In the used bookstore in which I volunteer, I found a slim paperback book of poetry, modestly and plainly bound, entitled A Gypsy’s History of the World, by Kim Robert Stafford. It called to me and I bought it for $4.00.
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I had never heard of this poet, but he turns out to be quite well-known and has published several books, which I’ll be looking for now. In the meantime, this book is filled with treasures.
For a couple of days I’ve been groping for this week’s post. Sometimes they come so easily, these posts. Other times I flounder. It seems that the more I have going on, the harder it is to come up with a focused essay. Irritating, but writing can be like that.
When I listen to the sound of my life this week I hear a cacophony. There are the half-excited, half-apprehensive feelings I have as the night approaches on which I’ve scheduled a local venue to once again try to start a dance group. (Will I be a good leader? Will they like me? Will anyone come?) There’s the increasing pressure I feel to find a way to earn a paycheck. There are new friends and our conversations as we strengthen our connections. (Am I talking too much? Am I offensive? Am I too blunt? Do I ask too many questions?) I’m preoccupied with family dynamics and past, present, and future possibilities and fears. (What’s the right thing to do? What’s loving? What’s useful? What will people think about me? How do I take care of everyone’s needs and expectations? How much irreparable damage will I do if I make the wrong choice?) There are my weekly activities and appointments. All the material of my daily reading swirls in my head, awaiting synthesis and integration.
In my creative world, I’m with Pele, the Earth-Shaper, sensual, passionate and angry. This week others will come to dance with her, to make offerings, to propitiate and reconnect. Revolving around her are other characters: Rumpelstiltskin the dwarf; Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea; a little brown bat called Ash and his companion, a bark beetle; the eldest of the twelve dancing princesses, Ginger; an old woman, Heks, apprentice to Baba Yaga; and Persephone, who comes to drum for the dance.
All this, and I can’t come up with a thing to post about.
I know this dynamic. The more pressure I put on myself, the harder I try, the more elusive inspiration will be.
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It’s a foggy morning here in Maine. Foggy and oppressive with high humidity and a threat of severe weather this afternoon. I’m planning on meeting a new friend for a walk and then I’ll swim. I decided to stop trying to write a post. I turned off all the lights up here in my little attic space and lit a candle. I picked up A Gypsy’s History of the World and turned back to the beginning of the book.
A dream flips me into the daylight.
I pry my way back:
a door opens, I enter, never
escape; the jailor sings by morning
duets through the bars with me.
I wake and out my window
by dawn a blackbird sings and
listens, sings and listens.
Listen. Thistledown jumps its dance
in the wind. I’m small and have
no regrets. Yesterday is a temporary
tombstone, a hollow stalk
on the hill. I’m putting my best
ear forward; in the space between songs
I’m travelling. My hands make
whistling wings in the wind.
No things meet without music:
wind and the chimney’s whine, hail’s click
with the pane, breath in a bird’s
throat, rain in my ear when I
sleep in the grass. I miss the
whisper of a swallow’s wings
meeting the thin air somewhere far.
Branches of my voice, come back.
Inside each song
At once the cacophony in my head faded away, no more than the murmur of the trees and breeze or the ocean’s breath. For a few minutes, I thought about being small and having no regrets, let alone imagining future regrets. Yesterday and yesterday and yesterday, all temporary tombstones. All my yesterdays add up to almost 20,000 hollow stalks on a hill. And yes, activities and schedules, efforts and appointments, hopes and fears, words and information, friends and family, the way the shadowed ceiling looks in a sleepless hour and the path of silent tears on their way to my pillow. All of that. But I forget about the space between all those songs. I forget that I’m traveling through this place, this life, and these landmarks.
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Sometimes I forget to just listen to life’s music, just witness, just be present and still. Sometimes I forget to fold my hands in my lap and watch the wavering shadows the candle makes inside the song of my life. The song will not be endless. One day it will be yesterday’s song, held in a hollow stalk on a hill. I can’t reach out my hand and clutch it, pin it down, record it and make sense of it. I don’t need to. I don’t want to.
Today, friends, I’m listening.
My daily crime.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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