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.

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.

The Curiosity of Children

My spring break has officially began this week (one of the perks of being a teacher), and in celebration, I took my daughter to one of my favorite places in this city, the science museum and planetarium. Granted, this little building is a pretty sorry excuse for a science museum, most of it is horribly outdated (exhibits remain from when I was a child), but I didn’t think my three-year old daughter would mind.

This museum was very near my home when I was growing up, and it was my favorite weekend destination, which gratefully my grandparents were always more than happy take me. I would spend hours in the main gallery, getting my hands dirty with “science” with all their interactive exhibits, and then more hours in the planetarium, gazing up at the projected night sky, memorizing the locations of all the stars, planets, and constellations for the month.  The best part of spending my days there was that I would always leave feeling as if I understood the world around me just that much better. I would walk into the parking lot looking at everything with a slightly more critical and keen eye, and that feeling would carry me well into the week. And when the sun went down, the curiosity that was piqued in the planetarium would be given free rein as I looked into the night sky and was awed by the sheer enormity of it all.

Madison looking into a zoetrope.

So with all of that in mind, I took my daughter to spend the day at the same museum, which, as I mentioned above, hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years. She loved it. She hopped and ran from exhibit to exhibit, trying her hand at all of the hands-on exhibits, asking for explanations, her eyes brightening with understanding every time she “got it.” She was mesmerized by fluid dynamics, spent exceptionally long periods of time staring at close up images of our planets, and even built her own Lego solar-powered car. Watching her eyes widen with excitement when we walked into the main gallery and she took it all in was wonderful in and of itself, but seeing her curiosity and awe take flight really made it all worth while. Not to mention that seeing and experience everything in that little museum again through her eyes rekindled my sense of child-like wonder.

As we were walking out, her new orange dinosaur in hand, she told me that she wanted to return every day. That night she asked to take out the telescope, and although it was cloudy, we did get a good look at the moon. As she looked through the telescope and I looked at her, I realized just  how lucky I am to have a daughter who is so bright and so curious. It was a beautiful day and it made me think of what Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay “On Life,”

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves!

Sunday Funnies #10 … with an apology

Once again, from the folks at Calamities of Nature

I also wanted to add that I apologize for the lack of posts this week. Between work and other obligations, I’ve barely had time to sit, much less to write. With Spring Break coming up this week, however, I do fully intend to catch up.

Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

Old Photographs

I recently wrote, as part of the Thirty Day Book Challenge, a post about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs. It came recommended by my students, and as I wrote in the entry for that day’s challenge (favorite Y/A novel), I really enjoyed the book. My favorite part, however, was not necessarily the narrative, although it was certainly enjoyable. The best part of the book, for me at least, were all the old photographs.

My great-grandmother's engagement photo, taken sometime in the mid-1920s.

I have always loved looking at old photos, especially of people who I don’t know, and thinking of all the possible back-stories that could have led to the moment the photograph was taken. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with four generations living under the same roof, and when I was young I would spend countless hours lost in my great-grandmother’s photo albums, creating different stories each time I leafed through those pages. There was a certain attractive combination of mystery and nostalgia (even for something I never knew) when I looked at old photographs, that exerted an almost gravitational force. I would really lose myself in my great-grandmother’s old photo albums,  being unconsciously careful not to tear the brittle, black pages, but entirely consumed by all those unknown histories. Now, as I take photos documenting my own family’s life, I often wonder if many years from now someone will be sifting through them, creating their own narratives for us, inventing our pasts, and wondering whatever became of us.

Last night, as I was laying in bed and catching up on some reading, I came across this on LibriCritic; a video created and narrated by Ransom Riggs about his passion for old photographs.

Enjoy!

Ladder to the Moon

Although last night’s moon was nearly full, as I sat outside looking at it and how beautifully big and bright it appeared in the cloudy Miami sky, I was reminded of this painting, my favorite by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon. It’s one of her later works, painted in 1958 when she was seventy-one.

In her biography of O’Keeffe, Roxanna Robinson describes this work as somewhat of a self-portrait of the artist in her later years, highlighting the transitory nature of the stage of life she was at when she painted it. She writes,

The images are all of transition: the ladder itself implies passage from one level to another; the moon is cut neatly in half by the bold slicing light, halfway between full and new; and the evening sky is in flux, still pale along the line of the horizon, shading into deep azure night at the top of the canvas.

I first saw this painting in while in high school, and then, as now, it represented something quite different to me. The theme of transition, although clearly there, was not what the painting communicated to me. It seemed then, and even more so now, to be a work about the impossibility of our desires; a painting about longing. The ladder seems to reach towards the moon, but in the process loses its footing. It is neither grounded nor reaching its destination. Yet even within that acknowledgement of the impossible, there is still a powerful beauty in this painting, from the inky darkness of the mountains and the brightness of the distant quarter moon, the work reminds me that longing and beauty are not mutually exclusive.

This painting also calls to mind the same theme of longing that is present in Italo Calvino’s short story from Cosmicomics, “The Distance from the Moon” )and it’s not simply the image of the ladder and the moon that makes me connect the two). In Calvino’s story, the love triangle (or square?) formed between Mrs. Vhd Vhd, Qfwfq, the “Deaf One,” and, of course, the moon, sets the background of a story of unrequited and impossible love and loss. In fact, the more I look at it this painting now that I have Calvino’s narrative in mind, it seems almost like an epilogue; the moon now too far for the ladder to reach, but the desire, the love, the longing, remaining. In much the same way that the “Deaf One” loses the moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd gains the moon but loses the “Deaf One,” and Qfwfq accepts that Mrs. Vhd Vhd will never be his, this painting of the floating ladder in the endless sky reinforces the idea that some things, despite how much we want them, will never be ours.

Despite the theme of longing and impossibility that I have always read into this painting, it has never struck me as a sad work. As I said above, there is a powerful and quiet beauty to this painting that reminds us that unattainability can still bring with it an appreciation of the possibilities that do remain. Like the Rolling Stones said, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you’ll get what you need.”

The Importance of Awe

Note: I know that the word awesome has been so overused that it has nearly lost its original meaning, but bear with me. 

A definite reoccurring theme in this blog is awe. I tend to look for the awesome in my day-to-day, and I try to inspire the same in my readers, so when I came across this post on the Huffington Post a few days back, I knew I had to share it. Written by Wray Herbert, it discusses a study that was recently conducted that stresses the importance of being awed, and how awe-inspiring experiences have the ability to reground us in a very real sense.

The problem for most of us, according to the article, lies in our perception, or misconception, of time.

It all has to do with time perception, these scientists believe. Modern life is plagued by what’s been called “time famine” — the sense that we have way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Everyone seems to feel this sometimes overwhelming sense of having too few minutes, hours and days–and it leads to all sorts of untoward consequences. Perceived time scarcity has been shown to disrupt sleep, to sap our self-discipline and ability to delay rewards. It undermines health, leading to more fast food consumption and skipped medical exams. Rationing out our precious time leads inevitably to self-centered disregard for others. The list goes on.

So where does awe come into play? According to Herbert, awesome experiences have the ability of “stopping time.” The study Herbert cites divided subjects into two groups, one which were exposed awe-inspiring images or narratives, while the other group were shown more neutral imagery, after which they were asked a series of questions aimed at measuring their perception of time and time constraint. The result? Those subjects who were awed “saw time as much more expansive, less constricted. They felt free of time’s pressure.” Moreover, apart from the immediate time-bending properties of awe, the long-term results tended to illustrate that the awe-inspired subjects were decidedly more satisfied with their lives; they were more likely to volunteer their time, more generous with their resources, and more likely to prefer new experiences over new things.

By street artist Sam3, in Besançon, France

Although this is a new study, I think it confirms what many of us already suspected. Those of us that find joy and magic in the smaller things are, in general, happier people. I can attest to the fact that when my daughter and I walk outside and look at the moon, we are awed, and it does feel as if that sense of hurry that was pushing us out the door to our destination somehow becomes less important. It’s the same feeling of stillness that I get when I’m standing in front of a painting, or looking through my telescope. It’s the feeling of freedom from time that I get when I read an especially beautiful passage in a book, or contemplate a particularly interesting thought, or listen to an inspired piece of music. It’s the same feeling that I get when I dance. It’s the sense of the universe melting away that I feel when my daughter smiles, or when I lie in the arms of someone I love. These are the feelings, that at least for me, cause time to seemingly stop.

The thing to remember is that we don’t have to go out and climb a mountain, or stand in front of a masterpiece to be awed. Like Herbert writes,

Awe-inspiring experiences do not need to be as cosmic as the northern lights. The birth of a child can stop time in its tracks, as any parent can attest, or a listening to a beautiful symphony. And even smaller things: As these studies demonstrate, even exposure to brief video images and stories and short walks down memory lane can help us right-size our sense of time and life. We can’t order up awesome experiences on demand — at least not the heavenly kind — but we can stay mindful of such common opportunities for awe, which might alter the pervasive time-starved perspective that is distorting our modern sensibilities in so many unhealthy ways.

We can, and should, find the magic of living in all the little things that we experience on a daily basis, and we can do that by keeping our minds engaged, and our hearts and eyes open. Nothing but good can come from it, even if the clock does continue to tick.