You Are My Families

January 1, 2014

The other day I had the joy of helping a mother and her three girls, each with a generous gift certificate.  This is a reading family, a book loving family in which each person clearly has their own unique and evolving relationship with books.

The youngest had just begun reading and she sat at our little table with a stack of books. She read a bit from each book softly, the words barely audible under her breath. She was clearly proud of her new ability and intent on finding a book in her comfort zone, not too difficult but challenging enough to hold her interest. The oldest daughter nearly skipped about the store, creating a huge arm filling stack, eyes sparkling brightly. Mom sought advice and gave the girls good input, clearly putting great thought into the unique needs of each child. The middle child was the most discerning: too long a book wouldn’t do, nor would  a too slim volume work. It couldn’t be too boring, too silly; nothing seemed to suit her. Mom and the other sisters were patient and helpful, making suggestions, reminding her of books she’d read and liked. Finally, when accounts were being tallied, she found, entirely unassisted, a wonderful new graphic novel from The Olympians series. This was perfect she’d decided and all of them, including mom, left happily anticipating their new reads.

While admiring this delightful bunch and thinking about the many other “book families” who frequent our store, I was taken back to a conversation I’d had a few years ago. It was late September in 2011 and Borders was closing. My daughter and I drove to the Mount Kisco store to see if there were any great bargains as well as possible booksellers looking for work. We found a few books whose prices were lower than our wholesalers and a couple items that satisfied my daughter’s ‘need right now’ whims.

We stood in a long line when the cashier looked past the faces of a few people ahead of us. “Hey” he smiled, and while he looked a bit familiar, I couldn’t quite place him. Our turn came to pay and he gave my daughter a huge grin. “My goodness you’ve grown!” he remarked. Seeing the puzzlement on my face he said ” White Plains Borders, you used to come there with your whole family. You’d stay for hours.” Suddenly I recognized him as a very nice and helpful bookseller “And your brother, (he turned to my daughter) well, he must be in college by now … right Mom?”

I swallowed hard as my eyes filled, we’d spent so many happy hours there, browsing, reading, sharing. I began to stumble over my words, always fearful of people’s reactions … “We, um, well, the sad story (I ease them in slowly, it’s like landing a plane) well, we , actually, we lost her brother two years ago. He had a seizure in his sleep.” “Oh no,” the kind bookseller looked stricken “I’m so sorry …” “No, no, ” I replied “I’m so grateful for you remembering us.”

And then, the tears on both sides of the counter breaking down social boundaries, he shared his memory of us as “his family.” “In the store we each had favorite customers and families and you guys were like “my” family. I always loved when you came by, which was a lot, and your kids were so nice, and they loved books, and you were all so happy and always having a good time. And he used to wear them funny pants,” (he looked suddenly apologetic but I laughed, remembering our boy’s penchant for “easy on” clothes) ” … and he’d get excited and kinda jump around,” (yes he did, my joyful kid). And the tears streamed and I thanked this sweet man for the gift of his memory.  He remembered. He’d seen us.

And on this sad and happy transition into a New Year , just to say, to “my families,” I see you.

Happy New Year.

2014

What Books Do

March 15, 2012

I worry a bit when I see students who suddenly have no time for books as they move into the busy schedules of high school. I want to tell them “Keep reading!” I want to share with them how books build a rich internal life that they can’t get by jumping through other people’s hoops, no matter how many A’s they get or what fancy school accepts them. I want to tell them that some day they are going to need that non-cynical, full internal life to get them through. I want to explain to them What Books Do.

Simply put, books save and heal us. They help us create a complex and varied inner landscape in which we can try on new ideas, discover feelings we didn’t know we had, and build a place of sanctuary within ourselves.

When Nina Sankovich lost her eldest sister at the age of 48, she turned to books to console and support herself. To honor her sister, she read a book a day for one year and chronicled her experience in her wonderful memoir “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.” The book is not only an amazing resource for readers, it is a testament to the healing power of books. Book lovers will adore her blog.

Sadly, I’m about to mark the third anniversary of the death of my nineteen year old son. He died of a seizure in his sleep. Losing a child is like no other grief, a loss whose pain shifts but never abates. Every day is a day with a huge hole in it. But books have helped and I’m so deeply grateful for their solace and even enlightenment.

Tundra swans in flight

One such healing experience came recently when I read Eowyn Ivey’s beautiful debut “The Snow Child.” Set in the raw beauty of the Alaskan frontier of the 192o’s, the book addresses friendship, marriage, parenthood, loss and survival. The book is gorgeously written, especially the depiction of a wild, untamed Alaska. Ivey knows the beauty of Alaska first hand as she was raised and resides there still.

When I read the following line, I felt the book change me on a deep, internal level, change my grief, change my deepest understanding:  ” … and when she turned to him, he saw in her eyes the sorrow and joy of a lifetime.” This powerful line found a dark, unopened place within me.  I could feel myself fill with the bright light of the Alaskan wilderness, the blinding shimmer of snow covered ravines and cliffs … and deep within, that part of me broke free, full of  the beauty and wisdom of a fairy tale well told. The book allowed me, encouraged me, to have the full experience of my own life, a life full of both joy and sorrow.

I was lucky enough to meet the author at a recent conference where I had the opportunity to thank her for her wonderful book and share how it played a part in my healing. Will her story have the same effect on you? Who knows. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ story. We bring our own story to the books that shape us. Each pairing is unique, reader and book, and holds its own transforming power.

That’s what books do. What books have changed your internal landscape?