27 April 2013

World Book Night 2013

 Tuesday, April 23, was World Book Night 2013.  Just like last year, I applied to be a Book Giver and was chosen to give out my first choice of book, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist.  This year’s WBN titles can be found here.  I had made arrangements to give half of my books to one of our community’s local shelters, Stepping Stones.  Although I could not personally give the books to the families living at the shelter due to privacy concerns, it felt great to drop off the books there, knowing that there was probably a lack of interesting reading material at this point in their lives.

As the sun was setting, I drove to the courthouse square that defines our downtown.  The courthouse itself is an imposing granite structure, built in the Neoclassic Revival style in 1916.  It is still used as the county courthouse.  Surrounded by a hundred or more elm trees, it is the definitive heart of Prescott.  After I parked, I surveyed the square before exiting my car.  The trees had begun leafing out, and there were several clusters of people gathered.  I discarded labels such as homeless vagabond, lapsed alcoholic, teenager with too little supervision, boys playing football, couple walking dog.  Rather than identifying these people in categories I might normally feel compelled to place them, I saw them as potential readers. 

With my box of books in hand, I got out of the car.  It was a warm spring evening and the resident owl was hoo-hoo-hooing into the dusk.  I first approached two men who sat on the curb facing the Vietnam War Memorial on the west side of the courthouse.  On the opposite side of the street is Prescott’s famous Whiskey Row, where I gave my books away last year.  The two men on the curb had an extremely large dog that immediately stood up as I approached.  It wasn’t acting in a threatening way, so I continued, smiling as I explained tonight’s event.  I offered them each a copy of the book, which they readily accepted.  They seemed genuinely surprised and happy on multiple levels:  not only did I acknowledge them, but I engaged them in conversation, I smiled at them in a sincere way, and I offered them something, expecting nothing in return. 

As I wished them well and turned toward another group of people, a large man was approaching.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw him begin to run toward me.  He, too, was grinning, as were the men I’d just left.  He called to me, “Whatever you gave them, I want one too!”

I laughed and said, “Of course,” handing him a copy.  He walked over to the other two men and began talking loudly.  They compared the copies I’d handed them.

I wound around the courthouse while the owl made its presence known.  I did not see it although I shifted my gaze again and again toward the trees silhouetted against the darkening sky.  But I could sense it watching over everyone on the square.  I handed out books.  Everyone was receptive.  It was a much different experience from last year, when I stood in one place and waited for people to approach me.  Each person last year was cautious and guarded, not sure if they wanted what I had to offer, even if it was free.  A lot of people turned me down or even refused to make eye contact with me.    This year, the only person who turned me down was a teenage girl who claimed she’d already read The Alchemist, adding that it was “a fantastic book.” 

Finally, down to my last book, I approached an older man seated on the courthouse steps.  He was smoking a cigarette and had arranged several bags of belongs around himself.  He looked content but tired, and I suspected he appeared much older than his actual age.  One last time I explained the event and offered him a copy.

“It’s a book about following your dream.”

He crushed out his cigarette and reached for the book.  He thanked me and said, “That’s right up my alley.”  There was a light in his eyes that hadn't been there when I'd first approached him.

We’ve heard the old adage it is better to give than receive hundreds of times.  But it really is true.  There is much joy in giving and sharing, so much more than our consumer driven society would care to admit.  When I taught ESL at a small Hebrew school, I learned about the eight levels of Tzedakah, a word most often translated as ‘charity’: 
  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
I was reminded of those levels tonight.  Tzedakah doesn’t have the same connotation as charity, though, which in the English-speaking world usually carries the impression of a magnanimous rich person giving to someone less fortunate.  But in Judaism, it is everyone’s duty, not just those  who are more fortunate.  It is an act of justice and righteousness.  I also thought of a friend’s comment when I’d told her that my daughter Madeleine could read.  She said, “She has the keys to the kingdom now.”  And I can think of no better way to advance humanity than by sharing books and spreading the love of reading, person to person.  What if the kingdom were that accessible, to all? 

What book would you share with another, if you could choose any book at all? 


20 April 2013

My Encounter with the Little Prince

Late one afternoon this past week, my daughters and I made a quick trip into town.  We were going to grab a bite for dinner and stop by our favorite shop, the Peregrine BookCompany.  I had been informed that the copies of the book I’ll be giving away for World Book Night 2013 were ready to be picked up.  Ever since the closing of most of our town’s independent bookstores in the post-Amazon market, and then the closing of a large chain bookstore, we’ve been longing for a decent bookstore.  Peregrine somehow fits the collective fantasy of an independent downtown bookstore for our town, and it’s a big deal for this town to agree on something, as we have seemingly divergent populations:  old ranchers and old hippies, teenagers and transplant retirees, horsemen and mountain bikers, free-thinking artists and conservative Christians, and more of course.  And yet somehow, we all seem to agree that Peregrine is a lovely space.

Every time I enter the bookstore, my heart races because I can scarcely believe it is true, that this beautiful bookstore is here, and that I can come anytime I want, to browse and purchase, to sniff the books.  If you have never suffered a bookstore drought in your life, you are extremely lucky.  You just can’t inhale the scent of book on Amazon.

Just moments after we entered the bookstore, Madeleine peeled away to find her favorite chair in the Young Adult section (“It’s so cushy!”).  Arden and I were looking at Rory’s Story Cubes when suddenly we were accosted by a little red-haired boy, maybe three years old, brandishing a book about monsters.

“I want to show you this,” he commanded, plopping on the floor right at our feet.  He acted as if he’d been waiting for us to arrive, or maybe even as if we’d walked in with him.

Two things went through my mind immediately:
1)  The way this boy talked to me, and the self-assuredness with which he behaved, reminded me of another little boy I loved - the Little Prince - who also made somewhat arrogant and self-centered demands of adults.
2)  One of my favorite lines from the Little Prince, “Quand le mystère est trop impressionnant, on n’ose pas désobéir.” (In the face of an over-powering mystery, you don’t dare disobey.)  What if this red-haired boy were my Little Prince, sent here to teach me life’s greatest lessons?  How could I not do as he asked?

And so, I found myself kneeling on the hard wood floor with Arden and this little boy, just yards away from the cash register counter, looking at the monster book.  He separated each page carefully with his tiny hands, flipping it to reveal another new monster on each page.  We laughed at the silly monsters and picked our favorite attributes.

“This one has funny hair.”

“I like his spots.”

“What a scary mouth and claws!”

At one point, though, my knees began to ache and I looked around in search of a parent of this child, but saw none.  I felt a bit perplexed.  This wasn’t why I was here.  I had things to do, places to go.  But this little boy was so insistent, so certain that I was supposed to be there on the floor, pouring over this ridiculous book with him, and I couldn’t break away.  An older woman walked by with a clerk and acknowledged us in such a way that I believed she must be his grandmother, but she said nothing.  Arden smiled at me and made herself more comfortable on the floor, and so we continued to look at the monster book with this red-haired little prince.  From time to time he told me (he didn’t ask) to read a word or two, or ordered me to help him count with him how many eyes certain monsters had.  The grandmotherly woman walked by again, observing us with practiced eyes.

By the time we reached the end, though, a realization hit me.  I was here to pick up my books for World Book Night, and the whole point of this philanthropic event is to share the love of reading person to person.  I'll be giving away Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist, a fable about following your dream.  In the book, a young shepherd leaves his home and all that he knows in order to pursue his unlikely and fanciful dream.  On his quest he encounters many people who teach him lessons.   I grasped that this little boy was doing exactly that with me.  I had just met a member of my tribe.  In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the title character learns from and teaches the other characters huge lessons about life and love and purpose.  I felt as if I’d been charmed as we stood up and I knew that I’d likely have few encounters like this in my lifetime, that this was somehow an allegory in my real life.  I dusted off my knees and looked at Arden, who was beaming.  She seemed to understand - of course she did - that we were in the presence of something rare. 
Our little prince swaggered toward the counter, monster book in hand, and in his self-assured way, announced, “I’m going to check this one out.  It’s really good.” 

I stifled a giggle, as that sounded just like something the Little Prince would say, but I said nothing, knowing that he would not listen to me.  We wandered around the store, re-grouped with Madeleine, asked for and received my box of books.  We didn’t see the boy or the older woman again, but I felt and shared his love of books with my whole being.  And so, with new inspiration and insight, I’ll be giving away The Alchemist on April 23, 2013, to twenty people in my community.  I’m hopeful that they’ll feel that same spark of joy in books that Arden and I shared with the little red-haired boy, and that they’ll find great meaning in the tale of an Andalusian shepherd named Santiago and his quest to follow his dream. 

16 April 2013

The Custom

We found the bones in the garden, bones so tiny some
might scoff at their insignificance.  They were entwined in
a pellet of grey fluff and dust that broke apart as you placed
it upon a small blue plate.  The bones, broken shards with points
so sharp - how had they not injured the owl that had digested
the rest of this small creature?  Separating these bones from the
chaff, we sorted, hoping to discover their origin.  Was this an
animal that scurried?  Slithered?  Flew?  In our minds we struggled  
to assemble the puzzling inventory:  half a cracked nickel-sized
pelvis, an assortment of broken hollow bones, two tiny ivory
incisors, a single bead of vertebra.  I reflected on an owl we’d
found years ago, barely uncovered on the banks of a dry wash
in the Canyon, its sturdy legs all that jutted out from the sand
beneath a boulder.  Talons glinted as the breeze made sway its
downy tufts.  How had it come to be there, buried as it was, under
that marker?  Such is not the custom of owls.  We dared not
disturb that static symbol of death and wisdom, perhaps sensing our
precarious perch on the other side of such things.  These
inscrutable proofs of death as life, a lesson to express that which
does not nourish now, of leaving behind something to enrich the
soil.  I took the blue plate outside, satisfied with the endurance of 
mystery, and sprinkled the bones and dust in the garden, returning
them, as is our custom, to the earth where all ends and begins.  Briefly,
they shone in that loam, like your smile in the darkness, like
our moon before another levied dawn.

13 April 2013

Bright Angel Bingo

Rules:  One card per hiker.  One point per square.  All points must be earned below the rim of the Grand Canyon (Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails offer your most likely chance of success).  Honor system only - if you can’t trust your hiking companions, you need new hiking companions.  First to compete the entire board (not including bonus items) wins bragging rights and swigs from your hiking companions’ hooch.

aggressive squirrel
orange peel
overweight Midwesterner
used kleenex
monkey flower
West European (French, German, Dutch, etc)
discarded plastic water bottle
sage brush
boy scout
Hindi or Bengali
cigarette butt
day hiker in 99 cent flip-flops
canyon wren
Russian or East European
used bandaid
barrel cactus
Non-American English (British, Australian, etc)
mule turds
person with  25+ lbs camera equipment
Bonus Items:
California condor
spare change
cryptogamic soil
ultra-marathoner who acknowledges your presence


07 April 2013

The Stranger and SuzyMae

A stranger came to town and she didn’t make a sound.  She swept in on a wind from the south, her feet bound in colorful rags, that let her glide slowly across the smooth wood floors of our grandparent’s house.  No one saw her.  No one but SuzyMae, our sweet baby sister, who barely spoke before the stranger’s visit.

The stranger came, and when she found SuzyMae curled up on the seat of Grand Dad’s huge upholstered chair near the fire, she gathered the little girl in her arms.  Together they settled back into the cozy grey wool.  SuzyMae had awakened by then and snuggled into the stranger’s bosom, soft as a pillow.  SuzyMae said the stranger’s clothes were of bright woven fabric, with embroidered scenes exotic and colorful that echoed of the stories the stranger began to whisper.

Into the curve of SuzyMae’s left ear the stories traveled, through the canal and tapping gently on the tiny drum.  From there, they grew into images of towering green trees with leaves as big as the goats that SuzyMae fed each morning and again at dusk.  Birds more brightly feathered than creatures any of us could conjure filled her mind and she grew drowsy upon their wings.  But in the shadows lurked predators hidden by clever markings in their fur and stealthy movements by which they hunted, quieter even than the stranger’s feet.

SuzyMae later told us again and again that it was like she was asleep, but through the stranger’s clothes she could glimpse a pulsing light - like a heart beating, she said - first blue-green, then red-orange.  She couldn’t feel the pulse but rather she sensed a slight heat in those colors and their rhythm.  When we pressed her on details, she told us the stranger’s face was lovely, dark and smooth.  Her hair was hidden beneath a colorful, embroidered wrap.
SuzyMae spoke of the stranger so often, and for so many years that we began to think of her as the stranger, or maybe simply as strange.  We never believed her stories.  We teased and taunted, yet she never mistrusted her own memory.  She clung to it like a doll and we tried and tried to take from her but never could.  She never wore rags on her feet or head, but took on an aura that was odd and unmarriageable.  She was eventually hired on by the dressmaker, after the rest of us were married and no longer living in the house that Grand Dad built.  So as not to disturb the customers, though, SuzyMae was relegated to the back room of the dress shop.  And while her peculiar stories no longer shocked us, the dressmaker had to let her go when customer after customer began to discover strange, colorful embroidery hidden in the dresses SuzyMae had made.

And then one day, SuzyMae was gone, having glided from town as quietly as the stranger she had described to us so many times.  It wasn’t until months later, when the postcards began to arrive that we considered that we should have tried harder to understand.  Sepia-toned images, with tiny bright feathers arranged and glued just so, postmarked from the Yucatan.  By the time each of us received one, we finally came to believe in the stranger that had indeed come to town, perhaps only to lure our SuzyMae away.