Saturday, February 26, 2011
One of the Vineyard memories that remains crystal clear in my mind is of A and I sitting on the couch. We had already done a scan of the bookshelves in the house, calling out titles that surprised or interested us. “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” was a treasure that I had discovered in the upstairs bedroom; it was one I had always been meaning to read but hadn't yet had the chance. I opened it up, skimmed through the stories and pronounced that I would read aloud “The Old Dictionary.” This seemed like the perfect way to spend part of an afternoon, so we positioned ourselves and began to listen. The story didn't disappoint. The narrator describes the old dictionary and the way that it gets treated, which is reverently and with care. The actions are then compared to the way the son is treated, needless to say there are differences. I remember reading that story, giving substance to the words as I pushed them out of my mouth and into the air between us. There weren't many pages, but for that short time I was enraptured.
We have several dictionaries in our house, many still in use. For some reason, perhaps it's my tendency to preserve the past, I can't pass them by. Scanning the tables at a book sale often turns up several discarded dictionaries that eventually find their way into my car like orphan puppies in need of a new home. Fortunately they do not require feeding or walking, but they do take up shelf space--in our house that's in high demand. When someone needs to define a word, I try to stress the importance of a dictionary. Using one is becoming a lost art. It's become common to look up any word on the computer. An answer always comes back in seconds; no need to fumble with pages or squint to read the print. Yet discovery and serendipity are also lost, being surprised or excited by another word while in pursuit of the first is half the fun.
I often wonder if we're the last family still using these books. Could it be that we're becoming an endangered species? Not only do we look words up, we also read aloud. In fact we often can't help ourselves, if we're reading something humorous, particularly eloquent or feeling rather indignant at an author's point of view, we make the others stop what they are doing and recite aloud for everyone to hear. And, believe it or not, we sometimes read aloud at night. (I know it's shocking what we consider to be entertainment!) All three of us, two dogs and the cat climb under the covers on our little full-sized bed and listen to the evening's chapter. Times like these I think back to the years of oral storytelling and other families sitting around the fire as someone read aloud from the bible. I feel a connection to that tradition and try to do our part to pass it on. To us some books are meant to be passed down from generation to generation. I don't know that anyone would say that about an electronic reader, but I'm hoping years from now a small child will inherit my dictionary and feel a tingle as they run a finger along the pages looking to define a word. Not knowing that with that very act they are in a way defining themselves and they way others see them. I know I want to be seen as someone who preserves and honors traditions; treating my sacred books with reverence and grace, yet putting them to good use.
I've been aware of this word looming large on the bloggy horizon. We have no bibles here. I've never read the bible, though parts have been read to me by earnest young women in cardigans who visit on summer afternoons and manage to not look askance at my skintight, black spaghetti strap tank top and partially - sometimes totally - naked children. I don't know where these women come from; their accents are slight but specific and they smile blissfully in the face of hot dusty roads. When I offer lemonade they graciously decline without giving any sense of misgiving, as if one neighbor over had already plied them with beverage and now they were floating. For us, one neighbor over is half a mile away.
So bibles are foreign to me until I consider them as a book you return to for clues on how to live your life. Turns out, I have plenty of those. Carol Shields – have you read Carol Shields? If not, go do so, I'll wait. U.S.-born, lived in Canada most of her life, raised five children while writing a dozen books and becoming a full professor at a university. Her novels are long stretches of quiet insight after which your life is somehow fuller, and her stories are hushed moments of power that make you rethink, reimagine, redo, refill. William Trevor taught me the best of what I know of writing fiction. Jane Austen, well, she's Jane Austen, who makes me want to sit up straighter. The Things They Carried is the closest I've come to being a soldier, except maybe in my role as a parent. A Wrinkle In Time I have read about every year since I was twelve because it reminds me of contradiction. And possibility. And evil. And good. A few months ago T read it for the first time and I could almost hear his mental geography stretching to encompass Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace, the witches. The pile could tower, the list could go on. All my bibles.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
A few years ago a friend of mine had cancer. Friend? I see her maybe once every five years. I went about a dozen years not seeing her at all - college, distance, life, all that etcetera. But when we were ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen - we were close. Sleepovers every weekend, secrets revealed on a daily basis, picnics in graveyards, bike trips to the beach, imaginary adventures in once-decadent gardens overgrown in the woods. Now we might send email greetings on birthdays. But yes, friend. Against difficult odds she beat the cancer in her throat and will likely bear witness to most of the lives of her two young children. But there are lingering concerns; treatment is so often a sequel of disaster. When I think of her now, undergoing surgery twice a year to clear enough scar tissue to continue the privilege of breathing, I remember her once singing with a voice unaffected by the future. Elementary-school-aged, she was too shy to face the crowd in her mother's parlor, so she sang turned to the wall while her younger sister stood beside her and her mother accompanied on the piano. Had cells already mutated by that point and formed the foundation for illness? Maybe. However much broccoli I force my children to eat, however firmly I deny them processed food (some days not too firmly), however often I wager with various forces of the universe, I really have no control over their health, or dreaded lack thereof. Disease is often - always? - random. Recent photos of my friend show her smiling, always smiling, usually with an arm around a child or two. She isn't looking over her shoulder for the next avalanche of doctor's appointments, hospital visits, and co-payment invoices. She's obviously appreciating this new definition of health. But there's a fierceness to her expression. She is far, far from that small girl who fears a crowd of faces listening to her sing. Now she'd simply relish the notes rising from her own throat.
“... for richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health....”
M and I met at a bookstore in Pittsburgh. It was my first day of training. He happened to be there before his shift since the store was air conditioned and his apartment was not. The first words he ever spoke to me were, “ I think you're going to like working here.” And I did. I was a Children's bookseller at that store and I loved it. Eventually my boss opened up a new store. I received a promotion and went with her as the Store Trainer. In that position I began to travel around the country opening up new stores. For the three weeks that it took to open all the boxes, shelve all the books, and train the staff I felt a sense of belonging. It was such a short time, but those bonds were intense. After a few years I was promoted to work at the World Trade Center store, and from there I applied to be the first Children's Web Editor for the company. I flew to Michigan for a series of interviews and while I was there I visited the original store in Ann Arbor. I felt like I was making a pilgrimage. To commemorate the occasion I bought myself a copy of “Little Women.” I read it on the plane ride home and thought of the life that might lay in front of me. I got that job and then one eventually in a store in New Hampshire. M and I had decided we wanted to settle in Vermont. By then it seemed that the company as a whole was moving in a different direction. In 2000, M and I each made a choice to work for a local independent bookstore. Leaving and starting over was difficult. I had made so many friends and I would miss the breakroom conversations as well as feeling that connection to stores all over the country. But the parting was amicable and I think it was the right decision.
As with an ex spouse or lover I've had mixed feelings about the corporation that launched my profession/ passion for Children's books. Others may view it as a big evil chain out to destroy the independent stores, but I still have fond memories and have always wished the people working there well. It's easy to slip into the idea that the split was the best thing for all concerned. Surely, you tell yourself, your “ex” has doing well. It seemed the most logical outcome at the time, each of you have since gone on to bigger and better things. Such is the way of life. Occasionally a snippet of news or gossip reaches your ears and you sometimes wonder what it would have been like if you had stayed together.
This week M and I learned the devastating news that the store where we met is closing, as is every store where M once worked in the several states we once called home. The idea that those stores won't be there thriving--filled with books, people and conversation--is almost unfathomable. As with a dying friend, part of me wants to drop everything, rush to the bedside and offer a hand or handkerchief for support. They may put on a brave face, but the rattling death cough gives away the truth of the situation. Such dire circumstances make you reevaluate your choices. I'm not the type of person who leaves, I believe in sticking around through good times and bad. But I did leave...
Yet I know there is nothing that I can do to change the situation, what's done is done. The threat of absolute finality fills me with a desire to revisit the past. I tell myself that I must move on and keep my memories close. Sadly, there won't be the chance to make more. If ever there was a time that I could relive, it would be the first few months of working in that store in Pittsburgh. I'd bet there are many former booksellers, now scattered all over the country, who'd probably say the very same thing.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Wake up to the sound of small animals jumping around in their cages, insisting to be fed. Feel an absence next to you and realize your husband has gone down to feed the dogs. Blearily make your way downstairs feed the cat and the bunnies who are impatiently waiting. Head back upstairs and discover husband has gone back to sleep. Curl up under the covers and pull out the book about Hemingway's wife you desperately want to finish. Read a chapter, then two. Try to ignore dog whining, then get up and take her out. While outside notice that the sunrise looks eerily familiar to a sunset. Try and calculate how long it's been since you've seen the sun make its way into the sky. Collect the dog, skedaddle into the house and grab the camera in order to get a photo for the blog to represent Light. Put on the correct lens, zip up husband's coat and dismiss the idea of gloves. Once outside, notice that the trees and the sky are beautifully reflected in the car window, quickly take a picture. Make your way carefully across the snow covered street, only to discover that the clouds aren't as pink as they used to be. Glance up and see that further along the road they are still quite beautiful.
Start to make your way up the hill, congratulating yourself on choosing to wear your boots instead of your sons fake, though fleece-lined, crocs. Continue up the hill, hoping no one looks out the window to see the determined, somewhat crazed look in your eye. Perhaps they will mistake you for a hunter, yet you are holding a camera, not a gun. Know that they will not think of you as paparazzi, no one here is worth filming in that way. Instead they may see a crazy lady with her hair going every-which-way, wearing her husband's too-big fleece coat, and too-big pants that don't seem like they would belong to her, but do. Be thankful for too-big pants that are lined in fuzzy material and extend well below ankle-length, leaving no fear of an errant winter draft coming in. Keep walking in the direction of the well-lit sky. Your watch drops off as if to signify that time no longer matters. Pick it up, dust it off and put in husband's coat pocket. Keep walking, notice that the only sound is the sound of the snow crunching under your boots. Catch the sound of someone laughing. Shrug it off when you realize it's only the crows, not a neighbor who can't believe what you will go through to take a photograph. Stop. Put the camera up to your eye, focus and frame the shot. Silently thank your neighbors for repainting their house this fall, dull white would not have provided as much contrast in your picture.
Begin the slow journey home, hoping the shot is what you wanted it to be. Curse yourself for not bringing gloves. Curl your hands inside coat sleeves and walk faster. Be careful not to slip on the snow covered road as you make your way down the hill. Notice when you get home and walk past the car that the image reflected in the window is no longer the same as the picture you took before you set out. Shake your head and ponder at the fleeting light and think of how lucky you are to be up this morning to witness the beauty. Quietly head into the house taking off the coat and boots. Make your way upstairs to sleeping dogs, sleeping husband, and somewhere a sleeping boy. Pick up the book and continue where you left off. Keep smiling though it makes your cold cheeks sting. Come downstairs later to a husband making coffee. Needing your watch, retrieve it from his coat pocket. Your husband couldn't be more surprised if you pulled a quarter from behind his ear. Smile your secret smile, know that your morning adventure wasn't a dream --you've got the photo to prove it.
Mornings are a rush. Drink coffee, walk dogs, make breakfast, pack lunch, feed dogs, feed horses, refill frozen buckets with hot water lugged from bathtub, check for eggs under warm, clucking poultry. And then drink coffee again. Did you remember to pack your homework? Is today library day? Are you sure those gloves are dry? It's karate day, I'll pick you up after school. Out, out now. Now. When two boys and one man exit the house it's like a sigh. The baby and I (yes, I know, not a baby, but still the one staying behind) take stock of the day ahead and settle into our preferred approaches. He asks for a cookie. I insist on oatmeal first. He suggests a morning movie. I start reading a book about pirates, or Amelia Bedelia, or Scooby damn Doo. When that doesn't hold his fleeting attention I break out the train tracks and the kitchen floor turns industrial. Sometimes we sit in the hallway and discover light. Particle? Wave? We have nothing further to contribute to the collective body of knowledge, except this: morning light on the wall is as good as playdough. And when he tries to eat it, there's no cleanup. "What did that taste like?" I ask. "Ummmm... cookies?" he answers. Every morning is a new opportunity to hope.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Wednesday night I took a bath. "What are you doing?" asked L. Who was supposed to be packaged in bed under three blankets, asleep or at least drawing in the dim light, humming hushedly to himself. "Having a tubby," I told him. "No, I mean, what are you...doing?" Oh. He was referring to the bar of soap, the razor, my leg perched awkwardly on the faucet. "Shaving my legs." And then, of course, he asked: "Why?" And I thought briefly that thirty or so years from now L's choice of life partner may be influenced by the echo of this sight of me, his mother, sitting in a tub of tepid water shaving her legs. "I'm going to see my midwife tomorrow and shaving feels like the polite thing to do," I answered. "Now. To bed." And he bounced away. And I finished my moment of personal hygiene. And thought maybe it was strange to shave one's legs for one's annual appointment with the midwife. And, as the water grew yet colder, thought more about my midwife and how I was worried about her because the receptionist had muttered something about medical leave two months ago when I tried to get an appointment. But she was still seeing patients; it must have been a temporary thing. My midwife has girls, two of them, whom I know through scribbled drawings on the office walls. 'I love you Mommy.' 'Mommy I missed you today.' Crayoned pictures of rainbows and happy families.
The next day, my legs gleaming smooth under my jeans and long underwear, I hugged my midwife and told her all in a rush how good I was. We talked about my boys and her girls. We shared happy notes on husbands. Toward the end of the visit I asked, "And how about you? I heard something about medical leave?" She didn't quite look up from the note she was writing in my chart while she explained about surgery, a port in her abdomen, chemotherapy that started in four days. She held my hand to a flat disk under the skin in her belly where the treatment would enter. I don't remember her words, but with typical elegance and grace she let me know that five years is an optimistic chunk of time.
Her daughters are now much older than those notes they once wrote for their mother. College age. Not so old that the absence of a mother won't be unusual and tragic. Maybe it is at any age. My boys are only three among the thousands of babies my midwife caught during her career, but she is the only midwife to catch any of my babies, and my experience of those births is gratefully tangled up with my memories of her calming presence, her soothing intensity, her sharing of our joy, her sharing of her tea cup.
You think life is like a chess game, that if you can just keep your focus three or four moves out you'll be able to defend your most important pieces. That with a touch of luck and concentration your queen and your king will survive until the end of the game. I know, of course I know, that life is nothing so obvious. And I'm crap at chess anyway; my almost-nine-year-old boy has no problem beating me. I've been hugging my men extra these past few days. I've been repeating I love yous until they look at me funny. When they ask for a chess game I say yes instead of later. It's all I can do.
One summer when I was in Junior High I went with my best friend and her family to visit their relatives in Ohio. It must have been a large car--big enough to accommodate seven kids, two parents and our stuff--but I don't really remember. What sticks in my mind the most is meeting the cousins. There were three boys and two girls. The youngest boy was just my age, everyone else was older. That first night all of the little kids (my friend's brothers and sisters) found a place to sleep upstairs in the bedrooms, while the rest of us each claimed a space downstairs in the livingroom. The floor was soon covered in pillows, blankets and sleeping bags. Eventually everyone must have dozed off, but I stayed up talking to P , the next-to-youngest boy. I remember laying there, our bodies in opposite directions while our pillows and heads nearly touched, talking about anything and everything. We compared notes about music, movies and books and when we exhausted a topic we moved on to another. At one point we must have noticed the light filtering in as the sun came up; somehow we had stayed up all night. I don't think I was even tired the next day, I was still so giddy with excitement over meeting someone so similar. I had never stayed up all night before, and not many times since. Each one, though is a special memory.
I don't remember what it was like to leave their house after our vacation was over, though I must have been sad. P and I corresponded for quite awhile afterwards, and discovering a letter in the mail from him was cause for celebration. I hadn't ever met someone who I connected with so fully. It amazed me that I could be so close with a boy. Until then I had had several crushes from afar, but nothing that ever became anything more than me constantly thinking about that boy and wondering what it would be like for him to notice me. Growing up I never had brothers and only one boy cousin. I had several uncles, one who was an avid storyteller and a great babysitter. Back then boys were a foreign species, I knew they were different but I could never understand what made them tick.
There are times now when I pull out the memory of my nightlong never-ending conversation with P. I hold it gently as I consider it and admire its loveliness. With today's technology I could probably discover where the grown-up P has settled, but I prefer to keep our time together perfectly preserved in my amber tinted mind. Over the years it's grown softer around the edges, more from its age or my holding it close, I don't honestly know. Yet I hope I'm not the only one who remembers. Perhaps there's a boy out there who thinks about a certain girl and the night they spent together talking and laughing while the sun made its way into the sky.