Monday, February 21, 2011

A letterpress, life, and other stuff

In March 2007, I loaded my two oldest sons and their gear into my beat up but beloved teal green Volvo station wagon and pointed myself in the direction of California. I was driving to Hollywood to pick up the 35th birthday present I had purchased for myself: a vintage cast iron Craftsman tabletop letterpress, fully restored, currently in the possession of a big shot casting agent who never had any time to play with it.

In those days, whenever I wanted a toy—a new serger, a thermal heat book binder, a set of fancy design software, or in this case, a 250 pound cast iron letterpress—I would sell enough stuff on eBay to purchase it. I never felt entirely comfortable asking my husband for money for what he plainly considered my “frivolous” pastimes. “Are you busy?” he would ask, the minute I sat down and started to design a new paper pattern or work on a customized alphabet book for one of the children. “We can buy those things at the store,” he’d say, scowling whenever I pulled out the serger and started to sew a jacket or pair of pants made from recycled vintage linens for our baby girl.

He just didn’t get it. So I stopped asking and found ways to purchase the things I required all by myself.

I’d been looking for a letterpress for a while. When I was a seventh grader, all the other girls took home economics. To my teachers’ astonishment—they had formed a certain image of me based not entirely unfairly on my long blond tresses, the number of ballet classes I took each week, and my corresponding penchant for twirly skirts—I decided on a whim to sign up for shop.

Letterpress was my favorite. I loved taking the tiny ink-stained 10 point font lead-cast letters from their trays and setting them in neat rows, creating order out of chaos, meaning out of randomness. The first thing I ever printed was a bumper sticker slogan that pretty much summed up my nerdy ways: “Keep on Tolkein, and Frodo Lives” (the only reason I didn’t print it in Dwarves Runic was that we didn’t happen to have a rune font on hand).

When I was setting type, my hands were occupied with a task that connected me in a real, tangible way to the rich past of my favorite material object: the book. I would imagine myself in a filthy, crowded, 15th century printshop, its wooden trays crammed with hand-cast type of varying shapes and sizes, loading composing sticks with type, my arms smeared to the elbows with ink. I could see myself hunched over, stitching hand-cut quartos by candlelight. Each printed text was magic, containing within its carefully typset pages the power to transport its reader to another, better world.

Flash forward to California. On the drive down, I became suddenly, violently ill. I’m the sort of person who refuses to get sick on principle (I’m also deliberately not too assiduous about washing my hands, but that’s another story). I couldn’t keep anything down, and my head ached so badly that I couldn’t string two thoughts together in a sentence. I can hardly remember retrieving the letterpress (the boys must have helped me do it). Afterwards, I somehow made it to the Aquarium of the Pacific, where I had promised to take the boys.

When we got to the Aquarium, I called my husband. “I can’t make it to your mom’s,” I moaned. “I have to get a hotel in Long Beach.”

“You aren’t that sick,” he said. “Besides, you didn’t budget anything for a hotel. And I’m not paying for it.”

That was that. I lay down on a bench, my skin like ice in the warm California sunshine, and prayed to God to take me right then and there. I imagined that my body had become liquid mercury, that I was slowly melting/freezing/melding into the park bench beneath me, until I could no longer feel where I began or ended. I don’t remember anything else for a few days, when I woke up hungry and blinking in the bright sunshine at my mother-in-law’s beach house in Dana Point. I was alive, and more to the point, I had my letterpress.

On the 12-hour drive back to Idaho, I did some thinking. And this is what I thought: I am 35 years old. I have accomplished every goal I set for myself. I married the handsome magna cum laude law student in the temple. I bore him four beautiful, brilliant children. I earned a fluffy masters degree that makes me look like I’m smart. I am miserable, and I want to die.

What did I really want, back in seventh grade, when I took that shop class? Did I want a house, a home, a husband? I don’t think I did. I think I lived and planned and dreamed my whole life based on the things that other people wanted from me.

So when did I decide that I was so unacceptable to the people around me? Why did I spend my whole life pretending to be someone I wasn’t?

And the truth is that I have no idea. Maybe we all do this—maybe we are all just acting, like Shakespeare said, and all the world’s a stage.

But for me, living a life like that is a lie. It comes down to the difference between Plato’s first form—the essence of a thing, as it exists in the mind of God—and the second, a mere image, a mirror of true reality.

I want to know—not the answers—but the questions. I want to stand in a field surrounded by sky and practice the verb “to be.” I want to listen to the wind and see ghosts and dance beneath stars. Above all, I want to be present in my life. It's not much, but it's everything.

If you want to use my letterpress, you can--contact the bricolage girls who are its current babysitters.