January 16, 2007

What are you reading?

As a child, history eluded my brain.
In the evenings, I retreat to my room.
Tiptoe during cocktail hour, my mom says.
Unpack the book bag, straighten my desk.
Get out the textbook.
Desperately try to read chapter II, page 11 - 29.
All I saw was 18 pages of agony.

I couldn't stay focused to save my life,
but I wished I could.
My parents and I feel embarrassed of my "underachiever" status.
They had struggled, too, I find out.
I studied dates and names fiercely.
At the exam, I draw a blank.
I wanted to be smart, get good grades, but how?
The whole fancy high school thing mystified me.
The graduates went to Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, U.C. Berkeley at least!
Why was I there?
Oh, I remember, my relatives attended before me.
The testing squeaked me through.
I was skinny and nervous, the secret society picked me, I guess I was funny.
I lied to get my P.E. points. Oh, yes, I ran 10 miles this week!
I'd read a chapter over and over to no avail.
Here comes the exam: nothing.

Ancient History, 9th grade.
The book had tiny foggy illustrations of statuettes and vase shapes.
Lectures washed over me, droning. The text swirled.
Was dusk descending?
Because narcoleptic sleep was overtaking me.

I craved the color;
the bejeweled golden masks. The wall paintings! The hieroglyphs!
I got the gist of it... Ancient Egypt impressed the world.

But come the exam: Nothing.

I longed for the important facts.
What kind of cloth wrapped the pharaoh?
What kind of wood was used for the sarcophagus, what tools were used?
What did the stone room smell like!
How did primitive man know how to draw and paint so well?
Who was that dog~looking person?
Why did the people all stand to one side?
How could it all last for thousands of years?

History class left me cold.
Until Art College...then I couldn't get enough.
Large colorful slides of master works shone on the walls of the hall.
The lectures were conversations, descriptive, interesting.
I got to know who was who and what they wore and looked like.

Now I'm reading a trashy historical novel, inspired by Jane Austen,
but certainly not literature.

Satisfying as is literature, sometimes the effort is exhausting.

I was a fanatic reader growing up,
bringing home piles of library books.
Some were treasures never forgotten, some were boring.
Some were illustrated by creative artists,
some were as corny as the funny papers.
Reading was an escape, entertainment,
relief from the arguments, the drinking.

Beautiful picture book.s
of Native American history,
of precious gems and rocks from Africa,
of bear and moose life cycles in Canadian forest ecosystems.
Fairy tales hinted at European culture.
How~to books taught art and clever crafts.

Books showed me foreign worlds.
Beyond my family's circle.Perhaps there were different ways I hadn't known. .
The stereotypical tale:
Proper Edwardian lady, now on the shelf (a spinster at 25), travels to the land of the pyramids, meets haughty, but wealthy, gentleman of high birth.
They are soul mates but don't know it...they bicker wittily.

Suddenly the heroine is abandoned to impoverished strangers.
Valuable Egyptian jewelry is waylaid.
The handsome hero searches fruitlessly...why hadn't she trusted his directive? Danger from a shadowy former mistress.
Finally love saves the day.
Marriage takes place, fade to black.
More than 200 pages' worth.
An excellent sendoff to dreamland.

But I grasped some history from that novel:
Detailed descriptions of polished furniture (I can smell the wax and smoking candles), I can feel the old fabrics; pelisses trimmed with fur, wide shining ribbons of silk knotted onto straw hats, velvet slippers (dress shoes), soft polished leather riding boots, cravats and starched shirts.

I can taste the delicious duck confit and steaming apple pudding set on the sideboard by the footman. I can smell the tea.
Egyptian dust tickles my nostrils. Perspirations sparkles on soft cheeks,
ocean-going steamers bring them home.The rocking carriage ride to the church is vivid; horses snorting, the equipage leathers
squeaking, damp heath steaming with fog. fog.
Books called to me. Come and learn.

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