Biographer’s update

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve put aside fiction to work on a biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, librarian extraordinaire, Franciscan historian, and friend and spiritual advisor to Thomas Merton. It’s nearly complete now, I’m happy to say, and this weekend, instead of hitting the malls and battling the crowds, I will be heading for the Allegheny foothills of upstate New York, for some last minute research and quiet reflection. I will be submitting the manuscript to an actual publisher in January—it’s not a done deal yet, but this is the first publisher to express a serious but strongly enthusiastic response to my queries. I have some support in the form of very positive feedback I received from my article about Father Irenaeus in the Merton Seasonal. Didn’t think so many people read the Seasonal, but they do!

Back in August, I was quite discouraged with this project, and wondered if it would be worth continuing with. Thank goodness I struggled on. I feel now like a lot of people are waiting for this book.  And I also  feel, rather strongly now, that perhaps my life’s calling may be for biography and non-fiction. Or more to the point, perhaps this is the time for me to turn to non-fiction, considering the dismal market conditions for fiction. I don’t write for money or the market, of course, but one has to be realistic. There is too much fiction out there right now, too much overwhelming competition. Not enough eyes. I admit, writing non-fiction is tremendously harder than fiction. All the plotting and storylines may already be there, yet you have to render the absolute truth in clear, readable, compelling prose, no matter how difficult or distasteful it is. And you always have to tell the truth. No “alternative facts” in my biographies.

Yes, I said biographies, because I’m thinking of writing another.  I’m hooked. I love the research, love the puzzle-like aspects of putting together someone else’s life on paper and making that person seem whole and coherent again. I like looking at a life like a storyline, and studying the other characters who wander into that story, adding their own plot twists and intrigues. It’s all good. I just wish this revelation had come sooner to me, when I was younger and had more energy, ambition and brain cells; but hopefully I’ll live to be a centenarian and will be writing up until the day I die.

So here we go. Somehow I have to combine the completion of this book with preparations for Christmas, with our minds uneasily fixed on the task ahead for spring, the big downsizing move. And concurrently, in “real time” as they say, an ever-growing list of ESL students. I’m not complaining; on the contrary, this season I feel blessed. I have meaningful work to do, and that may be the key to a good life after all.

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Carved in stone

 

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When I was at the British Museum in London, I got to visit the Rosetta Stone, something always of great interest to word and language enthusiasts. It affected me a lot more than the rest of the must-see sights, not only because of its amazing history, but also because I got to experience it in a truly tactile way. That is my own humble hand against the backdrop of ancient writing, although the surface beneath is an amazing replica of the original, which is tucked safely behind glass several galleries away.

Language is, of course, normally an abstract thing that can’t be touched—unless you’re sight-impaired and use Braille, or lived in the centuries when important things had to be inscribed onto rocks or carved into wood. Writing used to involve a great deal of effort. Even if you only go back a few centuries, you still had to carve the quill out of a bird’s feather, mix the ink to the right consistency, then carefully form your letters to avoid unsightly blotches on the very precious linen-based paper or even sheepskin you were filling with something that was presumably important, worthy enough to be set down permanently. Penmanship was an art form, and once a vital part of elementary school curriculum. I’m old enough to have suffered through several years of it, but it did my careless scrawl little good. Later, in high school, I had to take a full typing course in order to begin composing on the keyboard—not a computer, mind you, but one of those old-fashioned machines where you cranked the paper in, had to keep changing the ribbon and hoped the letter ‘e’ wouldn’t stick or the letter ‘o’ wouldn’t punch actual holes in your manuscript. Want to do some editing? Get out the scissors and Scotch tape.

I remember the arguments a few years ago, when computers became widespread, that they made writing too easy, and writers too careless. Does the physical act of writing somehow affect the quality of it? I don’t personally think so, but nowadays we have the Internet, which some say makes publishing that writing too easy, and thus leading to the degradation of literature in general. Would you even bother to attempt that novel if you had to chisel it onto a rock? Probably not, but if you really, really wanted to, or needed to, you’d probably try.

Maybe the acid test for writing should be: Would I want to see this on a piece of stone? My husband came up with a wonderful witticism a few years ago, when he was working in a difficult workplace with  changing rules: “Everything is carved in stone; but every day, there’s a new stone.”  Which makes me think that maybe our kind of writing isn’t meant to be permanent, but just something to be thrown out there, with hopes that it sticks—in a kind of permanent way—to someone’s brain. Preferably, many brains.

Still, it was a treat to caress the Rosetta Stone, even if not the actual rock itself, and not too hard to imagine the creator’s satisfaction at completing what, even at the time, must have been a monumental project; and the discoverers joy at finding it; the decipherers’ delight in understanding it. And it’s the perfect physical metaphor for the conjunctions of history, mankind, culture, language and discovery.

Despite this I was able to resist the various Rosetta offerings in the gift shop: Tea towels and t-shirts and fridge magnets. My photograph, and the memory of the consistently bumpy texture of the letters and characters beneath my fingertips was the best souvenir of all.

London Time

I’ve just returned from our trip to London, which was wonderful, hectic, exhausting and packed full of sights, activities, events, places and people. But the overriding theme of the whole trip for me seemed to be, simply, that abstract notion of time. Literally, because we visited the Prime Meridian spot in Greenwich, which was a bit anticlimactic, because other than being a nice spot for a snapshot, wasn’t really all that exciting or moving. And there were some very confusing time issues—some due to simply traveling across time zones, and one due to Britain’s daylight-savings time change, which was October 29, a full week before the US time change Nov. 4th. Even my smartphone couldn’t keep up and I had to reset it manually.

But most importantly, this seemed precisely the right time to make this trip. Sometimes we visit places in the world at the wrong time in our lives, either when we’re too young and stupid to appreciate them, or too old to care. I had been wanting to visit London and England for years, but this year seemed just right (despite the increase in terrorist events and such) because I’ve done enough reading in my life to understand the significance of certain places. For example, Bloomsbury, which I got to stroll through briefly. I kept bumping up against a hundred such places, reminding me of hundreds of books I’ve read over the years referencing this corner or London, or another. It helped with my understanding of Thomas Merton, who did live in London briefly, and had a strong cultural connection to England in general. And though I was told Londoners can be cold and stuffy, I did not find this the case with typical residents I met with: They seemed curious, polite and friendly, starting with the customs officer right off the plane, who, when he heard we would be travelling to Portsmouth Harbour, proceeded to tell us all about it and what we’d find there.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more physical energy to really explore the city, so in a sense, it was perhaps not the best time for me personally to go. Unfortunately, right before the trip, I had gotten ill with a nasty bacterial infection, and was still taking antibiotics well into the trip. I couldn’t have done it without my husband beside me.  I felt a bit woozy and perpetually tired throughout, but still managed to decipher the Tube and bus system, get through the Victoria & Albert, Natural History, British Museum and the entire museum complex at Portsmouth Harbor (including boarding two historic boats); took a millinery class and had tea in Lambeth with a charming transplant from Wales (and two California gals); took the water-bus to Greenwich and climbed that big old hill up to the Royal Observatory; attended a ultra-conservative (Catholic) benediction service at Brompton Oratory; and managed to get to infamous Oxford Road, which is like our 34th street in Manhattan: jammed with tourists and stores. And yes, I did get to Harrods, but was not impressed; was more so with Selfridges, whose façade seems to go on forever, and also John Lewis, where I could actually afford to buy things. Big Ben was encased in scaffolding, but I didn’t need to take a photograph of it in any case.

Toward the end of our trip, we were shocked to hear about the terrorist event back home in lower Manhattan—it got quite a bit of coverage in the British press. I kept hearing references to recent London terror events, but honestly, it was not a concern to me at all the whole time. Perhaps it is all a matter of being in a certain place at a certain time. But for the most part, my time in London was extraordinary.