Coming Home to Strangers: An Open Letter to Lorna Crozier's The Book of Marvels

January 21, 2015 by Julie Wilson

"It was around this time that two rather magical women had entered my life. The first would become my wife, a woman who lived in San Diego with her two teenaged sons. This was a shocking and ultimately alienating transition. Second, Lorna Crozier, author of The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things (Greystone Books). The jacket copy referred to Crozier as a “literary detective,” bringing her rapt attention to everyday things, each text operating as a prose meditation on the mysteries to be derived from…well, stuff. I read it, amused. I read it, alert. I read it as someone who is, too, prone to sleuthing."

See more details below

In 2012, I lived in Toronto, in a small, two bedroom apartment. I can walk you through it as if I’d never left.

Lift the outside door by the handle, just a little. This will help align the key with whatever lives within the belly of a lock, and we’ll be inside. One step down. It’s shallow; I know, it took me awhile to get used to it, too.

Fridge to the right. Beside it, the door to shared laundry. Trust me, there’s a washer and dryer in there. 

Moving on, in front of you is the kitchen. No microwave. I gave it up during the move when it was pointed out to me that the microwave weighed more than the television. A shame, really, because I’ve yet to find another that perfectly cooks Ivory soap. Oh, you really must try it. Just two minutes. It blooms. 

Wall to the left: all my knives and utensils. Cupboards above, ordered and sequenced to the needs of a right-handed chef who cooks only a handful of recipes: antique hand-me-downs; Grandma’s china; cumbersome casseroles; mugs that once held meaning; wine glasses for guests I’ll never invite over; frequently-used canned and jarred items; an alarming array of teas placed at eye level as to point out the impulsiveness of an $80.00 trip to David’s Tea when I didn’t know where the next month’s rent would come from.

Below, in the big drawers, a beautiful set of pots, a gift from a family friend who knew, at a time when my weight dipped just a little low, that the way to feeding my stomach might not be through food but the charming vessels in which it’s prepared. It was about this time in life that I discovered the pleasing ritual of french press coffee and the simplicity that is wearing the same clothing every day, what would become my uniform: black jeans, black boots, black denim shirt. Easy. 

Below the stove, a single cast iron pan that hasn’t been washed in 100-some-odd meals. My signature dish: cottage cheese and apple pancakes.

Through into the living area. Against the outer wall, a low, wooden coffee table I hoisted on my back from a yard sale. Just to your left, a rickety sewing table. It has a swagger, doesn’t it? It leans out from the wall as if to say it doesn’t need our help, it carried a whole sewing machine, for chrissake, for decades, before it was discarded.

I opted to survive a stand-up shower in what was actually once a closet. To use the toilet, you had to back in. I prepared guests by setting the stage: “You’re on a plane and feel the urge. Begin scene.”

Oh, yes, the centrepiece. The chaise lounge. It’s a borrowed item from a friend who moved into one of those downtown condos that can barely contain the thought of excrement, let alone a toilet. She offered to lend out her furniture and I’ve since spent many a day, afternoon and evening on it reading, when not trying to keep my cat from gutting it to the core. 

From the “shez” you’ll see the washroom. In the last apartment, I made the mistake of accepting a full basement in substitution for a proper washroom. In place of a tub, I opted to survive a stand-up shower in what was actually once a closet. To use the toilet, you had to back in. I prepared guests by setting the stage: “You’re on a plane and feel the urge. Begin scene.”

Back through the living area and into the master bedroom. Just the bed and that small chest of drawers, painted over and over. If you were to scrape through to the first layer of paint, you’d find me at four-years-old in my bedroom, playing at a chalkboard, feeling the first twinges of something we would first categorize as being too sensitive, then a deep empathy, onward to the creative tendencies of a writer, and now, only recently on the hinge of a dark depression, the highly functioning, low end spectrum of behaviors associated with one who often experiences things intensely and a radical need to secure identity and a sense of home. While objects have never addressed me directly, I’ve anthropomorphized for as long as I can remember. Which is why the second bedroom in this apartment acted as storage, stuffed baseboard to baseboard, and floor to what would have been ceiling if my landlords hadn’t insisted a need to reach the fuse box.

To the piece de resistance. A leather recliner from before the time I was born. I dragged it to the curb on moving day. Took a picture of it on my phone, alone, exposed, vulnerable. It rained. The last time I’d put a cherished item curbside it was taken within the hour. The next day, I encountered the item curbside in front of another house. Perhaps free culture isn’t always so generous; sometimes we just want something for the sake of having it. I don’t want to know how slowly or quickly the recliner went, or to whom.

 

*** 

 

It was around this time that two rather magical women had entered my life. The first would become my wife, a woman who lived in San Diego with her two teenaged sons. This was a shocking and ultimately alienating transition. Second, Lorna Crozier, author of The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things (Greystone Books). The jacket copy referred to Crozier as a “literary detective,” bringing her rapt attention to everyday things, each text operating as a prose meditation on the mysteries to be derived from…well, stuff. I read it, amused. I read it, alert. I read it as someone who is, too, prone to sleuthing.

As I prepared for my move to the United States, I thought packing would be easy. Not surprisingly, it was hardest to part with my books. At the top of my street was a used bookstore, owned by an intense and intensely well-read woman. I pulled up in a borrowed car, twice, and unloaded what amounted to over $300 in credit. I brokered a deal, that she identify a regular patron who comes in, peruses the shelves, yet never buys. “When you’ve found that person, gift them my credit. I would like to buy them a library.” Every one of my homes has been filled with items that carry stories I may never fully know, with books as the exception. Books were never meant for anything other than to be known, to be consumed and shared, repeatedly. Books need us as much as we need them. As for the rest of my belongings, I contacted an association that accepts most household donations and prepared them to come with an empty truck. I lined my driveway with rows of bins, enough to outfit an apartment.

Settling in San Diego, I awaited the arrival of The 16 Remaining Bins of Me, anything that made the cut and couldn’t fit into the two suitcases I carted across the border. Basements aren’t big in San Diego, and the attic is really just where the scaffolding lives, so anything I moved here had to be functional or really, really important.

  • Squash balls: one and two yellow dots.
  • The TTC transfer I used after my farewell party, bearing the time stamp “11:11.”
  • A years long “500” score tally between my grandmother and her longtime partner.
  • Above-mentioned beautiful pots.
  • Exquisite cast iron pan. Paging exquisite cast iron… Really? Tsk, you’re going to regret that choice.
  • Various unframed art pieces.
  • Six bins of books, to include The Book of Marvels.
  • One cat. 

That’s about all that survived from The 16 Bins of Me, because, as it happens, The 16 Bins of For Real were packed with no appreciation for how 3,000+ miles on the back of a truck can good-heartedly remind you that your shit doesn’t mean diddly squat.

 

***

 

“You can observe a lot by watching.” – Yogi Berra

A fresh start, I was up every day, early with the sunshine. A new home. New characters. Let’s explore! A writer’s wet dream!

You know that sense you get when you go somewhere for the first time? Whether you’re reading directions off a piece of paper or a GPS device, on a streetcar in the rain at night, or at 65 MPH on the sunny freeway, it feels at once rushed and forever. That’s because your brain is collecting every bit of data it can process for meaning and future recall. The brain is essentially saying, “Dude, trust me, we might need this for later.” Now compare that to the next time you take the same trip. Does it not feel like you got there in no time? That’s because the brain has now discarded the extraneous bits to say, “My bad, we only needed this, this and this to achieve our task. The rest is frivolous.” 

When I moved to San Diego, it was from a state of latent meaning – the sense that I had all the time in the world to figure out my stuff – to a family very much in progress. No time like the present. No use for context. My stuff, as it turns out, was deep inside, and it unpacked at an alarming rate. I was a mess. Where the hell was I? Looking at bare walls and empty corners, I couldn’t find me anywhere. In an attempt to compartmentalize the overwhelm, I started around the house in introduction. After surveying the contents of a drawer or cupboard, I replaced each item back in its spot: toothpicks, door jam, game die, broken earbuds, a variety of kitchen tools, spices and so on. Easy. On to the desk, the pantry, the shed. After a year, I finally poked my head up into the attic. Losing my footing on the ladder, I vowed never to have enough stuff to have need of an attic.

We bought a desk and set it up in the front room, along with a new bookshelf. My space. Above the desk, I hanged a black and white ink drawing by a street artist, a man in a suit and tie, his head severed at the crown and sliding off in a gust. (Note: No noggins were hurt in the writing of this essay.)

Eventually, I got up the courage to ask my wife to procure a story from random trinkets to determine if they had value, if not need.

“This crusty craft brush, for instance,” I suggested delicately. “Is it associated with a child’s art project of which you’re particularly fond?” (Toss it.)

“And there’s this plastic figurine thingy that’s welded to lone screw? An unchecked act of arson, or your youngest’s first attempt at a gift?” (Toss it.)

Elastic bands are a breeze. With even the suggestion that they might snap back, they’re ousted. But twisty ties? Discarded only once their bared tip has drawn blood.

Then began the exhaustive work of cataloging insignificant passages of time: dust on venetian blinds, outdated school photos, unattended squeaks…and fridge magnets from past outings and/or trips to a favorite pizza joint. In this sense, I came prepared, having packed a “Corner Gas” bottle opener in my carry on luggage. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I unzipped the outer pocket of my backpack and the bottle opener virtually leapt from my hand to the fridge with a satisfying snap. Move over, Coca-Cola Polar Bear.

It was around this time that I sought the services of experts who gave me workbooks and returned to The Book of Marvels, and Lorna Crozier, who was waiting with the tools. Book as tonic. I carried it room to room, waving it like a bundle of sage, reading aloud from every page.

During this initial exposure period to a 15-year institutional family history, I indelicately hammered industrial nails into the bedroom wall onto which I affixed a generations-old wooden squash racquet and pictures of my parents: Mom holding out a glass of champagne to just-sworn-in Prime Minister Trudeau, and my father, at sixteen years of age, accepting a plaque for track and field. Walls were unclaimed real estate on which I squatted.

One day, I spend the better part of an afternoon rocking a large wardrobe out of the bedroom until it was pinched into a corner at the end of the hallway – no moving around it – the product of one the most emblematic gestures I’ve wedged into in this marriage, that it’s not until you remove an object that you see it’s ghostly potential. That and that no one should face large obstacles alone.

It was around this time that I sought the services of experts who gave me workbooks and returned to The Book of Marvels, and Lorna Crozier, who was waiting with the tools. Book as tonic. I carried it room to room, waving it like a bundle of sage, reading aloud from every page.

“Dear Lorna: Show me a bowl.” I read “Bowl.”

“Dear Lorna: Express a flashlight.” I read “Flashlight.”

“Dear Lorna: I’m circling the drain. How may I be useful?” I read “Kitchen Sink.” It plainly refuses to be anything but what it is: the place where water comes from and where it disappears when you’re done with it. Is there anything more crucial?

Of course.

 

***

 

My grandmother’s bowl is the one item I packed with true intention. It appeared during the cancer, on the table top during holiday meals when everything was creamed for ease. My wife’s boys, bless them, have identified it as The Special Bowl; it’s not from here and doesn’t match the others. Is it dishwasher safe? Under what circumstances are they allowed to use The Special Bowl? Would it be okay if they just didn’t use it? Throw out the damn bowl, I thought. Better yet, break it, en route from the table to the sink. Just please don’t ever break it simply to make a point.

(Update: I’m thrilled to report that with repeated exposure to The Special Bowl, we’ve all graduated to Just Another Bowl.)

 

***

 

This piece feels now as if it should have been introduced as a tale of an expat stepmother who’s working with some stuff, and so it is. I moved country and home and will likely meditate on themes of identity and well-being for most of my writing career. In a twist of great fate, the group work I do here gives me space in which to bear witness to others who feel – like me – so much, all the time, and to break this perspective down into manageable senses – sounds, sights, tastes, smells, touch – to see ourselves behind the behaviour, as something other than objects.

To Lorna Crozier: Thank you for looking closely, and beyond.

 

Sincerely,

Julie

 

***

 

seenreading

Julie Wilson is the author of Seen Reading (Freehand Books). She lives and works in San Diego.
www.seenreading.com
Twitter: @seenreading
Facebook: www.facebook.com/seenreading 


Discuss


comments powered by Disqus