All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.
—Julian of Norwich
Saturday, September 2nd
A beautiful morning. Sixty-one out. Seventy inside.
Quiet. The dogs are at the warehouse.
Quiet no more. A canid is barking not far from my bedroom window out in the forest.
I got my binoculars and stepped out onto the back deck. I caught a glimpse of it, but it moved a bit and was obscured by trees.
Its bark is like a domestic dog. A lost pet.
I called to it. It paused but then continued.
I am on the edge of civilization here. This animal is a couple hundred yards northwest.
To the west are miles of wilderness. The Watershed. A Frederick forest.
Strange. It is most likely a coyote, though I’ve never heard one active in daylight. I heard a pack out in the dark passing through a few hours ago.
I went out and called to it again. Whistled.
Just in case it is a lost pet.
Then back into bed to write a bit before heading down the mountain to face the mountains of books and work that await me.
A strange night.
I awoke about midnight. (My nanny watch says 11:57.) I’d gone to bed just after 9 p.m. I was near the end of Voodoo Ltd. It is a thriller, so I was anxious to see how it ended. Pretty exciting. All the protagonists head away from Malibu in different directions. Alone. All are loners.
I was still awake, so I reached across the bed to the handful of books I know are there. Barbara Michaels’ The Crying Child. I finished that last week. I’ll write more about that further down.
A Ross Thomas book I just finished.
Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year.
Fishing for Compliments. Red pebbly leather. AEG (all edges gilt). The name “Mrs. Spiro T. Agnew” embossed in gold on the front, along with the title. I brought it home as a gag. It is bound seafood cookbook booklets done by the Department of the Interior. It was likely conceived for VIPs and fabricated by the GPO.
I touched the two journals. The one just completed and the new one with its first entry—Sept 1.
No mood to write in them just then.
A small hardcover. Duodecimo. Medium light brown. When I held it in the circle of light cast by the reading lamp, the slightly faded gilt title was revealed.
Comfort Found in Good Old Books by George Hamlin Fitch
“Where did this come from? Let’s look inside and see what it’s about,” I thought, not ready to try to fall back to sleep.
I opened it. A small, cheap silver foil husband and wife bookplate on the free endpaper.
A couple blanks.
The frontispiece and title page. The frontispiece is a small facsimile of the title page of Shakespeare’s First Folio. It is reproduced on fine paper and tipped in.
“Quality production,” I thought.
Opposite it, the title page. Title. Author. His other works. This quote:
I love everything that’s old:Goldsmith
old friends, old times, old manners,
old books, old wine.
The copyright page. 1911.
To the memory of my son Harold, my best critic, my other self, whose death has taken the light out of my life.
“What?!” I thought. “Why did this book appear in my bed? I don’t recall bringing it here. Why did it come into my hand?”
I fell into the introduction.
These short essays on the best old books in the world were inspired by the sudden death of an only son, without whom I had not thought life worth living…
In the darkest hour of sorrow my only comfort came from the habit of reading, which Gibbon declared he “would not exchange for the wealth of the Indies.”
Even the Sphinx is not so enduring as a great book, written in the heart’s blood of a man or woman who has sounded the deeps of sorrow only to rise up full of courage and faith in human nature.
The next is a kind of preliminary chapter starting on page ix. It bears the same title as the book.
My relations with my son Harold were not those of the stern parent and the timid son. Rather it was the relation of elder brother and younger brother.
Hence, when only ten days ago this close and tender association of many years was broken by death—swift and wholly unexpected… I had waited for him that Friday afternoon … when my son always dined with me… When he did not appear at six o’clock in the evening I left a note saying I had gone to our usual restaurant. That dinner I ate alone. When I returned in an hour it was to be met with the news that Harold lay cold in death at the very time I wrote the note his eyes would never see.
Fitch tells the story of his son. As a child he had weak “city” lungs in San Francisco. His strengthening on a ranch in the upper Napa Valley. His days at Stanford where he was a sportsman and popular with all classes of youth. His career was just beginning, but he was already successful and respected by older writers as a sports newspaperman for The Chronicle.
Gone are the winter walks in the teeth of the blustering ocean breezes, when we “took the wind into our pulses” and strode like Beserkers along the gray sand dunes, tasting the rarest spirit of life in the open air.
This personal, heart-to-heart talk with you [the reader]… is the first [I’ve written]… since the great fire swept away all my precious books… Against my will it has been forced from me, for I am like a sorely wounded animal and I would fain nurse my pain alone…
San Francisco. October 9, 1910.
It is a kind of biography and autobiography of himself, his son and their relationship. Explication. A heartrending chapter of soaring joy and crushing sorrow.
He doesn’t say what took his son. A catastrophic accident or tragic misadventure. Everything he writes indicates the young man was full of health. I suppose one could search the newspaper in the last days of September 1910 and find a report.
I haven’t gone any further. The next chapters are each devoted to a great book, its merits explicated, I suppose, for the audience he was trying to reach. Amateur readers, i.e. those who had not yet found comfort in “good old books.”
Shakespeare, Dante, The Bible, Milton, Cervantes… about 14 chapters altogether.
I could not go any further. (I likely need not since at this point I’m no “amateur.”) That chapter is a gem. A book in itself. An epic poem in prose; a paean to the mysteries of life and how that author took to pen and paper and books for solace, purpose and the eternal; the eternal “Why?”
Hopeful and full of grace.
Feeling the need to give while in the deepest sorrow he could possibly experience.
I have not taken it up again, either.
For the next night, I awoke and reached across the bed, and amongst the small clutter of a couple nearly empty yellow legal pads and eyeglasses and pens and a handful of books, I found another book I did not know. A very slim modern hardcover titled The Wisdom of Julian of Norwich. An anchoress mystic in the 14th century who endured the Hundred Years War, Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt raging around her. Living a solitary life and recording her revelations. This book has 30 page-long quotes from Julian. One for each day of the month, the introduction advised.
I read them all. Here are some excerpts.
This is the reason why those who deliberately occupy themselves… seeking worldly well-being, have not God’s rest in their hearts; for they love and seek their rest in this thing which is so little and in which there is no rest…
These words: You will not be overcome, were said very insistently and strongly [to her in her revelation], for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say: You will not be assailed, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted, but he said: You will not be overcome…
And all this being so, it seemed to me that it was impossible that every kind of thing should be well… And to this I had no other answer as a revelation… except this: What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well.
Am I being told something and am too dull to understand?
Barbara Mertz’s book The Crying Child is still on the bed next to me. It is a ghost story published in 1971, so she would have written it when she was just over 40.
There are no more mysterious books hiding amongst the pillows. I checked.
The inventory includes those two books, The Crying Child, two journals, a couple yellow legal pads covered with scribbles.
How did those two mystic books get into my bed?
Wednesday morning, September 6th, 5 a.m.
A hot night. A hot week. Mid 90s every day. I closed the windows last night and turned on the AC. The dogs have been out. Giles is a limp, long, lithe stretch of black and white fur and flesh shedding on the king bed next to me.
Vivid dreams recently. Like going to the movies.
I was visiting a friend who is a vet. (I’ve never seen him before.) We left his office and drove to his home. We parked in the drive, and when we got out, the tiny kitten he had in his hands leaped out and ran onto the lawn. It was dark, dark gray with very long fur. Then the kitten was tumbling with something in the unmowed green grass. I hurried to it, and it was engaged with a baby rabbit. I separated them, but it was too late. The rabbit was mortally wounded. Bloody. Dying. The kitten dashed across the yard, and we pursued it, but it would not be caught. Usually a tiny kitten won’t run away like that. It crossed the street and went into another yard. I tried to circle around to cut it off. There was a white chest high fence around the backyard. The little bundle of fur somehow ascended it and was long over. The chase continued, and we were running along a country road. The land was like the Connemara. Low grass in low fields and a ridge beyond. Then the kitten took flight, soaring. We continued the pursuit, looking upward now, rather than down. On and on ’til we came to an abandoned town. A hamlet, I suppose. A handful of buildings. Three of them churches. We went in one. The interior was ruined. The floor partly collapsed. Illegible graffiti on the walls. I hopped down onto the broken floor, and began looking about. Some young people, college kids, came in and mingled around us.
“The town is named Murder Bite,” my friend told me. “The Council is trying to make it into some kind of attraction.”
A strange night.
Thursday morning, September 7th, 4 a.m.
I shouldn’t be awake.
I don’t know why I am.
I stayed up watching “just one more episode” of I, Claudius last night.
Have I ever mentioned that Robert Graves is one of my favorite writers?
His works were likely the first that I seriously collected when I moved from the customer side of the counter to become a bookseller. Going through my old collection from Pennsylvania, I’ve rediscovered so many of his books that I’d forgotten I had. I haven’t parted with his books, unlike so many others that I seem to have grown out of.
I think I brought seven more boxes to the warehouse to be added to my online “collection” with the bookplate that I designed and my friend Alan James Robinson executed. There are still a lot of boxes in the garage below me. Plus thousands more up there in other rooms (besides the third floor library, which is now empty, my son tells me).
Why create a catalog of books that were formerly mine?
Why segregate books that used to be mine?
I don’t know.
Leaving something behind, maybe.
Or perhaps a crass commercial ploy?
Why am I awake?
My editor is on vacation and her stand-in leaves at noon on Friday, so I have an earlier deadline than usual.
That’s part of it. My eyes opened at 3 a.m., and I thought about that.
There’s a lot I want to write. It has been an eventful week.
There’s a lot I can’t write about. Some things cut too close.
But here I lie in my vast empty bed. The little spotlight clamped to the headboard over my right shoulder is the only light on this part of the mountain. One small puddle of light in a sea of blackness. That’s not a very good image. You can’t have a puddle in a sea. Maybe I will rework it. No. Let it stand as bad writing.
Why am I awake?
I thought the spirit of Barbara had finally and finally departed at the end of June, but she keeps reappearing in my life somehow. Almost every week. Maybe she’s not done with me yet. There’s still some work for her to do with me.
At the end of last week, Larry brought in several loads from Nelson. Nelson is a bookseller. Our relationship goes back to the beginning. My beginning, anyway. Anyway, Nelson is downsizing yet again. I’ve bought out his stock numerous times over the decades. He has always rebounded and gotten back in business. Larry’s brought a couple hundred boxes in the past week or so. He also brought about 20 author autographing session placards. These two were among them. (The rest you will find on offer at the Frederick Wonder Book—some are autographed.)
So there she was again. And she had signed it in her very careful hand. She wouldn’t autograph anything after a few martinis. She would say her fans didn’t deserve a sloppy signature. She signed this sign. She was very reluctant to sign anything besides her books. The Ape Who Guards the Balance was published in 1998. That was when she was really getting the Amelia Peabody epic fleshed out. She wrote eleven of them from 1996 to 2006. One every year. There are 20 altogether. This is also when we were becoming closer friends than just patron and “favorite bookseller.” That sign took me back to those days. She would “disappear” in August. Hole up in Lorien and write the next volume. She would avoid that dreaded month each year. Dreaded because that’s when her gardens would go into decline and the heat that affected her so terribly would be kept at bay as she sat at her desk with the air conditioner roaring above and behind her. I wouldn’t be invited over for gin and cookies and conversation in the eighth month of the year.
Then there’s been a mystery customer buying a lot of her books (a LOT)—the books rescued from Lorien after she passed (but didn’t quite leave, I believe). Every few days for last month or so, I would go and check on shipping and see a stack of her books waiting to be packed. That has been a highlight of this past dreadful month. This horrible August 2023.
People still care very deeply for her and her writing.
And yet another reminder that Barbara Mertz continues to weave in and out of my life.
I’ve mentioned that I recently finished The Crying Child. I bookmarked the page where she wrote:
I don’t know what you think about the soul, or survival after death, or anything like that… The idea of death as a journey—it’s only a figure of speech, to describe a transition that is otherwise incomprehensible…
And, after the protagonist (certainly Barbara herself) came upon an unexplainable “person” in the Maine woods:
Pretty startling, at that, coming on someone sudden-like. Especially in the woods. They aren’t places for people… Forests were inhuman places. They were meant for birds and animals, but not for people…
(I write this in a mountain forest with my only neighbor a half mile away and miles of trees and rock in every direction.)
Ghosts… That’s why I started this thread.
All this reminded me this week of what Ray told me after the rush of leaving Lorien when it was parted with in early summer this year. I sent him a message and asked to relate it to me again—in writing this time.
In the first dream that I had on our first night in the house in March of 2016, Barbara, Jay, and I were walking through Lorien, drinks in hand, laughing and talking. The house was still full of her furniture (that we helped Beth move), and Barbara was telling us stories about each piece. The gin flowed freely, and I remember her laughing and saying that we were all going to have such a good time together. I awoke knowing that she had given her blessing to our presence in the house—it was a joyous, wonderful sign as we began our life there.
In the second dream that I had shortly after the closing (June 28, 2023), seven years later, Jay and I were walking with Barbara through all of the empty rooms of the house, drinks in hand again, laughing and reminiscing. We went through every room, and then reached a large paneled room with a huge, decorative fireplace off the main floor that actually does not exist, where we hugged and said our farewells. Barbara, standing in front of the fireplace, drink in hand and smiling, slowly faded away, and then was gone.
She blessed us in a dream when we arrived, and blessed us when we left. May the gods bless her wherever she is now.
Endings, and beginnings…
Did I ever mention that Barbara had an ancient grave on Lorien? Well, not a grave, just the tombstone. Workers found it just outside her house, near the lane. It belongs to young Phoebe Jones. Barbara had it erected in a quiet corner of the gardens and built a little roof over it—like a shrine you’d find in Europe.
Regarding Phoebe Jones, she died on Jan.? 13th, 1822, aged 18 or 28 years—hard to read the first number—it’s probably 18. Either a wife or daughter of John Jones, we assume. I am attaching a photo…
One of these stories is a Ghost Story relating an event that actually happened. I don’t often say this, but I think it is a pretty good book story. So if you haven’t read it yet… It was published in August 2017.
I’ve been in many homes—often alone—where I felt the owner hadn’t quite left yet. Perhaps waiting for me to get their books out so the place could be emptied. They wouldn’t leave until the heart of the home was taken away.
Well, so maybe she’s not done with me yet. I wonder what I am supposed to do.
Perhaps all will be revealed sometime. Meanwhile, I will keep plugging away at these stories—330 or so—320 consecutive Fridays.
And I will keep going through the books. So many this past weekend. And more were carted up. I’d finish one and push it away and another would appear in its place. I cannot get ahead.
I took a short break on Sunday. I put on work clothes and boots and went out to the drainage pond—or what will become the drainage pit for the new warehouses. It is a large excavation—maybe one third of an acre. Its floor is currently baked with cracked mud.
(It has been such a hot, dry, miserable summer.)
I mentioned that all the excavated stone on the worksite is gone now. I didn’t have enough matching stone to finish what may be the last wall in my garden on the mountain. Something drew me to look in the pit. And there I saw an outcropping that had been exposed by the digging.
But there is no way to drive down into it. My four-wheel drive could get down and up the track left by the bulldozers, but the way is blocked by equipment. Walking down into and across the pit was the only way to get at the stone. And so I did. It was 97 degrees. I trudged across the baked mud that turned to dust wherever I stepped. At the outcropping on the far side, I prised stones out from the shattered mass—until recently buried for thousands of years. I carried them one at a time across the pit and up to my pickup truck.
There’s a “poem” about this appended at the very end of this story. I put it there so it is easy to skip. Asking anyone to read your poetry is… well, read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the unusual poet species he invented—the Vogons—”the third worst poetry in the universe.”
I couldn’t wait. When construction begins again, that type of stone will become inaccessible. They may restart at any time. I’ve never seen its like on the earth’s surface before.
That was certainly the case with the two new Wonder Groves, i.e. the sudden appearance of new contractors.
I wrote last week that I was surprised while we were having an impromptu manager conference on the sidewalk to see trees rolling past us on small tractors. It was so odd. Like Birnam Wood marching in Macbeth.
Well, they came back this week and dropped off more trees.
Oh no! The giant excavated stones I saved last year are atop that hill. Once the grove is planted, they will be blocked in.
I had some fantasy about standing them up like a Wonder henge. I reached out to the site managers to see if they could be moved in a hurry. They were no longer responsible for them, as they’d been set on the old warehouse lot. But Dan and Roger came through and had placed them as I suggested.
So now there are two new groves here. Perhaps the muses or fairies, pixies or sprites—or whatever has been infesting the warehouse—will move out there. There’s one muse here that has driven me crazy for years. (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)
If not, then maybe I can acquire some. I’ll do a Google search: “Fays for sale.”
Well, dawn is brightening outside my bedroom window. I’ll let the dogs out. Shower. I’ll go down to the lower gardens and set the final stones into the wall. I need to be sure there are enough. Then I’ll pour a bunch of mulch in behind the wall.
I ordered flower bulbs this week. Mostly daffodils. A couple thousand, I think. That will keep me busy in November and December. By then it will no longer be in the mid and upper 90s like this week.
And trillium rhizomes. I will try to establish new beds of them yet again. Gardeners are used to failure. Plant death is part of plant life. (LOL.)
Then I will bump down the mountain and see what books I need to go through. And I’ve got to go through the books and stuff that have ebbed in the office space we need to open up. I need to make space for more desks. And more people.
If things stagnate, I go crazy. That’s part of the reason I’m so driven about some things. (That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.)
Last night when I got home, I forced myself to do some long overdue yard work. I really didn’t feel like it. The 97-degree temperature dampened my desire. (My heavy work clothes were dampened within minutes.) I did some weed whipping and debris blowing in preparation of laying 60 more bags of mulch on some of the garden paths.
When I was exhausted and darkness was falling, I quit. I sat out on the drive with beer and tossed tiny snacks down the hill for Pippin and Giles. One of the trees over the drive is shedding acorns. I’d hear a rattling in the branches and leaves and then a “clock” when the nut finally hit the pavement.
One landed near my boots.
I recalled Julian of Norwich mentioned a nut in a revelation.
He showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because he loves it; and thus everything has being through… love.
I was inspired to write a little Haiku-like thing. I tapped it out on my phone and emailed it to myself.
A windless evening
They land “clock”
Polished wood grain nut
So, someone tell me what to do.
Signs and portents.
Revelations. Mysteries. Mysticism.
Nelson stopped in unexpectedly just now. (Late Thursday morning.) I owe him money.
Actually, I owe him an offer on some of his better books.
I haven’t had a spare moment to go through them.
I haven’t seen him for a few years, I think, though we have had some correspondence.
He wanted to chat, and I felt a duty to listen.
Then I recalled all the regional book history we have created—some of it shared.
So we walked out to the docks, where we have met a few hundred times since 2013, I would guess.
I showed him his better books were labeled and safe.
“I’ll get you an offer Monday at the latest. If it is too low, we can send them back with Larry.”
We reminisced about some of the book characters we have dealt with, living and dead.
We discussed our health concerns.
“The doctors say I have fifteen more years,” he told me.
I wonder how many I have? I was lifting 40-pound stones this morning. Last night, I walked the mountain for a couple hours carrying the weed whip and then the blower. When I send this off to my stand-in editor, I’ll go out and schlep a few thousand books. If I’m motivated, I’ll be spreading mulch tonight.
So, I’m fit. But that doesn’t mean anything. Sudden death has hit several friends in the last few years.
And young Harold Fitch met with a sudden and untimely demise 113 years ago.
It’s 92 degrees.
I hope it rains soon.
It was good to see him, I told him. Though I’m not sure he believed me.
He’s a bit of a curmudgeon. Actually, what term would you give someone who is more than curmudgeonly?
Nelson Freck. Certainly an icon and legend in the used and rare book world for decades.
We are both still vertical and compos mentis.
It was good to see him.
I gave him a couple of the new T-shirts. The Wonder Book T-shirt he was wearing was pretty battered.
He used to tell me it was good advertising to wear them to house calls and when going to other book places.
I wonder what it is all about.
I hope someday I will get a revelation.
But if it comes at the very end, I can wait.
I must have stones to finish the wall
But the field about me is barren of rock
Then I remember the pit
I stepped to the edge peered into it
Its floor is dried mud and dust
But round its edge are veins of granite
streaked occasionally with white bars of quartz
And there, broken by the excavation, were stones
Many shapes and sizes but plenty to suit my need
I could not drive the truck into the pit
I pondered at its edge and knew
I must descend into the pit
And I did time after time
Emerging with a stone prised from baked mud
And I filled my need from beneath the earth