Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What's On YOUR Nightstand?

Books have been an essential part of my life for as long as I can remember. I loved hearing my mother's voice as she read to me. Although she fought cancer much of my childhood, she made our home one of joy and wonder, and even in the darkest of times, one of quiet and calm. I was blessed to have two parents raised in the depression, both of whom were college educated, very unusual in its day. Learning and discovery were elemental to them and reading became a quiet necessity of my life. Charlotte's Web, Madeline, A Little Princess, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, A Child's Garden of Verse, Grimm's Fairy Tales.

As I got older, there were poetry books and a scarlet leather-bound edition of the complete works of Shakespeare which held more interest for me than any "Seventeen" magazine. When my classmates were reading The BoxCar Children and Pippi Longstocking I was reading the works of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein and a whole world beyond my quiet, hushed one at home opened up to me. Reading is for me not just intellectual but embracive. I love the way the spine of a book feels in the crook of my fingers. The smooth, hard end boards snug on either side of the pages sewn together, their edges flush and perfect. The smell of ink, the texture of a page as my fingers gently turns it.

I try and read for an hour before sleep when I'm on the road. Sometimes the days don't allow time to unwind, only the documentation of grief and regret that ends in sleep that is often instant but seldom pleasant. But I know, even on the bad nights, that the books are there, waiting for me, like friends. They are all different. but have one theme in common. The characters, the relationships, and the plots resonate in a way that continues to form the person I am still becoming. But there seems to be a theme running through many of my choices, one best described in yet another favorite, The Little Prince: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

I can't always control when I will get home again. I can't always control the emotions of my heart. But wherever I am, I can breathe deep in the beauty that stirs with the wind, breathe deep and hold onto this moment, reminding myself that this moment, this breath, is really all we know we have for sure. For in this moment I am so alive, and that is something to savor, just as writers do, with deft brush of pen and soft stroke of longing. You can't convey that in a text message, in an email. Soft words, warm hands, light on the skin as scattering leaves, almost weightless, yet communicating to it that stored voltage, passionate and condemned forever of all composure. Words like touch, that go straight to the heart, bypassing the brain all together.

It is why in this age of the quick phone call, a coded text message, the hurried clip of an email, I read. It is why I too, write. I write to the wind, I write to myself, I write to one that will never hear and the one that takes in every word, giving them back to me, making them alive. In my writing you don't always see the better angels of my nature. You see someone who worries, who is impatient with injustice, someone who's grumpy when they're sick. You see the little kid in me. You see the drifter of the sky and plains, who harbors within her many emotions, areas of dark that reside in the currents, sometimes tickling the surface with their presence, then vanishing quietly into the deep, leaving only the sun dappling on the surface.

In words of others I find truth and in my words I'm finding myself. So for tonight I'll sit alone and quiet, after a day of seeking as well as finding. I'll simply sit, here in the drowsing air of my bedroom, cool and empty but for books and memories, the warmth of them tickling my neck like St. Elmo's fire.

On the nightstand

Ulysses - By James Joyce. Ulysses is an epic that loosely follows The Odyssey, but within it dwells the heart of modern people with all their foibles and misdemeanors. It's so intricate- that I had a little trouble delving into it at first —but something struck a chord in me when Joyce talked "ineluctable modality of the visible." You shut your eyes, open them again, and find the world continues without your witnessing it. We change, people leave, let the world continues on in it's beauty and wonder. It's a beautiful reflection on change and time and one's place in the scheme of things.

The Worst Journey in the World - By Apsley Cherry-Garrard. This is the most incredibly detailed documented account of exploration—specifically, polar exploration—that I have read. Cherry-Garrard was a young classics scholar who traveled to the Antarctic with Robert F. Scott's last expedition in 1910, and he conveys in such a vivid way what it was like to be on a wooden sailing ship at that time. Being a "boat" person as well as a "plane person" I found that fascinating, as my knowledge of such things to date is still limited.

The "worst journey" is a trip that he and two other explorers make to find the eggs of the emperor penguin, a trip on which the three men will walk hundreds of miles and survive, among other horrific circumstances, a cataclysmic storm and having their shelter blown completely away from them. The simplicity of Cherry-Garrard's language is deceptive, you will shiver at the physical challenges the men faced and the admiration for those he works for is unbounded; but he's so matter-of-fact, never suggesting that in his own case there was any great heroism involved though indeed it was. The later account of the failed attempt to rescue Scott, something that haunted him for the rest of his life, is beyond the tragic.

Much Ado About Nothing - By William Shakespeare. I really started to appreciate Shakespeare in high school when a teacher, unafraid of risk, shared this with us. Admittedly, the title "Much Ado About Nothing" pretty much sums up the plot, but this playful tale of a woman falsely accused of unfaithfulness is packed with wordplay, dirty jokes, hilarious insults and witty dialogue. It is a therapeutic reminder that the pitfalls of social interaction (jealousy, self-doubt, lust, love and longing) have remained unchanged for centuries.

Restoration - By Rose Tremain. As a young girl, I used to be indifferent to history, I had my plate full memorizing all the Bible verses for Lutheran confirmation, and now I have to remember battle dates and names of people I could care less about? As a young woman, history came to life for me in this book, the hero, Robert Merivel, such a irreverent, genuine, passionate character. One I could easily imagine having a drink with, laughing in a modern London pub. He becomes a favorite of King Charles II but makes the mistake of falling in love with the wrong girl and tumbling from grace, finds the life he was destined for.

Wind, Sand and Stars - by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Wind, Sand and Stars is a symphony, a meditation on life, spiced with true-to-life stories of aviation in a time when technology was primitive and heroes were rare. The sky is not simply a vast and empty space, it is a place where things happen to oneself and within oneself. The deserts and the fields aren't simply there below to view from the air, they are, many times for French pilot Saint-Ex, there to crash-land on, and there meet danger and beauty alone and know for the first time strange and wonderful people.Of his crash-landing in Spanish Africa he wrote: "But by the grace of the aeroplane I have known a more extraordinary experience than this, and have been made to ponder with even more bewilderment the fact that this earth that is our home is yet in truth a wandering star... I lingered there, startled by this silence that never had been broken. The first star began to shine, and I said to myself, that this pure surface had laid here thousands of years in sight only of the stars."
Next time you have the occasion to travel, or just have a few hours to yourself, put down the remote. Put away the blackberry. Pick up a book. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Heinlein or a historian. Need some ideas? There's some of my library on the sidebar. Tam always has a great book suggestion weekly at View From the Porch. But put down your electronic pager and pick up a book. Take yourself back to the wild of your heart, where the city is replaced with the gravity of the outdoors, real mountains of rock and timber, ice and fluid need. Life is an adventure, a challenge, a giving of all for a purpose. Saint-Ex's written works were the fruits of his zeal and zest. We are all stardust, he seems to say. And he ends this incredible book with "Only the Spirit, if it breathes upon the clay, can create Man".

For sometimes, when we least expect it, with just a breath, we find life.