Totems

Emerald green leaves with darker stripes like paint splotches, called calithea lancifolia, in a specked, sky-blue pot; a rippled peperomia, the other houseplant I’ve managed not to kill, purpley green leaves and magenta stems; a beeswax candle that smells of pine; a framed thistle I carried home with me, pressed into a book, from Scotland.

***

Patti Smith’s M Train explores the far reaches of solitude and loneliness. In her travelogue of grief, Smith probes the desire for aloneness forced by loss—of her husband, her friends, her youth, the shoreside ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, writers Roberto Bolaño and Jean Genét. Smith writes, “Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination with melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.”

In The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather, the titular Professor cannot overcome his grief for his protegé, Tom Outland. It has been years since Tom’s death in the Great War yet Prof. Godfrey St. Peter finds that he pulls the memory of Tom to himself ever tighter even as the rest of his family pulls away. He refuses to give up the old house where he loved his wife and raised his daughters, where he did his work of historical research, and where he met Tom Outland. St. Peter even finds fineness in Tom’s youthful death, thinking of Tom trying to manage wealth and a wife and civic duty: “He had escaped all that. He had made something new in the world—and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he had left to others.”

***

A heavy pewter nutcracker in the shape of a mastiff, inherited by my partner from his father; a ceramic angel to hold a candle, from when my grandparents lived in Germany; a photograph of my lost dog Molly on the beach where we placed my grandfather’s ashes and then, later, her own; the stone, from Lover’s Leap near Lake Tahoe, that I turned over and over in my hand during my daily call to my sister in the days and weeks after the death of her son.

***

Godfrey St. Peter retreats not only to his old house, but specifically to his attic office. This space contains the desk where he did his heart’s work and also, on occasion, barricaded himself: “There was some advantage of being a writer of histories. The desk was a shelter one could hide behind, it was a hole one could creep into.” It also contains items that St. Peter may have given little thought to but that are weighty with their significance.

When the family seamstress comes to collect two “dress forms” stored in the attic that she uses for sewing, St. Peter reacts in horror. Augusta first thinks he is teasing her but, quite unaccountably, the Professor declares, “They stay right there in their own place. You shan’t take away my ladies.” The two figures—one a bust, the other a wired frame of a skirted, female figure—represent, perhaps, the Professor’s two daughters, from whom he is growing ever more distant. But they’re also totems of this space, the attic office where St. Peter lives alone like a monk with his inner mind.

The other crucial item is Tom Outland’s Mexican blanket, “a purple blanket, faded in streaks to amethyst, with a pale yellow stripe at either end.” The Professor nonchalantly tells his younger daughter, Kathleen, that he keeps it around for chilly naps. Kathleen responds, “He wouldn’t have given it to anybody but you. It was like his skin.” St. Peter’s seeming indifference belies the reality that he wraps himself up in this artifact of this lost beloved, within the space he uses to retreat with his grief.

***

A framed quote from Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”; a squirrel-sized pinecone; a photo of Middle Teton in the dawning light, taken on an ascent of the Grand; miscellaneous sand dollars and stones.

***

Patti Smith similarly withdraws from social and familial life, drawing within herself, her dreams, and her small apartment. Yet she’s always venturing forth within this confinement too, eating and writing and drinking coffee at the local café, going to the movies, taking artistic pilgrimages—to Tokyo in search of Murakami, to Mexico City in search of Kahlo, to Berlin in search of polar explorer Alfred Wegener. M Train feels right for these socially-distant times, filled with tantalizing travel scenes yet suffused with a deep interiority, the shut-in-ness of Smith’s emotional state.

Like the Professor, Patti Smith imbues her solitude with things, items that stand in opposition to mere consumption:

“I climb the stairs to my room with its lone skylight, a worktable, a bed, my brother’s Navy flag, bundled and tied by his own hand, and a small armchair draped in threadbare linen set back in the corner by the window. … Then there are the scores of notebooks, their contents calling—confession, revelation, endless variations of the same paragraph—and piles of napkins scrawled with incomprehensible rants. Dried-out ink bottles [of course Patti Smith has ink bottles!], encrusted nibs, cartridges for pens long gone, mechanical pencils emptied of lead. Writer’s debris.”

These items reflect Smith’s collector nature, gathering and curating ideas, biographical artifacts, mysterious objects, functional items transformed into poetry. Smith fills her memoirs with photographs, rarely beautiful—no crops or filters or high-end editing here. These snapshots similarly counter curation in pursuit of fakery and instead organize into something that feels like truth. I saw this. This existed. This happened. I was here.

***

The Return of the Soldier, One of Ours, The Sun Also Rises, Home to Harlem, Parade’s End; biographies of Rebecca West, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Claude McKay, and Ford Madox Ford; theoretical texts important enough to have purchased; two bound copies of my dissertation. A photograph of my PhD crew on graduation day, decked out in forest green, velvet tuffets with yellow tassels on our heads, all holding our “hoods” for the crucial moment when we’ll be publicly recognized as doctors. My friend, with long blonde hair like a mermaid’s, leans across her husband to tell me something delightful.

***

I hold my copies of The Professor’s House and M Train in my hands. I pick up first one, then the other, then back again. I flip through Professor’s House, enjoying the soft feel of paperback pages ruffling against my thumb, the supportiveness of the spine in my other hand. I hunt for quotes, noticing the multi-colored inks used for underlining and annotating, signs of a book read and re-read.

M Train, on the other hand, frustrates me with its offset page binding that laughs at my attempts to seek by flipping. It feels very Patti Smith, this structure, refusing the simple or straight-forward or standard. The form forces me to look page-by-page, snapshot by snapshot, questing for lines or ideas or images or passages that I marked for remembering. I begin to dog-ear the text in frustration, but with respect. I revere the function of books, the content within many of them. But the books themselves I hold as beloved items to be fondled and flipped and have their pages turned down, the physical manifestation of the conversation my brain has with their innards.

My biography is written in my bookshelves. I maintain a section for definitive stories from childhood. I keep texts that shaped me in college and graduate school. I hold onto books that I love because they moved me or entertained me or made me think or expanded my world or opened my heart. Photographs and other miscellany dot the shelves: my siblings and I dressed up and looking fine at my brother’s wedding, me blowing soap bubbles that my brother’s toddler reaches for in delight, the ceramic figurine of a turn-of-the-century woman in forest green that represented my grandmother’s successes as an Avon lady.

I cull my books every so often and this, too, feels like an act of biography. What I choose to get rid of says something about aspects of myself I am letting go of. What I set aside feels almost as resonant as what I keep.

***

Three abstract figures made of smooth, dark wood, meant to represent nuns; a photograph of my nephew, eating cake on his second, and final, birthday; a photograph of my partner’s father, kitted up for the rafting that he loved.

***

My method of interior design is, apparently, “decoration by artifact.” I have filled my home with my own totems. Photographs of family and friends and travel fill the walls and dot the shelves. Bookshelves face off across the room, simultaneously organized and overflowing with new additions that have been stacked haphazardly on top of upright rows. Much of the furniture came from relatives and friends, history already built-in, and everything purchased was thus deliberated over, making its own story. I realize how much I have captured fun and family, but also grief and change. I have unconsciously curated altars to the lost and the dead.

***

A selfie of us, grubby and happy after climbing, hiking, or similar; three birthday cards I cannot bear to throw away; a museum card showing veiled women weeping over a shot and bleeding tiger, a piece from the Naeemah Naeemaei exhibit, Dreams Before Extinction, that broke me last September; a print-out of one of those exquisite words for which English has no counterpart, “Fernweh,” meaning “far-woe” or “being homesick for a place you’ve never been.”

***

Both reading and grief take our brains and hearts into imaginary lands, full of wishes and dreams but also the slap of reality. St. Peter hides his grief from himself, even as he hides himself from his family. Patti Smith engages her grief directly, but also circuitously, recognizing perhaps that grief wanders, meanders, circles back. Grief bends. Becomes a Mobius strip. Smith also delves into stories, journeying with the authors and poets and detectives she loves into landscapes far from daily life. We can flee from grief into books. If we’re lucky, we’ll find that grief also waits for us there, but loving, a friend. Grief can be a conversation, a sharing and recognizing of experience, a collection of totems.

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