The walk of temptation was extraordinary for a five year old. My mom parked the Chevy Impala in front of Ben Franklin that Saturday morning. I could already see the candy through the double glass doors. My impatient feet jittered up and down next to the parking meter as she rummaged through the bottom of her purse for a quarter. I rolled my eyes as she pushed aside Kleenex and breath mints. “C’mon,” I would never say out loud, but released through the clenching and unclenching of my chubby fingers. The coin dropped and the red flag moved aside. We were free. I raced past the front cashier and stood in front of the penny candy. If I saw it today, with grown-up eyes, the square plastic bins stacked on an end cap, might not seem so magical, but then, oh, then, it was glorious! It was Tinkerbell’s wand waving over a colorful rainbow of sugar. I could feel my chin drop. “Wait!” I said as she led me down the aisle. “Can’t we just get a little bit..just one color even…just a piece of red…” “Next time,” she said, “We have better things to do.” Better things, I grumbled underneath my breath. Impossible, I thought. And dragged my bumper tennis shoes along. The aisle became stacked with toys. Beautiful, plastic covered toys! Yes, I thought. These must be the better things. I began to touch everything. I wanted it all. Or anything! Something pink and shiny! Please, I begged, perhaps out loud, or just with heart-reaching urgency. I felt her hand on my shoulder again. “Better…” she promised. It couldn’t possibly be, I thought. Yet, she had never lied to me. But here, in the center aisle of the Ben Franklin, I must admit, I had my doubts. We walked through the back door. A large pillared building stood in front of us. I began to near the grass, but she pulled me to the sidewalk. “You need to see all of it,” she said. We stood in front. The Alexandria Public Library. It was beautiful, but what was inside? “Books,” she said. “They give them to you. With just your name.” I could only breathe the word, “OHHHHH…” We walked up the stairs and opened the doors. “It smells like words,” I said. She smiled and led me down the stairs to the children’s section. I could barely move. Every spine, every cover, called to me. “Take your time,” she said. Each letter tugged at my sleeve until my arms were filled. I signed (printed) my name on the small mildewed card. My heart beat sugared from the inside. “Do you want me to help you carry them?” I shook my head no and carefully maneuvered myself and the precious cargo down the stairs. I started walking up the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to cut through?” she asked, pointing at Ben Franklin. “No,” I said, “this is better.” We walked the long way to the car. Books in hand, I held the keys to the kingdom.
I don’t know when it changed — the moment we dropped the word story and just started calling them books. A part of me wants to bring it back.
The story books were in the basement of the Alexandria Public Library. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how to use the card catalog yet, but so many were on display, not by spine, but full cover. I can still see the bright blue cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was still above my reading grade, and sat perched on the very top shelf. I thought if I finished all the books on the lower shelves, read each and every story, worked my way upwards, that I too could fly.
My mom dropped me off every Saturday morning. I climbed up the outer steps, then climbed down the inside ones. I read for hours. Just before my mom picked me up, I checked out as many books as my orange book bag would hold, and the librarian would allow. She never complained about having to come in and get me. Most of my friends from school sat outside waiting for their rides. Running around in the grass, soon and easily fed up with the quiet words of the basement. But not me. I wanted every moment. And my mother, being an avid reader, understood. She parked the car behind the Ben Franklin store and walked over to get me.
I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the book Bird Song. Covered in the same blue, it is a collection of stories (a story book) told by the beautiful wings that carry them. But of course it lives within me. The days at the public library. Each word read. Each shelf climbed. I know they brought me to this place. They lifted me. Dared me. And faster than any childhood Saturday morning, I learned to fly.
The stories we create are not weights, but branches. Out on the morning limb, I heart gather all the words – of mother and love and youth and chance and choice and story — I spread my wings, and I fly.
I suppose one of the reasons I loved her the most was because she never tried to explain away the magic.
The first time I descended the stairs to my grandparents’ basement, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. It was dark — even with the light on. Each step had a voice. My 5 year old imagination ran wild. But about halfway down, it started to smell familiar. Books, I thought. It smells just like the library. I raced the remaining steps. Wet, overworked overalls hung by the furnace.This was the army, I thought, that helped my grandfather in the fields. This one sized army, that was just his size alone. This pinstriped gathering of strength. These dampened blues and browns hung thick with the words that told his story. I ran my fingers across each page.
I wasn’t surprised to see my mother waiting at the top of the stairs. She was always the first to gather me in. Listen to me. To take whatever I had experienced and make it real. “It smells just like the library,” I said. “Pockets and pockets and pockets of stories! That’s where he keeps them, isn’t it?” “Yes,” she smiled. She always smiled, and I was home.
She could have explained that the smell was merely the dampness of the paper, the material, perhaps even mold under the collective weight of age and use. But she didn’t. She never would. Some of my older cousins would try — LaWanna said I was a baby, with baby thoughts. But not my mom. She never took the magic away. Maybe that’s why I still have it. Still believe in it. Still carry it. By the pocketful!
I was only six when I was walked into the library of Washington Elementary. The door opened and it hit me immediately, the familiar scent. I didn’t have the words for it then. The knowledge. Certainly it could have been explained away with paper, and time. The aging, a slight dampness to it all. But I had smelled this before, this comforting familiar. And I needed no explanation, because I was home.
This welcoming scent – it was the same as the entryway to my grandparents’ home. Coats lined the wall. Dampened with work and story, they welcomed anyone who opened the door. They said, come in, you and your heart sit down. It was there I learned to trust. Trust in those who made the effort. Trust in those who worked hard to create something. Create a life.This library of coats. Of living.
When Mrs. Bergstrom, my first grade teacher, let go of my hand, I wasn’t afraid. She set me free in this open and beautiful world. There was life all around me. Book after book. Page after page. The words brushed against my arm, warm and worn, as the sleeve of my grandfather’s coat.
Some might say it is only nostalgia. But what is nostalgia? For me, it is not wanting to live in the past. No, for me, I see it as proof. A living and palpable proof of how it feels to be open. It is a reminder of how glorious life can be. A documentation of the extraordinary doors — the doors that let you in, the ones that set you free.
I don’t know what today will bring. But I know what it feels like to be open. I need no explanation. I brush against the familiar, and walk into the sun.
I was at the New York library last night (in my dream). It is so rare that I have a good dream, I must tell you about it. To put it in perspective, if I don’t wake up screaming, it’s a good night. And those bad dreams, they can linger, not just through the morning, but for days. So this dream — this rare and glorious good dream — I put it to words, with hopes that it will linger.
I could smell the wood. And the paper. For me, libraries have always carried the scent of permanence and possibility. In the library was the perfect place for this dream to occur, amid the realm of all things possible. Dominique and I were donating our old books to the librarian. She was kind and grateful and wanted to visit. I told her of my love for books, and that, humbly, I too, was an author. She smiled and said she knew, and pulled out my most recent book, Pulling Nails. I beamed. She asked if I would mind signing a copy for the library. Of course! And maybe one for a fan, she asked. A fan? And then she stepped into the room — this beautiful woman — my grandma! My Grandma Elsie. And she was holding my book. (Tears of tenderness roll down my face as I type.) I was so happy to see her! Dominique look! It’s my Grandma! She held out my book and said, It’s gorgeous! (It’s gorgeous — you have no idea what those words will forever do to my heart!) And in my dream, I knew it was a dream, and I said out loud, …But she’s here! And she was. I can still feel her smiling.
I don’t know what dreams really are. I’m not sure that anyone does. The so-called experts say it means “this”, or “that”, but perhaps they are only as accurate as our local weather reporters making educated guesses. All I know for sure is that this morning the sun is shining and my heart is full — and it is as real as anything could be. I choose to call that love. Love that fills the air with the scent of permanence and possibility — and it IS gorgeous!
In Kindergarten, Mrs. Strand had the audacity to leave us mid year to give birth to twins. In the first grade, Mrs. Bergstrom, hair pulled back in a bun, wore her long pencil skirt and wool sweater all the way until summer break. We knew she would never leave. She taught us the meaning of the word trust, and then taught us how to spell it. She was opening our worlds. Then one day, she lined us up, single file, and quietly led us up the stairs, turned us to the left, opened the big wooden door. All was silent but for the singing of my heart’s choir! The library! All those books. A conversation from wall to wall. Information. Entertainment. Belonging. Yes, most of all the belonging. I knew I would be both comforted and launched — I suppose the perfect definition of home.
And I was home. Here in the words.
Yesterday we arrived in Laurel, Mississippi. Being an HGTV fan, I wanted to see it all. Where they filmed. What they made. The houses they transformed. People have told me, oh, you’ll be disappointed – it’s only make believe.
We pulled into town and the first thing I saw were the giant books painted on the side of the building. I smiled. I have always been one made to believe — the very day I stepped through the big wooden door at Washington Elementary. I know all is not always as it seems. But it is always what you choose to see. Today I choose to see the magic of it all — from the giant books on the side of a building to the promise of a small home town. It’s hard to hear the doubters over the singing of my heart.
I suppose some might say that it has always been my nature to “worry.” Wednesday evenings before library day at Washington Elementary, I would wonder, will they give us enough time, will I find the book I want? And I hate to call it “worry,” really, it’s just that it all meant so much to me. The books, the library, the stories, I valued them. I loved them. So I took the time, mapped out the library on paper and in my head. Learned the sections of my favorite series. Studied the Dewey Decimal System. Made friends with the card catalog, not to mention the librarian. So yes, I thought about it a lot – but it wasn’t the agony of worry, it was love. And I will never regret giving them my time. My thoughts. My concern. Loving them with all of my heart.
Today, there are always concerns, and bigger ones at that. Family. Health. Life. World. But I would like to think I’m not just “worried.” Worry itself doesn’t seem to inspire much action. Concern, feelings, love, now that helps me. Makes me aware of the problems, the issues, and gives me the incentive to do something. Worrying, simply worrying about tomorrow, not only doesn’t help my tomorrow, but it loses my today. It’s not always easy. And I am certainly not perfect. Oh, that “worry” can sneak its way in, but when it does, I look for my tools. I Dewey Decimal it to the ground, and reach once again for the love. It, love, has always been the answer. Still, and again.
One day in the late 1930’s a boy came up to his librarian and she suggested the he read about King Arthur. The boy replied, “Aw, I don’t want to read about kings. I want to read about human beings.” The librarian, Miss Beverly Bunn, knew what the boy meant. As a child she had felt the same way – she was sick of reading “wealthy English children who had nannies and pony carts or poor children whose problems were solved by a long-lost relative turning up in the last chapter. Beverly wanted to read stories about the sort of children she knew.”
This was the beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary. I did not google this information. I researched her in our University Library. I will sound old, perhaps, but consider me lucky. I was born before google. I was born when you had to go across campus, in the winter, (oh dear, this is almost sounding like one of those I walked a mile to school every day stories, but stay with me), look for your book titles in the card catalog, in other books. Find the aisle. Run your fingers across the shelves. Grab your book with delight, grateful that it wasn’t already checked out. Do this over and over. Then go to a silent table and read. Yes, read. You had to read complete books, not just a blurb spit out by a computer. Sometimes you would read an entire book, and realize it just led you to another book. But what a glorious gift. The smell of the leather, and slight must of the pages. The silence all around. You could feel the power of the words.
And so I researched Beverly Cleary. The assignment was to write about an author who had a great influence on you as a child. And she did. Every Wednesday, at Washington Elementary, the year after I had finished the Cowboy Sam series, and before I started the Little House on the Prairie books, I read Beverly Cleary. They lived on Klickitat Street, Henry Huggins, Beezus,Ramona (the pest), Henry’s dog Ribsy, the neighbor Scooter. You could say they lived in a world where nothing was special, but in that, I thought everything was special. The Huggins home was as real as the Norton home to me. As real as my VanDyke Road. It was a neighborhood I visited every week.
Perhaps the best gift that an author can give you is a glimpse of yourself. When you see a reflection of yourself, you see possibility. You see hope. And you begin to see yourself, just a little bit more.
On my returned assignment, the professor wrote, “Perhaps you should think of doing some professional writing yourself!” An exclamation point. For me! I had been punctuated.
No one should be denied a chance to live on Klickitat Street, or VanDyke Road. So I write.