I’m in a reading dilemma. Not a lack of material sort of problem. That’s not happened in my recent memory. It’s finishing what I started that’s giving me fits right now. Unfinished book guilt, I guess.
I’m just a few chapters from the end of If You Want to Write (Barbara Ueland), two-thirds through The Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra), a mere three chapter into After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Jack Kornfield), and three-quarters through The Canon (Natalie Angier). Since starting these, two to six weeks ago, I’ve read at least a half-dozen other books in succession. A few days ago, I spotted a borrowed copy of Contact (Carl Sagan), so that’s front and center each evening.
I started the others with earnest interest and rapt attention, at least initially. While my understanding is minimal, I find quantum theory and relativity fascinating, and sermons over the years linking particle physics and spirituality, especially Eastern spirituality practices) increased my interest. The Tao of Physics came with my minister’s recommendation and arrived quickly via Paperback Swap. I leapt in and could barely set it down while reading the first half. Perhaps the material is less gripping, or perhaps reading it at 10:30 at night is just too much for me, but I’m no longer making meaningful progress. I try to read, but my mind skips off in other directions, pages turning without my comprehension. Oh, the guilt! I should be soaking up every word, making connections, finding meaning!
The Kornfield book sat on the shelf for a year or two. On a recent shelf sweep, it made the cut to my nightstand. Again, the material was interesting (real living after spiritual experience, essentially), but this time, I felt inadequate. After all, I’m barely having spiritual experiences of the kind referred to in the book (remember that lonely meditation cushion?) . Why concern myself with after until there is a during?
The Canon, a perky and fast-paced trip through current scientific thinking, was a gift from my father a year or two back. Again, I started off quickly. Math, physics, chemistry. They flew by. Then I hit biology. Perhaps teaching biology this year worked against me. I’ve had enough, and this felt like a re-run of the lessons I’d taught for the past six months. How many pages until Geology?
Finally, the biggest guilt-producer of all: the writing book given to me some 20 years ago by my now-deceased Uncle Bryce. He inscribed it, believing in me as a writer. I went on to PA school and vowed to write (and read that book) later. After writing two posts on my uncle, I pulled it out and began. It starts beautifully but becomes, about half-way through, redundant. I’m simply bored.
I intended to seek advice from those of you with unfinished piles teetering on your nightstand. What would you do? What do you do? I still want to hear what you do, but I’ve discovered my own solutions while writing: I’ll continue with The Canon, fast forwarding to Geology. The rest return to the shelves or Paperback Swap. I’ve found what was useful to me now, and that’s sufficient. Goodbye, guilt!
My Uncle Bryce died of bladder cancer in 2001, five months after the birth of my younger son. In 2003, his long-time companion, Marilyn Mowry published a collection of his writing, some from a memoir workshop and others from a series he wrote for the local newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise, titled “Dead Man Walking.” In 2005, Marilyn died as well, leaving me with boxes of Bryce’s writing and over 150 copies of his book, “The Traveled Road.” Lat week, I finally read that book.
I’d tried to read the book several times over the years, but a few pages in, I’d always end up in tears. Bryce’s death was the fourth in my very small immediate family in a span of four years: two grandparents and my stepfather passed in the preceeding years. Those dying before him were elderly and largely ready to die. Bryce’s death, at 56, hit me differently. He was younger by three decades, which was part of my struggle , but mostly he was younger than my father. Mortality pounced a generation closer, and his death reminded me that folks my parents’ age could die.
So why read the book now? In part, I picked it up to search for clues: insight into my younger child who bears my uncle’s name as his middle name. In the years following Bryce’s death, I’d occasionally talk with Marilyn, often about the disposition of his writings to me, an agreement we came to before she received her diagnosis of cancer the year following her companion’s death. In our occasional conversations, I’d update her on my younger. She commented more than once on my son’s similarities to Bryce, and my father has reinforced this view that perhaps my younger received more from Bryce than his name. These comments also have come with a sigh and sense of sympathy, followed, on occasion, by vague reassurance : Bryce came out okay, mostly.
My little one, now eight, has challenged me since the start. An inconsolable but highly attached infant grew into an even more attached and rather irritable toddler. Each year found him a bit easier to parent, but he’s always been a puzzle. Tantrums, tics, uneven social skills, vague neurological signs, and unparalleled intensity are bottled with a brilliant and creative mind in overdrive. So last week, I opened “The Traveled Road” and began again, looking for connections and clues.
I didn’t crack the case, but in Bryce’s writings I saw shadows of my younger son. Formal writing filled with detours into details, some pertinent, some not, reminded me of my son’s speech, which is prolific and somewhat wandering. His childhood loneliness surfaced repeatedly in his tales of his younger years, and a lack of social grace pervaded his tellings. While my younger doesn’t say he’s lonely, I know he struggles with relating to peers and adults, unable to navigate the more subtle nonverbal language most of us take for granted, and I sense that, at least as a child, Bryce missed those cues, too. Bryce’s temper, especially toward his brothers, strikes a familiar chord as well. My son, too, sometimes acts in rage that seems unconnected with his thoughts.
While I finished the book, my goal was not to see what happens next for my son. Despite some similarities, whether biological or coincidence, my son is his own person in a different time and place. I’d like to think it’s a more understanding time with greater support for the outliers. I’d like to spare him some pain that Bryce articulated in his essays but know that sort of protection is every parent’s prayer. Bryce lived his life, traveled his road, and learned to love and be loved and to appreciate his time on this earth. Whatever path my younger’s life takes, may he, too, learns those lessons.
I’ve sought solutions in the written word for as long as I can remember. Curious about a subject? Bring home that section from the library. Considering a new course of study? Collect texts and tomes. Concerned about self/children/marriage/the world? Read more books.
I’m not advocating an end to reading, and I’m not vowing to stop purchasing, borrowing, and swapping books, but I’m raising my own awareness of the obvious fact that reading alone isn’t equivalent to taking action. It fails to fix problems and develop new habits. It can encourage and inspire, inform and distress, entertain and perplex, but it doesn’t write the essay, conquor the clutter, or care for the children.
So I’m staying home. I’m sure I’ll read from my burgeoning shelves tonight, but first, I’ll finish that thank-you note, and that’s a start.
I’m definitely conflicted this time of year. Despite 16 years having passed since fall meant a return to school, fall means a fresh start. New notebooks, paper, and binders. Anticipation, both enthused and anxious about new classes. And, notably, unlike the rest of life, a beginning with a definite ending in sight.
About this time every year, I find myself surrounded by scrawled lists of curriculum plans and piles of books. I’ve planned in notebooks, on calenders, on computer-generated planner pages, and in my head, all with moderate initial success that diminished come October or so, where recording what we actually did took the place of planning what we would do. That’s fine for my younger guy, since he generally takes us further than I would have planned, but with my older at age 12 (7th grade age), it’s really not enough for either of us. I need to know that a course will get finished in the span of our school year. He needs a path to follow with signposts telling him how far he’s been and how far there is to go. He needs me to make a plan.
So here I am, surrounded by the papers and the books, slowly scheduling out Geometry, Latin, Biology, and more. I’m trying out some scheduling software this time around, Homeschool Tracker Plus, and (as I was warned) the learning curve has been fairly steep. It allows homeschoolers to share lesson plans with others, which can be quite the time saver, but I’m not sure that time savings will be evident this year, given the amount of work I’ve put in learning how to make the program work best for me and my family. I’m not one to schedule down to the hour, and that seems to be one of the program’s strengths. Right now, my favorite feature is the library function. With a swipe of my neutered Cue Cat (bar code reader turned ISBN reader), I can catalogue my books. Using the resource function, I can sort these by course as well. Hooray! It’s too soon to tell if this software will meet my needs, but the latent librarian in me is deeply satisfied.
This last week has been a feast for my bibliophile self! Thursday found the boys and I setting up the library book sale and, of course, preshopping. I’m on my own for the return for clean-up this afternoon, and I’m looking forward to some end-of-sale shopping prior to my shift. I’m surprised there’s anything left by the end of the sale, but there are still goodies to be found, all discounted greatly.
As a family, we took a record four trips in six days to the same library, returning what we finished and picking up holds, always with “just a peek” for “one or two things.” Our peak volume out was 70 titles, although we’re down after another round of returns. My older son spends a good amount of time requesting whatever his current obsession is — Bone comics and Peanuts cartoon books are current favorites. They don’t take long to read, and I suspect he spends more time requesting those stacks of book than reading some of the volumes. I wonder where he acquired the habit of requesting-as-hobby? Hmm.
To top it off, my first order as a Scholastic Book Club homeschooling teacher arrived this week. As a child, I loved those newsprint mini catalogues, and that adoration hasn’t abated. I’m glad to have homeschooling friends with whom to share this resource, and it does make for more books that pass my eyes.
All this makes for a fairly precarious situation on my bedside table and a bookcase in every room.