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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A letter of thanks (and fixing a glitch)

DSCF3728Dear readers:

I so appreciate each of you as you follow and read “Tales for Life” posts. There are untold numbers of excellent bloggers, scads of fascinating information and ideas to ingest. I know you all live demanding, at times tiring, lives. And I remain faithful to my weekly posts not only because I am passionate about writing but because you come back for more. It is humbling to see the “like” button clicked. I encourage you to leave a comment so I know what struck you and what you’d like to share otherwise. I follow many of your great blogs, as well.

But writing hurdles certainly occur for me, generally related to the computer. The post just published on 1/2/14 had many formatting glitches–my computer was having a fit, or the site was. It was a very lengthy process to get it posted, and even then, imperfectly. I’m not sure what happened to its title but now it’s in place: “Afternoons at the Ice Palace”.

This short story is based in part on my lifelong love of ice skating. It was one of the saving graces of my childhood and youth and continues to bring me pleasure and fitness. Although I have lost some figure skating skills, the ice still calls me. I plan on going to my local indoor rink soon. I do miss wintry blasts of wind and snow swirling around the rink. But joy will embrace me as soon as I hit that slick surface and pick up speed. It takes  my breath away.

Well being is more important each passing year–spiritual, emotional, and physical. My coronary artery disease is being managed well overall even as I accept my life will likely be shortened by its presence. So please don’t put off any concerns you have about your own health; early interventions can save us from much suffering.

I care about people, their struggles and breakthroughs, the complex questions and epiphanies that arouse wonder. Seeing and encouraging Divine Love in others is a priority. The most important thing to me is the knowledge of God being here, now, close to each of us. We are never abandoned; we digress and move away of our own accord. I have wandered down some twisty, tangled paths of my own and made unwise decisions.

I notice that atheism is getting more press. And there continues to be violent verbal and actual attacks on various religions. The world never wearies of dissent. I am Christian although my writing is about many topics and imaginings. My beliefs may not match yours or yours, mine. But we each can vow to improve our work or play, carry out actions enlivened by healthy risk and extra effort if they are informed by a faith that grants us stamina, inspiration and peace. May your own spirits and minds be so strengthened.

So may your coming days and weeks of 2014 be fruitful and active, buoyed by contentment and love. Thank you for making my past year one of good steps forward. I have gained more readers weekly, in large part to being Freshly Pressed. You have kindly supported my efforts. It makes a difference as I scribble away, seeking the words that convey a few worthy tales about living a life on earth.

Tell me: what tales do you want to design and live today?

Regards,
Cynthia

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The Book Stall

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It took awhile until Sy Teverstein found a man who could take care of his book stall business every Tuesday. When he did he thought how excellent; he could now visit his frail mother without fretting so much. The guy had been a regular customer over the past year, buying a monthly gardening magazine. Sy thought that odd since it was clear the customer lived in the neighborhood and there was no land for gardening around there. But, hey, it might be the window box sort that he enjoyed looking at, or maybe there was a rooftop the man had the privilege of filling with a square of plantings. It could be a whole vegetable garden feeding a family of ten for all he knew. He enjoyed speculating.

But Sy knew next to nothing about such things. He was the book seller, had been since his fifty-second birthday which gifted him with a lame ticker. Went from fat cat accountant to skinny book seller with pacemaker. It was a most simple job. The magazines were contracted by an outside publishing service. Books were courtesy of (for a fee plus agreements signed and sealed) a chain bookstore by the river walk. You’d think the store would be grateful for the chance to sell them on the street but they wanted it the other way around. Sy did okay. People liked to buy coffee at next door and then get reading materials. Sy took their money and got to know people. He still liked it at the end of most days.

But about that garden lover. The two of them got friendly over time. His name was divulged some time after Sy’s comment on the cover of his new gardening magazine.

“Nice picture, all those flowers.”

The man openly sniffed the pages and Sy appreciated that: new paper and ink. “Yeah, looks good, don’t it? Wish I had a backyard like that. A big fountain like that would keep me company at night, too, ya know?”

Sy’s eyebrows wiggled up and down. He hadn’t heard that idea before. “I suppose so.”

“I don’t sleep well,” the man said by way of explanation. “Water, it calms.”

“Ah. Me, neither. Wife snores like a banshee. Or a man, take your pick.”

It was the man’s turn to raise eyebrows. “That so? My wife has her own bed. Can’t manage us both. She’s a real good size. I miss her at night… ”

So it went each month, a little of this and that talked over, a few laughs, until in late June Sy stuck out his hand and introduced himself properly.

“Sy Teverstein at your service.”

“Harlan, Harlan Z.”

“That it? Z? Okay, Harlan Z.”

“Well, the Z part is much harder for folks to say. I started to leave it off; it’s worked out fine.”

Sy thought that was an efficient way to handle it. They got to talking about weather, horse races and living close in city center. Harlan was semi-retired, a machinist who was relieved of his job earlier than planned. He was looking for jobs but not much had turned up.

Sy got the idea shortly after. He had to travel a couple hours to and fro to see his mother in the suburbs, one of those decent, bland retirement places. She was heading toward eighty-five at a speed he wasn’t prepared for, at all. In fact, he feared her imminent death. She had been a good mother, not easy but well-meaning, with a flair all her own, not always around. But still. He badly missed her just thinking of her leaving for good.

The problem was that he hated to leave his book stall and he also didn’t like to give up his Sunday afternoons–the one day he had most of the day free since he closed up shop around eleven. So when Harlan seemed like a reliable sort, he approached him with his idea.

“I would just be gone until around two o’clock. I spend the morning and take her to lunch if she can manage. What d’ya say? Or if you want, I’ll give you the whole day. I’ll pay fair. Say, you can count money alright, yes?”

Harlan nodded vigorously and didn’t think twice. The deal was completed with a handshake and a plan for the following week.

It went well despite Sy’s wife berating him for not doing a background check. His mother was visited each Tuesday and he was relived the book stall was manned by a regular sort, a person who liked print and liked working even one day a week. The weeks went by. No one complained. In fact, some of the customers said the change was refreshing and found it commendable he was tending to his ancient mother. Sy thought, who wouldn’t do that if they had any heart at all?

Then one August Wednesday morning, Mr. Calhoon stopped by earlier than usual for his daily newspaper. He seemed in a rush but bent toward Sy with his ice blue, heavy-lidded eyes. A familiar scent of expensive aftershave wafted into Sy’s nose and made his eyes water but he smiled at him, grateful for the routine one buck tip.

“Say, Sylvester, I think there is a problem. Your man, Harlan. He can’t actually read.”

Sy’s shook his head to get it clear of fancy fumes. “What d’ya mean, can’t read? Of course Harlan can read. He loves books and magazines, gets his own here. That’s how we met.”

“So you said. But I’m telling you, you are in error. I asked him for a certain title, if it had come in yet, and he looked and looked. I spotted it near the back and pointed. He still couldn’t find it. I said, ‘The one with the blue and black cover, it will bite you if you get any closer!’ He finally put his hand on it after I described it in detail. I nearly went back there and grabbed it myself.” He opened his hands wide. “He is illiterate.” He folded the paper. “Bad for business.”

“Wait a minute, he just couldn’t find it.” The thought horrified him. Had he been duped? His wife would let him have it for this one.

“Suit yourself, see you tomorrow,” Mr. Calhoon said as he loped away.

Next Tuesday morning Sy stayed back. He decided coming straight to the point was best. He shared the complaint and waited for Harlan to respond with a laugh and good explanation.

Harland half-hung his head. “I read a little. Not so much, really. I never went to school after I left at thirteen. I had to work on the farm. I know a lot about llamas, for one thing. I do my best work with my hands, not my head. But I get by.”

Sy considered the man. Harlan had taken off his cap and held it by the brim. He looked down at the sidewalk, his round face pink with embarrassment.

“But what about the magazines you buy?”

Harlan lit up. “Oh, I love the pictures. They remind me of growing up in the country. We had gardens, not fancy but kitchen gardens. I helped my ma cook for years after my sister died. But flowers, too. I love to look at them. My best memories, if you need to know.”

A customer came up. Afterwards, Harlan asked if Sy was going to see his mother or not.

“Have I lost my job or what?”

Sy wiped his brow. It was blasted hot already. He looked across the street, at kids already running out to enjoy the last days of summer, at a fire hydrant at the park spraying cool water on a stray dog, garbage men doing their work like they did every week. He waved at the woman, Thelma, who always sat on her stoop watching.

“You like it here? Good, I like you being here. I’ll be back by four.”

Harlan watched him go, bald head shining in cheerful morning light. He thought Sy Teverstein was a good and more than fair man. Harlan chatted with a customer, counted the change carefully, then realized bundles of fresh new magazines were due in that afternoon. He looked forward to it.

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(Another good fiction prompt from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.)

Decorating with Books

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(Photograph from Public Domain)

I had reason to survey my bedroom this summer, to take stock of what makes it liveable. There are aspects that could benefit from better design; it is a big square room. At the least some items might be put in smart boxes or on hidden shelves. For example, I have perhaps thirty scarves, the overflow of which currently dangles from a broad, ugly hook on a closet door. (I finally shopped at World Market for an attractive pewter owl hook; it is waiting to go up.) There are pictures and postcards stuck around the frame of my dresser mirror. I can glimpse a partial view of myself if I need to determine my presentability. It is mirror enough; I would enjoy more pictures, visual art glutton that I am.

Atop the massive, old desk which fits between bed and closet are stacked folders categorized by writing, ripped out magazine items, medical information, drawings by grandchildren, tax documents, and special interest topics like the Roma. A photo of spouse and myself taken along a riverside walkway ten years ago has taken center stage. I like how we look: alert, breezy, young. Next to this is an aged photo of two aunts and my mother showing off their smiles and their ironed print shirtwaists. Above the desk is a poor quality but beloved print of a multi-generational line of female dancers. They are more than a chorus line to me, a testament to longer life maintained by joi de vivre. I have a good print and original art on the walls as well as a poster of Crete on the door. Or it might be Santorini. The point is, it is beautiful. There is a tulip design woven through a wool area rug from my sister. It frankly outclasses many other objects.

The reality is, this is a room shaped by things that make me a contented woman, not a chic style icon. Well, shabby chic might be appropriate to describe the space.

There is one dominating element not yet mentioned. Upon entering, I am surrounded, almost inundated by books. I don’t mean just two decent-sized bookshelves that are stuffed full two-book deep, with books wedged on top of others. There are books stacked against the floor by open wall space. They are lined up like sentinels by the door, and there are stacks of a half dozen each camping by an electric heating board. In winter when the heat threatens to singe paper, I push them back a couple inches, leaving just enough room to get into bed. Once in, I plump the pillows and settle in with the current intriguing story taken form the bedside table. In that way I am no different than others who lean toward sleep with a fresh hardback or well-used paperback in hand.

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But I have to admit it may be a bit out of control, at least to some. In defense, I am not a collector. I don’t have a china cabinet boasting rows of Lladro figurines or a room transformed by model trains, tiny trees and people. I am not so nostalgic that I want to search out matchbooks from the sixties or tinted glass from the Depression. I find things I appreciate when my sister and I go to estate sales from time to time. But what I head for, always, are the books in subterranean corners or sad, stuffy attics. Most of my books have been bought at bookstores but also have been gifts, not to mention books traded with others.

I evaluated the room before two of my daughters arrived for a family reunion. I needed to tidy it up a bit more, put on a more presentable face, or so I thought. I had been meaning to do something about all those volumes, namely, take a good number to Powell’s Bookstore and trade them in or, maybe for once, just get a nice check. I blew off the dust from the higher volumes and took some down. Here was Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and whose novels reflect her love of a certain place and time. There was Pearl Buck’s adventurous life revealed in story and John Steinbeck’s truth-telling. Wallace Stegner. Madeline L’Engle. Charles Dickens. John LeCarre: more current novelists have lured me, as well. There are mystery and thriller shelves, and general non-fiction and poetry sections. A section about writing and about religion and spirituality. Nature and a few about flamenco. There are travel writers’ tales that can take me away from chill January rains to come.

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When did I last read Denise Levertov or Neruda? I stepped back, a Mary Oliver collection held close. There were so many of them, writers who experienced history unfolding, imagined worlds within worlds, shared heartbreaks and epiphanies. The dust jackets were brash, beautiful or somber as they leaned together like old cohorts.

But I couldn’t believe I would read them all before my own life was done, before, one day surely my eyes would lose their already corrected vision. What was I doing with all these books? How much money had gone to my inordinate passion for books and reading? It seemed a grave disservice to them, waiting for someone to pull one down. A wave of irritation prickled me. I took a breath and dug in; sorted, rearranged. Re-shelved.

I could not seem to let them go, not yet. I needed these tomes, even–or especially–the orphan books with bent and slightly dirty pages. After more dusting I thought about their place in my life.

It was when sitting on the balcony one evening, enjoying a waft of summer fragrance, imagining moving to a house that had suddenly become available. Wondering how there would be room enough for all those books–I didn’t even mention my husband’s separate beloved library–in those narrow, truncated spaces. My mind ran over titles and authors that populated shelves, tables, desks and floor space throughout our apartment. Magazines are cousins to books so they had their own spots. These were all part of our way of life, the wide-ranging seeking and learning, reading aloud to one another a humorous insight, a poetic turn of phrase making the moment better. As a writer, I read with an innermost ear that longs to hear more. My best mentors have been other authors. Books meliorate the quality of my living.

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And then it occurred to me: I keep buying, reading and stacking books out of interest, it’s true, but there was something more. Since I could not possibly read everything I wanted to read, maybe it was also a stay against the shortening of time, the awareness of mortality that arises as years pass. Each book said: take me home, give me room to unfold my story, offer me time and attention in your busy life and I will keep yours moving forward another quiet night, another daybreak.

Maybe books have been part of my hope of living well past any reasonable time, the desire to keep throwing myself into the thick of life with open arms. I want to still awaken with a rapturous hunger to see, do, become more. I need to stay alive long enough to read every single book I own. So the more books bought, the longer I get to stay. No, it is a pact: I cannot be discharged of my duties here until the last book is investigated.

It may seem odd to use the idea of books as an analogy for a talisman, an epiphany about life. After all, I started this essay wondering over my lack of good taste in decorative style. What to do about those scarves (and jewelry that overflows wooden boxes and handmade ceramic containers)? What about the stacks of folders that contain some of what matters to my daily living or the pictures jammed along edges of the mirror?

Nothing, nothing at all. I am keeping it like it is. It makes sense to me. The room with its random textures and colors delights every time I scan its configuration. I would rather stumble over books in the middle of a sleepless night than have a wide berth to nowhere of note. This way I can still reach the window, crane my neck to see the moon, return to comfort with a choice book propped up on my knees and sail away. I will awaken armed for a new day, the languages of heart, mind and soul at the ready as I carry on with it all. My daughters’ visit? They get it; they have their own books and more.

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