Friday, January 27, 2012

The Palace Within

I was driving to pick up dog food at Costco, when I starting thinking about this blog post. My thoughts drifted to the parquet floors of Peterhoff, the summer home of the tsars.

I had been on a study abroad program to Leningrad. We had visited the Bolshoi Ballet; the Hermitage; the place where Pushkin had studied. We had inspected Mon Plaisir, where royals would lunch while enjoying spectacular views of the Gulf of Finland. (Good for the digestion.) After each course, the royal table would disappear into floor below, where servants would remove dishes and plate the next course. Then, whoosh, the table would rise again to waiting guests with forks poised.

It was all lovely. Really. Palaces, gardens, fountains, grand halls, amber brooches, malachite urns. Yes, there were diamond-encrusted clocks, delicate jeweled birds in golden cages, flattering oils, voluptuous silks, overstuffed beds. And there was I, traipsing through the Summer Palace in clumsy, felt strap-on sandals, when a funny thought entered my head. "Where is MY palace?"

Just days before, we students had visited the Leningrad Blockade Museum. Affixed to a piece of board was the recipe and proportions the bakers of Leningrad had used to make bread while the Germans were busy blockading their city for nearly 3 years. The wartime bread was made, in large part, of sawdust, shoe leather, and other detritus that could be consumed. Until that day, I did not know you could eat shoe leather.

And just miles away -- *snap* -- we found ourselves in this palatial estate, Peterhof -- (it is magnificent, you should really go there: -- where we had to remove our shoes (but thankfully, not eat them), so that we wouldn't scuff the parquet floors.

The timing of this served to tick me off. Why does one girl get to be a princess and one a pauper? Why does one get to walk in slippers in royal gardens and one is born into circumstances where life is spent barefoot -- not in Eden, but in poverty.

I wondered why, why, why. "And where is MY palace?" I asked the museum gods, wagging my finger at the fat little cherubs on the frescoed ceilings.

Granted, I have lived a life of luxury relative to the world's population. I have always had enough to eat. I was educated. I own a home and drive a car. I can afford pets.

But WHY don't I have a palace? I wondered, as I channeled my inner Eloise, the storybook heroine of the Plaza Hotel. I wondered this as I slid the length of the parquet ballroom floor in my government-issued slippers, turning the royal hall of masterpieces into an existential slip and slide. The museum guard chided me in Russian for my lack of decorum.

But before I heard his words, I heard my own. And the voice said: "Build your palace within."

Hmmm. I thought, "Build your palace within. What the heck does that mean?" I was still a teenager who liked pretty things.

As I was walking into Costco today, I passed the pyramid of Whey Protein Powder Shakes, the Jack LaLane Juicers (only $89 dollars!) and past cases with diamond bracelets and Lladro figurines. It was starting to feel just a little too much like a museum... and a slip-and-slide.

The photograph above was taken on the night of Dec. 4, 2010. (The launch of Sleepy Hollow Books and the debut of Maureen Wartski's novel, Yuri's Brush with Magic.) Here is my winter palace: the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, North Carolina. Although it may not be stately or ornate -- you might even call it modest -- it holds a jewel greater than the Tiffany Yellow Diamond. This simple building holds a heart and soul, the vortex of community, within its walls. It is run by a fellow named Tom Campbell and another gentleman named John Valentine; they feed the soul and warm the heart.

Happy Valentine's Day to one and all. May your palace within glow brightly this year.
xoxo Amy

(Photo credit: Caperton Morton Andersson)