The fact that Ginger and I have been in Guilford a little over a year now means we are beginning to do things for the second time; our inaugural year is over. Last year I was invited to serve on the Christmas Tree Committee, which, I learned, meets only once a year on the second Saturday morning in December to go out, cut down the tree for the sanctuary, bring it back and set it up, and then have coffee and doughnuts together. This morning was my second committee meeting, and there is now a beautiful sixteen and a half foot tall tree at the front of the church and an empty box of Beach Donuts in one of the trash cans. It was a good morning together. Not just a morning; a memory. We took one of the things off of the church’s Advent To Do List and turned it into a morning we will remember because we did it together.
For many years, my shared Christmas tradition with my nephews was that we sent each other music. I would box up a few CDs—some old, some new—in hopes of offering them something they had not found on their own, and they did the same for me. I have memories down the years of one of them calling to say, “I’m driving home from school and listening to Jackson Browne (or Jason Isbell or Patty Griffin) and just wanted to say how much I love this record.” When Scott, the youngest nephew, got married, one of his friends and bandmates came up to me at the reception and said, “Uncle Milton! I’m so glad to meet you. Thanks for sending all the music.”
The streaming services have made it so boxing up CDs doesn’t make as much sense anymore, so this year I decided I would box up books instead. I drove up the Shoreline to the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, which is actually housed in four different locations around the little town.
The original location is an old house and several (unheated) out-buildings, carts, and trailers filled with books, and organized quite well. The other locations are in buildings that look more like storefronts, each one with specific types of books inside. I spent about an hour and a half at the original site and picked up several books that will be fun to send for Christmas. I also found one for myself: Donald Hall’s, Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry. Hall, a former US Poet Laureate, writes engaging and thoughtful prose as well as poetry. This was one I had not read, so it came home with me, and it was on the top of the stack when I put the books on the counter at the cash register.
The man behind the counter was one of the owners, I surmised from the conversation he had with the person in front of me, and, when it was my turn, I realized that part of his tradition in the store was to have a conversation with whomever was checking out. When he saw Hall’s book, he said, “I got to do a reading once with Donald Hall.” All he needed from me was an acknowledgement, and he was off on a wonderful story of how they had seen each other in the restaurant before the reading and were both dressed in jeans, maroon t-shirts, and denim over-shirts, as he called them. The whole time he was talking, he was ringing up my purchases. Then he put my books down, turned to me, and said, “When he read, he did it sitting down because he has had trouble with his legs as he has aged. But when I finished my reading, he stood up for me.” He smiled. “That was a wonderful day.” And he turned my trip to the bookstore into a memory that held more than the bag of books I carried to the car.
I’m looking at the stack of books that will make their way to Chicago and New Orleans early next week—Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Paul Bowles, and Willa Cather, Desmond Tutu, Nora Gallagher, Anne Tyler, Steven Millhauser, Robertson Davies. All of them have a story behind why I pulled them off the shelf. I bought Buechner in seminary and he gave me lines from King Lear that I have hung on to:
The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
A passage from Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky led my friend Billy and I to write “Twenty One Times,” which is a lyric I’m proud and fond of. Nora Gallagher is one of a number of Episcopalian women (along with Madeleine L’Engle and Sarah Miles) whose writings have informed my faith. Desmond Tutu is one of my heroes. Anne Tyler gave me the image of the chair shaped like a hand, that helped remind me I was held when my depression was at its worst. Perhaps I should have told the poet behind the counter I was grateful for his story and his store because they reminded me that, even as Donald Hall stood up for him, the folks in these books have walked with me down the years and how I was sending them on new journeys with people I love.
Then again, maybe it was enough to hear his story and say, “Thanks for taking time to tell me,” which is what I did, and I drove home with a car full of books and memories.