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.

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