Beneath the Wave: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Around this time last year (May is Mental Health Awareness Month), someone posted a quote by Edna St. Vincent Millay which spoke to a younger version of myself: 

“And must I then, indeed, Pain, live with you
All through my life?—sharing my fire, my bed,
Sharing—oh, worst of all things!—the same head?—
And, when I feed myself, feeding you, too?”
 

We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and we’re all working with different brain chemistry and physical limitations, I know. But the idea of a companion, Pain, that accompanies me wherever I go, is one I can relate to. I came to a creative life, years ago, as an antidote to grief and depression, and as a means to quiet the noise in my head. While that particular period of my life has passed (the noise is forever there), I 100% believe in the mental health benefits of working with my hands. 

Still, my older self knows there’s another way of looking at it. I paired this month’s quote and stamp because the quote I chose (unlike the one above) acknowledges the tension between the face we present to the world and a more private one, without positioning one or the other as “real” or “true,” or even as separate entities. They are both real but, like the iceberg, only a fraction of who we are is ever visible to others. 

The rest of this section of Millay’s poem (the whole poem is called “Journal”) goes on to say there are parts of ourselves unknown even to ourselves: 

“Only the depths of other peaks
May know my substance when it speaks,
And steadfast through the grinding jam
Remain aware of what I am.
Myself, I think, shall never know
How far beneath the wave I go.” 

 

The work we do to examine our life, to pick it up and turn it around and look at it from many angles—in other words, to make sense of it—is to me the basis of our mental health. There are other factors, of course, but a willingness to look, to find out “how far beneath the wave I go,” is both a good way to start and a lifelong endeavor.

Notes: Edna St. Vincent Millay was a beloved poet in her time, a feminist and a political activist. She was the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, in 1923, when she was 33 years old. If you’re interested in reading more of her poetry, I recommend starting with her first published poem, “Renascence,” which made me cry the first time I read it.  

Awareness is Growing: Rachel Carson

 

Women’s History Month may be over, but there’s one more female voice I want to call attention to and celebrate.  

Rachel Carson, who is featured on Grapheme’s tiny letterpress calendar in April, was a marine biologist and nature writer, whose 1962 Silent Spring is sometimes credited as the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.  It turns out she was also an avid letter writer, which is perfect because April happens to be National Letter Writing Month. 

Some of my closest friendships have been forged over letters, but it’s been years since I’ve regularly and consistently written to anyone. So, this month I’ve decided to take part in the 30-day letter writing challenge set up by Egg Press (now in its 5th year running). The goal is to write a letter once a day for the entire month, and there are new snail mail kits up in the online store to help facilitate this, if you are inclined to participate.  

Now, knowing how challenges and I go (last month’s March Meet the Maker is a case in point), I think it’s perfectly acceptable to “gang up” letters over the weekend or on slower days in order to get all 30 in. I have a short list of recipients already, but if you’d like to be included on mine, please don’t hesitate to reach out, and I’d be happy to send you some snail mail! I will also be giving away some free stationery later this month on Instagram and Facebook. 

I discovered Carson while I was rereading Wendell Berry, another nature writer I love and who I featured on a tiny print last fall. One of Berry’s most famous quotes is the idea that “there are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.” 

It turns out that Berry was talking about the creative process in this poem, which I’ve included in full, below, because I think it holds some important advice for all of us: “Slow down. Be quiet. […] Shun electric wire. / Communicate slowly.” 

Berry’s poem about writing poetry sounds–to me at least—a little like the process of sitting down to write to an old friend, so that is what I am going to do this month, one letter at a time. 

Cheers,
Mandolin 

 

How to be a Poet (to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity…

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
Wendell Berry

 

State it Bravely: Eleanor Roosevelt

The other day, I posted on Instagram the very first letterpress/bookbinding project I made (in 2005). It was a book of nine proverbs from around the world. The book has its flaws, but so does all that early work, when I was just discovering this crazy thing called letterpress printing. 

I also can’t help but wonder: if I were to make that book again today, which proverbs would I choose? How has my worldview changed? Though not technically a proverb, this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt would be high on my list: “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.” Light a candle. Do something. 

Thirteen years later, I find myself interested in words that encourage action—doing, making, forming, positioning, articulating. Roosevelt calls the momentum this creates “exhilarating.” 

March is Women’s History Month, and I picked the Roosevelt quote in the 2018 tiny letterpress calendar to celebrate that fact, and to encourage us all to “determine [our] position” and “state it boldly” in our own way–whether through the art we create, the conversations we have, or the narratives we attempt to challenge and rewrite (the #metoo movement comes to mind). 

March also brings the return of #marchmeetthemaker, a month-long Instagram challenge for makers around the world, so you’ll be hearing more from me this month (here or here) as I introduce myself to you more fully. In some ways, I think of this as another way to begin “stating my position”—and I hope you’ll join me in stating yours, too, when I ask for your feedback for a new project I’m designing (watch for it in April). 

Finally, two independent sources (almost simultaneously) led me to this: Ira Glass, on the gap between our ambitions and the early creative work we do, and the need to keep creating—again and again and again.

Cheers,
Mandolin

The Fire Next Time: James Baldwin

February. The month the new year really begins, in my opinion. Now we get down to the hard work of living the year.

February is also Black History Month, and while I didn’t pick James Baldwin because of BHM, I do have it in the back of my mind and like his emphasis on community and our responsibility to one another. “The moment we break faith with one another…the light goes out” seems a poignant reminder as any that we are all in this together and that harm or injustice done to any of us has reverberations that travel down the line.

Plus, Baldwin’s words are beautiful in and of themselves. I paired them with the Universal Postal Union stamp (1949) because of the imagery of the globe (“the sea rises and the light fails”) and the doves carrying letters in their beaks. Communication, especially when we slow down enough to hear one another, may be our only chance in a world intent on generating misunderstandings and “alternative facts.” See also Junot Diaz’  2017 interview on “On Being” (Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon):

“It’s incumbent upon us to be reflective,
to be complex,
to be subtle,
to be nuanced,
to take our time in societies
which are none of these things
and which encourage none of these things.”

May your month be filled with nuance, self-reflection, and the taking of time that leads to revelations.

Cheers,
Mandolin

 

This is What You Shall Do: Walt Whitman

There are only two dead white men in Grapheme’s Tiny Letterpress 2018 calendar, and Walt Whitman is one of them (the other is Edward Abbey, in August). I spent a lot of time trying to find quotes and stamp combos to celebrate women and people of color, which is hard to do considering many, many of the folks featured on vintage American postage are dead white men. Still, Whitman is among my favorites for his celebration of life and the natural world, both of which I try to do in the calendar as a whole.

I also love Whitman because he talks about the connection between the body and soul at a time when the soul was thought to be a separate, uncorrupted entity–not held back by the “worldy,” “fallen” flesh (think Cartesian duality). If you are interested in reading more about Whitman’s theory of an intertwined body and soul, check out Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist. And, for another treatment of the soul, check out Mary Oliver’s “Bone,” which may be my favorite of hers.

Whitman’s joy in Leaves of Grass felt like a positive way to start off the year, and his admonishments in the Preface (which is where January’s quote comes from) felt strangely relevant to our current political moment. The stamp drove home the idea with its literal celebration of the earth in minerals and petrified wood–plus it’s one of my all time favorite stamp series.

Another little fragment of Whitman’s poem I love:

I AM THE POET

I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But that all the things seen are real,
The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the sea
And went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they seem to the child they are
[And that the world is not a joke,
Nor any part of it a sham.]

May we remember that the natural world “is not a joke, nor any part of it a sham,” as we head into this new year.

Cheers,
Mandolin