Reading What’s Good for Me

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I don’t always read what’s hyped as invigorating for an older woman with reasonable intelligence. At least, what well-read persons may deem excellent. In fact, I read things that are edging toward lowbrow or holding steady in medium-brow. I can’t tell you much about definitive literary standards, as my bookshelves are not bulging with books that have primarily garnered prizes or gotten five star reviews. I read everything from travel memoir and collected essays to literary novels and short stories. Then there are mysteries and thrillers, broadly defined spiritual books as well as Christian writings. Fantasy, less so; sci fi, even less (so far). Biography, psychology, nature and architecture interest me. I’m always on the prowl for something good, like all readers. I even snag oddities from “Free Books” mailboxes in my neighborhood, like a trade paperback I would otherwise pass by. I’ll try a few pages of most genres.

So, I’m not exactly indiscriminate, but not so picky my choices are few. My passion for reading impacts me daily. I keep planning on doing something about it because how many years will it take to read so many things? Unless you’re like my brother, who reads a book a day, I will simply run out of time.

But the issue that hovers in my mind lately is my magazines. I admit it’s an emotional challenge for me to let go of them, too, even when they’ve been read and re-thumbed and take too much space on coffee and end tables. But don’t rip them, and don’t put mugs on them as though they are coasters. I like them close to pristine for as long as possible.

Do I collect special editions or certain decades because of possible value? No. But I do look them over after I read them to cut or tear out pictures for future reference. This means: to put into folders for the time I will have little to do and want to make a scrapbook or montage. Good articles that educate or illuminate also find a place in a folder. But so does a page of classic and contemporary perfumes glowing within chic bottles; another of a garden surrounding a fountain cascading by a cedar bench; and one of Joni Mitchell in her fifties, a lily in her hand, hair still golden. On my laundry room wall there is one magazine picture of a field stone country house with two chickens pecking at the ground, trees tall and warmed by sun. And another of a good looking man sporting a fedora, suspenders over a chambray shirt and supporting, on a gloved hand, a great horned owl. They make me pause and smile.

I never know when something will strike me as informative, lovely or quirky enough to savor. Give me respite while I sip a cup of tea. Move me to hang onto, even after pages curl a bit.

I recently had to change our mailing address from a mailbox back to the residential address. As I was changing the personal info for each magazine the number of magazines were tallied. Twelve. Without listing every one, the variety includes Smithsonian, Architectural Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The Writer, Bookmarks, Simple Living, American Craft, Town and Country. In addition, I often purchase magazines such as National Geographic (subscribed for years and miss it), Scientific American, HGTV, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Did I forget local literary journals? A few of those. (Not included are my spouse’s magazines as I’m writing about my tastes. His piles are his concern!)

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I read for reasons others do. To educate myself about places, events and people I may never get to know in the flesh. For entertainment other than radio, computer or television. I also read for peace, a safe place in times where so much of what we are bombarded with and alerted to involves suffering, danger, the urgent need for solutions to mammoth problems. I need more contemplative ideas, moments of wonder. Beauty discerned inside and out.

I needed all this from a young age. My youth was a puzzle of deep loss and anger, faith in God and passionate dreams. I teetered between them, and wondered when it would get easier.

As an adolescent I tried hard to balance after effects of earlier trauma on the emotional tightrope of just being a teen. I felt responsible in large part for my own recovery. I needed to redetermine my destiny. There were already resources and skills I could use. For one thing, I grew up in a creative family. We were encouraged to be inquisitive, trained to be disciplined in choices and actions. There were solutions to problems and answers to questions; all I had to do was seek and find. If music–the centerpiece of my life–enthralled me, it also was a competitive endeavor in a family of talented musicians. If sports were a release of stress and a natural high, they, too, were competitive and at times depleting. Nature always allowed my soul a place to move beyond my self, to rest, and prayer on a wooded path did much to release stored pain. But I needed something more.

Books were already companions. But books on school reading lists and in the family living room were classics, were old, important, apparently critical in molding minds. I took refuge in our excellent city library and found my world enlarged. A few authors helped save my life. And I wrote daily in a journal–and also poetry, plays and short stories.

Still, I was lacking something.

It came to me when browsing through a few other choices at a dingy Rexall drugstore: there were materials right at my fingertips that didn’t necessarily meet the acceptable standards of my rather conservative, educated, achievement-driven family. Reading experiences that were not so serious, so well-intentioned. I got tried of competing and trying to be happy. These were simple fun. I bought my first Harper’s Bazaar, and a travel magazine (wherein I happily discovered one could send away for free brochures about the Caribbean or California). I was thrilled.

I found pictures that reconfigured forms and colors, that revealed exotic locales and smart ads. They showcased unique people who took risks with appearance and lifestyle. People whose stories provoked. I salvaged parts, then bought poster board and pasted them on. I soon took more pages, some from my parent’s (LifeNational Geographic). I scoured them for interesting words or phrases to snip, then arranged them strategically within the graphics. Added paint or marker. A little glitter or a feather, a piece of fabric or a found object. A woman added to a stretch of sky so she appeared to be flying, a colored pencil turning an ocean from pale blue to rich vermilion. Poems made their way there. I found curious ways to speak to things that mattered most.

It wasn’t that this was a new trend in the nineteen sixties, but it felt like I had personally discovered the joy of making collages. One quarter of a bedroom wall was dedicated to my humble art. I changed it often. For when I was working with scissors, paste, bits and pieces and pictures and words, I was freer, emptied of strife. My training whispered that I might be wasting time but my heart knew otherwise. I was relaxing into an exploration of life. Remaking my world. Creating for myself, no one else. Telling myself new stories. Addressing sorrow and fear. Finding or designing women who were braver and stronger. I was re-imagining my own life. I was, in fact, healing. I kept cutting out images to construct a new vision of who I could become.

My magazines sometimes take over where books leave off. But I like when people visit and pick up one they’ve never seen, or they ask if I still have a favorite of theirs. In the reading spots in my home, they can rest as they flip pages. Eventually, of course, it is time to recycle. I choose what to keep. I give them away if I can, take some to medical offices where magazines expired long ago. My old work place regularly received mine but I’m not sure anyone knew it. When I walked through the waiting room and saw people absorbed in an article or studying a photo, it felt good. I knew it gave them a time out. Maybe even  inspiration to make their lives into something different. Like I did, so that it’s been rewarding and full of gratitude. Yes, buoyed by laughter, spontaneous fun. Far, far better than at somber fifteen.

So, magazines remain on my reading lists and in my stacks, likely to gather and topple as just one more is added. For edification and pleasure. My own good. And I have some ideas for those saved pictures. It’s just a matter of time, scissors and paste.

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So Many

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                               (Viet Nam Memorial/soldier)

So many names.

I could talk about being a youth and young adult during the sixties and seventies and the myriad events I witnessed, the upheavals that altered this society’s institutions of many kinds. Or the ways family was redefined and individuals found community in new ways. There were pioneering and also risky ideological movements; women’s rights made progress and many men came to know themselves differently, as well. The assassination of JFK alone would have ben enough to rock our young worlds. It was a time of change that made an impact we would feel decades later.

I could tell you my little story. But this attempt at saying something that matters is about theirs, almost all of which I barely know. This essay is not “for” or “against” anything, but simply in remembrance of those who have gone before us due to being soldiers. They have had expectations and thoughts regarding events about which I have understood less than I should.

But I can at least say that back then there was Viet Nam first and last in our lives. It permeated the news, our consciousness, our fears, questioning. Television left less and less to the imagination and the images followed us into sleep. Front pages held news daily that stopped us in our ordinary lives. We had our own ways with the war: enlisted or were drafted, debated, protested, marched, prayed for peace, tried to ignore it, worried, waited it out a very, very long while.

So when I see this picture my breath leaves me and it sears on the way out, aches upon its return. I stood at that memorial, that wall, many years later, touched the names chiseled in the smooth, obdurate surface. I watched the soldiers and families, felt my face burn and eyes fill, heart contract. But I have never been a soldier. Standing there was so private, yet so public as all who were present shared grief and memories together at the wall.

So many.

But not all who left passed on.

My brother came back from the Viet Nam War a changed spirit, a different kind of man altogether, and for me a brother I feared lost. I was confused. I could not touch him so far away was he from us. His easy laughter had long left and the rooms were emptier for it. I was not a child but it sorrowed me in a way that nothing and no one could explain away. I did not find the brother from before but he did return to us in body, and slowly, he redesigned his life. He lived each day as he best determined it. He unfroze over time but the thoughts were kept to himself; pain, no doubt bitter, never named. Yet somewhere his changed destiny allowed him to unearth indelible beauty and love, which he offered again. Or it found him, like an angel settling in. One way he may have been renewed was through photography, a way of seeing and translating life even when he was a soldier. I have seen his pictures of the women and children, men in doorways, streets full of the still-living, the country and city landscapes so haunting to me. Perhaps they helped him salvage the good that survived. I don’t know. He stepped forward and continued on.

I’ve rediscovered him again since becoming an adult. I’ve become less innocent but more attentive, too. I study his photographs past and current and think they hold a kind of vivid austerity, a lean and elegant power that comes from burning. A quietude. Something sacred and also forlorn co-mingles in light and shadows. He has travelled around the world many times and brings back stories for my eye and spirit. I can wander with him. For all that, I am more than thankful. And he shares kindnesses in more ways than can be noted here.

Yet as he himself would likely note: too many gone. I once walked through the Arlington National Cemetery. The endless white, simple crosses with stringent light streaming through trees…that unavoidable silence, yet a silence potent and heavy. It hollowed out a place in me from which a tidal wave of weeping issued as I walked on and on.

I feel it again today. There is so much more to the story we see in the photo above. Tales that survivors hold secret. Things some release in increments that nonetheless feel vast. And it still haunts and covers us with a cloak of pain. Prayers like songs that never end: they fall like drops of blood to earth yet also take flight. To the Universe. To God, who waits for us to remember our compassion, seeks to heal without our ever knowing all the answers. Or the right questions, I sometimes think.

So many separate lives, sacred to the whole of this, our humanity. That is what I think of when I see my artist daughter’s mammoth handmade quilt, the fabrics into which she sewed and counted porcelain “bones” to represent each soldier who died in Iraq. “In memoriam” was the engine of her industry and moved her heart. Her lap was heavy with yards of fabric sheltering clay pieces, then folded on the floor. She sat in a rocking chair exposing, stitching, recreating, remembering the losses. And the spirit of her work was unleashed. She has shown it in art galleries where few of us may fathom lives lost, to forces we poorly decipher. But the essence of those gone is evident.

How many wars this world has counted and still counts. Soldiers who have taken their places. Our country alone: those going, too often not returning. So many lives. I bow my head. Tears do not, cannot speak enough- cannot touch enough- cannot change this world enough. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping and praying, still. It doesn’t put out the light. But we cannot forget who and what has been, and who still carries on.

large_fit_Falk_recalledquilt_0073_1_1000                                “Recall(ed) Quilt” by  Naomi J. Falk

*Please view more on this and other works at: http://naomijfalk.com/media/2095

*Note: Vietnam Memorial photo is courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.