A poem for the first Sunday of Advent

This Advent Moon

by Christina Rossetti

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.

The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”

One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
“All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.”

One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”

Source: Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, ed. R. W. Crump (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), pp. 62-64.
https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/this_advent_moon_shines_cold_and.htm

Saturday morning jazz

No-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf finally installed

Saturday mornings. The work week is done. Sunrise is an hour or more away. The windows open. And have been all week. Unusual for this time of year and this part of the country. Birds create a pre-dawn cacophony in the evergreens outside the windows to the east.

The oldest kidlinger is up early doing laundry. Needs clean clothes for work later today. We move about the apartment quietly.

Saturday mornings are time for jazz. Brubeck. Coltrane. Evans. Tatum. But it is too early for Saturday morning jazz. It is time for stillness. A time to plan, think, and meditate. 

* * *

Conversations from the week come to mind. What makes a good book?

There are good books. Or at least, interesting books. There are poorly written books. And bad books. Meaning stylistically bad (as in the content is unsuccessfully researched, appallingly argued, or intentionally misleading). There are well-written books with poorly argued thesis statements. There are dull books with good data. And there is a bookshelf that holds them together. 

The no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf collects a portion of my library. The space between the work-from-home station and the vintage stereo is the new home of the bookshelf. The summer therapy project was completed so late that the intended use for the bookshelf for school materials was no longer relevant. 

The relevance is now my education. My continuing education in art, science and religion. Essentially, philosophy. What is truth? And, how do I know it? Variations on a theme. A book about technology. Another about project and time management. The top shelf nearly all books of poetry and essays. Some memoirs and novels. Several books on theology and spirituality. Books by American writers. British writers. And German writers.

The second shelf. A mix of poetry, fiction, essays, art and design. The third shelf. Memoirs, classical education, technology, theology, and philosophy. 

Reading an abundance of books does not make an individual well-read. Reading great books does not make one well-read. Understanding the great conversation makes a reader well-read. 

* * *

“I don’t read books,” he said. I did not know what to say. “I read the newspaper. Mainly the sports page. But that’s it.” 

I recalled the conversation from a few years ago. At lunch. On the patio of the Knickerbocker Hotel. The thought appalled me. Not the person. He’s a good guy. But no book reading? How is that possible?

And I know how this happens. Happened. Long days of work. Long commute. Family responsibilities. Community engagement. And other demands. Priorities need to be made in order to set and accomplish goals. 

* * *

Found myself in the recliner. Everyone asleep. It was late. The lamp near the recliner was on. All other lights were off. The apartment was dark. A copy of the New Yorker on my chest. The record player was on. Three records on the platter. Waiting to be reloaded on the center spindle.

I had fallen asleep. Midway through the tables for two section of the magazine. Could not even keep my eyes open. Did I eat supper? Or dream of eating it? Or dream of reading that I ate it?  

Who has time to read legacy publications? Will try again on the weekend.

I folded the magazine cover to the back so that the page I had read was open. And placed it on the top of the bookshelf to read later. Then turned off the lamp. 

* * *

How did it get to be noon? How did it get to be Saturday?

The sun is bright. Warm November breeze rattles the remaining brown leaves on the tree outside. Art Tatum plays from the record player.

I return a small book to the bookshelf. I place it open on the top shelf of the no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf I built this summer. The shelves are deep. At least a foot deep. Could hold two rows of standard-sized paperback books.

I place the book open on the top shelf. A reminder for me to return to the passage that captured my attention. Imagination. A bread crumb trail back to an idea.

The next vinyl record drops down the spindle. Bill Evens. Peace Piece. It is Saturday morning jazz slouching toward afternoon.

 

 

Three-tone stained pallet wood bookshelf

Summer therapy project, part five

With the scenes from Eastern and Western literature burned into the side boards, I added three shades of of wood stain. Three tones if you will: gray, green, and dark brown. And a little bit of white oil paint for the moon. Maybe the addition of white paint was too much — a flourish, embellishment. No take backs. What is done is done. Only two more steps remain: wood finish and installation. 

I am a little embarrassed by how long it took to build and decorate this no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf. And yet, the process was enjoyable, painful, and therapeutic. 

 

Summer therapy project, part four

In the back of my mind I wanted the artwork on the bookshelf to be imperceptible. To be part of the wood. To appear as if it were coming out from the wood. Something that a casually observer might miss. But an astute observer would cast a second and a third glance and then walk up close to inspect the nearly hidden image.

Instead of painting the scenes on to the bookshelf, I chose woodburning. The results surprised me. And my kidlingers. The long process of transforming the graphite sketches into dramatic burnt dark figures amazed them. And the craft and process of making the art renewed my imagination.

Too often I spend my day in front of a screen reading, researching and replying to emails. It’s knowledge work. It’s spreadsheets, production reports, and project management. These are all important elements in the workflow of art direction and graphic design. But they can become a psychic vampire as one coworker likes to say. And this summer therapy project was part of the remedy.

Literary scenes from the East and the West

 

Summer therapy project, part three

What is a challenge if it is too easily accomplished? Why not decorate the salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf?

Who suggested the idea is forgotten. Whether it was one of the kidlingers, or my wife, or myself is not important. But through the summer week nights and weekends a conversation took place as to decorating the bookshelf.

Since the bookshelf was intended to house schoolbooks, I decided to draw a scene inspired from Eastern literature and a scene inspired from Western literature.

Earlier in the year I had been reading Tu Fu, the autobiography of a Chinese poet, translated by Florence Ayscough. The author records Tu Fu’s reflection of his early years,

“Aged nine, I wrote large characters
There were enough to fill a hard-bottomed bag.”

Tu Fu, from “Years of Strength Travel”

I intended on drawing a scene from that book. But decided upon Li Po instead. One poem captured my imagination.

I raise my cup to invite bright moon, . . .

I sing and the moon dances,
I dance, and my shadow tumbles
Sober, we share the joy we knew…”

from Li Po’s “Drinking Alone under the Moon”

I found a couple paintings of Li Po on the internet. That became the drawing for the Eastern side of the bookshelf.

For the Western side of the bookshelf, I selected the story of Daphne and the laurel tree. Years ago I acquired Myths and Enchantment Tales by Margaret Evens Price. During the first month of the safer-at-home orders from the state I rediscovered the book. The story of Cupid and Apollo caught my eye because of a detail I had overlooked. Peneus, the river god and father of Daphne, turned his daughter in to a tree in the forest to protect her from a love-struck Apollo. Price’s lovely illustration was the source of the inspiration. And gave me an excuse to play the woodgrain of the side boards into the illustration.

 

Salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf

Summer therapy project, part two

Jigsaw puzzles appeal to many people because the scrambled mess has a decisive solution. Usually, because the path to success is printed on the outside of the puzzle’s cardboard box. Build the edges first and then fill in the center. The strategy is fairly simple. The execution presents the delightful journey.

Building a bookshelf without plans is like dumping several jigsaw puzzles on to a table top, throwing away their cardboard boxes, and trying to create one solution from the many parts.

After selecting boards for the shelves, sides, supports, and legs, I started cutting the pieces to fit.

One of the therapeutic aspects of working with your hands is the tactile creation of the project. So much of what I do for a living is done by proxy. I design images for print and web. But I never touch the art. A pointer displayed on a screen by way of a handheld device that tracks two-dimensional motion allows me to design a variety of material. But it also presents a barrier. Glass, metal, and plastic separates me from the art I created. Should the art maker and the art object be divided in such a manner?

The physicality of this salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf presented joy. The smell of the sawdust. The feel of the drill boring into hardwood. The motion of sanding off the rough edges.

Sure, there were some mistakes. A board was too warped to use. Another board split when screwed in place. Four legs that do not match. But that is part of the riddle. Part of the delight.

When the assembled jigsaw pieces from several puzzles were set on the grass one weekend, it resembled a bookshelf.

Summer therapy project

 

It was as much a challenge as it was therapy. Discarded pallet wood salvaged from a curb. The pallets rested there for weeks. One of the kidlingers helped me load it in to the automobile and take it back to the apartment’s garage. The pallets were broken down into boards. Nails were removed. And boards stacked in order of length and thickness. As well as amount of damage. Some boards were broken. Others split when nails were removed. Some boards had mold while others had oil residue.

We formed plans. The kidlingers and I could build boxes. Handy, useful boxes. Boxes with handles. Boxes for storage. A doll house? What about a bookshelf? A bookshelf for schoolbooks.

And I needed something to do amid the quarantine. Something away from computer screens, teleconference video meetings, and email notifications. Americans adapted to local and state restrictions in order to mitigate the spread of the pandemic back in the Spring. Some worked from home. Set up remote offices at the kitchen table, basement desk, or spare room. For me, a window table I built in the bedroom became the office work space. Working and sleeping in the same room became claustrophobic. When the warm days of summer arrived I eagerly looked forward to the time of day when I turned off the computer, changed clothes, and went to the garage to work on a wood project.

I settled on building a few small boxes for starters. Something to get the hands and mind prepared for something bigger—a new bookshelf built from salvaged wood.

Raised cup to invite the moon

 

Bookshelf art – before and after

It was cold. A political rally mangled traffic downtown. Everything seemed off schedule. I missed the street car to the train station by minutes and had to walk. The winter weather depleted the battery of my smartphone. Commuters waited at the Intermodal. The last train of the night was late.

There was a special one-hour podcast on obscure tunes from the Real Book loaded on my smartphone. I wanted to listen to jazz music. But I didn’t want to run out of battery. In case the train was delayed. And I had to call my wife to pick me up.

The previous weekend I checked out a book of poetry from the public library. A collection of poems, translated into English, of Li Po. Before I knew it I had found a friend. The translator made it inviting to enter the world and work of Li Po.

Soon the train arrived and I boarded. Found a seat. Plugged my phone into the outlet. Opened the book and continued reading. The train passed over the river and had nearly cleared the Third Ward when I caught a glimpsed of the moon over Lake Michigan.

“I raise my cup to invite the bright moon, . . .” wrote Li Po.

Maybe that endured me to Li Po. Or at least inspired me to feature an illustration of Li Po on a bookshelf I built this summer.

There are a couple Li Po illustrations I made during the last year or so. But the one for the new bookshelf is the most ambitious and detailed. Maybe I will share some posts about the bookshelf project with you later. I had considered writing a series of short posts about how it all came together. Sort of a how-to, or how it was done, type of posts. But the story about why I chose to decorate the sides of the bookshelf seems to interest people more than how I built it.

As the nights grow longer and colder, the illustrated bookshelf is now installed in the living room.

Serious things

“What did you do last night?” she asked as we walked through the neighborhood in the pre-dawn moments of the day.

“I worked ’til six. Clocked out. Made supper. And spent a couple hours drawing.”

She did not say anything for a few dozen steps. She took the kidlingers on an adventure the night before. And she was tired.

I continued. “The challenge is that it takes me nearly an hour to set up. Not just gathering tools like pencil, ink, brush, illustration board, and setting up a space to work. But planning. Composing a page. Thumbnail sketches. Reference materials and such.”

She listened. We walked further. In the hour before sunrise, I looked East. I saw Venus. Or maybe Regulus. Possibly both.

“By the time everyone got home,” I said. “I had finished marking out a page and composing three panels.”

She told me about a conversation with the one of the kidlingers as we walked. We exchanged comments about plans for the day. We continued for a quarter mile or so before returning home.

Thoughts of last night’s drawings were pushed into the shadows of a day filled with choses sérieuses.

Try again another night

How long did I look at this drawing the other night? 15 minutes? 30 minutes?

Calculated the time it would take to complete the drawing. Did I have the time?

Considered if the time spent on this illustration was valuable.

Too late. A kidlinger requested help. Followed by a short list of other household chores.

The illustration was placed back in the portfolio with 60 other drawings in various stages of completion.

Try it again another night.