With a few days’ lull in events for Cakewalk, I’ve been cleaning my house. I mean seriously cleaning: not just moving the piles around to vacuum under them, but actually going through the piles and finding field trip permission slips that should have been turned in three years ago, and a Real Simple magazine from months back that promises “MORE TIME FOR YOU: Find Extra Minutes Every Day” “Hall of Fame Time-Savers” “Short-Cut Dinners” “Problem-Solving Products” — any and all of which I’m sure I would have found really useful except that I have never had the time to open the magazine. Into the recycling pile it goes.
In five days I’ve finished the laundry room, the main bathroom, the linen closet, my bedroom, and the major coup of getting my husband to give up the big closet he’s insisted he needed for the last 18 years. For the first time in almost two decades I now have all of my clothes in one place, rather than broadcast over four locations throughout the house. Several times a day I’ve opened my pristine closet, organized and color-coded, just to stand there and admire.
Since yesterday I’ve been working on my terrifying study, which is not much bigger than the closet but has over one thousand books in it, as well as all my desultory papers and file boxes of book research and weird random stuff, like a full-body fox stole that guards my 1920s Underwood typewriter…
…a collection of birds’ nests and another of miscellaneous doll parts…
…samples of mineral pigments and a dried lotus blossom from Aswan that, if you put it in water, would smell just like it did when it was fresh. I’ve got an old farmhouse wardrobe that is filled with nothing but foreign editions of Wintering. Where are you supposed to put such things, your two dozen copies of your own novel in Estonian?
One of my favorite treasures in my study is the box that my rabies vaccine came in. On one of my trips to Egypt to research my new novel, I was bitten by a rabid dog. Rabies is so common in Egypt that there are whole hospitals devoted to it, but my bite merited only a bored glance from one of the rabies doctors, even though a chunk of my calf the size of a golf ball was missing. “Just go to the pharmacy,” the doctor said wearily as she pushed an elevator button to escape me. At Egyptian pharmacies you can simply order the rabies vaccine series over the counter, which is what I did. That was easy — getting away from the leering male pharmacists who kept insisting that I needed to have each of the series of shots administered to my bare derriere, with every man in the pharmacy in attendance, was the hard part. The strange part was the vaccine box, which is illustrated with a photograph of a friendly-looking golden retriever:
Except if you look more closely, you see that someone has drawn the notorious rabies slobber all over the dog’s lips:
The cartoonish drool looks like a 7-year-old drew it, but it gets the point across.
There’s so much stuff in my tiny cabinet of curiosities of a study that I am not sure how to get it orderly enough to keep working in it, but I’m trying. One of the problems is the Wall of Books: these are not my reference books — the hundreds of books I use for my current book project — but the myriad novels, poetry, and quirky nonfiction title that are lined up and ready to be read, as well as the piles of same that I’ve read but can’t put away elsewhere in the house because I haven’t cataloged them yet.
When I read I underline anything I think might be useful to my work — vocabulary words, memorable phrases and unique metaphors — and then I catalog all that I’ve underlined in electronic files. It takes a couple of hours per book to record my notes, and I’ve fallen far behind. I mean years behind. The neurotic in me can’t put those books away until I’ve cataloged them, so I’m basically drowning in a sea of books that never go away.
Which brings me to Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, her second novel, based on her experience in a mental hospital. Frame is one of my very favorite writers, a true genius whose excruciating sensitivity was both her burden and her gift. This is how her narrator in Faces in the Water describes what happened to her:
“I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world drifting away through a violet-colored sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears.”
Faces in the Water is one of my Uncataloged Books, and I think it’s now been waiting its turn in my study for eight years. So it’s not like it’s here because of Cakewalk, but in that weird numinous way these things happen, when I picked it up to dust under it, this is the passage the book opened to:
“The nurses, feeling bored because there hadn’t been a recent fight, would fetch a bag of sweets from the tin which was bought every fortnight as part of the Social Security allowance for the patients. The lollies would be showered into the middle of the day room and it would be first come first served with fights developing, people being put in strait jackets, whistles blowing; and the tension which mounted and reached its peak at intervals — both in the patients and in the nurses who long ago had to suppress any desire to ‘nurse’ and were now overworked and degraded, in many a case sadistic, custodians — found its release, for a time.
After a lolly scramble, when the fights had been dealt with, there was unusual quietness and dreaminess and sometimes laughter, and those who had been successful in the rush held tight to their sweet sticky booty. The toffees always had the same taste, of dark swampy syrup that made one feel sick and at the same time gave comfort…
My own taste for toffees came at night when, being hurried along the corridor to bed, I felt such pangs of hunger that I became skillful at darting unobserved into the open pantry, and sometimes snatching a handful of toffees from a newly opened tin. But that was a rare occasion. More often I seized in one hand a slice of bread from the bin and delved honey from a large tin, pasting it, ants and all, with my fingers across the bread, and thrusting the whole in the sweaty hairy hollow under my arm, and withdrawing it and eating it, salt and sweet and gritty, in the quiet of my room.”