Forgotten Books, Forever Friends, & Harper Lee

Books II

In Memphis and other parts of the South and Midwest powerful storms are inseparable from the spring and summer landscape. Once upon a time civil defense sirens meant a tornado, prompting the requisite sequestration of our family in a tiny downstairs bathroom under piles of pillows. By age six or so I learned to fear any old thunderstorm that blew through our suburb.

My parents were having none of that, even when the power went out as it often did.

But I was allowed to burn a small votive candle in a ceramic owl lantern on my nightstand, and I could read by its warm light to my heart’s content, well past my bedtime, for as long as I wanted—even on a school night. My grandmother gave me a cheaply bound fairytale anthology when I was about eight; its stories and monochromatic illustrations held me in good stead through many a storm before it eventually fell apart.

I soon forgot the wind and lightning and angry claps of thunder, drifting to sleep instead wondering how it was possible for a princess to feel a pea through all those layers of fluff, or why any respectable prince would climb a tower prison on a girl’s ponytail (to say nothing of how she grew it that long in the first place). That book and others served as a powerful tincture to ease big anxieties in a fraidy-cat girl; it was the start of a trend that led to a voracious appetite for the printed page.

Books V

I had every intention of honoring Harper Lee today, the author of my favorite story, one that came to me a few years after the fairy tale years and captivated me even more. I had so much to say about it, and about her, her writing style, how the South seems to churn out exemplary fiction writers through the ages. I listened to an assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird on the radio on Friday, and a remembrance of Harper Lee today. The voice-over from the 1962 movie took me right back to the story and to the South, and reminded me why I love them both so much. And I always, always identified with Scout, the story’s narrator.

Big Thinkers have tried to figure out why the book has had such staying power: why it is still read in schools, still talked about and studied, still relevant. In the radio piece I heard on Friday theories were advanced left and right about racism and Atticus Finch’s character especially (particularly in the new book, which I have neither seen nor read but in which he is purportedly revealed as racist).

Here is my own explanation in a nutshell: all these folks are overthinking it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good story, and Ms. Lee was one of the best-ever descriptive writers, and that is all. You can tear apart themes about race and the Deep South all you want, but the bottom line is this—Harper Lee wrote an engaging narrative, and she wrote it well. She knocked it out of the park, as they say. She wrote the book just before I was born: she could not possibly have known the tenor of race relations in America in the here and now. But if the book speaks to a new generation of readers, all the better. It’s that staying power, some would argue, that makes a thing a true classic.

Today when I tried to unearth my beautiful hardcover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, though, I ran into a road block: I could not find it.

I climbed over piles in the basement storage room, trying to locate a box that looked familiar. I peeled back packing tape and lifted cardboard flaps, scanning titles, pulling out volumes one at a time. Nothing.

Then I found an open box and removed a few books stacked on the top. My hand found its way to a family history, the spine covered in mildew and the cover warped. Thence to a David Sedaris collection—the same. And a beautiful edition of The Wind in the Willows I once read aloud to my son, the slipcover damaged, and the book showing signs of moisture damage. I was horrified. Every single box contained books in a state of decline, damp to the touch, or reeking of must.

Books IV

I’ve moved three times in as many years, and with each move another precious possession is lost or damaged; I suppose that is to be expected. Before my thousand-mile haul from Tennessee to Vermont in 2012 I’d already spent the better part of a calendar year paring down the artifacts of a failed marriage and family life to the prized possessions (many pre-dating my marriage) that would see me into an unknown future. The remains were what I considered important, the things I would squeeze into the big yellow Penske truck on the front lawn of my erstwhile home. Loss and damage: it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve already downsized to the things that are truly meaningful.

I feel a connection to my books going back to those stormy Memphis days and even before. Ironically, I spend far more time writing now than I do reading. But it bothers me to my core that my books are in a state of disarray, that some are damaged or ruined, that others are missing: silly as it sounds, I feel like I’ve failed my trusted friends.

This afternoon I resolved to fix the problem. We are packed into cramped quarters here, a condition not likely to change soon. But my bookcases are coming out of storage and every single book will find a proper place on a shelf, including my missing hardover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The civil defense sirens have fallen silent; it’s high time all my old friends came out of sequestration.

Books I

 

Balance: Sunday Journal


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Spring has never felt more welcome. And as sure as it has felt like spring for the past week we are evidently in for 50s, clouds and rain for the next. It’s okay by me: there is no snow in the forecast, and I have noted very definite signs of thickening in the tips of the tree branches. Tender green shoots are poking up through the ground everywhere, and soon everything will explode.

The theme around here continues to be balance. There has been some progress, a bit of failure. Last Monday I foolishly decided I’d repeat my Saturday run after work. It was a beautiful afternoon, perfect weather. Anterior tibialis and hammies cared not one jot and screamed and cried like big babies. Still, a four-mile walk was better than a no-mile walk. I continue to work like crazy at the gym most days after work, pushing myself further in yoga, and actually increased my weights in Pump You Up class last week (my moniker, not theirs).

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In spite of allowing myself to slip some in recent months, I am seeing and feeling palpable progress now. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I went for a run together yesterday, and it was absolutely delicious. We were also charged by a bull protecting his womens, true story. Good thing there was a fence separating us; adrenaline flowed nonetheless—that was a first for me (the bull, not the adrenaline). The communication was very clear: get the hell away from the cows, they are mine. I still love hollaring hello to all of them. It’s my turnaround spot, a high point of the route. As is a sign reading “Aflac was here,” posted in some woods on the edge of swamp where the Battenkill backs up; we have no clue, but somebody has a sense of humor.

Last night HCB made a beautiful dinner, planned ahead of time, to go along with North By Northwest, also planned. I managed to work a reference to the movie into some writing at work not long ago. That got me thinking about the movie, which is why it was on our radar. HCB observed during an opening scene how different it would look and feel if it were shot today, because nobody cares about grooming and couture anymore. I tend to agree; we’re pretty dang sloppy as a society.

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Meanwhile, a failure. I have not kept up with my friend Rebecca’s reading challenge. I am still on the March book and should be halfway through April’s by now. At least I am reading.

It is spring. We have had a lovely weekend doing projects around the house, inside and out. HCB has already cleaned up the tiny garden patch, which you can see in the middle of this photo, a tree limb defining its edge. Last year that tiny piece of earth yielded quite a lot of veg—more than you might imagine. Also note the stream at the bottom. It normally flows across the driveway, but HCB has been working hard in recent days to divert it: lots of digging and soil schlepping. (The man cooks, coaches pole vaulting, knows how to juggle, and moves the earth. What next?)

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And here is a rare, sanctioned, photo of HCB, who is incredibly camera shy.

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Yes, mowing leaves to mulch them and get the yard looking more like a yard again. Still so much to do before the work day arrives early tomorrow morning. And so much on my mind: ballet, writing, more writing, parenting, influential people, unstable people and personalities, people to avoid, people to love. Stories waiting to be told.

Next weekend we get to hang out with some friends over in Cambridge, NY. Looking forward to that. And the continuing search for balance.

Rebecca’s Reading Challenge

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Rebecca is an intelligent, creative woman whose work I had only known through her blog when I arrived in Vermont. Later we met in person on several very happy occasions, once at her beautiful home (we also discovered we lived on roughly opposite ends of the exact same rural highway). Anywho. About a month ago Rebecca started a reading challenge, where she suggested anybody so interested would join her (and her family) in reading a book a month, in a particular category, the first one being a book set in a different country. This was on January 9th, meaning that the chosen book was to have been read and reported upon by February 9th. Or not, up to the participants (it’s pretty dang informal).

For some reason I decided I needed this challenge, seeing as I was smack in the middle of my third move to a new town in as many years, on the threshold of starting work for a really groovy marketing company on January 19th–and starting a new life with my Handsome Chef Boyfriend. This has been a huge transition for everybody concerned. Ergo, the book challenge. Makes perfect sense. Time to turn a new leaf.

So I chose Thea Astley’s novel, Beach Masters, penned in 1986 and set in the <fictional> South Pacific island of Kristi, where the idyllic lives of the French and English colonists are about to be upset by a native coup, of sorts.

A bit of background.

In February of 2000 I had a challenging first-grader at home and was thoroughly immersed in my busy family life, my primary occupation parenting him and thinking about what I saw myself doing, maybe professionally, a few years down the road. I woke up one morning just before Valentine’s Day with a terrifying obstruction in the central vision of one eye. It turned out to be a serious retina disease. A day after my diagnosis I had invasive eye surgery in an attempt to save my central vision, which was only somewhat successful. Over a period of years I’ve had thirteen recurrences (typical for this particular disease), the most recent one since I moved to Vermont–that was the only one that involuted on its own and never required follow-up treatment. The worst part of this insidious disease aside from blindness is that it requires constant monitoring, which is lifelong. And there is a chance it will move to the other eye at some point (it often does).

I really don’t like to dwell on this thing, because then it wins. But the point of telling the story is that I made some resolutions after my diagnosis and surgery. I had to lay face down in a special recovery chair for a week following surgery, during which time I was not allowed to read. At all. I could not move my eyes back and forth across lines of text because of the strain on recovering muscles. A friend brought me a bunch of audio books, so I at least had those, but precious little else to occupy the longest seven days of my life, marked not only by intense boredom and paralyzing fear, but horrific low back pain and waves of nausea. And a lot of time to think about things. One thing I resolved: I would never, ever again waste time on a book that 1) someone insisted I should read, no matter how pure their intentions, or 2) that did not hook me pretty quickly once I started reading it. When you might lose your ability to read at all, you get to make rules like that.

I spent a big part of 2012 going through an enormous library I had built over two decades, making difficult decisions about which of my books would come with me to Vermont and which I would leave behind. I fingered the spine of Beach Masters, and several other novels on the same shelf, and threw them into one of the many “keep” piles.

So here now is my attempt to synthesize the last month of reading. First, I am not finished–I’m about halfway there; I am lucky if I can read a couple of pages a day right now. Second, this book makes no sense to meThe New York Times gave it a fantastic review when it was published, and Thea Astley (now gone) was a celebrated, award-winning author–highly respected. So I have every confidence the problem lies with me. But I have struggled like crazy to follow the plot, and keep up with character names, and to understand the pidgin English, with its phonetic spellings–sometimes I get it, often I do not. And I understand its importance to the telling of the story.

But mainly, I broke my own ruleI stuck with a bad book (bad to me, at least), hoping I would at some point find its magic. And right after I started reading I found a bookmark a few pages into it. I had already been down this road once before, and thought better of it.

So guess what the next theme is in Rebecca’s challenge? A book you started but never finished. Mmm-hmm. Totally serious. I am sitting on the fence here, trying to decide what to do. But I am thinking I’ll keep on with this one, and maybe I’ll actually finish it by March 9th. Rebecca is hugely inspiring (and way more literate and articulate than I). I’ll let you know what happens.

Meanwhile, want to take the challenge? I’d love it if you’d join me (and Rebecca).

First Day Jitters

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Yesterday dawned clear and sunny and very cold in central Vermont, my last time to wake up in the loft, HCB at my side. We had the big work of packing and moving ahead of us, still time for a final cup of coffee before we pushed up our sleeves. The winter storm that is settling into New England tonight would wait a day, thankfully.

I told HCB the story of waking up for the first time in the loft, also on a clear and sunny morning, but sweltering. Clarence-the-Canine had slept near the bottom of the bed and sat up and stretched the way dogs do sometimes, bolt upright, lifting his muzzle skyward with a quiet vocalization. When he finished he froze and stared out of the south-facing windows, surveying the expanse of meadow below, the tree line just beyond. I swear I could see bewilderment on his fuzzy face, or an epiphany, or something that said, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

I have not been in Kansas since summer of 2012. Terror came with me first, then garden variety fear, and then just work and worry. Moving has not gotten any easier, despite the fact that I’ve done it three times in as many years. Yesterday I continued culling through belongings and thinking about what will be essential in coming days, what I will need in coming weeks, what can wait. Then there will be a few difficult decisions about parting company with some things (again).

I had already packed some books and HCB was poised to schlep them down to the car. But they were non-essential, so I stopped him. Instead I gathered and boxed my cherished reference collection, still only a piece of the whole thing. I don’t rely on them every single day (although I should turn to them more than I do). But I feel better knowing they’re there, and that I can put my finger on what I want right away, should the need arise.

Tomorrow will come early and I will start my new job a few miles down the road from HCB’s place–our place. I am a tad nervous, of course, but this particular transition has been a long time coming and the jitters are a welcome piece of that. As a trusted friend in the ballet world once told me before a pivotal event at my small ballet school in Knoxville, a few nerves are good–they make you sharp. 

I am ready to be sharp.

Pleasantly Neurotic

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One thing I’ve learned from hanging around with shrink friends through the years: everybody behaves neurotically sometimes–nobody is exempt. Getting a diagnosis as clinically neurotic in some way depends on where your behavior lies along a continuum–are you neurotic all the time, or are you a once-in-a-while, casual neurotic?

I have self-diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder–not every second of every day, but pretty damn near close, and I have been this way most of my life, I think. It manifests in all kinds of kooky ways, like how I fold clothes in neat squares (as if anybody besides me sees it or cares), or how I tuck in the corners of the sheets on my bed. Because everybody knows if you don’t tuck them in just right, the earth’s magnetic field will reverse and we will be wiped out as a species.

I have come a long way towards recovery through the years, though–parenting will do that to you. The singluar experience of child rearing will wipe that OCD right off your face, and sometimes make it impossible for you to do things like, say, take a shower in the morning. Personal hygiene tends to be rawther important to those of us with OCD. And right at this moment my car’s condition happens to be proof positive of OCD recovery. (When it is winter in Vermont, you might as well forget about keeping a clean car.)

So I figure it all balances out–the wacky and the normal.

When I am under any kind of duress, though–even the good kind, my OCD announces itself loud and clear, like the fruit on Carmen Miranda’s hat. Right now, for example, I should be getting as much of my stuff into boxes as I can ahead of this weekend, when Handsome Chef Boyfriend will arrive to help me pack every single thing we can possibly squeeze into two carloads ahead of my move to his place. And ahead of my new job. Which starts on Monday. We will be back in the coming days to get more loads, but it’s a long drive–we need to make the most of each trip.

So I am polishing silver (and blogging).

Seems reasonable.

Silver polish was on my shopping list last weekend, when HCB was here helping. Why do you need silver polish, he asked?

To polish silver, I said. Duh.

The real reason is that what little silver I possess is tarnished to the point of being unrecognizable and I can’t bear to just throw it into a box that way. (OCD.) Ditto textiles. They’ve got to be clean, and preferably packed in plastic bins (the inside of which I just washed with hot, soapy water, yes really). HCB brought me cardboard boxes last weekend, bless him. I was explaining that I could not pack textiles into them because I’d have to wash them a second time, when I unpacked them, because they would be touching cardboard.

That’s why I was careful to bring you clean cardboard boxes, he explained.

Nope.

Still, I admit to a bit of wackiness this week and last, and the week before. Which is why, I think, when my very sweet friend Rebecca announced this reading challenge I jumped right on it. At one time in my past when I had a disposable income I liked to buy books–lots and lots of them. I had bookcases on bookcases in every room of the house. (OCD, or possibly hoarding, definitely neurotic.) Weeding through them ahead of moving a thousand miles from Tennessee to Vermont was no small thing. I pulled a bunch of titles I’d never read thinking I would have plenty of time to finally dig into them in my new life. (Wrong.) But this challenge seemed like a great idea, and perfectly timed, poised as I am to take on extra projects.

January 2015 seems as good a time as any to start some serious reading. And a new job. And a new life with Handsome Chef Boyfriend.

Think I’ll go look for my fruit hat. Just as soon as I finish polishing silver.

Carmen Miranda