Books That Change Lives

I have 4 broad cubbyholes for experience titled “Distraction”, “Entertainment”, “Useful” and “Inspirational”. This is not a system of judgment, simply an organizational game that my homo sapiens brain finds oddly relaxing. I can truly laud events in any of those categories, but sorting them is something that satisfies in a strange way, like the way I play Solitaire on the computer before bed. When I thought of all of the books in my life (and since our home is an online book-selling business, I literally have tens of thousands of books in my daily life!), I wondered how to pick which to write about. These categories are going to help me navigate this topic. Books that change lives can fall under any of these headings.

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I have to start with Children’s Books because I was a child when books began to influence me. Certain Children’s Books can fit under each of those labels. Did you ever try to distract a child in tears by offering to read a story? Sure. Did you ever pick up your jacketless copy of Ferdinand and flip to the illustration of the contented bull under the tree smelling flowers because you were seeking escape? Yes! So maybe “Distraction” is a place where some of my favorites can be filed.

“Entertainment” is a fine role for a Children’s Book. Pure imagination (Roald Dahl), puzzle-solving (Graeme Base, I Spy…), and song and dance (Priscilla Superstar, Eloise) come to mind. Rhyming books by Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet were always fun to read aloud to my kids. Of course, I do voices. (After all, I was a Voice Performance major in college and a theater teacher!) Books can serve up silliness in all shapes and sizes.

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A child’s book becomes “Useful” when it has a gentle way of teaching a very important lesson. I loved Babar immediately, and slept with a plush version each night, thumbing the yellow felt of his crown until its softness lulled me to sleep. I learned to respect animals and humans, that responsibility can bring anxiety, and that belonging to a community helps you to feel secure and peaceful.

When I think of books that are “Inspirational”, I think of them as initiating changes that transcend mood and feeling and circumstance. Perhaps you can call them “paradigm-shifters”. Every so often, a Children’s Book has that kind of impact, too. They defy the age-ism of the Children’s or Young Adult section. The Lorax, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Little Prince, A Wrinkle In Time. These books introduced me to the realms of mysticism and philosophy that I began to explore in greater depth as an adult. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Poems by Hafiz.

There are iconic books that have shaped my life that I think I would put in a separate cubbyhole, perhaps shaped and decorated more like a shrine. These are sacred texts: The Bible. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn. They became almost monolithic in my life journey at certain points.

Most of the goods manufactured by human beings are problematic to me. Luxury items strike me as senseless and leave me completely cold. Clothing is necessary but has a seamy underbelly in Fashion. You don’t even want to get me started on Plastic! But Books – well, they could be the veritable justification of civilization itself, as far as I’m concerned. I cannot imagine my life without them.

This essay is featured in this month’s issue of  The Be Zine. To see the entire blogazine, click HERE.

Around the World in 24 Hours

Milwaukee can be a rather uninspiring place in the dead of winter. Not that the light, feathery, cotton candy snow that piled up overnight wasn’t beautiful. As we walked to the breakfast cafe to meet Steve’s mother, we came up with an alphabetical list of adjectives for this particular day’s precipitation. I don’t want to complain about the temperature hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, although it is a favorite local custom. There are much better ways to engage the imagination, and I live in a house which reminds me of this every day.

 Scholar & Poet Books is the name of our other roommate. The drafty, old duplex we share rises over 4 levels: basement, first floor, second floor, and attic. She occupies every level and every staircase. She completely fills “my” closet while some of my clothes have languished in suitcases under the bed for 3 years. I am learning to appreciate her presence instead of begrudging her seeming dominance. In fact, I think I am coming around to choosing her company.

Scholar and Poet I

 After Sunday breakfast with Mom, we returned to her, eager to taste her bounty. Samplings for the day included Irish, French, Argentine, Tibetan and Yiddish. She expands our consciousness, delights our senses and supports our livelihood and our dreams. Her body is an amalgam of tens of thousands of books and CDs with a few hundred other artifacts thrown in. She is library, concert hall and museum. She is introvert heaven.

 We started by reading aloud a poem by W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”, the howling North Atlantic wind of the Irish verses being matched by the Wisconsin bluster that rattled our windows. After delving a bit into Yeats’ biography, Steve then began his daily business of listing our friend’s appendages for sale while I went downstairs to do the dishes and make bread. After lunch, while the loaves baked, we began to discuss our plans to travel to Tibet. Internet research prompted a search through our stacks to find more information on that side of the planet. Steve came down with 6 books of varying relevance. When the bread was safely out of the oven, we went upstairs to watch a DVD, Manon of the Spring, having watched Jean de Florette just weeks before. This emotional tale of French village life transported us visually and linguistically to another world in a simpler century. I tried, unsuccessfully, to pick out the movie’s musical theme on my harmonica before returning to the kitchen to make dinner.

 When we’d finished our meal and our wine, we retired to the bedroom to peruse the wall of jewel cases. We settled on a CD of Argentinian folk songs and dances by Suni Paz. In contrast to the Irish ballads we lit upon at first, these undulating rhythms drew us deeper into the sultry passions beneath our awakened senses…

 Fueled by a solid Monday morning breakfast, we dove into the business of packaging our sales, accompanied by Moishe Oysher singing Yiddish, bluesy, vaudeville, Hollywood-like tunes. I have no idea what they were about, but his passages of improvised “scatting” made me think of Tevye stomping and shaking around in his barn, pouring out his desires to be a rich man. One of the books we packaged was sent to a Jewish community center in New York; it was a children’s book called Klutzy Boy. It made me laugh.

 The anthem of my Alma Mater, Scripps College, starts: “Strong in the strength of all, venturing together, searching, exploring the life of the mind…” In the midst of a Milwaukee winter, this is the antidote to cabin fever. I’m grateful to be shacking up with Scholar & Poet Books.

(author’s note: to browse our inventory listed on A.B.E. Books, click HERE. To visit our eBay Store, click HERE.)

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Weekly Photo Challenge: Curves

Curves…

How many internet “news” headlines associate that word with female celebrities on the red carpet?  SOOOooo not my style of subject.

The curve ball?  The cosmic 2 by 4 upside the head?  Ah, yes.  That experience is one with which I am familiar.  I appreciate a good twist of fate/destiny/plot/philosophy.  I’ve been reading a 1917 copy of Best Russian Short Stories compiled by Thomas Seltzer.  Intense!  Revolutionary!  Profound!  I recommend The Shades, A Phantasy by Korolenko:  Socrates investigating the justice of religion, and for lighter fare, How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials by Saltykov: like Mark Twain satire, only Russian.

Visually, curves are naturally graceful.  Is there anything in nature that is completely straight?  I’ve thought about that several times, and the closest thing I can come up with is a pine needle.  Any other ideas out there?

So, here are some curves from my photo files:

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Little House in Old World Wisconsin

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1867, in a Little House in the Big Woods (near Pepin, WI, close to the border of Minnesota).  Mary Hafford, the Irish immigrant who lived in the house where I work as an interpreter for the living history museum, Old World Wisconsin, was widowed in the year 1868 with 3 small children and lived as a renter in a small village near Watertown, WI.   The Ingalls family continued to move west and eventually set up a homestead in South Dakota, but Mary Hafford worked away at her home laundry business and eventually achieved social and economic prominence in her little village.  In 1885, she had a new house constructed on the property that she had bought.  She never learned to read or write, but her children did.  Her youngest daughter, Ellen, studied dressmaking, a skilled trade, and became a live-in dressmaker.  Ellen was married in 1891 (six years after Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder), and her mother hosted a reception and dinner for 75 guests.  Three months later, Mary Hafford died of dropsy.  I imagine Ellen Hafford Thompson and wonder what stories she might have written about her life in the Little House where she lived.  I have a burning question: what happened to her older sister, Ann, who is conspicuously absent from all records from the mid-1880s on?  Did she die?  If so, why isn’t she buried next to her father & mother?  Did she go into a convent?  Did she elope with a Lutheran?  The mystery remains unsolved!

The neighbors’ backyard

Trusty “Rapid Washer”

A shadow box memorial to a young woman who had taken religious vows. The braid that was cut off is all the family would ever see of this loved one after she went into the convent.

 

Friday Adventure

Steve & I went on a driving excursion today through rural Wisconsin.   Today’s post will just be a teaser; I promise there will be more substance when I have more time.  We began the day by re-reading W. H. Auden’s poem“In Praise of Limestone”Little did we know that we would chance upon a cave by a river later that afternoon….

I hope everyone can make some stunning discoveries this weekend!  Go out and enjoy the world!

Fascination

I’ve always believed that I have a great capacity for fascination…until a few days ago when I began to read Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.  She has it in spades, and has always had it, in a way that makes me feel distracted and dull by comparison.  Here’s an excerpt from that memoir:

“Our parents and grandparents, and all their friends, seemed insensible to their own prominent defect, their limp, coarse skin.

“We children had, for instance, proper hands; our fluid, pliant fingers joined their skin.  Adults had misshapen, knuckly hands loose in their skin like bones in bags; it was a wonder they could open jars.  There were loose in their skins all over, except at the wrists and ankles, like rabbits.

“We were whole, we were pleasing to ourselves.  Our crystalline eyes shone from firm, smooth sockets; we spoke in pure, piping voices through dark, tidy lips.  Adults were coming apart, but they neither noticed nor minded.  My revulsion was rude, so I hid it.  Besides, we could never rise to the absolute figural splendor they alone could on occasion achieve.  Our beauty was a mere absence of decrepitude; their beauty, when they had it, was not passive but earned; it was grandeur; it was a party to power, and to artifice, even, and to knowledge.  Our beauty was, in the long run, merely elfin.  We could not, finally, discount the fact that in some sense they owned us, and they owned the world.

“Mother let me play with one of her hands.  She laid it flat on a living-room end table beside her chair.  I picked up a transverse pinch of skin over the knuckle of her index finger and let it drop.  The pinch didn’t snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge.  I poked it; it slid over intact.  I left it there as an experiment and shifted to another finger.  Mother was reading Time magazine.

“Carefully, lifting it by the tip, I raised her middle finger an inch and released it.  It snapped back to the tabletop.  Her insides, at least, were alive.  I tried all the fingers.  They all worked.  Some I could lift higher that others.

“That’s getting boring.”  “Sorry, Mama.”

“I refashioned the ridge on her index-finger knuckle; I made the ridge as long as I could, using both my hands.  Moving quickly, I made parallel ridges on her other fingers — a real mountain chain, the Alleghenies; Indians crept along just below the ridgetops, eyeing the frozen lakes below them through the trees.”

What rare child in this century, surrounded by electronic stimulators of all descriptions, would spend a half an hour fascinated by her mother’s hand, I wonder?  I had the chance to meet 56 kindergarteners at the Wehr Nature Center this morning.   This is what we brought out to fascinate them:

Boxy

Now that’s an ancient face I could stare at for hours!  Meet Boxy, the ornate box turtle.  Her species is found primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, where there are sandy prairies and is currently endangered and protected.  She came to the nature center about 25 years ago; she may be about 10 years older than that.  How do I know to call Boxy ‘she’?  Brown eyes.  Male box turtles have red eyes.  Also, Boxy laid some eggs a few years after she came to the center (not that she had been with a male while she was there).  Occasionally, Boxy has her beak trimmed.  It can get overgrown because she’s not in the wild digging and wearing it down.  I wonder if the vet has ‘styled’ her expression…she looks sad to me.  She was quite chipper this morning, though.  It’s noticeably warm for this time of year.  She and the other reptiles were moving rapidly and eagerly in their cages.  We put Boxy down in the middle of the circle of children, and she set out at a brisk pace to examine the perimeter, craning her neck up at the faces around her.  She is a bit of a celebrity, as she meets about 10,000 kids every year.  She may live to be as many as 70 years old.  I wonder if the Nature Center will still be around or if she’ll live out her last days somewhere else.

Boxy has her own beauty, her own fascinating skin.  ” The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood….Standing on the bare ground, –my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball.  I am nothing.  I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”  (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What uncontained and immortal beauty will you discover to love today?

 

Muck and Muddle

I hate hormones.  Why anyone would want to replace estrogen once she’s finally lost it is beyond me.  The moods and emotions it produces are so murky.

I feel like I haven’t learned a damn thing about who I am, and I’m almost 50 years old.  Aren’t I supposed to get this right, eventually?

Annie Dillard writes about awakening to her consciousness when she was about 10 years old.  How do you do that at ten?  And remember what it felt like decades later?  The woman must have a brain six times the size of mine.  Here’s a passage I read this morning, from An American Childhood:

“I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years.  I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again.  I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not.  I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

“Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand: precisely, toe hits toe.  The tern folds its wings to sit; its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast.

“Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool.  Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms.  The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.”

Why do I feel like I never achieved this perfect fit, this awakened consciousness, not as a child and that I’m struggling to find it still?   The idea of ancient grace that began this blog seems as ethereal and unattainable as ever.  The clumsy truce I’ve maintained with myself wears thin.

Time to cocoon under the blankets and let the snow fall.  Perhaps I’ll emerge as from a chrysalis and feel differently by supper.