On My Mind


The light changes. A cover has opened, slit of sun beaming into the darkness, a ha-ha neiner-neiner taunt transmitted from the world of wind and spit. In the quick second between dandelion shaft blinking back to onyx, a gentle violence occurs, crinkling followed by thump.

A book has been returned.


With that thump, the movable floor inside the Returns bin lowers almost imperceptibly; a single book isn’t that heavy, after all. But then the flap clinks, signaling another, another, another, dark to light, light to dark, typeset words in freefall. Absorbing the weight of pages and ideas, springs stretch, and the catching floor gradually sinks.

It’s designed to protect the books, this bin is. When it’s empty, the floor rests near the top, quick purchase for incoming books slithering through the slot. As Returns accumulate, the floor gradually descends, earlier Returns nesting and bolstering newcomers so no volume sustains damage from a traumatic plummet.

Eventually, when enough readers have honored the socialist agreement that cooperative sharing benefits the collective, the thing is full.

It’s time to empty the cart.


Heavy with books come home, the chockablock bin is rolled from sidewalk through the open garage door into the space where library workers await the next scheduled curbside pick-up. In between appointments, they busy themselves with the unseen tasks — parents emptying the dishwasher at 10 p.m. while the kids sleep — that keep the place functioning.

In May of 2020, it’s only recently that the library, hobbled by lockdown and layoffs, has begun to accept Returns; after months of being asked to hold onto their items because there isn’t enough staff to process even a portion of the 57,000 books checked out in the weeks before closure, fretting patrons can finally hand back the books they’ve been fostering — a permission joyfully greeted by hundreds of conscientious worriers whose pandemic anxieties latched onto the abuse that is an overdue book. With so much still unknown about transmission of the novel virus, and per Institute of Museum and Library Services guidelines, all Returns spend three days of quarantine in the bin before rejoining the organized cacophony of the stacks. The bins fill and fill, with extra bins transported from the (closed) branches, lest Returns outpace processing capability.

For 72 hours, the jumbled books hang in limbo, neither well nor sick, welcome but not admitted, the romances discreetly smoldering, poetry tautly observing, YA sullenly pouting, memoirs pointedly recounting, board books happily clapping, references clinically mapping, fantasies wildly conjuring, mysteries slyly twisting.

Laced throughout, there are murderous thrillers, their pages potentially hosting death.


He reaches into the bin, beginning to sort the Returns onto three carts — this one upstairs to Reference, that one to Fiction and Media, this little guy back to Youth Services. Sorting provides a kind of relief, a bit of variety to the hours, along with posing an elegant challenge: Will these six novels stack nicely and work well into the cart? Can he frame them as just-so pieces of a puzzle, thereby maximizing how many books ultimately fit onto the tiered cart shelves? Even more, there’s the satisfaction of seeing long-requested books re-entering the circle of circulation, passing from one set of hands to the next, fulfilling the promise of the communal contract.


He pauses to examine the book in his hand. It’s by James Patterson. So many of them, always, are by James Patterson.

What’s going on here? Why is this plastic cover so rough?

He holds it closer, then farther away. Why are parts of this cover…melted? And why, if it’s been held to flame, is the entire cover not scorched? Has some punk with a lighter been working on fine motor skills, selectively burning spots of the book’s cover?

Confounded, reminded anew that just when he thinks he’s seen everything, there’s a surprise, he sets the damaged book aside. He doesn’t yet know who, but somebody will pay.

Shrugging, he reaches in and pulls out a second book from the same clump of Returns. It’s another James Patterson, this one titled The 18th Abduction, except the 18 seems to have been abducted by fire, not only melted from superficially but also burned into the cardboard of the cover.

Well now. He reaches in again, pulls out a third bizarrely melted James Patterson, then, on the fourth pull, the relief of a tragically wonky Catherine Coulter. At least the arsonist patron has range.

Previously, this worker has seen a bra returned in the book drop. He’s seen a single shoe in the bin. There was the ten-inch Buddha head someone left in the library, the base of a lamp decorated with figures of stallions. He knows from experience that when a patron asks if they can borrow a pair of scissors, the follow-up question should be, “Do you want them so you can cut your nails?” This worker has loaned the library phone to someone who needs to arrange pick-up of their pet’s ashes, and he’s been told that every Minnesota state senator will be called and complaints filed if the angry patron isn’t allowed out check out books. He’s heard monologues about the surveillance tactics of gangstalking; he’s handed out Kleenex to mop spontaneous tears.

But melted book covers is a new one.

A reader himself, the worker imagines a scenario. The burning on three of the abused volumes feels deliberate since it’s focused on the lettering, so he pictures a guy in his fifties in a wood-paneled apartment, soft body flopped into a tan velour recliner, brain plagued by Covid boredom. He’s at the point where he not only spends his days in the chair; he sleeps there, too, in that stained, smelly recliner, sipping from a half-drunk can of Red Bull on the side table at 3 a.m. when he gets up to pee. He watches some shows, cruises some illicit internet sites, but mostly, there’s nothing to do, no place to go, no one to talk to. He’s read all the books — read them twice — and he’s in Month Two of lockdown, frustrated and fragile and maybe not completely in control of his impulses anymore. So he’s flicking his lighter because he smokes, of course he smokes, why wouldn’t you smoke when all the world’s a hellscape, and he’s holding, sort of slackly at first but then with purpose, one of those g.d. James Patterson thrillers, and before he quite knows what he’s doing, because he’s just lounging in his recliner like he always does, wishing for something to be different, even a little different, he’s using his Bic to develop a new craft, one involving detailed burning of public property in faintly musty private spaces.

For sure, the library worker decides as he reaches into the bin for the next book — this one blessedly unmolested — that’s what happened. Recliner Guy found a way to bring sparks to tedium.


It ends up being a woman in her eighties.

Perplexed as he looks at the patron information on the computer screen, the worker revises the scenario he’s already cast, deciding her black sheep son has been using her card to check out books as fodder for his craft, and now Mom is going to have to pay for the damages. There’s no way an octogenarian with delicately wrinkled topography and a lemon-colored cardigan over her shoulders even in 78 degrees would burn books.

Poor lady, having to cover her ne’er-do-well son’s vandalism. He better apologize properly, or she might need to limit his recliner time and start replacing his Red Bull with Ensure.


The Arrowhead Library System sends out a weekly newsletter called The Weekly Weeder. A few weeks after discovering the melted books, he’s perusing the Weeder when his eyes are drawn to an article linked from CNN.

Slowly, his eyebrows rise as he reads the words, “Please don’t microwave your books to prevent transmission of Covid.”

Huh. In a twist worthy of a Catherine Coulter suspense novel, it turns out Grandma did the damage.

Reading the article, he sees examples of books from other library systems where the microchips and aluminum antennae of their RFIDs had, when microwaved by uneasy patrons, burned through covers. In the case of his library, the melting had occurred at the flash point of an elderly, at-risk patron intersecting with foil-embossed titles. Where, he wonders, would metallic material look best on the cover of Grandma Had a Microwave?

Weeks before, when the mystery remained unsolved, the library had sent the book-cooking patron a bill. In short order — no phone calls of explanation, no pleas for understanding, no attempts to pawn the behavior off on her son — a check arrived.

The cover of Grandma Owns Her Damage would, of course, have every letter embossed with metal, the “s” a dollar sign.


Technically, she owns the books now. However, even though she’s gone on to check out new items (James Patterson has written 147 novels), she hasn’t attempted to arrange pick-up of the burned books.

So there they sit, stacked in his work area next to his curated Special Collection of Patron Left-Behinds:

the stallion lamp base,

a child’s bike helmet with a unicorn horn shooting out the top,

a pair of glasses from the 2017 solar eclipse when supplies ran short, and enthusiasts resorted to hoarding (perfect justice: cloudy that day),


seatbelt webbing fashioned into a waist belt and printed with the words THE PUNISHER.

And so, as it goes in the public library, some perfect weirdos with a complicated backstory

have found a home.


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So Many Losers

It’s time to announce the winners of the book giveaway!

The winner of Girl Through Glass is: Linda Solstrand
The winner of Queen of the Night is: Jessica Rapisarda

I’ll be contacting each of you to get mailing information. Read in good health. Smear the pages as  you will. I recommend melted chocolate from cookie dough pops, but that’s personal preference.

As for the rest of y’all who threw your names into the ring but weren’t chosen, sorry you’re losers.

If it helps assuage your feelings of hurt at all, let me assure you: I am the original loser. Compared to my history of loserdom, you’re a g-damn winner.

See, my senior year of high school, a few months before I dropped out (you can read the story of that here: “Jesu, Joy of Jocelyn’s Retiring”), I was nominated to the royalty court for the Sweetheart Dance.

It wasn’t a nomination that resulted from a groundswell of support within the student body.

Rather, a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, the students in the National Honor Society met in the Latin teacher’s room. Our club had been tasked with selecting the nominees for Sweetheart Princess and Sweetheart Prince. Our votes would determine which of our classmates would get their names read over the PA system; which of our classmates would dress up fancy-like and walk around the gym at a special assembly; which of our classmates would be recognized the night of the Sweetheart Dance; which of our classmates might potentially be crowned and dance together in a spotlight, decked in velvety raiment; which of our classmates would be featured in the yearbook.

We’d been tasked with a mighty responsibility, indeed, we of the high GPAs and thick textbooks.

For all our smarts, it hadn’t occurred to any of us that we might nominate from within our ranks. Royalty was for the cheerleaders, majorettes, flags, and jocks. Royalty wasn’t for equation-solvers.

Yet our leader, the Latin teacher — a man who inspires me to this day, and not only because everything I understand about English grammar came from his class — looked around the room at the assembled nerds that morning and said, “Write three girls’ names and three boys’ names on the ballots in front of you. You may only write down names of members of the National Honor Society.”


For a full minute, I sat, absorbing the challenge. I’d been ready to fill in my ballot with the names of “popular” kids who had yet to be nominated for any other royalty court. Whaddya mean, nominate eggheads?

It was a radical notion, this idea that we — readers of Kafka! — could be royalty. It was exciting. It was scary. It was baffling.

Who to nominate? My gaze scanned the room. A few cheerleaders, majorettes, and flags dotted my vision, multi-talented types able to twirl, flip, and annotate. But a couple of them had been nominated for previous royalty courts already. Hmmmm.

What if I…what if I…what if I nominated my friends? Carefully, I considered my crew. Yea. Why not? Grinning, dazzled that the world had just become a place ripe with possibilities I hadn’t known how to imagine, I filled out the ballot with the names of my girls.

A few days later, the nominees were announced over the loudspeaker. Whoa, there was Char!! Oh gravy, and Amy, too! And, woo-hoo, Leigh! Hey, and Kim–such a nice girl!

Wait. WHUUT.

And me?


A wave of prickles, a full-body flush, started in my scalp and moved down to my toes. Had my life suddenly become one of those 1950s books, like the ones my mom kept on a shelf in the basement, about popular girls?

I was quickly disabused of that idea. Looking around the classroom as the names were announced, I saw annoyance, even disgust, on the faces of my classmates. I detected grumbles and heard one of the Honor Society cheerleaders apologizing to those around her, saying she hadn’t been given a choice, that she had to nominate losers.

Yea, that felt about right: to enjoy a nanosecond of elation before having it ground into a powder of embarrassment.

Fortunately, my friends and I went ahead and flowed with the feeling that being nominated was amazing. Already, at 17, I’d had years of fine tuning selective deafness. This time, I plugged my ears with the powder of elation-cum-embarrassment.

So we squealed. We made phone calls. We talked dresses. Our parents showed up in the gym to snap photos as we linked arms with the prince nominees and circled the gym to half-hearted applause. When the night of the dance arrived, we did hair and make-up together; we sipped from cans and glass bottles; we giggled crazily when we got to the high school.

And then the time came: the announcement of the Sweetheart Prince and Princess.

I knew it wouldn’t be me — not out of some false modesty. With all realism, I knew.

We nominees were corralled up the stairs of the gym, lined up along a balcony where a searchlight moved over our faces. When they announced the winners, Char and Jeff, the light froze on them, the winners.

In darkness, the rest of us gasped, yelled for Char, and made our way down the stairs to the floor of the gym, where we stood, watching Char and Jeff take their spotlight dance.

A few weeks later, the nominees reassembled at the studio of a photographer who would document for the yearbook our momentary rise out of the ranks.

We were told to wear sweaters. Always sassy, perhaps hoping it would camouflage how unforgiving a fitted crew neck can be on those who are hearty of torso, I accessorized with a necklace borrowed from the jewelry bag my mom kept in her top dresser drawer. Another accessory I could have used was a smile that reached my eyes.


Posing with the prince nominees was uncomfortable. “Squeeze closer,” the photographer urged, shoving our shoulders into the guys’ chests. Why, I wonder, didn’t the photographer note, “Hey, your collared shirt is bunching underneath your sweater. Also, don’t wear that sweater. You’re always going to benefit from flowy. And can we talk bangs for just a quick sec?”

The winners got their own page in the yearbook. We losers were cast as Everyone Not Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. I’ll take Sandy Duncan for the win, Peter.


It’s one thing to be a loser princess. For me to have pretended for a solid week that “princess” could possibly suit was laughable. However, “loser princess” was a title I could sport with a hoot.

Then, a few months later, the yearbooks came out.

At that point, I learned a whole new facet of loserdom: being a loser who gets the wrong name plastered on top of her ignominy. Through human error or having some wisenheimer in charge of design, the yearbook tagged me as Kim Burris, my partner Tim as Cal Kunkel.

I still feel like I owe Kim an apology.


I lucked out with my partner, a light-hearted guy with whom I was used to goofing around. Tim and I made light of it, calling each other Kim and Cal as the school year reached its close. Faintly, it occurred to me that humor neutralizes loser.

But then I’d look at that photo again, and I’d see that soft-faced, Aqua-netted baby wistfully playing princess, and it also occurred to me that eye-liner didn’t make me petite or cute or desirable.


Getting a smile into those loser eyes was going to take some time. I’d need a change of venue — a trip to Oz. I’d need new peers — people who led with irony. I’d need road trips — in the car alone, finding my own way. I’d need to dance ’til 4 a.m. —  limping home, shoes in hand. I’d need to have my heart held tightly enough that it could be broken. I’d need to walk outside the circle of the gym floor before I could see how restrictive four walls could be. I’d need a few decades of casting about. Flailing. Landing. Unfolding. Navigating the extended arc of life and realizing “winning” is in the end game.


I look at that loser princess now, and I want to send a whispered message back through time.

“It’s going to be all right. Aww, honey, it’s going to be more than all right. For now, you have to stand in the dark, gasping with excitement for all the winners who aren’t you, but eventually you’ll find your spotlight.”


I would like to assure those eyes, their flatness telegraphing “Help me,” that one day they will sparkle with droplets from gorgeous snowstorms, that one day they will laugh at kids and loves, that one day they will widen at the realization that the high school definition of “winner” is false, that one day they will fill with tears of astonishment at the compassion of others, that one day they will beam a smile at the cheerleaders, majorettes, flags, jocks, nerds, stoners, geeks, dorks, and princesses

because they are just so happy to see people doing their best.

Not my mother’s necklace

So, yea, all you losers who didn’t score a book during the giveaway, just remember: it could be worse. At least you aren’t someone who was mandatorily nominated. At least you look good in your sweaters. At least your shoulder isn’t shoved into the chest of the guy who sits next to you in English class. At least people call you by your actual name. At least you’re winners in the ways that truly matter.

Hugs and love to all you losers,

Kim Burris


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Book Giveaway

Book Giveaway

I have a thing about bananas.

Because they are my preferred breakfast food, I need to have them in the house at all times.

If we are out of bananas, or even if we are running low, I can’t relax. If need be, I will zip down to the grocery store after dark, just to grab a bunch.

Sometimes, the next morning, I don’t even eat one of those highly important after-dark bananas.

It’s just that I needed to know they were there.

In case.

I am this way about coffee, too.

Oh, NOW you’re nodding at the screen? You thought I was a little bananas when it came to the bananas, but somehow when I substitute the word coffee, then crazy becomes normal?

To be honest, I have a fair number of things — beyond bananas and coffee — that are integral to my innards feeling peaceful. if the stash of wine is getting low, I need to make sure more wine comes into the house. If the sweets are looking sparse, I won’t rest easy until supplies have been replenished becauseTwizzlersarefundamentaltohappiness. This is true even if I’m going away for the weekend: I feel low-level anxiety if I don’t have snacks along.

Just in case.

This need for security extends beyond just food, of course. If I am packing for a trip, I want to be sure I am bringing along all the possible pairs of shoes I might want. Or if I notice my container of body lotion is running low, I feel better if the replacement is in the house even a week before I need it.

What’s bizarre is that I’m terrible at looking ahead when it comes to predictable, daily life tasks. We are so fortunate that my husband handles our meals because I am absolutely someone who at 6 PM every day, if I were in charge of getting the kids fed, would look around the kitchen and ask, “What you mean dinner?”

The impellent “I will need it; do I have it?” thrum that demands I stockpile, at all times, a full inventory of unnecessary items might indicate I have a tendency towards hoarding. Or maybe I have it in me to become a Doomsday prepper. Or maybe I have too much leisure time. Or maybe I’m just a mother and a woman who’s getting older.

Perhaps we can just accept that this condition exists within me, and leave it there.

I have to say, though, that the impulse towards readiness did help occupy the weeks of anticipation before my recent surgery. Because I wanted to do the surgery during my Spring Break, I scheduled it several months out. Doing this gave me entirely too much time to get worried and anxious — and to watch videos on YouTube at 1 AM in which wild-eyed people who had undergone rotator cuff repair detailed their recoveries. I also had too many weeks to read blogs written by those who had undergone the surgery and to talk to people around town about their experiences with it.

Fortunately, anxiety can be channeled into constructive action. As I counted down to surgery day, I made sure I had in place everything I could reasonably predict I might want or need during the tough days and weeks post surgery.

I had learned that I would not be interested in underwear or bras for some time — because even the simple act of pulling up my pants and getting a shirt on would cause me to break a sweat, and my shoulder would not be able to tolerate the pressure of a bra strap — but when I did feel I could wear a bra again, I would do best with a soft, stretchy one that I could place onto the floor, step into, and pull up my torso with one hand. So I bought a few of those. People had advised me that shirts buttoning up the front would be easier than over-the-head tops; so I invested in a few and also poached a stack from my husband’s closet. I had been told that consistent icing would be essential to my recovery, so I found a system that I could strap onto my shoulder (not that I have used it in the month since surgery: my shoulder has yet to welcome the idea of something being strapped onto it), and then we made some additional ice packs using Ziploc bags, water, and rubbing alcohol. I even had time to remember winter break when I was young and how I would return to school after a week or two off and not remember my locker combination; thus, I entered a note into my phone with my locker number and combination at the gym. As well, in the days before the surgery, I was compelled to vacuum the entire house, scrub the toilets, and make a last ditch effort to get the house relatively clean. Here is evidence of how deep my fear about the surgery ran: I dusted knickknacks.

Then, of course, I thought about all the passive time I would have in bed or in a chair — so many free hours that normally would be devoted to exercise or dickin’ around in the yard or interacting in the world in ways that require the hands. As I considered these hours, it became important that I amass a stack of books, always my best companions during sitting time. I didn’t want books that would make my brain work too hard — hello, Percocet! — but I didn’t want books that were stupid, either. So I read a bunch of reviews online and chatted with friends whom I respect as readers, and I found some titles that would suit. A few of them I got at the library, but a couple of them were not part of the library’s catalog, so I ordered them.

And now, guess what? I have finished one of them and am halfway through the second, and the sun is shining outside, and finally the wind sometimes has an undertone of mildness instead of frigidity, and, well, I’m in a mood for some spring cleaning.

I’m in the mood not to keep these books on the shelf but, rather, to give them away to readers of this blog. I won’t tell you my reactions to either book; the reading experience should belong to you alone. I can tell you, though, that I am at a stage of life where, if I do not enjoy a book, I do not finish it. Both of these books are “finishers” for me.

Here are the two books up for grabs:


The summary on Amazon describes Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass this way:

An enthralling literary debut that tells the story of a young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet—a story of obsession and the quest for perfection, trust and betrayal, beauty and lost innocence.

In the roiling summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira is an aspiring ballerina in the romantic, highly competitive world of New York City ballet. Enduring the mess of her parent’s divorce, she finds escape in dance—the rigorous hours of practice, the exquisite beauty, the precision of movement, the obsessive perfectionism. Ballet offers her control, power, and the promise of glory. It also introduces her to forty-seven-year-old Maurice DuPont, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who becomes her mentor.

Over the course of three years, Mira is accepted into the prestigious School of American Ballet run by the legendary George Balanchine, and eventually becomes one of “Mr. B’s girls”—a dancer of rare talent chosen for greatness. As she ascends higher in the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, touching dark places within herself and sparking unexpected desires that will upend both their lives.

In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a Midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and capsizes the new life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she’s long thought dead, Kate is hurled back into the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.

Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.



The Amazon summary for Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night describes it this way:

Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.

As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.


So it’s spring, and the surgery is behind me, and I’m too busy healing to find the energy to dust books. Help a sister out, and take these babies off my hands.

It pains me to say that I cannot ship these books outside of the United States without the cost becoming prohibitive. Thus, my apologies to readers outside of the United States — but I checked the rates at the post office the other day, and it would cost as much as the books themselves to send them even to Canada.

However, if you are in the United States, and either of these books interests you, please leave a comment below. If you are interested in both books, please leave two comments so that you can be entered into the lottery for both. While it’s enough for you simply to indicate which book you are interested in, I personally would find the comments much more interesting if you also told me about something that you have won before. For example, my husband once entered a corn-on-the-cob eating contest, and after he managed to scarf down five cobs in two minutes, he won a luxe hooded sweatshirt — which he promptly gave away because it was not his style. In truth, very few looks properly complement a chest splattered with yellow niblets.

This giveaway will remain open until 5 PM CST on Tuesday, April 19, at which point I will count up the comments left for each book. If there are 20 comments for one of the books, I will go to Paco or Allegra and say “Pick a number between one and 20.” If the kid chooses the number three, and you are the person who left the third comment for that book (based on the time of posting) you will win it. You get the gist.

I’ll announce the winners next week and mail out the books shortly thereafter.

Okay, it’s time for me to go for a walk. I’m still not driving, but we’re getting low on bananas, so I need to shuffle to the store.


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The Maps Within Us

My head is muzzy, and I am out of sorts. I stayed up too late, lost in a compelling book, and then woke up too early, my brain–still full of images from the book–unable to rest.

My head hurts; my body is empty of energy. I have class in an hour. The idea of putting on clothes feels like too much. But I have to. I have class. Even when my head hurts, and my body feels flat, life chugs on.

In the midst of this haze, one thought thrums through me: I am outrageously fortunate. It is a misery of rain outside, but I am warm and dry. When I drag myself to the closet, I will be greeted by bountiful options. When I head to class, my stomach will be full. I will drive my cute little car to campus; I will reward myself later with a hot cup of coffee; I will close the door to my office and find peace as I grade journal entries; some hours later, I will stand in my kitchen, smelling dinner cook, surrounded by my family. Fueled by a feeling of security, I will cruise through my electricity-lit day, hours marked by protective walls, soft linens, ready laughter, rampant choices.

Although none of us is ever wholly guaranteed of continued safety, I inhabit life with an innate assurance that, relative to millions of people on the planet, I am safe. Balancing on the fingertip of Lake Superior, living in a modest city not apt to be drafted into making an international political point, I float along, minute to minute, unmolested.

I am intact. I have not earned this easy wholeness.

Chance. It’s all arbitrary chance.

As I type this, hyper-cognizant of my luck, I am not writing about the shootings and bombings in Paris —

although of course I am.

I am not writing about Lebanon or Nigeria or Ukraine or Cameroon or the Philippines or Libya or Pakistan or Israel or Tunisia or Afghanistan or the United States or Saudi Arabia or Somalia or Turkey or Mali or Yemen or Egypt or China or Kenya or India or Macedonia or Iraq or Chad or Syria or Kuwait or Niger or Bahrain or the West Bank or Bangladesh.

Although of course, of course, of course, of course I am.

Through the randomness of birth, I have enjoyed a felicitous existence. Certainly, all the good could literally explode in my face one day. Odds are, though, that I’ll continue to drive my cute little car and assemble outfits from a closet of too many clothes. I’ll whoop, happily, “I’m desperate for a piece of that warm bread, preferably slathered with butter.” I’ll toss off a thoughtless “When that student came after me and sent a Howler to my inbox, I desperately would have loved to hit reply and tell him a thing or two.” Brashly, I’ll announce, “I’m so desperate for sleep, I could put my head down right now and conk out for twelve hours.”

Such words are heedless of genuine desperation. In the toughest moments of my life, I haven’t trailed a single finger down the spine of desperation.

The compelling book that kept me up until 3 a.m. several nights in a row reminded me that my words and attitude are feckless. It reminded me that I know nothing of desperation. Its made-up story, all too real, hammered home that I have never stared, eyes full of tears, clutching my children to my hips — as though proximity to their mother could save them — at authentic hardship.

I don’t know what it feels like to have my husband taken from our home at gunpoint by strange men, to never see him again. I don’t know what it feels like to hunker down inside my home and cry to a faceless god as rockets land on my neighbors. I don’t know what it’s like to secret my children across borders, to bargain away the few things I carry just for a meal that leaves us hungry. I don’t know what it’s like to watch my children, whose legs still ache with growing pains, resort to lying, thieving, and trafficking in the name of staying alive.

I don’t know what it’s like not to bathe for weeks, to wear the same tattered clothes for months, to watch, breath-held, for an opportunity to squeeze through a hole in a fence. I don’t know what it’s like to press my body to the inside of a tunnel as a train blows past, two feet away. I don’t know what it’s like to load my children on a boat and hope the waves carry us to land, not eternal blackness. I don’t know what it’s like to be treated like inconsequential trash when I have been a respected teacher, a treasured friend, a valued citizen. I don’t know what it’s like to be invisible unless I express a need, at which point I materialize as vermin. I don’t know what it’s like to sprint from the authorities for daring to steal a chance at life.

I don’t know what it’s like to be saved by the small acts of kind strangers, each of them with their own stories of agony and loss.

I don’t know what it’s like to seek refuge, having been forced to abandon everything I have loved and known all my life.

I don’t know desperation.

The book, this book I have been reading until 3 a.m. for several nights, powerless to set it down until I know the fates of the characters, takes me inside desperation, creates in me the hard, dull knot of panic and fear that governs the life of the refugee. As I read, sliding up and down my pillows, attempting to keep the pin-prickles out of my arms, my stomach is tense. I am faintly nauseous. I love these people in this book, am part of their decimated family; I am willing their survival, flinching at the distaste with which decent, loving individuals are treated when they are battered by violence and take flight from it.

This book makes me want to shout at the world.

My bladder is full, but I cannot take a break until I know if the family’s forged papers, for which they paid too much of their too-little money, will get them from Kabul to Turkey to Greece to France to England. I have to know if they will find safe haven before the baby’s medicine runs out. I have to know if fourteen-year-old Saleem, taken into custody while pawning his mother’s wedding bracelets — her sole inheritance from her dead mother — will find his way after he is deported from Greece, one step backwards to Turkey. Will he manage to skitter to the undercarriage of a truck during the two seconds when the driver turns his back to light a cigarette, grabbing hold of its exhaust system before it rolls aboard a ferry to Greece? If he does, will his corpse be found on the floor of the ferry after he dies from inhaling carbon monoxide? If he dies, no one will ever know who he was. He will be a nameless fourteen-year-old, the sole support of his mother and siblings, the kid who still yearns for his murdered father, the sweet boy craving a taste of orange soda, dead in an unmarked hole.

How will his mother’s heart ever find rest, if her fourteen-year-old son is dead in an unmarked hole?

How can the world in this book, which is actually our real world, carry on as though this bright, devoted boy doesn’t matter, this teenager who ends up sleeping in door frames on a piece of cardboard, waking at night to find another desperate man holding him down, unbuckling his pants? How can this boy’s made-up story, all too real, too true, too common, possibly leave me untouched?

How can I sleep, use the bathroom, heed the burning of my eyelids, until I know if Saleem makes it, if Fereiba, his mother, will ever see him again?

How could anyone label the Fereibas and Saleems of the world, so heart-breakingly admirable in their simple desire to live securely, as “those horrible people”?

I am hungover with fatigue from this book. When I awake, my sleep too short, I feel coated by this story — jarringly intimate in its portrayal of the details of displacement. It is a fictionalization of everything most devastating in our world today.

These characters I have come to love are reflections of reality. On my campus, walking the same halls I walk, there is a Saleem, only his name is Gani, and he is not from Afghanistan. Born in Somalia, Gani’s life changed forever when he was five, when his father went out one day and never returned home. Time passed. Rumors floated in: Gani’s father had been caught between warring factions. He was dead. Fracturing under the pressure of waiting and uncertainty, increasingly fearful as bullets richocheted between buildings, Gani’s mother decided to gather her six children and flee to the refugee camps in Kenya. Walking, haggling for rides in caravans, taking weeks, mother and children moved away from the men with guns towards the camp with no hope. Each time they secured passage for the next leg of their journey, they had to leave something else behind. “There is room only for you; leave your bags.” Within a few days, Gani’s mother and siblings carried only a sack of sugar. Once a day, each child poured a mound of sugar into a cup. The mother added some water. This was their meal.

From there, Gani’s story gains momentum, from refugee camp to high school in Kenya to the resolute decision that he wanted his life to become more than scrabbling for the next meal. After landing in the United States, he worked, moved, worked, mastering English to the point that he became a translator and liaison for other immigrants. Working in a clinic as a technician and a translator, he decided to become a nurse. Now, on the verge of graduation from our college, Gani is the president of the Muslim Students Association; he serves on the Global Education committee; he answers phone calls at 1 a.m. from desperate Somalis who need his voice. When Gani related his life story in an intercultural group on our campus, he excused himself, midway, for a few minutes.

He did not go to the next room to arm a bomb. No. He was praying, thanking Allah for the many blessings of his life. Minutes later, his prayer rug tucked away, he returned to our group, picking up the thread of his narrative with “…and then, in Kenya, my mother opened a little store, selling t-shirts and candy and small things. She found that way to support us.”

In all my life, I have not met a finer person than Gani. He enriches everything around him, most markedly the country that accepted him. The United States would be a lesser place without him.

As I read my book at 3 a.m., I think of Gani, for he is in its pages.

Even more, the plot of the novel takes my memory back to a radical act of generosity I witnessed in 2011. At the time, as I watched it happening, I merely thought, “Well, that’s really nice.” Now, with my head so immersed in the events of this book, in the events unfolding around the globe, I am able to unpack its beauty more fully.

In 2011, our family spent many hours and many weeks seeking Turkish residency papers; we’d tired of worrying whether we could renew our 90-day tourist visas repeatedly. Because the process was lengthy and required us to interact with non-English-speaking officials, our friends Andus and Gulcan came to our aid. Again and again, they drove us to the government building in a neighboring city and sat with us, waiting. When it was our turn, Byron and Andus would go into an office with other men and discuss which papers still needed which signatures and who needed how much money. The kids and I would wait out on a bench with Gulcan, the only native Turkish speaker in our group.

One afternoon, as we sat in the waiting area, a multi-generational family arrived and took the bench next to us. After not too long, one member of the family, a stunning teenage girl, maybe 17 years old, engaged us in conversation with her limited English. Her family was fleeing Iran, seeking asylum in Turkey. They were Christian. When she learned we were from the United States, her eyes widened, and she asked, eagerly, “So you are Christian too?!!”

My answer was difficult to form, given the meager mutual vocabulary we shared. How to explain, “Uh, well, I was baptized in a Presbyterian church, and then, as I was growing up, my parents started attending a couple different Lutheran churches. Sure, I used to help my sister in the church nursery, and I did attend Sunday school, but by the time I was 14, I’d had enough of feeling, as I sat on a pew, that I was just woodenly going through the motions. So then I pretty much stopped attending, except sometimes. And for my husband, well, his parents were uncomfortable with religion, too, but felt obliged to make the effort, so he did end up getting confirmed…so, I mean, our cultural and familial histories involve Christianity, but where we both stand right now would be more fairly named agnosticism.” How to explain that to someone with fifty words of English?

I told her, “No, not really. Not really Christian.”

My response confounded her. If I lived in an historically Christian country and had the freedom to love Jesus publicly, how could I not?

There was something poignant in that moment as we stared at each other, her stunned, me sheepish, liking each other, both believing firmly in freedom of religion. It’s just that our definitions of that concept were drawn from different dictionaries.

Given no other option, we smiled at each other, shrugging, letting the moment brush past us. As I tried to ask her where her family was staying, it became apparent that they were trying to figure that out themselves. If they could get papers and gain legal recognition in Turkey, their options would expand dramatically. In the meantime, they were homeless, uncertain of their next steps.

And that’s when Gulcan, a fiery, unpredictable woman, someone who inspired in me a mixture of awe and fear, gave me a lesson for my lifetime. Jotting down some information on a scrap of paper, she looked the Iranian girl directly, meaningfully, in the eye and said, “My husband and I run an inn in the village named Goreme. It is called The Fairy Chimney Inn. If you can come to me, I will give you work. You can come to me, and I will help you.”

Bleary as I am, my defenses compromised due to book-induced lack of sleep, I cannot type those last words without crying.

So: there is this book I have been reading. It is not a great book — there are issues with structure I could address if it mattered here — but it is a book with greatness in it. It is a profound example of how a novel can teach readers about the unseen intricacies of the world around them.

The story in this book makes me keen for refugees, makes me want to hand a hungry person bread and cheese, makes it impossible for me to tolerate big-picture discussions based on the premise that “our country can only absorb so many.” Everything in the stories of Saleem and Fereiba and Gani and the Iranian family reminds me that I am so, so, so damn lucky, reminds me that there is no such thing as “those people” because we are all of us, together, the people. This book illustrates completely that we are wrong to say “us,” and we are wrong to say “them.”

There is only us, a single us, and we should extend our hands towards each other.

Always and forever, it is one person with helping one person without that saves us all.

This book that I have been reading until too late — sliding up and down the pillows, trying to keep the prickles out of my arms, watching storytelling transmute abstract into concrete, marveling at how fiction tells the truest stories — is Nadia Hashimi’s When the Moon Is Low.

My brain is muzzy, my heartbeat unsteady. I am exhausted.

And, oh, so fortunate.


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