Out Of Print

(a short story as this week’s offering)

Dora rose to the bright morning sun of the first Fall day—one of Willamette Valley’s best seasons.Mist still clung, low to the ground, covering everything but the colors in the trees along the hills. Light comes so late on Autumn mornings; she knew she was starting the day behind, but still she couldn’t help but pause at the kitchen window, steaming coffee in hand, a barrier against the new chill of the old farmhouse. Tonight might be the night for the celebratory first fire of the year in the old brick fireplace.

Built by her grandfather when he lived here, Dora always celebrated the Fall weather by baking her favorite pizza dough, topping it with mozzarella and arugula, and eating the masterpiece in front of the carefully built fire. Sometimes she invited friends to join the celebration, sometimes she soaked up the fire alone, reviewing her own memories quietly. Tonight, she thought, is a personal pizza night. After the week at work that she’d had, a night alone near a cozy fire sounded like her idea of relaxing.

First though, Dora needed to get through the Friday ahead of her, which meant getting in gear and out the door in time for her lengthy commute across town to the office where two days’ worth of work waited for her and her attempt to get it done in one seemed very unlikely. She knew even before she got out of bed that day that she’d be working from home on Saturday to get all the work done, but when she saw the beautiful Fall day outside, nothing could dampen her spirit. Spinach, banana and kefir milk in the blender made breakfast and she gulped down h!er coffee before walking out the door.

Work filled the day and it seemed she was walking out the door of the office, weekend work in hand, after just turning around. It was as if the promise of the fire kindled a spark in her heart that burned warm all day long and now that she was heading home, it came to life, lighting up her face as she drove. She caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror and was surprised by a glow she had never noticed before. As it turns out, it was the Autumn sun, low on the horizon and filtered by the farm dust in the air, turned by the many farm implements nearby. Dora felt, though, as if bathed in gold and how could she not own some of that light as part of her own self; as originating from within? She felt the flame of happiness in her spine flicker, as if fanned brighter by her spirit as she turned into her driveway. Charlie, her faithful four legged companion, rose from his post at the front door, stretched: his back arched and forepaws down. Then he bounded out to greet her at the car door. Even his eyes registered an awe at her golden appearance and searched her eyes for an explanation. “It’s just the sun Charlie Boy! Isn’t it beautiful?” His muzzle against her leg was his reply and it was enough. Together they walked up the sidewalk, poured by her grandfather, and opened the front entry door—the one no one else ever used. Dora felt a formal entry needed to be used; it was the grand gesture of a house. . . an ‘entres voux’, so she always entered through it (even with a load of groceries, though it meant a longer walk to the big kitchen). This was her homage to the house and its builders. It meant the first view she saw as she entered the house was always the brick fireplace, with the inviting hearth.
Charlie, a sprightly terrier, knew the routine and led the way inside, settling quickly on his braided rug near the fireplace. He seemed to be aware that tonight promised special events; he seemed to sense the chill and appeared content to wait for the warmth surely to come. “First the pizza dough,” Dora told him as she walked through the old house to the kitchen. Charlie rested his head on his forepaws as his eyes followed her. Once she was out of sight though, he quickly jumped up to join her. Kitchen was nearly as good as warm living room.

Dora loved the smell of yeast as the dough activated and rose; the way it filled the kitchen with its vintage flavor reminded her of her grandmother, an expert baker. As the dough rose in the red pyrex bowl (actually first owned by her grandmother) covered in the aqua linen cloth (the color of the canning cellar after Grandma went after it with a paintbrush in her hand), Dora felt the fireplace calling. Maybe it was the cool air coming through the floorboards and wallboards. Charlie gave a short ‘yip’ and led her back to the living room, commencing to direct her every m!otion.

Once the fire thrived all on its own, Dora settled comfortably on the couch, drawing her knees up and her feet under her—Charlie’s signal to join her, where he fit perfectly nestled along her shins. “Oh Charlie Boy—all we need now is a good story! Can you believeI let myself run out of reading material?” Dora questioned, looking from the bright flames to Charlie’s dark brown eyes. He replied by heaving a sigh and resting his trim head on the curve of her knee. The happy crackling of the fire and the rhythmic sensation of Charlie’s breathing next to her nearly lulled Dora to sleep, a habit she heartily tried to curb so early in the evening, when suddenly a loud POP! escaped the brick fireplace and a coal escaped to the hearth. As her eyes popped open, one thought remained in her mind: a story from The Wonder Book read to her when she was a child. Before she remembered that the fireplace in that story played such an important role—as the gathering place for Eustace Bright and all his young cousins—Dora wondered why that story landed in her semi-conscious mind.
Alert, Charlie looked intently into her eyes, as if asking what she would do about her book-less state. . . and when the pizza might be put together and baked. While looking back at Charlie, the image of the tiny attic beside the upstairs bathroom flashed momentarily, like a flash bulb atop a vintage camera. As children Dora and her sisters had accepted the job of organizing and cleaning out the old, unfinished, mouse-ridden space under the eaves of the farm house; the hard to reach place where all of her father’s and grandfather’s books and magazines ended up once the words had been devoured. Unable to purge any printed material, both her dad and her grandfather valued the printed word nearly above all else. So the books and magazined and newspapers had been stashed in every tiny crevice of the raw beamed attic and though light rarely touched their pages, Dora had known they rested there, like artifacts under a shallow depth of soil. Now, she remembered her initial rapture when her mother had assigned her the job. Her sisters had gladly allowed her to take charge of the project since they had no interest in the small, cramped space and remained content outside the small door as Dora handed out s!tacks and stacks of old volumes.

The smell of musty print had escaped as well and the smell reached Dora now, through the haze of time and memory. It tugged her eyes open; Charlie’s a half-second later, seeking a reason for the disruption of his couch time. He gazed again into her eyes as she processed her train of thought. Dora couldn’t think why the wafting scent of old books might have reached her there on the couch. Now. Print—anything actually printed on paper—had been banned ten years avon in the attempt to break society of the bad habit of using the natural resources so frivolously. She remembered days of using recycled print to start fires long ago. Now she wouldn’t even consider such a lavish act with paper—a precious commodity used for. . . well, it just wasn’t used anymore. Since paper isn’t used anymore, the post consumer recycling game had changed too. Napkins and cardboard were all made of recycled clothing these days. Clothes and plastic—now these are two things Dora thought her society still had too much of. She’d often thought the ban should be on new fashion and that a limit be placed on how much of one’s disposable income could be spent on the new fashions promoted each year. Most people ended up throwing away last year’s clothes for the silly reason that they were, “last year”. Dora didn’t. she wore clothes that her friends threw away and saved her income for art supplies. “And dog food, right Charlie?” At his name, Charlie sat up, poised for whatever might come next. Hoping for some pizza, he turned on his sparkle eyes. Distracted, Dora didn’t notice. She gazed into the fire, mesmerized by memories creeping in on her.

Soon, Dora realized there was nothing for it but to visit the attic at the top of the stairs, inside the bathroom door. Checking in on the dough and punching it down on her way through the kitchen, she smiled back at Charlie on the way up the small red staircase, “Well come on Charlie Boy! We’re going to look at the books.” An air of celebration, even more than the typical Friday night pizza and the first Fall fire day, swirled through the house, affecting everyone inside. Charlie took the stairs two at a time—a rare feat for his ten year old body.

If you didn’t know the attic was there, in the corner of the bathroom, you would never notice it. Unassuming, with its tiny hinges and latch, it blended in. Dora knew it well though and she paused in front of it, taking it all in. Long ago, Dora and her sisters pledged to never tell anyone else about the attic of books (a promise she broke when Charlie began accompanying her. She felt certain about his trustworthiness). They, at first, had wanted the pleasure of reading all to themselves. Later, the pledge became more vital when print was banned from society. They were all expected to turn in any printed material in their possession in order to completely rely on the newest digital technology. Though her sisters pleaded with Dora to comply, she refused, being the sole owner of the farm house. “No one but us knows about the attic,” she had exclaimed in exasperation.

“Don’t forget Charlie!” returned her sister. All eyes turned to Charlie, who look up innocently.

“Oh Charlie’s not going to give us up! look at him,” In the world of terriers, there never had been, nor never will be again as sweet of a display of submission as Charlie performed then. He rolled onto his back and sweetly smiled up at Dora, thus sealing the pact successfully.

So now, as Dora and Charlie paused in front of the small attic door, she recited the old pledge:  This tiny, ageless nook, Wherein we keep our books, Will forever be, Secret for three, Whenever we take a look.

After her sisters had been reassigned to other locations, she changed the words to, “secret for two—she and Charlie—though it ruined the rhyme. Charlie sat appropriately reverent as Dora opened the small door. Once the latch released, the door popped open, as if on a spring, revealing the old bed spread ‘wall paper’ she had hung in her teens. Books of all sized and volumes neatly lined the walls, arranged by size of book (a system that made perfect sense to her in her youth). Now, the job of finding The Wonder Book seemed impossibly daunting in the dim light. Dora felt completely ready for the task. Walking the “stacks” of the attic library (a term she remembered from her grandfather) needed to be done on knees, so Dara carried a pillow with her. In her heart, despite her 65 years, she was still a young girl, whose sisters waited outside—a bit of coaching on her knees wasn’t a problem for her. Charlie, poised as if on guard, watched every move with interest.

Dora had developed a rhythm for this work of secret admiration. First, all the doors had been locked downstairs, not that there was any real danger of anyone attempting to enter; no neighbors were closer than a mile and she wasn’t expecting company. Once she entered the small attic door on her knees—such a prayerful position—she repeated the rhyme of her childhood as if a prayer to the books themselves. The books were in fact characters from the t!heater of her childhood and they were, each one, well loved.

Once inside the attic of books, Dora forgot time and lost herself in a barrage of ideas, pinned in their respective boxes like butterflies, forever preserved albeit illegally in the current world. As she perused the makeshift shelving, so carefully installed by her childhood self, she re-imagined a world in which it was still acceptable to hold in your hand the literal ideas of others, made solid by the act of printing on paper. In her younger days, Dora had studied the history of print; from the invention of paper to the printing press, both incredible leaps in world communication and the spread of ideas. She remembered feeling slightly dangerous as she discussed the events leading up to the practice of printing common stories, imagined by the ordinary citizen, with her p!eers and their professors.

“But why did they take so long to ban the practice of using trees to print when the capability of digitizing the publishing world existed so long ago?” She vividly remembered asking her professor of Antiquity and Ruins one day when she felt her most brave self drawn out by the topic. Just as vivid was the professor’s answer, of course in the form of another question aimed at her.

“Which do you think is the easiest to control or censor—print or digital publishing of information?” The question had stumped her, and sometimes still stumped her. She would have become lost in the archive of her own mind’s stacks on the topic of censorship had she not h!eard Charlie whimper pathetically.

“You’re right Charlie, the fire needs tending I’m sure. Let’s check on the dough too.” With a slight hop of his front legs, Charlie willingly turned around and headed down the well-worn stairs of the old farmhouse, painted red by a loving hand ages ago. Dora let the child-sized door of the attic swing mostly closed, the small latch not quite closing completely; a tiny thread of light from the old “energy efficient” bulb (from the first quarter of the 21st century) leaking through the sliver of space and converging with the more consistent modern light of the retrofitted house. Normally Dora was a stickler about latching and camouflaging the attic door, though who would even care or have cause to inspect her old bathroom so carefully, she couldn’t imagine. Tonight, she followed Charlie to the comforts of the fire and yeasty bread, both blossoming, without a second thought about unnecessary precautions.

Downstairs the warm smell of yeast rose to meet her eager nose; Dora inhaled deeply and Charlie, standing on two legs, enjoyed the air equally, sniffing short exploratory breaths as his nose led him closer to the old fashioned glass bowl on the counter. “Charlie Boy, don’t even think about it. You’ll just have to wait until it’s out of the oven like the rest of us.” After a brief check on the fire, once it was alive fully and casting large shadows on the walls of the living room, Dora revisited the kitchen to assemble the “pizza pie” as her east coast friends were fond of calling it. She sang as she worked. Charlie skittered along the old linoleum, following Dora at every turn. “When the moon hosts your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!” Dance-like, Dora and Charlie worked like this, so familiar with each others’ company that seldom did they fluster or miss a step. Dora wondered if life could get better than this moment, right now.

After sharing the pizza, Dora nestled into the warm room, under her favorite cotton (oh the luxury of cotton!) blanket, with Charlie curled in behind the curve of her knees, head rested on her calf. She found her mind couldn’t rest though; still thinking about books upstairs and the difference between print and digital text, Dora turned to look at the fire and noticed the book sitting on the side table. “Oh!” she gasped audibly, startling Charlie, who raised his head, on alert. How long had it been since she had seen a book in three dimensions out in the “wild” of the public? Maybe never, unless you counted those on display at the Museum of Non- Compliance.

She realized then that she must have inadvertently brought it down from the attic when she checked on the fire last. Looking around shyly (who would be observing?) Dora reached slowly for that book, caressing it with both hands as she lifted it close. The Wonder Book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. She inhaled its fragrance, such a mix of unfamiliar and vintage scents. For a moment, she was lost to joy as she opened the frail copy of text: the pages could only be turned carefully to avoid crumbling or breaking. She admired the type face—an art form all its own. It seemed to match Hawthorne’s writing style perfectly.

And cousin Eustace Bright’s return to Tanglewood placed her so immediately on her own farm— in front of her fire. She had already read, “The Gorgon’s Head” before she realized the dwindling fire and Charlie’s snores. Not willing to disrupt his sleep, she snuggled deeper into her blanket and tucked The Wonder Book under her arm. She fell asleep immediately.

Even as Dora opened her eyes, she knew someone or something was in the house aside from Charlie, who was sounding an alarm of short and insistent barks in the kitchen. Thinking quickly, she pushed The Wonder Book between the back of the old couch and its fusions; as she rose, she dropped the blanket and it fell conveniently over the hiding spot. Quietly she crept to the hall to see what might be happening in the other room.

Charlie appeared to be barking at nothing, but she knew this could not be. After watching him, she began to see that he followed a path, that of a 2 foot tall small and agile robot. . . the kind designed for “searches and seizures for the safety of all”. . . as it smoothly rounded corners and gathered digital information. Dora had heard of these “Safety Bots” and had always considered them innocuous. Now she had a different opinion. She wanted a safe society as much as anyone, but now that one roamed her home uninvited (why hadn’t she locked the door?), the hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she could feel sweat droplets trailing down her back.

The smoke from the chimney must have alerted the Safety Bot—citizens were allowed four fires per year, if non-paper was used to start it. Safety Bots had been know to check for compliance, but Dora had never experienced one before. She knew, though, that anything out of compliance would be called in. Then the Safety Commission Officers would be sent to deal with the situation. That would be the end. Of everything.

Charlie’s barks brought her back from her own thinking to the present: he was barking incessantly—not his usual behavior. And his nose pointed at the door to the utility area where she kept her stash of old college books—a habit frowned upon by the Safety Commission, but not technically a safety breach; the lines were blurred. Charlie surprised her—she had considered him one of the smartest dogs and most loyal. She hadn’t questioned his loyalty.

It was then that Dora noticed the Safety Bot had been headed up the stairs until it turned and followed Charlie’s pointing. It reached up with its robotic arm extension, opened the door and began exploring. Charlie trotted over to Dora and sat obediently, looking up at her with sparkling eyes. “Good boy, Charlie,” she whispered.

After 10 minutes of waiting, the Safety Bot returned to the kitchen, issuing Dora a printed ticket and exiting through the front door, as it entered.

Out of Compliance: Paper, 8 textbooks

Return to the Museum of Non-Compliance within 2 days.
Fee: $218

Immediately, Dora picked up Charlie and covered him with kisses. “Oh you smart, smart dog! You sent the ‘Bot on a wild goose chase, didn’t you? What a good dog!” Charlie basked in the attention.

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The Possession of Our Own Being

Il bel far niente. (the art of doing nothing)

Il bel far niente.
(the art of doing nothing)

There are days when I can’t face the thought of being home alone in my apartment, but it has nothing to do with being single. On these days, I feel agitated, as if there are countless things I should be doing, but I can’t seem to begin any of them. Nothing seems right. I elect to run errands–I find something to do outside my apartment and outside my own head (away from the things that call to me). I feel a moment’s reprieve from my agitation because while running errands I feel I am accomplishing something.

For nearly as long as I can remember I’ve had this feeling: “I should be doing something else entirely,” no matter what I am doing at any moment. This certainly keeps me busy, and usually leaves me with a an unsatisfied itch, even when I accomplish a multitude of tasks. The little things that come easily forward in my mind–the countless things I should be doing–are like “troubles” from Pandora’s box and I am swatting at them as I cross them off my daily list.

But they keep coming back! What would really bring me peace and joy remains ignored.

Thomas Merton wrote: There are times when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all, we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing. And for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform: and often it is quite beyond his power. We must first recover the possession of our own being. No Man Is An Island (New York: New Directions, 1983).

What I’ve learned in the past year is that if I am going to survive, I’ll need to breathe, which means practicing the art of doing nothing sometimes. I’ve found my best ideas this way–they shyly come forward when I am quiet, and I love them!