Summer Reading, 2019

Last week I was reading a book written in 2010. It was, in many ways, a lovely book. In 2010, I might have found it rather compelling. It is about the aftermath of a tragic car accident in a small town in Maine, in which a bride and groom are killed on the short trip from their wedding ceremony to their reception. It is about how that event rippled into and through the lives of each of their family members.

Last week, though, I found it hard to care much about their career and marital crises, the permutations of their grief. One of the families is Jewish, and one of their members a Holocaust survivor. In the other family, a young Cambodian girl is an adopted daughter. The mother of the bride is a wealthy academic who lives in the town only during the summers; the mother of the groom cleans her house and scrapes by during the winters.

This book could be about so many things–and it is, tangentially–but what it’s really about is the grief of people who are living in America in the early 2000s, in which such issues as class difference, discrimination, trauma survival, and inter-cultural adoption are, seemingly, mostly tangential. At least to the narrator, and most of the characters. While those issues were present in the story, politics was not. No one was worried about modern-day detention camps. There were no suggestions that any of the characters should be sent back to anywhere. There was no homelessness or opioid addiction.

It felt like reading historical fiction. It felt like visiting a time and place that’s gone.

*

Apparently, the Federal Elections Commission, the federal agency that oversees compliance with election laws, is, for the foreseeable future, a moribund entity. In a week of terrible news (which means, a week not unlike most), this item chilled me. In order to keep functioning–go to work, feed myself, pay the bills, take care of what is mine to take care of–I have become largely numb to stories that once would have shocked and horrified me. Stories about harm to people and the planet. I am still horrified, but not shocked, and I quickly set my horror aside because if I do not I will not be able to function.

I shared the news on Facebook, something I rarely do with news any more (figuring that those who care already know and that those who do not care or cannot cope do not need me to share), but I shared it because I could not put that horror away as quickly as I usually do. Because I understood in the moment of experiencing it just how much I am hoping for a regime change in 2020. Because I understood that, increasingly, voting is the only power I feel I have, we have, and if that system is corrupt with nothing left to check the corruption, then that hope is gone. I understood how much I need that hope to function. And then, understanding that those who care already know and that those who don’t or cannot cope do not need me to share, I deleted it.

*

This spring Laura Mary Philpott published a book of essays called I Miss You When I Blink. I bought it because it was all over my social media feed and recommended by people I like and I loved one of the essays that I read from it. It is the kind of book I might write, if I were going to write a book. It is the memoir of a middle-aged white woman who has children and a decent husband and good marriage and economic security in America and, still (because she is human), encounters some difficulties being OK in her life. (It is not exactly a book I could write, not having had good marriages or the same kind of economic security, but, you know. Close enough.)

But as I was reading it, I thought: Huh. This doesn’t seem terribly relevant right now. I enjoyed it well enough, but I live in a small house with limited bookshelf space and so I donated it to a charity soon after reading it.

When I read it, I also thought: This is why I’m not writing. I just don’t see how I can have much that is important to say during this time we are living through. This is a book by and about and for people like me, and even I just don’t care that much about the existential crises of this writer, who seems like a truly lovely person I could likely be friends with. (She seems very nice and funny and thoughtful, but there’s an edge. All the people I love best have an edge.) I’m sure I would have cared more in 2010, or even 2015 (if 2015 hadn’t been a truly awful year for me personally), but today, in 2019? Not so much.

*

We recently had dinner with friends C. and T., and we realized we hadn’t seen each other since the Women’s March in 2017, which feels like years and years ago. I remember that along with the fear we carried that day, we also carried tremendous hope and even some joy. Look at all of us in the streets! Look at all our pink hats! Surely it can’t get that bad. Surely our systems will protect us! Surely we are all still Americans, this is still America!

In 2017, C. and T.’s Jewishness was tangential to our common story. I mean, it was an important fact. That C.’s parents were Holocaust survivors was an important fact. But it was not important to me in the way it is now, in 2019, and that’s not just because I’m not nearly as colorblind now as I once was (in, say 2010). Other facts–all the things we have in common, our shared interests and worries and values and hopes–were at the core of our mutual affection and regard.

As we sat after our lovely meal in 2019 drinking coffee and tea and eating delicious chocolate, I found myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. I looked at my beautiful, lovely friends, he with his deep laugh and she with her expressive hands and gentle voice, and all the Holocaust stories I inhaled as a child–for they were, it seemed, everywhere if you were a child who read books in the 1970s–were instantly real in a way they had never been before. I lost my breath, disoriented, imagining the friends in my living room packed into a cattle car. I could not comprehend how such a thing could be possible, could hardly contain the horrors of it in my mind. The two horrors, which are not commensurate, but which are both terrible: That my friends could be packed into a cattle car and that I could have that thought about them at the end of our lovely dinner together because of the things happening now, here. I have never had such thoughts in the presence of Jewish friends at any other time in my life. Not, at least, in the same way I had them that night. And yet, my friends, if they had been alive in that time and in that place, they could have been on those trains, and for the first time in my life, instead of just understanding the horror of it, I truly felt it. And still, my mind went to: It’s not possible. Even as I know it is.

Was this how it was then, in mid-1930s Germany, for friends having dinner together? Of course, the cattle cars hadn’t yet started, none of what would follow had happened yet, so those earlier people could be forgiven in a way that we cannot for not knowing sooner the horror they were living in and through. I thought about how history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, which allows some of us to make the kinds of rationalizations we make for what is happening to people at our southern border. I know that many Germans, Jews and not-Jews, told themselves, even as the water approached boiling, Surely this is still Germany. We are still Germans.

Later, alone in the kitchen with T., she told me that C. is worried. Talked about wanting to leave. I felt the same disorientation, thought again of the books I once read, of how, when I was young, it was so hard for me to understand those Jews who didn’t leave when they could. The signs, in hindsight, were so clear. Now that I am not young, I understand all it would mean to leave a whole life and start over in a new place. I understand the barriers that one would have to overcome. I understand how it doesn’t feel real, the idea that the foundation upon which you’ve built that whole life–a foundation so seemingly sound you hardly realized it was there–could be crumbling.

But what I think and feel and understand from that evening feels inconsequential, tangential to the bigger story of what is happening all around me.

*

I recently also read There, There, Native writer Tommy Orange’s novel of the modern-day urban Indian experience. It was everywhere when it was published in 2018, all over my social media feeds for a while.

I picked it up and started it, but then I put it down and then it was due at the library, and I returned it without finishing it. I wanted my reading to be an escape. I still do. I felt like a shallow, weak person for turning away from it, but I did it anyway.

But this month I was working with teachers who are going to be assigning it to their students this year, and it is the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads title for this year. So, I listened to the audiobook version of it. I listen to audiobooks in the car now. Not the news. Not even music. I consume the news in small, controlled doses now, mostly from print sources, and music does not occupy my mind enough when I’m driving. I don’t know if my inability to tolerate the space that opens up in my mind while driving is because technology has rewired my brain or because I cannot stand the questions my mind cannot leave alone these days. Probably both.

So, it was both escape and not escape, that book. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking and compelling and important. If it were a physical object in my house, I would make space for it on my bookshelf.

One of the characters, questioning what it means to be Native now, says: “I feel bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. Mostly I just feel I’m from Oakland.”

Another, reflecting upon his ancestry that is both white and Native, thinks:

“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”

Sometimes I feel I lived through a time in which most of us could, regardless of our history, mostly feel we were just from whatever city it is we called home. A time in which most of us, regardless of when and how we got here, felt ourselves both: part one thing and part something else. I used to think that was fundamental to what it means to be American. I don’t know, though, if that feeling is a sign of ignorance born of privilege or if it is true that we are now in a different time. Maybe we (Americans) are not losing anything now. I mean, I know that many, many Americans are losing a great deal right now. Maybe when I write “we” I mean people mostly like me. Maybe the only things we are losing are our illusions. I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know now.

I miss feeling sure of things. When I try to define what it means to be American now, there is no there, there.

*

My daughter is making plans to move to Sweden, at least temporarily. I have been learning Swedish with Duolingo. I have been reading Swedish writers. I have been cooking recipes from Scandinavian cookbooks.

Yes, she had a wonderful experience with a study abroad semester, but it would be wrong to think that she is being swayed by some utopian fairy tale. She is a serious person. She was born serious. In the NICU, she was different from the other babies. She stared at everything, intently. “That’s really unusual,” one of the nurses told me. “The sensory stimulation is too much for most preemies. They look away. But she looks right into your eyes, all the time.” My mother told me, when my daughter was only days old, that she has an old soul. She has always made connections that others don’t, has seen beneath the surface of things. She has always been a careful planner. She loves a color-coded spreadsheet. She is pragmatic.

She came home for a visit in June. It was wonderful. As always, it was in being with her that I felt how much I miss her when she’s gone, how much I keep those feelings at bay in her absence. I am a person who connects deeply with only a few others, and she is one of my people.

After the visit this June, I understood in a new way that she no longer lives with me. I understood that she is likely not coming back here. I understood that she needs to decide where and how she can make the best life for herself. I understood why she feels that might not be here. I understood that here might not actually be the best place for her. I felt bereft in a way I have not felt since the day she left for college, and in exactly the same way: So grateful for the opportunities she has, and devastated that they cannot be here, where I am, and guilty for feeling anything other than happy for her. And also: Devastated that I cannot make the case that she could have a better life here. I mean, I know that, perhaps, she could. But it doesn’t look that way right now, in 2019. Especially if you are young.

“You know the joke about how to tell a Millennial from a Gen Z, right?” she asks me.

I don’t, I tell her.

“Millennials are the generation who grew up believing they’d have all the opportunities their parents had, and now they’re bitter because they’ve lost hope. Gen Z never had it.”

#funnynotfunny

*

In a shop selling vintage wares, I found a book called Journalism and the School Paper, published in 1958. Of course, I had to read the section on the future of media, where I found this:

In the first half of the twentieth century the ideal of democracy was challenged by the philosophy of dictatorship. In the military struggle the democratic countries overcame the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. In these years of the “cold war” the democracies likewise give evidence of being more flexible and durable than dictatorships. Democracy, however, could crumble through weaknesses from within as readily as from outside attacks. In communities where less than half the eligible voters turn out for an election, democracy is threatened.

The survival of democracy rests upon the free flow of information and exchange of opinion. Even in the United States, newsmen and newswomen have to be on guard against forces that would close the doors of information. Skill in writing and presentation will be required to show the relationship of various currents of news to the fundamentals of democratic life. For those whose talents fit them for a career in journalism, the opportunity is a challenging one.

*

Last week, Mary Laura Philpott published an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness.” If it were a book, I would keep it on my shelf. I would put it next to There, There.

In it, she acknowledges the sadness she feels over the ending of her children’s childhoods, the ending of family life as they’ve always lived it, and she acknowledges the privilege inherent in such sadness, living in such a time as we are. When she describes feeling weepy in the grocery store, I recall my own episode of produce-driven tears, and for the first time I am grateful that I was able to experience it in 2016, when things were already bad, but not the kind of dumpster-fire bad they are now. I am grateful that I could feel it in a time when it felt OK to call it a big grief, rather than now, when it feels like it can only be, as Philpott writes, a “tiny, self-indulgent grief.”

But that is not why I would put the book on my shelf. It is for her closing words, the ones that let me know we really could be friends. The ones that made me think there might be some point to writing such as hers, and mine here:

And if you, too, are thinking “I thought I had more time” for any reason — a loss large or small or so eclipsed by refracted rays of joy that you’re ashamed to call it a loss at all — come cry quietly by the fruit with me.

We don’t even have to talk, unless … well, would you mind telling me to turn my oven off? It’s so easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn.

It is, isn’t it? So easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn. So important to have friends who remind us that the stove is on.

To kill a demigod

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird was the last book I read aloud to my children, in 2009 when they were in the 6th grade. Sensing that our beloved read-aloud ritual was ending, I chose the one book I most wanted to share with them.

I wanted them to love the book I’d loved since I first read it at the same age. Whole swaths of it flew over my head in 1976, but I revisited it about once a year for the following ten. With each reading I understood more, and the more I understood, the more I loved it. Although I knew it was considered an unsophisticated and unoriginal choice, To Kill a Mockingbird has for decades been my answer to the question, “What is your favorite book?”

It’s not any more.

When I first heard news last spring of the impending publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, the novel she wrote before Mockingbird, I was first curious, then concerned. Like so many others, I wondered what the true story of this story was.

It was hard for me to believe that Lee truly didn’t know where that manuscript had been for so many years. It made no sense that after such a long silence as a writer, she’d finally consent to publication of another book–especially one that was a rejected prequel/sequel to Mockingbird. When I read conflicting reports about its circumstances, I decided I wouldn’t read Watchman. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to spoil my love of the first book (although there was that) as it was that the writer I am wanted to be loyal, somehow, to the writer I imagined Lee to be. I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t being taken advantage of.

After Watchman was published last summer and so many people lost their shit over the revelation that Atticus, our hero of demigod proportions, held views that were (whaaat???) racist, I changed my mind. That, to me, was a hugely interesting development. It suggested to me that the original book might contain complexities that I, in my so many, many readings of it, had never grasped. It suggested to me that there might be more to the story of Harper Lee than I’d ever imagined. I bought and read a copy soon after its release.

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As a work of literature, it was a disappointment. So many of the things I loved best about Mockingbird were missing in Watchman:  Lee’s masterful use of language, her deadpan humor, her fully developed characters. Watchman was uneven, didactic, and–dare I say it?–boring for long stretches. It was clearly the early, unedited work of a less-experienced writer.

As a piece of social commentary and an artifact of a writing life, though, it was fascinating. Through much of the book, the narrator, an adult Scout, excoriates Atticus and any other character who defends a way of life in which Black Americans were denied the rights and privileges given to whites. Given the time in which Lee attempted to publish the book–the 1950s of the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. The Board of Education–I understood why her original manuscript might have been rejected and Lee counseled to tell the story that became Mockingbird.

Reading Watchman, in which Atticus does, indeed, voice beliefs that most today would consider racist, my mind raced with questions I’d never before considered:

Is it possible that Lee wrote and published Mockingbird because a palatable story with a white hero was the only way in which she could publish any kind of “race novel”?

Is it possible that Lee never published another book because she felt unable to tell the story she really wanted to tell?

Is it possible she was disappointed that none of us could see the limitations of the Atticus she knew–not the heroic white champion of equality, but a man who was doing his duty more from a love of law and sense of fairness than anything else?

Was it possible that she fully knew and understood that Watchman was an inferior book, but she wanted it published as-is because she wanted us all to question our complete adoration of Atticus and Mockingbird? Is it possible she wanted all of us who’ve loved Mockingbird to lose our innocence about it so that we could grow up about race in America, just as Scout’s loss of her childlike love for her father in Watchman transforms her into an adult?

Such a loss of innocence is exactly what what I experienced while reading Watchman. How to reconcile the character I grew up so admiring in Mockingbird with the one who, in Watchman, says these words?

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?….

“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?….Zeebo’d probably be the mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money?” (245-246)

How could Atticus, the man who stood up to a whole town to defend a Black man, say these words? Well, because, as I finally saw when Watchman sent me back into Mockingbird for the first time in seven years, he wasn’t standing up to defend a Black man. He was defending an innocent man who happened to be Black. He was upholding the law and our system of justice, something I can now see quite clearly. In a conversation with his brother, Jack, Atticus explains why he’s taken the Robinson case:

“You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but Judge Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.” (100)

Atticus argues the case fully not because he is hoping to change the state of race relations in Maycomb, but because it’s necessary for him to be able to live with himself:

“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience….before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.'” (120)

I just didn’t see it because, as is always the case with literature, I saw it through the lens of my own experiences and needs. Although Mockingbird is absolutely a criticism of overt racism, only now can I see that it is full of the kind of racism that is so often invisible to white people in America. It’s also full of dubious, unchallenged messages about social class, gender, and disability.

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Look, for example, at chapter 12, when Calpurnia takes Scout and Jem to her church. A Black woman, Lula, questions Calpurnia for bringing white children to her community’s church, saying, “‘–they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?” But then Zeebo, the garbage collector dismissed as unfit to rule by Atticus in Watchman, steps from the crowd and dismisses Lula and her “fancy ideas” by attaching to her the words “contentious,” “troublemaker,” and “haughty.” (And let’s not overlook attachment of the word “nigger” to her, which is the one Calpurnia, implied to be superior because of an education that seems to have come from the generosity and graciousness of the Finches, uses to address her, and which prompts a discussion between Calpurnia, Scout, and Jem about why Calpurnia doesn’t “talk right” when she’s with Black people.) Lula is swept aside by her congregation as the “solid mass” of them welcomes the children of Atticus.

As a younger reader, I understood this scene through the filter of my own (limited) knowledge and values. I knew it was unfair to exclude someone, especially children, from any place because of their skin color–so, of course, Lula was wrong. It was right for her to be pushed aside and for Jem and Scout to be welcomed in. I had no understanding, even as late as 2009, that for Lula the community of her church was a safe sanctuary within a larger society that the novel shows us so clearly is unsafe for her, and that allowing white people into it (even children) could destroy that for her. I didn’t understand that her need for such a space and her anger over such a breach could arguably trump my color-blind doctrine of fairness. I saw Lula’s scorn over the idea that Jem and Scout were Calpurnia’s “company” (“‘Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week'”) as evidence of some kind of impolite, trouble-making contentiousness, rather than as evidence of how unfair it was that the Finch children could enter into the Black community’s church when Calpurnia would never be allowed to enter theirs.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in all my many readings, I never saw these things; they seem so glaringly obvious now. But I didn’t, so blinded was I by the light of Atticus’s goodness and my own, relatively privileged life.

Lula

I think part of the reason I loved Mockingbird so was that it allowed me to feel OK about being white in a country where Blacks have been treated so cruelly and brutally. I could look at the town of Maycomb and think:  That’s not me or my people. That was another time (years before my birth) and another place (the South, a far more racist region than mine). I could look at Atticus and think:  We’re not all bad. I can be like he is.

I was worried that my children would first encounter this book in school, and that their experience with it there would ruin the love I hoped they’d develop for it, but I can see now that I was worried about the wrong things. Only now can I see the messages they might take from it, ones I internalized without even realizing their existence:

  • That Black people need white people to save them because they aren’t capable of saving themselves.
  • That some people are inherently better than others.
  • That white people outside of the South are superior to those in it because we aren’t racists like they are.

And look at where we are now. America’s long-simmering racism has come to full boil, and I cannot help but wonder if Lee “found” the manuscript for Watchman and had it published without any editing to soften the edges of the Atticus she first imagined because she could sense that what has been coming for years was about to erupt. I wonder if she knew we can no longer afford to blindly worship at the altar of Atticus.

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In order to finally grow up, the Scout of Watchman had to “kill” the idealized version of Atticus that lived in her head (265). So it has been with me:  In order to see painful truths about depictions of race (and class and gender) in this novel, I’ve had to let die the idealized vision I’ve held of it for so many years.

As much as I once loved Mockingbird, as important a book as it was in opening peoples’ eyes to one level of racism, I think it is time for it to be retired as our “national novel” (as Oprah once called it). We need a new national narrative about race, one that isn’t a book by, for, and about white people, with a white hero at its epicenter. While we certainly have our own stories about race, and racial matters impact us, too, ours are not the most important stories to know and tell about race. We need to listen to those who are telling stories that white people can’t tell, and we need to lose the idea that being color-blind is the best way to see each other.

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Lee’s final act as a writer–putting this lesser book into the public sphere–has forced me to grow up as both a reader and writer. All those questions I had about what really happened with this manuscript and what her possible motives for publishing it might have been? Other questions I’ve had about Lee and where she really stood on issues of race, class, and gender? I’ve realized that the answers to them don’t really matter.

We writers like to think we can control readers’ reactions to our work. We think that if we labor over our words long enough we will get them just right so that no one can misunderstand us. We cannot. We can only tell our truth and release it to the world and let others make of it what they will. What any work means is something created between the words and the reader who brings to them their own truth. That’s the terrible and wonderful thing about any creative art, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about that. Or should, even if we could.

We need to create and share for our own reasons, and let go of the outcomes. I like to think that’s exactly what Harper Lee did, and I will be forever grateful not only for the lessons both her books have taught me about reading and race, but also for what she’s taught me about how to be a writer.

***********

Page numbers refer to these editions of the books:
40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, published by HarperCollins, 1999
1st Edition of Go Set a Watchman, published by HarperCollins, 2015

Trump photo from Gage Skidmore (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/5439997505/in/photostream/), adapted by me.

See this post for other photo attributes.

If you would like to further explore issues of race in literature (especially if you’re white), I highly recommend the blog Reading While White.

Library Haul

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Thanks to my good friend Jill (and her oh-so-great list of Something Good that she publishes every Monday, that has so much good overflowing I can never read all of it), I discovered Justine’s blog Allowing Myself and a recurring feature called Library Haul. You know how wonderful it feels when you discover someone else who does something you love that you thought maybe only you do? That’s how I felt when I read this:

“I know, it’s a large haul this time (don’t judge). I bet I won’t even read 3 of these before they’re due back, but it’s such a comfort to pile books into my bag a drag them home to leaf through when I’m feeling untethered.”

Last Saturday some things weren’t going well, but it was a sunny afternoon and I got Cane to go to the library with me, where he sat and Facebookered while I just wandered though the stacks, one of my happiest places to be.

As you can probably guess, I was focusing on work more than my own pleasure, but honestly, it’s all pleasure. How cool is it that I have a job that requires me to read kid lit? (Really dang cool, that’s how cool.) Like Justine, I know when I’m checking the books out that I likely won’t read half of them. It’s the journey, not the destination. And the joy of the hunt.

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This is one I am reading. It is so, so good. A graphic novel great for any tween girl who’s got a dream–and it’s set in Portland. And I saw the Rose City Rollers just last spring! Highly recommend.

So, are Justine and I the only ones? Any of you library haulers? Why? And what kinds of books do you get? And please let me know what you’re reading…I’d love some new suggestions. Haven’t been able to hook into anything since I finished All the Light We Cannot See. Such a great book…

(sorta) Losing my religion

I was raised (sorta) Catholic, but as a teen and young adult it was in books that I placed my true faith. When I needed help knowing what to do and how to be, I turned to fiction, memoir, and poetry, where I found solace, companionship, adventure, wonder, and answers to important questions.

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Because books were so important to me, I kept all of mine for many years. Many I read and re-read, getting something different with each reading. Books were sacred objects, so much so that when a college boyfriend once threw my big fat collected works of Shakespeare across the room to provoke me–to say, no, they are not–I wondered if I should end the relationship.

While I knew some books were light or “trashy,” I once assumed that the books that were weightier would always be weighty. I assumed that they would always be relevant, important, a source of wisdom and light to me and anyone else who might read them. I knew they should always be kept. I knew their authors would always be important.

Um, no. Not really.

During May, I did a massive weeding at one of the libraries in my district, and I was able to see with the perspective of years that, in truth, most books are very much of their time. This particular library was filled with old books. Yellowed pages, dated covers, tiny print, characters no teens of today could relate to.

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While I remember loving Cynthia Voight’s award-winning Tillerman books (beginning with Homecoming) as a teen and then as a young teacher, I reluctantly parted with them. The old, yellowed books with outdated cover art hadn’t been checked out in years. While they are books that still have tremendous value and are often taught in English classes, I understood why the teens in this school weren’t checking these books out for independent pleasure reading (the primary need this collection meets). The books were long, with dense descriptions and ways of living and being that were common in the early 1980s but aren’t now. The early ’80s happened nearly 20 years before this library’s patrons were born.

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If you are a reader of a certain age, you most certainly remember Paul Zindel and My Darling, My Hamburger. It was pretty cutting-edge in its day, which was actually before mine. Skimming through it this spring, I read a few pages of mother-daughter interaction, and it was almost like reading about a foreign culture.

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This was the version in our library.

Even books from the early 90’s, when I began teaching, seemed out-of-touch. This made me feel old and a bit irrelevant myself. 🙂

Old book

Once recommended this to many reluctant readers.

At first, it was hard to part with the books. Books! Books I (and others) once loved. Books that meant something to me and students of the past. But the case for parting with them was clear:  The books hadn’t been checked out in years, and our libraries are supposed to be places that houses resources people need today, not a museum to preserve those they once did.

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When our shelves are filled with books kids don’t want or need to read, they can’t find the ones they do. They come to believe that “there’s nothing good to read here” because it’s so hard to find the “good” things amongst all the other stuff. Think about the difference between a thrift store and a carefully curated vintage boutique.

thrift store

There are treasures here–but it’s hard to see them!

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This display from Portland’s Maven is so different from the basket aisle at Goodwill, and yet–I’ve seen baskets like most of these there.

It feels counter-intuitive–Libraries are supposed to keep things!–and when resource-strapped teachers see us discarding boxes of books, they protest:  “Those are perfectly good books! Why are you getting rid of them?”

But I came to see, in those boxes and boxes of books that no teen of today is going to read, that there is no point in keeping books that do nothing but take up shelf space. It does more harm than good.

During the same time, I was also reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s been all over everywhere, so I’m probably not breaking news of it to any of you, but I mention it here because I so love and agree with her thinking about stuff:

“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To get rid of what you no longer need is neither wasteful or shameful.”
(page 61)

kondo

My criteria for what’s useful in a personal book collection is different from that for a school library, but so much of what Kondo says applies to both:  “…we should be choosing what we want to keep, not want we want to get rid of.” (page 42)

Such a subtle distinction–but such an important one! So many articles and posts I’ve read on minimalism and decluttering focus on getting rid of things that are extraneous. The focus is on what doesn’t work and what’s not needed. Instead, Kondo’s focus is on what works. It’s on what has value, rather than what does not:

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard the rest.”
(page 42)

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When I pare down my belongings, I more fully appreciate the things that remain. There are some books I continue to keep, because there is something in the physical object I want to hold onto. I get pleasure from the tangible object.

Favorite book

This is an old, yellowed, cheaply-made book with tiny type. But my grandfather gave it to me and my children loved when I read it to them. This one’s a keeper, but it’s one of only a few from childhood.

I’m learning that I can let go. I’m learning that what I got from the books that shaped me is not really carried in the books themselves. I can worship the process of reading–and thinking, and feeling, and living–and release the tangible products that were conduits to the experience.

I guess I’m not so much losing my religion as finding a new way to live my faith.

 

 

 

The empty minutes

embroidery floss

I am still here. Just not here.

Which is why I really needed to read these words today from The Art of Simple.

Here’s a snippet:

“I wouldn’t do more, I would simply learn to see. I would see the creative nourishment and mindfulness waiting in the empty minutes of the day. And I would pick up the needles and knit, if only but a few stitches (this morning it was only 4 or 5). I would color slowly across the linen with embroidery floss, just one stem of a flower. I would open the journal, pick up the pencil, and sketch – what did that cloud look like today?”

Yesterday I stitched a line on the Valentine card that is still not done. I did it while helping with homework, providing parenting support, watching an episode of Call the Midwife. I did it in fits and starts. Sometimes, that is the only way we can do anything. But anything is something, isn’t it?

6 Reasons I want to be Lois Ehlert when I grow up

1. I would create books that are childhood favorites.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom page

Some people read Goodnight, Moon until they think they will go batty.* Chicka Chicka Boom Boom** (by Bill Martin, Jr.) was that kind of book for us. My kids LOVED it when the letters all came crashing down. (Don’t worry; although some got injured in the making of the book [see D, E, and F above], it’s all good in the end.)

2. I would be a maker of fun, creative, playful books for children.

Scan 72

A few years back, I attended a conference for writers and illustrators of children’s books. Here’s what I loved about that conference: Unlike many such events for the writers of literary, adult fare, this talk of this conference seemed focus on the audience. It wasn’t so much about personal expression as it was about connecting with kids.

I don’t know if that is why the attendees of that conference were such a different crowd than the writers I’d encountered at literary events, but they were. I felt a comfort there like I’ve never felt in any other group of creatives. They were unpretentious and warm and generous. I felt as if I’d found my people.

Although I create for selfish reasons (I think we all do), I’ve found I can’t stick with it unless I’m doing it for someone else. And can I tell you, I’ve never met any adult who relishes and delights in story the way children do. Watching story time is the absolute favorite part of my job.*** I would so love to write a book for children and be the person who creates the kind of excitement in story I’ve only ever seen in children.

3. I would have a deeper relationship with my world.

Lois Ehlert Scraps

This post was inspired by this book, my latest book indulgence. (You can find it here.***) In it, Ehlert talks about how everything in the world is potential material for her work. When she goes for a walk, she’s looking at the world with an eye to all the visual possibilities inherent in the things that cross her path–leaves, spent pea pods, a cherry tomato.

Such looking creates a different sort of relationship with the world, something I’ve had with writing at various times in my life.

4. I would be a generous artist.

Scraps:  process

Ehlert from Scraps

I love the way Ehlert lays her process open for readers, so we can see that art doesn’t happen by magic. It is clear in Scraps that art comes from watching and playing and planning and doing. She demystifies the process by showing us how she takes inspiration from the world, and then how she turns that inspiration into stories and gorgeous collage illustrations. We get to see drafts and notes and sketches.

Too often, I think, we act as if there can be only so much creative success in the world. I believe there is enough for all of us to have some. It seems Ehlert does, too.

5. I would work to expand others’ notions of what artistic expression is.

From Scraps

From Ehlert's Hands

In another of Ehlers’s books, Hands: Growing Up to Be an Artist, she writes about how fortunate she was to grow up with parents who used their hands (which she also writes about in Scraps). (The second image above comes from that book.) Her father built things, and her mother gardened and sewed, and both provided Ehlert with her own work space and scraps of materials to create with. I love her message that all such creative work is part of artistic creation.

Ehlert parents

6. I would exude happiness.

Lois Ehlert Doesn’t she look like a happy person? I know there is much more to a successful career as a children’s book writer/illustrator than simply playing with bits of paper all day long, but I think that getting to spend a large portion of one’s time playing with bits of paper might make me smile like that, too. 🙂

How about you?

If you could be any writer or artist, who would you be? If I had to choose only one, I don’t know if I could. But Lois Ehlert would definitely be on my list.

Ehlert end papers

(I love the end papers for Scraps.)

Oh, and I almost forgot…

Ehlert has been a source of inspiration and instruction as I continue to work on my Valentine for Cane:

Valentine card

Not sure if I’m going to finish this by Saturday…

 

*If you are or have been one who’s read Goodnight, Moon a million and a half times (or so), you must check out this post from The Ugly Volvo. But please don’t click away until you leave a comment telling me about your favorite childhood books/authors. 😉 Because I could talk children’s books all the live-long day.
**There are no affiliate links in this post, but if I’m writing about a book I want to link you to a source for it. I link to Powell’s because it is an independent bookstore and local to me. It’s a treasure and one of my favorite places in the world.
**I am the media coordinator for a public school district, which means that I oversee 10 school libraries. I would rather be a librarian in one school library (so I could do story time rather than just watch it!), but Oregon school librarians were decimated in the cuts following the 2008 recession and we now have only 1 half-time certified librarian in our district:  me.

Kicking existential angst to the curb

embroidery booksPerhaps all of us who’ve lived a certain amount of time know what it is to see an unexpected truth and have our perspective forever changed. Once seen, some things cannot be unseen. If the truth is a hard one, the experience can sting all the more when we realize that the truth was in front of us for some time, and we were just unable to see it.

That was my experience this week.

It began with more reading from Shop Class as Soulcraft (subject of my last “Reading” post). Matthew Crawford relates an incident in which an experienced mechanic sees something in an engine part that he had missed:

Countless times since that day, a more experienced mechanic has pointed out to me something that was right in front of my face, but which I lacked the knowledge to see. It is an uncanny experience; the raw sensual data reaching my eye before and after are the same, but without the pertinent framework of meaning, the features in question are invisible. Once they have been pointed out, it seems impossible that I should not have seen them before. (page 91)

I knew just what he meant. All week, thanks to playing around with Ed Emberley’s drawing book, I saw the world around me in a different way. Emberley helped me understand that even very visually complex objects can be rendered two-dimensionally by breaking them down into component shapes, and that’s all I saw:

photo to sketch

This photo isn’t necessarily complex, but I would not have been able to sketch it before my exercise with Emberley.

As Crawford writes, the raw sensual data in front of me is the same, but with a different framework of meaning I am seeing in a different way.

Perhaps because I was thinking about the ability of different frameworks to change our vision, a post this past week from one of my favorite online kindred spirits, Lindsey Mead, caused me to see one of those uncomfortable sorts of truths. Wondering about the connection between love and vulnerability, Lindsey posed this question and asked readers to share their responses to it with her:

Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

This was my (quickly written without time to over-think it) response:

For a while I have dreamed of exploring visual (rather than verbal) creation. I haven’t because I feel too old and too ignorant/inexperienced to achieve any kind of real mastery now. I haven’t because my partner in life has an MFA in painting and he’s the artist; I know I don’t have talent in the way he does in this area. I haven’t because I haven’t been willing to make time for such a seemingly-trivial pursuit. But I’ve started doing it anyway. The heart wants what it wants, and vulnerability, and, yeah.

All week, I messed around with my Valentine project. I studied the inspiration photo for my poem to see the shapes in it. I bought paper and embroidery floss. I sketched. I brought home a stack of books from the library–books on embroidery and picture books with paper collage illustrations. I cut out the first shapes for the front of the card. I did some practice stitching both by hand and by sewing machine:

Stitches

In short, I have spent would could be considered a silly amount of time and money for nothing more than a card. After reading and responding to Lindsey’s post, it became apparent to me that the card has become a thing more for my benefit than Cane’s. While I’m sure he will like it, it will bring him pleasure that is neither commensurate with the time and effort I’m putting into it nor equal to mine in making it. This thought made me uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be for him, right?

It was that discomfort, as well thinking more about an an exchange with Miriam in response to my post about the first few chapters of Crawford’s book, that helped me see something about my relationship with creative expression that I didn’t see clearly before: Even though I claimed on the About page of this blog that I’m giving myself permission to create simply for the joy of it, I really haven’t.

It’s OK for me to play as I have in order to make something for someone else, but when I thought about creating projects similar to the Valentine card (paper collages) just for the fun of making them, I thought the same thoughts I’ve had in the past about writing poems or blogs–

  • There isn’t any real value in this kind of work.

  • I’m not good enough to justify the resources it takes to make it.

  • There are better things I should be doing with my time.

With works of written expression I’ve been able to put such thoughts off (sometimes) because I have some skill and some evidence that what I create matters to others. When it comes to visual expression, though, there’s none of that. I have little skill and feel foolish, selfish, and narcissistic to spend any of the minutes of my “one wild and precious life” snipping pieces of paper and thread and arranging them into pictures that may matter to no one but me.

card project

So, in my typical fashion, I built an intellectual argument to justify the time I might spend doing something just because I want to. It went like this:

My small experiments with visual creation have already caused me to see things differently than I have in the past. These shifts in understanding will, of course, change the ways in which I interact with my world. In that sense, whatever is happening internally, just for me, does have an effect on others.

If we believe that working or playing at expressing what we see and feel and believe helps us get closer to Truth (and I do) and that knowing Truth is the path to better lives for all of us (which I also believe), then perhaps that, alone, is reason enough to give ourselves permission to muck about with paper and words and string and any other thing we want to use to reflect and reflect upon our world and our experiences in it.

You know what? Screw that.

I’d like to tell you I came to this place of liberation and bravery and bravado all on my own, but it was yet another writer who took me there. I found her through Jen’s weekly round-up of good reads this morning, and it was just what I needed to hear. Jen linked to this piece (“25 Writing Hacks from a Hack Writer”) by Delilah S. Dawson, who writes:

10. SCREW GUILT.  This is another case of getting rid of a backlog of bullshit that keeps you from reaching your writing potential. Fact is, you probably have some kind of guilt attached to your writing…. Writing, or whatever your passion might be, is worth pursuing. You are a human being with one life, and you damn well deserve to do the thing that brings you joy. You do not have to feel guilty for pursuing your passion.

Repeat: DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR PURSUING YOUR PASSION.

Now, that being said, you have to keep up your bargains with the world. …But if you’re doing all the things you’re supposed to be doing, you have every right as a living creature to pursue your bliss in your spare time. Anyone who says otherwise is a dreamkiller, and fuck dreamkillers right in the ear. If someone tries to make you feel bad for writing, consider why they’re being a toxic douchebag and why you need them in your life.

Oh, man. What does it mean when the toxic douchebag dreamkiller is…me? And it’s not only guilt I need to give the finger to, but also shame and pride and vanity?

I can’t exactly kick myself out of my own life. And while it is all well and good to say brave things and throw around profanity so that I sound like a big, creative badass (can I tell you, I so want to be a big, creative badass), I know that guilt and shame and pride and vanity have deep roots and will not be swiftly or easily tugged from the soil of my psyche.

But damn if I’m not going to try. Once this card is done, I’m going to make more things. Things that are for no one but me. Things that are crappy. And I’m going to share them here, so they can’t be hidden away. So I can’t pretend they don’t matter. I don’t really know how or why they matter yet, but I know they do. Because, as Lindsey suggests, vulnerability fosters closeness. And perhaps the only way I can repair my relationship with my creative self is to get vulnerable– to risk letting her make things that are mediocre and frivolous and for no one but me, to see if I can still love her anyway. And to see if others will love me when I love her.

Maybe then I can even find my way back to writing poems, my oldest and truest creative love.

Materials

Comments especially welcome

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled with these questions. I would love to hear about your experience and what you know.

 

 

Reading: Shop Class as Soulcraft (ch. 1-3)

shop class cover

Penguin Books, © 2009

Matthew Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic and an entrepreneur. Although an examination of work might seem ill-suited to a blog that proclaims to be about the exploration of creative play, I don’t believe that work and play are opposite ends of a continuum or two sides of a coin–any more than I believe that philosophy and mechanics are two entirely distinct disciplines.

Crawford’s book tackles education, economics, morality, and work. As I read, I intend to capture in a series of posts excerpts that speak directly to questions about creative work/play. If you’d like to enter into a conversation with me about these words through the comments, please do. 

“I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being “working class.” I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideals.”

“Introduction,” page 6

Hmmm…is this why I sometimes chafe against simple living blogs–especially the especially beautiful ones? I come from working-class people. My people made things from necessity, not for play–although I find evidence of artful intention in their works that remain. As I attempt to cultivate the same skills–for example, to learn to knit and sew with craftsmanship, or to grow food and preserve it–I feel more comfortable when I label those activities as play than work. The thing is, I get to choose in a way that those who came before me did not. I am engaging in those activities for pleasure, not necessity. Is that the only real difference between work and play? In some ways, I feel more inauthentic when I do those things, as if I am playing house. It reminds me of my college days, when I was “poor.” True, I lived on very little. I lived in some pretty terrible places. But I don’t presume that I really know anything about living in poverty. I always knew that if I were really in dire straits, I had a safety net of family to catch me, and I think that makes all the difference in whether or not one is truly poor. So I don’t think I can know what value it adds to a life to make things ourselves when there is no other choice but to do so.

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. he can simply point:  the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

“A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” page 15

Yes. I would like to be relieved of the need to offer chattering interpretations of myself.

“…creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).”

“The Separation of Thinking from Doing,” page 51

“The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an on-going submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary–there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument….

I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making….

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways.”

“To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff,” pages 64-65

“Creativity is the byproduct of mastery”–This is why I feel the need to do exercises as I embark on this journey to explore creativity, especially in areas in which I have little experience. It is easy to look at the creative work of those who are accomplished and think, “I can do that.” And then, I sit down at a table with my gathered materials and feel blocked. I have no ideas of my own. I have no vision. The vision comes from the doing, not the other way around.

What is it we submit to? As Crawford says, the laws of our materials, the “concrete limits that are not of our making.” But also, I think, to the truth that we must submit before we can create. We have to learn and try and fail. We have to do, we can’t just look.

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That’s all for this entry. I will add others as I continue reading.