On the use of mercury by the ancient poets

[Originally ran in the August 2015 issue of The Village.]

On a narrow side street not far from the Duomo in Florence (it’s bad enough I’m name-dropping the Duomo; I won’t be so obnoxious to say it’s in Firenze), there’s this gift shop called Il Papiro, and it was in that shop in April of 1998 that I bought a book.

It was our first time overseas and our sense of wonder and appreciation was palpable. We soaked in everything, including a bottle of wine with every meal. Mostly roaming the Tuscan hills for about a week, we spent one day in Florence, hitting the major sites, enjoying a sidewalk café for lunch, and perambulating. Nothing like a good perambulation.

At any rate, the display window of Il Papiro was compelling enough to draw us through the front door. Here at home, I can happily browse a hardware store or stationery shop for a good hour. While I can’t vouch for the quality of an Italian hardware store, I can say they do stationery stores in style. The place was amazing, stocked with pens and notecards and writing paper never spied in the aisles of Staples.

I know...it's beautiful.
I know…it’s beautiful.

There, the creation of paper is an ancient art. The stuff was beautiful. And when I saw the hand-sewn, leather-bound books with marbled covers and rough-weave handmade blank paper, I was stunned into indecision. Mostly, I couldn’t decide between the one with the pasta-colored pages and the one with pages that looked as though a nice Brunello had been spilled on them (I’m trying to stick with an Italian theme here).

I went with the red.

My mind reeled with possibilities. Such a work of art demanded a similar outpouring of talent onto its pages. A heartbreaking novel. Timeless lyrics. An incisive play. Perhaps poetry. And it was that line of irresponsible thinking that stymied me. It was that sort of unrealistic bar-raising that turned what could have been a repository of original ideas into a stylish tchotchke for seventeen years.

That gorgeous thing sat uselessly on one of my shelves like one of those fake books Dickens had made up for his library at Tavistock House, although – come to think of it – at least those things had a purpose in that they made people smile or laugh, with titles like “Five Minutes in China” and “On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets.”

No, my treasured tome was a complete bust. I’d take it out every few months to consider its fate, only to ruefully slide it back between my “Elements of Style” and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” A cruel fate, truly.

* * * * *

For most of our twenty-eight years of marriage, Diane and I have barely touched our Lenox wedding china. A subdued, pretty floral pattern of blue and gray. Having been raised in an era when china and silver and crystal were taken out only during the holidays and other special occasions, we did the same.

And then Oprah – was it Oprah? or maybe the Dalai Lama? – anyway, a very wise person suggested we regularly use our china and silver and crystal to make everyday life more special. I’m sure people who keep their living room furniture covered in clear plastic responded with apoplexy, but Diane and I figured sure, why not? It made sense. Why adhere to a pointless tradition? Why have something beautiful locked away in a cabinet for fifty-one weeks of the year?

So for the past couple of years, we’ve been using our good china about once a week. Pancakes look fantastic on them.

* * * * *

 This spring, I finally took a good long look at my Italian book of nothingness. The ridiculousness of not having written anything in it for seventeen years hit me. Belatedly.

I could have started a novel or some other work of fiction, but that would eventually have led to me doing a lot of transcribing onto my laptop. And my handwriting has been known to be difficult to decipher, even by me. Fortunately, my latest journal (man-speak for “diary”) had just seen its final page filled.

Yes, that lovely work of Renaissance-inspired bookbindery may have been robbed of the chance of being the birthplace of potential literary greatness (especially if I had sold it on eBay), but what better place to turn to – years from now – when I want to remember what I had for lunch on July 11, 2015?


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Dana Pearson is a writer living in Kennebunk, Maine.
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