The Shop

“Okay, what quirky place inspired this story?” asked my editor upon reading the following tale. “It’s too random not to be based on reality.”

My editor (who may or may not also be my mother, but she was an English teacher/professor so it’s kosher) was right. This story sparked to life in an antique mall in Pasadena, but from there, it was out of my control. I honestly had no clue where it was going until suddenly I had been transported back in time, forward again, and to a conclusion I had not envisioned. I hope you enjoy my newest short story: “The Shop.”

 

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The Shop

“PLEASE CHECK ALL BAGS AT THE DOOR”

Alice paused upon reading this sign, but only for a moment. She then gave a tiny shrug (“Unladylike!” she imagined her Aunt Cordelia remarking with a sniff) and shifted her beaded handbag under her arm, allowing the fringe of her dress to fall over it.

This fringed dress also would have shocked poor Aunt Cordelia, but that was part of why Alice chose not only to wear it but to flaunt it. She had the figure for it, so why not? Her narrow, almost boyish silhouette would never have looked right in a corseted dress made for an old-fashioned matron like her aunt. No, she had decided- or rather modern couture had decided for her- it was better to stick to what society deemed the most appealing. Besides, it was 1926; even her aunt could not deny that styles were changing.

After all, just that morning hadn’t some young man complimented her? At the very least he had called out, “Hey doll! Nice gams you got there; looking swell!” as she had walked past on her way to meet Helen for coffee. She had smiled back at the time, but now upon recalling the man’s slang, she felt herself blush. Had it been indecent? She shrugged again. Who cared? She was a free and attractive woman and should be proud of such attention. At least, that’s what the magazines said.

Alice pushed open the door to the store. A bell rang and a clerk appeared looking starched and pressed behind a gleaming counter.

“Welcome, miss,” he said, a toothy smile plastered on his face like an advertisement.

Alice nodded but could not spare him more than a glance as her eyes stretched wide, trying and failing to take everything in at once. Helen had not been exaggerating when she had said that this new store was a wonder. Granted, it was not a Macy’s or Bloomingdales in size, but those were department stores for housewives. This was different. It was smaller, yet more exciting for this fact- more “nifty” as Helen had put it. It was a chain store: modern, trendy, and, according to the ads, affordable. It was the real-life version of the mail order catalogue that she and Helen had nicknamed the “Bible” and poured over ravenously while pouring java down their throats. They were convinced that the goods in the catalogue and now in this chain store were necessary to their thriving in the new era, just as they were convinced that the coffee they drank was necessary to combat the effects of a night spent dancing and testing the reality of Prohibition.

“Miss?” said the clerk, still through his poster-perfect teeth.

“Yes?” Alice blinked a few times to clear the haze of desire that had settled over her vision like cigarette smoke.

“I’m going to have to ask you to check your bag at the desk before you proceed any further.”

“Oh,” Alice started and glanced down at her partly-hidden bag as if just noticing it. She did not have anything particularly valuable in it- a comb, some loose change, and a few cigarettes she had picked up who knew where- but was reluctant to let the bag go for fear of feeling obligated to make a purchase. Not that she didn’t want anything. It was the opposite; she wanted a great deal too many things to be able to limit herself to just one and thus was hesitant to buy anything at all.

“My bag?” she said, blinking again. “It’s just a little purse…I really couldn’t take anything if I tried!” She forced a laugh and tried to toss her hair flirtatiously, but, forgetting that it had been bobbed, her fingers met only with air.

The clerk’s smile turned cold.

Alice sighed and surrendered her purse, hurrying away from the counter to explore the miniature wonderland in which she was not trapped until she bought something.

But where to begin… She stopped to consider, biting her lip.

Clothing? A mannequin beckoned, boasting of all the latest styles. Electronics? Her family had a telephone, but what she wouldn’t give for her own radio…nobody could force her to listen to broadcasted sermons or classical trash; she could listen to all the jazz and soaps she wanted. Or maybe cosmetics? She knew her aunt would have a fit if she showed up with rouge on her cheeks and, as devilishly fun as it had been to shock her with a skimpy dress and bobbed hair, Alice was not sure if she was daring enough for makeup yet. But perhaps perfume? Even women her aunt considered decent wore that. Or jewelry? Costume jewelry might be a nice addition. Or shoes? Her current pair had been worn through from nights of the Charleston. Or…or…or…the possibilities were endless and her purse sadly finite.

All of a sudden, she was nauseous. Not just the store, but her whole world seemed to be spinning around her mind in frantic swing steps. The catalogue Bible, her hair, the chill of a draught on her bare shoulders, the swish of her dress, her blistered feet, the pounding of her ears from the night’s band (not to mention the pounding in her head as the coffee wore off), her aunt’s disapproving sniffs, her own blush of shame at recalling the man’s comment…but, most of all, her desire.

The whole dizzying world was open to her- well, the catalogs and movies and radio programs claimed it was so- and she wanted it all. Then and there she knew; it was not shame or guilt that she felt, but a desperate yearning to no longer be afraid of disapproval or even of her own antiquated sense of morality. She yearned not to be left behind in the tidal wave of the changing era, to be the bold, independent woman that the world demanded she be.

And to do that, she would need everything. Absolutely everything. She would need to say yes to every item she considered. It was only reasonable. 

Yes to the clothes; hers were rags already.

Yes to the radio; how else to keep up with the times?

Yes to the makeup; to Halifax with ridiculous reservations.

Yes to the perfume, to hiding the smell of smoke and drink; to the jewelry, to faking the wealth she was losing; to the shoes, to dancing when she ought to be sleeping. Yes to it all, to being swept forward in the surge of the Roaring Twenties.

Alice could barely reach for one item before another, brighter one caught her glistening eye. At first, she was dashing to and fro from shelf to shelf, rack to rack, like a rabbit searching for the security of its hole. But, after a while- she had no way of knowing how long it actually was since the pocket watches all ticked different times in their case- Alice ceased her race against herself and froze. She was a girl in a trance, standing with a dress in one hand, shoes in the other. Samples of rouge were dabbed on her face so that she really did look like a “doll.” A necklace hung from one finger and a scarf from the crook of her elbow. In her desire, she had forgotten herself; how was she ever to pay for it all? One scarf perhaps, or maybe the rouge, but all this? She thought in terror of the few coins in her purse, insufficient funds for creating the ideal woman described in the catalogue Bible: a material masterpiece. 

What was she to do? Alice continued to stand frozen in horror at herself. Her head started to pound even harder. She let out a small moan in pain. Why had she drank more than she could handle the night before? And had she eaten since then? Maybe more coffee… Her thoughts blurred together in an indistinct cloud and then all went dark. The cloud burst and the pounding stopped as her head struck against the tile floor with a sharp crack.

“PLEASE CHECK ALL BAGS AT THE DOOR”

Jess shrugged and handed over her messenger bag to the smiling clerk, but not before slipping her iPhone into the pocket of her skinny jeans. Pulling her beanie farther down over her hair and pushing her thick-framed glasses up her nose, she pressed past the dusty counter and into the antique shop.

It was a fascinating place: a vintage wonderland where, had she not been a broke college student, she could easily have spent every penny to her name. There were old radios and typewriters, makeup compacts and faux-pearl necklaces, even faded magazines and a thick catalogue bearing the fashions of a long-gone decade. Jess paused to flip through its pages, noting that the trends it portrayed were certainly not the eclectic styles of 2016 that she was accustomed to wearing.

As Jess delved deeper into the store, she felt that she was traveling back in time. She liked it. She began to long for all things “vintage.” Despite the iPhone in her pocket, she managed to convince herself that the past was better for what she saw as its simplicity and dignity before she even reached the back wall of the shop. 

She wandered on, coming to the clothing section. In its center was a mannequin, eerily lifelike, dressed in a fringed dress and holding a beaded handbag. It even had a bobbed haircut and shoes that looked well-worn.

“That’s a swell dress,” said Jess to herself, trying out the slang of the 1920s. “I’d like to wear it, even if it is out of date.”

She lingered a few moments more by the mannequin, thinking of how she could go about bringing the past trends back with her into her too-modern era. Where to begin? Her vision blurred. She wiped her glasses, but the haze was not from grime. Rather, it was from the growing desire to live differently, boldly in a revived style. She could not move for this desire and stood rooted in place as its grip tightened on her heart. Her mind whirled as visions of her life and the present world in which she lived blended with her idealized imaginings of Roaring Twenties. Her head started to ache with this whirling. She became dizzy. Her legs were wobbly all of a sudden. And then everything- both the antique shop and the modern world outside- went dark.

That afternoon, the clerk rose to begin his daily inspection and inventory tour. Upon reaching the clothing section, he, still smiling his pasted smile, added another mannequin- this one adorned in a beanie and glasses rather than a dress and dancing shoes- to his once chain store, now antique shop.

 

Please share this letter!

No, this is not some “reblog to solve a major world crisis” post and you won’t end up with bad luck for a year if you don’t share. Odds are that if you ignore this altogether, nothing bad will result. However, I truly am asking you, my fellow lover of books, to share this post because it contains a letter that needs to be sent, but I do not know the name of the recipient.

 

I should explain myself. I was at the university fitness center this evening and, having no “brain candy” books on hand (I am entrenched in school reading), was planning to just watch Netflix while burning off some energy. However, as I was passing a woman working out nearby, I saw it: a glorious, glossy book titled The Night Circus, a book I had been dreaming of reading for nearly a month now but had not been able to find in my local Barnes and Noble.

 

“Is that book good?” I asked on a whim.

 

We proceeded to chat for a moment and she said that she would ask if there was another copy at the store where she purchased it and let me know. A few minutes later, as we were both concluding our individual workouts, she came over and handed the book to me.

 

“A gift,” she said, explaining that she could easily obtain another copy.

 

I tried to protest, but, being the bookworm that I am, could not but accept in awe that someone would willingly give such a beautiful and brand new book to a perfect stranger. But, then again, perhaps kindred spirits can be found even in strangers.

 

That said, in my excitement, I did not ask the woman her name. For all I know, she is not even a student or a professor at my school but some majestic book angel sent from libraries above. Of course, that seems just a little bit far-fetched, so I thought that I would attempt to find and thank her through my blog. So, if your readers’ heart is so inclined, please repost to share the following note and help me thank this kind stranger.

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Dear Book-giver,

 

I truly cannot thank you enough for your generosity! To give such a lovely (not to mention bestselling!) book to a complete stranger at the gym of all places was wonderful. It may not have seemed like much to you, but to me, a stressed-out undergrad who genuinely needed a pleasure read, it was a gesture of grace. I have been wanting to read this book for so long, as I told you, and I can hardly wait to begin! I do hope you are able to get another copy soon; I would feel dreadful to have cost you the chance to enjoy this book which The Boston Globe assures me is “a showstopper”. I am so sorry that I was unable to thank you properly in person or even ask your name (I was a bit distracted trying not to sound out of breath or fall off the elliptical machine), but perhaps this blog post and note will reach you somehow. After all, Biola University is not a very large school. Again, thank you so very much! Your gift made my day and encouraged me as I head into a crazy week and semester.

 

Blessings and books to you!

 

Joyfully,

Ryanne J. McLaren

Organ Removal: A Statement and a Story

I often find that the most effective way of communicating a potentially controversial opinion is through storytelling. That said, I will let the following short story speak for me rather than explaining at length my views. Please let me know what you take away from this as I would like to know if my statement-through-story approach was successful.

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Organ Failure

A deep groaning resonated throughout the sanctuary of the church, seeming to shake its stone foundations, established nearly a century earlier. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the groaning stopped, cut short and replaced by a metallic creaking.

This noise was answered by a short sequence of musical notes, played by a grand piano, apparently of its own accord for no pianist sat at its bench. In instrumental dialect, this simple melody translated to, “Are you okay?”

The piano, named Boston according to its make and model, was resting at the front of the sanctuary beside a metal pulpit. This pulpit, machine-made and modern in design, was at odds with the traditional rows of wooden pews assembled before it and the towering pipes of the organ, both of which had been installed along with the stone foundations of nearly a century ago. It was from this instrument that the groaning and creaking emanated and it was to this instrument that the piano addressed his question.

“Are you okay?” Boston repeated. He was answered only by a weak clunk, as if a pipe had come loose. 

“I’m sorry,” he played in minor tones. “You just have not been yourself since they disconnected your console. I understand.”

A toneless whistle came from somewhere among the organ’s principle pipes.

“It sure will be lonely without you,” Boston continued, his chords growing softer and more forlorn. “If it’s any consolation, I probably haven’t much time left either.”

A sigh escaped from a reed pipe but was interrupted as a scuffling arose at the entrance of the sanctuary. The doors swung open and two men, directed by a woman, shuffled down the aisle, each holding an end of a black rectangular object. As they drew nearer, the piano  noticed a cord dragging behind it like a tail and realized with horror what it was: an electronic keyboard.

The woman pointed to a skeleton stand and the men set their burden down on top of it. The grand piano gave a slight shudder as the woman plugged it in and a blue screen glowed on its face.

“Well, give it a try,” said one of the men.

Obligingly, the woman struck a a few chords that made Boston grit his keys in annoyance, having been made to play the same basic progression over and over under the pretense of slightly altered lyrics making it different songs. With some satisfaction, the piano heard that the voice of the keyboard, who he supposed would be named after its maker, Casio, was tinny and lifeless. It was not to be compared to his own rich tones.

The woman’s cell phone rang. She stopped plunking out chords to answer it.

“Hello? Now? Okay, coming.”

The woman beckoned to the men and they hastened to keep up with her quick stride as she left, forgetting in their rush to unplug the keyboard. The piano considered it for a moment. The organ emitted another feeble whistle as if inquiring what had happened.

“They’ve brought in a keyboard,” explained Boston in few notes.

The organ made a croak, the meaning of which Boston was able to understand, having known the other instrument for so long.

“Yes it has weighted keys,” the piano admitted grudgingly.

Another choked noise.

“Talk to it?”- Boston let out a chord like a bitter laugh – “I could, but I doubt it would understand our music.”

“I understand. Understand,” said the robotic voice of the keyboard.

“Oh,” the piano hit a dissonant interval in surprise. “Hello there.”

The organ attempted speech but once more could not produce more than a ghostly gasp without connection to its console.

“What was that? That? That?” asked the newcomer, exercising its reverb setting.

“That, that, that,” mimicked Boston in disdain, “is the church’s pipe organ.”

“Pipe organ? I believe I have a pipe organ setting.” The keyboard’s voice adopted a tone vaguely like that of a theater organ. “Found it. Listen.”

“Indeed?” replied the piano. “Was that it? You’re not much of a pipe organ then. If you could just hear this organ play, feel its power and sound down to your strings- er- circuits, then you would know what an organ really sounds like. Then you would understand.”

“I told you that I understand,” beeped the keyboard.

“I doubt you do or ever will,” plinked Boston, more to himself than to Casio the keyboard.

“Then maybe the organ should play so that I can,” suggested Casio.

“Well you won’t because he can’t!” snapped Boston with an accent that would have shocked any acoustic instrument but did not even register with this digital imposter.

“He can’t play?”

“No,” replied the piano, struggling to maintain a calmer dynamic. “He can barely make a sound any more, now that the dismantling process has begun.”

“Sorry. That is too bad.”

“Don’t pretend to sympathize!” Boston snapped again. “Don’t you get it? You’re his replacement. You’re my replacement too, I daresay. Probably not for a while since the contemporary musicians still find me somewhat useful, but I don’t expect to be kept here more than another year or two. Once the old pulpit was replaced I knew the end was coming for us. First it was the shiny new pulpit; who cares that the pastor can’t pound his fists as nicely on this metal one as he could on the sturdy wood one? It’s more ‘fashionable.’ Now its the organ that has to go and next it will be the pews. You just watch; before the year is over, the young crowd will tear out these pews and put in movie theater seats in the name of comfort. Then it will only be a matter of time before they decide I’m out of date too and they donate me to some school or nursing home or, more likely than not, sell me to fund the purchase of a fog machine or some other monstrosity.”

“Oh,” said the keyboard. “That is-”

But Boston was not to be interrupted as the tidal wave of his thoughts, locked inside him all these months, burst forth in an agonized rhapsody.

“But let’s not even think about the future,” he wailed. “Just think of the present, of the organ, being torn from the foundations of this church under the pretense of being too expensive to maintain and the church having no organist. The reality is that they, the contemporary crowd, find him stuffy and antiquated, a grandfather instrument who is not cool enough, who won’t attract visitors or inspire members to return. I wonder, will they regret it? Will they find out how wrong they are?

“To remove this mighty instrument is to rip a vital piece of the body of this church out of its socket. His music has been a pillar to this church since its foundation; he presided over weddings and funerals, baptisms and communions, Christmases and Easters and all holidays in between. His music represents the universal call to fear and tremble, to surrender and be saved, to have courage and strength. Hymns, marches, preludes, offertories… when he is removed, these are stolen from the congregation. In removing him and me, the church members are at last completely robbing themselves of this music, the songs that represented beautiful and glorious redemption stories, and replacing them with repetitive choruses of little substance set to the same four chords. But I suppose it was inevitable, seeing as the hymnals were disposed of long ago.”

The piano paused for a moment before the crescendo of his ranting fell again to a sorrowful melody like that of a requiem.

“The pipe organ was once hailed as the king of instruments, his music said to represent the very voice of God…but no longer. His voice has been silenced. The king of instruments, a living, breathing, evolving cornerstone of worship and art, has been dethroned and replaced by you, an electronic box with only as much resonance as amps will allow you.”

No sound came from the dismembered organ as the impassioned speech of the piano faded. A haunting silence ensued.

“This is not the end,” said the keyboard, his voice crackling through the still air. “I have an organ setting, remember?” Casio, after a few clicks, switched on its demo setting and a two-dimensional rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor leaked through its speakers. It had reached the end of the piece and was beginning all over again when the door opened once more and the woman hurried down the aisle.

“Yes, I’ll be there in a minute,” she said into her cell phone. “The keyboard? Yeah it came to day. Mm-hm, it’s nice, thanks.”

She mounted the steps to the loft where a choir had once sung every Sunday but now only gathered on holidays to please the elderly crowd. Then, in one jerk, she yanked the keyboard’s plug from its socket, killing its blue face and imitation organ performance. Not even an echo remained.

The woman marched back down the aisle and out the door. As she let it slam behind her like the lid on a coffin, a thin stream of air wheezed its way through the organ’s pipes, the final breath of a dying era.

Everythingism

I promise I’ll explain the cat sandwich in space picture in the end, so just bear with me for a few paragraphs, okay? Thanks.

I am what most would consider a perfectionist, which is in itself both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it leads me to, more often than not, accomplish my goals with a high degree of excellence. However, it also leads to misery when I meet with any outcome that I see as failure, which happens far too frequently because perfectionism’s continual lie is that if the outcome is in any way short of flawless, it might as well be a failure worth mourning.

 

As rough as perfectionism makes life, I am learning to move past it. I have had to logically tell myself that I probably will not earn 100% in every class (I might have to be happy with- dare I say it?- a regular A), I won’t win every music competition despite hours and hours of practice, and- silly as it sounds- I need to give up trying to wrestle my hair into the ideal braid because, despite what Pinterest says, no formal hairstyle can really be done in five minutes. In these areas and more, I have learned and am continuing to learn to let the struggle for perfection go and instead find contentment in the pursuit of excellence.

Perfection cannot be achieved and I’m fine with that. (Well, I’m trying to be fine with it.) However, my contentment faces another enemy:

Everythingism.

I know, that’s not a real word, but I don’t care. Dinglehopper. That’s not a word either. So there. Anyway, as I spend more and more time working on my college studies, I find myself fighting harder and harder with everythingism and I’m afraid it is a losing battle.

 

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“Everythingism”is the only way I could think to describe my intrinsic compulsion to do everything. I am a piano performance major, but also am in the honors college, sing in the top choral ensemble, and have a job as an accompanist at a local church. On top of that, I try to post to this blog regularly and want to finish writing my novel. Oh, and I want to compose music. And resume taking organ lessons. And go running daily. And become a better dancer. And run a macaron bakery. And, and, and…the list goes on and on.

But I can’t. 

I cannot do everything and I especially cannot do everything perfectly. Combined, my everythingism and perfectionism are a recipe for exhaustion, frustration, and discontent. I admit that I like to be busy and can balance quite a few commitments at once, but not everything. That said, I just wanted to encourage my fellow perfectionists and everythingists to take a step back, evaluate what their priorities really are, and breathe. Just breathe for a second. Feels good, doesn’t it? 😉  Now keep reading:

The Everythingist’s Guide to Survival Thriving: 

  1. Tackle perfectionism first: You will not be the best in everything. You will not always complete your ginormous to-do list. There will always be some area that needs improvement and THAT IS OKAY. Sorry, now I look like I’m yelling and I don’t want you to be stressed any more than you already are. Let me repeat myself softer: that is okay. 
  2. Don’t give up: In abandoning perfectionism, do not abandon the drive to succeed. There is such thing as a healthy desire to do well and you should still be aspiring for excellence in your pursuits; just go a bit easier on yourself.
  3. Prioritize: Get out a paper and pen if that helps. Write down what your biggest priorities are at this time in life and focus your energy on those rather than worrying about everything you want you do ever all at once. (Even that sentence sounded overwhelming! *shudder*)
  4. Do the social: I often forget this, which is silly since it’s my own advice. As an introvert and everythingist, I too often lock myself away with the piano or my books as I pursue a goal. But humans need community and I find that fun with friends after a busy week can be a great source of restoration.
  5. Listen to your body: Everythingists don’t like the fact that they get tired or hungry because time spent sleeping or eating means time spent not working. However, no matter how hard you try, you cannot logic away the biological need to rest and restore. If you’re tired, just take a nap instead of muddling through an hour of sloppy “work.”
  6. Let some things go: Prioritizing will help you see what things to focus on and likely what things to let go. You do not necessarily have to let things go forever, but it is important to decide what you need to do in the present and focus instead on that than what you one day expect you might possibly do in the future. (See my point? The present is much more urgent.)
  7. Be decisive: In wanting to do everything, I waste time trying to decide between multiple options. Should I go dancing or run? Practice piano or compose? Stop. Just pick one. Check your list of priorities or draw paper slips from a hat. Just choose something and get to it.
  8. Take a break: Go ahead, let Netflix play one more episode. Sometimes, when you’ve been going nonstop since the break of day, you need to do nothing so that tomorrow you can keep doing everything (or at least a lot of things.)

 

So there you have it. I’m sure I’ll keep adding to this list of ways to cope with everythingism, but I’m still learning how to deal with it myself. Overall, I believe the best advice can be found in something my dad told me: Be content, but not complacent.” Find a peace in knowing that you do not have to do it all perfectly or do it all now, but do not forget to strive for excellence in what you do choose to pursue.

Oh, and one more word of wisdom:

“Don’t be an everythingist or your life will turn into the human equivalent of a cat sandwich in space: too many things without any clear rhyme or reason.” -Yours Truly

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Two Poems for Two Places

Driving across my home state of Arizona, I was struck not only by the differences between my Sonoran Desert home and White Mountain destination, but by the subtle similarities between the two. While it might seem odd that I was able to find any commonality between these so apparently distinct places, I sensed a certain artistic kinship between the pines of the forest and the saguaro cacti of the desert. Something about the quiet dignity of the snow-laden trees and the unexpected beauty of the cacti struck me as remarkably similar and I hope my two little poems successfully communicate these images and their common themes of beauty, patience, strength, and intrigue.

 

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“Winter’s Sleepers”

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Phantom trees

‘neath sheets of white,

Slumber now silent, waiting.

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Neither dead

Nor quite alive,

In the chill stillness, dreaming.

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Vanished leaves

Or needles pine,

For these sleepers, beseeming.

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Winter’s rest

As season’s night,

Softly covers, lingering.

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Frosted breaths

Send now to flight,

The powdered tears, awaiting.

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Snowy beds

From which arise,

Those who will wake, come the spring.

 

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“Desert Silhouettes” 

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Silhouettes raised against canvas warm

With colors of melted gold,

Brushed with glowing ember orange,

Throbbing pinks fade to dusky browns,

To final, velvet purple glow

Just where the sun dipped down.

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Shadows more solid in twilight’s dark

Than blinding, blue-sky day.

Lifting their arms toward falling night,

Taller grow in sunset rite.

And at rays’ swift retreat they seem,

Content in ranks to stand until

Dawn paints the next morning.

 

 

 

Literary Tourism

Don’t be a tourist. I don’t mean don’t travel; by all means, see the world and explore new places! But don’t be a tourist, defined as “a person who travels for pleasure, especially sight-seeing and staying in hotels.”

 

That doesn’t sound so bad, but can one really experience a place through simply seeing sights and staying in hotels? No! To truly travel, one cannot be a basic tourist; one must be an explorer, investigating unfamiliar places and actually living in them, even if just for a few days. In France, a tourist might see the Eiffel Tower, but an explorer bicycles around Paris in search of tiny bakeries and the perfect macarons. In London, a tourist will stay safe and dry inside the red double-decker buses, but an explorer would wander the rainy streets alongside the locals until breaking for a steaming cup of tea.

 

In the same way, a tourist visiting my home state of Arizona will pick up a postcard with a stereotypical desert scene (tumbleweeds, mountains, and a few saguaro cacti thrown in for good measure) but will not realize that there is so much more to this state. Sure, we have the Grand Canyon (all tourists know that) but as majestic as the desert and canyon are, Arizona has so much more to offer! We have haboobs (its not a naughty word, I promise; they are massive dust storms), the most colorful sunsets I’ve ever seen, cities full of attractions, and even snowy mountains! Just the other day I posted a video of myself throwing snow into the air on Instagram and a college friend of mine commented “I thought you lived in Arizona!” Well, I do, but to anyone who just looks at AZ from a tourist perspective, the snow and pine trees are inconsistent with the dusty and hot images portrayed in media and even on our license plates. However, Arizona is more than just “gila monsters and tarantulas”, as some Maine resident so eloquently put it and it is easy to discover this if one puts out the necessary effort as an explorer.

 

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Snow between the desert and the mountains… Arizona is full of surprises!

 

How does this relate to literature? Well, just as one cannot fully experience a place from a few cheap postcards and a couple bus rides past the most famous monuments, one cannot grasp the full significance of a novel from its labels and, I venture to say, its misconceptions.

 

Take Tolstoy’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Anna Karenina for example. On the cover of a film adaption of the book, it was described as “Tolstoy’s tragic story of star-crossed lovers.” NO. NO NO NO NO NO. THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY!!!

 

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Alternate Title: Gone with the Wind, Russian Edition

 

I’m not sure if the cover designer for this film adaption did not read the book or was just stupid, but either way, he completely missed the point. In zeroing in on the obvious story of the lust-affair (I refuse to recognize it as love) between Anna and Vronsky, the cover designer and potentially the reader/viewer is acting as a tourist, reducing a great work of literature to a mere soap opera, thus doing Tolstoy and him or herself a disservice in failing to grasp the more essential messages of the novel.

 

For instance, in gasping over the central scandal of A.K., the reader might miss the search for spiritual peace that serves as Levin’s motivation even more so than his desire for a family. Similarly, the conflict between the traditional Russian ways and the industrializing Western practices might be forgotten, erasing any true comprehension of the context of the novel within history and society. More concerning, however, is that in overlooking such essential themes, the reader forgoes the opportunity to make connections between these ideas and those within other works of literature and even within his or her own life. Questions raised by an analytical reading of the text such as “what is the role of desire?” and “is everything motivated by a sense of self-service?” cannot be answered if one is relying solely on the most basic understanding of plot. Certainly the deterioration of morality and the struggle of desires found directly within the affair between Anna and Vronsky is significant, but in mislabelling this as a romance or love between “star-crossed lovers”, the reader runs the risk of missing even these most obvious themes and becoming a literary tourist who is concerned only with the surface. This provides entertainment, just as looking at a postcard or snapping a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower provides entertainment and perhaps even a sense of accomplishment, but ultimately it is not as rewarding as truly dedicating oneself to analyzing and drawing less obvious insights from the novel through literary exploration.

 

To be a literary explorer is to abandon the beaten path of skimming and summarizing, to delve into a book and search for underlying themes and hidden details. It means to live within the novel, making connections and pondering implications, rather than simply to take snapshots of quotes without understanding their context or characters without examining their motivations. Just as to have a more accurate and full knowledge of the world, one must act as an explorer rather than a tourist, to be a genuinely good reader, one must abandon the shallows of literary tourism and explore the greater depths of analysis.

 

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This is me in Salzburg, Austria. Tourists would never dare ride unicorns, but an explorer like myself would. 😉

 

To close, consider this: If you were to travel to London, what would you most remember: seeing Buckingham Palace or finding the yummiest meat pie in a hole-in-the-wall pub? Or in Paris, would you value seeing the Mona Lisa with thousands of other people in the Louvre or finding a piece of brilliant art for sale by a local? In Arizona, would you remember the scorching sun or the many different climates? In the same way, as a reader, when you finish a novel, will you remember only the most prominent story or will you choose to explore beyond what can be learned from SparkNotes summaries? Ultimately, it is your choice, but as both a traveler and bookworm, I can assure you that playing the explorer is always the most rewarding (and most exciting) role.

A Bookish take on New Years Resolutions

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As with every new year, we find ourselves drafting lists of resolutions. Eat healthier. Wake up early. Finish that novel. Run. Get to know that person. Keep your room clean. Practice daily. We all know these resolutions and, more likely than not, we’ve all broken them. Every year it seems we make the same sort of resolutions and the disappointing pattern becomes- well- dull. Perhaps it is time we made some different resolutions and, since, coming up with them can be a struggle, I’ve managed to poll our favorite literary characters for input. (How, you ask? Well I have all of these characters on speed-dial, clearly.) Maybe this year is the year to make a resolution inspired by the wisdom of literary legends, and- who knows?- maybe this will be the year where you’ll finally keep your resolution to the end!

 

 “What is your top New Year’s Resolution?” as answered by our favorite literary characters: 

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” –Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley: Cherish dear friends and make new ones.

 

“There is a stubbornness in me that can never bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises above any attempt to intimidate me.” –Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennet: Be less concerned with the opinions of others.

 

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” –Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Share feelings honestly and respectfully.

 

“My mind…rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis…I crave for mental exaltation.” –Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of the Four

Sherlock Holmes: Be ever curious and value opportunities to learn.

 

“Courage is knowing you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” –To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch: Persevere despite all challenges.

 

“Tomorrow is another day.” –Gone with the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara: Don’t dwell on the failures of the day; tomorrow brings another chance.

 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” –Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre: Appreciate freedom and enjoy independence.

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea- any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!” –The Hobbit

Bilbo Baggins: Be more open to adventures.

“My principal sin is doubt. I doubt everything, and am in doubt most of the time.” –Anna Karenina

Konstantin Levin: Let go of self-doubt.

 

What’s my resolution? My answer is “all of the above.” Happy New Year everyone! Let’s make this an exciting chapter in our lives!