Sometime in the last few decades, I developed a passion for buying used books. Maybe it was because my brother and now-estranged daughter each worked for several years at Shorey’s, a used book palace in Seattle. (Supposedly the company still exists, but try pinning down its location on the internet!)
I think my passion for used books had something to do with the assertion that synchronicity, when it occurs, shows up surprisingly often at public libraries. But let’s not confuse karma and synchronicity. That’s a topic for another day.
And what have used books brought me? Bargains! A sense of being blessed when I happened on a book in pristine condition. A lamentable sense of disdain for the inane underlining and marginalia left by previous owners. A sense of guilt at paying no royalties to deserving authors. (I can put aside this feeling if the author has died!) *
But now marginalia have been redeemed on a page of a new favorite book, Making Friends with Death, by Judith L. Lief. On page 40 of the paperback edition, a previous owner has bracketed a significant paragraph and written in the outside margin, “Must Read to Mary,” preceded by a dramatic scrawl I can only call a four-pointed star.
The whole point of this exercise is to underscore the likelihood—well, I call it a certainty—that we are bombarded constantly by karma without ever recognizing it. Sometimes its effect goes unnoticed; on other occasions we may sense that something is going on, but we cannot pinpoint the source.
I asked a friend to take a picture of this phenomenon. I hope you can read the inscription and tilt your head to make sense of the paragraph. Essentially it laments a human failing—we try to keep death at bay by keeping busy. When death can no longer be denied, we are ill-prepared to meet it.
I have spent many hours speculating about the author of this note. Are they lovers, spouses, best friends? What has brought the annotator to this point: A disagreement with Mary about the importance of facing up to death, a belated recognition of a point Mary has been pressing, or urgency to share insight into a matter that preoccupies both?
My quest is further confused by this entry on the fly leaf:
Does this point to another, perhaps a previous owner, of this used book? I have pondered the nature of the person who made this simple claim, so different from the passionate scrawl on p. 40. This points to a problem with used books. Unless they are extremely pricy, they do not come equipped with a provenance. Lacking that, I remind myself that this quest for karma is only a fantasy. So I make a choice. Diane must have been a student, assigned to read this book in a course preparing her in a career as a death worker. But I suppose she decided to follow a different path, so she passed the book along to her parents. After all, wasn’t it their obsession with death that had led her to believe she would be good at tending to it?
I take the note on page 40 to have been written by a man, but that isn’t necessarily so. How many children these days grow up with two moms? But of course I don’t know. The whole point of this exercise is to underscore the likelihood—well, I call it a certainty—that we are bombarded constantly by karma without ever recognizing it. Sometimes its effect goes unnoticed; on other occasions we may sense that something is going on, but we cannot pinpoint the source.
I don’t mean to develop an encyclopedic understanding of karma, just a better understanding of how it works. And of course it’s remotely possible, although unlikely given the small readership of this blog, that one day I will receive a conference call that will begin:
Hello, this is Mary
…and this is Diane
We understand you have acquired our book, Making Friends with Death…
And if that happens, it will put me on the threshold of learning what karma is all about.
*I must work to reform this tendency to view to look on notes in used books with disdain. It’s incompatible with the ideal of approaching life with loving-kindness.