I put it all in action, anyway, by asking my Brother-Units last year to consider packing boxes of Important Stuff From Their Lives in lieu of shrink-wrapped, brand-spanking new orders from Amazon.
Send only used items, I said. Send things that have mattered to you, at different times, over the years, I urged.
Grader Boob, ever difficult, sent me a $300 gift certificate to Amazon.com -- 'nuff said.
TW took me at my word and sent me a box of music, books, videos, prayer flags -- I held my breath, I am still holding my breath.
I understood the enormity of the gift, and my appreciation knows no bounds (He sent me another box for my birthday in January.).
But I did not understand the risk; I did not understand the fear. (TW subsequently joked that he was sure he would never hear from me again.)
Both need to be transcended, of course, for the gift to be given. Hell, for the gift to make it to the car for the trip to the Post Office, one has to be at a kind of peace.
I know this because the contents of my box for TW -- he shares Hitler's birthday, the one piece of trivia I always remembered about my lost older brother -- how he lamented that coincidence! I know this because the contents of my box for TW lie before me on a faded patchwork quilt. I cannot find a box big enough to hide everything in, so it is all there, mocking me.
But I am at a kind of peace.
I have resisted the urge to enclose a "blank sheet of paper... by way of explanation."
Do you remember that line? From Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters? I always felt (pretty much like every Perpetually Misunderstood Perpetual Adolescent when left alone with Salinger) that my brothers and I were Franny, Zooey, Buddy, and Seymour, that we were capable of every fey bit of wit, and might have authored each slight, or unwieldy, whimsy.
That line figures among the choice few to which my mind clings with relative accuracy. Funny, but while there's nothing of Holden Caulfield in my memory, there are a dozen or so references from the Glass Family series, and Nine Stories. (Haven't you chuckled to yourself, then hummed, just before crowing to your love, busy pulling a tee shirt over his wet-haired, curly head: "It's a fine day for banana fish, darling!"? Of course, if you were as sharp as you like to think you are, you would have chirped "This is a perfect day for bananafish." But who would say such a thing?)
An old man, compact, tiny, an old deaf-mute man, affixed with a cigar and mute eloquence, this old man gloms onto Buddy as he dashes around town the day of Seymour's wedding. It's hot to the point of melting good will, notes are being left in lipstick on mirrors, ice is melting in gin, lightly clinking, and the Matron of Honor brays like a donkey, she is that mad. The old and tiny deaf-mute, impeccable in his wedding duds -- Muriel's uncle, if it matters -- nods and smiles at whatever he imagines is going on, and, clearly, the goings-on have morphed into something downright congenial and civilized for the dear man.
It's a lot to load on the shoulders of a fictive game piece (He's always figured in my head as one of the Monopoly game piece do-dads -- but now that I have seen them, I see that he is not all there, not at all.
He is adequately depicted by the Top Hat, I suppose. Or is that a Bowler?
No, it's always been: dog, top hat, wheel barrow, race car, boot, iron, ship, and thimble. Not Lincoln's stern stovepipe, but not a squat close-fitting bowler either.
Well, obviously, I have the whole thing confused in my extra-leaky sieve-of-a-noodle -- confused, maybe, with the Monopoly Man?
It's hard, dealing with resounding meanings, seeking to rely on memory, cultural memories and personal ones, too. It's confusing. [A remembered image of GW Bush springs up, unbidden, unwanted, and there he is, shaking his large head and cartoon face above some podium, somewhere, lamenting "It's hard work..." over and over and over again.
Anyway, I've resisted the urge to explain to Tumbleweed the rationale driving the choice of items in his birthday box. How to say that seven times, already, in the course of my years, I have gotten rid of what mattered the most to me, materially. A few times, it was after heartbreak. A few more times, the culling harvest came on the heels of deep depression (once this involved a good Beaujolais and burning things in a crackling fire). A couple of instances simply reflected the need for money, and so my treasures were sold off, piece by piece. Several years ago, I realized that Fred had hoarding tendencies. I always knew this, I guess, but it reached a crisis point when my pain and disability began to dictate some real physical limitations. I was his defense against chaos -- not just my harpy's tongue, but my inbred need for cleanliness and order. I had always at least set the boundaries for his mess -- his office, his workroom, and so on.
But one day, his books were piled on my shelves. His collection of fine backscratchers were piled on top of my sundries, things much more genteel, Gregorian Chant and seashells.
Somewhere along the way, through the many moves, the incessant cleaning and sorting, stuff had lost its importance. I was filled with an urgency, a growing need to get rid of things. And so, I did. The difference between this latter instance and the times before? I did not reacquire. After I sent my favorite novel to the thrift store, along with a fine assemblage of American fiction, I did not reorder it six months later, desperate to reread what had once been so important.
Believe it or not, I did not finger meaningfully each besotten Memory Charm. I didn't sit with it, second-guessing, sighing. I remember tearing up one of two pictures I had of my paternal grandfather, disposing of several chapters from my thesis, preparing some fine Irish linens for donation -- all without a hint of a muscle twitch in my face.
It was, simply, time. I had enough, more than enough, and my gathering of things no longer represented me.
In other words, I was sure that there was nothing here for me to send to Tumbleweed, nothing that meant anything to me, nothing that met the requirements I had set last year for The Gifting. Any music I might choose was already music he would have, for I was instructed in things musical by our brother Grader Boob, who had been schooled, early on and most lastingly, by TW, himself.
Besides, he had given me the gift of his DeadHead days -- I had not tramped around the country making recordings, living large. No, I had it easy. And maybe I am a bit of what TW most derides -- maybe I am of the bourgeoisie, maybe I am a bit "pop" instead of "cool." His bookcases are full of resplendent nonfiction works of revolutionary ideology. I have all the Harry Potter, and I like Maeve Benchy.
He photographs, religiously, the Grand Canyon. I snap pictures of pink azaleas.
Yes, I almost defeated myself before beginning. He's my big brother and I want him to think well of me.
So I took the me out of it, in order to represent me, truly. I began to play a question game and let the answers commandeer the choices. Then I employed some common sense and returned those items beyond the pale of personal to their proper places in my home. TW does not have the right to everything meaningful, particularly when -- without that "blank sheet of paper... by way of explanation" -- the defining context for the thing is left out, left aside, or best left unsaid.
Beyond the pale. Yes, that's it, richly.
From Gary Martin's website, The Phrasefinder, the origins of beyond the pale:
Meaning: Unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency.
Origin: Firstly, let's get get clear what word we are talking about here. It's pale, and certainly not pail, - the phrase has nothing to do with buckets. The everyday use of the word pale is as the adjective meaning whitish and light in colour (and used to that effect by Procol Harum and countless paint adverts). This pale is the noun meaning 'a stake or pointed piece of wood'. It is virtually obsolete now except in this phrase, but is still in use in the associated words paling (as in paling fence) and impale (as in Dracula movies).
The paling fence is significant as the term pale became to mean the area enclosed by such a fence and later just the figurative meaning of 'the area that is enclosed and safe'. So, to be 'beyond the pale' was to be outside the area accepted as 'home'.
Catherine the Great created a 'Pale of Settlement' in Russia in 1791. This was a western border region of the country in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, beyond the pale.
Pales were enforced in various other European countries for similar political reasons, notably in Ireland (the Pale of Dublin) and France (the Pale of Calais, which was formed as early as 1360).
The phrase itself comes later than that. The first printed reference comes from 1657 in John Harington's lyric poem The History of Polindor and Flostella.
In that work, the character Ortheris withdraws with his beloved to a country lodge for 'quiet, calm and ease', but later venture further - 'Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk'. Such recklessness rarely meets with a good end in 17th century verse and before long they are attacked by armed men with 'many a dire killing thrust'. The message is clearly, 'if there is a pale, you should stay inside it', which conveys exactly the meaning of the phrase as it is used today.
(Besides, I have to save some things for Future Boxes.)
This is what I am sending TW:
A hand-loomed weaving from Nicaragua, the details of which tell the story of a farmer, a scarecrow, haystacks, and the crows, themselves. I wrote a short story based on this weaving. Maybe next box, I'll send the story along, to complete the gesture. It was a mystery, a real who-done-it, and took place in Texas. The background color is a deep purple. Somehow, the bright primary colors on top of that manage to be pretty instead of garish.
A Mercedes Sosa CD, just because of Gracias A La Vida:
A CD/DVD combo of Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris: Real Live RoadRunning. Okay, so this is not important to me... but it's something from Grader Boob to me, and I would like TW to have it. The same goes for the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. Yes, I re-gifted.
A cassette of people (Gabriel Byrne, Minnie Driver, Colm Meaney...) reading The Poetry of William Butler Yeats.
The Definitive Collection: Nina Simone. 1959-74.
Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall, 1971.
A documentary on Townes Van Zandt -- Be here to love me. (I don't think I've ever before mentioned my total, total, total love of Townes Van Zandt on this blog before. I kind of liked the guy.)
Old Friends Live On Stage: Simon and Garfunkel. From the Old Friends tour -- "Their first and quite possibly last Second Coming for the Twenty-First Century..."
I very much appreciate how Simon chose to explain the thorny relationship between himself and Garfunkel -- "I don't think of Art Garfunkel as my friend. I think of him as family."
One worn copy of Thomas Savage's The Power of the Dog, with an afterword by Annie Proulx. The inside front cover, unfortunately, bears my scribbles about various mutual funds that I apparently was considering as investments. Trust me, if any of them were great picks, I'd pass them on.
T. H. White's The Book of Merlyn. A talisman, that book. Improbably, it is the book I have discarded and then replaced maintes fois. My folksy bible? I dunno. But I actually remember the very moment I first read the passage about Arthur's final meeting with Mordred, when he had almost brokered, hammered, hobbled together, and achieved -- a bit of truce, a peace -- when one of Mordred's officers saw a snake in the grass -- real, not proverbial -- and drew his "bright sword" to slay it:
The waiting armies, taking it for treachery, raised their shout of rage. The lances on both sides bowed to rest. And, as King Arthur ran towards his own array, an old man with white hair trying to stem the endless tide, holding out the knuckled hands in a gesture of pressing them back, struggling to the last against the flood of Might which had burst out all his life at a new place whenever he had dammed it, so the tumult rose, the war-yell sounded, and the meeting waters closed above his head.
Lancelot arrived too late.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists. I am having a hard time letting it go... but it will go.
The Thurber Carnival -- I am having a hard time letting it go, too, but only because it is a superb help when I am sick. It will go, too, but I am not sure that is the height of wisdom.
Despite TW's deep and abiding atheism, Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander -- because this is about what has been meaningful and important to me, and something must represent the considerable amount of time I have spent forcing myself on various fine monks at various fine monasteries -- my ideal vacation for many years! Odd that the dozen or so passages I marked up (at least I used a pencil) now leave me cold. But Merton stole my heart when I discovered he also read Oppen. [There is no need to send TW any copies of Oppen's poetry, as that is something I did within weeks of first finding him two years ago. If you are dear to me? You will, in short order, possess two books: George Oppen's Selected Poems and Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. The latter is pure self-indulgence but I have tired of pretending to care. I like it, that's all. If you are especially beloved, there is much more to the Reading List, but also a greater likelihood that I will make you listen to Important Book Passages during Extended Late Night Readings. It's part of my secret plan to keep that group very, very small.]
A slim volume, also something I have discarded and repurchased a few times, but out of need and not want: A Tomb for Anatole by Stéphane Mallarmé, with daring translations by Paul Auster. [Uh-oh! In looking up that link to Amazon, I happened to see that there is a new version out, For Anatole's Tomb, Patrick McGuinness (Translator). I do not DARE scratch that itch in the face of my declarations about divestment, above!] I have little love for Mallarmé, in general, but abiding love of this project of his, to which I have returned each time the death of a child has joltingly brought the world to an end.
Except for a small clay figurine of a bonsai master, a malleable brooch in the shape and color of an autumn leaf, and a sample of my astounding collection of islamic prayer beads (I use them as Worry Beads), there remains only one more item for TW's box, this go-round:
The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh Volumes I-III bound by the New York Graphic Society. These are my most prized of tomes, and I am happy to be sending them to my big brother, for I know that he will read and treasure them, in his turn. ["This collection requires, and rewards, a devoted reader."] These are the entire texts of every extant letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, with beautifully reproduced facsimiles interspersed throughout. Bought from an English professor at the University of Virginia who auctioned them on eBay, I opened his heavy box to find he had enclosed what amounts to a formal Letter of Introduction:
I am so pleased that these books have found an appreciative home.
I know that I enjoyed them and I am sure you will. I trust that you and
Vincent will have many enjoyable hours together.
If I can manage to find it, I plan to include a picture of Sleepy John Estes' hands. It is beautiful, a gift from many years back. It was an image from a CD liner that a photographer friend enlarged for Fred, who then had it framed for me. My best recollection is that I broke the frame, Fred was gonna repair it... and at that point, Sleepy John's hands are lost.
Maybe I will take on the search in time for Christmas. Someone should have those beautiful, bowed hands to look at.