If You Give a Kid a Steam Shovel…

Not long ago, looking through the shelves for books to use in a mantel decoration scheme, I came across a slender paperback copy of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Mark and Jim were out on a Saturday Boys’ Retail Run, so I slipped the book from the shelf and sat down and read it in the quiet house.

First published in 1939, still a favorite…

And, oh, the memories that well-loved book evoked. I remembered my mother reading a battered library copy of Mike Mulligan to my younger brother and me…that would have been around 62 years ago or so.

Cap’n Kangaroo read Mike on his show, more than once. And it’s the first book Miss Binney, the brand new kindergarten teacher in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest, reads to her first class. (Ramona, of course, quickly pipes up with an inappropriate question: how does Mike go to the bathroom, stuck down there digging the cellar all day? And so Miss Binney’s REAL teacher education begins.)

And I read Mike Mulligan to Matt and to Jim. Mark loves this memory: it is evening; Jim is maybe two years old, in footy pajamas and sweetly sleepy after a bath. We sit in the lounge chair by the fireplace in our long ago home, Jim curled up  on my lap, and I open Mike Mulligan and begin reading. I begin reading carefully—Jim was the kind of kid who memorized the text and called me on deviating or taking shortcuts.

And then there is a soft rustling as Matt, 15, and his friends come in. They settle themselves quietly near the TV set, sprawling on the floor, chins in hands.

“I LOVE this book,” whispers Rob, and Jim shushes him, and I read on, reading a story that captivates toddlers and teens—and tinsel-heads—alike.

Mike is a classic tale, one of the 100 top books teachers read to their classes. Technology aside, the story is timeless.


Interesting, that timelessness; Virginia Lee Burton wrote the book in 1939, when the country was recovering from the Great Depression. It’s the story of a man looking for work. It’s the story of how technology changes and what happens when your tools become obsolete. It’s a tale of ingenuity and creativity, and it’s a tale about how one person’s ironclad determination can cause real change…even in the hearts of greedy, grasping people.

Reading about Mike and Mary Anne made me nostalgic—it made me miss the unique, piquant pleasure of sharing a book with a child, and having that child love the book I’ve chosen.

Maybe that’s why discovering the little free library in Westview Park was so compelling.


Around the corner and down the block from our house, the Westview School once stood. The building was empty when we moved in here; we watched, a few years later, when its demo took place. We were not the only ones; people thronged to watch the building come down.

They were people who’d gone to school there; they were people whose parents had gone to school there. They were people who worked there, too. It was a beloved place, and as the wrecking ball took out walls, stories circulated, memories were shared.

A year or so after the demo, the County’s Parks Association established Westview Park on the site, with paved paths, lots of green space, and a marble table and benches that cry out for unhurried games of chess. There’s a tunnel to crawl through, and there are stationary canoes that would-be adventurers can paddle.

And most recently, the County’s library system has installed a Little Free Library.


Little Free Library (littlefreelibrary.org) is a huge, non-profit organization these days; they have inspired the installation of more than 150,000 Little Free Libraries in over 100 countries. The libraries vary in size and decoration, but they are all outdoor, and their motto, their raisin d’être is this: Take a book. Leave a book.

This Little Free Library is carved into a tree… (see more here: https://littlefreelibrary.org/57-jaw-dropping-libraries/)

This movement came about in 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a small wooden schoolhouse in his mother’s memory. She had been a teacher, and she was an inveterate reader.

Bol filled his little schoolhouse with books and mounted it on a pole in his front yard. Passersby were delighted. They took books, and some came back and left books.

People loved Bol’s idea, and he wound up making several more little schoolhouses for other people to mount in THEIR yards, to fill with THEIR books to share.

Then Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin at Madison teamed up with Bol, and they made the “take a book, leave a book” vision into a concrete plan.They were inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who had vowed to fund 2,508 public libraries in English-speaking countries. Brooks and Bol pledged to establish more than 2,508 Little Free Libraries by the end of 2013.

By August, 2012, they had exceeded their goal. That year, with 4,000 Little Free Libraries established, the organization officially became a 501 (c) (3).

When Todd Bol died of pancreatic cancer four years ago, in October 2018, 75,000 Little Free Libraries were thriving.

This year, there are over 150,000 registered Little Free Libraries in more than 115 countries worldwide.

When I walked by the one in Westview Park, with its art on the outside and treasure within, I was instantly charmed.


A trip to the library is the best kind of treasure hunt; on any given day, I might discover words that lift me up, and I might read words that shake the ground beneath my feet. I might find a voice that speaks clearly and directly just to me, or a book that makes me laugh out loud, or a book that helps me cook the world’s best gluten-free biscuits. The vast, unlimited potential of it! I remind myself every week to be utterly  and completely grateful.

The Little Free Libraries are not nearly so vast, of course, but their tininess, their 24/7 access, their lack of rules or restrictions, enhance the possibility of treasure. Anyone can open the doors of that little wooden box, open the doors and pull out a book and take it home…and keep it forever, if that’s what they want to do. If you need a book, the Little Free Library says, please, please, please take one of mine.

We noticed that the Little Free Library at Westview would be full one day, and the next, the treasure would be halved. Someone was joyfully gathering its riches.

So James and I committed to donating three books each, every month.


The Little Free Library: a chance to share books we cherish with children we’ll never know.

James and I both order from a used book site, where, every ten books or so, we get rewarded with a free book. We figured we can use the free book for the little libraries, too.

The first month of Westview’s Little Free Library, James ordered three of his favorite Redwall books. He discovered the kingdom of Redwall when he was a young, precocious reader who had trouble fitting in with the kids in his class. But he felt very comfortable with the denizens of Redwall—stouthearted mice and moles and badgers who were threatened and harassed by conniving voles and worm-hearted weasels. Redwall’s creator, Brian Jacques, created a rich, deep fantasy land, full of valor and loyalty, conspiracies and treachery. Mr. Jacques wrote 18 Redwall adventures, I think, before he died. James collected them all.

He has long since traded the gentle fantasies of Redwall for the grittier sagas of JRR Tolkien and Robert Jordan, but James remembers well their allure. His three favorite Redwall stories arrived, and, on my evening walk, I tucked them into the little library.

The next day, the first volume was gone. The day after that, there were no Redwall books left.

“Yes!” said Jim: a childhood passion passed along.


I pondered long, that first month, over which books to order. Finally, I settled on The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. My sister-in-law, Mary, a children’s lit expert, introduced me to the story of Milo, who was always bored and never content…until he discovered a mysterious tollbooth in his bedroom one day. Milo drove his little car through the turnstile right into another country…one where the land of words was at war with the land of numbers, and Milo, unremarkable, drooping Milo, stepped up and became a hero.

The Phantom Tollbooth is funny. It’s that wonderful kind of book that enthralls child readers and tickles adult readers, and during the ten years I taught middle school, I read it each year to my sixth grade home room.

Mary shared that book with me, and I shared it with my students, and thirty-five or so years later, I put a copy in the little library at Westview.

It too was gone the next day.

I also put Roger Duvoisin’s Petunia in there—subversive, I know; that clear message: Reading is GOOD! Reading is IMPORTANT!

And I added a copy of CDB by William Steig, a book written completely in letters that, when read aloud, make sentences (O U Q-T! U R A B-U-T!) That was a book I found in the children’s section of the Book Nook, the wonderful bookstore I worked in during college and after. I took CDB home and my mother fell in love with it, giggling over its silly sayings and pictures, giving copies to my nieces and nephews.

I walked through the park the next morning. CDB and Petunia were gone, gone, gone.

Art on the outside, books within…


James ordered three more Redwall books. I ordered an omnibus of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, Ted Arnold’s No Jumping on the Bed, and Ronald Dahl’s The BFG.

We rushed the books down to the park when they landed on the front steps a few days later. Once again, they disappeared rapidly.


Tonight I got a notification that the books I ordered for some kid’s Hallowe’en reading (Bunnicula, Dahl’s The Witches, and Allard’s Miss Nelson is Missing) will be here by Friday. When I looked the other night, the Little Free Library was full of grown-up books. I can’t wait to slip some kids’ books, books with a gently scary (but safely resolving) little seasonal edge, back in there.


Mark says, darkly, “I hope KIDS are taking those books. I hope someone isn’t taking them to Half Price Books and getting cash.”

But I have faith. For one thing, I don’t think HPB is going to fork out a ton of money for those gently used volumes. But for another, I often see a mom and her four kids, one in a stroller, the others running ahead, yelling back to her, sometimes zipping back and forth on small bicycles, doing doughnuts around their stroller-tethered mama, heading for the park. Maybe those kids are reading the books. Or maybe it’s the young dad with the slender, serious, long-limbed daughter who skips at his side…maybe they are opening those Plexiglas doors, examining the books left behind, making important decisions about what to take home.

Kids zip through that park, running, riding, throwing, yelling…and maybe, when they go home, they take a book to illuminate a quieter hour.

The unique, piquant pleasure of sharing a book that a child might love. I’m already thinking Anne of Green Gables, Dr. Seuss, Kate Di Camillo…and I’m awaiting my November books, which include a board book copy of Mike Mulligan. I think that book must STILL be beloved; the regular volumes, hard cover and paperback, are out of stock. But some young mom and some digger-loving kid might enjoy the hard-to-destroy board book copy.

I hope so, anyway; I like to think of that.


What’s your favorite book to share with a kid?




So Fuddy Me No Duddies; I’m Going Back to Read My Book

When people care enough to recommend a book, I find, it always pays to read that book. Then I get the benefit of the writing, the knowledge, and the imagination or the exploration, of the author. And I learn something about the recommender and what she cares about, or what he finds fascinating.

So just now, I am reading a wonderful book, A Gentleman in Moscow, at the suggestion of a wonderful friend.

Amor Towles wrote A Gentleman in Moscow; it follows his debut novel, Rules of Civility, which was a New York Times bestseller. That was a great read, too, but A Gentleman in Moscow is very different. It’s set, of course, in Moscow—in one hotel in Moscow,—and it spans the time from 1922 until 1964 or so. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I believe that, within its pages, our hero, Alexander Ilyich Rostov, former poet and count, never leaves the hotel once he has been, at the very outset of the story, sequestered there under house arrest.

And yet, there’s no sense of ‘stiflement’ or constriction. Instead, it seems that the Count has discovered an ever-expanding world within the five floors of his realm.

Very early on in the book, someone suggested that the Count might be a little set in his ways. In fact, the term ‘fuddy-duddy’ was used to describe him.


Fuddy-duddy rang in my cranium for the next couple of days, driving me, finally, to look it up and figure it out. Where on earth did a phrase like THAT come from, and how did it enter into common usage?

So I search the internet and find an interesting discussion at phrases.org, a UK site. They define fuddy-duddy as meaning, “a stuffy or foolishly old-fashioned person,” and I suppose one could see how a member of royalty, confronted with the people’s revolution, might be assumed to be longing, foolishly and nostalgically, for the old ways…although that’s not the case here, in this book’s hero.

And where did fuddy-duddy come from? Turns out, says phrases.org, that it’s a United States term with Scottish roots. Along the line somewhere, someone put together two Scottish words and came up with a meaning unrelated to either of them.

For example…

Duddy is a Scots term for raggedy clothes. ‘Duds’ has been in use since the 1400’s, meaning rough, worn garb (a bit different from the way we use that term today, as in, “Nice duds!”)

Fuddy is a Scots term for a part of human anatomy located in the back, rear region.

So a fuddy-duddy, literally translated, would mean, if you’ll excuse me, a raggedy ass. (Cumberlandians, in 1800’s England, called a raggedy fellow a ‘duddy fuddiel.”) We don’t translate it literally, clearly: we know that no self-respecting fuddy-duddy would be caught in public in raggedy clothing. They might wear the SAME clothing over and over, but it would be impeccably pressed and mended.

So somehow the terms slipped over to the States and got misunderstood, or someone used them in a different context and another someone assigned the term a whole wrong meaning. There followed cartoony kinds of characters named Fuddy and Duddy who were horrified at any kind of progressive change, and later, certainly, Warner Brother’s Elmer Fudd, the quintessential stick-in-the mud, represents the meaning we’ve come to apply to fuddy-duddy.


And what about stick-in-the-mud? If one doesn’t like to have that fuddy-duddy derriere connotation lingering when describing a hidebound person, resistant to change, one might prefer ‘stick-in-the-mud.’ This term, the grammarist.com tells me, harks back to the 1700’s, as a mild admonishment: ie, “Don’t be a stick-in-the-mud.”

That always made me imagine a big old branch upended in a thick, muddy swamp, but here, the ‘stick’ is verb, not noun. It refers to a person so mired in habit that he or she can’t budge.


Two other terms, Mark suggested when I brought up the fuddy-duddy debate, for those of the ‘don’t make me change’ variety, might be party pooper and Debbie Downer. So I looked those up, too.

NPR’s show, “That’s What They Say;” with experts Rena Miller and Anne Curzon, looked at party pooper’s origin. It is also a US invention, and, they say, it first shows up in the 1940’s. In fact, it became so used in that decade that Newsweek declared ‘party pooper’ to be taking the place of terms like ‘wet blanket’ or ‘wall flower.’

There’s some confusion over party pooper’s origins, too. The ‘poop’ part could mean exhausted, as in, “I’m staying home from the party; I’m pooped!”

Or it could be a term of derision, as when someone pooh-poohs a concept. That would look more like this: “Oh, pooh. I’m not going to THAT party.”

Or it could, grammarist.com tells me, circle back to that derriere kind of connotation as in, “Oh, poopy. No parties for ME.”



Maybe calling someone a Debbie Downer is safer. That originated in the US, too, on Saturday Night Live in the 1970’s. Rachel Dratch famously placed a character named (duh) Debbie Downer, who had a saddened, deflating retort for every bit of good news relayed or every possible next step suggested.

In the very first sketch, Debbie ruins a family reunion at Disneyworld, and the result is so hysterical that seasoned actors can’t help but break the wall and laugh. (If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to watch the Debbie Downer debut here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfE93xON8jk )


But a Debbie Downer isn’t exactly a fuddy-duddy. Debbie’s intent on bringing everyone else down to her level of maudlin sorrow, and a fuddy-duddy is intent on preventing change.

And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that all these terms originate in the US? Do we have a particular intolerance for those who linger longingly in the land of tradition? Or for those who just aren’t FUN?


At any rate. I can tell you without, I think, spoiling anything, that Alexander Ilyich Rostov is far from being a fuddy-duddy, a stick-in-the-mud, a party pooper, OR a Debbie Downer. In fact, he’s one of the most amazingly flexible and adaptable characters I’ve ever met in fiction. A Gentleman in Moscow demonstrates that it’s not distance or geography, but personal depth, that creates a universe and then peoples it with characters both ordinary and amazing.

So I am going back to steal a half hour’s reading time before dinner. I’m awfully glad Kathie recommended this book.

Notes from the Hinterlands: Random Thoughts in a Random Week

I was driving home from the pharmacy this morning when the rain began.  It rained so hard that cars were pontooning—careening toward the center line from both sides of the road, then reeling back as the drivers struggled to find a sweet spot between oncoming traffic and gushing gutter water. The wind whipped up and I gripped the steering wheel and leaned forward, peering through slashing windshield wipers and driving rain.

By the time we got home, the weather had tapered a bit. Jim went off to do his laundry, and I changed into my paint clothes and set up shop, climbing up on the old ladder my father gave me for an engagement present (hint, hint; but it didn’t work), and started the second coat of Roasted Cashew in the dining room. I got engrossed, and I didn’t realize it was lunchtime until Mark came home. He heated up the rest of the potpie while I used up my roller pan of paint.

And then I realized the sun was shining.

James called up from the basement that he wasn’t ready for lunch yet, and Mark took a towel out to the patio and mopped up the table and two chairs. We carried our lunches outside and ate them in a fresh-washed world. A playful breeze gently lifted our napkins, and the potpie was hot and good, and we sat and ate and dissected the morning. Mark needed just a titch more to nosh on, so we went in the house and rustled around, digging out thin whole grain crackers and sharp white cheddar, the little chopping board, and a small, sharp knife, and we ferried all that outside while we talked.

But soon Jim came upstairs and, “Hey! Looks like rain again!” he said, and darkly ominous clouds scudded overhead, and we grabbed napkins and plates and utensils and ran into the house, just ahead of another pelting downpour.

The whole week has been like that: I’m thinking of one thing and another, completely unexpected thing washes over me. I’m thinking it’s a gorgeous day and suddenly I’m trotting home in the rain. 

It’s been a tough week to maintain a single focus, out here in the hinterlands.


This week I fell off the ‘read the books on my shelves’ wagon—again—and I brought home a stack of books from the library. I brought home an adult fantasy novel by a YA author that just looked interesting; I brought home Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi, and I brought home Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. These were all books that have spoken to me when I browsed idly through the New Books shelves, waiting for Jim to select a dozen movies— books that I picked up, paged through, and thought, “This might be a good summer read.”

Something happened at that last library visit, something that made me think the time to read those books is NOW.

And I also took home Once More We Saw Stars, by Jayson Greene, a memoir I’ve seen reviewed over and over. The reviews have been uniformly, almost startlingly, good. I’ve picked up this book, too, and put it down, leaving it in the library again and again.

So why did I bring it home this week? And why, after reading the fantasy, did I decide Once More We Saw Stars was the next book I must read? In it, Greene tells the story of his two-year-old daughter’s random and completely illogical death. The baby was sitting outside with her grammy when a stone chunk of building fell off and landed on both of them. The grammy’s leg was hurt, but the baby—Greta—was hit in the head, and she died.

Greene does not so much write about this as he reaches a hand out from the pages and grabs my collar and pulls me in. I am in before I can think, Do I really want to read about this awful, awful pain? Is now the time?

And the words gather into one hard and heavy rock and they drop without pause into the depths, where the Big Sad broods beneath its thick plate of glass. The rock shatters the glass, of course, and the once still waters in that reservoir roil up and seep in, and they soak nerves and tissue and muscle.

And I am crying. Crying for Greta and her mama and daddy, crying for Terri and Patty and Kim and John, crying for Dennis and for everyone who shouldn’t have died, who died too young, who left the earth when the earth still needed them.

I suspect we all carry a Big Sad. It is so tightly sealed it doesn’t even slosh, but it waits, walking with us. It contains all of our sadnesses, the ones that touched us, and the ones we absorbed, and the ones we inherited. It contains the anguish of parents in faraway war-torn countries and the sorrow of bereft friends and it contains the grief my parents suffered when their first baby girl died at just about Greta’s age.

I prefer it when the Big Sad stays tightly covered, but this week, full knowing, I threw that rock right through the glass and let it all wash up.

What was I thinking this week?


This week I bit the bullet and started painting the dining room. I moved the furniture and Mark got the electric sanders for me and I smoothed down the spackling I’d done months ago, and I wiped down the walls and ceiling. I taped up the base of the light fixture and I got out new brushes and rollers and I just rolled past all the objections in my head, and I started.

Two days, I thought. Two days, and I’ll be done.

Even though the ceiling was white to start with, it needed two new coats of white to cover. That was the first and second day, and by their end, I was cramped and crabby and dappled white. The hair on the top of my head was hard with paint because I had bumped up against the ceiling so many times from my ladder perch. The ceiling had all these scalp spots that had to be repainted.

On Day Three I finally got to open the color and brush it onto the edges of the wall, roll that color into those outlines to fill them in. The walls went from tepid and tired to warm Roasted Cashew, but it was immediately clear that One Coat Coverage! was a lie in this particular case.

But the painting, even with aching shoulders and a hip that said, “I am NOT going back up that ladder! I am NOT crawling around on the floor!” made me happy. A little bit of transformation happening; a little bit of reconnection.

Because we grew up painting rooms, in all the rental homes my parents moved us to after they sold the first big house we lived in, the first house I remember, where we lived from my infancy until I was ten. We rented comfortably shabby, lived-in houses, and we scrubbed them furiously and made repairs and got the paint and claimed those spaces.

And then, a year or two later, for whatever reason, we would move again.

It was a pattern my mother grew up with, when her mother died and her father left, and she and her siblings formed a brave little household of their own. They would move, the oldest of them 16 the first time ‘round, into an apartment or house, someplace near aunts and uncles and cousins. And the uncles, who were cabinet makers and painters, would come and help them get the place in shape. They would, all of them, paint the walls, and the painter uncle would sand and paint the warped floors and then he would spatter them with odds and ends of paint he had left over, until they looked, my mother said, like costly linoleum. He would clearcoat those floors until a household of seven orphaned and abandoned kids was hard-pressed to do them harm.

And then, some months later,  something would happen, and they’d be moving again, cleaning again, painting again. Some kind of search for something better, some kind of quest for transformation, was kicking in again.

We relived that cycle many times when I was just a girl.

But there is a real, firm joy in making a dull and dingy room warm and vibrant. Painting is a lot of work, and I am insulted that my aging, creaking body moves more slowly, aches more quickly, and takes so much longer to do what once would have been a weekend sprint.

But each layer of color amps up the appreciation and the excitement.

This week, I am not done, but transformation is well underway.


I am not, I said this week, going to let things molder on the counter or in the fridge until it’s past time to throw them out. So I went searching for a banana bread recipe that I saw in a foodie memoir, and I couldn’t find it. I’d thought I’d seen it in I Love, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, but no.

I looked through the copy of Baked my niece Meggo sent one year and  found banana espresso muffins, but I had in mind a soft, moist banana bread, studded with nuts and big chunks of semi-sweet chocolate.

Finally, I gave up on my recipe books and got online. I found a recipe called “Janet’s Rich Banana Bread” on AllRecipes.com. That would do for the two bananas slowly turning black on top of the bread box. While I was searching recipes, I printed one called “Favorite Chicken Potpie” from Taste of Home.

That afternoon, I mashed bananas and scooped out the remaining quarter cup of sour cream; I cracked eggs and I whisked flour and leavenings and added seasonings. I stirred things together and I folded things in, and I spooned the dough into a greased loaf pan and put it in the oven to bake.

While that was baking, I cleaned out the refrigerator a little bit. I rolled out a bottom crust and gentled it into the blue ceramic pie pan, and then I took the two pieces of leftover chicken and chopped all the meat from the bones…and saved the bones, put them in the freezer, to make broth. I chopped up half an onion that was languishing, and sliced up two carrots, and I found two containers that had leftover peas and corn.

The recipe called for whole milk, and I had fat-splurged that week and gotten two per cent (the boyos were ecstatic) instead of skim; I thought the presence of one cup of cubed butter in the sauce would probably make up for the lack of fat in the milk. The white sauce mixed up velvety thick and rich and pungent with spices, and I folded all the veggies and chicken into it and spooned that into the pie shell. When I covered it with the top crust, it was clear this was going to be kind of a mountaintop pie.

Mark and I had Favorite Chicken Potpie for dinner that night, and we looked at each other and shook our heads. It was SO good. Why, we asked each other, had we never made this before?

We ate half the pie, and that was piggish.

The next morning, we had slabs of banana bread for breakfast. We ate potpie for lunch for the next two days.

Some days it rained this week, and some days the sun shone. One morning it was so cold I wore mittens on my walk, and one day it was so hot and muggy I changed into shorts for the first time this season. A mixed bag is kind of what this week was, a rambling, shook up, tumble of time.

But this week’ tumble of time was upheld by home-baked comfort food. I three-hole punched the two new recipes and put them in my favorites binder.


This week I got some things I had ordered in my quest to become more and more free of single-use plastic. One, that I paid twelve dollars for, is a seven-year pen. It made me kind of nervous, spending that much money on one ballpoint pen, but just think: that’s a mere $1.70 per year on ink, and no ink-pen plastic waste for that righteous number of years.

If I don’t lose it. If I don’t loan it without thinking.

Now I keep that pen on my desktop, afraid to put it in my purse and use it like any other ink pen. So I kind of think I’m missing my own point.

Maybe I’ll buy one each month until I have what feels like an abundance, and then I can stop my fretting.

Maybe, I thought, I would get them for people as gifts, and I pondered giving one to a young teen granddaughter, and I realized that she might be out of college by the time her pen ran out of ink. I pictured giving them to grandnieces and grandnephews even younger than Kaelyn and imagined how they might use them in fourth grade and fifth grade and beyond, and then how they might actually write their high school graduation thank you notes with those same pens.

I thought that, if my pen lasts as long as it’s supposed to last, and if I last as long as I hope I will last, I will be in my seventies when it finally dries up.

In my seventies.

I mean, sorry, but holy shit.

Suddenly that pen became imbued with time-laced dreadful import, and I pushed it away with my left index finger. I will, I thought, just use up my other pens before I start on that. And I dug in my purse and the thing drawer and rescued six or seven pens—Bic Clics and Pentel RSVPs and nice pens that came our way as advertising for some firm or store or other. I found a blue gel pen and a green gel pen.

Those, I thought would be nice for writing letters.

The seven-year pen had rolled on its side. It felt like it had its little back turned to me.

Then I felt bad about that new pen, whatever its time-morphing propensities.

But I still don’t want to lose it. So now I use my seven-year pen to do my daily morning pages, and I shove those other, disposable pens in my purse or my pocket, and I put one on the nightstand next to my bed.

I’m not sure one can recycle ink pens; I’m checking that out. But I certainly won’t have to worry about recycling this week when it comes to my new, seven-year pen.


This week I started keeping a dreamer’s journal and I mailed off some long overdue notes and I made a new to-do list, and every day, about 3:30, I ran upstairs and shampooed paint out of my hair. And I read my book, and let my heart ache, and got good news from a friend and did a little goofy happy dance, and I worked on not being wasteful, and I thought about time.

And in the mornings, when I went walking, signs of yesterday’s weather greeted me—bright blooming flowers, dusty dry sidewalks, broken sticks and branches that one night’s wind blew out of trees. Puddles and slick spots. I just had to be ready for anything.

I couldn’t find a theme this week, which makes me anxious, and I thought, some weeks are just like that, random and varied. Maybe, the farther back I step, the more a pattern will appear, but maybe, sometimes, there is no pattern.

Maybe some times, and some weeks, just are what they are.

That’s how it seems out here in the hinterlands. That’s what I’m thinking today.

Cluttered Week/Cozy Words

It’s something I never thought about before: the co-occurrence of violence in the home with substance use and dependency. But it makes an appalling, tragic kind of sense, and I note the statistic that my good friend sends me, and I add it to the problem statement part of a grant I am writing. Then I scroll through the data, absorbed, saddened, and a little more enlightened than I was when this project started.

In the grant-writing course I took, one of the first bits of shared wisdom was this: only write grants for projects you care about. And now I see why: preparing a grant is not just writing. It’s reading, too; it’s talking to experts and searching the ‘Net and hitting the literature. It’s watching video and TEDTalks and finding the best sources. It’s taking the information and synthesizing it, until I have a clearer, more lucid understanding of the issues and the data and the details of the thing that I’m writing about.

Then, and only then, can I represent the information fairly and fluently and in a way that honors the organization and the people I am writing this grant with and for.

I love this part of grant writing, the opening of doorways, the deeper and deeper understanding of issues that I am drawn to, that I care about, that I want to see funders supporting. It’s a chance to join my passion with something I’m good at: putting words in documents. I come out of the process knowing more.

It’s a detailed, time-sensitive process, but there’s great satisfaction when the news comes down that a grant has been accepted.

This knowledge hums through my under-consciousness whenever I write a grant. But sometimes, other things are humming there, too.

This week, the grant was due one day and the grades were due the next. And right smack in the middle, I was pledged to teach an eight-hour workshop.

“Do you have your tree up?” a friend asked on Monday, and I sneered at him and said something impolite.

Some weeks are just real busy.


I have met an amazing crowd of students this semester.

The students in my face-to-face class, 21 of 23 of them, are high school students taking college courses. That means 21 of these guys have never written a five-to-seven page MLA style paper, that in-text citing is an unexplored territory, that the independence expected in college work is new and fresh and a kind of learning they need to assimilate.

The other two students are not that much older, although one has a toddler at home, which weaves depth into life for someone pushing through college courses. They are both bright and thoughtful and very, very patient.

One of the high school students tells me she is glad we have two ‘real’ students in the class.

“It makes it seem,” she says,“more like a college class than a high school class that just meets someplace else. It makes it more official.

The 21 high school students jump up to meet the challenge of college learning. All semester long, I shake my head: how is it possible to award so many high grades for one assignment? And, given the chance to revise, several of the students take their graded work and polish it, sand away the mechanical imperfections, struggle with mastering sentence structure, grapple with wording, striving to be clear and concise—to choose the one best word to say what they mean. They submit their revisions within the designated time frame and they raise B-minuses to B-pluses; they polish an A-minus and make it a solid, as-high-as-you can-get, A.

I have two on-line courses, as well, and those students are deep into their majors, studying things like nursing and firefighting and social work. They are driven, many of them, and bent on success. They exist, to start, as words in emails, and then slowly, as I read their papers and learn their working styles, they become living, breathing persons—albeit persons I have never seen. I know that one has a son who was hospitalized for a big chunk of the first part of the term. Another has a farm in addition to her job and being a full-time student. There are first responders and there are nursing students working in health care already. Many of these students are parents; most have jobs. Some work the graveyard shift and take on-line courses to accommodate their schedules.

There are a few students who need encouragement; there is one who writes to let me know that things have happened and she can’t complete the course. I respond, urging her not to give up, to try again when the time is right. But for the most part, the students write thoughtfully and intelligently and well, and they thank me for guidance about comma splices and subject-verb agreement and how to cite a source in MLA or create an APA-style title page for an academic paper.

This week, as I work through the separate sections of the grant, I am also reading final essays and reviewing submissions and making sure all the revisions have been tabulated and added to the final grades.

Grades are due on Thursday at 7:00

The grant is due on Wednesday at 5:00.

Also on Wednesday, I am co-teaching a day long workshop on mental health first aid. So the grant needs to be wrapped Tuesday night, and I need to spend serious time with the course curriculum; I need to review video and make copies and check in with  my teaching partner who has some great ideas about how to organize the day.

As I work, emails pop up from students.

“Have you graded my final yet?” they ask.

“When will final grades be posted?” they ask.

“If a student gets an 89.5 average, do you automatically raise it to an A, especially if the student has perfect attendance and participated all the time?” they ask.

I set one thing aside to do the other, and then I feel guilty. The other two obligations sit on my shoulders, icy cold; they cramp my shoulders up. When I lift one off and tend to it, the newly neglected obligation crawls back into its place. It sends frosty shoots down into my shoulder muscles. It freezes up my neck.

Sometimes I stand up. I take all three of those frosty little obligations and I throw them high up into the air, one after another, and then I dance and juggle, dance and juggle, until the phone rings, and the woman who was going to let me in to check out the technology I need for the course tells me they’re having interviews in the conference room and we won’t be able to get in there after all, and the doctor’s office calls to remind me of an appointment I had, indeed, forgotten, and Jim asks if we can go to the post office to mail off his package, which needs to be postmarked before the 17th—well, actually, he admits, it should GET there before the 17th,—and the check engine light pops on in the car, and Mark wonders if we have any plans for Saturday.

Then those chilly little obligations plummet down from the sky; one after another, they smack me in the head. Boof! Boof! Boof! And I stagger around complaining and squawking and people I love go running wildly in a far-off direction, and I know there’s only one answer.

It is time to light the fire and brew some Tension Tamer tea, time to pull on soft, elastic-waisted pants and my ratty old comfortable navy-blue sweater and grab my book and read.


There’s a special kind of book for a day like this—probably a special kind for each person, but mine are usually set in one of the British Isles. The houses are old and thick-walled, and they don’t always have every modern convenience, but they look out on scenes of gentle beauty. Their kitchens produce the most amazing things—scones and lemon curd, pastries and meat pies, iced cakes that would comfort the bleakest soul.

And the people in these novels—well, they are the people I want to move in right next door. They are quirky, these folks. The women are stalwart and honest, with a brave sense of derring-do; they may give up everything for love, but they discover too, that they can darned well live without it. They can light their own fires and arrange for their cars to be fixed and they always have some kind of interesting work—as travel agents or the owners of charming, funky shops, as night school teachers or the writers of lovely books.

And, oh, the men! They are ruggedly handsome, if a little grizzled, and their faces are saved from the boredom of perfection by a bunged-up nose or a strategic childhood scar.  They LISTEN, these men, and they reflect back thoughtfully. They never turn rugby on and say, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” They are fully present, fully engaged, fully mature, and fully hunky.

All of the men in these books can cook a tasty shepherd’s pie.

And so I warm my frazzled soul by these books, and those pesky obligations, cold-blooded creatures that they are, look in horror at the flames flickering in the fireplace and they crawl away, huffing.

I know they are not really gone, but the cozy book sends them packing, just for a little space of time.

The fire snaps. My shoulders relax. I have opened a door into a whole different world. This is a world where everything, every thing, is going to, somehow, turn out all right.


The next morning, I walk downstairs and see three eager little obligations waiting to jump up onto my shoulders. I bend over to let them hop on.


The grant gets written, and I think, despite some email issues and a very strict character count, that we have collaborated to do a really strong job.

The technology at the mental health course works just fine, and the sound booms through on the video, and all the disasters I imagined vaporize like fog on a sunny summer’s morning.

I check averages twice and then I post grades—and yes, an 89.5 plus extra credit DOES add up to an A-…

Sometimes, there is good news to share.


The frosty little obligations hop off my shoulders, one by one, and disappear; the week wanes, and I finish the cozy book and set it aside. Now I’ll look around and realize how badly the carpets need to feel a vacuum cleaner’s suction, and I will cook a meal that involves more than opening a box, and I’ll start a book that makes me think about the post-Emily Dickinson world and why a nation full of supposed fuddy-duddies would warm so to her unconventional words.

Later, obligations will slip back in…packages to wrap and mail, and cards yet to be addressed, cleaning and cooking and baking and shopping…and I may feel that chill, that tightness, creep back in to my neck and shoulders.

But that’s okay. Hidden in my TBR stack, there are two more cozy novels, two more bulwarks against the cluttered days.

Rescuing the Remaindered


It started–well, hell, doesn’t it always start this way??–with an email. Simply worded, starkly phrased, politically correct (no suits would be offended or alarmed by this message), the gist of it was this: there were endangered books at the campus library, hidden in a back room.

That back room was really the Last Chance Hotel. If someone didn’t come and claim them,  the trash heap was the next stop for those books.

I gasped a wrenching gasp, and my nice colleague Linda, walking by on her way to the Keurig, poked her head in to see if I was okay.

“I’m fine,” I said, smiling brightly. I hit ‘send’ to share the desperate message with my peeps in the network. I knew they, too, would respond.

It was mid-morning before I could work my way over there: I had a meeting on that side of campus; I insisted I would walk across–alone–on that beautiful day… I carried a voluminous, sturdily lined bag with me. It is a bag I keep in my office for just this purpose. It is both thick and yielding; it will not quickly reveal what it holds within.

The library was hushed at that time of day. In a far corner, a study group met, and the lowered, insistent mutter of their search for meaning simmered. But there was no other noise beyond the whir of machine, the hum of fluorescent light. One lone student worked at the circulation desk; she was someone I’d worked with before. I dropped a word; I flashed my ID. The student jumped up and grabbed a clipboard.

“Sign in,” she instructed, and she winked at me.

Yeah, right, I thought, and I winked back. Grabbing the pen, I scrawled, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The student jerked her head toward the labyrinthine nether region of the library.

“You,” she said quietly, “know your way.”

I nodded. I passed Tracey’s desk; we shared a look fraught with meaning. Amy, on the phone, kept her eyes downward, but she gave me a barely discernible thumbs up.

I wound my way through the corridors, and I found the back room.

My colleague BJ was there before me. A retired high school instructor who couldn’t break his academic habit–he now teaches a full slate of American history and western civ at the college level–BJ is an inveterate reader and a Damned Liberal. I should have known I’d find him here.

He’d been busy; as I entered, he slipped a slender volume onto a small stack on an empty corner of the table closest to the door. I surveyed the room. Books covered three rectangular banquet tables,–covered the tables, teetered in stacks, and threatened to fall off their edges.

“Oh, BJ,” I said, and he threw up his hands.

“So many books!” he said, an anguished rasp in his voice. “But–Dreiser?  Henry JAMES?” He slanted me a look. “You read James?” he asked.

Then, without waiting for an answer, he added, his voice filled with remorse, “I CAN’T. I can’t take Henry James home.”

We worked in silence then, sorting and stacking.  We were, between the two of us, deciding futures. We were issuing reprieves. We were leaving other tomes, perhaps even some that were infinitely more worthy than our chosen ones, to the caprice of fate.

BJ left, toting a hefty stack of books, after a fervent ten minutes.

I eked out another fifteen minutes of agonizing selection. Oh, the things I put back, hoping other hands would find and cherish them! My bag, ironically, held a biography of Wollstonecraft, whose name I’d borrowed to sign in. I also saved Lillian Hellman’s Life. Volumes of Willa Cather were hidden in my bag. I had all of Herrick’s poems. I had the nonsense verses of Edward Lear. I had a GK Chesterton omnibus, and I had a volume or two by Kay Boyle.

And I hadn’t been able to keep myself from saving An Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden. It had been one of my mother’s favorite books.

I knew it was time to go when Janelle, the library’s director, walked by and coughed discreetly. I bundled everything into my bag; it was heavy and clumsy. I wrestled it to the door of the room, and I stood looking at the silent books I left behind. I saluted them; I wished them the redemption I couldn’t offer.

I wanted to say I’d be back, but I knew it was a promise I probably couldn’t keep.

I retraced my steps and hurried out the library exit. My bag set off the meep meep meep of the alarm.

I kept walking.

I didn’t stop until I’d reached my car, popped open the trunk, and gently pushed my bag full of refugees into its darkness.

I locked my car, and I went back to work, trying to be normal, trying to forget that hidden cargo. At odd times I would remember, though–I’d think about the book that had been so handled and used, read time and again, that its cover was separating from its binding. THAT book, flung onto a discard table.

Was that sadder, I debated with myself, than the pristine book, twenty years old, whose ‘date due’ card revealed it had never been checked out?

What is worse, I’d debate, book abuse or book neglect? I would ponder; I would be paralyzed by sadness.

And then the phone would ring, and I would be compelled to shake it off and trudge through my daily commitments.

My son helped me drag the bag into the house when I got home from work, and he gently unpacked the volumes onto the dining room table.

My husband came home just as we were surveying the stacks; it seemed like a healthy rescue there on my modest table, but I couldn’t stop thinking of those left behind.

“Oh,” sighed Mark, “what have you done?”

I shrugged, my eyes on the books.

“We’ve talked about this,” he began, but his voice was gentle.

I snaked out a hand; I plucked a biography of Teddy Roosevelt from the top of a stack. I thrust it at him.

Mark took the book, and he gave me an agonized look. And then he went to sit in the reading chair and pore through the  table of contents.


We worked the rescued books into the shelves; the resident books sighed and shuffled and made reluctant but understanding room. I went to chop onions for the stir fry, leaving them to work things out.

Later that night, when Mark and the boy were both long in bed, I stood in the doorway of the living room and listened. The new books were softly anxious.

What will she….???

No worries, whispered the resident volumes. They all love books here.

I felt an expulsion of relief from the newcomers.

Then: Will she READ us? asked a plaintive little voice.

There was a pause, and then an answer came from the cooking memoir section.

Well, it said, she ain’t as quick now as she used to be. But yeah. I think she’ll read you.

This wasn’t my conversation. My cheeks burned at intruding. I grabbed the Father Brown Omnibus, and I took it up to the bathroom with me. In the sighing of the sleeping house, I murmured, You’re privately owned now. You have a home.

And I tried to pry off the Library of Congress sticker on its spine. The years, though, had done their work; the sticker had become part of the cover. The library years would always be evident.

Well, I ruminated, that isn’t the worst thing in the world.


Just before sleep, I checked my texts, and two of my peeps had sent photos.  More books were in safe hands that night.

And we were not the only ones; there were network members whose names we’d never know, whose faces we’d never see–or people quietly walking the hallways, going about their business, whose cars held rescued cargo, waiting to be transported to a new and welcoming home. People we worked side by side with every day, hidden rescuers, keeping the words safe.

I slid into bed, and Mark rolled over to say goodnight.  He sensed, I knew, my sadness. He murmured, “You just can’t save them all.”

The Roosevelt bio rested on his bedside table, a marker thrust into its pages, one quarter of the way in.

He’s right, I know: we can’t save them all. I thought of the left-behind books in that dark back room. I tried to block out the strident voice of a gleeful pharisee who’d once explained to me that the unclaimed books were ground up to make bedding for cows.

Cow bedding! Don’t TELL me this, I pleaded.

And then, in the quiet dark, I heard a whisper, a whisper that wound upstairs from the bookshelves in the living room, a whisper emanating from the books I’d brought in that day.

HOME, hissed the whisper. We are HOME.

Yes, I thought, yes! You are home, and safe. Safe for the time. Safe as we can make you, safe as hardcover books can be in a digital age.

I pulled the blanket around me. I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning I got up and went to work. And I carried with me that capacious, sturdy bag. Who knows when the next call will come, or the next email arrive.

I cannot predict the day or the hour. I can only know that, when it does, I’ll be ready.


Somewhere, Somehow, Somebody

Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some…
…Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee

—Tom Petty and Michael W. Campbell, “Refugee”

Sometimes I go looking for books.  A friend might say, “Oh, you really should read The Improbability of Love,” and I’ll track it down at the library and find out there are rows of reserve requests seven deep. I’ll decide to use my gift card to the big bookstore, combine it with the 20 per cent discount that landed in my email inbox, and I’ll have that book in my hand–and on my shelf–within four days.  I’ll savor and enjoy the reading, and the enjoyment will be enhanced by a kind of treasure hunt–what in this book spoke so clearly to Susan?  Where does our appreciation overlap?

I search that book out; I make sure it is there to be read. Very seldom am I disappointed to have invited it in.

And sometimes, I swear, books come looking for me.


That was the case with Dr. Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Nowhere, in which she chronicles her work with refugee families in Lincoln, Nebraska. I kept seeing it at libraries and bookstores; it just kept turning up. The book finally found its way into my basket from a clearance shelf.  It came home with me and waited, patiently demanding to be read.  I danced around it, and then, when I finally caved in and opened it, I was enriched.

Pipher shares the tales of several refugee families, and she says those families have a great deal to teach those of us blessed with citizenship from birth. Refugees turn pain into meaning; they give, says Pipher, meaning to their trials, reasons for the stories of their lives to be shared.  Refugees demonstrate growth and redemption.

“Viktor Frankl wrote that while he was in a concentration camp,” Pipher said, “he discovered that everything could be taken from a person but one thing: the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”  ( http://apa.org/monitor/dec01/refugees.aspx)

“What helps them recover, she found, is family, community and personal characteristics such as flexibility, sense of humor, hope, resiliency, and the ability to find new people to love and attach to.” (apa.org)

And, Dr. Pipher notes emphatically, the refugees do much better when the community welcomes them.

I enjoyed The Middle of Nowhere, and I thought about its message of outreach and welcome, and I put it on my shelf to return to later.  And then I plunged in to other reading, and I didn’t think about Pipher’s book until another book found me.

This book was Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and it was recommended, strongly, by a couple of bloggers I highly respect on WordPress. That same week,  a colleague forwarded me a video of Silberman talking about autism.  So, when an Amazon gift card came my way within days of the recommendation, I used it to order Neurotribes, and I read it with fascination.  Silberman tells the story of autism, from its first identification in the pre-World War II years to our current understanding of the condition.  Silberman reveals the personal agendas and quests for glory that undermined a real understanding of autism for many years; he highlights autistic heroes and heroic supporters.

And he talks about Dr. Temple Grandin, a genius with the diagnosis of Asperger’s–and  he writes about her remarkable ability to  tell her story to a wide range of people, to explain how her mind works and how it feels to live in a world that rewards a whole different kind of thinking. Grandin felt, she said, like an anthropologist from Mars, living in a whole different world.

Her story fascinated Dr. Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology and a gifted writer. He made it a point to meet Grandin; and when he came to know her, he was determined to tell her story.  He wanted to explain why this brilliant woman who happened to have Aspergers syndrome felt like a refugee in her own land.

His resultant book, An Anthropologist on Mars, is next up on my reading stack.


I thought about this today when I went to a People First meeting with Jim.  We have recently had the great good luck to meet a dedicated group of visionaries who are changing the way adults with disabilities are perceived and treated in our community. One of the many things they are doing, in their ‘person-centered’ philosophy, is helping disabled adults advocate for themselves.

Self-advocacy is the goal and the reason for being of People First (http://www.peoplefirst.org/).  There’s a new but thriving chapter in this town; its officers attended their first conference this year. For some, it was the first time, at age twenty or thirty or forty or even beyond, they’d stayed in a hotel; it was the first time they spoke in front of a group of people who sat and listened and asked questions.  It was the first time their words were received with applause.

They came back energized and wanting to do more.

So they have decided, with their mentors, to create a skit that they can take on the road.  They want to go to K-12 schools and service organizations and colleges; they want to talk to anyone who’s open to helping society change the way it regards and treats adults with disabilities.

And because Jim, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s/PDD-NOS, enjoys writing scripts, one of People First’s guiding lights, Missy, asked him to attend today’s meeting.


The meeting convened at the disabilities services annex, in a large bright room where twenty or so adults sat at round tables.  They were a mixed and welcoming group–they represented a wide range of ages, and they had a wide range of communicative ability.

They all introduced themselves and they all told us we were welcome.  And then Sandy, the facilitator, pulled them into a discussion.  The group decided, once they watched a couple of YouTube videos and understood where they were headed with the skit creation, that they wanted to address the issue of bullying.

Sandy led them in a discussion of bullying words–words they hate to hear, and better words that could be put forth to replace them.  She drew examples from the people assembled, who offered up things like this:

I don’t like it when people tell me I’m fat. (Lots of nods at this, mostly from the female participants.)

I don’t like the R word.  (Animated discussion followed this.  It was agreed that using the word “retard” was just mean and ignorant, and people need to stop doing it.)




All of the group had heard these words.  Let’s replace them, they suggested, with special. Unique. Nice. Friendly.

Then, “I don’t like it,” said one young woman, “when someone tells me, ‘Oh, you can’t speak French!'”  There was a swivel of heads. There were looks of surprise.

And there was an instant reaction of kindness.  “Yeah,” said Jeannette. “It’s bad when people say things like that.”

Sandy wrote, “People say you can’t speak French” on the smart board. She told a short story about a cousin who’d always taunted her by speaking French; she knew Sandy didn’t understand.  The discussion went on.

List compiled, Sandy and the other leaders directed the group to a discussion of a scenario.  There were plenty of ideas; there was discussion and feedback, and the group created a real and concrete picture.  One of us, they said, is at the beach.  That person is building a sandcastle and having fun.  And then a stranger comes over and decides to wreck it.  That person lays right on top of the sandcastle, and flattens it.  And–that person says bad things.

Jim and I left a little later; Missy is going to send him details and he is going to create his first script for live theater. He’s pretty excited about the opportunity.

And he was pretty moved by the meeting and the topics and the stories he heard.

“How,” he asked, “could anyone abuse or bully people as kind and innocent as that?”

And yet he knows it happens.  He’s had it happen to him–he’s heard the R word used to describe him because he’s different.  He’s been ignored or taunted, too.


Jim, like other adults with disabilities, often finds the rules and the reasons of our society random and unfathomable.  But, like Pipher’s refugees, people with disabilities choose their attitudes.  They’re kind, for the most part, and they’re trusting. And they believe in their own abilities to contribute.  This skit, they think, might make a difference, might touch one heart or teach one person a little bit about how bullying hurts the victim and the bully.

It’s apt, I think, the comparison of adults with disabilities to geographic refugees–two groups living in societies with codes and cues and secret handshakes they may never ever learn.  But each has the tools to survive and to thrive anyway.  Many have family support; those that don’t tend to create families to take that place. They take the slings and arrows life shoots at them, and they fend them off with humor and openness.  If I had to characterize, in just one word, the feeling in that room today when the People First members were planning their skit, I’d choose the word hope.

Those folks, the adults with disabilities and the professionals who work with them, see the possibility of a bright and open future.  They see a time when job opportunities are different and people in general are more accepting and nobody yells at them because they aren’t fluent in the language.

And they have the tools and the support to actively work for the change. I thought about Pipher’s list of things needed for refugees to successfully transition into the new society: Family. Community. Flexibility and sense of humor.  The ability to find new people to attach to. Those attributes were all there, in operation, in that room.

It was an exciting privilege to watch the group at work.  I don’t know if they’re Tom Petty fans, but they’re living his lyrics.  Sure somebody, somewhere, has kicked them around some.  But they’ve chosen to pave a new road; they’re a living demonstration that no one has to live like a refugee.

This Month: We Love Our Reading

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Image from Shelf Awareness

 To read…what a gift.

Those funny black squiggles–do you remember when they turned into meaning?  Turned into tiny keys that flew off the page and unlocked doors in your mind?  There’s a magic moment, in a child’s life–the moment when she realizes the words she has memorized, those mysterious patterns, have life and heft and individual meaning.  They leap at her, they draw him in: those children have entered the league of readers.

It’s a league of connection…for behind those hidden doors in our minds, whole worlds wait.  Rowlings writes about Hogwarts, and we soak in her words, but the academy is already there. Rowlings’ words just open the door.  Who knew that unwieldy castle lived within us, those gray and rickety stairwells, those lonely creaking hallways?  We explore, with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the terrain discovered in our minds.

We uncover whole continents of mind territory: with hobbit holes and desert sand, vast and churning oceans, frozen ‘scapes that roll on, whitely, as far as our interior eyes can see.  All those places of wonder have been there, waiting, waiting for us to find the right keys and gain entry.

And people! We discover people, too, and joy in the recognition when their miens float clear.  There’s that kind and thoughtful wizard, his gray eyes sad and gentle in a face wrinkled with care and hard-won knowledge.  And that exquisitely beautiful maiden–look how her cornflower eyes grow cold and distant when she’s crossed–there’s lightning there, and danger.  Beauty, we discover, does not always extend all the way to the heart.

There’s a jolly fat fellow straining the bounds of his black and white knit jersey; there’s a gentle grandmotherly type dispensing cocoa and concern.

And there–there is a freckled mischievous boy whose penchant for noodling in to places he shouldn’t be churns up all kinds of trouble.  There’s a plain but stalwart girl whose perseverance and quick wit saves the day.

These are people in the Troupe Within; some of them are folks we want to be.  Some are folks we want to flee.  All are the characters we need to be able to inhabit the stories we love.

And we move, as we grow and we get more adept, from the land of story to the land of truth; we encounter Anne Frank and we read with her, our roving now in an attic where dust motes dance behind a brazen bookcase.  We know what has to come, yet we read on, borrowing Anne’s eyes, learning about the darkness that can exist in man.

We struggle with explorers and we suffer with reformers; we sense the hunger of the people in the drought-ridden region, even when that kind of pain never touches our physical lives. We mourn with Annie Sullivan when that little brother dies. Real words, heart-felt words, open our hearts, expand our compassion, ignite those banked fires of outrage and indignation.

We are readers, and we travel, not just in geographic realms, but in emotional ones.

We encounter printed word wherever we go–in the newspaper, in the classroom, on the Internet. Not all of it soars and ignites–some words create a plodding, necessary swamp that tires us.

We slog on, through those words, the thick and viscous ones, knowing there are others that will come after–words that will lift us into the realms of soft breezes, tantalizing tunes, soaring wonder.

We find our favorites, wordsmiths whose writing always hits that ‘ping’ in our own minds–it might be Tolkien for you, Lamott for her, a favorite columnist, a graphic novelist–whomever, that artist, that writer, that comic or that thinker,–that person, we know, will have words that slide into the locks, snick them open cleanly, take us into those rich, intriguing regions of our own minds.  We seek those artists out, again and again.

Reading, some folks say, becomes our escape, but really it’s a journey, an exploration, a march… We are moving as we read, we are growing.  The book drops, opened, onto the coverlet as we fall asleep; our kind one comes and sets it aside for us, turns off the bedside light, but still our mind ranges in that region opened by the words we read. Reading may take us away from our everyday for a while, but we come back richer, wiser, a little more ready to face the day.

And we share it, of course: what greater joy than to read a book to a child, to be one who demonstrates how those words, well-chosen, well-played, can spring the stuck doorways and call whole worlds to light in that young and questing mind? Meet Milo, we say, and Tock–Here: do you know Caspian?  Chrysanthemum? Have you, perchance, met Frodo?

And if we have chosen well, and if we have read with fervor and with zest, we get to watch the miracle happen, the words, falling like water on dry but fertile landscape.  The moments of absorption.  The wonder of the blooms.

The magical day comes when that little person reads to us–what a joyful circle of completion.

February, Shelf Awareness tells me, is the month of love of reading.  It’s a month of magic, then, a treasure-month that, opened, holds a whole Pandora’s box of love and terror, soaring joy and grounding reality.  So stack them up, the books to read: the light and frothy novels that cleanse the palate, the thoughtful well-researched tomes that exercise our mental muscles.  Bring on the book that guides and advises, the book that brings wonder and revelation. Turn on the lamp and turn the page.

Bring on the inundation of words, the celebration of those funny little keys that unlock the treasures of our minds.  It’s the month of reading: as if we needed an excuse.  Happy February, my friends!


Bookish Whispers, Paged-Up Snorts

Unabashed Book Babes: Consistent Reader Syndrome on the Rise

Pawing through the rumpled, aging magazines in my dentist’s waiting room, I uncovered a sleek new volume: The Health of Today’s Woman.  I hadn’t read that publication before; it looked pristine, and the cover, with its engaging middle-aged model, an attractive but believably real-life woman, drew me. A teaser read, “The Growing Dependency That No One Talks About”.

Hmm…What could that be about? I mused  Chocolate?  Caffeine?  Bad boy relationships?  I flipped open to the article and read.

And that was how I first became aware: even in this enlightened and digital age, more and more women are blatantly and blithely escaping into the paper world of books.  The medicos call it Consistent Reader Syndrome. On the street, they’re known as the Book Babes.  The condition cuts across ethnicities and economic statuses; it has no respect for age or infirmity.  Those who have it are hard core and hard covered.

They read while they’re eating, while they’re cooking, and on their exercise bikes.  They keep books in their purses and furtively partake while their passengers run into stores or post letters, and then they slide the tomes back into their hiding places and brazenly drive off. You come upon them in dark corners of coffee shops, far reaches of local libraries, intense, avid, and unaware of you, books pressed almost to their faces.

Unapologetic, frankly hooked, and quite unwilling to get help, their numbers–the article said–grow and grow.

I needed to know more.  I needed firsthand information.

I decided to do some exploring.

Roseanne: A Case Study

It didn’t take me long to find a Book Babe willing to talk to me.  Roseanne (not her real name) freely admits to reading at least two books a week.  We were connected by her brother, my professional acquaintance.  She agreed to meet me at Shakespeare’s, a local coffee shop; the irony of the name did not escape me.

I found her in the farthest back corner; she was reading, and even as I approached, I could see how difficult it was for her to close the book. Her hands were tense and white-jointed; she bit her lower lip. She forced the bookmark into the crease. Her fingers shook just perceptibly as she slid the book into her bag.

She wasn’t anxious for me to see what book she had been inhabiting, but I was able to make out the author’s name, Stephanie Kallos, as the book disappeared into the bag’s capacious depths.  I pulled out my tablet and made a note, and then, smiling as engagingly as I could, I shook Roseanne’s hand and asked her to tell me about her reading.

She was only too happy to oblige.

She’d begun, she said, at the unbelievable age of three years old, when one day the letters in the newspaper just arranged themselves sensibly and she was suddenly, inexplicably, reading whole sentences. Newspapers never satisfied, and she quickly began stealing her mother’s magazines, searching for stories of Betsy McCall.

She needn’t have been so stealthy.  When her mother  discovered the stash of magazines beneath Roseanne’s bed, she reacted, not with shock, not with sadness, not with anger, but with complicity.  She dressed the little girl and took her to a bookstore, where she encouraged the child to pick out FIVE books.

The clerk put them in a brown bag; a tiny Roseanne insisted on carrying it the car herself; and a lifelong habit was born.

In the evenings, just before bed time, the mother and daughter accomplices read together.  Her father never knew, or, if he suspected, never let on.

“My mother’s voice,” Roseanne told me, “was animated and soothing all at once.  It opened doors. It transported me to other worlds. And she encouraged me to take the book and read to her, in turn.  She praised me, saying it was wonderful how I sounded out even the most difficult of words.”

Throughout her childhood, Roseanne’s mother aided and abetted her reading habit, paying for books, driving her to the library, recommending reads she’d enjoyed herself as a girl.

Roseanne admits to being the girl who went to the mall with her friends, agreed to meet them at a certain time, and slipped off to find a bench and read.  She carried books to the beach, to concerts, to parties; she read in the car and on airplanes and beneath the hair dryer.  Her friends’ annoyance didn’t phase her. She carried her book dependency into adulthood.

“Why?” I asked her.  “Why books?  Why still?  Why now?”

Roseanne’s eyes grew dreamy.  “You can’t understand if you’ve never experienced it,” she told me.  Books, she said, carry her to different worlds, take her away from the humdrum, the mundane, the tragic or the incompatible.

Books, she said, calm her down, lift her up.  They give her new ideas.

She said that, and she looked happy.  I left her there, a true Book Babe, her hand sliding the book from her bag before my back was even turned.

How the Condition Spreads

Shaken by my encounter with the unrepentant bibliophile, I went searching for experts with answers.  A friend, a therapist, referred me to a colleague of his, a Dr. Mary Reeder.  Dr. Reeder has made a specialty of working with Consistent Reader Syndrome.  She agreed to see me in her office, during a rare fifteen minute unscheduled interval.

I arrived at the fourth floor office suite in Dr. Reeder’s trendy new building, and I sat in a waiting room filled mostly with women.  In one corner, a couple sat; he was rough-edged, and she was careworn.  Their calloused hands were intertwined.  Other women looked at their phones a little too intently (Aha! I thought–digital books!) Some sat, rocking, on their hands.  They all stared mournfully at the shelves and shelves of books that surrounded them.

Putting Book Babes in close proximity with books? I wondered.  What kind of therapy was this?

A gentle receptionist ushered me into Dr. Reeder’s office.  More shelves, more books. More questions, which Dr. Reeder smilingly answered.

It was true, she said, that most women picked up the habit as children, often encouraged by mothers with habits too big to be contained. And some girls needed no encouraging at all. They just seemed to have a tendency to, a propensity for, the thrills that reading afforded.  They found books, all on their own. They grew up, for the most part, full of ideas, asking questions, searching, searching, searching, for answers…looking for the words that would set them free.

“Ha!” I said.  “Do they ever find them, though?  Are they ever really set free?”

Dr. Reeder looked at me oddly–I’d have to say there was a little pity in her gaze.

“Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it?”  she said.  “And I don’t think you can answer it if you’ve never tried it.”

A prickling finger brushed up and down my back. Her words eerily echoed Roseanne’s.

Dr. Reeder hurried on.  If a girl did not develop the reading habit in childhood, she explained, she was not home free.  A teacher, a friend, a librarian looking for the right advantage,–if any one of these was discerning enough, he or she could slip the girl just the right book to get her hooked.  It could happen anytime–a tome tucked into a gift package from an auntie, a book slid from hand to hand beneath desks in geography class.  Young mothers, tired and needing escape, passing their books using their infants as cover, smuggle the books home in stroller pockets.  Old ladies at nursing homes slip each other books as their wheelchairs brush in the hallway.

“And it’s not,” Dr. Reeder said cheerfully, “always women who are affected. I talked to one young man who was trying to understand his wife’s habit.  She introduced him to her favorite authors, and soon they were reading together. They’d bring their books to bed and read to each other. It got so they couldn’t fall asleep at night without a book in their hands…”

A timer dinged as the doctor finished her story, and she looked at me apologetically but stood up to dismiss me.  I gathered my things, and turning back, caught an unadulterated look of longing in the doctor’s eyes.  She was staring at a book on her desk. My back prickled again, and I knew, somehow, that she would grab that book and read a paragraph before the next patient wandered in.

The doctor, I thought, is a Book Babe.  As I walked out through the plushly carpeted waiting room, some of the waiting patients met my eyes defiantly. I felt cold.  This isn’t therapy, I thought.  This is a book club.

I hurried out the door.

Recognizing Symptoms

One thing is true: you know someone with Consistent Reader Syndrome.  At least one in four people, Dr. Reeder had assured me, is afflicted; the number of unreported cases might make the percentage much higher.

I went home and looked up some research websites the doctor had given me. There are consistent symptoms of the syndrome, I discovered. If I wanted to positively identify a Book Babe, I should look for these:

–a vast store of knowledge on a variety of subjects.
–the constant carrying of bags large enough to conceal books; the bags often sag suspiciously under the weight of the hidden volume(s).
–books stashed in places throughout the home and office–stashed, for instance, on bedside tables, in kitchen drawers, on TV trays, and between potted plants.
–a shaky, quavery sense of real dismay when one book is finished and there is not another to begin.

Book Babes are also adept at creating bookmarks out of all kinds of used substances, from coupons to napkins.  They are, the website informed me, ingenious and unstoppable.  They inhabit libraries, lurk outside bookstores, spend a great deal of time internet shopping. They drink coffee.  They congregate and discuss their reading with other Babes in hushed, almost reverent voices. They often have young children with them–children who drink in their mother’s behaviors and digest them.

Efforts at Control

Paper books in a digital age?  E-readers offer bibliophiles an electronic alternative to their paper mania, but so far, manufacturers are deeply disappointed by the response.  The Book Babes clearly prefer the heft and feel of a book in their hands, although they will resort to electronic devices in enclosed spaces, such as trains or planes. Another ‘fix’ that experts thought would surely eliminate the book dependency was television; again, proponents were sadly disappointed.  Although many Book Babes are also tube-watchers, most prefer to read a book before watching the film or TV adaptation.  And most end an evening of TV watching by reading in bed.

Imposing busyness was also thought to be helpful, until it was discovered that clever women find ways to read even while cooking or doing laundry.

Outlook for the Future

After my meeting with Dr. Reeder, I made a quiet visit to the library, where I borrowed a copy of a book by the author I’d seen on Roseanne’s volume.  Broken for You was the title of the Stephanie Kallos book; I opened it cautiously and began to read about the redemptive relationship between a wacky young artist and a guilt-filled older woman.

I thought I was incorruptible, questing only for knowledge; I soon found myself immersed in the book.  The lure, the pull was undeniable. I confess to being lost.

I now have a three-book a week habit.  I don’t see any way to stop. I am a woman in search of a book club, a Book Babe on the prowl for new titles.

Reader, if you see me, huddled on my bench, hooded head bent over the book held tightly in my hands, know that this is the life I have chosen, the path I have opted to tread. You see me; lost in the world of my book, unless jolted, I don’t see you.

I have Consistent Reader Syndrome.  I know it; I accept it; I’ll share my book with you.

Got That ol’ Library Magic In My Life

Thus, all libraries are acts of faith—faith that coming generations will make use of the contents of those libraries.
—Stuart A. P. Murray, The Library

Not only did I get to have lunch with Terri in Bowling Green on Tuesday, I got to visit the Maumee Library.

Terri and I were ‘raisin-ups’ together in the Miss Grape Festival pageant, oh, yea, these many years ago.  We shared quite a few other adventures, too, before Terri went away to Ohio for college.  Our lives danced us in very different directions for a while, but now, serendipity strikes:  we are both Ohio residents and we are re-connected by Facebook.

Lunch at the Easy Street Cafe, with its wood and tin and gleaming bar and good pub food, and with rich, good talk with Terri, was a delight.  And so was my visit to the Maumee Library.

Maumee LibraryWhen I arrived, a little early for my meeting with the gracious branch manager, Tony Schafer, kids were there.  It was the first day to sign up for the summer reading program–this year’s theme, in Ohio, is ‘Heroes’–and there were joyful kids of many ages, shapes, and decibel levels doing just that.  Those kids have wonderful spaces to meet in; the children’s areas of the Maumee Library are add-ons to the original Carnegie-built structure.  Light poured in through tall, wide windows–it beamed not just on the children, but on twenty-somethings browsing DVD’s, on a pair of retirees ensconced in cozy chairs in the periodicals section, and on a collection of people at broad tables, newspapers spread out before them.

Something was taking place in the auditorium; people were lost in books in the Reading Garden; a mom and two leggy girls pulled up and locked their bikes before heading for the young readers’ shelves. The place hummed with positive energy.

Tony shared some of the site’s history. The library is built on the very place where Dudley’s Massacre took place in the War of 1812.  US troops–under the lead of Dudley,– thought they were routing the British.  They surged in to apply the finishing touches to that particular engagement–and found themselves the victims of a trap.  Hundreds of United States soldiers died on that field.

DudleyThat the library is there now, a place of light and warmth and learning on a site where tragic acts once took place, strikes me as more than a little magical.

But that doesn’t really surprise me.  I’ve known since I was very young that libraries are magical places.

My mother often walked to the Darwin R. Barker Library with my younger brother and me when we were very young.  I loved browsing the books, coming home with a nice stack of picture books stuffed into my brother’s stroller.  I couldn’t wait to be seven and have my own library card.

When that great day dawned, I started in shock and awe at the card I’d been issued.  My patron number was 321.  My Brownie Troop number was 312!  The very same numbers, ever-so-slightly jumbled.  You couldn’t tell me that wasn’t pretty darned mystical.

At the Barker Library, Mom bought me a copy of Mrs. Mike for a quarter, a find from the retired book shelves.  Katherine Mary was an adventurous red-haired Boston girl; I plummeted into her world, devouring even the sad, sad parts of her story. Mrs. Mike became a lifelong book friend.

We moved.  At the Dunkirk Free Library, whose entrance was reached by a set of steep stone stairs, the shelves seemed to soar to the ceiling.  En route to something else, I discovered William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker.  It was the first play I ever read, and its images burrowed deep.  I  still suffer with Annie as she fears for her younger brother in the work house.

The Dunkirk Free Library offered up such treasures as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  It provided a calm and quiet refuge, too,  during some turbulent teen times.

In college, I worked at the campus library.  Shelving books, I discovered the writing of Herman Wouk. I started with Marjorie Morningstar and read right through, finding his work a wonderful counterpoint to the required reading of an English major.  I must have been responsible for the alphabet’s end of the shelving areas, for I also found Leon Uris’s work there. Soon, my dad was reading Wouk and Uris with me–sometimes, we were both reading the same volume at once: this often involved two bookmarks and stealthy maneuvers to grab the book first and retreat.

Some of Uris’s and Wouk’s books were set in World War II, and for the first time, my father talked to me about his experiences in the War–about the awful food, about the steadfast friends, about the horror of learning that his darling baby girl, Sharon, my parents’ firstborn, had died at 18 months of encephalitis.  He never talked to me about the fighting–he once asserted that those who had seen fighting seldom spoke of it.  But the rich conversations engendered by our shared reading began to create, for me, a picture of what his life overseas had been like.  Another magical gift of a library.


As the mother of young boys, the library was a place for me to find story time and play time and wonderful treasures–books and books with tapes, movies and music.  I took Jim to the Mayville Library so often when he was a toddler that they finally hired me to do children’s programming.  We created our own summer theme–“The Magic Schoolbus.”  The school drove a bus up for us on those magical meeting days; local celebrities–teachers, doctors, police officers– came and did read-alouds with a wonderful bunch of kids. Community magic, that was.

In libraries in Ohio, in Ada and in Bluffton, young James and I made the acquaintance of writers like Margaret Mahy and Brian Jacques.  I discovered Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries, which led me to some of Wittig Albert’s nonfiction, too. Again for a quarter, we picked up a VHS copy of Fawlty Towers from an Ada retired materials sale.  We watched that video, I would conservatively estimate, 200 times, — a bit more spell-binding taking place.

In high school, Jim encountered a great young adult librarian, Cordelia, at the Mount Vernon Library, and he became part of a warm group of creative and offbeat kids who encouraged and supported each other.  It was a welcoming community at a time when Jim, after many moves and much upheaval, was feeling adrift.

I discovered a treasure trove of books on tape and DVD at Mount Vernon, and I discovered that Barbara Rosenblatt was a wonderful reader who could make even a mundane book sparkle.  Rosenblatt, as Amelia Peabody, enlivened my commute for months.

We should have known the library had magic to offer, enchantment to share.

Today, James and I are ‘Friends’ at the John McIntire Library, and we get to work their ‘Buck-a-Bag’ Book Sales two or three times a year.  We get to see people who are excited about reading, about taking home bags of hardcovers, paperbacks, books on DVD.  They come back to the next sale, donating those first treasures back to the Friends, making room for more. Their children’s faces light up as they search.  Magic, magic, magic.


Maumee’s branch manager, Tony Schafer, sees no diminishing of numbers of library patrons, although he sees changes in the kinds of things patrons need.  Many people come in to use the Internet now, he says; many download ebooks onto their Kindles or IPads.

But the people with whom Tony works, and the people we see at the Buck-A-Bag sales, are proof that those who bemoan the passing of hard-copy books are way premature in their panic.  The allure of a book held in the hands, of pages turned–allowing a little bit of flipping back to chase a thought or a quote or a passage that begs to be read once again–still draws readers into its thrall.  And the library is the place where that allure is housed, squaring and cubing itself, luring us–the lucky us who wander into that portal–into its spell.

I walk into the library, and I am lost in other worlds for hours.  It has happened to me this way for years, and, I expect, it will continue to happen as long as faculties and eyesight cooperate.

The library houses treasures, tempts people inside, and then laughingly affirms that all those resources are there to be shared, for free and for all. The latch-key kids, the homeless guy, the four-year-old who taught herself to read–all are equally susceptible to the library’s generous spell.

What a wonderful thing, yet I often forget just how wonderful.  I guess even magic can seem commonplace when it’s available all the time. It was nice to leave the known and familiar this week and to visit another library, a faraway library, and to remember, in its new and amazing spaces, just how magical a place a library really is.