November 24, 2015 § 7 Comments
I’ve been a hot dog vendor, a shoe salesperson, a middle-school teacher, and a catholic school principal, but owning a bookstore has given me moments with the most eclectic tribe of humans of all.
There’s the crime scene cleaner who talked to me about the delicate line between detachment and sensitivity while I rang up her pile of fantasy books,
and the human statue who paints himself silver by day and writes poetry by night,
and the teen girl who builds wells in Uganda every summer and keeps a journal in her back pocket.
There’s the molecular gastronomist who began her career as an ice-cream tester (gah!),
the organic farmer who lives in a school bus and donates her harvest to a food kitchen,
the six-year old botany expert who arrives each month to buy the latest plant book,
and the bingo manager who fights for housing equality.
There’s the Iraq soldier without arms who still believes the world is ‘awesome’ and before he goes to college next year he wants to read one book every week,
and the father who resolved in 2015 to read to his children every night and hasn’t missed a night yet.
There’s the 14-year old playwright who had her script about a transgender teen accepted by a local theater,
and the grandfather who brings his six grandchildren into the bookstore each year and gives each one a book bag to fill with books of their choice,
and the locomotive engineer who doesn’t wear a watch.
There’s the eleven-year old who organized a youth empowerment book club,
the soil conservationist who fell in love with a snail farmer,
and a photographer who films sea creatures I’ve never heard of,
and the twenty-two year old man, who chose to communicate only through writing for 365 days and when we met, he was on day 224 and feeling like his entire mind and body had changed—in a sacred way.
There’s the child who sat by me for an entire hour and told me about the rare birds she’d seen in Puerto Rico and how someday she’ll be an ornithologist,
and the clown who struggled to be taken seriously,
and the firefighter who worked at ground-zero for three months and read Emily Dickinson every night she was there…
so many stories…
and I am beyond grateful for every single one of them, and each of you. Your words matter more than you know. Thank you from the depths of my heart for walking into our tiny bookstore and believing in books and making the world we work and play in a little less chaotic and a little more beautiful.
July 21, 2015 § 22 Comments
When I first laid bare my personal writing in workshops, I puked before and after each meeting. I’m not talking about exposing my nature poems or opinions on the current state of education—I’m talking about writing with a truth stake driven through its heart.
I puked before the meeting, because I had no idea how the other writers would respond, no idea if they’d appreciate, reject, ridicule or judge. I puked afterward, (even if the critique was good, maybe even more so) because in some weird way, I felt I’d betrayed self, stopped protecting self—I’d allowed the dangerous, naive part of me to dance naked in the streets, arms open, face lit with desire and possibility—I’d unlocked the door of the safe house, knowing she’d run out, knowing she’d get hurt.
And when I signed with an agent to sell my novel?—the story of disrupted identity and power imbalances that might cause people to speculate about who the main character really was, I puked for three days straight.
My therapist told me puking was to be expected. Apparently, I was tearing apart some pretty hard-ass wiring. Apparently, it wasn’t the dangerous, naive part of me dancing naked, it was inner warrior woman, and like pupae ripping from industrial strength thread and bursting through membrane, discomfort was inescapable.
“You’re creating a new person,” he’d say. “You’re acting as if you are worthy. That’s no small thing.” He’d pass me Kleenex, shake his head and say things like, “The dangerous part of you isn’t naked woman or warrior woman. The dangerous part of you is underground veiled woman.”
He encouraged me to continue putting my voice out there—to say what I felt like saying, in the way I felt like saying it. To consider vulnerability as strength. To trust more. To say “fuck it” to anyone who thrived on tearing down, rather than firing up. To tell myself, “Your voice is beautiful.”
And so. With each new page of writing I exposed for review in groups, with each essay and social media post I didn’t delete, each time I said, “Fuck it,” and “Your voice is beautiful,” I felt less susceptible to harm. I began to taste, feel and smell the intoxication of a sturdier more resilient infrastructure. And as corny as it sounds, I felt different, in a sacred kind of way.
There are still plenty of days I worry about what people think, and my sentences crumple to dust and blow away before I can grab them and hide them under the bed. And there are nights I fail to believe I’m more than a story, rating or ‘like’, and lay awake in a hot sweat, cheeks wet with doubt and shame.
I will never again underestimate the power of saying fuck it and your words are beautiful—because it feels like something wrong is slowly being righted.
December 12, 2014 § 24 Comments
I collect sentences like other people collect action figures, traffic signs or snow globes. The kinds of sentences that knock you out with their cadence and momentum and carry entire worlds on their nouns. The kind that transport you out of body to unlooked-for places and keep you going when things get grim. Sentences like this one from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf:
“It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.”
Or this from Toni Morrison’s, Beloved:
“The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
And most recently this, from Charles D’Ambrosio’s, Loitering:
“At early weekday masses it’s always Eleanor Rigby and her devout sisters, the secret sufferers, the wounded, the inconsolable, women who show up in their hastily tied bonnets and tattered housecoats, each alone, scattered through the nave, and yet that morning their thin muffled voices held so near to the note and so exactly to those rising and falling rhythms I knew by heart that joining in with them was like letting someone else do my breathing for a while.”
Sometimes, on a Sunday, I’ll lie on our worn red sofa with my notebook of found sentences, the slide of jazzy music in the air and read the sentences aloud. I’ll close my eyes and breathe into the acoustical mood and truth of them. It’s how I meditate.
It was Sister Mary, my teacher for second, third and fourth grade, who got me going on this collection. We loved words together. Each day, during silent reading, she’d gather the skirt of her habit up in a swoosh, kneel down by my desk and ask, “What’s your favorite sentence you’ve read so far today?”
The first time she asked this question, oddly, I had an answer and read the sentence aloud to her. “Oh yes,” she said, like I’d just popped a chocolate in her mouth. “That’s quite wonderful.” Her interest in words was not teacherly —she didn’t pinpoint active verbs or precise details; she just seemed to enjoy the sparkle of them in the same way I’d seen other women swoon over pearls and gold bangles. Soon, I was sharing sentences with her before she asked and before long, she suggested I save the sentences in a notebook.
Though I no longer have my early notebooks of loved sentences, I do remember one of the first ones I recorded, because I reveled in it for months. It was from Fox in Sox, a Dr. Seuss classic:
“When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a tweetle beetle battle and when they battle in a puddle, it’s a tweetle beetle puddle battle.
“Learn it by heart,” Sister Mary said. “It will be fun! Fun for your tongue! Joy for your tweetle beetle feet! ”
And I did. I rolled those words around in my mouth like glass marbles, tasted the tumble of them, rattled them off on the bus, the playground (which in retrospect might be why I didn’t have many friends), the dinner table, and while I waited in line for confession.
Next up was Jabberwocky. I. could. not. believe. someone wrote a poem with made-up words and people acted as if the words were real. When Sister Mary first recited it to our class, I fell off my chair laughing. “Who writes a poem about nothing?” I asked when I finally caught my breath.
I read Jabberwocky over and over to myself and copied my favorite stanza, the opening, into my notebook:
“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
“Read it out loud!” Sister Mary said to us. “What about brillig?” she asked. “And slithy and toves? Close your eyes! What do you feel in your fingers, your legs? You’re not robots! Absorb them into your body like a sponge, like a symphony! Feel the words and you’ll know what it’s about!”
I was nervous. This was all so new to me. Also, I wasn’t sure if I was already supposed to know how to do this or not, this feeling language thing, which added greatly to my anxiety. But I loved Sister Mary and closed my eyes. I listened to the words as she read the poem again in her lilting voice. I relaxed. A wild tableau of glittery corkscrew creatures with extended necks trounced across my imagination. And I swear, I felt heat radiating from their beaming faces, felt vibrations from their springy bodies that made my own arms take flight. Around me, other kids were making little beasty sounds and whistling and singing and I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at them. It was like we had all eaten too much sugar. There was Janet, her arms tight at her sides, pretending to slither up a tree or something, while giggling hysterically. There was Bobby, normally shy, spinning his body around the room and making strange guttural noises while shouting gyre! every few seconds. He’d later tell us he’d seen Brillo Pads, like gyroscopes in a tremendous rumble of sorts—and as far as I can remember, Sister Mary never once corrected his use of the soft “g” in “gyre”.
She had us cut the poem apart. Move the pieces around on the veneer of our desks, share our wild sentences aloud with each other. “It’s the way you say it, that makes a picture in your mind, that makes a feeling,” she’d say, moving up and down the aisles between our desks. I’m sure I’m not the only child who peed my pants laughing that day.
And though I would later experience more than one teacher who insisted on Jabberwocky’s meaning, insisted we consider the etymology of every word, required us to read explanations from Lewis Carroll about why he spoofed bad poetry, Sister Mary stayed true to her own opinion and said, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about.” It’s this view—that imagination trumps all, I carried forth into my life.
When I was eight, I read E.B. White’s, Charlotte’s Web and things began to get more serious. In my notebook, I wrote: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” but I wasn’t sure why I did. The words weren’t buoyant or beautiful or funny. I shared the sentence with Sister Mary. “Take it home,” she said. “Go somewhere quiet. Read it out loud. Pretend you are Fern. Draw what your hands look like when you read it out loud.”
Pretend I’m Fern? Draw my hands?
At home, I crawled into my writing closet with my notebook. Sat under the wool coats, near the rubber boots. Whispered aloud, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” over and over again. Closed my eyes and put my hand on my heart. Felt the pound of it. Papa. Axe. Fern inside me. Opened my eyes. Drew a fist in the margin. Under it, a heart in flames.
When I showed Sister Mary, she wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to me— vulnerability. I walked to the huge dictionary by the window and looked it up.
vulnerable |ˈvəln(ə)rəbəl|adjective: susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm: we were in a vulnerable position | small fish are vulnerable to predators.
I looked up susceptible.
susceptible |səˈseptəbəl|adjective: likely or liable to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing: they only do it to tease her—she’s too susceptible.
I wrote both words and their definitions in my notebook. I drew a pig in the margin.
In fourth grade Sister Mary gave each of us a different sentence from the Bible and told us we’d recite them the following week to the class. If there was any context to the sentences she chose for us, I don’t remember. I only remember she gave me this one from Daniel 7:9: “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” I read it to myself and my chest hurt. I said to her, “I don’t understand what this means.”
“Listen to the words,” she said. “Thrones, garment, white, wool, snow, flame—you know those words. Imagine you are the flame, the fire. Imagine you are the garment—white as snow.” Her suggestions eased the stirring of tension in my chest and made me feel instead, curiously powerful, in the way a super hero might feel.
A week later, after hours and hours of imagining myself as fire and snow, I stood in front of the class, navy plaid uniform ironed, saddle shoes polished, and recited my sentence. I could hear a new boldness in my voice, an openness in my throat. Words were changing me.
But I had no sooner finished reciting the last line when Sister Mary said, “But of course, many have spoken of the white of snow—take Hamlet, for example.” She wrote on the board:
“What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?”
Take Hamlet for example? “Who the heck is Hamlet?” I asked, jolted by the confusion of words she’d written. “Is this another kind of jabberwocky or something?”
She smiled and had us recite Hamlet’s lines (again, without any context) and of course, feel each word in our bodies. “Notice the shape of your mouths, your eyebrows,” she said. She pointed to her forehead, her chest, her stomach. “What do you feel here? And here?”
We called out our feelings, some concrete, some abstract, and she wrote them all on the board:
rocks heavy broken red afraid
mean slap guilty sword wrong
blind clean thirsty skin wet
soft milky glad fresh new
And as each voice called out, she’d say, “Yes! That’s it! That’s what it means!”
I’m pretty sure most of my future teachers would not have approved of this glib introduction to Shakespeare, this lack of poetic analysis, but the truth is, the meaning I gleaned from feeling those words? Hearing and seeing them fall into place, the tremor and echo of them side by side? Even out of context? Pretty damn close to the construct of forgiveness.
Soon after our Hamlet experience, Sister Mary told me the term “snow-white” went back much farther than Shakespeare. She handed me a copy of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tales, and pointed out this passage (which of course, I recorded):
Valerian seyde, ‘ Two corones han we, Snow-whyte and rose-reed, that shynen clere, Which that thyne yen han no might to see ; And as thou smellest hem thurgh my preyere, So shaltow seen hem, leve brother dere, If it so be thou wolt, withouten slouthe, Bileve aright and knowen verray trouthe.
And so it went on like this. Books finding their way into my hands, words pouring from pages, sentences accumulating in notebooks—each sentence revealing who I was in the moment and, when read in sequence, unveiling the story of who I was becoming.
And somewhere in-between those found words? I began to fill notebooks with my own sentences and notions and pictures in the margins. Sister Mary had given me a well-lit entrance to the intimate language of self as it reached to join with others.
October 16, 2014 § 22 Comments
I want to write about the visceral dissonance my head and gut absorb each day as I scroll through images on social media—the pumpkin martini recipes and beheadings in Iran and cute cat videos and acid thrown in children’s faces and new iPhones and thousands of faceless bodies—women and children and men blown to bits, continents away. I want to write about the strange juxtaposition of these things and try to make meaning of it.
But what I really want to write about is that recent video floating around facebook—maybe you’ve seen it—the one where women are in a department store, and one by one they look into a mirror, and the mirror begins to talk to them and the mirror asks each woman how they feel about themselves and the women don’t feel so great—one turns her head away, another feels like a dog, another shrugs. Then, the mirror gives the women personalized examples from their friends and families, of how they are an inspiration to others, how they are so beautiful on the inside and outside. The mirror says things like, You’re beautiful! You’re enough! And when the mirror says this—You’re beautiful! You’re enough! the women’s eyes well up and a couple of them cry. I watch the way the eyes and mouths and bodies of these women soften and release, and I cry too, because of what it means to be human.
But what I really want to write about is how, in my messy conflicted mind, when I place myself in front of the talking mirror, the mirror shouts, “There’s no fucking way you’re enough!” and I know the mirror doesn’t say this because I’m ugly or worthless or broken. I know the mirror says this because it knows I can’t possibly be enough when fucking courageous as hell journalists are getting their heads chopped off while I fall asleep in a queen-sized bed with Garnett Hill flannel sheets, and one in four children are on food stamps while I’m at Trader Joe’s questioning whether or not the spinach is really organic, the salmon really wild, when mothers and fathers with babies wrapped tight to their chests fight to cross murderous borders, fight to find Safety, while I fight to lose that last ten pounds.
But what I really want to write about is how, when I get like this, some of my friends say things like; for god’s sake, Anna, settle the fuck down. You’re so intense. What’s with all the guilt? Stop apologizing for stuff. You are right where you need to be. Focus on all those positive vibrations! Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. We’re just a speck in the universe!
And, what I really want to write about is how, of course, I know, at some level, they are right. That at some level, all of it matters and that I know there are tricks to life—like, one trick is to remember empathy and simplicity and compassion are Revolutionary and another trick is that one by one we can make a difference and we have to do more than talk about it and still another trick is that you have to practice holding both— the good and the bad at the same time—I know, I know, I know all these tricks.
But what I really want to write about is the shivering under my skin that whispers of rhetoric and complacency and privilege.
And what I really want to write about is the old woman who came into the bookstore today, and asked if I could recommend a book that would help her feel less lonely. She said she’s always felt lonely, even though someone told her decades ago that her loneliness was only temporary. “But,” she said, eyes watering, “it wasn’t temporary,” and when I asked her to close her wet hollow eyes and turn around three times and walk forward and reach her arm out and pull a book from the shelves and then open her eyes and how slowly she did all that, how slowly she closed her eyes, a faint child smile on her face, how slowly she turned around three times, believing in the magic of it, how slowly she walked forward and pulled a book from the shelves and opened her eyes and looked at the cover and how she said the title aloud, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and how she began to weep then, and talk about her son, Matthew, and how he lost his legs in Iran and killed himself in her basement because he felt useless and how she didn’t get there in time.
What I really want to write about is how she looked at me and said, “Thank you, honey,” and how she held my eyes in hers and said, “In the end, we only have each other, honey. We only have each other.”