Tag Archives: Books

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour: Part 3

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A friend of mine and I used to be crazy for amusement parks. Every year we’d plan a summer trip around an amusement park, and we’d milk each day for all it was worth. We’d get up early to be with the first group in the gate, we’d attack all of the harshest, most death-defying rides first. We’d stay until the park closed, sweaty, exhausted, feet sore, heads pounding from being shaken and twirled within an inch of our lives. During the day, we’d make fun of the people who were going to “shows” instead of hitting all of the attractions and making themselves feel exactly how we did at the end of a day: sure we’d done all we could and completely sated.

About a decade ago, when middle age had probably arrived but I wasn’t claiming it yet, we went to Disney World and rode some beastly attraction meant to simulate weightlessness in space. I got claustrophobic for the first time in my life—an affliction that has stuck and now requires that I carry relaxi pills when I fly just in case the aisles suddenly seem too full and too close together—and my friend nearly threw up in the barf bags Disney had conveniently provided. The rest of the trip we avoided roller coasters and anything inclined to induce motion sickness. He recovered; I never did. If we went to an amusement park, I’d have heart palpitations and decide that I couldn’t brave a coaster that in my youth would have been a “baby” ride, and the attractions that were more entertainment based seemed like a better bet.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

London is striking me in a similar fashion: in my youth, I would have packed each day full to the brim with activities and thrills, but on this trip, at this age, I’m more interested in calm, quality experiences. I don’t need the dips and thrills. The two hours we spend at Westminster Abbey—looking at what is essentially an entombed eight century (or so) history of England in a beautiful gothic jewelbox—feel exactly like the first trip to England in that I am in complete awe of the political intrigue, royal feuds, religious wars, and writers deemed significant enough to land a burial spot in Poets’ Corner. (I’m happy to report that on this trip Thomas Hardy does NOT have a folding chair on his marker as he did in 1988!) But other than that, my very favorite thing that we do on this trip–the thing that seems so much better than the tourist “excitement”–is having dinner with people we haven’t seen for awhile. It’s not quite a “show” but there’s something about the human connection in a foreign place that pleases me and makes me feel like more than just a visitor, crammed on a tour bus trying to soak up buckets of knowledge and experience before being shuffled off to another.

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On the first night we take the Tube to Paddington Station and meet Z’s cousin Jaynie by the statue of Paddington Bear. I’ve never met Jaynie. When Z and I were just friends, I was especially disappointed not to be a couple at the time because he traveled to England for Jaynie’s wedding and I wanted to go, believing completely at the time despite all evidence that one day we’d be together and it was silly not to get the experience of a family event then because of something as inconsequential as his not yet realizing our co-mingled destiny. No invitation was forthcoming, and when he got home and reported that her wedding cake was shaped like Africa, I was bitter not to have seen it. (Incidentally, the idea of this cake would later plant a seed that resulted in our own wedding cake with a zebra bride and groom dressed in a tux and bridal veil.)

Mr. & Mrs. Reluctant Girl Scout

I’m glad to put that missed Jaynie opportunity behind me and forge new ground. Instantly, she reminds me of Z-ma, and I am at ease. She is friendly, chatty, and inhabits her body in a fashion similar to my mother-in-law. Even better than spending time with a Z-ma stand-in and meeting more of his family, I love watching Z interact with his cousin. They haven’t seen each other in six years, yet the easy way they talk to each other is delightful to witness. She’s taken the train in from Oxford (where she is staying for work) just to meet us for dinner. The evening passes too quickly, and as Z and I take the Tube back to South Kensington after she’s caught her return train to Oxford, I marvel at the world we live in: that I—a Hoosier whose horizons never really extended much beyond the Midwest—am married to a Zimbabwean and we live in Seattle but have spent the night at a little restaurant in London visiting his Malawian cousin who lives in Munich with her English husband. I used to believe it was improbable that that little bear from Darkest Peru had made his way to England’s Paddington Station with nothing but a “Please look after this bear” tag attached to his coat, but maybe not.

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The next day, after soaking up Westminster Abbey—where I spend too much time thinking about royal weddings and funerals and not enough time soaking up the communion service that is taking place— we walk up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, have lunch in a pub, walk down Charing Cross Road so I can gaze upon #84, the site of one of my all-time-favorite memoirs and movies, though sadly it is no longer a bookstore but is in the process of becoming a yogurt shop or something similarly unbookstore-like. Food is a good way to soothe this disappointment, so we go home via a stop in Knightsbridge so Z can see the food hall at Harrods.  It is something remarkable to behold. There is an entire room full of nothing but chocolate, and children swarm around the counters like something out of Willy Wonka. There is a produce hall, a room full of teas, a room full of fish, half a room full of the most beautiful and delectable baked goods I’ve ever seen. We make our selections (pastries–delicious, delicious pastries) and head to the hotel.

Because Z lives in America, I rarely get to hear him reminisce with someone else about his life before he came to the States or see that “home” look on his face unless I’m eavesdropping on a phone conversation or we are in Zimbabwe with his family. So I’m glad when our dinner with J, a Z-family friend, and the friend’s partner, is so leisurely that we close down the Italian restaurant near the Kensington High Street. I like hearing them catch up, like hearing them remember the details of stories together, and like the fond way they talk about the other’s family. Because the only other time I’ve spent with J was our wedding weekend when I was not entirely of sound mind, I’m also happy to get to know him a bit better too. Again, I marvel at the tenuous way people are connected to other people—how those connections are a bit like a spider web in both their strength and delicacy, but also in the strange, unpredictable architecture of lives intertwined.

The next day, Z and I head to Covent Garden for no real reason other than Z has never been there and it’s in the guidebook as a place where you must go. It is a sort of multi-building art market/flea market that also has upscale shops and eateries. The original market was there in the 1600s with buildings that have clearly been around a few centuries, though this pedestrianized incarnation has only been in existence since the 1970s. I remember it fondly as the place I bought an antique garnet ring, and despite being in my twenties and thus smart enough to know better, I liked to imagine that it had previously belonged to some lady-in-waiting for Queen Elizabeth I and I really got a bargain.

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Though I’m not averse to shopping, this trip has not been about acquiring items, so Z and I do a quick spin around the place. We’re lured into another building when we hear an operatic rendition of “Hallelujah.” When we look into the courtyard below us, there is a man in a bowler hat, making balloon animals that he accosts diners and passers-by with, all while belting out gorgeous music. It seems almost wrong to laugh at his antics while he sings so beautifully, but still, we do as he chases people around the courtyard with a giant comb and puffs their hair with a balloon pump, as if he is some sort of insane, singing hairdresser.

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Probably I should admit here that my favorite thing near Covent Garden is the shop dedicated entirely to Moleskine journals. I don’t actually buy any while I’m there because I have at least six unused ones back at home in various colors, but I take pictures and I fondle several of them as I try to justify a seventh.

Peter Pan/Alan Cumming @ Leicester Square

Peter Pan/Alan Cumming @ Leicester Square

For lunch, we make a picnic for ourselves at Tesco Express and head to Leicester Square, the center of the theatre district. (We pass St. Martin’s Theatre that has been showing Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap for the last 63 years and at the end of every performance the audience is admonished not to share the secret of who the murderer is; I remember wryly that after seeing the play in 1988 I thought perhaps the real reason the secret had never been revealed was that the play is so boring by the time the murderer stands accused, you no longer care who dunnit). It is hot out and Z and I are grateful for the shade by the fountain, where we munch our food—Z is pleased to have finally scored one of his beloved meat pies and I eat fruit, bread, and crisps, which is as well-balanced as I get—and watch little kids splash around. One little guy looks like across between Alan Cumming and Peter Pan as he slices through the water with an inflatable sword as if he’s vanquishing dragons. I prefer this to standing like cattle in line for another must-see attraction. During the afternoon, Z has to do research, so I sit alone on the Strand, nibbling a pretzel and writing in my journal, though the people-watching possibilities makes it hard to focus on the page.

A Tube strike is on the near horizon, so Z and I make plans to bug out of London a day earlier than planned in order to miss it because neither of us can imagine what the city looks like when it isn’t functioning fully. Our plan initially was to stop in Bath on the way to Wales. On the map it appears to be on the way, but a train schedule reveals that if we go this route it will take ten hours instead of four, so we opt instead to investigate Shrewsbury  simply because it is at mid-point on the journey west (though I refuse to call it Shrewsbury and instead tell people we’re going to Shropshire because it makes me feel like Maggie Smith in A Room with a View).

London Skyline from Primrose Hill

London Skyline from Primrose Hill

On our last day in London, we decide to take in a view suggested by J, plus I want to revisit Regent’s Park and the nearby canals that I remember being fascinated by two decades ago. The only drawback to this plan is the rain, which is bucketing down when we leave the hotel, continues once we get to the park (which means we have the place virtually to ourselves), and doesn’t let up until we are halfway through the park. We have new, matching £6 umbrellas with the London skyline drawn on them, so we don’t mind. The lake we walk around is a bird sanctuary of sorts and the storks remind me of Tony Soprano’s crew, sitting outside Satrielle’s, smoking cigarettes and wise cracking.

Canal near Regent's Park

Canal near Regent’s Park

On our walk to the canals, we pass a guard with a machine gun standing in a driveway to a fancy house. He doesn’t seem bothered by us, but even so, you don’t really want to ask a dude with a machine gun what it is he’s guarding, so we take note of the sign on the gate, Winfield House, and look it up later, only to discover it’s where the U.S. Ambassador lives and was originally a house owned by the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton. I’d wrongly assumed that ambassadors lived in an apartment–maybe in the attic–of the embassy itself.

Eventually, we find the canals, and they aren’t really the way I remembered them. The canals in my memory were full of colorful boats that maybe Johnny Depp circa Chocolat lived in. The only boats we see are full of tourists and none are brightly colored or playing guitar music. We walk along the canal while I try to figure out if this was indeed the canal I saw twenty years ago or if there was some other better, more Depp-inspired canal. I give up and we make our way to Primrose Hill. It’s a big hill and we are used to Seattle’s hills. We stop periodically to look back at the skyline but mostly to catch our breaths before plodding upward. When we do get to the top, the views are stunning. Because I’m never satisfied, I wish I’d seen the view on that trip a few decades ago before so many skyscrapers went up, though I’m happy that we can make out the outline of St. Paul’s, Parliament, and some other choice sights. It’s a good last tourist adventure.

Gloucester Road Tube Station

Gloucester Road Tube Station

Our final social engagement is to meet a friend of Hudge’s (FH, for our purposes) who used to work with Z but has recently taken a job at a sort of think tank in London. Instead of taking the Tube, Z and I decide to walk since it is at the next Tube stop from the one we use and discover that it is actually closer to our hotel than the one we’ve been using. The area is buzzing and has, to my mind, more charm than the street we’ve been walking down daily. Suddenly, I feel terribly sad that our time in London is coming to an end when I’ve only just discovered this whole area that needs exploring. FH arrives and we make our way to a pub that is the exact way you want a pub to be: not sleek and sparse and hip, but instead, worn out wing backed chairs around a table with water rings and stools made from barrels and dark wood everywhere. The people having a pint here seem to belong, and because we are meeting FH, it feels a little like we are here legitimately and not as tourists. The conversation is easy and moves from politics on Z’s campus to politics around the world to what neighborhood FH will be moving to and how he misses swimming off the dock at Hudge’s houseboat. Also, because he’s been a tour guide for my travel guru, Rick Steves, FH chastises me gently for not learning to pack light. “It will change your life,” he says.

Slightly Foxed

Slightly Foxed

When we say goodbye and go our separate ways, Z and I bump into a bookstore that looks intriguing. When I look at the name of it, Slightly Foxed, a light dawns. Slightly Foxed is the publication my mother gets regularly and raves about. It primarily covers books the store-owners believe are worthy of being read, most of which are memoir and autobiography. At least a few conversations with Mom a month cover her latest discoveries from Slightly Foxed. In a split second, I imagine the book bag or coffee mug I’ll get her from there as a surprise, but before I can get too far with the fantasy, I notice the closed sign on the door. I’m so disappointed. If only I’d made the discovery earlier in the week. When I get back to the hotel room, I text her with the news and a photo I’ve taken, and like me, she’s terribly disappointed that I’ve missed my chance to go inside.

Though two days before I would have happily paid money to leave London immediately because the muchness of it all overwhelmed me, while we pack our too-full suitcases and make our final arrangements for the morning’s train trip to Shrewsbury, I feel sad. I don’t know when I’ll be back in London. I don’t know why I’ve been so hard on it. I wish I had just a few more hours so I could eek out a little more juice from the place.

What I do instead to make me feel in control of the situation is set my alarm to go off an hour earlier than needed. The next day, while Z showers and finishes packing, I slip out on a solo adventure into a downpour and walk to Slightly Foxed, stand outside under my umbrella until the store opens, and as soon as I hear the lock click, I head in. For fifteen minutes I scan shelves for titles, look at artwork, and snap photos for Mom. Initially, I feel a little miffed that this store owned by two women seems to be in the hands of a young man, but when I ask if I can take photos for my mother, he warmly encourages them and points out various foxes I should photograph. I make a purchase that seems likely to be one Mom already has, but the book feels good in my hands and won’t take up much room in my suitcase. I tuck it into my coat so the deluge won’t dampen it as I make my way back to the hotel and feel slightly more satisfied.

Maybe when you hit your forties some people don’t need roller coasters for thrills anymore. Maybe it’s okay that a good meal with friends, a park with a view, a well-appointed bookstore surprise, and a good traveling companion are what satisfies.

Shropshire awaits.

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Flashback Friday: The Wages of Sin

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[I’m annoyed with Paris Hilton because of her plane crashing terror stunt, and so this seemed a timely flashback.]

 

Saturday, June 09, 2007

 

Lord, I am heartily sorry.

I have been shamed. Not more than twenty minutes ago, I was clutching a book to my chest and having a cry because the book in question seemed so good and true. The shame part comes in because I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks publicly decrying the author as superior and unkind to her townsfolk and completely unable to string together a satisfying non-fiction narrative. And this after five years of being more silently contemptuous of her, in no small part because she was writing about Indiana during my era and she had the gall to have a nickname too close to one I had.

Also, I once went to a workshop she led and was annoyed beyond repair by the way people gushed over her when she was a mediocre teacher at best. So talented, so clever, so unique, they said. Bleh. I began to loathe her. I began to feel she had stolen away some title I deserved. The fact that I have not written a memoir of my Indiana girlhood for critics and readers to gush over did not alter my sense of injustice. The fact that I loved her fiction did not strike me as being a contradiction when I would curl my lip if someone dared mention the name Zippy to me.

So anyhow, I was fairly surprised when I slammed shut She Got Up Off the Couch and promptly burst into tears. All I can figure is Haven Kimmel got something right—some alchemy of description of a blizzardy Hoosier winter or growing up in the 70s or loving common items shrunk down to miniature size—that made my heart shift positions and not turn so bitterly against her.

I feel much better now that I have confessed that sin.

Other things that have been disturbing me today: I think Paris Hilton is robbing me of quality time with Z.

Since Z, I have a laundry list in my head of things to tick off until I see him again. In fact, when he was here last month, healing me of terminal hypochondria, I even happily ticked off his departure because I knew that meant I would see him all the sooner.

My shrink would say, “Why do you think you are this powerful—to speed up time?” and I’m not sure why except that my maternal grandmother soundly chastised me once for
wishing away my life, something I should never do, even if it was for a truly good thing, such as I wish summer vacation were here. (That one, I still contend, is not bad because life in the confines of the public school system was not worth living.) My grandmother’s belief that I had the power to fast-forward thru my life must have made an impression, because I do. I do honestly believe that when I see Z on Tuesday morning at the airport, it will be in no small part because I thought so long and hard on how to get through the minutes more quickly until I could see him again.

But then there is this: not only have I been wishing away my life, but it occurs to me, I’ve also been, with my desire for speedier clocks and quicker reunions, wishing away other people’s lives—Z’s, my mother’s, my aunt who dreads the passing of time because it removes her further from her recently departed husband, my other aunt who is now—with no thanks to me—down to about nine thousand heart ticks of her own—and so on and so forth. I’m pretty sure this makes me a selfish, bad person.

And the wages of such a sin is this: this flagrant speeding up of time that I have caused means that at the end of those paltry few days I’ll have in Seattle with Z, he flies off to Zimbabwe for…oh, I keep hoping there will be some papal dispensation that will make this untrue!…two months. No nightly phone calls; no reliable, multiple-times-a-day e-mails; no possibility of a mid-way weekend meeting place if the Travelocity deals are superior. Just me, my suitcase of abandonment issues and the void sprinkled with occasional emails when he has electrical power and occasional phone calls when I can manage to punch in the international codes correctly and the phones on his end are actually working, and daily news reports of how things in his homeland have slid so far past “pear-shaped” that they aren’t even in the fruit category anymore. That’s what I have to look forward to for not taking heed when Grandma told me to stop wishing.

No. I must require of myself and insist that others—including Paris Hilton who is no doubt in a hurry to get out of the L.A. County jail—QUIT WISHING THE DAYS AWAY. I believe if we are all united on this front time can be slowed to a crawl and Z will never leave my shores for his native ones. I’m not sure what the pay off will be for Paris or how she can be convinced to cooperate, but I’m working on it. Her money, power, and connections give her an unfair advantage in persuading the earth to rotate a bit faster, so I’m hoping she’ll see reason & find peace in her current unfortunate circumstances.

Elegy to a Mentor

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Gibb (with Beth and her 80s hair).

Gibb (with Beth and her 80s hair).

Today would have been the 80th birthday of my college mentor. All afternoon I’ve been having “Gibb flashes” and was surprised to look on my perpetual birthday calendar and see his name in parentheses (parentheses being the only indication I am ever willing to give that someone on my calendar is now dead). Somewhere on one of my often-confused brain cells, there must have been some Gibb info stored and an impulse got released to remind me to send him a greeting today.

Only sadly, I have to send it to the general populace since he died in 2006.

When I went to college, I was an art major. My whole life until then I’d either had a pen in my hand for writing or a pen in my hand for drawing, so it’s easy to see now why I was confused about what I should do with my life back then. For the first six weeks of college, I dutifully carried my art supplies to the Fine Arts building and tried not to be intimidated by the girl who wore a beret or the guy who carried a paisley purse, both of whom looked like artists while I was wearing polo shirts and sweaters with shoulder pads. I also tried to ignore how loathe I was to use the mandatory charcoal because the feel of it dragging across the paper set my nerves on edge and I preferred the delicate, fine strokes of a pen. Eventually it became apparent that the joy I felt going into the classroom beneath the art studio for my Valuing Through Literature course when compared to the glumness I felt about Drawing 101, probably meant something significant. Possibly, I would have come to this realization without Gibb at the helm of that class I’d accidentally been placed in by a disinterested advisor, but I like to think it was destiny that put me in his class and that led me to the registrar’s office before the term was up to change my major to English.

Gibb was in his 50s, balding, and had this air of an Englishman even though he was 100% American. (When I say “air” I don’t mean that he put on airs. He was just so caught up in British literature and history, that he gave off an English vibe, so much so that his perfectly American English would start to sound like English English in your ear.) More than once, the actor Anthony Hopkins has reminded me of Gibb, though not so much when he played Hannibal Lecter.

Gibb had this habit of lecturing into his yellow legal pad, as if he were talking to himself in an empty room, only occasionally looking up at one of us with a slight smile or a squinted eye if he’d said something particularly poignant about a poem or essay. He moved his coffee cup around as he talked, as if he couldn’t find the exact right spot for it, and his lectures, while full of the expected details about literature, were also chock-full of anecdotes that you’d miss if you weren’t listening, such as his  memory of the first ball point pen and how the advertisements  had said, “It can write on butter!” as if writing on butter was something everyone would want to do, or his disappointment that inaugurations never looked as good as they did after the Kennedy presidency, which he blamed on the lack of top hats. One of my favorites was about the Wedgwood China he’d won in a puzzle contest that he enjoyed because with it came a trip to England. When he told us about it, he shook his head at the memory of his daughter, who was concerned about how much each piece of it had cost. He said, “How does the price of a gravy boat make the gravy taste any better?” In his mind, it was somehow tied to what we were learning to value through literature, but to some of my classmates, he just seemed like an old guy who rambled. It was these anecdotes of his—dutifully copied in my notes right next to dates and themes of Bride of Lammermoor—that led me to the understanding that literature was life, and vice versa.

He loved pigs and had had a pet one named Jipper when he was a boy, and it would meet him after school each day. Various pig trinkets dotted the shelves which were filled with books about and by Romantic and Victorian British authors, including a tea towel with pigs on it dancing around some building blocks that spelled out ENGLISH. (My friend Bunz, once said, “Until I met Gibb, I had no idea that pigs and English had anything to do with each other.”  I’m still curious about where one would find such a tea towel.)

My fellow English majors liked him fine, but he was not one of the campus personalities around whom students flocked, those intellectual celebrity-profs who spent as much class time talking about themselves and their vast stores of knowledge and accomplishments as they did the subject at hand. Nor was he like the psychology prof in the tight Levis who was popular despite a rather crabby disposition. Gibb amused students, if anything, both because of his odd lecturing manner and the quiet jokes he’d crack in the classroom. Did my classmates respect him? I don’t really know but I have to believe they did because I can’t really stand the thought that they might not have.

Friends who were English majors were aware of my devotion to him and how I hung on his every word, and they sometimes teased me about being in love with him. It was in good fun, but it got under my skin…like being accused of having the hots for Mr. Chips or Yoda or, well, Buddha or Jesus. You just don’t do that. It wasn’t about that. Mostly, I just wanted to scoop out what was in his brain and put it into mine.

One of the regular requirements for his classes were journals, an activity that I loathed for other professors, but I knew Gibb was reading mine because he regularly praised me for the quality, and so I began writing them with more vigor because it was clear I had an audience. It was the perfect communication style for two introverts. His written commentary gave me insight into the work I was writing about, his praise gave me a little more faith in my abilities, and on one occasion when he chastised me, his words burned deep and I spent weeks mentally twisting while I tried to figure out if I had been misunderstood or if I needed to alter my perspective to align more with his.

I remember the satisfaction I felt, when I brought Helene Hanff’s books, 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street to his attention. He’d never heard of her, devoured the books, and one day when I was working in the English Department at my job as a student secretary, I overheard him suggesting the books to someone else. I felt like I’d accomplished something, to carry these two small books to this man who had introduced me to so much fine literature, the way a cat leaves a mouse on a doorstep for its master.

My junior year, he and his wife, took a group of students to England for a week. It was my first trip outside of the U.S., and the idea of seeing the England that Gibb had lectured about with him (and with my friends), really was a dream come true. Our first full day there he led us to the Tower of London, and I can still remember the sort of naïve shock I felt when I realized that the places I’d spent my life reading about were real, the historical figures were real, and even the fictional characters and places were real­-ish.

For some reason, one of my fondest memories from that trip was at Windsor Castle where I overheard his wife pointing out that St. George’s chapel was closed, and Gibb said to her, with the most irritation (and disappointment) I had ever heard from him, “Of course it is closed. Whenever we are here it is closed. Why would it be open today?” Years later when I managed to be there on a day when it was open, I was sure to remember the details of what struck me there—the photo and light burning by the tomb of the current queen’s father, what it felt like to stand directly over Henry VIII’s bones, the checkered floor, the banners—so I could give him the details in case he never did get to see it for himself.

After my graduation, we kept in touch with letters and regular Christmas cards, in which we’d always promise to get together in the near future, though we never did. I wanted to be able to report to him that I had become the next Erma Bombeck or Mike Royko (his two suggested futures for me, as if these were job openings I was likely to see an ad for), and so I kept putting off seeing him maybe, and instead reported less grand things in my letters: a new degree, a trip to Ireland, a new job teaching. In my  memory, I thanked him for what he’d taught me when I started teaching my own students, but I’m not sure I did. I hope I did. Certainly, some percentage of what I said and did in the classroom was because of Gibb.

One year his wife signed the Christmas card and there was no letter. Instead of feeling glad to hear that they were both well, I felt annoyed. Within the year, he had died.  A few weeks later, I found the previous year’s Christmas card and realized it wasn’t his wife who had signed it. It was Gibb. His handwriting looked less like itself, less sure, and the message was short, “Please come and see us!” And I wept because of those things we desperately want “do-overs” on but can’t have.

His voice cracked once when he talked about aging love in Robert Burns’s poem “John Anderson, my Jo” and it has stuck with me all of these years, how much the words on the page were alive for Gibb and should have been alive for all of us, young things that we were, so sure we’d never age.

Stacked

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My desk (fantasy version)

My desk (fantasy version)

I used to have students who would say to me, “I’m a writer, but I hate to read.” Whenever I’d hear that—and I heard it too much—I’d always want to do one of those obnoxious cough talks, where you hold your hand over your mouth, bark a cough, and simultaneously say something rude. But I was a good teacher, so instead I’d suggest a book I was sure would capture their interest.

You can’t write and not read. I mean, I suppose you can, but I don’t really want to have to read what you write. And frankly, it seems a little rude to me to write something you think other people should read when you refuse to read yourself. I suppose you could be a chef who doesn’t like to eat anyone else’s food, but where would you get your inspiration and style?

I have no idea if I would have thought of myself as a writer if my mother hadn’t made being a reader non-negotiable. Maybe I would have been like those old students of mine, enamored with the idea of having my name on a book or a story or a poem published with my byline without having bothered to study craft or let someone else’s words inspire my own. It’s one of those unanswerable nature vs. nurture debates. I grew up in an apartment that was filled, floor to ceiling, with books crammed into a brick-and-board shelving system. I saw my mother reading and I was read to nightly. I had my own library card the moment I was allowed to have one, and I knew how to use it. (Brief aside: one of the saddest losses to me in this barcode age is the absence of the satisfying “Ka-chunk” sound when you checked out a book.) My childhood was spent at garage sales, used bookstores, and in the book sale section of the musty Salvation Army store, where Mom’s early collection got its start. Though I might have gotten bored during these lengthy browsing sprees at times, I was resigned. Books were holy and when you were in the presence of some that were for sale, you kept quiet and waited for selections to be made and the ting of the cash register that signaled the benediction.

I had my own bookcases before I had my own room. They were full of Little Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, the Little House on the Prairie Series, Trixie Belden mysteries, and all manner young adult books. The shelves grew. First three small ones, and then a desk set with adjoining shelves that were later cut in two, turned sideways, and had boards put across the short ends, giving my own library room to grow. When my  mother and step-father got married and bought a house, it wasn’t long before we’d enlisted him into building floor-to-ceiling shelves in my bedroom. When I was constructing my library, my belief was that it was something I’d carry with me for life, like scars and family photos. You might weed out the baddies, but even if you outgrew a book, you didn’t casually release it into the wilds. You hung on to it because it was part of the literary canon of your life.

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When you think of me, I’d like for you to have the above photo in mind: my tidy desk with a row of writing books in front of me at the ready, should I need to find an answer about style or read a line for inspiration. These are all books that I’ve read in total or in part and know to be useful. When I look at my desk, these books bring me joy because this is the sort of person I always imagined I’d be: organized, controlled, and like a good Girl Scout, prepared.

But I’ve got a book problem. They multiply like rabbits. Despite the fact that I culled the herd when I moved here, and left half of my collection back in Indiana at my folks’ house, I’m operating at near maximum capacity here. When I was cleaning out my office this past spring after I resigned from my teaching position, I weeded extensively. There were a lot of books there that I had bought when I was just starting my collection, thinking that my life wouldn’t be complete if I hadn’t read the complete works of  ________________________________, but two decades later I no longer felt compelled. I’m beginning to recognize that I don’t have an infinite amount of reading days ahead of me, and so I’m trying to be choosey. (Which begs the question, why was I up until four a.m. last night finishing the latest Dan Brown novel.) But even with the weeding, every time I’m back home, a few more books leap into my suitcase, desperate to be reunited with their siblings.

rgsofficeshelves

So this is what my writing studio looks like, plus another set of shelves on the opposite wall where the books are double-stacked. Plus, a small set of cubes to go on top of these just as soon as Z and I figure out how to secure the shelves to the wall without wrecking our chances of getting our deposit back.

There wasn’t room for bookshelves in our living room, so for the first year or so that we were married, it was largely book free, give or take a coffee table book. Then I started getting books that I was planning to read “next.” So I put them on the windowsill behind the sofa. At first, it was just a few books and I definitely would be getting to them shortly, but then I went to a bookstore, used up an Elliott Bay Books gift card, went to a reading and felt compelled to buy the author’s latest title, had a birthday, and the next thing I knew, my “next” collection ran the length of the double windowsill. While the books in my studio are arranged in a very specific but intuitive fashion so I can easily find what I need, on the windowsill it is a free-for-all. I put books there as they come to me, so race car driver Janet Guthrie’s biography is right next to National Geographic’s Scenic Highways and Seven Secrets of the Prolific.

Book chaos

Book chaos

Books crept into the weird bar space behind our TV. Some appeared under my little wooden stool. We won’t speak of my nightstand, where the stack is currently so high, it threatens to block out my light. Nor will we speak of Z’s poor books, which I always relegate to hidden corners and alcoves. Any of these books could go live in the studio, where they might be more at home and so I would have more surfaces in my living room on which to set Zimbabwean objet d’art (read: stone hippos and wart hogs made of scrap metal), but I know as soon as I take them there, they’ll be lost to me. I’ll forget about them, find them in ten years and wonder what made me ever think I wanted to read a memoir about a Seattle mom who loves yoga or an American family who lived in Berlin before World War II.

And don’t even get me started on why it is I think I need to own every book about writing that was ever written. I’ve got so many books on how to be a productive writer, that I refuse to buy another unless the first line is: In order to be a more  productive writer, quit reading books about how to be more productive. It’s a sickness I have.

What I'm reading NEXT.

What I’m reading NEXT.

This is my most recent stack of books, compliments of Z and my folks. They came for both Christmas and my birthday. The desk behind them will open. Right now. But as soon as I cash in those holiday gift cards? Forget about it.

I know the world of e-reading makes for tidier living spaces, but I’ve got five books on my iPad and I can’t remember to read them. An iPad, to me, is not a book; it is a place to check my mail, watch Downton Abbey, and play “Ticket to Ride.” My brain doesn’t hear the start-up ping of an electronic device and think, “Oh boy! Time to read!”

So here’s my 2014 challenge to myself. I am going to show up to those books on the windowsill (and my new books, of course!) read as many of them as I am able, and report back to you.

If it were a real challenge, I’d make some outlandish promise about how they’d all be read and removed by December 31st, but I’m not crazy. Some books will probably always need to live there so I have easy access: The Art of the Personal Essay, The One-Minute Organizer, and You Can Heal Your Life (because sometimes I need to know what negative thought pattern I have that might be causing my big toe to hurt). That’s 68 books, plus the top two on my nightstand that I’ve got  to finish, which rounds it off to a solid 70.  And maybe, for good measure, I’ll read all the magazines I’ve been stockpiling since I got married. Joan Didion has been staring at me from the cover of Poets & Writers for two years now.

What are you reading? Oh, don’t tell me. The windowsill is already full.

rgsstool