In Praise Of Woolgathering

Pride and Prejudice

My teachers all complained of my daydreaming. To be labeled a “daydreamer” was a negative and was frowned upon. To daydream was to waste time.  One could not afford to waste time. School was for learning (supposedly). To become lost in thought was frivolous and was sheer idleness.  After all, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” To do so went against our very Puritan work ethic. One must always be busy, one cannot just be.

But, no matter how much criticism I received, I remained a daydreamy boy whose head was always lost somewhere in the clouds of imagining. I was a stripling of a boy and did not care for sports but searched the woods behind our house for a magical portal to another, more wondrous realm. I was convinced it was the old abandoned VW Bug that had somehow broken down and remained in the center of the wood. I just needed to figure out how it was. Much thought went into considering each and every possibility. I never found one but I also never considered that time spent in wondering to have been a waste.

I was a natural born woolgatherer. Woolgathering is defined as the “indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining; absentmindedness.”

Woolgathering often means sitting and simply thinking, pondering, wondering, imagining, and daydreaming. In our society that prides utilitarianism, woolgathering appears to be a waste of time, a true indulgence. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Rebecca Solnit writes, “The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between…Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued-that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more production, or faster-paced…I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

I shudder at that last phrase “faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

Woolgathering allows for thought. for considering, for speculating, for dreaming.

Someone who was a big daydreamer was Albert Einstein. It was while he was lost in thought that he originated the pioneering theory that led him to establish the foundation of modern physics was actually envisioned in one of his many famous thought experiments. He came up with his theory of relativity after spending hours lost in his own mind. And he was not alone, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and James Joyce were the same way.

Why?

Because spending hours allowing the mind to wander frees it to consider many different possibilities in solving complex problems with creative solutions. Now we are not all going to be Einstein coming up with the Theory of Relativity or James Joyce writing Dubliners, but we can still benefit from time spent simply in thought.

The term “woolgathering” used to mean, quite literally, gathering bits of wool that had been shed in tufts from the sheep that had gotten caught on bushes or fences. Those who did, wandered about, looking for and gathering these tiny scraps of wool. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that it began to have another meaning when people began to say, “My wits went a woolgathering” (meaning aimlessly wandering in thought).

And yet I consider such time precious. Time spent lying under a tree’s shade just watching clouds pass overhead or the canopy of stars.

When Patti Smith heard someone being called a woolgather she writes, “I was not at all sure what a woolgatherer was but it sounded like a worthy calling and seemed a good job for me. And so I kept watch, in every weather. In every weather. . . And the image of woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through the thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”

Gather thoughts like tufts of wool. Thoughts so easily blown away by the wind.

Thoughts passing by like clouds.

Idleness is not laziness. Idleness can spark creativity.

As author Neil Gaiman understands, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

In the woods behind our house, there was a great boulder that I love to lay on because it was my dreaming stone. During the summer it was warm from the sun, especially since I most often went without a shirt on. In the fall and spring, it was cool against my back, even through the shirt I had on. On that dreaming stone, I would either close my eyes or leave them open. Either way, it did not take long to get lost in my own thoughts. They were rich and full and plentiful. I imagined what my life would be like, I imagined other worlds and what they were like, I created pictures of images or words, I delighted in the simple, pure pleasure of the dream.

Even now, there are times when I will be driving along and will spot a stream. Pulling my car over somewhere, I will get out and go sit on the banks and watch as the waters meander past me. And I allow myself a few moments to do nothing else. To breathe. To quiet the busyness of the world and to allow my thoughts to have free rein. It’s amazing how just spending a few moments in this way can shift something deep within me and I can feel the sacredness of life and the wonder of the world.

Time is fleeting. Time is short. Time is a gift.

That is why time should not all be spent in hurrying to accomplish tasks and to meet deadlines. Time must be treasured in a way that is luxurious, that is indulgent, that is spent in simply woolgathering. How big and wide and wondrous his world is and our time in it. Take that time to reflect, to wish and dream and imagine. From such moments come music and poetry and art and literature and science and philosophy.

Gather the discarded. Gather the forgotten, Gather that which has been blown away. Gather that which others do not. Gather the tufts of those things that will be your gift to the world. Pluck from the thorn that image, that word, that metaphor because it is precious.

Woolgatherers gathered the small bits of wool without pay and many of us may find ourselves unpaid by wages for our art, but gather anyway. Continue to gather and weave with grace, with delight in the simple act of doing it, of creating to create.

So go out into that world and be a woolgatherer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kerouac’s Tips For Writing

Kerouac

For as long as I can remember, I have delighted in creating my own imaginary worlds. I drew maps and wrote stories, I had histories of those who inhabited those worlds, and I often spent more time there than I did in the very one around me. Creating these worlds was a form of escape from boredom, loneliness, and insecurities. When I got older and read about the Brontës did the same and had invented the made-up realm of Glass Town Federation, I longed to be there with them in that parsonage so that I would have others who were like me. I envied that they had each other to create Gondal with its four kingdoms of Gondal, Angora, Exina, and Alcona. It was originally begun by Emily and Anne but soon their older siblings, Charlotte and Branwell joined in. They wrote their stories down and created a map of their world.

Bronte map

I can only imagine the hours of enjoyment they had as they envisioned this world and the characters who lived there. Yet as we all grow up, how many of us lose that sense of playfulness and wonder that invests our imaginary creations: be they writing or drawing or simply playing. The imagined worlds of childhood are powerful and all-encompassing. Yet as we undergo education, many lose their ability to lose themselves in creating. Instead of having fun, the older we get the more our critical mind begins to come to the front of things and demand that everything be logical or make sense. We also hear the voices of others, especially if they are grown-ups, telling us we are not artists and writers and poets and creators. And sadly, we, as children, begin to believe them.

Yet for those who still hold to the desire to create, to put pen to paper and write, we often get too intimidated by the blank page or screen. We start thinking of all the authors whose works we love and we compare ourselves to them and, in fear of measuring up, we give up. But not all of us. Some still find the courage to create. How do they ignore the critical voices in their heads? How do they move past rejection letters? How do they make themselves sit down with pen in hand or hands on a computer keyboard, and stay there until there are words on the page?

Beat writer Jack Kerouac had a list of thirty tips for writing. Here are some of them:

  1. Be submissive to everything, opening, listening.
  2. Be in love with your life.
  3. Something that you feel will find its own form.
  4. Remove literary, grammatical, and syntactical inhibition.
  5. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  6.  Swim in the language sea
  7. Accept loss forever
  8. Believe in the holy contour of life
  9. Don’t think of words when you stop, but see the picture better
  10. No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge
  11. Write for the world to see your exact pictures of it

How many of us follow such rules?

Be present to our lives. Pay attention. See the world so that you can picture it on the page with words. Stop editing while we are writing that first draft. Just get it all down on paper and correct it later.

One of my favorites was: Swim in the language sea. What a beautiful metaphor for writing. Imagine a gorgeous sea, crystal clear, the most lovely of blues, and imagine that instead of seeing fish and coral, you see words. Words as a great ocean. Words that one can dive into and swim about in.

“Believe in the holy contour of life.” All ground is holy ground. All is sacred. This isn’t about focusing on publication or in making money or gaining readers, it’s about that pure and holy act of being present and aware to the holiness about ourselves and capturing it as best we can on the page. We are modern psalmists no matter what we write. We are finding the underlying grace of the world by tracing it with our pens. This means we have to find silence and stillness to draw from that deep inner reservoir and it means, before we do this, we have seen and heard and felt the world around us.  Communion with the world and then communion with our own spirits as we translate that into words. Writing as a form of prayer.

Stop trying to write the stories your favorite authors write and write the one that only you can write. Find the truth of your own tales. Offer others the insights and vision of the world as only you can see it. Let them fall in love with your words, your characters, your images, and language. To do this, we must, as Kerouac said, “Be in love with your life.” Sometimes this can be one of the hardest tips he offers and, having read much about him, I am not sure that he lived up to it so well. But when we create from a place of love, we create from a place of hope and healing. We are not scribbling with our poisonous pen in retaliation at all of those people who mocked us, who doubted us, who ignored us, who rejected us. Creation should come from a place of joy, no matter what the subject is. One cannot read a work by Charles Dickens and not see the joy and delight he took in creating the novels that he wrote. He loved his characters, even the bad ones because he inhabited each of them. He became them. Even when he dealt with serious topics (the orphanage system, workhouses, debtors prisons), he wrote in such a way that one comes away from his novels with hope.

In a world that is often paralyzing with the number of tragedies and suffering that occurs moment by moment, we can find ourselves so overwhelmed that we don’t know how to respond. But I think it is exactly when the world appears chaotic and bleak that we most need to offer up the balm of our art. To provide the words that give another person the opportunity to see that there is still beauty, that there is still love and mercy and compassion, that there are others out there who feel as they feel and that they are not alone.  As Madeleine L’Engle understood, “Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.”

So write. Or sing. Or paint. Or compose music. Or perform music. Or dance. Or plant a garden. Or cook a meal. Find the courage and create.

Finding Beauty

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Tomorrow is the elections here in the United States. I wish I could say that I am hopeful about the results that will come from people turning out to vote, but I’m not. I am deeply unsure and this uncertainty brings with it anxiety. I hope that people vote their conscience but, in so doing, consider the impacts their choices have on those who are so often forgotten by our political systems, those most in need of having their voices heard. I hope that when people cast their votes, they do so with the hopes that it means equality for all, that each and every person in this country is valued and of great worth and deserving of dignity.

No matter the outcome, I will react in the only way that I can: creating works that, hopefully, offer others hope and a sense of beauty.  May I never give in to cynicism and despair, but write in a manner that still manages to reveal the grace and beauty that underlies this world if we would stop to notice. I will continue to read poetry and be nourished by it. I will take my dog for a walk. I will play with my younger son and read stories to him. I will continue to sing and dance. I will still take long, pausing walks in nature where I stop to admire a brightly colored fallen leaf.

My days will still be spent in focusing on the good in the world and offering this to others by the simple gesture of a smile, a kind word, or letting someone in front of me in line at the grocery store or in traffic. I will meditate on those works that are lovely and edifying so that, when the media is filled with whatever tragedy happens, I can draw from that work of art, that symphony, that haiku, that novel that make me grateful that I am alive. I will seek replenishment in nature, in the changing of the leaves and the seasons, in the trills of birdsong, or the snuggling of the dog in my lap at night.

I will go about my days, finding the sacredness inherent in each person my path crosses.

Sometimes, I will turn off all the lights in the house at night and simply light a single candle. One candle to remind me of the light one life can bring to the world.

I will read a psalm and a poem each morning with my coffee.

Lastly, I will focus on what Terry Tempest Williams words, “Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.”

This is how I will greet whatever results this election holds.

 

 

Awakened To Autumn

Autumn Tree

It’s late October and only now has it begun to get that crisp, chilly autumn feel to the air. the leaves are slowly beginning to remind us again that there can be great beauty in dying as they transform their leaves into a glorious pallet of reds and golds and oranges. My younger son and I have been reading aloud together Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It’s a wonderful work that has yielded up a harvest of discussions on topics ranging from self-control to judging others, as well as about the persecution of others whose beliefs are different from ours.

Yesterday, as we read Chapter 14, I came across these beautiful passages:

After the keen still days of September, the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth. Before Kit’s eyes a miracle took place, for which she was totally unprepared. She stood in the doorway of her uncle’s house and held her breath in wonder. The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, emerald and topaz and garnet. Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her. The dried brown leaves crackled beneath her feet and gave off a delicious smoky fragrance. No one had ever told her about autumn in New England. The excitement over it beat in her blood. Every morning she woke with a new confidence and buoyancy she could not explain. In October any wonderful unexpected thing might happen.

As the days grew shorter and colder, this new sense of expectancy increased and her heightened awareness seemed to give new significance to every common thing around her. Otherwise she might have overlooked a small scene that, once noticed, she would never entirely forget.

After we read this beautifully descriptive passage, my young son asked me to read it again. We have been learning about how to use description to awaken a reader’s senses to the world we are portraying for them. How descriptions can give a feeling of mood as well as make them see, hear, smell, and touch this imagined world we are writing about. As I reread the passages, my young son closed his eyes and a smile came across his face. When I had finished, he was thrilled, “You really can make the reader feel and sense all those things just through the words you use.” It was a new discovery for him. Something he had never imagined or even thought about.

What I loved about Elizabeth George Speare’s writing was its reminder, through Kit, for all of to pay attention to the changes our daily world offers us that we too often take for granted. Each season is another unfolding of nature’s ways and a reminder of the changes that occur in our own lives as we grow older.

Life is a miracle.

How often are we truly conscious of this?

When I read about how Kit was seeing this New England autumn for the first time (she had come from Barbados), I returned to my own first viewings of autumn as a child. Of working in the yard with my dad and younger sister as we raked leaves and filled the wheelbarrow with them. Of getting in among those leaves and having my dad rush about the yard, pushing me or my sister, in the wheelbarrow as we giggled and squealed with delight. Or of raking great big piles of leaves just so we could jump into them. Of pumpkins and apple cider. Of taking drives to the Blue Ridge Parkway to take in the mountain air and the gorgeous canvas of glory that was all around us. We had never seen so many shades of reds, ochres, bronzes, golds, and oranges as those on the leaves of the trees that covered the mountainsides.

The older I get, the more precious each moment becomes. I hold tightly to memories of my own childhood and the childhoods of my sons. But I also appreciate the newness of the memories that are being created as they grow older. Recently we drove up to the mountains to where my son is in college. It was family weekend and we were going to watch his university football game. With all of the tailgating, there were the aromas of grilling everywhere (hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks) and those of a mountain autumn. There was the sound of mountain streams and, as we came out of my son’s dorm and went down a steep hill, we were greeted with a maple that was exactly as Kit had seen the one in front of her uncle’s house: a blazing red torch. It was breathtaking. We all just stood there and marveled at it for a moment, lingering in the beauty that was offered up to us. As we did, my freshman in college son, took my hand in his. I love when he reminds me that he is still my child.

Like Kit, we must approach each season with a heightened awareness so that we can be present to those moments and present to those who are with us in those moments. We need to slow down and see what is all about us: listen to the crunch of dry leaves on the woodland path as we walk. Of stopping to gaze at those leaves (both on the trees and even on the path itself).  Gaze at every common thing until it becomes an uncommon one again. See as a young child sees: that the world is a place of delight and wonder. “Unless you become as a little child . . .” I think Christ says that the kingdom of heaven is like a child because children do find pleasure in creation, in autumn leaves, in the taste of an apple, in trying to catch clouds while driving with windows down on a mountain road, of feeling the cold stream water on their feet.

 

Fantasy Books Tag

Russian Lord of the Rings

After I posted the blog about Classics Book Tag, I guess I should have expected that someone else would tag me to do another one, this time about fantasy books. The questions appeared to be skewed towards the Harry Potter series, which, while I thoroughly enjoyed that series, is not my favorite (maybe if I had been younger when they came out it would be different).

1. What is the longest fantasy series that you have ever read? 

Harry Potter

If, by longest fantasy series, the question is referring to the number of books in that series, then it’s a tie between C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I will go with the latter since it not only has seven books but they are also much, much longer than the Narnia books.

2. Favorite fantastical setting or world. 

Earthsea Map

This question is difficult for me in that I love Narnia, Middle Earth, and Earthsea (also Neverland, Wonderland, Ingary, and Hogwarts). I narrowed it down to two: Earthsea and Middle Earth. This is probably due to the fact that these two fantasy series are the two most important to me. So much of fantasy novels reflect the long shadow cast by J.R.R. Tolkien and his amazing creation of Middle Earth. The details and histories and languages that he created are unparalleled. One cannot read fantasy without seeing the influence that Tolkien has had, which is also why I did not read a lot of (too much of fantasy was derivative of his world). Ursula K. Le Guin created a mythical world that used the tropes of fantasy (wizards, magic, dragons) but did it in a way that was fresh and uniquely her own. Unlike most fantasy novels, Earthsea is not a large land mass with and a sea but is an archipelago of islands.

3. Besides Harry Potter, what is your favorite fantasy book/series?

Earthsea

I found this question to be shaped by a generation younger than my own who has embraced and been so unwilling to let go of the world that J.K. Rowling created. I did love her books, but I also found that they owed a lot to a great number of fantasy writers who often did it better, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and Ursula K. Le Guin being three of them. Once more, I was torn between the Tolkien and Le Guin. I opted for Le Guin because her works are so singular in the fantasy genre. One of the things I love most about Earthsea is that the magic is rooted in words and knowing the true name of something. Like Tolkien, Le Guin has filled her world with myths and histories and songs and poems. She also deals with serious topics like racism, sexism, inequality, the hierarchies of class, addiction, abuse, and slave trafficking in a way that does not feel that she is lecturing or that they are not integral parts of the story.

4. What fantasy book do you wish was more popular? 

Dark-is-Rising

Without a doubt, it would be Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. What Cooper does with myth and legend is incredible. She weaves a narrative that continues to builds in complexity and depth. Like Le Guin, Cooper doesn’t stick to the traditional good versus evil presentation that most fantasy novels have. They are works that are deeply symbolic as well as poetic.

5. Your favorite villain.

dolores-umbridge-600x262

No, it’s not He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but Dolores Umbridge who I choose as mine. Unlike Voldermort, who is trying to overthrow and create his own system of rule, Dolores Umbridge uses the system to enact her own evil. She works within the education system to be a bully and to impose her dark agenda on those who cannot fight back: her students.

6. What’s the first fantasy book you have ever read?

Lion

C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I would not be the reader I am today if it weren’t for this book. It made me beg my mother to get my the entire series for Christmas. I then spent my Christmas vacation ignoring all else but Lewis’ world, Narnia. From the very moment that Lucy enters the wardrobe and passes from the furs hanging in it to the snowy fir trees to spotting a streetlamp, Lewis had me hooked. And he wrote it in a way that was engaging and wondrous and caused me to despair that a closet in a middle-class neighborhood suburb did not lead to any magic lands no matter how much I called for Aslan. I also adored that Aslan sang Narnia into being.

7. Your favorite Harry Potter book. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I love the wide-eyed magic of the first book and because I read it before all of the hype and the media attention and it became the worldwide phenomenon and juggernaut that the series became. But my favorite was the third book in the series because that’s when it begins to turn darker, more serious, and Rowling will begin to deal with the deeper subjects of racism, loss and death, oppression, and survival. Unlike the later books, this one is not overly-long and unwieldy as some of the last books became.

8. What is your favorite mythical creature?

dragon of Earthsea

The dragons of Earthsea. These are not your typical, Smaug-like dragons. These dragons are more complex and are more Asian in their composition; being neither all good or all bad. Le Guin’s dragons are wise, have their own language (the language of true magic) and gather knowledge.

9. Favorite female protagonist from a fantasy book?

Sophie

Originally, I planned to answer with Hermione Granger. She is an obvious choice for me since she is an avid reader and I think the smartest of the three young protagonists in the Harry Potter series,but then I also considered Lucy Pevensie, who was the first to usher me into a fantastic world and whose staunch belief in what is good and what is right steadies her through the worst of the difficulties she has to face. But, in the end, I settled instead on Sophie Hatter, the eldest daughter in Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. I love how she becomes more herself when she is “cursed” and turned into an old lady by the Witch of the Waste. Unlike her younger self, when she is older, Sophie loses her sense of fear and becomes more assured of who she is and becomes a more strong-minded individual as she deals with the Wizard Howl, the fire demon Calcifer, and Howl’s apprentice Michael.

10. Favorite male protagonist?

Samwise

The answer that immediately comes to mind is Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. I believe he is the true hero of those books as it is he that continues to keep Frodo going to the point that he is literally carrying his friend up Mount Doom. Sam also has my favorite lines from all of those books when he explains why, in the midst of hardship and difficulty, when one is constantly facing setbacks and evil, why anyone keeps going:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something… That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Those lines should be an encouragement for all of us to keep going, to keep fighting because there is some good in this world.

The Classics Book Tag

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1. An overhyped classic that you didn’t really like:

Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce. For years, whenever Bloom’s Day came around, I would pull this book down from the shelf and attempt this Everest of modern classic literature. And every year, I fail and want only to toss this hefty tome against the wall in utter frustration.  This novel is a work in stream-of-consciousness writing and, normally, this style of writing doesn’t bother me (I love Faulkner and Woolf) but this average day in the life of Leopold Bloom, I find myself confused, muddled, and simply frustrated by Joyce’s writing. He is said to have delighted in making this work difficult because he believed it would keep academics and scholars reading and writing about it for generations to come. It is filled with literary allusions and references and meanings (especially to Homer’s The Odyssey), but, frankly, I don’t care. James Joyce’s last words are reported to be, “Does nobody understand?” My answer to this question, in regards to Ulysses, is, “No, and I don’t care.”

2. Favorite time period to read about:

Victorian Age

Easily and hands-down the winner for me is the Victorian Era. With writers like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, and with poets like the Brownings, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Lord Alfred Tennyson, the Victorian Era is filled with many of my favorite authors, poets, and books.

3. Favorite fairy tale:

Vasilisa

Despite my love for the Brothers Grimm, my all-time favorite fairy tale is a Russian one: Vasilisa the Beautiful. One reason for this is the Baba Yaga, who flies through the air in her mortar using her pestle and a broom to sweep away traces of herself, and her hut on its chicken legs. No other fairy tale is as vivid, dark, and magical as this one.  I also adore Ivan Bilibin’s illustrations for it.

4. What is the classic you are most embarrassed you haven’t read yet:

The History of Tom Jones

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding. He is an author whose works I have not read and, despite having owned two copies of this work (both a paperback and hardback edition), I have yet to take either down from the shelves and begin to read them.

5. Top 5 classics you would like to read soon:

Adam Bede

Despite my just having written about being embarrassed that I haven’t read The History of Tom Jones, I am still not putting it on the list of 5 classics I want to read next. Instead, I will begin with one of the few novels I haven’t read by one of my favorite authors, George Eliot, and that is Adam Bede. Eliot, like Dickens and Shakespeare, is someone I want to read all of their works before I die. This is at the top of my want to read next list.

Demons

Demons by the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the few novels by him that I have not read. I have started but never completed reading it because I need to devote my full attention to his writing when I read it and this work is one of his more complex ones.

I, Claudius

Devoured this BBC series when I watched it years ago, but have never got around to actually reading the books. I also want to read Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All of That, his autobiographical account of being a soldier during the First Great War.

Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano is the classic book that is most recommended to me by others and, yet, I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. But I will. One day. Hopefully soon.

House of Mirth

Only recently have I read Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence and I have been meaning to read The House of Mirth, though I know full well that there is no mirth nor merriment in this tale of one woman’s fall from society into disgrace.

6. Favorite modern book/series based on a classic:

On Beauty

I loved E.M Forster’s Howard’s End and Zadie Smith’s modern twist on this tale is astounding. She deftly weaves a story that traces the lives of a mixed-race British/American family living in the United States. The story addresses the ethnic and cultural differences that one faces in both the U.S. and the UK. She also is able to deal with subjects like the nature of beauty and the clash between liberal and conservative values in academia.

7. Favorite movie version/tv-series based on a classic:

Anne

This one was really hard for me and it was a toss-up between the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth or the 1985 CBC adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. I weighed the pros and cons of each and, upon recent viewings of both, finally decided that I would go with the tale of Anne Shirley. No other adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s book has felt as close to me as the one starring Megan Follows (who will always be my Anne with an “e”).  It’s also the adaptation that I first watched with my mother, who was the one who introduced me to the novel when I was a boy.

8. Worst classic to movie adaptation:

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

No other children’s book series meant as much to forming and shaping me as a reader as C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia did. And no other film could kill it quite like the 2010 adaptation of that book did. (In close second was Peter Jackson’s dreadfully overlong and convoluted adaptation of The Hobbit).

9. Favorite edition(s) you’d like to collect more classics from:

Folio Society

The Folio Society’s edition of classic works.

10. An under-hyped classic you would recommend to someone:

Persuasion

Jane Austen is one of my most beloved writers. Her books are often my comfort, go-to books. In the debate over which of her works are the greatest, most argue for either Emma or Pride and Prejudice. I, however, would say that it is her most mature and sober work, Persuasion.  Anne Eliot may not have the sharp wit of Elizabeth Bennet or the lightheartedness of Emma Woodhouse but she is the most thoughtful and developed of Austen’s heroines. And who would not respond to Captain Wentworth’s letter to her (warning: spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read this, I would recommend skipping the rest until you’ve read this classic):

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Cost Of Creativity

Ursula LeGuin

I was first introduced to the world of fantasy through C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, but it was Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea that solidified my love for the genre. To be honest, I cannot remember at what age I exactly encountered Earthsea for the first time, but I remember picking up that library copy with its image of a boy, whose face was orange (oddly enough) and there were seas and swirls of sky that matched his hair and cape. I opened the book out of curiosity and read these words:

Only in silence the word,

only in the dark the light,

only in dying life:

bright the hawk’s flight

on the empty sky.

– The Creation of Ea

As a middle schooler, most likely, I had never read anything like those words. They were poetry and there was also a spirituality to them that was unlike any of the fiction I had ever read. Then I turned the page and saw this:

IMG_8095

Now I have always been a lover of maps, especially maps of imaginary worlds. Unlike the usual fantasy I had read, Le Guin’s world was not a large European-like realm but an archipelago of islands. Using all the standard elements of fantasy (wizards and dragons), she did nothing else that was standard in fantasy. The young boy, Ged is dark-skinned and has uncommon powers, but he is also prideful, jealous, and these weaknesses cause him to unleash a dangerous evil into the land. But what I loved about this story was that the power of its magic was rooted in words.

To know someone’s true name is to have power over them. This is a rule of fairy tales. Yet it takes on a deeper, more meaningful power in Le Guin’s world.  Her writing is filled with Le Guin’s understanding that words have power. She wrote in a piece entitled “A Few Words to a Young Writer”:

Socrates said, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.

Le Guin writing

Le Guin made me want to be a writer. In her, I saw a true artist, a weaver of words, a powerful storyteller with a fierce wisdom and imagination like no other. But she also taught me that,  like Sparrowhawk in his hero’s quest, writing would not be simple or easy. As she herself  asked any who would dare to undertake the writing life, “Would you give up the craft of your hand and the passion of your heart, and the hunger of your mind, to buy safety?”

Ursula K. Le Guin had the inner courage to create, to approach the blank page, and put pen to paper and, like the Archmages of her works, summon forth powerful, true words. Words that made me rethink how I saw my own world, of how I viewed language (something that I found strengthened in my own faith with its stress of “In the beginning was the Word”), how I viewed silence, my love of poetry, my attitude toward the natural world and how we treat the environment, and, like all great artists, made me see how I was connected to everything in this world, and of my love for questions. She wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness, “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

Ursula writing

“See, the thing is,” she understood, “as a writer you are free. You are about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you have bought with your solitude, your loneliness.”  Furthering this with, “My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.”

And it’s true. I spend so much of my time, inwardly, in my imagination, removed from others. Viewing and watching the world from a distance. Turning what I encounter and experience into words, into images, into metaphors, and sentences. It takes me out of myself and yet requires more of myself. It requires a lot of my time, thought, energy, and asks of me to remove myself from others to do it (including my own family). Sometimes I am more with imagined people and imagined worlds than I am with the very one that’s actually around me. Writing requires of me to face the questions I am so often afraid to. To challenge myself. To put pen to page to write those things that I often would prefer to ignore: both the light and the darkness within myself.  But seeing how bravely Le Guin did it throughout her life gives me hope and strength and courage to do so in my own.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” And she is so right. And I am so thankful for the journey of her own life, her powerful words and strong characters (in particular her female ones to whom the narrative of Earthsea shifts towards as the novels progress), and for the books she has left us that continue to inspire, challenge, and offer up their magical wisdom.

Le Guin before painting

Sadness & The Remedy Of Learning

Very early Merlin and Wart readinglo res

Though I had read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, I had (ashamedly) never, somehow, gotten around to reading his masterpiece, The Once and Future King.  At 639 pages, it is no small tome and 200 pages of this is The Sword in the Stone. Despite having read that work only a few months ago, I decided not to just skip over it and begin with The Queen of Air and Darkness. I’m so glad that I didn’t. As I am reading, I came to a lovely passage between Merlyn and the young Wart.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics – why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

Reading Merlyn’s wisdom, I began to see the truth in what he was suggesting to Wart. As someone who suffers from depression, I am often asked how I cope with my affliction. There are the obvious answers of getting professional help and medication.  For me, one of the ways I deal with depression is my shifting my focus from myself to learn more about the world around me. When I am spending time focusing on subjects like astrophysics or astronomy, both of which I know little about and both of which completely fascinate me, I am focusing on something outside of myself.  Not too long ago, I began reading books by Brian Greene (the professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University).  I was fortunate to find copies of his The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos at Goodwill, so I quickly snatched them up for 99 cents apiece and slowly began to make my way through The Elegant Universe. Now I am one who is fascinated by science but did poorly in all of my science classes in school. Approaching these subjects was extremely intimidating to me but my curiosity overcame my timidity – and I’m glad that it did. Greene writes:

We all love a good story. We all love a tantalizing mystery. We all love the underdog pressing onward against seemingly insurmountable odds. We all, in one form or another, are trying to make sense of the world around us. And all of these elements lie at the core of modern physics. The story is among the grandest — the unfolding of the entire universe; the mystery is among the toughest — finding out how the cosmos came to be; the odds are among the most daunting — bipeds, newly arrived by cosmic time scales trying to reveal the secrets of the ages; and the quest is among the deepest — the search for fundamental laws to explain all we see and beyond, from the tiniest particles to the most distant galaxies.

When I read these words, I knew I could learn from him. He was reaching me in an area that I dearly adored the most: story. Story is how we make sense of our world and ourselves. When I began to approach learning about subjects that I found intimidating in school, I heed the words of Albert Einstein in his “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity” (first published in the May 5, 1955 edition of Life Magazine): The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.

I love how Einstein calls it a “holy curiosity.” Curiosity is indeed holy because it sparks questioning and by asking questions we approach wisdom which then helps us to formulate new and better questions.  To question helps us to think more deeply and delve into richer, more fertile soil of the nature of things. By beginning to grasp the nature of things, of the world around me and the connections that all of creation has, I begin to discover that I am not so isolated.

To learn is to be awakened and made aware. It’s not about getting more information, as this world is glutted with information. No, it’s not about acquiring facts and data, and information, but in getting connection, understanding,  and a proper sense of wonder. The more I learn about the natural world or microbiology or the universe, the more I find a necessary attitude of awe and amazement. One of the worst parts of depression is a feeling of isolation and loneliness. In his essay “The Body and the Earth” from his book The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, Wendell Berry writes, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.” We must find connection in the very world around us. I begin this process by learning more about the very world we live in. This draws me out of myself and makes me want to go out into nature and the natural world. I go exploring on walks with my younger son (with all of our guidebooks in our backpack). We learn and then we go and discover beyond the page and the computer screen. We touch, we smell, we see, and we come in contact. It is no longer abstract fact but literal reality. It’s one thing to read about biodiversity but it’s another to go out and see it. We scooped mason jars of pond water and then, using a magnifying glass, saw the biodiversity in that jar of pond water. It was filled with life.

Amazement, delight, wonder, awe spring from curiosity. One of my favorite things to do is to go on YouTube and watch videos from Ted Talks, The School of Life, and Brainscoop. They teach me about art, literature, music, philosophy, religion, science, architecture, and, ultimately, about the human condition. I feed my appetite for wonder by reading blogs like Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. As she has said, “I am driven by the yearning to learn how to live; how to lead a meaningful life; the fear of not having yet learned how to die.”  And she collects wisdom from sources ranging from scientists to poets to artists to writers and painters and great thinkers. And in reading her blog, I find that she makes connections that transcend and transform those who read the wisdom of others and apply it to their own lives. In doing so, we move beyond our own self-interests and begin to relate to the world and each other in a way that is more integral and essential for living with integrity and curiosity.  I feel the same way after reading books like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which is a beautifully crafted work or prose that offers an epiphany for those who long to make art, be creative, and approach the world and their work as a gift and not a commodity.

And seeing art as a gift is another way to lose oneself in beauty and reason and creation. To stand before a painting on a museum wall and to see the brushstrokes it took to create that work, to notice the uses of color and mood and design is to connect with a painter and to see the world in a way that we might not have before or to pay attention to things in the world that we might not have before. Andy Warhol painting Campbell Soup cans or Monet painting gardens or Turner painting clouds. But to see a painting, truly see it, requires attention and stillness. We cannot hurriedly rush from one work to another and expect to be transformed. It is not about glimpsing great works but allowing art to impact and alter us in ways that we might not have expected. This requires discipline and effort, but the work required to see and experience is rewarded by the deep and lasting effects it will have on our souls and minds.

I also read poetry. Poetry feeds and nourishes my spirit like no other forms of writing can. Poetry distills the very nature of human existence into imagery and metaphor that transcends mere words and pictures. I have found solace in poetry from the haikus of Basho, to the mystical poems of Rumi and Hafiz, in the spiritual poetry of Kahlil Gibran and Rainer Maria Rilke, in poems by Emily Dickinson or William Blake, in the Christian poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins, and more contemporary poets like Wendell Berry, Seamus Heaney, and Mary Oliver. Every day, as part of my devotions and meditations, I read poetry. Recent collections have been Hafiz’s The Gift, Basho’s Narrow Road, Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, and Billy Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room.

I spend time with the poem. Reflecting on it throughout my day. Returning to it, again and again, to read and consider the words and what is behind the words on the page and, even more, what is behind the choice and order of what is written. I approach poetry as opportunities to be challenged and reevaluate my own life. Years ago, my mother bought me a copy of Gibran’s The Prophet, which she first read after having been given a copy of it by her cousin. I can still remember how Gibran’s words resonated within me when I read them. One line in particular I recall and still live by, “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts.”

Poetry has been an anchor and a lifeline for me. Poets that ranged from Wordsworth to Neruda to Yeats to Whitman to Eliot to Plath to cummings to Donne to Auden have rooted me and given me perspective when I have felt most alone. I have dwelled in their words as a form of counsel and necessity.

One such poem that I find myself going back to over the years is Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I love how Roethke’s villanelle is enigmatic and mysterious in so many ways, how he writes of awakening and how one should live as one does open one’s eyes and becomes a part of the dance of deeper existence and not just going with the flow of society.  This is why I need and return to poetry daily.  Poetry reminds me of what it means to be human with all of its contradictions and paradoxes, of the passions and dreams that we all contain, and how poetry shows me what’s truly important and necessary to sustain life.

“The search for meaning,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, “is in how you live your life but also in how you describe it and what else is around you.” Meaning is found in not just living our lives but in how we encounter and process and express life. In the books we read, the music that we listen to, the poetry and beauty that we fill our lives with. It is to do more than be a spectator but a participator in this great dance of existence, of actually living a life. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” This is what great art does or should do. It is why when I am depressed, when I am lonely, I take Merlyn’s sage advice and learn. I explore. I study. I find connection and inspiration. I see myself in Van Gogh, in Ursula K. Le Guin, in Shakespeare, in George Eliot, in Bach, in Frida Kahlo, in Robert Macfarlane, in Rachel Carson, in so many of the great thinkers and writers and scientists.

So, when you feel sadness, when you are depressed and feel isolated and lonely, study.  “Study hard,” says Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist, “what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

 

 

Walking With Tolkien

Tolkien with tree

After finding a paperback copy of Tolkien: A Celebration at Goodwill (one of my favorite places to shop for books), I sat one night at my son’s soccer practice, reading George Sayer’s account of his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien. He writes of being invited to go walking with C.S. Lewis and his brother Warren, and with Tolkien. Both of the Lewis brothers were dressed for a serious walk: stout walking sticks and rucksacks and boots for hiking. C.S. Lewis asked George if he could walk with Tolkien, “He’s a great man, but not our sort of walker. He doesn’t seem able to talk and walk at the same time. He dawdles and then stops completely when he has something interesting to say, Warnie finds this particularly irritating.”

Both C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie were serious walkers. They walked hard and fast and could for hours. Tolkien described them as “ruthless walkers.” Unlike both Lewis brothers, Tolkien loved a slow, leisurely pace. He enjoyed talking and stopping to notice whatever in nature caught his interest: trees, flowers, birds, insects, and plants. At one point, he even tells George all about the common wood avens, “This is Herb Bennet, in Latin Herba Benedicta. What do you think that means? The Blessed Plant. Yes, though the English form wants it to be St. Benedict’s Herb. It is blessed because it is a protection from the devil. If it is put into a house the devil can do nothing, and if man carries it about with him, no venomous beast will come within scent of it.” Or, of celandine, “Did you know that when picking celandine various combinations of Aves and Paternosters have to be said? This was one of the many cases of Christian prayers supplanting pagan ones, for in ancient times there were runes to be spoken before it was picked.”

More than any other part of nature, Tolkien had a deep love for trees. Is it any wonder then that he created Ents? After Samwise Gamgee, who I believe to be the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, my favorite characters in this fantasy series were the Ents; in particular, Treebeard. There was something about ancient tree-like shepherds and protectors of the forest that I deeply loved. Perhaps it is because I have always loved spending time among trees. The woods behind our house was my second favorite place to spend time after the library.  The word Ent comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means “giant.” Tolkien describes Treebeard in The Two Towers as being:

A large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating.

Treebeard

I can imagine that Tolkien came up with Treebeard after spending time among the rowan trees, beech trees, and oaks that this character would so closely resemble. It’s part of why I love Tolkien’s writing so much: his eye for and his love of the natural world. One can feel his ache for a world in which forests are not cut down and diminished by modern industrial-age progress.

As I read about the difference between the way that C.S. Lewis walked to J.R.R. Tolkien, I could not help but see that as indicative of their personalities. Lewis more blustery and full-speed ahead in his views and opinions, while Tolkien was known as being a quiet man whose lectures were often hard to listen to because he spoke so softly. Lewis’ writing is far more succinct and Tolkien’s is more filled with description and diversions (who else spends so much time going into great detail the eating habits of Hobbits?). Tolkien writes like he walks. He is not in a hurry to get to his destination because he understands that it is about the journey. Is it any surprise that a man who liked to amble and explore, as opposed to simply get hurriedly from point A to point B, would write, “Not all those who wander are lost”?

I identify more closely with the private Tolkien. My wife and older son are Lewis-style walkers: brisk and for exercise. My younger son and I are Tolkien-style walkers: we constantly stop to get a closer look at whatever in nature catches our attention. We love to look more closely at fungi or leaves or to watch small minnows in a creek or to stop and watch birds. We delight in inspecting and noticing and in talking about what we have discovered. Often we stop to take out a field guide of some sort to look up a bird or plant or tree or mushroom that we don’t recognize. Sometimes we may even sing our own walking song, as Hobbits are prone to do. As Tolkien writes, “They began to hum softly, as hobbits have a way of doing as they walk along, especially when they are drawing near to home at night. With most Hobbits it is a supper-song or a bed-song; but these hobbits hummed a walking-song (though not, of course, without any mention of supper and bed).”

Frodo and Sam walking

Frodo, Sam, and Pippin sing:

Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.

Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!
Hill and water under sky,
Pass them by! Pass them by!

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe,
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back to home and bed.

Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed! And then to bed!

Is it any wonder that Tolkien is one of my favorite authors to carry along with me when I go on walks? I love to keep company with The Hobbit or any one of The Lord of the Rings. Certainly, I would have adored going on walks with Tolkien the man. I would have loved nothing more than to stop and listen to him explain why the main pass over the hills is called Wyche by explaining the various meanings of the word Wye or how Malvern is a corruption of two Welsh words “moel meaning bear, and vern derived from bryn or fryn meaning hill.” I would be fascinated in what he had to say and would have no problem with his genial and relaxed way of walking. I wish the world were filled with more Tolkienesque walkers: those who find the journey to be the point, who are not hurried in their desire to get to the destination but delight in discovering what the path and off the beaten path has to offer.

Tolkien in his study

The Books We Share With Our Children

reading mother

I have always loved reading to my sons. Part of this is due to my love of reading, but part of it is because I enjoy the shared experience of reading aloud a book and enjoying the story unfolding with my sons. This is something I experienced first with my own mother. So many of the books from my childhood I still hear through my mother’s voice reading the words to me.  First, it was picture books like Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny before moving on to The Velveteen Rabbit or Make Way For Ducklings or Beatrix Potter. As I grew older, the stories got longer, had less pictures, and got more complicated. Stories like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, or Anne of Green Gables. But these stories connected us. We shared in what was happening on the page and we talked about it long after the book was closed. We shared with how we thought we would react or what choices we would make if we were characters in the story we were reading.

So when I had my first son, I was thrilled with the opportunity to share with him the books that I loved and cherished, as well as discovering new books that I would add to my list of favorites. Some I loved that he didn’t. And there were some that he loved that I didn’t. But I read them. I enjoyed inhabiting the characters and plots and places. I became each character and changed my voice depending on whose lines I was reading. I got to return to some of my favorite childhood lands (Narnia, Wonderland, Neverland, the 100 Acre Wood, Klickitat Street) and I got to encounter new places (all of the places the Magic Tree House went to). My older son adored R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I found them to be overly repetitive and their plots recycled, but I read them because my son wanted me to. And he would listen and interact with me. “What do you think is going to happen next?” was something we loved to ask each other.

Both of my sons liked to snuggle up to me when I read to them. My younger son also found his own series that he enjoyed, usually mysteries. He loved some of the same series that I did as a boy: Encyclopedia Brown or the Hardy Boys, as well as newer mysteries by the author Blue Balliett (Chasing VermeerThe Wright ThreeThe Calder Game).  He also has a fondness for books that involve stories with animals and nature (including those I loved by authors like E.B. White or My Side of the Mountain or ones I was unfamiliar with, such as The Guardians of Ga’hoole series). Both boys loved magical worlds created by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones, and J.K. Rowling.

There are books that we started and never finished because they gave up on them and grew bored and restless. I never tried to force a book on them or made them get through a work that clearly didn’t grasp their imaginations. I wanted this time to be a gift, something we both enjoyed and shared as opposed to me pushing full-steam ahead because the book was a “classic.” This meant that I sometimes had to close the pages on a book I held dear as a boy that they did not connect with. That was hard. But I had to see that they were rejecting the book, not me. As a reader, I am sometimes too attached to a book and I have to let go of the notion that my sons are going to love all of the same books that I loved at their age and to let them find their own way in books, in their reading choices.

But reading to them has allowed for conversations we might not have had about a variety of topics: from racism (the Little House series and To Kill a Mockingbird) to death (Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia) to friendship (books from Frog & Toad to The Lord of the Rings) to survival (My Side of the Mountain to Robinson Crusoe). We’ve had imaginative talks and created our own versions of stories, we have drawn our own maps of imagined lands, or we talk about how we picture a character or place to look.  After reading From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, we began to think about where we would run away to if we could. Would it be a museum like Claudia and her brother Jamie run away to or, perhaps, a library or amusement park?

Reading together became something we looked forward to each day. It was our time together. Time spent without distractions. There were no cell phones or hand-held game devices or an iPad involved. It was a book. We could enjoy turning the pages and looking more closely at the illustrations (which developed a whole appreciation for the works of illustrators from Maurice Sendak to E.H. Shephard to Quentin Blake to N.C. Wyeth).

The author Emilie Buchwald wrote, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” And I agree. They learn how important books and words and the beauty of sentences by sharing in them with a parent or parents. To share in a book is to share in an experience together. To both delight in wondering, “What’s going to happen next?” And I cannot help but smile when my son asks, “Can you read one more chapter? Please.” It means that they have been pulled into the story and are reluctant to leave this world behind (as a reader lives in two worlds at one time). Within the pages of the books, they find themselves or begin to see themselves in the lives of others. They learn empathy as they have to see the world as the way this character does. They begin to see their own world differently when they leave the imagined worlds of the authors we read.

Books can teach them about bravery, love, friendship, sacrifice, honesty, kindness, and the importance that our choices make in determining who we become. When we turn the pages of a book, we are turning the pages of their imagination, of their perception and comprehension of the world around them. They are expanding their minds, their vocabularies, and their own identities.

mother reading to daughter