Sunday, September 9, 2007

"Surrounded By Her Books"

When Jackie Kennedy died John Jr. gave a short statement to the press in which he commented that his mother had died the previous evening surrounded by her books. At the time I was nine years old, fond of the Kennedys, and confused by the young man's statement.

Now that I am older I have come to greatly understand what it meant for Jackie Kennedy to have ended her battle with cancer surrounded by her two amazing children and her collection of books.

This afternoon I finished reading Mary Pipher's Writing to Change the World. This wasn't the first time I had read it, nor will it be the last, but this time I completely grasped something that like John Kennedy, Jr.'s statement in 1994 had previously baffled me. Pipher writes:

As a girl, I was the fixer in my frenetic, disorganized household. I did the dishes, hung up the coats, and tossed out the cigarette butts and old newspapers. Whenever I could, I retreated to the public library, with its oak tables and leather books, or to school with its waxy floors, rows of desks, and sharpened pencils.

As an adult, I am the fixer of my own family as well. The children and grandchildren arrive for Thanksgiving. We take joy in our reunion, but we share a small space physically and a complicated family history emotionally. After a while, old tensions surface, and fault lines reveal themselves. Trying to make things work in a universe I cannot control, I grow anxious. We have fun, but it's messy family fun, filled with shared stories and disagreements, with laughter and hurt feelings, emotional crashes and hugs.

I will look forward to the time when I can return to my sanctuary, to this cathedral of writing I have built. At my desk, my breathing slows down. I dissolve into the writing.

Pipher is speaking of something that John Kennedy, Jr. implied in his statement regarding his mother's passing--the places we find comfort and solitude in.

When I was young, there was this loft area at the top of the stairs in my grandparents house, a loft that connected to the open walkway to the upstairs bedrooms. I remember sitting there many an hour looking over the banister, down to my grandparents' living room as my grandfather napped. I remember the many books I read while sitting in that place, one book in particular that offered a child's perspective of the life and death of President John F. Kennedy. The gift of that book, a book I was first introduced to when I was six, began my fascination with the Kennedys and was followed with the gift of another Kennedy book, The Torch is Passed. Looking back at my childhood that place was my place of comfort and solitude.

As I am now older I note the number of places I have found solitude in. Offices of mentors, areas of libraries, and Zapruder's perch. None of these places mean what the ledge of my grandparent's house meant to me, but all of these places are similar in their own right to the places both Pipher and Kennedy speak/spoke of.

It isn't necessarily the physical space a person occupies, but rather the mental space they occupy that brings that measure of comfort and solitude. While sitting at my own desk, I am surrounded by photos of the men and women I admire deeply. On the wall near my desk are photos of Robert Frost, Adlai Stevenson, William Faulkner, Gerald Ford, and other famous notables. On my book shelf near my desk are photos of those who have had a more personal impact on my life, most importantly my younger brother. My house is adorned with photos of the Kennedys, a rare photo of Carl Sandburg admiring a bust of President Lincoln, and my own artwork.

The things in which I surround myself with bring me comfort and solitude.

It is the things Jackie Kennedy found herself surrounded with in her last moments of life that brought her happiness and contentment. It is the "cathedral" Mary Pipher has built that brings her feelings of strength to life on every page she writes.

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