Thursday, September 23, 2010

Last night I got up in the middle of the night, reread my post, and realized that I had accidentally written that Olana is Frederick Law Olmsted's estate. Ouch. I immediately corrected my mistake. Olana was envisioned, designed, and built by the 19th century Hudson River School painter, Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). (Sorry, I spaced off - my bad.) I don't wish for anyone to surmise that here I am living in ignorance virtually in the shadow of the wondrous "eye of the universe." Indeed, I'm very familiar with the place, and have spent a great deal of time there though not so much in recent months.

In August 2008, near the beginning of the rekindling (entirely virtual, via letter and email) of a 30-plus-year-old relationship, J had gone out of communication range, on an expedition abroad, after a month of mutual heady correspondence - some of it priceless I believe. I also don't wish anyone to think, oh that silly woman, he was never that into you - his side of the correspondence in July 2008 was full of amorous hyperbole. Oh yes, words are very powerful - he felled me. Anyway.

When he went off for the month I decided to write him a handwritten page a day.

1 August 2008, Belle to J

Dearest J, I lay down on the living room sofa with an autobiography of Vita Sackville-West, her account of her love affair with Violet Trefusis. Passion is passion whether it’s Sapphic or straight. Her writing reminds me of the strength of feeling I have towards you.

I fell asleep and when I woke it was 4 pm and I hoped very much that you were on your flight and taking off right on time at that moment. Then I thought, maybe I’ll write a few lines to you each day and mail them near to the time that you return.
It really was as spontaneous as that - I hadn't planned it beforehand. That month I devoted myself to what I referred to as the August Project. I didn't miss a day, just kept page after running page, interspersing it with print photographs I took that I'd manually crop and carefully tape onto a page; others' poems; stickers, movie stubs, postage stamps - all sorts of paper ephemera and little illustrations that went along with what I was writing in my cursive script. A theme I had set out for myself was to go through what remain of schoolgirlish journals I had kept in college and for a few years after, gleaning them for references to my long-lost high school love.

7 August 2008, Belle to J
March 1981: “J.H., the man I almost, not quite, married. He thinks of me. If I ever get bummed, I can always think, ‘but he thinks of me.’ I am almost at the age at which J was when he met me. I was but a pristine, ne’er been kissed 16, how sweet. How, how -- no words -- I am now. “Isn’t life… Isn’t it?” Being in the Ipswich house [dinner at the home of a girlfriend] reminded me greatly of the H___ house, the mother’s long skirt – Felicity’s. Annihilating thoughts come in that I do my best to vanquish. Idea of fate. Such as, I have no doubt that I have not heard the last of J. Unless this thought is mere Zhivagian sentimentalism.”
Dearest darling, Good morning. I’m sitting on a rustic bench at Olana. There’s a glimpse of the Catskills over the treetops, behind me is a lush flower border (wish mine looked like that) but unfortunately my eye goes right to the plastic cup that someone has thoughtlessly discarded, which is marring the landscape. I’m going to have to get up and kick it out of view (no trash bin in sight). There, that’s better.

I spent the afternoon yesterday going through my old journals, reading your letters from 1983-84, and all of your mother’s letters too. I plowed through my journals looking for references to you, of which I found about a dozen. Not many, but several are quite powerful. My journals stop in the mid-1980s, I suppose around the time I met D, and afterward I never kept another. (I was never a religious journal keeper – mostly I took refuge in one if a relationship was starting, or ending, or I wasn’t seeing anyone at all – times when my emotions were at particularly high ebb, I think.)

The bench I’m sitting on is under a beautiful, gnarly Japanese pine, and after I compose and set down a line I look up at the branches and wait for what comes next. [photo of bench and pine]
So I wrote every day, I had a lot of access to the car that summer, and often took myself to Olana, where I sat on a bench under a Japanese pine and wrote, polishing my notes later in the aerie and copying them onto notepaper that I had purchased years before (in light of a correspondence with a wonderful woman friend in Minnesota).

I was amazed at what I had produced. To me it was a beautiful work of art. I paged through it, incredulous of the illustrated record of the journey that I had taken the difficult month that I had taken to sleeping in the spare bedroom.

At the end of August 2008, just before J was due to return from abroad, I mailed the package to him. I knew how busy he was, especially having been away for so long, needing to catch up on business at home, etc., etc.

But not unlike his non-reactions to my blog (as I have now come to realize) upon his return he never deigned to make a single substantive comment about the August Project. Something had changed in the interval between July 2008 when he was freely sending me powerful love letters & emails and anticipating mine, and the month since he'd been gone. Perhaps a September "new years resolution" put his nose back to the grindstone. Our correspondence was never the same after that, and an opportunity to possibly have met him for coffee or lunch or anything at all while, in November 2008, he flew back East with his family for a memorial service for his mother (with whom for a time I had been quite close) never - very painfully for me - materialized.

New Years 2009 I resolved to end my side of the correspondence - he had all but cut and run already. At some point later (don't recall when offhand) I decided to ask him to return the August Project since he had never seemed to care about it, I wanted to see it again, to consider it, and I thought it had value, and beauty. He mailed it to me promptly along with photographs from the brief time we had been together in the mid-1970s (35 years ago this very month is when we first started going out). It was jarring to receive the original photos back. He had sent me emailed images of them during our hot July correspondence, saying that over the decades he had always kept this little cache close by, always knew where they were.

5 July 2008, J to Belle

I attach a copy of the most treasured and erotic image that I possess. What is so strange is that I am the only person who has seen it for almost 32 years. You are the only other person to see it after all this time. I couldn't begin to describe the range of associations that it evokes, although they are all intense.
And here it was 30-plus years later come spinnin' back like a boomerang, as David Gray sings. Oh well.

Anyway. So that's a lot of the backstory. I still really like the August Project, and I loved being able to drive my car up the rise to Olana, greet the wondrous Persian-inspired manse, venture to the garden, settle on the bench, look up into the tree, and write. I knew perfectly well that Frederic Church built it, and just now I really hope I've spelled his first name right.


Rivka Glachen, "From the Pencil Zone: Robert Walser's Masterworklets," [a book review of Robert Walser: Microscripts, translated by Susan Bernofsky], Harper's Magazine, May 2010, p. 78.
And maybe the message that can barely be deciphered is as close as we can get to the most powerful message of all, which is the one we wait for that never arrives. Consider this passage from a letter Walser wrote to his sister in 1898:
As for me, I'm valiantly studying French, go to work each morning, come home insane in the evening, expect letters, don't write any myself but still expect, every evening, at the very least three letters. They should by lying there when I open the door, white, dazzlingly white, with the dear stamps upon them, the sweet postmarks and all the rest. And when there aren't any, I get perfectly stupid and can't work, and then I say to myself quite sensibly: you never write any letters, but you expect them! You blockhead.

It isn't precisely that I expect letters, but now I'm always expecting something as dear, as tender as a letter. Every evening there ought to be some uplifting little surprise for me, just like a letter.

But one can live quite well without excitements, can't one, only one ought to be endowed with a bit less
poesie and the like, should one not, should one not? What a babbler I am, am I not, am I not?

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