Friday, July 20, 2012

The Summer Book

There are some books that I can't keep. I buy one of them, reread it and then think of someone else who needs to read it too. A year or so later, I buy it again. The English Patient is one of those books, so is Happy All the Time. And then there's Tove Jansson's The Summer Book.

It's such a deceptive little book, beginning with its light and sparkling title. Written by the author of the children's series, The Moomintrolls, these stories about a little girl and her grandmother on an island off the coast of Sweden promise a charming, nostalgic look at childhood and the wisdom of age, something to pick up, enjoy, and forget. So wrong, so very, very wrong.

I can't count how many times I've read this book and each time I find a part of it that I would swear I've never read before. Each time, a new chapter hits me with particular force and overshadows the rest. This time around, it's the one about Midsummer's Eve.

Only people who live in the north understand what midsummer means. It's a day that taps into our deepest fears and our strongest hopes; it goes beyond the rational into the most primitive form of magic. We're never closer to our troglodyte origins than on the longest day of the year, when darkness makes a courtesy appearance, if it comes at all, and then steadily increases each day after until that is all there is.It's a day of celebration and loss, with a healthy dose of fear tossed into the mix. It's the true New Year's Eve, but only for northerners. For everybody else it's Titania and Oberon frolicking in an English wood.

For Tove Jansson's small girl Sophia, it begins with Eriksson, a silent fisherman who comes only when unexpected, bringing a gift. He shows up with a box of fireworks and the promise, "I'll drop by on Midsummer's Eve, if that's all right, and we'll see how they work."

In preparation, the house is filled with green branches and wildflowers, a site for a bonfire is set up, a launching pad is built for the fireworks, and a supper table is set for four. Sophia's father finds a can of gasoline because a strong wind blows in from the north, carrying rain, and "it was a disgrace for a Midsummer bonfire not to burn."

But Eriksson comes in  the rain, after dark; "quite dark, since no lamps can be lit on Midsummer." He rushes Sophia, her father, and the grandmother onto his boat and out to sea. Only a few bonfires cut through the rain and fog but the water is full of boats all going in the same direction, coming "out of the darkness, like shadows. Wooden crates with a heavy load of lovely, rounded bottles were bobbing on the gray sea" and the boats scoop them up, "ignoring each other...The salvage went on, like a neatly balanced dance...the Coast Guard turning a blind eye...Grandmother watched it, and appreciated and remembered." 

"By dawn the sea was empty." Eriksson drops the family off at their house and leaves. Only one rocket in the box of rain-soaked fireworks goes off; it "sailed up toward the sunrise in a shower of blue stars."

Lawlessness and magic and "the rising and falling sea"--this was my childhood as much as it was Tove Jansson's. This time, this is the gift I found in The Summer Book; I "watched it, and appreciated and remembered" and was pierced by that missing comma. I'll keep reading but this time, here is where my heart stopped. In the next reading, it will be someplace else that I'll discover for the very first time, perhaps in this copy, perhaps in a completely new volume while this one rests on somebody else's bookshelf.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Battling Inertia

A body in motion tends to stay in motion--but how to get a body at rest to move again? My usual answer is to leave the country, but there has to be another way to jump-start my life. Last Sunday I was reading Seattle's mediocre paper, more as an eye-muscle exercise than anything else, when I came across a feature story about an aquaphobic man learning to swim.

At first I approached this as a horror story. I grew up in Alaska where the survival rate in any body of water was estimated at no more than three minutes. This isn't a fact that gives a child the desire to learn to swim. Much later, when I was grown and gone, the local high school got a swimming pool, prompted largely by the number of deaths by drowning in an area filled with rivers, lakes, and salt water. Unfortunately that was too late for me--or so I always thought until I read how a man in his 30s had learned to believe that his body was buoyant.

Now I was approaching the realm of fantasy--but what if this could be true? What if I could become as comfortable in the water as I was on it? That question stops me every time I think of it. And I've thought of it often in the past few days.

Water is my favorite element--I never see a boat of any kind without wanting to get on it and sun sparkling on water is one of the most beautiful sights I know. In Bangkok the Chao Phraya river was my quick fix for malaise--in Seattle I get on a ferry. The idea of moving through water is as seductive to me as it is deeply terrifying. I look at pictures taken underwater and long to see this for myself. One of my favorite books is The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty. Snorkeling, friends have told me, is complete delight. So what's the problem?

Quite simple--water in my ears makes me feel as though I'm being buried alive. I can't remember a time when having my hair washed didn't send me into a screaming frenzy, long before I could talk. Past life horrors? Perhaps. Hypnosis needed? Probably.

Or a very good teacher--and they seem to be out there. Apparently I'm not the only adult who has this terror. The Seattle Times reporter says it is common among many people of color; I tend to think it's more a matter of social and economic class. Parents with leisure take their children to swimming lessons; both of my own children can swim. My parents were far too busy feeding, clothing, and sheltering five children to worry about instruction in swimming, piano, the ballet--and the parents in my small community who could have taught such things were similarly occupied.

But I have time now, I have some spare cash, and oh god do I have an impetus. My life in Seattle, as I've said to the point of nausea, is comfortable enough to verge on the comatose. Challenging a deep-rooted fear is certainly one way to wake up. Another way? Learning to speak Mandarin--I really don't have to move to Beijing to do that, although I love the Gong Li pouting accent of the women who live there. And come to think of it, the year's more than half over and my resolution to read Moby Dick still goes unfulfilled.

Travel will always be my favorite antidote to boredom, but there are ways to circumvent that while staying in one place. Surf's up!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Almost a Year

In 26 more days, I will mark the first anniversary of my arrival back to the Old Country--it has no real significance except as a measuring stick of what changes have come as a result, how I live, what I've accomplished.

I look at the place where I live, which has less furniture than when I first moved in. Except for the little Pullman kitchen set in the middle of one wall, it could be one of my starter apartments in Thailand, except there I always had a bed. Here, after my bedbug invasion, I sleep Thai-style on a mat that I roll up during the day. I call it my burrito bed.

I have a work table, a few cushions on the floor and a TV/DVD player for watching movies. A scrounged bookcase holds the few books that I keep--most of them I give away after I've read them. As far as comfort goes. my Thai apartment on Chokchai Ruammit wins hands-down--but buying furniture in Thailand is much easier than it is here ( In Seattle I fall apart at the thought of a delivery truck that might harbor bedbugs--yes admittedly I'm quite neurotic about this possibility.

I think of the people who prompted my move back and feel grateful that I was able to return to them. My sons are men who are pure joy to spend time with and I don't take that privilege for granted. The people they love and live with are generous and smart women who have made a space for me in their lives and that is a huge gift.

Friends? I learned long ago that upon returning after a long absence, some friends become acquaintances and some acquaintances become good friends. Making new friends for me has always been a byproduct of my workplace and working at home has put a large crimp in that. But I'm lucky that there's a large pool of creative and interesting people in this city--that is a major Seattle asset that makes it a place I can live in without clawing at my throat.

On the downside, I became addicted to travel in my three years away and have done far too little of that since I returned. My fault, I think--and the newly established Bolt Bus is a good reason to get out of town often. And I have plane tickets for Hong Kong and Bangkok to be used in a couple of months, which is still hard for me to believe.

On a balance the pluses of the past almost-year outweigh the minuses of grey gloom and persistent chill. Overall I'm lucky to have a place that always offers me a space where I can live and work. Had I not returned, some of the events of the past eleven months might have demolished me and it's certain that I wouldn't have had the perspective that would allow me to write my second book. When I whine about the weather and the dull streets of this city, it's only for a hiccup or two. I'm ready to sign up for another year--thank you for letting me come back to this party.