Entering the past

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Deep summer. I raise my hand to shield my eyes and smell orange blossoms. Traces of sunscreen streak my arms.  I stand in a swimming pool, waiting, watching the sunlight shatter again and again on the surface of the water. I can’t say for sure what I’m waiting for.

 

My hair turned green from the chlorine one summer long ago. Day after day I dipped below the surface, swimming through the hours, under the freckling sun. I counted swimming as bathing. I think about that summer and the things I can’t remember but want to. I rummage through my memories looking, find a page torn from a book, a faded photograph of someone I vaguely remember, but no name is written on the back. My past is the long chain of days I drag behind me.

 

A child stands on the edge of the pool, jumps, and splashes near me. I remember diving off the high dive when I was only six or seven. Into the deep. Unafraid.

 

A woman calls to the child to get out of the pool. I remember mother warning me that my lips were blue, and I needed to warm myself on the hot cement.  I turn and look behind me, but nothing is there.  The past is here, not behind.

 

I look at my feet; my legs below the surface disconnected to the part of my body above the water. I touch the boundary, the water’s skin freckled with light that divides air and water; the light bends, and nothing below looks the same again. What if time isn’t measured in length, but in depth? Perhaps I have stepped into the pool of time, and as I walk deeper into the future, more and more of me is in the past below. Eventually, the past will completely swallow me up.

 

I stand, staring at my legs, displaced by light. I cannot align them with my body, but I can feel them. I let them carry me deeper.

 

Someone calls my name. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and dive into the cool water, heading for the other side.

 

Writing by foot

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Few people realize that the word “way” comes in two different lengths. Articles like “Twelve Ways to Iron Cheese” or “Twelve Original but Disturbing Ways to Use Your Neti Pot” or “Twelve Ways to Remove Cheese from Your Neti Pot” proliferate on the web. Most people see no problem with this. I do.

 

The word “way” comes from Old English and means “road” or “path,” and when you travel on a road or path, you must use a system of measurement to determine the distance covered. Back in the day when the thirteen British colonies were not yet the thirteen American states, our former overlords introduced English units as the American system of measurement.  Both the British and the Americans measured by the length of the poppy seed, which was one fourth of a barleycorn. When they laid three barleycorn end to end, they had the equivalent of twelve poppy seeds, or one inch. Providing the wind wasn’t blowing, they could lay down 36 barleycorn (144 poppy seeds) and create a foot. They only needed to do that one more time to have two feet, which is all anybody needs to head down a road or path.

 

Poppy seeds (Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS )

 

Of course, the British didn’t invent the foot. In the first century, when people finally started counting the years up instead of down, someone brought a Roman foot to Britain. Where the foot came from is anyone’s guess, so let me guess. Prior to the Romans, there doesn’t seem to have been a standard measurement for the foot. They must have realized how handy it would be to know exactly how far it was to the next village they planned to pillage. Counting footsteps would vary based on the size of the solider’s foot, so they needed a standard. And where else to find un unneeded foot than the battlefield. I haven’t yet discovered any record of how the foot was preserved, but that doesn’t prevent me from promoting my theory. At any rate, this foot was used for years and years, until the Anglo-Saxons brought over the North German foot, no doubt another war trophy from some unlucky foot soldier. In the 13th century, the foot became the accepted unit of measurement. Where did that foot come from? No one knows. At least not yet.  I’m working on it.

 

36 husked barley corns equals 8 inches.
(People either used unhusked barley, or they had smaller feet.)

 

Once you have a foot, you can leap to yard to mile, cover any distance you like, and begin to measure the “way” we started down at the beginning of this post.

 

When you speak of the “Twelve Ways to Cut Cheese,” you must move equidistantly from point to point, and in this case you should move quite far. You must use your feet to move, and sadly there are only a few places in the world you can still do that.

 

In the United Kingdom in 1824, the Imperial unit of measurement stuck its foot in the door, evicted the English unit of measurement, and became the standard throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. America has not been able to let go of England’s Imperial foot since then. We know all about the French and their fancy-pants metric system; we’ve seen their advertisements on the home shopping network and listened to their sales pitch. We’ve even bought a few signs from them and put them up on some of our highways for people who measure in French, but Americans have  put their foot down when it comes to becoming just another meter-made country.

 

So now you understand what I’m talking about when I say that “way” comes in two different lengths: Imperial and metric. For those who find this difficult to follow, here’s the short version:

 

  1. If a “way” is a road or path you travel by foot,
  2. And the Imperial system is the only one that allows you to use feet,
  3. Then, only those who use the Imperial system can go down that road and write about the “Twelve Way’s to Avoid Spelling Errors.”
  4.  Since one foot equals 0.3048 meters, people who use the metric system should write the “3.6 Ways to Avoid Spelling Erors.”

 

(Note to new readers: If you have any questions, or find fault with my logic, please feel free to contact any of the people who comment on my blog. I’m sure they would be happy to help you out. They know where the exits are.)

New shoes can change your life

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Women of a certain age can stop walking on tiptoes, trying to avoid the shards of all those mirrors thrown at them.

 

In their sensible shoes, they can walk on eggshells, crush them to a fine powder, and tell the world the bare-faced truth.

 

They can finally learn to please their own soles.

 

 

Women of a certain age are certain about this: new shoes can change your life.

 

 

I know, for I have walked a mile or more in my mother’s shoes, and my feet ache. So now, I’ll walk a while in my father’s shoes.

 

It’s okay.

 

I’m of a certain age.

 

 

 

( Tiptoes from here.)

Old married couples: Sitting quietly without speaking

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You’ve heard the stories about old married couples. How they grow to look alike. And how they can sit quietly without speaking, enjoying the silence together.

 

Well, the first one is true. Old married couples look the same because all old people look alike. You may be taller, shorter, rounder, or skinnier than your spouse; and you may dye your hair, exercise, eat right, and use expensive creams, but sooner or later both of you will have to put on a wrinkled coat of skin, large ears, and a droopy nose, so you are properly dressed for the party called old age.

 

Of course, you can attend the party wearing a mask created by a plastic surgeon. But you can only wear it for a while before you need a new one. Keep doing that and eventually your mouth will be stretched so close to your ears that you can hear yourself drool. Did I mention drool? Well, lots of people at the party do. Not the mentioning, the drooling.

 

About that second idea: I believe half of it. Old couples often sit quietly without speaking, but not because they are enjoying the silence together. Something else is going on, something called “mamihlapinatapai.” (Note to reader: Impress your friends by casually using this word in a conversation. I’ve developed an easy pronunciation guide to help you in your impressiveness. Repeat after me: mommy – la piñata – pie.)

 

In the Yaphan language of Tierra del Fuego, it means “two people looking at each other without speaking, each hoping that the other will offer to do something which both parties desire but neither is willing to do.”

 

When old couples sit together in silence, both are hoping the other person will do what needs to be done, like washing the dishes, taking out the trash, buying more Depends, or remembering the names of the children. They may look as if they are resting in their love, but both of them are secretly willing the other to action: one silently repeats in his mind, “Make some dinner, make some dinner,” while the other one says over and over in her mind, “Fix us something to eat, fix us something to eat.” If they been together long enough, they’ll sense what the other person is trying to communicate, especially if they have their glasses on and can see what time it is. Then after one asks, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” the other one will nod, wipe the drool from the corner of her mouth, and order Chinese.

 

 

 

(Photo:  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326])

The book will find you

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If a book is an idea, caught and caged in paper and ink, a library is a zoo of every captured thought you can imagine, and some you can’t.

 

No one knows how long thoughts and ideas roamed around in human heads before someone decided to capture them in on clay tablets 5,000 years ago. Facts proved easy to catch, as did moral instructions, recipes, and divinations; and the earliest still survive on clay, stones, boards, bones, turtle shells, and papyrus rolls. (You can go to this book history timeline to see the ones discovered so far.) Inevitably, people corralled these ideas into collections called libraries.

 

If a book is a tree you climb to hide among the leaves and listen, a library is a forest full of sound.

 

From the earliest times, people in power (rulers, rich people, and religious and scholastic organizations) had private groves of books. When the earliest public libraries opened, money and power served as library cards.

 

The vast forests of books that we would recognize as free public libraries were not planted until the 19th century.

 

 

If a book is made of the hours of a writer’s life, a library is a clock shop where you can borrow time.

 

You walk into a library to kill time. You stroll through the stacks and the title of a book strikes you; then, you look at its face and the small hands grab you. If you are quiet you will hear the soft tick-tock of the words. When it’s time, the book finds you, and if it’s a good book, you have the time of your life reading it.

 

 

If a book is a ship that carries you to a place as strange and familiar as home, a library is harbor on an endless sea.

 

To sail away on a book, you need to find a port. Or the port needs to find you: drawn by a donkey cart, carried on the back of a camel, or hauled in that familiar bus known as the bookmobile.

 

Books will find you!
(picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 

My city library provides me with endless choices for travel on that endless sea of ideas and stories. I always thought it was the only port in town.

 

Three weeks ago, I found a small boat landing just four blocks from my house, called The Little Free Library. More of a book exchange than a lending library, it offers one more place to get carried away by books. The Little Free Library website provides an interactive map, so you can see if there is one near you. Or maybe you want to put one in your yard. Finding this free box of books prompted me to write about books and libraries. It reminded me how books have changed me, taught me, delighted me, and brought me joy.

 

The Little Free Library near my house

Today if you go to the library, don’t hold back; let the book find you.

How books find people: An introduction

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The Perambulating Library (UK, 1858, Wikimedia Commons)

 

The book finds you.

 

In the library, you enter the sea of books; your eyes swim across the stacks, nibbling at the titles. Or the book lures your hand to the shelf to read some pages. Then, the book, the one that is hungry for you, catches you like a fish and reels you in. You may not even feel the hook. Using some sweet bait of words, the book snags your heart or mind and pulls you through its pages into a world or place so new, so old, so strange, so familiar, you can hardly breathe. And when you are thrown back into the world, you are not afraid. You come back to the places the books wait, angling for you.

 

You don’t find the book; the book finds you.

 

A book is looking for you; go to the library and let it find you.

 

 

Next: How books find people: Libraries