Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Six
By Lynn Crawford
The reason I know and can say, I believe books are touch, I believe books are bodies (Imaginary Dinner Party, Part One) is because of two sentences I find inside of a book lying on the floor of a junk shop:
“These verses have become a thing and one can take them off the page and throw them at a window, and the window would break. That’s what words can do!”
Those words are by the Russian writer Danill Kharms. If his book had been neatly shelved, I may never have found it.
Thank you, Danill.
Thank you, disorderly shop.
A few weeks after I took the evening train trip, which led to an encounter with a trench-coated figure crouching on the sidewalk beneath a dimly lit streetlamp, he appears officially in our town.
Then, there, he was close to the ground. But here, now, he stands straight, displaying long legs and sizeable shoulders. Even though I saw him only that once, and in the dark, I recognize him immediately in broad daylight.
I learn that his name is Robert, and he is an aquatic ecologist guest lecturing at our (in-progress) Water Research Center, whose headquarters will be located next to the library. Later, we formally meet at a reception hosted by Rose on the library’s lawn.
The next morning, leaving Karl’s boat, I see Robert again, this time in a diving suit holding a long, rectangular pail and crouching at the end of the dock, looking into the water. After a period of stillness, he stands, turns, and heads toward shore. I greet him just as he steps off the dock. Together, we approach the water’s edge, and I watch him remove individual lab vials from his container, filling some with water, others with submerged sand, and returning the filled tubes to their appointed spaces.
Later, after Robert deposits his collection at the lab, Karl takes us on a sail. Wind, sun, and waves are strong but not too strong, and the temperature is cool enough for sweaters.
About twenty minutes into our outing Robert tells us a love story. After his father died fighting in the war, his mother packed him a daily lunch.
Each morning she filled a cardboard box with neatly arranged slices of bread, cheese, radishes, and pickles. Or maybe boiled eggs, slices of ham, and red peppers. Always with fruit and two or three good pieces of chocolate wrapped in paper-thin, gold foil. She walked to the various parks in their large city, early enough in the morning so it was still dark, and chose a bench to leave one of her boxes on. Different parks, different benches, each day. “If anyone receives the meal, that means your father does too,” she tells young Robert, stroking his (then long) hair, and reminding him to lock the door behind her.
Just as he finishes telling his story we finish our sail. Karl docks the boat and Robert heads to the library for some last-minute tweaks of his upcoming lecture.
The next day, Robert—in a deep-green fleece jacket, pressed khakis, and fitted eyeglasses with immaculately clean lenses—lectures in the library auditorium about water’s composition, flow patterns, and the states of surfaces beneath it.
At the end he looks out at the listeners, smiles, closes the notebook he reads from, and shares the same love story he told Karl and me of his mother leaving lunches on benches all around her city for his dead father, and cites her daily act as inspiration.
The presentation was so magnetic I could barely follow his words. It might have been the same for others since the audience gave him a standing ovation. He then answered questions. At the end of the exchange he smiled, picked up his bag, and left.
We heard nothing from him until weeks later when he sent Karl and me this note:
My Dear New Friends/Colleagues,
Thank you for our beautiful sail. You are part of a community that bravely hired me for a sensitive, and thrilling, position. From what I can tell, there are no bloodthirsty supernatural beings on your lands, but there are spirits, patterns, and forms to be honoured, tended to, and mingled with.
I do not regret sharing my family love story with you two, but regret that I shared it with a large, unknown to me, crowd. At the time I felt an urge toward full disclosure. But the decision to open up to so many strangers was ill advised.
Do you, like me, have friends who live in tiny houses (usually, I think, 145 square feet)? Once you decide on essentials you cannot bring anything in unless you take something out. That’s how my head functions. It only holds so much. If something enters, something must leave. This establishes a process of exchange rather than depletion or accumulation.
I wish I could say this pattern is effective because of x, y, and z and therefore my choice. But it is not my choice. It’s my wiring. When I am exposed to too much, everything meshes, is ruined and lost. It’s a progression I have no control over.
That single act of oversharing my mother’s personal gesture of unwavering love for my dead father to an anonymous crowd did just that. For a period after, I could only see our world as a mass, without distinct elements. That view occupied so much space, I had no choice but to purge, and that expulsion obliterated details of proposed plans, dreams, and projects. My wife is helping me retrieve and, in some cases, remake them. Until we finish, I must put all aquatic research for Rose and your community on hold.
Thank you for your hospitality. I felt welcomed, comfortable, and very much enjoyed your town, its people, grounds, boats, and surrounding waters. I hope to return to you soon, restored.
A few months later he reappears, clear-eyed, buoyant, nearly (according to him) recovered, and suggests the two of us walk. After a few minutes his face turns pale, moist, and he asks if I have a piece of fruit. I do—and pull an apple out of my day bag and hand it to him, remembering he had (politely) requested a steady supply of fruit, milk, and walnuts during his visit. I somehow forgot (how could I forget?) and cringe at my negligence.
A bite of apple seems to soothe him.
We walk in silence.
I think about my focus, its strength and fragility.
For example: Books love me, and I love them, but I cannot, in all honesty, sense any such dynamics between earth and me. I love earth, I just don’t know if or how we communicate. Despite the relief I felt when my friend Tomson Highway said earth and I should talk, I wanted, but was ashamed, to ask, how? No amount of me thinking of or focusing on this helps me understand, how?
Robert continues, “Please know that I am never sick of my solitude. Do not feel obligated to invite me regularly to dinner or to take boat rides or late-night swims. I already love you.”
Somehow relieved, I say, “We love you too!”
He pats my shoulder. I take hold of his arm. He gently removes it, saying, “My condition may be contagious and therefore I suggest, for now, we restrict ourselves to brief touches—a palm tap, or fist bump—both less absorbent gestures than a hug. A longer physical encounter might lead to me losing my focus again and you could catch it. My focus, like my shoes, won’t work for you.”
“These are such good shoes, though,” he says, looking down at his thick-soled canvas sneakers with multi-coloured stars and circles and triangles and stripes.
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.”
Based on Actual (Documented) Quotes
Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota Chief & Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson: It is easy to live for others, everybody does. I call on you to live for yourself.
Luther Standing Bear: Our faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: These are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
Luther Standing Bear: The white man does not understand America. He is far removed from its formative processes.
Robin Wall Kimmerer & Georges Perec
Robin Wall Kimmerer: The land remembers what we said and what we did.
Georges Perec: It’s an idea that seems to me invaluable for literary creation... a desire to place yourself in a line that acknowledges all the literature of the past.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: Even when it is misunderstood there is a power in the telling.
Georges Perec: So you bring your personal museum to life, you reactivate your literary reserves.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: In some Native languages the term for plants translates to those who take care of us.
Georges Perec: Bodiliness is very important, you know!
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)
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.