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.

The Dickens of it

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (1859). Sort of captures the moment, doesn’t it? Of course, there is the question whether we’ve inched into the spring of hope or are still languishing in the winter of despair? Perhaps we each answer that for ourselves. Not easy, and the plethora of possibilities is overwhelming. In Montana at the moment, lilacs are budding and daffodils are in bloom. Yet even with the promise of apple blossoms, there’s sharp division among townsfolk whether we should open up everything or wait.

Waiting. Not something most of us do well. We want it all now. Actually yesterday would be better. Don’t even mention the 900-day siege of Leningrad. What do you mean it takes five minutes to download a movie?! Our Amazon delivery definitely needs to arrive within the next 24-hours. Zero to sixty in ten – yes, that’s what we want.

But things shifted. Many of us (depending on country and culture) are moving at a very different pace now because we have to. Many main street businesses are still closed. Shelter-in-place. Keep a distance. For days, weeks, months we’ve spent an unbelievable amount of time inside either caged alone or with others who hopefully we won’t grow tired of (or frightened of) before the entrapment ends.

Perhaps it depends on your personality type and economic situation how this experience works. Is it finally time to read that pile of books? How do they manage homeschooling and still work? Or surprisingly, she suddenly became a couch potato addicted to Netflix. He caught up on mounds of correspondence – writing real letters pages long filled with thoughts and emotions. The shoe box of photographs was nearly organized. Maybe it was the time to take on a project never thought possible, yet here you are doing it. Or maybe a darkness descended that threatened to extinguish who you are. Or you are angry because there are those who don’t agree with you, who make different choices, who put you at risk. Or limit your Constitutional rights. Or just do things differently.

Today I would like to have coffee with Margaret Atwood, listen to her sensible views of the world, appreciating her smile, appreciating her use of language, appreciating her wisdom. That’s what I want today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwrQQXt7Icw

Dumping pieces

This post doesn’t offer answers. Rather it serves as a way for me to get the pieces on the table. The way you start one of those 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Open the box. Dump out all pieces and turn them over so the printed sides are facing up. Gradually sort pieces that have straight edges, and the blue ones that surely are part of the sky, and the ones that show they have trees or tiny windows or are part of a boat. Only then can the puzzle start to be assembled.

At this point, in the midst of political chaos and COVID-19, headlines about the stock market, countries closing their borders, people thankfully worrying if children who aren’t going to school will get lunch, and Italians singing their national anthem from balconies, I think about social distancing. I must admit I wasn’t familiar with the term until a few week ago. Now I think about it often.

I was traveling in New Mexico, a trip planned months ago with two friends. When we left Montana by train on February 28, we weren’t concerned. By the time we were in New Mexico, we began to think about it and wash our hands compulsively. On the return trip this past week, we seriously considered our actions and interactions.

Social distancing. Don’t shake hands or hug. Don’t attend large gatherings. Cancel the restaurant reservation. The sort of social distancing techniques which is part of particular socio-economic groups. As the train pulled into Los Angeles, and left again following the Los Angeles river, the meaning of social distancing took on a different meaning. Miles of homeless encampments along the tracks. A young woman sitting in the rain next to a pile of garbage. A man washing himself in the river. Some areas had been bulldozed with only a few plastic bags left to signify the tents and belongings which had been hauled away. This is America.

There is certainly social distancing between the individuals who try to survive living in these tents in urban encampments and my window on the train. I suspect residents perched in houses on the California hills also have a significant social distance from those living in these encampments. And the constant reminders in the news to wash our hands frequently? I don’t see evidence of hand washing facilities at these camps. I suppose individuals can go to the river but do they have soap which we are told works well when used properly?

Some political leaders find ways to get those children lunches who aren’t in school, or find alternatives where parents work and children need care during the day when schools have closed. Who resolves issues for the homeless when our attention is focused on the latest broadcasts about COVID-19? How does one stay three to six feet away from people when you are living on the street in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland? How do you get groceries delivered when you don’t have a street address? How do you wash your hands when there isn’t soap?

four from the road

  • When having breakfast at Weimers Diner & Donuts in Sturgis, South Dakota, I saw a poster asking for donations. New underwear, tshirts and socks for men were being sought to give to veterans. But why aren’t there federal resources in this country for those veterans? Why is a small town with a population of 7,000 having to find clothing for the individuals who served their country?
  • Through my good fortune of staying with Cathy and Dave, Servas hosts in Sioux Falls, I attended a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and River of Fire. To say her talk was inspirational does not begin to do it justice. It was one of the most impassioned and articulate talks I have ever heard. If you are unable to catch Sister Helen on her current tour, please read her books.
  • While in Sioux Falls, I also heard about OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), a program under the University of South Dakota. OLLI “brings together curious people who want to learn for the love of it…[and] aims to engage the mind, stimulate the senses and foster learning through an affordable program of classes, tours, lectures, films and active learning opportunities.” Many of the people teaching these classes and leading tours are community volunteers. My mind immediately twirled with the variety of talks and tours that knowledgeable individuals in my community could offer. But I realized my own focus needs to be developing senior housing before getting caught up trying to establish a program like OLLI. That’s just part of Maslow’s hierarchy.
  • Drawn to possibilities. Often people who come to the bookstore ask how it got started, what inspired me. They enjoy the idea of something new, something they hadn’t experienced before, browsing in the confined space of this traveling bookstore. I am also drawn to new ideas – the possibility of putting together community classes with volunteer instructors, learning how Sister Helen Prejean went from exchanging letters with someone in prison to being a voice against the death penalty. We can be drawn to a possibility we may not have previously considered. Then its a matter of taking the next step.

Stand up

I am traveling.  Currently traveling without the bookstore as I am on the other side of the ocean.  Regardless of where I am, there are opportunities to meet good people, to have thought provoking encounters.  Recently a juxtaposition of conversations pushed me to examine the expectations I hold and the impatience I often feel these days.96FFE953-152D-4015-87AF-E268C380881F

I met a social activist in Brno, Czech Republic.  She is heartedly involved in local politics, searching out how to improve services for older people, and helping with ways to feed the homeless in her city among other causes she is involved with. During our conversation I was inspired and relieved that this person was trying so hard to improve the quality of life for people in her extended community.

There are others I conversed with on this trip.  Some people teach school, others raise families, or are artists, or work in IT, or are retired.  Some volunteer at summer camps and others help in prisons in their spare time, while some put together community theater after day jobs. Is there any particular work or community service that is better than another?  Surely there is a need in every place for carpenters, cooks, shop assistants, musicians, doctors, welders, and teachers.  And thus there must also be a need for the various ways people freely contribute to their community.  Scout leaders, hospice volunteers, parents who help at schools, individuals who donate to the arts, drivers for Meals on Wheels, people who write letters to elected officials, and those who take to the streets to counter injustice.

I want every individual to give to their community in a meaningful way.  Some religions encourage tithing a percentage of income. Is it unrealistic to ask people to tithe a percentage of time? And what age should we begin?  In one conversation recently, a young man told me he didn’t volunteer but tried to live a caring life helping his friends.  Another person said she didn’t volunteer but was working to raise her children well.  That her contribution to the larger community would be these two children who grew up polite, creative, thoughtful.  These answers challenged my hope we can be caring to those in our immediate circle and help improve the greater community as well. Is this expecting too much?  Can a parent who has skills to raise children give four hours a week to help other children in an after school program or work towards improving state or federal education policy? Can the man who cares about his friends donate time at a homeless shelter or become involved with NAMI? Over the last few years, a number of individuals and groups began to provide accessible ways to make a difference without leaving home.  Jen Hoffman’s Americans of Conscience Checklist is one.

Yes, we can have meaningful conversations, care for our children, help our friends. But these are very much within the context of our community, our state, our country.  Our efforts need to include this context if we truly care about anyone.

 

A different view

I can point to lots of things.  Just had cataract surgery so one eye is very clear and focused while the other lags behind until next week.  Then there is the political situation which is hard to easily capture.  Sides so divisive now some friendships are ending, there are those family members who stop communicating and various community Facebook pages are shut down due to profanity.  The aspen and larch trees have become golden.  And when I get up early in the morning to walk before the work day begins, it is dark out.  IMG_2524

The bookstore takes a break for a few weeks. Then in November we set up for Shop Small Saturday on 11/24 from 10:00 – 4:00 parked next to Montana Farmacy.  And on December 1, the traveling bookstore will be at the annual Holly Faire from 9:00 – 5:00 at Eureka’s Creative Arts Center. Both enjoyable events plus a chance to find great gifts and support local merchants and artisans.  The bookstore will offer its usual amazing selection of gently used books, St. Rita’s tshirts, gift cards, vintage postcards, and gift certificates.  And yes, the typewriter will be set up in case you want to type a poem or holiday greeting to send someone special or a letter to your representative.

See? This is what I mean.  There are truly dark moments when the days get shorter and the news out of Washington is utterly depressing.  Then I read a wondrous book (Pride by Ibi Zoboi) or watch the autumn sun come through the old school house windows as women hand quilt on a Friday afternoon.  Of course, none of this comes easily.  Ibi Zoboi, while immigrating to the US with her mother, actually had months of separation before the authorities would allow her in.  A quilt takes countless stitches (and sore fingers) to complete.  No doubt it will take even more work for us to make positive changes, to address the starvation in Yemen, the thousands of detained children still in tent camps in Texas. Despite the darkness though, we need to look at these things. And act.

πόλις

I suspect with a traveling bookstore, things seem to go faster than if my business was in one place, situated in a brick-and-mortar bookstore securely settled at one address.  At least that is how it felt recently. Within the last week, there was a fantastic article about the bookstore by Brittany Shoot in Atlas Obscura.  There was a day spent canvassing for the upcoming November election that brought forth stronger opinions then I typically hear when the bookstore is set up. There was setting up at a harvest festival yesterday in a Montana town and meeting all sorts of people: an individual from a Methodist church who offered books left over from their annual book sale, a high school student who immediately fell in love with the traveling bookstore concept and is going to save Processed with MOLDIVto start her own, an author who writes about what racism feels like in small Western rural communities, a teen mom excited to find a copy of The Swiss Family Robinson because she read it as a child and wants to share it with her new family, and a lively conversation about growing old in reference to Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare. Also over the past week there has been harsh discussion on local social media about a political poster at the county fair. There are times when I am tempted to ignore things, but I can’t

Friends point out it might be better for my business to stay apolitical.  But I know after umpteen years that it isn’t possible.  Thinking about this today while reflecting on everything that came my way this week, I remembered the Greek word πόλις (polis) and how that evolved to become the English word politics.

Decades ago when first starting to support myself, I decided it was good to do work that wasn’t involved with politics. I ended up cooking at the Salvation Army. Within a fairly short time though, I realized cooking for people who came through the dinner line brought up questions about who needed food, where that food came from,  and what determined who has access to what kinds of food.  Even as a cook, I was involved in a political situation.  Some years later I found myself teaching basic skills to adults: reading, writing and mathematics to people who for numerous reasons hadn’t picked up these skills earlier in life.  Before too much time went by, I realized what brought those students into the classroom was very much a product of political decisions.  Which schools had enough funding? What quality of teachers were available? What did a school board support?

I eventually realized it is impossible to find a place in civic life that isn’t political one way or another.  Thus with a traveling bookstore – what books are on the shelves, which towns do I go to, which neighborhoods? And each of these decisions from books to where the traveling bookstore sets up says something about my politics.  I can’t be apolitical. None of us can.

 

 

 

 

Community

The traveling bookstore set up at the Lincoln County Fair over the weekend. Three days of 4H kids with their animals. Jars of jams, crusty breads and plates of fudge being sampled and awarded ribbons, a booth raffling a rifle, another raffling a painting.  There was live music and delicious pies, the most beautiful flowers people grew to enter as well as prize vegetables. A couboystyping2018nty fair in a county whose population is around 20,000.  Enough entries in Foods, Crafts and Arts to enjoy wandering through but not overwhelming crowds. A pleasure to talk with neighbors, hang with kids, visit with other vendors and, of course, sell books.

Lots of conversations over the three days about politics, about how to engage with people whose conclusions are fundamentally different from mine, about what makes a good community, about various books.  The one that still rumbles in my mind is about community.  Community is so closely tied to home that it is necessary to make sense of it.  At least for me.

When I am on the road with the bookstore, city people often ask what it is like to live in a small town.  I point out the things I like. I know my neighbors, I trust my mechanic, I can leave my front door unlocked. When there is a need I feel strongly about, it might be possible to do something about it.  Twenty years ago a group of us formed an organization to bring in an annual professional concert series.  It has continued and even grown.  This winter there will be jazz musicians from Seattle, Ghanaian performers, a classical quintet, a blues band from Vancouver, BC, and a Irish/Scottish duo from Oregon.  Living in a small town forces me to talk with a variety of people, not only those who think the same way I do.  Our local book club has women all across the political spectrum and from numerous religions with a few atheists mixed in as well.

I know that some local businesses I use are owned by people who don’t agree with my politics. And I don’t agree with theirs. But I shop in their store and they buy books from me. It is a necessity because otherwise we would each need to drive seventy miles one way to go to a bigger town.  A bit too far to pick up a James Lee Burke novel or get a can of spray paint. So we find ways to get along, some activities mutually enjoyed liked listening to good music, going to the local microbrewery. And sometimes we have to face our differences and try to have a civil discussion.  It doesn’t always work, but sometimes.

But do we have consensus as to what makes a good community?  There are diverse opinions about local schools.  Some of us want better academics, others are interested in a trophy winning football team. Should the elementary library carry books with Muslim characters?  Outside of school, where should the jobs be?  Open up the forests for more logging or train people for jobs that require other skills? I try to understand my role as a small business owner in this town, finding ways to improve the quality of life.  But whose life? The county fair gave me three days to glimpse the heart of this community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To je škoda

The traveling bookstore needs a new alternator.  It became evident Wednesday when it needed to be jumped twice – once going to the farmers market and then by the end of the market, it wouldn’t start again. Another jump and I drove it directly to the local mechanics.  Eureka being a small town, the part won’t be in until Monday which means cancelling two venues this weekend – the Historic Hotel Libby and Riverfront Blues Festival.  First time a mechanical problem prevented the bookstore from getting somewhere it needed to go.  The Czech saying ‘to je škoda’ came to mind.IMG_2976

So a few unscheduled days open up as the bookstore sits at the mechanics.  This morning instead of getting up early to drive to Libby, MT, I sit over coffee writing posts, writing letters, planning for the next few weeks, appreciating some time to reflect.  With summer activities, very hot weather, forest fires filling the sky with smoke, and the political state in this country, there is certainly plenty to reflect on.

Last summer also had bad forest fires. Tensions in this valley rose. Where to put the blame for the loss of timber, loss of homes, loss of tourist dollars, and loss of clear summer skies?  There were all sorts of accusations, harsh condemnations. When the weather is too hot and the sky a ghostly yellow blocking any view of the mountains, I understand people wanting to yell, wanting to find someone or something to blame.  Some sources say this weather and the amount of fires we experience will be the new norm.  How will this community adapt if tourists stop coming in August because smoke hangs heavy? How can I adapt to not being short tempered?

And then there is the political situation.  Does the word political even begin to cover the magnitude of the current times in this country?  Strong divisions, curtailing human rights, public lands used for personal profit, confrontations, mass shootings.  Locally I watch our mental health services and medical care erode.  The Congressman from Montana won the election the day after beating up a journalist.

So a day to think on these things, to write letters and to decide which actions are sensible in these times. To not let the heat or fires fuel over reactions or cause passivity. To use the time allotted in the best possible way.

 

Good fortune

I have some sort of addiction to fortune cookies.  Not the cookies themselves – a bit too sweet usually, but to the small rectangular fortunes found inside.  When given a cookie after a meal at Sumi’s Kitchen, a great local place, I immediately break it open to get the news.  Regardless of what that day’s particular fortune might be, it always seems relevant.  I have one that I taped to the back of my phone that reads, “Your road to glory will be rocky but fulfilling. Be patient.”  I have no idea what the particular glory might be but I do believe the road will be rocky (I live in Montana after all) and patience is a characteristic I have been working years to achieve.IMG_2101

Yesterday’s fortune was “Take that chance you’ve been considering.”  Now how could anyone read that without feeling hopeful?  Aren’t there numerous considerations roiling about in my mind that I could take a chance on? Is this cookie’s fortune specific to one or to any of the ideas that I have been considering of late? Does it refer to the traveling bookstore business and the upcoming Grand 2018 to North Carolina and Back Tour?  There is an opportunity to set up the bookstore for a day in Smiths Grove, KY.  That town is a bit small but don’t people in small towns deserve an opportunity to get great buys on a wonderful selection of used books?  Or is it my idea to set up in Sheridan, WY on the way back in late April but where exactly?  There aren’t any easy contacts in Sheridan so it would be a matter of cold calling someone.  Is that the chance?

Or maybe its the suggestion I run for county commissioner?  Not that it is a serious consideration but perhaps fortune cookies don’t make those distinctions.  A consideration is a consideration. Consider it and take a chance. So perhaps this particular fortune is about upping the game.  We all take chances every time we get up in the morning, walk out the front door, get in a car, meet a new person.  Maybe this fortune means to take a chance on a wilder consideration.  Taking a teaching job in Romania back in 2002 or starting a traveling bookstore might have been considerations/chances but each had a safety net of sorts.  Maybe this fortune cookie gives the message that sometimes its important to take chances on considerations that are a bit scarier.  Maybe that is how we continue to grow as individuals.