march forth on march 4th

Wave something in front of my nose and I’m ready to plunge down a rabbit hole in an attempt to figure it out.

Let me give you a simple, recent example from my life: I’m interested in bookbinding, so I sign up for a case binding class. The teacher at this class mentions that she will be teaching a Coptic binding class in the New Year. I find out where and discover the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program: a dangerous, dangerous place for a girl like me. (A girl with a serious case of sign-me-up-for-that-class-itis.)

Consequently, I sign up for a watercolor class. A couple of the other students at the case binding class mention that they repair torn, beat up books for their local libraries. My mind instantly starts thinking about researching book conservation classes (why limit myself to just case and Coptic binding?!) because I, too, would like to do this kind of work. It sounds so interesting.

Later that week, I stop at the brand new library and am so excited by the beauty of this new space (I wish more libraries were so welcoming and functional), by the neatly lined books on the shelves, the environmentally friendly countertops, the soaring windows, the fireplace, the gloriousness of ideas and thinking that I think to myself, “I should be a librarian.” I leave the library trembling; the space has gotten me so giddy. I spend an entire week trying to find a certificate program that I can complete at a pace that would still allow me to care for my family the way I want to. In the midst of all this research I also decide that I should perhaps volunteer at the library so that I can be sure this is the work I really want to do and, you know, have some relevant experience on my resume when I apply to the library certificate program of my dreams. And so I make many calls to figure out where they repair the books for the library system because isn’t that the whole reason I started down this path?

All this time I am soooo excited I have finally figured out what I want to do with my life. I’ve been searching forever and, my gosh, it’s been right in front of my nose. It’s perfect. I LOVE books and everything about them and I can’t wait to be a librarian! I can’t wait to buy some neat little librarian glasses to wear to work.

(At the same time I’m cooking up a storm with mesquite flour, whole wheat flour, etc. after discovering a new cookbook during that same trip. Who says we must limit ourselves to one rabbit hole at a time?)

And then I revisit a few essays that I’ve been working on and I remember, oh yes, I am a writer. And I will always be a writer. I’ve got multiple degrees in writing. I can’t not write. I’ve tried. It hasn’t stuck. And even when I get irritated with writing, or actually not the writing, but the BUSINESS of writing, I always come back to it. It’s a perfect outlet for my inquisitiveness. I don’t know if I’ll ever publish enough to support my family because so far it’s just been an article here and an article there. And I guess that’s fine for now, but it’s not really what I had in mind.

And then I think, “I really don’t want to go back to school to be a librarian. I’ve had enough of being told what and when to read and what and when to write.” It’s the ultimate freedom to read and write and think as your mind pleases. Plus, I’d rather take the money I’d spend on tuition and either buy loads of books or just move to Sweden for six months.

And then I stumble across an interview of author/illustrator Melissa Sweet and she says, “…I take classes every year in anything that seems remotely interesting. From making a telescope, bookbinding, blacksmithing, tin toys from old cans — I’ll try anything. It helps me think differently and be facile with divergent materials…I like working three-dimensionally, which is really what a book is.” And it sets me free. It gives me permission to take as many classes as I want without having to become a professional bookbinder, watercolor painter, [fill in the blank]. I’m curious and I love to learn and taking classes and reading books is the best way I know to do this. And besides, I can’t help it.

Then my watercolor class begins and I fall in love with the medium. It’s wonderful and it makes me so happy. Of course, I have little thoughts of doing this professionally and putting together a show, then teaching and writing books about watercolor. But I rein myself in and remember that it’s OK to just do this, just try this, just learn this, without expectations or thought for the future.

And somewhere under the layers I wonder, “Where is all this leading me? What am I doing?”

And then I’m reading a book, “The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work” and in the interview with Katherine Anne Porter she says, “It is my firm belief that all our lives we are preparing to be somebody or do something even if we don’t do it consciously. And the time comes one morning when you wake up and find that you have become irrevocably what you were preparing all this time to be. Lord, that could be a sticky moment, if you had been doing the wrong things, something against your grain.” And it is like a balm for my fevered mind, my fevered soul. And I am so grateful for people, for women, who have been where I am and who have left clues to help me figure out my way: Madeleine L’ Engle, Katherine Anne Porter, Natalie Merchant, Melissa Sweet. Thank you.

And then I hear that a dear, old friend has opened a successful, innovative photography studio and is thriving. The last I saw this boy, now man, he was deep in the dreaming stage. But I could see, even back then, that he had something important and beautiful to do in this life. And it gives me such a shot of hope to see that it is possible to be a successful, creative, kind, productive person.

At my second to last watercolor class I ask my instructor how he knew watercolor was his thing. He doesn’t really give a satisfactory answer, but he opens up more when I tell him I’m trying to find my thing. Another student, who I am sure is in her 60s or maybe even her 70s, overhears our conversation and together she and my instructor proceed to tell me to just keep trying and keep testing and reading and exploring. They say, “Who knows, maybe you’ll combine all these things some way. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. You’re still a spring chick.” And it strikes me that each person in that basement room has searched or is searching for their thing. And this makes me not feel so lonely or stupid.

And it feels good to hear these words, but it’s also hard because I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to do or create something wonderful. And creating something beautiful is really, really hard work. And then there is the whole issue of what do you want to create? But I’m starting. I’m showing up on the page everyday. And some days I literally write one sentence. Some days I find a nice groove and fly. (This doesn’t happen often. Actually, it’s rare.) Some days I feel like poking my eyes out because I can’t even seem to type much less write a coherent thought. (Yesterday was one of those days. My husband came home and I just cried because everybody else in the entire world seems to be pursuing their meaning so much more quickly than I am.) I guess you could say I’m practicing. I’m practicing trying to make something beautiful. I don’t know if I’ll ever succeed. But, you know, at least I’m trying now.

Which is all to say this: In just a few days I will be doing my very first author visit to a school. I will be speaking to classrooms full of 5th graders. Do you remember 5th grade? I do. And the memories are not fond. (Is this universal or particular?) And I have a nice presentation put together for them. I think they’ll enjoy it. But, what I really want to say to them is this: Do Not Give Up. Be dogged in your pursuit of whatever it is you love. Be weird. READ! Because I think what we need most at this moment in time (heck, at any moment of time) is people thinking for themselves, creating what is in their heart, manifesting their vision.

Sunset 004

an unending list

Four years ago, I decided to get serious about reading.

It was 2009 and my daughter, my first child, had just been born. I was sinking in post-partum depression and had no idea that I was. I had lost all desire to write, to create. I felt empty. And so I started to read. Read, read, read. In an attempt to fill myself up again. In an attempt to not feel so entirely isolated as a new mother.

Books 001

The books I read were my company when I didn’t want actual breathing people in my presence, my escape when my reality became too much, a pleasant voice in my head instead of the cacophony that was PPD.

I haven’t stopped reading since. (Though I have added more writing…thankfully. And I have come out from under that weight of PPD. Whew.)

At first, I just read whatever I could get my hands on. This indiscriminate consumption of books was like tucking into an all-you-can-eat buffet: thrilling at first, but then unsatisfying. I could only eat, I mean read, so much and my pants were getting a bit tight.

So, I started to discriminate. I did so by searching for reading lists: from famous authors (thanks Ann Patchett!), the children’s librarians at my library, and the internet (hello blogs and newspapers that like to tell people what to read). My methods have become a bit more sophisticated and intentional in the intervening years.

Proof positive: I am almost finished reading every title on the Newbery Medal winner list. Not quite, but almost. And in late January, they announced the 2013 winner. So, I have some things to do:

  1. reserve the book from my library.
  2. read the book!
  3. revel in loving a list of excellence that will never end.

Congratulations to Katherine Applegate, author of the 2013 Newbery Medal book “The One and Only Ivan.”