Shared Books and Belonging

Ever since I was a kid, whenever I read a book and love it, just really love it, I have a hard time comprehending that anyone else has ever read it too. There has always been something about a good story, especially when I was young and starry-eyed and consuming two or three books at a time on long summer days, that made me believe the magic of it could only be for me. It belonged to me and I belonged to it—we existed together, eternally solitary and melancholically happy. In some ways, the last twenty years of my life have simply been the journey of unlearning that, of coming to understand that, just maybe, other people might know and love the things that I know and love. Perhaps they even knew and loved them first.

This revelation that it is possible for others to read what I have read and experience it in a similar way has been a surprising discovery, but overall a happy one. It has, in fact, given rise to one of my more dangerous habits: book-lending. I habitually lend out books and, for obvious reasons, they’re usually my favorite ones. A bit perilous, but, as my dad always used to say, “Ships in a harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” True, he didn’t usually use the metaphor to refer to mold-speckled paperbacks, but I digress…

I’ve lent out more books than usual in the past few months. I only have a portion of my library here in Vancouver, but still I’ve found myself handing out much-loved volumes, first to housemates, but more recently to other friends as well. It’s been everything from The Thief Lord to True Grit, either of which has the power to make you fall back in love with fiction.

And I myself have been re-reading books fit for sharing. Gradually, beginning back in the Spring, it was the Narnia books. Many people I know are familiar with them and have read them multiple times themselves, so there is a peculiar joy in being able to casually mention to a friend that Uncle Andrew is just the worst, and have them know precisely what I mean, even though strictly speaking Uncle Andrew has never existed. This sharing of the story increases its joy and somehow even its truth.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve also been re-reading the Mennyms books. I suspect you haven’t heard of them (though if you have please get in touch immediately). They are a quiet English children’s series about a very unusual family simply doing their best to live a normal life but finding the task difficult. I think of these books often, I talk about them often, I aspire to have something of their essence in my own fiction, but I hadn’t re-read them since college, and they’re even more extraordinary than I remember. 

They are stories about loneliness and otherness but also about what it means to be human and the devastating adventure of mere existence. They can be a little bleak and existential for children’s books, I realize now, but children themselves can be a little bleak and existential. And the books do ultimately contain plenty of hope, and not of the flimsy kind. Really, they are stories of unobtrusive, everyday perseverance in the face of unalterable limitations, of tough perennial joy in the midst of permanent uncertainty. They are strange books, and precious ones.

As I reread the series with all the venerable wisdom of my twenty-eight years, I realized that, unusually for me, I couldn’t remember the first time I encountered it. I couldn’t remember what chair I curled up in, what my pet worries and fears were at the time, even how old I was—somewhere between nine and twelve most likely. But I am now sure that from the first, even if I didn’t realize it, the Mennyms spoke to something which lived deep in me, which still lives in me, and I think always will: a keen, noiseless, unquenchable desire for belonging. And through a set of stories in which, ridiculously, a blue rag doll is the most moving character, I began to understand, am still years later beginning to understand, that an identically wrenching desire for kinship exists in the heart of every person I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps this is why I can read a book and you can read the same book, and together we can love it. Together, we can belong to it.

Old Loves and Magic

The other night I finished re-reading the fourth Harry Potter book, and I realized my heart was racing. I felt warm and sad.

I’d forgotten how much I love children’s books, which is funny because I have shelves full of them. I read them when I was a kid, and continued to read them unashamedly through middle and high school. They weren’t the only things I read, but clear, sweet stories of adventure meant for audiences with the most wide-open minds were always my first love. I wrote my high school senior thesis on happy endings in children’s lit, and returned to my favorites during summers in college to be reminded and rejoice.

But I don’t read quite as much anymore (though I’m trying to make up the deficit this summer), and when I do I feel duty-bound to plow through grown-up books, to check them off my list, so that I will be improved.

For example, I’m about to force my way through the end of Brothers Karamozov, which was recommended to me over and over with great sincerity and enthusiasm by quite a few people whose opinions I respect. However, the novel has sat next to my bed for a very long time, containing three separate bookmarks which represent more than a year and half of teeth-gritted effort. This is not to say that I think that Dostoyevsky is too smart or difficult for me, or that it is not a wonderful novel, or even that I won’t enjoy it someday. I’m just saying that right about now, I am not loving it as it ought to be loved.

I must face facts I have forgotten: I do sometimes get that lifted, warm-and-sad feeling when I finish a book for adults, but I get it so much more often with kids’ books. When you write for children, there is no need to be obtuse, because children are not shy about the truth. It will not startle them coming round the corner as it does many adults. The best children’s books treat good like good, bad like evil, and mystery as if it is something wonderful to revel in. But I can’t really explain–stories have to be experienced.

Grown-up literary novels are written by people who expect, for better or for worse, to have what they have written discussed and pondered and considered, and perhaps, on a sunny day, enjoyed. But a good children’s novel is meant to be fallen into, to be put on like a garment,  because that’s what kids do with the things they love.

On my fridge is a little slip of paper in my fourth grade handwriting. It looks like this:

Council of Galadriel

A written explanation of the inner workings of this girl-power-on-the-grammar-school-playground circa 2001 version of Tolkien’s masterpieces would not be worth the space it would take up on the page. But suffice to say, when I look at this little list now, more than fifteen years later, I have two reactions, both of which make me smile.

First: Only one of the girls listed had even a small working knowledge of what the novels actually contained or who any of these characters really were (and she was not me), but we understood magic, that these names with all their solemn vowels could be portals to some greater world, and we wanted in to that place.

And second: That magic naturally fit and even characterized a childhood friendship which would become the foundation of something which has so far proved to be enduring. Of the three other girls on the list one just moved out of my apartment, one just moved in, and the third is moving back to Greensboro with her husband at long last later this month. And if you mention a good story to any of us grown women, we will glow. We loved magic then, and in a different, deeper ways, through years of practice, we love it now.

So shame on me for neglecting the stories which first taught me so much. Maybe next time someone acts surprised that I’ve never read whatever adult classic changed their life, I will write down the title, but then, if I am feeling brave, I will recommend right back at them one of the books which changed mine.

Maybe, in good time, I will become my grandma as I remember her, repeatedly confessing with only a very little bit of regret that as she got older she would merely re-read the her same favorite books over and over, because “they were just so good!” It is well for each of us to find stories in our own heart’s language.

Note: This entry from 2012 contains recommendations of some long-held children’s favorites, all of which I still stand by wholeheartedly, if you’re willing to stomach my sometimes stilted and flowery descriptions.

Sunlight Palace

I’m about to begin a little poetry unit with my sophomores, and I’m excited. As I’ve been planning, I’ve been reminded how important a good image is to a poem. Poetry all begins with taking your words and using them to build an image so clear and sharp that its corners could cut you open and make you bleed.

And this has got me feeling wistful. As I have sunk more deeply into this mid-twenties stage of life, I struggle to find things I can write about on this blog. I want to write the bright and the bold and the strong and the poetry, but the things in my present, though mostly oh-so-good, are often too fragile and complex to be splashed onto the page of some public forum. And the future, of course, is only a whisper.

So what is left to me is the past.

At the bottom of my parent’s backyard there is a fence that belongs to their backdoor neighbors. But before that fence was there, there was a great big tangle of trees, some of which were fallen. We played there in the summer, and the soft mulberries layering the ground stained our feet such a deep and lasting purple that I think the soles of mine remained patchy crimson well into my teen years. Beams of light played through sheer green leaves, and my sister named the place Sunlight Palace. When you are small, everything seems big.

Sunlight Palace had different rooms. There was a main living room, in front, with a long bough stretching across like a couch that everyone could sit on. There was a main bedroom, which was exclusively the province of “the big girls” (none of whom were me.) There was a “Martin Luther King Jr.” room, named by me because it had a bunch of branches that stood straight up, like they were standing for what was right, and there was a spacious kitchen which no-one was allowed into after the first week or two because it was suspected of harboring poison ivy. My own favorite spot was the trampoline, a horizontal branch about a foot off the ground which was pleasantly springy. Pooh would have called it a good thinking spot, and I was a child who did a lot of thinking.

We invited our friends over with the sole purpose of playing in Sunlight Palace all afternoon. It was sometimes a main party attraction. Its shifting light and shadow oversaw unending games of Orphan, and dozens of petty circular arguments, all easily and happily resolved by magnanimous promises that “next time you can be the baby.” We hiked for miles upon miles, back and forth at the bottom of my mother’s garden. We feasted on violets and mulberries, and chewed up mint leaves in lieu of brushing our teeth. We cunningly lived off the land, all in sight of our safe bedroom window and my dad washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

We stopped playing there eventually. You always do. But I still remember the pang I felt when, sometime around late elementary school, new neighbors moved in, cleared out the brush, and built a tall, flat fence. Everything looked shallow and short. The pain was near to what I felt a few years later when my mom unexpectedly put my favorite reading armchair out by the curb for the trash truck. I perhaps had not really known other people could actually touch these things, let alone cart them off to a distant city dump. I thought that I held them like treasures in the palm of my own hand. I am nearly twenty-five and it hurts a little even now to admit: perhaps Sunlight Palace was never really ours. Perhaps it was just borrowed for a while, when we had most want of it.

So even the past is not mine. I only held it for a while. Because this place is not home; I am not Home yet.