Saturday, February 28, 2009


For twenty years now, or very nearly, my father and I have shared a tradition of leather journal giving. I confess that the ratio of giving and receiving is not at all an even one. Mostly it is I who have been blessed with a package to unwrap—a hardcover, hand sewn, hand bound package smelling of rich, oiled sheepskin. The color of the hand-dyed leather has varied, as has the size of the journal (from the rather large to the quite compact) and the image carefully pressed into the cover, but one thing has always been the same: the journals all have been brought to life by the same hand, that of bookbinder Greg Pfaff. The first journal, I remember, was discovered by my father at a small gift shop in Rhinebeck, New York, where I lived alone in an apartment on Montgomery Street while I attended Bard College. He gave one to me for Christmas, I think in 1990 (if not, I could only be off by a single year). I was immediately honored and intimidated. How could I ever hope to have thoughts, ideas, feelings worthy of the artistry that had gone into the making of the book? I only imagined that whatever I had to write would surely be a dark stain on someone else's exceptionally beautiful, creative gift to the world. Impossible. That first journal sat on the shelf for a long time, blank except for the bookbinder's signature and date in black archival ink on the inside back cover. Another journal came, and another after that; a tradition was born. These books, too, sat unused for a while, before I worked up enough nerve to use them. I would handle them, feel the smoothness and the indented places where a ginkgo leaf had been pressed into the leather to make its veiny fan-shaped mark; where other forms of nature or fantasy played across the cover: a mountain range, two hands touching, a landscape of winter trees, moons, or the mask of a dreaming face. Before I began to use the books, I wrote a letter of praise to their creator. My father had started ordering directly from Pfaff, whose bindery (Boxwood Bindery) was then in a bucolic-sounding place called Meadows-of-Dan, Virginia. I received a letter in reply, and it was Pfaff himself who convinced me to start writing in his books. I started in a small, square one that I kept on my bedside table and in which I recorded the night's dreams. Over the years, Pfaff's signature migrated from the back of his blank books onto letters that we exchanged more and more frequently. His came always on the same cream-colored, recycled, acid-free paper used for the books, and at first they were lonely letters. He lived alone on his farm in rural Virginia, with only leather and paper and soulful images from the natural world for company. We exchanged countless paragraphs about art, about solitude, about the joys and pains of being human. I began to fill his books at a steady pace, and I came to see my words on his pages as a collaboration. Just before I met him in person—the one and only time, in Chicago, when he was there for a craft fair—he'd written that he met his soul mate; eventually he married her. Now he has a thirteen year old daughter. I almost feel that I've watched her grow up, although I've never met her, only seen pictures. And now we are both parents, with similar worries for our children, although our surroundings are different: I in New York City, he in Winston-Salem, having pretty much closed the Bindery to pursue a more steady income. (This seems tragic to me and makes me sad.) He still makes books, though, on a smaller scale, and our family tradition continues. It began twenty years ago, with a redolent book of sumptuous material but simple design, an earnest, heart-in-hand vision guiding the cover imagery. A stranger's craft that became part of the fabric of our celebrations—part of my family's celebration of life, our dedication to self-knowledge and communication with others. From a casual stroll through a gift shop, decades of friendship. The writer and the bookbinder, creating and struggling through life's endless corridor of blank pages.

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