While I love my job, sometimes I get a little bit discouraged about it. This has been especially true lately, when several discussions about other people's lifestyles have opened my eyes to how much more income a family has when both parents have full-time jobs that pay well. (This makes me discouraged not just about my job, but about society in general, and about my future prospects for not being a destitute old woman who can't afford to retire. Ever. Even though I'm not entirely certain about the appeal of retirement anyway. I mean...hanging out at home all day long with your spouse? Who also has nowhere else to go? That doesn't sound at all conducive to my need for solitude.) But then I go to work, and funny, kind, encouraging things sometimes happen, and while I'm still not altogether sure I've made the right choices, I am grateful to have my library experiences.
Take, for example, this book cover:
I found it when I was pulling books for the mystery display in fiction. It's sort of a stereotypical sexy-detective image, the gun strapped to the thigh of the long-legged, beautiful detective (who in the book is also intelligent and a genius at figuring out crimes and good in bed and probably a really good cook as well). But for whatever reason (maybe because I'd watched Castle the night before?) the reality of the stereotype hit me: ummmm, wouldn't it be super hard to run with a gun between your legs? (Let alone the high heels.) Imagine the chafing! (Of course, I'm imagining said sexy detective chasing a bad guy down busy New York streets. Another stereotype. Which is why I don't like most mystery novels.) I started giggling right there in the B section.
The way that people choose what to read is endlessly fascinating to me. A common method: I just finished ______________ and I want to read something just like it. I had a teenage patron who wanted historical romances set in England, because she'd read all of Sarah Eden's books and wanted something similar. (I gave her Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl, Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel, Ivy by Julie Hearn, and Cinders and Sapphires by Lelia Rasheed, none of which are exactly like Sarah Eden but that's ok because really: "Similar" is all you can hope for. Actually, "similar" is far better than "identical," because you get to have new reading experiences that are still, somehow, safe.) When she was checking out, she asked me if we had any "solid colored, not-see-through book bags." I showed her the container of plastic bags (all of which are, alas, fairly see-through) and she said, "Ahhh, that's too bad. I didn't want my mom to see how many books I'm checking out. She gets mad if I take home more than twenty." As I have (seriously, not joking) had arguments with Kendell over bringing home too many damn library books I could completely relate.
I was helping a mom and her teenage daughter find a historical YA novel. The mom really wanted her daughter to read The Book Thief. "You know the one," she told her daughter. "It's just like that movie The Monuments Men except for they're saving books instead of art. Stealing them right away from the Nazis, who were burning books all the time." Well...not exactly just like that. (I sent the daughter home with Ten Cents a Dance, The Berlin Boxing Club, and Chains; I don't think I've ever actually seen The Book Thief on the shelf, even before the movie.)
A patron came to me at the general reference desk, handed me his list of call numbers he'd written down, and said "I want you to teach me how to fish." I must've looked confused, so he continued. "I mean, I don't know how to find these, but I don't want you to find them for me. I want you to teach me how to find them." I taught him about the Dewey Decimal system, and about cutter numbers, and how the books flow on the shelves. He found almost every book he needed by himself, except for the one that was in Junior. And that is how an anti-pescetarian teaches someone how to fish.
An older, grizzled man with two chipped front teeth wanted to find out if the fourth book in the mystery-adventure series he was reading was out yet. While he waited as I looked, he told me that during the Renaissance, there were men who had certain pieces of knowledge, which they would only tell you for a price, and they would never reveal how to find out that knowledge on your own. (That sounds like an intriguing novel; it should be set in Florence, I believe, or maybe Venice.) Then he went on to say that is why libraries are so important. Not exactly because of what is inside libraries, but because of librarians (who are quite often, yes, inside libraries) who will teach you how to find out knowledge on your own. Then he shook my hand. And I tried not to cry.
So...maybe I'll never be able to afford to retire. Maybe I'm giving up being a wealthy, old retired lady for my life right now, when I work in the library and love my job. And maybe never retiring will be just fine, because seriously: I'll be working at the library.
A few days ago, one of my favorite library patrons told me her deepest, darkest secret. (One of the unknown truths of being a librarian? We are sort of like bartenders. People start talking about books, and as our reactions to stories make us angry, exhilarated, terrified, thrilled, annoyed—make us feel, in other words—they also make us vulnerable and open, and so we turn from novels to our own stories.)
I can't tell it here because it is not my story to tell, but parts of it, involving the secret use of a garbage can, made me laugh along with her because I know exactly how that feels.
She is going through a rough time, so I told her that she shouldn't feel so guilty about this deep, dark secret because she needs to take care of herself and treat herself kindly. And plus, we all have our deep dark secrets.
Our garbage can far away from our house where we hide the evidence.
One of my current deep, dark secrets?
I am a fan of the TV show Game of Thrones.
Why should that be a secret? Well, it's hardly PG-13. We watch it after the kids have gone to bed, with all the lights turned off and the volume down low, and then immediately delete it. It's violent and sensual. It is a dark, hard, grueling story, where you can't trust that good will triumph over evil or that who you think is good really is, or even that who you think is bad won't surprise you.
It is an unreliable, untrustworthy, violent place.
I read the first book in the series before the TV show existed, because I'd read about it so many times; it came up in random and yet persistent waves. I have a theory that books are to individual readers sort of like that saying about butterflies:
If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.
(Actually, now that I think about it, that saying isn't really about butterflies. It just seems to always come with a butterfly image attached.) What I'm getting at is that I read a lot about books. Sometimes, a book will grab me immediately and I will know in a second that I need to read it and, without delay, I either put myself on the hold list, or request that my library acquires it, or actually, you know, buy it myself.
However, this doesn't happen very often, because there are so many books I want to read. Sometimes I feel like I'm carrying around an extra weight in my psyche that is labeled "books I want to read," and the contrast between wanting to read them and having the time to read them is stressful, so I try as hard as I can not to add to the list. (I'm not super-successful at this not-adding thing.)
But like that returning butterfly, if I come across an interesting book three or four times, in different sources and research projects and formats, then I'll start paying attention. If it keeps coming back to me, I'll add it to my list.
The Game of Thrones came to me multiple times before I finally checked it out. Many more times than perhaps any other book. My reluctance mostly had to do with how I don't want to tie myself to long fantasy series. It just gets so...burdensome, somehow. There are so many worlds one can visit by reading, that spending months in the same literary creation sometimes feels wasteful.
But it kept coming back to me, and I kept being intrigued by this land that could be winter for years, or summer for years (does that mean a years-long autumn? I'd like to live there, please.) And by the direwolves. Dragons, and the wall made of ice, and what might be beyond it. Plus, I tend to like stories with families that follow the members to different places.
So finally, I read it, in the fall of 2010.
It's a long book—about 700 pages. And it does quite a few things that I love. I know not all readers like a fragmented story, wherein one chapter tells of one character's adventures and another follows someone else entirely, but it is a structure I like. At first it does cause quite a bit of flipping from your spot in the book to the genealogies in the front but eventually you get it all straight in your head.
All of those pages 700 pages are filled with story. It creates a fantasy world that feels fresh (instead of a Tolkien knock off) but not too magicky. (Magicky=when magic is used as a gimmick instead of a seemingly-real aspect of a fantasy world.) But what really stands out in The Game of Thrones are the characters. They are vibrant and unique and unforgettable. Tortured and torturers—quite often at the same time.
And listen: you know me. I don't need a happy ending. I don't need a book to be composed of lightness and sunshine and gamboling unicorns. In fact, I'm consistently drawn to darker stories.
But even I need some hope in my (literary) worlds.
Because here's the thing. Those characters, so vibrant and real, who I fell in love with? Good things do not happen to good people in the land of Westeros. Noble intentions get you nowhere. Those malevolent Lannisters are serious in their malice. And the darkness feels absolutely unrelenting. It isn't a gloomy darkness. It isn't really the melodramatic type that makes you want to turn into a cutter-Sylvia-Plath-Bauhaus-blaring amalgamation of a person. It is the darkness of humanity, and when the story tries to hold it up to the light it finds that there really isn't much to illuminate.
Maybe I am somewhat of a connoisseur of depressing novels. It's not really that they feed something within me. Not exactly. It is more a sort of self-protection: if I read about dark things, they seem less likely to happen in my life or, alternately, at least I'll know what to do when I find myself within a dark place. They remind me that suffering is real and, quite often, far larger than my own. They are a way of holding my fears up to the light.
But I seriously cannot think of another book I have read that is so consistently dark. In fact, the small light places in all other dark stories are quite often the scenes or plot points I remember most, because they are (also) true to life. There are always light moments.
Except in Martin's world.
And yet? Despite the fact that reading it sort of made me feel the utter despair of being a human in the fallen world, I couldn't stop reading. I needed to find out what happened to these characters I had grown attached to, even if it couldn't be anything good.
Then I finished the book and I couldn't decide: read the next one? Immerse myself for many more months on end, or just watch the TV show?
I opted for the TV show.
And here we are, the fourth season about to begin, and I have to confess: I think I have The Game of Thrones PTSD. Because so many more characters have gained my affection (even, dare I confess, the perturbing Jamie Lannister, whom at least I understand a little bit better), but not all of them have survived. Jon Snow and Araya, my two favorites, are still alive. But for how long? And the Red Wedding at the end of season three?
Well, if you watched it, you know what I mean.
Part of me wishes I'd skipped the TV show and stuck with the book. I think we are missing vast portions of story. Who really is Lady Melisandre? and the Lord of Light? And I am unsure as to the politics of what happened with Jon when he went beyond the Wall. I think I would understand the characters better if I were reading about them instead of watching.
But it is easier to see the story play out on TV because it is less torturous. There is less immersion, less swimming in the darkness.
Several of my friends at the library are also fans, and we've talked about this: how traumatic the story is and yet how it tugs you right back in. Partly I think it is that we continue hoping to see bad things happen to the bad characters: That Joffrey, for example. I'm not sure I've hated a literary character this much since the Prentisstown mayor in The Knife of Never Letting Go (incidentally, a dark book which perfectly manages a few exquisite, light-filled moments). It is a story that is mainly built upon unbearable moments and I have to watch it with only one eye, less I get too involved and forget: it's only a story.
Maybe there is already enough darkness in the world. In my life, some of it in the form of secrets. Probably I am foolish to continue this experiment in exploring what too dark might look like. But I keep thinking of my library friend who, after she found a few books to take home, came back to my desk and told me something. "I don't know when I'll be able to quit," she said of her deep, dark secret. "But I feel better just knowing that someone else knows. Lighter." Will watching The Game of Thrones bring me light and knowledge? Probably no light, but maybe some knowledge about myself—and maybe not. I can't really explain, yet, why I am so drawn (but honestly: reluctantly drawn) to it.
Except that it has something to do with being human (as all good stories do), and how, when faced with trials, we either fall or rise. How our decisions shape not just our lives but the life of everyone we know, how cruelty and honor battle each other. In Westeros the battle plays out perhaps more fiercely than in real life—but perhaps not. And maybe, for me, that is the thing, relentless darkness withstanding: we all battle the same things, and are faced with impossible choices, and as I watch I am always thinking what would I do, and I hope the choice would be a good one.
So, tell me: Do you watch (or read) The Game of Thrones?
Last week, something happened that has haunted me. There were two bicyclists killed in Utah. They were friends who were riding their bikes to work together, and were hit by a truck. I didn’t know them, but some of my friends did, and it was so sobering to me, reading their obituaries and seeing the comments on Facebook. Two lives gone, just like that.
I think this story struck me so hard because of that two degrees of separation—but also because it’s something I worry about when I’m out running. I’m careful and I pay attention and I wear bright clothes, but it would be so easy to be hit by a car. Drivers don’t always pay attention, and trust me: they do not watch for pedestrians. You have to assume that every single car does not see you.
This is something I’m certain those men knew, and that’s what I mean: you can prepare and be careful, but sometimes death grabs you anyway.
This week, one of my scrapbooking friends, Monika, posted on Facebook about her father-in-law, who was missing. They found his body the next day. I was so touched by what she wrote:
“While it is overwhelming and sad and unthinkable for us now, we all know that Papa, loved by his family and adored by his many friends, passed where he was most at home, in his beloved mountains on the property his parents worked hard to own and preserve for future generations.”
The way we die is just one part of our life. Sometimes it defines entire years of our lives, sometimes just seconds. In the past five years, we have gone through a lot of illness and death in our family, and it has been painful and sorrowful and awful. I miss my dad and my in-laws so much.
And I hate the way they died.
My father-in-law suffered with cancer for a long time, but we thought he still had a year left, except suddenly he just didn’t, and even though we knew the end was closer than we liked, we had counted on that extra time. None of us really got to say goodbye.
From his diagnosis to his death, my dad lingered in his deteriorating mental state for nearly five years. I tried to tell him goodbye, and that I loved him, so many times but I don’t think he understood anymore. And he couldn’t ever really tell me goodbye. I wish he could have told me something, but I can’t tell you exactly what. Something only he could say.
My mother-in-law was recuperating beautifully from a double mastectomy. She had been to the doctor two days before she died, and he told her that her heart was strong. Then she had a massive heart attack. Say goodbye? Her death felt like a bolt of lightning.
The two bikers who were killed didn’t get to say goodbye. My friend Monika’s father-in-law didn’t get to, either.
But I keep going back to what she wrote—that he passed where he was most at home.
And the bikers, who died instantly, died doing what they loved.
I don’t know that I believe in fate—that the length a life is already decided. But if we have to die (and who doesn’t), I think there is some tiny solace in leaving that way. In a place you love, or doing something you are passionate about. I would far rather die say, hiking Timp than in a hospital bed.
But no one gets to choose.
So I am lingering in these thoughts of death, which sounds fairly gloomy, but they are making me think in ways I haven’t before. Not exactly. This morning, for whatever reason, I thought what if today was my last day on earth? One of my first responses to this thought was is there writing on the other side? Because I can’t imagine experiencing anything without also wanting to write about it.
So I paid attention today. I thought of all the time I squander—on Facebook or on the Internet. Or just by not really paying attention. I tried not to waste a second, and to be present. And I watched for moments, those numinous moments that really: we have every day. If we watch. If today was my last day and I didn’t get to say goodbye, I would still be grateful for these moments:
Watching Kaleb walk into school this morning. He doesn’t love school, but he loves having friends, and someone waved to him and someone else said hello, and his whole body was beaming with happiness—but he still stopped and waved goodbye to me.
The few minutes I had before work, when ostensibly I was reading but really I was watching the way the light was spreading above Cascade mountain.
Just before I walked over to unlocked the library doors, I noticed that sunlight was pouring in through the windows, lighting up the very-brand-new buds on the magnolia tree and then washing across might desk. I know it’s not prestigious, and the world values it very little, and I don’t make very much money, but I love my job.
Laughing with Kendell and Jake about a text I sent that ended up sounding like one of those autocorrect fails.
I went running this afternoon. And since the lone runner is a one-person parade, and because it was grey outside, and a little windy, I decided to wear my cheeriest running pants. The very-bright neon pink ones. I ran three miles without walking, and I hit the busiest light at exactly the right second so I didn’t have to wait to cross, and, you know: I didn’t fall. (That always feels like a success lately!) I still feel like I am running through sludge (heavy and slow, and like my legs are coated in a dense slurry of something), but my pink pants made me happy anyway.
making jokes with my friend Julie at work, about the things people leave behind. Why someone’s discarded chapstick or lotion tube feels slightly icky is sort of inexplicable, but the truth is that we touched those items very gingerly. And then washed our hands afterwards.
just now, a late night talk with Nathan, about nothing really specific—his night out with friends, and his recent student council portfolio (he has to wait until April 4 to find out if he made it), and who at school is really bugging him. He forgot to bring me a cookie but it’s OK.
The thing about the numinous moments is that often they are just normal moments. But they are what life is made of. If it was my last day on earth, I think when I got to the other side I would want to write a letter—to my mom, and to Haley, and to Becky, and to Chris To the people I thought about but didn’t see or talk to today. I’d want to tell them that I love them, because you never get the chance to say that enough.
I don’t think it will be today—my last day on earth. But one day, it will. Against all the odds, I hope I get to say goodbye. I hope I don’t die in a hospital. I hope I will fulfill more of my dreams and goals before that day. I hope I see my kids grow up, and succeed, and start their own families. I hope for a reunion of sorts, one day. I hope I live more, both in the small moments and the large gestures.
But more than anything, I hope that when it is my day, however it comes, the people I leave behind will know I loved them. So, just in case you wondered or you weren't sure or I never told you enough: I love you. Don't forget it.
Last summer when we went to Idaho for Beth’s grave service, on our way home we decided to stop at Bear World. This is a space with a whole bunch of, you guessed it: bears. There is a big meadow with a little road, and you can drive your car through, past the bears (who are not caged, but wander through the meadow). We also decided to go on the bear feeding tour, which allows you to throw bread to the bears from an open-topped truck.
Bears are not my favorite animal—that would be the cheetah, or almost anything in the large cat family. But they are high on my list of affections. In fact, I harbor a secret desire to come across a bear while we’re hiking. From a distance, of course, but I long to see a bear in the wild, in its natural place in the world. So the Bear World experience was a little strange to me. On the one hand: bears! Brushing against our van! Eating food that I’d thrown to them! On the other hand: we were throwing them white Wonder bread. The wildness was gone; these were bears accustomed to human interactions, their body clocks set to the passing feeding tours.
So when my niece Lyndsay called me to see if Kendell and I wanted to go tag bears, my only hesitation was a prior commitment. Once my friend Wendy and her husband helped me with that, I was ready: I was going to see a real bear.
Lyndsay’s husband works for the DNR, and part of his responsibilities is managing the bear population. (You can read more about it HERE.) Every spring, they follow the pings from the bears’ tracking collars to their dens. They do different things to check the mother bear’s health, and they also check for cubs. They take several students with them (“several,” this time, being an understatement; there were about 35 people) so they can see what animal biologists do.
I was beyond honored to be included.
We started in Price, Utah, and drove to a spot in a canyon near Nine Mile Road. Then we just started hiking, following the biologists tracking the radio signal.
(a shot of most of the group making its way up the cliffs.)
This wasn’t a hike like we usually take—meaning, no trail. It was mostly a scramble. At one point, we had to get on top of an overhanging cliff, and this was the solution:
(Side note: I think I was the only person in exercise clothes there. Everyone else hiked in jeans and there I was, in my favorite running pants.)
Once we got to the den, we stood quite a way back from the entrance, while the biologists tranquilized the mother bear. It was chilly once we stopped moving, but it was lovely to stand in the mountains and talk to Kendell and Lyndsay.
After the bear was asleep, they removed the cubs. There were two, a grey and a black. They were about a month old. I tried not to be pushy because I knew there were a lot of people wanting to hold them—but I was, I confess, not the last person to hold one. (I also wasn’t the first, though!)
You know when you have an experience that you’ve wanted for a long time, how it almost feels like it’s not you...like you’re watching it happen and not really doing it?
That’s how I felt when one of the students handed me a bear cub.
To make myself feel it instead of observe, I said out loud: “I am holding a bear cub!” And I was! I turned to look out over the valley below the den
and just held the squirming, shivering, muscular creature. I was surprised by how long and sharp its claws were, and at the fat pads on the bottom of its feet. But I was hoping its fur would be soft, and it was. It mewled and squealed and shivered, so I tried to snuggle it close. Is it weird to say: it was a baby, and nature takes over and you just do what you do with any baby, try to keep it warm, bounce a little bit.
I held a bear cub!
Lyndsay and Kendell were standing with me, so they held it next.
Then, while we waited to hold the other one, I decided that I wasn’t going to regret anything: despite my claustrophobia, I was going to go inside the bear’s den. There was a small, triangular opening between two boulders. Once it was my turn (several of the students also wanted to see inside the den), I laid down right on my belly and army crawled into the den. It wasn’t a long crawl, really; my torso was in the cave while my legs were outside of it. It wasn’t as dark as I had expected, as there were a bunch of rocks piled at the back, with a small opening at the top like a window. It was small, but not excrutiatingly. So I only had that paralyzing rush of a small-place fear for a second.
It smelled like wild animals, but it didn’t have an overwhelmingly powerful stink. And it was mostly quiet—or I just ignored all the human sounds, and laid with my chin on my forearms, watching the sleeping bear.
I touched her, too. I thought her fur would be more coarse than the babies’, but really it was softer and fluffier. I wished her happy mothering, which is probably silly, but still: it’s tough to be a bear. Two babies to watch and feed and keep safe on a mountain.
After the den, I wanted to hold the other cub, and finally got a chance to. (This is my favorite photo of me and the cubs, because look at that cub! He is totally smizing.)
Some of the students had started back to their cars, so it wasn’t as crowded, and I felt like I could hold him a little bit longer. This one was squirmier than his sister.
(although, this one is pretty awesome, too. Baby yawns are cute no matter the creature!)
He protested much more, and shivered less, and hardly snuggled at all. Still, I confess to crooning. I told him that if he ever came across me while I was hiking, he was not to eat me because we’re friends now.
I’m convinced that we, in our contemporary age, have no idea what the world is supposed to be like. We’ve stripped it of everything wild. When you hike through the mountains, sometimes you’ll spot a deer, or a mountain goat, an elk or a rare moose. I don’t think it is supposed to be like that. I think there used to be more wildlife in the world. There should be bears in the wild. And cougars. (This recent story of a cougar being stoned to death makes me furious.) There should be more wild places, and less human interaction.
The irony of which doesn’t escape me, as I had my human interaction with three bears.
Eventually, the mama bear started stirring, and as she’d probably be fairly mad once she woke, it was time to put the babies back. As I was shifting the cub I was holding for one last picture, someone bumped me and I reflexively pulled him close so I wouldn’t drop him. And he did not like that. He swiped right at me, in fact, with those sharp claws. A fast swipe that would've cut my skin open if he'd reached me. That moment was when I really felt it, that I was holding a bear. Tiny still, he was strong and fierce, a force you couldn’t do much against if he were fully grown and angry. He was alive, and real. No one was going to toss him bread from a truck. He, and his sister and mother, will figure out their life on their own.
This was a day I hope I will never, ever forget. It left me more humble about my place in the world, and more awed, and even more grateful to be alive, to be able to move around in our beautiful world.
This morning Kaleb got into my bed for a quick snuggle before getting ready. "Mom," he murmured, still sleepy. "How about tonight we have a big party with all of our cousins and aunts and uncles, and Grandma Sue, too. With green food, for St. Patrick's Day. We've never done that before, why not?"
I tried not to sniffle at all while we talked—this losing-grandparents thing has been so hard for Kaleb, who loves nothing more than a big family party with all of the cousins, which is still fun but not as good as when all of the grandparents could also come. So I explained to him that we haven't ever really celebrated St. Patrick's Day because we DO have some Irish in our blood, but not a lot.
(Kaleb is also fascinated by genealogy, especially Kendell's Scandinavian streak. He is fully convinced he's descended from a long line of Viking warriors and that this makes him stronger than his friends.)
Our conversation has left me thinking all morning about my Irish heritage. I confess to wishing that I were more Irish than I am. It is a country that fascinates me, its history and stories and legends, its landscape. I love novels send in Ireland in any time period. I spent an entire semester in college creating a mythology project about Irish Celtic mythology. And Ireland is, literally, on the top of my list of places I want to travel to. (My dream trip to Ireland would include both cities and rural counties, hiking and history and sightseeing and a few bike tours.)
My dad's mom was a McCurdy, and if I trace her line back in time (there are quite a few Jacobs in that mix!), I come to a John McCurdy, who was born on Rathlin Island in Ireland but died in Georgia, so some time after 1724, my ancestors immigrated to America. I knew this long McCurdy line; for generations they lived on Rathlin Island, but since I've last looked at the genealogy, more information has been added. Sometime in the late 1500s, a family named MacKirby moved from Scotland to Ireland and changed its name to McCurdy. (Oh how I wish I knew all of these stories!)
I confess that learning this disappointed me a little bit. I liked the idea of that line going all the way back, living on Rathlin Island. (Which is, of course, one of the places I want to visit during my as-yet-only-imagined trip to Ireland.) Scotland is also fascinating, but for different reasons. I wanted a little bit of a pure Irish streak.
So I kept digging, this time on the female line, and I discovered that my fifth-great grandfather, Patrick (the father of the John who immigrated to America) was married to a woman named Mary, who was Irish. I followed her line back and discovered that it is the Irish streak I was looking for. All the way back until the names run out, that line (which even includes a Lady) is in Antium, Ireland. All the way back to Grissel, who was born in 1582.
I can't fully explain how attached I am to this little bit of Irish I have in my blood. But it has been pervasive; my entire life, I've had that affection. It makes me sad to know that the stories have died away—my grandma never told me anything about her parents or grandparents, so maybe the stories were dead even during her time. I wish I knew more. But on a whim, I think I'll make something Irish-esque for dinner, even if it is only soda bread. Because Kaleb's right: I might be only a small portion of Irish, but why not celebrate it?
This is my most recent scrapbook layout, which I made as a challenge to myself to use some of the long, narrow strips I've been keeping in a glass vase on my scrapbooking desk. (It still has a lot of strips left!) I think it's a pretty good example of my current scrapbooking style (a long-ish title, pictures lined up on an edge, some quick embellishment and a story) :
(I also used that bottom photo on the layout in this WCS post. It's one of my favorite recent photos!)
I started scrapbooking in February of 1996, which means I’ve now been involved in this hobby for 18 years. My scrapbooking is an adult! I feel like my relationship to it is starting to change, in ways I can’t really explain yet, but it is something I’ve been thinking a lot about.
Last night I decided I need to share my very first layout on my blog. I remember it clearly: I picked up the pictures of Haley from photo printing shop on my way to the scrapbooking crop where I was meeting my friend Chris, who was going to teach me how to scrapbook. The photos are of Haley playing with my friend Stevie’s new puppy; I used dark purple cardstock and some dog stickers, and four different photo mats, one cut with pinking sheers and one cut with a scallop. I decided to spring for some black letter stickers, even though it felt like a lot, spending $2.50 on some letter stickers. But they told me I needed a title, and of course I didn’t want to just write “Puppy Love.” I wanted it to look good.
When I finished sticking everything down, I was like, “wait! Can I write something on here too?” and Chris was like, “yes, you can! That’s called journaling.” Except I didn’t have a lot of space, and my handwriting was awful then too, so I asked the girl at the crop if I could write this journaling on my computer and then print it out. “Wow!” she said. “That’s a great idea! I never thought of doing it that way!”
(This was, remember, the Dawn of Scrapbooking.)
When I finished that layout the next day (while Haley was napping...she wasn’t even 1 yet!), I looked at it and thought, I love doing this. I’m going to do some more today. I was hooked right from the start.
I realized, though, last night looking at Haley’s baby book, that I can’t show you my first layout, because I threw it away during the great Redo Haley’s Baby Book project of, oh...1997 I would guess. Because after I’d done a few layouts, I started realizing what I liked and what I didn’t, and it all seemed too cutesy to me, so I trashed almost everything and started again.
(Looking at the redo now? Gah. It’s still way too cutesy.)
I wish I had kept that first layout, though, because aside from the triple and quadruple photo mats and the decorative scissors, it was fairly close to my scrapbooking style: some photos I love, a clever-ish title (although I hope my titles have gotten less predictable), a few embellishments, and a story. I still have an abiding affection for alphabet stickers. I’ve experimented with a lot of supplies, techniques, and approaches since that first crop, but if I am honest I know that my style isn’t heavy on embellishments or other stuff. My strength is not in the design aspect—I feel, in fact, like design, like using lots of stuff, is a foreign language, something I can learn and develop but which I will never be fluent in. I’m comfortable with that, though, because I rely on what is my strength: journaling.
In fact, as I flipped through layouts last night I realized that I can’t think of a single layout I’ve made that doesn’t have journaling. It’s the thing I spend the most time on and the part of the process I enjoy the most. Truth be told, if there wasn’t such a thing as scrapbook journaling, I’d either have had to invent it or stop scrapbooking.
It’s true: the reason I scrapbook is so I can write our family stories and then pair them up with the pictures.
Everything else is fun, too. I love using my stuff. But if everything but plain paper disappeared tomorrow, I’d be OK because the essence for me is the story. The story itself, and the writing of the story, which is a process I always enjoy.
But I know not everyone loves it.
So! To celebrate this sort-of-an-anniversary thing I’ve got going on (I don’t know the exact date I made that first layout), I thought I’d share a secret. One way to enjoy writing journaling is to change up the way you approach the story. If you always write “We had so much fun at the beach,” with some associated details of what happened or what you did, the writing process will start to feel a little bit like drudgery. It’s when you look at it from a different angle that you enjoy the process.
Here’s a list of ten different ways you could write about that day at the beach, with examples I took from my very own scrapbook layouts:
1. Never, ever write “We had so much fun at...” It’s a way to get started, of course. But it’s a pretty lackluster sentence. Start with a specific fun thing that you did, and don’t even tell us it was fun. Describe the fun instead. (You know this one, as it is the oldest writing advice in the world: show, don't tell.)
At Aliso Beach, a little girl came up to Kaleb, who was digging an enormous trench in the sand, and said “Do you want to use my board?” She had this kid-sized board, and of course Kaleb was happy to try it out. He wasn’t very good at it (exactly what you’d expect from a kid from Utah!) but he never stopped laughing, even when the waves dunked him under. He’d pop back up with a smile on his face every time.
2. Pick just one part of the story to focus on. It’s easy to get bogged down sometimes with a very long story. Or trying to tell all the little things that are built into one experience. Over those 18 years of scrapbooking I’ve learned that you generally have more than one chance to tell your stories. Pick one thing—the best part, the most mysterious or surprising or exciting; maybe something you didn’t expect to happen. Write just that one thing. The cool thing about this is how one powerful story will help you remember many other things from an experience, even if you don’t journal all of the stories.
It was a pebbly, rocky beach, so, with three boys, of course part of the afternoon’s activities was throwing rocks into the ocean. Kaleb was standing behind and to the side of Jake, happily throwing his little pile of rocks, one at a time, as far as he could. I’m not sure any of them actually reached the water, but one made contact with the back of Jake’s head. There Jake was, happily throwing rocks, when BAM, stone to the head! He threw his arms up in complete shock, and if we could hear his body language it would’ve been yelling “What the heck was that?” He had a big goose egg and a bloody cut, so we went to the lifeguard’s stand to get an opinion on stitches. (He didn’t need them.) Kaleb felt so bad, but after the initial shock, Jake thought it was just pretty cool that he got to climb up to the lifeguard’s chair.
3. Start in the middle of the story. Or the end. Maybe you can make your way back to the beginning. Or not. Sometimes the beginning details of a story are extraneous, especially when the pictures give enough visual details to tell part of the story.
While we were moving all of our soaked possessions (except the bag with the electronics in it, which I managed to save), we crossed back over the little stream that flowed into the ocean. Except now it was a much larger stream, and the surf bigger, and Kaleb just as small, so yeah: he lost his brand new flip flops and it was that moment—not when the enormous rogue wave hit me where I was holding down the fort, not when I realized every single towel was dripping wet, not when I saw my waterlogged book—when I totally lost in. Warning: crazy woman yelling fruitlessly at the ocean, right over there by the inlet!
4. Write a list of verbs—what was done during the experience? You can just write the verbs. Or write a sort of summary sentence at the end of the list.
Run. Find. Skip. Dig. Eat. Surf. Wander. Explore. Squish. Laugh. Shiver. Sunbathe. Throw. Jump. Tumble. Race. Laugh. Experience that dreamy happiness that you find only at the beach.
5. Write a list of things you said. Not a conversation—just the words that came out of one person’s mouth. (It could be you, or anyone else, really.) Quite a bit of story can be inferred, just from what is said.
“Yes, you need sun screen.” “Be careful!” “Don't drown!” “Hold your brother's hand!” “Yes, you need sun screen.” “Oh, look, a starfish.” “I love that seashell you found.” “Yes, you need sun screen.” “We have lots of snacks, come get some.” “That’s because you're not supposed to drink the ocean.” And, of course, “Yes! YOU NEED SUN SCREEN!”
6. Write a conversation. This is similar to #5, because of words being spoken. But two or more people talking? That is the essence of storytelling!
“I would do this every day, if I lived here,” she said while we walked back up to our hotel after running together on the beach. “I probably would, too. If I lived here,” I said. Then I looked around, at the enormous beachfront homes we were walking past, and then backward to the ocean. “Except, I don’t think I’d want to live here.” “You’re crazy!” she said. “When I grow up I want to live by the beach. Who wouldn’t want to live here?” “I think that living by the beach isn’t the same as taking a vacation by the beach,” I said, huffing a bit as we hit the steep uphill part of our walk. “You’d just be living your normal life, with school and work and laundry, except by the ocean.” “But you’d be by the ocean!” “That’s true. But I’d miss the mountains.” “Not me,” she said. She declared, really. “I’d trade the mountains for the beach any day of the week.” “OK, well, when you live by the beach can I come visit you?” I asked. And then she started talking about the future she’s imagining, and all I could do was imagine it with her, and hope that where ever she lives, I’ll be there.
7. Write what it feels like. We experience the world through our senses. Try remembering back to the sensations of the experience.
The hot sand on the surface, and the way that when you dig your toes in, it grows cool and damp. That first plunge, which is so cold it takes your breath away. The waves slapping at your ankles and the salt drying on your knees. Roughness: sand, cliffs, the nap of a towel on sunburned skin. The way your scalp soaks up heat, so your hair is hot. Sweating in the sun until the second you can’t bear one more drop of sun and you race into the cold sea. The waves lifting you up and down and how it makes your belly drop, nearly like a carnival ride. The solid pavement of the parking lot under your feet and the way you drag along, not ever wanting to leave.
8. Write about what you learned. Sometimes what we remember most about an experience isn’t what happened but what we learn from what happened. (I find this to be true at any event that involves extended family!)
I love the beach—who doesn’t? But I watched the kids play in the waves and have those moments of panic thinking they’d vanish in the ocean. Or let them wander but then start to fear they wouldn’t wander back. In the water I thought of sharks and riptides, and then a lifeguard walked by and told us to stay close to shore, because of sharks and riptides. I realized today that while I love the beach, I don’t love the beach. The ocean is just so big, and powerful, and it could grab up everything I love in a second, without ever looking back. I don’t like that I have that deep, I-love-the-beach-cancelling fear. But it’s there, gnawing at me whenever we’re on the coast.
9. Write about the people involved in the experience. Tell a story about your great uncle Harold who finally came to Thanksgiving this year. Or what you admire about your brother, or how you wish your relationship was different with your sister. How the friends at the birthday party became friends. The efforts your mom puts in to make your traditional 4th of July celebration perfect.
At Bolsa Chica, we hung out with the Kudlaceks. Haley hadn’t seen Jessica for a few years, so it was awkward at first—a couple of teenage girls trying to be cool. But eventually they remembered they were friends, and I thought about the last time we were here, how Haley watched how Jessica did things and how, when we got home, she seemed so much older. And there they were again, lying on towels next to each other, talking about how they wished they had better cell phones and how their moms annoyed them. Even in just a few days of interaction, friends influence so much!
10. Write a list of things. This is one of my favorite ways to journal. Think about all of the things involved with the experience, and then just list them. It’s like...you know how, if you poured out your purse right now, all the objects inside would tell a part of the story of who you are right now? That’s true of any experience and its objects. Its stuff.
Sun screen, both in stick (for faces), lotion (for everywhere else), and chapstick (for lips). Floppy hats. Seven beach towels. Nation by Terry Pratchett. A Costco-sized bag of peppermint patties, which are the best chocolate to eat on the beach. Four bags of chips. A cooler with icy sodas and juices, a bag of washed grapes, and a bowl of watermelon chunks. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay. Four MP3 players, three cell phones, one camera, the GPS. My favorite orange bandana (which was swept off Jake’s head by a wave and lost forever). A notebook and a pen. A first aid kit. Five PB&J’s, one almond butter & nutella. A shovel, a bucket, and some plastic cups for sand castle making. Two sweatshirts. Six pair of flip flops. Four happy kids!
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Despite the success of Room (which I have two copies of, just waiting for me to actually read), my favorite Emma Donoghue novel is a little book called Kissing the Witch, which is a series of intertwined fairy tale retellings that work so subtly on a whole bunch of different levels—women's issues, and history, and how we create art, make choices, forgive, or do not forgive. Her newest, which is released on April 1, is a historical novel set in 1876, in San Francisco. It is a mystery, which is sort of an ignore-this-new-book point for me, except for it sounds intriguing, and not classically mystery-esque.
All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I always get this author mixed up with Kim Edwards, who wrote The Memory Keeper's Daughter. They aren't the same person, but to me they sort of feel the same. Anyway, this is a novel about Paris during World War II, and the Museum of Natural History, and a boy caught up in the Hitler Youth program. It made me think of The Madonnas of Leningrad, a novel I loved, although they are probably nothing alike, but now when I try to recommend The Memory Keeper's Daughter to a patron at the library, I might first look up Debra Dean. Sometimes my mind works in circles.
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham. This is a novel about a fiancé who is suffering with cancer, and her betrothed who is trying to write her a love song (without using drugs), and his brother who might've seen God, or at least something as equally ethereal, in the sky above Central Park. Reading about people with cancer helps me feel less afraid of getting cancer. Is that weird? At any rate, Cunningham's writing is always impeccable and beautiful. It's what I mean when people ask me "what kind of book do you like to read?" and they expect me to say "science fiction" or "romance" or some other genre, and instead I answer "whatever is well written."
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. A while ago, I decided that I am done with reading first books in trilogies. It only frustrates me: you get to the end, and the author leaves you with a cliffhanger, and then you realize: oh. Not only is the sequel not quite released yet, the third book is being written right now. Then by the time I finally get to the top of the hold list for book #2, I've forgotten enough of the details of #1 that I sort of want to go back and re-read it before I read the sequel. In this way you could spend all of your reading time preparing for as-yet-unwritten novels (because, there's also the same reaction when #3 comes out.)
So unless I need to read a first-in-an-unfinished-trilogy book for work, I'm not starting any trilogies until the entire three-book sequence has been written. (I really wish Patrick Rothfuss would hurry up and finish his trilogy. I think I will love it.)
I hadn't decided that yet, though, when I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone (it was Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Storm which lead me to this choice) by Laini Taylor, which seriously: I loved. Loved. It felt just a little bit edgy but also, delightfully, not as derivative as much YA fantasy feels to me. It felt fresh. But I ignored the second book. Now I'm just biding my time until April 8th ish, when I will indulge myself in a re-reading of book #1, and then #2, and then #3. All in a row!
Falling out of Time by David Grossman. His book To the End of the Land is still on my TBR list, but I think I will get to this one first. It is about a father who, in grief, decides to walk in circles, looking for his dead son. Why am I drawn to books about loss? I have my suspicions, but for whatever reason they are a thing I can't get enough of. I don't mean that in a gleeful sense, but in the way you have a protracted relationship with a theme for your entire life, if you are an entire-life reader. Which I intend to be.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. This is only new in America—it was released in England last year. It is the story of a woman named Jake, who lives alone on a British island, tending sheep. Except...something is killing her sheep, one by one, at night. It probably is nothing alike, but the review made me think of Island of the Blue Dolphin and so now I am sort of obsessed about reading it.
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemming. Just yesterday, my friend at work was telling me about The Descendants and how much she liked it. (It is now on my TBR list.) But I think I want to read this one more: a mother tries to work through the grief of her 21-year-old son's death, when a woman appears who is pregnant with his son. Very much an Amy plot line.
The Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems. Even though Kaleb is really too old for them, we still check out all the new Pigeon books. We both love them!
Are there any new releases you're looking forward to?
When I stepped around it, toward the canyon and its beckoning river trail, the wind hit my face with that knify chilliness that only happens in spring. Maybe it's the contrast: it looked so beautiful out, with the bright blue sky and the wispy clouds and the mountain with a fresh white overlay of snow. You can't tell it's windy if the trees don't have leaves—and the light was so bright and beckoning.
The wind so threatening.
My stride faltered for a second. But then I took a deep breath, hit the START button on my watch, and started running.
I'm still working up to running for a full forty minutes. I'm following the doctor's advice and building up slowly. Last week, during two different runs, I ran an entire mile without walking. I did on Monday, too. Today, I'd worked up to running for five minutes, walking for two. I do five repeats of that, then add an extra five minutes for a total of forty. Instead of doing a full mile this time, I kept running for seven minutes during the third repeat.
All of which is to say: I don't really know how far I ran today. I do know, though, that I continue to struggle with the mental aspect of this recovery. I know my stride is different—more stilted and less confident. Every time I find myself forgetting to be afraid of falling and actually, thoroughly, enjoying the run, I yank my mind back to the possibility of an accident. It goes back to those moments right after I'd fallen, before I actually even pushed myself up off of the pavement, when my running psyche was filled with certainty that I'd fallen as a sort of punishment from the running gods: I wasn't ever cocky (impossible with a 8:45 pace), but I was confident. I felt fast. And strong. And then I fell and just like my ankle continues to carry the ache of a periosteal bruise, I can't quite rid myself of my insecurity.
There's also this fact: stopping to walk is frustrating. Only running short distances is, too. Mentally, I can keep going forever. Physically, not so much. My slow build up is doing what it is supposed to. My ankle hurts less. It feels weak less often. The muscles I tore don't ache all the time. It isn't back to normal, but at least it is improving. But my heart wants to go. My mind—even with all that fear—wants to go. And keep going.
So that's why, even with that bitter wind, I started running. (Also because I knew once I got into the narrower part of the canyon, the wind wouldn't be as bad.) And why I kept up my run/walk/run/walk pattern. Because I still need to move, and movement on a treadmill or an elliptical, while sustaining my body's needs, doesn't sustain my spirit. I need what I got today: the blue sky, the river getting louder, that white, pristine visage of Timp coming into and moving out of my perspective. The way, running up, the light hit the naked trees and made them glimmer. My sunglasses fogging when my face got too hot; eventually pushing up my long sleeves because without the wind, it was almost not chilly. The chilly gleam of frost still on the deeply shadowed parts of the trail, and the pale filtered sunlight fragments shattering around the trees. I wasn't the only one who felt it; ever runner I met said a friendly "hello," as if they, too, needed to share how this felt. This moving in the beautiful world.
This exuberance of spring-fed joy.
I made it back to the parking lot without falling (although I did nearly go down when I ran across a wooden bridge that was still icy). I finished my forty minutes. And I felt filled. Refueled, even. I sat on the cement bridge near the parking lot to stretch, and I breathed in deep: fresh air, sunshine. Running has taught me many things, and in this season it is teaching me something else. Patience, I suppose. The willingness to do what my body needs even when it contradicts my mind's needs. A growing knowledge of my own physical weakness, and how I won't always be able to do this—put on a pair of running shoes and go running. I want to keep running for as long as my body will let me.