We have books all over this house. The majority of them are neatly alphabetized in what we refer to as the “cat room,” because that’s where the litter box lives. There are also books in our bedroom, in my workspace, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, in the room where we eat, and in my partner’s small office, which is crowded and heaped and piled with extremely valuable and meaningful things (a.k.a. junk), liberally coated in dust. Just standing in the doorway makes me feel like tearing my hair out and bursting into tears.
But hey, we all deserve our own space, right? He doesn’t invade my space, and I don’t invade his. The peace treaty of tolerance in action.
Anyway. I digress. A few weeks ago he handed me a book, unearthed from his office, and told me I should read it. This is one of our favorite games —sharing books. I took it and put it in my to-read pile.
Yesterday I picked it up and fell in love.
Knots, written by R. D. Laing, was published in 1970 and cost $3.95. At first glance it looks like poetry rather than prose.
Here’s page one:
They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.
I was sitting in the sun on the front porch. I set the book down and thought about this, feeling a smile on my face. Knots, indeed. I could feel the door this little paragraph opened up in my mind, and I wanted to find words to think about it, but my first reaction was pure amusement. That’s still my reaction, as I sit and type. Maybe there’s a lot I could say, but maybe Laing has already said everything worth saying. Maybe all I have to offer are some impressions.
Games, and the people who play them. Power and control games. Blame and shame games. Drama and trauma games. Triangle games. Have you ever noticed the most manipulative and malevolent game players never, ever admit they’re playing games? I’ve always wondered if that’s because they lack insight into their own behavior and motivation or they simply lie. Maybe it’s both.
I can’t imagine a world where everyone is just straight, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. It would be a world in which we all took responsibility for our choices and had the ability and willingness to be authentic. It would be a world where each one of us had integrity.
The human game, the social game, the money game, the professional game, the health game, the marketing and consumer game, the education game, the sex game, the family and/or parenting game, the significant other game. Our days and lives are filled with games, and we take them extremely seriously. Our identity and ideology, our hopes and dreams, our very lives seem to depend on how successfully we play our various games. Are all these games fun? Are any of these games fun? When I think about my life and watch the people close to me, I see despair, rage, fear, violence, a pathological need to win and be right at all costs, and grief. Fun? Not so much.
Do you remember the vain and not-terribly-bright Emperor who wore no clothes? His courtiers seduced him into believing he had on the finest clothes ever made and no one dared to say he was naked until he went out onto the street in a magnificent promenade. A child in the crowd said, “But he’s not wearing anything!” in the manner of small children who have not yet learned to play the game. The child was instantly hushed, but it was too late. That small arrow of truth could not be retrieved and the crowd roared with laughter.
Either everybody plays the game, or nobody does. No individual is allowed to call a game a game, however. No individual is allowed to challenge, ask certain questions, investigate and research independently, or have a different opinion. Such people are punished with tribal shaming, deplatforming, doxxing, threats and violence.
So we play the game, at least enough to escape notice. We try to stay camouflaged within the herd. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We pretend we think the game is real.
Some of us are better at that than others.
Some of us are born troublemakers and insist on thinking for ourselves, come what may.
Some of us are curious and play what we know is a game in order to find out what will happen.
I was once with a bad boy man. He was magnetic and attractive. He was also filled with rage; collected gold, guns and ammo in an underground storage locker; grew illegal weed and mushrooms; and the local cops had a thick file on him. He said he’d met Jesus (while high). For various good reasons (trust me on this) I was with him for a few months during a bad time in my life. Everyone around me was appalled, which only added to my sense of reckless enjoyment.
I was sick and tired of being the good girl, the reliable one, the adult, the woman with no needs who always followed the rules and pleased everyone around her. I loathed my goody-goody, compliant self beyond words.
So, for a little while, I decided to be none of those things. One day he gave me a diamond ring, which I suspected had been stolen (you shouldn’t have!) while he was in another state a few years before. He asked me to marry him.
Now, not only did I have no intention whatsoever of marrying again, I knew he would never go through with it. I also knew this was not a man I would be in a long-term relationship with. He was meeting my need to be rebellious and reassure myself that I was still attractive enough, after two divorces, to fuck. Does that sound coarse? It was. But most women will understand what I mean. I didn’t go through a bad-boy phase as a young woman. I’ve always been a late bloomer. This was it. I needed it and I don’t regret it, in spite of some pretty severe consequences that made me a better and wiser woman.
The truth is I wanted to see what would happen. He was such a fruitcake. I wore the ring.
What happened was I got bored with the alcohol, the weed, and his insistence on dumping his pipe into the bathroom sink, which clogged the drain. I had to clean it out, naturally.
Also, guys who have a heavy alcohol and weed habit are not what you might call focused lovers.
So, ick. It was one of those things. Either you totally understand or your never will!
The point is I knew it was all a game. Did he? I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I doubt he would have told me if he knew, but I also doubt he did know. Chronic use of weed doesn’t make one smart. What was the point of the game? What was, if you’ll excuse the phrase, the endgame? How far was he willing to take it? I was mildly curious, but not curious enough (or invested enough) to stick around and find out.
I don’t think anyone in my life realized I was playing a game. They were far too busy disapproving, which gave me a lot of private amusement. Nobody asked me what I was thinking or feeling. In the atmosphere of criticism and judgment, I didn’t bother to explain or defend myself. The onlookers had already made up their minds about who I was and what I was doing. I didn’t feel I owed anyone an explanation. I was, after all, 40 years old.
If one person had sat down with me and said “WTF are you up to?” I would have told them the truth. Would they have believed me? That question makes me smile. All we do is play unacknowledged games in life on every side. If someone admits they’re playing a (temporary) game with a sexy bad boy man, do we believe them?
Years ago, during a conversation about men, a girlfriend of mine said, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that observation, and I’ve never forgotten the way it made me smile. Now, it’s all over the Internet, but then we weren’t numbed by such a constant bombardment of memes and phrases.
One does have to kiss a lot of frogs in life. Roommates from hell, jobs we hate, the nether regions of those more powerful than we are, all require a certain amount of kissing. Then there are sticky-faced children kisses; big-hearted sloppy dog kisses; and, my personal favorite, sandpaper cat kisses that remove the top layer of skin from one’s nose.
Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash
The central preoccupation of kissing, of course, is the “romantic” kiss. We quickly learn that some kisses are more romantic than others. A lot of our personal kissing history is hurriedly filed away under the label “What Was I Thinking?” and we try to forget about it.
When I really consider it, I realize we spend much more time kissing frogs than anything else. Someone should write a manual. (Poor little frogs. I’m very fond of them. I wonder if they have metaphors about kissing princes in hopes they turn into frogs. It would only be fair.)
Leaving an old, familiar place and coming to a new one reminds me how many frogs are out there, waiting to be kissed, especially in this season when the night shrills with the insistent songs of a variety of species from tiny peepers the size of a thumbnail to enormous bullfrogs. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to make new friends. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to find someone to cut my hair, a massage therapist, a dentist, a doctor, and a health food store.
Photo by henry fournier on Unsplash
Kissing frogs takes time, and I get discouraged. I’ve never been comfortable socially. I hate trying to make a connection with strangers. I know intellectually that for every ten times I reach out to another, nine times it will be another dead end, but the tenth time something wonderful will happen. Persistence and patience do pay off.
I’ve spent my life with books. I was reading before Kindergarten (thank you, Richard Scarry, Mom and Dad). Our home was always filled with books. I have a library degree and I’ve worked in a public library and an elementary school library. In my old place, I did volunteer work for a used bookstore run by the local Friends of the Library.
I came to Maine with more than 30 boxes of books, and that was after a severe culling. My partner has at least as many books in his own library. This old farmhouse is positively groaning with our combined libraries, and we’re in desperate need of more shelving. I was disappointed to find a less robust library program than I was used to in the nearest town, and no bookstore of any kind. My first year here, I did hear of a used bookstore in a college town about 30 minutes away, and my partner and I agreed we’d go check it out.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash
Three and a half years later, I finally made up my mind to stop shillyshallying around and go find that bookstore. I made a date with myself, pulled out maps, informed my partner I was going, dammit!, and we went.
Heaven. Bliss. Home. Shelves and boxes and unstable stacks of books on every surface. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books. Chairs and stepstools and round stools. Old encyclopedias. Children’s books. A huge table covered in a tornado of books.
I headed for the farthest back corner and started working my way forward through nonfiction hardback, plays, poetry, and then fiction.
A long time later, I went in search of the store owner, who was talking with my much more gregarious and extroverted partner in the casual fashion of men getting to know one another. Without preamble, I asked the owner if he had any use for a volunteer experienced in library and bookstore work. We were standing in a room I hadn’t explored yet that looked as though it had been the site of an explosion. Later, I found out a pipe had burst and flooded the place.
He thought this was a fine idea, and said I could start that minute. He also said he’d pay me in books (I made a valiant effort not to drool in front of him). I didn’t want to start that minute, so I declined, and I could tell he thought I didn’t mean it, not really. I said we’d talk. I went back to browsing, smiling to myself.
A couple hours, a heavy box and $145 later, we emerged, happy and grubby. I’d made a date to return, but the owner didn’t think I really would.
On Monday, as promised, I returned precisely on the dot of 12:15 p.m., the time he requested.
He’d hurriedly emptied several bookcases at the time of the flood, and disassembled shelves to get them out of the way. He’d been working to get the shelves back up and wanted me to load them. I asked if I could wipe down the shelves first. A raised eyebrow and surprised agreement. He found a bucket and a rag and I got to work while he searched among towering piles of heavy boxes for the books that belonged on the shelves. This was the general fiction mass market paperback section. He wanted me to weed out science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery for other sections. He also wanted me to weed out duplicates, choosing the best copy for the shelf.
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash
So began four glorious hours of squatting, bending, kneeling, sorting and alphabetizing. A bookstore invariably reflects the place it’s in. In Colorado, we had a Colorado section, naturally, featuring Colorado authors and artists. We also had a big Western section featuring Louis L’Amour and other Western writers. In Maine, there’s a Maine section and history and biography focused on the founding of the colonies, mills and seafaring. Also, a lot of political nonfiction.
The fiction is heavy on Richard Russo, Bill Roorbach, Annie Proulx and other Maine writers, as well as, of course, shelves of Stephen King.
I emptied box after box. I filled one of the empty boxes with duplicates and started another. I made leaning piles of mystery, fantasy and science fiction for other sections. Customers came and went, stepping around my boxes, bucket and piles, browsing with the quiet intensity of true booklovers. Robert, the owner, moved boxes around, answered the phone and hummed under his breath. I put aside a few books I wanted to take home.
Four hours passed like a happy dream. I asked if I could come again. He said yes, he’d be delighted. We made a date. He’s still not entirely convinced I’ll be there, but that’s okay. He’ll learn to trust me.
Coming out of the door into the spring afternoon, I was exhausted, my back ached, my hands were filthy and I was absolutely happy. I’ve found a way to volunteer again, to make a contribution doing something I love and believe in. I’ve found a place to belong with people I have something in common with.
I kissed a frog and this time it turned into a prince.
I drove home along the Kennebec River, watching the water birds and enjoying the budding trees, pools of blue hyacinths and banks of daffodils. It’s strange, the things that give our lives the greatest meaning. I thought of the frogs in every pool, pond and puddle right now, in every river and stream, singing, peeping, croaking and chuckling. How many women would look at a disordered, slightly down-at-heel used bookstore and see a prince?
I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m happy. I have that excited feeling of anticipation we get when a new door opens. Through books and volunteer work I’ve found dear friends, great jobs, meaning and purpose. Dreams I didn’t know I had have come true.
Not every kiss is a new beginning. Not every frog is a prince. Every book, though, opens onto a world, and a building full of new worlds can’t help but be overflowing with magic, power and possibility. I’m glad I didn’t give up on kissing frogs. Maybe that bookstore has been waiting for me as persistently as I’ve been searching for it.