Monday, January 3, 2011

What I Did on My Vacation

My family was down to two for a few days this past week. My husband and my youngest daughter flew to California to celebrate his mother’s 82nd birthday between Christmas and New Year’s. Air fares were so outrageous that we only felt we could send half our delegation.

The result was that I was left at home with a fairly self-reliant 15-year-old daughter, post holidays (where for most of a week I prepared three squares a day for larger-than-usual crowds), with very little that I absolutely HAD to do. Faced with this unusual span of available time, I considered dismantling Christmas, various long-neglected organizational tasks, and the obvious housekeeping chores that had been suspended for the immediate needs of houseguests….

And so, of course, I read three novels, back-to-back, in bed, in my nightclothes, for much of the time. It was luxurious, disorienting, and thoroughly restorative.

I find that the only thing that can make me want to ignore my family is a good novel. As a girl, I devoured most reading matter that came my way, including medicine labels, cereal boxes, and junk mail. Before I was allowed, in fourth grade, to check out books from the more mature sections of my library (what a silly and outdated rule!), I would appear at the Bookmobile at the start of their shift in my schoolyard, check out the maximum number of allowed charges, take them home to read, and return just before the vehicle departed to check out a whole new allotment. My mother recalls how she could never send her three children to their rooms as a punishment, since we were never happier than reading in our rooms; I vividly remember the ache of being called from solitary reading to set the table, vacuum, rake, shovel, whatever task the life of the household demanded at the moment. Reading was refuge, escape, transport to other, better worlds, and sometimes seemed like the meaning of life. That luxurious childhood sense of the urgency of reading, and my parents’ acquiescence in my siblings’ and my pursuit of it, is one of the greatest gift of my early years.

However, being a good partner, and a passable parent, I rarely indulge this longing to forget the rest of my world and just read. So this week, with my diminished household demands, was a rare opportunity.

One of my closest friends, Harvard and Oxford educated, a busy physician, parent, and spouse, whom I regularly refer to as “the smartest person I know,” had a childhood ambition for adult success that I treasure. Early on, she defined her standard for adult success as being able to read “a book a day.” It sounds laughable, and in fact I have related this to friends who have laughed at the idea. But it is hard for me to imagine a grownup goal that better incorporates that greatest freedom and pleasure of my childhood, than this one. Needless to say, neither she nor I have achieved this success.

I talk to women all the time, for whom a great regret of adult life is not having time and energy to read. The refrain about reading only a few pages in bed before falling asleep is a common one. As are the piles of unread, long-desired tomes on the bedside table. I know of a number of book clubs that have sadly disbanded, due to the difficulty of mustering a critical mass of members who get the books read month in and month out. Often, there is a tinge of guilt in these narrations, as though we have somehow betrayed our younger, perhaps wiser, reading selves.

In recent years I have rededicated myself to reading more. Nothing makes me feel that I have attended to my core self more than reading. I invite you to join me in this ongoing project in 2011. There are lots of sources for raising your own excitement about making more time for reading: two favorites are Maureen Corrigan’s segments on NPR’s Fresh Air and our own Esmerelda’s “Esmerelda’s Book Thing” Consider joining the WWFaC book group, which meets third Thursdays at the schoolhouse.

Happy New Year! Happy Reading! Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse


  1. Thanks. I enjoyed your post. It got me thinking about something I've been thinking on and off for a while.

  2. I enjoyed this so much, Mary. I was reminded of similar goals and childhood memories of roller skating up and down the driveway reading - because I had to go outside and get exercise.

  3. Too true. Maybe I will feign illness, take to my bed, and finish The Angle of Repose! Glad you are starting the New Year restored!

  4. Mary, you totally captured how I feel about books and reading. Like you, as a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, even re-reading the back of the Wheaties box every morning. Books have been one of the few constants in my life. I can still conjure up the musty smell of my small, home town library. It was intoxicating. I can still feel the concave, worn wooden steps underneath my feet leading me to thousands of other worlds. I am glad you gave yourself the gift of luxuriating in books over the holidays. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Reading is such a joy! I'm more drawn in by nonfiction than fiction. I like fiction but I get absolutely lost in history and religion. I'm poring through Karen Armstrong's The Case for God right now.