The Day the Season Begins

There is no fixed date; the season chooses its own arrival. But when it comes, I know; I honor it. I do what needs to be done.

We wake, early, to a frozen world. There is talk of two big accidents on the expressway; Mark pulls his IPad toward him, and searches grimly: he learns there has been a tragic death in the slippery early hours.

“Be careful today,” he says, and he searches for school closings. The high schools in the town where I teach, 45 miles away, are closed or delayed. But colleges rarely close.

By the time I leave, I assure him, the roads will have been tended. But I stick close by my computer, checking periodically, that little kid’s hope banked but burning: could this be a snow day?

But at 11:30, James bundles himself into the car, and I pack up my book bag, and we head off. There is a slow, cold, steady rain. The burning bush at the end of the drive has lost all its scarlet leaves. Each spindly branch is encased in ice; each red berry gleams as if shellacked.

It is warm enough—34 degrees–that the sky spits rain, and just cold enough that the dark time’s ice has not yet melted.

I drop Jim at the side door of the college; then he doesn’t have so far to run in this relentless downpour. He bolts inside without his usual wave, and I head north to drive to the Coshocton campus.

**********

The car warms up, and I turn on NPR, and I settle in to the ride. I’d sent my students an email: I’ll be there, I said, but don’t panic if I’m a little late: I am taking my time.

I discover, though, that the roads are fine. I clip along at the speed limit or thereabouts, and I arrive half an hour early. Several students are already in the classroom, and many have stories of ice-skimmed back roads and dicey drives. Josh started out to walk the almost five miles to class because his car had died; a neighbor picked him up at the crossroads, and he arrived two hours early.

“Dedication,” I murmur, and he waves the thought away.

“No sense staying home,” he says.

It’s a good class. The students present group position papers, and then they ruminate and rank each presentation. They are kind; that is something I’ve noted about this group of students from the very start. Their comments are thoughtful, and the rankings are generous.

We talk about the steps to analyzing the group presentation and morph those into peer review steps, and I randomly assign pairs. But then we notice that the rain has turned to snow. Right now, the streets are still dry. I have them exchange email addresses and send them off to work on each other’s drafts electronically, safely at home.

Only Josh groans.

“My ride’s not coming till 3:00,” he says.

But on the first floor, in this inn converted to college classrooms, there is a den with comfortable leather chairs and a snapping gas fire in a broad hearth. Josh hefts his backpack and heads down there.

I sit in the quiet classroom and tally up the rankings for each group. The totals are within one point of each other, all within the low A/high B range. They have been generous, but they have made astute remarks and suggestions, too.

I have high hopes for the peer review process.

I pack up my supplies, bundle into my coat, and reassuringly text Mark, who wonders how the drive was. I head downstairs and out to my car. I wave to Josh, who is nodding by the fire.

***************

On Thursday nights, Jim has a two-hour break between work and class. Mark picks him up at the college. Then they select a restaurant; there they can eat, they tell me, as men do. Sometimes, a little time left over, they pop in at the house to say hello.

But tonight, Jim is anxious to work on some homework before class, and Mark texts that he’ll be joining some Bar Association peeps at Weasel Boy’s.

The house is quiet,—quiet and clean. I am glad I ran the vacuum in the morning, de-cluttered messy surfaces, and flicked the duster over the ceilings. No little clutter clumps chastise me; I am greeted by warmth and order.

I light the fire, and the rain pours steadily down outside. The furnace burbles below me, chugging and huffing. I kick off my shoes, place them in front of the fire to dry off, and find my book. I turn on my reading lamp, slide into the chair, and grab the knitted blanket. I wrap my feet, mummy style, pull the satiny edge up to my chin, and open my book.

As the flames flicker and their glow warms my feet, I read Bella Figura. Kamin Mohammadi, in this chapter of her memoir, is staying in Florence in August, while those who live there head off in many directions to the sea. It is hot in Florence, she tells me, and her beautiful apartment has no air conditioning. She suffers a bout of sunstroke after a long afternoon walk and learns to go to the market in the earliest hours of the morning. She spends the rest of the August days inside, writing, and ventures out again as the evening cools, meeting other ex-pats at a café around the corner.

The fire snaps, and I imagine its warmth is like the Italian sun’s; my book transports me. The clock ticks noisily; the rain pours down outside, but for this moment in time, I am warm and dry with an imaginative world open before me.

The reading season, I realize, has begun.

************

In the reading season, my mind seems, contrary to the weather, to thaw and open. I am captured, at the library, by strange new offerings. I take home novels that, in the rest of the year, I might consider too dark for recreational reading, and the stories move me and make me realize how lucky I am, how protected. I borrow memoirs by unlikely people—some celebrated, and some just damned interesting.

I take home a book of essays.

And, at home, I search my shelves, uncovering neglected books, books I purchased and brought home, and then thought, for whatever reason, No. Not now. I find the true story of a lady doctor in the 1800’s, a lady doctor who lived and worked in my last hometown before this one.  I’d bought that book at Kim’s enthusiastic recommendation, and then Kim’s illness and death made me too sad to read it. But now it feels like a connection rather than an aching reminder, and I put it on my TBR stack.

I find some Willa Cather, and some Dickens, who always seems to mesh with this season. I add them to the pile along with Ready Player One and The Last Painting of Sara DeVos, the book the art museum group is discussing this month.

There’s a satisfying stack to one side of the ottoman, and I light the fire, and I take the top book, and I plunge.

**************

In other seasons, waiting books would distract and dismay me; I would feel a pull away from the pages in front of me. To be polite to my current book, to give it all my attention, I would have to dismantle that stack of books to be read, and secrete them, discreetly, in waiting spots throughout the house. Then I could finally concentrate on the words that danced before me.

But, when the reading season begins, the books seem to coexist with bubbly good cheer. The book I am reading compels and uplifts me, and the joy I take in that bodes well for the joy to come in the reading pile. Sometimes I read two books at once… a biography and a novel, maybe, and always, some pings of shared knowledge will arise. The biographer describes the very place in France where the novel’s current chapter takes place, and my understanding of both stories, the true and the imagined, bursts open.

Sometimes I crave a poem, and the emotion it evokes shimmers its way into the book I am reading, shimmers and matches and expands.

In the reading season, Jim comes upstairs and asks if he might connect his video game system to the big TV in the family room. Mark is ensconced in his own reading chair in the living room, and I am mind-traveling by the fireplace, and we both encourage James to help himself.

And he will play for an hour or so, his crows and muttered curses a counterpoint to the words we’re absorbing. But Jim, too, succumbs to the season; sated, he’ll shut down the game, and grab a graphic novel, and head to bed to read.

The reading season arrives and sets up camp and opens doors we didn’t even know were there.

**************

Friday morning, I determine to frontload my day. I organize my grading and then plan what needs to be done around the house. I throw in a load of laundry, sweep the kitchen floor, and heat a cup of vinegar in the microwave. When that has frothed and bubbled, I take a soft cloth and wipe the little oven’s insides clean, and I shovel baking soda down the sink’s drain in the little half bath.

I dump the hot vinegar down after it and I hear the satisfying hiss and simmer of serious cleaning taking place, deep in the pipe’s bowels.

I vacuum the living room, make sure Jim is waking up, and get ready to meet some wonderful friends for lunch. The house settles around me, approvingly; its back scratched nicely, it can relax.

The boyos are going to Westerville for an appointment; they will, again, eat in a favorite restaurant; they might stop at Fresh Thyme and pick up lovely organic bargains. They’ll come home around seven or so, toting bags and brimming with stories of the day’s adventures.

And after lunch, I will lug packages to the post office, do a little necessary shopping, and come home, again, to a quiet house. Then I will grade three papers. That’s my ticket to the reading chair, where I will spend the rest of the quiet time, lost in a book, the afternoon darkening around me, the fire snapping its ancient message of warmth and protection. I’ll take some soup from the freezer, nuke it up for my supper with a crisp salad and a thin sliver of sharp cheese.

Alone in the house, I will read while I eat, and then quickly clean up my dishes, so I can slip back into the reading chair, and learn more about the fictional Sara De Vos.

****************

The events and obligations of life are grouted together tightly by little strips of time. But the reading season comes, with cold and damp and inside comfort, and those little time-strips seem to expand. The work gets done, and the grades get posted, and we prepare and enjoy family meals. I go to meetings, and do my research, and I cut out the shapes for my book shelf quilt.

In the other seasons, all of that might fill a day, and I might find myself snugged up in bed, asleep before eyes travel down the first page.

But the reading seasons works its magic or its physics, and time’s doors, like my mind’s, open wider. There is always a comfortable space—in the late afternoon’s gloaming, in the quiet dark of our Ohio at 8 PM—to push back and page up.

And for a time, the reading spaces are natural, accepted, taken for granted parts of the day. But time will surge forward, and some day, on a timetable not available to my notice, the season will change, and life will shift, and other priorities will weigh down the need and the time to read.

I know that will happen, but, as I welcome the sudden onset of rich book time, I don’t care. The reading season is here; the books are hushed and waiting, and that, for now, is plenty for me  and more.

 

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Quite a Character, That Harry

I told Harry not to bother me when I was reading.

********

I  first encountered him at Starbucks. I was with my friend Lori, whom I hadn’t seen in months. We had so much to talk about: friends we’d loved and jobs we hadn’t and how to bake a ham. Seriously, our pressing topics ranged from the life-changing to the family-feeding, dancing over the tops of a dozen other issues in-between.

We tucked ourselves into a corner table in the back, and we bent appreciatively over our steaming brews. Lori had a fragrant vanilla latte; I had my trusty decaf Americano. And we talked. We had just moved into a discussion of her youngest daughter’s exciting summer program (Jorie has a scholarship to space camp) when we became aware of a little man, pacing the length of the coffee shop.

A short fellow, his sweep of reddish hair, peckled with gray, swirled back off his forehead– the way guys used to do it in Brylcreem days. His pale, lashless blue eyes look oversized and uncomfortably close behind thick, thick lenses. His chin receded, but his belly did not, and his tight, short-sleeved plaid shirt did nothing to disguise that fact. His pants—well, he went in big for the Ed Grimley look, that little guy did. He was sort of pixie-ish, and I would have thought, “Endearing,” if he hadn’t looked so angry.

His face was pinched and tomato-red, and he hugged a fancy leather portfolio, papers jutting out at every angle, tight to his chest. He’d stalk up and glare at us and then disappear. We’d lapse back into conversation only to feel the heat of laser-eye glare and look up to see him again.

“Oh, Lord,” whispered Lori, when he’d gone for the fourth time. “Do you remember him?”

Did he look familiar?  Maybe?

Nope. Nothing clicked.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think so.”

“He is a character. He was my advisee at Central State when you taught there,” she said. “He always registered late, and he always wanted to get into your writing class, and it was always full.”

“Well,” I said, dubiously. “I guess that’s flattering. Right?”

“He used to yell at me,” said Lori. “‘Find me a spot!’ he’d say. He’d kind of jump up and down. His hair would flop up and down, like in one big shellacked chunk. He always reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. Once I had to tell him to calm down or I’d call Security.”

She sipped her latte and narrowed her eyes at his retreating back. “Harry Critt,” she said. “That’s his name. I was really glad when I became a director and didn’t have to deal with him one-on-one anymore.”

He was heading back toward us when the barista called, “Harry! Your frap is ready!”

Harry swiveled abruptly and almost ran to the counter.

We decided that was a good time to make our exit; we slipped quietly out the back door, leaving Harry to his pacing.

*************

Right around when that happened, I was whining to Mark about not having time to read. Reading, I had thought, would be my retirement default mode. And recently, I had accumulated a wonderful stack of bought and borrowed books. I had Hidden Figures; we had just watched the film and I couldn’t wait to get more background on the story of those women.

And I wondered at the depiction of John Glenn in the film; Glenn grew up,–he and Annie both, actually,–maybe twenty miles from here. So I had a copy of his memoir. Somehow I’d missed one of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles back in the day, so when I saw a copy of The Moon By Night on a sale table, I had to pick it up. And I had a copy of Ready Player One, too; it’s a Great American Read book, after all.

And then I read an interview with a woman who lived near Toledo; it was on a reading blog and the woman said she’d become a confirmed reader because of Nancy Drew, and I thought, “Wait. Wasn’t Nancy Drew’s author from Toledo?” So I ordered a copy of Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak; that was the story of the women who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote Nancy Drew, and yes, Mildred Wirt was from Toledo. And the book was fascinating; it read like a compelling novel, and I never had enough time to sit down and just read for an hour.

And of course, I had some nice, light, mystery series volumes to cleanse the reading palette.

But there was always something to write or clean or paint or do; there were rides to be given and cookies to be baked and floors to be mopped and weeds to be pulled. I’d try to read, but unfinished chores pinched and pulled me.

“I thought,” I wailed to Mark, “that when I retired I’d get more reading done!”

And he said, “Well, just take a break and read in the afternoon.”

But I couldn’t, I told him; I couldn’t relax into reading when there was work to be done. The dishes screamed at me; the weeds sang a taunting song; James sighed heavily from in front of his computer, wishing he had a ride to somewhere.

“I can’t stand it,” I said. “I can’t concentrate with all that NOISE.”

“Then go someplace ELSE and read,” said Mark.

I thought that was brilliant.

******************

The first time, I went to Panera. I ordered a decaf and a cinnamon scone. It was 2:00 in the afternoon and not very busy, and I found a little two-person table in the quiet back. I put my purse and my jacket on the other chair to discourage anyone who might feel sorry for my solitariness and decide to sit.

And I opened Girl Sleuth and took a big slug of decaf, and I relaxed into the chair, and I began to read.

I was lost in the tale of Edward the genius and Harriet his daughter and Mildred the Iowa girl with gumption when a noisy, throat-clearing rattle jounced me out of that wonderful other world. I looked and there was Harry Critt.

“Pardon me,” he said, with a cocky little half-smile.

I looked at him for a long pause.

“Yes?” I said icily. “As you see, I am reading.”

“You teach writing,” said Harry.

“I DID teach writing. Once. I am retired now, and I barely remember a thing about it.”

“She never got me into your class,” said Harry darkly. “But now you’re retired and you have time.”

He lowered the leather portfolio, broke into a full-on grin, and made to sit down.

I kicked my foot up onto the chair, next to my purse and jacket.

“Don’t sit,” I said bluntly. “I am READING.”

“But that’s what I want you to do!” And Harry smiled. “You can read my work. I have here,” and he flourished the leather portfolio; three papers fluttered out, landing on the table beside me and the floor, “my journal. Wait just a minute.”

Harry scrambled around and got his errant papers; he shoved them back into the portfolio.

“Now today,” he said, “as we don’t really know each other very well yet, I thought The War Years would be a very good starting point. That will tell you a lot about me. And I’d like your advice on the action scenes. I don’t,” he said, and he ducked his head shyly, “know if I made myself seem a little too heroic. Although of course, I stuck completely to the facts.”

“Harry,” I said, “I’m going to be very direct, because I have great respect for writers. I WANT TO READ MY BOOK. I need you to leave me alone.”

He looked at me incredulously.

“The history society might be very interested in hearing about your war years,” I suggested. “And there’s a writers’ group in town that you could join. They read each other’s work and give exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.”

“But I don’t want to work with them,” said Harry. “I want to work with YOU. And I am not leaving until you read at least a page of my stuff.”

I stood up and gathered my things.

“I AM leaving, though, Harry,” I said firmly. “I wish you enjoyment in your writing, but I am not going to read it. Not now, and not another day. Try the writers’ group, Harry.”

His mouth dropped open, and I left him like that. Just as I got to the exit, he warbled, “But you taught a class in personal journaling!”

Goodbye, Harry, I thought, and, mood broken, I went home and made some broth and mopped the kitchen floor.

*****************

The next day, I was on the stationary bike at the gym, when who should come around the corner of the track but Harry. He had long baggy shorts on, and a sweat-stained gray T-shirt, and a stretchy white terrycloth band wrapped around his forehead.

And he clutched his portfolio, papers streaming.

My son James was on the bicycle next to me.

“That’s the guy,” I hissed loudly.

Jim ceased pedaling and glared at Harry.

Harry stopped. Blood rushed to his face. His eyes bulged. He spun around on one sneakered foot and hurried away.

*****************

That night Mark and I had a date night dinner at a little roadhouse-y kind of a restaurant. Mark went off to the men’s room, and I went and got the table. I had just nabbed the chair by the window when I saw Harry charge through the entrance and bear down upon me. He waved the portfolio triumphantly.

He almost slammed into Mark, who said, “Watch it, buddy.”

Harry stopped, snorting. And when Mark sat down across from me, Harry actually stamped his shiny black shoe. I could see what Lori meant; he DID look kind of Rumple-y. But he spun himself around and left.

“Is THAT the guy?” asked Mark, and I allowed that it was.

“He looks a little off-balance,” Mark said. “If this doesn’t stop, I think we need to report it.”

I nodded grimly. Then we opened our menus; we forgot all about Harry and had a lovely time.

*************

The next day was one of those perfect summer days—75 and cloudless blue skies, and the air was light and fresh, with not one hint of humidity. I spent the morning at the computer and finished up a whole lot of work, and then I grabbed the vacuum and cleaned floors and danced through the house decluttering surfaces. I mowed the backyard, and then Mark came home for lunch.

We ate salads on the patio, and he said, “You know what you ought to do? Take your book and go over to the Garden. You’re always saying you want to do that. You could sit by the pond and read in peace.”

The Garden! Acres of land, carved out of the middle of neighborhoods and alleyways; it had the pond and a waterfall and a rustic Japanese tea house. It had trails and benches; it felt removed, but one was never more than a quick shout away from connection.

“That, my friend,” I said to Mark, “is a wonderful idea.”

**************

By 1:30, breezes riffled my hair as I sat on a comfy wooden bench and lost myself in a light summer story about a  Midwestern librarian who also solved mysteries. The water shooshed softly, and, through the buffer of trees and bushes, I could hear the gentle thrum of car tires on neighborhood streets.  But mentally I was sitting in a cool quiet library, where Hattie, the librarian, was conversing with the director of the local history society. Some papers were missing, important ones; the historian thought maybe they’d wound up at the library, somehow.

And then I heard the stomping little footsteps. God help me, there was Harry.

“Finally,” he breathed, as he marched up the path, veering off in front of my bench. “Today you ARE going to read The War Years, and we’ll have no more nonsense!”

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.

“Harry,” I said. “This is outrageous. Have you been following me?”

His face went from white to purple in a blink.

“Outrageous?” he spluttered. “What’s outrageous is a writing teacher who won’t teach writing. You don’t need to read THIS—” and he reached out, snatched my book, and threw it onto the grass behind him, “—when you can read THIS!”  He thrust the portfolio under my nose.

“I was READING, Harry!” I shouted, and hot anger swelled up in me. I stood up to push him away and grab my book, and the ground seemed to shift.

At first I thought it was just Harry, bouncing up and down; he was jumping and screaming and telling me that it was time to do as he said. I hit 9-1 with my thumb, and then I realized it wasn’t Harry making the ground move.

It was my book. It had righted itself so it was standing, open, behind agitated Harry, and it was growing. Quickly. It was as high as Harry’s knees, and still he yelled, and it was up to his shoulders, and he screamed at me to take his portfolio, and then it was towering over him.

I reached out a hand, and I think Harry thought I was finally going to take his damned journal. He stopped bouncing and settled, and his expression calmed. He took the portfolio in both hands and began to bestow it on me.

“Harry,” I said calmly. “Harry. If you don’t go away right now, I going to slap you inside of this book and call the cops.”

“No,” he said, and foamy spittle flew from his lips. “No. You are reading The War Years, and then we’re going to talk about it.” Then some kind of addled recognition dawned, and his face froze. “Book?” he croaked.

I swear the looming book told me what to do. I grabbed a cover in each hand and I swung them inwards, trapping Harry inside. There was a snapping, clicking feeling as the pages aligned and the covers pressed them tight together. Harry’s voice, muffled, screeched just briefly, and there was a momentary bulge in the book. And then there was silence.

The bulge smoothed out, and the book fell over on its side, and smoothly, seamlessly, it returned to its proper size.

I picked it up.

******************

I walked home, glazed with shock, and I tried to figure out what to do. I paged through the book; the pages were pristine. There was not a spot of blood or sweat. Harry was just gone.

I tried to tell Mark about it later, but he gave me that look. I put the book aside; I stacked twelve heavy books on top of it, and I started reading Ready Player One instead.

But it bothered me; it bothered me and it would not let me go.  Finally, I called someone I really felt would listen and advise, a teacher from my grad school days, Professor Ramming. I used to visit the Prof in his book-lined office. He would often be standing precariously on his wheeled desk chair, taking down a book or sliding one back into place, and his other-where eyes would tell me he was inhabiting whatever place he was just then reading about.

The Prof was a deeply literate man who knew the power of books; my gut said he could help me.

Professor Ramming listened to my story, and he sighed a wheezy sigh.

“I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Do you still have the book?”

I admitted I did.

“Get it,” he said. When I returned, he told me to open to where I’d left off.

And, oh, my gawd: there was Harry. Harry stole the papers from the history society: he stole them, and he claimed them as his own War Years journal! I skimmed through the pages. There was a chase scene in the library stacks where the thief was ignominiously tackled by the svelte but fit librarian. On page 192, the local authorities came and took Harry away. He was howling about his story of The War Years as they dragged him to the cruiser.

I read my old teacher the part about his exit, and then we both stopped talking for a bit.

Finally, “Professor Ramming,” I asked, “did I just dream this?”

Again with the wheezy sigh.

“No,” he said, slowly. “Harry escaped from his narrative. It happens. It happens when someone gets so involved in a book that the characters become real to them. They see their chance to slip into the real world, to take on flesh and bone, and to exist where blood pulses and food has taste and the warm summer breezes excite their papery skins. But something is always missing for them, and they always wind up revealing themselves.

“For Harry, it was a need to have his journal  validated. He was probably delusional in the book, and he carried those delusions into our world with him. You,” said Professor Ramming, “were lucky to be reading the right book at the right time, my dear. You could send him back.”

We talked a little bit, then, about old friends and classmates of mine who’d gone on to do wonderful things, and we wished each other well, and then awkwardly, as if we hadn’t just discussed something outrageous and wild and pretty much unbelievable, we said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch.

***************

I put the book in the pile to go to Half Price Books, and I resolved never to read that author again. Harry could pop up in a later episode, and, if he’d managed to escape once, he might just be able to do it again.

That week I discovered a quiet corner of the patio where I could read undistracted, and I built an hour of reading time into most every day.

Mark and I never discussed Harry again. I think he was relieved when I stopped insisting the annoying little man with the war journal was really a denizen of a book. But I marveled in my musing times at the power authors wield, creating people and places and events so real and so true and so vibrant that, for some of us, they jump off the pages; they jump into the real world, and, God help us, they live.

******************

And it dawned on me one night, as I turned the memory over in my mind, shook the dust away and tried to find a place to store it on a shelf in the Memory Room in that bony cavern—it occurred to me that Lori was right.

Harry really HAD been a character.

 

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

Reader Girls

 Reading girls

I’m raiding my book blog for a post in this quiet spot of time after a crazy week. But this gives me a chance to show off photos of my beautiful granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn (taken by their beautiful mom, Julie), and one very literary cat.

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Perhaps only a truly discontented child can become as seduced by books as I was. Perhaps restlessness is a necessary corollary of devoted literacy.
—Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

She is a pale child with cropped brown hair that’s not always entirely clean or tangle-free. She wears plastic gardening clogs to school; they’re too large, and other children snicker. On the bus, she dives into her book so deeply that she rides until the very end of the route; she is startled when the bus driver, alarmed, speaks sharply to her.

She is a plump girl whose bangs, mother-sheared, are always too short or crooked. She blushes painfully when called upon in class, and stammers when other children try to talk to her. She carries a book everywhere, to restaurants, on car rides. She takes a book to the movies and reads with a pocket flashlight during previews.

She is a tall, proud girl who wears clothes that have important names on the labels. She moves regally through the hallways. When she sits down in the cafeteria and carefully pulls her book out of her bag and opens it to read as she eats her lunch, it is part of her implacable coolness.

She is an angry girl who often sasses the teacher. She grabs her book and carries it to her accustomed seat outside the principal’s office. He has to call her twice, lost as she is in a different world, to come inside and talk about today’s troubles.

She lives in a mobile home court, in a rented house on a nondescript street, in a big house surrounded by sculpted lawns. She lives in an apartment building 17 stories high. She is a known quantity at the public library. Her favorite gift is a book. She has books she re-reads periodically, and sometimes she talks to the characters in her mind.

People say to her:

Get your nose out of that book!
Put that book down and go outside and play!
How can you read in the middle of this mess?
I wish you’d pay as much attention to [fill in the blank] as you do to that book!

For her, people and friends and school and all the stuff that happens at home are the bricks. Reading is the mortar; reading holds all the other things together. And so, in every chink and nook and cranny of time and events, there is a book waiting for her.

Sometimes she is reading two books at the same time. Always, there is a book waiting in the wings. If she doesn’t have a book to read, –if, say, she’s returned her books to the library when it was closed, so she couldn’t get a replacement,–she knows true, deep, painful anxiety.

She is a reader girl.

Alyssa and The kitty with their books

Some girls love horses; some love clothes; some have to be surrounded by friends and action all the time. Reader girls know that covers of books AREN’T covers; they are doors. Reader girls open those doors and enter other worlds as often as they can.

It is not that they are abused (although, sadly, some are.) It is not that they have families who neglect, ignore, or misunderstand them–although, sadly, of course some do. It is not that things are so grim (always) that they need to escape.

It is just that she has, whoever she is–fat, thin, rich, poor, any of a rainbow range of colors–an undeniable urge to know, to find out, to live for a while in that other world.

Kaelyn reading

She reads, depending on her generation and inclination, Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all of Jane Austen. She reads every single book in a series, in order, if she can swing it–Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club, Boxcar Children. She reads Harry Potter and Hunger Games. She reads random books by little known authors and she reads Little Women and the compiled works of Edgar Allen Poe. She reads about saints and she reads about vampires. She reads, later, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Her reading may go underground after puberty forces a transition, but her purse will be bulky enough to hold a book, or her tablet will have a reading app, and she will carry it with her everywhere.

She may be older, but she is still a reader girl.

One of my favorite reader girls, my beautiful granddaughter Alyssa, reading her favorite book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
One of my favorite reader girls, my beautiful granddaughter Alyssa, reading her favorite book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

She grows up to be a teacher, and she cleverly strives to inculcate a love for literature in even the hardest cases. She becomes a librarian who glories in the visits of the tough little reader girls in her branch’s hard-bitten neighborhood. She becomes a talk show host, starts a book club, and encourages a nation to love books, re-awakening reader girls who’d fallen asleep to the printed word.

She becomes a writer, snaking her words out to other reader girls.

She becomes a tired waitress, who nevertheless reads to her children every single night.

Does she find it–that thing she is always looking for, every time she opens a new door and enters a new world? Does she overcome the discontent, so that she lets go of books, relegating them to things of childhood?

Or does she conduct life with book in hand, stirring soup, rocking children, writing grants, ringing up orders? Does she make her commute bearable with audio books; is the reward at the end of the day thirty minutes of quiet, soaking in the tub with a book?

It is not that she is unhappy or discontented or deprived (although each of those things, in some cases, may be true.)

Her brown hair may now be sleekly groomed, her footwear sleekly Italian, and she may spend her days in contentious courtrooms requiring her full engagement.

Her body may have stretched and thinned; she may have learned the joys of swinging a racket, pounding a track (although her solitary runs probably involve an IPod and a recorded book).

She may have a genial and interesting partner waiting at home.

Her work may be compelling and satisfying; her friends may be many, and her interests legion. Her children may have shining faces and accomplishments to make her beam with pride.

But the urge to open that door and plunge into that other world still throbs. If she doesn’t have a book in progress, she’d better have one in the wings, or she is fidgety and anxious. Her life’s structure still includes regular library visits; she shops for books almost as often as she picks up groceries.

She is happy, she is successful, she is miserable; she is yearning. She is healthy, she is ailing; she is 35; she is 59; she is 87.

It doesn’t matter. She is, still and always, a reader girl.