The Constant Reader, 2017

Arrow Collar Man

In addition to trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker), I read the following books this year. For inexplicable reasons, I read fewer books this past year than usual. I’m listing their titles here by type, and in the order (within each type) of how (roughly) wonderful I thought they were.

Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015)
by Fredrik BackmanMy grandmother

My sister Gayle introduced me to Backman’s books, and this was her favorite. Possibly because I read it after first reading A Man Called Ove, I think Ove is my favorite of the two, but both were really good: great characters, hilarious dialog, wonderful stories, exceptionally sophisticated plotting with multiple layers of meaning and lots of serious handling of complicated issues. All this from the point of view of a main character only seven years old!

A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backmana-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hr

I don’t read many novels translated from non-English languages, but I am so glad my sister Gayle recommended this Swedish novel to me. Backman is a fantastic writer, and it was difficult to put this book down, and even more difficult when I realized it was about to end. The curmudgeon main character is totally believable, and the plot twists took me completely by surprise. I am looking forward to seeing the movie version (hoping it will not disappoint me), and to recommending to my book group that they read this or any (all?) of Backman’s other novels.

The Improbability of Love (2015) by Hannah Rothschild

ImprobabilityRead this for a book club. Interesting concept (skullduggery involving a lost painting against the background of the contemporary art selling scene in Britain), but most of the non-major characters were unlikable and stereotypical. I learned a good deal about art history and about the business of buying and selling art, but this book was, otherwise, forgettable (or, more charitably, “optional”). The ending of the story especially seemed like a rushed job.

The Humans (2013) by Matt HaigThe Humans

Alien impersonates Earthling to accomplish a specific (murderous) mission, ends up replacing his repugnance of humanity with empathy for it. Sounds corny, but the writing is so good, the plot line works. I will definitely read some of Haig’s other books, and I can’t imagine anyone reading this one would be disappointed.

The English Disease (2003) by Joseph Skibell

English Disease(Read this for a book club.) Excellent, articulate writer. In fact, some of the best, and funniest, passages of 21st-Century American Jewish angst, that I remember reading. On the other hand, despite the exciting fact that Skibell’s main character gives voice to lots of things I obsess about myself, I somehow never felt very sympathetic with the novel’s narrator. I also felt like I was reading a screenplay of a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. I did learn a lot about Carl Jung and Gustav Mahler (none of it very flattering), so I’m glad I read the book, and I might search out Skibell’s previous novel, A Blessing on the Moon.

Memoirs or Biography

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi

When BreathA gorgeously written, astoundingly sobering memoir of a neurosurgeon in his mid-30s who’s diagnosed with fatal cancer. I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t end up being the most memorable one I will read this year. Kalanithi loved literature before he trained as a surgeon, and that’s very evident in his allusive and reflective writing style. Haunted by his life-long search for the meaning of life even before his years of encounters with his patients and their families battling horrific brain injuries, the author’s unique perspective as a compassionate neurosurgeon who’s suddenly another doctor’s patient lends Kalanithi’s account of his final days a wisdom and poignancy that I will long remember. The book’s introduction (by a mentor) and its epilogue (by his wife) are also excellent and equally memorable. It would be difficult to recommend too highly this heartbreakingly brief book, and I shall always be grateful to my sister Gayle for recommending it to me.

Can’t We Talk about Something More PLEASANT? A Memoir (2015)
by Roz Chast

Can't We TalkA graphic memoir – meaning that it’s told via cartoon drawings – by the justly famous and beloved New Yorker cartoonist. Chast recounts the complicated, demoralizing, and often hilarious decline of her elderly mother and father – a story made even more complicated by the fact that she needed to coordinate their care (at first at home, later in various hospitals and eldercare facilities) from a different state than the one her parents lived in. Anyone who is caring for an elderly parent would love this book. I read it in three sittings, and would gladly have read it in a single sitting had I not been visiting friends when they showed me their copy of it. Chast is a genius, and can find something humorous in even the grimmest situations. Highly recommended.

American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) by John Kaag

American PhilosophyPart memoir, part history of philosophy (especially the philosophies of American-born philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William James, Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, William Ernest Hocking, and John Dewey). I loved every chapter, virtually every page and every paragraph – almost every well-crafted sentence – of this book! Instead of writing the author a fan letter, I went out and bought a copy to read again – plus I want to mine Kaag’s bibliography for some of the works he describes so intriguingly. This book reignited my usually dormant love of philosophy (along with psychology, one of my majors in college), completely transformed my obviously uninformed opinion of the contributions of philosophers born in the United States, and rekindled my respect for (and knowledge about) William James – already a longstanding hero of mine. Kaag’s willingness to discard the academic’s habit of aloofness and describe his personal foibles, doubts, and vulnerabilities is unusual. This book is an excellent (and short!) introduction to philosophy in general and to American philosophers in particular (their personalities as well as the major thrusts of their most important works), and it’s a beautifully rendered adventure story as well: in rural New England, Kaag stumbles upon the abandoned library of an important philosopher, and his discovery changes his life. This was one of those rare books I wish had been longer, I enjoyed it so much, and learned so much from it.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013)
by Tim Parks

Italian WaysBasing a book about the Italian mindset on what one learns by using Italy’s trains doesn’t sound like a promising conceit, but Parks makes it work wonderfully. A combination memoir, travel guide, and history lesson, Parks’s weaving of the history of Italian railways with its political and cultural history is as entertaining as it is skillful. Parks is a Brit who’s made Italy his home for over 30 years; I have already read a few of his other nonfiction books and now will be sure to read them all.

Italian Pleasures (1996) by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell

Italian PleasuresThis slim (138-page) volume of reminiscences written by two gay men who for a time lived in Italy- and whose short reflections are augmented by snippets of writings penned by previous Italophiles (Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.) was easy to finish in a single sitting. I liked better Leavitt’s Florence: A Delicate Case (2002), but reading this earlier book was something I’m glad to have stumbled over before an upcoming return visit to Tuscany.

Lust & Wonder (2016) by Augusten Burroughs

Lust and WonderThis is the third of Burroughs’ memoirs that I’ve read. He is an outrageously talented writer – so good it was difficult to put this book away between readings. Every time I’d decided I wish I could marry this man, within five minutes I’d be horrified by yet another recounting of how neurotic and paranoid he can be. Burroughs certainly reels you in with his pyrotechnical wordsmanship, with his excruciatingly hilarious asides, and his amazing ability to recall in vivid detail his wildly fluctuating mental states. What a privilege to be brought along for the ride on the roller-coaster of the last decade or so of this amazingly articulate (if often exasperating) writer’s life.

One Man’s Garden (1992) by Henry Mitchell

One Man's GardenI’ve been meaning to read this since finishing, nine years ago, the other two collections of Mitchell’s gardening columns for the Washington Post. How unfortunate for us amateur gardeners that Mitchell, who died in 1993, is not still alive and writing! And how lucky were the subscribers of the Post who got to enjoy his weekly gardening columns for twenty years! No other garden writer comes close to Mitchell’s unpretentious, slyly cantankerous attitudes toward the humble glories and sorrows of the urban gardener. As hilarious as he was opinionated, he never condescends. I will next read the only book of his I haven’t read already – Any Day – and in years to come will surely re-read portions of Mitchell’s other collections. Mitchell was a national treasure – and the only author who’ve I’ve not minded disparaging my hero Thomas Jefferson (albeit in Jefferson’s capacity as a gardener).

The Conversations of Dr. Johnson, Selected from the ‘Life’ by James Boswell (1930) edited by R.W. Postgate

Despairing of ever getting around to reading Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, I was happy to have discovered, several years ago, the existence of this abridgment. What a wonderful reading experience! Despite my chagrin at finding out how politically conservative and somewhat misogynistic Johnson was, I, like countless others, found myself in thrall to Johnson’s conversations. I hadn’t realized that Johnson lived during the days of the American Revolution (of which he had some very caustic things to say). Until I could finish reading these Conversations, I put off reading more in the other books I am in the middle of – it was that compelling. As is so often the case with books published before World World II, the editor’s preface is also remarkable. (Pet theory: fans of Johnson’s end up being better writers themselves!) I especially loved Boswell’s (affectionate) remarks on Johnson’s character flaws, which are certainly obvious from some of Johnson’s remarks. What an unforgettable person, especially considering Johnson’s impoverished background.

Books about Books

Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy (2001) by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Patience and FortitudeA now-seventeen-year-old survey of the world of books based on dozens of interviews with writers, librarians, library administrators, booksellers, and book collectors. Full of fascinating information and chock-full of anecdotes, Basbanes succeeds in making this particular world interesting for people who may know nothing about the intricacies of book collecting in all the forms that activity takes. He covers lots of bases (all the world’s most famous libraries, for example), and his narrative style is conversational and rambling in the best way. I was particularly impressed by Brisbane’s ability to accurately describe the nuances of the controversies raging in Book World at the time (and that are still important almost 20 years later). This book made me proud to have become a librarian, and I will want to read all of Brisbane’s other book-related books, both past and future.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’s’ Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911 (2016) by Denis Boyles

Everything ExplainedI read probably one-third of this book. Boyles’ obviously impressive research and his sometimes sardonic commentary, the level of detail Boyles goes into to describe the behind-the-scenes wranglings among the people who produced (and advertised) this famous reference work was too daunting for me. The dipping into the intervening chapters that I did do was full of surprises, the almost stand-alone essays that constitute Boyles’ Prologue and his final chapter (“Postscript”) are masterpieces of analysis as well as examples of sustained engaging writing.

Selected Works on the Pleasures of Reading (2008) by Robertson Davies

The Pleasures of ReadingDavies’ always-modest, disarmingly sensible, and frequently witty writing on any subject is always a pleasure, and what he wrote about his reading is no exception – despite the fact that I don’t happen to share some of Davies’ particular enthusiasms (such as reading 18th Century plays). Davies’ daughter edited this anthology of articles and speeches, and her introductory notes were also interesting. Every time I read something by this under-rated Canadian author, I get a little closer to taking up one of Davies’ novels, one of which (Fifth Business) has been on my Books Cal Wants to Read list for years now.

Domesticana

Cherished Objects: Living with and Collecting Victoriana (1991)
by Allison Kyle Leopold

Cherished ObjectsAlthough I own 170 books on home decorating, my browsings through them haven’t been recorded in “The Constant Reader.” Except this one. As with most of my decor books, I found this one on sale in a thrift store, but this one is more than a collection of delicious photos and minimal (and often absurdly breathless) prose. Instead, its author’s text gives a lot of interesting insights into why Victorians embellished their homes they way they did, and why some of us find at least some aspects of their domestic style so compelling. It’s nice to – finally – better understand why I am drawn to Victorian architecture and interior design, and what gave rise to them. This book explains these things more clearly and succinctly than any other book I’ve discovered.

Art & Architecture

In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature (2001)
by Christopher Woodward

In RuinsOne of my traveling companions on my trip to Italy this year was reading this during the trip, and he gave me his copy when he finished it. The author’s style is personal and engrossing, and the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes featuring archeologists, historians, novelists, and artists. A book I have added to my library and will enthusiastically lend to others who, like most people, find themselves drawn to the magic spell most ruins seem to radiate.

My mini-reviews of the books I read in 2016 are here.

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Goodbye to 2017

2017-2018 Image

[Note: The following, with a few inserted photos and several added hyperlinks, is an excerpted version of the 2017 edition of the annual newsletter I mail out to friends and family each year. I’ve been writing these newsletters for almost thirty years now –  hoping they might serve as future memory-aids as much as to let folks know what I’ve been up to during the previous twelve months.]

January

Started the year off with a weekend trip to New Orleans with my friend Charles. (Our mutual friend Randall dropped us off there on his way to Baton Rouge to visit his mom.) Charles and I had a great time gallivanting around parts of the city unfamiliar to me from previous visits and of course we enjoyed some excellent meals while there, along with the mandatory snarfing down of multiple beignets at the Café du Monde.

February and March 2017 013

February

Attended the first of several meetings to plan a trip to Italy later in the year with four gay friends of mine.

March

Flew to D.C. for a brief visit with my friend Terry, returning to Atlanta in time to celebrate my friend Blanche’s 80th birthday. By the end of the month, I’d sold my trusty pickup truck, having recently bought my mom’s Toyota when my mom realized she was unable to safely drive it any longer. (In other Calvin transport news, 2017 was also the year my twelve-year-old motor scooter gave up the ghost. As I rely on the scooter to run 80% of my errands, I promptly bought another one.)

April

The local senior center’s weekly calligraphy classes I’d been attending for three years ended when my instructor left town for an extended trip to Africa – and decided upon returning to teach only private lessons and to expanding her calligraphy-selling business. I am glad for her, but I miss her excellent teaching!

May

Spent another delightful week on St. George Island (off the coast of the Florida Panhandle) with eleven other gay men involved with a group called Gay Spirit Visions– the fourth year I’ve done that.

June

My younger brother Michael, who lives with his wife in Oregon, joined the rest of his Georgia family to celebrate our mom’s 90th birthday.

July

  • Refinanced, a third time, the mortgage on my house. (Unless I win the lottery, I’ll literally be 100 years old when I finally own the place.)
  • Began walking for approximately an hour each morning, mostly to improve my stamina for the upcoming trip to Italy, which would feature a lot of walking.
  • My niece Jessie delivered her third daughter, Reese, whose reputation as “Smilingest Infant Living in North Georgia” was confirmed when I finally got to meet her four months later.

Reese at Christmas 2017

August

I continued my daily walks on through August, whose highlight was watching this year’s solar eclipse with some friends at the cabin in Blue Ridge, Georgia that I’ve co-owned with several other people for the past 19 years.

September

The much-anticipated trip to Italy (my fourth visit there) began mid-month. For our first week, we rented a villa just outside Cortona, and used our two rental cars for various day trips into Tuscany and Umbria. The following week we based ourselves in a spacious apartment in Ravello, perched high above the villages located along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. Following a few days together in Rome, Bill, John, Randall, and Randy returned to the States and I stayed on a third week in Trieste, located a few miles from Italy’s northeast border, exploring the area and spending a day in nearby Venice.

I am collecting photos from the trip from my fellow-travelers so I can include them in a series of entries to this blog, and I’m hoping to get those entries posted early in 2018.

October

The month when things suddenly changed for Calvin, when I became seriously intrigued Randy Taylor, one of my fellow travelers on the Italy trip. I had first met Randy way back in 1978, but our paths had seldom crossed in the decades since then. Once we were both back in Atlanta (Randy and I live about five miles apart), we began spending more and more time together, and I don’t see that changing – except maybe for the better, once Randy retires from his job later this month.

Thanksgiving 2017 Photo 2

I am really excited about this completely unexpected turn of events, and these past three months have been a completely delectitudinous experience. Stay tuned!

Along with spending lots of time with Randy since returning from Italy in October, I have also been preoccupied since then with helping my siblings get my mom settled in her new home, an apartment in an independent living facility located an hour’s drive south of Atlanta. (She knew about the place because one of her church friends had moved there.) Before her move to Newnan, my mom had been living with my sister Lori in north Georgia – she’d sold her house in East Point in October 2016. All five of her kids are hoping Marge will be happier once she adjusts to her new surroundings.

November

My sister Gayle hosted Thanksgiving for our family and assorted friends. 22 people converged on her house in Blairsville, in north Georgia, this year! This is where I got my first glimpse of my grand-niece Reese:

20171124_141157

December

During the week of the Winter Solstice, I hosted three separate tea parties to accommodate the folks I wanted to help me celebrate the year-end holidays.  Fortunately, Randy offered to help me undertake the decorative and culinary preparations for these three gatherings.

On Christmas morning, Randy and I (along with Randy’s mom) joined the Gough family at Lori’s. A few days later, my friend Blanche and I rendezvoused at the cabin in Blue Ridge for a holiday visit and so Randy and Blanche could meet each other. I’m usually at the cabin on New Year’s Eve, but this year Randy and I spent the last day of 2017 at my place in Candler Park.

Things I’ve Continued to Do This Year

  • Making trips to the cabin in Blue Ridge approximately once each month.
  • Attending – for the ninth consecutive year – weekly instruction classes in tai chi.
  • Meeting monthly with members of the Georgia LGBTQ Archives Project. With my Gay Spirit Visions comrade Randall, I co-conducted two more oral history interviews with GSV conference attendees (our 17th and 18th interviews since starting this project a few years ago.)
  • Meeting every month with a group of seven gay friends who are studying the Enneagram (a fascinating personality-typing system).
  • Serving (for an 18th year) as the volunteer librarian for the Meetinghouse Library of Atlanta’s Quaker congregation.
  • Spending enough time in the backyard to successfully grow some squash and peppers and tomatoes along with the two dozen potted herbs – including, for the first time, some patchouli!
  • Attending monthly meetings of the local calligraphy guild. And despite the disappearance from my schedule of weekly calligraphy instruction, I completed seven calligraphy workshops.
  • Trying to keep up with the weekly issues of The New Yorker and the monthly issues of The Sun – the planet’s two best (and completely different types of) magazines. And, of course, reading lots of books – although, inexplicably, not nearly as many this year as in previous years.

I hope your 2017 ended happily, and may the new year bring you – along with the longer-lasting daylight – much joy!

A Splendid Labor Day Weekend!

Labor Day Postage Stamp

For many reasons – and for reasons that have varied through the years –  Labor Day has long been my favorite national holiday.

That’s been especially so for the past twelve years, as that’s when the annual Decatur Book Festival takes place.

DBF-Booths

This year’s festival was as delightful as it invariably is, even though – and perhaps even because – I decided to attend fewer events than usual, and even though the main person I had hoped to listen to (Krista Tippit of NPR’s “On Being”) fell ill and had to cancel.

As usual, the authors I got to listen to were extraordinarily articulate, funny, engaging, and refreshingly non-pretentious. Among the authors I got to see and hear this year:

  • Elizabeth Kostova, whose Dracula-centric book The Historian I thoroughly enjoyed reading a few years ago, and who happens to know a mutual friend who lives in Asheville, where Kostova nows lives.
  • Four exceptionally bright and funny panelists explaining the mysteriously enduring popularity of Jane Austen’s novels (all of which I’ve listened to, enthralled, via audiobooks).
  • Editors of two anthologies talking about their collections of letters exchanged between two pair of Civil War soldiers and their wives – something that I would never have guessed would have been so interesting, but was.
  • Dylan Thuras, the sweet, funny, and down-to-earth co-founder of Atlas Obscura, which has recently published a book with that title, each of them showcasing off-the-beaten path attractions around the world – including several in the Atlanta area.
  • A panel of archivists and authors talking about the archives and special collections at Emory University’s Library’s Rose Archives – a panel especially interesting because two of the panelists (and the panel moderator) are African-Americans who’ve used the archives at Emory (and elsewhere), and who had eloquent and inspiring things to say about the importance of archives. And also because one the other panelist I know as a fellow-member of the Georgia LGBTQ Archives Project.
  • Sam Kean, the author of  (among other books) Caesar’s Last Breath, who talked hilariously and clearly about the taken-for-granted gases that make up our atmosphere – and who told an intriguing story about the refrigerator Einstein invented.

Besides enjoying a lot more people-watching than usual in the perfect (vs. the often hot-and-humid) weather during the festival, I also (also unusual for me) bought some books from one of the used-book vendors at the Festival. I am now the excited owner of yet another biography of Virginia Woolf, plus a published collection of photos, drawings, and engravings of Oscar Wilde and his circle. Those in addition to the half-dozen gardening books I picked up at bargain prices at the event that (for me) kicks off every Festival, the Dekalb Public Library’s book sale, held outdoors in front of the library.

A Bonus Day of Bliss

After happily mingling with thousands of strolling booklovers on the closed-off streets of Decatur, Georgia, I don’t usually make any special plans for the Monday holiday after the Festival ends on Sunday evening. This year, however, I decided to join a group of four other men who signed up for a Labor Day hike just over the Georgia border in South Carolina, one of the many hikes sponsored by the Wilderness Network of Georgia.

The spot along the Chatooga River that hike organizer Charles had located as the destination of our half-mile hike was as perfect as the weather turned out to be.

The five of us spent our leisurely afternoon sitting by (or cavorting around in) the river, talking, napping, and snacking next to a campfire we managed to keep going the whole time we were there. (I’ve never built a campfire during the day, or in such mild weather.)

 

Labor Day 2017 Hiking Trip 1

Hike organizer Charles, resting after swimming to the far side of the river.

Labor Day 2017 Hiking Trip 2

Fellow hiker (and former Cub Scout) Kyle, creating the campfire that we enjoyed keeping going throughout our otherwise lazy afternoon.

Our day of lollygagging beside the banks of the unspoiled river was punctuated by several groups of passing kyackers or canoeists floating downstream, a gaggle of geese paddling upstream, repeated visits by two blue butterflies, and the constant background sounds of the nearby rapids.

After putting out our campfire and trudging back up the hill to our cars, we stopped for dinner at a Chinese/Thai restaurant in Clayton, Georgia. We finished our meal there just in time for a glorious sunset and the rising of an almost-full moon.

Among the factors that contributed to the perfection of this third consecutive day of bliss:

  • I am part of the large cohort of middle-class Americans who’ve retired from our careers as paid laborers – with at least some savings to finance those retirements.
  • I am privileged to have acheived a standard of living that’s unmarred by debt or constrained by other major financial worries.
  • Despite my age – I’ll be 70 – 70!!! – next July – my health is good enough to hike down to a remote river – and back uphill again.
  • I live in a country whose governments have set aside, and made accessible to citizens, vast swaths of unspoiled countryside, some of them including freely-flowing, unpolluted rivers!
  • I still have functioning senses that allow me to enjoy the colors, the sounds, the smells, the textures and the other sensual delights that a picnic in the woods along the banks of a beautiful river provides.
  • Waiting for me at the top of the the steepish hiking trail was a nice car whose driver got me to the river and transported me back again to my comfortable home – making it possible for me to spend the afternoon in a place remote from where I live.
  • I’m not coping with trying to survive floods, wildfires, or other horrific natural catastrophes, and my life is not being  disrupted by the cruel antics of any government official.

Three consecutive days of Perfection. I am a lucky, lucky man.

Carl Sandburg’s “Honey and Salt”

From a typed-out collection of poems given to me in 1966 that I excavated fom my attic yesterday: this excerpt from the title poem of Honey and Salt  (1963) by Carl Sandburg [1878-1967]:

          How long does love last?
As long as glass bubble handled with care
or two hot-house orchids in a blizzard
or one solid immovable steel anvil
tempered in sure inexorable welding –
or again love might last as
six snowflakes, six hexagonal snowflakes,
six floating hexagonal flakes of snow
or the oaths between hydrogen and oxygen
in one cup of spring water
or the eyes of bucks and does
or two wishes riding upon the back of a
morning wind in winter
or one corner of an ancient tabernacle
held sacred for personal devotions
or dust yes dust in a little solemn heap
played on by changing winds.

William Gibson’s “A Gift of Suns”

Poking around in my attic this afternoon, I unearthed a notebook of assorted materials I had typed up or copied beginning in the late 1960s – fifty years ago! These apparently were longer pieces that wouldn’t comfortably fit onto the set of index cards that eventually became my Commonplace Book.

Among  what was mostly poems written by various famous and obscure poets (some of which I will post later on), I ran across a copy I’d made of a chapter from A Mass for the Dead (Atheneum, 1968), an unusual memoir written by the award-winning playwright William Gibson. 

I read this unforgettable book in 2001, after reading thuderous praise for it written by James Mustich, Jr., the editor of a monthly mail order book catalog called The Common Reader.

I was one of many thousands of Mustich’s fans, and for as long as he published The Common Reader – from 1986 to 2008 – we devoured every precious issue for its alarmingly persuasive descriptions of books Mustich felt were little-known and underappreciated. Via his Akadine Press, Mutisch republished some of the books he had rescued from obscurity, and I was so taken with the copy of  A Mass for the Dead that I’d obtained from my branch library that I bought a copy of Mutish’s 1996 reprint. 

I don’t remember exactly when or why I chose to copy Chapter 26 of Gibson’s book, but I’m certainly glad I did. Perhaps your reading of this single, short chapter will garner Gibson’s haunting memor another appreciative reader?

 

“A Gift of Suns”

Grace be unto you and peace, children, gentle readers, myself or whomever it concerns, for it is not altogether clear to me which of us I am addressing in this long meditation of that which was from the beginning, nor does it matter.

That I address others who will not read I know by recalling the week in which I pledged it. In a tiny bedroom of my sister’s house, where my mother lay dying and I sat with the gates of my soul so strangely open, I was leafing through a book of common prayer when a line stopped my eye – “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead, for they rest from their labors” – and I thought indeed I would write, but no such lie, her labors were the fiber and sustenance of my mother’s life, and she took a dim view of rest. Some weeks later, n my workroom with her mementoes and missal, I saw this verse was in fact the epistle in the mass for the dead, and certainly it is to the dead also that I write, whom it no longer concerns.

Born, labored, died, and interred now in a perpetual rest of which they know nothing, why on earth should I write blessed are the dead? That the extinction we must come to is the bitterest fact of our existence is no news; after the first espial of death some terror of it is in every brain like a fretful grain of sand, and around it man has created many pearls of wisdom, mostly false; one is that consciousness is an affliction. I have been lucky as my kin were, average citizens in a plentiful land, and in my remembering of that which was from the beginning, which I have heard, which I have seen with my eyes, I cannot put down that any of them begged to be delivered out of this vale of tears I think our history is worth the telling because it is so ordinary, and it contains no suicide; none of us but, like most men, took in every breath possible. Hemorrhaging and in pain for weeks, my father on his deathbed still wanted to live, and banged on a wall with his bleeding fist that he could not. My mother in her last house, impatient to quit a life wherein she could labor no more, murmured not a word to disaffirm her love of this world; I overheard her thanks for it the day after I read of the voice from heaven, and it was her phrase, so much wholer in acceptance, that impelled me to write. Seeing my parents dead in coffins, I could have thought them blessed only in that their flesh was incapable of my grief, which is no pearl except of pity for self.

The truth is our wisdom sets my teeth on edge. By everything I know, the death of the animal is fortuitous, meaningless, and total; insofar as man, a maker meanings, is at the utmost stretch of his talent to bestow upon his dying a purpose, I wish him luck in it.; but when each meaning he arrives at is used by him to multiply the deaths it consoles him for, I think I am living among lunatics Is the decomposition of the flesh hideous? It is a door to the light beyond, said the priests of infinite love, let us kill all who think otherwise. Is our life brief as the grass? We are immortal in the glory of the empire, said the bearers of every flag, let us die to plant it in another place. Saints, patriots, bards, which of them in the name of a greater life has not counselled us to kill and die? From the day I was born I was taught, against the yearning in my bowels for the sun, that I should consent to my death for the illusions believed of my elders; and in all the battlecries of the world, honor, order, liberty, valor, justice, duty, faith, I heard a baaing of sheep, as ignorant as I of what the sounds in their throats meant.

Children, I write this epistle to a punctuation of incendiary bombs my neighbors vote to let fall, as seeds of freedom, upon the heads of children no older than you. I am by trade a maker of fiction, but no word of mine is so counterfeit as the myths by which men who kill and die will ask you to live; the world is a windbag of pieties, that in each age blows multitudes like you into its graves, and weeps over them as blessed. Its touchstone of greatness is bloodletting, Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands, and no king or president is venerable in our thoughts but like the Judas goat has marched a people under the slaughtering hammer. And beneath the baaing of trumpets and dreams, faint, the only sound I hear as fact is the death rattle of each man.

That sound is my premise. I am the elder now, I tell you my wisdom, not one of the dead is blessed; consciousness is all. I am of course less epochal of mind than the statesman, who in eulogy of the corpses that have served their purpose, his, is confident none has died in vain, well done, thou good and faithful servants; a dish I think fit for the devil is the tongue of every man who asks the power of life and death over others. I speak as that ignoble, small-minded, disaffected citizen, servant and master only of his trade, I mean the artist, joyous and haunted by time, who, making of his spittle a shape, a soul, a voice to survive, wants no interruptions by history or its heroes. Selfish and harmless, in love with my life, I tell you no more than what everyone knows, and is ashamed to live by. Consciousness is all, the sun is born in and ends in your skull; the struck match of self in our skull is all.

So much is simple. It may be pinched out in an hour, therefore, burn in this hour; it may persist a half-century, therefore, burn wisely in this hour; but burn. Yet to make of each day an end and a beginning is not simple, and what is self? I have other selves of me, flesh of my flesh, whatever I believe in is of me, and much of a man is outside his skin; men not fools will die for a fools light as their own. Then burn, believe, die, but, children, I beg you, not for the lies of statesmen, and I think it better to hide and live.

I learned these things at the deathbed of my father, between two wars; on the wall hung a poem with a pasted snapshot of his young brother’s head, blown apart in the war that began in the year of my birth, and upon the night table sat a clock ticking, ticking the irrecoverable seconds away, and at his shrunken hand a portable radio bleated its news of a worldful of sheep who predictably would soon march under the hammer of another war; I did not intend to be in their ranks.. It is a most beautiful earth we inhabit, but not in the eyeholes of the dead. So a savior knew who two thousand years ago said, A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, and that night was betrayed. Are we less than lunatics who, aware we got into the grave at sundown, even in the failing light cannot love, but wrestle each other in? And when I remember what pains I took to hone this grievous and only jewel, my consciousness, I will not surrender it to any leader half in love with death, neither do I wear it in shame; nothing in his head is worth my life.

Daily I hear a whisper in me of the first and holiest commandment, Thou shalt not die.

Not in our time, but one day when there is silence in heaven about the space of half an hour, all the people will voice their right to live in a joyous shout, and the pillars come tumbling down. States, churches, armies, banks, schools, edifice upon edifice cemented in the blood of our bowing to the hammer, will lie in a rubble; the world will be born again as a comedy whose text is blessed are the living. In that day, great men who invite us to die for causes will charm the children as clowns in the parks, and cowardice will be in style, the ancientest virtue which preserves us, all manner of weakness be revered, and over every kindergarten door will be carved I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. Not in our time, when that primal commandment is only a whisper, served yet deviously, and in dishonor.

Well, I too shall break it, in the end, and you. Till then, little children, keep yourselves from idols, greet ye one another with an holy kiss, and let us be neither goat not sheep, but lovers of the sun, which is no fool’s light.

Abajem IV

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I just returned from spending a week on Florida’s St. George Island with eleven friends I met through an organization called Gay Spirit Visions.

GSV was established in 1990, and in 2002 a half-dozen GSVers decided to rent a house on SGI for a week. Chase Robinson has taken care of reserving a rental house each year, and the house-renting group (whose participants vary each year) eventually doubled its size.  The group has rented a half dozen different houses over the years; this was my fourth consecutive year vacationing with these guys on SGI, all four of them spent at the enormous and luxurious “Abajem.”

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As in previous years, the week consisted of hanging out with each other in various combos, either on the beach or within sight of it. Besides enjoying the camaraderie. the conversations, the shared meals, and the spectacular scenery, a large part of the wonderfulness of the week is enjoying an extended break from our respective routines – as well as, for some of us, a break from the relentless aggravations we normally import into our brains via our Internet connections, our phones, and our voluntary tethers to other mass media.

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Although three of us who went to SGI this year live in various towns in North Carolina, Atlanta is home for the rest of us. That means most of us get to extend our annual visits by carpooling down to and back from SGI, as well as spent time together in Atlanta between visits to the island. Although we share many of the values cherished by most GSV participants, there’s a range of ages among us, most of us are retired from our former full-time jobs, about to retire, or are semi-retired.

This year’s Abijem crew:

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Bill

 

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Bradford

 

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Chase

 

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Craig

 

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Jim

 

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Ralph (right) and Ted  (left, in sumo wrestler garb)

 

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Randall

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Roger

 

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Tom

 

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Wayne

 

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Cal (with crocheted cap and flower courtesy Jim)

Our time together on the island is deliberately and gloriously unstructured, but our indoor and outdoor lolling about is punctuated not only by almost nonstop banter and hilarious commentary, but by our taking turns preparing evening meals, silently meditating together each morning, exchanging massages, playing card games (well, actually playing multiple rounds of a single card game: Wizards), intermittently working (alone or together) at various crafts, reading, taking naps, watching a DVD or two, eating in small groups at various restaurants, or driving across the bridge into the nearby town of Appalachicola to visit its shops and galleries. Some of us avail ourselves of Abijem’s swimming pool and/or its hot tub, and Chase provides kayaks, kites, and bicycles. Some of us get up every morning to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and this year our visit coincided with a full moon.

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“Mermaid Barbie” was a permanent feature this year in Bradford’s various tablescapes, which included (among other items, and on various days) painted shells, botanical specimens collected from the island, toy submarines, and a pair of lava lamp-like lighting fixtures.

 

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Mealtime appetizer.

 

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For the second time, Jim (aka Mr. Patience) taught Calvin how to crochet!

 

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Cal losing yet another round of Wizards. Jim crocheted the Wizard’s Hat.

 

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This year, hot on the trail of the the strolling sumo wrestlers was…

 

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…Godzilla!

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Tea time at Abijem, for the humans…

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...and snack time for the birds.

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Randall’s photo of some of the seashells we painted with color markers 

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Sunrise over the ocean.

 

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Lighthouse at St. George

 

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Souvenirs of this year’s visit: samples of our painted shells, a hibiscus flower, and a teddy bear.

 

As I had with with my three previous trips to SGI with these kindhearted, affectionate, intelligent, and creative guys, I looked forward for many months to our week together this year, and hope there’ll be many more annual rendezvouses there.

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A Botanical Decision

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This past Sunday, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden for what I assumed would be my last visit for quite a while. My annual membership was expiring that day, and having not used my membership to make more than a couple of trips to the Garden over the past year, I’d decided not to renew it.

Somewhere in the middle of my Sunday morning stroll through the Garden, however, I changed my mind. I ended up plunking down $75 to extend my free admission to the Garden for another 365 days.

What changed my mind was not only the hope (resolve?) to visit the Garden more often in the coming twelve months, but how magical the Garden seemed to me during each of my most recent visits.

Ever since the Garden was established back in 1976, I have been impressed with its design. As the acreage of the place has steadily expanded over the past four decades, the design of the Garden’s new territories has continued to be imaginative and appealing. So much so that that I’ve come to believe that the ABG should rank among the best botanical gardens in the country.  (I’m not the only person with this opinion.)

In addition to marveling at the Garden’s overall excellent layout – including the design of its most recent expansion, the May 6th opening of its new “Skyline Garden” – I’ve also been impressed with the Garden’s continuing parade of special exhibitions, including two spectacular installations of Chihuly glass sculptures and its annual year-end holiday light show. (Not so impressive is the irritating fact that admission to the annual light show isn’t included in the annual membership fee. Ditto parking at the deck inside the Garden: that also costs extra.)

What makes every visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden “magical” for me, however, isn’t the special installations, but the imaginatively-designed – and often wonderfully smelling! – permanent walkways through the garden’s creative mixtures of familiar and exotic plantings, often featuring fountains, pools, or tiny waterfalls. It is so pleasant to spend a few hours every so often ambling through this urban oasis. Wandering along the forested parts of the Garden, it’s easy to forget you’re walking in the middle of a major city. Biking to Piedmont Park, where the Garden is located, via the Atlanta Beltline, is a particularly refreshing way to make one’s visit a special occasion.) The Garden’s multiple, constantly-branching paths enable visitors to create a different route through the Garden on every visit.

Some of the Garden’s pathways meander through shady areas, others cross or border sunny courtyards or lawns,  and some of the most interesting  paths are located inside the Garden’s enormous conservatories.  Every outdoor path is punctuated with comfortable benches featuring a pleasant view (some of them as excellent for people-watching as for gazing at plantings. And for a while now, the Garden has featured an (affordable) glass-walled restaurant smack in the middle of the grounds.

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In addition to the Garden’s obligatory and gorgeous (if disappointingly pricey) gift shop, there’s also a botanical library that I’ll want to explore during some weekday – the library is, alas, closed on weekends.

Another rationale for supporting the Garden by buying a membership is the fact that the Garden’s provides plenty of inspiration (and, because of the plant labels and sometimes unexpected plant combos, helpful information) for one’s home gardening activities (and ambitions). Whenever I visit the Garden, I invariably see some plant I’d like to find for my own modest garden.

If you haven’t ever been to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, or haven’t been recently, now would be a good time to do that. Its current installation, “The Curious Garden,” is yet another successful experiment in melding art and botany in a delightful, thought-provoking way. Who knew that dozens of dead trees painted pastel colors and plunked down amidst living plantings could be so stunning?

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