Rogue Homilies by Deidre Price

a study of life that smacks of the divine

Month: November 2013

The Cost of Being Bookish

According to the Facebook fish flow, I am supposed to write an assigned number of true things about myself and be thankful for a unique thing each day of the month. 
Me: Daina, how many? 
Daina: How many what? Kids? How many animals? 
Me: Just a number.
Daina: Okay, fifty chickens.
Me: What? That’s too many.
Daina: All right. Five chickens. 
So, five is my number, but I don’t follow arbitrary instructions well, so here are five lies instead. 
1. I am originally from Kansas, which explains my penchant for red shoes, root cellars, and twirly things. 
2. I collect antique German thermometers, but always tell people they’re French because I don’t want to sound cocky. 
3. I am certified as a baton instructor, the kind that sparkle, not the kind British bobbies beat you with for sport.
4. When too much recyclable Tupperware collects in my cabinets, I melt it all down and make yard flamingos to decorate my eggplant garden.
5. Every time I’ve broken into someone’s home and found their bed unmade, I’ve made the bed with hospital corners and left two Andes mints on the left pillow. 
Okay, here’s one true thing:
1. The thanks I’ll dole out this year won’t fit on Facebook. It’s too heavy, too deep, too wide. I’m writing thirty letters–private ones that strangers will carry from town to town and hand-deliver to mailboxes, where they’ll settle and wait for fingers braced only for bills and eyes that will open, electric, at the sight of handwriting–a sign of life in an otherwise dead and ordinary pile of paper automatons. 
Okay, another true thing:
2. If I were to say what I’m busy being thankful for, I would, as you might imagine, breathe the word books. Those letters would fall right out of my mouth, as if readied from my birth, the B stepped up to the ledge of my lip first, followed by the O’s linked arm in arm, inseparable. The K would follow, hooked to the swoosh of the S, and my mouth would close, as if putting two palms forward to shove off a you’re welcome I didn’t believe I deserved. 
With every love, there is a loss, or at least a sacrifice. We push some parts of life away to pull some others closer. Every day we choose something, and in that choice, we don’t choose something else. We can’t choose everything. We just choose some things instead of others. We can choose those other things, but not at the same time as the first things. 
Books are one of those sacrifices for me. They are on what I call “life layaway” indefinitely at this point. Students, friends, and colleagues constantly recommend books. I nod. I say I’ll put them on the list. I take them. I stack them up, one alongside another, alongside another. I want to reward them with orange Tic Tacs like I give my son when he’s waiting patiently in the carline at the bank. I’m busy living the things I might put into books one day. 
My well-intentioned life has become a bit of a joke around my house. I work hard to keep the jealousy at bay when I read about friends who have already finished their Christmas shopping (although I’ll admit to being a bit of a pre-Thanksgiving Christmas crab) and others who make everything from scratch–especially those who post public reprimands to those of us who don’t. I have a host of friends who sew clothes, paint Mason jars, give people “just because” gifts, take their kids to Disney four times a year and make scavenger hunt riddles for weeks beforehand, which they send to school in homemade bento boxes with “I love you” origami in the shape of owls and Hello Kitty.
I can Pinterest with the best of them, but it’s a digital fantasyland more than a real, live plan that will ever get executed. More and more of my friends have begun designing these elaborate wreaths to decorate their doors for each season, birthday, and holiday of the year. As with most mom projects, I can make it about halfway, so I made a wreath that reflects it–my too busy life, full of books and words and paper and children and praying and diaper rash cream and formula and algebra and nail polish remover and tangles and library visits and coffee creamers and frozen P.F. Chang dinners and writing and reading and grading and telling and washing, folding, sterilizing, stain-treating, drying and toothbrushing and refilling and buying and returning and committee meetings and dressing and changing and closing my eyes and pretending to sleep from two until about four. 

Choices were made. Other choices weren’t. This is how it goes.

Advice comes my way often. I listen but seldom take it. I lean in. I nod. But I know they don’t really know, and so I hum in my head–any ditty will do.

I’m many things to many people. Many days I feel like the circus performer with the sticks and the plates spinning overhead, only in my case there are a couple dozen plates, and every one of them is over another person’s head. I’m more of the facilitator, your happy host.

Some people know the cost of being bookish–and not just bookish in the sense that there’s a love of literature (although that’s addiction enough sometimes)–but bookish in terms of immersion and devotion, of being a writer or being an academic, the compulsion to spend so much of oneself on what seems to be an individual, maybe even selfish, pursuit.

Because that’s just the thing–it’s anything but an individual pursuit. Engaging through the written word and poring over language is a key way that we connect with others and begin to comprehend the connections between others. It just looks lonely for a while, like the contents of a cocoon. Then, at once, the fuzzy worm blossoms, then flies.

The cost of being bookish ends up being the inability to communicate with those who don’t ever climb into cocoons, those who don’t understand that, for literati, the release comes only from periods of temporary retreat.

Harper Lee’s Jem Finch comes to mind when he says, “Turtles don’t feel, stupid” and Dill replies, “Were you ever a turtle, huh?”

But every once in a while there’s a kindred one that comes, like a friend who picks books off your shelves as though your home were a library–and keeps them because it’s like an insurance policy on your friendship–or the husband who goes to bed before you because, when the sentences are perfect, you’ll come to bed and wake him up to tell him how well the story turned out.

Or it’s the mother-in-law who already keeps your children on Mondays so that you can do the thing you were born to do for a few hours and then, because you’ve spent the best of yourself doing it, makes the family dinner and even sends home poundcake with you because, sometimes, mamas need some sugar, too.

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Open Mouths and Open Mics

All that business about April being the cruelest month is true. (Eliot was right. Go figure.) I will add, however, that October and November can be incredibly hard on writers, too. Fall brings promises I cannot keep: a poem a day in October and a whole novel in November (visit NaNoWriMo.org for information about other crazies like me). If my day-to-day world didn’t look like it does, I might manage meeting an occasional high bar. Under the year’s circumstances, however, it looks like any influx of writing or reading is cause to celebrate.

I’m reminded this month of my brother and how I must have been an absolutely horrible big sister. I don’t recall ever losing a board game to him. It wasn’t because I was better at the games than he was. It was simply because I could read, and that made him believe I was telling the truth when I’d consult the instructions and “read” a new part we’d overlooked the first time, always an addendum to shift the game in my favor. Again, I was a horrible big sister. 
Elements of this sisterdom, no doubt, influence each semester’s syllabus redux, as I find it impossible to believe every grade issued is fair (whether high enough or low enough) and end up trying to rethink my methods so that students get exactly the grades they deserve, nothing more, nothing less. 
More elements of this sisterdom have also translated into my being exceedingly kind with my own deadlines and writing goals. Although NaNoWriMo has been a complete bust for me this year (only 4k so far), I have, in the process of procrastinating on this novel, ended up writing the starts of proposals for several CFPs, a few thank you cards to check off the never-ending list of people who feed and water me daily, a grocery list (which is hugely unlike me), and several buried emails and comments on late papers. Most days I’m lucky if I can get to a Facebook post–and even then, they’re usually the post equivalents of found poems, just words I hear in my house with my quarter-dozen children and Wayne Szalinski husband. Yes, that’s a hula hoop behind him. 
So, I keep moving the mark. Mothers, certainly, and writerly mothers, especially, must move that mark sometimes to keep from giving up entirely. Far more important than perfection is persistence. 
My twelve year old and I have recently parted reading ways. She has fallen in love with Dr. Who, Jericho, Heroes, and Supernatural; her shelves are filled with John Green, Veronica Roth, Rick Riordan, Christopher Paolini, and Suzanne Collins. I can’t keep up and, in some ways, don’t want to. She has reading worlds that are worlds apart from my own, worlds of apocalypses and made-up creatures, worlds of unlikely flirtations I don’t need anymore. 
I still crave the conversation, though. I still look for silent spaces so that I can peek into her world for a little while. Even if my own familiar narratives are not the same as her own, the love of a story translates, and I recognize the glow that happens upon her face when she emerges from the first chapter of a new book and has fallen in love, again. 
Until we meet back up on other aisles, I stay busy fueling her addiction by bringing home extra books, ordering surprise Amazon deliveries on Fridays, and taking the long way home from ballet to make impromptu stops at the bookstore when the babies are at home. When I see articles online, like one a friend posted about the Native American response to the celebration of Thanksgiving, I toss Daina an iPad and ask her opinion. Every day she is alive, she opens her eyes wider than she did the day before. But I want her to open her mouth, too–not only to relate, but to connect, to communicate, to do something with what she sees and what she knows. 
Tonight we went to an open mic night. I served as a judge, and she came to watch. Several of the pieces performed were poems, and so that gave us a chance to talk literature after the event. I asked her about the performance where the poet used two voices, yelling at himself to create tension through the dialogue. She said, “It was good but kind of scary. I told him I liked his hat last time I met him.” She moved right into telling me about an interaction with another writer in the crowd: “She asked me for a tampon one time, which means she must have been desperate. And it made me think she wasn’t afraid of anything.” 
I would have said something, but she kept talking: “That poem about the brother who died? That was a good poem, but I wouldn’t like it as much if it weren’t true. Do you think it was true? I’ll have to ask her sometime.” And then she said she wished another poet had been there, the one who writes about packing up things in her mother’s house. “She’s one of my favorites, and her daughter’s really nice,” she said. 
When I asked who her favorite tonight was, and her answer was “the flute player” who filled the gap when we were tallying up scores during intermission, I laughed and immediately realized that she gets it in ways I don’t. Far too often I worry about what she’s getting or not getting from the world. Is she reading the right things? Is she being challenged? Is she gleaning goodness from the people who surround us? When I told her the flute player wasn’t in the competition, she told me it didn’t matter: “I’ve never seen anyone play a flute that close to me before. It was great.” 
And so art finds her–music, beauty, books, the whole shebang. The conversations about hats and tampons and daughters are all creating the poem that she’s becoming. 
Life is happening whether I’m there during intermission or not. 
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