The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.

 The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book. 

The house was quiet and the world was calm.

-- Wallace Stevens (1954)

Life Magazine, Barbara Laage in her apartment

Life Magazine, Barbara Laage in her apartment

All I’ve ever needed in life has been found in between the lines, paragraphs, pages, chapters and covers of a book. The ones I read, of course, but most of all, the books I write. After all this time, it’s been quite a revelation to discover that the books I write are the very books that I need to live or propel me safely into the next stage of my life. The glorious Toni Morrison put it this way: “If there is a book you really want to read, but it has not been written yet, then you must write it.” 

I’ve taken her advice to heart.  My books become personally prophetic, for unbeknownst to my conscious mind, the book which seems to be hovering just above my head, has really gone  to the territory up ahead, my soul’s scout, ready to stake a claim in my heart and name.  Then like a gold rusher, I work my vein, panning for nuggets of truth, wisdom and experience to sustain me through change, choice and circumstance of what might be ahead, but has not yet been revealed.   Hopefully, however, by now I’ve learned to be able to tell the difference between the real thing and fool’s gold. 

I’ve spoken of the Simple Abundance journey as a safari of the Self and Spirit.  In Something More we embarked together on an archaeological dig, but even though there have been 11 other books in my canon, to some extent I always feel like an archivist/archaeologist, because I can carbon date distinct periods of my life by the books on my shelves.  Or rather the books I remember as being on my shelves during a particular time and place. The sublime English writer Susan Hill describes such an adventure in her delightful memoir Howards End Is On The Landing, based on a year of reading all the books she had crowded on her bookcases.  It’s always so mysterious how minor happenstance can morph into a new trajectory of one’s sense of belonging. “It began like this.  I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there.  It was not.  But plenty of others were and among them I noticed a least a dozen I realized I had never read.” So forsaking any new purchases, she embarked on a pilgrimage of her own heart, mind and opinions—both past and present.  A wonderful destination for a summer stay vacation if ever there was one.

I know how this plan goes, because I have been perusing and packing books for several weeks now as I get ready to move. You might wonder (as does my daughter and sister) why this process has taken so long. I can spend 7 solid hours packing (starting at 10 am and finishing at 5 pm, the same hours of my writing schedule) and then when the boxes are carted to the garage, it doesn’t look like I’ve accomplished much at all.  

Here’s why.  I sort my books by categories: writing books (on the craft of writing), art, interior design, cookbooks, women’s memoirs, biographies, history (by decades), Celtic, gardening, natural studies, philosophy, mysticism, fashion and style, poetry and literature (by author). It’s the perusing, I tell you.  The perusing of the pages and the euphoric discovery that I possess this book, and then, the deciding to leave this one out of the box marked “Women’s Lives” because I might want to read it before I move (ridiculous notion) until what ends up happening is there’s a huge box labeled “Miscellaneous” loaded onto the moving van. Last one in, first box out.  It will probably be a karmic cycle before it’s unpacked.

And then there’s the conundrum about fiction. What to do about fiction (as opposed to literature which has its own shelves and boxes).

To be completely candid, when I’m writing a new book, I don’t read contemporary novels because I don’t want to have the influence of anyone else’s voice in my head.  A writer’s voice is a mirror of her soul and as indelible as fingerprints and it must be guarded like the treasure it is. After twenty years of journalism, I finally found my voice during the five years of writing Simple Abundance; and at 45 it was a thrilling adventure and accomplishment. Every writer will confess, if they’re candid, that it takes a lifetime trying to “find your voice” which begins when you allow your mind to become quiet enough to hear the end of a thought. Your own.  And then, like a singer whose voice is insured by Lloyd’s of London, you protect it.

My prime directive as a writer is that there should be no separation between the words I write and the words the woman I write for reads (that would be you, Babe). “The words were spoken as if there was no book…The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind: The access of perfection to the page,” the magnificent American poet Wallace Stevens tells us in his exquisite meditation on reading The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.  Isn’t that very thought a prayer?   Nine words only, but if it took him a lifetime to craft and convey them, there wouldn’t have been a moment wasted.

Right now the majority of the books I’m sorting were research for the writing of Peace and Plenty:  money, economics, thrift, the Great Depression, and the Home Front years during World War I and II, especially obscure books such as When The Banks Closed, We Opened Our Hearts.  How can I possibly give away a book with that title?  Someday they will reside in a floor to ceiling bookshelf.  I just know there’s a room in my future—it used to be called a library—with floor to ceiling bookshelves. I can see and hear with absolute clarity a lively conversation my future self is having with a young writer who has traveled around the world to find me.  I’ve just celebrated my 100th birthday and Little Writer can’t get over the fact that I’m ageless—my hair’s still streaked blond, my eyes bright, my face glows with laugh lines and I have so much energy, vitality, poise and repose of the soul. Neither can I. When we are going through turmoil and challenge, sorrow and difficulty, I find it very reassuring to view my present from the vantage point of my future.  Then, with our backwards glance we discover that whatever tries our soul and breaks our hearts now will be remembered as a "period" that we courageously sailed through, past shoals to safe harbor. 

Nigella Lawson in her home library

Nigella Lawson in her home library

“Oh, yes, back to those books.  Well, they were all necessary when I was writing Peace and Plenty—what an interesting time that was, having it all, losing it all, then getting it all back and finally learning the difference between our needs and our wants.  The stories I could tell….” and it seems, the stories I eventually will tell and did tell.  I can’t wait to have the necessary future adventures, so I can get them on the page.

What books are crowded on your bookshelves?  Now here’s a summer daydream for you.   Sometimes we find ourselves completely at loose ends trying to figure out the ways and means of creating a new life and we don’t have a clue how to begin.  I say begin on your bookshelf.  As Susan Hill explains:  “I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes.  There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.  A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.  Wandering through the house that day, looking for one elusive book, my eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored here.”

But here’s the very thing that wears us down to a nub—the constant contradiction between needing space and the desire to hold on, even if we don’t know what to hold on or why. It might come in handy someday…  Or I loved that time so much…If you are feeling overwhelmed in the sifting and sorting process, then Babe you are not alone. We all need a homeopathic rescue remedy. This morning I let my thoughts drift back to a safe, cozy childhood reverie and how all my favorite rooms were rooms illustrated in comics and books. Before House and Garden, there was Archie, Veronica and Betty. There was Anne of Green Gables, and Nancy Drew, and Calling All Girls. I dearly loved the Little Golden books illustrated by Eloise Wilkin (1904-1986).  Eloise was a successful children’s book illustrator who accepted a contract from Simon & Schuster in 1943 to illustrate four Little Golden Books.  She ended up illustrating over 100, even into her eighties.

What a timeless exquisite gift she left women of all ages and how grateful I am that she shared her heart and home with the world. I so loved Eloise Wilkin’s world as a child, that I wanted her cozy, safe world for my baby.  Now we’ve both grown up but the power of Eloise Wilkin’s magic is still potent. To sip a cup of tea and slowly turn the pages of We Help Mommy, We Help Daddy, The New Baby, Prayers for Children, Baby’s Christmas, is to take a time travelers sojourn in serenity—a tour of a happy childhood. When I was preparing to write my first children’s book The Best Part of the Day, I wanted to endow it with the same old-fashioned magic of contentment (and thanks to our book’s illustrator Wendy Edelson, we did.)

"My Goodnight Book" by Eloise Wilkin

"My Goodnight Book" by Eloise Wilkin

Our changing circumstances ask us to think again about what are our absolutes—those things we cannot live without—no matter where we live.  For me it’s a big comfortable bed where I can stretch out with my books, pads, pen, cats, a great reading lights, good English tea, a cozy chair and ottoman, a scented linen closet, fireplace, bookshelves, the ticking of the Grandfather clock and my beautiful collection of still life paintings. 

So once again I return to my Little Golden Books.  My finger traces the picture of a Colonial rag rug, a stenciled border, blue and white china, a maple rope bed, a blue hutch with the inside back in cherry pink, a small world all cozy and contained and I realize that the feelings inspired by the treasures I have found for myself in books by and for women of all ages, is beyond measure.  Yes, I have decorated the homes of my life in different ways, yet all inspired by Eloise Wilkin’s influence.  And here is where wonderment accompanies me as I begin to live again through my books, both written and read.  After I wrote Simple Abundance I received an unexpected gift, a set of three exquisite plates and a generous note from Eloise Wilkin’s grand-daughter from her collection.  How I have cherished them!  They are packed now in a crate which will soon make it way from England to California.  And when I find them again, I will know that I have arrived home.

So it looks like I’ll need to create space to display them!  Back go my strays into the special box labeled “Happy Books.”

This week I wish for you, dearest Babe, a quiet house and a calm world, beginning in your heart. And wonderful words to read and hold close to enwrap you in a hug and a hush. And more Grace than you can ask, in full measure, pressed down and overflowing. 

Sending dearest love and always, blessings on your courage.  You will never know how cherished you are to me and how grateful I am that we found each other on the page and between the lines.