Monday, April 1, 2013

My First Time: Miriam Karmel

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Miriam Karmel.  Her debut novel, Being Esther, has just been published by Milkweed Editions.  Booklist had this to say about the book: "Karmel’s novel of womanhood, the love and strife between mothers and daughters, marital dead zones, and the baffling metamorphosis of age is covertly complex, quietly incisive, and stunning in its emotional richness."  Karmel has published writing in AARP Magazine, Minnesota Women’s Press, Bellevue Literary Review, and Minnesota Monthly.  She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.  Her My First Time essay is probably the most unique in the series so far.

My First Wedding in a Bookstore

It wasn’t a first marriage for Bill or for me.  But it was the first time either of us was married in a bookstore.

We hadn’t planned on the venue, though in hindsight, what better place to exchange our vows?  From the start, our love for each other was bound up in a passion for words.

Our first encounter was an e-mail exchange engineered not by an online dating service, but by a mutual friend.  Alan had been Bill’s friend for ages.  They were practically kids when they met at Centrum, a writer’s retreat in Port Townsend, Washington.  Bill was there to work on a second novel.  Alan was writing a book of his own.

Flash forward many years to Ragdale, in Lake Forest, Illinois, where I was playing around with a short story that was the genesis for Being Esther and Alan was writing another book.  On the last day of the retreat, he casually mentioned that he had a friend—a widower in New York.

It was love at first word.  Bill’s letters were gentle and funny, genuine and smart.  I began to doubt he was real.  “You’re not some lonely boy,” I wrote, “hiding out in your basement, writing sweet nothings, toying with my affection?”

Then we met.  He was no kid.  Neither was I.  It hardly mattered.  Neither did marriage.  We’d both done that before.  Then one day, marriage felt right.  But we didn’t want a wedding with all the trappings, the logistics, the Sturm und Drang.  Still, we needed witnesses.  Who better than our matchmaker friend and his wife, Linda?

Our mutual friends live in Vermont, in a small town that is so far north it is practically Canada.  We called them and said: “We’re coming to Vermont.  To get married.  You’ll be our witnesses.”  They were delighted.  They offered their home.  They knew an officiant.

Kim Crady-Smith is a local justice of the peace who happens to own a bookstore.  Or perhaps it’s the other way around.  Bill and I met Kim the way we met each other—through e-mail.  We corresponded, shared our thoughts about the ceremony, about each other, and agreed that we would meet her at Alan and Linda’s home the day of the wedding.

But our good friends had other plans.  They asked: Did we mind a surprise venue?  We did not.  Yet knowing Alan, who’d written Just Walking the Hills of Vermont, I feared we might have to scale a mountain to say our vows.  In theory, a lovely idea; in high heels, not.

The heels, it turned out, were just right for walking down the aisle at Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville.  The shop is a homey affair in a white brick storefront.  Outside, there are two wooden signs.  One says: Books.  The other: New and Used.  Inside, sunshine streams through plate-glass windows, illuminating a space jam-packed with books.  There are books everywhere.  Piled on tables.  Stacked on the floor.  Arranged in shelves that run the length and breadth of the room.  It’s a place for poking around, getting lost in the stacks, searching for hidden treasure.

In our case, it was also a place to get married.  The layout was just right.  Two long tables full of books formed a natural aisle.  That day, the tables were festooned with flowers—blowzy, white hydrangeas that Linda had foraged from a vacant lot and plunked into mason jars.  The aisle ended at a wall of books, which doubled as a backdrop for a chuppa, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy under which a bride and groom are married.  This particular canopy was fashioned from an antique tablecloth, two corners of which were tied to tall poles (Kim’s t’ai chi sticks) that our witnesses held.  The other corners were tucked under books on the shelf.

The store stayed open.  A few customers drifted in.  The UPS guy showed up.   Charlie (we never learned his last name), a bookshop regular, looked on from a chair somewhere in the back.  A poet named Roberta arrived with a bouquet of sunflowers and warm wishes.  There was even a musician strumming classical guitar.

Ours was the first wedding at Green Mountain Books.  Kim tells us there hasn’t been one since.  We’ll return this summer, this time for a reading from Being Esther.  It won’t be my first reading, or even the first reading at Green Mountain Books.  But it will be the first reading from a writer who got married in a bookstore for the first time to a man who shares her love of words.

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