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.)

Music, Starlight and Bug Bites: Living the Dream at Camp

The cabin was cocooned in darkness, save for the wan daybreak light that found its way between the cotton curtains. I lay still and listened to the sighs, coughs, and peaceful exhaling of sixteen adolescent girls and a much older (or so it seemed to me) counselor. There were other creatures rustling around in the night, beyond the sturdy cabin door. I longed to see them. Maybe it was a sleek fox or a fat, confident racoon. It was possible there was a bear trundling through the pines to the lake or a rabbit burowing deeper. Earlier in the day I’d spotted a shy skunk sniffing the winsome summer breeze. I’d been very still, noting it luxuriant fur, its darting eyes and tiny paws. Happily, it had vanished without leaving me a calling card.

The girl in the bunk beside me stretched in her sleep, then all was silent excepting a mosquito or two that had refused to turn in for the night. I swatted, this time successfully. A light wind slipped through a screened window and swept across my face. It carried its own perfume, cool and redolent of all things wild and wonderful. Sleep overcame the night for another hour.

Before long, morning was punctured by the voices of my cabin mates. There was the promise of sunshine and blue sky. After eggs and toast at the Mess Hall, I lugged my cello to the small fieldstone building in a cluster of pines and birches. It had two, four-paned windows that opened from side hinges, and was big enough for perhaps two people, a music stand and instruments. I positioned myself in the chair, cello held steady between my knees, then tightened the rosined horse hair on the bow. Tuned the strings. Placed the foldable metal music stand just so, the concerto opened and ready. Leaned into it, its glowing wood against my already-damp shirt: hands, fingers, play. Sing for me.

If I wanted to keep first chair in the youth orchestra I would have to work much harder. Gazing out the window at sunlight rich as honey, I attacked a rigorous passage. I played by heart and the multitudinous notes beckoned and taunted me. A large black beetle opened its wings, flew and landed by my foot. Bees buzzed. I closed my eyes. My calloused (but sometimes still tender) fingertips slid along the strings. My cello unleashed the sounds I sweated over, coaxed. This time, at least.

And so it went. The day filled up with orchestra rehearsal, then modern dance class at the large stone dance building where dozens of windows opened to the lake below. Later, a quick lunch, and then to a creative writing class held by a stoney beach. What did we really see, our pencils poised above notebooks? Our eyes observed white sails of a Sunfish, green canoes and rowboats sturdy and slow. There were old docks and kids splashing each other during free time, which awaited me after this class. I took it all in, and what I saw was a small heaven on earth: all the arts unfolding, nature sharing its secrets, everyone creating to their hearts’ content.

I was at Interlochen’s National Music Camp again, 1964.

Evening was mysterious and comforting at once. There were several performances to choose from if we weren’t playing, ourselves. This included plays , musicals or operettas and dance concerts, most offered on open air stages. Leaning back on a green bench, I would scan the sky for Orion or Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dipper. Venus, ever imperious, danced in place. The lush swells and complicated puzzles of music came and went, the old masters’ works awakened once more in the hands and voices of children and young adults. Mosquitoes circled and buzzed, attacked and moved on. The slap-slapping of lake water was the welcoming sound of something like home. My friends and I whispered among ourselves about the campfire later, the potential for clandestine meetings with boys.

It could seem a hard place to be, Interlochen. It meant tough discipline and long hours of study and practice, sweaty days and nights without much privacy or many physical comforts. There was no other music but the music we made, no television to while away the time. But it was here that I found the privledge of time and many means to fan my passion to create. It was here that I got to step a bit away from family roles and school year pressures or worries. Here I could attend to what I truly loved.

Besides the arts, I had acres of land filled with lakes, rocks and fascinating insects to study; throngs of lovely trees that had lived longer than I ever would. An encounter with leeches that left me aghast and smarter. Firelight and starlight that held tentaive overtures of romance. A green-blue lake with a murky bottom that offered unbridled play. And right beside me, were youth from all around the world who cared about the same things. I was part of something very good, something much bigger than each of us alone.

All this comes to me after reading an article recently that summer camps in the U.S are still going strong. The magazine was glossy and the camps likely formidably expensive. Still, it heartened me. There are camps for children of nearly any means and ways to get money to attend. They are sought after for many reasons, and the diverse skills gained and friendships made endure and bring back the kids and, later their kids. But they clearly come back for the fun of it. There is being away from parents, getting introduced to the real outdoors, finding something new and surprising in the course of a day, and sinking into a gentle sleep at the end of day. There is learning a lesson or two, such as discovering that what may seem too challenging–from backwoods tenting to learning a sonata, from hitting a target with a swift arrow to executing a pas de deux–can be well met and enjoyed.

There were other music and church camps, as well as a great day camp in my hometown that I looked forward to each summer in my elementary school years. But the  Interlochen experience informed my whole life. It so imbued me with wonder, resilience and a desire to reach high no matter what I choose to do, that I have talked about it for over forty years. I am finally completing a novel that shares an essence of those times. Not surprisingly for me, it is partly about the healing that is sparked by the potent combination of nature and human creativity.

Tonight, I can easily recall those signature strains from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic” that we all played–the last concert of camp. The resonant strings,  lithe harp, those glorious french horns. Anyone who has heard it as a camper knows what I mean. It still stirs me, and cheers me onward.

Send your child to a great camp this year. It will be a dreamy summer of a lifetime.

Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.