Writing Like A Chair: José Saramago


After riding the train from the village where we are staying to Lisbon and after having lunch with three locals who not only welcomed us to their table but later took us to see a church that survived a fire and to drink sweet and potent cherry liquor with them, Michael and I went to the Foundation José Saramago, the museum in tribute to the great writer.

On a wall amidst paragraphs of moving text I found this: “Writing is like building a chair that has to fit, steady on the floor and, if possible, also be beautiful.” So when we write, all four legs of our poem or story need to offer the reader a secure place to land. What I especially love about Saramago’s quote is how utilitarian it makes story, how basic and purposeful.

In his Nobel address, Saramago, demonstrated his point, writing about his beloved grandparents, Josefa and Jerónimo, two illiterate country people who made their lives on the land. In the winter when it was particularly cold they would take the most vulnerable piglets into their own bed. Saramago writes, “Under the coarse blankets, the warmth from the humans saved the little animals from freezing and rescued them from certain death. Although the two were kindly people, it was not a compassionate soul that prompted them to act in that way; what concerned them, without sentimentalism or rhetoric, was to protect their daily bread…”

When Saramago’s grandfather, “swineherd and storyteller” was close to death he “said goodbye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldn’t see them again.”

Having come all the way to Portugal for a “vacation,” I have found myself overcome, nearly undone, over the loss of my father, a man who never hugged a tree but one who knew well the utility of story. No matter where Michael and I go and what we do, my father walks beside me, old, yes, and frail, but full of story.

I live with a maker of chairs. When I teach in our living room, I sit near the fireplace in the Shaker rocking chair Michael made long ago. In a couple of weeks when I sit there again, I will read Saramago to the assembled writers and we will do our best to make not only stories reliable in their sturdiness but places readers may choose because of their flourished backs and worn velvet cushioned seats upon which to pause in the labor of their lives.


The Apricot Tree

Apricot treeA few doors down from my house, just around the corner, there’s a small rental house. I don’t know the story of the house except that it’s poorly cared for, nor do I know the story of its owners except it doesn’t appear that they love their house, nor its renters’ stories, except none of them ever never stay long.

But along side the driveway there were once, and not so long ago, three small apricot trees. Each year they produced beautiful looking fruit, the trees were lush with it, fruit that I didn’t allow myself to lean into the leaves or bend to the ground for on my evening neighborhood strolls. The trees were neglected and as with other things not treated well it got to me but I did nothing being a firm believer in private property…

Now there is one apricot tree. Early last month I walked by and saw it had produced a single apricot that hung ripe and heavy. Guilt-free, I plucked it and slipped it into my mouth and enjoyed a delicious mouthful of fruit. There’s a warmth to an apricot no other fruit has and a sweetness that is nearly starchy that I love. Then there’s the color. How often can we taste sunlight? That evening I did.

Later, I pressed its seed into the dirt in my yard. Nothing yet. I’m waiting for spring.

The Empty Sky

IMG_0526For about 70 years a Monterey Pine lived in the earth of my next-door neighbor’s home; I could find my way home by it. If two people held hands we could hold the tree but one person alone couldn’t. A high branch on that tree held owls calling to their mates. Turkeys got up in its lower branches. The crows had parties there. Just the other day my neighbor, Tammy, saw an adult and juvenile hawk using a branch for a lookout.

Over the 20 years I’ve lived here I’ve watched the stately tree die a bit at a time. Tree trimmers would come and remove dead branches now and then. Finally, when more of the tree was dead than alive it was clear the tree had to go.

Yesterday was a loud day; the cats hid out in my office with me. Every now and then I went out to take a look at the tree’s disintegration, long branch by long branch: gone. Then the tall heft of its trunk. Bit by bit the saw’s teeth cut the tree down.

It’s gone now, and though I understand why and didn’t want a winter storm to send branches onto our roof or Tammy’s, there’s an empty place in the sky where there was once and for a very long time there was green and brown regality. Nothing nearby has the height that pine did. Where will the owls go to call for each other in the night, close enough that I’ll have the good fortune to be woken by them? For now there’s only a hole in the backyard sky.

IMG_0525And you, what’s gone missing from your life that might need a bit of your attention, a handful of your words? The presence of the absent we may carry a long ways. Here’s a way to honor what you’ve loved.

A Story That Could Be True And Is

photoA friend from many years ago, a teacher, Samuel Ramos, whose classes I loved to bring poetry to because of his love and regard for his students, invited me to be the featured poet as part of a reading series at El Epazote Restaurant in Hollister. “Some of the students will be there,” Sam promised.

Not only did the now grown-up students come, but Sam bought copies of Step into Nature for each of them. And one student, Mary Villegas, during the open mic, got up and read the poem she’d written for her great grandfather when she was nine. Listening, you could feel the loss of so long ago still upon her and you could see it in her brother’s eyes. Another, Mario Jimenez, drove all the way from Los Baños with his wife and four children.

The students weren’t the only ones there; the restaurant was full—standing room only, 70 – 80 people! There were folks I’d not seen since the early 90’s who I was so happy to see. For whatever we may read about community, this was the real thing, and Sam knows how to bring out a crowd.

Before it was my turn to read we were serenaded by Eduardo Robledo and Daniel Valdez. The audience was jubilant in appreciation of that beautiful music, and I got nervous.

For the most part my stories and poems are quiet. How could a group transition from hand-clapping, foot-stomping music to a single voice reading a story? How? Remarkably. Rarely have I been listened to with such love and attention. “You don’t need to applaud till the end, and then only if you like it,” I said, but that didn’t stop them. After each piece I read the group responded. And then they bought my books.

Last night was one of those rare evenings in a life that lasts for always. I wanted you to know.

Mil gracias to Samuel Ramos and Rachelle Linda Escamilla and also to Bob Hammond who brought me to the Hollister schools those many years ago!