By Peter Clothier | Posted 6/1/12 | Updated 9/8/20
Excerpted with permission from Mind Work: Shedding Delusions on the Path to the Creative Core
"Yesterday returneth not,
Perhaps tomorrow cometh not.
Today is thine, misuse it not..."
I found these words inscribed in my grandmother's scrap album. They were entered there by one Ethel Tatham of Hardingham, England, on October 5th, 1903 a quotation, surely, written down by a young lady seeking to pass on a pearl of wisdom to a friend. And what, I find myself wondering as I transcribe them myself, might Ethel have been experiencing on that day, now more than a hundred years ago? What might have been her relationship with my grandmother? How did the album come into her hands? What was the weather like that day? I fancy her sitting, perhaps in one of those lovely English cottage gardens, perhaps in the parlor, pen in hand, brow concentrated as she ponders just exactly the right words to say. No matter what else, she expresses a sweet sentiment and one entirely compatible with the dharma as I have come to know it.
We were going through our storage bin on the noisy north south artery of the San Fernando Road in Glendale, California, when I came across this album from a distant time and place. It is dated 1899-1903. By my reckoning, my grandmother would have been about 20 years old. Her name was Gladys W. B. Stuteville-Isaacson, and she was born in the East End of London. She maintained stoutly throughout her life that hers was the "non-Jewish" Isaacson family this despite the heavily Jewish presence in that part of London during her youth; and despite that among her treasured possessions was a small table inlaid with Hebrew lettering and symbols. Once of age she became a Williams, marrying an Anglican minister well, a minister of the Church of Wales who was the vicar of St. Gabriel's in Swansea when my mother was born, and later chancellor of Brecon Cathedral. My grandmother, the chancellor's wife, was also of course a devoutly practicing Christian.
The Victorian album was the scrapbook where an educated and well-placed young lady like my grandmother would collect mementoes from friends, in the form of snatches of poetry, quotations from the greats in a variety of languages Latin, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Italian small drawings or watercolor paintings, sometimes pressed flowers, herbs, or grasses.
The inscriptions in my grandmother's book are quite beautiful and often poignant reminders of a time past. They must have meant a lot to the young woman, growing into adulthood, who would, I believe, have taken their messages very much to heart. Some are romantic, some whimsical, some inspirational, some religious. They are all copied into the album with extraordinary care. Since my grandmother spent time in Germany I suspect as young ladies did in those days, to expand their horizons and learn the social skills in "finishing school" many of the entries are inscribed in the highly stylized, almost abstract "Suetterlin" script that was universally taught in German schools at the time, but is virtually indecipherable to the modern eye.
As I handle this treasure, it touches me to know that the good people who contributed to it are all long dead and gone, but that their mark survives them in this obscure little collection of personal memories. It touches me that so much thought and care was devoted to these expressions of friendship; I compare them in my mind to the hasty emails and text messages we exchange, these days, or of our yearbook clichés and our Facebook "friends," and it seems to me that we have sacrificed something important along the way. Perhaps it's the quality of carefulness, expressed in a willingness to take time for a friend. Perhaps a respect for the lovely intricacies of language and the subtle thoughts it can express. Without wishing to wax nostalgic, I honor my grandmother for all the love that went into her album, where each entry is a tiny work of art that will never go further than the family that survives her, but which still glows with its own forgotten history.
I wonder if everyone who reaches my age thinks so often about the legions of the dead? I do it all the time. I think of my grandmothers on both sides, my grandfathers, my own parents. I hear the snatch of a Beatles song and I think, ah, two of them already gone, John and George John gone, now, these thirty years! Impossible! And George, whose memory lives on respectfully in George, the dog, who arrived in this world at the moment George the Beatle was leaving us. I watch a television special on the Kennedys: another John, and Bobby, Teddy, Jackie... Not to mention MLK, Lyndon B. Johnson, George Wallace, Krushchev... all gone. Fidel is still with us, but Che left us many years ago. I follow the obituaries in the New York Times, with careful attention to those who died younger and those older than my present age. At a Leonard Bernstein bio-drama we attended last week in our local theater, there was mention of the Holocaust and my thoughts spun off immediately to those six million lives no longer lived, each one of them intimate, personal, valued, seemingly so real. I hear a news report from Egypt and I think not only of those killed needlessly and heedlessly in the current violent street protests, but of those long, long, long dead in the tombs along the Nile, where we once visited them in the Valley of the Kings... all dust.
Is this peculiar to me? It can't be. I suppose, with advancing age, it has to do with the approach of my own death. There's the inevitable fear, of course, lurking somewhere behind the calm with which I try to contemplate it. I still lack the belief that some appear to cherish, in an afterlife where we all gather with loved ones in some happier place or burn in eternal damnation for our sins. How many souls, if it were so, would be dwelling there by now? I lack, too, the belief shared by most of the world's Buddhists in the endless cycle of rebirth that precedes enlightenment.
And then I remind myself that the "leaves" of my blog, The Buddha Diaries, are nothing more than my own little album, not unlike my grandmother's, though in a different, perhaps even more ephemeral form. The words I write, unlike those neatly inscribed on the pages of her album, exist I know not exactly where, somewhere in the digital cloud. They appear when summoned, but otherwise not at all. I don't wish to sound lugubrious or maudlin. I'm just curious, that's all. It's all very odd, when you stop to think about it. But before becoming too attached to the oddness of it, I remind myself that it's healthier to come back home to the reality of the present moment and to take a breath.
©2012 Peter Clothier. All rights reserved.
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Peter Clothier writes chiefly about art and artists in Southern California. He has published widely in national magazines, and is the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters series. ...