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



The Woman, the Girl, and the Screaming Horse


The memory. The painting. Picasso’s Guernica.

Greetings from Madrid! I’m here to relax, to learn, to seek similarities, to find differences…to be overcome by the beauty of it all.

And today I was overcome, by the presence of an old acquaintance: the gigantic Guernica, arguably Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. We have a little story, the painting and I.

I have a very clear memory of seeing Guernica, decades ago, with my mother and my sister, in Manhattan. I can picture the monumental canvas from the viewpoint of a young child, maybe six years old, standing left of its center, gazing up at the disturbing figures in their somber colors. It was the horse that affected me the most–the horse screaming in the midst of the broken people, beside the impassive bull.

“What is this? I remember asking my mother as I tried to make sense of the images.

“It’s about a war–in Spain,” she replied. “It was painted by Pablo Picasso.” Mom was an artist herself, so I had heard of Picasso, had seen photos of his cubist imaginings. I nodded slowly, wincing at the horse in his agony. The image never left me.

Years and years later, though, I had cause to doubt my memory when I read that Guernica was housed in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. That made sense–Picasso was a Spaniard, of course–but how, then, could I have seen it in New York?

The answer lay in the painting’s complicated history. Picasso painted it, as we know, to memorialize the victims of the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque country, in the northeast of Spain, during the civil war that saw fascist dictator Francisco Franco take power. Though such complete devastation and killing of civilians would become all too familiar during the rapidly approaching years of World War II, at the time, the destruction of the bombing raid on Guernica was unprecedented and utterly shocking. When Picasso completed the painting, he declared that it would never hang in Spain until the country was released from the grip of fascism and had become a peaceful republic once more. The painting toured the world, and eventually it came to be housed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)…in Manhattan.

So I did see it–on one of the many trips into the city that my mother took us on in the summer and around Christmas, when school was out.

Picasso lived until 1973, and two years later, Franco died. Once fascism had fallen, negotiations between The Prado, Spain’s premiere museum, and MoMA finally brought the painting home in 1981. It hangs now in the Reina Sofia, where the Prado moved its collection of contemporary art when it ran out of room.

So this evening, in Madrid, half a world away from MoMA, half a lifetime away from that little girl in front of a giant painting, I encountered Guernica once again. I tried to be patient about finding it, moving slowly at first from room to room. I examined the Dalis and the Miros, lingered over the photos of Lorca (another victim of the civil war) and his La Barraca theatre group, but finally the suspense got the better of me and I left my daughter–my traveling buddy–behind and went in search of the huge canvas.

And I found it. On a great, white wall all by itself. The crowd was thin, so I was able to move right up close, left of its center once again, and look up at, of course, the horse.

And I was overcome. I mean, really overcome. My hand flew to my throat, tears welled in my eyes, and there I was: crying in a museum. I stood there for a long time, taking it all in, absorbing it, remembering it.

As if that was necessary. The six-year old me saw it once and never forgot it.

Soon my daughter appeared at my elbow. “I see you found it,” she smiled. I nodded. I could barely talk. She stayed a few minutes and then moved on, but I stayed and stayed.

So why, exactly, was I crying? I’ve been occupied by that question for hours, and now, in the middle of the Spanish night, I believe I have an answer: It involves the grownup-I-am knowing so much today–about the painting, and Picasso, and fascism, and suffering. The grownup-I-am cannot help but be moved by the tragedy that incited the painting, by the immense talent that executed it, and by the thought that despite its clear and terrible message, the painting couldn’t possibly stop war, or suffering, or human cruelty.

But it also involves the child-I-was, who was there at the Reina Sofia today, too, along with her sister and her mother–her mother who has been gone now these past three years. The child-I-was was on a trip to the city, holding her mother’s hand, seeing the canvas for the first time, trying to understand the suffering of the horse. The agony of the painting swirled into the happiness of the memory, the absence of my mother colored the memory of my mother–and I short-circuited. And cried in a Spanish museum.

That said, though, there may be a second, simpler reason that I cried; one that speaks to the power of art. As I mentioned, I know a lot about the painting, its artist, and its background now. On that long-ago trip, I knew almost nothing. And yet the painting moved me, a small child, that day, as surely as it moved the grownup me this evening.

I still winced at the horse’s suffering.

That’s the power of great art. You don’t have to “understand” it to be affected by it. Even a child can see the agony in Guernica. Live for a while and it can make you weep.

Standing there today, I could picture us decades ago, my mother, my sister, and I, taking in the same sight. My mother showing us a painting that could have been considered too grownup for us, making us understand that art has power: you can paint a lovely landscape and make people delight at its beauty–or you can paint a war and make people wince at its horror.

Connections, understanding, and memory–I found all of them in the Reina Sofia today. I was overcome. It was extraordinary.