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Friday, December 13, 2013

To Rest or Not (Yet) to Rest?

On one's laurels, that is. The question does not admit of a universal answer. Everyone must come up with a personal response. There are different ways to ask the question, too. Perhaps, “Have I earned the right to ...?” or “Am I now comfortable with the decision to ...?” This post is about dreams, about making them come true, and about putting them back on the shelf.

Throughout my adolescence, I dreamed of a career on the stage. Sometimes I planned to become a serious actor, other times a folk singer or a blues singer, and occasionally I imagined myself combining singing and acting on the musical comedy stage. As a young girl, whenever I was alone I was almost never not singing. I would sing my way (very dramatically) down the sidewalks between my high school and downtown after my half-day finished up at 12:30 or so with orchestra practice, only closing my mouth when another pedestrian came within hearing range.

Because here’s the dirty little secret about dreams: They’re easy to have. They cost nothing and involve no risk of public exposure. Making dreams come true – daring to make dreams come true – ah, that’s another matter!

Well, eventually, butterflies in stomach and heart in mouth, I went public with the performance dream. My sister and I, she in her first year of high school when I was in my last, made a couple of appearances as a folk duo, granny dresses and all. I tried out for plays and landed parts. Then in my 20s, first with a jazz quartet and later with a honky-tonk piano player, I sang at parties and in clubs in Lansing, Traverse City, and Kalamazoo. There was never a time I wasn’t nervous beforehand, but as long as I didn’t have to talk to the audience (I’d warned my piano player ahead of time that he would have to provide all the patter) I got through those evenings just fine. Enjoyed them. Felt “in my element.” Where I belonged.

When I decided to take a break from performing, that’s really all I had in mind – a little break – but I never did go back. What surprised me in later years was that I had no regrets. The thing is, I had those gigs. Had I never gone public, only harbored a secret, unfulfilled dream, I’m sure I’d have regrets aplenty. But no. At this stage of life, I’m resting on my vocalist laurels, content with having, for a while, dared to make that dream come true.

Another dream took me away from the drudgery of office work and into another world altogether. I came to philosophy late in life but did not keep that dream hidden in a closet, either. It took years, but I finished my undergraduate and then my graduate degrees and subsequently taught part-time, off and on, at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. College teaching was no more a lifetime career for me than singing, but I’m proud of having achieved at least a modest reality for that dream, and so yes, I rest on my teaching laurels, too.

Years ago, when we lived in Kalamazoo, David and I made regular weekend trips out to the nearby village of Paw Paw. From late spring to early fall, the flea markets were a main attraction, but we had friends in Paw Paw, we made many paddle and float trips down the little Paw Paw River, and always we dreamed of having a bookshop downtown. Paw Paw would be perfect, we told each other – less expensive rents than Kalamazoo but close enough to the city attract faculty and students from Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. Fast forward (through a long, winding, complicated history that has no place here) to 1993 and the birth of Dog Ears Books on Waukazoo Street in Northport. Another dream come true! A dream now in its twenty-first year of life (and don’t think that fact doesn’t still amaze me).

No independent bookseller, however, can afford to rest on her laurels and keep her business alive. Every year a bookseller learns many new things, and every year the business changes and there are more new things to be learned. Being the only bookstore in a small village is no guarantee of a local clientele, either, because it’s easy for people in cars to drive by the same businesses day after day without stopping. They need reasons to stop, reasons to visit, reasons to come back, and it’s up to the bookseller, i.e., the bookstore owner, to be constantly generating new reasons for people to come in.

This blog has more than one purpose. It’s a quiet little avenue of self-expression, a place for me to try out thoughts and ideas, as well as a bulletin board of sorts for local events and somewhat of an online diary, but it’s also an attempt to keep my little Up North bookstore from fading out of customers’ consciousness when they are elsewhere. Long ago someone said to me mournfully, “You just can’t compete with Borders, can you?” He didn’t get it. Borders was a chain, and Dog Ears Books was and is unique. That’s what I thought at the time, and then, when Borders stores closed all across the U.S., my first thought was, I’m still standing. I’m still here.

Life comes with no guarantees. Each of us, one by one, we make our choices, and we take our chances. We keep dreaming, keep learning, keep daring, keep moving -- or we’re not alive at all.

So when it comes to bookselling, I’m not resting on my laurels. Things are going to be quieter at the bookstore for a few months, that’s all. Glenn Wolff was our big December event star, and now we won’t be doing events until spring, but the bookstore will be open, five days a week through the end of the year, closed Sundays and Mondays. (In January we’ll decelerate, going on a four-day schedule, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.) And this blog will continue through the winter, too, wandering through book reviews, snowy dog walks in the woods, news from my authors and  reading groups and the art world and the local community and, well, whatever other camels get their noses under the tent.

Making a dream come true and then keeping it alive takes much more than simply “having” it. Actualizing and sustaining a dream takes continued attention and dedication. You have to want it, yes, but you have to do more than just want it. Cost can be measured in countless ways -- in hours of sleep lost, for instance.

It’s too soon to know if I’ll someday rest on my bookseller laurels (there is that chicken dream, after all) or simply die in harness. All I know right now is that the time of resting has not yet come.

For all of us, there are always more leaps off the cliff to be made, as long as life and health hold out, but it’s good to stop from time to time and pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve accomplished, too. What about you? What dreams are you proud of having dared to make true? Which ones are still going strong ones, and which have you retired, accepting for your accomplishment a laurel crown?


Carson Leftwich said...

Very moving and lovely post today, Pamela. So appreciate hearing your story. Yes, makes me think about dreams lost and found. Grateful I had the opportunities I have had in my life. Thanks for all you do!

P. J. Grath said...

Carson, whenever I think of you earning your master's degree while raising small children, whatever I've done seems like a walk in the park by comparison. But we both work hard, don't we? Pat, pat, pat (on both our backs!). Thanks!

Karen Casebeer said...

Pamela...What a wonderful blog post! You shared parts of your journey that I did not know, meaning the acting and singing parts. You deserve kudos (and laurels to rest your success on) for creating a business that is a little beacon for all of our reading community in NP. While my days as a therapist are done, and my days as a university teacher are waning, it's my photography and writing that are the two areas in which I wish to grow. I keep working at these skills, but am trying to make the process of doing it and working at it as what I'd want to some day rest laurels on. Thanks for all you do. This was an interesting and heartfelt post that I really enjoyed, my friend. Karen

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Karen, for the kind words. Isn't it good to know we can change gears and keep growing? Your photography is wonderful, and I look forward to reading some of your writing one of these days.

Dawn said...

I left the security of a well paying job and went back to school. Loved it. Graduated and almost sort of got to work in the field for a year. Loved it. But times change. I'm still glad I got to do it, regardless of how short a time. Next dream is to live full time on the road. We'll see how that turns out.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I love it that you enjoyed going back to school so much and had that year in your beloved chosen field. I will be very, very interested to see if you do the fulltime-on-the-road thing and, if so, how you like it. We talk about that sometimes, but it's hard for me to imagine.

Kathy in Oz said...

I had two dreams: to act and to paint. I got to do some acting when I was young and while I enjoyed it I didn't like it as much as I had thought I would; but now that I can give as much time to painting as I want I know that I was right to keep that dream alive. Painting makes me happy and what more can anyone ask? Pamela, how lovely that you sang on stage. Being able to sing was something I used to wish for but I was always realistic enough to accept my lack of talent in that regard so it was never on my dream list.

Kathy said...

Thanks for sharing your dreams--and the way you've made many come true. Your blog is truly a beautiful place to pause and think. To remember your bookstore. to ponder so many things.

dmarks said...

Great post.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, Kathy in Oz, and dmarks, thank you all for visiting here and leaving your kind words. Kathy in Oz, I know about your beautiful paintings and love to think of you being so creative Down Under. Kathy and dmarks, I have followed both of you via blogs for a long time now. All of you feel like friends -- ARE friends! I was a little surprised by the response to this post. Who would care about my adolescent fantasies? I think what rang bells for everyone was that we all have dreams. It's the closest we get to living more than one life apiece. Well, that and reading -- dreams and books -- eh?