The world opened up for me on the couch on the southside of Chicago when my mother handed me a book. I’ve been reading ever since–weekly trips to the library, gift books, and now an audio book ALWAYS in my car, so that I am listening on my way to the grocery store etc.
When my mother was dying in Chicago and I was living in Iowa, I consumed books in my car. I also try to read every night for two hours–if I can stay awake. I read books and print material–I read a real newspaper every day, the LA TIMES. I taught reading and literature as an English teacher. I read huge tomes studying to be an RN. I read struggling authors as a proofreader. What would my world be if I could not read?
We all have one. Some of us like to remember various parts of our story, some people actually can have mental health problems as they grow, because they are working so hard to suppress their story. But we all have one that either lights our days or shadows them.
Right now in one of my book clubs, we are reading Elizabeth Strout’s MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Strout is a pulitzer prize author and I’ve read all of her books. She writes fiction, allows herself to travel into the minds of her characters. She says profoundly:
I’m interested in ordinary people and what their inner lives are like. Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person. Which is horrifying.
Yes, it is. How can we marry, raise children, move them out into the world not truly knowing what it feels like to be them. How can we praise another or dismiss another, not truly knowing what it means to be that person. DO WE TRULY GIVE A DAMN?
I hope so. Reading and writing is about immersing oneself in other lives. Someone recently questioned me about MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Comment: it’s so depressing? Why are we reading it?
Why are we walking this earth and having children and/or making friends, living? Strout’s book reveals LIVES. You read STORY, that life comes alive on the page. So my answer to this questions will always be: EMPATHY. We read story to get into the cells and bloodstreams of other’s lives, to understand their joys and pains. Depressing? Yes, sometimes. Joyful, yes, other times. But here’s the thing–in Strout’s book the joy is subtle, just as it is in real life. Lucy Barton tells about a grade school teacher, Mr. Haley, who taught her about the Indians.
“Until then, I hadn’t known that we took their land from them with a deception that caused Black Hawk to rebel. I didn’t know that the whites gave them whiskey, that the whites killed their women in the cornfields. I felt that I loved Black Hawk as I did Mr. Haley, that these were brave and wonderful men, and I could not believe how Black Hawk was taken on a tour of cities after his capture.”
With those lines you can just see Strout recalling a personal experience, yet putting it into the life of her fictional character, Lucy, yet revealing how OUR LIVES ARE OPENED UP when we learn things in school–when our horizons grow and change.
Later, Lucy says to her mother, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” And her mother, out of the angst of her own down-trodden life, replies, “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians.”
In my own life there was Anna, who cleaned for us, whose age I could never determine, whose body was permanently bent from work, who chewed tobacco, told me she had a picture of Abraham Lincoln in her apartment and once told us about a relative who had been a slave. This is a true American story. And yes, knowing Anna set my life in a direction…what, how, how much? At least a beginning. All of our lives are beginnings and they can form us IF we let STORY in–if we listen, if we cry and ask for more.
THE LOST ART OF READING
In a recent article, David Ulin writes about the importance of story and our disrupted narrative in the United States. “On the one hand, America has always been a racist country. On the other, that has never before been rendered as acceptable. No, we are now in the midst of a broken story, and we have lost the ability to parse its lines.”
He goes on: “Stories, I’ve long believed, are connective, the only tool we have to reach out of our isolation, regardless of how fleetingly. This is as close as I get to faith, this notion that narrative can save us, even (or especially) if we cannot, finally, be saved.”
(If you do read the Bible, there are many stories about THE OTHER, but the purpose of the Bible is to bring the reader to Christ, and Christ never rejects THE OTHER.)
Olin writes about the 1980s, when he took a repetitive drive through Barstow CA to LA. He writes: “For hundreds of miles, radio gave up only farm reports and God talk…and when I stopped to eat or sleep or fill the tank, I was never unaware that I was a stranger in a strange land. ‘You a Jew, boy?’ someone once asked…and though he wasn’t exactly threatening (more curious I want to tell you), there was a moment when I wasn’t sure how to respond. (Earlier in this piece, Ulin writes: how could I believe racism has been vanquished when according to the Guardian Newspaper, African American men between 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed by police in 2016 than other Americans.”
Ulin then quotes Maxine Hong Kingston from her book “The Woman Warrior”: “A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution.” YES, that’s what we need more and more.To get to that resolution.
But then Ulin quotes Ernest Hemingway: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and there is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” True–yet as Ulin reminds us, “most stories don’t continue far enough, which means we have no choice but to engage with them as part of a continuum.” Yes, WELCOME TO TODAY! Welcome to becoming part of another’s story through listening, though a handshake, through volunteering or sending a check.
And finally, In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Strout has Lucy meet and learn from a writing teacher, Sarah Payne. Payne tells Lucy: “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
WHAT TO TAKE FROM ALL OF THIS
I am going to go with David Ulin’s conclusion, because it says it much better than I could.
This is how the world works: first we tell ourselves a story, then we dream our way inside it as a way of bringing it to life. It’s why we have to be careful about the narratives we evoke or create, because they are bound by the limits of what we can imagine, the limits of our ability to think. The reason books and reading remain essential is because they are still the most effective mechanisms by which to crack open the universe. Think about it: when we read, we soul travel, in the sense that we join, or enter the consciousness of another human. We EMPATHIZE–we have to–because our experience is enlarged.
photo credit: Jasu Hu THE NEW YORK TIMES.