Monthly Archives: January 2017

Artifacts to Memories: Books, Bookstores, and E.B.White

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My dear friend, Mary Blocksma, has started a year-long memoir-writing project, and has generously invited others to join in.

I admire Mary’s abilities as a writer. Her background of writing scholastic literature, as well as her sense of fun, make her children’s books some of the very best. An education in library science and research shows itself gracefully – alongside her love of nature – in books about the flora and fauna of forests and shorelines. Her ability to put words together – in poetry or creative writing – often takes my breath away. Mary is also a skilled teacher and editor. This was an opportunity I could not pass up!

The method Mary is using for pulling out and writing about a lifetime of memories is genius: she uses objects collected or saved throughout her life as a jumping-off point. As a fellow “saver” (I shy away from saying “hoarder”) I know that objects are saved for the life events and heart-strings attached to them. Why not use them, then, for the memories that they hold? So, that is the premise.

Mary is calling her excavation “My Life as a Dig,” and has already, in this new year, written several lovely essays. I am planning to devote one of my writing days each week to the project, under the title “Artifacts to Memories.” And here I go!

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I was a twenty-four year old “re-entry” college student, already a wife and the mother of two young daughters, when I first entered a good bookstore. My friend Linda and I had driven off the campus of Mott Community College during a break between classes. Downtown Flint, Michigan was an exciting and welcoming place in the mid-seventies. Interesting shops and little galleries were tucked in among novel restaurants and bars. We were on our way to Hat’s Pub for lunch. Their julienne salad was a lovely mound of matchstick sliced vegetables, meats and cheeses; vegetarian pizza was piled high with alfalfa sprouts; the bohemian atmosphere of the place was always fun.

Walking from the parking lot to the pub, we came upon a little corner bookstore: Young & Welchan’s. We might have missed it, if it weren’t for the stacks of books organized in neat piles and rows on tables on either side of the door. Beautiful books! Hardcover books! Brand new! With price tags that stunned me: $2.95; $4.95; ninety-nine cents! As a student, I was spending a great deal of money each semester on textbooks; I was haunting the campus library for other required reading. As a fairly new (proud) member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, I knew the value of a hardcover book! I had never come upon “remaindered” books before. This was amazing!

There, like a gift from the heavens, was E.B.White. My English teacher had just been reading excerpts of his work! She had been glorifying him as “comparible to Henry David Thoreau,” and “one of the finest essayists of the 20th century!” And right here, in front of me, were Poems and Sketches of E.B.White and Essays of E.B.White…priced at $3.99 each. Even with my meager budget, I could manage that! I bought both books. That was the beginning.

Those two books were the start of a lifetime of accumulating books. I have a section on my shelves for E.B.White, others for Maxine Hong Kingston, Evan S. Connell and Annie Dillard. They sit among treasured individual books of essays or poetry. I have a nice selection of books on paring-down, cleaning-up, organization and simplification. I don’t believe any of that information applies to books!

E.B.White became – and still holds the position of – one of my most treasured writers. I have read, I think, everything he has written at least twice. His essays about life on a saltwater farm in rural Maine influenced my thoughts on farming, gardening and rural life. “Death of a Pig” is one of my read-aloud favorites. Without E.B.White, I doubt I would have ever ended up out in the country with a big garden, on Beaver Island!

Young & Welchan’s became the first “favorite bookstore” in my life. It taught me what to look for, in a good bookstore. There should be a wide range of books on many subjects, organized so that it’s easy to find an area of interest, and a literate staff to assist when needed. There should be benches and comfortable chairs for browsing…and browsing should not be discouraged. There should be coffee. And the entrance should always have neat piles and rows of good books at amazing prices…to welcome the uninitiated.

 

Life Goes On

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I have a lot of writing to do today.

First, this writing, because Sunday is one of the three days a week I committed to writing a blog in this new year  This is a pleasure! Have I mentioned how much I miss daily writing? Though it took time and energy that could have well been spent in other (sorely neglected) areas of my life, and it was time to take a pause, I enjoyed having a forum to voice my opinions, complaints and random thoughts on a daily basis. I find myself, now, thinking in sentences and workable paragraphs, as if my thoughts and actions are only legitimate if I could write them down. That, alone, tells me I need a break!

I also have writing to do for work. Today – a day off now that hours at the hardware have been cut for the winter months – is the day I promised my daughter that I would finish all the stories and articles we need to complete the next issue of the Beacon. That will allow her to finish putting it together (in stolen hours that she ekes out for me between other jobs and obligations) so that we can go to press. At that point, we are still two to three weeks away from having the issue out. And, as usual, we are behind schedule. So, my day’s focus is set.

As is often the case, when outside forces determine the scope of my day, my mind rebels. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking of all the things I would rather do today. I was quick to label each of them (and there were many!) with “should”s and “ought to”s and “really need to”s to reinforce my argument. I’m great at that! What helps is that all of it is true: my house could use a deep cleaning; the studio needs work; I should be getting things done in the studio; I should exercise…or at least get the big dog out for a walk; the list goes on and on.

Next, I play through all of my grievances. Though we’ve been putting many hours and a lot of energy into sending out bills (“Time that could be better spent covering events…or writing,”I tell myself), the return is often slow, and not sufficient. I have still not collected enough to repay the money I borrowed to cover the printing costs two issues ago! I have not been able to reimburse myself for more than a fraction of my continual contribution to keeping this publication alive.

Still, there are always – usually legitimate – complaints: not enough news; too little sports coverage; not enough politics. Yesterday, someone made a comment to someone – who then came and told me – that I’m not getting the Beacon out in a timely fashion. This, along with every single negative comment, plays on my mind and robs me of energy. Tell me something positive, and I will write it off a trivial; tell me something I could improve upon, and I will treat it like gospel, and worry over it for weeks. I’m terrific at that!

Next, my body rebels. First, after my midnight sojourn with procrastination tactics, grievance and complaints, I overslept. I woke up with a headache, stiff muscles and a sore back. “I am in no shape to be sitting at that desk all day,” I told myself, “I should be resting.” Finding reasons why work is impossible: I’m pretty good at that, too.

What I am not great at is just knuckling down to the task at hand. That is what I have to do!

Timeout for Art: Not Yet

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Though I had (HAVE!!!) the best of intentions about getting into the studio this year, it hasn’t happened yet. Though I decided not to go to a township meeting last night – that I really should have attended – in order to make one last-ditch effort to get something new going so that I could present it (“even just the bare, embryonic beginnings,” I told myself “…no matter how rough or amateurish…something NEW!”) today…still nothing. By the time I got home from work, walked the dogs in the freezing cold, made soup to pack for my lunch, fed the dogs and made my own dinner, I was losing hope. I still had dishes to do. I was tired. I wanted a bath. So….nothing new. Not yet.

[The More Things]Change…

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Three days into the new year, and in my life things haven’t changed much. I spent the last two days in – mostly – slothful decadence, resolutions be damned.

I read – a lot. I finished two books and got halfway through a third. I caught up on the blogs that I follow, read through three months worth of saved magazines, and read the BBC news each day. I had long, enjoyable telephone conversations with friends and family. I watched movies: DoubtEverestMao’s Last Dancer. I watched two episodes of Chicago Code on Netflix, and That Sugar Film on Amazon. I played quite a few games of on-line Scrabble. I wrote and posted a blog on Sunday, and am doing it again today (yesterday, I missed writing, and found myself putting thoughts and events into workable sentences in my mind all day). I managed to accomplish – though minimally – a few things that were on my list to specifically work at this year.

I walked two miles each day. I kind of let that go when the weather turned bitter and the roads turned to ice at the same time that I came down with a cold. Winter is too long to indulge myself that way. It is still cold, and I still have a cough and a rattle in my chest, but I bundled up, put on my “ice-walkers” and got out there. My sore muscles tell me it was about time!

I started a new diet. I was planning to try the Whole 30 plan, which involves giving up all legumes, grains, sugar and dairy for 30 days. The more I read about it, the more I felt that – for me – it was a set-up for failure.  In the end I opted for a less drastic plan. I have given up sugar. That is drastic enough considering that most packaged foods contain it in some form, and that almost all grains (which convert to sugar) are out as well. That means no pasta, no bread, no rice, no oatmeal. No potatoes, except for sweet potatoes. No corn. No bottled salad dressing, even. So, even though it’s more do-able than the Whole 30 – which was going to eliminate just about every single thing in my diet – it is still a challenge.

I managed “Cleaning Time” every day, though I certainly did not get to any of the deep cleaning and clearing out projects that I’d intended. I kept the dishes and laundry moving through sink and washing machine, cleaned up other messes as they happened (mostly snow and ice brought in on boots and paws, and a spill or two) and scoured the bathroom fixtures. That’s it. In fact, I have a long list of things to finish up today, just to feel like I managed to accomplish my normal days-off cleaning projects.

My long list of things to do on this (three days in a row!) time off has all been saved for today. The last day. When I also have to get to the bank, the post office, the grocery store, the transfer station and Aunt Katie’s, to scrub her floors. In that way, life is the same now, in 2017, as it has been for the many years before.

I still make big plans, and I still feel disappointment when I don’t get everything done. I’ve had the conversation with myself, sure, that what I should actually work on changing is the disappointment. Accepting myself, mess that I am, would be a better thing to work on. I’m not quite there yet. For now, I continue to work toward becoming a better (read: more organized; neater; more accomplished) person. And, as usual, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Onward, into the new year!

…on to the New Year

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I’ve been looking over my blog entries for January 1st. It’s amazing how little things have changed in my life over the last several years, when it comes to aspirations for the new year. From 2013:

“Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t  stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

~Neil Gaiman

I’m sure I’ll have a list of new (old) goals and resolutions before the day is out. I’m big on fresh starts, turning over a new leaf, beginning again. As a child, I was the one – when things didn’t go as planned – crying, “Let’s start over!” Certainly there are encounters I wish I could re-do. Days that could have been better spent. Hell, there are entire chapters of my life I wish I could over-write! My list, I’m sure, will reflect all of that. More patience, organization,  devotion to heath  and heart and spirit, more letter writing…less sloth, mindlessness and temper.

For this moment, on this first morning of 2013, though, I want to sit here at peace with myself. I want to embrace this person that I am, with all of my short-comings and all of my flaws. I want to be comfortable with my mistakes, past, present and future. I want to love myself for the flawed, good-hearted being that I am, nothing more. Simple acceptance. May you find it, too!

Here I am, once again, at the desk. This will be my three hundred and sixty-eighth consecutive post. Whew! It has been quite a year. This has been quite a commitment, and one huge accomplishment in my life. I’m pretty proud of myself. Encouraged, too.

Though I try hard to give a different impression, I have always believed myself to be somewhat lazy, and kind of a quitter. Not so negative as it sounds, really, I just tend to have a lot of interests, am kind of scatter-brained, and spread myself way too thin. So, I don’t give things, generally, the time or attention they deserve, I get tired of doing things in a “half-assed” manner, so burn out, give up, or quit.

That wasn’t the case with this writing commitment. My goal was to put out an average of five hundred words a day. I worked at finding subject matter that would engage…me, mostly, so that I could write with honesty and feeling. It was a bonus when my topic struck a chord with others.

My “52 Lists Project” on Sundays, and “Timeout for Art” on Thursdays helped to project me through the week. Beyond those, I tried to stay away from the “cheats” of re-posting an old blog, or of posting just a poem or quote from another writer. I planned ahead for vacations, or times when I might not have access to a computer. I often sat down without a plan and struggled to get something written. At other times, I woke up with something to say, and couldn’t wait to get it down.

Daily writing did become a habit, over the course of the year. It got easier, as time went on. I got better at it, too. I’d like to think my writing skills improved, and maybe they did. Mostly, though, I got pretty good at just sitting down and doing it. The follow through, and successful completion of a commitment, is what I am most pleased with. It opens up a lot of other possibilities. I have more confidence in my ability to set a big goal, and finish it. It’s a good way to start this new year.

In order to give quality time to other things I want to pursue, I won’t be writing every day in 2017. However, I also don’t want to fall back into the “two or three times a week…or when I really feel like it” habit. To keep up the discipline of a writing habit, I’m going to commit to three days a week: Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Thursdays will still be devoted to art, and I’m planning to have new and exciting work to talk about. One day will be devoted to a memoir-writing project that author (and friend) Mary Blocksma is sponsoring. The third day will be devoted to my usual nonsense.

That’s it, though, for reflection, self-congratulation and plans for the future. Now, I want to take the advice of my 2013 self, as I look forward to 2017:

I want to sit here at peace with myself. I want to embrace this person that I am, with all of my short-comings and all of my flaws. I want to be comfortable with my mistakes, past, present and future. I want to love myself for the flawed, good-hearted being that I am, nothing more. Simple acceptance.

Happy New Year!