Fall Festivals

Now that it’s October, it’s officially okay to be scared.  Determined to fight my fright of hubris, I make brave to mention that I have two appearances scheduled for the first ever Easton Book Festival, coming up from the 25th to the 27th.  The Festival has turned into quite an event, with some 200 writers taking part.  I got involved by being in the right place at the right time, for a change.  Authors are being brought in from as far as New York City, Vermont, and Massachusetts.  I know from experience that even Manhattan is a trek.  I contacted the organizers back in the summer since I have an autumn book that came out in late December last year.  For the festival I’ll be involved in a panel discussion “Poets as Prophets—Merging Art and Religion” on Saturday, and a presentation on Holy Horror on Sunday.

Like many people who write, I’m shy and not naturally good at promoting myself.  The other day while out for a walk my wife and I were run by by a group of shirtless high school guys, presumably on the track team.  It felt like the gallimimus scene from Jurassic Park—we’re smaller folks, and these confident, athletic sorts were not.  It felt like an object lesson to me.  Some of us are born with genetic dispositions to grow large and to feel confident.  Others not so much.  When we watched the caber toss at Celtic Fest last weekend, the contestants were all well over six feet tall, which I suppose makes sense if a caber is in the cards for you.  As they showboated for the crowd, I knew a small display with my book was just up the hill in the Moravian Book Shop.  Like me, in the shadows of the shelf above.

Perhaps my only regret about the Easton Book Festival is that I don’t have a fictional novel to present.  Well, I do, but it isn’t published.  Lately I’ve been exploring that wall of separation between fiction and non.  In the kinds of books I read in the fall, the wall is more of a hurricane fence.  And it’s only about waist high at that.  Holy Horror isn’t an academic book, it just plays one on the market.  If it were a standard academic title I wouldn’t have put it forward for the Easton Book Festival; people come to such events to be entertained as well as to learn.  This one will encompass pretty much all of downtown Easton for the weekend.  And that weekend is just before Halloween, when the wall between worlds is especially thin.

 

Book Culturing

The other day I met one of the organizers of the Easton Book Festival.  Coming in October, this festival is something new.  It took the efforts of a couple with vision—the owners of a small, independent bookstore—to get other people on board, but now it’s going to happen.  A weekend dedicated to books.  I found out about the Festival as I was looking up area bookstores that might let me do a presentation on Holy Horror.  For whatever reason, my last book missed its projected autumnal publication date, and fall is when people are really thinking about horror movies.  Approaching its birthday in late December, it never really had a proper launch.  Priced the way it is, I don’t expect a sales boost, but I would like people to know about it.  When you spend years writing a book you’d like it not to be completely obscure.

In any case, when looking up one of the Easton shops—hey, book lovers, the Lehigh Valley has lots of bookstores!—I noticed that the Festival was still seeking participants.  Since it falls just before Halloween, the timing felt perfect.  I signed up.  Now this is one of the many new tricks for this old dog.  I tell authors all the time that self-promotion is key to book sales, even when a press is fairly widely known.  In fact, the store owner himself writes books and has to pay for his own tours to promote them.  Book culture is worth promoting.

On a personal level, it does me good to see that there are others who appreciate books.  They are a form of collective mind.  A communion.  When I’m feeling down, or uninspired, a trip to a bookstore—or even a library—often helps.  Reading books leads to a sense of accomplishment.  Every year I set a goal on Goodreads.  I don’t set the goal to make me read—I’d do that anyway—but to share with others both what I’ve been reading and what I think about it.  The Easton Book Festival will be a way of doing something similar, hopefully with those many others who feel the draw of books.  Writing, for me, is a labor of love.  I don’t know too many people personally, so meeting them through books is one of my own goals.  Just the other day I met an academic who wanted to read Weathering the Psalms.  Such things happen only in that wonderful land built of books.

AKA

“Professor?”  While not technically correct, I was surprised and not unpleased to hear the title yesterday while on the streets of Easton.  One of the greatest compliments a former teacher can receive is word from a former student.  While dressed in Saturday clothes on the way to the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market, I wasn’t sure the voice intended was for me.  I’ve been out of the classroom now since 2011.  Sure enough, one of my students from Rutgers recognized me and called out.  We had an ersatz but wonderful conversation after a completely chance meeting.  Already since graduating he’s had a few different jobs, but he remembered the classes I’d taught and I recalled that he’s the person who started me reading Neil Gaiman.  Teaching is, you see, a two-way street.

I’m doing a guest service at a local church next Sunday.  In preparation I’ve had lots of emails (for me).  One of them was from the music director.  He opened by calling me “Reverend.”  I’ve never been a reverend.  The idea isn’t unappealing but I’ve gone pretty far down the path of independent thinking and any church that would ordain such as me would need to be comfortable with that.  In fact, I heard a sermon recently by an Episcopal priest and was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and, dare I say, liberal it was.  I was never really welcome in that club, I know.  When I was still fairly fresh out of seminary and working on my doctorate the idea of being “Rev. Dr.” was still appealing.  Now I go by my first name.

Labels.  I tend to eschew them.  Like my young colleague I’ve had to learn that work doesn’t necessarily define you.  (I’ve had many employers, however, who not only beg, but insist to differ on that point.  The ideas of owning individuals die hard, apparently.)  On the weekend, though, off the clock, people are calling me “professor” and “reverend.”  I’m generally sitting in a corner with my laptop on those early mornings calling myself a “writer.”  For none of these things do I receive any pay.  (Well, perhaps some for writing, but very little and very infrequently.)  The move to our new location was a chance, I think, to try to remake myself.  A chance to figure out what labels, if any, really fit.  Better throw “telecommuter” and “remote worker” into the mix.  Those are the ones, come Monday morning, that matter most.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

Giving a Hand

A friend sent me a news story that really spoke to me.  A bookstore in England, forced to move because of rent, asked for volunteers to help move their stock to a new storefront.  The response?  They had to start turning people away after 250.  A human chain was formed to pass books down by hand to their new home.  Book people, it seems to me, are like that.  I spent a recent weekend looking at downtown Easton—one of the triplet cities that make up “the Valley” (Allentown and Bethlehem being the other two).  Surprisingly, I found two used book stores within blocks of each other.  The proprietors (especially of the first) were friendly and helpful.  They were book people.

I mentioned to said first proprietor that two of the books I was buying were to replace copies ruined during our move.  The look of alarm and sympathy on her face was genuine.  Book people know that look.  They can feel each other’s pain.  They will freely give of their time to hold knowledge in their hands, if only briefly, to pass it along to others.  Now, like most bookish people, I’m aware that I’m considered odd by the average guy who enjoys sports, mechanical stuff, and money.  I’m content with a book, either reading or writing, and the occasional foray out among the more active and boisterous.  I like to think that if I lived in Southampton I’d have given up a vacation day to help out.  Saving books is saving civilization.

Book people know there’s more to life than themselves.  Ironically, such readers are often quiet and sometimes thought to be stuck up.  If you go to help move books by hand, I suspect that gives the lie to feeling above other people.  Reading is thought of as a passive activity, but it makes the mind more active.  There’s a reason our species have large brains.  It’s not that all books are for everyone—I’ve had plenty of disappointments in my reading life—but the unread book is full of potential energy.  And often that already read rewards us when we turn back to it.  Books, you see, are the ultimate givers.  Those who sell them may make a profit, but the return on investment tends to be quite high for the buyer.  If you have to move and you hire a moving company chances are they’ll complain about your books.  You’re better off asking book people for an unstinting hand.

A Star in the East

The times they are a, well, you know—nobody wants to violate copyright.  In any case, nothing stays the same for long.  New York, for example, is a city in a constant state of transformation.  Fully grown buildings now stand where there were literally holes in the ground when I began working there.  One building near Times Square recently had a facelift that revealed the steel girders beneath.  On the I-beam were the words “Bethlehem Steel.”  And it’s not just New York.  Our cultural transformation has been taking place over the last few centuries as populations have moved to urban areas, abandoning farming to the few who remember how.  Being from western Pennsylvania, I pretty much thought the eastern part of the state was Philadelphia.  I’d heard of other urban regions, of course, such as Scranton and Allentown, but they were well outside my experience.  We didn’t get out much.

Now that I’m here in the eastern part of the state, I’m begun to explore the ever-changing micropolitan area of Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton.  The three cities blend at the edges, and this region is the third largest population zone in the state, after Philly and Pittsburgh.  It’s also the fastest growing region in the commonwealth.  I suppose we might’ve helped with that statistic.  The other day I had to run an errand in Bethlehem.  I pulled over to marvel at the hulk of what had once been Bethlehem Steel.  Now, I grew up in a town with an active steel mill, and Pittsburgh grew to fame for the same metal, but this was a behemoth of a plant.  Subdivided and open to development, it now houses a casino, in part, and an arts center.  And still there’s more space.

Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Perhaps appropriate for a town trying to resurrect itself, Bethlehem calls itself the Christmas City.  Star imagery abounds, and many businesses name themselves with this Christian symbol.  The image is quite different from that of a steel city with hard-working men on the shift.  The grime and din of industry.  Bethlehem, like many places in the state, was named for its biblical forebear.  On my visit to the original Bethlehem many years ago I was, like many tourists, disappointed that it isn’t “O little town of” anymore.  There were people everywhere and it was difficult to imagine a quiet stable inside a noisy stone church thronging with the faithful.  Clearly things don’t remain unchanged for long, even in towns famous for their remoteness.  Although far from New York, they share a common heritage of people everywhere, and that heritage could bring us peace if only we would allow it.  The answer, it seems, is blowin’ in the, well, you know.

Veni Creator Spiritus

Over 100 billion have been made. Not McDonald’s hamburgers, this time, but Crayola crayons. For many of us, Crayola is one of the distinct scents of childhood, and the vibrant colors Binney and Smith offered were inexpensive keys to creative expression. After a visit to the Crayola Experience in Easton, Pennsylvania over the weekend, I began to wonder how society might have changed due to the introduction of the inexpensive crayon. Reading about childhood in the Victorian era often feels like a Dickensian bleak view of want and wasting. Children learned their lessons in school, when they went to school, in black and white. The world of color was visible to them, but not ready to hand for representation. Maybe I’m under the spell of that Crayola smell again, but I wonder how giving a child a box of color changed the way the world was perceived.

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The Crayola Experience, like the showcase of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is not a factory tour. You’re not shown the inside of the place of business, but rather the public facing side of capitalism: the part that makes you want to buy. Even after the kids are grown. Nevertheless, the experience is one of wonder and imagination for young and old alike. Art is a deeply personal form of expression. Even as I sat at a low, brightly primary-colored table, shading away on my picture, I didn’t want anyone else to see it. This was my own self-expression. On the wall were quotes from children who were not quite so damaged as me, declaring why they decided to color the cow purple or the horse green.

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To participate in some of the activities you need to cash in a token; admission gives you three and more are available for purchase. The motto on the tokens is “In creativity we trust.” It is a motto that I can live with, for it seems that creativity is the realm of the divine. Otherwise, I find it difficult to fathom why a few hours amid such a juvenile pastime could be so utterly satisfying. It’s as if the rainbow, a religious symbol of my childhood, had been fractured out into countless variations and captured in wax for the expression of my soul. Breathing deeply of that paraffin recipe, I think how only the other major aroma of childhood—that of Play-Doh—can take me back to fantasies of innocent hours where the world demands nothing of you beyond being who you are. How quickly that grace period ends. And yet, for a few dollars we can go back for an hour or two, and remember what it was like to create entire worlds.