THE JOY OF LIBRARY ROULETTE

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I’ve fallen into a black hole not once, but many times. Those who care for me are happy I always return.   I emerge dazed and transformed, my whole self exploded and reconstructed and somehow shifted. I like to think I return indefinably better.

It happened again the other day. I was playing library roulette — arguably the best game ever. There are two ways to play: the original, comfortably wandering through the library shelves peering at spines in a completely unplanned and random way. If you play, make sure to look low at the bottom shelves and scurry up the ladders to the top when no one is looking until some odd and wonderful and unexpected little book almost literally jumps out at you. Or there’s the more modern version: finding a hint in something you’re reading and tracking it down via cyberspace. If you’ve played, and I’m betting almost all of you have, you know that both versions can swirl you instantly into the most delicious black hole. This time I was playing the cyber version of the game. My reward was a tiny, and virtually forgotten little volume called The Spring of Joy by an author I’d never heard of named Mary Webb.

The book has been out of print for a long time. But The Spring of Joy, all hundred odd pages of it, was a cherished bestseller in its day, and upon her death in 1927 Mary Webb was lauded by no less than the Prime Minister of Britain as a “neglected genius“. An exquisitely evocative meditation on the beauty and rhythms of nature and the healing powers of observation, The Spring of Joy is truly one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read.

But wait. A book such as this out of print? A once lionized author marginalized and virtually forgotten? Both facts should be deeply sobering, terribly sad. Except that I think that’s not quite so. Nor is it the whole story.

There are as many reasons for creating art as there are artists: A deep-seated need for observation and expression. A hope to touch other lives. Self-validation by way of fame. A quest for immortality. A wish to become rich (this is not to be sneered at. Writers do need to eat).  Sometimes a mix of all of these things and more. The most public forms of expression are done for the most personal of reasons.

But while writers can control what they write, the cannot, no matter how hard they try, control the response to their work. Anything can happen. Anything usually does.

And so…

*You might be the most widely read, most celebrated author of your time—then forgotten, even vilified, thereafter.

*You might labor in near total obscurity in your lifetime and be posthumously crowned as the “voice of a generation” sometime in the future.

*You might be discovered, quite unexpectedly, on a library shelf or in a wildly spiraling Internet search.

*You might labor for decades to reach a tiny but dedicated readership.

*You might have no readers at all, save for yourself.

It doesn’t matter.

Writing, and the thought and feeling that motivate writing, are always worthwhile. You might reach millions or you might change the world for a single person, even if that person is you.

Whatever it is, write. Be brave. Be honest. Be true to yourself.  And always play library roulette. I guarantee you will uncover shining jewels and buried treasures. Mary Webb’s The Spring of Joy such a book for me. You knew that. If you’re quite lucky, the treasure someone will uncover someday will be one of your own creations. You might change the world or the world for just one person.  Keep going. You’ll make a difference for sure.

PS, if you’re interested in reading The Spring of Joy  it’s available on line as many out-of-print titles are via the Digital Library at The University of Pennsylvania. Click below or simply Google it.    http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/webb/spring/spring.html

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A TINY DOT OF HONEY

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This past April Fools’ Day Google infused the mundane with sheer joy by turning Google Maps into a gigantic game of Pac- Man. This was especially fun for someone like me who once upon a time spent way too many rolls of quarters racking up points in the arcades of yore. Think of it! You could play anywhere in the world but I loved playing Pac-Man by eating up Manhattan dot by dot: up Fifth Avenue, across 59th skimming the Park, zoom around Columbus Circle and finally cut down Broadway, avoiding the ghosts with a few celebratory stops for bunches of cherries.

It was hugely fun. Besides. I was still good.

But I was thinking about it. With all the masses of people who jam Times Square and Central Park, Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, South Street Seaport and SoHo, each of us is really on our own self-appointed little Pac-Man journey from the coffee place to the office to drinks to home to bed. We travel alone but together make up the vast, milling and slightly terrifying hive.  Each of us looks out and there is always that throng, pulsing and faceless and sometimes judgmental of anyone or anything that seems a bit out of the norm.  Most of us just put our heads down nervously and continue gobbling the dots lest we be singled out next. Will we be judged? Will anyone out there be kind to us if we need it? Will we always be alone?

In some ways, that fear of being judged or abused because one is a little different has always been the case. I’ve been reading A Traveller in Little Things by W.H. Hudson published in 1923. The book, —all Hudson’s observational writing, in fact—is soft and lyrical, his insights sharp. Hudson, who traveled the English countryside, was a keen observer of everything from birds to human nature, one of the lucky ones possessed of the ability to see and appreciate what often eludes most of us. He was an unusual man, one who chose a very different path.

One evening Hudson found himself in the presence of a wealthy and powerful businessman. This self-centered and condescending boor spent the evening pompously holding court, belittling Hudson’s opinions, completely incurious about his accomplishments. Finally, without provocation, the businessman cut Hudson to the quick by referring to him as a mere “Traveller in Little Things”, in other words, a man not worth much consideration at all. Hudson didn’t respond then although he felt the rebuff intensely. Instead he harnessed the slight as the title for his newest book and wrote the story in the first chapter. Not a vicious revenge, for someone who was attacked for merely being different perhaps, but a sweet one.

As usual, I bounce from one thing to another. Stay with me though. Let’s bring the story home.

We spotted a bee in the house the other day. Most people are alarmed when they see bees but not us. We’ve learned to react but not overreact. We are proud of this. So I was able to scoop the little thing up in a tissue and bring it outside. Really you can’t go through life always being afraid of stingers.

We laid the tiny creature down gently on the porch. She still had golden beads of pollen attached to her flank and legs. The bee trembled slightly but then didn’t move at all. I thought she was gone. My son, who knows about these kinds of things, asked if we had any honey inside. Of course we did.

He spread a tiny dot of honey near the bee then told us to watch closely and wait. At first nothing happened. And then it did. The bee’s tiny proboscis, what looked like its tongue, flitted in and out of the honey, giving it strength. Minutes passed. Then bee quivered for a moment, took a few wobbly steps forward, and spun up in the air, flying directly to the Dogwood tree. “Back to business for her now, “ said my son. “Directly back to work gathering pollen. She’ll head back to her hive after this.”

All it took was a little patience, a little sweetness to save her.

That’s really all it takes to help any of us industrious little Pac-Men and Women, isn’t it?

THE MANY MADELEINES OF BROOKLYN

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The astounding thing, now that I think about it, is that I actually found myself someplace cool. At least I’m pretty sure it was cool. On a sunny Spring afternoon on Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I descended into one of the Smorgasburgs, about a hundred popup booths selling incredibly wild and creative foods: booze and bakery mashups, beet ketchups, macarons, salt water taffy, schnitzel and chilis. “Ice cream” that’s made without either ice or cream and called “a potion”. Wings and doughnuts. Duck burgers, chickpea burgers, ramen burgers. Fries, fries, fries. And that’s just for appetizers. There wasn’t even a trace of my old Brooklyn, a sleepy and at the same time slightly dangerous place filled with Ioaves of Cammareri’s Italian bread and plastic takeout containers of chicken and broccoli from Me and My Egg Roll.

It was so crowded you could have picked both feet off the ground and still be swept along. Even the air had an especially delicious taste when you breathed in. Thousands of bow-tied and elegantly scarved people, some pushing strollers but all expertly coiffed, knew all the right lines to stand in. The drone of a thousand conversations provided a buzzy background to an exultant melody of sips and chews. All in all, there was the throbbing and happy sound of everyone eating everything. The best and most amazing food ever. Everyone there was sure of it.

Eating is, and always has been, one of the things I do best. But wrapped securely in my trench coat and looking a little like an old movie spy, I felt small and nervous and scared. This was new Brooklyn and although this was a place where I’d felt deeply comfortable and at home, I’d been gone for a long time. I flitted from booth to booth feeling standoffish and uncomfortable. Worst of all, I didn’t feel hungry.

“Tell me what you eat,” said Brillat-Savarin, “and I’ll tell you what you are.” If that quote reflected everyone at Smorgasburg all I could think of were unholy messes of food and thought: towering Dagwood sandwiches and this weird “all you can eat” cafeteria at Cedar Point where you were given a tiny plate the size of a saucer and allowed to go through the line only once. Desserts were conveniently the first offering and then squished in at the bottom beneath layers of lasagna and cole slaw and meatballs and fruited jello. Truly an archeological dig of a dinner.

But really, the reflection isn’t fair.

No one writes like Proust but Proust but of course we all have our own personal madeleines. For some of us it’s a hot sesame seed bagel or a Toasted Almond Good Humor, for others it’s a squashed Milky Way or a bakery sprinkle cookie. Sometimes it’s a crisp Macintosh apple or a mystery drowning in brown sauce, a white carton of Egg Foo Yung.

Suddenly it made sense.  A ramen burger would be someday be someone else’s madeleine just as surely as Cammareri Bakery Italian loaves are one of mine. More importantly, I know I can try a ramen burger anytime should I ever be in the mood. It’s never too late to make new madeleine memories.

Although it’s the previous quote from Brillat-Savarin that’s better known, what follows is the one I love best:

“However, I have lived long enough to know that each generation says the same thing and is inevitably laughed at by the men who live in the next one.”

The Smorgasburg people, the new Brooklynites, weren’t actually laughing at me or at anyone else. They were eating. And while the foods and tastes were different from my time to theirs, the savoring and the excitement are just the same. So is the appreciation for what’s different and delightful and truly memorable. We are more alike than it seems.

Brillat-Savarin was not actually talking about food in the last quote. But then, of course, neither am I.