Going to the Library, Then and Now

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

“I’m going to the library, who wants to come?” I call into the yard, jingling the car keys.

“I do! I do!” my big kids yell, racing to climb into their carseats. 

“I want to get my noodle book!” Sky says excitedly, thinking of the next Noodlehead graphic novel waiting for her on the holds shelf.

“I want anudder race car book,” Robin adds.

I smile at my children’s excitement, even though it makes me a little sad, too. Pre-pandemic, a trip to the library was much more than a quick ten-minute drive to the curbside pickup. We used to spend hours at our local branch a few times a week, chatting with friends at story time and adding books to our bag until it overflowed. Sky loved to choose a few I Can Read books and sit on a stool in the corner by the window, looking at the pictures while I chased Robin through the stacks and retrieved my holds. 

Now they don’t even get out of the car when I park in front of the library. I pull my mask on over my eyes, turning around in my seat to ask if I’ve got it on right. They laugh but tell me to hurry and get their books. At the library window, I try to say my name as clearly as I can through the fabric, and the librarian returns with our stack– the noodle book, the race car book, some books on ballet, an Eye Spy book, and Upstream and Coming Full Circle for me. I try to smile with my eyes as I thank the librarian and say goodbye.

My kids want to hold their books on the drive home, and when we get there they both hurry inside, sit on the couch, and start reading. Like so many other times in this past year of closures and absences, I find a small win to celebrate. 

Sky , age 4, in her happy spot at our local library.

They are still delighted by books. They still love the library enough to want to be in close proximity to it, even if they can’t go inside. We’ve lost the wonderful experience of wandering through the aisles and choosing whatever looks interesting that day, but we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the books we carefully choose, place on hold, and then wait for. We check out fewer books, but we keep them longer and savor them more. It makes me happy to see that books seem to matter to my kids as much as they’ve mattered to me since I was their age.

I remember my mom taking my sister and me to the library before we could read. I remember the way it smelled– a mix of the big eucalyptus trees outside, the ocean air, and that unmistakable book smell all libraries have. There was the crinkling sound of the books in their library jackets, the light pouring through the huge windows in the fiction room where my mom browsed, and the freedom she gave us to wander wherever we wanted as she chose books for herself. I loved gathering my own stack of books for the week.

Reading has always been tied up with the thingness of books, and the place where books are, but during the long stretch of time when there was no hold service, I bought an e-reader so I could check out e-books from the library or buy them from our local booksellers. It’s made it possible for me to read more during these early months with a newborn. It’s small and light enough to hold while nursing Iris or wearing her in the sling as she naps. I can even read in the bathtub. It’s also making it easier for me to take notes as I read, because I can add digital highlights and then transfer them to a word document later. 

As a child and later as a teen and young adult, I read for hours. As a mother, I probably spend more time reading to my children, but I try to make sure they see me reading my own books, too. “Are you reading in your mind, Mama?” Sky asks me. She’s not quite reading on her own yet, and I’m excited for the day when she discovers the pleasure of reading to herself. 

Reading connects me to the world outside the borders of home and children, and the person I am in addition to “Mom.” It keeps me grounded and makes me more receptive to ideas for poems and essays. I read before I could write, and I think it’s part of what made me a writer. I know it’s made me who I am today, and I can’t wait to see what role reading plays in my children’s lives as they grow.

Carey Taylor’s The Lure of Impermanence

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I always admire poets who paint a vivid, compelling picture of a setting or situation that seems, on its surface, to be “about” one thing– but through the smallest inflections and details, suggests something deeper.  Carey Taylor is one of these poets, and her new collection The Lure of Impermanence is full of poems like this.

In “Pomology,” we have only one line to anchor us in the unmentioned story– “morphine drips”– while the rest of the poem gives us a tender portrait of the speaker’s father’s passionate knowledge of a certain kind of apple. He is telling the nurse, in detail, about the apples’ “low disease susceptibility,/ how they are foolproof really,/ reliable, well balanced,/ and sweet,” while his wife lies in a hospital bed. He has just asked the nurse “how long before his wife can go home,” and the unanswered question hangs in the space between the lines of the poem, telling us all we need to know.

Impermanence– what is brief, mortal, transient, uncertain– is like that. Tricky in its hidden obviousness. There at the end of a life, a sentence, a moment, anything really. Expected– and yet always wholly unexpected.

“Arrivals and Departures” is a lament of the world continuing, cruelly, after the death of a loved one. The poem accuses “the cottonwoods in the ravine” of continuing to blossom right in the face of a friend’s quiet grief. Outrageously, “the ferry in the harbor moaned/arrivals and departures,” a loud reminder of what is both ever-changing and constant. Yet there are also markers of mortality that don’t hurt– “hope on a stem/ in the name of trillium and iris.”

This double-possibility, this tension, is the thread weaving this collection together. The poem of lament stands beside the poem of celebration and gratitude. The natural and the man-made world are full of reminders of impermanence, and they are both luminous and terrible. These are strong poems, rich in color and imagery, peopled with both the familiar– the faces of neighbors, tea kettles, socks– as well as the mysterious: gemstones, airborne observatories, earthquakes.

I loved this book for the way it offers language for holding the confusion of life’s experiences together in cupped hands, not trying to explain or deny, but not giving in to despair either.

I met Carey last summer when we both read at the Lents Farmer’s Market here in Portland, and we read together again this past January. She’s a talented reader, full of warmth and humor, and it’s wonderful to hear these poems aloud. You can hear her read from The Lure of Impermanence this Saturday at the Inland Poetry Festival in Washington, and follow her here for more of her writing and events.

 

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Slow Summer Reading: A Review of Relief Journal

Summer went by quickly for me this year.

With a wiggly baby and active preschooler, I spent a lot of time running back and forth from the park to swim class, back home for the baby’s nap, and out again for another fun summer activity from our bucket list.

By day’s end I was tired, but I’d try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading before falling asleep. Reading has been a huge part of summer for me since I was a kid, and I’m continuing that tradition with my own children. We all participated in our library’s summer reading program. While my kids and I tore through almost 100 picture books, it took me all summer to finish my small stack of non-fiction books.

I felt energized by all of this activity, and engaged in my reading, and I also had to consciously create time to slow down– to plan days with nothing on the schedule, put away all screens for a few days here and there, go barefoot in the backyard grass and dirt with my preschooler, and just sit on the back porch with my husband after the kids’ bedtime.

So I was grateful when the most recent issue of Relief Journal landed on my porch, smack in the middle of a heat wave in the middle of July. It had been a while since I’d made the time to sit down with this or any other print journal and just enjoy reading new work from a range of writers. I really loved this issue (spring 2018) and I wanted to share my reflections on some of my favorite pieces.

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Susanna Childress’s essay “Age Appropriate” absolutely floored me. I’ve shared it with a number of friends and I continue to think about not just its content, but the way in which Childress weaves together political commentary, personal narrative, and even a bit of nature writing, all with a poet’s ear for rhythm and eye for image.

She writes about the challenge of talking about difficult subjects with her young son. How should she tell him about the loss of babies who would have been his younger siblings? How does she explain police brutality, and the shooting of black parishioners during a bible study, and why his black friend’s mom has to have completely different conversations with her son about playing outside? In some ways, there is no “age appropriate” language for the territories of grief and injustice. Childress does a breathtaking job of taking the reader with her through a maze of questions– her own and her son’s– that ultimately have no easy answer.

I admired the clarity and directness of Chris Anderson’s poems “Transfigurations” and “You Never Know,” which tackle mystery in different but complimentary ways. What really happens to the bread and the wine in communion? How do we comprehend the paradox of Christ? What happens when we die? I liked how conversational these poems were, how apparently simple because of ordinary syntax, ordinary diction. This is the kind of poetry that really get to me, the kind that is able to say something essential yet utterly new, in language that feels as worn and familiar as a kitchen cutting board.

I love Marjorie Stelmach’s work, and her poem “Salt” in this issue is no exception, with its cascade of vivid imagery and precise sound spilling into sudden revelations like, “Somedays, it feels right to be weathered,” and “I know/ I’ve taken safety for granted, as if it were earned.” In “Vinegar,” she writes about Christ’s death on the cross and the mystery of faith as reflections of our own reality– we are spiritual and physical beings, needing both the concrete goodness of earth and confirmation that this isn’t all we are. I love how this poem begins with “If it’s true,” which seems to me is the ongoing dialogue of faith.

Then there’s Laura Arciniega’s strange speculative world in “The Shell,” which made me deeply uncomfortable in a good way. A mother is baking bread for her young son, and later a young couple visits the family, and they walk on the beach. It’s a seemingly simple story. But there is something different about the mother, the bread, the son, and the beach. The father tells the son a story: “Far away, there is a place where the day passes so slowly that a hen knows she’s about to lay an egg before she lays it…” We learn that in this world, a lifetime takes only a few weeks. To me, this story is about the strange weight and flexibility of time, which is so relevant to me in this phase of early motherhood.

There are many, many other poems, essays, stories, and even a comic diary in this issue that challenged me and got me thinking. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Relief, this issue would be a wonderful introduction.

Overall, I was left with deep gratitude when I finished this issue. It took some time– a month and a half!– to read and absorb each piece in here. Yes, part of that is because I’m the mother of two small children. And another part is that this is a carefully, lovingly crafted journal, filled with work that does not shy away from the full range of human experience. I read and thoroughly enjoyed each piece in this issue, and that’s something I don’t often experience in a literary journal.

I felt impressed by the work of this work, the generosity of time and effort the writers poured into these essays and poems, so that I as a reader could be changed. I felt impressed by the work of the students at Taylor University who put this journal together under the leadership of editor Dan Bowman, a fellow SPU MFA alum.

It was an encouragement to me as a writer to continue my own work, and a reminder that good writing takes time, in the making and in the receiving. In the end, it is so worth it.

 

Five Read-Aloud Books for Grown-ups

When we first started dating, Lyle and I used to read aloud to each other. Dating seems like a funny word for it. We met in a trailer park in the redwoods at UC Santa Cruz, without cell phones or wifi (this was 2004), and spent a lot of time hiking, hanging out in the community hammock (I know), looking for mushrooms, and talking for hours over tea or wine. And sometimes studying. It was pretty magical.

I think we must have started with poems– probably Robinson Jeffers, whose paperback Selected Poems we were each secretly astounded to find dog-eared on the other’s shelf.

Twelve years later, we’ve just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, and reading aloud remains one of my favorite ways to reconnect with him and to those early days, when life was a lot simpler.

Here are five of our favorite read-aloud books from over the years.

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The Monkeywrench Gang, Edward Abbey

He had a red Tacoma truck with a lumber rack, and I still remember how my heart pounded when he picked me up for a daytrip– just us, to a beach near Pescadero, for a sandy, cold picnic that turned into sunset-watching. It’s the same truck we took a few years later up to Portland, to check out a city we both thought we’d be happy in… That was a lot of miles to cover, so I brought along a paperback of Abbey’s classic novel about a group of saboteurs in the southwest, taking apart machines that threaten environmentally vulnerable places. However you feel about that, the book is incredible as a read-aloud, with plenty of dialogue and action and intrigue. I think I read this until my voice was hoarse and I couldn’t see. Later in life we discovered audiobooks.

Into the Wild
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

We read this aloud to each other in a tent in the rain, while camping along the Canal d’Ile-et-Rance in early January 2008. I was teaching English in St Malo, France, and we were on a serious budget. We took a train to Rennes for the new year, then bought second-hand bikes and a tent and rode back to St Malo along the canal, camping along the way. Sounds great, except it’s FREEZING in northwestern France in January. (We were 24 and naive. I mean, resilient.) We parked our bikes in dark orchards after midnight, huddled in our thin sleeping bags, and ate cold bread and cheese and drank cheap cognac to feign warmth. Reading Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated decision to leave civilization for the wilds of Alaska, we were distracted from the cold in our own bodies, and transported by Krakauer’s seemingly effortless prose.

All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

We read this while I was pregnant with our daughter, taking turns reading each chapter. I was exhausted, uncomfortable, and had to pee about every ten minutes, so the short, memorable chapters were just right. This book lends itself to reading aloud because it is a novel in two voices. Set in St Malo, France during the German occupation, it tells the intertwined stories of a blind French girl and German boy through luminous language. It was interesting to imagine the story happening in a city we’d lived in and explored for the better part of a year. Doerr won the Pulitzer for this book, and it’s a must-read whether aloud or silently.

intothinairInto Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

Something about early parenting pitched us into a string of mountaineering books and movies. Maybe there are similarities: intensity, extreme discomfort, and marathon exertion on thin reserves of sleep and food. Whatever it is, Krakauer’s book got us hooked– so much so that on our first date night post-birth, we went to see Meru. Then we started watching the First Ascent series, and every Everest documentary we could find online. Most recently it was Sherpa, the story of the Everest industry from the perspective of the indigenous Nepalese, who do the bulk of the mountaineering work, face the greatest danger, and receive the least benefit. Into Thin Air tells Krakauer’s side of the 1996 Everest disaster– which he experienced first-hand– and was written in grief and shock in less than a year. We knew we wanted a read-aloud book, and we knew we loved Krakauer, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The book is gripping, informative, terrifying, controversial, and so well-written.

The Curve of Time
The Curve of Time, M. Wylie Blanchet

This is our most recent read, and I’m laughing as I realize we’ve been reading it since early June! It could be a quick read, with its short, fascinating chapters, but we are tired parents and sometimes we just want to watch Colbert and go to sleep. (ha!) It’s the story of a family’s many summers spent exploring the coast of British Columbia by boat in the 1920s and 30s. And by family, I mean a widow and her five children. And by boat, I mean a 25-foot cruiser. On days when I feel uncertain about heading out in the rain with my toddler, I think about this incredibly brave woman who taught her children to read maps, pick huckleberries, and hike to freshwater streams to wash their salt-stiff clothes. But the most refreshing part of this book is its style and voice. Blanchet focuses on action scenes, keenly observant depictions of wild places long-since settled, and detached philosophical musings on the nature of time. It’s a nice change from the more introspective, highly personal memoir we’re so used to now.

General Thoughts and Less-Successful Picks
I notice a few themes: we like books about outdoor adventure, and fast-paced novels with risk and a strong narrative voice. But I’ve learned to be wary of narratives that hit too close to home, and I try to steer clear of lush literary styles that lend themselves more to silent reading.

Doerr’s book deviates from the outdoor theme a bit, but I think it worked because of the alternating short chapters told in different voices. Picking up on this thread, we joined our county library’s Everybody Reads program last winter and tried out The Book of Unknown Americans, which also has alternating chapters. In hindsight, it’s a better book for solo reading, and because it centers around a mother’s guilt over an accident that injured her daughter, it also created a lot of extra anxiety for me as a new mom often visited by worst-case-scenario visions. Not the best choice for pre-bedtime reading, for me.

We also attempted and abandoned Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a gorgeous book that would have been a perfect read-aloud when we were younger. We tried to read it when our baby was a newborn, and we were both way too exhausted to focus on the prose. I think it’s one I’d like to read alone, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a great read-aloud for you.

What are your favorite read-aloud books for grown-ups?

 

Marjorie Stelmach’s “After” in Image Journal

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Here’s my latest short introduction for Image Journal‘s Poetry Friday column. Marjorie Stelmach’s poem “After” is a tender and nuanced meditation on grief.

I love this weekly showcase of beautiful poems from the Image archives, and I especially love the challenge of writing the briefest of reflections on a poem. It’s getting me back into the habit of close, sustained reading that I cultivated during graduate school. Writing these intros on deadline is like making mini-annotations. I’m grateful for the invitation into the worlds of these poems.

Read Stelmach’s poem at Image Journal.

walking the wire for literacy

Click the image above to learn more about Wireman Comics, an incredible series of comics designed especially for struggling readers.

This series is engaging and effective: the first four issues load readers with 50% of the most commonly-used words in English, all through amazing graphics and a compelling storyline. Plus, there’s no “beginning reader” label emblazoned on the cover. Readers can feel confident reading the comicbooks in public, without fear of the stigma associated with illiteracy.

The truth is, illiteracy is far more widespread in the U.S. than we’d like to think.  Now more than ever, students who want to compete in a tough job market need the skills to become great writers.  And great writing begins with great reading.

You can help fund the next installment in this impressive series by visiting Wireman Comics‘ Indiegogo campaign. With just 18 days left, will you spread the word and help bring the next chapter of this story to life?

I first learned of Wireman creator Sue Stauffacher when I was working as managing editor for Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac. I reviewed Tillie the Terrible Swede, her illustrated story of the first woman to win the world cycling championships. Interviewing Stauffacher about the process of writing the book, I learned that there’s a lot more to her art than great storytelling. She’s an activist for at-risk youth and a literacy warrior.

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After publishing Tillie, Sue took the story’s message on the road, riding 254 miles from her home in Battle Creek, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois. Along the way, she stopped at underserved schools to give a presentation about Tillie Anderson, encouraging children to read and ride bicycles for fun and health.

Sue told me: “I wanted kids to learn that stories about people can inspire a new generation, and what happens when you’re inspired is how the characters ‘live outside the books.’”

This summer, help Wireman ‘live outside the books’ by funding the next installment in the saga. Loyal readers are waiting to find out what happens next! Give what you can, and encourage your friends to do the same.

Thank you!

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