7 storytellers. 7 portraits. 7 poems. 1 unforgettable evening.

Autumn Leaves

The Autumn Leaves Project presents

The Chestnut Group

An evening of intergenerational art & storytelling

Tuesday, October 14, 2014
6-8:30 p.m.
Area 405
405 East Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD 21218

Free and open to the public.

Featuring:

  • Seven elders reflecting on living and dying
  • 49 magnificent portraits by local artists
  • 49 drawings by Peter Bruun
  • Seven poems by Kevin Griffin Moreno
  • Performances by Muse 360 Arts
  • Slideshows of images contributed by each elder

What gives your life meaning? How do you think about your own dying or passing?
What do you have to say to young people coming after you? What advice would you give your 21 year-old self?

Inspired by his own journey through the aging process, artist and activist Peter Bruun invited 49 adults, each over 49 years of age, to share their responses to the questions above. Peter divided these 49 elders into seven groups named after different types of trees. Each group was then matched with a portrait artist, a writer, a youth arts group, and hosts responsible for organizing a series of storytelling, performance, and visual arts events during autumn 2014.

Join hosts Pamela Eisenberg and Kevin Griffin Moreno on October 14 for stories and reflections from the Chestnut Group’s diverse and fascinating elders, including a refugee, a radio host, a former inmate, a college professor, and more. The evening will include an exhibit of drawings by Peter Bruun, portraits of the Autumn Leaves project’s 49 older adult participants by Paris Johnson and other local artists, performances by youth arts group Muse 360, and poems by Kevin Griffin Moreno.

Visit the Autumn Leaves website for more information about this project, including dates for the different groups’ events and FAQ.

Autumn Leaves - The Chestnut Group - 10/14/14

Portrait sketches by Paris Johnson

 

Some towns in Pennsylvania along I-81

1180px-I-81_(PA)_map.svg

[This is an altered version of an earlier entry which was originally posted to an older and now defunct blog.]

Pleasant Hills, East Hanover, Manada Gap. Deep rumble of roadway spindling off behind us, a shup-shup-shup of mile markers flickering in the slipstream.

Union: not to be confused with Union City, up near Erie, which used to manufacture powdered milk until the plant shut down. Nor Mount Union, territory of my ex-wife’s extended family of stolid Mennonites and Methodists, near the start of the Standing Stone Trail with its Thousand Steps.

petro

Irving

Ravine

Frailey

Frackville, which calls to mind the scourge and boon of hydraulic fracturing, but which was actually named in the 1860s after one Daniel Frack. According to an 1890 edition of the Frackville Herald preserved by Schuylkill County historian Lorraine Stanton, the town was home to a brothel known colloquially as the “horse shoe” or “the house with green shutters,” which was

…presided over by one Nellie Reilly, an exile from Shenandoah. This beautiful (?) siren with her hooked nose and crooked toes, elongated form, toothless gums and twisted back is assisted in her nefarious traffic by one ‘Dolly,’ a fille de joie hailing from the excessively moral village of Pottsville. However, on festive occasion when railroading is slack, other nymphs to pave are invited to partake of the feast and assist at the beer tap where lager flows in unlimited abundance, license or no license. [more]

Mahanoy City is believed to have been caught up in the violence perpetrated by and against the Molly Maguires, hard-eyed and hard-handed descendants of Hibernian “ribbonmen” who struck fear into the hearts of Protestant landlords in the 19th century. In Pennsylvania, the Mollies mined anthracite, black diamond hot-blasted into iron. Their story is one of labor, capital, gunfire, union busting, rebellion, infiltration, betrayal, revenge, and murder.

About seven miles away is Tuscarora State Park, Tuscarora meaning “hemp gatherers,” because of the Tuscarora people’s use of dogbane (apocynum) in sewing and rope-making and hunting. Apocynum is also an anti-diuretic, so they probably used it for that, too.

Delano. Quakake (“kwah-KAH-keh?” “kwuh-CAKE”? “KWEY-cake”?). Hazleton, where Nathan once bought a bag of deep fried peanuts and ate them, shells and all, over the course of two days. At the Unimart truck stop, I saw a trailer hauling carnival rides in the shape of paunchy dragons, one of which fixed me with a wary plastic gaze as the sunset ignited the mountains.

unimart

Drums, Nuangola, Mountain Top.

Sugar Notch and Ashley.

Wilkes-Barre, east of the Endless Mountains and home to the Mohegan Sun “racino.”

Avoca was named after the river in Ireland, or possibly the town. In “The Meeting of the Waters,” Thomas Moore wrote:

Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm could I rest
in thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.

roadsideamerica

Duryea

Pittston

Moosic. We stop for dinner at the Panera on Montage Mountain, which is advertised as a ski resort. From the interstate it is a sad, wet drive to the strip mall, where we stand in line with overstimulated teenagers who so clearly want to be bad, but have nothing better to do on a rainy Friday night in Moosic, Pennsylvania, than order broccoli-cheese soup at the Panera and slurp it sulkily.

Darkness over Lackawanna, “river that forks.” Names that conjure Sacred Harp songs in the dark: Lenox (“The year of jubilee has come…”) and New Milford (“If angels sung a savior’s birth on that auspicious morn…”).

cruisers

Moonrise over North Knob, elevation 2,694’ and a remembered fragment of Gary Snyder:

dust kicking up behind the trucks — night rides–
who waits in the coffee shop
night highway 99

Sokei-an met an old man on the banks of the
Columbia river growing potatoes & living all alone,
Sokei-an asked him the reason why he lived there,
he said

Boy, no one ever asked me the reason why.
I like to be alone.
I am an old man.
I have forgotten how to speak human words.

nighthighway99

Great Bend. The name of the town comes from the sharp turn made by the river marked “Sasquesahanough” on a map by John Smith, he of Pocahontas fame. Sasquesahanough in turn from “Susquehannock,” an Iriquoian-speaking people whose name, like so many names given to native peoples by, was not the one they used for themselves, but rather a derogatory Algonquian appelation: “people of the muddy river.”

Deep night now, and the hills and waters fade into the slipstream as we cross the border into New York.

We raise Rochester by midnight.

 

Buck Knife

buck knife

It took my father nearly four decades to commit suicide. He picked up the bottle at age 17 in Lubbock, Texas, and died of an alcohol-induced heart attack at age 55 outside Baltimore, Maryland.

One thing you can say about my dad: he was persistent.

~~~

Tighty Whities

popMy mother discovered her husband’s body in the dingy, one-bedroom garden apartment where he had been living since their separation some months before. She had gone there to check in on him and bring him some food, found him sprawled out in the bathroom, called 911, and then called me.

As soon as I heard her voice on the phone, I knew. I told my boss in a strained but otherwise calm voice that I needed to take the afternoon off because “I think my father’s dead.” For whatever reason, the expression of shock on my manager’s face sticks in my memory more than many other things about that day.

I arrived in time to see men in official-looking windbreakers zip my dad’s corpse up in a body bag, his pale legs and tighty whities disappearing into black plastic, just like in the TV shows. I didn’t cry. I don’t think my mother did, either. We focused mostly on practical matters. We are very practical, my mother and I.

~~~

Buck Knife

pops501

Things I inherited from my father: his temper, his wanderlust, a nearly new toaster oven. Also this pocket knife, which he used to carry with him on the hikes we took through the Vienna Woods each Sunday morning when I was a kid in Austria.

He also passed on to me a deep affinity for both storytelling and poetry. He was a huge sci-fi nerd, back before those things were even phrases in the common lexicon. He couldn’t wait until I was old enough to read Tolkien, so that he could have someone to geek out to about it. We would memorize poems and songs from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and we would test each other’s ability to recite them when we hiked in the woods together.

On those walks, a stand of birch trees with silver bark and golden leaves would become the borders of the enchanted forest of Lothlorien. This pocket knife would become the dagger Sting, glowing blue along its edge in the presence of orcs, and like the elvish warrior heroes we fancied ourselves, we would chant:

A Elbereth, Gilthoniel
Silivren penna miriel
O menel aglar elenath
Gilthoniel A Elbereth

Sometimes we got lost in the woods. We’d be so busy tramping around Middle Earth that we’d stray from the path and have to find our way to the nearest town, where we would call my mom and ask her to pick us up. One of my happiest memories is of the day she drove out to meet us for lunch at the little gasthaus where we’d ended up.

We ate out on the terrace and I remember a deep blue sky and bright sunlight and french fries and my mother’s smile.

gasthaus

~~~

Eraser

The ability to tell stories came as naturally to my father as breathing, or as naturally as drinking, at least. He grew up in the panhandle of West Texas, the scion of a long and distinguished family tree of drunken bullshitters in the grand old southern storytelling tradition.

During the nearly three decades he worked for the U.S. government, my dad lived in nearly a dozen different countries. He had the best stories about his friends and other people he met in his travels.

He told this one about Schuyan, a Hungarian instructor he had when he was studying to be a U.S. Army linguist. Schuyan, your stereotypical absentminded professor, always had trouble keeping track of time in class, so he would constantly look up at the clock over his desk.

eraserSome of the students discovered that if you hit the clock with something, it would advance the time by five minutes. So the students took to throwing chalkboard erasers at the clock every time Schuyan turned his back, to the point where they were getting out of class earlier and earlier each time.

One day they had a test, and after Schuyan had finished handing out the work books, he went to the back of the class and pulled out a bag full of chalkboard erasers, which he proceeded to throw at the clock, one after another, while the students scribbled furiously to finish the tests as their remaining time dwindled.

There was a difference between the stories my dad would tell about other people, which were typically funny, and the stories he told about himself, which tended toward the grim. His stories about himself were all about being unloved, unappreciated, unwanted. They were about how everyone was out to get him, and how the world would be a better place if he wasn’t in it.

He was like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ only Clarence never would have gotten his wings if he had come down to save my dad. Instead, the angel would have just ended up getting depressed and drunk with him, muttering “Fuck it, you’re right, dude, it’s all hopeless.”

~~~

The Calm, Cool Face of the River

skyline

That same bleakness bled into the poetry he liked. One year, my dad got me this copy of Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems. It’s a great collection, full of jazz and anger and passion, but my dad’s favorite was one called, ‘Suicide’s Note,’ which he read to me in its entirety over breakfast one morning:

The calm, cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

I was eight.

~~~

Treachery, Defeat, Humiliation

As I grew older, and my dad got drunker and darker, I realized that stories we tell about ourselves are not a listing of chronological facts about our lives. We create our stories in order to retroactively justify how we ended up who are right now. We choose those facts about our lives very carefully. We embellish them. We make a lot of them up. And then we say, to ourselves, and others, “See? This is why I am who I am, and there is no way it could have turned out differently.”

I inherited my father’s love of storytelling and poetry, but I chose to read different poems than he did.

One of my favorites, by Jorge Luis Borges, is about a guy in a train station at night who suddenly hears “an infinite voice” from within him listing all the wonderful, miraculous things that the poet doesn’t appreciate about the world: “chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars / a human body to walk with on the earth…”

Hermann-ArminiusThe inventory even includes “treachery, defeat, humiliation,” which are described as “the ancient nourishment of heroes.”

That phrase haunts me. My dad was always going about treachery, defeat, and humiliation – not as the “nourishment of heroes,” but as weapons that had been used against him throughout his life, by his parents, his bosses, his wife, his only son.

Slowly over time, with mounting horror and sadness, I came to understand that my father didn’t see himself as an elvish warrior hero with a magic sword. He saw himself as Gollum: a bitter, abused, misunderstood creature who’s treated poorly by everyone he comes across.

Just as Gollum had his “precious,” my dad had his family-sized plastic bottle of vodka, and he clung to it until it finally dragged him down into the pit of doom.

~~~

White Clouds

wienerwald

A couple of years after he died, I came across a poem by Zbignew Herbert that I wish I could have shared with him. Not that it would have saved his life – he’d already crafted his story, after all – but maybe it could have communicated to him my belief that there are other stories to tell.

not for the stone wreath of Troy do we implore You o Master
not for a plume of flame white women and gold
but restore if you can to blemished faces goodness
and put simplicity into our hands just as you once put iron

send down white clouds Apollo white clouds white clouds

Sometimes I imagine myself as a time traveler, going back to meet my father at different points in his life. I’d meet him in that shabby little apartment of his the day before he drank his last bottle of Listerine and collapsed on the bathroom floor. I’d meet him walking among the birch trees of the Vienna Woods in the autumn, pretending he was in Middle Earth. I’d meet him on the dusty flats outside Lubbock, Texas, just before he latched onto that precious, poisoned bottle of self-loathing and despair.

I would read him Herbert’s ‘Fragment.’ And I would look him in the eyes and touch his arm and tell him: This is your hero’s weapon. This is what you use to beat back the darkness. Now let’s go slay some orcs.

Little Deaths: A Visit to the Most Macabre Gallery in Baltimore

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

One Sunday evening in November 1896, Lizzie Miller found her neighbor, Maggie Wilson, dead. Alerted by the sound of running water, Ms. Miller opened the door of the dark, cramped bathroom and saw Ms. Wilson face up in the bathtub, fully clothed, her legs dangling over the side. The spigot was on and water flowed in a continuous stream over Ms. Wilson’s face. Her blue eyes were open.

In a statement to police, Ms. Miller reported that she had heard Ms. Wilson entertaining two men that evening and that “there was a lot of drinking going on.” She also recalled that the deceased had been prone to seizures.

The grim tableau, as Ms. Miller described it and investigators found it, is preserved in meticulously detailed miniature in a small gallery on the third floor of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) of Maryland. The replica of Ms. Wilson’s death scene, along with 17 other, similarly morbid dioramas, comprise the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

One of the strangest and most strangely moving attractions in Baltimore, the Nutshell Studies were created by Frances Glessner Lee, a would-be physician and self-trained pioneer in the field of forensic sciences. Barred from pursuing a medical career because of her gender, Lee channeled her considerable inherited wealth into endowing a department of legal medicine at Harvard, and her extraordinary eye for detail into producing painstakingly exact recreations of scenes of homicide, suicide, and accidental death.

(There are several good essays online that offer greater insight into Ms. Lee and the Nutshell Studies, including this one and this one.)

A visitor to the Nutshells gallery assumes the role of the first investigator to arrive on the scene. After a brief orientation by an OCME staff member (usually Bruce Goldfarb, the department’s resident authority on the exhibit), one is encouraged to pick up a flashlight and examine each diorama for clues. As with an actual crime scene, every detail is potentially significant.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

In the study featuring the unfortunate Ms. Wilson, an empty glass and a liquor bottle lie on the rug. Was she poisoned? The position of her body is curious. Did she have a seizure while drawing a bath and collapse backward into the tub, where she drowned? Or was she murdered by the men her neighbor heard in the apartment? The corpse shows signs of rigor mortis. Was she deposited in the tub post mortem?

Another Nutshell shows a young woman lying dead in a closet. Her throat has been slashed and blood covers her neck and the front of her floral print dress. Her hands appear bound. At her feet rests a suitcase, giving the impression that she had been packing for a trip. A long-bladed knife lies in front of her, its tip stained red. A plaque below the display case explains that the incident occurred on June 29, 1944.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Officers took a statement from a man who claimed to be her boyfriend. According to this witness, the deceased was a prostitute named Marie Jones. After a night spent drinking in her apartment, the man said, Ms. Jones grabbed his “jackknife,” shut herself in the closet, and presumably slit her own throat.

Seven decades later, with scant additional information provided, his story still rings false.

When I first read about the Nutshell Studies, I thought I would find them entertainingly campy, another example of Baltimore’s storied “quirkiness.” But there is nothing kitsch about them. The depictions of Ms. Wilson in her bathtub and Ms. Jones in her closet elicit not amusement, but revulsion and pity. Each exquisitely crafted diorama eloquently conveys the horror, pathos, and strangeness of untimely death.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

In his seminal 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon says something about how actual homicide detectives, unlike their fictional counterparts, rarely ponder the “why” of murder; instead they concern themselves with the “what” and “how.” An examination of the Nutshell Studies reveals how elusive even those pragmatic considerations can be. As the name implies, many of the cases depicted in the exhibit are unsolvable, and what solutions are available are unsatisfactory. Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest hypothesis is generally the best one, but homicide and suicide defy such logic.

In one Nutshell study, a man is found shot to death in a remote cabin where he met his estranged mistress. Using inductive reasoning, one can infer that either: a) the woman shot him during an altercation; or b) overcome with rage and grief over the dissolution of their relationship, he shot himself.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The facts, according to the actual case history, are more bizarre: when the man stooped to pick up a cigarette, the pistol he was carrying fell out of his jacket, discharged accidentally, and blew a hole through his torso at point blank range. The bullet was found lodged in one of the rafters directly above his corpse.

What a ridiculous and improbable story. Any reader who encountered it in the pages of a mystery novel would sneer at its implausibility. Yet, as far as investigators were able to determine, that is what transpired in that cabin in the woods.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are chilling because they force us to confront how little we know about the way the world works. Each tiny crime scene challenges our assumptions about human relationships. We know what is expected of us in our roles as lovers, as spouses, as friends, yet here in this little gallery we see evidence that on occasion something happens between people that confounds those expectations in the most horrible way.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

That something is the fly in the ointment, the rustle in the dark, the twist in the gut. When we allow ourselves to think about it at all, we pray that it never happens to us or those we love, aware of how little control we actually have over the way things unfold. “The whole of human history / seems to be the story of men who kill,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his poem “Murderer [Part I].”

…of murderers who light their cigarettes
with trembling hands,
and of poor, unlucky kids staring into the eyes
of those who bring them their deaths.

The other uncomfortable realization that confronts a visitor to the Nutshell Studies is that most of the victims in the cases are women: the prostitute in the closet; the teenager bludgeoned and stabbed in a parsonage; the wife at the foot of the stairs. And even when they are not numbered among the dead, women are so often the ones caught in the wake of a murder or suicide, left behind to pick up the pieces of shattered lives.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Suddenly I heard: Murderer! Murderer!,” Malaparte goes on in a subsequent part of the same poem.

It was the voice of a woman, terrible,
the voice of a sister, desperate,
the voice of a mother, of a lover.
And at that moment nothing could have been more terrible
than that voice of a woman,
that voice of a mother, of a sister, of a lover, crying:

Murderer!

Humans are experts at pattern recognition, but we tend to discern those patterns in retrospect. We move through our days and nights responding to circumstances as they arise. Occasionally we pause, look behind us, and connect the dots. In this way we construct narratives out of our lives and meaning out of our deaths. That is why we are so drawn to murder mysteries. In detective novels and true crime stories, the author forges order and coherence out of the chaos and pain of an untimely demise.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies teach us that reality is under no obligation to adhere to narrative conventions. The death we encounter within their glass boxes is shocking and nonsensical. It is broken glass and gas fumes and sticky filth. It is numbness and tears and an ache in the chest that never goes away. It is a caesura that has no place in the poem.

A Glossary of Favored Words: A

Cedward Brice 2013

Aleph Start here. Tame and modest, aleph encompasses the infiniteness of god. Aleph is the ox head at the door that contains all points in space. Borges and Rabbi Akiva. A glottal stop.

Acacia Fire resister, whistling thorn, tree of life. Cradle of Osiris’s coffin, crown of Christ, blazing before Moses on Mount Horeb. Pulp that cures rabies, smoke that repels demons and pleases the noses of the gods. Ingredient in incense and the ark.

Acacia - Le Sahara

Alcazar Segovia, Sevilla, Toledo. Hard, proud syllables like a snarled magic spell. From al-qasr, castle; originally castra, a legionnaires’ camp. In the basement of my parents’ house, it shone in black velvet moonlight.

Alcazar Segovia

Alia All things; the ascent; the right to return.

Allegany When Mike went to Germany and I lost my best friend (not for the first or last time), I would drive two and a half hours to Allegany County and pull off the road at anything that caught my attention. I walked on Dan’s Mountain and ate a grilled cheese sandwich in Flintstone. Allegany sounds like far away, like western foothills of green brown. Van Morrison sang one morning in May / here on my mountain / You’re gonna stay / come and go with me / to the Allegheny, and I listened to him on the tape deck of my 1986 Ford Escort while flicking cigarette butts out the window and marveling at how loneliness could make me feel like all the doors and windows in my head had been thrown wide open to make room for the crossbreeze. Perhaps Lenape: oolikhanna, “beautiful stream that flows in the hills;” or perhaps not. They came here from distant parts.

Amok A tiger spirit captured in Malaysia and carried back to Europe in the hull of a wooden ship that shuddered and splintered as the demon crashed against the bulkheads. Sweaty Portuguese sailors squirmed in their hammocks, dreaming of bright knives in dark fists.

serat damar wulan

Amours
When he begins to tell his love,
Through every vein my passions move,
The captive of his tongue:
In midnight shades, on frosty ground,
I could attend the pleasing sound,
Nor should I feel December cold,
Nor think the darkness long.
– Isaac Watts


Angel Comforter, messenger, sword of flame. To Rilke you were terrifying; to Pinsky you are too barbarous for heaven / And too preposterous for belief on earth. In Austria, you caught me when I fell from a tree. In the sad and solitary darkness of my apartment, I called upon you to frighten away the creeping things on the other side of the door. In the hollow square I felt your hand upon my shoulder as I beat out the rhythm of the notes, my right hand rising and falling in time to your dreadful wings.

angel

Antler Tool and talisman, sharpened against a tree or shorn with steel cable. Dancer at the edge of the campfire.

Apophatic
Who is it that stands before me, the emperor demanded.
I do not know, came the reply.

Did he chuckle when he said it? Did he proclaim it, eyes blazing in defiance? I like to think he whispered it. It doesn’t matter anyway; he probably never existed. And yet, and yet, I remember a cold morning in Litchfield when I was falling asleep on my cushion and Adam struck the bell and I was the one who rang.

Alpine Gold-shot white – “albus” – spiraling up stark against deepest blue. Butterflies like droplets of blood on snow.

alpine glaciers c 1915

Apricot Long vowel. Brown sunlight at the back of the tongue.

Atrium Open space in the center, collector of light and air, blood intake of the heart.

atrium

Aubade
I know my leaving in the breakfast table mess.  
Bowl spills into bowl: milk and bran, bread crust  
crumbled. You push me back into bed.

More “honey” and “baby.”
Breath you tell my ear circles inside me,  
curls a damp wind and runs the circuit
of my limbs. I interrogate the air, 

smell Murphy’s Oil Soap, dog kibble.
No rose. No patchouli swelter. And your mouth—  
sesame, olive. The nudge of your tongue
behind my top teeth.

To entirely finish is water entering water.
Which is the cup I take away?

More turning me. Less your arms reaching
around my back. You ask my ear
where I have been and my body answers,
all over kingdom come.
- Amber Flora Thomas

Augury A lone swallow flutters against a low line of clouds. A stubby finger finds a bloody button in the steaming slickness of a squirrel’s stomach. What does the water say? What do the stars? Fuck the future. Just tell us what to do, what not to do.

rock heart

Someone Once Told Me: “Keep Seeing”

Photo by Mario Cacciottolo, courtesy of Someone Once Told Me

Mario Cacciottolo wants to hear what you have to say. Or rather, he wants to know what you’ve heard from others, and why their words have stuck with you.

The London-based Maltese photographer travels the world with his camera, giving the people he meets large pieces of white paper and asking them to write down something they were told. Cacciottolo records them telling the story behind their choice and photographs them holding up the paper bearing the words they selected. He then posts the photo and audio to his website and moves on.

Since Cacciottolo began the Someone Once Told Me project in 2006, he’s traveled from Cape Town to Chiang Mai and from Sydney to San Marino, where he has captured a staggeringly diverse range of fellow humans willing to share the words of wisdom – or pain, or humor, or inspiration – they’ve picked up in the course of their lives.

In March 2014, the SOTM World Tour stopped in Baltimore, where my wife and I were introduced to Cacciottolo by a mutual friend. The interviews took place in Club Charles, the legendary local watering hole frequented by John Waters (who was actually sitting at the bar when I paid my tab). In addition to offering our own SOTM entries, we were treated to stories of globetrotting exploits by Cacciottolo and his traveling companion Kate McCulley, who pens the Adventurous Kate travel blog.

For my SOTM submission, I broke a cardinal rule of Zen Buddhist practice: never reveal what your teacher told you behind the closed doors of dokusan. If the wheel of karma comes off its axle and lands me in a spiritual ditch, at least I’ll know why, I suppose. The written description on the SOTM site loses a bit in translation, so if you’re interested in hearing the arcana of formal zen practice from an apostate student, click on the audio link.

As someone who is fascinated by storytelling in all its permutations, I’m thrilled by the SOTM project. The stories that accompany each entry, and the people behind those stories, are at once wildly disparate and yet reassuringly similar. Individuals from completely different nationalities, ethnicities, and life experiences share messages of faith and despair, bitterness and hope. In the succinct combinations of words and images, the project demonstrates how we’re all shaped in subtle and powerful ways by the things we’ve been told.

In that country he was an officer of cavalry

A single soldier on his horse, during a cavalry patrol in World War I. At the start of the war every major army had a substantial cavalry, and they performed well at first. However, the development of barbed wire, machine guns and trench warfare soon made attacks from horseback far more costly and ineffective on the Western Front. Cavalry units did prove useful throughout the war in other theatres though, including the Eastern Front, and the Middle East. (National Library of Scotland)

The latest installment in The Atlantic‘s excellent World War I in Photos series is a poignant collection of pictures with the subtitle Animals at War. Alan Taylor, editor of the magazine’s In Focus photography blog, selected a handful of images that depict cavalry horses, which one would expect – WWI marked the last time that horses were used on such a massive scale in warfare – as well as carrier pigeons, messenger dogs, and even an elephant from the Hamburg Zoo, which was employed by the Germans to remove tree trunks.

The photos are heartbreaking because they show how the cyclone of war not only devastates human beings and their creations, but pulls up all manner of other life into its deadly radius. An Indian elephant, from the Hamburg Zoo, used by Germans in Valenciennes, France to help move tree trunks in 1915. As the war dragged on, beasts of burden became scarce in Germany, and some circus and zoo animals were requisitioned for army use. (Nationaal Archief) Most images from the so-called Great War are so iconic that they have lost their immediacy to the contemporary viewer; the mustachios, spiked helmets, oversized caisson wheels, barbed wire, and muddy trenches belong to a age no longer recognizable to many of us. These days, the images sent back from front lines around the world are crisp and super-saturated, or shaky and pixelated. The people in those images wear jeans and t-shirts. Those of us in the industrialized West can deny their humanity or their relevance, but we can’t deny that they look, for the most part, like us, that the world and the moment they occupy are our world, our moment.

With vintage, black-and-white photographs from the First World War, it’s harder to span that chasm of time. That’s why these photos of animals drafted into military service are so haunting. Human hairstyles and clothing fashions may change, but dogs always look the same, even if they’re wearing backpacks with medical supplies or harnesses that unspool electrical wire. One can’t help but see in them our own pets. People may have their rationales for armed conflict, but animals have no agency, so seeing them in harm’s way strikes the viewer as particularly cruel.

By making us pause and consider the brief, disrupted lives of those dogs and cats and horses, the photos prompt us to look with new eyes on the people in them, to consider their humanity afresh. The British soldier pulling bandages from a dog’s pack ceases to be a semiotic of vanished wartime Europe, and resumes his place as an individual person who lived and died. Bandages retrieved from the kit of a British Dog, ca. 1915. (Library of Congress) Look at him. He could be as old as his early fifties or as young as his mid-thirties. His close-cropped hair is growing thin and grey at the sides. His angular features, dominated by an impressive, aquiline nose that appears to have been broken at some point, have been accentuated by lines of dreadful experience. War has etched his forehead, hollowed his cheeks, scored deep pits under his eyes. The dog appears patient as the soldier rummages through its pack. No injuries are evident on the man, but pain is evident in the intentness of his expression and his splayed posture amid boughs of evergreen. The photograph offers no clue about the fate of either human or canine; we have no way of knowing if either of them survived the next battle or the one after that. All we can infer from the image is that they lived, went through trauma, and died.

The most dramatic image in this installment of The Atlantic‘s series is the first one: a lone trooper on horseback, silhouetted against an ominous sky. His features, and those of the horse, are in shadow. The scene is reminiscent of those statues in plazas and cemeteries throughout the world, in which bold warriors with steely glares pose triumphant on their proud mounts. But in this photograph, the soldier is angled forward, his back curved. He conveys not bravado so much as fatigued wariness. His is not the heroism of brazen statues, but of sore muscles and bloodshot eyes.

Imagining the person behind the shadow calls to mind a poem by Czeslaw Milosz.

Incarnated

In that country he was an officer of cavalry.
He used to frequent good families, even the countess P.
He had boots well polished, a breakfast served
By his orderly, a smart boy from a village.
Girls. More of them than anywhere, the garrison was huge.
Some of them on their own, in rented rooms,
Others in the care of a polite madame
Who greets you under a pink lamp shade
And recommends the hot Irma, the milkwhite Katherine.
A horse dances under him at a review, bells ring,
The clergy strolls in a procession, children pour a powder of flowers.
Life there was as it should be. The seasons
Decked the streets with brightness, with the copper of leaves, with white.
Peasants from the neighborhood, in sheepskin overcoats
Belted with colorful wool, in bast shoes,
Thongs on the leggings, displayed their products.
Nothing beyond that can be said. He lived, once,
On the pages of chronicles, under a different wind,
Under a different conjunction of stars, though on the same
Earth which, as they say, is a goddess.
(Berkeley, 1988)

The soldier and the horse lived, once, as we all do. They eventually died, as we all will. In the interval were love and horror, days of mud and miracles, and skies of rushing clouds shot through with sunlight.

On visiting the Kelmscott Bookshop for the first time in ten years

kelmscott1

Stepping into the Kelmscott Bookshop is like entering a womb. The atmosphere is close, the sounds of traffic on 25th Street are suddenly muffled, absorbed by the rows and rows of volumes that stretch from floor to ceiling. A radio set to the local classical music station emits periodic bursts of static, as if the signal was struggling to reach some faraway location: an underground bunker or another period in time. A couple of cats meander through the shop with an air of bored indifference. kelmscott4 My ex-wife, who introduced me to the Kelmscott when we first started dating twenty years ago, considered it one of Baltimore’s hidden delights. She discovered the shop as a high school student, finding it an oasis within a troubled city, a sanctuary from peers and relatives who would never understand her. She showed off her adolescent refuge with delighted pride. On our first trip there, I bought her a volume of John Donne.

So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares; but now ’tis not so.

Or perhaps she bought it for me. Or was it a different book? The Donne, which today sits on the bookshelf in my apartment, is the sort of book that you buy at the Kelmscott: clothbound, well preserved, redolent of the past. It’s possible, amid the musty stacks, to find a discounted, mass-market paperback with foxed pages and a creased, whitened spine, but it strikes me as an affront to purchase such a thing at a specialty bookstore, like ordering French fries at a Chinese restaurant. I dislike sentimentality toward objects, but I haven’t been able to open the Donne since we separated. kelmscott2

Floorboards creak loudly underfoot as I climb the stairs leading away from the fiction and poetry and up to the rooms housing the sciences, philosophy, art, and travel. The pungency of cat urine surges and recedes as I move from room to room, becomes eye-wateringly unpleasant in the history section. The fact that the strongest concentration of piss seems to be in front of the shelves housing German history makes me more forgiving of the cats. I can’t remember whether the store had cats when she and I used to come here together. I seem to remember her kneeling down to pet one, but that’s only because she loved cats so much, and because old bookstores and cats go together. I certainly don’t recall the pee smell.

I expected my first visit to the shop in nearly a decade to awaken memories that I would prefer to remain dormant, but it’s like visiting any other antiquarian bookstore. Or rather it’s like visiting every antiquarian kelmscott3bookstore. This warren of rooms, the threadbare carpeting, the motley assortment of bookcases, could be stuffed just as easily inside a house in Boston or Berryville as in this deceptively large rowhome in Baltimore. A glimpse through a window offers a sense as to the location of this particular store, but even at that, the clues are generic: a grey street, dark with rain; a graffiti-scrawled dumpster; a couple of desultory pigeons. I imagine that the rooms and corridors of all these stores are interconnected at some metaphysical level, that if I am not careful, I will eventually emerge on the streets of a different city, or else become lost forever among the stacks.

(That’s actually been one of my favorite fantasies ever since I can remember: I walk down a hallway, I round a corner, and suddenly I’m somewhere else, another place, another time. The idea had such a hold on me as a child that I felt keen disappointment whenever I would open a door and find nothing on the other side but whatever I had expected to find.) kelmscott5 The first time I visited the Kelmscott, I was struck by the churchlike quiet, a hush that was tacitly enforced by the unsmiling employees who appeared vaguely exasperated by the intrusion of a stranger into their sanctum. Now there are new employees, new owners, but I have the same feeling of being an interloper whose trespass is suffered only grudgingly. One of the shop cats follows me from room to room, as if to keep me from shoplifting.

I think I was mistaken about the Donne: it’s not on the bookshelf. I could have sworn I saw it there just the other day, but when I looked for it, I couldn’t spot its blue cover anywhere, even though I searched in every room of the house. But that is to come. Right now, I’m still in the Kelmscott, flipping through a copy of Lost Baltimore Landmarks: A Portfolio of Vanished Buildings, by Carleton Jones. This edition seems old, even though it was published in my lifetime.

Old books are not merely repositories of information, but conduits for a myriad of subtle, sensual pleasures: the rough texture of a yellowed page under an index finger; a rich aroma of dust and mold; spidery notes scribbled in marSaucer Magnolia in the Martyrs' Mirrorgins by people who are most likely dead; the unpleasant crackle of aged plastic covers; the soft rustle of a bookmark or photograph or postcard dropping from its hiding place between the pages, where it has nestled undisturbed for years, or else has been carefully replaced time and again by browsers who flipped through the book before returning it to its spot on the shelf. Old books accrete ephemera. It’s more satisfying to tuck a flower or a ticket stub between the pages of an old book than a new book. Old books become junk drawers, coffers, arks for the little detrita we collect and secret away like magpies. Baltimore Auditorium They make the perfect gifts because they are usually portable and affordable, and imply an intellectual bond between the giver and recipient. If you give someone an old book, a hardbound one with an elaborate frontispiece, you are trying to convey the impression that you understand her on some deep level, that you know her thoughts and emotions better than other people do. When I left her, which hurt like a cracked sternum, I took my books. Not the ones that we had bought together or the ones I had bought for her, but the ones I had bought for myself. Maybe that’s why I can’t find the Donne: it was one that I’d given to her and I wouldn’t have taken it back.

The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.

Retracing my steps to the entrance, I become momentarily disoriented. The shelves of books all look the same, and I can’t remember if I’m supposed to turn left or right. But that only lasts for a couple of heartbeats, and I make my way to the cash register with the day’s haul: a book of Robert Herrick poems, a biography of Chateaubriand, and, for my wife, a book of Yousuf Karsh’s photographs of her native Canada. On impulse, while waiting for the dour attendant to make her way over from the other room, I decide to purchase a print of Aubrey Bodine’s “Eclipse Over Mt. Vernon Place,” which was shot nearly 70 years ago from a vantage point just a few hundred yards from the office where I’m typing these words.

Browsing completed and purchases made, I hesitate before leaving the Kelmscott. I want to linger a while in this hiding place out of time, among the books and the scratchy classical music and the wary cats. Outside everything is cold, loud, and unfriendly. I know I can’t stay, and anyway I don’t even really want to. When you get down to it, what’s the difference between this side of the door and the other? All I know is that I will be different when I return.

donne