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

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Favorite Things: Part Three

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It's October 1st and day three of my week of celebrating some of my favorite things. October was a special month for my family growing up because it usually meant the first paycheck for my dad in several months and the time when we were finally able to get some new school clothes (even though school had been in session for awhile already). I loved school, so fall was a fun time for me.

Fall is still my favorite season. When I lived in Southern California as a young girl, fall was my favorite time to roller skate because it was a little cooler and the wind was especially crisp and fresh against my face then. I spent hours skating in circles at the end of our cul-de-sac, backwards and forwards as fast as I could go. Then, I'd imagine a song in my head and pretend I was an olympic ice skater, and adjust my speed and direction to the music I was enjoying in my mind accordingly.

Because I attended the schools where my dad taught almost until high school, I was used to hearing his favorite music as he drove us there and back in the car, so it is no surprise that the song that makes me most nostalgic for the happy parts of my childhood and those brilliant fall days is this one:

 
Which brings me to another song I loved in my childhood that I've sung to myself often as an adult when situations have been such that it's been easy to be discouraged:
 
 
It comes from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a movie with a storyline that did not dismiss difficult feelings or diminish the hurt of being a misfit, but still ended on a high note. I could totally relate to the feeling of being a misfit, and this movie helped me deal with those feelings in productive ways.
 
I enjoyed stories with animals who spoke and had real feelings and dilemmas all the years I was growing up. Charlotte's Web, along with the Winnie the Pooh series by A. A. Milne, were some of my favorite books.
 
I enjoyed the Disney cartoon versions of Dumbo and The Ugly Duckling, but for years I was banned from watching them because babies taken or separated from their mamas made me almost hysterical as a little girl. I still cry a little watching The Ugly Duckling trying so hard to be accepted and to be loved by somebody, but it helps me to be kinder and more aware of the people who are hurting around me.
 
 
A few years ago my mom and I happened upon a musical snow globe with a mama and baby swan that looked like they swam right out of this movie. I keep it on my dresser and it is one of my favorite things.

I was also fond as a little girl of stories about little people, like The Borrowers, and I imagined myself into their world often. In fact, as an eight-year-old, I used to offer to give wagon rides to the neighborhood kids as I gave them tours of the neighborhood "where the little people lived."  Even a free wagon ride was not enough inducement for most of the neighborhood kids to come with me. After a tearful few minutes with my mom at home, she filled the wagon with my stuffed animals and I took them on tours to my favorite places instead. I think it was that experience really, more than any other, that taught me to be willing to do the things that were important to me alone if necessary. That has served me well often, as I tend to have different likes and dreams than most of the people I know, and it has helped me not to conform to peer pressure in order to fit in. I have a very wise mother to thank for that.

Something I've done lately that has been helping me to rekindle the brilliant imagination I had as a little girl has been working my way through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. When I was struggling to speak or write after the recent death of someone very dear to me, I found that I could manage my feelings better by drawing instead. The great thing about this book is that it doesn't just teach you how to draw, it helps teach you how to see. I noticed after sketching several of the exercises that I was starting to see pictures in clouds, and floor tiles, and the grain of the wood around me again- a favorite childhood pastime of mine that I have missed.

I started this post with skating today so I think I will end it with skating as well. It took me until I was in my thirties to pursue ice skating. It's kind of tricky mentally and emotionally to pursue a dream where the typical "deadline" for success and excellence is long passed; but one of the best things about childhood for me was always being able to see beyond current realities and impossibilities to what I really wanted out of life ahead. I love how I feel when I'm skating. It's a struggle to get my body to respond quickly and accurately to any activity I do some days, but it's never more satisfying for me when it happens, than when it happens while I'm on the ice. That childhood dream that I can't quite let go of, motivates me to exercise and keep trying even on days when showering is a major challenge for me. I want to be healthy- really, really healthy- but it is wanting to skate like this, in my favorite ice skating routine of all time, that actually gets me up and doing the squats, and the balances, and the stretches for a few minutes here and a few minutes there so that when I have the opportunities to ice skate, my muscles are present and raring to go- just waiting to be used and experienced with joy.


That joy in using my body beautifully and well, along with the ability to keep dreaming big dreams, are two of my favorite things.

Still very much the little girl you knew,

Melanie

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Favorite Things: Part Two

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Because it's Sunday I thought I'd mention some of my favorite things that have helped me at various times in my life to feel greater peace even while in difficult circumstances.

The Pacific Ocean is a big one for me. After my dad died and when life was crazy in the aftermath with family, commuting, and college, I tried to leave the house a little early (5am) so that I would have time to stop off at a favorite beach of mine along the way and take a few minutes to just be. Those times served me well at the time and several years later as I prepared for my first heart surgery. Like Wordsworth's famous poem on daffodils, I felt the delight of a beautiful scene restoring parts of me to myself as I imagined myself back at a particular cliff overlooking the ocean. That scene, deeply impressed in my memory, helped keep me calm and grounded even when during and after the surgery, there were complications.

Moon jellyfish, starfish, and sea horses help calm me by being beautiful examples of being still and slowing down. They are endlessly fascinating to me. The Tennessee, Cabrillo, and Monterey Bay Aquariums hold special places in my heart as places that captured my imagination, thrilled me, and taught me valuable life lessons in the process.

There was a rare and precious day in my life that I spent at the Nashville Zoo. I listened to a radio performance of Shakespeare on my way down, got in for half price because of the weather, and practically had the entire zoo to myself for several hours. The sun came out and warmed the bamboo grove around me in the early afternoon, freeing it from the ice as crystals crashed down around me and sparkled at my feet. That moment helped free me too. It was magical, pure and simple. Thanks to an early birthday gift, I was able to purchase paintings by three different elephants who lived and painted at the zoo- a dream I'd had for many years. I was interviewed that day for a film school documentary and drove home in the hat and scarf I had made myself that made me feel warm and pretty and had attracted the director's attention. Those paintings and the feelings, memories, and sensations they evoke remind me of a perfect day while making it easier for me to enjoy painting for the sake of the feel of the paint and the paper and the brush, the joy of movement, the joy of seeing and the joy of being.

A painting by William Merritt Chase that hangs in a bright and airy room at the Huntington Library and Gardens fascinated me one afternoon when I took a few hours off from helping to care for my grandmother after a stroke she had changed her life forever- much like a book of Norman Rockwell paintings had transported me outside of myself during one of the many surgeries my dad had when I was a little girl.

For the last two years a talk by Dieter F. Uchtdorf  has helped me to be more patient and stronger at a time in my life when, despite my best efforts, it's felt like nothing of importance was changing and very little good was happening.

There were several delightful evenings when I had a mini-Alice in Wonderland experience looking up at the world from beneath a bouquet of daisies a friend had sent when I was in bed for a prolonged period of time.

There were obnoxiously fun renderings of songs with my brothers, my sister, and my mom.

And there is the sacred calm I feel every time I listen to this song:


If you notice a pattern here, it is a simple one that you both know and understand: true peace comes from God. He is always aware of where we are and what we need to grow and progress. I believe in God not because he has given me what I've wanted in life, but because he has given me what I've needed. When the police could not keep my family safe from the men who were threatening to kill us, he helped my family to draw closer to one another and to him and to find peace even when chaos reigned everywhere around us. It has been the times he brought peace and healing into our lives that the world could not give us that have helped me to trust him and to attempt things I would not have had the courage or fortitude to otherwise. He's blessed me through nature, family, strangers and friends, books, music, and art. Thousands and thousands of ways in which daily he says, "I love you."

That love is what makes it possible for me to love and forgive others and to go on when I want to give up and be done with it all. It is what sustained you when the world plunged into two world wars and an economic crisis and people, especially children, died from a vast array of diseases that are largely forgotten and unknown to us now.

Ease seldom brings the blessings that work and struggles do. The older I get, the greater the blessing of work has become. As I mature, I am developing a greater appreciation for struggle too. I can't honestly say that struggle is one of my favorite things, but the growth it often prompts definitely is. After all, one of my greatest desires as a child was to grow up. That's one of the reasons I enjoyed spending time with both of you. You treated me like someone who could appreciate and understand things, and often I did, because of you.

Still desiring and still growing,

Melanie

Saturday, September 29, 2012

My Favorite Things: Part One

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Several weeks and an unexpected move 1400 miles away for an indefinite period of time later, I'm finally feeling ready to write some again. For weeks I've been considering what to write about but every idea I came up with left me unenthused and grumbling, so I've waited. The books that I've read for my challenges deserve more in the review department than what I am able to give them right now, so I'll be saving them for later.

So what to write then? Yesterday this song came randomly unbidden into my head and I thought, "I've got it!"


I'm not going to write a lot, but I am going to share some of my favorite things for a burst of happy over this next week. I've thought about posting by topic: music, dance, books, etc. but I think it will be loads more fun in the end to mix them all up. After all, real life doesn't break itself up into neat compartments. Neither does my brain. So if you've ever wondered what a typical train of thought for me looks like... have a peek inside.

There is a tree near one of the libraries here that I have been frequenting that looks like what Mad Madam Mim would have turned herself into, if turning into plants in the wizards duel in The Sword in the Stone had been allowed. Every time I pass it, it makes me giggle and grin because while I don't enjoy or admire villians most of the time, I can't help loving the marvelous, Mad Madam Mim, and by extension, her tree! It's not merely the species of tree- there are many of them planted about town- it's this particular tree, which, of course, makes me appreciate and delight in it all the more. I love individuality when it comes from a place of honesty and not pretense or facade. You don't have to try at being an individual. We come that way on our own and stay that way if we choose to honour the best in us.



I love how Madam Mim takes such joy in all the facets of being herself. And she's spunky. And she's so gloriously expressive and delightfully honest with her feelings (I HATE sunshine!). There's a lot to love about her. And of course, there's a lot to love and admire in the cleverness of the wizards duel, one of my brother Randy's and my favorite parts. Watching this clip today I noticed that my skating buddy Joe bears a very strong resemblance to Merlin. Perhaps that's one of the many reasons I like him so well. Next time we do an ice show together I think I'll suggest the part to him. He stole the show as Ebeneezer Scrooge, The Grinch, and The Scarecrow- but he had to be cajoled into every single one.

On to a favorite dance clip from a movie I saw because of you, John. This is Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in one of the most famous scenes from The Bandwagon:

 
The musical arrangement is luscious; the line of the dance positions some of the most beautiful, in my opinion, ever; Miss Charisse is so incredibly elegant and graceful, Fred so debonair... ahh to dance the way she does with him. Her skirt also fulfills the critical requirement of my childhood dress test: it floats up and straight out as she spins.
 
Now to a recent favorite things addition: Last night I attended a concert given by one of the most amazing pianists ever- Alpin Hong. Anybody who has the opportunity to attend one of his concerts should jump on it- especially if you think you aren't into classical music. My sister's fiance and I dragged my sister, who had been protesting and making faces at me about it for two weeks, to see him last night and she LOVED it. I have never heard Clair de Lune played so exquisitely. That's a piece I get tired of hearing normally, because it gets used so often, usually to wring emotion out of you in tv shows and movies. Not this time. 
 
Alpin is not a music snob and his ability to turn the Jeopardy theme and the theme from Gilligan's Island into "high-brow classical" music had us roaring. There was so much to like about the evening: the wide range of music including themes from Star Wars (the music that got me into classical music in the first place) and a piece written solely for the left hand for a pianist who had lost his right arm during WWI; great stories, the clues for really listening to the music that Alpin gave through his words and his body language throughout the evening. Alpin is one of the most skilled communicators I have ever met. In short, it was an absolute delight, my sister said her three least favorite words to her fiance and me, "You were right," during intermission and was determined to get his autograph after the concert, and I received a lot of clarity with where I want to go on the piano.
 
Finally, I'll leave you both with a favorite quote from one of the books I've been reading lately. It comes from William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education, which has helped me appreciate Jane Austen's books in new and deeper ways. Talking about the importance of the everyday in regards to Emma, Mr. Deresiewicz writes (pg. 27): "She (Jane Austen) did not think that her existence was quiet or trivial or boring; she thought it was delightful and enthralling, and she wanted us to see that our own are, too. She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels." (underlining mine)
 
There- several personal pieces of bliss for you until next time.
 
Cheers!
 
Melanie

Monday, August 13, 2012

The London Olympics: Wrapping it Up

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The Olympics have come to a close and with it, my olympic challenge has as well. No, I didn't reach my original ambition to blog about each participating country- not by a long shot- but that's okay. The last few months have been full of circumstances and events that I didn't foresee and in most cases, couldn't have anticipated. Loved ones took precedence and I'm glad that they did, especially because one of them died a few weeks ago from brain cancer. I don't tend to write or talk much when I'm grieving. Even now I have many more impressions and feelings than I do words. I'm allowing myself that quiet, sacred space to heal.

I did, however, want to write this post in a timely manner to say that I count my olympic project as a tremendous success. I wrote about 38 countries, researched quite a few more, and had various drafts of posts in process. But this is not how I am measuring my success. The success is that I thoroughly enjoyed the London Olympic Games. I watched events outside of the few I typically follow and rooted for athletes and teams from many nations I'd never been interested in before. I was inspired by, and excited for, several teams and athletes, but I was particularly impressed with those who raced and played with their whole hearts from start to finish knowing full well, from the beginning, that they would not win and would likely come in last, or close to it.

That is the quality that I witnessed this Olympic games that I admire most. It requires a special kind of courage to give your heart, your energy, and your time to an endeavor when you know you will be seen by many, coming in last. Many of us avoid attempting things we love but don't feel naturally gifted at because of the disappointment and the ridicule that comes with the process- even for the elite who shine and are admired at some point or another. It's one thing to pursue a goal you feel you can't lose; it's another to pursue a goal that you know you can't achieve in your lifetime.

Perhaps I admire this quality of strength and enthusiasm because I have a heart problem that limits me in so many ways that practically everything I want in life seems to fall somewhere along the line between improbable and impossible. It can make it difficult to see the point in getting up in the morning. It's an act of faith and courage to get up and to do my best anyway.

It is true that my efforts end in the same place again and again- bed. But it is also true that I graduated from college, I studied abroad in China, I travelled to Europe, I've written books, played the cello in a community orchestra, and ice skated in two shows AFTER doctors told me that it was hopeless and that there was nothing more that they could do. Most importantly, I was there when my siblings grew up. While my successes have helped keep my siblings trying when they've had setbacks, disappointments, and, for two of them, gone blind, it has been only recently that I've really understood that the best thing I was for them, was there. It's easy to equate our worth with what we can do. It's harder to realize that the most important thing about us is who we are inside, and that we share that part of ourselves with others.

Lots of people can wash dishes, tally numbers, and insert IV's, but nobody else can perfectly capture the essence or fill the space of someone we love. Do's can be done by many. Be's are limited to one and only one.

In the Olympics events are won and lost, records are exceeded and kept. All this can be recorded on paper. But in the end, it is what is inside these players that is remembered and recorded in our hearts.

The success of this project won't be found in the numbers- it is in how the process helped change my mind and heart, expanding them so more strength, inspiration, and understanding could flow in and become part of who I now am.

Breathing life in a bit deeper,

Melanie

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Building Strong Foundations: Taipei 101

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I'm shamelessly stealing info for this post on Taiwan (officially listed as Taipei or Chinese Taipei in the Olympics) from a college friend of mine who lives there. Her post on Taipei 101, at one time the tallest building in the world, now the tallest green building in the world, is awesome just like she is.

I've enjoyed looking at buildings of all sorts ever since I can remember. Having the chance to see the King and the Queen every time I drove my mom to and from work when we lived in Georgia was the high point of the commute for me, which I looked forward to eagerly even though it was often before dawn when we passed them (significant because I am NOT a morning person by nature and few things have the power to make me happy that early in the morning).

Something I've grown to appreciate as an adult is the amount of work- nearly invisible to an outsider- that goes into preparing and building strong foundations. Foundations seem to take forever and the work that goes into them can seem unglamorous and dull. That's hardly the case in reality however, as this clip of the building of Taipei 101 shows:


I try to apply what I've learned about building foundations to all of my learning. So much of learning can seem tedious, unglamorous, and dull. At the time it can feel and appear like NOTHING is happening. I've learned not to rush through this stage however, because I've learned it is vitally important to what you are able to create after, once you've got the basics down. Build a strong foundation and your building above the surface can soar and reach heights the world has never seen before.

Digging deep,

Melanie

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Haka: New Zealand

Dear Helen, Dear John,

While I have to research some countries for a while to discover what I want to write about them, a few are no-brainers. New Zealand is one of the latter countries for me. Why? Haka.

I had several Polynesian friends growing up and a Samoan roommate in college so I attended a lot of Polynesian dance rehearsals and helped out with luaus. There are many fun dances from the various islands, but haka is something else entirely. Get guys in native dress with their faces painted doing this within a few feet of you and yes, even when you know what is coming, it can be intimidating. Rugby players are well aware of this because of the haka tradition of the All Blacks Rugby Team:


The guys I watched performing haka in person never did it halfway- they left handprints on their chests from slapping themselves so hard. These 6th,7th, and 8th year boys clearly demonstrate the intensity I'm talking about, especially about 3 minutes into the video:


There are several reasons I enjoy haka. One is there is a unity and an individuality to each one that is powerful. Haka aren't just war dances and they aren't just performed by men; they are used for many reasons and occasions. One chant I was taught in college is actually used to welcome people. I've not found a good video that matches my personal experience of it but an audio file and description of what is now commonly known as a haka pōwhiri can be found here

And here's a haka that is just for fun:



Melanie

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Admiration for Ancestors and Appliquéd Cloth: Benin

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I read an interesting article today about appliquéd cloth in the country of Benin. These cloths told stories and preserved the history of Danhomè kings in ways that have a striking similarity to the systems of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters- images representing language and sounds. 
These cloths are still made in Benin today, though the styles of the cloths have evolved over time. 

Another interesting bit I found about Benin was that the red in the Benin flag represents the courage of the nation's ancestors.

Benin is located in West Africa and French is the official language though, like many African countries, many languages are spoken there.

Edabo (Bye in Fon),

Melanie

Monday, July 9, 2012

I Am David: Bulgaria

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It's not easy to heal from traumatic experiences, especially if you feel that at some level you were part of the reason they happened in the first place. Knowing that the details in the death threats my family received while in the witness protection program came from conversations I had had with my best friend at thirteen was incredibly hard to live with for me. For four and a half years there was very little about my life that I could talk about. Once the trial was finally over and the murderer condemned to life in prison without parole, many people who had gossiped about and ostracized me and my loved ones during those years suddenly wanted to be close friends. My family was suddenly seen as brave and admirable instead of a bad influence. The thing was, we hadn't changed in that way during that time- only others' perceptions of us did. The reason my parents testified even when it came at a huge price for our family was because it was the right thing to do. I came away from those experiences with a huge distrust of people and their motives towards me. It is a horrible way to live.

I Am David is a movie about a young boy who has spent most of his life in a communist camp in Bulgaria after WWII. It follows his journey towards freedom and shows what the struggle to trust people and move forward can be like. The fractured flashbacks, how you think about yourself, how you relate to people- or don't- is all there. Watching that movie has been very healing for me. Like David, it took a succession of good people in my own life before I could start opening up and trusting again. Even now it is a terrific struggle for me.

The reality is that there are people who do horrible things, but there are plenty of examples of people who do not. There are many people who live good lives under normal conditions. There are also exceptional people who live kind and honorable lives in whatever circumstances they may be in. This may be harder to find, but it isn't impossible, and you don't always have to look as far for it as you might think.

In I Am David there is a time in the camp when David wishes he was dead. His friend chastises him telling him never to say that, never to think it. In response to David's "Why not? They are going to kill us anyway" line of reasoning his friend tells him to do what he can to stay alive because when you are alive, you can change things.

I don't know how many people wish they were dead at some point in their lives, but I imagine the feeling is pretty common. Life is hard. Efforts, even great ones, can feel futile. They're not. Something that helped save me in high school was a photo of an entire family who were hung by the Nazis for rescuing Jews in WWII. That image, especially because some of the children were so young, was haunting and emotionally devastating- but it was brave, heroic, and inspiring at the same time. These people failed in what they were originally attempting to do and suffered for it. But in other ways- perhaps even in more important ways- they succeeded. They left a legacy of decency and bravery that changed my life fifty years later even when I did not know their names. Of the people in the crowd, in uniform, and on the gallows, they were the ones I decided that day I wanted to be like. That image affected how I lived during and after the trial. I've made stronger, more principled decisions in my daily life because of them.


I Am David was filmed in Bulgaria, and as a man I met who came from there once told me, and as the film footage shows, it is a beautiful country with a great deal of history and geographic diversity. Good people and good choices are not limited to a few countries or ethnicities. Whether I succeed in completing my olympic challenge before the olympics end or not, I hope that I have shown that every country has helpers and something worth celebrating.


In this case Bulgaria's history inspired a writer to write a book that inspired the people who turned it into a movie. That movie helped me to trust more and to learn how to forgive myself for choices I had made at thirteen that ended up hurting my family. I live with the hope that by living even when it is hard and even when there is little that I can do, I can change things for the better by living the best that I can no matter the circumstances I am in. With time, I hope that means that I will gradually evolve into the person I hope one day to be.  

With love,

Melanie

Friday, June 29, 2012

Early Education in Norway

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I found this documentary about an outdoor school in Norway fascinating:


I'm so grateful that in several important ways, this was in part how my parents tried to raise us. We learned how to light fires and use hammers and knives at early ages. We climbed trees and got wet in lakes and the Pacific Ocean in and out of season. In the wintertime in Wyoming during the years that we lived there we would get up early from time to time to help feed the elk. Sometimes in the afternoons, we would leap off the back porch into snow that we could tunnel through simply by walking, it was so soft and deep there when it first fell.

These joyous in-body experiences are important because they help us to connect all of the brilliant aspects of ourselves into a vibrant, cohesive whole as we acquire skills and understanding. I do not learn as well or live as well when I try to live my life in brain/body fragments.

Every time I learn of a writer, composer, mathematician, or scientist who found inspiration or worked out a puzzle while walking or immersing themselves in nature (and there have been many), I ache for the children who suffer at young ages from the educational version of cubicle sickness- being tied to a desk in an artificial climate with little allowance for movement, interaction, or creative thought. This type of existence is mind-numbing, not brain-building. It's no surprise to me why so many children struggle in these circumstances.

I find the Norwegian outdoor school philosophy empowering. It is leading me to consider some changes that I can make to enhance my own learning.

Thoughtfully yours,

Melanie

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Olympiad: A Chess Competition Like No Other

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Here's a question for you: What country televised a chess championship in 2011 live for over 8 hours? The answer to this question certainly surprised me. This country also happens to be the only one in Central America that uses English as its official language. Give up? It's Belize.

Each year Belize hosts the Annual Belize National Chess Olympiad. I've never seen chess celebrated like this (2011) and this (2012). Drummers, marching bands, face paint, teams with banners and costumes, stilt walkers, full size chess games with live people acting as the chess pieces- this competition is something else- and something marvelous!

It's all part of a fantastic program begun by Ian and Ella Anderson to help the youth in Belize stay off the streets. Apparently chess has now become the fastest growing sport in Belize. Remarkable.

Pondering my next move...

Melanie

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Scarlet Pimpernel and... Hungary???

Dear Helen, Dear John,

What does a dashing Brit who originated the hero-with-an-alter-ego genre (think Zorro and Superman) have to do with Hungary? More than you would suppose.

For starters, Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "EmmuskaOrczy de Orczi, who created Sir Percy and the league of the Scarlet Pimpernel, was born there. But the connection does not end there. 

While Anthony Andrews is THE Scarlet Pimpernel as far as I'm concerned, Leslie Howard, the Brit who played him on film first, helps tie The Scarlet Pimpernel back to Hungary. Leslie Howard directed, starred in, and produced a modern-day adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel during WWII called "Pimpernel" Smith. That movie was seen by Raoul Wallenberg and helped inspire him to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. (Leslie Howard's final speech in that movie is eerily prophetic, by the way.)

Literature is powerful, especially when it speaks to the best within us. I was lucky enough to encounter the league of the Scarlet Pimpernel when I was very young. I have been a braver, more proactive individual ever since. 'Cause after all, what teenage girl in her right mind wouldn't want to try to deserve a man like Sir Percy? *giggle* *long drawn-out sigh*

Feeling gloriously thirteen again,

Melanie 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Country Named After an Ideal: Burkina Faso

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I had never heard of Burkina Faso before working on my olympic challenge. It is one of the French speaking countries of West Africa. Its name in the local languages of Mòoré and Dioula means "the land of upright people", which can also be translated as "the land of men of integrity".

I love that- a country with a name that stands for an ideal. Integrity is a quality I've been working to develop for many reasons. One is that for me, integrity means living up to the best that you know. Knowing something is one thing, living it is another. A lot of important qualities are romantic in theory but astoundingly difficult in practice. Perhaps that's why we try to make them seem romantic to begin with- by the time we realize just how hard living those qualities is going to be we've already given our heart to them. That's where the third definition of integrity in the Merriam-Webster dictionary becomes important: "integrity: the quality or state of being complete or undivided".

I hate feeling fragmented. The closer I get to living what I believe, the more whole and confident I feel. That's a tremendous gift.

Another gift is this photo taken from the top of the waterfalls in Karfiguela, Burkina Faso. Meditating on this scene brought a great deal of calm and beauty to my life this morning. Apparently the path there passes through a mango orchard. It must be heavenly!

Back to earth now, but feeling more rested,

Melanie

Becoming our own Best Teacher: Francois Rabbath of Syria

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Francois Rabbath was born in Syria. He fell in love with the bass but had no one to teach him how to play it there, so he taught himself. He went on to revolutionize how musicians play and view the instrument. He wasn't always well received by the establishment (few innovators throughout history in any field are), but he persevered. His love for his instrument and his pursuit of learning inspires me.
You can see his love for music and learning here and you can read about how it affected an accomplished bass player in his progression with his instrument here.

Learning is important no matter our age or our personal circumstances. It keeps us interested and interesting. It isn't necessarily easy learning outside of traditional settings, but it is possible. Sometimes, because it makes us take greater responsibility for our learning and dig deep within us, it's even better.

Francois Rabbath is able to inspire and encourage many with his playing because the bass once sparked something vibrant and powerful within him. I admire that. What I admire about him most, however, is how he used his passion for music and his personal circumstances to become his own best teacher.

Learning how to learn in every circumstance I am in,

Melanie

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Life on a Human Scale: The Cook Islands

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Cook Islanders have the distinction of being citizens of New Zealand as well as Cook Island nationals. They will be competing in the women's slalom (canoeing) in the 2012 Olympic Games.

The videos below show what the islands look like from the air and the ground while including interesting tidbits about what make the 15 islands that form the Cook Islands unique from one another. Though one part in the beginning made me feel a little carsick, it's an interesting and informative introduction to a country with islands that sometimes have as few as one or two inhabitants (or none actually). Pretty remarkable in a time when population is often discussed in millions and even billions now. It's fun to discover places that feel more human in scale.


I loved that bit about how Palmerston Island wasn't put on world maps properly until 1969. I think it's exciting that it isn't too late to be an explorer, or the lone inhabitant of an island. It makes me feel like a little kid again, sailing around the world on a kitchen chair in a paper captain's hat. Now how did my mom make those hats again?

Gleefully pretending because I can,

Melanie

Saturday, May 26, 2012

After Life and A Majority of One: Japan

Dear Helen, Dear John,

For months I've been wondering how I was going to write about Japan to you, especially to you, John. I've written about you both and the war before, and I'm proud that your lives and your stories have helped to heal and uplift people you've never met, decades after your deaths.

Losing your navy buddies at Pearl Harbor, then shortly afterwards having your own ship attacked and declared sunk by the Japanese... seeing men you knew on fire and all that came in the years after until peace was finally declared... Your feelings about Japan make sense to me. That's why I chose the movies A Majority of One and After Life for Japan.

A Majority of One is a gentle, humane, and humorous story about an American woman and a Japanese man becoming friends after the war. Both lost loved ones in the fighting and the bombing. Both have reasons to be bitter. Both are good people. While I would have preferred a native Japanese actor to play Koichi Asano, Alec Guinness does a fine job. Rosalind Russell as Mrs. Bertha Jacoby is pure delight. This movie makes me look at my own prejudices. It also makes me want to be a more loving person.

After Life is a Japanese movie that explores the question "If heaven was remembering just one moment of your life, what memory would you choose?" I exited the theater profoundly moved. At the time I saw it, in college, I was grieving a lot: for you, for my dad, for Everett. Every important man in my life had died by the time I was twenty-one and I was reeling from it. I talked about the movie with the lady I lived with at the time and she asked me what memory I would choose. At that time, and for years afterwards, I chose the last time I was with Everett because even with all of the horrible things that were happening at the time, I was so happy that day, so hopeful, and all of you were still here.

This last month I've had plenty of time to ponder that question all over again. As I waited with, and tried to give moral support to my mom in doctors' offices, the hospital, and a surgical center this past month, a lot of memories came back. The smell of hospital soap is always the same and that smell alone opens a pandora's box of memories for me, both as loved one and patient. As I saw elderly men pushing their wives in wheelchairs something inside of me really hurt. How often does that happen, that the husband is still around? Perhaps I've been raised around and befriended by a disproportionate number of widows in my life, but having the men there late into life is not my personal experience. Sitting in the hospital I wondered, do I really want to get married? To get so close to someone only to not have them in my life? I've seen the lonely up close in the women around me who survive.

That's where you two came in and helped heal my life all over again.

I thought about you, Helen, and Guthrie, who died just after you were married when you both were so young, and how you loved and missed him all of your life, into your nineties. If you were still here, I know that you would tell me that you were not sorry that you married him.

And I thought about you, John, and my dad, and how it hurts when I miss you, but how much hollower and painful my life would be without having you in it, because even with you gone, everything we had and we shared is mine to keep. As I wondered, "Could I handle lingering sick and death once more, with a husband?" I looked around that hospital waiting room and I realized, yes, I could. I've done it. Loads of times before. It's hard. It changes you. It takes chunks of you with it. It can make you hate being awake and afraid to go to sleep, but it is harder to take love and people for granted when you know what it is like not to have them there. I've ultimately loved more unconditionally because of it. I've been willing to do uncomfortable and frightening things because of it. And that morning in the hospital, before the nurse came to take me back to my mother, I remembered that I need to make my decisions out of faith not fear. Faith means choosing love, even knowing that it is intricately tied up in hurt and loss. Because in my lonely that morning, remembering your love still had the power to comfort me.

That's what true love is: protective gear. Love doesn't prevent us from being hurt or knocked down by life, but it does prevent those blows from being fatal to us.

That moment in the hospital is my new, if-you-could-only-take-one-memory-with-you moment because in that moment I felt resilient, I felt strong, I felt loved, and I realized I could do this.

Thank you for being a part of that moment with me, by living the way that you did while you were here.

Tremendous love from the one who made you a great-grandmother and a grandfather respectively,

Melanie

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius: Finland

Dear Helen, Dear John,

My sister-in-law's mother got me interested in Finland several years ago (her mother was from there). Those conversations along with a classical music documentary I saw around that same time got me interested in Jean Sibelius, which led me to a community orchestra performance of his violin concerto in Atlanta that spoke to my soul and quickly made Jean Sibelius one of my favorite composers ever.

Every time I listen to the second movement of this piece it touches me. If my life were a movie, this movement would be my choice of soundtrack for the moments when I seek to connect with someone incredibly special to me on a deep level or strive for an elusive dream or goal just out of reach (which as you know, I do often). The tender moments of almost unbearable longing and sweetness perfectly capture why I keep trying, the comfort that mercifully steals in with what feel like my last possible efforts, and the beauty of continuing on with hope, whether I am ultimately successful in what I am working towards or not.

There are many versions of this piece I enjoy, but Christian Ferras gives his soul with it, something I hope to do one day when I am able to play it on my cello:


Finding comfort in Sibelius,

Melanie

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Creativity and Skill in Ancient Nigeria

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The Federal Republic of Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa. Over half of West Africa's people reside there. The Nigerian population is made up of 250 ethnic groups who tend to use English as the common tongue with citizens of different language backgrounds. However, it isn't uncommon for many Nigerians to speak two or more Nigerian languages.

Nigerians are well-known for their art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has interesting essays on Nok Terracottas and Igbo-Ukwu metalwork. Both are known for an impressive amount of originality in the pieces, created with great skill. I am continually amazed at the remarkable things people learn how to do. I also love that people, no matter where they live, seem to have an innate yearning for beauty and creative expression. The methods and forms differ from culture to culture and person to person, but the desires that drive them come from similar places I think. I believe it is a legacy that comes through being human. (Although decorator crabs are creative and fastidious in how they like to dress themselves up... more than slightly off-topic, but too cool not to mention while I'm thinking about it. *grin*)

As a Hausa speaker of Nigeria might say:

Sai gobe (goodnight until tomorrow),

Melanie

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Country with a Momentous History and a National Dance

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The Dominican Republic has quite a history. It's where Christopher Columbus originally landed. European colonization of the Americas began there. It's located on an island that is not a nation unto itself, a rather rare occurrence. Spanish spoken in the area around the capital, Santo Domingo, tends to substitute l's for r's, something that took a bit of getting used to for me with one of my students who hailed from there.

That student is my primary exposure to the Dominican Republic. He was an ideal representative of his fellow countrymen, who my CultureGrams book describes as "warm, friendly, outgoing, and gregarious. They are very curious about others and forthright in asking personal questions." That describes my friend to a t. He definitely kept my classes in Georgia vibrant and lively.

Which is perfectly in keeping with a native from a country that has an official dance- the Merengue. (How cool is that?)

Humming while dancing,

Melanie

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Braving Iraq

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Living in the Mojave Desert taught me several things. One: look up, that's often where the beauty is. Two: the animals and plants that survive in the desert may or may not be pretty and colorful in a traditionally beautiful sense, but there's a lot to admire about life forms that make use of the little they've been given and who live and grow and blossom in harsh conditions notwithstanding. Three: just because something looks everlastingly bleak and desolate doesn't make it so. Rain, when it finally did come in sheets and torrents, brought life up and out in a rich carpet of abundance. I've watched sheep graze on it in wonder. Nature has an incredible capacity for resurrection that can help awake and activate that same inner quality in us.

Braving Iraq is an excellent documentation of this. I had never heard of the Mesopotamian Marshlands before watching this. Greenery and abundance of wildlife in Iraq? Definitely not what you typically hear about in relation to Iraq. This article from 2001 about its disappearance along with the culture of the people who have lived there for centuries, is fairly typical of the kind of news we have come to expect from that part of the world. What we don't hear about with nearly the same frequency is the courage and vision and stick-to-it persistence that made this article possible. We forget or don't even realize that life has an inner drive and design to renew and perpetuate itself. Renewing Iraq's marshes is helping to bring life back to Iraq and its people. Its also proving that nature and people are built for resiliency.

It takes work, it takes courage, it takes vision. There will be setbacks. But more and more, with examples of feats like this, we can be assured that less and less falls into the category we solemnly deem "impossible".

I need that reminder sometimes... because resiliency is a renewable resource that feeds, grows, and thrives in soils marked "bleak", "desolate", and even "hopeless". I think all of us find ourselves weighed down lugging buckets of that dry, dreadful stuff for a distance. We look back, we look forward, we look up, and if we are wise, we make like the Iraqis who are using their strength, talents, skills, and time to create conditions that bring life back- not just for themselves- but for all those who will someday follow them.

Lifting buckets freshly labeled "renewal" and "resilience",

Melanie

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

José Antonio Abreu and El Sistema: Venezuela

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Small decisions have large consequences, especially when it comes to how we view and treat ourselves and others. I was raised to be passionate about education. You know that my dad gave up a lucrative position to become a teacher. He worked hard in an area where drug use and violence were common. It wasn't easy for him, but he made a positive difference for the children he taught.

To me, the history documented in 3 Nephi 6:12 is an example of civilization at its most tragic:
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
The result of this distinction was, and continues to be, great suffering. I've seen it and I've experienced it myself. This is why I teach as a volunteer and write when I am able, and why many of my greatest heroes are those who teach and share freely with others.

José Antonio Abreu is a beautiful example of this kind of hero. He desired to share the opportunities he had as a child with others and he did. This video talks about his work and his philosophy:


And this video and this article show what that type of sharing can ultimately lead to:


Mr. Abreu and his musicians are transforming Venezuela. Concert by concert, one interaction at a time, they are awakening people, changing attitudes, sharing, and helping to transform musical education throughout the world.

Enjoying some of the best blessings that music has to offer,

Melanie

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Little Dorrit

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It takes a great deal of time to read a 800+ page novel in paragraphs here and there over time, but it can be done. I think in this case reading slowly actually helped me appreciate Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit more than I would have otherwise because it is more in keeping with the slow progression of the story over time.

Some will tell you that this book is about prisons: actual brick and mortar buildings, shackles "Society" and peer pressure place upon us, and the prisons we create for ourselves in our own heads. They would be correct. Some will tell you it is an attack on senseless and self-perpetuating bureaucracy that prevents people from getting their work done (a stance shared unknowingly by many unfamiliar with Dickens who have navigated complicated systems in an attempt to speak to a real person instead of a computer to fix a problem over the phone). Indeed, Dickens goes on at length about this. Some will tell you it is a love story depicting what true love in marriage really is. They would also be correct. What stood out for me most, however, is how so many characters dealt with unrequited love.

Love can be a messy business and Dickens does not shy away from it in this novel. There is disappointment in courtship: people not realizing they are loved by someone they could love, people who love people but who cannot love them in the way the other person wants their love, people who love people who in the end are only using them... on and on and on. There is also another type of unrequited love depicted throughout the book: love for people desperately lonely who are unwilling to open themselves up to the love that is freely offered because it brings up fears and insecurities inside themselves. In this case, often in the form of parents who are unable to fully receive the love of their children and the children who ache for deeper, more meaningful relationships with their parents. It's a pity, because it is shown in stark contrast to those who have those special relationships where family members are loved and cherished and respected, even in difficult circumstances, for accomplishments, qualities, and desires that to the outside world may appear small, insignificant- even ridiculous. Families where there is a great deal of music and sharing. Families where there is forgiveness.

I appreciated these things. I appreciated how Dickens showed that often we are the creators and pot-stirrers of our own unhappiness and bitterness regardless of what we have or do not have, have enjoyed or been given. For Dickens it doesn't have to be a decision you make once and suffer for ever afterwards. There are opportunities for redemption all along the path if we will only take them. Some of his characters in Little Dorrit do. Some of them don't. Always there's choice.

Ultimately it was not the main characters who captured my heart in this story, it was John Chivery.

John Chivery is in an almost impossible situation. He loves Amy Dorrit. She loves someone else. John's love is not a crush or an infatuation- his love is the real thing. He is willing to work and sacrifice for her, suffer the insults and thoughtlessness of her family, forgive- even if she never knows- even if he is never thanked. He allows his love for Amy to, again and again, make him a better man THROUGH his suffering. The pain for him doesn't end, but what he does with that pain is beautiful. He decides who he wants to be and how he wants to be remembered, and keeping that image in his mind, he makes the daily, sometimes hourly, decisions that turn him into that person in the end.

Here it is, my favorite part of Little Dorrit that has burned itself into my memory from the moment I first encountered it at the end of Chapter 27 in the latter part of the book:

STRANGER! RESPECT THE TOMB OF 
JOHN CHIVERY, JUNIOR, 
WHO DIED AT AN ADVANCED AGE 
NOT NECESSARY TO MENTION.
HE ENCOUNTERED HIS RIVAL IN A DISTRESSED STATE,
AND FELT INCLINED
TO HAVE IT OUT WITH HIM;
BUT, FOR THE SAKE OF THE LOVED ONE,
CONQUERED THOSE FEELINGS OF BITTERNESS,
AND BECAME MAGNANIMOUS. 

Striving to conquer my bitterness in life to become magnanimous,

Melanie

Little Dorrit, read in part for the Chunkster Challenge.

Planting the Trees of Kenya

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I am a huge believer in the power of an individual to make a difference. That is one of the reasons that I really enjoyed Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. For those unfamiliar with the story, Wangari Maathai's efforts to heal her native land of Kenya through reforestation not only helped the land that was being blown away without the green blanket of plant life to hold it in place and protect it, she also empowered a generation:
Many of the women could not read or write. They were mothers and farmers, and no one took them seriously. 
But they did not need schooling to plant trees. They did not have to wait for the government to help them. They could begin to change their own lives. 
In the author's note at the end of the book Claire A. Nivola writes:
There are now nearly one hundred thousand Green Belt Movement members throughout Kenya who, in addition to tending thousands of seedling nurseries, have been inspired to start many local projects. In one village, for example, the Green Belt Movement loans beehives to farmers in exchange for tree planting. When the farmers plant enough trees, they become owners of the hives and can sell their honey for a good price. Female goats are also loaned to farmers. If a goat bears a female kid, and if the farmer gives that kid to another movement member, the farmer becomes the permanent owner of the mother goat, in this way acquiring much-needed livestock. Money never changes hands, and yet, in this simple way, people who are poor can take the first steps toward improving their own lives.
I love the reminder that small and simple efforts by ordinary people have the power to change the world.

Increasing my love of trees,

Melanie

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Physicist and a Cellist: The Netherlands

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I love learning how to learn. Learning how Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur learned to teach more effectively was enlightening and exciting to me.


In his presentation he even piqued my curiosity about physics and how fun it must be to understand how circuits work and be able to apply that understanding to lights going out on a Christmas tree. Perhaps after I feel confident in math I'll pursue that avenue further. In the meantime Mr. Mazur has my admiration on many levels, most especially for his willingness to be open to truth even when it is hard to accept and requires different action on his own part and in his refinement of the art of asking questions.

His fellow countryman, Pieter Wispelwey, opened my ears and my heart to the Haydn Cello Concerto in C several years ago.



Now I don't just listen to music I study the composers, the performers, their times and influences as well. This is in part due to him and how he studied music growing up. I love the seeming ease of his fingering as he plays. I've promised myself that I will be able to play this piece on the cello at some point in my life, even if it takes me years and years to do so. I already have the sheet music for it and I caress it longingly with my eyes now and then to inspire me to keep trying when I get discouraged and resistant to practicing.      

Ah, me. There is so much to learn and so many good questions to ask and to seek answers to all the rest of my life. Thankfully there are many passionate people who help keep me motivated along the way, including these two from the Netherlands.

Doeg,

Melanie  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Hand Game from Pakistan

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It's wise to have a handful of activities in your head that require minimal supplies to keep kids occupied when you are stuck somewhere waiting. Last week my mom and I had the opportunity to turn a few pieces of scratch paper into magical toys for a little boy and his mom who were waiting at the same doctor's office with us for nearly three hours (yes, the wait was absolutely ridiculous). His giggles of delight over what we had created lifted the spirits of everyone in the office. When a bureaucratic mess required us to go in again just a few days later, some of our frustration melted into smiles when this little boy and his parents greeted us enthusiastically there. Little kindnesses make a difference. In this case they helped lift everyone and crossed language barriers in the process.

It's for this reason that I found a game from Pakistan intriguing. In Play with Us 100 Games from Around the World by Oriol Ripoll there is a description of a game called Up and Down that requires three players. It is a variation of Rock, Paper, Scissors that is great in part because it is simpler, allowing younger children to participate.

All players extend their left hands with their palms facing up. Players then place their right hands over their left hands at the same time with their palms facing down or up. The player whose hand is held in a different position from the other two wins. That's it. Simple, easy, quick, but a bit of a mind game because you have to guess what the other two players are going to do. It's a perfect way to occupy kids of various ages for a few minutes in a grocery store line.

On an olympic note, Pakistan will be competing in field hockey. There is a great article about how Pakistan celebrated the 100 days to the Olympics mark here. I've never watched field hockey before. I'm thinking this is an event I'll want to catch this year.

Celebrating games of all kinds that elevate and bring people together,

Melanie