Saturday, June 13, 2009

Wise Women

I went to a marvelous party. My dear friend and coworker decided to celebrate her sixty fourth birthday by inviting us all to spend the evening in her lovely home, wandering between the beautiful little garden out back, the handsome decks, high and low, and the cool Craftsman interior. My favorite spot though was on her shaded front porch. There was more and better food provided by the various excellent cooks from the bookstore's staff than I've eaten at many a professionally catered affair. The table groaned under great mounds of fresh strawberries, cheeses, vegetable platters, roasted, spicy pecans, banana breads, roasted chicken, chili, pizza, sandwiches, homemade quiches, homemade ice cream, and a birthday cake so beautiful it was almost painful to cut it, made by the truly accomplished baker, and remainders buyer for the store, N., who did the occasion proud indeed. My own dear A., made savory corn muffins that were gone in the blink of an eye. The kitchen was cluttered with good drink.

The evening, by any standard, was a rousing success, but for me, my greatest happiness was in seeing our hostess, so recently cast down by personal circumstances of a kind no one should have to face at the same time as one's sixty fourth birthday, in such good spirits, looking radiantly healthy again, slim and attractive, and smiling even in the happy chaos so unusual to her house. She looked damned good and she did damned well. This, you'll understand, is a woman I've come to know and love as much for her occasional wry pessimism as for her more general good cheer. All of her true friends have had cause to worry about her of late. For a time, the light seemed to gutter in her eyes and worry, which admittedly is something she does well, and loss, with which no one I've ever known was less likely to cope as well as she has done, threatened to overwhelm her. There were days, evenings together particularly, when I was concerned to see her back to that handsome house, going into it, and the future, alone. To see her now, greeting guests, mingling, even staggering a little from all the noisy affection expressed, was like seeing someone I remembered, rather than someone I see almost daily, like seeing someone only recently returned from a place to which no one goes willingly and from which I worried she might never make her way back. Yet here she very much was, smiling, laughing, moving gracefully through circumstances not usual to her. She is a quiet person, happiest I think in simplest communion; reading on her porch swing, in conversation with a friend, relieving the pain of others with the massage she's made her other career, in an embrace -- she is the easiest person to hold I know. Even at work, when we really ought not, we tend to fall on each other like happy drunks nearly every time we pass, just for the pure pleasure of touch and because we know, each of the other, how necessary and welcome such comfort can be.

I can not now imagine my luck in having found such a friend at work. As with so many women I've met working in bookstores, my friend has been and continues to be a better friend to me than I might otherwise ever have found. There is, I firmly believe, something very special about the women who do the work of books. The men employed in bookstores can be, in my experience, a more mixed lot, good and bad, just as one might find in any other job. And there have been and doubtlessly will always be female booksellers who, taken individually, are no better a use of carbon than a rock. Such is the variety of creation. But I have met, in my time, more honest, sensitive, intelligent and strong women in bookstores than I suspect I would have been likely to meet in almost any other setting. Their sensitivity I suppose comes of being bookish and attracted to bookish pursuits, their intelligence likewise, their honesty and good manners no doubt allow them to continue working with the public in what can be a rather thankless job, but their strength, their strength I think, more than anything else they share in common, is what I find so enlivening.

I've known booksellers, mostly men, so burned out by the demands of retail work, so distracted by other interests and ambitions that they simply cease to be any damned good at what they do. But I've known as many or more women, good booksellers, extraordinary individuals, who have survived the flood, how I do not know, who have survived the end of thirty year relationships, seen parents gently off, in some cases raised children, in others seen to their friends with just as much care, and who have still never lost their enthusiasm for work, for relationship, for contact and conviviality, for laughter and books and the astonishing variety of life. I do not hold with the division of attributes between the sexes. It is however just from my own experience I've come to find women likeliest to model for me what it is that makes humanity indestructible. (I may, in this, be also a little influenced by the fact that historically women, in contrast with the rest of us, have done so little to destroy humanity, but I generalize again.) If I ever doubted that my friend, just turned sixty four, might not prove herself to be among the celebrants, I had good proof of her indomitability tonight. She may be as slight as a breeze nowadays, but she has proved less fragile than we, and even she I suspect, feared.

The great Ida Cox used to say "wild women don't get the blues," but I think wise women, at least in my experience, teach us all to survive them. Happy Birthday, friend, and many more.

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