Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Here at Arrowhead

Here I am at Arrowhead. I am sitting at a table in Herman Melville’s study, looking out the same window he looked out as he wrote Moby Dick. I am listening to the cars speeding by, a sound he surely was not troubled by when he did his writing. What a busy road is Holmes Road. I’m not sure Herman would approve.

I feel a little strange, my macbook sitting atop the table here in his study, but the curators assure me that were there macbooks available when Herman sat here, he would have used one too.

I have evoked his spirit and thanked him for this opportunity to sit here. I hope I can do him justice.

The mountain is covered with fog today, so I can barely see the outline. No whale, just mist-covered hills through the wavy glass. My own house once had windows of wavy glass. I am sick sometimes with the knowledge of what a carpenter did to those gems.

My house was built in 1810 and those old windows let in the chill air through every crack and crevasse. And I was always cold. As cold as the inhabitants from days gone by. As cold as Herman probably was here in his study on a winter’s day. And so, 1995 replacement windows were installed. In retrospect, I wish I had had the money to reglaze, repaint, reinstall, and add efficient storms over those 19th century beauties.

But modern impatience ruled the day, which I now rue, and double-paned insulated windows pushed out the old. The house was warmer, but colder too, with its new charm-lacked view. No distortions, no cracks, no waves or bubbles, no antique charm.

It makes me sad to remember how the carpenter flung the old windows into a waiting receptacle. A dumpster. Smashed and broken they were by the time I got home from work. Not one pane worth saving. I cried, but faulted only myself for not making sure these treasures were saved. Put in the old 1847 shed. Something. And now I am selling my two hundred and two year-old farmhouse and the new owners will never even have the option of putting the original windows back where they belong. They are gone.

But now I am here, looking out Herman Melville’s wavy glass panes. They make me dizzy with distortion and pleasure. It’s almost three o’clock, a time I was told that he would have stopped writing for the day. The sun is moving toward the west and the natural light, the only light that fills this room is waning. But I’m going to stay here as long as I can and enjoy his essence. I get chills when I think about him, sitting here where I am sitting, quill pen in hand, pondering.

There’s a harpoon by the window, leaning up against a bookcase filled with leather bound books. On the table are quill pens and an inkwell, a candle in a silver candlestick and a pair of spectacles.  There are some papers, letters from 1850. May 14th to be exact. My Dear Dana – I thank you very heartily for your friendly letter; and am more pleased now…
It is a struggle to read the writing, but the letter is signed, H Melville.
I wonder who Dana is.

The Hemlock trees are swaying and Mt. Greylock is even less visible than when I started writing.  On the wall is a framed piece of writing by two men, along with a pen and ink drawing of this same window with its view. Here is what it says:
to be in & of the weather
not a thing out there
but here emanating
& I a part
partaking of it
the cold, bitter cold of the past few days
the pipes froze, & no water
the heat in the house being only what we made
with our hands, wood, that is
weather being not something out there
but in & of us, I
the house & winter
            Paul Metcalf 1917-1999
And then…
“I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is covered with snow. I look out my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship on the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin, & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail in this house, & I had better go on the roof & rig the chimney.”
Herman Melville 1819-1891    Quote from a letter to Evert Duyckinck December 13, 1850

Well, all I can say is, I’m glad I’m starting this residency in the spring. Even then, it’s chilly in here. But I’m warm enough.
Jana Laiz April 9, 2012

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sitting With Melville

I am reading Moby Dick again. The first time I read it I was in high school and I did not fully appreciate the scope nor the depth of the writing. Between then and now I have read many, many books by many, many authors. Dickens, Austen, Bronte, L’Engle, Gabaldon, Rowling, Berg, Collins and Stockett to name a few. I have always been more partial to English literature than to American, but it seems fitting that I should read this American classic again before I sit at Melville’s desk and set to write. Yes, you read that correctly. I have been given the distinct honor to sit at Herman Melville’s desk, to look out the wavy glass window he looked out while writing his famed tale and write my own story.

I have been chosen to be the first Writer-in-Residence at Melville’s beloved Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The curator, Betsy, gave me a private tour yesterday and when I entered the study where I will be privileged to write, I felt an energy fill my body that took my breath away. I was moved to tears. Melville is there still. I felt his presence.
My mind is bursting with ideas for my new project and my fingers are itching to start, but I think I will wait to begin in earnest until I am seated at his desk. And there, I will ask Herman Melville to guide me through the process.