Recently I was sitting at my computer lacking in creativity, but with the urge to write when I started thinking about the recent influx of books with titles such as A History of the United States in 100 Objects that substitute collage for traditional linear narrative. The idea is that looking at a number of objects or events allows a writer to convey the flavor of an era without actually having to come up with any kind of actual analysis. Given that imagination had abandoned me, it seemed like the perfect scaffolding that I needed. I looked around the room in which I work, colloquially known as “the library” in my family, and thought that, indeed, the objects that one surrounds one with (assuming they are not just for show) taken as a collage, does give a pretty good flavor of the person who occupies it. As an exercise for myself, I have come up with the following piece, “Ten Objects in My Library.”
Cribbage board – The cribbage board sitting in front of me was given to me by my daughter Maura. It has a wooden bear carved into the side that recalls its origin in the state of
Washington. Cribbage is one of those games that takes me
back to childhood. I can’t remember when
I learned but it was at least as far back as when I was in sixth grade because
my parents definitely played then.
Though it is generally a two person game and I could play with either my
Mom or Dad, when my brother Steve got old enough we would play doubles.
Cribbage was one of those games that always brought joy to my mother. Even when she was old and could barely see,
she would still say that she could beat the pants off of me. And she was
right. If I want to smile, I just think
of Mom playing cribbage. At one time I
think that all of my kids new how to play but now my only partner is Maya, and,
of course, she has her own life. When
she comes to stay for a couple of days, though, we will get out the cribbage
board early in the morning. With are both competitive card plays, so our games
never fail to make us laugh as we talk about how all of our various strategies
failed. I’m glad that she is carrying on
Sculpture – On a shelf eye-level with me between the end of the bookshelf and a bookend that holds the books I used for my doctoral dissertation is a ceramic sculpture of a woman from the shoulders up. Her skin is the color of cream, her hair back in a bun and she wears a necklace like a choker. The sculpture was made for me by my daughter Melissa. It has a vague resemblance to her and I am reminded of her whenever I turn to look at it. It reminds me that Melissa, in addition to being talented in music has tried her hands at all kinds of artistic endeavors. Like me, she is a bit of a short distance runner. She gets fired up about a new endeavor and it occupies her thoughts non-stops, then at some point a new interest grabs her and she moves on to something else.
World Map – Behind me on the wall is a large World Map given to me by Pat and his family for Christmas over a decade ago. It reads “The World Travels of Mike and Lora Northen.” It is dotted with red pushpins that stand for all the places that we have visited together and a blue flag for our next destination, which right now is stuck in
Rico for our upcoming family trip this summer. There are options for “dream travel
destinations” (yellow pins) and favorite destination. Neither of these latter are marked – and for
a similar reason. I can not really
decide which are best or where my dream destinations would be. I loved Botswana,
Jordan and Peru but there
have been many wonderful times in other places.
I think for example of on our trip to Prague when Melissa and I went in
to see an Mozart’s Opera “Don Juan” in its original venue or when I saw Pearl
Harbor and where my father’s boat had been on the day of the attack. As for
dream destinations, there are many places that I would like to go. I think of Australia
but also simply of being able to go to Idaho
and spend time with my brother Ed. In a
certain sense, it does not really matter since despite all of the pins in the
map, very few (if any) are from places that I decided that I wanted to go
to. Many are trips that Lora and I were
fortunate enough to be able to go to because of Maya’s travel conferences.
Still others are tied to trips that Lora was able to take through her work and
bring me along on. A few were family
vacations, but they were all (as is the one in Puerto Rico),
vacations where Lora took the lead and planned them. That is not to say that I
did not have input, but it was pretty much embroidery. Most of the red pins are in the United States or Europe, but there are a few in
South America, Africa and the Middle East. Asia is bare, though. Maybe that should be the dream
Picture of Mom – On my right on the bottom row of the book shelf next two ten years forth of Wordgathering is a framed black and white picture of my mom as a one year old. She is naked other than a diaper which can’t be seen from the position in which she is sitting. She has a round face topped with very blond hair that seems to be blown by the wind to her right side. She is seated on towel or blanket in a large prairie-like field of dry grass. Her tongue is sticking out and in her hand she is holding the handle of an object that she is pressing against her tongue with a mischievous expression or an expression of daring on her face. She is squinting from the sun which shines on her face and her round Buddha belly. The picture is actually an enlargement that my Eli made for me as a gift from an older print. It keeps me grounded, letting me realize something of where Mom came from that she, too, was a child at one time. (In the room - it is actually set in counterpoint to a pencil drawing that Eli made of Mom in her twenties from a black white photo.)
Plants – To the left, on the window sill, sitting above the radiators is a plastic box divided into 32 spaces (4 x 8) with a lid that will close over it and snap. The individual boxes are filled with potting soil and from some of them, plant seedlings stick up. I call this box my seed box. One of the uses, the more practical one, is to be able to start seeds inside before the weather outside is ready for me to do so, but the more exciting one is the experimental uses to which I put it. I test out seeds. The bulk of the seeds are seeds that I have collected from food or flowers grown the previous year, as well old seeds purchased in various places in the past. I chart the seeds to see if they are still viable or not and which ones I should grow next year. Even more exciting to me, though is testing out any new seeds that I have collected from various places that I have traveled during the year. It is a case of where native curiosity trumps environmental concerns. While I know that plants should be left in the environment in which they grow best and don’t do any damage to a new environment they are put into, I am fascinated to see what will grow and just how it will look as it is growing. It is also a nostalgic endeavor since when things do grow, it reminds me of places that I have been and trips that I taken to see family. Many don’t last, but some do, such as the red swamp mallow from a trip down to
Island many years ago.
Picture of Maya – Up near the top of the bookshelf is a 5 x 7 picture of Maya, that is sliding slightly downward in an old cardboard frame. In the picture Maya is probably about ten years old. She is wearing a purple coat with her long hair flowing over her shoulders. She appears to be leaning sideways against a mirror because to her left is a perfect reflection of her to which she seems almost attached. In reality, the picture was taken up at the top of the
Building in New York and she is leaning against the
glass barrier between the inside of the building and the viewing deck
beyond. It was the first time I had ever
been to the top of the ,
many years before any of us traveled abroad.
Only a year or so later, I used this picture for the cover of a chapbook
that I put out when I was editing Chimera. I think that almost everyone in the family
has forgotten but in the early 1990’s, prior to ever getting involved with
Inglis House or Wordgathering, I
founded and edited a quarterly magazine for young poets called Chimera that lasted two or three years. In addition to the magazine itself, I printed
a summer chapbook that featured the work of four teenage writers who seemed to
show a lot of promise. The first one was
called The Girl in the Glass. Empire
Puzzle – On the large wooded work table behind me is a jigsaw puzzle that I am in the midst of working. It is called Northen Family Puzzle #2 and is a 1000 piece puzzle that I had created from a collage of about twenty five family photographs that I put together. To at least as far back as when I was in the fifth grade my family had puzzles in the house. By the time that we moved to the family’s eventual final home in
Orange, we would frequently have a card table
set up in the dining room with a puzzle on it.
As various family members walked by they would stop and try to find a
piece of the puzzle and, addictive personality that I am, a quick stop to find
one piece could easily turn into half an hours.
Just a few years ago, for some reason I picked up a puzzle in a store
and the addition was renewed. It was
taken to great heights, however, when I realized that I could create my own and
have it made. I am not in the least
creative, but what I am good at is organizing.
I love taking material and reshaping it, forming into something new,
especially if it helps to being out new associations or relationships. I started by creating puzzles for some of my
children by searching through old photographs (research and archiving are other
passions of mine) to try to create a visual impression of their lives. Then I went on to creating some for myself
about family vacations or just the family in general. In this last one, I tried to include all of
my children and grandchildren as well as Lora and my mom, getting in at least two
pictures of each and, by in large, showing amusing or interesting
situations. In working them, I love
looking at the faces of each person in the puzzle, remembering the times that
we spent in the particularly situation that that photograph depicts.
Frame of BIAV Flyer – Directly behind my right shoulder on the wall is a framed picture of a promotional flyer for Beauty is a Verb, complete with book cover, blurbs and my name as one of the authors. Lora printed it out and had it framed for me. Of all the objects around the room, it is probably the one that reflects more than any other something that I have personally accomplished. I think that everyone knows the story. I was on a conference panel – my first ever – for AWAP called Beauty is a Verb. I’d been invited by Sheila Black to be on the panel because of my work on Wordgathering. I was the only male member of the panel. Just prior to the panel itself we went out to breakfast (Maya was there with me) and in passing mentioned the possibility of an anthology. Shortly after returning home from the conference, I found out that I needed to have heart surgery. I delayed the surgery for a couple of weeks while we had our family trip to
Spain. After having the surgery on my return, I came
home from the hospital to a message that Sheila and Jennifer Bartlett had
started on an anthology and wanted me to join them. A year later in 2011, the book came out. In many ways, it has validated muc of the
work I have done over the past years.
Having a book that I could walk into a book store and be able to see on
the shelf finally made me feel like a real writer. Since then, according to World Cat, the book
has been included in over 430 libraries around the world.
iPod – To my left on the bottom shelf is a small, black round iPod station. It is empty now which means that the iPod itself (an old one) is up in the kitchen where I was probably listening to music while cooking. I have had this one forever – I think that Lora originally got it for me for a Christmas gift – and it no longer even sync’s with my computer nor and the devise that plugged it into the cigarette lighter of my car and allowed me to listen to the songs there is broken. Nevertheless it still continues to serve me well. I’m completely unsophisticated in music and my tastes run to sentimental; nevertheless, the mixture of music on the iPod might have some scratching their heads: blues, classical, zydeco, pop, world, rock, jazz, opera, art songs, country, R & B, alternative, show tunes, even old school rap. I have my favorites, of course, but I never know what will connect with me on any given day. Though, I’ll never be one of those people walking around with ear buds stuck in their ears – there is too much of the world to see and pay attention too - music is able to unlock and free something in me that nothing else can touch. There are times when they kick up memories or emotions in which I become completely lost.
Great Books – Behind the desk where I am sitting is a small shelf with a collection of fifty-four books called The Great Books of the Western World. The set is pretty well beaten up but I am never likely to get rid of them. I’ve told the story of how I got them often. It was just after the summer of ninth great and I was looking through a magazine and saw an add for a set of books that include Darwin, Homer and the other classics of the western canon. A card was included that said I could send away for more information, so I dropped it in the mail. To my complete mortification, several days later a salesman showed up at the door. This was when we were still living with my grandparents and my Dad had just returned home after a long absence. They had almost no money. They listened patiently, with me being a typical teenager talking about how much I wanted them, and to their everlasting credit, they bought them for me. Around $500 – a king’s ransom in those days. They’ve stood me in good stead, as a resource through all kinds of high school and college projects and as a surrogate social life when I switch high schools in eleventh grade. They have traveled with me through the many places that I have moved in my adult life. I have to admit, I still have not read them all.
Of course, no one’s life can be summed up in ten objects or a hundred, and the resulting picture might have been a bit more objective it I had randomly thrown ten darts and used the objects in which they stuck as my base rather than picking some that I’m more emotionally connected too, but it has been an interesting exercise. Should I throw down the gauntlet and ask, what ten objects you’d pick from your room?