In Which a Disassembled Bookcase is Our Teacher


The culprit. The guru.

I’m building furniture this week.

And by “building,” I mean “assembling.”

And by “assembling,” I mean “wielding a power screwdriver and swearing.”

You know how it is–that furniture that comes in pieces, in a big box, looks so beautiful in the picture, and you have such hope, such certainty, that assembling it will be a snap and that it will be beautiful when you’re through…and to be fair, once you’re done, usually many hours after you thought you’d be done, it usually does look pretty good–but what comes in between admiring the picture and admiring the thing itself can try the patience of a clam and goad a saint into finding creatively unflattering names to call the motherless sons of jackals engineers who designed the thing.

I was telling this to my hairdresser today, my hairdresser who is male and young, who renovates houses in his spare time, and he laughed and laughed as I related how just yesterday I was practically hanging upside down over a half-assembled bookcase, trying to use a power screwdriver-drill thing on a stubborn, sideways screw that was half an inch off the carpet so I couldn’t get the drill properly lined up with it, and my hair was falling into my eyes, completely blocking my vision, and my lower back was chanting You’ll be sorry for this tomorrooowww at me.

“Cora,” he said with a smile, “the best advice I can give you is to read the instructions. They’re there for a reason.”

“I am reading the instructions!” I protested. “They’re not clear!”

“They’re clear,” he assured me. “Read them carefully and follow them meticulously.” And he laughed again as he trimmed my bangs.

I thought about this advice as I drove home. My business is words, after all. I describe myself on social media as Reader, Writer, Teacher, Traveler. Is it possible that when it comes to assembling desks and bookcases, my reading skills fail me and I skip ahead impatiently, ignoring crucial steps in the well-written directions?

Well, no. First of all, the instructions for the things I’m assembling right now with Susan, my partner at Blue Planet Writers’ Room, don’t include many words at all. They’re mostly diagrams. Picture of screw, picture of arrow, picture of screw hole in side of bookcase. Only never, never that simple. The diagrams are diabolically complicated, and crucial steps that could be easily described in words (Be sure that all cam-thingees face downward so you don’t see them when the piece is standing up…) are simply omitted. You have to discover these little secrets yourself, as you go.

Secondly, I’m taking my time with the instructions, speaking out loud with Susan as we position the pieces, glue in the pegs, insert the cam thingees, screw in the screws. We keep turning the diagrams to line up with what we’re putting together, trying to ensure that we’re putting the right thing on the right side.

But the bookcase we put together yesterday–the one responsible for so many of our swear words–is not a straightforward design. It’s what they’re calling Mid-Century Modern, meaning it would be right at home in Don Draper’s 1960s office. Within the rectangular frame, some of the shelves are large, some are small, some are shaped like boxes–and many of the pieces are nearly identical on both sides. Nearly. Many of them are nearly identical to other, unrelated pieces. Nearly.

It’s that “nearly” that has been doing us in. While assembling that blasted bookcase, we put five pieces into the design upside-down. They went in at first, because they were nearly right, but when we went to attach other sections to them, it all went awry, because “nearly right” means, in the end, “wrong.” By the time we discovered each mistake, we had lots of sections of the bookcase-puzzle assembled, meaning that we had to disassemble lots of sections to correct our mistakes. It took us hours to finish. We were hot, sore, and pretty much out of swear words. I had been, I believe, as meticulous as my favorite hairdresser urged me to be, and still: five upside-down pieces.

As I drove home from my haircut, I thought, well, then, is that crazy bookcase a metaphor for life? (And then I thought, yeah, probably, because if you look at it in the right light, just about everything is a metaphor for life.) Think about it: You plan, you prepare, you do what seems to be the right thing, you take guidance from people who know better, you work hard and care about what you’re doing…and then you notice that despite all your sincere efforts, things, somehow, somewhere, have gone awry. Pieces don’t fit. Mistakes have been made. It hasn’t worked out as you planned.

And then you swear.

And when people find out that things went wrong, if they’re kind, they might try to help by giving you advice like “Be more meticulous.” If they’re mean, they might give you no advice, but they might presume to sit in judgement of your actions, or your decisions, or your life. But the bookcase, maybe, teaches us that sometimes we do everything we can, we do what seems right, and still, somehow, the favored outcome, through no real fault of our own, escapes us.

And then, maybe, it teaches us that even when a mistake has caused a bit of mayhem, even when there’s a lot to undo in order to rectify that mistake, it can be done. Instead of resorting to defenestration*, we can breathe, and think for a minute, and resign ourselves to the possibly difficult, possibly tedious job of correcting the mistake.

Sometimes the path to the favored outcome is not straight, or easy, or free of mistakes. Sometimes life is like building a complicated bookcase. And sometimes you just need to swear about it a little and then move on, dammit.

*A lovely word which here means “throwing a bookcase out the window.”

Photo credit: Susan Gay Hyatt (fabulous co-executive director of Blue Planet Writers’ Room)


A Little Hope in a Hard Summer


It’s a hard summer here in the world. The New York Times reported today that in the past two weeks–that’s weeks, not years or decades–247 people have been killed in eight terror attacks.

This destruction of human life hits me like a punch in the stomach. I find that the news affects me like that this year–perhaps because it’s more terrible.

Or perhaps it’s always been terrible, but now it’s terrible more often.

Or it’s more terrible closer to home, which makes us more afraid.

More than feeling afraid, though, I find myself, on a pretty regular basis, fighting not to feel hopeless. So much anger. So much murder. So much hatred. Some days, every headline is a horror. What can we do? How can we fix this? How can I help? I ask myself these questions endlessly.

And so often lately, my answer to myself is: I can’t do a thing. Anything within my power to accomplish is miniscule, microscopic, utterly ineffective in the face of such monumentally bad news. I begin to question my usefulness in this world, the usefulness of my work with children and teachers, my faith in writing and the arts to act as a beacon of civilization, in the sense of teaching us to be civilized, in the sense of teaching us not to slaughter each other in our intolerant rage. I remember my extraordinary grad school professor reminding us that the Nazis were educated, cultured, civilized. That they murdered millions and went home in the evenings to listen to Wagner. That the arts guarantee nothing when it comes to civilization.

In short, I come very close to despair on a fairly regular basis these days.

And then.

And then I hear a story about the acts of a truly kind soul, like the one last week about the construction worker who built an eight foot-tall Waldo figure out of wood, and he hides it every day in the construction site beside a children’s hospital so that the kids can look out the windows and play Where’s Waldo in real life. He doesn’t despair at their life-threatening illnesses; he found a way to give them a little joy each day.

And then I see good people swimming hard against the tide of hatred, like the people in Orlando who, the day after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, stood in line for hours, in the sweltering Florida sun, to give blood for the victims. They didn’t despair at the horrifying tragedy; they found a way to address it by giving of their own bodies.

And then I come to my senses. And I remember that every act of kindness, every gesture of caring, does matter. As every horrible act blasts out shock waves that shatter even those who are only slightly connected to the atrocity, so every decent act sends out its own ripples in the pond of humanity, impacting people who impact others, spreading the impact far beyond the initial splash of goodness.

As the act of terror sows fear, the act of kindness spreads hope. Even to those feeling hopeless, even to such as me. Even to such as you, if you need a little hope in these difficult days.

So don’t despair. Don’t stop doing good things for each other. Don’t pull up the drawbridge, don’t pile the furniture in front of the door. Reach out, even to one other person. Be kind, even to one other person. Find a way to help, even a tiny way, even if you’re not sure it will help. That’s fighting the good fight. That’s spreading hope. That’s working for peace.

That will save the world.

Photo by Shailesh padalkar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons