Two extraordinary hand-made books have landed on my desk recently, one printed conventionally but written in the author's fluid calligraphy and illustrated from her field-journals, and the other entirely hand-made, even the paper.
The first, a revised edition of Barbara Bash's beloved True Nature: An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude, chronicles a spiritual journey and an artistic one, as Bash makes clear up front:
This is the story of four solitary retreats spent in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. During these times I practiced sitting meditation and nature journaling. Both activities are contemplative, developing awareness and attentiveness to the world. I wanted to see how they might weave together when mixed with the simplicity and starkness of solitude.
True Nature is simply beautiful, and as adventurous as the author finds herself to be. Sometimes the words become BIG, sometimes they dance around on the page, sometimes they stand out in bright colors.
Bash is candid about the difficulties of her solitary retreats, the fears that rush in uninvited, including a debilitating fear of the dark discovered years before in her only previous solitary retreat.
She is tests that fear, but the darkness defeats her each time. Finally, on her final session, she realizes she can "enter [the woods] at twilight and let the darkness gather around me.” She climbs onto a flat rock and waits,
my heart ... beating fast, my breath high in my chest. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of what I can’t see. ... Relax the brow. Relax the mind. Sitting, watching, listening.
The pages of the book itself trace the gathering dusk, shifting from ivory to a purplish watercolor wash, to deepest gray and then black with tiny stars and white writing. Bash stays through her fears until she "feels her way" off the rock in complete darkness:
Just as I step out of the woods, a bat banks and turns right in front of my face; its soft wings beat the air against my cheek. It feels like a salute.
(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)
Resilience, the other book, came like a gift out of the air, a small package in my post box wrapped in pink handmade paper, from an unfamiliar address. I carried it home and opened it carefully, making sure to not damage the wrappings. Inside was a book and this note:
Dear Susan, I have been wanting to give this to you since I made it. Please accept it as a token of thanks for sharing all you have been living through. After having my first book published this fall, I admire your work even more! with love, Aimee
I held the book tenderly and read it through, even the hand-lettered colophon. Then I went to Aimee's website and looked through her work. (Watch this video of her building a traditional Korean papermaking studio and teaching how to make the paper. Fiber-folk, check out her knitted books!)
A free-form poem written in pencil on just nine two-page spreads, Resilience is brief. But wise. And beautiful.
Here is the entire text, with apologies that I cannot achieve Aimee's gorgeous word-placement on the page:
There are the famous words about
your one wild and precious life* (footnote: *Mary Oliver)
and those about how life is like getting into a boat that's just
about to sail out to sea and sink* (footnote: *Suzuki)
There are words,
so many words.
So many words in the world.
when you are lying in bed
deciding if it is best for the hot tears to run into your ears or
onto the pillow,
more than words course through your body.
Then you pick up the pencil
and return to words.
I read the key Aimee had included detailing what fibers each paper was made from and where it was made. And lay on the couch thinking that the world is full of such love and beauty and that sometimes we humans rise and embrace those qualities. Breaking our hearts open--intentionally or not--invites that goodness in, changing us in ways we cannot imagine.