"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, 'No, I don't want to watch TV!' Raise your voice -- they won't hear you otherwise -- 'I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!' Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: 'I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!' Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone."
~ Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler ~
This is me from a little
girl on. It is called "Odd
Eyes Reading," and it is
a perfect portrait of
my entire life...
You are about to begin reading... When I picked up Calvino's novel sometime in the early 80's I picked up the book that would turn my world inside out and upside down, the book that would forever make me look at literature in a whole new way. I immediately escaped into another world. A world that I had known all of my life. A world where the characters on the page seemed finally real, safer, more comfortable. I was more at ease, and I disappeared within those pages, never wanting to leave. The t.v. was on in the next room and I closed the door. I was in my own little world, the world of the book. Not much has changed for me in 54 years.
The chapters in Calvino's magical novel alternate as numbered chapters with titled chapters. The numbered chapters are about the experience you are having reading the book that you are holding in your hands, and the titled chapters are the real story, many stories, each interrupted at a suspenseful moment, ten novels in one. Mary McCarthy was quoted on the back cover saying, "Calvino is a wizard." And it is so true. And the titles of his novels... He wrote one called The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and it made me wonder how many of us feel that to be true for us in this life? Wizard, alchemist, shaman, writer, Calvino was all of those. He died in 1985, just six years after publishing If on a winter's night a traveler, and was the most translated Italian author at the time of his death, venerated not only in Italy but around the world.
It's a funny thing when you go back to read a favorite book that you had read long ago. The thing that captured my innermost heart the first time that I read it was that he broke all the rules, shattered the notions of what form should be, what a novel should be like. I was always the odd outsider, the square peg in the round hole. His novel appealed to me like no other. Now, his very words help me to understand myself in a whole new way.
Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone... That is a very apt description of the way I exist in the world. I love deeply, I am a gentle caring person. I love my family and my friends, but if truth be told, in the end, I am most comfortable sitting here, like I am this night, writing with a single light illuminating the pages of Calvino's book and writing here. The tea kettle is on, the birds all asleep, the dogs curled in quiet repose, and my fingers are clicking softly on this laptop. My thoughts run deep like a well, underground, and some of them are so profound they render me speechless, unable to describe what I am feeling here.
It is not considered polite to want to be left alone. Few people understand that there are those of us that can only survive this way. I live, as I have written before, very nearly the life of an anchorite, in a closed world. My forays out, much needed errands, to be with family or friends, are enjoyed, but upon my return I must have silence. It is as though time spent outside of these walls suck the very life out of me, and it is no reflection on the people I love so dearly. The well has run dry and the water table must be allowed to rise. Silence is the nourishment my body needs. Too, I lead a very rich life here, not in dollars and sense but in a world of imagination and beauty, even if often in disarray. I tend to the animals and what needs to be done, but most of my time is spent working and it is in words that I find myself, like the piece that finally fit the puzzle. I have decided I am not square, I am octagonal, and I fit inside of syllables, even singular letters, I curl up inside the letter O, I slide, invisible, around and through ellipses, I peek through the letter B, like double windows open and covered lightly with fluttering lace curtains I hide behind. I fold myself in the pages of a book like a blanket when it is time for bed. I sleep with my back to the spine.
If you've understood little of what I just wrote, if you think me a little off, perhaps crazy, daft, you just might be right, but at 54 I embrace every part of myself with a kind of delight I never thought I would find. I won't begin to speak of my relationship with the letter Q. That's no one's business.
I just went into the kitchen to pour the hot water over the teabag in the cup. I'd let it boil so long as my mind drifted on the page that I had to refill the pot, and my upside down honey bear, in a teapot next to my mug (there was little honey left and it was stuck hard to the bottom) had melted all the way down so that it slipped sensuously from the head of the bear into my mug. I took deep pleasure in that. In the end it's always the little things. Now I have to go back and pour the rest of the water into the mug. I was lost inside a dangling participle before, but now I am awake and can finish making my tea. I'd best go do it before this little window of opportunity closes before me.
I so often miss the mark, my head in the clouds, thinking, thinking, thinking, or lost in the pages of a book. I suppose it's not for nothing that I have so often been referred to as The Absent Minded Professor. I have to laugh at that because I am not a professor, but a confirmed, life-long autodidact who left college so that I might really learn, live, meet literature head on in the world around me, find my own way. Life had it's way with me, and here I am. Not absent minded, but with a mind too full. The tea kettle, oh yes, the tea kettle...
Well, the tea is steeping and the honey bear is certainly worse for the wear, but I got that last bit of honey and feel smug. That bear wasn't going to get the best of me!
Where was I? Oh yes. I was thinking about the title of Calvino's book, and yes, only the first word is capitalized, another little side-stepping of the norm. If on a winter's night a traveler. I let it roll around my tongue, I breathed it out in the the air before me, the words floated there so I could really see them, and then, when they had risen off of the page I knew, I felt, I witnessed a truth I had never caught before. I felt a shock of recognition. The whole meaning of life is in those few words in the title of the book.
We are all, each of us, traveling alone on a winter's night. That there is so much pain in the world, dark times, sorrow, wars, depressions in the world and inside of ourselves, sickness from too little light, this is the winter's night we walk through from birth to death. The valley of the shadow of death. But, if we pack well, as any traveler should, we will have a lantern to light our way, a candle to light the dark corners, we find, if we have eyes to see, beauty in the snowy roads before us, in the moon, the stars, like shattered diamonds against midnight blue velvet. There is so much beauty in the world, even in the dark times. Even an armchair traveler can see that. I am an armchair traveler, and I am daily astounded by the beauty in the world, the joy in the little things, a singular moment, no two alike, like snowflakes and fingerprints. I don't want to close my eyes. I fight sleep. I don't want to miss a thing, not even the sound of my big black dog's tags on his collar jingling in this moment, as he got up from the floor next to me and went to stretch out on the couch.
I suppose my tea has finished steeping. I have hours of writing before me, and will write late, or, rather early, into the weesmas, the wee small hours of the morning. Even my Circadian rhythms are upside down, but living alone with the animals, it works out just fine. Even they have adapted to my rhythms. There is magic in this little cottage. I am learning, at midlife, to pack well for the rest of my journey. The way before me becomes clearer and clearer. I'm glad to have Calvino to help light my way, and others too. Colette will show me where to go, and I will admire Virginia, but not take her path into the ocean with pockets full of stones, or stick my head into the oven as Sylvia did. Poor Sylvia. No, Colette lived fully and well with delight, sensuously, with animals, books, and writing, and one dear companion until the end. I have a dear companion somewhere in the world. She is odd like I am, and oh what a relief that is. We are two companionable solitudes and however that plays out will be just right, will be enough. Love lights the way too, even if not in the storybook fashion we were taught it should. I've never done anything because I "should." I hope to God I never do.
Now for the tea. Any while you sleep, and while you dream, I will be writing, and thinking of you.