As I write this missive to you in January, the northwest is already hell bent on setting a record for rain this year. You may have heard: 28 straight days of rain in Seattle, the Nooksack and Skagit rivers flooding, mudslides closing down major thoroughfares. Students walk across campus shrouded in hoods like monks and everyone, even when inside and dry, still gives off faintly soggy emanations. But my windowboxes still sport a few brave pansies swimming in their peaty water, and the pussy willow in my backyard has seized the day, pushing its bright white puffs into the saturated air. Not that I’ve bothered to put on my rain boots and squish my way across the yard to view it close up, to touch those impervious buds with my own hands.
No, I’m too busy. Busy, yes, with students, and committees, and writing, and editing the Bellingham Review, but also busy performing that most pleasurable and time-consuming of acts: imagining myself somewhere else. You see, I’m traveling to France in June, on a jaunt with my parents for my father’s 75th birthday, and it’s difficult not to keep re-reading passages in the guidebooks about the hidden pleasures of the 7th Arrondissement of Paris, or to refrain from obsessively reading posts on Tripadvisor.com for everything from the best shuttle from the airport to the etiquette of knitting in a Parisian café. And alas, I’m also one of those travelers who loves to read literature about a place before I go, so that when I arrive it feels as though I’m stepping into a world vaguely familiar, lovingly described by a friend who now beckons me to see it with my own eyes.
In this endeavor, my favorite book has been New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, a collection of essays he wrote while living in Paris for five years. And, perhaps not surprisingly, my favorite passage is not really about Paris at all, but about the creation of art. In one essay, “A Machine to Draw the World,” Gopnick describes receiving a toy version of a camera lucida; through a series of mirrors, this device projects an image of the outside world inside, onto a piece of paper for him to trace. And this seemingly simple act now takes on unexpected implications. He writes:
“All you have to do is trace it. All! For just tracing turns out to be the hardest thing of all…your pencil poised, and then you try to decide where to make the first mark. The world moves so much—shimmers and shakes…more than you can ever know when you’re in it rather than looking at it. You bless any leaf that holds still long enough for you to get it. Hold still, you tell the tree, the light leaping up and down on the balustrade…Just hold still. Where you finally make the mark is mostly a question of when you finally get fed up…Tracing becomes a deep, knotty problem, a thing to solve, and I am completely absorbed in it…What you really need from the world in order to draw it is a lot of light and for everything to just stand still.”
And of course it never stands still, because that’s not the nature of the world, or of our passage through it, or of memory. So our task as artists is to create the illusion of stillness, to take what is in front of us (or behind us) in all its three-dimensional glory and make our faint, inadequate tracings on the page. We have to just plunge in and make that first mark, hoping this entry point steers us toward at least the vicinity of meaning. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t, but it’s the absorption in the “knotty problem” that matters.
As I look over the marvelous selections for this issue of The Bellingham Review—which include the prize-winning entries in our three literary contests for 2005—I see a plethora of writers absorbed in this “knotty problem” and solving it with aplomb. They shed their own light, and they make the world hold still just long enough for us to apprehend it in new ways. And through this act they also make an incredible amount of music: you may notice, as you peruse the issue in your hands, a veritable symphonic program issuing from the pages (it’s one of the many pleasures of putting together each issue of the magazine: discovering the shared images and sensations that seem to arise on their own, given just a little nudge from our hands).
And for you, dear reader, I wish that you may always amplify the music that pulses through your own life. May you recognize the moments when your world holds still—even in the midst of a storm—and blossoms. May you shed light on your own knotty problems and come away unraveled.