turned English, but some French, Latin, and Swedish books speak in their original languages. I seldom read anything in a foreign language any more, but I like looking at the books and remembering when I could. Below the mythology and linguistics books and fun books about words on the next shelf are my sister Laura’s fifteen books and some large books I couldn’t categorize: The Literary Cat, a Time-Life book on wilderness, a picture book of Göteborg. 
              Arrangement of books is important in a library, but, as Powers says, "careful consideration needs to be given to the relationship between the position in which the reader is to sit and the rest of the room.” In my library this consideration resulted in a Victorian fainting couch under the south-facing window, perfect for reading, taking notes, day-dreaming, or falling asleep with a book.
            In Living with Books Alan Powers says that reading the titles of books in a home allows a person “to make a quick assessment of the character of the occupant.” In this account of my library I have named many titles and authors (though only a small portion of the whole), allowing you to make that quick assessment. Or maybe you have experienced a sense of kinship, as I do when I see someone reading a book I have enjoyed: “Oh, I’ve read that book. It’s wonderful!” 
            You are always welcome in my library.