The John Ford movie, The Searchers, opens with a shot that looks from inside a house through a doorway onto a vast western landscape in which a lone rider (John Wayne) approaches. The doorway serves as a picture frame; it limits and forms what is seen and experienced.
In recent years much has been made of the metaphorical frame in political discourse. Placing issues in a frame limits counter-arguments. Abortion, for example, is framed as right-to-life or freedom-to-choose, pro-life or pro-choice.
Sometimes – maybe most of the time – the frame itself goes unremarked. I don’t recall what kind of door is in The Searchers, but whatever it is, it must certainly shape the reality of the lone rider approaching in a vast landscape. Imagine looking out through a portal of ornately carved wood or a sixteen-pane window rimed with frost or the crude opening of a sod house or an opening covered by a translucent curtain. In each case, what is seen beyond is partly formed by the frame.
From my desk, I look through a doorway out onto a former tuberculosis-sanatorium cure porch and beyond that to five-story-tall conifers and a few box elders and other deciduous trees and beyond that, during bare-tree winter, to the cemetery and beyond that to the road that is visible only as car lights winking in the dark.
The opening is wide enough to allow passage of a hospital bed. It’s an appropriate size for an aperture that is bordered by many defining artifacts of my life.
On the far edge of my desk are small stand-up photographs. Everything out past them lines up above their tops. I can focus on the pictures or on what is beyond, but not on both at the same time.
On the left, is a nude shot of twenty-seven–year-old Ann perched on a rock in the rapids of the Pedernales River, smiling into the camera, at once innocent and glowing with carnal promise. A pair of photos from two or three years later show her at a kitchen table being a young wife. Next to her, my father and I are standing by the new 1948 Mercury that replaced the old Plymouth for which parts were hard to find during the war. Then my maternal grandmother and her brother pose as children for a studio portrait in about 1897, which happens to be the same year when 1500 miles to the north men were building the house in which the photo now resides. Next to them, my infant mother is in her cowboy father’s arms on horseback in about 1913. He seems to be taking a break from working cattle. There are more.
The desktop is cluttered. Hardly enough room to work sometimes. I have an abiding fear of putting things away. That’s how things get lost. I prefer going through stacks of papers and files that are out in plain sight and within arm’s reach.
My friends Jack and Jim have spent little time in the presence of my desk, not this one or others. That’s providential. I’ve seen theirs; maybe a computer terminal or a pen that escaped being put where it belongs, but otherwise just bare wood without even any dust on them. My way would probably make them queasy. Nevertheless, it’s who I am; my clutter and photos are part of my frame of reference.
More photos and some art work hang on the walls that surround the door. On the wall of the chimney are pen-and-ink drawings from the sketchbook of my old friend Walle. They’re his vision of a gathering place on Aransas Bay in Texas where we have been going for decades to fish and mess about in boats.
On the radiator cover to the right of the door, there’s a touched-up photo of my great-grandfather at, I guess, about age twenty. He was born in 1871. I was sixteen when he died. I had plenty of opportunities to get him to tell me about his life. When was the first time he saw an automobile? Did he have any books as a child? What was it like to have a toothache in those days? I didn’t ask. Now it’s too late.
I’m thinking I’ll just force my grandchildren to listen to me go on about my life before they were born. I could write it down, of course. I enjoy writing. But judging by the universal rejection of the memoir I wrote about renovating this old house, I conclude that I’m not much good at that kind of writing. Anyway, if I just speak my memories to the children, they will have a role in creating the stories. They’ll choose what they pay attention to, and after their recollections of my maunderings fade, they’ll get to add color and point of view and make up bits to fill in blanks. Is it too fanciful to think that I will thus have achieved a dollop of immortality? Maybe not.
On the wall above great-grandfather’s photo is a reproduction of a 16th century drawing of Thomas Cranmer and associates gathered around a table compiling the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. My thoroughly Presbyterian great-grandfather would not want to be in close proximity to those Popish clerics. Oh well. Change happens.
Mementos of my writing are on the same wall; a poster advertising a dramatic adaptation of my novella, A Franklin Manor Christmas; a batik work that comments wryly on the frustrations of trying to get published; a photo of my beloved cat, Peewee, falling asleep on my computer as I was working diligently to earn the National Book Award that’s lost in the mail somewhere.
Beyond the door, out on the cure porch, is more definition, more me. On a worktable leaning against the frame of a window is a watercolor of an Adirondack scene, a gift from friends Mary and Mark. It speaks of my life in this place where I never imagined living and friendships that came with it. The tabletop, like my desk, is cluttered. It’s mostly stacks of books that I look into periodically. (If they were on shelves they’d be harder to locate, since the shelves are only partially orderly.) Essays by E.B. White; collections of newspaper columns by Leon Hale and others; a NRSV Bible on top of an Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible; a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Also, notes and drafts and half-finished efforts to transform some, often evanescent, something into words on paper.
People who have had near-death experiences say that at the final moment their whole life passed before their eyes like an old-fashioned newsreel, perceivable despite running at an unfathomably fast speed. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. There’s no way to know.
I myself hope to be spared the experience of reviewing my whole life. I would much prefer a selection of images from among the good parts, the reconciling parts – something like what I see from my desk.