Libraries and Iguanas

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

After a winter in Sanibel, we’re home in Minnesota now. While others might miss Florida sun, the beach, and golf, I’m going to miss the library. What, you say, the library?

Sanibel Library

I’ve always loved libraries. My first was the one on Market Street in Wilmington, N. C., where my mother took me when I was a young girl. Maybe she dropped me off or perhaps I was older because I remember being on my own in this wonderful old building where I first discovered my love of books and reading.

You entered through a big wooden door guarded on the outside steps by two huge sleeping lions. A shaft of sunlight fell across the wood floor from a high window. And there was that certain library smell—maybe musty cellulose. But still enticing, interesting, complex.

The librarian sat behind her desk to your left carrying out the ritual of stamping cards and inserting the due-date card in the pocket of every book that left her domain. To the right was a reading room with long mahogany tables, hanging maps, newspapers, and lots of large red encyclopedias, atlases, and other reference books.

Beside the librarian’s desk, in its formidable wooden cabinet of small drawers was the card catalogue. Every book in the library had its own card with identifying Dewey Decimal numbers and information about the book. There were no computers or electronic databases in those days. Everything was done by hand.

My favorite place in the library was the stacks. At the end of the hallway was a large room with rows and rows of metal shelves lined with books that stretched way over my head. There were ladders and step stools to reach them. The fun of the stacks was in the discovery. Even if I went in search of one certain book, it was often all those around it that most fascinated me.

I don’t remember a children’s room, but somehow, maybe on a certain shelf or two, I found Nancy Drew and Sue Barton. Over the years, I read mysteries and then later novels and adventure stories like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki. I still remember my tears as I turned the final pages of Black Beauty.

In the completely renovated Sanibel Public Library, I can look out large windows onto a small brackish river. A reading porch overlooks the water. As I sat on the porch a few days before we left, two iguanas, a large bright orange and brown one and a smaller green one, munched away on the grass below until they heard voices and scurried toward the water. The week before, an osprey settled in the tree above looking for fish.

Sanibel Library
Puzzle Corner

I can easily be distracted from my writing and reading here. I might stop to chat with someone working on a jigsaw puzzle. Beside a shelf of books sit two chess boards all set up and waiting for players. There are no stacks to settle into in order to avoid distractions. In this library, low open shelves, some on rollers, sit next to comfortable reading chairs.

A few days ago, in the downstairs meeting room, I dropped in on a talk by Duane Shaffer, one of the librarians and a World War II historian. He brought to life the 1941 sinking of two WWII battleships: the Bismarck and the HMS Prince of Wales. I didn’t know that battleships could be so interesting—another example of the joy of discovery to be found in libraries.

Of course, not all libraries are like this one on a Florida island. Some metropolitan public libraries have become gathering places for the homeless. Many libraries today struggle with inadequate funding and the challenges of digitalization.

Yet libraries remain free and open, truly democratic places where anyone can sit and read–and maybe, if they’re lucky, even see an iguana.

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Writing Prompt: Take yourself to a library near you. Write and observe. Make a list of all the libraries you can remember. Then free-write for ten-minutes to see where you can go as you reflect on libraries. Maybe you will create an essay or build a story or spin out a poem about a library.

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Here are five wonderful poems about libraries for inspiration.

Also see Susan Orlean’s new book, The Library Book, for an extended work of creative investigation as she explores the role of libraries in her life and delves into the story of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. Neil Gaiman’s essay on libraries is also worth a look.

How Far?

         Some days as I struggle with excuses for not sitting down to write, I think of June 2006 when I traveled to Russia to attend the Summer Literary Seminar (SLS) in St. Petersburg—all in the name of writing!

        It would be a two-week sojourn in a city that, at that time, wasn’t on my short list of places to visit. I would be traveling with my friend and fellow writer, Marge Barrett. We were co-teaching a Chekhov class and shared a desire to know more about Russia and its incredible literary history.

         The seminar offered a feast for writers: morning workshops with our writer of choice (Gina Ochsner, Padgett Powell, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ann Lauterbach and others); fascinating literary walks (Dostoevsky Walk, Pushkin Duel Walk,  Mad Monk Walk); and lectures with Russian scholars and contemporary writers. We would stay at the Herzen Inn in the heart of St. Petersburg only blocks from the Hermitage. We would visit neighboring villages and see the palaces of the tsars. We would eat our fill of borsch with ice-cold vodka chasers while chatting affably with fellow writers in delightful Russian cafes.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

          And so I was swept up into the exotic glamour of it all. How starry-eyed we become when we fantasize about the heady pleasures of being a writer: imaginative soaring, writer soul mates, new details to fill the pages of notebooks, a time to focus on writing for two solid weeks.

         Then reality!

        Visa: At that time, you didn’t just go to Russia, you had to be invited and this involved a lengthy application process and a cryptic visa application. Then we waited and waited, with the visa showing up a day or two before we were to leave.

        Packing:  Did they really want us to bring a fan all the way to Russia? We decided: No. Better to bring our books. So our suitcases were full of heavy literary tomes and a few clothes that could be washed in the sink. No hair dryers. All decisions to be regretted later.

        Travel:  “What do you mean you’re going to fly Aeroflot?” said our friends. We arrived in Moscow blurry eyed. Marge’s brown leather bag was lost. We found out that the terminal to St. Petersburg required a bus ride to another terminal several miles away, and we negotiated the transfer without being able to decipher a single sign in the Cyrillic alphabet.

        Accommodations and Classrooms: The Herzen Inn on the main drag of Nevsky Prospekt turned out to be an upgraded hostel. The heat was unbearable in our room. One night we decided to leave the door of our tiny refrigerator open all night as a mini-air conditioner. We learned why the manual said, “Bring a fan.” The classrooms where we met were sad reminders of a not-too-distant Russian past. The dust and mold set off an allergy attack.

        Fellow Travelers: The lack of sleep (no one sleeps during the White Nights of July because it never gets dark) inflamed the irritations that buzzed around a bunch of writers in a distant land. Insecurities surfaced: why did I choose this story for the workshop? why did I say that about another writer’s work? Then add in the pressure of lurking in the shadows of Dostoevsky, Anna Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky.

        The heat, the lack of sleep, no hot water, don’t drink the water, sore feet, a horrible cold, lost, tired, sick, alone—the grim realities of the dark, yet often comic, complexities of the writing life were intensified in Russia.

        Yet in the middle of all this, we were afforded moments of intense beauty. We stood on Griffon Bridge on Griboyedov Canal (one of the many canals that make this city the “Venice of the North”) and saw the remarkable view of the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood. We huddled under a ledge on the steps of the Winter Palace with Russian couples and families waiting out an afternoon rainstorm and looked out over a glistening courtyard where Russian history unfolded to see a rainbow fill the sky. We wrote haiku in the Summer Gardens and hunted through an antique store for Russian postcards to serve as inspiration for a short story. We met other writers who were sharing our ecstasies and agonies. Our friendship grew deeper. Marge listened to me cough and blow my nose for a solid week without killing me. We found the Internet café and sent frantic e-mails home. We read our work to each other in our shabby-shabby room. We discovered an Albanian restaurant down the street. We laughed and appreciated our little refrigerator because it held our bottle of vodka. (“Is it time for our vodka yet?” I asked in the middle of a long lecture.)

        Filled with memories of the enigma of Russia, I returned to the solid ground of home. I stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to my study and said to myself, “If I can go all the way to Russia for my writing, surely I can climb these stairs to my office and sit down at my desk and turn on my computer to begin a new story.”

          Like Russia, the Muse does invite me in but not always as quickly or as easily as I might wish. I often don’t have what I think I need for the trip—more ideas, fewer doubts. The irritating buzz of everyday life will not disappear, yet I’m not alone. I can call a friend who knows what it means to go as far as Russia for writing. And I know there will be laughter and beauty along the way. And maybe even a new story.

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About Summer Literary Seminars (SLS): These renowned writing seminars are no longer held in St. Petersburg, Russia, but continue on three continents: North America (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), Europe (Tbilisi, Georgia), and Africa (Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya). About the seminars, George Saunders, a participant when I attended, said: “SLS is one of the most exciting and important intellectual venues in the world right now; absolutely the most important seminar of its kind… SLS is at the center of a discussion I am hearing more and more in the US, about the moral role of fiction… well, what I’ve heard students say is that they have never felt more artistically alive, more convinced of their own potential to find the beauty in life and write about it… The beauty of the program is that it makes for a kind of two-way diplomacy.”

 

You Can’t

Play Chopin’s Polonaise
Like Horowitz you can’t

Say that and not remember
It was my idea you can’t

Eat those kisses you can’t
Leave all the letters

You can’t hide
You can’t forget me

Poem’s first appearance in my journal with my tattered copy of Ueland’s book.

I can’t forgive you
No never

You can’t explain that
Or solve that equation

You can’t know what I’m thinking
You can’t shoot like LeBron James

You can’t trust certain people
Who stand in corners

They can’t be noticed at first
Shadowy they are caught

In the glow of Dante’s Inferno
Where they assumed

They might be trapped forever
They turn their backs

When you enter the room
They eat popcorn noisily

In movie theaters
But I do that you say

Does that mean I can’t be trusted
Not necessarily

Certain traits build on one another
Watch Shaun Livingston on the court
Listen to Martha Argerich play Liszt

About this poem:

This poem started with a riff on “you can’t.” At one point I dedicated it to Siah Armajani, a conceptual artist who created many amazing pieces. Others might have said to him: “You can’t do that.”

As I was working on the poem, I ran across a sports commentator’s YouTube video. “You can’t be LeBron James, but you can be Shaun Livingston,” the commentator said. I’m not a big basketball fan, but I do know that LeBron James is 6’8” and considered to be the best basketball player in the world. I found that Shaun Livingston (6’7”) is highly efficient at mid-range and plays good defense. He may not be the star, but he’s there and can be trusted to help his team.

Likewise Horowitz and Argerich—both are amazing pianists. Horowitz was a great soloist, but watch Martha Argerich play Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major with a full orchestra.

I wanted the poem to have both a dark and a light side. I hope the reader puzzles over who can and can’t be trusted, and also what we can or can’t accomplish, as well as the way the word can’t sometimes comes to dominate our thinking.

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Writing Suggestion:

During the last six-weeks of  our “Joy of Writing” workshop here in Sanibel, Florida, we used Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write as inspiration in our exploration of creativity. “I want to assure you,” she writes, “that no writing is a waste of time–no creative work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding.”

Often we tie our writing to some standard of perfection and forget that by letting our words go out there, then, and only then, can we create something new. Perhaps we place too much weight on the judgment of others, and not enough on the divine spark within us. “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say,” says Ueland.

So with that in mind, pull out your notebook and let it rip. Trust yourself. Write about your day. Write about what you can or can’t do. Write about the way the light looks coming through your window. Write about sports or music. Go for three pages or ten minutes. Just write. You can write.

Blossoms: Consider the Lilies

It’s time to head back to Minnesota. The snows are over, so they say. The ice is melting. It’s mid-April, after all. About time!

Here in Sanibel, I look out the window on a brilliantly sunny day. Our amaryllis has surprised us with eight huge blossoms. Who knew that the ugly bulb I had totally forgotten about and left for months hidden under a palm tree in the shade could produce such amazing blooms out of nothing? Even the orchids that I tied to the trees have bloomed, thriving on air and humidity. I’m amazed that those scrawny plants that I had long ago written off have survived on nothing but air—especially considering how I had fussed over them when they tried to  live in the house. Sometimes it is good to just let things be.

Who knew these were hidden in that brown bulb?

And so we will leave Sanibel, Florida, and let it be for the next six months. I’ll leave my friends, who will head back to their respective homes too. We come here and take on new lives. No one seems to care who we were before we landed on this small island.

My “Joy of Writing” class this year was wonderful. So many writers willing to open their notebooks, uncap their pens, and write! I hope that whatever we started in the class will continue and that more blossoms (stories, poems, essays) will come. Sometimes it seems we try too hard to make things happen when all along within our bodies, minds, souls something quiet and alive is at work and just waiting for the right time to show itself.

As I write this, I’m remembering some of the writers who read their work during the last class. Molly Downing wrote about crossing the causeway bridge to Sanibel.

As I ascend the arc of the bridge to its sun-beamed zenith, I feel a palpable lightening of body and spirits. I inhale deeply the sea-sweetened air. Gentle warmth relaxes my shoulders, my neck, my face. An osprey soars overhead, flaunting the fish in his talons with loud proud whistles. Below, palm and pine lined white sand beaches offer previews of delights to come.

From “What is Paradise?” by Molly Downing

Wendy West told a childhood story about a time when she and her sister crashed a large funeral for an exotic Romany visitor to her Minnesota town.

I had never been to a wake or a funeral. I did see a dead priest once. My father had dropped me off early at school, and we had to go to mass every morning. As second graders, we sat right up in the front. The mass was going to be a funeral for the priest. I sat in the pew and looked over at the open coffin. He looked alive! I was all by myself. I stared at him for a long time and was sure I had seen him blink his eyes. What if he was still alive? Would they bury him anyway?

From “The Queen of the Gypsies” by Wendy West

Kathi Straubing’s essay, “Let It Be,” was about how so many words, sometimes meaningless, crowd our lives.

We write words. Embellish words. Impress with words. Delight with words. Dismantle with words. Curse with words. Accuse with words. Amuse with words. We read all night, rise with a crossword puzzle, talk all day, text forever. We never stop long enough to listen, to just . . .Let it be. Just let it be!

From “Let It Be” by Kathi Straubing

Speaking of words, My St. John wrote about how the single-word question What? is so prevalent among those of us who are now hearing impaired. She ends her piece with this funny anecdote:

Just the other night, I was sitting next to my friend Clare at a yacht club dinner, and I asked her who the man was at the other end of the table. I thought she said that he was an ex-convict.
“How exciting!” I whispered, “What did he do?”
Her answer, “What do you think ex-commodores do?”
This morning, I made an appointment with my ENT doctor.

From “What?” by My St. John

And so, the time has come to leave the island and our friends here. While I’m ready to go back to life in a metropolitan area, I’ll miss Sanibel, my friends, and the blossoms that surprise and inspire me.

Free to bloom on a tree

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Writing Idea:  During the Joy of Writing class, we use writing envelopes to jump-start our practice. Each person has her own envelope. Into the envelopes, we put slips of paper with a phrase, a quote, or a topic that could serve as a prompt to get us started. The idea is to pull out one or two slips and, without over-thinking, use the prompt to free write for ten minutes or to fill two pages. For example, in the envelope for this session, one slip says:  Write about pretending to like a certain food. Another says: Write about a childhood game that went bad. Another: Write about each decade of your life (or someone else’s) using clothes. The writing that comes from these can become fiction, poetry, or memoir. Anything.
Try it. Whatever happens, just let it be. Who knows what blossoms might emerge?
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“The nature of This Flower is to bloom.”  Alice Walker

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not…” Luke 12: 27

On its own…bougainvillea

Starting All Over: Spiders, Webs, and a New Year

Here we are ready to start again. A new day, a new calendar, a new year. A few months from now we will have forgotten how fresh our world seems today, but for right now all is well.

One of my friends sends out a poem every Monday. I particularly like the one she sent this past Monday, January 1, 2017.

New Year’s by Dana Gioia

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality. . . .

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

As the new year begins, we see “a calendar with every day uncrossed/ A field of snow without a single footprint.”

My January calendar already has a few prospective footprints. In a few days, my friend Mary and I will head to Key West for the much-anticipated writer’s workshops, sponsored by the Key West Literary Seminar.  Mary will be working with the poet, Rowan Ricardo Phillips; and I, with Dani Shapiro, who has written novels and several memoirs. I’m hoping to take a few small steps toward the completion of a collection of short prose pieces I’ve written over the years.

Key West Schooner

While we will be going to Key West for the workshops, we will also stroll along Duval Street, eat fresh fish in our favorite restaurants, enjoy the people we always meet at the Key West Bed and Breakfast, watch spectacular sunsets, sail on a schooner, and maybe even leave a few footprints in the sand. Going to Key West is truly “a feast of our mortality”–a carpe-diem sort of place.

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On another carpe diem note, I’ve resolved not to watch (and read) so much news this year. Alain de Botton concludes his 2014 book, The News: A User’s Manual (a serendipitous find yesterday at the Sanibel Library book sale) with these words:

We should at times forgo our own news in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children–all creatures usefully uninterested in our own melodramas, counterweights to our anxieties and self-absorption.

Our Spider: Crab-Like Spiny Orb Weaver (Wikipedia)

His words make me think of the spider I have been watching build her sturdy web across the corner of our deck here on Sanibel. The web is an engineering marvel spanning a five-foot corner. It has withstood rain, wind, and my sometimes awkward maneuvers to water the plant that anchors one of her filaments. I accidentally knocked it down a couple of weeks ago, but the next day she started all over–swinging on her almost invisible silk threads, like a tiny, skirted acrobat in mid-air.

 

And there are our five grandchildren: each one a delight–any day spent with one of them is the best day ever. They help me see an ordinary spider web and lots of other small (and large) wonders I might not notice. With them I also do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, like trying to fly a kite with Lucia in Dalkey, Ireland, on a cold, not-so-windy December day.

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On Writing:  Here’s hoping that you will find new life and happiness in the words you spin in the coming year. You never know what you might catch. An idea you didn’t know you had? A moment easily forgotten?  A story to hold onto? A sense of your own self?  Maybe we can forget the news for a little while each day and settle into a chair with a notebook and a good book. Or take a walk in a park. Or by the beach. Or watch a spider. Or talk with a child. And then come back and write about it.

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“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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