Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The History Room: My Favorite Day

Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

She walks into the Local History Room as many of them do- timid, unsure. She is about my age, with long blond hair and a pretty smile. Her eyes are uncertain. She talks quickly, with a nervous energy that tells me her story long before her words do. She is here for a reason. They always are. The books, the obituaries, the newspapers all pause in anticipation, wondering if they have her story, if they will be what she needs.

Her mother had been adopted, she explains to me breathlessly. They had just learned the name of her real grandmother and that she had been a high school senior here. They are trying to find her, they've just started their search, and would we have her old high school yearbook? She pauses, still unsure, now a bit afraid. I smile, trying to convey some sort of reassurance in a single glance before answering in the affirmative and grabbing the key to the yearbook cabinet. I find the one she needs and show her to a seat. The History Room waits, breathless. Thanking me, she pulls out her digital camera and begins turning pages. I leave her, returning to my desk to afford her some privacy. Ten minutes later, a sob bubbles into the History Room, filling every corner with its pain and its relief, asking to be heard. I hear. I turn, to see her bending over the page, her blond, wispy hair falling across the photograph of the grandmother she's never known. I go to her, touching her lightly on the shoulder. She turns to me, her eyes pleading, holding out the yearbook, no longer unsure but still afraid. In a voice as innocent as a child's: "This is the first time I've seen my grandmother." These are not the first tears shed here, as pieces come together and stories are rediscovered. She is not the first to cry here and she will not be the last. Without words, I put my arms around her and we stand quietly, crying together, creating a moment of fragile strength, a bond linking the past to the present, the living to the dead.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

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Looking back over the books I've been reading lately, I start to sense a theme. Many are memoirs, many involve travel, and most lead me to more self-reflection and inspiration in my own life. After a bit of a hard winter, my perspective has shifted, brightened like the July sun, illuminating my life and my expectations by focusing not on what I want, but on who I want to be. Much of this has come from the books I have been reading, each one perfect for the inner growth spurt I feel I am having. Though very different, the books Have Mother, Will Travel by Clare and Mia Fontaine, and The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag, speak similar words to me. In one, a mother and daughter travel the world, learning lessons about themselves in the places they end up. In another, three women find refuge from pain and hopelessness in a magical home that shelters and guides them. To me, both books depict a sense of refuge, of safety- whether finding oneself amid new vistas or in a safe, magical home, the protagonists learn to breathe, examine their lives and pick up the pieces. It left me realizing how important places of refuge are, both literally and figuratively, for it is often in the quiet and the apart where we finally hear ourselves, and can listen.

The idea of a sanctuary, of a safe place apart from life, has always beckoned me. I am drawn to the silent, to the peaceful. I meander through cemeteries, I sit in darkened churches, I crave the solitude of nature. In a way, books are also my sanctuary, cathedrals in my mind in which I can be alone but also be surrounded by myself and by the world. In Ireland, we spent almost every day exploring ancient monasteries, their ruins one with the ground and the trees and the water that envelops it. At each, a sense of rightness, of belonging, filled me. There, in the sacred and the quiet, where human creation becomes indistinguishably entwined with God's, I could hear myself more clearly than ever before. One day in particular stands out, alone with Nathan on a stretch of Inishmurray Island, the island of Molaise's monks. On a day bright with blue and scudding clouds, I stared out to the sea, listening to the waves and the wind, and thought of nothing but where I was. No worries, no plans, no thoughts beyond gratitude. My mind, for the first time, was truly mine, uncluttered and free. That island filled my bones and it sustains me still. Closing my eyes, it is still my place of refuge, for though I change, it never will.

I need those places of sanctuary, but I also need to learn to carve one out inside of myself. After reading these books, I recognize how much more I want to reflect on my perspectives, my attitudes, and my expectations, how imperative it is for me to listen to that desire for refuge and quiet. I don't have to travel to faraway lands to hear myself; I don't even have to leave my living room. Wherever I am, I want to spend more time seeking out the quiet and stillness, listening to myself and learning from the soft voice that can only be heard when the mind is stilled.

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