Peck, peck, peck
On the warm, brown egg.
Out comes a neck.
Out comes a leg.
How does a chick.
Who’s not been about,
Discover the trick
Of how to get out?
The young lad holds his daddy’s hand and skips along the sidewalk. A group of children, hunkered down with knapsacks cross the street under the guidance of a guard, stop sign in hand. A black squirrel uses the wires to span the intersection, racing the current and disappearing into a giant oak. The light changes. Two yellow buses turn out into a lane from a side road, one to the right and one to the left. A breeze lifts a flag, then the next, flags lining Northwestern Avenue, Grant, and Bowman, all in the sunlight.
This is no strange land and I am no stranger but I have been gone for years. If I sense nothing but this on my short drive every morning, I acknowledge something abiding: a limp acquired from a dare, yet a race towards everything about tomorrow.
One afternoon in the National Museum of Damascus, I spotted through dusty glass those Ras Sharma artifacts, tiny cylinders, carved and ready to be rolled across clay. I later read that the cuneiform characters carved on those cylinders were the mother or our own alphabet. This cache discovered by archeologists in 1928 part of an ancient library’s collection changed the scholars’ view of words and language: Ras Sharma, Mediterranean coast, Syria.
I spend time every week in library stacks retrieving interlibrary loan requests. I haven’t retrieved a book on Ras Sharma or sent one in that exact direction yet. I mailed a book on Gertrude Stein to Turkey on Friday, pretty close. I mailed a book to South Africa on holocaust crimes the week before. That alphabet set up by scribes many millenniums past, the one from Ras Sharma, ancient Ugarit, has magically branched out.
The spiders in my basement apartment have branched out also, those daddy long legs stay to the baseboards and weave their webs. Ah, Ras Sharma and spiders an interesting mix! I am reminded of the Native American myth of the spider and the deer. Deer asked Spider why she wove such an intricate web with symbols; Spider said that Earth’s children needed those symbols to preserve knowledge from past to future. I wonder if the ancients in Ras Sharma inspected spiders’ webs? I have and I sweep those webs and my spiders out daily and they come back. I don’t kill daddy long legs: persistent, quiet creatures, kind of like librarians. They just go about their business.
An important business it is, because it takes more than symbols to keep our knowledge base intact these days, to protect and share it: From catalogers to shelvers; from circulation desk to reference; collections and weeding; IT to ILL. Sometimes I push my cart through the stacks and I want to stop and browse, but I don’t have the time because I am going to find information in a book for someone miles away who needed it yesterday. They can’t find what they need online or they wouldn’t be asking me; hundreds of requests get scanned and emailed or wrapped up and mailed on a weekly basis from my college. Imagine the web of information transfer going on worldwide on a daily basis made possible by all those librarians.
Sometimes I wonder, is it worth it, all this energy to move information? My spiders keep coming back to trap something along the baseboards. They weave their Ras Sharma symbols and wait. While much spinning made from my mailings may be for naught, I am steadfast that a few of my customers out there will puzzle together silk filaments and trap some gems.
Great Grandpa Edward Lynch told my mother that women needed an education. He remembered his mother, Sarah Ryan, a leghorn plaiter, born in London city center in 1820; she could only sign her mark on the marriage certificate when she married Michael Lynch an Irish tailor in 1843. Michael signed his name on that certificate and made sure that his sons could read and write and they were listed on the census return of 1861 as scholars. Sarah plaited straw into bonnets, bore two sons, and disappeared from records after 1861. According to family lore, her husband took his eldest son Edward to Paris where the twelve year old learned to carve stone. By 1863, Michael Lynch, the tailor with political leanings, had secured passage to America for himself and his eldest.
Edward attended the University of Illinois from 1868 to 1873, gained an engineering degree and married the daughter of his English professor. Genevieve Baker had attended university for several years alongside her future husband. She descended from a long line of women who wrote their own names, read the bible, and gained a passable education even on the Maine frontier. Genevieve wrote for magazines on the east coast and later for newspapers on the west coast. By the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Genevieve had divorced Edward and was living alone near Lafayette Square working as a reporter.
When my mother visited Edward in Pasadena in the 1920s, when he gave her volumes of Aesop tales, Shakespeare dramas and assorted folk tales and songs, when he told her that women needed an education, she followed his advice and became a schoolteacher. She turned down a scholarship to Stanford because her father, Edward’s son didn’t want her to live away from home, a glitch in the dramatic improvement of Lynch women’s educational prospects. Nevertheless by 1931, in three generations Lynch women went from plaiting straw to graduating from university.
When I grew up, my mother suggested I get my teaching credential like she had. She said, “you have few choices: secretary, nurse, teacher.” I didn’t choose any of those, at least not to start with. I preferred being a hippie and living on the land, making necklaces and milking cows. I didn’t know anything about Sarah or Genevieve and had no interest in my ancestors’ trails. But I had read all of my Great Grandfather’s books as I grew up: I sang the songs, and knew the myths and plays. My middle name was a shortened form of Genevieve. I did become a teacher and then I did something different. I went back to school and became a librarian when the World Wide Web was in its infancy. I discovered Archie and Veronica, the Bancroft library and the libraries worldwide, full of records. I gained the tools to discover and with that, I found Sarah, the leghorn plaiter and Genevieve, the reporter.
I think that Edward realized women, the other half, needed as powerful a voice as men, because without that, half the world is missing. Between his stone carving for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, passing the state bar and lawyering for the railroad barons, managing Auburn gold mines and writing on solar flares and climate change; between his divorce and drink, in his mind, he tipped his hat and made room for his mother, his wife, and my mother with the knowledge that the world would realign itself, from his granddaughters to his great great granddaughters and beyond. But here, I pause and I tip my hat not to Edward for his inclusive vision for women, but to Genevieve, solitary and fiery, who has loaned me her voice; and I bow to Sarah, silent and stubborn, who has given me purpose. With these gifts, I have become a plaiter of straw, from straw into words, from words into stories.
August 6, 1987
The sparrows spent the morning fighting for nesting space on the ridge above the front door. Half-dozing on a sofa in the living room, I watched them through the screen as a battle of flying wings and bitter chirps stirred up the silence. I bet this old house has seen its share of battles. The pistols embedded in the mortar of the rock-hewn fireplace belonged to Wild Bill Hickock; the neighbor man told me that Hickock and his showmen spent some summers here. They must have built the core of the house, for the rest has been added on; I could tell that.
“Have you picked the dandelions yet, “ my aunt’s voice came from upstairs.
“No, I’m going in a minute,” I said.
Outside armed with my bucket, I gathered the yellow flowers from the front yard. I was overpowered by the treasures of a Canadian spring, and my attention wandered around the landscape to the foxgloves, blossoming cherries, and buttercups.
“Where are my dandelions?” the voice shook my dreams once again.
When I entered the kitchen, Mrs. Beeton’s Cookbook was on the counter opened to the section on winemaking.
“Let’s see,” I said, “cut off all the green, cover the petals with water, place cheesecloth over the crock, and set overnight.”
My aunt flew into the job like a fast-order cook; we finished in a flash. I put the kettle on the burner to make her a pot of tea.
“I had a bad dream again last night; I was beating up people,” I said.
“You fight in your dreams, and dream in your life, girl,” she laughed. Then with a serious look she added, “When I get angry, I scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush or take a long walk. Have you been to the woods yet?”
“No, I was waiting to go with you,” I said. “Did you hear the birds this morning, Auntie?”
“Every year they fight and make their peace,” she said. “We’ll have babies above the door by June.”
She got up form her chair and went to the kitchen to turn off the boiling kettle. After making her familiar proclamation, “ ‘this wicked old world is abominable,’ my old father used to say, “ she asked for her sweater. We headed for the woods. We crossed the open pasture land; Auntie lost her breath so we sat on a log at the edge of the trees.
“Oh, isn’t this wonderful Auntie!” I said.
I looked over at her face; she was leaning forward staring at the ground. She took several deep breaths and didn’t answer me.
“Auntie, I’ll run to the house and get you some water if you’d like some.”
She shook her head.
“I’m better now,” she said.
She got up and slowly meandered down the trail that cut through the underbrush. Under a gooseberry bush she found mushrooms hidden in the cool shadows. They grew in the remains of a fallen tree and found nourishment in decay. A group of red ants had made their house in the rotting mass and found protection in the depth of the powdery, wood chips. Auntie stirred the ants up with a stick.
“Doesn’t that hurt them, Auntie?” I asked.
“What do you think? Maybe it gives them something to do. Maybe I’ve just destroyed the old queen who was weak. How do I know?” she replied. Auntie had an odd way of looking at things.
That evening while the Aurora Borealis lit the sky, we sat in the front room watching the flames in the fireplace. As the fire died down, the red-hot embers twisted, curled, and slowly blackened. Auntie looked at these changing shapes and told stories based on the images we were seeing. One ember seemed to grow as others melted to it.
“See what’s happening to those embers when they stop popping, spitting, and fighting,” she said, “they get bigger and stronger; they grow!”
“What Auntie?” I asked.
She never looked at me but just kept on talking. “Without a good damper, all the energy goes up the chimney—it’s for naught, child—nothing comes of it. Oh it’s a pretty fire all right, but it’s the embers that keep us warm through the night.”
We slept as warm as toast that night. After several weeks we bottled the dandelion wine–it was a “killer” — and the birds hatched above the door in June.
I visited the optometrist this week and got an eye exam. The doctor told me I had the pressure of a baby. So I walked away with confidence that I’d be seeing for a while down the road.
I have been thinking about “vision.” If I have good vision, then I can watch the shimmering scales on a silverfish, its hideout exposed when I move a pile of books; I can see it as it dives for cover. I can watch the magpies circling high over the buildings to the north and the tiny sparrows flitting from wire to wire.
When my mother stayed with me, her macular degeneration fogged her world; she had no central vision and daily mistook a red tomcat on the roof of the building across the street for a magpie. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.
Vision is a powerful thing. I woke up this morning with a vision that my guest room would be stacked with boxes ready for the movers by this coming Wednesday. It’s afternoon and I am halfway there. I create a puzzle, put it together. I can see myself leaving for the airplane with 4 suitcases and two carry-ons. I can see the door closed, the walls empty. I can see the carousel in Athens, the tarmac in Paris, the car parked in Detroit. I can see the ships docking in Baltimore; the sea crate off loaded, stored and then loaded again onto a truck headed inland.
Vision is a powerful thing. Without it, I worry. I wake up in the night and it is dark. With it, I can breathe right down to my diaphragm. I can plant Italian basil and harvest its aromatic leaves some months later. I can change things, poke the universe and it moves. With it I know I am truly alone. With it I know I am completely responsible and that I can’t duck like the silverfish. I shimmer though. I can’t sail overhead like the magpies on updrafts. I sail nevertheless.
With this sort of vision, I am directing the film and yet, I’ll leave serendipity with the edits and just maybe the credits. For instance, perhaps the red tomcat over on the roof across the street will in the final cut end up a magpie. In the end, my vision has nothing to do with optometrists and everything to do with self-trust and a flit of imagination as I fly from wire to wire, task to task, and problem to problem.