Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cherishing the Past and Seizing the Present

In an interview for my book, the radio host asked me why I wrote about historical women. "Did you always love history?"

"Yes," I realized. "I always have."

My dad was a junior high history teacher. His focus, for 7th/8th grade, was American history and social studies, but he instilled in me a love of the past. My parents took me to museums and historical monuments. I remember touching the Liberty Bell and wearing a tri-corner hat in Williamsburg, Virginia.

For me, the worst part of history in school is the memorization of dates. I was (and still am) horrible at remembering what battle happened when and where, which king replaced the other. To me, this onslaught of information tumbles about in my brain and refuses to stick. I'd be a horrible guest on Jeopardy.

But when I see and touch and feel history, I am completely and utterly in love. In those moments, it leaves the pages of the past and comes alive.

This also happens when I visit historical places. Museums, library archives, even antique malls - touching items of the past, understanding and seeing what life was like before us. When I visited Mary McLeod Bethune's home and gravesite in Daytona Beach, Florida, I gazed out of the glass window in her sunny breakfast nook - the glass window that she longed for as a girl growing up as the daughter of slaves. I saw her bedroom with a dress layed out on it - almost as if she would walk through the door and get ready for her meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt.

When I went to Sun Studios in Memphis, TN, and stood on the same tile floor that bore the weight of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I could almost hear their instruments tuning up.

This aliveness also happens in literature when we are magically transported to a place we've never been - not just as a visitor - but as someone who is a living, breathing part of the story.

It is Downton Abbey where I walk through an English manor. It is Loving Frank where I watch a crazed woman light a home and people ablaze in her furor over Frank Lloyd Wright's betrayal of her heart. It is The Help, where I feel the sweat of the south and the charm and sometimes cruelty of afternoon luncheon conversations. It is Water for Elephants where I travel the states on a dusty, smelly circus train. Or the recently released House Girl, where I live in the mind of an artistic slave who craves freedom.

In historical fiction, I get to feel history and breath it in ... deeply, fully.

As Professor John Keating tells his young students in the movie Dead Poet's Society - look at the faces of the past, they are telling us something.

Carpe diem.

Not to stay in the past, but to cherish moments of the here and now. To understand history is to value the present.

To see the value in the robe hanging on the back of our door and the coffee mug nestled in our hands. To cherish each day and size each precious moment, for this, too, is history.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Best Friends

Women connect differently than men.

At a very young age, we are taught to find and claim a very best friend - a girl friend who will be our BFF, our closest confidante. Anne Shirley (with an "e") and her bosom buddy Diana Barry. Nancy Drew and her gal pals, George and Bess. We tell our best friends our deepest secrets, share our fears, confide our crushes, and, sometimes, we break each other's hearts.

When I was very young, I had two best friends - one who lived next door and the other who I saw at church. Michelle lived next door to me with seven brothers and sisters in a three-bedroom house that was identical in almost every way to my own suburban ranch.

Their home was often bedlam - kids couldn't find socks, the littlest child was naked, Michelle's mom would be cutting huge stacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in one swipe - desperately trying to get her brood off to school. I loved it.

Michelle and I would walk to Parkside School together, past the chained link fences of backyards restraining huge, barking dogs. We played a game called 7-up, bouncing a rubber ball against the side of her garage. We ate the insides of maple seeds until her mom, horrified at our odd behavior, ordered us to stop.

In 4th grade, she moved away - and broke my heart. How could I go on without my walking-to-school best friend? Who would I catch fireflies with on the front lawn at night? Who would be my ally on the school playground? I was devastated.

My other best friends, Janet, attended the First Baptist Church with me. She also had a large family with four older brothers and sisters. The youngest of her family, she was much more adventurous than me.

When I was with Janet, we almost always got into trouble. We cut the hair off of her sister's dolls in a make-shift operating room, imagining that it might grow back. We made huge tents out of sheets in her living room inflating them with the only box fan - our own personal air-conditioned room. We sat together in a back row at our Baptist church, until our giggling and passing notes got so loud that we had to be separated.

Janet was fun, lively, outgoing, and liked to chase boys. Our families went camping together, and we both were Chums and Guards in the Awana clubs. In an extroardinary act of kindness, Janet agreed to join a neighborhood gymnastics class with me in 7th grade. I was horribly awkward, and my parents thought it might help if I had some outside of school assistance with my lack of coordination. I could not do a cartwheel to save my life.

We both enrolled in a community-school gymnastics class that was predominantly attended by 5 and 6 year olds. We stood out - and not in a good way. Janet stuck by me as we learned to do sommersaults and basic tumbling, even when one particularly annoying 5-year-old taunted me. She was a true friend.

As we went on to school, dating, marriage, and kids, our lives grew apart. I never stayed in close contact with Michelle. I did keep in touch with Janet, especially via facebook, and I consider her a friend who knows me best.

But it is true that my female friendships are different now. They are more spread out and less intense. I see some friends only once a year - or maybe only chat through email. Christmas cards are a welcome treat as I catch up on their lives and see photos of their spouses and children.

Yet, girlfriends are an important part of my life, even as an adult. We communicate differently - we look each other in the eye - we shop together and call it a success without buying one thing - we love to hear each other's problems and not fix any of them - we complain about our lives and realize we don't really want to change them.

Friends understand and tolerate our quirks. They cry with us, laugh with us, cheer with us, groan with us. They forgive us for not being in touch. They always care. They know our faults and love us anyway.

I am thankful, deeply thankful, for all of my girlfriends.