Post #81: From Beginning to End

IMG_0353Now why, oh why was this the rarest of pleasures?  Unlashed from the bedsheets, my feet warmed to the nubbles of the carpet, then cooled to the smooth of the hardwood, I made my way silently across the floors and step by careful step down the stairs.   Hair touseled, glasses askew, barefoot and nightgowned. Still dark, the house hummed.

Ah! It was just where I left it.  In a moment it was cradled in my arms. A moment more and I was cushioned into an armchair, feet tucked under and the book—oh that book—cracked open at last! 

Today there would be no rules, no convention, no conversation.  No heart-pounding have-tos, no  “should be doing” guilt, no getting dressed, no real meals. 

Today there would be no breathless snatches of a slap-dash quick read, a wrench back to reality coupled with an anxious pining for more, desperate for the torn moments and a hungering return to the story.

Today I am subsumed and submerged yet wafted aloft, buffeted and plummeted with my story from beginning to end. I float from armchair to sofa, from the lounge to the porch, from the attic to flat out on the floor.  A progressive read from the bottom of the house to the  top,  my eyes never leaving the page.  Oh what a ride!

Dawn becomes noon and noon becomes night.  Thousands of sizzling words jumbled into a joyous Jenga tower! And then at breathtaking last, with a contented sigh I am done.

Like the sweet never-ending all day giant jawbreakers of my childhood, a whole day read.

I’ll do it again!

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Post #78: The Treasure Map

FullSizeRenderSo real  so beautiful  so rightly royal!  There they are, snugly enrobed in a peacocks array of colors:   apricot, cerulean, deepest mauve.  Run your hands over the nubbled cloth, tingle to the strong backbone of the spine, caress the rough edges of the  pages with the tips of your fingers.  Ah! Are you ready?  Hold them in your hands, they are mine but please oh please oh please make them yours.   Deep breath!  Time to turn the pages….

***

The Nutshell Library  by Maurice Sendak

All dressed up and a visit to the Hudson’s Department Store bookstore.  A whole stack of them pyramided  to the sky!  One little box plucked from the top. And tucked inside?

Alligators All Around

Pierre

One Was Johnny

Chicken Soup With Rice

Four small books for one small person? There they were, tightly packed into a case all their own.  The drawings dance across the pages, the words fly! 

In March the wind blows down the door,

and knocks my soup upon the floor,

Blowing once,

Blowing twice,

Blowing, chicken soup with rice.

from Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak

I can hold them in my hands but my eyes fly across the pages my heart soars!

I can read.

***

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

“No fighting, no biting”, said Else Homelund Minerick, but shamefacedly my sisters and I did both. Bad moods were as contagious as flu, traveling  sneeze to sneeze. But in The Quarreling Book the bounce back of joy could spread just as fast! I was learning.

***

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

I have never been the same after reading this book.  I have never forgotten it.  But that, of course, was exactly the point.

***

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

A cold rainy day in my messy, book-crammed room.  I am sixteen—pretentious, insecure, intellectually snobbish and oh so full of myself. Oh a whim I pluck the book from my shelf. It’s been there ponderous and unread for years. But I turn the page and a world I didn’t know I needed, one of warmth, of gentleness, of friendship,  of kindness, blossoms before me. I thaw. It remains for me forever and always open book.

***

The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher

Can you savor? Can you revel? Can you see? Can you feel? 

To truly tell a story one doesn’t necessarily have to turn oneself inside out.  Can you delicately stir acute awareness with experience?  In other words, to taste.

***

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

A chance to see the world as it was through the kaleidoscope of decades past.  The Swan, The Time Machine, Statues! Is it possible that in  remembering ourselves we create ourselves anew.?

***

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

What kind of inner lives simmer and boil beneath the surface of each of us?  And if none of us are who we appear to be, how can we connect with each other?  Or can we?

***

Northern Farm by Henry Boston

See and sense the world around you.  Find joy in the simple pleasures. Choose your words with the precision of Vermeer, let the rhythms of life flow like a Mozart concerto.   More than anything, live and appreciate the sheer beauty of the world around us.

***

These are a few of my best beloved books.   With care I  move from one to the other to discover the treasure map of my whole life, of who I am and why I am.  Each book, each dot on my map stays with me always, deepening and mellowing with the patina of time.

Come and read!

Post #51: Filmstrips

IMG_8678Filmstrips

A casual flick and the lights snap off. A thrilling zing pings through the darkened room, passing through each of us like jittery kernels hitting the hot oil. The machine whirrs, the sprockets spin, the audio crackles invitingly, black and white images flicker and blur on the screen in the front of the room. We are ready, so ready! The filmstrip is about to start. We are rapt and enraptured primed to sit tight and watch straight through from beginning to end.

Well of course. That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?

***

Scene 1: SRA

Brandishing jump ropes, the girls gather in tight little gaggles on the playground, their eyes hooded, arms folded identically tight. I circle like a hungry sparrow, swooping down by the teetertotters, sweeping around the swings, up to the monkey bars searching and searching for a few crumbs, a place to roost.   Finally I slip back to the empty classroom and take a seat. A deep breath and I dive right in: The SRA Reading Box. I am up to Silver, already, I am the only one! I start reading and in a moment the ugly florescent lights, the ridiculous yet scary duck and cover drills, the hardened faces of the girls fade away. Only one more level to the very top, on to Gold!

Scene 2: Nothing Revealed

Chalk clutched in her manicured fingers, Miss Borocks floats to the board, and with a flowing, florid script maps out the assignment:

“Write about your deepest fear.”

She smiles beatifically on the class, her eyes hovering on me as she mentions (again) that both she and I are left handed. We are the only ones.   She dots her “i” s with tiny hearts. I do not do that, I will not do that, I cannot believe anyone would do that. Ever.

I am not actually certain what my deepest fear is, but if I knew it I certainly was not about to write it in an essay for Miss Borocks.

So I return home and write an essay about fearing to write this essay, pouring over the dictionary to squeeze in as many obscure words as possible, sweating to make the essay unreadable in class. Please don’t read this in class.

Aha! I have revealed NOTHING! At least I don’t think I have.

Scene 3: Spring and Fall

I am curled up happily in hardbacked booth at Drake’s, Russian Caravan Tea unsipped and a grilled cinnamon roll untouched on my tray, my eyes prancing over the pages of poetry. I am reading Hopkins. Only the top of my mussed dark head is visible, but that’s enough:   I am spotted. Red-headed Mr. Kenworthy, my English professor, is hovering smilingly, tray in hand.

“May I join you?”

I nod nervously and my eyes dart back to my book but that’s it, I can’t read anything any more.

He squeezes into the booth and starts straighten his papers.   “You’re reading Hopkins,” he says, squinting at the title. Do you have a favorite?”

I do, of course. I love Spring and Fall.   I wonder if I’ve made a good choice.

 

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

“What do you think of it?” he asks. He is drinking Russian Caravan as well.

I catch my breath then speak in all a rush, “It’s not simply about a child missing the beauty of the fall leaves, or about the loss of innocence, it’s that devastating last line: ‘It is Margaret you mourn for,’ it feels selfish to me. The little girl is not innocent so much as selfish.”

He pauses, “That’s extraordinary. I never thought of that before. Never heard it mentioned. ” He looks at me with a new found respect.

“Well,” I continue quickly, “I studied the poem in high school.” And just as quickly, his eyes cloud over and his attention shifts elsewhere.

I cringe into my cooling cup of tea. I neglect to say that what I had noted about the Hopkins was my own insight from high school as well.

Oh, how could I?

Scene 4: Stacked

I’m here at last! Shelved on the 9th floor at 50th and Third, happily fenced in my cubicle by pile after pile of teetery first editions.   The boxes come to us, the lowly assistants, first. We see the finished books before the editors, before the writers, before everyone! Only after we’ve gorged ourselves, then do we share.

I am like voracious Saturn in the Goya, almost wishing I could greedily devour them all, page by delicious page. All for me, all for me, all for me!

Then my empty stomach rumbles—my slender wallet holds little more than subway fare.   What else to do? Oh right! Simply read and reread the cookbooks — Julia Child, Patricia Wells, Maida Heatter — ravenously, gluttonously, insatiably dreaming of dinners— paychecks—- to come.

Scene 5: The DK Pocket Books

Oh they loved them so very much. So small and compact they could hold them in their tiny hands. And so they did, carrying them everywhere, to their twin beds, to the car, to the bathtub, to the playroom, to the playground. Some pages were gritty from the sandbox, other warped from being accidentally left out in the rain. They carried them and they hugged them and they kissed them and they read them. The DK Pocket Books, from Insects to Volcanos, Dinosaurs to Earth Facts, Ancient Rome to Reptiles.

Tiny bursts of knowledge for very tiny boys. Watching them I learned more than I ever did from any book I had ever read.

***

We are primed to watch the filmstrips of our lives moving in a herky-jerky fashion forward progression, thing to thing to thing. And yet, when we flick the switch for the rewind, the film sometimes sticks. It’s blurry.   Where were we?

That’s okay. Look back more closely though and the scenes start to glow golden and gemlike as the segmented jewels of a Klimt. Refocus. Watch them again and again. Like a shaken tin box of fancy cookies, your scenes have left their frilly paper trappings and jumble together. Pick through them, taste them: they can still be sweet.   After all, they are yours to relive, rethink, reexperience, retell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post #49: Diving Deep

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I was so little that reading still meant whispering words out loud when on whim I dove headfirst into the pages, down down down, deeper and deeper and deeper. There seemed to be no bottom, no ending, to it all. But who wanted one?   I’d never felt anything like it, the phrases pressing and swelling around me, ideas glowing like an Atolla Jellyfish, a Clusterwink Snail, these incredible luminescent creatures of the murky and mysterious deep. I almost didn’t know where to look first, riffling the pages this way and that. But like one born to it, little by little I learned to slice through the waves of words with shark like precision. Or was I more like a whale, opening my jaws wide to feed with words like millions of plankton slucing over my tongue to nourish my whole self? It was all there, confronting me, challenging me, inviting me. Sometimes reading I would find that I was actually holding my breath—my excitement so great that I’d forgotten to come up for air. That font of knowledge, that cornucopia of thought, that mélange of ideas right there in our living room. There it was: The World Book Encyclopedia.

My goal was simple. I just needed to know everything.

***

And so I’d dip in a random:

How wrenching that Beethoven was completely deaf and couldn’t even hear his 9th symphony performed, nor listen to the rapturous applause!

Did F.W. Woolworth really build his “Tower of Nickels and Dimes” out of nickels and dimes?

If the Egyptians mummified their pets, it meant that they adored them, right?

How on earth did Nellie Bly pack for an 80-day trip around the world in her tiny handbag?

My heart ached for Elizabeth I, her hair thinned, her life shortened from a lead based make up.

My spirit soared with George M. Cohan’s lyrics to Give My Regards to Broadway!

***

Bits and pieces, everything this way and that way. I never knew what I would find, what I would learn, what I would think what page my eye would fall on.

Each breath of knowledge became a pinpoint on my own personal map, a zigzagged line of inquiry. But to what purpose was I collecting all of this? And where, exactly was it leading me?

I wasn’t sure. I just knew that I needed to know. Or try to know.

It was a shock, really.

At some point I realized that beyond the World Book the universe of knowledge was constantly expanding, making my childhood quest to know everything both absurd and Sisyphean. But you have to wonder, is a task really Sisyphean if it’s a joy?

And so the quest continues. I read and read and read. There is no end. Because I hope that somewhere in that lovely pile up of facts and ideas, my hodgepodge collection of pocketed, billeted and cherished tidbits will be there when I need them most. I’ll be ready to extract just the right phrase at just the right moment when someone needs it.

This is not a simple goal. But in some ways it is everything, after all.

 

DREAM OF WHO YOU’LL BE

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I’ve fallen in love not once but dozens—no, a multitude–of times. And that devotion has been returned hundreds of times over; each time I’ve turned the pages. All of us bookish people are like that, I guess. Passionate. Committed. And in some cases, really besotted. I just am.

But let’s face it, there’s always that sense of, if not “wearing your heart on your sleeve” it’s “brandishing your book like a shield.” Like so many other things about us, the clothes we choose to wear, the cars we choose to drive, the movies we choose to watch send out signals to the rest of the world, help define us. So too with the books we read.

It’s not really fair is it? All of us deserve the right to read something junky or lascivious or mysterious or politically charged if we so choose. People’s relationships with books, no matter what they read, is a very private matter as far as I’m concerned. It’s why, in the era before e-readers, subway riders smuggled their reading material around in little blank book jackets. A modicum of privacy in a very public space. But sadder still is the opposite—people who read, or at least brandish—books that they think they look good reading.

Anyone who can immerse herself so completely in a book that walking into walls becomes a very real hazard can’t be overly concerned with looking good by reading the book of the moment. And I’m not. Which is why I read, why I’ve always read, among other things, children’s books.

For me reading children’s books, everything from The Wind in the Willows to The Seven Silly Eaters, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Quarrelling Book, from The Nutshell Library to The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book (the list is endless, trust me) is not about reliving my childhood. It’s about being a glutton for good writing. And good writing of any sort is not just meant to be read but reread.

The best children’s books authors, think Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Charlotte Zolotow or Kevin Henkes, write poetry on a page. There can be no wasted words in great children’s books, no pandering, no puffery. It always makes me laugh when the celebrity of the moment (or that celebrity’s publicist) decides said celebrity needs to write a children’s book thinking it’s an easy fame grab. So many have done it, from Billy Crystal to Katie Couric, from Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg. They have no idea that they are wading into what is perhaps the most difficult writing form of all. The celebrity books flash fast and fizzle. The notable exception as a writer is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose quirky, funny and deeply felt books transcend celebrity. (see: When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of Her Youth)

Moreover, great children’s books are really written for children, without a smirk, a  hidden agenda or a knowing wink aimed at an adult audience.  I’d argue strenuously that’s even the case for the immensely complex books of Lewis Carroll, including the marvelous Alice in Wonderland. After all, Lewis Carroll himself said (in response to a letter written in 1880 about The Hunting of the Snark and reprinted in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark) “I have a letter from you . . . asking me why don’t I explain the Snark?, a question I should have answered long ago. Let me answer it now—‘because I can’t. Are you able to explain things which you yourself don’t understand?”

And so I read and I reread, swirling deeper and deeper into some of my favorites each time. I remember who I was when I first read those words. I think I about who I am now. Beyond that I don’t analyze. I do something much more difficult. I feel.

Find your own favorites. Read them again. Remember who you were. Think about who you are. Dream of who you’ll be. There still is no better way to do it.

***

A (very) short list of a few of my favorites:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

CAVIAR WITH A SOUP SPOON, MINT CHIP WITH A LADLE

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I’m in deep. Buried. Delighted. Staked my claim to the couch, right next to the mountain of laundry that might be clean, might not be (can’t remember). And it’s only page 254.

If you say you don’t know what I’m talking about I swear I won’t believe you. It’s happened to you. How could anyone miss a feeling this all encompassing delicious? In this case the volume that’s snagged me is a gigantic tome called The Green Treasury crammed with essays by some of the world’s finest natural history writers, from Rachel Carson to Maurice Maeterlinck to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gorging on a compendium is dangerous business though. Kind of like eating caviar with a soup spoon. Or mint chip with a ladle. I’ve done both—same result. Don’t care.

At any rate, at some point during my reading revelries I was slapped with an uncomfortable realization. I love reading about natural history but find nature itself tempestuous and unnerving. I don’t go out to smell the first roses of spring nor crouch by ponds to watch bullfrogs burrow into mud. It’s cold out there. Possibly wet. Coffee can be distant. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that I am the indoorsiest person on the planet.

But I like it here. I know the terrain. Or at least I think I do. There’s a famous scene from Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit that he is so oblivious that he has no idea what color tie he’s put on that morning. I tried the same experiment by closing my eyes and trying to remember which paintings were on the walls of which rooms. Low score, no curve. Do over.

So I decided to look around.

There are first and foremost a lot of books everywhere, in every room, jumbled, piled, stacked, loved. There are people who adore books who take pleasure in keeping them in stunning Dewey Decimal’d glory but I am not one of them. I actually enjoy not finding exactly what book I’m searching for immediately because then I’ll find five or six more on the way that I hadn’t expected to find. I’d never want to deny myself the pleasure of those searches.

It’s that element of surprise that I truly love. Surprise is everywhere here. Over the years I’ve stashed odd bits of tiny amazements squeezed in around and between titles. A folded popcorn container from the Michigan/Ohio State game. A rare “Trumpet Horn” harmonica. A tiny glass case sheltering the Laffy Taffy that pulled out one of my son’s first baby teeth. (Probably should get rid of that one, but not just yet).

If I stop and sniff the kitchen stills smells faintly of risotto experiments and oatmeal cookies, even though with everyone everywhere I don’t make either much any more.  There’s the teapot that was purchased by small people with dimes and dollars saved over a long long time. A big plastic cube that is filled with masses of multi-colored super balls, all purchased from the same cookie cutter Ohio rest stops over so many visits to see loved ones. A framed Blazing Saddles movie poster because I really love my husband. A gallon jug of Tabasco just because.

If there is a nod to both nature and science, it’s seen in the Wild Strawberry Wedgwood dishes in the dish rack. (Charles Darwin’s mother was from the famed Wedgwood family). In spite of their expense and delicacy these are and have always been the everyday dishes simply because they are beautiful.  “A macaroni and cheese by any other name would taste as delicious” on Wild Strawberry.

Even the drawers are crammed full of wonders. The 12 Tribes Trivet, a wedding gift from my childhood violin teacher and in all honesty the only wedding present I can actually remember. A stub of a Blackwing pencil (Half The Pressure, Twice the Speed), jewel of all writing implements. I crave them. The metallic jingle of half a dozen M discs, the kind that the Metropolitan Museum of Art handed out to patrons before succumbing to paper stickers. A Pikachu keychain. Or maybe it’s Charmander. Whatever. It was all still there.

If I felt like paying attention, I’d see dust tumbleweeds and cat snagged curtains and unmade beds. But those things can be taken care of when I choose to. Not yet. Maybe soon.

A comfortably rumpled space once filled with people. It percolates with memories, waiting for the right moment for me to flip the switch. I didn’t look at photographs as I moved through the house. I didn’t need to. I remembered everyone and everything. They’re coming home soon for Thanksgiving. I won’t be reading then. Welcome back. Can’t wait.