Talking to Myself

At age 16:

May 22, 1977 
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write. I guess it all started when I became old enough to read. Books seem to bring something in the imagination alive that didn’t really exist before. Reading used to be my only haven, for a while you can forget everything else and beome a new person. Books have brought so much to my life and mind that if I could write and make my characters live in the minds of the readers, I’d be happy.
 
Today has been a very thoughtful day for me. I’ve been remembering books that I’ve read, like “The Camerons” and just thinking about them again brings a tear to my eye. Then I think that I’d love to be a writer.
 
I saw the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. “Jane Eyre” was on too. I loved it. But as I was watching it, I thought that all I wanted from life would be to be loved. Later was a special on Grace Kelly – Princess Grace of Monaco. She was elegant, graceful, and tasteful – not to mention rich enough to support these habits. I thought I’d love to have elegance, beauty and poise – not to mention enough money to support these habits!
 
I suppose, then that this is an outline of what I want my future to be:
  • Slender and graceful – always showing exquisite taste in the clothes that I wear and in everything connected with life.
  • I want to be a rich, well-known novelist and journalist.
  • And I want to love and be loved like in the movies and in books. 
Not necessarily in that order.
Do you think it is too much to ask?
***********************************************************************************************

At age 25

December 27, 1986
The sun is shining down on the woods and streaming through the glass doors. I am sitting at an old wood table, dappled with the sun. I am smoking and drinking whatever they call that concoction of instant tea and Tang and listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash. I have just had a long, hot shower – my hair is wet and I smell like the wonderful carnation-scented lotion Jeff and Marsha brought me from London. It is 1:15 on a Satuday afternoon and at 3:00 my friend Cathann is coming over. I have just finished reading the Prydain Chronicles (the Black Cauldron books) and I really loved them. What more could I ask from any day?
 
And yet, I am not as happy as I feel one should be on a fine day in a fine setting. I am worried about the future and money — all the things that can dampen spirits. Why can’t I put them aside for even a short while? It was easy to forget them back when I could have saved myself from this trouble. Will I ever have control of myself?
 
Also, the books I’ve just finished make me long to be a truly wise and good person. I know I am not – but how does one get there? Or are any as good as characters in novels? Probably not. But why not?
 
So here I am, in my annual year-end anxiety-ridden existential dilemma. Some year I’ll have only hope and eagerness for the future instead of mainly regret for what the past year was not. And on that day, will I have attained wisdom?
 *************************************************************************************************

At age 38

December 30, 1999
I remember in grade school being asked to calculate how old I would be in the year 2000. Wow – 38! I didn’t think of it as elderly, I just thought of it as being so old that in Sister Irma Mary’s third grade classroom it was impossible to extend my imagination that far.
 
And yet, here it is. No longer something to imagine – now something to be lived. On the one hand, I know intellectually that the calendar is a human construct with arbitrary origins and therefore has no intrinsic meaning. On the other hand, I’m swayed. We humans have given it meaning through the force of custom, history, even invention. The whole Y2K issue has forced this particular turning of the years to have meaning in a way that even the all-seeing Sister Irma Mary could never have expected…
 
…Despite my self-admonishments, I have felt a prickle of fearful anticipation upon hearing these reports. I can’t forget my recurrent nightmare of panic and holocaust and my attempts to reach my parents…this seems like the time if ever such a horrible vision were to come to pass.
 
And yet, there’s so much more going on – there’s the positive excitement, also. On the winter solstice last week, the moon was the brightest it has been in 133 years, an auspicious sign. And it was so beautiful in the sky that night. I was out for dinner with Joe R. and we drove around a little afterwards. But Joe didn’t seem very interested in the concept, so I cherished the experience quietly in my heart, just as I did with the comet a couple of years ago. The people I know who might also feel the romance and sense of personal significance that I do on such occasions are always far away from me.
 
And in my personal life I have felt myself approaching a new crossroads and know I will be taking a turn from my current path – like the moon I’m at a rare point in my circumambulation of the universe.
 *************************************************************************************************

I have kept a journal, off and on, for most of my life. I was inspired to share these excerpts with you upon reading a poem by Pamela Alexander, “Talking to Myself at 34” from her book Navigable Waterways. Reading the poem, I was truly struck by the idea of my journals as a form of talking to myself, of telling myself what it is I know. I grabbed three of the many notebooks that have served as my journals and selected these excerpts randomly. (Well, the December 30, 1999 entry was the first in that notebook and seemed like too good a date to pass up!)

Alexander’s poem speaks of two women, the real one and the imagined one. As I sat in a cozy chair in this house I love, reading bits and pieces of my journals, it came to me that there has been purpose (as well as meaning) in this never-ending conversation I’ve had with myself. The purpose has been to bring these two versions of myself, real and aspirational, closer together inside my skin. I’m not the woman I dream of being – not yet, anyway. But I grow incrementally closer.

The end of Alexander’s poem reads:

Hey, you,

in an old house

with tools that want to be used.

A few cracked windows. Outside them,

cars and radios and shouting people

make a city.

Inside, I discover the door’s duplicity

by looking at wood carefully for the first time

in years. Real wood

made into imagined wood.

.

So the you I’m calling to,

the you that is me,

the one who wants to tell me

everything I know

is both real and invented,

the woman whose name is on the front door

and the imagined person, the one

made with small strokes

on this paper

that used to be trees.

 

Repository of Memory

I sometimes astound my friends with stories about my childhood – their surprise generally surrounds either the fact that my five siblings and I never killed anyone or the concept that I was allowed to go places without my parents. Yes, friends, I am that old – I grew up in a time when no one was worried about children being snatched.

We lived, back then, in a house on a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River and the flat valley it had carved into the landscape. The downtown, and many places of significance in my childhood, were located in those flats. Most forays both within and outside of my neighborhood involved negotiating either steep streets or flights of endless stairs carved into the bluffside.

Two blocks from my house, at a point where the street turned a corner and opened into a spectacular view of the city and river below, there stood a curious handrail. In the street itself, surrounding a hole in the pavement. As one approached closer to the hole, stairs could be seen, disappearing under a graceful arch of carved limestone blocks. At the bottom of those stairs, a walker was forced to navigate about half a block of very steep sidewalk, often broken and littered with glass, before reaching flat land. Positioned exactly there, an immense and imposing edifice became one of the happiest locations of my childhood.

The Carnegie-Stout Public Library. (click to see an old postcard of the edifice)

I can remember my mom coaching me the first time I was allowed to go to the library by myself. I was never very confident doing things on my own, so it is a measure of my desire that I was unwilling to wait for a parent or siblings to make the trip. Down through the hole in the street I went, taking my time on the stairs and the steep sidewalk (if I remember correctly, mom was watching from the street above, and I wanted to prove my maturity by not running and, inevitably, falling.)

I always chose the grand main entrance, though the side door led directly to my final destination. However, I loved those broad stairs, colonnades, and the stone lions guarding the massive wood doors. Inside, the reading rooms flanking the main hall, beckoned. One had comfy, overstuffed leather furniture, the other library tables with reading lamps. But I was afraid of the serious old men in these rooms, perusing their big city newpapers, so I generally passed through quickly. I always visited the adult literature section, not because I wanted to check out the books, but because of the winding iron staircase leading to the glass-floored loft in that section. I loved the surprise of the glass floor, the tall black stacks full of books, the iron railings which allowed a view of the open main floor and its lofty ceilings from a higher vantage point.

The second floor was not officially off-limits, but it was filled with offices and meeting rooms. Adults I didn’t know always asked if they could help me, and I got the impression from their tones that children weren’t completely welcome on that level. Typically, I scampered back down the marble stairs fairly quickly. Straight down to the basement where, as far as I was concerned, the real magic happened: the children’s room.

The room was bright, if shabby, and full of stories waiting for me to discover them. The librarians knew me, and knew what would interest me: at first, stories about pixies and fairies; then chapter books about families like “The Five Little Peppers”. Eventually, books and authors I could sink my teeth into. Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy). The Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. Any- and every- thing ever written by Louisa May Alcott.

As a child, I had many fancies about my world: our yard, our neighborhood, our town. This helped to make the world feel intimate and comfortable. As I grew older, I realized that the world was huge and not particularly cozy. Its vastness began to frighten me. When I discovered reading, particularly novels, I found that there was another, equally vast, world inside my own imagination. In this vastness, whether the setting was familiar or alien, I was always safe – if sometimes challenged to be more or think more deeply and broadly than before.

Sometime after I left home, the library built and addition and moved all the public spaces into it, closing off the original grand library (turning it into offices and storage rooms). I was incensed by this. Recently, though, the library underwent a renovation. I had an opportunity to visit, and was pleased to see that, in the renovation, someone had cared enough to upgrade while paying homage to the original detail. It isn’t the same, but it evokes similar feeling. The children’s room, in its traditional space in the basement, is bright and interactive. Perhaps today’s children will find magic there, just as I once did. I hope so.

****************************************************************

Friends: I would like to invite any of you who may be interested to submit a guest post to Jenion. Guest posts are a great way to test the blogging waters (for those who’ve wanted to blog but are unsure of the commitment) or, if you already have a blog, to share something that doesn’t fit your own blog’s theme. Here at Jenion, its all about aha moments, personal transformation and/or growth, weight loss, emotional development. Honesty and humor are both welcome! If you have a story along these lines you’d like to share, please email or write a reply to this post and we’ll “talk”!

50 about 50: Books

“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
 
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!