Fall 2023 Editor's Letter
It's a Friday night, and “the baby” is home from college with her roommate who is from California. The goal, apparently, is to show Amanda what it is like to live in the heartland. The itinerary for the weekend: a corn maze and pumpkin patch, a tour of Maddie's life (our old neighborhood and house, her school, some untold landmarks that I may or may not know about), and of course the bar scene at OSU. But it's Friday night, and the bar tour starts on Saturday, so tonight is “Mom time.” We settle on Dirty Frank's for dinner, The Book Loft, and Jeni's for dessert.
I have joked that I can read my way though anything. For as long as I can remember, books have been my most faithful, reliable companion and somehow (is it nature or is it nurture??) all four of my children would probably say the same. A trip to the bookstore with us is not for the faint of heart, nor the faint of wallet. We don't even get past the tables outside before each finds a title that speaks to them:
Abby (visiting from Germany) picks up “Let This Radicalize You” and Maddie snags a coming of age novel. Amanda holds up “Calm The F**K Down” and declares that she is in her Self Help Era. My kids giggle and look at me, an inside joke that everyone gets. It is an unusually quick visit for us; as we all want to start reading immediately – as in right now. I walk outside when the others browse fun totes and postcards and seize the opportunity to dive into my top selection: “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” by Columbus author Maggie Smith.
A few years ago, Gramercy Books owner Linda Kass had recommended another book by Maggie Smith called “Keep Moving.” At the time, it seemed like a knowing, seeing kind of suggestion – though every interaction in my life at that time felt like a “knowing” and “seeing” experience...but in the “exposed” kind of way that made you wish the other person didn't know or see so clearly. I bought the book and stacked it on my desk – not to be read, but to serve as a reminder: keep moving. Before the little red spine took it's turn as a daily reminder, my mantra had come from a silly cartoon character: “Just keep swimming.” The thing is, I am not a good swimmer. Truthfully, I don't even like to swim. But it's what I lived by for so long...just keep swimming.
This time I am drawn less to the title (taken from her now famous poem “Good Bones”) and more to the content. Not knowing much of Smith's work, I know enough to know that we have some life experiences in common – and that she has a penchant for assembling words in a way that touches people profoundly. I finish the prologue as my kids walk out of the shop and insist that someone read it aloud as I drive toward Jeni's. Later, at home, I snuggle into my reading and writing chair and jump back in.
It's before dawn on Saturday, and I am back in my chair. I was up until my blurry eyes had betrayed me at 2am. I have resisted the urge to annotate. Books in my library can be like makeshift diaries: a snapshot of my circumstances, thoughts and feelings at any given time and notes about the relatability of a particular passage. This time, it is all relatable.
My friend Kate once told me that I am very good at making a delicious steak dinner out of cold cuts. That comment comes to mind as I close the book and reflect on the title. “You Could Make This Place Beautiful.” My whole life has been spent trying to make *this place* beautiful: the messy, barely-put-together-trying-to-do-too-much-am-I-doing-it-ok place that I have found myself since...well, forever. The problem, I realize on this dreary morning, is not whether I can – it is who decides what is beautiful?
Why is it that book critics, food critics, and art critics are rarely writers or chefs or artists, yet we give credence to their opinions about what is worthy, or tasty, or notable? In much the same way, I realize that I have offered up each of my places and spaces as a submission to critics – asking, “Is this beautiful?” and waiting, breathlessly, for their feedback. Some have told me how beautiful it is, how obviously hard I have worked, how proud I should be. But I don't believe them. Instead, I turn my attention to those who give an ambiguous acknowledgment that I can probably do better without actually telling me what is missing or needs corrected. So I keep trying and refining, as fast as I can, because life is short and what if I never make it beautiful, or what if I don't make it beautiful in time to convince the critics that I can? Can you relate?
The thing is, I know what beautiful looks like. I have seen it, lived it, and made it. What if, instead of frantically trying to meet someone else's expectation of beautiful, I just trust that I know beautiful, and this messy place I find myself is beautiful, just as it is?
Happy fall, and here's to each of us tuning out the critics and making the beautiful only we can make.