Read and seek

I’ve been reading some entertaining novels by Rebecca Wells. The first one I enjoyed was called Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and now I have moved on to Little Altars Everywhere.

I spend a lot of time exploring books—first I read them, and while the story seeps deep into my bones I appraise the structure. Just as an architect sees different layers of meaning in a house than a layman might, a writer notices details about a book that someone else might not. These books have interesting structures to them—they’re not strictly linear the way many other novels are. I’m also exploring the ephemera left between the pages.

The last person who read the Divine Secrets marked the pages with a luggage claim check from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. I hope she got her suitcases back. The other book has a self-help article neatly folded between its pages. I’m sure that whoever left it there will be fine without it. Most of us need much less help than we think.

I’ve seen coffee rings and jelly stains next to the odd little notes that people mark in the books. You can tell who was studying the text, dissecting it for a term paper, and who was just cuddled up for a good read. Occasionally I’ll find a correction of an errant section of grammar. I’ve been known to put these into my own books occasionally. I can be a persnickety little thing, and sometimes the editing beast escapes her monitor with red pencil waving. It’s really best when she minds her own business.

Some of the traces left inside books are little stories of their own. I wonder what possessed the person who read The Man in the Ceiling (a fantastic book by Jules Feiffer) to write these words inside the front cover: “9 spaces, 43 letters, 1 punctuation, 12 words per line. Always multiply by 12.” It makes me wonder, and since curiosity is at the heart of imagination I count that a good thing.

I also wonder who left the Disneyland ticket in the mystery book I just finished. Were the rides so boring that he needed to entertain himself? Or was the book that gripping? Perhaps he stands off to the side and runs the coaster all day. One book contains many stories, and I intend to read them all—and add my own.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

141. Look carefully next time you read a book. Is there another layer of stories within its pages? Explore some books this week.

There hangs a tale

The other night I went to my square dancing class. It’s held at a local church, and I was waiting outside for the person with the keys to arrive. This gave me time to check out the odd grocery bag that was swaying from the metal railing on the steps which lead to the door. The bag contained two tall cans of malt liquor. These cans were full, and they were ice cold. I wonder—did someone have a conversion on the church doorstep, and resolve to give up drinking then and there? Was it an offering of some sorts, or were they simply stashing the liquor while they went to services or even an AA meeting?

I’ll probably never know the answer, but that’s okay. I am more entertained by the question. Two and a half hours later, when I emerged from class, the cans were still there. I love these little stories, and you can see them all over the place if you’re paying attention. I found prom photos a while back that look like they were from the 1960s. The women had giant beehives, hairdos so thick you could almost smell the Aqua Net coming off the pictures. The men had buzz cuts. What were these photos doing in the street? Had the cute brunette’s high school sweetheart just left her, causing her to toss all memories of him into traffic to ease the betrayal? Perhaps these were treasured mementos which had escaped an overfull box as the happy couple moved onwards towards a new stage in their lives together. Maybe they even came from a closed photography studio, and, having been used as a theater backdrop, they had now drifted into the street while the stage was being struck.

I see these tiny little story seeds everywhere I go. There was the little plastic baby, only about an inch long, wedged into the concrete steps of a former relative’s house. There was the chain attached to a post in a neighbor’s backyard. I’d see it every time I passed, and never heard or saw a dog. Last week I found six matching cowboy hats in the donation area of my apartment building. Sometimes writers tell me that they have no ideas, nothing to write about. I tell them to look around. The universe wants us to tell its story.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

92.  Make up a story or poem about one of the items I’ve mentioned above, or go out and collect some of your own story seeds.

I love the Lorax, too

My friend Trevor has a bumper sticker on his car that says “tree-hugging dirt worshipper.” I am right there in the mud with him, giving praise to the ground I walk on, the soil that supports us all. I praise the trees, too, telling them how lovely they are as I walk to work. My leafy friends are amazing. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by their trunks and branches, their canopies of green. The hedges across the street from me harbor flocks of tiny birds, their bodies dotting the branches like living fruit. The leaves purify our air. I would love to live amidst a forest, embraced by the gentle energy of the pines and their amazing scent. Instead I live amongst the scattered magnolias and Japanese maples. This has its own charms.

Most of Seattle’s neighborhoods are not densely forested, so each tree stands out as a piece of sculpture. The deciduous ones are particularly stunning during the winter, their bare branches snaking towards the sky in endless skeletal patterns. Some have chubby limbs, twisted into intricate swirls. Others are wispy, straightforward, standing like upturned brooms against the sky. In contrast to these proud sentinels, the espaliered fruit trees hug the buildings like shy girls at a dance. I love them all.

Their shadows are also artwork. As I walked to my meeting last night I noticed the intricate traceries which mark the sidewalks. These shadows look like iron grillwork, moving across the street with the sun. Their patterns project onto the sides of buildings, a kinetic artwork that is always changing with the moment. I breathe in the clean scent as I walk through them, or perhaps that’s a cloud of fabric softener from a nearby dryer vent. No matter—I am content. It recalls the smell of pine needles, the fragrance of damp leaves. Sometimes I even smell the little flowers which remain on many trees during the winter here. I feel so lucky to be in Seattle, a little piece of paradise in the evergreen state. A tree is tapping on my window, beckoning me outside. See you later!

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

27. Go worship a tree wherever you are. Give it a nice long hug, brushing the snow off first if necessary. Can you feel the tree hugging you back?

But I hate the rodeo!

Movies. The very word makes my pleasure circuits light up and ping ping ping like a winning carnival game. I’ve recently signed up for a film series being presented at the Seattle Art Museum–more pings, I love museums!–and so far I have been thrilled with the films. This series is called The Best of Britain, and you get a much better rate if you sign up for the whole shebang in one go. I did.

One of the advantages of the whole-shebang approach is that it forces me to go outside my favorite genres and experience films I might otherwise have turned down. The first two films were mysteries, and I most certainly would have attended those, but this week we’re seeing Sons and Lovers, a 1960 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel. It sounds heartwarming, possibly heartbreaking. In other words, something I’d normally run away from as if escaping the Nazis with an ex-nun and her identically-dressed children. I’ve found, however, that confronting my biases has led to some amazing discoveries. Just as art can be found on the sidewalk, so too can joy be found where you know it is not going to be. My good friend Laurie, for example, reintroduced me to country music. Once I got done telling her all the reasons I couldn’t possibly like it, I actually started listening and fell in love with Alan Jackson’s silly side. I don’t like all country music, but the artists I do like have an embraceable effervescence that adds a lot to the quality of my days. I never would have experienced that if Laurie didn’t nudge me out of my self-imposed box.

It’s okay to seek out the predictable delights, too. After all, I believe in pursuing joy! The first two films in the series did not disappoint, and tomorrow I’m going to give you just a few little tastes of each to intrigue you. Because, perhaps, just perhaps, you are a person who knows you hate mysteries.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
(By the way, I’m quoting the TV series Mission Impossible, another delight of mine!)

3. Break out of your cozy little box–perhaps it’s jewel-encrusted with silk cushions, like some of mine–and go to a film or a concert you would normally avoid. Pay attention, and decide whether you enjoyed yourself based on that one experience. You might be surprised.

Sidewalk art is more than popping through chalk paintings

I do a fair amount of walking in the sparkly-wet wonderful world that is Seattle, and so I get to enjoy the serendipitous art that occasionally pops up on the sidewalk. Today’s example comes courtesy of some anonymous football fan. You’re not going to hear me talking about football too often, but when the gridiron creates art they’ve stumbled over the sideline and into my territory. They do call it a sideline, right?

As I was walking to the supermarket I saw a miniature football jersey discarded in the street. The football jersey was the type often worn by stuffed teddy bears, and this one was abandoned and wet, crumpled between asphalt and rubber by the heartless kiss of a passing tire. Why does this strike me as art? It seems like the perfect summation to the football fever that so recently hit our city, as the Seattle Seahawks were advancing to the Super Bowl. Do you now have a picture of me as a devoted fan, munching popcorn and yelling at a screen somewhere with my buddies? Au contraire, mes amis. I don’t watch football, I don’t understand football, and I don’t follow football. I leave that to others. I do, however, live here, and it is impossible to move about without noticing all the fan support of the game. There was a football flag installed on the summit of the Space Needle, and many of the downtown office buildings arranged elaborate light displays to cheer on the team. While they were winning, that is.

All that remains of all that football fervor is a tiny little jersey abandoned in the street. And somewhere an equally tiny little teddy bear is running around shirtless. If you see him, give him a hug. Buy him some soup and a latte. He needs your support.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
Yesterday I asked you to go find something shiny. Today I’m going to issue you another joy directive. (I used to teach Medieval history, so these are easy by comparison. I could be asking you to make chain mail. Of course, that’s fun, too!)

2. Wander the streets until you find something that strikes you as art and document it in some way. Art is everywhere—play hide and seek with the masterpieces in your own town.