|Jean Holabird/Gingko Press|
My childhood was defined by where I was when I heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
Ask anyone alive Nov. 22, 1963. They have details. For me, it was second grade, Hendy Avenue School, Elmira, NY. On my way to the restroom I met a classmate on her way back from the school nurse. (Remember those wooden paddle passes with a key jangling, telling all you passed you had permission and so on? One dangled from my hand.)
The classmate’s name was Sandra. Earlier she’d been sick all over her dress and now wore only a white cotton slip. It was trimmed in scallops and embroidery. I remember her pale face and the wisps of mousey brown hair plastered around it. She said the President was dead—shot—and we would all be sent home early. I didn’t believe her and told her so, yet the principal came on the loud speaker shortly after to confirm it.
It was a Friday, and we would be granted an unprecedented Thanksgiving break of an entire week. Instead of celebrating, we all stayed home with family, glued to our TV sets, watching a dark chapter in our history unfold. Most businesses closed as well; even my father, the workaholic, was home. We were all stricken by the loss of our young, vibrant President. It’s still hard to imagine that was nearly 53 years ago.
I learned new words: assassinated, assassination. It still aches to remember all the additional times the child I was would hear it applied.
My adulthood was defined by where I was on 9-11 when the towers fell, 15 years ago today.
I can’t count how many times all of us saw those planes crash into the towers and eventually fall. Enough that the trending news story became about the psychological impact of watching it over and over.
Even as far inland as Indiana we remember the eerie quiet of the weeks that followed when no planes flew overhead, the blue sky absent its usual Etch-a-Sketch of contrails. A cousin, I would learn years later, had an appointment at one of the towers that fateful morning and was delayed. Many such stories surfaced.
In fall 2002, Chris attended a seminar in NYC, & I tagged along.
On our last day we booked a bus tour. Our tour guide—a delightful and knowledgeable retired history teacher from Brooklyn—went rogue at our request and took us to the WTC site. The bus drove around the perimeter then unloaded us at the Winter Garden, where we took the atrium escalators up to view Ground Zero from above.
The events of 9-11 imprinted forever in our memory banks the phrase “Ground Zero.” Like the word holocaust, it would thenceforth mean only one very specific tragedy.
I’m not one to tie up highway traffic gawking at accidents, but I couldn’t tear myself away from this sight. My eyes soaked up more and more detail. I was the last to leave. I would have liked to stay longer. I felt the same way at the Holocaust Museum when I reached the video loop of survivor interviews at the end of the tour.
I know now I was trying to learn to see differently.
I’m also usually not much for souvenirs, but…
This particular day, my last in New York, after the stop at Ground Zero, I found Jean Holabird’s unique collection of art and poetry, Out of the Ruins: A New York Record, Autumn 2001, quietly shelved amongst larger and louder tomes at the Ellis Island gift shop.
Holabird’s water colors of the New York skyscape surrounding her lower Manhattan home still captivate me. They are elegant and poignant, made even more so by the telegraphic captioning in her hand. Her visual narrative opens with an upside-down view of the twin towers in a rain puddle on West Broadway at Thomas, dated 8-12-01. In that image, the towers are already disintegrating, as if water and sun were trying to send a warning.
The book is spiral-bound and printed on heavy black pages with a black cover, sold in a black box. The reproductions of Holabird’s watercolors are the only color between these covers. Sandwiched amongst her paintings are poems printed in reverse by authors whose names you’ll perhaps recognize from high school assigned reading, American and not. Though written long before 9-11, their words seem be written of it. And though coming out of darkness and chaos, there is hope, something of which we’re always in desperate need.
Physicists say the universe is always becoming more chaotic.
They also say the amount of “dark matter“ is increasing. What is dark matter? We’re not exactly sure. We can’t see it because it doesn’t interact with light, but we can detect its presence because of its great mass.
Of visible darkness we, as humans know and are responsible for much. The list of acts of terror for 2016 alone is so massive Wikipedia breaks it down by month, and still the pages require scrolling, scrolling, more scrolling. Many incidents I was not aware of. One touched someone I know: the airport bombing in Brussels last March. A Belgian friend was working at the airport. He was physically unharmed but badly shaken by the injured and the dead he passed as he and coworkers were led out.
I’m going to switch gears a bit now. I thought I’d warn you because I didn’t want to lose you.
You might think it trivial on today of all days to talk about the arrangement of objects on my coffee table, but that’s what I’m about to do. Because I can, I suppose. Because I’m alive, and such simple acts are the stuff of life. Holabird drew and painted as a way to handle what had become of her home. Surely I can raise taking pains to a form of meditation.
A few days ago as I sat down to write this post, I took her book out of its black box for the first time in a few years. Suddenly I knew the book should take its place in the center of MY home, and I would write about that process as well. The collages over my sofa that proclaim “CREATE” have for some time been a constant focus of my meditations, but now I was about to create an altar below them.
Because, you see, creativity and new life emerge out of chaos, not order.
I then pulled from my bookshelves other books I look to for inspiration.
- Two cloth-bound volumes by Pablo Neruda, Odes to Common Things and Odes to Opposites, titles that alone speak volumes
- Stanley Kunitz’s Wild Braid of selected poems and interviews with the poet about the place where writing, gardening and life intersect, compiled during his 100th and final year of life.
- Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a collection of colorful plates of odd life forms by Albertus Seba, whose covers I half expect to find myself between someday.
- The Sunflowers Are Mine, the story of Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, which I wrote about HERE. (I still need to finish this book, as van Gogh was the first artist whose work AND words captivated me, but for now I’ll simply admire its sunflower yellow cloth binding!)
- A Visual Life by Charlotte Moss about ephemera in scrapbook form that tells the stories of famous women, as well as Moss herself (reviewed HERE).
- Living With Pattern by Rebecca Atwood, admittedly a home décor book, but one that shows how to coax pattern from chaos to tell the stories latent within our homes and lives.
These are books I return to when I want to rediscover Me. I arrange around them objects that speak to the story I want to tell, not the least of which is “Saturn Rising” (right), a pitcher shaped like a vintage oil can, glazed with a space-age pattern. It was fashioned by ceramicist Robin Roi, a Brooklyn native who I interviewed some weeks back (read HERE). Like Holabird’s book, it, too is mostly black.
There’s also a bird sculpture—a common starling, no less—which reminds me of the the bird’s-eye view, the necessity of the scavenger, the random beauty of a scavenged life, but mostly, of Jean Holabird! Her Out of the Ruins lays open before it all, a testament to the lives lost, a record of one person’s witnessing, and a reminder of my own seeing. I revisit it each day as I pass my coffee table, each night as I sit down with my husband to sip decaf and watch TV.
Come to think of it, the coffee table itself is part of My Story.
I smile to myself, remembering how Chris had just installed its four legs, glued and clamped them, then called me out to his workshop to see his progress. He’d designed the legs with a chamfered outside edge to add grace to the table’s silhouette, but as I inspected his work, something wasn’t right. He had installed the chamfers to the inside!
We don’t live in that house anymore, but we still use that table. Yes, Chris disassembled it before the glue set up and reassembled it, chamfers out. I think of a favorite poem in one of those favorite books—Neruda’s “Ode to the Table,” and it comforts me to feel my table is also a meditation as well as a link to who and what I love. And it benefits me to know how easy it is for the most conscientious and methodical among us to get it wrong sometimes. That time it was Chris. Many other times it has been me.
I want to imbue more of my home with such meaning, but it takes time and focus.
When I shortcut the process, which is too often, I shortchange myself. Perhaps I think I need to latch onto something trendy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an object or an idea—either can cause me to miss people, their stories, and the moment that joins us. The toll this takes is even greater when it happens in the world’s marketplace of ideas and ideologies. But there’s a phrase from the Talmud—Save a life, save the world, to paraphrase—and I’m wondering if that begins at a still more basic level.
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated.
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
If you’re hungry for more…
- Read an interview with Jean Holabird on the Gingko Press website.
- Watch a CBS interview with Holabird on YouTube.
- Use the affiliate links below to explore and/or purchase the books mentioned in this post.
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