What are you reading these days?
[[Author’s note: This is probably more essay than blog post. Posting here anyhow … with thanks to my writing circle who challenged me to write into this more. We’ll see, for now here’s Part II, or thoughts to follow “The Door to Everywhere.”]]
When I was little we had an enormous color television set that stood on the floor. You had to cross the floor to change the channel, adjust the color, or turn the volume up. There were four channels and occasionally reception through an enormous antenna on the roof caused a snowy picture or rapid scrolling, black lines crossing the screen, necessitating adjustment of the vertical hold.
My mother gave my brother and me a television account, seven hours a week each. We had to read the TV Guide and select what we would watch ahead of time. I liked Captain Kangaroo in the mornings and when I snuck a peek in the evening, I thought perhaps he was also Walter Cronkite, no longer dressed in his signature red coat, back to deliver the evening news my parents consumed along with their cocktails every night.
Saturday mornings we must have somehow combined our hours, because I remember settling in with cereal bowls to watch cartoons. I liked the antics of Bugs Bunny the best, but it is the misadventures of Wile E Coyote I remember—how he would freeze in midair, eyes enormous before dropping legions down a canyon or look with sudden awareness at the item he was holding, something explosive, then look at the camera with full knowledge of what was about to happen. His ears might droop a little, but powerless to do anything about it, we’d wait for the inevitable, boom. It always made sense to my trusting mind that in the next frame, or maybe the one after that, he would return unscathed.
There are moments in life that feel just like that. Once I was navigating the overcrowded evening streets of Taipei, a metropolis that truly never sleeps, with a friend who had been living in Asia after college. We started across a street just as a car started barreling toward us. Maybe she was across faster than I was, but I jumped in the air, alarm on my face, my feet peddling while I hovered without moving forward—just like the Coyote right before he would be smacked by an oncoming Mack truck. Somehow I started to move (cue a whoosh sound with a little puff of cartoon smoke behind me) and made it safely to the other side of the busy street. When I got there, breathlessly, I said, “I felt like a character in a cartoon just then.” My friend laughed, “You looked just like one.”
More recently an ice storm coated the streets, sidewalks and trees of our community. I was on my way home from a late meeting, one of the only cars on the road. I got to my street, a one-block suburban circle that leads up the hill to my house, turned, and fifteen feet up the hill stopped, sliding sideways. Backing down and making a run for it netted me a whole twenty feet, and I determined that I wasn’t going to make it up the hill until the city had treated my street.
I slid back onto the more mainly road where traction was somewhat possible and saw a treatment truck go by. I thought to go and see if other circles in the neighborhood were being treated, figuring I could wait until they did mine, and found the truck two streets over. I pulled over to the curb to watch him start up the street and stop, wheels spinning. As soon as the driver took his foot off the gas the truck paused, totally still, and then started to slide at an angle right back down the hill. I watched him try and try again, getting no further than I had in his enormous six-wheeled truck with flashing lights and a bed full of ice melt.
It was no more successful when he turned around and tried backing up the hill, spreading his treatment mixture ahead of his own back tires. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but the whole truck, each time momentum stopped and before it started to slide, had that Coyote-like expression, in the dark, the icy rain still falling and freezing all around us.
That night I ended up parking my car a solid half-mile from my house and navigating the icy pavements by walking on yoga blankets I had in my trunk. I’d put one down, walk across it, spread the second one as best I could, step onto it, turn around pick up the last one, and inch forward. I could walk safely on the grassy surfaces, but my trek crossed a parking lot, a slew of driveways, and one major street. By the time I reached the bottom of my circle, I had ice coated on my glasses and in my hair and I was exhausted. I thought, if I’m going to fall, it’s going to happen up this hill close to home. I tried to redouble my care.
Years of yoga and I fall well. That night one tiny misstep, my foot half on the blanket half on the icy pavement, and I went down fast—no time to look helplessly at the camera—curling into myself and landing on my right hip and shoulder. Normally I would stay down after a fall, allowing the adrenaline to subside, but heart pumping I got up knowing it was too cold to stay on the ground. I was two driveways away from my own safe house.
The next day’s weather wasn’t much better. Eleven and Fourteen had delayed openings at school, the people I was supposed to meet with opted to stay home, and I inched my way downtown to see my chiropractor who brought mobility to my stiffening shoulder. That evening, on the sofa enjoying a fire and the surety of having everyone at home, I thought it might be nice to read a book.
I don’t remember learning to read, but I remember reading just about every book in my junior high’s library, some of them many times. I consumed books, like my children do, opting to read over just about any other activity, even sometimes those seven hours of television. My appetite continued through college, when I would use reading to relax, especially during finals week. Then in graduate school I spent three years not finishing books because there was always more to read. But I regained my reading pace as a professor, surrounded in various English departments by colleagues who always were reading and recommending something new.
Novels, memoirs, and academic treatises gave way to Moo, Baa, La La La and Goodnight Gorilla when Fourteen was born. I read to him constantly and it wasn’t long before he would toddle his way to me, a book offered with a beseeching look. We would stop everything and read, one book over and over or a stack that seemed to appear as he crawled into my lap. My own reading pace slowed considerably, not to a dead stop but to an agonizingly slow pace, maybe a book every month or two. Television and Internet screen time took over as my drugs of choice.
Today I read a lot—editing materials and email messages and business-related items—and I don’t read much at all. I still have the habit of buying books—I’m rarely able to finish a library book in the three weeks allotted for me—and starting them. They tend to lie around with a torn scrap of paper marking the first chapter or, worse, open, their spines creasing to keep my place. Momentum lost, I’ll clean them up two or three or eight weeks after I’ve started reading them and put them on the shelf next to all of the other “must reads.”
The hankering to read that started on the sofa the day I was resting has turned into a full-blown impetus. As a part of this year’s visualization process, I kept coming up against this image of books not just organized and waiting to be read, although that’s a part of it, but actually reading books, consuming them like I used to, like I watch my children do every day after school, without a thought.
At the same time, I kept seeing explosions and fireworks, alarm and beauty, cartoon character style. Cartoon characters have a plan, often foolhardy, but they set about it with resolve. I drew a picture—order written in the cursive fuse of a rocket, a stick-person rendering of me hanging onto the rocket called chaos, the ascent, explosion, and subsequent fireworks lighting up the sky. Such events can be beautiful, breathtaking, and damaging; there’s a chance of getting scalded by falling embers or dirtied by ashes as they tumble, not to mention the perilous fall back to earth. When I looked at my drawing, what I could see was an image of me coping through the ups and downs. It’s a start but not ultimately a good visualization because it doesn’t promote the life that I want.
What I crave right now is ordered space, a concept that in my mind means I’ll be able to pick up those waiting books and read, put them down to attend to the next thing—or hold on as the inevitable chaos explodes, like I did just this week when the hydraulic system in my car’s transmission failed—but come back to the books sooner and read some more. Ordered space means that although life is chaotic and sometimes explosive, there will be a firmament that’s truly firm for me to stand on, manage the chaos, shelter through the explosions, and settle back without too much lingering ash or danger from falling embers. Ordered space is my visualization for this new year, represented by a line-drawing box, the inside a place to find order, the outside chaos held mostly at bay. Ordered space equals organized time and organized time includes time in my account to indulge in activities that give me joy, like reading on the sofa with my peeps.
Makes sense, doesn’t it, that I’m reading Everything That Remains, a memoir by Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus. Happy New Moon, Happy Wood Horse Year (Eleven’s year), Happy Groundhog Day, a day that marks my eighth anniversary as a yoga teacher. Wishing you warmth and the solid belief that spring will spring wherever you may be. With love, as always, Rxo