Donna Wyndbrandt is an artist and a friend. She is also the companion of George Forss, the brilliant photographer who lives in Cambridge, N.Y., and is also a valued friend. Donna often walks through the town of Cambridge and she came to shop in the bookstore and visit Red and I during our Saturday work hours. I love photographing Donna, she is an interested in every inch of her soul, and of course she and Red connect. I love this portrait of their moment together.
This is my fourth week working as Recommender-In-Chief at the Battenkill Bookstore and I can’t speak for Connie Brooks, but it is a happy experience for me. We are selling a lot of books, recommending a lot of books. As it has turned out, the most surprising thing about this job has turned out to be people – connecting to people who love books and bookstores and also who value the power of human connection. People are starving for human connection, for the value of one person knowing another in an increasingly fragmented and impersonal world. The job has been a great and unexpected boon for me. I am helping a wonderful independent bookstore rather than simply talking about helping bookstores. I am helping people find good books, I am helping writers find good readers. I am discovering some wonderful books that have reawakened my passion for reading, helped inspire and inform my writing. The job has led to doing something else I love, writing book reviews (I was a critic at one time.) The Battenkill Experiment is marked and bounded by people – some who come to the store, others who connect with me in different ways.
I can feel it building, one person, one recommendation, one review at a time. We will be rocking by summer and surely for Christmas. I will have a thousand good recommendations by then.
On my first day, my friend Bob Gray showed up. He was a bookseller when I met him, my model notion of a bookseller. His visit rekindled our friendship. Last week, Linda Wigmore, who has been following and posting on my blog for years, showed up with her new love. It was a gift to put a face to that name.
But perhaps the most powerful connections for me has been with Jackie, a woman I have never met and will most likely never meet. She lives in the Midwest and was the first person to call me on my first day working Saturdays at Battenkill Books. I knew little about her, except that her husband died recently, she gathers good books to read as winter deepens, she loves farms and has a deep interest in spirituality. Her parents are suffering from Alzheimer’s, she has a lot on her plate. She handles it with grace and dignity. Reading is important to her. Like many people who call me for the first time, she was a bit uncomfortable, unsure of what to expect from me, anxious not to bother me or to seem too intrusive.
The minute she began talking, a series of books flashed through my mind to recommend to her. I don’t know how this works for me, it just does. She was shocked at how in sync we were. My job, I said.
Sometimes we just connect with people and that is what happened with Jackie and me. I recommended a mystery set in an art museum and she told me that her husband was an art historian. I recommended a book on Kansas farming (“Time’s Shadow,” which I reviewed yesterday) and she told me she spent time in Kansas as a child. I recommended a mystery set in Minnesota and that, she said, is where she lives. She ordered all of the books I recommended, and loved each one. She called back the second week to ask if I could recommend any books on Thomas Merton. I could, as it happened, since he inspired “Running To The Mountain.” Merton sparked my move upstate, my search for a spiritual grounding in my life.
Today she called again. Like everyone who deals with them, she loved calling Battenkill Books, appreciate the warmth and courtesy and service. She loved the first Merton book and was eager to sort her way through Merton’s many offerings. We talked about some books she might like. I told her how much I loved “Vampire In The Lemon Grove,” a new short story collection and suggested some other new books to put on her list. It is getting long and I am mindful of cost. Some people wait for paperbacks, some have e-books, some go to the library. All are welcome. I suspect she will get to most of them in her time. Jackie and I have a connection, the kind of connection that remind us why we need bookstores and want them to survive. And why we need people to survive as well. Our connection is literary – we only know one another through books. Yet a person’s love of books can be quite revealing, and I feel as if I know her well. Our relationship means a lot to me, and perhaps to her. I always look for her messages when I get to the bookstore, and am so anxious to share my enthusiasm for some of the books I am reading. I told her that the experiment was doing well – Connie sold a dozen copies of “Times Shadow” within minutes of my review. It was good for me, I said. “Everybody wins,” she said, “it’s just a good idea.”
I wonder about Jackie sometimes, where she lives, who with. What she is like, what her work is. I look forward to knowing her better.
I am pleased to know you Jackie. I consider you a friend. You already know me better than many people in my life who have known me for years. And thank you. For loving writing. For spending a few extra dollars to support a value system that is larger than the cheapest price. For trusting me to guide you to some good work of deserving writers. For loving good writing, a passion sometimes lost in the contemporary scrum. I think if you ever walked through the doorway of Battenkill Books, I would know you. I think I already do.
I like being “Recommender-In-Chief.” I might ask Connie for a name tag. Maybe a cap.
This weeks I will be reviewing two books I am very much into: “Middle Men” by Jim Gavin, short stories about the lives of men, and “After Visiting Friends,” a mystery by Michael Hainey. Both will be available through Battenkill Books or your local independent bookstore.
In the Kabbalah, the writings of the ancient Hebrew mystics, God warns the prophets that he expects human beings to care for Mother Earth, to nurture and sustain her. If not, he will lay waste to the planet. I think of Mother Earth often and increasingly, Maria and I look for ways to take care of her, to use our resources. Our farmhouse is farm from sustainable – we have friends in Vermont who take that seriously – but we are also more conscious than ever of using our resources well and in a way that is respectful to the environment. This is hard to do in our world, but we are taking small steps. Thinking about what we buy, what we throw away, what we use.
The farmhouse is smaller than the first Bedlam Farm, and this is our first winter in it. It is heated with oil heat/baseboards. There are four rooms downstairs, including the kitchen, and two upstairs. We have a wood stove in the dining room, a fireplace in the living room. Like many fireplaces built in the 1940’s or 50’s, it is mostly decorate, pretty to look at but not really useful in warming the house. Most of the heat – about 90 per cent, we are told – goes right up the chimney. So two weeks ago, we installed a woodstove insert in the fireplace. We believe that when the insert and wood stove are going, we will need little or no oil-based heat. To meet the local fire code, we need to build the tile porch in front of the fireplace out another eight inches, so Ben came to do the carpentry work, Maria and I looked online for the tiles.
Maria designed the plan, adding these colorful tiles from Mexico to the heavier red tiles that Florence and Harold Walrath installed. It was good to see Ben back in the farmhouse, he is so easy to work with and so competent. And once the inspectors come and approve the work, we will take a substantial step towards a more sustainable home in the winter. We expect our heating bills to drop by more than half, if not more. I am not a political person, but in recent years, I have awakened to the notion of using resources more efficiently and economically. The stove is the first, I think, of many steps we will be taking on the new farm. It is such a gift to have a spouse who knows so much about construction and design and restoration. I could never have figured out so creative and efficient way to change the fireplace from a wasteful decoration into a valuable new way of heating our home. We’ve ordered four cords of firewood for next year.
Both of us love handling the wood – chopping it, stacking it (we stacked wood for much of the afternoon), sitting by a warm fire.
Lulu doesn’t really love dogs, especially around the sheep. She is the “watch-donkey,” the most vigilant and on guard. She tolerates Red but usually puts her ears down and tries to shoo him away from the sheep, which she protects. Red generally ignores her, but today she got curious about him and his work and came up to stand beside him while he held the sheep in a corner of the pasture. I love moments like this, they are truly inexplicable and I cannot honestly tell you what was happening. Animals are aware of one another in a very particular way, often a way that is not comprehensible or even visible to us.
I used to wake up at four or five in the morning, and my whole body would shiver in fear. When I was a child, I would lie awake at night in terror and this was a habit I carried well into life. I would open my eyes and my mind would just take off in dread. Some months ago, I finally was able to think this through and I decided to use the time differently. To take the time of fear and alter everything about it. I had done this for 60 years. Could I really change it? Instead of lying in bed, I got up right a way. I meditated for a few minutes. I changed everything about the environment in which this fear lived. Red and I come down to my office, and I turn on the computer and start writing.
What a beautiful time to work, I discovered. No e-mails or texts no phone calls. No noise from the road, no distractions or chores. My mind is clearly focused. I am productive, thinking clearly, writing easily in that smooth and continuous way that tells a writer he is on the right track, keep going. I wrote a whole chapter of the Simon book this morning. I am grateful for the chance to change this awful way of being in the night. I love how I can concentrate on my work and how it flows. I don’t feel the fear when I wake up any longer, I am excited to get to use this time to do my work, a fitting fate for fear. Take a walk, I say, and thanks. Time for a different story. So this is my writing time, now, this is when it starts and I have transformed a fearful time into a creative time. Nothing is simple, nothing is black-and-white. But this is working, I feel it in my fingers. My fingers, say Maria, never lie.
Bit by bit, the fear is cornered, shrinking, starving. I am converting into something use, something creative, when I can something loving. I see that fear can be starved, that new habits can be built. It is hard to change, it is possible. I love the way the screen lights up my desk, just me and the words. The way, I think, it was always meant to be.