Speaking Book from Literary Mama

IMG_0353I’m pleased to share this essay, just published in LITERARY MAMA

Speaking Book

http://www.literarymama.com/

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Even though there isn’t a shred of Nordic ancestry in my DNA, this past year I utterly embraced the idea of Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of giving books in the yuletide season. The fact that I am Jewish and do not even celebrate Christmas was utterly irrelevant. This was not simply an efficient solution to holiday gift giving. For weeks I agonized about my choices, eventually settling on titles as diverse as Alexandra Horowitz’s incisive On Looking (for my niece) to Annie Dillard’s luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (for two of my sons). For me the rules of Jolabokaflod giving were straightforward but rigorous: I had to have read the book I was giving, and I had to do my utmost to match the book to the recipient. There was nothing haphazard about my choices. In other words, I was matching the books I loved to the people I loved.

For me I realized, Jolabokaflod was an extension of a language I had been speaking with both passion and conviction my whole life. Jolabokaflod is about speaking book.

Absurdly, although we live in the age of split-second communications, actually communicating—that is, making our deepest feelings known and understood—is still one of the most daunting and seemingly insurmountable tasks each of us faces throughout our lives. Many of us are simply too short on time, or too shy, or too tongue-tied to reach out to each other. In a sense then, speaking bookthe act of giving books or suggesting books to those we care for, is something of a compressed, but explosively powerful, shorthand for connection. Speaking book bridges spaces between people. It can be an act of courage to suggest or give a beloved book, the fragile offer of a peek into one’s own interior life. Sharing books is also a way of sending people to a place you cannot necessarily go yourself, with faith in their ability to get there. Sometimes giving a book is a badge of honor, showing pride in what someone aspires to be, occasionally before they even know those aspirations themselves.

I became fluent in speaking book because, although I didn’t realize it at the time, book was spoken to me from the very beginning. Neither of my parents are obvious and obsessive readers. In retrospect, how could they have been? My father, one of the finest optometrists in the state of Michigan, worked incredibly long hours, including weekends. My mother was home with my two sisters and me, assorted dogs, Sisyphean mountains of laundry, constant cooking, and the continuous stream of ever-present anxieties and miniseries-worthy dramas. Her at-home workdays were bereft of bookends—in other words, never-ending.

And yet, my mother made sure my sisters and I were wielding library cards with the slashing exuberance of Zorro as soon as we could scratch out our signatures with those big red jumbo pencils. But this wasn’t enough. My parents were adamant that there would be books—real, honest-to-goodness, important books—in our own home. With metronomic regularity, Book of the Month Club began depositing everything from Plato’s Republic to The Sun Also Rises on our doorstep, ponderous, slipcovered volumes that bricked themselves stolidly into the shelves with the immobile and straight-backed sobriety of the Queen’s Guard. While these were showplace books, meant for adornment, their very presence in our house meant that books mattered.

But if the Book of the Month Club books were impressively untouchable, the World Book Encyclopedias were invitingly grabbable. Pulling volumes out at random, boldly riffling the pages like a Vegas blackjack dealer, I would lie by the radiator sinking down into the words and burying myself in a sparkling melange of weirdly disparate ideas. How wrenching that Beethoven was completely deaf and couldn’t even hear his ninth symphony performed, nor listen to the rapturous applause! If the Egyptians mummified their pets, it meant that they adored them, right? How on earth did Nellie Bly pack her tiny handbag for an 80-day trip around the world? My parents never kept track of what I was reading. No one ever quizzed me on what I’d learned or what I knew. My parents just made sure the World Books were there and that I was left alone to read them whenever and however I liked. Speaking book in this case sent the very clear message that not only was the world—via the World Book—at my fingertips, but I was in control. Ideas gamboled and fizzed together in my head like bubbles in a flute of champagne. Books and I had a conversation, a friendship, a relationship. And that relationship was a fine and private thing.

Or, at any rate, mostly private. Each Sunday morning with hardly a word or a sound my mother and I would slip out of the house together. We’d slide into the cavernous Delta 88 and glide down the tree-lined streets with the majesty of the QE2. Above us a cathedral of elms linked their arms together in verdant welcome, arching over the car, the light tipping tenderly in and out of the shadows, Sainte-Chapelle itself on the streets of suburban Detroit.

I thought the plan was always to be the first customers to get the bagels while they were hot enough to steam up the glass bins or to fuss about whether we’d get the round flaky onion rolls or the square New Yorkers. That was part of it. But always my mother dug to the bottom of her purse, came up with a handful of quarters, and then let me pick out a crisp and thick copy of the Sunday New York Times from the middle of the pile. Later, she’d silently note which books I’d notched in the “Book Review” section. And somehow, without my saying a word, I’d find copies of whatever books I’d been dreaming about waiting for me on the edge of my bed. She knew.

I think my mother spoke book to me because she couldn’t bear it otherwise. I thought she didn’t know that I never had anyone to sit with at lunch. I thought she didn’t know that I never had anyone to play with at recess, that every day I endlessly circled the perimeter of the playground tensely waiting for it all to be over. I couldn’t seem to talk about whatever everyone else was talking about nor did I care about what everyone else cared about. I was the way I was, small and plump and bookish, hunched with a nearsighted squint that often looked like a grimace.

Once, feathered-haired and blue eye-shadowed at Matthew Fuller’s backyard Bar Mitzvah party, I bravely shuffled through the grass in overlarge high heels to a tight group of chattering girls. I hovered on the edges for a moment, straining to catch the rhythm of their high pitched chirping. But then almost as one they noticed me. Almost as one they looked me up and down. No one smiled. Then with a synchronous click of their tongues, they turned and streamed away from me, wrinkling their noses as if I were a glass of curdled milk. My mother, also a guest at the party, watched helpless from the window. She never said a word. But later she gave me the longed for Life Goes to the Movies. My mother couldn’t live in my shoes, she couldn’t fight my battles. But she could give me books to soothe me, books to provide escape routes. And she did.

In this way then, the densely packed floor of my room, the desk, the chair, the bed, became a topographic map of the world, with veritable mountains of books stacked as high as I could reach, the piles teetering with the elegant precision of a Calder stabile. Slender, barely passable walking paths twisted from bed to door. I needed to have the books as close to me as possible for comfort. It was as if each title were an opportunity to lay claim to the world itself; I was Magellan of the suburbs, Vasco da Gama of junior high. I too was an explorer, albeit of ideas. Harriet the Spy taught me independence; From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler gave me a sense of adventure; The Wind in the Willows led me down a well of unending wonder. Every book my mother shared with me was a pathway, a safety net, a balm. My mother, her own childhood books wrested from her for younger relatives, possessively embraced the piles of art books stashed in her downstairs studio in exactly the same way.

Soon, I took a summer job at iBrowse Books, a place I loved so much that I’d routinely show up early and only grudgingly pull myself away to go home at night. I spoke book with agonizing abandon here. I wanted desperately to match exactly the right book to the right person at the right time. Every time. Somehow I thought if I could get each person the book they needed, it would save them. Their lives would be different, better. As for me, with my discount I took home everything from Anaïs Nin to Norman Rockwell, but I rarely took home a full paycheck.

By the time I was in college I’d managed to bend my art history honors thesis to speaking book as well, solemnly focusing on the Philipp Otto Runge-obsessed author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. There was an overall plan here: to catapult myself from the Midwest to Manhattan and into the world of book publishing. My parents were frightened for me, particularly my stoic and laconic father. He silently handed me a copy of James Stevenson’s I Meant to Tell You.

I wanted to go into book publishing to enter a world where I was sure everyone spoke the same language I did. In actuality, the coffee was sludgy, the pay was abysmal, we Xeroxed for hours on end. But I was there to see the aged and frail Alfred A. Knopf, still elegantly mustachioed, reverentially escorted to his corner office one last time. I was welcomed, as all new Random House hires were, by Donald Klopfer, who told us how he and Bennett Cerf stressed the equality of their partnership and always worked with their desks pushed together. And as I had dreamed, there was no Tower of Babel in book publishing. Everyone just fervently, passionately spoke book. For all of us bibliophagists, book wasn’t just a language, but actual currency as we bartered for what we wanted from the different publishing houses.

About this time I found myself utterly captivated by a tall, handsomely bespeckled and sleekly suited attorney who’d been my seat partner at a haphazard tossed salad of a dinner party. Although his attention was clearly diverted to the blond on my right, I doggedly refused to concede defeat. When I overheard him mention that he was about to depart for a trip to London and Paris, I knew there was no time to waste. The next day I messengered him a copy of Patricia Wells’s superb The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. Thus baited, he phoned, and we made a plan to meet when he came back to New York. We returned to Paris on our honeymoon and have been happily married for almost thirty years. I could tell from the beginning: he spoke book.

Of course, book was the first language our children ever heard. I read to them as they stared wide-eyed at me, papoosed into their blankets; I read to them as they scooted across the floor; I read to them as they spun crazily around and around in their identical spinny disks. They listened to me read Shakespeare and James Howe, Agatha Christie and Jack Prelutsky, A. A. Milne and M. F. K. Fisher. They used books for building blocks and chose books from the shelves to cuddle for comfort. When they became enthralled by the moon outside our window, I plucked The Grand Tour: A Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System from the shelves and put it in their arms. The funny thing is, when I think back on it, none of my boys ever really learned to read. They just read early and always, joyfully and perfectly from the very beginning. Books were their true language. Everything I couldn’t quite say, everything I felt, was compressed between the words of the books we shared.

As their love of the world and of science grew, they gathered the DK pocket books—Sharks to SkeletonsAircraft to VolcanosInsects to Fossils—swapping them, caressing them, brandishing them proudly. Finally they insisted on carrying their beloved books to the playground at preschool, certain that everyone else spoke book too. They were wrong about that of course. From the parking lot I watched them scurry with their books to the land of swings and slides and monkey bars. No one stopped. No one came over. My boys stood alone and confused, clutching their precious books in their hands.

What had I done?

I had done the best I could, speaking the language I was most comfortable speaking, a language they seemed to understand intuitively. Had I done them a terrible disservice, though?

I don’t think so. With each book I shared with them over the years, each time we said yes to a book they craved, it was an affirmation of their choice, their aspirations, their sense of self. Speaking book was validating their ability to add to the conversation of the world. Each book was a toehold on their way to finding their own true, comfortable place. I had to believe that for them, as for me, books would be the path that would some day bring them to the places they were meant to be.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” the much-loved Mary Oliver asks in “The Summer Day.” After much thought, I realize with a start that I’m actually doing it. I have spoken book my whole life. All these years later, I find that I am still speaking book through Jolabokaflod. I wonder if recommending titles we adore is actually transforming authors into the Cyranos of our lives, conveying the intense emotion that is often too complex for us to express to those we care so deeply for. Through the sharing of books I have tentatively sent tendrils of connection into the world, tiny wisps of love and of thought that gather like steam from a kettle and yet do not dissipate, but are somehow grasped and savored. That’s not simply wild and precious but frankly, miraculous.


 

 

 

Post #100: The Dance

maxresdefaultI never really expected to be here. But I am so very happy to have arrived.

Four years.
Every other week.
Upwards of 70,000 words.
One hundred posts.

But as I’ve staked my by-weekly Tuesday by Tuesday way through these writings, I’ve found that as I’ve moved forward, I’ve gained so much by looking back. By slowing down. By simply wondering. By just thinking deeply. In a way I feel as if I’ve regained parts of myself that I didn’t even know were lost. Moreover, I feel somehow that I am putting myself back together in ways that I still find a bit mystifying. But I’m grateful it’s happening.

Over the past week I did something that I probably should have done ages ago but didn’t: that is to simply read each blog post once again. Starting at the beginning all the way to now. After writing each post I’ve never before reread them as I’ve always been propelled by the next idea, eager as always to put fingers to the keyboard.

But I did finally reread them, feeling like an guest at my own party. But an honored guest, one who was just handed a flute of champagne, a dish of chocolates, a bowl of wild strawberries. This has been a pleasure.

There are as many reasons to write as there are writers. But I think all writers, whether good or pedestrian or exceptional (think Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen or M.F..K.Fisher or any of your own favorites) all are truly are linked by one extraordinary idea. That is, if one writes one is somehow joining in the conversation of thought, of ideas, of glorious words that stretch back over time and through time. If one writes it feels as if one is part of some magnificent ongoing relay race, each runner fervently doing his or her part, giving all in the hopes of handing the baton up to another to keep moving forward, all for the team.

It’s an honor, no matter how mediocre or how good one’s work is, to simply to try to add to that conversation. Then too, there is so often buoyant bliss, jubilant joy in just putting words on paper. The effort is worthwhile.

In reading over my own work I am struck by how supremely happy so many memories are and how grateful I am to have snared them. Each year becomes studded with wondrous, memorable days of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, successes. They are the ongoing treasured jewels of the crown of each year:

May 13, August 30, November 17, June 23, July 7, November 6, April 30, September 6, March 9, July 20, April 7, May 9, January 4, December 21, July 15

But what are the special days yet to come? What unforetold successes are there yet to be: marriages, births, anniversaries, celebrations? What children will be born, what happinesses yet to happen? How wonderful to think that they will all be there, embedded somewhere in those 365 days of the coming years.

Since we do not know this, which days to come will be hallowed and celebrated as we move forward, I propose then it makes sense to quietly celebrate them all. I like doing things in advance.

In other words, to my mind there is no such thing as a “regular” day. Or, if you choose to turn it inside out, regular days are celebratory days.

My mind turns once again to Matisse’s radiant The Dance. The women cavort in a never-ending circle. They dance with joyful abandon. But a space is open. A hand reaches out. Grasp it.

Come join The Dance. See you soon. And once again, thank you all for reading along with me.

 

Post #97: Early Morning 5 AM

IMG_2261“There is no need for a faraway fairyland for the earth is a mystery before us.”
—William T. Davis

Viewing time: 5 am to 6 am

Early morning. Tousled rumpled crinkled. I slide out of bed and make my way downstairs to the window., sure footed as a mountain goat descending the peaks. Once there, I press my nose to the glass as anticipatory as a six year old at a candy counter. I am ready.

The show is about to begin!

The birds startle into their chorus, trills pinging through the air, bubbling, riffling through the breeze as they themselves play hide and seek in the darkness. I can’t see them at all. Then a pause and a few stray notes float alone fading as a mote drifting to grass.

As always I’m drawn to the trees, flattened almost black against the muted sky as cutouts in a wordless pantomime. In the distance they are smudged, charcoaled. Their arms seem to reach and flail at the sky clawing, scraping sometimes caressing the very air that surrounds them. Soundless, I know that below their roots are reaching out longingly. For comfort? For solace? Their branches above ground shudder exposed in the wind. I feel an inner chill for them. I do worry. And I do care.

Do the trees somehow call to each other? In some odd way do they watch us as we watch them? How absurd! Except a small part of me still wonders. And in this place of deep quiet, the mystical, the magical seem somehow in place.

I sit quietly, patiently, for once no fidgeting. I watch as closely as I can, hardly moving, because watching for the dawn, incremental moment by moment is like watching a cake bake, a flower open, a child grow. It keeps happening but you can’t see it. But I so want to see it, to keep my eyes wide open and be present.

I think, I feel, I truly wish that in that elusive sliver of time between night and day that maybe this is a place where souls reside, a place of peace where all who lived and loved are whole and safe. Restored and loved.

But I blink. It has happened. But no matter. As the light of the sun warms the world, the trees, once stiff in the blackness, seem to stretch and gleam, the leaves almost quivering to reach out to the warmth. Each leaf covered limb seems enrobed and enobled as a queen in her coronation robes. It’s morning.

I yearn to touch everything, to run my hand over the nubbly bushes, the smooth leaves, the gnarled trunks. Make it mine. If I close my eyes, I can make my fingers tingle with the memory.

Today the sky is blunted and matte, restful, never dull. Behind even the thickest cloud cover, the most violent storm it seems remarkable to remember that always always the sun is behind it all, each and every day. No matter what. Hidden but still powerful. Hidden but still warm. Hidden but still restorative.

Now a stretch. Now a coffee. Now the day begins.

 

Post #96: A Gallimaufry of Wonders

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If, during the raucous pelter of the day it all gets to be just a bit too too much, there is always a ready respite. Just for a moment, not more than that, I close my eyes. The thoughts come tentatively at first, curling like wisps of steam from a cup of Russian Caravan. Then bit by bit memories begin first to blend and then to break free, my thoughts expanding like a balloon being plumped full of air.

Ah! For a few precious moments I am transported to that joyous jumble. Shoes off at the door, toes curling with pleasure, in my mind I am home!
THE LIVING ROOM

On the mantel, four memorable baseballs, three mementos of dearly beloved cats, two crystal Hershey’s kisses, and one magnificent and eminently playable, Trumpet Call Harmonica. An over large bellboy teapot, a Lester Lanin cap, a Bibendum ashtray (never used). A Waterford crystal vase, artfully filled with Blackwing pencil nibs.

On the coffee table, a game of Clue, in perpetual play!

Yes, there must be a couch, of course there are chairs. I believe there are lamps as well. And when I squinch my eyes tight and concentrate, I’m sure there are a few tables and I’m guessing some curtains as well. No matter!

Because of course, as always, I’m drawn to the books on the shelves like a tenacious ant to a drop of honey on the kitchen counter. English Country House Murders next to Idioms Delight. The Physiology of Taste sidling up to The Ethics of the Sages. Dandelion Wine elbowing for space on a shelf with Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Plotted, Northern Farm, Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Dessert Book all in a temerarious tumble!

To order them would be an affront. There are hidden mysteries, notes, photographs, perhaps the stray two dollar bill, amongst them, slipped surreptitiously between the pages. But which ones? Where? When? The game’s afoot!

The books make this a room for truly living. The living room.

DINING ROOM

Mounds of risottos, sides of salmon, pots of chili!

Meatloafs bricked together with smashed, mashed potatoes, studded with peas of the brightest green.

The occasional briefcase full of White Castle Burgers, a pepper and onion pizza pie, a tub of mint chip, a dish of vanilla, a cone of fudge ripple.

And yet…

While the music of memorable meals past plays upon my tongue, my fingers still reach out. In the corner by the big chair is my violin, my mandolin, my ukulele, my box of harmonicas, my sliding whistle, my finger piano, my kazoo. I’m Beginning to See the Light, How High the Moon? You Made Me Love You, Peg O’My Heart, Ain’t Misbehavin’ , In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.

The cacophonous, slightly out of key intermezzos to every cooking exploit.

THE KITCHEN

A cupboard creaks open. Next to the stacks of chipped Wedgwood Wild Roses, in front of the teetering towers of teacups, are three small, well used bubble wands. Peek behind a curtain to find Lowly Worm in his Applemoble. In the tea cabinet, a tiny Cracker Jack sailor whistle guards the boxes of Camomile, Earl Grey, and Lemon Lift. Look carefully in one more and find poised between the jars of peanut butter and jelly, a slightly globby, clearly handmade miniature sculpture of a unmistakably oversized orange cat, the whiskers drawn with the proud and unsteady hand of a very small child.
Tiny treasures, placed by me. But no surprise that they surprise and please me each and every time I see them.

THE LOUNGE

Feet up, flat out , completely flopped.

THE PORCH

In the dark the sparkly lights are switched on, outside the stars glint in the night sky. And the music plays. Honky Tonk Piano to Hayden, Fats Waller to the Four Seasons, Bille, Ella, Lena, Sarah. Sousa Marches Frank Sinatra. Barbershop Quartets. The Boswells Sisters. Knit to the rhythm. Jigsaw puzzle to the beat.

***

Too soon, it’s time to leave. Back to work, back to the day at hand. The movie reel trip home has to come to an end.

But I’ve done it. I’ve traveled through my house once again viewing what is surely a gallimaufry of wonders filled to the brim like the cache of nonpareil tiny toys at the dentist.

A  bit more time, and I really will be home for dinner for real!

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Post #92: JUST A TASTE

IMG_1781My mouth has been fogged and cottony, the haggard repetition of mundane meals dulling my taste buds and muting my wintery senses. A conveyer belt of tedium: tepid tea and goodforme, mulitgrain toast, neon orange baby carrots dutifully dipped in bland hummus, blanched chicken breasts and burned burgers. Squinch my eyes shut and I’m sure I couldn’t tell one from the other. I root through the cupboards with the crazed abandon of a raccoon foraging through the trash but alas, come up unsated and empty handed.

Enough!

If my taste buds have been in hibernation, rouse them, even at risk of sheer gluttony!
***
Twin Pops

They burst forth from the freezer like the first purple iris of Spring! Rip open the paper with all the anxious abandon of Christmas morning to reveal the magnificent and longed for Twin Pop in all it’s icy double sticked glory. Take a bite to feel the the flavor. Sheer purpilyness. It’s very clear: Two hands deserve two popsicles.

***

Pot of Soup (with Flanken)

Burbling and bottomless, the big pot sits sedately on the stove. Filled to the brim with tube upon tube of Manichewitz Bean and Barley, the soup thickens first to swamp and then to an almost concrete. The heavy wooden spoon moves achingly through the mixture like an paddle through a muddy Mississippi. Hefty chunks of flanken flail into the mire, bobbing like buoys. Is it done? It needs to be done! Dip in the ladle and it’s serve yourself. Again and again, until sadly there is no more.

***

Farmers Chop Suey

Sesame, poppy seed, pumpernickel and plain the hot bagels jam and cram into corner of the table. To the right is a Pike’s Peak of smoked sable, nova, white fish and herring (both creamed and chopped) Across the way the eggs fluff into creamy yellow clouds and the babkas practically are bursting from their pans, patiently await their slicing. Right into the center my mother places a big glass bowl overflowing with Farmer’s Chop Suey, the vegetables sharp and fresh enrobed in cool creaminess. The most memorable, the perfect part of the plate.

***

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A Butterscotch Dip Cone
Once upon a time, when summer afternoons stretched languidly into evening and even the sun didn’t seem to want the day to end, we would head to Dairy Mat on Woodward Avenue. With every ice cream concoction and possibility known humankind — black raspberry, creme de menthe, tutti fruiti and so much more — it was not only possible but quite probable that Dairy Mat actually was the long dreamed of over the rainbow. Complete with sprinkles.

People only spoke in hushed whispers at this Temple, as they solemnly made their choices, the hum of cars providing a curiously gentle counterpoint.

Of course with thousands of choices, there is only one possible choice. That is the longed for and dearly beloved Butterscotch Dip Cone.

Just trust me on this.

***

IMG_0026The Chiapati

Take a salad and chop it fine. Throw it carelessly into a bowl. Squeeze a ridiculous amount of sub sauce on top of everything and toss, while staring moodily into space. Absentmindedly grab a blob of whole wheat dough and fling it into an oven hotter than Dante’s ninth circle of Hell. Listen rapturously while someone lightly hums Hail to the Victors. Take the puffed poof of dough out of the oven, hack of one end and casually stuff with the salad mixture. The never eat anything bigger than your head rule does not apply here. Pizza Bob’s is not a place I would ever consider eating pizza. Oh no never! Not when they make chiapatis.

***

It worked! My tongue tingles once again reminding me that there are sparkles and delights to eat not just to remember but yet to come. Perhaps, if I am very lucky, a black and white cookie from Zaro’s in Grand Central will find it’s way onto my plate tonight. One hopes!

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Post #91: “Let Us Choose Those Pearls”

IMG_1510Ah! Cocooned, nutshelled, encased, enrobed. I’m here, I’m here, I’m home at lingeringly long last. Fortressed, buttressed, I move tentatively from room to room reacquainting myself, finding myself. The Bibendum ashtray, the Trumpet Call harmonica, the tiny pile of stubby Blackwings. Each object, though odd and unassuming in and of itself, is an essential key, a part of my own soul, my own secrets and my own story, transporting me back in time and place in the wunderkammern of my own little world. I can feel myself unclench as I finally am looking at, connecting to what my eyes should be seeing every day. But please no recriminations. I am looking now. Remembering.

The open arms of my day stretch expansively before me. But then the must dos, should dos, could dos lists start to fulminate and burble in my head. I can feel my heart tighten and my breath quicken. Damn! Must we always be doing something important? Can we sometimes drift, to meld into the world without a thought or a care? Can I be brave enough to allow the world to warm me once again, to nourish me as a steaming cup of hot chocolate?

Like soft caramel, the strands lingering, I pull away.

I bundle into my coat, hat pulled firmly down to my ears, a scarf securely wrapped round and round my neck, a tightly tied up package. Each pocket is carefully checked and filled with emergency rations and supplies: ginger candies and peppermints to the left, notepad and extra pencils in the right, spare change, dried cherries, a collection of acorn tops. All the essentials for survival. My hands are deep in my pockets lightly fingering, checking, rechecking.

The Magellan of the North, I set sail for places unknown.

In a few moments I am standing on the train platform, my feet feeling the bumps and nodules of the edge. In the distance I can see a tangle of bare branches, the limbs reaching upward, a silent trembling yearning for spring and warmth and nuanced greenery. The pigeons swoop in unison, arching towards the overpass as the train itself, sinuous and massive, hums into the station. As if responding to my silent command, the doors slide wide open.

I corner myself next to a window as we set off. The buildings blur before me but my eyes are on the clouds. Today they knot and roil in the sky, softly pummeling the air above, truly an Ice Capades of the air.

As we draw into the terminal, I am buffeted in with the others, unconsciously falling into step, all of us strangely solitary amidst the crowd in our rhythmic march. And yet, when one of our number, a woman with her arms burdened with packages, unknowingly drops a bill from her pocket, a boy leaps forward out of formation to snatch it up, to quickly press it into her hand, then retreat back to continue his path. The day begins.

The streets are still damp from the snows, glowing with a winter garden of neon reflection, the cerulean, the sage, the magenta curling and bursting forth with riotous electric bloom. My feet splashing, I make my way to the library, cosseted safely between the twin lions, Patience and Fortitude. Up the marbled staircase through the carved doors to find a seat at the table, a warm corner. My hands smooth to the polished wood of the chairs. Heads bent over wide open volumes, bathed in the light of the golden reading lamps, thoughts seem to twist and promenade though the air itself, sentences cavort, the words hover and float. It is a joy to join the dance.

Later, an old couple sits together at their luncheon table. He wears a beige sweater, she a beige scarf. She serves him the best portions from the platter. He generously pours out the wine. There is little talk but then really, how much is needed? When it’s time for dessert each digs deep into the sweetness.

Soon enough I find my way downtown, drawn to this place as always. If my eyes lovingly caress the bookshelves, the unruly piles and jumbled stacks that form the essential cartography of my home, this place, this temple to what I love best forms a magnetic bond to my soul. I am at The Strand, home to miles and miles of books. There they are. Shelved shoulder to shoulder in their tattered jackets, brave and stalwart. These second hand volumes, each with a story beyond the story between the covers, are what Virginia Woolf calls “the wild books, the homeless books.” As always, they fairly leap into my arms, grateful once again to be remembered and repeated and most of all read. They are rescued. I am revived.

This is what the day has brought. Marvel upon marvel. Joy upon joy. But I wonder, do I only wish to see what’s beautiful before me? If so, is that wrong? Do I, can I, recreate the world each time I interact with it?

“Let us choose those pearls,” writes Virginia Woolf in Street Hauntings. Quite so. Find what gives you joy, cling to what gives you comfort, spot beauty in unexpected places.

Today I chose to find what Woolf calls “a seat in the warm corner, ” refilling the wunderkammern of my heart, my home, my mind. Wander then and go forth to choose your own pearls.

***

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Street Hauntings: A London Adventure published in The Art of the Personal Essay,: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Selected and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate

Post #90: Skimming the Cream from the Day

IMG_0732Here I am. The ever tenacious scriblerian, attempting once again “to skim the cream from the day.*” It’s a greedy thing to do. But I don’t care. My thoughts have been so jumbled lately, exploding every which way like one of those British Christmas crackers.

It’s time to unjumble them. Snuggle down. Let’s begin.

Unmasked, I stretch yearningly forward into a quiet that soothes me with the thick secure warmth of a down comforter on a frigid night. My fists unclench, my toes uncurl, my chest untightens. I’m breathing? Of course I am. But now each new breath feels like some luxuriant renewing elixir flowing through me. At last.

Had my breathing really been so shallow before? Had I really been so knotted and snarled?

Out in the world, attempting as always to conquer with a smile, to marshal support with a few agonizingly well chosen words, to acquiesce, to admire, to accede. Exhausted, my eyes squint with the effort, my head and my back tense with the oh so necessary shoring up of the facade.

The cream of the day is a balm and a salve, a hidden but oh so necessary respite. For a few private, precious moments I am the person on the other side of the photographs.

But time is almost up. Once again, stack the bricks to the barriers. Snap shut the shutters to the eyes. Soon out the front door and back to the front lines.

The soft sweet nougat center armored in a delicate chocolate shell, I am not who everyone thinks I am. Oh please. But then who of us really is?

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe