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Tag: new chapter

boxing up the bookshelf


this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

welcome: making our way into the landscape of white

here is where the white begins.

white is quiet. white whispers. white welcomes you into its folds.

white is lace handkerchief tucked in my grandma’s pocket. white is pure cotton sheets, drying on the line where the sunshine and breeze do all the work.

white is the garden that gertrude jekyll dreamed of, that she planted, and wrote of, in her 1899 tome, “wood and garden: notes and thoughts, practical and critical, of a working amateur.” (oh, that we should be such amateurs.)

“snow-white,” she wrote, “is very vague. there is so much blue from it’s crystalline surface.”

as she traipses through her victorian beds, her riotous plantings that broke out of the corseted ways of the times, dear gertrude notices all of the many, many shades of white: there is milk-white, and lemon white, and, yes, at last there is clear white.

there are first snowdrops poking through late winter’s crust, banners of hope, periscopes from the underworld, looking out to see if it’s safe yet. might it be time to tiptoe onto the landscape, they ask. they dare ask.

and so we, too, come to this landscape of pure cotton sheets, of gardenia petals, of damask dinner napkins lifted out from the mothballs. of the pages of old, favorite books. of snow as it falls.

here we are, in this new place, where soon enough we will settle in, will feel like old home.

oh, sure it might take some getting used to. but i’m beginning to think of the beauties of the unfettered slate. of the wash just after its folded, when the smoothed-out wrinkles wear proudly their scrubbed-up whiteness. as far back as i know, white has been the color of choice for the papers on which ink spills. at least when the mission is words. inky black on parchment white.

we’ll give it a whirl.

and before i leave this welcome postcard, i’ve brought along poet mary oliver, who i trusted would have had something to say about white.


White Flowers

by Mary Oliver

Last night
in the fields
I lay down in the darkness
to think about death,
but instead I fell asleep,
as if in a vast and sloping room
filled with those white flowers
that open all summer,
sticky and untidy,
in the warm fields.
When I woke
the morning light was just slipping
in front of the stars,
and I was covered
with blossoms.
I don’t know
how it happened—
I don’t know
if my body went diving down
under the sugary vines
in some sleep-sharpened affinity
with the depths, or whether
that green energy
rose like a wave
and curled over me, claiming me
in its husky arms.
I pushed them away, but I didn’t rise.
Never in my life had I felt so plush,
or so slippery,
or so resplendently empty.
Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers

please, let me know if you’re warming to white….

first up: filing, filing and more filing

i knew that before i could sink down roots, allow them to furrow deep into the soils of this new garden bed of a life, i’d need to spend some time with rake and hoe. maybe even a hefty shovel.

there was cleaning to be done. there were boxes to unpack.

and, oh my, my old garage of an office had sprouted a bumper crop of piles over the last many months, when stacking vertically seemed to be the handiest option after long days in the cubicle and riding home on the bumpy el.

it became one of those now-blurry weeks, fueled by more caffeine and fewer calories than would be smart, when one cobwebby corner led me to a motherlode of old, yellowed papers, and before i knew it, i was neck-deep in dust. i was sneezing. i was yanking off my fleece. i was stripped-down and pretty much a one-woman get-to-the-bottom-of-it machine.

on the surface, i was simply clearing out the clutter, sinking down the start of something new.

but along the way, i was sorting, grieving, remembering, rejoicing, all in one fell swoop.

when you are a treasure keeper, as i have always been, you find little bits of gold tucked in far back corners of a cabinet you’ve not peeked in for years and years and years.

you find notes and emails decades old. you read words of moments you’d long forgotten. but the ink on the page brings it all rushing back. you remember little girls and little boys you have loved. you remember writing your beloved, back before you wore his wedding ring.

you stumble into stories from the news pages. you remember what happened because of those words. you hold the papers close to your chest. you whisper benedictions, blessing the moments that add up to a life, to your life’s work.

you marvel at what’s passed by your lookout tower. you count the lucky stars in your sky. you feel the bottom go out at the pit of your belly, as you wonder what comes next. as you ask, will it ever be so good again?

you are alone, for hours at a time, just you and all that dust. just you and crumbled bits of papers, the few traces of the places you have been, the loves you have known.

you are, to the world outside your office door, sure making quite a racket in there. you sure seem to be determined in your cleaning.

but really what you are doing is sifting, sorting, assembling. you are finding your way through the woods. you are starting over once again. you are paring down what matters after all. you are crumpling up remnants of the past, pieces you no longer need to hold, to keep.

you know now what belongs. what needs to be saved. what will carry you forward, propel you.

every once in a not-so-often while, you catch a whiff of pure fresh air. you think, i can do this. this is good.
you look up, bleary-eyed, from the latest drawer you’ve found to sort, to stack, to straighten. you notice snow flakes falling. you catch a cardinal flitting by. you feel a stirring deep inside, a scritch-scratch from heaven’s door, telling you this is right where you belong.

you’ve moved back to where the sun streams in. to where the only sound is the simmer on the stove, or the tick and tock of your grandma’s clock.

you make your old pine table clean again. you vacuum dust from the butter-yellow braided rug. you dab dots of paint onto a picture frame, so your boys, your muse, can smile at you from over the top of the computer screen. you pad your nest, indeed. you are not unlike mama bird in april, when she tirelessly spends her days flitting back and forth with bits of twig and snips of yarn, padding the place where birth will come. where eggs will be laid, will hatch, will squawk, will be fed, will fly.

it’s what we do, some of us, before the flying comes.

we clear out what had gotten in the way, what had piled up, collected dust. we run our fingers over pages long forgotten, now refreshed. we remember where we’ve been and how deeply we have filled our lungs.

we exhaust ourselves with all our clearing, cleaning. we work till too, too late. because this is not about just dust and papers. this is about getting to the bottom of our soul, so we can drink in what we need, that pure fresh air, the oxygen of life, of faith.

first up, we file and file and file some more. then, we take a breath. and see if we can fly.

so went the second full week of what i now think of as BAM inc. an exhausting week to be sure, but in the end a week that will propel me. i now sit in the tidiest office that ever was. i have tossed out every last distraction, and ordered and labeled what’s left. are you, like me, inclined to clear the decks before leaping into a significant undertaking, or are you more inclined to wing it, and let it rip, piles and all propelling you?