i’m not a very religious person, so instead of the serenity prayer some people may be familiar with, i offer here the serenity doctrine that better reflects my current state of mind
My father’s birthday falls about a week before Christmas and for the past several years my siblings and I have had some local chocolates delivered to his place of business. There is much fanfare, his employees are also able to participate in the fun, and the delivery makes the day memorable for all involved. This year, as he was approaching a milestone birthday, I thought briefly of doing something different — that is to say, ordering a delivery from somewhere different. The town where I spent my childhood, and where my father still lives, is not entirely devoid of clever gustatory options but since taking my leave many years ago I am less familiar with what those options may be. So after approximately two hundred seconds of google-mediated soul-searching, I opted to stay with tradition. Not being tethered to a sense of tradition in most of other parts of my life, this decision was therefore more practical than sentimental. However, all that changed after a phone call.
I rang the local chocolate shop on the weekend prior to the big birthday and proceeded to explain my request. I wanted a one-pound box of sugar free chocolates (for my diabetic dad) and a box of other chocolates (for his non-diabetic staff) delivered to his office. The voice on the other end of the phone balked. Wha– Um– We don’t do deliveries…? She said in that inflected manner in which statements sound curiously like questions. I explained slowly that I had been placing the same order for at least five or six years now and each time it is a delivery order. Um…. hold on. [I can hear some conversation on the other end between my telephone interlocutor and her colleague (collective age, 35… I’m guessing…) and then returns, with a gasp, to the phone] Yeah, we don’t deliver…? Um, but you can call Sue on Monday. She can help you…? I thanked her for her assistance and then on the following Monday morning, I placed a call and had the most pleasant chat with Sue:
Me: Hi, may I speak with Sue please?
Sue: This is Sue.
Me: Hi Sue, this is [me] and I’m calling to place an order for delivery for my dad’s birthday.
Sue: Oh! I was waiting for your call! How are ya? How’s your dad?
Me: I’m doing well and so is he, thanks. And you? You must be busy this time of year.
Sue: [pause] Yeah… well, I hope it gets busier. [pause] Well, what are we putting together this time? The sugar free box, right?
Me: Yes! And also something for his staff — maybe you can help me with this.
Sue: Sure — so the one-pound assortment – Sugar Free! I always remember [i think i hear her smiling] and I’m putting a label on it, too — and then, do you wanna put together a tray of other goodies? We’ve done a few for some local law firms — we package them up nicely with cellophane and wrapping — the whole works. It’ll be great.
Me: That sounds really lovely. Thank you — I think they’ll enjoy it. [pause] Do you need the address?
Sue: Nah — I know where it is — on the second floor, right? Yeah, not a problem.
I give her my payment information, and spell out the names for the card, and thank her again for her help.
Sue: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And thank you for thinking of us.
We hang up. Her last words linger in my mind as I recall her response to my query about how busy they must be: “I hope it gets busier.” And suddenly I am overcome with a deep (albeit somewhat fleeting) sense of sadness. All of the chatter in the mediaspheres about fiscal cliffs, taxes on small businesses, the pundits and politicians waxing (non)philosophic about the pl/fight of the middle class — all came into stark relief in this small moment. Business decoupled from finance, businesses as staples of communities, businesses as dependent upon and depended on by citizens. In a world dominated by Amazon and the like, it’s easy to forget (or at least it was for me) the importance of the smallness. Local is not mere ontology or discursive opposition to global — local is quotidian, local is lived, local is in many ways global itself. (I’m resisting the urge here to pontificate further on this notion: What is globalization but a series of connected locals?… You’re welcome)
Now, I’m no purist nor extremist (nor any -ist, really) — I won’t stop using Amazon, but in the moment of my conversation with Sue, and our follow-up exchange (below), the bigness of small moments moved me deeply. And I’m reminded of the fruit and veg stand on Southampton Row near the Sainsbury’s where I bought fruit for several months last year; and the series of coffee shops around my home in Philadelphia that are not franchised, some of which are host to artwork by local artists including:
- Chapterhouse – where there’s an exhibit by Lynette Shelley and Eleanor Grosch currently ongoing
- Red Hook Coffee – currently hosting a photography exhibit by students from Fleischer Arts til January 20th.
Later the same afternoon–
Me: Hi Sue, I saw you called.
Sue: Oh yeah, I forgot how to spell your dad’s last name but then I remembered right after I called you.
Me: Ok, great. Did you need anything else?
Sue: No, it worked out fine. Your dad is so cute — as soon as I walked in, he looked up and said “She never forgets.” And he looked so happy. And we put the cookie tray in the main room for everyone to enjoy.
Me: Thank you so much. Really.
Sue: Well, thank you for thinking of us and using us. Have a good holiday.
Me: You, too.
It turns out that they do not, in fact, deliver. Except for this delivery each December. For the past few years, and, if I can help it, for the next several to come.
May 2013 bring continued glimpses of humanity, joy, and small moments that make up lives…
Rather than attempt any written response to the events and aftermath unfolding from the dark day in Connecticut, I’m choosing instead to share a few new finds on the order of the art in children’s books and the worlds they open up — it is where I’m choosing to dwell for a spell.
More information here: Little Big Books: What Makes Great Children’s Picture Book Illustration
including these illustrations
and for those of us who want to know more: A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling
The truth is, while I personally hate to lecture, I thoroughly enjoy attending them — even when the lecturing occurs in the backdrop of my increasingly confused state of mind. This was the case when the professor who taught a biomechanics course that I took during my early undergraduate years delivered weekly lectures on tensile strength of bones, on torque and tension, and many other related topics, nearly none of which took root in my memory.
One of the only lectures that I recall with significant clarity had to do with the differences between the bones of adults and children. In brief: children’s bones are more flexible.
Physiologically speaking: over time, cartilage becomes calcified bone and levels of collagen decreases. Some bones become fused as time passes, which is another reason that a child’s body contains more bones than a typical adult skeleton — 300 compared with 206.
But these facts are the ones I just googled. What I remember — the story I recall with precision and that I have often produced as a narrative party trick is the following scene:
In the large, newly renovated lecture hall, Prof. X began drawing on the white board with a black, dry erase marker. He reached up high above him and drew a line about two feet wide and then ran the marker straight down, his lines produced a rectangle.
He pointed to the board with the tip of the marker, leaving a floating black mark near the rectangle and resumed talking, gesticulating with all of his appendages to convey a simple and yet remarkably intricate point about the human body: “If you or I were to take a fall, we would probably be badly injured or die. If a baby took the same fall, he would most likely bounce!”
This enthusiastic declaration had a graphic chaser — Prof. X indicated a “bouncing” motion with an exaggerated check mark that resembled the path said baby might take were it to engage in the aforementioned fall. The very notion of bouncing babies seemed to fill him with a peculiar delight that hardly ever surfaced again.
Babies bounce. This was the major takeaway from my three semesters as an engineering student. So while kids fracture their bones more easily, they also heal more quickly. Youth truly is nature’s balm.
And thus perhaps the cautionary notes I received from well-meaning loved ones about aging and bone fragility were not entirely off base.
But bones repair themselves, cuts heal (faster with the aid of some ointment), and we regenerate in many ways, including the fingernails I routinely slice, chop, or otherwise injure when getting lost in a rapid julienne or a distracted dice. (I’ve spent the past two weeks in full amazement while watching nail enamel form where just days ago flesh was peeking through; the shock of hurt, in awe of the heal.)
I suspect that if I had stories of bouncing babies or, as my high school physics teacher used to do, if I had concocted grand narrative metaphors for deceptively simple principles of physics that involved (no joke) action figures, wind-up motorcycles, and homemade ramps… then I might like to spin a yarn or two, as well, during class. For now, I’m comfortable sticking my pedagogical public with questions to ponder and invitations to engage with readings and texts through art and media…
The shock of falling, thankfully, is soothed with the awe of healing.
A friend texted me to say that the images coming out of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy look like they belong in a disaster film. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the howling winds on Monday night, my neighbors and I came through the storm relatively unscathed, all of us harboring more than a bit of survivor’s guilt as the stories and photographs of the otherwise bright city shrouded in darkness stream across all of our media. The lights were finally turned on in lower Manhattan on Friday night. The photos in the slideshow below were taken on Thursday, just as dusk began to dissolve into evening; I had attempted to meet a friend in the Lower East Side to help with food packaging and redistribution for nearby residents who had been without power or electricity for nearly four days. Using my feet, slowly running subway, and bus, I made it as far as 20th and FDR before realizing that without a flashlight or other light source, continuing on would not be a prudent decision. Before making the trek back home, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In a few instances, I lightened the image to allow some of the background to come through that had been almost entirely obscured by the thick curtain of darkness; the sheer absence of light, of sound, of humans in this normally densely populated part of town was purely suffocating. I allowed myself a few minutes to indulge in this moment, to take in my environs via camera as well as sensorily, before releasing the awe that threatened to settle in — I wondered, then, of what value is awe (at nature, above all else) in a time like this? In a time when awe is better channeled into cleaning debris from parks, from streets, from neighborhoods, much of which is happening throughout the city in demonstrations of humanity and connectedness.
And from the NYTimes: Glimmers of light in a darkened city
When was the time when editors reached out to their authors with such poetic caress in their writing? Take me there…
From the collection: Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence
Other than the familiar retreat of walking or writing (or reading or photographing or cooking), teaching has been the cushion to soften reentry’s crash landing, one that is characterized less by violent or jerking movements and more by a persistent cloud of disorientation. I wrote in a letter to a friend the other day that it is in the space of teaching — one where I have the chance to also be a learner and fellow looker and seer — that I am speaking a language that I recognize and that makes sense to me. The procedural apparatus surrounding those moments is utterly foreign, at best, demoralizing, at worst. This is perhaps what marks last night’s class as especially moving — I take no credit for it except to thank myself for having the good sense to be in collaboration with thoughtful and humane people, two of whom shared stories and experiences with the students in the form of dialogue and an exercise (although to say “exercise” feels diminishing somehow) on reflection and seeing and, quite frankly, retaining one’s humanity in the midst of the seemingly intractable institutional morass.
On that note… Should the time come for me to resign — because at this rate, who knows if I’ll make it to retirement — I should like to think I can be as precise and concise as William Faulkner was in his letter of resignation from his position as postmaster, addressed to his superiors at the University of Mississippi:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
This, sir, is my resignation.
For more, see Letters of Note.