I’ve decided to end this blog. It was a way for me to chronicle and make sense of a certain chapter of my life that has come to a close. There is no need for me to continue here. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I hope it’s good. Thanks for reading.

-Betsy

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January 15, 2013 · 11:14 pm

Sincerely and most ardently yours (Why don’t they write!?)

I am writing today to lament the tragic and rapid disappearance of a very classic and elegant form of expression: the love letter. The love letter (or note if someone was pressed for time) has been in existence since written forms of languages were developed. Love is one of the fundamental emotions felt by humans, and for thousands of years we have been trying with and without success to effectively put it into words. Love letter writing was once a very serious undertaking. Manuals on how to accomplish such a task date back as far as the sixteenth century. We take for granted today how easy it is to be physically near our partners and how much alone time unmarried couples are allowed now in the western world. Without the means of modern transportation and the often heavy supervision of chaperones often the love letter was the only way (provided the couple found a discrete and trusty means for delivery) that a pair of lovers could earnestly express their affections for one another. It was even considered acceptable as late as the Victorian period for gentlemen to propose marriage through letters. I think that’s a fact most people today might find a little off-putting when so much emphasis tends to be placed on the act of “popping the question” these days. This was not so in the past when a young man might be too bashful or overcome with intense emotion that he could not effectively express his intentions verbally. The Victorians, as they were wont to do, of course took love letter writing to a whole new level. They often used scented inks, gaudily decorated stationary, and flowery language. Penmanship was a skill cultivated by the more affluent classes. Judgements were passed on the quality of a person based on this fact alone. In other words a great deal of thought went into letter writing and it was governed by a score of precise rules that did not really loosen until the twentieth century.

One of the beauties of the love letter is that, provided it is looked after, there is forever a record of the very intimate exchanges of two people. So many love letters from famous individuals survive today and have provided great insight into their lives. I personally love reading these sort of exchanges between such individuals. I think a great deal can be gathered about a person by the way he or she expresses him or herself to his or her partner.

I love the eighteenth century example found in the letters of John and Abigail Adams. Not only were they very much in love which is clearly evident, but John also considered Abigail his intellectual equal and elicited his “Diana’s” advice and opinion on political matters. John was often taken far away by his involvement in forging a new nation so letter writing gave the couple their only means of keeping close and the couple took great advantage of this exchanging well over 1,000 letters that we know about today. You probably don’t really think cute when you think of John Adams, but this little letter he sent Abigail in 1762 might change your mind:

“By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours.”

There is a great book of their letters called My Dearest Friend, which is an excellent way to experience one of the greatest American love stories.

I am a known fan of Keats. Pretty much any guy who quoted his words to me could easily capture my affections. However, there was the one poor idiot who once tried to pass Shakespeare’s famous rose line from Romeo and Juliet off as Keats to me at a bar. Suffice it to say he was left quite embarrassed and without my phone number. Anyway, Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne in their tragically sad love affair are interesting and tenderly melancholy, which appeals to me. God love a poet, they’ll break your heart, but they can certainly woo:

“I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.”

Often those of us today make the mistake of assuming those in the past were somehow all more prudish and straight-laced than we are today. While outwardly this might have been how things appeared, not everyone kept their love letters as prim as one would think. Take for example this rather juicy excerpt from a letter written by Gustave Flaubert to his lover Louise Colet in 1846:

“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge yu [sic] with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die. I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”

It sounds like ol’ Gustave knew how to show Louise a good time. But if you really want to read some steamy (and quite frankly, graphic) examples of love letters look no further than the early twentieth century example of those written by James Joyce to Nora Barnacle. I’m afraid I do not even have the courage to excerpt them here. Trust me, though, if you aren’t faint of heart or easily offended, they are quite the interesting read. See, letter writing can be fun!

Letter writing lived on with only a slightly diminished vigor post-telephone it seems until the birth of the internet. I love the internet. It’s great in many ways. However, I really blame it and cellphones for the decline of letter writing and proper communication skills in general. Very few of my generation (the 20s set) seem to write any form of letters at all. We text, email, Facebook, etc. For some things, though, like love letters, these forms of communication simply aren’t a good substitute. There is something to be said about receiving a letter from a loved one in the mail. It means something for someone to take the time out of their day to pen thoughts specifically designed for another. I love the intimacy of that act. I try to write letters as much as I can. I was raised by parents who wrote and write letters still from time to time. I had pen pals as a child years before I learned to use the internet. I have written love letters as well. I find satisfaction in it. I wish more people my age would get back into the habit of posting their thoughts to one another. Yes, speed and efficiency are sacrificed, but sometimes speed and efficiency are overrated. I guarantee, from personal experience, it would be very hard to find a young lady (or man for that matter) who would not enjoy receiving the written expression of their significant other’s affections folded into a lovely handwritten letter. Speaking of which, all you guys out there should really consider taking a look at “The Art of Manliness'” post about letter writing. It’s actually good advice if you’re looking to woo a special lady especially one with a romantic soul. The same goes for ladies too looking for a special way to charm a young man. Stamps really aren’t that expensive. Why not give it a try?

I hope one day we’ll return to letter writing, but I’m afraid it would take some sort of post-apocalyptic situation the likes of which were seen in that bizarre Kevin Costner film The Postman. In the mean time, though, I’ll keep doing my part by writing letters as often as I can, and faithfully checking my letter box. Happy writing, everyone!

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(Good) changes abound

After more than a month of not posting, I’m back. If I may write frankly, the time period from about the time I last posted at the end of May to the present has been a transformative one. It has been filled with both endings and beginnings that have brought a lot of pain but a lot of positivity and peace of mind as well. I have always believed that there is no such thing as the black and white concept of good and bad/good and evil. I think all things have both a dark and a light side to them, I guess sort of like the Chinese philosophical principal of yin and yang. The universe, though we may not be able to believe it when we are knee deep in some situation, will always even itself out. Nothing really is ever purely wonderful or truly terrible. I think that is the biggest concept I’ve had reaffirmed for me this past month. When I was thinking that the past year was simply terrible, being in the wrong place, attaching myself or being forced onto the wrong people, and dealing with some pretty wicked inner demons, it wasn’t ever all bad. I’m also one of those people who, although I don’t choose to believe in a higher deity, chooses to believe that most things happen for a reason. In my own life, all the bad stuff over the past year has happened for reasons that, oddly enough, have only become clear over the past week or so. It’s an amazing feeling too when you realize you’ve been walking around in a pretty dense fog, and that fog suddenly lifts, putting you back on the main road.

One of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had thus far this summer is getting an opportunity to intern at the museum. I am very disappointed to say that I let the past several months or so beat the passion and love I once felt for the museum field out of me. I got fairly lost in the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life department and gave up almost entirely, something I have never done willingly in my life. I let myself go from being a very driven, vibrant young person to someone who just didn’t care or, rather, didn’t know how to care anymore. This is the attitude I had coming into the museum this summer. However, in dealing with the turmoil extant in my subsurface, I neglected to realize there was something deeper, waiting patiently, keeping warm in the glow of the fire in the core of my being as the storm raged overhead. This was an old childhood friend, a true friend, the kind that never really abandons you even when you act like a complete idiot or you lose touch for a while. This friend was my love of history. I had seen it peek out every now and then over the last months when I would get a rare chance to discuss public history in my classes or if I had a moment to read a good history book in my spare time. Then something would inevitably go off to the contrary and it would scurry back down to its hiding place. One of the strongest moments like this, though, occurred this past spring and very nearly helped pull me back into the boat.

I took a cultural history class last semester. It was pretty good as far as history seminars go. Somehow by a very fortuitous coincidence one of my favorite historians of all time, Peter H. Wood, came to visit my school. As a freshman in undergrad I read his seminal work Black Majority, and it was one of the largest contributing factors that made me want to become a history major. I remember thinking his rice thesis was the most brilliant idea I had ever encountered. The book, pardon the cliche, changed my life. We read his recent work Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War in the seminar and discussed it the week before he came. It was a short but interesting read. Our professor wished us to go to the public lecture Dr. Wood was giving and also to the private informal talk reserved for those in the history department. Unfortunately a very inopportune shift at work kept me from the evening lecture, but I had the absolute pleasure of attending the talk earlier that day. As an outsider I sat towards the back wall while the more senior history grads controlled the conversation. Most of them were interested in the future of historians in the academia, of which he did not have the most positive words for the future. I gave up my idea of going into that arena long ago so my interest wasn’t really peaked until he began discussing the possibilities of public history and how promising that avenue was looking for young historians. He lamented the gap that exists between academia and the museum and historic site. He echoed the words I had had rattling in my mind without a forum for expression for months and months. My heart felt light and when the talk was over it was all I could do to keep from running up and hugging him. For the record, Dr. Wood is an incredibly effervescent and kind individual. Instead I resolutely marched up to the front of the room, pushing past the history grads who all looked at me like a foreigner and introduced myself to him. I told him my situation, how glad I was to hear what he had to say about public history, how I had been racking my brain over the problems that exist, and how passionate I was about trying to fix them. He was warm and encouraging and genuinely wished me luck on my path. I then asked him with a shy smile if he’d sign my book, and he did so gladly. I thanked him profusely and quickly scooted out giddy as could be. When I got back to my apartment I eagerly opened the book and found this inscription:

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It felt great reading that. Unfortunately, I was still scratching my head trying to figure out how I could do that. Well, like I said, being at the museum revived my desire to do this, and I believe it has helped put me back on the track on which I need to accomplish it.

There are many changes beginning personally and professionally/academically now. I’m not sure what the months ahead will bring, but I am sure about my newly minted plans and resolve. I care again. I’m going to make history museums stronger because I am the face of a change in tides and a representative of a new generation, that contrary to popular belief, does give a damn about our past. No one and nothing will ever take that away from me.

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A little piece of calm

Things seem to be settling themselves down a bit finally. I am back home in Tennessee for the summer having left Gainesville this past weekend (and not a moment too soon, I might add). I have a couple of weeks to do as I please before I start my eight week summer internship. It will be nice enjoying home life until then. Irv seems to be happy ruling the third floor again and having people around more frequently. He will be living at home with my parents while I am away in Nashville during the week. I will miss he and the dogs, but we will have the weekends. My mom has taken it upon herself to make Irving become friends with our two goldens, Orrie and Boris, this summer. I told her lots of luck.

Sadly, it has been a month of loss. There was one fewer happy, wagging furry body to greet me when I walked in the door Saturday. We lost our female golden, Kel, last Tuesday to cancer. It was a very sudden death following what must have been a long and painful last few months for her. I did not get to say goodbye as I was still away in Florida. It was the first death of a family pet for which I was not present. It was devastating to be away, but I had gotten to see her in March and she was suffering far too much for us to let her stay until I could get in. My mom, who was Kel’s human, got to say goodbye to her, which is what mattered most. She was such a wonderful little girl, full of sass and love and always ready to greet with a smile and a lick. We’re feeling her loss here acutely.

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This was Kel in the last few days I got to spend with her.

I spent my last free day in Florida at the beach with two dear friends. I always thought I should have been born on a coast. I never feel as calm and happy anywhere as I do near the big water. Sadly, this was the first time I’ve been to a beach since moving to Florida, and it was actually the first time I have been in over five years. We went to a little public beach outside of St. Augustine. It was lovely to stick my toes in the Atlantic again and walk the surf. Luckily, as a family, we have decided to go to the Florida Keys again for a restorative trip over the winter holidays. We haven’t taken a family vacation in a couple of years, and, quite frankly, the past two years have been so full and stressful, in good and bad ways, that all three of us could use a couple of weeks to disappear. There’s something about being in the water that puts us right again. It was nice Thursday to have my brief encounter with the ocean again as I tried to keep my mind of the lad who was starting to make his way across the world.

There was a bit of a storm that blew up. We waited it out over a pitcher of beer and sea food at the little beach shack restaurant nearby.

The clouds were beautiful.

And the sandpipers were out in full force.

Yes, Ryan is spending the next two weeks in India. He has spent the better part of the last three months planning this trip (his first trip outside of the United States). Unfortunately the Indian cellphone he bought did not work out as planned in the touching-base-with-his-worried-girlfriend department. I finally heard from him today. He is in Agra currently taking in the Taj Mahal after spending the last two days in New Delhi. He is on to Varanasi tomorrow…er…today. I’m still trying to adjust to the time difference. According to his emails, he seems to be having a good time, which is good even if I am still a bit jealous. Unfortunately I won’t see him again until July when he comes to Nashville for a weekend. I’m hoping we will both have such busy summers that the time will go by quickly. Until then, we will just brush up on our electronic communication skills.

I put this together for him.

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I don’t say these things enough

Thank you, Mom. Thank you for giving me life. Thank you for encouraging me and truly believing in me, no matter how crazy my ideas seem to be. In fact, thank you for giving me my crazy streak, the innovator streak, the always see where you can push it streak. Thank you for raising the questioning malcontent I am, always engaging me and arguing with me instead of dismissing my questions about the universe. Thank you for working with Dad to give me a wonderful childhood filled with learning, animals, magic, and above all peace and warmth. Thank you for reading to me every night before going to bed joining me as we went on adventures with Harry, Bilbo, and countless Avi heroes and heroines. Thank you for singing along with me to John Denver cassettes in the car. Thank you for being a safe harbor rather than an antagonist during those awkward, often painful teenage years. Thank you for setting me free when I needed to go out into the world even when that meant we had to be apart. Thank you for the laughs that bring tears to our eyes and leave us gasping for breath. Thank you for the arms always warm and enveloping opened wide for when the tears come. Thank you for comforting me unquestioningly even when you can’t understand the dark patches I fall in from time to time. Thank you for making me feel like the most special and spectacular human being in the world everyday when secretly I know that title belongs to you. Thank you for being there, always at the other end of the line whether it be cell or skype waiting to listen patiently to whatever I have to say no matter how rambling and incoherent. Thank you for being my sounding board and my cheerleader. Thank you for creating such a wonderful, strong, and loving marriage with Dad the likes of which I hope I can have one day. Thank you for putting my happiness first, always, even when I don’t deserve it. Thank you for being a strong woman and the perfect role model. Thank you for truly being my best friend. But most of all, thank you for loving me unconditionally. I love you, Mom.

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All things go

I have been thinking a lot about loss lately: what it means to lose, how it feels, what it causes and why. Being the factually-minded scholarly type in my quest to understand loss I turned to my trusty OED, which told me:

loss  n 1 the fact or action of losing something or someone. 2 a person, thing, or amount lost. 3 the feeling of sadness after losing a valued person or thing. 4 a person or thing that is badly missed when lost.

We all lose things: keys, remotes, cell phones. This is an everyday, mundane occurrence. Ah, but it’s that third definition that really makes us human. The feeling of sadness after losing a valued person or thing. The key word there is “valued.” This understanding of the word, like the first, is something that every person will feel at some time in his or her life, but unlike the first understanding of the world this will usher in unprecedented change and the greatest agony he or she will have known to that date. To feel human is to feel completely lost and powerless in the face of change and time. Funny how language works; the same word can take on two completely different meanings. It creates the differentiation between dropping a contact lens on the pavement and having your heart shattered.

That agony I mentioned a sentence ago comes in the form of grief. Grief is the stuff that emits from the deep pit that is left when your loss (see definition 4) is ripped from you. That hole or wound, if you will, seems to appear at the center of the place where your soul meets your corporeal presence. You ache uncontrollably with such a fierce intensity, with a longing so desperate, you feel as if you will never be whole again. That wound suddenly becomes a black hole, engulfing all other meaning in your life, incapable of being filled, and it leaves you only with the irrepressible longing. This is grief.

Medically, I suppose, grief is the psychological and, yes, physical reaction we have to loss. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously introduced the Five Stages of Grief in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They come in no distinct order nor are they experienced the same way for everyone. No one goes through the grieving process at the same rate either. I think it also gets typically associated with the death of a loved one, but it comes into play where any loss (definition 2) is experienced from losing a job or moving somewhere new to ending a relationship. The real rub about grief is that no one has the ability to ignore it. No amount of distraction or avoidance will make it leave more quickly. Grief is something one has to face. I think as humans we all have a natural inclination toward self preservation which includes an immediate desire to flee from pain and avoid ever after that which we know will cause pain. Grief is all about forcing you to embrace the pain whether little by little or head on all at once. There’s no running from it. It is there to be worked through, waiting until we are ready, but it will never go away on its own.

I think it is interesting that grief elicits a physiological response from our bodies. I found a list on the BBC website (of all places) of physical symptoms that can be brought on by grief. The list included the expected symptoms such as extreme fatigue and uncontrollable crying, but it also included heart palpitations, recurrent infections, hair loss, and disruption of the menstrual cycle, among others. Grief actually directly effects our nervous systems. When we experience an intense loss our nervous systems go into hyper drive creating a tremendous stress response. It releases enormous levels of natural steroids and throws the body into a heightened level of awareness. Essentially the body experiences what happens in the fight or flight response. Our hearts then have to react to keep up, increasing our pulse and blood pressure. As they said in the BBC article, “Even if the person seems slow and down, inside they’re in turmoil.” Our physical appearances change too. The eyes and cheeks seem to recede and sink in the face due to a number of other physical reactions such as sleep loss or lack of appetite that can occur, as mentioned our hair can thin, or our posture changes. When we see people affected by grief, they always seem like ghosts of themselves worn away by anguish. The effect can be quite striking.

What is further interesting is that many studies have now shown, and I personally agree with them, that other animals apart from humans experience grief as well.  There are numerous accounts of species such as elephants or certain primates exhibiting grief-like behavior over the bodies of their dead offspring holding vigil or carrying the body as if it were alive. Some primate offspring who lose parents also grieve. Jane Goodall famously observed the case of Flint, a chimpanzee, who lost his mother. He then withdrew from the other chimps, stopped eating, and died. Certain avian species like the grey lag goose have been known to exhibit signs of grief as well. Grey lags have actually been observed displaying outward symptoms similar to humans after the loss of a mating partner including the appearance of receding eyes and the drooping of the head and neck. It fascinates me to think that grief is potentially yet another way all fauna can be connected as living, breathing life forms. I find some comfort in that.

I am not a doctor nor am I a psychologist or any sort of professional, and all my thoughts on loss and grief are purely amateur conjecture, but thinking has always brought me comfort. Contemplation has always helped. I think in the cases where we lose people whether through death or separation in life, we are never really able to stop loving them. When love occurs between two people, in whatever capacity, it never leaves. I think it is a form of energy, and being as such it can neither be created nor destroyed, it can just exist. This is at once both beautiful and incredibly depressing. Eventually we are able to move through the grief and pack away our memories of the person to be stored in our own mental attics, but, in those boxes, also gets packed our remaining love for that person. We can somewhat push away the memories of the intensity of that love in our everyday consciousness, but when we accidentally stumble on those boxes while shuffling around in our own minds, we remember that it is still there, flickering faintly always. We can let go of everything else, but that.

When I grieve, I turn to words. I read those of other writers and try to collect my own on the page. Words help me work through things, understand, and cope.  Writers have been writing about love and loss since words were invented. It helps when I can find those particular configurations, which seem to speak directly to me.

Neil Gaiman, as I have mentioned before here, is a favorite author of mine and one that just seems to be on a similar wavelength. He wrote this in The Sandman and it pretty well captures it, all of it whether you lose someone through death or the ending of things. On that note, I will leave you all for now in the much more capable hands of a wordsmith vastly more adept than myself.

This is what he wrote about love:

“Have you ever been in love?  Horrible isn’t it?  It makes you so vulnerable.  It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.  You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life…. You give them a piece of you.  They didn’t ask for it.  They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore.  Love takes hostages.  It gets inside you.  It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart.  It hurts.  Not just in the imagination.  Not just in the mind.  It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain.  I hate love.”

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Sleep is for the weak (and less addled)

I don’t care if you’re pro or anti Lana Del Rey (After much debate, I’m pro, by the way), you have to admit Ms. Del Rey knows what’s up.

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