Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Conjectures of a Guilty Librarian: A Brief Novella

In honor of National Library Week 2019, I offer this brief novella. “Conjectures of a Guilty Librarian” 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.”


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Erasmus, Patron Saint of Bibliophiles

“When I get a little money, I buy books; if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

Desiderius Erasmus, you are my patron saint. Great humanist of the Renaissance and reformer of the Reformation, it’s not so much your scholarship that I envy (though, of course, I do). It is your library I lust after. More accurately, it is your lust for books that invokes my devotion. A passion that I share —  a crazy passion, that  I have blogged upon on more than one occasion:

The (Christmas) Tree of Knowledge,

Bookish,

and,

Bibliomania, A Spiritual Diagnosis.

Recurring outbreaks of Bibliomania are problematic for this bipolar soul — and expensive. It is a professional hazard.

Allow me to quote myself!

“Now books are my thing — my very best thing. Besides being a professional Christian, I am a professional bibliophile. I do collection development at Bishop Payne Library. Like Juan Valdez who picks the Columbian coffee beans one by one, I help select thousands of new titles each year one book at a time. When you see me at the circulation desk drooling over the Times Literary Supplement, I am not goofing off; I am doing my job.

Not only do I help select them, in fact, I also read them. Not thousands of them, of course, but lots.”

And the temptations are great. Perusing university presses in the past few weeks, I have yielded to this temptation on many an occasion.  So impatient am I to have the book in my hot little hands immediately, I download them with a single click onto my Kindle or overnight them  to my front door.

My tastes are eclectic. At any one time, I am reading three or four books at a time. My appetite is is not just voracious, it borders on gluttony. My eyes are way bigger than my frontal lobe, and all those other parts of my brain that reading involves.

My reading list is my mood chart. It is a “gentle madness” but a madness nonetheless.

Herewith are the last month’s additions to my library — both electronic and paper bound. Each is listed with a little description. Click on each to catch the madness. It’s contagious you know.

American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, Sean McCloud, Oxford University Press, 2015. This modern grimoire “examines Third Wave spiritual warfare, a late 20th – early 21st century moment of evangelicals focused on banishing demons from human bodies, material objects, land, regions, political parties and nation states. While Third Wave beliefs may seem far removed from what many scholars view as mainstream religious practice, McCloud argues that it provides an ideal case study for some of the most prominent tropes within the contemporary American religious landscape.” SPOOKY SCHOLARLY FUN.

Forgiveness 4 You: A Novel, Ann Bauer, Overlook Press, 2015. “At once a brilliant satire set in the world of advertising and a serious reckoning with religion, this is a startlingly contemporary novel about faith and religion in an America addicted to quick fixes and instant gratification.”  A 21st century secular twist on medieval indulgences. CYNICALLY DELICIOUS.

Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, Matthew Beaumont, Verso Books, 2015.“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the poet Rupert Brooke. Before the age of electricity, the nighttime city was a very different place to the one we know today – home to the lost, the vagrant and the noctambulant. Matthew Beaumont recounts an alternative history of London by focusing on those of its denizens who surface on the streets when the sun’s down. If nightwalking is a matter of “going astray” in the streets of the metropolis after dark, then nightwalkers represent some of the most suggestive and revealing guides to the neglected and forgotten aspects of the city.” MOODY and MYSTERIOUS.

Gratitude, Oliver Sacks, 2015.  “It’s the rare person who counts his blessings upon learning he’s “face to face with dying.” But Oliver Sacks did just that.  In January, Sacks, the neurologist and author of such books as “Awakenings” (1973) and “Musicophilia” (2007) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. During the months before his death in August, Sacks wrote a series of heart-rending yet ultimately uplifting essays. In them, he shared his thoughts about how he wished to live out his days and about his feelings on dying. Now collected in a beautiful little volume, “Gratitude” is a lasting gift to readers.” HOLY GROUND.

God Mocks: A History of Religious Humor from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, Terry Lindvall, NYU Press, 2015. “In God Mocks, Terry Lindvall ventures into the muddy and dangerous realm of religious satire, chronicling its evolution from the biblical wit and humor of the Hebrew prophets through the Roman Era and the Middle Ages all the way up to the present. He takes the reader on a journey through the work of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain, and ending with the mediated entertainment of modern wags like Stephen Colbert.”SCHOLARLY ROLLICKING GOOD TIME.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, Frans de Waal, 2013. “The ease with which our brain suspends reality—call it irrationality, imagination or faith—has been crucial to the development of religion in human culture, according to de Waal, a respected primatologist and avowed atheist. He has a scientist’s curiosity about religion. Unlike prominent neo-atheists of our time, he has no interest in disproving God’s existence or proving that religion poisons everything. Instead, in this richly observed and intelligent book, de Waal ponders our natural receptiveness to religion, how religion evolved and what if anything might take its place.” FAITHFULLY MIND STRETCHING.

The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women, Paula Kelly Hairline, Oxford University Press, 2014. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced the practice of plural marriage in 1890. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, however–the heyday of Mormon polygamy–as many as three out of every ten Mormon women became polygamous wives. Paula Kelly Harline delves deep into the diaries and autobiographies of twenty-nine such women, providing a rare window into the lives they led and revealing their views and experiences of polygamy, including their well-founded belief that their domestic contributions would help to build a foundation for generations of future Mormons.” FORGOTTEN VOICES.

 

Alcohol: A History,  Rod Philips, University of North Carolina Press, 2014. “Whether as wine, beer, or spirits, alcohol has had a constant and often controversial role in social life. In his innovative book on the attitudes toward and consumption of alcohol, Rod Phillips surveys a 9,000-year cultural and economic history, uncovering the tensions between alcoholic drinks as healthy staples of daily diets and as objects of social, political, and religious anxiety. In the urban centers of Europe and America, where it was seen as healthier than untreated water, alcohol gained a foothold as the drink of choice, but it has been more regulated by governmental and religious authorities more than any other commodity. As a potential source of social disruption, alcohol created volatile boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable consumption and broke through barriers of class, race, and gender.” AN HONEST TALE OF OUR DRUG OF CHOICE.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Kline, Simon & Schuster, 2014. “Klein exposes the myths that are clouding the climate debate.

We have been told the market will save us, when in fact the addiction to profit and growth is digging us in deeper every day. We have been told it’s impossible to get off fossil fuels when in fact we know exactly how to do it—it just requires breaking every rule in the “free-market” playbook: reining in corporate power, rebuilding local economies, and reclaiming our democracies.” A BOOK DONALD TRUMP SHOULD (BUT WON’T) READ.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2013.  “If you find the grubby spectacle of today’s Washington cause for shame and despair — and, really, how could you not? — then I suggest you turn off the TV and board Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest time machine. Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan.” ONCE UPON A TIME, PRESIDENTS LOOKED LIKE THIS.

What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund, Vintage Books, 2015.  “It explores a simple but confounding question, one the author wrests from theorists literary and otherwise and presents this way: “What do we see when we read? (Other than words on a page.) What do we picture in our minds?” Mr. Mendelsund looks at these questions from a thousand angles, zooming in and out as if surveilling them with Google Earth. Because the author is also the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf, “What We See When We Read” is heavily and often whimsically illustrated. This would-be TED talk includes a PowerPoint presentation, one that’s redolent of X-Acto knives and drawing tables and graphic design software and clunky eyeglasses.” A PICTURE BOOK FOR BIBLIOPHILES.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew B. Crawford, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2015. “Crawford investigates the intense focus of ice hockey players and short-order chefs, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep, slow craft of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology, and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the coming to fruition of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.” MIND BOGGLING.

The Heart Goes Last: A Novel, Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. “Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of economic and social collapse. Living in their car, surviving on tips from Charmaine’s job at a dive bar, they’re increasingly vulnerable to roving gangs, and in a rather desperate state. So when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience – a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own – they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.” A DYSTOPIAN ROMP.

Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness, Heather H. Vacek, Baylor University Press, 2015. “In Madness, Heather H. Vacek traces the history of Protestant reactions to mental illness in America. She reveals how two distinct forces combined to thwart Christian care for the whole person. The professionalization of medicine worked to restrict the sphere of Christianity to the private and spiritual realms, consigning healing and care—both physical and mental—to secular, medical specialists. Equally influential, a theological legacy that linked illness with sin deepened the social stigma surrounding people with a mental illness. The Protestant church, reluctant to engage sufferers lest it, too, be tainted by association, willingly abdicated care for people with a mental illness to secular professionals.” A TANGLED WEB OF THEOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY.

and last,  but by no means least,

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ with artwork by Yayoi Kusama, Penguin Classics, 2012. “Since childhood, Kusama has been afflicted with a condition that makes her see spots, which means she sees the world in a surreal, almost hallucinogenic way that sits very well with the Wonderland of Alice. She is fascinated by childhood and the way adults have the ability, at their most creative, to see things the way children do, a central concern of the Alice books.” AN EYE POPPING DELIGHT.

Do I have all of these books? Yes.

Am I reading all of these books? No, not exactly.

The page total combined of all of the above comes to  about a gazillion (or thereabouts!). I have read a few; I am digging into several; paging through some; and skimming a few. I can assure you, though, that I have read all of the dust covers!

So many books, so little time.

JoaniSign

 


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The (Christmas) Tree of Knowledge

IMG_0551(1)

Me and my tree, Bishop Payne Library, 2015.

I built a Christmas tree out of books.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. I work (at least part of the time) in a library.

Deeply rooted in theological knowledge, I built my tree out of old National Union Catalogues, Anchor Bible Commentaries, and dusty volumes of Luther’s Works. A novel here, a dictionary there, a little liturgics, a little pastoral care, some lights, and voila – a veritable tree of wisdom!

It took about 300 books. Hardbacks work best. And literally every branch of the tree sprouted from someone else’s library: read, marked, inwardly digested, discarded from or donated to Bishop Payne Library.

When clergy retire, downsize, or go to their greater glory, their books often are bequeathed to the seminary. Sorting through boxes of old musty books might seem like a pain in the ass, but for me it is a rare privilege. It is a labor of love.

As I pull books out of boxes, it’s like pulling up a chair in the pastor’s study. Running my fingers across the spines, I inventory their interests and note their passions. Counting the volumes, I calculate the year of their graduation and the years of their career.  Dating the collection, I witness their ministry both rise and fall.

It is deeply personal.

Handling the books one by one, sometimes a little something will fall out: a letter, a photograph, a Christmas card — a little intimate window into the mind of another.

A library speaks volumes on the state of one’s soul.

So what does my library say about me?

My library occupies every room in my house – except the bathrooms! Even my hallways are lined with bookshelves. (I have a Kindle too, but that really doesn’t count.)

Just this past week, my daughter Colleen asked me to choose my seven favorite books. She said to take pictures of the spines and send them to her. It has something to do with my Christmas present, I think, but I am not allowed to ask.:)

How can I possibly choose just seven? And OMG how long is this going to take? Well, somehow the Spirit moved and within fifteen minutes, I had selected them all.

Seven books are listed below. Each one represents approximately a seventh of my brain: its moods, its appetites; its insatiable curiosities.

So here we go.

The Book of Common Prayer

You saw this one coming, right? Lex orendi, lex credendi. We pray what we believe. For 500 years, these prayers have been shared  across both time and space. Even when I believe in nothing, I continue to pray.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I read this childhood classic in college.  There I fell in love with John Tenniel’s inky drawings and Lewis Carroll’s marvelous play on words. It became something of an obsession, which became my “Alice collection”. Visit my house and you will see, it obsesses me still.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

A no brainer (pun intended!) This is Kay Redfield Jamison’s eloquent and elegiac story of her own bipolar life – both personal and professional. She is my manic-depressive hero.

Carmina Gadelica

Literally translated, it means Gaelic Songs. This is Alexander Carmichael’s 19th century compendium of Celtic charms, prayers, and invocations. A civil servant, he collected them in the Outer Hebrides while auditing books. Divine music to soothe my pagan soul.

Joan of Arc, a History

Helen Castor’s masterful book tells the tale of the Maid of Orleans – my saintly namesake, Joan. Like her, I do confess that I have heard voices from time to time.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

My nerdiest passion is reading books about books. There is nothing more delicious and decadent than reading a book about books – this one in particular. Be still my heart, Nicholas Basbanes!

 Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

In the beginning was the Big Bang. In the beginning was the Word. Science is this theology student’s final frontier. Thanks to great translators, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, reading science has become my Lectio Divina.

Seven is a very revelatory number. Seven little books to reveal my soul.  Possibly they say more than could be said in ten years of therapy – bibliographically speaking!

(Thank you, Colleen!)

This little spiritual exercise  has been healing, hopeful, fruitful and fun — all very good things at this time of the year.

So go ahead and choose your seven!

Select seven books that speak your mind and sing to your soul. Mix them and match them. Run your fingers along their spines, recall their pages, and hold them close. Take them and build a little tree of wisdom – a Christmas tree of knowledge.

Inhale their aroma as incense rising to the heavens.

And may The Word that resides in the words of your seven — bless you seventy-times-seven  this Holy Yuletide!

JoaniSign


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Bookish

bookish heart pages folded

The true heart of a bibliophile.

This blogger wants to turn U&U into a book.

Doesn’t every blogger want to turn their blog into a book?

Now books are my thing – my very best thing. Besides being a professional Christian, I am a professional bibliophile. I do collection development at Bishop Payne Library. Like Juan Valdez who picks the Columbian coffee beans one by one, I help select thousands of new titles each year one book at a time. When you see me at the circulation desk drooling over the Times Literary Supplement, I am not goofing off; I am doing my job.

Not only do I help select them, in fact, I also read them. Not thousands of them, of course, but lots. My reading tastes are eclectic. Currently checked out on my library card are: Margaret Atwood’s “Year of the Flood”; Thoreau’s “Walden Pond”; a text called “Varieties of Anomalous Experiences”; “The Penguin History of Canada; “Collected Ghost Stories” by R.M. James; and Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” – just to name a few.

I even have thought of starting a book blog: The Year of Reading Manically – but that’s another blog post for another day.

Reading books and buying books do not qualify me to be a writer of books. Blogging does not make me an author. But all of this helps. It helps a lot.

Two months ago, I met Meredith Maslich at the Story District coming out party. Meredith wears multiple hats. She is both a Story District instructor and also the founder and editor-in-chief of Possibilities Publishing. – “a small , independent publishing house…living in the dynamic space beside traditional publishing where anything is possible.”

I checked out their website and gave her a call. Meredith was kind enough to have coffee with me and give me the lay of the land.

U&U is unique, she said, but you don’t just randomly plop your blog into a book. Folks already read it for free. You need a story, a real story that pulls it all together. You need a really compelling narrative arc (I love that phrase “narrative arc”.) You want to  make people really want to turn the pages.

So I asked myself and Meredith, “Now for me what would that be? “ “Look at your most popular posts”, she said ,“That will give you a clue.”

 Well that’s easy. My most popular post of the 66 I’ve published so far is Naked in Public – or Coming Out Crazy. It’s a funny, frank, and informative piece about my aversion to locker room nudity as a metaphor for coming out of my particular closet.

What makes it so popular though is not the compelling content but  the title. “Naked in Public” is a very catchy catch phrase often used as search terms on Google and other nefarious search engines.

The post also includes “The Joani Slideshow” produced by documentarian friend, Kristin Adair. It’s also been viewed a billion times – but only to disappoint the viewers. The closest to naked I get is a slide of me sitting on the couch, wearing pajamas, eating cereal, and watching The Andy Griffith Show. (So sexy!)

But talking to Meredith made me realize that all 66 of my posts are about being Naked in Public. With each post I continue to come out of my closet. I continue to come out crazy – in new and different ways: vulnerable, scared, liberated, and alive. I have come alive more each week, as I have helped others get naked too.

So that’s my narrative arc. That’s what my book will be all about – this thread that runs through U&U.

So I am taking a Story District class to help me pull the pieces together. I’ve joined Monkeys with Typewriters, a weekly Meetup for creative types (all half my age!) And I’ve signed up at Possibilities Publishing for an online tutorial starting in January – kind of like Authorship 101.

In 2016, I hope to write a book. And I hope like blogging, I will have the discipline in writing to crank out a chapter or two every week or two.

So dear followers, you will see and hear less of me. I will still post here from time to time – once a month or so. At some point next year U&U will withdraw into its cocoon hopefully to re-emerge as a real live book — both in print, of course, and downloadable for your Kindle. It is the 21st century after all!

So please, pray for me and wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted, one chapter at a time!

JoaniSign


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With Apologies to the Washington Post….

wash post 2006 list in and out

Washington Post Ins & Outs, 2006

 

I can think of no  better bipolar way to analyze the yins and yangs of the last twelve months than the infamous list of 100 Ins & Outs and Ups & Downs of 2014.

So with apologies to the Washington Post (my hometown newspaper!) and without editorial comment, and in no particular order, I submit this list for your kindly consideration. And I kindly encourage you for the sake of your brain to make a list of the same.

The Top 100 Ins & Outs of 2014

1. Size 10/Size 16

2. Emmanuel/All Saints

3. Big church on the boulevard/Little church behind the trees

4. Asics/Chucks

5. Reign/The Tudors

6. Writing/Reading

7. Orphan/Daughter

8. Guest Room/Kid’s Room

9. Dragging Bailey/Walking Bailey

10. Spotify/Itunes

11. Steady Teddy/Theodore Roosevelt

12. Dress up/Dress down

13. Huntley Meadows/Huntley Meadows

14. 100 mph/35 mph

15. Target/Target

16. Dresses/Pants

17. Tights/Socks

18. Libraries/Kindle Fire

19. Blogging/Journalling

20. More Coffee/Coffee

21. Staying alive/Scaling boulders

22. Greek yogurt/Ben & Jerry’s

23. Scrambled eggs/Fast food

24. Renting books/Buying books

25. 59/58

26. Plants/Flowers

27. Fruit smoothies/Rotten bananas

28. Patty Griffin/Emmy Lou Harris

29. Half marathon/Wii Fit

30. Honest/Polite

31. Boudica/Joan of Arc

32. Ghost stories/True stories

33. Jetsons/Flintstones

34. Cards/Email

35. Tumblr/Twitter

36. “Transparent”/”Scandal”

37. Lip gloss/Lip balm

38. Camera hog/Camera shy

39. Swimming/Floating

40. ccmccjr/cng

41. Liturgist/Chorister

42. 10,000 steps/5,000 steps

43. Irreverent/Reverend

44. Commentary/Commentaries

45. Dancing/Sitting

46. Heart/Head

47. Seminaries/Cemeteries

48. Second comings/Second helpings

49. Diva/Wouldn’t want to be ya

50. Single/Divorced

51. Credit/Debit

52. White Reindeer streaming/White Reindeer in theaters

53. Hyundai/Kia

54. Cosmologist/Scientologist

55. Neil deGrasse Tyson/L. Ron Hubbard

56. Challah/Bagels

57. Therapy/Therapy

58. St Nicholas/Santa Claus

59. Camelbak/Back pack

60. Episcopal/Anglican

61. Crazy Evangelist/Crazy

62. Differently Wired/Bipolar

63. BCP/eCP

64. Scully & Mulder/Mulder & Scully

65. Lucy/Ethel

66. Dragonflies/Fireflies

67. Selfish/Selfie

68. Hydrangeas/Sunflowers

69. Hardbacks/Paperbacks

70. Starlight/Sunlight

71. Heretic/Heretic

72. Rosary/Meditation

73. Yoga/Stretching

74. Epiphany/Christmas

75. Open Stacks/Circulation

76. Fiesta Ware/Hardware

77. The Steeldrivers/Stainless Steel

78. Late Night with Stephen Colbert/The Colbert Report

79. SpeakeasyDC/Speaking out

80. Mancini’s/St. Elmo’s

81. Shredding/Recycling

82. Turtleneck/Cardigan

83. Solids/Patterns

84. BMI/BVM

85. Pensacola/Rehoboth

86. Manic, manic/Hypomanic

87. Irish Thanksgiving/Regular Thanksgiving

88. Gay Wedding/Same-sex Blessing

89. Middle Management/Middle child

90. Warrior/Pacifist

91. Priest Associate/Priest

92. Brainiac/Maniac

93. Celebrant/Celibate

94. Sister-in-law/Sister

95. Sorrow/Grief

96. Like the bird/Peacock

97. DSW/Toms

98. Talking/Texting

99. Origins/Genesis

100. Fire starter/Fire fighter

and of course

101. Unorthodox & Unhinged

Happy New year!

JoaniSign


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Bibliomania, a Spiritual Diagnosis

Title page of an obscure but authoritative book on Bibliomaniacs.

Title page of an obscure but authoritative book on Bibliomaniacs.

My Facebook picture is a photo of a closet full of empty boxes, book boxes piled high to the ceiling. For those of you who don’t know, I work in the second sanctuary on the campus of Virginia Seminary – the Basilica of Bishop Payne Library. I am a lowly acolyte at the circulation desk. My ministry at its most basic is to check books in and out. As a pastor, I soothe the fevered spirits of overworked students. Being a Master in Divinity, I point the way to the New Interpreters Bible, commentaries, and the collected works of whoever you are looking for. As a parish priest, I know just exactly where to find the Book of Common Prayer Altar Book, the new Lutheran Book of Worship, hymnals of every kind, and “Rubrics Expanded” (such a fascinating read!). As a preacher, I most heartily recommend the classic sermons of John Chrysostom, John Henry Newman and that handy dandy series, “Feasting on the Word“. And I can show you the app for all that be it on your Mac, your IPad or your IPhone. And yes, we have wireless.

But back behind that desk, I perform two additionally delightful tasks. And as a Bibliophile it could not get any better. The first is that I assist the Head Librarian with the front end of the acquisition process. Sounds boring you think? Well it is anything but. I get paid to read book reviews in the New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books and the Church Times. I get to scour scholarly catalogs from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge. I peruse piles of journals to see what great new books they recommend. Sifting through all those biblical commentaries and latest theological, pastoral and ethical titles is a no brainer. But my favorite discoveries by far are those books that bust out of the “orthodox box” with titles like “Why Hell Stinks of Sulphur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld”, “Slouching Toward Gaytheism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America”, and “Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age.” Spending other people’s money on books is heaven.

My second ministerial duty is to sort through the donated libraries of the saints who have gone before me. Announced and unannounced, loads of cardboard boxes full of books stream through the library’s front doors. These books belonged to clergy who have retired, clergy who now rest in peace, or clergy simply trying to clear some space on their bookshelves. Cracking open and unpacking these boxes is cathartic. Sorting through them is sort of like walking through a labyrinth, a labyrinth of the readers’ appetites and passions. And as soon as  I have breathed in the must and mold of these dusty books, I have caught the donor’s contagion. I discover trash as well as  treasures — but treasures there are and covet them I do — all the while knowing I have absolutely no place to put them. So I steal a few books here and I steal a few there (not actually stealing, they are free for the taking!:)) until they begin to more than just accumulate in the backseat of my car. Three grocery bags full, one day, cleaning out my car, Jacob, my youngest gathered up three grocery bags full.

This is where the Bibliophile turns into a certifiable Bibliomaniac. This is where intervention is needed and that is just what my three grownup kids did. Zach, Colleen, and Jacob sat me down at the dining room table one day, looked me straight in the eye and told me, “Mom, you have a problem. This book thing is getting out of hand. You have got to get a Kindle.”

Now Bibliomania is an actual spiritual diagnosis. You can read (yes read!) all about it in Nicholas Basbane’s masterful tome “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.” And as a bipolar book lover and voracious reader, I am verifiably to be counted “among the gently mad”. And I am here to tell you, that in all seriousness, I use books as the measure of my moods. When my world is very, very small I can barely read the words on the back of the cereal box. When I am limping along I can just about make my way through a newspaper article. When I am fully in gear, I read fast and furious – consuming three or four books at a time. But when I am flying too close to the sun, I sit up in my bed into the wee hours of the morning. Encircled and mesmerized by dozens of books, I am both utterly delighted and hopelessly distracted. Flipping pages and flying from one to another, I become totally unable to read. And for me that is a very sad thing indeed. Such is how I measure my madness.

Erasmus, the great Bibliophile of the Renaissance, famously said, “When I have a little money I buy books and if I have any left over, I buy food and clothes.”  These wise words I have taken to heart. When my bipolar brain needs balancing, I check out the balance due on my Amazon account. It’s good for my checkbook and good for my soul.

So friends, what have you  been reading?

Pax vobiscum,

Joani