Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Here We Go (an Advent) Caroling!

While the church is a bit fussy about music in Advent, I confess to being obsessed with the mall muzak of the holiday season.

Ever since I was a little kid, Jingle Bells has brought me joy; O Come, All Ye Faithful has given me comfort. The chaos of my childhood home not withstanding.

loved to sing — though Sister Inez Patricia kicked me out of the Glee Club for belting out Joy to the World off key.  I cajoled my piano teacher Mrs. Wertz into letting me practice Christmas carols year round. And I have a vague memory of actually gathering a sibling and maybe my grandmother (who would humor this child) “round the spinet” for a carol or two.

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No matter how dark my December days, these little embers of memory never fail to warm my Advent soul.

But not to over do it! Psychologists warn us that overdosing on Christmas music is not good for your mental health. Especially, if you start tuning in the first of November, when Target has put up all of their Christmas stuff – post Halloween. The Twelve Days of Christmas will definitely drive you crazy, when you still have fifty five days to go!

But this first Sunday of Advent, I think we are safe.  All things in moderation, my dad used to say.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace thus saith our God;

Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load;

Speak ye peace to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;

Tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near,

calling us to new repentance,  since the kingdom now is here.

These words from Second Isaiah (which inspired the Advent hymn) make a good measure of the the music we play – to make our souls merry – this holiday season. As does this verse from Psalm 25.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness. Ps 25:9 

Our lives in this world – no matter how charmed our circumstances – are but a walk in the wilderness. A wonderful walk. A dazzling and challenging walk.

And maybe this year has been wilder or weirder or more bewildering or even more wondrous than those past. With…

newborn babies and loved ones dying;

terrible twos and aging parents;

lost jobs and new occupations;

weddings and partings;

hard knocks and soft landings;

rejection and reception;

retreat and renewal;

reunion and return;

delight and despair;

whether any of it be private, personal, or shared.

Having a Holly, Jolly (and hopeful) Christmas is a complicated thing.

For a dozen years running now, two of my children, Zach and Colleen have produced an annual Christmas album. It is not your usual holiday fare. It started out just silly and fun but has turned into a sibling bonding ritual they return to each year. (Zach now being 36 and Colleen 34.)

And each album has a different theme – that captures the mood and the meaning of that particular Christmas:

Party hardy Christmas;

Down Home Country Christmas;

Christmas Around the World;

and in a bluer season:

The Smooth Sounds of Christmas.

And this being the twelfth season, the 12 Days of Christmas, of course, a retrospective.

The tracks they choose are outlandish, surprising, delightful, poignant, moody, and sad.

Each is a cacophony of voices, crying out in the wilderness – a way to tune into the Greatest Story Ever Told. A way to tune into the crazy Second Coming of God.

(Though I am pretty sure they would not describe it that way! Ha!)

Maybe you could make your own?

As a spiritual exercise, why not put together your own Messiah playlist: whether it be Handel, Bing Crosby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Prince, the Anonymous Four, Gregorian chant, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Instead of a Christmas letter, you can share your playlists and attach it to an e-Christmas card.

My own which I, so creatively labeled: Christmas, Christmas, Christmas🙂  shuffles over 200 carols in the privacy of my car (or my living room.)  Where I can sing along – lustily and with abandon – which I recommend most highly!

And besides the car or the shower, where else can you make a joyful Christmas noise?

Well, at Cocktails, Mocktails & Carols, of course!

This Saturday, December 8th, Emmanuel on Russell Road is THE place to be!

A grownup evening of seasonal cocktails and brews, “mocktail” alternatives; hot cocoa & cider.

Carols “round the spinet” with Clair Elser.

Serenaded by “Amici” (Ryan and friends!)

Wear your CRAZIEST Christmas sweater! (There will be prizes!)

Bring warm NEW winter things (hats, gloves, scarves, socks – all sizes) for Carpenter’s Shelter!

Childcare provided for little ones! Please, indicate ages and how many. 

RSVP here to let us know that you are coming!

So make a joyful and genuine Christmas Carol noise!

And let the whole world know (without a doubt) that all the paths of Christ to come are love, faithfulness and peace.

JoaniSign


The Last Can Be First: The (Almost) Billion Step Program

First off I will tell you that I was last both times. And both times I survived.

A few Novembers ago, I went trailblazing with an Alexandria Meetup Group. We embarked from Fort Ethan Allen Park. The hike was described as of moderate difficulty, with a few water crossings, and rock scrambles, and elevation changes. It promised a scenic overlook of the Potomac River. Only five and a half miles in just under two hours.

Piece of cake.

I almost died.

At an early water crossing I slipped on a rock and fell flat on my face into the stream. I hit my head and bruised my left shin. I was soaked head to toe. My shoes and socks were sopping wet. It was 35 degrees. My lips turned blue. To avoid hypothermia, I stripped down to my skivvies in front of fifty of my new best friends. A handsome stranger lent me his dry coat and warm gloves.

I should have turned back. But…

It seemed there was just one dangerously steep hill to descend and then I would be back on solid ground. A transgendered park ranger held my hand all the way down. (I would love to thank her but I forgot to get her name.) I thought the worst was over.

I was wrong.

It turns out “rocks” meant “boulders” and “scrambling” meant “scaling” and a “few” meant “way the hell too many”. The hills turned into cliffs, breathtaking, death dealing cliffs.

I prayed for a helicopter.

God-in-three-persons answered my prayer, namely three handsome (and sadly married) guys: Gordon, Joe, and Luke. One in front and two behind, they took turns literally holding my hand and guiding me each and every step of the way – “Put your foot here, grab a hold there”. If I looked down, I was a goner. Instead I looked to them. I listened to them.

Thanks be to Gordon, Joe, and Luke, I came in last. Exhilarated, shaking like a leaf and kissing the ground, I came in last.

But not for the last time.

Just one week later on Thanksgiving Eve, I finished the Real Girls RUN Half Marathon in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The race started in Crozet, a picturesque village in the horse country outside of Charlottesville. The field of 100 plus runners quickly outpaced me. I was blissfully left alone with my thoughts to walk the course: 13.1 miles of serious hills but no cliffs and no boulders!

(But hills, lots of hills!)

Piece of cake.

When I was finally in sight of the finish line, a fellow racer – who had long ago finished herself – cheered me on from her car window. “It’s my very first one,” I told her, “and I am coming in last!” She pulled over and walked with me the last half-mile. “You may be last” she said, “but you finished the hardest damn half marathon in in the state of Virginia. That’s a first!”

I recovered from the five-mile hike. I recovered from the 13.1-mile walk. But more importantly, in the process, I recovered myself. Not an overnight process for sure. But with every little step I took, I got a little bit of myself back – body and soul.

(And since I have completed two more half marathons and planning on the fourth!)

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Coming in last, Real Girls Run, Nov 23rd

Looking back, I see that I took thousands of steps long before I ever strapped on that first pair of size 7 ASICS. Steps that did not seem to matter. Steps that were daunting. Steps that were awkward. Steps that were clumsy. Steps that were steep. Steps that were halting. Steps that were scary.

Steps forward. Steps backward.

The Million Step Program.

The (Almost) Billion Step Program.

So far I have been in the program for fifteen years. I will be in it the rest of my life. It’s about lifelong recovery. Not recovery from bipolar disorder. I will never not be bipolar – nor would I ever want to be. The program I am in is about embracing the gift of my bipolar self.

To help quantify what it takes to get with the program and keep up with the program, I compiled a few statistics from just this last year. Holistically speaking, I’ve done pretty well.

  • 48 weekly visits to get my head examined (Thank you, Sondra!)
  • 4, once a quarter trips, to my psychiatrist (aka Mr. Rogers!)
  • 3 x 365 nightly vitamins for my brain
  • 24 hikes round Huntley Meadows
  • 52 walks on the river front
  • 104  tours (2 miles each) at the Library of Congress
  • 389 tunes “Folk Rocking Down the Highway” (Thank you, Spotify!)
  •  29 blog posts (so far)
  •  a baker’s dozen of sermons
  •  6 score (120) services planned
  • 2 times, twice over, on the Story District stage
  • 1,095 cups of coffee
  • 400 pieces of toast
  • 4 dozen books devoured
  • 1st book written
  • “2” much time on my couch
  • 5 new dresses and just as many shoes
  • 1/2 dozen new pairs of pajamas
  • a few sleepless nights
  • and maybe more than just a little mania

But…

I lost track of the calories. I lost track of the miles. I lost track of the steps.

But I am stepping up my game and getting it back: a new Fitbit, an actual scale, a stair stepper to step on, and resistance bands. Walking clothes and shoes always at the ready. Back in the pool for a little aerobics. Even a bike ride, now and then.

It took me a dozen of years of coming in last — to finally count myself as first. And what is true for me is surely true for us all.

There is no magic pill or miracle program or magic bipolar wand.

But — bipolar or whatever – you can recover yourself one step at time. Walking this way may seem ENDLESS. Yet every step may take you places you never thought you would go.  And on this road, miraculous people you are likely to meet.  Neighbors turn into friends; coworkers become companions; and strangers – wilderness guides along your way.

Like the  park ranger, like Gordon, Joe, and Luke, like the woman who walked with me that last half mile. God in all these persons witness to the truth.

The last can be first.

Just take it one step at a time.

JoaniSign


With Apologies to Paul McCartney: When I’m 84

As I get older, hair going gray
Many years from now
Will I still be searching for my Valentine
Not counting birthdays but bottles of wine

Will I still stay out ‘til quarter to four
(Where are the keys to my condo door)
Will I still be free, will I still feel glee
When I’m eighty-four

The earth grows older too
And if the world but says the word
I will dance anew

I could be brilliant, penning a book
With tales I’ve never told
I would write away by the fireside
Weekday evenings go out with the tide

Dreaming the future, unearthing the past
No more of the universe can I ask
Will I still find God, will I still know God
When I’m eighty-four

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64 + 20 = 84 (Painting by nickel8 on DeviantArt)

Most every season for multiple reasons
My wardrobe still grows a drawer — or more.
(Who me, scrimp and save?) Credit card, debit card
Dropping money on stuff I crave

And on holidays, my head above the clouds
I stuff stockings for the lost and the found
Making magic for the grown and the grand
Not so little ones, two times three

So…

Send me an email, drop me a text
Spill your worldly news
I’ll try to respond with honest words
All that I think — in fading ink

Here are my answers, I’ve filled in the blanks.
Truth, forever more.
Yes, we’ll be free;  yes, we’ll feel glee
When we’re eighty-four

JoaniSign


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Not (Not) Ready to be a Cat Lady

In a weak moment about a year ago,  I posted on Facebook:

“I am not a cat person. I am thinking of getting a cat.”

 Well, truth be told I am not really much an animal person.

Bailey, my youngest son’s half-Collie/half-Golden, lived out the latter of his fifteen years under my roof. My divorce decreed me all three animals – my children’s pets. Along with Bailey, there were two cats: Lucy and Katrina who preceded him to heaven.

And at each pet’s passing, I had to admit that I was a whole lot more attached to these fur-coated creatures than I imagined. Well, not nearly so much to the cats as to Bailey.

Bailey and I had this quiet comfortable roommate thing going on. And then he was gone.

It has been three years now. It is Bailey I miss. That particular golden-haired member of my household. Bailey who was afraid of soda cans and squeaky toys. Bailey who I used to drag around the block. Bailey, the dog who barely knew his name.

But with Bailey’s departure, I discovered the particular pleasures of the single life.

After work, I now could go wherever I pleased. No need to rush home. On rainy mornings, I could stay dry in my pajamas. No need to get drenched outdoors. Wardrobe wise, I could wear black and no longer need to stash lint rollers all over the place. No vet bills. No boarding costs. I had both the freedom and the funds to travel — free as a bird!

But I would still get a little misty eyed when I thought  about Bailey.

I did  not miss having a dog.

Well, mostly I did not miss having a dog.

Tempted by a rebound relationship, I briefly considered adopting a little Bichon Frise pup named “Posh.” But someone else rescued him before I got there. The timing of which may have rescued us both from the canine equivalent of a one night stand.

My desire dissipated like vapor. Faded in the blink of an eye.

You see, I delight in the solitude of my sacred space. The freedom to stay in my pajamas till almost noon.  Curled up on my couch, befriended by books and lost in my thoughts.

I live on my own but that does not mean that I am  lonesome.

Living alone is not the same thing as being lonely.

Yet even the Queen in her Castle, craves companionship  from time to time.

On the human side of this equation, for the past couple of years, I have posted my endeavors here.  Blog worthy. Humorous, disastrous and less than successful.

Meanwhile, well-meaning people, kept encouraging me to get a companion of the four-footed kind.

“Get a cat. They are so easy!”

“A cat to keep you warm!”

 So last summer, I surfed the SPCA sites looking for a cat. Maybe a cat would be a better fit.

Crowdsourcing on Facebook, I posted:

“I am not a cat person. I am thinking of getting a cat. Please, advise.”

 And friends I did not know were friends – or friends I did not even know I had – commented, reacted, liked, and commented on the comments.

There was no shortage of replies:

  • Adopt a kitten.
  • No, kittens tear up your house.
  • Adopt a rescue cat.
  • Adopt a two year-old cat, already housebroken.
  • No adopt an old cat.
  • No, they have urinary tract problems.
  • Adopt a black cat because they get left behind.
  • No, adopt a special needs cat.
  • A deaf cat, a blind cat.
  • A cat with FIV (poor thing).
  • Better yet, get two cats. To keep each other company.
  • (Uh, aren’t two cats twice as expensive as one?)
  • Or adopt a Maine Coon cat, it’s almost like a dog.
  • Or a British Short Hair, Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat.
  • Or maybe, just take my cat.
  • No, for heavens’ sake just get a kitten.
  • So cute.
  • So cuddly.

Hmmmm, no I don’t think so. My answer was a definite NO.

Until….

This happened. Two orange aliens from outer space invaded my place.

 

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August a year ago, Cheshire and Charlie came home from the Fairfax County Humane Society

Since, I have made, at least, a hundred trips to PetSmart for:

Litter boxes, litter, litter box liners, litter scooper, dry food, canned food, food dishes, cat carrier, pet gate, food bowls, cardboard scratching things, cat toys, cat bed, catnip spray, don’t-pee-here spray, don’t-scratch-there spray, no-odor spray, cat-stain spray, cat brush, kitten collars, cat collars, cat proof trash cans.

I’ve spent about a bazillion dollars, give or take a few.

The world, as we know it, forever seems to be coming apart. I wish I could save it — but of course, I can’t. So, I decided to save Cheshire and Charlie. It’s the very least I could do.

So, I am now a certified “certifiable” cat lady.

It’s like living with wild cats and drunk acrobats in my condo. Cheshire has spider-man tendencies and literally climbs the walls. Charlie, is a hunter par excellence, who ferociously tears up toilet paper rolls.

They are hysterical. Cheshire and Charlie bring a spark of life into my swinging single’s lifestyle.

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And this is how God intended it to be.

“It is not good for the human to be alone…”

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what he would call them; and whatever the human called every living creature, that was it’s name. The human gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field…”

Feathered friends. Furry friends. Some slimy and scaly, too. Some that go “moo.”

And, of course, God made Adam a human friend too. 🙂

Our two-footed households runneth over with four-footed friends.

To walk along side us. Fall asleep in our laps. Chew up our shoes. Raid the trash. Wag their tails. Bark at the robbers. Catch the rats. Scratch the furniture. Make us laugh.

On the Feast of Saint Francis, let us give thanks for —

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

the Lord God made them all.

JoaniSign


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More than food…

Jesus and his friends were lacking in social graces – according to the table manners and table piety of their day.  And for this — certain Pharisees called him on the carpet. “I can’t believe it! He did not wash his hands. There is dirt underneath his fingernails!”

My mother, my grandmother and her mother before her would have sided with the Pharisees.  Jesus, didn’t your mama teach you to wash your hands before you eat? Apparently, Jesus did not listen very well to his elders. And yet he knew that people come to the table for more than food.

The Pharisees are not alone in being fussy about table manners.

Christians are no exception. Growing up, we observed a rhythm of fasting and feasting.  On Friday, we would eat no meat.  On special days we would fast from all meals until sundown.  Every Sunday we would fast at least an hour before Mass and receiving communion.  Our small sacrifices were to remind us of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Ordinary reminders of the extraordinary God.

The good sisters at Holy Family were scrupulous in this regard.  The nuns who had lunch time duty sniffed out each lunch bag and box to make sure it was kosher. I will never forget a Friday when I was in the first grade — just six years old. My mom had packed a bologna sandwich. A BOLOGNA SANDWICH!  Possibly a mortal sin, my immortal soul was in danger. And so, my lunch was confiscated.  A note was sent home chastising my parents’ lax regard for the Friday fast.

The sisters had reminded us of the rules. They laid down the law, but they had forgotten that we come to the table for more than food.

Christians are notorious for fighting over meals and especially notorious for fighting over God’s table.  Is it an altar? Or a table?  Should we kneel, or do we stand?  What do we wear? White or black or rich brocade?  Should we use wine, or do we use grape juice?  Christians of many stripes and colors want to believe that their version of the Lord’s supper is THE version of the Lord’s Supper.

Family traditions are destined to clash at the dinner table.

Take the story of Raney and Charles, characters in a Clyde Edgerton novel.   Raney and Charles are newlyweds.  They live in North Carolina.  Raney is a Free Will Baptist.  Charles is an Episcopalian.  One Saturday night over okra and fried chicken, they discuss where they will attend church the next morning.  Charles hopes that Raney will attend the Eucharist with him at the Episcopal Church in town.

“I don’t think I could go to an Episcopal Church, ” Raney says.

“Why not?” counters Charles.

“They’re against some of the things we believe in the most. They serve real wine at the Lord’s Supper and they have priests.  Don’t they?”

“Well, yes”

“Well, I don’t especially approve of the way priests drink.” Raney complains.

Charles reminds Raney that Jesus himself drank.

Raney scoffs, “I don’t think so.”

“Well, he turned water into wine at the wedding feast.”

“Yes,” Raney concedes, “but it wasn’t wine it was grape juice. If Jesus turned water into wine on the spot it had to be grape juice because it didn’t have time to ferment.”

There was a pause at this point in their conversation.

“If Jesus could make wine” says Charles, he could easily make it fermented as not, couldn’t he? Why should Jesus mess around with half a miracle?

Full stop. Continue.

“I’ve been going to the Bethel Free Will Baptist Church for twenty-four years now and the preachers there have been studying the Bible for all their lives and they say its grape juice.  All together they have probably studied the Bible for over a hundred years.  I’m not going to sit in my kitchen and go against that.”

So, like Raney and Charles, we squabble over the magic words. We argue about  how the table is set.  We quibble over the menu and the guest list.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  These table traditions of Jews and Christians, Catholics and Protestants are to be honored. The Pharisees preaching of the kosher (kashrut) laws was not intended to be picayune.

The Jews have a wonderful word: “mitzvah”.   A “mitzvah” is a grateful gesture to God even in the most mundane of circumstances: as you prepare the evening meal, as you wash your dishes, as you bathe the baby, as you tuck your children into bed.

Daily food was holy food. God sat down at each table and shared in each meal.  But the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel had forgotten this.  They had forgotten that we come to the table for more than food.

Jesus, a marginal Jew, knew this, of course.

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Have you ever attended a Passover Seder, a real one with a real Jewish family?  The holy story of the Exodus is woven around a simple family meal.  There are candles, special dishes and plates, symbolic foods and sumptuous courses.  The Haggadah, the prayer book, is passed from hand to hand.  Everyone has a part to play -– even the children.

“Why is this night so special?” the youngest asks.

The bitter herbs, the haroset, the lamb, the matzoh, and the wine make the rounds of the table.  Each course is blessed with the telling of the story.

And this is just as true at Emmanuel’s holy table.   I know that a hundred years ago, or so, the church purchased it.  And I know that twenty some years ago, a vestry committee approved the rearrangement of the nave. And I know that the Altar Guild lovingly laid out the linen and the silver this Sunday — just as they have done hundreds and hundreds of Sundays.

But this table does not belong to Emmanuel.  It does not belong to us.  It belongs to God.

God decides who is welcome and God excludes no one. Technically only the baptized receive communion but that’s a church rule, a rule that God overrules.  There is no checking your baptismal certificate at the altar rail.

At a nursing home service, the residents lean forward in their wheel chairs – regardless of whatever faith they came from. At baptisms, Jewish godparents are just as much a part of the family as the Christian ones. At a post 9/11 Eucharist, I remember a Muslim woman reaching out her hands in hope. On Christmas and Easter, when the church overflows, everyone is served.

We come for solace and for strength.

We come for pardon and for renewal.

We come in hope.

All God’s children come to the table for more than food.

JoaniSign


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The Virtue of Catholic Resistance: An Episcopal Priest Responds to James Martin, SJ

Today’s New York Times published The Virtue of Catholic Anger, an article by the Jesuit, James Martin, the editor-at-large of America Magazine. Rev. Martin responds to the “moral catastrophe” of the sexual abuse travesty in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Pennsylvania. A liberal theologian, his well thought out response, I believe lacks a backbone. In short, it infuriated me. Here is my response.

Rev. Martin,

I admire your work and have read several of your books. I grew up in the RC tradition but was told by Sister Mary Clare in high school that because I asked too many questions I was “intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded.” Direct quote.

Long story short, an agnostic, I got a degree in philosophy. And later found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church where my gender and my intellect are embraced. I have been an ordained Episcopal priest for 24 years and I have served five congregations, as well as, at Virginia Theological Seminary.

I write to you specifically about your article today in the New York Times which you wrote in response to the “moral catastrophe” documented in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Your appeal to emulate the righteous anger of Jesus is very on target. But I am deeply dismayed at your very tepid recommendations about how to express that anger for Catholics in the pews.

This is what you wrote:

“I can only suggest a few specific actions: Speak to your pastor, write to your bishop, express your anger to the Vatican’s nuncio in this country. Most of all, work in any way that you can for real change, even at the cost of being seen as a troublemaker.”

Really? That’s all you’ve got to offer?

Telling a priest or a bishop or a nuncio? The same insular authorities and system that have covered up this abomination? What real power do laity have in a church whose polity gives them no real institutional authority whatsoever?  In a church where priests, no matter that they criminally abused children, remain a priest. In a church where dioceses do all they can to protect themselves and not minors in their care.

Your advise rings exceedingly hollow. Besides what you recommend, here is what the ordinary Catholic can do.

Call the newspaper.

Alert law enforcement.

Organize the resistance.

Stage walkouts and demonstrations.

Call for the resignation of all culpable bishops and ecclesiastical authorities.

Vote with their feet and worship in another corner of God’s kingdom.

Vote with their wallets and withhold and redirect donations to organizations that support the victims and work for change.

I learned a long time ago that the RC Church does not have a monopoly on the “catholic” faith. My church, too is broken and fallen, but it’s polity is open and democratic and built for reform.

I pray the church of my childhood finds redemption. But before resurrection can happen, corrupt and antiquated ways will likely need to die.

In Christ,

The Rev. Joani Peacock
Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
Alexandria, VA

P.S. Roman Catholic friends, if you need to rest and regroup, the Episcopal Church welcomes you into our pews.

JoaniSign


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Conjectures of a Guilty Librarian: A Short Story

This story is a work of pure fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental and unintentional.

 Early Reader

 “Take up and read.” 

 I remember my older sister, reading me to sleep. My mother is AWOL, already tucked into her boozy bed. P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? is one of my not so ironic favorites.  But, what really rocks me to sleep are the cadences of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.

I never make it to kindergarten.  I am no wunderkind reading at three. But I remember coming home from my first day of first grade screaming: RED! I can spell RED!

And from that day forward, I could read. Yertle the Turtle. Horton Hears a Who. Nancy Drew.

My dad’s library beckons.  The smell of pipe tobacco. Kingston Trio on the tape deck. So many books looking down at me.  Books of the Month Club. Heritage Press. Penguin Classics.

A playground for my gray cells.  In my dad’s library, I find my literary friends. Imaginary and necessary. They get me through school: elementary and high and launch me early into university.

Where I fall in love – head over heels in love –  with books.

For the Love of a Good Book

 “A library is a place where you lose your innocence but not your virginity.” 

My lover is an open book.

Currently I am intimate with White Noise by Don DeLillo “Hilarious, beautiful, and strange.”

It’s easy on the eyes, lovely to hold and stimulating to my gray cells.

The perfect companion to take to my bed.

Pillow talk with DeLillo is delightful.

Babette and I have turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night about our fathers and mothers, childhoods, friendships, awakenings, old loves, fears. No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbor’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained across our skin.

Such language, it makes me jealous.

Books are sensuous things.  Smooth pages, ragged edges, the whiff of oak trees and earth.

Printed words slither from left to right clarifying things in black and white.

Yes, books are quite the tease.  Breathless, I dream of what’s on the page’s other side.

And the best of books not only get into my bed; they get into my head.

I’ll never be an astronaut, but I have explored the cosmos. I’ll never be a philosopher, but I have pondered by Walden Pond

All for the love of a good book.

Tumbled between the sheets, my lovers lie spent. Their covers lost. Their spines broken. Their pages torn. Their corners bent.

No man can possibly compete.

Next semester, I begin a two-year tour at Library School. There I will see and taste all this temple has to offer: its collections and its history; its legends and its lore.

A bibliophile’s dream.

Library School

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They should be warned.” 

The campus and quad are verdant and fresh.  Fall leaves crackle under my feet. Muddy gray buildings loom overhead.  At the registrar’s office, I drool over the curriculum as I wait in line.

The first day of class arrives. I sit up front. Eager to please. The Dewey Decimal System is a bit of a bore. The History of the Book more tedious than I care to admit. But Libraries: Ancient and Modern is nothing less than a revelation.

I could listen forever to the professor’s Irish lilt.  His cable knit sweater could use a wash. His bristly chin could use a shave. Stereotypically rumpled, he is a virtual card catalog of information.

He dazzles the class with tales from ancient Alexandria to the Papal Library at the Vat.  I imagine him unrolling a parchment scroll or pulling down a tome from antique shelves.

I check the syllabus and read ahead.  I cannot get enough of this stuff. And to be honest, I cannot get enough of this Scholar-Librarian.

Occasionally, he graces my nerdy lunch table. No better banter than book banter. Banned book lists. Fights over first editions. Salty stories from the stacks at Cambridge.

Cracking jokes with my classmates, along with a professor is just plain fun.  Deftly deploying my tongue, I hold my own.

We agree on much. We argue even more.

The best arguments of my life. Intellectual and spirited. Brutally honest and exceptionally kind.

I am listened to and understood in a way that I have never known before. Like a rare book, I find my value.

I find my home.

In the Library.

Book Jockey

“Libraries should be open to all except the censor.” 

 Second semester, lucky me lands a job at the front desk. The most menial job a library has to offer. But the hottest spot in town. Through the front doors stream a bunch of biblio-types: faculty, students, researchers. I love getting to know them. Their peculiarities. Their preferences.

I love to watch the preening professor holding court. I love hearing researchers excited about their books. I even love the occasional overly-long conversations at the desk.

And though I am the most verbose of library assistants, the hierarchy believes me deaf. Like a mic hidden in a house plant, I overhear faculty squabbles and gossip of student affairs.

Libraries appear tidy but really, they are quite messy places to work. Alive with an eclectic cast of characters. Haunted by the ghosts of their past.

Meander through the stacks, open a carrel door, run your fingers along dusty spines, mystery permeates the place.

Thousands of books, telling tales, stand silent on the shelves.

They never speak.

Shhhh, the Head Librarian whispers.

At the front desk, I sit in silence. Quietly in the know.

Like a pastor, I hand out bibliographic advice. But I keep my own counsel.

Public Services are private. Circulation is secret.

And there is no censorship in the library.

The Scholar-Librarian

 “To build a library is to create a life.”

I want to be James H. Billington when I grow up. A recently retired Librarian of Congress, Billington is also an acclaimed historian.

A voracious reader, I dream of being a prolific writer. About what yet, I am not sure.

But I know that a Scholar-Librarianis everything I want to be.

Master of collections. Mistress of catalogs. Scribbling away in my private carrel, some passionate brilliance.

But I am held back by library anxiety. Yes, that is a real thing:

Confusion, fear and frustration especially when lacking experience while facing pressure to master a subject.

It leads to procrastination. Timidity. Feelings of inadequacy.

So, how do I score? Much too high. Though I might ace a project, I fall all over myself presenting it.  I fumble with my notes. I look down and not up.

Practicing in my living room, I’m polished and funny. In front of the professor, I am an intellectual klutz.

Why?

Middle child, in a crazy household, it was best to disappear. Teacher’s pet in parochial school, I gave only the right answers. Rebel without a cause in high school, finally my questions started to fly.

But I am swatted down. Hard.

Which drives me underground. Secret and subversive.

And so, in college, I become an amateur philosopher – arguing with the sages of the ages.

Term paper wise, but never really in person wise.

Bookworm, I am drawn to the Scholar-Librarian like a moth to a flame.

Basking in his light, terrified of getting burned.

Bibliolatry

 “Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what she wants.” 

 I love spending other people’s money on books.  Well, I don’t actually spend the money myself, the Head Librarian does but I do get paid – minimum wage – to find them.

There is a lot of down time at the desk. I flip through the Times Literary Supplement. I skim the Chronicle of Higher Education.I scour professional journals for the latest and greatest of books.

An academic pursuit. But not entirely.

When the first little Library of Congress burned, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his books. Jefferson had one of the finest libraries in the young United States. His shelves were packed with history, philosophy and the arts.  He had volumes on every topic: bee keeping, Italian cooking, magic tricks.

Congress balked. They just wanted the law books.

But Jefferson argued: “There might not be subject to which a member of congress might not need to refer.”

In other words, he was passionate about everything.

“I cannot live without books,”Jefferson famously said.

6,487 of them.

Reading cultivates desire.

I have long played it safe in my life. I am the girl next door hesitant to leave the house. I am a good girl with a crush on a bad, bad boy. My love life does not amount to much. Study groups. poetry readings, book store crawls.

And now I want more.

Epic poetry, mystery, astrophysics.

I fill out bunches of book-recommend slips for the Scholar-Librarian.

I write little notes.

Does he read them?

I don’t think so.

I really don’t’ think so.

 Reading People

 “One must be an inventor to read well.”

 I am undercover. Circulation is not a simple as it appears. Like a secret agent, I take a read of everyone who comes in the door.

I am expert, of course, because on my break I read an article in Psychology Today. Look “past the masks into the real person. Logic alone won’t tell the whole story about anybody. You must surrender to other vital forms of information.”

 Surrender. I love that.

Pay attention to appearance, posture, movement, expressions of the face.

Trust your gut. Honor your feelings

Monitor the mood.

Tune into the tone of voice.

And eyes, of course, are windows to the soul.

Head Librarian?

Tweed suits. Oxford cloth shirts. Master of tasks.

Reference Desk?

Polyester mix & match. Counter of fines.

Rare Books?

 Sweater sets. Tome duster. History buff.

Archives?

 Dockers. Button downs. Glad hander. Ghost story teller.

Scholar-Librarian?

Here, I pay very close attention.

Not just to the sound of his voice but to sentence structure, punctuation. He laughs louder than he should, his sense of humor raw. His clothes are sloppy, on the preppy side. Solid as an oak tree, an inquisitive sage. Tenured and comfortable in his Ivory tower.

Sometimes he climbs down. His disciples as his feet.

Monday. Wednesday. Friday. First period. 8:30 AM.

Surveys, seminars, group discussions.

All four semesters, I turn my life upside down, so I can take his every class.

Every single one.

On the Shelf

 “Speed now book and make yourself known. A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire.” 

 Flipping through National Geographic, I happen upon an article about mating rituals in the wild. I read it, of course. The subtle art of seduction is what book displays are all about.

Maybe I can learn something from a preening peacock.

Apparently in the animal kingdom, Birds of Paradise find tickling a turn on. Hooded Seals blow up like pink balloons. And Bowerbirds collect tiny trinkets to lure females to their bachelor pads.

Thank you, Nat-Geo.

Displays are front and center. To entice you.  To tempt you.

Current affairs. Famous authors. Or maybe something more unorthodox.

Having closely read the Scholar-Librarian, I design a few.

October.  History of Halloween. Haunting, delightful.

March. Mental Health. A public service, of course.

And in May, the sexiest of all – Books about Books.

These are the books literally in the Z section— where only librarians go.

Books that make me weak in the knees:

A Gentle Madness

The Library at Midnight

Paper

 Touch me.  Crack open my cover. Check me out.

I take note of the readers who stop by my display.

The Dewey-Decimal professor.

The periodicals specialist.

And yes,

The Scholar-Librarian.

 The Librarian’s Apprentice

 “From this slender beginning, I have gradually formed a select library, the foundation of my works and the best comfort of my life.”

Unpacking a cardboard carton of moldy books, I find a hand typed term paper from 1976: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Case Study in the Role of the Mentor. A heaven- sent self-help title. Wearing library gloves, I unpeel it from the bottom of the box and begin to read.

The Scholar-Librarian, approaches the desk.

Books on Books. Are you the curator of this little display? “Well done,” he continues without waiting for an answer.

“Your work is really fine. Your projects. Your papers.”

“Would you consider applying for the Heritage Apprenticeship? Applications are due end of the month. Interviews start next week.”

Cheshire grin on my lips, I reply: “‘Thanks. I’ll give it some thought.”

I Google the program: Preservation. Oral Histories. Archiving, Digital Curation. Special Collection.  Rare Books. Museum Libraries.

Of course, I’ll do this. I download the application. But before filling it out, I do a little homework.

What sort of sorcerer is he?

Look first to Homer’s Odyssey the moldy term paper says.

Mentor is the caretaker of Odysseus’ household while he is away fighting in Troy. Mentor takes young Telemachus, the warrior’s son, under his wing. Like a spirit-guide Mentor opens doors for his charge to an unknown world.  Mentor walks alongside his apprentice until he is ignorant no more.

Socrates and Plato. Freud and Jung. Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.

Spring water gushes from the pump. Cold and wet.  Like a slap to a baby’s bottom, the apprentice is woken up. The sorcerer spells out words, his hand in hers.

Yes, I am Helen Keller. And he, my Annie Sullivan.

Application done, interview behind me.

I am appointed the Librarian’s Apprentice.

It starts off slow.

Typing up his research. Culling books from the shelves.  Xeroxing notes.

Busy work turns scholarly. More time in the classroom.  More time in the stacks.

I arrive early each day.  I linger late.

Intellectual tinder.

Road trip to a conference. Study tour at the LOC.

The sexiest organ?

The one between the ears, of course.

Borrowing Privileges

 “The Library is a candy store, and everything is free.”

Libraries are for lending.

You will be carded, of course but there is no cover charge.

Miles of books free for the taking.

At least, for a little while.

It’s an illusion, of course, the book is not really yours to keep. You have to give it back.

Borrowing privileges are ranked. Night school: 2 books for just 5 days. Undergrads: 25 volumes for 5 weeks.  Grad students: 50 volumes for 100 days.  Faculty: Infinity books, forever.

That’s a whole lot of trust.

Libraries did not start out this way. Medieval libraries chained the books to the desk. A kind of book-bondage.

Before then, monks squirreled the books away in their carrels – for only them to see.

Chaining a book to a lectern, tethers the book to a place. A more public place where any novice who passes by can read.

Basically, a biblo-tease.

I chain myself to my sorcerer’s schedule. I let him read me whenever he pleases.  His borrowing privileges far outweigh mine.

Trucking books up the elevator. Shelving in the stacks. Cleaning up a reading room.

A professor and his student, a literary liaison.

Forbidden, like a banned book.

Does he love me? Does he love me not? My yellow rose petals fall to the ground.

Truth be told, I have learned, that out there, somewhere is a mousy little spouse, cozy in a faculty house, of whom he never speaks.

Matter and anti-matter should never collide.

Office hours fly out the window.

One more sentence, one more paragraph, just one more book.

Working away in the professor’s carrell, it’s publish or perish.

The Scholar-Librarian, working on tenure.

The sorcerer’s apprentice, hoping for more.

With a borrowed man and on borrowed time.

Running the risk of overdue fines.

  Tattered Covers

 “Literature is my utopia.”

 A very smart person just died. How do I know? I know because a van just pulled up out front. The driver gets out and starts unloading boxes. Liquor boxes, produce boxes, Ivory Soap boxes.

Intoxicating, bubbly and luscious fruit.

It is the library of a lifetime.

It is an intimate process – holy even — to unpack them.

Classics and comics. Plato and pulp fiction. History and mystery. Anais Nin.

Which were beloved? Here’s how you tell.

Cracked covers? Multiple reads.

Marginalia? Conversation.

Folded corners? Returned again and again.

Ephemera flutters to the floor.

Postcards and birthday cards, letters and electric bills, business cards and theater tickets.

Once, even a 19thcentury blank check from a Chicago bank.

Vacations, celebrations, obligations, and complications.

This is how the Scholar-Librarian and I become beloved of one another.

Our lopsided couplings, exciting and brief.

And for now, I believe this is all that I need.

It seems presumptuous to ask for anything more.

So now — back to the boxes.

Up go paperbacks and hard covers to the used book shelves.

Fifty cents for the former, a dollar for the latter.

Imperfect, vulnerable, and beautifully flawed.

Don’t worry, beloveds, I will find you new homes.

You will be cared for.

Not cast aside.

Bibliomania

 “When I have a little money, I buy books. If I have any leftover, I buy food and clothes.”

 My Facebook photo is a tower of book boxes.

Emptied, depleted, and totally spent.

I have caught the book lover’s contagion. I covet classics as well as the trash.  So, I steal a few books now and then.  (Actually, free for the taking.) They pile up in the backseat of my car.  Three grocery bags full in just a month’s time.

Inside my apartment, I can barely cram anymore. But somehow, I do.

Bibliomaniac. A hoarder of sorts.  Intervention is needed. But there is none to be had.  I am surrounded by addicts of a similar kind.

Book junkies. Library rats. Closeted collectors.

Just can’t get enough, we get it wherever we can find it.

Libraries, book stalls, drugstore paperback racks.

Now Bibliomania is an actual diagnosis. You can read all about it in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Among the gently mad, I find my truest self.

Reading reveals the inner life.

Deflated, I barely focus on a dust cover.  Caffeinated, I buzz through a book in a day. Inflated, I consume half a dozen tomes at a time.

Surely the New York Times will ask me to write a few reviews.

I will dazzle the book world with brilliant commentary.

Utterly delighted. Hopelessly distracted.

This must be what passion feels like.

Touched with fire,

I have fallen madly in love with the Scholar-Librarian.

Romance Novel

“What wild desires torment the hapless soul who feels the book disease.”

Headlines scream:

CHANLER ESCAPES. Search Fails to Find Wealthy Demented Man. Former Wife, Also Insane.

This is the dark and delicious tale of Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.

Archie is John Armstrong Chanler, heir to the estate of John Jacob Astor.

Amelie Rives is the goddaughter of Robert E. Lee.

Archie’s family fortune was built on ‘the fur trade, clear-eyed capitalism, and Presbyterian rectitude. Orphaned, Archie and his siblings were “a wild and willful bunch.”

Intellectually curious, a romantic and eccentric soul, Archie“was an inventive young man full of ideas and boundless generosity.”

Amelie Rives was a gifted young writer — gifted — with a dark sensuality. Her first novel The Quick or the Dead? both shocked and impressed reviewers of her day.

Amelie’s Virginia home had “an air of civilized taste and ancient leisure.” Her ancestors included revolutionary war heroes and ambassadors to France.

A siren, Amelie cast aside her corset for flowing robes. “A sizzling vessel of molten lava, she made her reviewers blush and her suitors swoon.”

Archie madly pursued her, proposing three times.

Like fire and ice, their eight-year love affair was doomed from the start.  The first two years the couple was more unsettled than not.

Amelie seemed to love Archie most when he was absent. And when together, Archie never quite knew how to rekindle her heart.

Eight years later, Amelie runs off with a penniless prince.

Divorced and disgraced, Archie, still hopelessly in love, supports Amelie until the day he dies.

The truth be told, they drove each other mad.

Their marriage was heaven and hell. Episodes of bliss.  Bursts of passion. Disrupted by storms. Overwhelmed by sadness.

It could not possibly last. Indeed, it did not.

Sheer madness.

Biblio-therapy

 “Many people feel better at the mere sight of a book.”

Books are the answer to everything.

When lost at sea, I grab a book. To navigate my way.

Having never written a book, I bought a bunch about how to write one.

The Art of Memoir.

Fiction Writing.

How to Write a Novel.

I confess that I have not read them. Really, I have just skimmed the tables of contents.  The Art of Memoir,I managed to read a third. Mary Karr is very good.

This seemed enough to get started. But I keep them close just in case.

As Jane Smiley says, “Many people feel better at the mere sight of a book.”

 It’s reading for healing’s sake.

Often self-administered.

Also, a field of psychology, “Biblio-therapy can help people with the emotional challenges of existence.” 

Dealing with acute physical pain, Ceridwin Dovey took the cure. He was doubtful at first.

The insights are still nebulous but therein lies its power.  I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of myself, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

Lose  yourself in a book to find yourself. So, what to read?

Flipping through The Novel Cure, I diagnose my maladies– alphabetically.

Without editorial comment, here are a few:

Anger:   Old Man and the Sea.

 Breaking Up: The End of the Affair.

 Cry, in need of a good: The Fault in Our Stars.

 And we are only up to letter C. From A to Z, there is  enough therapy between these covers to last a lifetime.

“One sheds one’s sickness in books” D.H. Lawrence wrote.

Read. Return. Repeat.

Two years of biblio-therapy, I break through, leaving the Scholar-Librarian behind.

At least, so I think.

Dominatrix of Library Science

 “This is a library. Crossroads of civilization. Refuge of the arts. Armory of truth.  You stand on sacred ground.”

 Decreed my MLS, I am at last a Mistress of Library Science.

Not quite a Scholar-Librarian but on my way.

And I have arrived here alone and on my own.

I take the Librarian’s Oath:

I solemnly swear to execute professional practices to create, select, organize, manage, preserve, disseminate and utilize collections in all formats. I promise to pursue scholarly endeavors that may benefit the Temple of Learning in which I serve. In the name of Demetrius of Phalaeron, the ancient Librarian of Alexandria, this is my solemn vow.

 I sign my name with a feather quill.

A name I have not told you and never will.

Out go resumes to libraries great and small.

Then I shoot for the stars.

The Library of Congress.

The Bodleian.

Leaving Library School is just about the best thing that has ever happened to me.

My car’s overloaded with boxes of books.  A suitcase of clothes. A carton of kitchen stuff.

I turn the key in the ignition.

I leave no forwarding address.

Not even for the Scholar-Librarian.

 “Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat, opened her book and forgot the world again.”

JoaniSign