Where Life Begins

changing-hands-book-store-001We were wending our way through the bookstore, when out of the corner of my eye I noted a bold sign with an arrow stating: Life begins here. I kept on, thought how remarkable, then stopped and turned. Of course the sign didn’t say that, but it was worth tucking away for a pensive hour.

It was instead the start of a line for customers toting boxes and bags of well-used or unwanted books for possible resale. They might have needed quick money (though I would like to think not) or more room in a smaller habitat. Perhaps there was an ended relationship and the now-unshared books were thorny reminders. An expansive estate sale may have rendered more yellowed pages than desired. Or better yet, perhaps their cargo was meant to be circulated the world, offered to those who may not have had the pleasure of delving into a wealth of poems by Muriel Spark or escapades shared with Rumer Godden’s wise, slyly humorous characters. I had stood in that line many times feeling somewhat traitorous (weren’t these lovely books? didn’t I need a re-read?), yet relieved to hear: “Cash or store credit?” This meant I could wander the aisles more freely again.

That sign was only a directive for orderliness. Simple, yet it was a mind trick, one of those moments when language flip-flops from eye to brain and the information is altered.  In this case, I thought as I headed to the blue room (literature) and then the red room (non-fiction), the skewed interpretation made sense. I was in one of my favorite places-a bookstore-and I had changed direction in my life, having left my job.

I found myself thinking of the incident for days, starting with the line to sell books, a favorite material good of mine.

bookshelf

Books were a significant addition to the foundation of my early years. I don’t recall a good-sized bookstore in the small Michigan city of my childhood and youth, though there must have been. We didn’t buy books very frequently; we checked them out at the library. But though I can vouch for the fact that our home did not have an overabundance of books, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the living room that was packed with volumes, mostly about music and composers; history such as ancient Greece; travel; scholarly studies of the Bible; a collection or two of famous art.

And Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I recall the last as I read it several times, mesmerized by his seafaring vessel and distant lands. (I think I fell in love for the first time looking at the brave author’s picture.) My parents read to us at bedtime when they had the time. Dad liked to read interesting paragraphs aloud at the dinner table that engendered discussion or a good laugh. My mother, not so inclined to sit and read for long, entertained us with her own stories, and I later learned she sometimes wrote them down in spiral notebooks.

Grace A. Dow libray

I may not recall a bookstore but I do recall the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library. It was considered very modern, all sharp geometry with brick and much glass defining its lines. Built in 1953, it was designed by Alden B. Dow, a noted, homegrown architect. The moment I entered the heavy double glass doors, whatever was not right with the world was transformed, or at least quelled. The clean-lined, open floor plan invited me; there was a huge wall window at the back that looked out over lush landscaping at the edge of Dow Gardens. It encouraged dreaming. Stairways took me to ever-intriguing rows of knowledge. I took the books into my hands and my mind entered realms that challenged and fulfilled my desire to learn. There was always one more page to read, one more quiet nook to poke around. Whether for research or recreation, the books in this library enlarged and underscored the present, and heralded a future that had few bounds. I took notes for schoolwork but that wasn’t the main reason I spent hours there.

This sanctuary, which housed endless rows of bound pages almost intoxicating upon opening them, helped refine my  own fledgling stories and poems. I was another neophyte on a quest. I was a guest in a  place whose primary inhabitants were books. When it was time to leave, I was reluctant, and counted on the next chance to lean into the modern leather and metal chairs and investigate things.

It was intellectual freedom, as well as emotional, that I was given. I tried to use it wisely. The books that informed my life were a gateway to adulthood. From Kierkegaard and Sartre, to Hermann Hesse and Sherwood Anderson (whose Winesburg, Ohio is still with me); from Kurt Vonnegut to Denise Levertov’s O Taste and See: they confounded while also defined ideas and longings. Books ignited hope, assured me I was not alone, demanded a better intelligence, gave me good reasons to laugh.

Windesburg, Ohio

“Line begins here.”I have stood in these lines, arms full of worthy, seemingly necessary books. I spend a good part of my budget on books. Not all authors’ words have enthralled. Some have shown me how not to occupy my mind, how not to put pen to paper. But ignorance is not preferable to an occasional error. Besides, I can bring those shabbily written tomes back to some stores. Then I am on the hunt for more, whether in bookstore or library.

“Life begins here.” Not an original thought, yet the message stuck because I suspect my one true life–the one that gives me a thrill of discovery, the fortitude of knowledge and helpful clues for my soul’s well-being –did begin with language I could hear, speak, read, write. For some it might be another memory of earliest years, a scent or sight. I recall being held and sung to, words buoyed by lilting melodies. There were my mother’s true, astounding farm life tales at bedtime, then my own books read under cover with a flashlight or a diary written in ’til fast asleep. Most of the family took books to the table until my mother decreed no more. There were conversations in our household that originated and ended with words on paper, as well as words held aloft by our attention. Language, spoken or written, was important. It charged the mind and cradled the heart. It made bridges between people, found solutions and provided entry to secret places.

And so I have once more concluded that in order to live authentically, deeply, I have to jump in and fully utilize the language I gather and adore. I am taking back my right to this passion for  writing (and the reading, too), every day or night. It has required leaving work that mattered to give myself to the wonders and conundrums of better learning the trade of wordsmith. It’s a risky thing. But I have time for risk and its outcomes, not for inaction.

A book is a myriad things to those of us who love them, including  language given room to romp and breathe. Those words are nothing less than alchemical. They alter our sense of being and our place among others within the universe. They are keys to an internal destination we choose. At the very least a story, a book, is a meandering walk down the road, where anything can happen. Where life scintillates with the slow turning of a page.

back window wall at library

(Room with wall-sized window overlooking trees and gardens at my childhood library. Thanks, Alden B. Dow.)

Centering the Mind at the Edge of Time

IMG_2222It was the first several days following the holidays, that perpetual festival of people, feasting and gift-giving. I had looked forward to the gentler pace. In fact, I would have more time than I had in years, as I was staring January without a job and my spouse was back east on business. Peace and quiet, what we all desire in the midst of pressured lives, were enticing. I had plans: write, complete a few chores, walk daily, write, read, write. A long list of other goals was drawn up, some of which involved research and others which required dusting, sorting  and tossing. I managed the rudimentary plans.

But not quite as I expected.

Oceanside week-end 10-12 122I stepped into a kind of portal wherein I discovered anew that time disappears and daily living is malleable, even undefined. Where my  body took a journey and I learned patience. There was no structure that was requisite, one upon which important matters were dependent. And furthermore, the open-ended days and nights were inhabited by only myself. Nothing I did or did not do significantly impacted my immediate environment. Nothing I said or did not say made any impression on others in my abode. This struck me as both humbling and provocative. As an addictions and mental health counselor, I am used to addressing rooms full of people, as well as being attentive to individuals with trenchant pain. I am accustomed to being routinely, acutely aware of my behavior and others’.

All this ceased to matter.

First off, not having to arise at 6:30 a.m. to go to a job, I found myself glancing at the clock: 5:30, back to sleep; 6:55, (mild panic) okay, back to sleep. And so on, until at around eight in the morning I might start to embrace consciousness more willingly. But even then, it turns out one can continue to delve deep into the rabbit hole of sleep and have eccentric, vivid dreams that stream rapidly. Without the need to jump up and prepare for a day out in the world, I’d partly awaken, then grab the tail end of the last dream and join the theatre of the absurd again. I can’t say they’re all worth noting or pleasant, but I found myself choosing to readily observe and participate in them. They provided ideas for stories and rumination.

Thus, it might be after nine before I arose. Guilt briefly crept in; my sense of duty is strong. But duty to what? After a shower I read meditation books, caught up on a few pages of each magazine piled on the dining room table, looked at my list. I glanced at the clock, then looked away. I could do whatever I wanted, and despite this feeling like a mandate rather than freedom the first few days, I did not wear my watch nor pay attention to how low or high the sun was, how little or much time I had left.

I wrote. I wrote until my eyes no longer could focus on the new twenty inch computer monitor. I wrote until I had nothing interesting to say–sometimes that took an afternoon, sometimes until a small mug of tea was consumed. But I was letting words guide me and helping them rearrange themselves. Characters advised me readily on their roles in my current short story as I moved around the apartment, checking the one healthy plant I have, folding laundry. I revised paragraphs while I walked outdoors in the frigid afternoons, in misting or pelting rain, in the pallid light of mornings. I recorded poems on my phone, took photos as I skirted the neighborhoods. Late at night: reading, jotting ideas, watching a candle burn low.

writing pics2 002

In other words, I adapted and worked for four days. Then vertigo visited me.

I have had this mysterious inner ear disorder since 1999. Labyrinthitis. Whereas then I had been very ill with resultant dizziness debilitating for months, I now manage it successfully, most of the time. The problem with balance has remained a chronic state. I maneuver well enough that no one is aware I have this problem–unless they see me teeter and fall into a wall, yet quickly recover. Or move my head a certain way, like looking high up on a shelf, at which time I will begin to fall backwards before I catch myself. It depends on the angle at which I hold my head and an unpredictable vulnerability. Learning to correct my inner and outer responses to being off-balance has taken effort, with trial and error. I always have thought it a fitting analogy for what I teach others when confronted with hindrances or stressors: life is about readjustment of our own perspective much of the time, and how we adapt.

I can tell it has decided to aggravate me more than usual even before I get out of bed. I will turn over and inside my skull everything rushes and turns, as though I am on a boat and can’t get my sea legs. Sometimes there is nausea, sometimes not. The only way to combat it is to take medicine for motion sickness, and it makes me drowsy. I keep it at bedside, as sometimes I cannot stand up and walk.

So I awakened and knew that taking medication was the first order of the day. Everything else was up for grabs. After a couple of hours, I managed to do an errand, and then I was done. I lay on the couch, tuned into HGTV to gape at lovely houses while I rested. And fell into a deep sleep. I awakened; the room was a cloudy grey and the television mumbled into the quiet. I closed my eyes. After awakening three or four times I felt able to get up. But lethargy weighted me. My mind would not clear. I longed to write something, but writing did not have the faintest interest in me. I couldn’t read yet. Walking across the floor still intimated at walking on a floating dock. I lay down, drifted but did not slumber. Nothing good came to me–just a bleak feeling of loss: of this day, of this night, of my capricious health. A loss of direction.

Apple Festival 2012 005

When I awakened, I recalled a CD of meditation music my son had made me. I hadn’t had time to listen. He had told me, “Meditate. Don’t dance to it. Don’t do anything else. Listen to it. It’s seventeen minutes long.” Since my son has a powerful belief in self-healing that has aided him countless times and he prays for me when I am ill, to my benefit, I put on the CD. I wondered if he somehow knew I would need this healing music.

I sat in the rocking chair, closed my eyes, and let my ears open. Open deep inside. I followed the sounds into the maze of dreaming, the labyrinth of being. The wooden flutes and clarinet, cello, the piano and voices and nature sounds all moved within and settled in my interior. I breathed slowly. Soon I saw a distant emerald shore and floated there. Billowing violet and blue mists rose and fell, somersaulted and spun, translucent swaths of energy. The air shimmered and the music was a stream which carried me. I was strong, free. I was only one small part of the endless mystery.

Tryon on April 30, 2011 011

Relief swept over me. Tears came. Such beauty was perfectly real, infinite. The exhaustion and dizziness diminished, then was no more. I was at ease again.

Today I feel well. Earlier I took a long walk and found it revitalizing, as ever. I began writing when the sun was brilliantly arrayed upon  many shades of green. Now night descends; the rich velvet of darkness rests on the city. I haven’t looked at the time. I don’t need to. Writing is being done. I have love in my life. I have this gift of freedom to do what I choose. It is up to me to follow whatever calls me from the unseen edge of time.

Moon Over Columbia River