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.

Repeating Wonders and New Mercies

Because it’s practically summer and there’s still a pandemic on and I’m an adult and I can do what I want, I’ve been rereading old favorites lately. I may eventually wend my way around to some Laura Ingalls Wilder or P.G. Wodehouse (one of my more worthwhile middle school obsessions) but recently it’s been Flannery O’Connor and the Narnia books.

My grandma too used to reread her favorite books over and over, aloud to my grandpa and aunt in the evenings. She always spoke about it as if doing so were a bit of guilty pleasure, as if she knew she should stretch herself with something new, but Emmy Keeps a Promise was just so comforting and reliable, with its stories of boarding houses and clams. And rereading is a comfort. I picked Narnia up on purpose because I was searching for comfort, for a bit of stability, for a well-trod path. 

But though many of the things I’ve been reading lately are familiar, though at certain points in my life I’ve been known to corner people and monologue in my enthusiasm for both Voyage of the Dawn Treader and O’Connor’s “Revelation,” I find on rereading that though I thought I’d already analysed them to the hilt, their deep roots and truth are alternately knocking me upside the head and stealing softly into the echoing, aching cavity of my chest all over again.

I used to think this sort of thing was just a process of something hitting me differently than before or on a deeper level, but I don’t think that’s always the case. Sometimes the same thing is hitting me on the exact same level. I am Eustace dragoned and undragoned, and I am part of Mrs. Turpin’s beatific procession into the sky. It was this way last time and it will be this way again. Everything strikes me fresh, though I remember it striking me fresh before. I am, it would seem, in a constant cycle of forgetting and being reminded.

My first temptation upon realizing this is to chastise myself for forgetting. To tell myself to learn better this time, to please actually retain and apply this knowledge, for goodness sake! But I have quietly begun to suspect that this is not the best approach. I have begun to suspect that on a certain level I was made for this cycle of amnesia and wonder. The Lord intends us to have to keep coming back and beginning again, over and over. It is one of the ways that he teaches us to become like little children. As Chesterton wrote, “We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.” 

We are so often concerned with decency and propriety and progress in ourselves and in others, when instead what is on offer is the promise of messy, glorious rebirth, a rebirth which, spurred by a children’s book, a simple meal, a passing comment from a friend, may happen almost hourly. His mercies will, in fact, be new over and over and over. This, apparently, is the life our good and full-of-mirth God means for us to have. 

And every spring we get to look up into the trees through the new leaves and relearn green as if we never knew it before. Every time.

Embodiment and All That Jazz

You will be pleased to know that I went to the doctor today. (Or maybe you don’t care. I suppose that’s up to you.)

I was nervous beforehand. I don’t like going to the doctor. I’ve always been healthy, so I haven’t had to go often, and when I do I feel exposed. My exhilarating trip to the ER at the tail-end of last year was an exception because I felt so ill for a short space of time that I was only slightly bemused to find a strange male nurse’s aide helping me take my bra off. Nothing much mattered at that minute except that someone was there in the moment to fix whatever was wrong.

Yet going to the doctor when I am fully sentient feels enormously vulnerable. I have to get undressed and talk about why I am the way I am with someone who only just walked into the little sterile room which has laminated posters in bold fonts. And also sometimes procedures hurt or are confusing. I’m a bit of a child, perhaps.

But I’m also, frankly, not terribly connected to my body. I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on with it, and tend to assume it doesn’t pay that much attention to what’s going on with me. I clothe it, I wash it, I’m trying to be better about feeding it and sleeping it. Here our relationship begins and ends. A couple weeks ago a classmate asked what sports I played and was a little incredulous that the answer was nothing. But it never has been anything. I can’t touch my toes, and I never really worry about trying.

This trip to the doctor, however, was a quiet triumph. She asked questions and I found myself having to confess the embarrassing eating habits I’ve had for years and struggling to recount exactly how my symptoms felt when I blacked out in December, but also re-iterating what I’ve known for a long time and am getting better about reminding myself of at appropriate intervals: that my emotional and mental state holds sway over the functions of my physical body, and perhaps vice-versa.

Our embodiment  as humans is a Regent pet topic, all wrapped up with our happy fixations on the Incarnation and creation, but as I’ve heard people wax eloquent the last few months, I’ve wondered. I have a body. Am I…supposed to be doing something with it? Is it supposed to be participating in my life somehow?

After I got back from the doctor’s I made my way to the Regent library and sat in a chair in the sun and began to do a little reading and poking for the last paper I have this term. In the process, I pulled up a little essay I’d never read before by Dylan Thomas, called “The Reminiscences of Childhood” and as I read and stepped with mind and heart into the ever-familiar world of well-handled words to see what it had for me today, an actual involuntary warmth washed over my real, physical shoulders, the thin, bony ones God gave me which are currently shrouded in a black sweater. And though I never really had before, I paused in my reading for a moment and thought about that feeling, those muscles unclenching and singing a little song of praise, and I thought to myself, “I have felt this actual, visceral, synapses-firing feeling in just this way thousands of times before, every time I read anything I love, every time I find anything true and potent. This feeling means home to me. It’s perhaps the primary way I know beauty. And it’s physical. My body has been engaging in my deepest loves all along. I just never acknowledged it.”

And then I came here to tell you.

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.

Summer Update

This is going to be a little more of a vintage-Alice-blog-entry: more rambling and personal, probably not very philosophical. I guess summer brings out the nineteen-year-old in me.

I’ve been done with work for two weeks now. I’ve reorganized my bedroom, gotten a massage, accidentally made an obscene amount of corn pudding, had my oil changed, gone to a wedding, applied for a credit card, donated four bags of clothes to Goodwill, finished reading eight books (three of which I began at least a year ago, two of which were re-reads), and finished writing one (short) short story. Hello, June.

Other highlights so far have included more in-depth planning for trips to London this summer and next, getting to sit down and talk with various wonderful friends whom I almost never get to see, ordering stuff off Amazon Prime nearly every other day, and listening to heavy summer rains wash down my windows in fresh torrents.

Also, Karen moved out on Saturday. I will miss living with her and her habit of walking to my room and beginning enormous theological and cultural conversations with no preface whatsoever. Even though I have a lot more stuff than she did, it echoes here now.

The last summer I spent at my grandparents’ in Missouri was in 2014. They were not really doing very well at that point and shouldn’t have been left alone for long, but sometimes I got restless. Some nights, despite all the books I had to read and the movies I routinely rented from the Redbox at Walmart, I felt like bursting out of my skin. Everything around me seemed to be either stagnant or in decay, so I would take my grandpa’s pick-up to the Sonic in town, where I would buy a large cherry limeade. Then I would drive out into the countryside for an hour or two, down all the little highways with letters for names, and I would try to get lost out there, in the silence of the thick summer. I was never able to do it, though. No matter how far I rolled down the windows, and how the wind rushed through my hair, all my responsibilities and cares stayed in their neat little pile on my lap. I never managed not to know who and where and why I was.

Over time though, I find I mind that less. Responsibilities and cares tie me to people and purpose and community. You don’t always need to be lost to be found.

So, like I said, hello. I’m here and I’m grateful.

 

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.

Summer Readings

Since it seems less and less likely that I will find much in the way of summer work (though I’m still certainly open to the option,) my main occupation for the summer has become that of reading and writing.

Since I’ve been home I’ve been forging my way through Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I do mean forging— my mom finally started to say encouragingly, “Alice, why don’t you read something for fun?” I finished it last night, but, man, Eugene Gant drags his feet getting from ages zero to eighteen—I swear he grows up slow and sticking as molasses. His father, Old Gant, spends a large part of the book wasting away from cancer and alcoholism, then right near the end, Ben, the only character Tom Wolfe has deigned to paint sympathetically, comes down with pneumonia and up and dies, bringing the whole dysfunctional family together and causing me to cry at a book I didn’t even like. On top of all that, Old Gant is still alive at the end, and Eugene has never had a love affair with a woman who isn’t at least five years older than himself or even achieved a decent haircut.

It’s all part of my summer reading, see, which is intended to spur on the writing of a story about a teenage boy and his little sister. Several of the other entries on the list are re-reads, including The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye, which I’m very nervous about now that I’m no longer sixteen. I also want to re-read all of The Mennyms books, which are a British children’s series about a family of life-sized rag dolls. I’m sure they’ll help me incalculably. Right now, though, I’ve begun a collection of sweet and simple essays by E.B. White. Following on his heels will be some Henry James and Eudora Welty.

I want to love books again this summer. I want to love them the way I used to. My book-habits now involve stacking them in pretty towers and smelling their pages and touching their spines reflectively and taking pride in how quickly I can find my favorite bits with having to fumble through any unnecessary pages. I’d like to read them again.

When I was a kid I sometimes read three books in one summer day. I would block out my little brother’s kicking feet and my mother’s requests to set the table and my sister’s demands to not hog the bathroom for hours at a time, and I’d simply fall into pages which pulled me along at a pace I never questioned, to the homes of lifelong friends I’d made the hour before.

If, on occasion, I did have to leave a book, to eat dinner with my family, or go to bed, or some such, I would, an hour or so later, get a funny hunger in the pit of my stomach. The uneasiness would grow more and more acute until I realized: I missed my book. I’d been holding my breath since I put it aside and I needed back in so I could breathe again.

I remember being in awe that some light little packet of paper which I could hold in my hand could captivate me for hours. Even at the time, I think I was aware that in actuality there were much smaller pieces of technology with much larger memories, but they did not impress me in the same way. I could see and account for everything that made the book what it was: the paper, the ink, the words, the little punctuation marks, and yet I couldn’t understand it. I sat down to consume the story and it ended in consuming me. A good book was something beyond.

So in the next couple months, I will remember how to love in a book, not what I pretentiously claim are its finest features: its paper and stains and ink and splendor on my shelf, but its expansive pilgrim soul which, in this world, always remains just out of reach.