Friday night at the bookstore

Barnes and Noble

Some people like to spend their weekends bar hopping, or going out to the movies, or shopping for new clothes. I like to go to the bookstore. I don’t necessarily go to buy anything, though it’s hard to resist the pull of a new book, the weight of it in my hands, the smell of paper and ink and glue.

I go, especially when things get stressful, because this is my happy place. It’s true that I spend most of my days surrounded by books in the public library where I work, but therein lies the problem. I’m working. At bookstores, I can relax. I don’t have to force a smile if I don’t feel happy. I don’t have to grit my teeth and explain to the same person for the millionth time that no, I am not going to fill out their job application for them. I am beholden to no one but myself and the books.

Growing up, my favorite bookstore was the Chester County Book and Music Company, a massive store in West Chester, PA. A solid half of my Star Wars book collection came from that store. I always had to beg my parents to take me, because they knew once they got me there it was going to be hours before I was ready to leave. That store is closed now, but I can still tell you exactly which books I bought there.

Now I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I spend most of my bookstore time in Barnes & Noble. This is more out of habit and routine than anything else. In high school a new development in a wealthier part of town brought in a Barnes & Noble, which was perhaps one of the most exciting events of my young life (this is not because my life wasn’t exciting; that just goes to show you how much I love bookstores). My best friend and I would spend entire afternoons there, giggling at trashy romance books and eyeing up new editions of Lord of the Rings. I accompanied friends to midnight releases for Harry Potter books, mostly because I wanted to be in a bookstore at midnight.

I generally follow a routine for my weekend BN visits. First, I look at the journals. Then, if I’m in the mood, I’ll stop in the cafe and get something to drink. Next comes the bargain section. From there I visit the science fiction books, first checking out what’s new and then finding my favorite authors on the shelf. Even if I have all of an author’s books, I’m not immune to the draw of a new edition. Plus, stopping by Neil Gaiman’s and Ursula Le Guin’s sections feels a lot like visiting old friends.

After sci-fi I peruse the manga and comics and contemplate whether or not I should buy the next volume in whatever series I’m working on (currently the omnibus editions of Fruits Basket and Elf Quest). Then I head over to the reference section to visit the writing books. I don’t buy many writing books, but I will borrow them from the library and buy the ones I really love.

This routine, the familiarity of it, the faint smell of books permeating the air, the warm drink in my hand, lets me relax. It gives me time and space to think, to figure things out and work through whatever problem I’m stuck on. In many ways, my bookstore visits are a kind of meditation. Sometimes I even say “I’m going to church” when I’m headed to a bookstore, and it isn’t a joke. There’s truth in that. To me, bookstores are a sacred space. They hold knowledge and mystery, power and wisdom. And that’s what keeps me coming back, week after week.

 

The stream, the trees, the words

picture of two pens on a notebook

My favorite pens, which were an anniversary gift from Bell Telephone to my grandfather in 1978.

Last month I received a scholarship to attend Writer Camp, a yearly retreat for writers put on by the folks at literary journal Barrelhouse. It. Was. Awesome.

The five days away from the stresses of work, ongoing renovations on my house, dealing with my dog’s degenerative condition, and the general stress of being me in my brain was restorative. For five days, I had nothing to do but write, and talk about writing with other amazing writers, and eat delicious food prepared by our hosts. I am so grateful for that time and the company.

I wrote 39 new pages of fiction, reworked the outline for my novel-in-progress, sent out a few query letters for my short story manuscript, and had two very productive meetings with my editor, Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press. I also met some wonderful people, and had so much fun chatting over food and our nightly bonfires with a glass or two of wine.

Writer Camp is held at the Godspeed Hostel in Port Matilda, PA, which is a lovely area with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and a pleasant stream that you can swim in. The water is crisp and cold and so refreshing. There are hammocks everywhere, and a tree swing, and it’s not hard to find a comfortable place to write.

The stream at Godspeed.

I fell into a general routine of eating breakfast, writing for an hour or two, taking a stroll along the stream, working on my novel outline or sending out submissions, eating lunch, meeting with my editor, and then writing for another hour or two before our afternoon excursion and dinner. That right there is what I want my life to look like.

Of course I don’t have that sort of luxury at this point in time—I have to work to pay my bills, after all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put some elements of Writer Camp into my daily routine and writing practice. I live in a city and don’t have a stream nearby, but I have a big front porch and a big backyard that I’m slowly turning into my own little oasis. I can easily write on my porch in the warmer months, and on weekends I can take my notebook out to one of Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks for more nature time.

Perhaps even more importantly than the real progress I made on a few of my writing projects is the reminder that writing time and time in nature are both an essential part of my self-care routine. Without both of those things, I start to go a little batty. I feel on edge, restless, unfulfilled. But when I make time for them I feel at ease, happy, content.

On the days that I write before I head into work, I feel productive and accomplished, and it doesn’t matter what happens at work. Writing is like a force field against all the little negative things that add up throughout the day. And Writer Camp was a way to recharge those force field batteries, make them strong again.

But just because I’m back in the “real” world doesn’t mean the work is done. The work of writing is never done, not really. So off I go, to do the work.

Learning to Grieve

This year, I learned to grieve, or at least to grieve more fully. I learned to sit with my sadness in the red glow of sunrise. To touch the abyss that split me open again and again and again, to allow myself to be swallowed, and to come back to the world, eventually—changed certainly, but still me.

This year I learned that while grief is uncomfortable, painful, sometimes unbearable (and yet we bear it anyway), it is a sign that we have loved, that we have shared joy, that we have learned, that we have grown, that we are human, that we are still here, breathing, if just barely. That knowledge doesn’t make the grieving any easier, but it is the truth, just the same.

I have faced loss before this year, but I’ve always averted my gaze, retreated into a galaxy far, far away or Narnia or another of a thousand fantasy worlds where my heroes were always there, waiting.

In fiction, even when a character dies, you can turn back the pages or rewind the film and find her there, fighting evil or galactic injustice. Life doesn’t quite work like that. You can fall back on memories and photos, but memory is a tricky thing. The very act of bringing up a memory can alter it, shade it with your current mood and state of mind.

You can reminisce and remember, but you can’t laugh together at an inside joke or watch the same movie for the thousandth time, speaking all the lines in unison.

When I was fifteen, my friend Lacey died suddenly from a brain tumor. I didn’t understand the feeling of emptiness in my chest, so I wrote angsty poetry and re-read the Young Jedi Knight book series that we both loved. Lacey wasn’t my best friend or even among my closest friends, but with whom else could I discuss Jaina and Jacen Solo’s adventures, parental troubles, and awkward teen romances?

For a time, I had a friend to share my universe, and then I didn’t.

I could repeat that line a thousand times with endless variations.

For a time, I had a grandfather who called me Lucy and threatened to throw me in the picky bushes if I misbehaved, and then I didn’t.

For a time, I had a dog with curly black fur and the kindest eyes, and then I didn’t.

For a time, I had a mother figure who made me hot chocolate on snow days and taught me how to pet a horse, and then I didn’t.

You don’t have to have met a person for their death to grab hold of your throat and constrict your lungs. Artists release art into the world where we experience it and re-experience it. That too is a form of bonding, of shared experience, of memory.

But for all those moments, all these losses—many more than I’ve listed here—I never learned how to grieve. How to feel consumed by sadness and know that it is okay to feel that way. I learned that I will get up the next day and carry the torch. And if I’m too weak to walk or carry that torch, I have friends ready to hold me up. And that I will do the same the day after, and the day after that, until it is my turn to face infinity.

2016 has taken much from me, as it almost certainly has from you. Not just celebrity icons like Carrie Fisher and David Bowie (and on and on), but ex-lovers, family members, health, certainty of freedom, and for a time, words themselves.

Learning to grieve isn’t like learning an immutable fact. It’s a process, and it changes for each loss. Grief isn’t something that diminishes you, at least not permanently. It’s possible to lose yourself in grief, the same way it’s possible to lose yourself in depression. But it’s not inherently a process of loss. It’s a process of healing and exploration, of growth and love.

This year, instead of fighting the abyss, I walked headlong into its darkness, allowed myself to be split open, and come out the other side. Some people might want to call this depression, but it’s not—it’s a different type of surrender. It’s surrendering to the unique truth and beauty—and yes, pain, too—that marked your relationship with that person or with that person’s art.

Today I mourn. And tomorrow, also. But I will wake up, and I will carry the torch.