Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On the Power of Reading.

There is a sound, slightly out of time with the clock’s ticks above the kitchen sink, where a clock always should be, my mom says. And a calendar on the wall too. And 20 Mule Team Borax in the basement by the washing machine. Being out of time bothers me – the car radio and windshield wipers, for example…never together. But in more ways than rhythm, you could say, am I bothered. For I dislike being out of time for conversation, to finish a chapter of a book, to run one last errand – which as a child, I used to think was a misuse of my good name -- and so also, being out of time in a day. When my eyelids heave, gasp, and lose themselves into dreams; when I have run out the hourglass.

There is that sound, out of time, but I want to read a book. Early afternoon sun shines calico on the carpet, and Banjo has spread himself out as stretched as he can, for more surface area absorption – a geometry word problem waiting to be written and solved. But…there is that sound. And I know it isn’t a good one. I’ve already scooted Banjo over though, forcing him to share, and have already read the first line…“The interior life expands and fills; it approaches the edge of skin; it thickens with its own vivid story; it even begins to hear rumors...”

Who could stop after that?

Yet still...the sound.

Water.

I get up -- too quickly for low blood pressure – a friend studying to be an EMT once told me, as he practiced taking my blood pressure for a test, that if he’d picked me up on a call, they’d think I was on my way out. “So, my body is almost dead?” Judging from my blood pressure, yes, he’d said. I suppose that’s good to know.

My hand on a wall like a ballet bar, mirrored self reflection in the picture windows my sister says make the cabin feel more like a nature observatory than a home (keeping in mind, of course, that being open, living without curtains, I get to see; but so also, I am seen) – balancing, I get to the kitchen. Above the small window by the sink, there’s a leak.  And I know why: the roof above the kitchen doesn’t slant quite as much as it should, and snow has piled up, overflowing into the gutters, which are frozen, bent down. I’ve shoveled off the roof before, but not since the last 40 inches.  I have to. Today.

But my book waits.
My reading.
My sun spot.
They wait...

I abstractly listen to my thoughts, whining, letting them go on…and on…convincing myself that the roof, the drips, the leak, can wait. The book, however, cannot.

Looking out the window over the deck, snow melts and water falls in a veil off the gutters, like a spring thunderstorm; out the picture window though, all is clear, underneath the peak, pushing runoff to the sides. North and South. When I was a child, I remember this happening more often that you’d think: sunny in the front yard, rainy in the back (the facade of doing alright), and I would run from the front, through the house to the back, where I would sing in the rain, splash in the puddles; then dance muddy footprints back out front to dry off. A magic trick of which I never tired. Who the magician was, didn’t matter.

Drip, drip, drip…

I shudder, thinking just how many hundreds of pounds of snow and ice there is on the roof right now. I lie back down, squeezing into my spot Banjo had reclaimed. All’s fair in love and war and sun spots. I read on. Shouting, as Whitman and his poetry over the drone of Manhattan streets, the voice in my head getting louder and louder until I can hear nothing but myself -- and nuthatches landing, scratching on the window screen, waiting for their turn on the suet.

I remember when I learned to read, letting the voices be in my head. On an open brown stucco porch, the Green’s porch with fake turf laid over the cement floor – the kind that tickles the arches of your feet, but not the pads – we spread out on a summer afternoon, all five of the Green kids and my sister and I, underneath the shade of a locust tree. Messy trees, old men complained. But I always loved them, playing music, rattling with their pods in the fall; or prying them open, and using their seeds as currency, bartering for old jars, or pans for mud-pies, or erasers in the shape of stars. But, on that porch with fake green grass under the locust tree, I was annoying. My voice read aloud, as Megan, the oldest, having already learned to read to herself, tried to tune me out. All I knew was my mother’s voice reading me bedtime stories, and my own as I sat alone, reading out loud. Doing voices. The whole shebang. “Can you please read to yourself?” I remember her asking. But I am

“You know…silently?”

No. I did not know. Just how does one do that, exactly? Megan explained that I should move my lips and whisper, for a chapter or two -- and then after awhile, I should stop whispering. Eventually, I’d get the hang of it, she promised, and went back to her own book.     

She was right. Slowly -- slowly I could hear the words as I hear my own thoughts. It excited me – liberated me to read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep. No one could hear me now…my mother would never know. Reading became mine – when and where I wanted. In Sunday church services, I didn’t have to follow along with the pastor, I could read the interesting stuff, the book after Ecclesiastes, the stuff he never preached about. I cloud read walking down the street, or sitting on a bus. I could read in a tree, or when I got bored watching TV. I devoured words and ideas, too old, at times, for my understanding. But I gobbled it up anyway, knowing I would need it someday -- like storing up fat for winter -- you don’t need the extra weight in August, but come February, it’ll make you just a little bit warmer, and you’ll be glad of it. And I was, decades later, remembering back to these stories and characters, and finding that loss and failure were not uniquely my own. I wondered, what do people who did not read as children do in times like this? I can’t imagine.

Literature teaches us that others have passions and doubts too, disappointments yet somehow still hopes; marriages and divorces; and hatred which sometimes in the end finds love -- but not always. Literature teaches us that there are not always happy endings (read the original Brothers Grimm), and we imagine ourselves within the experienced covers of lives already lived, which sometimes become closer to our own than we’d ever imagined they could. And this imagination in literature, J.K. Rowling says, teaches us empathy -- learning to place ourselves in a foreign world, learning to feel and love, learning to understand another whom we might actually think despicable. When people stop reading, when a culture stops reading...stops telling stories...the mind -- the heart -- starts losing this ability. When someone says, reading is boring -- what they’re saying, down at the brunt of it, is that they don’t care about anyone’s story but their own. They cannot empathize, and therefore it has no relevance.   

Banjo leaves, panting, getting too hot. These sun spots, his sauna, which he stands as long as he is able, alternating between them and the cold pine-wood floor in the kitchen – I remember doing the same thing with hot tubs and pools the few times I’ve stayed in hotels and mustered enough courage to get over myself and into a swimsuit.

Laying back, squinting eyes, moving the book up as the sun travels down. The pines outside the window are too tall to see the tops of, and there is bird poop on the window. I leave it there, like those black silhouettes at nature preserves, to remind the birds that it’s solid. The summer I moved in here, my mother cleaned my windows. And that’s the last time they were. I remember my grandmother doing this for my mother every time we moved when I was a kid -- clearing away the grime, cobwebs, and dead insects, helping their children to see -- for that, is what mothers do; it’s humbling, like they’re washing your feet -- with windex and newspapers, crosswords as complete as could be considered done. And as soon as my mother had finished….whack! A rufous hummingbird lay on the ground. But they’re quick, even when they’re stunned. And before we could get out the door, he was gone, back to sipping nectar like a dervish. All’s well that ends well; yet still, I leave it there, for a reminder. Just like I leave dried wildflowers on the mantle -- a reminder, that they’ll grow again this spring.

I look over to Banjo, who has come back to his spot. The sun has moved, and so we’re closer together now. His eyelids flicker, possessed by a dream.
Warmed, the words melt sweetly like chocolate on a dashboard…and an hour later, I wake. I wonder if this is very close to the feeling of being born. Face flushed and confused. Not knowing what exactly just happened, but knowing you want to go back -- to sleep, to the womb -- because what’s ahead is cold and big and unknown. It is not your mother.

There is no more dripping. Only the sound of the clock passing, never really keeping, time. I tell myself that it was the power of reading that did it, the power of making time for a book…but really, I know that a few hours have passed and now the sun is setting, the temperature is falling, and the rain has stopped pouring off the roof on two sides. Icing up again. And so I get out the ladder and shovel and climb up onto the roof, chipping and pushing off ice chunks seven-inches thick, making my window views look even more like arctic wastelands than they did before – all the while, still reading thoughts, still telling stories.

And still, warm from the sun.   




Listen to the story:

43 comments:

  1. Such a great post that I can relate to in many ways. Hope you keeping telling your stories, Erin, because I love to read them.

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    1. Emily - Many thanks...and I will keep telling my stories. Thanks for always reading!

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  2. We now have the perfect setting for listening...just had to wait til Spring. Sitting on the patio, with a fire in the chiminea, sipping an adult beverage, looking at the stars, listening to E. Perfect.
    pa

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    1. Pa - Wish I was sitting there with you guys...although chatting...I don't want to listen to myself!

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    2. We closed our eyes for awhile and listened as you spun the yarn in true camping tradition.

      Oh and you left out the part about your lovely window slamming down on my hand. I started going into shock and I calmly talked you through all the signs of shock and what to do as I was going through them. I thought it a good first-aid lesson for you living alone in the canyon :-)

      Ma

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    3. sgb - So I did...so I did. You planned that purposely...as a "teaching moment" then? ;) I am glad I could be there with you around the campfire.

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  3. When someone says, reading is boring -- what they’re saying, down at the brunt of it, is that they don’t care about anyone’s story but their own.

    This is a stunning observation. And a true one.

    A wonderful, timeless, piece, Erin. Thank you.

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    1. Mike, I agree when I read that part too. I thought wow she hit the nail on the head...stories have lost their magic to so many.

      But there is hope, I still see the little Erins and little Mikes in the library with the spark in their eyes...clutching a book...they get it...they have found the magic.

      Miss Sue (sgb)

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    2. Mike - Thanks so much for the kind words...and for always, reading...

      And a storytime-lady tells us there are little "Mikes" and "Erins" running about clutching books. There IS hope for the world, after all. ;)

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    3. Miss Sue - And you are a large part of why they discover that magic. You live in sparkles and rainbows!

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  4. My wife Carol would hug you for this post (she's an english teacher...there's also a chance she'd check it :-). We're witnessing our 5 year old really hit the gas with reading. I can picture him under the covers with a flashlight someday.

    Ditto to what Mike said above too. Looking forward to the next read.

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    1. Rhythm Rider - Ah, if she fins errors, let me know, eh? ;) And I bet your son will be staying up til all hours of the night, reading, very soon. Make sure you get him a flashlight for this next birthday or Christmas...he'll understand why soon, and be very thankful! And many thanks, as always, for reading...

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  5. I am sure thankful that you take the time to write. Such...beauty on a page. I always look forward to reading what you have written.

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    1. Tim - Thank you so much for the kind words and taking the time to leave them. And I see you write a blog specifically on one of my favorite authors...so cool! =)

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  6. It's Wednesday night and Erin should have something new! I waited for the house to quiet down and the dogs are sleeping by the fire in front of the wood stove and then I read and listened to this weeks story. Wonderful, Erin. Thank you.

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    1. finsandfeathers - Oh no. I'm becoming predictable. ;) The scene you set...makes me so...how shall I say this? Happy! Thank you.

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  7. When my eyelids heave, gasp, and lose themselves into dreams; when I have run out the hourglass.

    A wonderful post Erin and as ever written with consummate elegance, a joy to read and listen to.

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    1. Mark - "consummate elegance"...as are always your comments. Many, many thanks!

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  8. It's easy to get lost in another person's writing when there is much to be done. This post is a perfect example of that.

    This was wonderfully written, and the perfect escape.

    now...back to the drip at my cubicle.

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    1. Sanders - The drip at the cubicle. Ah, I know it well. It really should be an IV of coffee... ;) Thanks much as always, Sean...I'm glad to help get you out of the workday box!

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  9. Reading about reading...listening to a reading about reading...the pleasures multiply. I have always been a reader (I once walked right into a street sign while reading a book while walking home from elementary school)so all is Story to me. I was struck by the truth that those who say reading is boring are interested only in their own story. How sad. But the hope for salvation lies in those gifted with the soul to see and write and tell the stories and the Story. That's you. I'm glad you can read silently, but keep on "reading out loud." Thanks.

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    1. Jim - I walked into a telephone pole whilst doing the same thing!!! And tripped off a curb the other day too...over a rather delightful sentence. I have not grown wiser -- do not read while walking! ;) Many thanks, for continuing to read along with me.

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  10. I wonder if this is very close to the feeling of being born. Face flushed and confused. Not knowing what exactly just happened, but knowing you want to go back -- to sleep, to the womb -- because what’s ahead is cold and big and unknown. It is not your mother.

    I used to find myself born again every night. These are the hazards of reading in bed at the end of a long day of work: awaking at 3am, all the lights on, fully clothed, a foul taste in one's mouth, book bent over backwards, page lost. I would flip through pages and bookmark the last coherent memory, turn off the lights and go to bed, only to repeat the process the next evening, finding many passages inexplicably, eerily familiar...

    It's a bad habit and doesn't do any book justice. To break the cycle and re-establish good reading habits, I started taking public transportation to work just so I have proper time to sit and read. It is time that has been hard to find, or make, as of late. Yet I remember not so long ago spending long days absorbed and inspired, reading in the grass or next to a rainy window. Where did all that time go?

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    1. Daniel - I'm still looking for that time too...got to be in an old drawer labeled "miscellaneous" somewhere. Would seem fitting. You know, it's funny...I rode public transportation for years and then within the past year they cut my route because of "budgeting" issues. The amount of books I read has been cut in half...I miss that time of the bus...

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  11. Erin- In 2009 I listened to Micheal Jordan's acceptance speech into the basketball hall of fame. He cited the coach who cut from his high school team. Fellow players who dissed him. The media who abused him. Being told he couldn't do something motivated him to greatness. Megan may never know how much we owe her.
    I've had my go rounds with the author of your current read. But I think she'd appreciate your take on Song of songs. Why wouldn't our pastors converse on one of the most beautiful things out there?
    Jerilyn did the whole white glove, dancing school thing. Sometimes I feel her parents smiling down on us when were up to our shenanigans in the woods.
    Nuthatches and locusts. Upside downess and compound leaves. I can totally see it.
    I "empathize" and listen and wonder...good take on the hope of dried flowers.
    Your voice radiated on this one. Composure. Peace. Joy. You were having fun. I heard somethings that I missed in reading. "...drip...drip..drip.."
    I really liked the relationship on the roof....wastelands-thoughts-stories- warmth.

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    1. Herringbone - Reminds me of Stephen King's description of the nail he keeps on his wall, to hang all of his rejection letters from...being told "no" = fuel for the fire of creativity. I'm starting one. And I think you're right...Dillard would agree on Song of Songs...the silence and almost (it struck me) shame, over a very beautiful thing....it always puzzled me. Thank you....for listening, reading, empathizing. Picturing. Hearing.

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  12. Wonderful, wonderful, wonder...

    This one, I love it. Thank you, E

    SBC

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    1. SBC - Many, many thanks...for reading, first and foremost.

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  13. "Warmed, the words melt sweetly like chocolate on a dashboard…" How sweetly you wrap your words, Erin.

    Alan

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    1. Alan - It's my pleasure that they meet your taste. :-)

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  14. Give me a good book and a comfortable place to sit and i am happy all day and even the day after!

    Nicely put Erin as usual.

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    1. Tom - You are a man after my own heart! :-) Thanks as ever!

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  15. Like you, I've often wondered what people who don't read do with themselves. I grew up the oldest of seven children and spent most of my childhood trying to find a place and time to read. As an adult, I still don't have enough time for that cherished activity. Thanks for a beautiful essay.

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    1. Kathy - Thanks for the kind words. And yes, the time to read, or rather as much time as I'd like....constantly eludes me too. Yet my To-Read list is ever-growing.

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    1. Finsandfeathers -- and you are going to be disappointed...I am not always predictable! ;-)

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    2. finsandfeathers - Wednesday....eeked one out for ya....just barely! :-) Thanks for being so excited about my posts!

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  17. I was reading recently in a book by Steven Pinker called "The Better Angels of our Nature" that human warfare began it's decline (yes, decline!) with the invention of the printing press. Up until then, the only person who could read in a village was usually the priest reading passages from the bible. Books were so expensive to produce, being hand written. When printed books became available, ordinary people learned to read and for the first time had access to the thoughts of people they would otherwise never get to know. They then gained insights into the humanity of ALL people even if they belonged to another tribe.

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    1. Hart - I think people need to stop mentioning books in their comments...my to-read-list is getting so long! What a fascinating follow of logic. From books to reading to understanding.

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