Take Away From the Total
An excerpt from Closely
By Lynn Crawford
Lily’s grandmother Charlotte loved books. Reading and discussing their form and content. Using them for room decoration because, “What could be less tiring to always see at home?”
Toddler Lily looked at/played with cloth versions. As she grew older Grandmother read her hard covers, then the two read books together, finally she read them alone. An early favorite was The Secret Garden, partly because of its character Colin and partly because this passage—
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden,” taught the value of dismantling.
She loved the novel. And hoped to discover, befriend, and possibly rescue a youth like its character Colin. Maybe she would find him frail, bright-eyed, nestled in leaf piles deep in the woods, or slumped against a building on a busy city street or high up in a castle waiting for rescue. She will share the garden line with him and together they will pick through its strengths, weaknesses, and agree it rings true but possibly is not.
They will discuss how if you spend enough time with a line, it turns into a refuge like a fort or beach. Then, together they could discuss how sometimes a patch of something works better than an entirety. They will remind each other over-acceptance is perilous. But deletion can be too.
Some lines can be and ring true. For example, this one also from The Secret Garden, “Two things cannot be in one place.”
True two things cannot share a place. But,
two thoughts can.
So that line functions as a distinguishing lesson. Between things and thoughts.
Sentences do more than convey information.
You can picture or vocalize them once or repeatedly with specific rhythms. You can write the words in notebooks or sketch them on paper napkins or paint them on easel paper. Or discuss them with a friend like Colin. It doesn’t matter. Those lines last forever and can always go home to their books.
Focusing on sentences soothed young Lily, who had a hard time following and remembering entireties. Full conversations, games, and gardens blurred maybe because she found so many threads to attend to. With pressure off to absorb big pictures, sentences offered space for specifics. Her attention lands on a button, an herb, or a footstep. Details do not make her anxious.
Maybe Colin would be this way too. But if he was not, they could exchange and learn from each other’s skill sets.
She could share secrets with him like the anxiety certain lines initially brought, including this one she first encountered on her father’s desk,
“We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air.”
She grew up seeing the engraved block letters during happy visits to his study. When she was old enough to ask him to say the words and he did they took her straight to a deep ocean floor, sea animals squeezing her torso and nipping at her neck and ankles as water filled her lungs.
But then her father explained that the word ocean means a very large or unlimited space or quantity. There are oceans of sky, oceans of land, and oceans of love. “We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air,” written in 1634, by Evangelista Torricelli, inventor of the barometer, references sky.
This resonates with Lily, who spends so much time thinking about skies, and knows they never stay one way forever. Sometimes one is so blue it looks like a crayon for a coloring book rather than something in nature. Sometimes it is jet black like she pictures deep earth or outer space to be. Sometimes its color is dull gray like her family’s soup pot.
And the sky is different from earthbound water bodies or roads or mountain ranges, which extend, “as far as the eyes can see,” and beyond that point can be calculated, filmed, and mapped. A sky is impossible to comprehend and complicated to record.
Still, because the line is content-driven—she could not find ways to steer it over to cadence—it felt like a hammer. Maybe the words flow differently in its original Italian. Maybe someday she will learn that language. For now she tucks the line in her memory chest.
Her memory chest, which she stocks with things she notices but does not have time to delve into. Items include: apples from the fall market, father’s herb garden, bird songs mother tracks down, and sometimes records, the striped skirts with drawstring waists mother wears birding. The enormous crinoline petticoats Grandmother wears at home and the pleated, formfitting, dresses she changes into for trips to the library or dinner. Father’s posture, stooped from hunching over his desk and chess board.
Every night in bed Lily lies back on stuffed pillows and rummages through these and other chest contents. Over time she transcribes some into notebooks, and on music sheet paper. When she shows early output to her grandmother, Charlotte puts her hand on her heart and says, “Lily, you’ve done a beautiful job channeling our Arthur. I feared we’d lost him.”
The two sit in silence.
Then Grandmother says, “You both take away from the total.”
Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016) and Paula Regossy (2020). “Take Away From the Total” is an excerpt from her novel in-progress, Closely Touched Things.
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