The photographs of four sisters taken once a year for 40 years are beautiful in their honesty. Nicholas Nixon’s collection of the Brown sisters, begun in 1975 with the latest image just published in the New York Times this month, is a powerful documentation of aging. The accompanying text by Susan Minot clarifies the mix of awe and envy I feel as I view the sisters’ relationship.
“Throughout this series, we watch these women age, undergoing life’s most humbling experience,” Minot wrote. “While many of us can, when pressed, name things we are grateful to Time for bestowing upon us, the lines bracketing our mouths and the loosening of our skin are not among them. So while a part of the spirit sinks at the slow appearance of these women’s jowls, another part is lifted: They are not undone by it. We detect more sorrow, perhaps, in the eyes, more weight in the once-fresh brows. But the more we study the images, the more we see that aging does not define these women. Even as the images tell us, in no uncertain terms, that this is what it looks like to grow old, this is the irrefutable truth, we also learn: This is what endurance looks like.
“It is the endurance of sisterhood in particular… With each passing year, the sisters seem to present more of a united front. Earlier assertions of their individuality — the arms folded across the chest, the standing apart — give way to a literal leaning on one another, as if independence is no longer such a concern. We see what goes on between the sisters in their bodies, particularly their limbs. A hand clasps a sister’s waist, arms embrace arms or are slung in casual solidarity over a shoulder. A palm steadies another’s neck, reassuring. The cumulative effect is dizzying and powerful.”
My three sisters and I are anchored by children and separated by distance – Molly in Germany, Kyna in Fairbanks, Cheyenne in Reno and me in Seattle – so I don’t know when we will converge in one place again. Does even a picture of the four of us exist somewhere in the family photo albums? No matter. I pledge to record what the future will hold, deepening lines in smiling faces. I wish I could begin today.
I am reading “Wildwood: A Journey through Trees” by Roger Deakin, which describes a series of trips Deakin made to meet people whose lives are intimately connected to trees and wood. Deakin, who died in 2006, was a founding member of Common Ground. Among his environmental causes, he worked to preserve woodland, ancient rights of way, and coppicing techniques. I want to remember this section from his book:
Now and again you discover the perfect pen and carry it everywhere until one day you lose it. But nothing is so universally dependable, or comes so naturally to hand as a pencil. What could be simpler? For much of my life, I have lived with one behind my ear: either to mark out saw cuts or mortices for carpentry or to scribble marginalia or underlines when reading. I often write with a pencil. It suits my tentative nature. It allows me literally to sketch out ideas before proceeding to the greater definition of ink. It was the first tool I used to write or to draw, and still suggests the close relationship between the two activities. I know I shall never outgrow pencils. They are my first, most natural means of expression on paper. It is comforting and liberating to know that you can always rub out what is pencilled. It is the other end of the spectrum from carving in stone. The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic.
For all the same reasons, I like a soft pencil better than a hard one. It is gentler on the paper, as a soft voice is easier on the ear. Its low definition draws in the reader’s eye, which must sometimes peer through the graphite mist of a smudge where the page of an old notebook has been thumbed. Rub your finger long enough on a soft-pencilled phrase and it will evaporate in a pale-grey cloud. In this way, pencil is close to watercolour painting.
A pencil is an intimate, elemental conjunction of graphite and wood, like a grey-marrowed bone. The graphite is mined from deep inside a Cumbrian hillside in Borrowdale, eight miles south of Keswick. Fired in a kiln to 1,000-degrees C to make the slender pencil cores, ranging in hardness from H to 9H and in softness from B to 9B, it is laid in a groove in one of the split halves of the wooden casing which are then glued together invisibly, clasping the lead tightly. But examine the cross-section of grain at one end, and you will notice it runs two different ways. In Tasmania there are trees they call pencil pines, but only because of the way they look. The fine-grained, slow-grown mother of all pencils is incense cedar from the forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grow 140 feet high, with a trunk five feet across, enough cedar wood to make 150,000 pencils. It is the incense cedar that infuses pencils with the nutty aroma I remember as I opened my pencil-box. In a scooped-out hollow in my Oregon pine work table in front of me lies a smooth, round pebble from the Hebrides. It sits snugly in the wood, like the pencil between finger and thumb, and like the hidden vein of graphite, poised inside the cedar to spin itself into words like gossamer from the spider.
I had good intentions, but was preoccupied. I knitted while volunteering at church — and forgot the booties there for a week. I knitted at baseball games — and neglected to switch out the yarn. Here’s the second set of baby booties frogged — Rip it! Rip it! – in a month. This is backward progression, and by the time the booties are mailed they won’t fit the baby, but his doll.
I tried, small nephew, but effort alone is my gift. Strange, I think, how easy it is to loosen what binds me and move on. It’s not this way with other parts of my life: Intention is never enough. As a woman, I cannot forgive the soft aging of my flesh. With my writing, oh, no: The short story is flat, the essay a disappointment, the blog post is, well, blah. And as a mother, I am equally demanding of chores and grades and manners. Trying has become tiresome and tormented, something one should do, ought to do, but no longer wants to do.
Imagine pulling the lines of prose off the page and winding them up like I do yarn. A ball of words. Tongue-tied. Peel away the ill-suited sentences, and leave the page clean and empty, the white surface no longer muddied by ink, but crisp with potential. The storyteller begins again. Wake to a day where a woman appreciates her imperfections, and a mother can thank the effort and overlook the outcome, and I say, there is love for both self and others there.