Monday, March 29, 2010

The Three R‘s

Reading, wRiting, and Resilience

Outside of a book, a dog is man’s best friend. Inside a book, it’s too dark to read.
~Mark Twain

Every now and then I think about what essential thing in my life I could lose that would completely change my existence (don‘t we all?). Sure, losing any one of my senses would be traumatic. I can’t pretend I’d know my mindset were I suddenly to lose my vision, hearing, or ability to speak, but I can imagine certain feelings and reactions to those losses. The thing that would most dramatically alter who I am, what I am, and how I see the world, would be a loss of words. I don’t know how I would cope with not being able to read, with not being able to comprehend written words.

Books and stories were always a huge part of my life even before I could read. I think it’s funny that I don’t remember learning how to read. I was old enough at the time that it seems to me there should be some kind of memory of that first Aha! moment, that first moment of recognition when all those funny symbols and characters turned into something tangible. I can well remember reading as a child - reading aloud to my mother, having her help me through words I didn’t know - but I don’t remember learning how to read. I do know that once begun, I was unstoppable. I read everything I could get my hands on. I devoured words like they were gourmet meals - I had to know the mystery behind the flavor. I fell into stories, only to get to the end of the book and wonder how I’d ended up in a four-bedroom house in Kentwood, Michigan, because I could swear I’d just been in another country, on another planet even.

I loved going to the library to find out to which new places I’d be traveling next, which new friends I’d be meeting, and what adventures awaited me. To this day, the scent of a library is one of my favorites. When someone says the word “library” I can conjure that smell and make it real just as surely as I would swear I smell chicken paprikas when someone says the word “grandma.” When I walk into even the smallest library, my first thought is always, with a sigh, “So many books… who are they…?”

In my life, writing has always been a close second to reading. In fact, barring a photo-finish, I’d say it’s pretty much been a dead-heat most of the time. I loved writing letters as a kid (in the Long Ago Days before email). At a very early age I loved hearing things rhyme - I can’t tell you how many variations I came up with on the old “Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue” theme. I was the weird kid who loved jumping rope strictly because of the iambic pentameter of the singy-song lyrics that went with it.

I do recall the day that I discovered my love for dictionaries and for finding out what words mean. I even remember the word that started it all. It was when I was in 5th grade. We were given our weekly spelling list, but with a twist. “This time,” our teacher explained. “I want you to write a paragraph that makes use of all the words.” I scanned the list, “Hmmm. Zenith? Why would she make us learn to spell the name of a TV?” I asked Mom when I got home from school. As was her way, she said, “Go look it up.” Mom not so secretly had wanted to be an English teacher, we were her unwitting students. Fortunately. I looked it up, only to discover that this Webster guy knew nothing about the names of televisions, but that the word had to do with celestial spheres (I then had to look up those two words, Mom wasn‘t giving up anything that day) and/or the highest point or culmination of a thing. I was hooked. I wanted to know what all the words meant, and I wanted to be able to write them so that they made sense.

A few days after John died, I had a rather bizarre, but very telling dream. In the dream I was caring for a little girl. Some bad men got into the house and they had guns. We tried to hide, but they found us. They raised the gun and pointed at the little girl, I whirled around so that I was between her and the gun, with my back facing the gun. I heard the gun go off and felt myself falling. I pushed the little girl toward the door and screamed, “RUN!” She did. I hit the floor and couldn’t move at all. I just lay there on my belly, with my head turned sideways as I stared at a blank sheet of white paper that was thumbtacked to the wall. I heard scuffling in the room behind me, another gunshot, and heavy, running footsteps. I never actually saw John, but I felt his hand my back as he tried to reassure me. He said, “I know it hurts, Baby. I know.” I could feel the searing, achy hole in my back and the pressure of the bullet against my heart. I felt John’s hand brush my hair as he wheeled his chair past me and out of the room again. All I could do was stare at that piece of paper. As I did, a single tear (not water… in my dream I knew it was a tear) slid from the thumbtack down the length of the paper.

When I woke up, I knew what John was trying to tell me. There was no question what my dream meant. The little girl in me had been utterly devastated by his death, and I was the only one who could save her. The woman in me had received a nearly fatal blow all her own. There was nothing to be done about the pain. The only way through it was to write, to pour my tears out on paper. So I have. Funny thing is? I thought I was writing purely as a way to deal with losing John. I had no idea back then that I was writing to find that little girl, Barb. She had run so far away that I wasn‘t sure she‘d ever come back. But that’s what happened.

I can’t imagine a life without words. When everything else fails, they’re what I have.

I think I’ll see if my local library needs any volunteers. I owe my life to those books.

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