Why not commit?

As a bibliophile, I am enamored with books as well as with words. I obviously enjoy reading and I also enjoy listening to people; someone talking where I can watch their face, ask questions about anything that is unclear, and process their choice of vocabulary. It can be someone who stops by the traveling bookstore that I’m meeting for the first time, or a long-time friend coming from another city to visit, or chatting with a waitress at a cafe. I listen to what they are saying, and also listen to what words they chose to use.

There are time periods when I notice certain words or phrases seem to pop up more often. Back in May 2020, I wrote a post about the phrase, “I’m being careful” because it seemed whoever I talked with during those months used that phrase at least once in justifying their choice around wearing masks, sheltering, social distancing. Now let’s fast forward to the last few weeks when the current phrase I seem to hear repeatedly is, “I just don’t want to commit to that.”

Now of course, it is perfectly reasonable that I might be paying attention to that phrase, that it really isn’t being used more often than normal. Maybe I am sensitized to it by some quirk. Or maybe it truly is being used more often in Autumn 2021 for a reason that isn’t clear yet. I suppose if I was handier with analytics and algorithms, I could discern the difference. But I am going to just leave it at me recently hearing people use that particular sentence often.

Typically someone says it when I’ve asked if they would like to do some volunteer work in the community. They preface their response by reassuring me that they very much support the Animal Shelter or the local museum or the arts organization, but this rousing cheer for the organization is then followed by their polite refusal to help because, they “don’t want to commit.” It appears to be used in a similar way when someone is asked if they could help with the seemingly out of control political situation in Montana at this point in time. Asked to serve on a committee, or do a training to canvas, or sign up to make comments to a commission, and yes, of course, the individual wants to see things improve, wants to be part of the solution, wants to get out there to help, but right now….”I just can’t commit to that.”

Obviously we each typically commit to many things. We commit to a job, to raising our kids in the best possible way. We commit to a marriage, to friendships. We probably commit to shoveling our front walk in the winter and keeping the grass mowed in summer. We commit to paying bills, to making sure there is food in the refrigerator, to our sports team, to showing up for the weekly yoga class. So it isn’t commitment that is the dilemma. It is somehow the particular commitment of volunteer work, or civic engagement that seems to trigger the response.

In case you feel the urge to suggest a book that addresses this, yes, please do. I am certainly open to ideas on this. I’ve read some but none have really given me an answer that fits. It doesn’t seem to be a generational stigma as I’ve gotten this response from people in high school and from people in their eighties. It isn’t part of any rural/urban divide or socioeconomic that I can tell – friends in cities and in my small town have told it to me. And I should pause here with a huge shout out to all of you who do make commitments, who do show up to help out. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Perhaps you are wondering how this tirade has anything to do with books. Because keeping a local school board from banning books is a commitment. Supporting local libraries in numerous ways is a commitment. Becoming a volunteer tutor, helping at an elementary school, getting books to inmates – all commitments. All opportunities just waiting for you to show up.

Small but mighty

Although St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore (and Textual Apothecary) is small in size, a 132″ wheelbase, high top Sprinter van carrying about six hundred volumes when packed, it has potential. Not only does it set up in all sorts of places in the US from Montana to New York City, from Minneapolis to Asheville, from Baltimore to San Francisco, it also touches places outside the continental US as well. Partially this is a result of travelers who just happen upon the bookstore. A woman, whose family came from the Czech Republic, discovered us recently in Portland. A couple who are NY bookstore owners, the woman is Polish and the man American, happened upon the traveling bookstore when it set up at a farmers market in Montana this past summer. And partially it is a result of individuals who actually traveled with the bookstore, taking away fond memories and spreading the word. Nada helped with the traveling bookstore’s first long trip from Portland to New York. Jana joined up on another trip, starting in Indianapolis and traveled along through Smiths Grove, KY, a number of gigs in North Carolina, W. Virginia and back across to Montana. Ya’aqov was with the bookstore on a trip that included a N. Dakota blizzard. So I suppose it isn’t a surprise when Nada, who is now a librarian in Kvasice, Czech Republic, posted photos of the traveling bookstore on her library’s bulletin board. Or when I received a photo from St. Rita’s Church in Krakow, Poland. The photo served as a reminder that St. Rita is the Patroness of Difficult and Impossible Cases.

I am certainly willing to accept there are difficult cases. I am not quite ready to allow myself to see things as impossible. In an interview discussing her latest book, Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit said, “I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them.”

And yes, seizing opportunities to do something is so necessary in these times, as opposed to sitting back wringing one’s hands lamenting the state of the world, or leaning over glasses of beer with like-minded people lambasting those rotten politicians, or sheltering behind the screen posting worn out memes.

There are moments when I wonder how a small (although far-flung) bookstore can make a difference, but then while on the road conversations are sparked or new relationships formed, and I realize there is hope. Sometimes I worry how rural communities that persist in ignoring public health guidelines will survive our current times. Yet enough people speak up, show up, write letters to make a difference, to give me hope.

Fortunately the traveling bookstore has a Patroness who helps with hard situations. Perhaps if each of us seize those possibilities to do something, then we never need to reach the impossible.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Sense of place

Books descend on me in all sorts of ways. I’ve written about this before and, I guess I am writing about it again. It still surprises me when I don’t even realize what my question is, and then suddenly there is a book that doesn’t necessarily provide an answer, but does provide a nudge that makes the question more vivid. Recently a bookseller in Libby, MT gave me a box of books he wasn’t interested in but thought I might want for my traveling bookstore. Amongst those in the box was a thin volume, Fiber, by Rick Bass, signed by the author and in very good condition. As Rick Bass spent a number of years in the far northwest corner of Montana, I like carrying his work in my bookstore, and I also like his writing. Before putting the book on a shelf, I took it home to read.

Baltimore Book Festival

Later the same week, a friend gave me a book someone had given her. It wasn’t her type of read so she passed it on to me for the bookstore. Charlotte Hogg’s From the Garden Club, examines the lives and writing of a small group of older women in a rural Nebraska community.

Both Fiber and From the Garden Club are about place. For Rick Bass, it is an examination of finding himself, defining himself in a new place having moved from Louisiana to Texas to Montana. For Charlotte Hogg, it is discovering the home where she grew up, left for a few years and then returned to more fully understand that place and, consequently, more deeply connect with her grandmother and some of the other women in the small Nebraska town.

Of course there are all sorts of good reads out there on place – Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, books by Rebecca Solnit, Bruce Chatwin, Wendell Berry, oh the list goes on because, yes, obviously I have a question about our sense of place, its meaning in our lives, what we each do with it, how we shape it. I find myself drawn to authors who try to untangle this. I suppose this makes sense for the owner of a traveling bookstore (and someone who has moved frequently).

Especially in my current place in northwest Montana, I try to understand my relationship with my neighbors, my commitment to the community, my role. I need to read how others manage this or at least their attempt to provide insight. Hogg values the heart the older women provide to the small town, even as she herself leaves. In Fiber, Bass takes logs to the mill even as he fights to preserve the wilderness. Whether we stay planted or move, we still need to honor the place where we are and do our best by it.

a love letter

Another day organizing books in preparation for the season. Lillian helped me. She is nearly fourteen years old, a voracious reader, and thoroughly understands how to categorize and alphabetize. Working with her today reminded me of others who helped me with the various aspects of a traveling bookstore – from sorting books in the storage/garage to driving across country to watching over things so I could take a break on long book selling days. There are definitely more people on the list than I can send thanks to, or express my love for their help in one blog post. But because I thought of them a lot today while working with Lillian, I decided to share the extraordinary abilities of at least a few.

Stevie Sorenson was the first person. We happened to meet up at a community event, started talking about what we each did with our time. I asked what she planned to study at college. She said writing or becoming a librarian. I said I was starting a traveling bookstore and invited her to help me begin organizing the piles of boxes filled with books sitting in my garage that needed to be put in some organized manner onto shelves. It had felt like a daunting task until Stevie showed up and then we both threw ourselves into tackling it. Sam McCurry who was between semesters was next, and also obsessed about books and very much detailed oriented. She helped balance me when it came to making categories because really (I assume this won’t come as a surprise to those who have met me), my storage area for books is fairly neat but not exactly up to the Library of Congress standards.

Shortly after Sam helped out, I started going on longer trips with the bookstore and realized having the right person along helped immeasurably. Nada Vojtkova drove with me across from Montana to New York the first time and helped at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Melissa Anderson was with me on a drive back across country when the bookstore experienced a blowout in S. Dakota in a place that felt like the middle of nowhere. Sarah Anderson helped drive through a snow storm in Colorado when the gas tank showed empty. Britta Shoot met up with me and the bookstore during another snow storm – this one in Minneapolis – and remained cheerful although I suspect she was very cold as we headed south to Indianapolis. Jana Pestova did a traveling bookstore trip through North Carolina up to West Virginia and headed back west. She was with me the day an Asheville bookseller bought out a third of my inventory and I had a small meltdown. Anne Johnson who was supposedly on vacation helped me sell books and talk literature at the Lincoln County Fair. Lisa Kondylas saved my life at the Baltimore Book Festival which had very long days and many people (all very good for bookselling but a bit hard on the bookseller). She showed up once a day (a three day event) so I could grab a bite and find a restroom. She even invited her brother to stop by who brought delicious avgolemono soup for us.

You obviously see what I mean. Perhaps it is the nature of the traveling bookstore business or just my type of personality, but I truly depend on others to help pull through situations like blizzards, big cities, and what feels like catastrophic events. Sometimes I don’t even know the individual’s name who helps me. Once in Sacramento while set up at the awesome Temple Coffee Roasters, I very much needed to take a break and find lunch (Temple had yummy snacks but I wanted something more substantial). A lovely individual came up to me at the bookstore, asked about the business, looked more seriously at me and said she would watch the store while I got something to eat. I remain forever grateful to her despite never learning her name.

There are so many more but I try to keep these posts to a reasonable length. The traveling bookstore business is quite the adventure and thank goodness there is a patron saint to send helpful individuals my way. A few novels you might enjoy about bookstores if you haven’t run across them yet…

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

DIY

As the owner/driver of a traveling bookstore, you might expect me to be all about selling books. And I certainly do put lots of energy into that. Spent last weekend going through the storage area pulling out the best books to get the season started. Replenished the stock in the traveling bookstore with titles I have no doubt will bring customers an abundance of joy. But today, blame it on the Spring weather or too much time spent going through those other boxes of books that no one seems to want, I’m focusing on how you can make your own book(s). That’s just how my mind is working at the moment.

I think of book making as having two parts. There is the text or illustrations or whatever you envision your book containing. And then there is the container itself – what actually holds your story or poems or essays or dreams together. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it the Inner and the Outer. I am not going to dwell on the Inner today. There is entirely too much that could be part of that as well as dealing with how you see yourself as a writer or an illustrator, your reaction to a clean white page, whether you feel your art or writing is worthy to be bound. Of course, it is possible to make a blank book – a book that only has empty pages as its Inner which you can gift to a friend or give to a child to draw in. That can work. Thus for the moment, we will skip the Inner piece and focus on the Outer.

Perhaps you have an image of a book with a front cover, a back cover, a spine, the title and author’s name. Rather straight forward and you can certainly put together such a book. But I hope you realize there are umpteen other ways to craft the Outer part of a book. It can be folded like an accordion or even be an accordion! Have you thought of a film canister repurposed as a book (assuming the Inner is written on film)? It might be a seashell with your story curled up inside or intriguing bottles holding a delicious mystery. Peter and Donna Thomas create stunning books using musical instruments as the Outer part. Julie Chen makes all sorts of books that will have you drooling. Perhaps if you have more time, look at the creations of M.L.Van Nice, another amazing book artist. Please don’t get discouraged by these individuals who have put years into crafting unusual books. Don’t think of making a book as daunting. Use a matchbox or stitch sheets of brown paper together. Start basic and grow. And, of course, there are all sorts of guides out there to help you get started.

The Book as Art by Krystyna Wasserman

Creative Bookbinding by Pauline Johnson

The Pocket Paper Engineer by Carol Barton (volumes 1 & 2)

Creating Books and Boxes by Benjamin D. Rinehart

Boundaries

Canada-US border at Roosville, MT

There seem to be more difficulties dealing with boundaries, although I suppose there have been difficulties for as long as there have been people drawing lines in the sand. Or when someone made a decision about who could use that cave, or hunt in that forest, or fish in that river. When the traveling bookstore isn’t on the road, it’s parked seven miles from the Canadian border. Other than showing the right papers, it was an easy place to visit – going up to Fernie for the wonderful independent bookstore there or on longer adventures to Edmonton (and the wonderful Alhambra Books). But since last March the Canada-US border has been closed for these sorts of trips. The boundary is quite visible in our valley especially in winter with that snowy line stretching from one mountain to another. Close but closed.

Even on this side of the border though, there are struggles with boundaries. Who wears a face mask? Who doesn’t? Why is that person standing so close to me while waiting in line at the post office? Last summer for the first time since opening my traveling bookstore, customers went into my bookstore wearing sidearms. There are my boundaries. Personally I don’t like people wearing guns into my quite small bookstore. I do want people in my community to wear face masks and take other precautions in public during a pandemic. But these are challenges because unlike the border visible across the mountains, I need to establish my own boundaries and decide how to apply them in my sphere. This becomes more complex with seemingly arbitrary boundaries the current Montana legislature and governor are changing at an alarming rate. Can transgender youth play sports? Can children who aren’t vaccinated attend public schools? And yes, people have the right to wear their guns anywhere. And now there are no public health mandates concerning masks or public gatherings from the state government. It is an overwhelming time with frantic urgency to write my representatives in Helena, trying to get them to be sensible about those of us who live in this state, all of us who live in the state. Forcing us to think seriously about our boundaries.

I have the traveling bookstore and plan to set it up in Montana this summer. I hope to take it to other states by Fall. Now I read books – some recommended, some left on my doorstep as a donation, some discovered at the local library. These current times make me aware of books dealing with boundaries – The Women in the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, True North by Jim Harrison, and Savage Inequalities: Children in American Schools by Jonathan Kozol.

Propelled forward by looking back

I want to be on the road with the traveling bookstore. I want to set up at music festivals and in cities, by coffee shops in small towns and at county fairs. I want the sun to be out and people willing to engage in real conversations as we stand by the bookstore marveling at all the wonders one can find in print. I want to share ideas for how to make the world a better place and to exchange titles for some great books we read this winter. And I also want to feel comfortable with people going into the bookstore and as we stand outside next to the table with the typewriter set up, knowing we care enough to keep each other healthy.

I appreciate the book club in Eureka read a wonderful range of books this winter and has more coming up through the spring. We are a small club in a rural (and rather remote) community of northwest Montana. Since summer, we’ve met virtually. Yet we manage to have good conversations, decide on monthly titles that offer us a range of authors and ideas, encourage each other to grow and think. Some of our titles: Woman, Girl, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wolverine Way by Doug Chadwick, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor, The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai.

While looking for a photo that made sense to me for this post, this moment, I came across one from six years ago. My first bookstore trip out of town was to a two-day music festival in Yaak, MT and if you don’t know this place, you should. I worried driving there up twisted mountain roads, no other vehicles in sight, setting up in a field behind the Yaak Tavern & Mercantile, but then did extremely well selling books. Spent my first night ever sleeping in the bookstore. And the next day met this young couple from New York City who suggested I go to the Brooklyn Book Festival. And the following year I did. First time driving the bookstore across country. Barely able to breathe as I navigated it through the city, wondering if a traveling bookstore in NYC would even be noticed (but it was!).

Since then I have put lots of miles on the bookstore; taken it across country multiple times, up and down the west coast, through the Rocky Mountains. After that first book festival in NY, I’ve set it up in Seattle, Portland, Baltimore, Raleigh, Sioux Falls, Chicago, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and many more cities as well as numerous rural towns. And that couple who suggested the Brooklyn Book Festival – they have two young children now and are doing well. I follow photos of their family on social media. I’ve done things that I didn’t envision doing when I met them. And no doubt raising their two kids is something they couldn’t have imagined fully either. So looking forward to this summer, I want to believe it is possible to do more things – meet people who will change my life, have conversations that stick with me for years, and of course, read books that are remarkable.

A tease

Perched at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, there is a sense things might get better. At least that is the word on some streets. Changes in the White House, changes as vaccines roll out, lessons learned this year that perhaps we’ll carry forward. We listened to Greta Thunberg and Anthony Fauci. We saw footage that pierced our hearts. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. We watched protests that involved too many people getting hurt, too many journalists getting arrested, too many people killed. We looked around for individuals we could talk with about all that was going on, but often faced neighbors who told us the pandemic was a hoax, the protesters were asking for it, and the election had been stolen. And too often too many of us responded with silence.

We inch into 2021 hopeful enough people will get vaccines to put the skids on Covid-19. We want to believe change in the US administration will help this country come to grips with inequalities, climate change and an economic disaster too many American face daily. It just isn’t a new calendar but, we hope, a chance for us to do better. But that then becomes the question. Because there are certainly changes as the new year begins, but for those changes to work, to sink in roots, to grow, to put out leaves, produce fruit, we need to put in effort. We need to ask ourselves what we are individually capable of…and then try to go a step or two further. Yes, we can read inspirational books, follow Heather Cox Richardson and Andy Slavitt online, marvel at the determination and grit of Stacey Abrams and José Andrés. But we also need to make changes in our own lives, our actions, perhaps even our beliefs.

This doesn’t mean sunny resolutions on January 1 but efforts that become part of the fabric of daily life. Where in your community are you putting time? Can you do more? How are you spending money (if you have money to spend)? Can you find ways to shop local, order from independent stores rather than behemoths with awful labor practices? Speak up. Get on a local school board, planning council, health department board. Help at the food bank but also put effort into making food banks unnecessary. Write your representatives in Washington and in your state legislature. Write letters to the editor. Find ways to talk with people – even people who think/look/act differently then you do. Find ways to engage in civic discourse and not just scroll through Facebook/Parler/Twitter.

Today, tomorrow, this new year has such potential. We just need to find ways to help utilize it, to transform this potential into a reality. What are you going to do?

Quilting words

It is a slow season for a traveling bookstore in northwest Montana. The snow is starting to settle in and the pandemic has settled heavily in these parts as well. So the bookstore is parked. Occasionally locals stop by and I put a bag of books together for them. It is a very good season to be reading.

Besides my own reading, there is also quilting. Some years back, I began going to a group that meets every Friday to hand quilt in an old schoolhouse. Their efforts bring in funds to support the local museum. Not a person who sews by nature, I mostly wanted to be with these women who knew the history of the valley and who lead by example. They told me I needed to quilt if I was going to hang with them on Fridays so gradually I learned how to make small(ish) stitches, how to attach quilt layers to a frame.

stretching back of quilt on frame

This year in an attempt to make the physical and mental adjustments to Covid, I began creating three quilts. For me, quilting is collaboration. There really isn’t any way to imagine doing it alone. I asked people for fabric, I asked for gloves – as the one quilt features gloves and how our sense of touching others changed during these times. For another quilt, I wanted faces so a friend, Shirley Jacobs, began helping me produce wood block portraits of twenty individuals who passed away over the last six months. Another friend who is a remarkable quilter helped us piece the portrait quilt together. And this week, the women began the process of putting it on the frame to quilt.

Basting

Thinking about this and the wonderful children’s books available about quilts, I decided to put together a list just in case you need ideas for holiday shopping. Of course, you can order any of these from independent bookstores.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

Quiltmaker’s Gift by J. Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson

Quilt Story by Tony Johnson and Tomie de Paola

Quilts of Gee’s Bend by Susan Goldman Rubin

Halloween

Last week while sorting books at the end of the traveling bookstore season, I had the idea to give books rather than mass-produced candy away for Halloween. There were a few aspects to figure out especially distributing something in the midst of a pandemic. With help from a friend, we wrapped over fifty books, marking each with a code so it was easy to discern if the package would be appropriate for a pre-schooler, a beginning reader, middle school student, etc. The town folks decided to do a Trunk or Treat on the main street so I minimally decorated the back of my car, loaded a pumpkin along with the books, and parked downtown.

The books were mostly a big hit. I suspect it was a combination of recipients getting something different (a book and not just another packet of M&M’s), and as it came wrapped, there was the heightened sense of receiving a surprise. Of course I quickly realized that small children often have small bags for their treats, so large picture books were problematic. Next year I will do a better job on that. I also realized that even in a small town, I should have had at least twice as many books to give out. Next year.

There’s the tendency to be optimistic that next year things will be better – politically, with the pandemic, with climate change. Surely we’ll get a handle on some of these things. Its evident we aren’t simply facing one person who happens to be a bully, but a sizeable portion of our citizens who support him. And we aren’t all diligently focused on stemming the Covid tide but muddled hurling terms like anti-maskers and hoax at each other.

I was thinking about all this while handing out books. There were kids dressed as unicorns and others as Harry Potters. Quite a few Captain Americas, some witches and princesses mingled in there, and four young people dressed as cows. A local restaurant owner dressed as a plague doctor, had me wondering when is a costume no longer a costume. There were two youngsters dressed in camo but I figured we’re in Montana and its hunting season.

It did surprise me the number of adults who weren’t wearing masks as they socialized along the downtown sidewalk meeting up with friends, standing in groups talking. It was unnerving to see a young teen dressed as Kyle Rittenhouse. I must admit I felt relieved to hand out the last few books and drive away. But of course, we can’t really drive away now, can we? Wherever we are, we are part of the solution – or part of the problem. But we can’t be neutral, it isn’t possible to live outside the fray. We can’t just drive away, leaving the problems in our rear view mirror. Its a matter of deciding where to put our energy.