Reading, Writing, and Living

I finished two books over Thanksgiving break. One of them I started way back in August, but that’s neither here nor there. Both were strongly recommended to me by teacher-friends and roughly the size of bricks: East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I finished the first on the three-and-a-half hour drive from a Minneapolis airport hotel up to my uncle’s camp, way north of Duluth. Although there were parts that made me feel cold and unsure, the last quarter of that book made me warm. It’s a story about overcoming evil, but wonderful and frightening: it’s about overcoming evil within ourselves, about the ultimate powerlessness of sin in the face of mercy. So I liked that.

And then, three days later, on the drive back down to the airport, I finished Owen Meany. Or rather, I meant to, but the lead up to the final scene that I knew was coming got me more and more worked up and, although I never get car-sick, I began to feel nauseated and laid the book down on my lap. I sat crushed in the backseat of the little rental car with my aunt and my brother and looked out the window at Minnesota’s shades of white and grey and wondered when reading had become such a harrowing experience.

When I was a kid, reading was like breathing–I did it inside, outside, on my bed, on the couch, on the floor, in the bathroom, under the table. But even as a child I knew there was a limit, that there was such a thing as too much. Once, when I was probably nine or ten, I read four books in one day, and each time my mother or some other demanding force pulled me to the surface, I came up for air snarling and unhappy. I was so deeply immersed that the world of my books seemed more real than the world around me. From that day on, I judiciously set myself a “no more than three books a day” rule (which now, as an adult with access to Netflix, I have no trouble sticking to.)

But the way I felt last Monday, driving to the airport with Owen Meany in my lap, reminded me of that four-book day. I knew how the story was going to end–each detail of the last scene was painstakingly, loudly foreshadowed and even explained. But I was drowning in it. Eventually we got to the airport, and before even going through security, I bought a bottle of orange juice, sat down, and read the last fifteen pages or so, through the ending that I had been both anticipating and dreading. My stomach still felt queasy. “You don’t read enough.” I told myself over and over. “You’re just not used to this kind of emotional involvement anymore.” The TSA officer who checked my boarding pass told me to smile, and I gripped the novel through my purse, wanting to slam it into his face, notify him of what I was experiencing.

Finally, a few hours later, just before landing in Midway on a very crowded plane, I wrote a poem. I have been writing one every Monday for the last few months, so I figured that though I still felt awful and also unsure of where the barf bags were, I would go ahead and get it done. It began as a poem telling God what it was that I needed at this dreadfully harrowing emotional moment in my life and then, a brief two stanzas later, it ended with him telling me that he already knew. Oh. He knew.

I put my notebook away and felt warm and comforted and, for the first time all day, hungry. Writing gave me instant relief. Input and output: the novel had run right through me, been let out at the end by my poem, and I was clean and new, like a glass pipette.

I’ve been thinking about all that this week, coming up with morals and conclusions about the ultimate purpose of the story-telling and the written word and self-expression, both our own and other people’s. But I keep getting stumped on one thing: what about living? What about real experience? What about each second that ticks and each movement of our hands that never gets recorded or even remembered, but still is the thing which shapes us most intently, wears the grooves into our souls?

That Friday, while helping my mom with our belated Thanksgiving dinner, I sat at the counter in my aunt’s kitchen making rolls. I tasted a corner of the dough, and the soft tang of the yeast brought me an overwhelming sense of missing. The recipe is a family friend’s, passed down by my grandma, but the person those rolls made me miss was my sister far away in London. She is the one to make them every year in our house, to turn up the music in the kitchen, to roll them out, to crowd them in that pan, to pack away the leftovers, to eat and eat them for days after the holiday. I was doing a shoddy, lumpy job compared to her.

Later that evening, we sat in the living and sang Thanksgiving hymns (which several family members claimed to know very few of) and I again thought of Mary, who knows all the words, all the notes on piano, who loves to sing along, and loud. I slipped out of my seat, sat halfway down the basement stairs and cried.

In the actual living of our lives, feelings of missing and longing and love and assurance and doubt rope their way around our hearts and are not dealt with by the writing of one poem, or by the writing of twenty, I would guess. But he knows, God already knows. And he “keeps us with repining restlessness.”

Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.

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