Friday, February 28, 2014

Papers With Voices

This week I spent half a day deciphering and transcribing a letter that is as old as my great-great-grandparents. Honestly, I am still amazed at how thrilling a worn piece of paper can be. I should be immune by now, unaffected by the smell of the paper or the marvel of ink on paper. But like a child watching a magic show, I am mesmerized, focused intently on the swoop of the letters and the blend of dark and light that tells me where the ink leaked, where he pressed his pen a little harder. It's like seeing a ghost, but then I wonder if I am the ghost, watching invisible in the corner. I run my fingers along the edge of the paper in reverence; I turn the pages as softly and gingerly as I would lay a baby in its crib.

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He talks a lot about farming. His son came down with a fever, but thankfully it passed. Don't tell Grandfather though, because he'll just worry. They say the railroad's coming soon, wouldn't that be great? I think you should join us out west. Linda's peppers got covered up just in time for the frost. We'll come and visit this fall if the harvest is good. I'm going to plant more corn next year.

167 years away and I'm in his September, worrying about his wheat crop.

Three weeks ago, analyzing Civil War letters for class, I followed a man from Wisconsin to Arkansas and then assumed he went home when the letters ceased, as he had been talking about the train ride that would take him back north. The next day, researching his name, I found out he died shortly after that last letter and he never made it back. The death date- February 3, 1863- so casual on the screen, felt like a slap across the face and I cried with the pain of it, which seems both appropriate and ridiculous at this stage in my career.

I eat it up, hungry for more, these papers with voices that are larger than life and larger than death. No matter how often I do this, how much I see, the sense of wonder always returns and I am grateful for that. Every day, I have the opportunity to meet new people and hear new stories. I get to learn from other lives and other experiences and I am only now recognizing how good that is for me. This connection, this world-collide, forces me to learn how to see through the eyes of others and in doing so, I find strength and compassion and empathy. The labels drop away and the differences don't really matter anymore. Turns out, we are all just humans with leaky pens and a fear of an early frost. And that's a pretty cool thing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sacred Night, February 18th

It has already been two years and I have never once written about it. There are six blank pages in my journal that I had skipped over, intending to fill the lines with details of what happened that night and the emotions that walked by my side through it all. But there is still nothing. I am angry with myself over this because I feel I have failed him by not telling his last story- how brave he was, how beautiful, how strong- and how I watched it all with a keen eye and a hunger to remember it for him. It is the only story he is unable to tell. 

February 18. He sits in his chair, trying so hard to be present, greeting us when we arrive, smiling at us when we talk to him. Like a parent feeding an infant, I hold his vitamin water to his lips, helping him take the straw so he can swallow a few more nutrients. I watch my strong, kind husband help wheel him to the bathroom and back. As the hours tick by, he slips farther and farther away, in and out of sleep on his red chair, his inanimate legs tucked under the red pepper quilt my grandmother made him. When sleep is all he has, I see my father try gently but oh-so-terribly to drag him to the bed and I bury my face in my aunt's shoulder, knowing he will not leave that bed again. He tries to talk, the last time he will make the effort. My grandmother understands what he cannot say and reassures him that we all know he loves us. He nods. His eyes close. We stand and sit and kneel and pace in the bedroom, taking turns to watch and pray and cry and tell stories. Even on the bed, he looks strong. As with everything in his life, he is going to do this his way.

I am anxious to do something so I volunteer to call the hospice nurse and the pastor when they are needed. I go to my father's house to let the dogs out. The sense of urgency is in direct contrast to the slowness of the night but it pulses through my bones anyway. We wait and we watch and we weep, even as we know this is exactly what he wanted. There are no machines, no hospital noises and smells. He is home and we are grateful. We pray with the pastor and we ask the nurse questions and then we shift positions again, waiting. At one point, it is my turn to lay in the bed next to his unconscious weight. I inhale the sweet smell of his skin and cologne and brush his hair and even laugh with my grandmother who is so brave in these moments that I want to hold her and rock her and sing to her, as if she is a child I can protect from the world. I realize now that she has never needed protection.

After all of that, we retreat to find nothing but fitful sleep. I am on the living room floor with my sister and my father and my husband- our vigil tempered by three small hours of rest. I barely notice my father leaving the room but like a racehorse out of the starting gate, I shoot up from the floor, wide awake in five seconds, when he comes back and tells us he's gone. Without a word, I stumble to the other bedrooms and wake my cousins and aunt, relaying the news in a monotone devoid of emotion. I had already known the morning wouldn't come for all of us.

It must be 3:00 a.m. by now and we are all awake. Eventually, amazingly, I find myself alone with him in the bedroom as calls and coffee are made in the kitchen. I imagine he is still hovering somewhere close by, so I talk to him. I wonder if he could be sitting in the chair next to me so I turn away from the body on the bed and turn toward the soul on the chair. I talk and I listen. I don't cry. Eventually, I go to the bed and lay down beside him. I hold his foot in my hand. Still warm. My grandmother and my sister join me and we all four are on the bed, like we were when I was a child staying overnight, when my grandmother read me "The Little Bird's Rice" and I looked forward to the smell of bacon greeting me in the morning. We remember these things together as indigo turns to violet and the daylight creeps nearer. Silently, urgently, I pray for it all to slow down. The night feels so safe and sacred, a temple where I can hide protected in my grandmother's arms. In the dark, he is still here. The day will change everything. With the dawn will come plans and more phone calls and people from the funeral home wheeling him out the door. With the dawn will come the first time in 81 years that the sun saw a world without my grandfather in it and that is a day I cannot bear yet.

This night had been ours. It was a night of memories and solidarity, as my family focused solely on our grandfather's journey and formed a wall of strength and support that seemed impenetrable. I felt strong last night, strong for him. Strong for us. I fear it will all disintegrate in the light of day, that when the blanket of night is pulled off, I will have no choice but to face my weakness and my vulnerability. I will have to face a world without him and it starts today and I do not think I am up to this task. If only the dawn would not come.

But it does come- and as with everything that has happened in the last 24 hours, I am helpless to control any of it. Time sweeps me along and I wave to my Opa as the train picks up speed. I watch him walk away from the platform, a tall figure on the horizon. I settle back in my seat and gradually begin the act of remembering. The sun rises.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

The List

For today, a list of loves:

I love.....


Hot tea. And hot cocoa. Any hot beverage, actually.

Mourning doves on the balcony.

Mint chocolate chip ice cream.

The sound of peepers in the spring.

Random texts from my best friend.

My partner in crime (also known as my husband.)

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Shopping at the farmer's market.

Jane Eyre.  

Words and language.

German Christmas carols.

Traveling. Especially to Ireland.

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Lazy mornings.

Watching Gilmore Girls for the zillionth time.

Cows. (Addendum: The smell of cow manure. Don't ask.)

Snuggling with my katz.

W.B. Yeats' poetry.

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Making dinner and trying new recipes.

Spending time with my sister.

History and archives and museums and libraries. It's a lifestyle.

Being part of a close-knit family.

Reading in bed.

Louisa May Alcott.

The baby aisle at Target.

Skirts and sandals.


Yup, lots of love here. Today and every day.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Evidence of a Procrastinator

This article of 18 pages and double columns has become my mortal enemy. (Why are papers published in double columns anyway? Are they trying to torture us?) The abstract glares me down and I return with my own narrow-eyed stare of death. 9:45 on a Thursday night and neither of us wants to be here. This is not going to end well.

This morning I was a different person. I zipped through my readings in record time, with extra to spare. But tonight this one article and I are ready to rip each other apart, the mutual loathing like a red-hot anvil. With fire in its voice, it orders me to get this over with, read it already, put us both out of our misery. I pull the computer toward me, focusing my last vestige of willpower on not checking Facebook or opening Blogger just to write about how much I want to write. I am so close. I can do this. I can stay strong.

10:02. "The Concept of Appraisal and Archival Theory" has lost this round. This post is all the evidence I need.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Probing the Depths

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It's that time of year again. The one where I start getting restless- gazing longingly at my suitcase, watching travel documentaries, and scouring the library stacks for anything by Freya Stark. How inconvenient. School has barely begun and I'm thinking of anything but digital curation and appraisal methods. Instead, I'm starting a Pinterest board (God help me) and swooning over pictures of Plovdiv and Malin Head.

I have learned through the years that my travel bug is never about a longing to get away. It's more complex than that. It's a longing to meet new people. To gain a fresh perspective, to see the world through other eyes. To feel small, because that is when I learn the most about who I am and my place in the world. Nothing pops my self-centered bubble world like unfamiliarity.

It's so easy to get stuck in my own opinions and worldview and declare that "I AM RIGHT! I have the answers! I understand it ALL!" Until a new place, a new face, shake up my preconceived notions about grief, fear, religion, joy, womanhood, politics, motherhood, or love. (Books do that too, but that's another blog post.) I want to know what the world thinks, how it pulses. I want to know other people, if only to understand the many ways that we are all wrong and all right.  

I want to probe the depths of the gray shades that make up life's answers, shedding the black and white of self-importance.

In Ireland, surrounded by nothing familiar, I discovered a part of myself that existed outside of my daily routine. I was chuckled at in a supermarket for forgetting my money when buying groceries. I talked with an old man about Irish history on an abandoned island in Sligo Bay. We got lost, we misread signs. I was bold, I was nervous. I felt self-conscious and I felt confident, sometimes all in one day. We listened to Irish news radio and realized there is so MUCH happening in the world that we tune out.  

That jolt of unfamiliarity, like an electric shock to my ego, wakes me up and reorients me. In doing so, it also focuses my priorities and lightens my expectations of myself.

It's a world-shaking thing when you look west across the Atlantic, not east. Or when you see the mountains of Colorado from above, rather than below. When you eat blood pudding or watch Irish reality TV or sign up for a library pass in a library that is actually a 14th century church. When you hear what others have to say. When you learn to listen, not to talk. When you stop looking through your own eyes, and start to walk in the moccasins of strangers. There is no greater feeling.


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