Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Five
By Lynn Crawford
Our morning trapeze practice and chat finished, Rose shifts into her workday with graceful speed. Removes her leotard, takes a quick sponge bath, applies UV protective body cream, lightly massages her face with serums, slips into a side-buttoned blouse and front-zip pencil skirt, and pats her pockets searching for a pen before remembering one hangs around her neck.
I never see Rose apply makeup, but she must, since her eyelashes become long and her lips red.
Now she is ready to walk downstairs to the public section of our library opening soon.
The pen around her neck doubles as a whistle she can play gentle tunes on and, in emergencies, blow.
Rose loves sounds. Having, varying, controlling, and forbidding them.
The library’s lobby is large and has considerable traffic, which means some kinds of talking (especially at checkout) and coughing and whispering and maybe engagement (a laugh, a gasp, a sob) between staff, visitors, readers and their books and journals.
Sustained conversations or newscasts or music are not allowed in this open table / carrel section. For that there are upstairs spaces. They include soundproof rooms, and small theaters for movies, music, conversations, and live stage productions.
To get there from the main floor, you walk up the stairs or take an escalator to a long, smoothly plastered hallway. Doors on each side lead to the various sonic-friendly spaces.
Then, at the hall’s end, through double doors, is Rose’s office, or what the library calls Headquarters. The suite, as I earlier described, includes a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out to the sea. You can also see a park, trees, benches, a playground, and a large stage. Also, of course, the sky.
The two trapeze stands are off-limits when Rose hosts gatherings, some of which are quiet, others celebrating noise and camaraderie with dancing and drinking and singing and music.
Room walls and ceilings are made with acoustic-absorbent plaster so the sounds don’t travel.
During gatherings she drapes swaths of cotton prints over the stands, sometimes cinching them with a ribbon or rope, transforming the machines into adorned headless figures.
It is sound that helped Rose learn to read. She struggled with making sense of the tiny figures that were letters on paper. But once she began to say, or whisper, each one, she could put them together in a word. Saying the letters separately and then together brought pleasant enough sensations into her throat, chest, neck, and shoulders that they made her want to read and then read more.
For example, she explained to me how this worked with the word drum. Saying each letter: d-r-u-m, established an internal warmth which prepared her body for verbalizing the full word—drum—and the pulsations they brought into her throat, chest, all the way down into her lower stomach and pelvis.
Rose relishes merging, momentarily, with word tones, the same way she does with trapeze flows and ocean swims.
The other thing that helped the shapes on paper make better sense to Rose, enough for her to read, at least, was holding, even squeezing, something, maybe a ruler or ball of clay or yarn in one hand and turning book pages with the other.
And a third thing that helped, and still helps, is hand-copying the words in their original sentences and order, from their book into her personal notebook so she can write and read at once.
Her relationship with numbers is also tactile, which is why on a shelf behind her desk she has an abacus that she uses for the light accounting her job and personal life require.
The library has an official bookkeeper.
As I said, Rose is partial to loud music—we play it, for example, during our trapeze sessions, and sometimes even after, and also during various gatherings. Strobe lights, which she frequently includes, add to the pulsation. Sounds and strobes together take us, at least Karl and me, but so many others, to multi-spheric places and remind us we are not just here, now.
As I said, I cannot read in the library because of the overstimulation. I cannot read outside for similar reasons. The problem with reading in outdoor settings has less to do with being self-conscious and more to do with surprise and discomfort. Bugs and insects gravitate toward me and I cannot control the temperature so am often too cool or too hot or there is too much light or not enough of it. And I cannot count on stillness. I never know who or what might come along. I cannot read that way. Interruptions during reading sessions are violent. Or I experience interruptions as violence. They shatter my concentration and who knows how long it will take to ever return to me?
Whenever I try reading outdoors I spend time preparing for interruption rather than reading my book.
The worst outdoor reading session I ever had was when I saw a flock of crows descend upon on a sick owl, discovered because someone walking by unintentionally disturbed it, the owl, and then the crows saw it and attacked. Or at least this is what I think happened.
Not one of these players did anything wrong. It just happened (I am pretty sure) and it was horrible and I could not read for weeks after.
Possibly, if I were taking a walk or listening to music I would not have been so upset at the crows’ attack of the owl. Maybe the distress only came because I was reading and therefore porous.
I cannot read outside but I can think there. And absorb.
This explains why I live in a private home with so many books. There I can focus, protected and uninterrupted. Yes, I have windows, and, yes, I can see trees and birds and sky through them, but I am high up off the ground, so I can only go in and out with the ladder Karl builds me. Each time I climb up or down, I dwell in brief awareness of leaving and entering two specific zones.
My other safe place to read is on trains and buses. For some reason, I’m never distracted on them.
Even when riders talk or play music.
I know almost everyone in my town and they know me. So I regularly ride a train; we have around-the-clock service, including two daily bullet trains, that travel to multiple and various cities. I usually travel inland, very late evening or early in the morning or the middle of the night, just for a short time, half an hour maybe. If I am there at night, I stay outside rather than looking for an open cafe or shop, exploring neighborhoods and glimpsing, from a distance, rooms through well-lit windows.
I make more connections than you might think. Last year, I saw a tall, long-haired figure in a khaki overcoat on the street at night squatting beneath a streetlamp, head in hands. I continued walking. He was asking for privacy, not help, I guess. But I did look into the window of a home behind him, and saw a roaring fire with lined up photographs (I was too far to see them clearly) on the mantle.
Then, I returned on the train, headed home, and, on the way, had a potent reading session.
I was intrigued and pretty sure I did not know the whole story. But I would. Because seeing that figure swept me up in anonymous tenderness. That single, hunched over, trench-coated figure, hands in pockets, walking a dark, empty street at night. So I was prepared and pleased when I started seeing him, not too long after my first sighting, regularly in our town.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
Botanist, professor, mother, scientist, activist, and enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is “to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge in support of our shared goals of environmental sustainability.”
Things: A Story of the Sixties
By Georges Perec
Grove Press, 1967
Translated from the French by Helen Lane
[Les choses, 1965, Éditions Julliard]
French novelist, filmmaker, documentarian, and essayist Georges Perec was known for his formally complex works that focus on ordinary, everyday minutiae that often go unnoticed. He was affiliated with the mainly French group of writers known as Oulipo, a “workshop of potential literature.”
Forms of Engagement
It was good for the skin to touch the earth
–Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota Chief
His anticipation was more pleasant to him than the experiencing.
–Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer regularly references physicality: “The story of our relationship with the earth is written more truthfully on the land than on the page” and “That’s the way the world works, the exchange of a life for a life, the endless cycling between my body and the body of the world.”
Kimmerer precisely relates and laments damage done by colonist attempts to eradicate these practices. She also illustrates resilience:“When the dikes and dams were removed, the land did remember how to be a salt marsh. Water remembered how it was supposed to distribute itself through tiny drainage channels in the sediment. Insects remembered where they were supposed to lay their eggs.”
Some of her assertions, read out of context, might sound like fantastic tales—for example: “How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine the generosity of geese?”—except that she presents the information within a framework of utility. The generosity of geese does not stem from altruism, but is a component of earth’s ecosystem, in which each element relies on and activates others.
Connection is precisely what the educated and employed Parisian couple Jerome and Sylvie lack in Georges Perec’s Things. This accounts for their feelings of malaise: “In the world that was theirs it was almost a regulation always to wish for more than you could have.”
In certain passages of Things, Perec’s voice is one of dis-ease, reminiscent of such great detective novels as Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, of which she said, “I meant to give a mood of emotional tension, of stubborn plodding also, of a bottling up of force that will one day explode.”
A sentence by Perec’s could never be “plodding” but his tone echoes his characters’ malaise, conveying (at times quite humorously) anxiety and stasis. When Jerome and Sylvie are considering solutions for their cramped apartment:
“Judicious improvements would undoubtedly have been feasible: a partition wall could have been removed, freeing a huge and ill-used corner space, a too-bulky piece of furniture could be replaced advantageously, a set of cupboards could spring up … But the mere prospect of the work involved scared them.”
In other passages, the writing is ecstatic. After a restaurant meal one evening:
“They would walk unconstrainedly, with loose limbs, untouched, it seemed, by the passing of time. Simply being there, in the street, on a crisp, cold, blustery day, wrapped in warm clothing, at dusk, proceeding smartly but unhurriedly towards a place of friendship, was enough to make their smallest gestures—lighting a cigarette, buying a bag of hot chestnuts, negotiating a way through the crowd at a station exit—appear to them as the direct and obvious expression of a boundless bliss.”
Then, moments later, there is a dip:
“the very intensity of their bliss underlined the ephemerality and fragility of such instants.”
and finally, a crash:
“They still had a few years left, but the life they led, the entirely relative peace they enjoyed, would never be a permanent possession. Everything would crumble progressively; they would have nothing left.”
Things is sometimes read and discussed as a critique of capitalism, but that reading is too obvious, like apprehending the wrong killer. In an interview in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Perec said, “People who think I have denounced consumer society have understood absolutely nothing about my book.”
The novel is titled Things, but objects themselves cannot be Perec’s target. One of his favorite authors, Comte de Lautréamont, imbued objects with sensuality and beauty, describing a young boy in Les Chants de Maldoror as “beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”
Things has more to do with forms of participation. Jerome and Sylvie expect good fortune, but they don’t try, they don’t fail, nor do they find places of ease or pleasure.
When Kimmerer writes, “One day, after I’m a daffodil, I will be able to photosynthesize. It’s something to look forward to,” it works. Whether you “believe” the notion or not, she has already established a framework for belief systems that support it. Perec loved puzzles (more on this will be discussed in future installments of Imaginary Dinner Party). In the “Preamble” to his novel Life: A User’s Manual, “The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces.” That idea of a framework for belief systems runs through both books—its presence in Braiding Sweetgrass and its absence in Things. You can picture Jerome and Sylvie at a puzzle board, staring at it, rather than picking up each piece and trying to figure out ways to put it all together.
Imaginary Dinner Party is a literary series by Lynn Crawford that explores “what happens when books join forces.” Read the archive:
Part One, Under Stories (spring 2021)
Part Two, Heal the People (summer 2021)
Part Three, Think Like a Detective (fall 2021)
Part Four, Possession (winter 2022)
Part Five, Forms of Engagement (spring 2022)
Part Six, Conversations (summer 2022)
Part Seven (fall 2022)
Part Eight (winter 2023)
Part Nine (spring 2023)
Part Ten (summer 2023)
Part Eleven (winter 2023)
Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016), and Paula Regossy (2020). She is currently working on her next novel, Closely Touched Things. An excerpt from that book, Take Away From the Total, was published in issue no. one of Three Fold.