That thought dawned on me as I was coming up for air in the process of “organizing” the masses of material that somehow, probably by Divine intervention, turned into a book sometime in the last days of the 20th Century. Wonder of wonders, the miracle is nearly set to happen again as a new mass of materials and continuing inspiration, is about to evolve into a 21st Century argument for the truth of evolution. With that original experience firmly in the rear-view mirror, I can even dare to believe several versions of the miracle are also possible. Here’s where all this optimism began.
Fresh from celebrating a family wedding in Guadalajara where I arrived unaccompanied by my luggage, I had plenty of time in the nearly two weeks before we were reunited, to consider that the role of an Aunt is not what you’d call a high-profile gig. I named the luggage “Godot” and set out to wait for its arrival. In that time, I became an expert at making a tunic coat look sometimes like a dress; sometimes like a plausible partner for the 50% of the trouser suit that went on to play more roles than the shoestring cast of a very sparsely funded Off-Off-Broadway production. “Ah! Tia Anita, I see your luggage must have been found” said a gallant observer of the shotgun wedding of a yellow turtleneck, and, you guessed it, the navy gabardine trousers and a shawl that matched neither.
The point is that all the chaos gave birth to a book idea about the Aunt. If Ralph Ellison could establish a stellar career writing Invisible Man, why could I not be the alchemist who turns dross into gold by calling out the fact that Aunt of the groom might just be the perfect role for someone in the witness protection program. At that point, the wheels started turning and I began a whole new level of enjoying the celebration of a wedding that brought together several continents and cultures each with a unique gift for friendship and fun. Remembering my sister’s mantra, invoked at each of the four weddings of her sons, “Wear beige and say nothing!” I concluded that a variation on the theme could work for me. And maybe even twice.
My reward for making peace with lack of the wedding finery I had so happily assembled in advance of the fateful flight to Mexico City and a transfer to Guadalajara (that my finery selected not to join) was the birth of an illusion. This idea seemed such fun that, of course, I believed I could bring it from idea to manuscript without missing a beat in serving my new corporation’s remarkable client base. It will just be a “walk and chew gum” exercise. It will take its place as one more temporary madness, joining a chronicle of all the impossible things one does because no one tells her they are impossible.
Truth to tell, the birthing of a book would never have happened the first time without the brilliant insight of my colleague Kelly Freehill Hoffman and her gift of believability. She’s the sort of person who must have been the model for the ad tagline, “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” The friend who trusted her listened, and trusted that the idea was saleable. Susan Schwartz, was a devoted Aunt and thus the perfect editor. And so, while flying west across the continent to deliver the new business pitches we were invited to make and taking the calls that came at within the “business hours” of clients across the Atlantic Ocean, the adventures of Aunts continued to play out in my mind and heart as the numbers of nieces and nephews grew. Then Mona Finston put me on the road to tell the story of Aunts as “the women who love your children and send them home to you at the end of the day.” See, I said to my naïve self, it is possible!
By the time reality set in I had begun expanding on the various “book ideas” that soon outgrew one file folder and spilled over into boxes of notes, clippings and books that related to the other five or six ideas that seemed to be pleading to become books.
That’s where Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress comes into the story. Decades later, the serendipity of the original Aunts: A Celebration of Those Special Women in Our Lives has generated a motley crew including a sequel for the 21st Century; a memoir of a career change with two capital “C”s; a handbook on suggestions for answering the question, “What Can I Say?”; and a wide-eyed exploration that tells me its name is “Awakening in an Urban Village.” So, now the first publisher is no more and I might rather consider putting myself in the hands of a North Korean jailer than take on “self-publishing.” Knowing that the Lost Luggage division of Aero Mexico can’t ride to the rescue, I now must deal with what is not lost as I light one more birthday candle for the arrival back to me of the rights to that impossible dream of a first book, reverted from the publisher specializing more in the business world and so willing to negotiate the rights for a book inherited when they acquired the division of the Chicago Tribune in whose inventory it lived.
As one would expect, a rather more aggressive incarnation of the Aunt has pushed its way to the front of the line. She tells me her name is Aunts: the Best Supporting Actresses. And she has even had the luck to have her portrait created by the amazing creatives of Cummings and Good. I don’t dare ignore her, to say nothing of the people to whom her forebear was dedicated and the stages of life, love and humor (gallows and otherwise) they represent and whose stories must be told.
As I struggle to capture her charms and condense her stories, the five or six stages of the evolution of those other stories are having their revenge. They live as paper, and filing boxes that have a sort of “wack-a-mole” quality as each shredding begets another “find.” Sometimes it’s no fun to have been born into the tradition of the Seanachie, the Celtic story teller. But if the tale of a onetime teacher of undergraduate philosophy can survive five successive working titles and still yield some pretty solid insights on life’s big issues, from fear to love to perfectionism and creativity, I wouldn’t dare abandon it, or any of them.
This is how the foolhardiness to start books you know you don’t (at the time) dare steal the time to complete, turns into something vaguely like an addiction. Or maybe more like an invitation.
Who could I turn to for help with this tsunami of what ideas become before they become books? Good will is not enough.
It turns out, for example, that the single subject of Aunting is as prolific as the wonderful couples who birth them and then loan them to us. Each time I revisited a topic it insisted upon morphing into a whole different version of itself. And the paper went from a lot to a landslide. Every national event or strictly local happening showed me a new face of the subject. Through it all, an astounding number of an astounding variety of women voiced an equally astounding unanimity. When the subject arises, they are as one in the warmth and enthusiasm they exhibit when they say “I’m an Aunt!” of perhaps “I have/had the most amazing Aunt.”
The only downside is the entirely unruly (in the classic sense of scoffing at rules) accumulation of papers, words and images that have lead me to indulge my “collector’s instinct” to clip, copy, note and otherwise retain the insights, the events, the unexpected people and their unexpected interest in being and having Aunts.
The result is a mountain of what is, perhaps too kindly, classified as research material. Which brought me to Carla Hayden, US Librarian of Congress. Living with these ideas that will not be silenced means you need the help of a “super-organizer.” Who better that our country’s 14th Librarian of Congress? In 1945 the then-President of the American Library Association wrote this job description that was equally on target when the current office holder was appointed in 2016. The position he wrote, “requires a top-flight administrator, a statesman-like leader in the world of knowledge, and an expert in bringing together the materials of scholarship and organizing them for use—in short, a distinguished librarian.”
So, one day as I peeked out over the mountains of paper that are the past, present and future of what I am calling, “Aunts, the Best Supporting Actresses,” I longed to call in the “Cavalry” of jurying, classifying and passing strictly professional judgment of the ideas that need to pass muster for a book that deserves to be read. “That’s it,” I concluded. The Librarian of Congress. “If the first female holder of that office since John Adams’ Presidency (and who knows, maybe an Aunt) can’t organize what amounts to an avalanche of maybes into a manageable snowfall, who can?”
Besides, I thought, she has already been kind enough to give me an ISBN 0-8092-3057-7 number for what will become yesterday’s Aunt of tomorrow’s 21st Century relative. But guess what? She didn’t. She could of course name me Poet Laureate; or award me “The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.” Those are two of the unique powers of her office. It turns out that the grantor of the numbers in the barcode of every book identified by its International Standard Book Number is no further away than New Jersey.
I don’t think I’ll “go there” though. Our conversation this Sunday morning has reminded me that there is something as deeply personal about birthing a book as in being/having an Aunt. It’s a privilege that brings with it a certain sort of courage that edits the word “impossible” out of the script. And it must bring with it some rare “grace of state” that makes the actress ready to take the stage when the curtain goes up and never look back to where the suitcase may still sit in the lost luggage room in Mexico City. Share that gift with me and let’s meet at the theater and “enter laughing.”
Epilogue: The original book proposal for the original Aunts was entitled Aunting: A Guide to Being Omnipresent, Sometimes Highly Useful and Often Almost Invisible©. And it still got published! See what I mean about nothing being “impossible”?
Opening photo of Library of Congress ceiling courtesy of: David Maiolo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
All other photos: courtesy of Pixaby