The Secret Lives of Books

I love used books.  Bonus points if they have writing in them or other markings.  I bought a used copy of Good Morning: 365 Positive Ways to Start Your Day by Brook Noel, and inside the book is a handwritten note to Laurie, wishing her a happy birthday, and a good day everyday.

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The note made me a little sad.  I wonder who Laurie is, and why she gave up the book.  I imagine she was a teenager, and that she didn’t want a book in the first place.  Or maybe a girlfriend gave Laurie the book, and when they broke up, she disposed of anything that reminded her of that relationship.  Perhaps the book just got mixed in with a stack of things headed for Goodwill, and even now, Laurie wonders what happened to it.

I’ll probably never know.

A friend recently recommended People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.  I didn’t know what to expect when I read the back cover, and I didn’t expect to like it much.  I read it anyway, since I know that it’s happened to me (more than once) that a book I didn’t expect to like ended up on my list of favorites.

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This book was fantastic.

It’s about a Haggadah, which is a Jewish book telling how to perform Passover Sedar.  This particular book is about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real book and one of the earliest Jewish books to be illustrated.  This story mixes fact with fiction.

In this story, Hanna is a conservationist who is commissioned to stabilize and preserve this ancient book.  In it, she finds a butterfly’s wing, a hair, a wine stain, and salt.  As she tries to piece together the book’s history from these items, the author takes us back to each even in the book’s existence, telling us what may have happened in its history.

I hate history.  Hate it.  In school, any time I had to read my history textbook, I would literally fall asleep.  To me, it’s all a bunch of dry facts that don’t matter.

The history in this book, however, is alive with humanity.  The peoples’ stories didn’t happen, but they could have.

I love the idea that this book bears silent witness to history.  That’s the reason I love used books and antiques.  Though they can’t tell me their stories, those stories are etched in their energies somehow.  And I’m connected to those stories.  I don’t have to know and understand to feel that connection.

“Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials.  It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

-Geraldine Brooks, from People of the Book

X is for Xenolith

I both dread and get excited about the “x” part of the challenge.  Dread because coming up with an “x” word is hard.  Get excited because it gives me a chance to learn new words.  I think “xenolith” is one of my favorites.

Xenolith: n. – (geology) a piece of rock of different origin from the igneous rock in which it is embedded

In case you don’t know what igneous is, it’s rock that’s formed from cooled lava.  I actually knew that because I’ve always kind of had a thing for rocks.

View from the South Rim Photo Credit: Doree Weller

View from the South Rim
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

The first thing this made me think of was the Grand Canyon.  I wondered, “Does the Grand Canyon have xenoliths, and can this be a way for me to talk about that amazing place?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, it does.  And I can.

Beyond the sheer coolness factor of the Grand Canyon, it’s a great place to learn about science.  When I stood at the top of the South Rim, I had trouble wrapping my mind around the sheer magnitude of the canyon.  It looked more like a movie set than something real.  The colors are amazing.  I took about a million photos there, but a picture doesn’t begin to capture the reality of it.

The park has Visitors’ Centers that illustrate the different layers and how they believe the canyon was formed.  It has a model of the different layers of rock, and how these layers formed.  It always amazes me when I can stand in places seeped in history.

According to the National Park Services website, the Grand Canyon is getting bigger.  The natural processes that formed the canyon continue to be in effect today.

One of the reasons I love places like this is that I can almost hear the echoes of the past.  Places like the Grand Canyon wake my brain up better than a dozen cups of coffee, and get my creative writing juices flowing.

What makes you feel your most creative or most alive?

H is for History

For this month’s A to Z Challenge, I’m focusing on things I love.

Turtle on a Swing, Austin TX Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Turtle on a Swing, Austin TX
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

When I was a kid, I hated history. I thought it was the most boring thing imaginable, and in some ways, I still do.

Most of the time, when someone talks about history, they’re talking about what happened. I know it’s important, but I don’t care. I want to know about the people it happened to, what they thought about it, how they lived before, and how whatever event changed them.

On a most basic level, history is about the people, but it often doesn’t seem that way. Sometimes it seems like the stories about people get lost behind the events. And really, what do the events really matter, except how they affect the people involved?

My brother in law LOVES history. I mean, loves it the way I love Dean Koontz books. When the husband and I get together with the in-laws, we tend to go see something history related. Last visit, we went to the Alamo and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. What could have been horribly boring for me was actually interesting, because I focused on what interests me: the people, and how those events affected them.

It never made sense to me that I disliked history. After all, as my post last week indicated, I love antiques. But the reason I love antiques is because those things meant something to someone at one time. I wish I had understood when I was younger why history bored me, and how I could have better learned it.

It’s never too late though. I’m learning new things everyday.

Is there a subject you used to hate that you’ve grown to like or understand better as you’ve gotten older?

A is for Antiques

April is the annual blogging A to Z Challenge, where I blog a different letter of the alphabet daily.  Click the link if you’d like to learn more about it.

I’ve decided to stick to a theme this month, and it’s going to be Things I Love.

Bench in garden, Pennsylvania Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Bench in garden, Pennsylvania
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time traveling with my grandparents, who sold antiques for a living.  I knew what a hatpin holder and an oyster plate while I was still in elementary school.

We would drive to dusty old flea markets in their van, and before we could sleep for the night, we had to unload all the boxes full of fragile things.  My grandfather and I would set up his tent (a metal structure with a tarp bungee corded to protect us).  My grandpa told me that people would be more likely to stop by if we had something to protect them from the rain and the sun.

We set up tables and put tablecloths over them to make them look nice.  Ink stained my fingers as we unwrapped the newspaper protecting tea sets and dolls and candlesticks and iron coin banks.

I grew up loving old things.  Whenever I walk into an old junk store and inhale the smell of dust and mustiness, I feel like I’m home again.  Going to a flea market feels like visiting an old friend.

Many of my best memories are tied up with flea markets, antiques, and my grandparents.  Things that might be old and forgotten by the time you get to them were once loved by someone.  Next time you come across an antique, don’t just wonder what it’s worth.  Instead, close your eyes… and feel the history.

Walking Down Memory Lane

Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Photo Credit: Doree Weller

I took a little stroll down memory lane tonight, and I can barely remember the girl I was.

I found my old diaries when I was unpacking.  I also found old love notes from high school.  My high school boyfriend and I lived long distance from one another.  We were in the same school, it’s just that the school district was so big that he was on one side, and I was on the other.  So, since we couldn’t talk on the phone nearly as much as we wanted to (after the first phone bill, our parents were MAD), we wrote letters back and forth.

If we were teens today, we’d have cell phones or emails, and all those wonderful communications would be lost.

I’m sentimental, and I enjoy reading my old diaries and those old love letters.  I don’t think that everything that happened in “the good old days” was all that good, but I do miss written communication.  Did you know that some schools aren’t even teaching cursive writing anymore?  They say it’s obsolete, and what kids really need to know is how to type.  How sad is that?

I tried keeping a digital diary for years and wondered why it never stuck.  When I went back to paper, I enjoyed writing in my journal much more than the digital version.  Don’t get me wrong; I prefer to type than hand write for convenience, to save my hand from aching.  I love blogging and Facebook.  I love that as an author, I can write and rewrite on Word and it always looks clean.

However, I think that hand writing reflects personality.  It’s more intimate, and even the worst handwriting has a certain beauty to it.  We have to punctuate and spell without the benefits of autocorrect.

Because I despair the lost art of letter writing, because I’ve so enjoyed reading back into my past, and because I believe in being the change, I’m going to write letters to my friends.  My goal by the end of the year is to write an actual letter to most of my friends.  Some of them might send their own letters back, and some might not.  To me, it doesn’t matter if they really do or not, what matters is that I’m making the effort, and I’m putting something interesting and beautiful into the world.

If you’re a reader of my blog, and would like an actual, handwritten letter, feel free to email me your address (doreeweller@gmail.com) and I will send you a letter sometime this year.  It might be fun to have a penpal.  (Remember penpals, from high school?  My assigned penpal and I never hit it off… very sad.)

Some of my friends will be puzzled by my wanting to write letters.  After all, isn’t email the same thing, just faster?  They’ll humor me, but they won’t understand.  Some will totally get it.  Some will just be excited to get some mail that isn’t a bill.  Writing letters are little pieces of history that we can choose to let die, or we can all make a conscious choice to preserve.

I recently went to the Lyndon Baines Johnson museum here in Austin, and I found lots of things interesting, but what I found most interesting were the letters written between him and Lady Bird, and the letters she wrote to others.  I spent so much time reading them that my traveling companions laughed at me and how I kept “straggling.”

I’m not a president or a president’s wife, but I still think that my history is important, that your history is important.  I think that what I have to say matters, not because I say anything terribly profound or important, but because I matter.  You matter.  And that means that what we have to say matters too, even when we disagree.

What do you think about this whole letter writing thing?

Old Things and Abandoned Places

Mystery Castle, Phoenix AZ Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Mystery Castle, Phoenix AZ
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

“New” doesn’t really appeal to me.  I just don’t feel like new things have as much character as old.  I’m not sure why that is.  It seems to me that new is more streamlined, cleaner, and has fewer imperfections.  Things of days past had more imperfections, but were more unique.  The same is true if we’re talking about houses or cars or furniture or books or clothes.

I love thrift stores and vintage shops, jumbled with old things.  Maybe it reminds me of my grandparents; I practically grew up in flea markets, surrounded by treasures mixed with junk. I learned to appreciate the broken and the discarded, and for some reason, I find it beautiful.

In the same way, I love abandoned places.  They’re like little secrets, even if they’re accessible to everyone.  I sometimes think that they whisper things only a few of us can hear.  The reason that new places don’t talk is that they don’t have any stories to tell; they’re like young people who’ve only experienced a tiny slice of life.  Old and abandoned places and things have stories behind them, and sometimes have secrets.

On a recent trip to Mystery Castle in Phoenix, I looked around at old bottles, discarded bricks, glass pans, and other odds ‘n ends used as decor, and realized that the name “Mystery Castle” is appropriate in that the tour guides take groups around and tell the story of the place, but the walls whisper that the “stories” make up only a little bit of what the place has to tell.  It’s not abandoned; no one lives there, but tour groups go through from September to May (when it’s not hot enough to kill you… there’s no central air).  Even though it’s not abandoned, it’s like an older lady whose relatives visit only out of obligation, and when everyone is gone late at night, she sits alone with her memories.

If you hear the whispers of old things, then all this will make sense to you.  And if you don’t hear them, try to sit quietly one day and listen.  Maybe you’ll hear a whisper too.

F is for Family

Growing up, we were a small, close-knit family, and I always wished we would get together more often with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and do things.  Sure, we visited with them, but we never had big family dinners or family parties like you see on TV.

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Midnyte and Moonshyne

I always hated history, but now that I’ve grown older, I’ve started to get interested in family history. Of course, the people who could tell me the most about it are long gone.  Why is that?  By the time you get old enough to be interested in history, you have to look for it.  I did some research on ancestry.com, and while it was interesting to me, it wasn’t what I wanted to know, which is those family stories that have been passed down, that are more fragile than spun glass heirlooms.

A couple years ago, my husband found tons of black and white pictures of his family from back in Poland.  Some of the people he could identify, and others, he had no idea.  Taking black and white photos in the early 1900s wasn’t like snapping a photo today.  I can take a 1000 pictures and have all of them be meaningless.  (Not that they all are, but it’s just that easy).  Back then, if there was a photo, it meant something, and I just wonder what story was lost to the family as the photo was passed down but the story wasn’t.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was quoted as saying that she wrote the Little House on the Prairie books because she saw how the pioneer way of life was dying, and she wanted to preserve it.  I thank her for that, because I learned more about that time period from her than I did from the history books in whose pages I drifted off to sleep.

But in the end, what’s important about family?  Is it all those stories I’ve forgotten?  Or the ones I remember?  I would like to know how my grandparents met (I should ask my mom or uncle about that), but I have a million images and stories in my head from my time with them.  My grandmother was actually the one who “trained” me to be a therapist.  When I was around 5, we played “psychiatrist.”  She would tell me all her “problems” and have me solve them.  Her “problems” were things like being picked on and called names.  Clever, huh?  I didn’t have a clue until years later.

As my grandfather got older, he had a cell phone.  My parents didn’t know how to use their voicemail, so I assumed he didn’t either.  I must have said something well-intentioned about it one day, because he responded, “I own it, don’t I?  I know how to check my voicemail.”  That sums up my grandfather.  He loved his constant companion, Amie, a Beagle rejected by another family.

Maybe that’s what matters about family.  Still, it wouldn’t kill me to write down a few stories about those that came before… before I don’t have a chance to decide if I want to or not.

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. ~Shirley Abbott

A Peek Into History

Madame de Florian's apartment; Source: The Meta Picture

Madame de Florian’s apartment; Source: The Meta Picture

I was never into history in school, probably because it was a series of names and dates with no context.  Why should I care about long dead people and what they did?  As I’ve grown older and can do my own learning, I realize that I’m more interested in seeing historical things.  I especially love architecture and antiques.  Part of my love of antiques comes from my grandparents, who I spent summers selling antiques and reproductions with.

I recently saw an article about a woman, Madame de Florian, who had an apartment full of cool stuff that she abandoned in 1942 but continued to pay rent on.  The apartment sat as is until her recent death.  At that point, people went in and found a treasure trove.

I would love an opportunity to walk around this apartment, look at her books and explore the different areas.  The place seems cluttered with all different cool things, which is one of the many reasons I love clutter.  It invites exploration.  I’m a big proponent of surrounding myself with things I enjoy.  Let others clean!  Clutter is my friend!

Here’s a link to the article so you can see pictures of this very cool apartment.

My Name is Memory- A Review

UnknownI read My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares on a recommendation from someone else, and I didn’t realize until I was done that it’s written by the author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  (Which I’ve never read)

I loved this book.  It’s nice how many different awesome books I’ve been reading lately.  It’s the story of Daniel, who has memory of all his past lives, and he’s loved Sophia/ Lucy but been star-crossed in every one.  When he finds her in this life and tells her what they are to one another, he scares her off, and he believes that he’s lost her again.  Many of the chapters are from their past lives and how their love has developed over hundreds of years.

The only problem with this book was the ending.  It’s not that I didn’t like the ending, but that things weren’t quite resolved.  I saw a rumor on Amazon that this was supposed to be part of a trilogy, but I see no evidence of this on the author’s website, and this was written in 2010, so I think that’s probably false.

Either way, despite the not-quite-satisfying ending, I loved the book and would cautiously recommend it.

Anne Boleyn and the Common Knowledge Conundrum

imagesOkay, by show of hands, who knows who Anne Boleyn is?

This came up in discussion after I mentioned I’d had some weird dreams, and that one was about Anne Boleyn.  I wasn’t prepared for the blank stares I received from multiple people.  When the first person had no idea who I was talking about, I thought it was a fluke.  It wasn’t.  Out of everyone I talked to, only 4 people knew who she was, and 3 of those 4 are over 35 years old.  One of my friends responded that she doesn’t know history well.

The TV Guy, the husband, and I all thought Anne Boleyn’s story was common knowledge.  None of us really thought of Anne Boleyn as consigned to “history.”  I know about her in the same way I know about Christopher Columbus.  It’s just something you sort of know, right?

When the blank stares started, I prompted, “You know, Henry the 8th’s second wife?  Henry the 8th?”  Then I started singing “I am Henry the 8th I am…”  No one wants to me sing.  But… they didn’t even know the song!  Never heard it!

I’m often reminded that things I think are “common knowledge” really aren’t.  I always thought everyone knew how to bake a cake from scratch, sew a button back on, what temperature water to use to wash blood/ grass/ chocolate out of clothes.  I found out that those things aren’t common knowledge, and neither is how good old Anne Boleyn lost her head.

PS.  I did read the book The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory.  It’s a very entertaining read, based on the story of Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary.  I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, and I still liked this book.