A Month, a Book, a Word

January can be a flat, gray incline—a month with just enough of an uphill slope that, after a few days, my thigh muscles start to clench and complain. January’s the beginning of the race, where I’m struggling to establish the pace that will get me there—efficiently, just as quickly as possible given my limitations, but with enough verve left that, when I arrive, I can set up camp and get things done.

In January, the high, frenzied energy of the holiday season suddenly drains away, and I look for the sweet spot, the sustainable movement, the rhythm that could help me shape a productive year.

I line up projects at home and at work. I eyeball and judge: realistic? Worthwhile?

Bar too high?

Bar too low?

If so, in January, I still have time to move that bar up or down a rusty notch, to set my goals for a level that challenges without crushing.

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I plunge, with Jim’s help, into transforming the box room, and, foot mostly well-healed, I determinedly re-commit to a daily walking routine. Mark and I imagine changes in the kitchen, which is badly in need of an uplift. Our fingertips draw invisible walls where doors now stand; we conjure up cupboards to hold scattered appliances. With a hand flick, we remove the last set of cabinets and snug the refrigerator into that open space.

And, then.

Stove: here.

Rustic farm table with plenty of room to roll out a pair of fruit-filled pies? Here.

With one broad gesture, I re-floor all the way from the kitchen through the family room.

We see it all in our minds’ eyes, and we ponder and nod and suggest and adjust.

We’ll start, we think, with paint on walls and paint on the sturdy cupboards. We break projects into steps, and we think about how to make those invisible, imaginary outlines real.

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I search cookbooks for recipe ideas. We are in another food slump; we need new dishes, healthy recipes that taste good and that satisfy on cold dark winter nights. We need experiments—discoveries—that, when the first taste hits the tongue, surprise the taster. We want to the taster to look up, smiling; to say, “HEY. That’s GOOD.”

I ordered thinly sliced boneless chicken breast, fingerling potatoes, leeks.

We grab the wheel, and, despite some fierce resistance, we set about turning this faithful old ship. It creaks and complains, but it follows, slowly, our lead.

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January is cold, and wind chills make walking a bitter challenge. So James and I become mall-walkers in the afternoons after I come home from work. We mask up and hit those shiny floors. He trudges along gamely, bypassing older, slower, walkers: the only young guy in a field of senior citizens, plodding along.

Having walked, we run our errands and then go home to contemplate dinner.

I try making baked rice, which we all highly approve. I dredge and pan-fry the slender chicken breasts. We make crisp salads, such a treat in deep winter, from a blend of artisan lettuces.

It is dark while we eat, and after dinner, after dishes are cleaned or stowed, the dark enfolds the house. We defiantly turn on lamps, light the fire. That’s my time to read.

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Two Christmases ago, James gave me a special book, a compendium of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea chronicles. I used a LeGuin book in my master’s thesis. I read her memoir, No Time to Spare, just before she passed, and I pondered her thoughts on growing old.

My non-fiction read this week is an interesting book called The Writer’s Library, which features author Luis Albert Urrea, among others.  To my delight, Urrea reminisces about meeting Ursula LeGuin. He was a college student; he had written a story about bringing his father’s body back across the Mexican border to the United States. His professor gave the piece to LeGuin, and she asked to meet the author of it.

Urrea remembers going to the apartment where LeGuin, a visiting professor, was staying, and knocking.

“…This tiny woman opens the door,” he says. “She was smoking a pipe in those days, and she had a highball or some kind of whiskey in her hand, and I thought, This is the coolest person I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

She drew Urrea and his professor in, and she drew the student out; he told her about himself, about his writing, about his dead father.

She became a coach to him. Urrea says she was tough with him, but very, very kind. And she insisted he read women authors, read feminist writing. He says he learned about authentic women’s voices and about the mistakes—the sometimes flat and clanging notes—some authors who are men make when they conjure female characters.

“I always think of Ursula when I write,” says Urrea.

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Jim knew I savored LeGuin’s writing and so he gifted me with this magnificent book: one thousand pages, a fine cover, a silky wine-colored ribbon bookmark attached. I had read the Earthsea books long, long ago; I had expected them to be like the Narnia books, or like Lord of the Rings.

But they were not. They were different in a challenging kind of a way, and I wasn’t entirely sure I liked them. I read all three books in the original trilogy, though; I was working at a bookstore then, and many people came in and asked about them. I thought I should know the background, be able to discuss intelligently.

Now, I’ve decided to read one of the books in between each of my ‘new’ reads. A novel; a non-fiction; an Earthsea: that’s my winter pattern.

Sometimes the WHEN of a book–the WHEN of when you meet it–makes all the difference. I re-read A Wizard of Earthsea, and the importance of confronting your own sweet, flawed self is clear and obvious.

I re-read Tombs of Atuan, and I reflect on the essential task of questioning (keeping them, maybe, but surely questioning) those rituals and beliefs I grew up accepting without review.

And, this week, I finish The Farthest Shore. It is a book about magic leaving the world; it is a book about the high price of bringing it back. The villain offers people eternal life, but the immortality they think they’ve gained is gray and joyless.

The Farthest Shore is a January book; it is a NOW book.

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Jim’s gift, The Books of Earthsea, is heavy. My arms tire, holding it up; I bend my knees and rest the book there against them, and I have to grab my glasses to see the tiny, precise print.

The thoughts LeGuin presents for my consideration are weighty ones, too. I want, I realize, the magic to come back. A gray life, plodding and unthinking, is not a life to live.

I think of WandaVision, the Marvel show we’re watching on Friday nights. The first episodes are in black and white. Wanda and Vision are fitting into the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, United States suburbia. But events happen; danger comes closer, and so does joy.

And as the couple embrace the happiness and the peril, color seeps back into their world.

I realize that a gray life, even if it’s a safe life, is not a real life at all.

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So I adopt my word for the year: realize. This month, I set the pace; this month I decide what I am working toward. And realize encapsulates what I want to achieve: it means, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “to become fully aware of (something) as a fact; to understand clearly.” This year, I commit to reading, exploring, fully understanding…whether the something in question is a controversial political question, the value and use of Microsoft Publisher, or how melatonin works to entice sleep.

Realize also means, the Dictionary tells me, to “cause (something desired or anticipated) to happen.” Here, we’re talking about realizing potential, about making a dream or a softly ignored plan, a wish, a hope, a thing we need…we’re talking about making it real.

My job this year is to be mindful, to understand the things that encounter and engage me, and to reach through the dream membrane and to bring those hazy gray ideas that need completion into technicolor truth.

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“Can you believe,” Jim says to me, “that January is almost over?”

This month reared up and galloped. But things happened within this first, limbering lap; I may have found my pace. I’ll slog on into February, hoping to keep on at this level, knowing that I can adjust if needed. Whatever happens, whatever turns I need to take, I’ll meet them head-on. I realize that.

I’ll decide what tasks to embrace, and then I will throw my whole self into them…and I’ll know that, at the end of the day, a comfy chair, a good book, the chance to learn and dream some more, await.