Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I've discovered this year that I am not really a reading challenge kind of person. I like reading a book when it feels like the right time for me. When I finish it, sometimes I feel like talking about it but more often than not, I like to absorb it and let it work in me.

This year was a year of detours for me. Four months ( a third of it- that's still hard to fathom for me) I lived in a place I had never anticipated, a life that I hadn't planned. Some of it was really hard, some of it took me back to Canada to the same house I had stayed in as a teenager twenty years ago as well as the house in New Mexico I had lived in at around that same time (three times this year, as it turned out, between December and last summer- after a twenty year absence). Much of it brought a whole lot of awesome into my life.

Reading detours are much the same way. I reread books I haven't read in decades, read some I never thought I would be interested in in the first place, and read a few that I had planned to read someday but not this particular day- and it's okay. It's actually better than okay. It's brought a lot of awesome into my life.

After some unexpected pushing and prompting (and an entire site set up for me courtesy of all three of my brothers), I am moving most of my writing to one place. Ultimately it'll be easier for my readers who follow more than one of my blogs (my writing will be searchable and accessible by categories) and much easier for me, not having to fragment my life into pieces when they overlap and intersect so frequently on a daily basis. So from now on, I'll be writing to you there: melanie.boudwin.net.

Loving you through all of life's detours,

Melanie

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reading Challenge Bric-a-Brac

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It's time to check in on some reading challenges. Unless I complete a crazy readathon beginning in mid/late December once I return to my personal library of books... statistically it's going to be pathetic. Normally failing on that scale would leave me hyperventilating and upset with myself, but my life these past few months has been nothing like what I planned.

I've still been reading, just not the books I thought I'd be reading. I've been reading about Euclid, Thomas Jefferson, The Great Depression, how to practice music, Bela Bartok, Yo-Yo Ma, Gielgud and Burton preparing their version of Hamlet, happiness projects, ads during WWII, Finland, how to draw, poetry, origami, the history of science... the list gets seriously crazy incredibly quickly. That's not counting the documentaries I've checked out and watched that have ranged from sign language, Victorian houses, George Washington Carver, Fred Rogers, and the true story behind The Great Escape to teacher/astronauts in space. My sister laughs each time I bring a stack home, a very good thing since there are books in every room of the apartment. I love it, and stress about it, and think of all the things I'm doing, thought I'd be doing, and hoped I'd have done by now. Oh, well. It's been a trip and I've been learning lots about many things, more especially myself.

Which leads me to one of the books on my list that I did read a few months ago, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. This was a reread for me of a book I had read close to a decade ago. The first time around I was captured by a story I could relate to deeply on a personal level at that time. I loved it! The second time... E.M. Forster's prose is so exquisite that reading it makes me almost despair of writing anything, including a review, myself. I've thought about it for months now, and what struck me most this time around was not the story, or the characters, but what we do to ourselves when we are not completely honest with ourselves. It's fairly easy for me to be honest with others, but, like Lucy, I find myself warping or submerging truth when it comes to my feelings and myself. As E.M. Forster hints at, doing this can be disastrous and devastating. I did not enjoy this book as much the second time around, but it did wake me up to some things I was doing that were hurting me that I've been working on ever since. I've been a lot more upfront and honest with myself. It's hard at first, sometimes difficult all the way through, but it is a better way to live.

It took me an absurdly long time to read Kipling's Captains Courageous. Whether it was the dialect speech, the boating vocabulary, or the fact that I read the majority of it in hospital waiting rooms and doctors' offices, this book was a huge challenge for me to get through and finish. In the end, the only part of the book that really spoke to me was near the end, when it showed the importance of dads being present in the lives of their kids; sharing their stories, their knowledge, and themselves. My name in the cover, written in what looks to me to be my first or second grade handwriting, reminded me of the day my dad first gave that book to me.All these years later it helped me feel a connection to him, and I was grateful that my dad shared as much of his life with me as he did before he died.

War and Peace. I love history. I loved Anna Karenina. I've read 1000+ page books before and cherished them. I thought for certain I was going to love this book. Instead... where do I start? There were so many characters introduced in the beginning that I could not keep them straight. Then some of them kept turning up, and I could keep them straight. Oh no, I would moan to myself, not this character again. I'm not sure if this was Tolstoy's intention, making you empathize with the characters who didn't want to deal with these people again either, but I will say that 1/3 of the way into the story, I was still not loving any of the characters. I was tolerating... some of them. I also wasn't thrilled with the story. Shallow people doing less than honorable things, although, that definitely seemed to be intentional on Tolstoy's part because it is, after all, real life. It was the final death blow to any former dreams I may have harbored growing up about being an aristocrat. Nearly half-way through I seriously thought about stopping there and letting this one be. Before I did, however, I decided to read some of the things other bloggers had written about it, hoping for something that would make the rest of it feel worth reading and came upon a blog post I really needed.

Because I grew up most of my life in incredibly trying financial circumstances, it's been really difficult for me to let go of things and to use up some of the special stuff I have because then, it's... used up. When I was little there was no guarantee of having more. This "peasant's mentality" that C.M. Mayo talked about in her post can have lots of unwanted, unintended consequences. I thought about my own life, and a pair of forties era movie star slacks my mom made for me the year I graduated from college- beautiful lined white pants that I loved but seldom wore because I didn't want to wear them out or stain them. What happened? I grew out of them before they wore out. That was waste. Another thing she mentioned in her post was her decision to cut her copy of War and Peace in half. It intrigued me and after days of thought, I promised myself that once I reached the halfway mark in my copy of the book, I was going to celebrate by chopping my book in half- something I have never done to any book before.

The excitement of that dastardly deed kept me reading and when that day finally arrived, my mom and I made a ceremony of cutting the book in half. It was surprisingly easy and oh so gratifying. I have not finished W&P yet, but I do have the last half with me. I also have a new incentive to finish it. While I was watching a documentary on WWII, a soldier who was interviewed spoke of how no one, with the exception of Tolstoy, had captured in words what war for him had really been like. That makes me believe there is more to this book than I have found yet, and so I will keep reading and looking for it, so I can understand the world around me and the people who live in it, a little better.

Holding half a book,

Melanie

P.S. All the walking that is life here has done something amazing for me: I am <this> close to fitting into my white slacks again. I can get the zipper almost all the way up. Once in, you can bet I won't be saving these pants for a special occasion again. They will be worn and loved out.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Favorite Things: Part Four

Dear Helen, Dear John,

So many of the best and most important things in life are made up of small, seemingly insignificant moments. After my dad died, when my sister was off track at school, she would come and live with me. I arranged it beforehand with my professors so that she could come to class with me because at that time she was too young to be left alone. I packed a goody bag full of activities for her so she wouldn't be bored and as soon as class was over, I tried to take her somewhere fun. Sometimes I would take her to the zoo or a museum where one of my friends worked as a docent. Sometimes we walked along the beach. Some of our favorite memories happened in the car when I was driving us to and from campus. "One green light, agh-agh-agh," I would cackle dramatically, imitating the Count on Sesame Street. "Two green lights, agh-agh-agh," my sister would join me. Each green light we had in succession along the way became more and more exciting. "FOUR green lights!!!" we'd shriek in delight, "agh-agh-agh!" Or, if we were unlucky that day, we'd cackle and count the red ones.

Nowadays I pack a goody bag for myself to keep me occupied while my sister is in class or working on campus. This week I've sketched a stuffed zebra head and an Emperor Goose at the mini wildlife museum in the biology building while she was in genetics, listened to classical music while I studied the paintings in the art museum while she was studying communications, soaked up sunshine and calm in the gardens while she worked, wandered the library while she was in tutoring, visited the planetarium and went to a piano recital while she was in the testing center, and read through everything else. As we walk together between these things, we talk and listen and giggle and vent. She is the sister I prayed for. It took eleven years before I got her. I was pulled out of school to take care of my mom the last few months of her pregnancy so Em could get here safely. I helped take care of her when my mom was in the hospital after her birth and all along the way ever since so when she called and asked me to come live with her until some important things for her work out, of course I came. She, along with my other siblings, are some of my favorite things... er, people... you get the idea.

Here are a few more favorite moments:

The time when the toddler son of one of my friends asked to be allowed to walk me to my car so that he could open my door, let me in, and close it for me like his dad obviously does for his mom. I wasn't sure he was big enough or strong enough to manage it (he was still in diapers), but it meant a lot to him- and sure enough- he did it. I'll never forget how honored and respected it made me feel. It's a gift my sister's fiance also gives me each time he uh-uh-uh's me to remind me to wait for him to come get my door for me because his respect extends to both of us.

I love the moment when an orchestra tunes before playing. That moment is akin to the joy I feel when I get butterflies in my stomach when I'm on a swing, head thrown back with my eyes closed- it's really too glorious for words. It was my favorite part of being in a preparatory community orchestra- that moment of connection when we were all on the same note, coming together- the expectation, the energy, the delicious thrill. I miss it!

Getting lost in books, walks, and thoughts.

Catching people being kind to other people whether I know them or not.

Butterflies landing on me; wild bunnies coming close, snuffling their noses at me as we enjoy a grassy afternoon; Parisian birds hovering in the air in front of me begging because, like me, they enjoy a piece of strudel now and then.

The soft sweetness of puppies. The treasure it was to have had a dog in my life who knew things without my having to say them. A dog with a crooked smile, a crooked tail, who walked like John Wayne and loved us like nobody else.

Tasting different kinds of fruits and vegetables and cheese. Helen, I think much of that has to do with you. You made it seem like a grand adventure and an oh-so-chic thing to do. Every time I do it now, I feel a little more grown up in the exciting way knowing I was growing made me feel when I was a little girl. I get an endless kick out of it.

Sunsets and dusk when the world calms down. Nights when the moon shines just above my window and sneaks in, dispersing the dark in my life. 

The moment when learning and curiousity touch, sparking and jump-starting my brain back to life.

Marveling over how my hands can do and sense all the remarkable things that they do; how yarn can become shape and cloth; how movement of air creates worlds of sound in my ears through a drum when every other drum I know of ka-thunks and r-r-r-dumps.

I love the moments when I can take my time with things without someone watching over my shoulder. Whether it's swishing water and suds as I clean or savoring the smells and feels of cutting a melon, life is just better for me when I can take things slowly.

This week of celebrating some of my favorite things has done what the song that prompted it said it would: I don't feel so bad. In fact, overall I've had a happier week even having had to deal with some pretty rough stuff inside and out. It can be hard that life is a mix of good and bad, but it is a blessing too. It means that even in the worst of everything, there is good in there somewhere. I've experienced it often enough to know that it is true. Believing it is true is a whole nother challenge sometimes, but I know it's true. Knowing that helps me to see it. Seeing it and remembering it helps me to feel it. Feeling it helps me to believe it, and believing it helps me to live better. Living better helps open me up to life and to people and to opportunities I would otherwise decline or miss. It's a cycle towards happiness that can begin with incredibly little things- like celebrating stoplights both green and red.

One! favorite thing, agh-agh-agh. Two!! favorite things, agh-agh-agh.

Counting, counting, counting,

Melanie