The most important thing

Prayer wheel

For three days I’ve been thinking about the families of the children who died in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be a parent.

Our first child was born prematurely on a bright, crisp autumn day. One minute I was lying in bed planning how I’d spend my Sunday, the next my husband and I were racing to the hospital. Our wee one seemed determined to make his appearance on planet earth right then and there on Interstate 90.

A few hours later – after a very short labor – we had a son.

I looked at him sleeping on his tummy in his isolette in the NICU. A scrunched-up bundle in a baby blanket with his little bottom in the air and a head of black Irish/Sicilian hair. Suddenly I knew I would sacrifice anything, even my life, for this new little person. It was like when you look at someone you’ve seen before and realize you’re in love – except it was much, much more than that.  For a moment my ego dissolved. I was no longer the center of my own little universe.

Book cover, Some Assembly Required

As displayed in Queen Anne Books, Seattle

A few years later, when I read Anne Lamott’s words in Operating Instructions, I thought: she has it exactly right. Last week, I came across the same passage again on one of my favorite blogs, and I planned to share the post and add my thoughts. Then Friday happened and Lamott’s words took on a greater urgency for me as I shopped at the market for Christmas cookies and decorations.

Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could happen that would utterly destroy me. . . . Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam. I look down into his staggeringly lovely little face, and I can hardly breathe sometimes. He is all I have ever wanted, and my heart is so huge with love that I feel like it is about to go off. At the same time, I feel that he has completely ruined my life, because I didn’t used to care all that much.

I think that moments of great joy and great tragedy shock us out of the ordinary and awaken within us a singular intensity of compassion, good will, and love. The boundaries between us and them, between the self and the other, fall away, if only temporarily.

There will be plenty of time later to ask why and bicker and debate the meaning of Newtown and what can be done to stop it from happening again.

The most important thing now is to ride the great wave of love and compassion this tragedy has released into the world – for as long as it lasts –  and take care of our children, 27 heartbroken families, and each other.

Quote: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott. Fawcett Columbine, New York: 1993.

I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.


Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

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