A Happy Birthday to a Most Wonderful Grandfather

Today would have been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. I wrote about him last year, right around this time, and today as I sit here thinking of him, it is his intrinsic goodness and gentleness of spirit that shine the brightest among my memories of him. Through his passion for living, boundless generosity, sincere joyfulness, intense loyalty, and never-ending capacity to love he became the shining example of what it meant to be a good human being, and more than anyone, he taught me the immense power of kindness and joy.

Happy birthday, granddad!

Happy birthday, granddad!

Recently, I had the incredible pleasure of reconnecting with my ex step-mother; a woman who, for nearly a dozen years, played a very big role in my life. Soon after, she told me that her mother had recently passed away, and although I had not seen either one of them in nearly twenty years, my heart was filled with incredible sadness at the news. I realized as the tears welled up in my eyes, that she had been one of those rare people who left an indelible mark on who I am, despite the relatively brief time that I knew her. She was, perhaps, one of the most tender-hearted people who I have had the joy of knowing, always happily willing to go out of her way to make everyone feel welcomed and at home. She had an easy and unassuming way of making me feel, even as an awkward and difficult teenager, well, important. I realized, as I mourned her passing, that she had taught me, like my grandfather, the quiet strength that can lie in gentleness and goodness.

I also recall a Saturday night several moths ago when I sat across from Greg at dinner and listened intently as he spoke about his mother-in-law, grandmother, and grandfather. The change in his voice when he spoke of them, the look in his eyes when he told me of his memories, spoke to the powerful impact and influence that they had on his life. He was lucky to have them, and the common thread between all of them, was, again, their innate kindness and goodness, and the impact that they have had on him is undeniable, as he is undoubtedly one of the kindest, warmest, and most loving men that I have ever known, both as a father to his children and as a partner to me.

We live in a culture that seems to embrace the loud and aggressive kind of strength, the kind that shouts, pushes, and beats its chest. Whether it’s on television, film, or music, those that win are those that push and manipulate their way ahead… or those with the biggest guns. In either case, kindness and joyfulness are seldom depicted as a true virtues, and never as real sources of strength. But the truth is, as I look back on my forty years, it’s not the loud and aggressive that have left a positive mark on my life, but the gentle and kind. It’s them, people like my grandfather, my ex-step-grandmother, and others like them that have given me the keys to living a fundamentally rich and rewarding life.

My daughter is now four years old. In such a blurred rush of time, she’s gone from an infant in my arms to an independent child with a big personality of her own. Last night, as I tucked her in for the night, I wondered who would she encounter in her life, that later she would recall as having helped shape and guide her. My grandfather is no longer here to be that stellar example for her, but I can only hope, despite my many faults, that I can through my actions, show her the lessons that he and others like him taught me.

Happy birthday, Granddad, and thank you for teaching me to find me strength in kindness and compassion, and in gentleness and generosity. I love and miss you terribly.

 

How We Read Our Books

how-to-open-a-new-bookI recently came across this image online (facebook no doubt), and it got me thinking about how we interact with our books. As is obvious by posts like this and this, I am a tactile reader. I write on pages, break spines, dog-ear pages, and by the time I’m through reading a book, it looks, well, thoroughly read. In fact, it’s a pretty safe assumption to make that the more worn (or can we say loved, instead?) a book looks, the more I enjoyed reading it, or at least, the more I got from its pages. It’s quite easy to pick out my favorite volumes from my library by the amount of tape on the spine holding it together, and it’s not uncommon for me to have to repurchase new, readable versions of these titles. As I’ve written in previous posts, my copy of Huxley’s Island is a perfect example of this, as is my old ratty copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters… and it’s that very book that brings me to this post.

A couple of weeks back, before starting this glorious winter holiday, I stood in front of my high school AP European History class with the intent of discussing Montesquieu’s contributions to the Enlightenment via his Persian Letters. I was standing in front of the class, casually prefacing the work in question, when I pulled out my old, tattered copy. I hadn’t thought anything about the state of my book as I started leafing through it, but almost instantly my brilliant lecture was interrupted by gasps and other sounds of shock and horror. Apparently, the state of my book was enough to completely derail the day’s discussion. Montesquieu forgotten, the students instead interrogated me regarding the sad state of my old paperback - “Is that tape holding it together?” “How old is that book… like 100 years???” “How many ink colors are on that page?!?!”

I have to admit that as far as I was concerned, that particular book wasn’t even close to the need-a-new-readable-copy state yet. It was worn, sure, and some of the text was obscured by a 13 years worth of annotations (hey, each reading yields different insights!), but that’s what made that particular copy mine. The seemingly unending layers of side notes were evidence of my ever evolving dialogue with the text and with the author; the myriad folds and dog-ears were landmarks of the many pages that were lingered on, discussed, and thought about; and the nearly disintegrated spine held together by tape was tangible proof of just how many times I’d opened up that volume to join Usbek on his travels through Europe. My book, because and not in spite of all of this, was familiar, comfortable, and uniquely mine.

I collect old books, and the same holds true in regards to what I find most desirable in them. I tend not to look for pristine, mint condition books, but rather ones with evidence of being well read and loved. I admit to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones as I look for evidence of previous readers… in the notes they’ve scribbled in the margins, the slips of paper they’ve left tucked between the pages, and in the folds in the pages where they left off reading. I try to imagine what pulled them away from the book when they dog-eared the page, or what thought process led them to jot down the nearly indecipherable note between the lines of the text. The book, because of these “imperfections” becomes much more alive for me, and as I read it I feel like I am connecting not only with the text, but with the others who touched and turned those pages before me.

Clearly many disagree with me on this. When I borrow my boyfriend’s books I read them with utmost care, as he and I are poles apart on this issue. I take care not to crack the spine, nor leave a mark in the pristine pages. And I can, to some degree, understand the thoughts that give rise to the need to take such care of books… it’s a feeling born out of the same bibliophilia that lead me to annotate away. But can I admit to the little thrill that I feel as I read his otherwise perfect books and find lightly underlined passages? I linger on those lines as he must have, trying to unlock their magic and importance, the underlining and lightly scribbled notes lending a certain excitement of discovery. Those marks, no matter how few in number or how lightly and unobtrusively drawn in they are, create a roadmap that, if followed, allow me to read the book with a new and different understanding.

So although I know that many of you out there are screaming in protest of this “defiling” of books, I will go ahead and continue annotating and folding away, and let the hundreds of cracked spines on my shelves tell of all of the remarkable places that I’ve been in the pages of those volumes. And just maybe somewhere down the road, someone will pick up one of my bent and scribbled-in books, and instead of tossing it aside, read it and find little bits of magic and insight through my many marks.

Our Books, Revisited.

It has been a seeming eternity since my last post, and for that, my sincere apologies. It seemed I needed a break, and it came unexpectedly when I was swamped with work. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to re-start this, and the answer came just a couple of days ago while attempting, once again, to tackle the disorganization of my library.

When I wrote about that ill-fated last attempt, I was writing what was, in effect, a story of defeat. No sooner had I started piling my fiction books on the floor in neat, alphabetical piles, that I was overwhelmed by such a sense of loss over all that was missing, and I just couldn’t continue. I remember feeling a strange brew of anger and sadness at what the loss of those books represented for me (for the background story read here and here). The books had become symbolic of a life that was my own, that came before him, and that he should not have been able to touch, and to quantify the loss just brought home the point that no part of my life had escaped his violence. By the end of my attempt, I was a sobbing mess, surrounded by books, unable to continue the task. I suppose that “big girl pill” wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, and I quickly re-shelved the rest of my books as haphazardly as possible, so as not to realize the full extent of the loss.

Over five months have passed, and things, as they are wont to do, have changed. Someone new, and pretty damned fantastic, has found his way into my life (hi, Greg!) and in the past couple of months he’s managed to make me feel wonderful again. Add to that a relaxing summer with my funny and curious daughter (who turns four this Sunday), and well, instead of looking for strength, I’m back to counting my blessings.  Feeling buttressed by that, I knew it was time to face the library once again; this time, I’m happy to report, with decidedly greater success.

There were more books missing than I had feared, and the loss of them and all they represented made it difficult to get through the task. Instead of crumbling at the realization, however, I chose to focus on simple, solvable tasks, like playing “What’s the field?” with Greg via text (was Motion and Time, Space and Matter: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science history? Philosophy? Science? Philosophy of Science? History of Philosophy? History of Science?). His support lightened the heaviness of the effort at hand, and eased my sense of anger and sadness that at times threatened to overwhelm me. That, along with the simple act of simply taking it one book at a time, helped me see the task through to the end.

I now know exactly what was lost then, and that knowledge that I thought would be unbearable, is not. Although upsetting, I realize that this was a final step in closing the door to what happened back in 2009; a last bit of hurt that I needed to process. The loss is real, but something much greater has come of it (even better than actually being able to find my books), and that is knowing that my library, like my life, is back under my control. It’s so easy to become mired in a past that’s filled with negativity, and our inner masochist tends to keep us locked there, even through things as subtle as a disorganized library. I know the books are ultimately replaceable. Even more importantly, however, for the first time in a long time, the empty spaces on my shelves no longer represent what was lost in the past, but instead they speak to the seemingly infinite possibilities that still lie ahead. For some of us, our collection of books tells our story, and sometimes we cling very tightly to those things that we think speak to who we are. I’m learning, however, that sometimes it’s okay to lose a little of what we thought defined us, in order to make a little room for what’s to come.

“Pairadise” and the Pleiades

Pairadise, Mark Ellis

If you’re like me and have been watching Venus and Jupiter dance in the night sky these past weeks, then this stunning photograph by Mark Ellis will certainly delight. It was taken on a beach in Maui, and the juxtaposition of that indigo sky with the almost otherworldly clouds and terrain makes this a truly incredible image. And look at how beautifully bright Venus is! Jupiter is slowly pulling away from Venus now, but the pair can still be seen in the night sky for a little while longer.

Despite how bright Venus is, I can’t stop looking at the Pleiades peeking out from behind the clouds. Since I was old enough to recognize that particular group of stars, I’ve always loved looking for them in the night sky. As a child of maybe eight or so, while at my family’s little horse ranch, I would spend hours laying on the grass looking up the stars, often focusing on just the “Seven Sisters,” imagining myriad stories of who these mysterious sisters were (I only knew then what the constellation was called, not the mythology behind it), and why they were shining so brightly in my sky.  Many years ago in my early twenties, I had the pleasure of spending some time with a Lakota medicine woman, Barrett Eagle Bear, and I remember being enraptured by her telling of the Lakota story of this particular constellation. The story of seven young girls who, over seven days, were taken up to the sky by an eagle. The eagle was defeated and the girls were returned to earth, but their spirits remained in the sky.

I often write about the sky in this blog, and it’s because it has a similar effect on me as do great books and beautiful art… it stirs both my emotions and my intellect. So I’ll keep looking up, as should all of you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.. our universe is a pretty amazing place.

Our Books

Renoir, Woman ReadingA couple of days ago I took on the enormous job of organizing my home library. It’s a task that, for various reasons I’ve been dreading, and therefore avoiding. Now it’s not that I’ve never organized my books. In fact, even in the days before computers I had indexed and cross-referenced my books, having created my own cataloguing system, of course, all of it neatly compiled in one giant binder. After I got my first computer, I created a database just for my books, and as soon as the technology was available, I had a program that would allow me to read the barcodes of the books, automatically entering them into my database. Since then I have always taken both great care and pleasure in organizing my library. That is, of course, until a few years ago.

As I’ve alluded to here before, three years ago I went through what was, without a doubt, the scariest and most difficult time in my life. Without rehashing the entire nightmare, suffice it to say that as tends to be the case in these situations, leaving was more difficult than staying, if nothing else because of the fear. I still remember the day that I physically moved out, knowing that I had just a few short hours to grab whatever I could and throw it into the back of a moving truck. Thankfully my friends and family were all there for both physical help and moral support, but it was the least organized and most stressful move of my nearly forty years.  I lost much in that move, but of out of everything that was left behind that day the most painful were many of my books.

Moving into our little apartment later that afternoon and unpacking the boxes of books, I realized that as many as a couple of hundred books were missing, but I couldn’t face the loss then. I’m not sure what they represented, but fully quantifying that loss would have been an unbearable addition to all that was already happening. So I shelved the books as haphazardly as possible, and left it that way. A year later my daughter and I moved again into our current home, and the books were shelved in much the same way. As I was telling a friend the other night, until I decided to take on the task of re-organizing my shelves it was a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat, the books weren’t “really” missing until I organized them and really saw that they were no longer there.

So with all of that in mind, that was that task I embarked on this spring break. I took my “big girl pill” and, with my daughter asleep, started pulling books of the shelves, carefully placing them into so many piles. I quickly started realizing that many, many books were not there, and as I started arranging them by author, subject, etc, the loss hit home. My signed Douglas Adams was gone, as was my first edition Foucault’s Pendulum. All my Huxley paperbacks were missing, as was my Lolita, and my I, Claudius. None of my Tolstoys could be found, neither could my single Grisham book, which I loved because it was one of the only books my grandfather ever gave me. Suddenly, sitting in the middle of the pile of books I started to cry. As I had expected, the loss of those books was pretty difficult to bear. I know that they were only material objects, nothing to become so attached to, and that most of the books were ultimately replaceable. But at the moment they represented something more, something ineffable; those books symbolized all that was lost then, all that was forever changed.

For those of us that are real bibliophiles, I suppose that our books will always be more than just books, they become a part of us as soon as we read them. Moreover, at least in my case, my annotations and other notes (I tend to use my books as notebooks sometimes), make those books holders of a great part of my own history, intellectual and otherwise.

I stopped with my fiction, the smallest part of my library, and reshelved the rest of my books, again with no order or reason. Maybe one of these days I’ll resume the task. But in the meantime, I’ll mourn the loss of those books that were truly irreplaceable, and begin to fill my already overflowing shelves with new books, and in them, start writing a new history.