Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ghosts, Goblins and "Good Works"

My daughter graduated from high school yesterday. As she walked across the stage, I sat cheering in the stands surrounded by “family” members. My husband sat on the bench behind me because we weren’t speaking to each other—again. My honorary “sister” sat next to me, my stepson and biological son sat to my left and right respectively, and my husband’s ex-wife’s parents sat somewhere to my left. Together, we made a proverbial motley crew. While the salutatorian talked about Ronald Reagan, I started to think about families, how they’re created, and how they, in turn, create us.

Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My own family was made unhappy by the ghost that lived in their home. She was sad and solitary haunt—a leftover piece of someone else’s shattered family. She was me.

Anybody who’s ever been abused knows that abusers prey on hopes and dreams. My stepmother was no different. Hopelessness and depression swam in her wake. Daily, she assured me that no one would ever love me, I would never amount to anything, I had the intelligence of a monkey, etc…

Every time she spoke, I felt as if a piece of me died.

Out of sheer desperation and a pure animal instinct to defend my own life, I took what was left of me and pushed her way down deep, locking her away in that secret place in my soul. There I kept her, barely alive, feed solely on books and daydreams.

Books, in short, saved my life.

Books took me away from the horror that was my reality, but to say that they were an “escape” downplays the effect they had on me and my life. Books were my family—my parents, my brothers and sisters, my creepy uncle and crazy aunt. Books taught me life lessons; they taught me how life could be; they made me who I am today.

From Barthe Declements’ Copper Jones, I learned that telling the truth gives you power and inner strength. Where the Red Fern Grows taught me the value of hard work. And Anne (spelled with an “e”) Shirley taught me the importance of an education.

The older I got, the hungrier I got, and in my pre-teens, I devoured adventure and survival books: The Cay, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Sign of the Beaver, The Hatchet. Each one taught me that I was strong—that if I was smart enough and brave enough, I could survive on my own. Over time, the strength of my family gave me the courage to give up the ghost.

Free at last, I am still sometimes shocked by the sound of my own voice, but I continue to feed off of the works of great authors, and my voice grows stronger with time. But my words are not entirely my own. In the words of Ronald Reagan, I stand on the shoulders of giants. But my “shrines” are not made of bricks and mortar; they are paper and ink. Libraries and bookstores are my temples and books, my shrines.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Traveling by Book, Traveling in my Dreams

Okay.  Since no one else will write anything, I'll just have to do so.  Yes, this is a not-so-subtle reprimand for my fellow and beloved book-clubbers.

I have been reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, trying to get a jumpstart for our next book club meeting.  Dont, worry, no spoilers follow!  While there are many passages that have been so beautifully crafted that I was inclined to underline them using my favorite pen (purple ink, of course), one line continues to haunt me.  It both excites me and saddens me, gives me hope and dashes my dreams.  The line occurs early in the novel, within the first twenty pages: "My grandfather always says that's what books are for," Ashoke said, using the opportunity to open the volume in his hands.  "To travel without moving an inch."  Ashoke speaks this poignant line in response to a man's command to travel the world while he can, while he is free from responsibility and obligations.

I'm sure the reason the passage excited me is obvious.  As a lover of books, and as one who has always found escape in books, the idea of traveling by book resonates with me.  My first glimpse of the English countryside was through Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I remember trembling with Jane Eyre in the red room and walking the seedy streets of Brooklyn with Francie.  I sailed down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim, felt the blistry winter air in the March attic, keeping Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy company in New England.  I have been to Neverland and watched the flowers bloom with Mary in her Secret Garden.  I watched as Oliver begged for a little more gruel in Dickens'  seedy and unseen London and continued to helplessly peek in the window as Nancy was brutally murdered.  I have seen and visited wonderful places, places people only dream of, and I have seen and visited places that persist in childish nightmares.  All through the books I read.

But, alas, I have never truly seen these places, never walked where the characters in my favorite novels have walked, never breathed the air my favorite authors have breathed.  Only in my imagination have I followed shadows and caught glimpses of things I long to experience.  I remember as a child seeing rainbows and clouds in the sky, and I wanted to touch them.  But of course you can't touch these things. I always ran toward the rainbow and never arrived at its location. So it is with Austen's countryside.  I see it vividly in my mind, but it is not tangible. I keep chasing after it, but I never seem to get there.

Maybe it is because it is summer, the time for vacations and travel, that my heart aches for exotic places even more than usual.  Growing up, we never took family vacations.  There was never money, never time.  I take that back.  When I was four years old, we went to Disney World with my creepy, evil stepfather.  I only remember two things about the trip: 1) I wasn't allowed to ride the Dumbo ride because said stepfather thought the line was too long 2) the witch on the Snow White ride scared me.  To be fair, I have traveled to Boston to visit family in the last couple of years, and I will never, ever forget our memorable trip to NYC.  I still look at the pictures from that trip and smile! But there are so many other places I want to go in America and abroad, places I fear I will never visit.  I certainly don't have the money to do so now, and since I'm about to embark on another six years of self-induced poverty (aka Ph.d) I don't foresee any trips to good ole England, for example, anytime soon.  Nor even Disney World.  This saddens me more than I could ever truly express.

Because I did things so backwards in my life, I don't have the freedom of which the stranger in The Namesake speaks.  I already have responsibilities and obligations.  And as much as I hope to one day have children and take them on trips to the places I dream of, I want to visit them first.  Does this sound selfish? Perhaps it is.

Now that, I have explained the excitement and melancholy that flooded me when reading this line, I promise slightly more cheery material to follow.  At first, reading such a line was crushing.  I wanted to stamp my feet and cry out, "But I don't wanna travel without moving an inch!"  I want to get on a plane, a train, a boat even and go there now.  Like Veruca Salt, "I want it NOW!"  Then, I gave myself a good talking-to.  I could continue to be a big baby and pout, giving up on the hope of ever seeing these places, or I could continue to dream, to remember the solace I have previously found in books, in traveling only in my dreams.  Instead of seeing my beloved books, my old friends as reminders of the places I may never go, I needed to see them as a lovely way to visit Tuscany, England, France, and Ireland in an afternoon, for no more trouble than a trip to the bookstore or library or a click on Amazon.  But, how do I do this?

For the longest time (since I began Grad School to be exact) my relationship with books has been dwindling.  I still love to read, but I think I have forgotten the pleasure of simply getting lost in a book for no other reason than to be lost.  Because I have a typical Type A personality, I always put too much pressure on myself.  As much as I don't like to admit it, I like to be the best at things.  I rarely am, but I never cease to work toward such outrageous standards.  Thus, when I read, I feel like I should be writing something about it, formulating a plan, preparing for class (to teach or study).  Even reading books for book club has at times been a chore.  This is not to say that I haven't read for pleasure, but even then, I almost feel like I should turn it into something productive.  More productive than simply reading, I guess.  To be honest, I don't know what I mean or how to explain it. I guess, I've let other things come between me and books, even writing, for I love to write about the things I am reading (as you can tell from this unusually long post).

So, I have decided to reconcile with books this summer.  Yes, I need to study for the subject test.  And yes, I should read some things to prepare for further studies.  But, I am going to read so that I can enjoy myself, so that I can travel without moving an inch.  I'm going to begin by reading Under the Tuscan Sun so that I can visit Italy.  What will follow, I'm not quite sure.  I need to make an itinerary of the places I want to visit. Then, if anyone asks in the fall, "What did you do this Summer?" she will not hear my usual, bitter reply: "Nothing." Instead,  I will optimistically and pleasantly respond, "I began the summer in a villa in Tuscany."  Would you like to join me on my excursions?