At the foot of my bed stands a bookcase. The bookcase is tall and white and has five shelves. It is a hand-me-down from my friend Jamie McNulty—she gave it and its twin to me (the twin is in Isobel’s room) before she moved to London in 2005. Jamie also gave me her Cuisinart, a set of nesting glass bowls, and two oval ceramic dishes long-since dropped and broken, but once perfect for baking small meals (she liked to make poblano peppers with red sauce during the winter months—warming food). Oh, and Jamie gave me a bunch of books (she used to work as a book buyer at Powell’s Books) – my favorite is a signed copy of Salman Rushdie’s The ground beneath her feet.
There are other treasured books in the bookcase representing various phases of my life, symbolizing my interests and commitments as I travel through my life course. The top shelf holds books that are important to my ongoing spiritual practice, several of which I’ve read multiple times. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write in dharma books (or any books, for that matter), as it is disrespectful. But I must admit to having written in many of my books, including those related to spiritual practice, because for me writing in my books – underlining key points, adding short annotations – actually feels respectful; it is, for me, a form of relationship with the author of the book and a way of interacting with the ideas captured on its pages.
On the bottom shelf there are books related to organic gardening; hiking trails in Oregon and Colorado; interval training for cycling; as well as classical flute music scores, some of which belonged to my mother and, as such, are perhaps fifty years old.
The three levels of books in between the top and bottom shelves hold a combination of literary texts and scholarly texts. Some of the scholarly texts are those that I want close by because I consult them on a regular basis for the courses I teach (Smith is there, and Mazlish, and a bunch of the Critical Gerontologists from the U.K., as well as Wallerstein, and, of course, my man Foucault.).
As for the literary texts, there is a book of poems from Stanley Kunitz, essays from Annie Dillard, and perhaps an eighth of my Rushdie collection and a couple of selections from Orhan Pamuk (The rest of Rushdie’s as well as Pamuk’s works live in the front room in the bookcases that Simeon lent me, bookcases that used to reside in his childhood bedroom. I fear if I had all of Rushdie’s and Pamuk’s writings at the foot of my bed I’d be overcome with excitement and my sleep would be disrupted!). There’s also a volume of Stoppard plays, a new collection of essays from Umberto Eco, and various other books, some amongst my most favorite books I have ever read, and some books yet-to-be-read but hanging out there waiting for me when the time is right.
This past Wednesday night I was sitting on my bed, working at giving feedback on papers and preparing for my Thursday afternoon gerontology course. Isobel was preparing for the college visit trip she and her father are on this weekend, for which they left early Thursday morning. She was packing and puttering, and then she was showering, so as I was working I was serenaded by the sound of her shower and the radio. A great song came on, Breathing underwater, from Metric’s latest album.
My attention, which was already somewhat unstable and drifting from my work to thoughts of Izzy’s departure the next day and all the stuff I had to do and how tired I was feeling, became focused on the song’s lyrics, and as I was listening to the lyrics and letting myself be overcome by the mood of the song I was also softly gazing at the bookcase at the foot of my bed. My mind was meandering and relaxed, so I was caught by surprise when I suddenly found myself moved to sobbing.
There on the second shelf down from the top shelf, in front of Smith and Foucault and Bateson (Mary Catherine, her dad Gregory is on the shelf below) and El Saadawi stood Isobel’s very first shoes: funny little white leather booties, scuffed on the toes. Five-inches in length, toe-to-heel; old school laces, not Velcro straps.
Valentine’s Day next week is Isobel’s birthday – she’ll be seventeen. She’s an almost-woman. Now she wears edgy granny boots and collects tall fancy shoes, hoping her feet don’t grow before she has a chance to wear them somewhere fancy. She’s planning to get her drivers license, trying to figure out when to take the SATs, and is scheming and dreaming about how to make it to the east coast after graduating high school, and how to make it to Europe after that.
But for now, Isobel is far away on the other coast only for the weekend, and already half-way through the four day trip. I was quite worried yesterday that she and her dad would have an impossible time trying to get around in the middle of a blizzard but today Izzy is bopping around the Bard university campus by herself, trying it on for size, getting a sense of the vibe. She ditched her dad—he spent the afternoon in the hotel, trying to distract himself with work. And I’m here at home on the other coast, watching the adventure from afar.
Perhaps I should see this experience as preparation for when Isobel is actually away at college and I am watching her adult life begin and unfold, in blizzards, in the summer sun, year after year, full of challenges and surprises, great happiness and disappointment. Perhaps I should feel glad that she’s not alone but with her father, who loves the snow but is prone to hysteria when faced with inconveniences or things out of his control (such as the weather). What I feel for certain: I really miss Isobel. And I wish that it was I who was stuck in the hotel in the blizzard trying to distract myself with work while waiting for her to text me asking to be picked up after her afternoon on campus. And I am glad that Isobel and her dad get to have this adventure together.
I feel happy last thing at night before I turn off the little reading lamp and first thing in the morning (after I put my glasses on) when I see all of my book-friends there waiting for me – watching over me – in the bookcase at the foot of my bed. And now I have a new ritual, which is to rest my awareness for a moment on Izzy’s little toddler booties, the shoes she learned to walk in, and say a prayer of gratitude for traveling this far with her and a prayer of protection as she moves ever closer to embarking upon her solo journey out into the vast, complicated, beautiful world.