Readers’ Anonymous

greenchairMy name is Bethany and I am a read-aholic.

As addictions go, not a bad one, I know. Even if you buy all of your books, reading costs way less than heroin or even marijuana (well, I think it costs less, and you definitely can’t borrow drugs from a library and then return them!).

And, after all, books teach us about the world and about ourselves, if we’re lucky (if we’re conscious!). If you don’t believe me, check out Nina Sankovitch’s TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR, which is sort of about a woman reading a book a day for a year; or try Will Schwalbe’s THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB, about the author and his dying mother and the books they read in her last year or so of life.)

Being a reader, most of the time, feels extraordinarily lucky to me. I can’t imagine not reading. Even so, being asked to not read for a week, and — more or less — complying, forced me to be more aware of the extent to which I use reading as an escape from my family, from stress, not to mention from almost every other other possibly interesting activity. The museum? A movie? The zoo? Couldn’t I just drink a latte and read for a couple of hours?

And it’s not just one book — I am one of those readers who keeps several books going at once. (A week ago, when I finally plunged into Week Four of THE ARTIST’S WAY, I was somewhere in the middle of a Maisie Dobbs mystery; Rebecca Solnit’s new paperback of essays, THE FARAWAY NEARBY; a book about Alzheimers, which I seem to have now misplaced; a very short novel by Japanese poet Tikashi Haraide called THE GUEST CAT [it was supposed to be passed on as a Christmas gift, but its true owner won’t mind waiting a week]; Louise Desalvo’s THE ART OF SLOW WRITING; and, oh yeah, THE ARTIST’S WAY.)

I was not entirely faithful. I picked up the newspaper as I ate breakfast almost every morning. For the first few days I kept checking my email and text messages obsessively for something I just had to read. For the first day and a half I continued listening to a book on CD (another one: THE SCARLET LETTER). When the new issue of THE SUN arrived in the mail, I read one article — very very quickly, like an alcoholic gulping down a glass of scotch before anyone could catch me at it. I read my own pages on the days that I worked (which was less than usual as it was Christmas week, but still).

No matter, even with these lapses and negotiations with Julia Cameron’s goal of not-reading-pretty-much-at-all, the week of reading deprivation made a difference. I took my dog and my daughters for a walk on a nearby beach on Christmas day. I listened to Bon Jovi and Joan Baez while I drove. I people-watched. I did a very little bit of decluttering. I watched several movies I had been wanting to watch but not getting around to (including Violette  and World War Z — eclectic tastes). I called a couple of friends who had called me recently and left messages. On Sunday, determined to take a book-less nap with the dog, I instead decided to go back to the beach with him for a walk (a really wonderful walk) and when I came home I gave him a bath.

This morning, when my reading fast was up, I was a little

bookheartdisappointed. And then I read.

The Kestrel

My darling husband says that I got the poem almost right, but that Hopkins didn’t mean a large hawk like a red-tailed hawk–his Windhover was the smaller kestrel, a falcon.

Driving to my parents’ farm, out highway 6 in Lewis County, you can sometimes see a kestrel. A colorful, beautiful bird.

I borrowed the pictures from Bird Web (which is worth a look).

In my peregrinations, I learned that falcons and hawks are not even in the same family, and I found that our American kestrel is not (of course) precisely Hopkins’ kestrel. I think.

I also found a blog called The Broken Tower (which I am now following…does this count as reading?), which has another lovely, and even more detailed description of “The Windhover.”

The Windhover

This is my Christmas gift to you.

After a friend emailed a circle of friends with news of Avian flu and its effects on raptors in Whatcom county (and on a particular, beloved keeper of raptors), we shared amongst us a number of falcon references, and I offered Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover.”

It’s such a gorgeous poem. I memorized it years ago, and it’s one of the poems I often recite to myself when I’m troubled. Its meaning is not self-evident, and I’ve had students admit that they found it baffling; but the sound of it alone is worth the trip. Aloud, Hopkins seems to be writing in an extremely musical foreign language. (Just saying aloud “chevalier,” “lovelier” or “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing” will demonstrate this, as will noticing the odd line breaks and juxtapositions.) But here’s the poem itself:

The Windhover

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

          To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

[Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)]
I borrowed the text from Poetry Out Loud (where you can listen to Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty”), a site on which it is asserted that if you wish to memorize a poem, it helps to understand it. I’m not sure you have to understand this poem to enjoy it, but here is my brief explication — not to explain away the beauty of the poem, but to offer a little guidance through perhaps unfamiliar territory.

Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who lived in England from 1844-1880. In the first stanza I like to imagine him on a walk in the early morning, catching sight of one of those big, soaring birds (I think of our region’s red-tailed hawks and ospreys), which he calls “morning’s minion,” minion as in messenger (bearing news of something, perhaps, for Hopkins, of Christ), and feeling that he was witnessing the prince of the dawn — “daylight’s dauphin” — as he admires the bird’s dappled underside (imagining the movement of a skate in the ocean — think of the big flat fishy skate, not an ice skate), then, as one does when overcome by unexpected beauty, feeling his own heart soar. The “heart in hiding” always suggests to me depression and a protected, hidden heart, now coaxed out of hiding.

The second stanza is all sound magic. (Read it out loud to yourself!) The heart isn’t just coaxed out of hiding, but rippling like the hawk’s wings against the sky, and “buckle” always makes me think of a sheet of tin shaken and reflecting sunlight. The “chevalier” as a knight in armor reinforces that notion.

The final stanza brings up an image even stranger to our own era: “plowdown sillion.” This was explained to me as the earth turned up by a plow and — it so happens (having been raised on a farm) I know this phenomenon. I didn’t walk behind a plow, too young for that, but I rode on tractors with my Dad and looked back to see the furrows opening and gleaming. The plow of course is another shiny metal image (like the tin I imagine above) but the earth itself shines when it’s first turned up, with moisture and maybe mica in the soil. Sillion is an archaic word referring to the slice of furrow itself, but it makes me think of silicon, another silvery, shiny word. Plodding behind the horse and plow (“sheer plod”) would reveal this unexpected beauty, just as (with the next image) staying until the fire is dying down reveals the beauty of its end.

And those endings (“blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, fall, / Fall, gall themselves and gash gold vermilion”) makes this a poem about endings, about how staying with something — or someone — is worth the trouble, and even death has a beauty for those brave enough to face it.

Finally, to augment my own reading, here’s a link ( to a Poetry Foundation essay by Ange Mlinko about her experience with the poem, “a love poem to life.”

May you have a restful, shop-free day, a day that includes a walk, people you love, and some unexpected beauty.

The Reading Fast

The Artist’s Way, week four, asks us to give up reading. Julia Cameron promises, “If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” I highlighted this passage down the page a bit (yes, we’re still allowed to read The Artist’s Way):

“Reading deprivation is a very powerful tool–and a very frightening one. Even thinking about it can bring up enormous rage. For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” (87)

I’ve done this before, of course, and I knew it was coming. In the abstract, it didn’t sound like that big of a deal. A week! Hah! I can do anything for one week!

And I know that I’m a reading addict. I know that giving up reading has been a powerful experience for me in the past. (Remember the Responsible Living workshop, to which I lugged not one but TWO BAGS of books, only to discover that I wasn’t going to be allowed to read for 3 days? Not even at night before falling asleep! And how powerful was that?)

So why all this reluctance?

I bargained for an extra day, thinking I could finish the Maisie Dobbs mystery at least (then I read 80 pages of an Alice McDermott novel instead; and a chapter from my new Rebecca Solnit collection, a Christmas gift, after all). I bargained with myself about whether or not I could read emails and blogs (emails, okay provisionally, but not blogs, I decided). Could I read my new issue of The Sun? (No.)

Next Tuesday morning, it will all be waiting for me. The last 44 pages of the Maisie Dobbs mystery will still be there and the story will roll on.

Meanwhile, I’m going to spend a little time working on poetry. I’m going to do some decluttering. I’m going to do a jig-saw puzzle.

I’m going to try–over the Christmas holiday–to be present with not only my family but also with my own thoughts and feelings.


A Season of Waiting

From Chocolate is a VerbReading around a few other blogs (Chocolate Is a Verb, for instance), I find that I am not alone in feeling frantic and wishing 1) that I had more time and 2) that Christmas were over.

This is a season of waiting. My daughters can’t wait for it to be Christmas. Can’t wait to find out what’s wrapped in those presents under the tree. I can’t wait to be done with all the cards and decorations and busyness of the holiday. On Thursday, maybe in an effort to check-out from the busyness,I left my cell phone charging in the car while I had coffee with a friend; when I returned to the car, I saw–my heart pounding–that I had 3 missed texts and 2 missed calls. I grabbed up the phone and the last message (all from my sister) was “Call me! Mom’s had a stroke!”

By the time I called, the paramedics were there with mom, and so was my sister. Mom had maybe had a stroke, but definitely a violent seizure. I was able to help make the decision not to transport her to the hospital. There were tears and not a little anguish. In between calls, I sent texts to my friends. But then, Mom began to feel better. Her speech wasn’t slurred any longer. She was put to bed and my sister sat with her and held her hand.

I had begun my day with a million things to do. I mentally crossed most of it off the list. I went to the gym (I was already dressed!), I went to the school to wait for Emma (who turned out to have other plans), I went home and showered and packed. I took a plate of spaghetti to my friend who had surgery yesterday. I got in the ferry line. I waited in the ferry line for an hour and a half!!! (I had a book; no worries.) A little before 8 p.m. I rolled into Allyn. My sister was able to go home. I slept in the recliner in Mom’s room; or, I didn’t sleep (good British movie on the telly; and the amazing caregivers who woke us every two hours to check on Mom and reposition her in the bed).

The next morning Mom was her chatty self. She told me that my uncle lives there, too, but that she hasn’t seen him for awhile. She wanted to know who is taking care of Dad while she’s there. “Can’t you just take me home?” she kept asking. She ate almost all of her breakfast (which was a surprise) and she was no longer complaining of a headache. Her blood pressure was good.

Before I left, Debra, who owns the Haven (and is a gift, herself) arrived and took me in hand. We sat downstairs in her office and had a long talk. It’s so easy to get into a mindset of “waiting for Mom to die.” A mindset that makes every moment agony. Or, at the least, unpleasant. If you are waiting for the next moment, rather than being in this one, then you can’t really enjoy this moment. You can’t bask in it. “Your mother is dying,” Debra told me. “But not right now.” I told Debra the story of my grandmother’s last three years in a nursing home, and how Mom used to say, “Don’t you let that happen to me.” Debra said, “But is this like where your grandmother was? Is your mother, your grandmother?” Her best advice was, “Make new memories.”

Mom is in a good place where she has her own bedroom with her own pictures on the wall and her television playing the deer at havenChristmas music station. Deer and rabbits visit. The caregivers are good to her. One of them calls her “Grams.” My youngest sister is able to see her almost every afternoon after work. I can be there in two hours, and have been able to visit almost every week.

What I am going to remember is sitting and holding her hand. I’m going to remember reading Agatha Christie novels aloud to her. I’m going to remember the ride on the ferry and seeing gray whales and eagles and flocks of surf scoters.

I’m going to try to enjoy this week before Christmas when my to-do list is almost completely crossed off and the tree is lit up and presents are (mostly) wrapped in anticipation. I’m going to try to bask in the anticipation.

I’m going to try to enjoy this time before my novel rewrite is finished (it is so close) and everything is still possible.

I’m going to try to enjoy being able to visit my mother while she is still in this plane of existence with us, in whatever condition.

And I’m going to reread Cherie Langlois’s blogpost, “A Christmas Question,” which says everything I have been thinking, but says it better.

“I like to think of the mind as a room.”

doorway“I like to think of the mind as a room. In that room, we keep all of our usual ideas about life, God, what’s possible and what’s not. The room has a door. That door is ever so slightly ajar, and outside we can see a great deal of dazzling light. Out there in the dazzling light are a lot of new ideas that we consider too far-out for us, and so we keep them out there. The ideas we are comfortable with are in the room with us. The other ideas are out, and we keep them out.” -Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way (51)

The other day a friend wrote to me, explaining why she couldn’t do The Artist’s Way. 1) She was way too busy. It would be impossible to do Morning Pages as she didn’t have 15 or 20 minutes a day to devote to them. And then, 2) now that her children are older, she spends all of her time doing things solo, and has lots of personal time, so Artist’s Dates are completely unnecessary.


It took me a little while to process this, and to realize that I make the same excuses, even now (even though I am committed). I’m too busy. I’m not busy enough, or (as I usually put it), I selfishly already spend plenty of time doing whatever it is I want to do….

Okay, Bethany, which one is it?

One of my favorite exercises from The Artist’s Way is the Imaginary Lives one–what other 5 lives can you imagine for yourself? I begin the exercise reluctantly, then I get into it. I would raise horses. Be a visual artist. A film-maker. A famous poet  (key-note speaker at conferences! leading a group of poets on a trip to Ireland! 8 or 10 books of poems! devoted disciples!). A mystery-novelist (like Agatha Christie or Donna Leon, with 18-100 mysteries!).

It’s fun to imagine creating a different life, especially when you don’t have to actually create it. (It’s impossible! I could never do that!)

But then Julia Cameron asks us to imagine what one or two small pieces of one of those lives you might insert into this life. And that’s where the real fun begins. Crack that door open, just let a tiny bit of change in, and see what happens.


Secret Rooms

image found at

Perhaps because of last night’s windstorm, and our power outage, I had that dream again, the one in which I remember that my house has secret rooms.

A realtor was trying to list our house, and I felt that she had undervalued it. Oh, I thought, I know just what to show her!

I started with the hidden apartment, the one entered by a kind of hatch in the garage wall. It was a studio apartment, never occupied, filled with boxes. Anyone owning this house would, of course, want to rent it out. I wondered, even as I spoke, why I never had.

And there was more! I showed her the children’s rooms with the lofts and secret cubbies. We walked through the kitchen downstairs (an elaborate, fully equipped kitchen for parties). Then, my sister was there, and said, “What’s that room?”

The guest suite! I had forgotten about it entirely. It had a hot tub! From the bed, you could see the ocean! Really!

Whenever I have this dream (or a variation of it), I know that there is some potential I’m overlooking.

On another note (though not entirely), I loved this post from Writer Unboxed (written by the amazing Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story). I read it twice, I followed all the links, I watched the entire (irreverent) Dartmouth commencement speech given by Shonda Rimes (of Grey’s Anatomy fame). I think you should, too.