February 21, 2011
The Instant Librarian has moved! Come visit me over at the new library, where you can settle in to read my latest posts— reviews, poems, reflections, and essays.
Still powered by WordPress, still updated as often as I can manage.
February 18, 2011
…A year hence, would he question
why he was not contented
now? Therefore he was contented.
“Therefore she was contented,” I say to myself when I’m grumbling through the seeming mire of have-to-do and wish-I-had and how-come-it’s-not.
Important that the phrase breaks off from the whole poem– this one is Hall’s reflection on the times when his wife, the late poet Jane Kenyon, had not yet been diagnosed with leukemia– for the way it names a complex feeling: the distance between what we consider sufficient cause for discontent at different times in our lives. How instantly things can change.
This week I felt discontent in the gray and the rain, just plain blue. No good reason. Unable to shake it. Therefore she was contented, therefore she was. Contented. No matter how I tried, I seemed to keep coming up with the same pessimistic, withdrawn, sleepy version of myself. In return, I was given kindness, love, humor, big smiles, invitations. This is not how the math usually works in my head.
Give back better, goes Rumi’s poem. The rest of it may be a little stark or strange, but I keep that piece in my pocket– like a section of dark chocolate someone pressed into my open palm with a knowing smile. Give back better, the people in my life said quietly, kindly this week, not in so many words, but in simple gestures. They forgave me and helped me forgive myself by giving me back better than I was able to give them.
The gospel reading for this Sunday talks about “going the second mile also,” and I sure have a hard time doing that.
Not the ground, though.
THE GROUND’S GENEROSITY
Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks
Remember: prayer gets accepted no matter how
impure: like that of
a woman in excessive menstruation, her asking dense
with blood, so your praise
is full of blood ties, full of how attached you are.
That tangle of limited
surrender is the human mire. We’re sodden in
bodiness, where the clearest sign of
grace is that from dung come flowers, from the bulbous
sludge, buds and then sweet
pears. The ground’s generosity takes in our
compost and grows beauty! Try to
be more like the ground. Give back better, as a rough
clod returns an ear of
corn, a tassel, a barley awn, this sleek handful of oats.
Photo copyright 2008 Andrea Guido
February 11, 2011
Let’s hear it.
How much do you love your local bookstore? What’s it like there, when’s the best time to go, who’s your favorite book-nerd-behind-the-counter, what would you do if your bookstore closed down?
Inspired by this barely-glimpsed headline in the newspaper yesterday, and this homage to England’s threatened libraries, I’m giving a Valentine shout-out to my favorite independent booksellers. (This list is utterly, unapologetically biased and west-coast centric.)
Add your own, and then go and browse there this weekend. Leave a handmade valentine on the bookshelf altar of your favorite section. Maybe buy a stack of books if you have some room in your budget this month.
The Capitola Book Cafe
Growing up, I never like the sterility and bright lighting of Barnes & Noble– the only option in the strip mall deserts of suburban southern California where I grew up. If I had to buy a book, I got in and got out as soon as I could. I did most of my reading and lingering in the library. But as a college student in a town with three good bookstores, I learned to love the social aspect of bookstores– the comfy chairs, latest titles, visiting poets and reading groups. So I showed up at my favorite shop after graduation and asked for a job so many times, they finally gave in.
I worked at the Capitola Book Cafe for two years after college, hosting the author events and ringing up books at the front desk. This is where I first became aware of the particular challenges facing independent bookstores in what was then the era of Amazon and Borders. I made very little money, but the sheer pleasure of hanging out with books and book-people (okay, and the discount) more than made up for the minimum-wage life I learned to lead.
The Book Cafe is sort of on the map for authors doing the booktour circuit. It’s unassuming, small, and tucked into the corner of a strip mall, right beside a Rite Aid drugstore. It was founded by four women in 1980– all mothers and booklovers– who helped hand-sell many local books into national notoriety. These four women intimidated and inspired me. Each had a different and essential gift to bring to the project. Each had her way of running the front desk, dusting the window display, and keeping records. Each had her own taste in appropriate background music. This was both maddening (I ended up pissing off at least 3/4 of the management on any given day) and endearing.
I still love visiting whenever I’m in town, which is disappointingly infrequent nowadays. There’s a cafe in the back corner that fills the whole store with the smell of coffee, crispy cheese-encrusted quiche, and toasting bagels. It has the best selection of international periodicals and literary journals I have ever encountered, anywhere. And the kids’ section is crammed with hand-selected books at kid-level, so families can sprawl out on the carpet to read on rainy afternoons.
Neighboring Santa Cruz has its fair share of colorful personalities (Pink Man, helmet lady, and the cellphone conspiracy woman come to mind,) and the Book Cafe welcomed them as part of its eclectic cast of regulars. The relationship of reader and bookseller is a funny and intimate one. Through the soft lens of retrospect (which conveniently erases the many days of little patience when I had to plunge the ancient toilet again) I think this is what I loved most of all about working there, and what continues to bind my heart to independent bookstores wherever I go.
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA
An institution and a haven.
The staff recommendation tags, the short story contest, book clubs, author events, family-owned friendliness, and the only free public restroom in all of downtown. My favorite thing? Their annual “The Reader Photographed” contest. (2009 winner above, Leslie and “Boy” by Youngblood Harris.) And gelato sundaes and thick hot chocolate from neighboring bistro Chocolat—the perfect post-bookfest foil to heady, intellectual conversation.
This is an unoriginal and pretentious choice, but I can’t help it. How can you not love this place and its story?
Travelers can still arrange to work here and sleep on the top floor for weeks at a time. There’s a weird little book and typewriter booth up there, and a wall of messages from people all over the world. It’s in the Latin Quarter, between the most beautiful chapel and the best falafels on the planet. I’ve been here twice, and each time I left a piece of my life behind. Someday I’m going back to pick them up.
I never knew the meaning of the word “swoon” until I stumbled into this bookstore, in the maritime town in Bretagne where I was teaching English as a foreign language. It is an absolute riot of books, an earthquake’s dream and a claustrophobic’s nightmare. Books, books, everywhere. Books in impossible stacks. Books tucked under tables and on top of precarious shelves. Books in the ladder rungs leading up to the second level, full of paintings and– more books. This is where I found Jean Grenier, philosopher and Albert Camus’ teacher and mentor when Camus was a student in Algeria. Grenier’s essay collection Les Îles kept me sane and calm during my stint as a teacher. This bookstore is tiny and yet extensive, a delightful paradox of order and confusion. Concluding language lesson: Librairie is French for bookstore, and bibliothèque is library. And discothèque is nightclub.
Back to the U.S., to one of the great American bookstores nestled in a certain town renowned for butter and eggs. Copperfield’s was a great escape for the interns on the natural-process farm where I lived for half a year. A short bike-ride into town, and you left all the mud and household bickering behind you, getting lost in the used stacks downstairs for hours. You could even afford a bread-making cookbook on your scrawny stipend, and bring it home for the next fight over whose turn it was to bake the bread. (It’s not what you’d think. Everyone wanted to bake bread, all the time, but we only had so much flour and oven space.)
Copperfield’s is your classic, well-kept, sprawling book establishment. Plenty of author events and the roomiest, most magical kid’s section I’ve yet seen.
These two probably need no introduction. They’re big little bookstores with several branches in two of my favorite cities. If you live nearby, you can and should spend several hours here. Regularly.
Los Angeles, CA
Who says Los Angelenos are mean, shallow, and unread? Here’s a great article with evidence to the contrary, and Book Soup is pudding-proof that all of the above assumptions are totally false. The aesthetics may be what you’d expect in a city with an appearance-driven economy (lovely and inviting), but the content is comprehensive and wide-ranging. The photography, film, and theater sections are especially worth browsing. The entire staff once pitched in to help me find a book whose title I could only partially recall.
I’m not saying Amazon isn’t useful. At the Book Cafe it served as an excellent reference site. And it’s not clear that it’s truly as much of a threat to independent stores as was once projected. Certainly, there have been too many Amazon-induced casualties. The article cited above says:
More than 1,000 bookstores closed from 2000 through 2007, leaving about 10,600, according to the latest federal statistics. More recent casualties have included venerable local institutions such as Davis-Kidd in Nashville and Cody’s in San Francisco.
But the article also suggests that the “buy local” movement is driving customers back through local booksellers’ doors. I love what the story’s featured bookseller has to say about that: “Bookstores help create community for people in the places where they live. People may think they can live online, but in reality they live in real towns and cities, and physical bookstores help to enrich those places.”
Have you hugged your bookseller today?
February 10, 2011
I’ve now read cover to cover the collection of which this is the title poem. Jeanine Hathaway’s work is startling and familiar both, and this poem is a good example of that delicious simultaneity. She’s an incredible poet, and I’m still in shock that I’ll get to work with her during the MFA program. She’s also skilled in prose; her novel Motherhouse makes me wish it was my job to stay home and read. (I still hold out hope.)
In honor of good writing, I’m starting the weekend off early. Enjoy.
The Self as Constellation
The other woman in me loves the unlit
clouds roiling under the face
of the moon like childhood fears,
the hurry and snap of trees, branches
scratching at our screens, noises
let out of their harness at night.
I settle indoors and build
a fire, its rush and crackle
contained small on the other side
of the screen. I pull out a thick
novel, an orderly world, everything
left in, left out for human reasons.
I untie my hair.
The other woman dresses heavy,
warm, rustles around beyond my book
extra hat, sleeping bag, brandied fruit.
She leaves her glasses on my dresser.
We create our own balance and tension
and four-legged gait. Neither of us
knows what the other sees as
we look out through the same eyes.
What she can expect tomorrow: me
asleep near my book and cold fire.
And I: her, rising early, coming in
with the milk and the morning star.
February 9, 2011
I’ve been really curious about the Reformation lately, reading and watching whatever I can find on the subject. There’s the National Geographic article on Martin Luther, dated 1983, the 500th anniversary of his birth. It looks at the Germany he knew and the Germany of 1983– divided, walled, religiously oppressed. Then there’s the anarchist-anonymous-adventure novel Q, written by four Italian authors now known as Wu Ming, previously writing under the pen name Luther Blissett. Lots of stuff online. And scraps from a very dense academic survey called The Protestant Reformation, edited Hans Hillerbrand.
I’ve also been attending a series of classes in Christian formation at the Episcopal church where I work, and tonight we talked briefly about the Reformation– the differences between the English and Continental Reformations, the big tensions and questions raised. The question I keep turning over in my head– the one underneath Luther’s “problem of the terrified conscience” which drove him and other reformers forward– is the one that asks What must I do to be saved?
It’s a question very much present in Matthew 5:21-37, the passage we read together tonight. We begin each class with the upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading, practicing a kind of lectio divina: someone reads the text out loud, then we talk about which phrases or words or whole passages jumped out at each of us individually. I love this exercise; there’s so much more illuminated in company and when the words are read aloud.
This is one of few passages familiar to me, and one I struggle with. It’s got all the things Jesus is about: mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness, love. It says “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift on the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Do I have to? Really? I’d much rather pretend that I am perfect, loving, and kind, and offer gifts of gratitude to God. That’s a whole lot easier and more fun than apologizing for being short with my housemates, admitting I forgot to pay the power bill, or making amends with someone I wronged in the deep past. In fact, the whole thing makes me feel a little nauseated, a little anxious. A little terrified.
This was the piece I got stuck on anyway, while for others it was a broader anxiety, a need to know. What is the way to righteousness, what are the things we ought to do? The verse is mostly concerned with the things we shouldn’t do: judge or accuse others, commit murder or adultery, swear and make false promises. What, we wanted to know, must we do to be saved?
Turns out there’s a pretty long list, the gist of which is simply love. It seems more or less hopeless and impossible, which we generally agreed was the point of Matthew 5. In this chapter, Jesus is telling us even if we do everything right, if we follow all of the rules, we will still fall short of perfection because we are not God, but human.
I thought immediately of the Bodhisattva vows, the koan in response to Buddha’s four noble truths:
The passions of delusion are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all at once.
The number of beings is endless. I vow to help save them all.
The Truth cannot be told. I vow to tell it.
The Way which cannot be followed is unattainable. I vow to attain it.
In this list, as in Matthew 5, the 18 root vows and the 46 secondary vows of the Bodhisattva give instructions for right living by advising what one must not do: commit heinous crimes, refuse to forgive someone who apologizes to you, praise yourself while putting others down. Who can fulfill such promises?
Who dares to take up this impossible task? If you think it is impossible, you will be defeated by skepticism. If you think you can do it, you run the risk of being pompous and inflated. Should we save all beings step by step, or all at once? Besides, who or how can we save, when there is no one to save and no one who saves? What will you do? This is the Bodhisattva’s great koan.
From an essay written by Sojun Roshi. March 2001 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.
I was also reminded of a little prayer a friend once copied and gave to me, and which I cut out and pasted in my sketchbook. (It turns out to have its origins in an Episcopal devotional periodical, from Forward Movement Publishing.) What I love best about it is the concluding sentence. On my best days, it makes me laugh and fills me with hope:
A Morning Resolve
I will try this day to live a simple, sincere, and serene life, repelling promptly very thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.
In particular, I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.
And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What can I do? What must I do? Sometimes (most of the time) these two are so far apart.
What must I do? What can I do? Right now, sleep. Get up in the morning, and start again. Pray.
February 8, 2011
I absolutely loved this post on Munrovian, writer Karen Munro’s blog, wherein she tallied up the books she read in 2010 and looked at the ratios according to specific criteria. Clearly she had previously set goals to counter reading biases (personal and cultural) and this “state of the bookshelf for 2010″ helped her to appraise her progress.
I took this as inspiration to look at my own reading habits and set some goals for 2011. The county library system also gives patrons the option to track their reading history for the year, so I signed up, because I didn’t write about everything I read this year, and I can’t remember what else I read. In tallying up my reading, I left out short essays, articles, and single poems. I included poetry collections read in full or close to it, and left out the ones I sort of grazed (much of my poetry-eating habits.) Ditto for non-fiction and fiction.
That the majority of books I read were written by men, that I read mostly fiction, that I didn’t read nearly enough poetry, that I didn’t read much by or about people of color, and that most of the authors I read are from the U.S.
Here are the results for 2010:
Total Books Read: 50+
Written by men: 40%
Written by women: 60%
Written by people of color: 6%
Origins in US: 82%
Origins anywhere else: 18%
I was pretty spot-on except for the bit about women. I’d like to keep that bias. For most of my life, I’ve written more poetry than in any other genre, yet this year I read mostly fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps that’s because blogging encourages more prose-reading. In any case, I’d like to up my poetry intake this year. I’d also like to read at least 25% more world literature and works in translation, and 44% more by or about people of color. A smaller personal goal is to read 20% more children’s literature, as I’d like to teach creative writing to kids.
This might be a challenge while I’m in a graduate program which emphasizes the classics, and requires that I read at least 60 books each year. But I’m game.
Here’s to better book balance this year.
Photo at Book Club Cheerleader.
February 3, 2011
This poem has been hand-written and given to me by two different friends at very different times in my life. The first time I read it, I was 19 and had just broken up with my first serious boyfriend. I was convinced that I would never be happy again. I felt like all the joy had left my body, and from the very first line, this poem talked to me about hope and the inevitable passage of time.
The second time I read it, I had just undergone a kind of spiritual and physical crisis. I was waking up to the ways in which my old habits no longer fit me, were tight and worn as old clothes. The poem told me a different story, about greeting yourself arriving at your own door. This time, it was telling me less about picking up the pieces after losing the love of another, and more about renewing love for the self.
I find it remarkable that this poem meant enough to two dear friends that they would write it down and slip it into my tightly-closed fist. I find it a testament to the power of poetry that Walcott’s words are able to speak truth on many different levels, and follow closely enough on the deer-path of human longing that a reader like me can feel found and accompanied across a distance of nine years.
Where does this poem find you?
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes.
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.