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Saturday, March 30, 2013

If I Could Choose (One of These Two Worlds)

Yesterday, Friday morning, we went to Northport early and loaded the truck up yet again with boxes of books from storage to donate to Goodwill. (Gotta shrink that footprint! Clear the way for workmen and new tenants!) David had other errands in Traverse City, too, so before noon he left on his appointed rounds. Bruce was on the job by 11 o’clock, and I went out then, on foot around Northport, to post and distribute announcements for my bookstore’s first author event of the season, which we will be holding across the street at Brew North and of which you will hear much more very soon. (Hint: She walked another thousand miles!) The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was a lovely day to be out and about in my little village, quiet this week with the school on spring break.

When I got back to Dog Ears, there was my new French correspondent, Ed, in town for the holiday weekend. Ed is studying French through Alliance Française and had written to me in French to practice his new language skills. But what was this? He had brought me a beautiful bouquet of bright tulips and an Easter basket containing, besides chocolate eggs and bunnies, a dozen fresh farm eggs from his own chickens! Does the CEO of the online behemoth book-and-everything-else-seller get Easter baskets from his customers, baskets topped with beautiful pale green* eggs? I seriously doubt it! (*Ed’s chickens are Ameraucana, A North American breed developed from the South American Auraucana.)

Next my friend Ellen arrived to take me to lunch, and she also brought bright, beautiful tulips! (We were celebrating my birthday a few days early.) Luckily, although shelf and table space is at a premium during these days of transition, I’d cleared away most of the temporary bookstore chaos earlier in the morning, so it was possible to find room for two vases of flowers.

While Ellen and I were at lunch, Bruce greeted customers and sold books, basking in the sunny front window, with Sarah relaxing in a nearby chair. Everyone was happy. That was Friday in a real bookstore.

In the virtual book world on the same day, life was not as bright and cheerful. The big news there was that the aforementioned online behemoth has swallowed up booklovers’ favorite social network! How could this be? Reaction ranged from somewhat suspicious speculation to sheer outrage.

“Will you write about it on your blog?” David asked. I told him I’d mention it and put in a couple of links but that I had no plans to discuss the buy-out at length or in depth, nor to offer my own opinions or speculations or predictions. There will be more than enough tweeting and twittering and shouting and quacking without my little voice added to (and lost in) the din.

I have my own little book world, and it’s very personal. In July I will be celebrating 20 years of Up North bookselling, face to face with my customers. My way of bookselling is old-fashioned. It is not innovative, and I am not on the “cutting edge.” On the other hand, my dog goes to work with me, people bring me flowers and eggs and chocolate, and I don’t think anyone actually hates me. After all, it’s not part of my business to put other booksellers out of business.

To sum up, as friends in New South Wales might put it, “Change places with that big CEO? Not for quids! Fair dinkum!”

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nightmares of Repetition

Many, many years ago, back when the minimum wage was $1.15/hour or less, I held a part-time job at the Lansing Civic Center. What our crew did depended on the event. For a circus or a country Western concert, we sold popcorn, hot dogs, coffee and soft drinks; for formal events we checked hats. Yes, hats. Even in those early post-Kennedy years, older men still wore hats. In cold weather, we checked coats, too, and if the weather happened to be rainy, oh, no! Umbrellas!

An evening in the coat check room involved one long spell of quiet, with little to do but chat and read, book-ended by two episodes of absolute frenzy. First came the rush of arrivals, with coats piling up on the counter almost faster than they could be checked in; we ran and scurried, arms loaded sometimes up to our noses with coats! That heart-thumping activity was followed by the lull of the event itself, interrupted only occasionally by a visit from someone needing something from a coat pocket or by an early departure. At the end of the evening came the madness of the exodus, men crowded and squeezed around the counter, handing their numbers over the heads of other men, shouting to direct us to coats and hats. Most tossed tips into the aluminum pie plates on the counter when handed their coats and/or hats and/or umbrellas. Tips! We never got tips during the circus when we were selling hot dogs! There was, however, a price to be paid for the “easy money” of the coat check room, because after such an evening came the dreams.

Any tedious, repetitious activity can infiltrate the dream state, lengthening a day’s labor and extending it through the hours of what should be rest. And so, back then, during sleep, the work continued, coat after coat after coat, hat after hat — until someone insisted that he’d checked a hat, but I could find no hat matching his number! Panic! Umbrellas went missing in the coat check nightmares, too. Because it is the dream state itself, not its content, that determines what will be a nightmare, what will roil the stomach, bring cold sweat to the skin, and send the mind into panic.

Last week and this, at my bookstore, my husband and I have been sorting books, boxing books for donation and recycling, moving furniture, loading some furniture to deliver to a consignment store, sorting books, boxing books, moving books, sorting, boxing, moving. 

How will the bookstore’s reduced floor space accommodate what survives the cut, and how can our best books most effectively be displayed? Backs ache, and legs and arms quiver by late afternoon. It’s exhausting. And then in my dreams, night after night, I continue moving tables and bookcases and shifting books, by subject, from one area of the shop to another. Was valuable inventory inadvertently scrapped? Oh, no!!! Panic!

The fun of transition!
From these silly, tiring dreams I wake in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, and get up to read for a while, then return to bed for a couple more unconscious hours, until the packing and moving dreams again become so intolerable that they interrupt sleep. Morning. Pre-dawn light in the sky. Might as well get up. Sigh!

What would it be like to work for a moving company, for heaven’s sake? To do nothing day after day but move furniture and boxes? Would a person ever manage to have decent, interesting dreams?

This too shall pass.

Smaller view will mean more wall space
Long before summer arrives, the new wall will be in place and freshly painted. Pictures will be rehung and bookcases and tables of beautiful books redistributed. A new street entrance will welcome our customers. Everything will look fresh and new and welcoming.

Then, in June, I can start dreaming about sowing seeds and watering and mowing and weeding! If I’m lucky, I’ll also have dreams of exploring woods and fields with Sarah and of alfresco dinners beneath the linden trees with David and friends.

Violets will bloom again soon....

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
By Kristopher Jansma
NY: Viking, 2013

[Caveat: I am not now nor have I ever been an “English major,” and I have scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of this book before writing my own. Literary critics will be able to analyze the elements in this work much more thoroughly than I can do. I am merely a reader and a bookseller, writing here for other readers.]

We first meet the narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards in an “Author’s Note” that appears to precede but almost immediately reveals itself as the beginning of the novel itself. In the brief “Note,” the narrator describes a time in his boyhood when he was not much more than eight years old (“not yet” a writer), and he tells of the first story he wrote -- and lost -- at about that time. Clearly, his young self was the “unnamed boy detective” in his childish story, but clearly, also, the story is invented: the boy detective solves a mystery, turns black marketeer, becomes rich, and secures for himself the friendship of wealthy siblings Xavier and Yvette. The reader has no reason to accuse the narrator of being “unreliable” for presenting the synopsis of what was clearly a fictional tale – a fiction within a fiction, of course, a story made up by a character in a novel. After all, fiction itself is not generally “unreliable.” We accept its world as if it were real, not because we believe every event in a novel is fact.
The best novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real. You hold your breath as Raskolnikov approaches his neighbor with a raised ax. You weep when no one comes to Gatsby’s funeral. And when you realize you are being so well fooled, you love the author all the more for it.
And what young child, left in the casual care of airport shopkeepers until his mother, an airline attendant, returns from her job – what young child in those circumstances would not make up stories to comfort himself?
. . . It is important to be comfortable when you’re just a small boy, alone in a big place. He’ll change, but this fact never truly will. He’ll go on, day after day, unsure if he’s all that different from the day before. Later he’ll look back at the things that are happening now and he’ll think they are almost like something he read about.
For the writer -- for any writer -- fiction borrows from life and invades life in turn.

In the first chapter of the novel proper, the narrator meets his iconic “rich girl,” Betsy, and in the following (freshman year of college) becomes acquainted with his wealthy, eccentric, gifted, lifelong friend and literary competitor. Julian, it turns out, has a close female friend, one who is almost a sister to him, and when Evelyn appears she is the reincarnation of the first chapter’s Betsy. Throughout the book the triumvirate meets at various exotic world locales, their names changing but their identities constant as the narrator continually reinvents himself and reinvents his friends, in search of a way to turn their conjoined stories into literature. And at the same time, Julian is doing the same thing. Who will succeed at best capturing their real lives in a literary work?

Have I made this novel sound too much like a writer writing about writing? That’s a major theme but not the only one, for the various fictions within the fiction are themselves entertaining romps. It cannot be an accident that the female character aspires to the stage. Are all three acting for each other in scene after scene? 

After a while I stopped thinking of Jansma’s novel as postmodern and began to see it as harking back to the English tradition typified by Henry Fielding’s picaresque Tom JonesLike the character Tom Jones, the narrator of this novel is a social outsider who falls in love with an apparently unattainable girl/woman, but -- also like Tom Jones -- his love for the rich girl does not stop him from becoming involved with other girls and women more easily within his reach. Jansma’s narrator is clearly more rogue or trickster than classical hero; he undergoes many trials and has a great many adventures; the plot is complex, and the humor swings through the gamut from comedy through farce to satire.
And for this imperfect immortality, what prices have been paid? . . . How many children deserted, family secrets betrayed, sordid trysts laid out for strangers to see? . . . How many flawed pages burned in disgust and reduced to ashes? How many flawless moments observed from just a slight distance so that, later, we might reduce them to words? All with the unspoken prayer that these hard-won truths might outlast the brief years of our lies.
So far I have left untouched the question of an “unreliable narrator” and whether or not this central character fits the bill. Jansma's narrator is not delusional or brain-damaged or too young or naive to describe his world, and even as the novel proceeds and he presents himself to others with borrowed names, backgrounds, and credentials, we the readers are privy to the deceptions he practices. We are not taken in by his lies.

The airport, the gold watch, the absence of clocks in Terminal A and the wall of clocks in Terminal B, and a lost manuscript: Here is where we enter the house of mirrors, and here, again, is where we leave the narrator and his nested, changeling stories. Are we right back where we started? Between beginning and end are many games of checkers, as well as references to leopards with unchangeable and undetectable spots. Can the characters learn without changing?

I found the ending satisfying, but to understand why you will have to read the book yourself. If you are up for a crazy ride through a house of mirrors, jump on this train!

And now, excuse me. I've committed myself to these words and am now giving myself permission to read what others have written about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Guest Blogger: Ken Writes Memorial of Chinua Achebe

by Kenneth Wylie, Ph.D.

Chinua Achebe was the most successful of African novelists of our generation writing in English for good reason. His amazingly successful books, especially Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People, evoked a world of dramatic change, from the time of his grandparents when the Ibo homeland was conquered and ruled by the British, through his own era of independence and a terrible civil war. His greatest achievement was to link straightforward chronological narratives (such as we live) with Aristotelian tragedy, so subtle that many early readers, particularly some of his own generation of African writers, accused him of playing to a European or non-African audience.

He strongly defended his use of English for reasons that now seem obvious -- that it was obviously the language of common discourse among educated Africans, not to mention the entire world, and that a revelation of what Africans living in pre-industrial societies (across the continent) were his targets as well. The careful simplicity of his narratives, of characters who might seem too obvious stereotypes (the tragic Okonkwo a prime example) living within already eroded traditional religious and tribal worlds, and even of European overlords (barely outlined, and not real actors in his works), actually made his work, in particular Things Fall Apart, a small book, stand out as a huge artifact of loss and change. It was not by chance that he chose Yeats's The Second Coming
as his title.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Certainly there are almost sociological passages that chart small but memorable elements of Ibo life, when his grandparents’ generation were conquered and brought under military authority and when his major characters react, via simplified but memorable acts (from the perspective of Greek tragedy) that lead to awful consequences. His African critics accused him of exactly that. But Achebe, in successfully revealing the peaks and valleys of Ibo culture just at and during the coming of the white man, managed to avoid the pitfalls of some of his contemporaries, who would present the African past as idealized, if not romantic, and the ugly colonial era as unmitigated evil. Instead, he explained in later talks and writings, he only aimed at simple (therefore memorable) objectives, to create a sense of real everyday life among his people (including his own time in later works) and to display their struggles by almost set piece conflicts and  conundrums from their point of view, without aiming to please either his own or those in the outer world who read him. He never fell into the trap of anti-racist essentialism, wherein all things African were better. In that accomplishment I think Achebe lifted his characters and the times they lived in to true art, to revelations of insistent tragedy, but in backgrounds of ordinary mundane life.

None of his characters is heroic, but the chi, the personal deity of his people, through all his books, is able to transcend. In that at least, I believe, millions of readers, in places far beyond Nigeria, found his straightforward narrative compelling. It was not hard to teach his work in classes ranging from History to Anthropology. It was accessible, in that it spoke directly to everyday human experience

I won't try to rank him, among African or world writers, for many great ones have come along since his time, but he is high on my list.


Kenneth C. Wylie, a freelance writer, served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone,1961-63, has studied and travelled in Africa over five decades, including several trips in the '90s to Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and is the author of several books including An Enchanting Darkness, (with Dennis Hickey, MSU Press, 1993, still in print). He received his Ph.D. in African History in 1967 at Michigan State University and his B.A. from Albion College in 1960. He has taught at Wayne State University, Lehman College of CUNY, the Maritime College of SUNY, and Michigan State University. He has published pieces on wildlife and the environment ranging from the Common Crow to the vanishing legend of Bigfoot. He is also the author of a short collection of poems centered on the magnificent landscape around his rural home near Traverse City.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Old Question Asked Again -- The Book or the Movie?

The film "A Lesson Before Dying," starring the incomparable Don Cheadle. was based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines.  I couldn't help thinking, when reading the book recently, that it would make a powerful movie, and I'd thought about how I would depict various parts of the story -- for instance, the event at the store that takes place before the book starts but almost has to be the beginning of the movie -- so I was interested to see how the film had been done and happy to have a chance to watch it on DVD only days after being immersed in the world of the book.

Horizons are not wide for the people in the black Louisiana community that is the setting for both book and movie. This claustrophobic world is seen directly in the film, where tall fields of cane wall in the roads, houses in the quarter are small and dark, and prisoners’ cells in the old courthouse building are like cages in a zoo. To stay there in Louisiana, his own teacher had told Grant Wiggins, would mean his defeat and possibly his death, so if he wants to save his own life he must leave the South. Mr. Wiggins, or “Professor,” as many call him, wants to leave but is kept home for now while he waits for the woman he loves to be divorced from the husband who abandoned her and her children, and his frustrations increase when his old auntie and her friend, the godmother of a young man in their community sentenced to death, insist on his involvement in the young man’s last days.

Several characters and incidents in the book were not included in the movie, and while I understand that film has to compress a story, I was disappointed that Paul, the one white deputy who treated Jefferson with respect and who came to wanting friendship with the teacher (also, the only nonracist white character), was left out of the movie. In this story no one person has all the answers, but several have something to contribute, and they make these contributions by listening and reaching out to each other. The teacher has as many lessons to learn as the prisoner, and the deputy also learns from the relationship that grows between the two black men.

Another character in the book passed over in the film is the young girl who takes over the schoolroom when the teacher is called away. Vivian, Grant’s beautiful girlfriend, thinks Grant's student is in love with him, but he tells her no, she is just looking to him to be a savior, like everyone else. (Isn’t this often part of a student’s infatuation with a teacher?) Expectations of family and community weigh heavily on Grant Wiggins, and what he does with the burden and how it changes him is as much a part of the story as Jefferson’s transformation.

In the end, Jefferson goes to the electric chair on schedule. (The movie ends before his execution; the book continued through it.) He had not killed anyone, but he is executed as a murderer nonetheless. From the beginning of the story Jefferson’s death was never in doubt, but in the end he goes to his death like a man, as his godmother wished him to do, knowing he was a man and knowing that people cared about him, and that, as the author presents it, is an important victory for him and his community. He was not a mindless "hog" (the comparison was made by his defense attorney in an attempt to avoid the guilty verdict) but an upright man. The story is what happens between the verdict and the execution, to both the convicted man and his teacher. Theirs is hardly a straight or easy road. It is hard, it is slow, there are numerous setbacks – it is life, condensed into a few weeks. Every day, every sentence, every word spoken by the characters counts.

The movie is very good, but if anyone had to choose between novel and film, I’d advise reading the novel. There is always so much in the pages of a book that cannot be translated to screen, for one thing. And while the film does an excellent job presenting the visual aspects of the story, the beauty of the actors almost distracts from the characters’ struggles at times. Most significantly, however, the movie doesn’t have time for all the dialogue in the book, and in the writing of Ernest J. Gaines, “action” mostly occurs in dialogue.

The other Gaines novel I read after this one, A Gathering of Old Men, also begins after a shooting, so that the story is not the shooting itself but about – and again, this is revealed in characters’ speaking -- lifetimes spent in discouragement and humiliation. The most important act of the old men's lives is this act of finally standing up, each old man claiming to have been the shooter. In A Lesson, Jefferson had to walk like a man. In A Gathering, the old men had to stand up like men at last. It's the standing up and walking that are important. As the teacher told Jefferson, we're all going to die. It's how you live and how you treat those who love you that matters. 

Dialogue is even more important in A Gathering than in A Lesson, with characters telling their lives and constantly challenging one another, and a reader hears this dialogue mentally while reading, almost like watching a play or a movie. It’s the importance of dialogue that made imagining both books as movies irresistible. But nothing is missing in the books, I realize, after having seen the excellent film version of A Lesson Before Dying, because as we read, we see the movie in imagination, fuller than any film can be, even with the best actors.

Ernest J. Gaines: If you haven’t read any of his books, pick one up soon. Read the book first, and then see the movie. It's worth seeing, just not a substitute for reading the novel.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Season of Transition

This was spring 2010.
Officially, spring begqn early this year, on the 20th instead of, as often happens, on the 21st. Yesterday. Spring? Does it look like spring?

This is spring 2013.

This year's is a leonine spring, fierce and wild and treacherous, in terms of visibility, road surfaces, and pedestrian footing. On the other hand, it's better for orchard and field crops and lake levels than last year's early thaw, followed by blizzard and freeze, so we wait patiently, confident that winter will not last forever. After all, it never has as long as we've been alive. 

It's a busy time, anyway, despite the lack of crowds in Northport. The building that houses Dog Ears Books has a new owner, and Clare (who will be moving her gallery from the Depot to Waukazoo Street before April is over) is making lots of changes, some of them affecting the bookstore. We'll have a new wall between gallery and bookstore, an interior door between the two, and our own new sidewalk entrance next to the law office front door. The door in the photo below will then serve as gallery entrance, no longer opening directly into the bookstore. Don't worry -- it won't be confusing when you see how it works out.

Current bookstore entrance . . . 

Meanwhile, there are carpenters at work in the gallery, and before they start on the new wall I have a lot of furniture and books to move. My sprawling, out-of-control storage area also has to be seriously downsized and contained within a restricted space. It's good. Clutter accumulates to fill available space, and I seriously need to pare down. It's time to purge, purge, purge! 

Spring cleaning -- isn't that a traditional activity for this time of year?

Monday, March 18, 2013

To Worry or Not to Worry, and If Not, How Not

Today’s topic: WORRY! Why do we do it, and how can we stop? I will be very interested in responses on today’s post (if anyone has the patience to wade through the whole thing), not just agreement or disagreement, but additions, clarifications, problems, alternate hypotheses, or whatever else comes to minds.

Thesis: Worry Is Superstition

I have done more than my share of worrying, starting in childhood, but have cut back considerably in recent years. Lately, instead of worrying so much, I’ve been thinking about worrying and its role in our lives, trying to figure out what function it could possibly play — other than the very important function of getting us to take preventive and remedial measures when a problem presents itself -- and what I’ve come to believe is that we worry so much because we are superstitious.

Positive changes that worry can spark, such as changing one’s diet or wearing a seatbelt or getting enough exercise or paying bills on time, are excellent reasons for initial unease. What I’m talking about is the needless fretting we continue to engage in when we’ve done everything we can possibly do — or, worse, instead of taking positive steps to eliminate the cause for concern. Do this thought experiment: Separate worry from the action it prompts. Imagine yourself taking the logical course of action but still worrying. Why? How can worry possibly add anything to the elimination of the outcome you dread?

“I can’t help it!”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a slave to worry any more than I want to be a slave to anger or fear or alcohol or caffeine or credit card debt. Saying “No, thank you” to worry, though, isn’t as simple as turning down a beer. This is part of what prompted my thinking about the problem. (Think, think, think, think.... Maybe I should start again?)

Again, the working hypothesis I’ve come up with is that the base of worry is superstition. If you are skeptical, please play along with me a little further.

Superstitions are interesting in themselves, persisting in the most educated of countries and individuals. Why do so many tall buildings lack a designated thirteenth floor? There is no reason other than superstition about the number 13. Note that numbering the floors of tall buildings only occurs in  cultures usually considered, in other ways, “advanced” – no buildings that tall in so-called “primitive” communities – and yet the superstition persists in a very powerful way. 

Here’s how The Encarta World English Dictionary associated with my Word program defines ‘superstition’:
1.    an irrational but usually deep-seated belief in the magical effects of a particular action or ritual, especially in the likelihood that good or bad luck will result from performing it  2.   irrational and often quasi-religious belief in and reverence for the magical effects of certain actions and rituals of the magical power of certain objects
So worry, as I’m seeing it, is a mental ritualWhen we worry, we vividly imagine exactly the outcome we fervently wish will not come about. But why would we do that?

Let’s look at an example. A common response to a medical diagnosis is “How much should I worry?” or “How worried should I be?” The question is asked in all seriousness – and let’s think about that for a moment. The patient is not asking how many ounces of water he should be drinking every day or how much time she should put into an exercise program or what medications are indicated or any number of questions that would make perfect sense, but what portion of mental energy should be devoted to worrying. The more you think about it, the stranger the question becomes. The patient is seeking to proportion worry to the seriousness of his or her condition, as if the mental activity of worrying will have some beneficial effect on the physical condition. The issue here is not what the patient should do, faced with the diagnosis. That is a separate and perfectly rational question.

As I try to tease apart this mystery, it seems to me that we hold a vague, unconscious, and unreflective belief that by worrying we feel we are making time payments to ward off future disaster. Pay now, play later! The focus of a worry, remember, is an undesirable outcome (or, all too often, multiple undesirable outcomes on a variety of fronts); thus worrying is suffering in advance that we feel should be subtracted from the outcome. If my hypothesis is correct, this same unconscious belief explains our worry over loved ones, as well. If, for example, I worry myself sick over my son’s late return home, I am paying the price that might otherwise have to be paid by a terrible accident befalling him. Or so says my superstitious belief.

Here is how we might articulate the underlying, unreflective, usually unconscious line of reasoning in the case of the patient in the doctor’s office:
1. A condition or situation calls for my attention.2. Worry is a form of attention.3. The correct amount of mental energy devoted to worrying, therefore, will help to bring about a positive resolution of the condition or situation.
How many of us, if asked to defend pointless, distracted fretting, would make such an argument consciously? And yet, how else to explain the dysfunctional distraction and the pointless, narrow focus that goes way beyond constructive action and can very well get in the way of constructive action?

Is It Possible to Stop Worrying?

“Don’t worry about it!” Easier said than done! There must be something in the evolution of our brains that pulls us toward the narrow focus when we feel threatened. Focus on a problem, after all, can show us possible courses of action. So there is the old evolutionary answer to the Why? question. Worry, however, can just as easily get in the way of productive thinking, or persist beyond productive thinking and constructive action, and in that way it works against us rather than for us.

So yes, I do believe worry is natural -- and yes, I also believe it is a waste of energy. What’s the answer then? Are we just stuck in a bad evolutionary design? Is there no way out of this dilemma. Help!!!

Awareness is the first step to changing any habit. Since focus is the problem, then, it seems clear that the next step will be to shift focus. How to make the shift will vary from one individual to another. Chop firewood? Meditate? Visit an elderly neighbor? Walk the dog? Dive into a remodeling project? The possibilities are endless. Sometimes just sharing concerns with a trusted friend weakens worry’s grip on imagination. Reality check!

When are you most vulnerable to worry? For me, it strikes hardest and worst in hours of darkness, in the middle of the night. I can lie still and keep my eyes closed and try to get back to sleep, but when worry is too strong I might just as well get up and out of bed. Sometimes a cup of cocoa and a book will relax me. Spending the time I wouldn’t otherwise have had on a writing project can turn sleeplessness to good use. Anything productive, even sorting laundry, is better than being paralyzed – because worry does tend to be paralyzing – and I’ll feel better just getting up on my feet.

When morning comes, a new course of action often reveals itself. Physical movement plus daylight jogs my brain, and I see a path hidden to me in darker hours. Then, if there’s something I can see to do, I do it, and if I can’t see any course of action to take in the worrisome area, I turn my attention to something else. Sometimes, after all, the worrisome aspect of life cannot be removed, but at the very least, if worry continues to sit like a cold stone in my heart as the day progresses, I can still get a few things done and feel better for having been productive, getting back my sense of agency – because it is the powerlessness of worry that is most distressing to me.

Looking to friends or family members from worry’s paralysis, we can all too easily perceive absence of worry on their part as absence of caring, seeing the distraught parent or friend in hysterics as more loving than the calm provider of mundane necessities and comforts, but “You should have been more worried about me!” is an accusation born of superstition.

Are you pleased when others worry about you? Do you feel that worrying about others shows you care? What about that vague feeling we almost never quite see clearly, that by worrying for a loved one we are doing something to bring about a positive outcome for that person? 


Here’s where I have recently come to a radical shift in my own point of view. Just as worrying about myself can imprison me negatively and get in the way of constructive action or healing or simple enjoyment of each day, I have come to believe that worrying about those I love is also a mistake and not good for them. Now, instead of showing and expressing worry, I seek to convey non-worry.

Does that sound heartless? Non-worry is not indifference. It is not telling a sufferer to “buck up and take it like a man” or “Stop whining—everyone has problems!” It is not—and I want to be very clear about this-- giving advice at all. It may accompany advice, if sufferer and comforter have that kind of relationship and wisdom, but non-worry may also be completely wordless.

Here’s an example: I was visiting a friend in the hospital and was present when she had to endure a painful blood draw. My old self, empathizing with her pain, would have clenched muscles in sympathy. I would have held my breath, my face showing nothing but worried concern. Would that have helped my friend? Would it have lessened her pain? Instead I tried something different, an idea came to me on the spot, and this is the first time I’ve told anyone about my what I did. Instead of tensing, I focused on relaxing my own body – hands, arms, breathing. What I wanted to do was to send calm to my friend. Moods can be contagious, I reasoned, and rather than add to her tension and fear, my aim was to reduce it.

Did it work? I have absolutely no idea. But could it possibly have made her pain worse? I don’t see how.

Not a Permanent Cure

What about falling back into old superstitious mental patterns? Well, of course! Over and over! Eating and sleeping and housework, mowing the grass and weeding the garden, all have to be done over and over – why should it be different with habits we want to conquer? Falling down isn’t the end of the world.

I will never be immune to worry. These days, though, acute episodes of short-lived panic (!!!) are a far more common feature of my mental life than endless days and nights of fretting. An unpleasant surprise or loss of control or difficult decision can throw me completely (if briefly) off-balance. But at least I will not be chewing it over endlessly and sinking into a bottomless pit. Anyway, if worry were a savings account, I would have millions in the bank by now!

Is that superstitious? To think I have a huge worry savings account? I said IF it were! If I’d had this insight at age 25, I don’t think I would be the poorer now for it.

But what do you think? Does my hypothesis of worry as superstition make sense to anyone else out there? Someone near and dear to me, a champion worrier, remains unconvinced, so I’m interested in what others think.

P.S. Can you tell by the length of this post how much worry I had to ward off???

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Wild Again, Beguiled Again, a Child Again

A wild carpet of moss glided beneath the colt’s flying feet. Squirrels, terrified by the thunder coming down on them, scurried to trees and climbed speedily for self-protection. A rabbit flattened himself out in a hollow. Black Sand raced through open areas, too, masses of wild flowers, dandelions and buttercups, a thousand colored heads, all dancing in the spring breeze.  
The path grew narrow with trees and brush closing in on them. Pam slowed Black Sand to a canter, careful that there were no obstacles in his path. Long, willowy branches slapped against her body.  
Suddenly, the colt reared, uttered an insane neighing shriek and, in a single leap, charged off the path. She managed to keep her seat, realizing what had happened. The tree branches had lashed him, and he had taken them for a whip. - Walter Farley, The Black Stallion and the Girl
Whenever I pick up a book like this, I am once again ten years old, lost in thrilling dreams. Isn’t that a wonderful gift, to be able to relive youth?

The most wonderful memory I have of my paternal grandfather is watching him read, after I told him what the book was about, The Black Stallion’s Filly, by Walter Farley. My grandfather and I shared a passion for horses, and as he read the story, his little granddaughter watching his face intently, beads of perspiration formed on his forehead. A racing aficionado, attending the Kentucky Derby every year with his eldest son, my Uncle Jim, my grandfather could not have been more completely absorbed by this fictional Derby account written for young people.

Back to The Black Stallion and the Girl:
Pam’s blood caught fire. She released her hold on his mouth. Never had she known anything like it, a furious, magnificent soaring flight! She pressed her face hard against his neck, her body light, almost fluid like his. She was one with him, flying with him, and she had no wish but to soar forever, wherever he would take her.
Also connected with my childhood reading of Walter Farley books are memories of the bookmobile driver who came to our little grade school every Tuesday. His name was Jay, and he always remembered which of the two little horse-crazy girls, my friend Kathleen and I, had had the new Walter Farley book first, so if I had been first to borrow the last one, it was Kathleen’s turn to be first with the next. When Jay died, my world was shaken. He was not an old man. It was my first experience of someone dying who was not old and who was an important friend.

Copy on the back cover of the paperback book in my hands says that this story was inspired by Mr. Farley’s own “free-spirited and horse-loving” daughter. Following the last page of the novel, I was happy to find, is a short biography of the author.
Walter Farley’s love for horses began when he was a small boy in Syracuse, New York, and continued as he grew up in New York City, where his family moved. Unlike most city children, he was able to fulfill this love through an uncle who was a professional horseman. Young Walter spent much of his time with this uncle, learning about the different kinds of horse training and the people associated with them.  
Walter Farley began to write his first book, The Black Stallion, while he was a student at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School and Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. He eventually finished it, and it was published in 1941 while he was still an undergraduate at Columbia University 
. . . . In his life he wrote a total of thirty-four books. . .  
Mr. Farley and his wife, Rosemary, had four children, whom they raised on a farm in Pennsylvania  and at a beach house in Florida. Horses, dogs and cats were always part of the household.  
In 1989 Mr. Farley was honored by his hometown library in Venice, Florida, which established the Walter Farley Literary Landmark in its children’s wing. Mr. Farley died in October 1989, shortly before the publication of The Young Black Stallion, the twenty-first book in the Black Stallion series. Mr. Farley co-authored The Young Black Stallion with his son, Steven.
The Black Stallion and the Girl was published by Yearling, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. Thanks to Yearling and to whoever wrote the biographical note at the end of the book. The story was thrilling – all Walter Farley’s horse stories are thrilling! – and it made me happy to read about his family life, too.

Friday, March 15, 2013

It's Time to Let Pictures Do More Work (Mystery Poet Included)

Fifth mystery poet offering to Dog Ears Books
Since I've been excessively wordy lately, it seems only kind to give my small, loyal readership a little break for the weekend. Here, then, is a post with lots of pictures, leading off with the latest bit of mail from our mystery poet in Metro Detroit. 

As always, the variety of stamps is a lovely treat. The poem inside is the briefest yet and quite sad --

-- fittingly, since it is a mourning dove doing the singing.

A Japanese poet would appreciate this offering, don't you think? And that gives me the segue to my next group of pictures, showing a beautiful, beautiful book. 

KATSURA: A PRINCELY RETREAT. Photographs by Takeshi Nishikawa and text by Akira Naito. Translation by Charles S. Terry. Tokyo, New York & San Francisco: Kodansha International Ltd., 1977, 1st edition hardcover with photograph dust jacket in elegant slipcase (Japan; architecture; history) 

The text author, professor of architecture Akira Naito, writes of the images in this book,

Takeshi Nishikawa spent nearly five years taking the photographs reproduced here. Visiting Katsura countless times, in all seasons and climes, he has created a realistic visual record of what he saw, making no effort to play up features that might coincide with some pet theory or creed. Of necessity, he became familiar with the ordinary qualities of the palace, but at the same time he looked beyond these to the brilliantly imaginative touches that set Katsura apart from other architectural monuments. His Katsura is not one that can be seen in one or two visits, but rather a total Katsura, as it might be understood by one who lived there year in and year out.

In addition to beautiful photographs and informative text, detailing the complicated history of the palace and how its development relates to the aesthetic standards of the day, the book also contains 23 architectural drawings, based on the author’s own surveys.

Opening the cover and turning the pages of Katsura: A Princely Retreat is like opening the door to a magical world of incomparable beauty and peace. 

The photographs are large enough that 
one becomes instantly enthralled and quickly lost, transported to another time and place and way of life.

I am torn between the simple, spacious interiors and the green gardens outdoors, kissed by rain and mist.

Ah, the magic of books, of poetry, of art, and of post offices and bookstores! Oh, okay, yes, the blogosphere, too!