“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.”
— Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
“Mommy, now do the voices.” Jake, age five
I don’t know how old I was when magic tripped across symbols upon a page and flipped in the air to land in my heart. I do know that it made me hungry for something my birth had forgotten and that I felt certain that the moment was somehow a tragedy, as if I had found a hole that would never be full. I was right.
The day I found Stephen King, I felt both victorious and ashamed. After all, I had been raised on the elite of literature (Black Beauty, The Sword and the Stone) and now, I had strayed to the “horror” section of the library like a bastard child. And was fed, heartily. I remember asking my mother if I could check out Carrie (at the time, I had eaten through the children’s section and had nothing left). She was too busy, or tired, to double check the cover. And my fascination with the “other” side was born.
But–this is not the subject of my post tonight. Indeed, I have read voraciously my entire life (after all, I hold a doctorate in literature) and that, my friends, is neither here nor there. I suppose it gave me a foundation or platform on which to perform, to rethink, to consider, to rebel against and with all of my Southern upbringing. I suppose that–at times–it saved me from the abyss of my own blackened mind. It gave me . . . empathy. Hope. A healthy cynicism in a conservative, Christian land. In the time before the glitz and suddenness of Facebook, it afforded me a sincere lack of ignorance to a stranger’s plight. And still, this is not the subject of this post.
But this is: an outed witch in a land of Christian dogma, I have been thoroughly and quite unceremoniously fired from my job as a teacher. The fact(s) that I have won awards for my teaching, have copious letters from former students affirming my positive influence upon their lives and (apparently) the current desperate need for qualified teachers at my former institution have had no bearing upon a political dean and a nasty little witch hunt. Regardless of all logical reasoning (and legal sense): I am currently and effectively fired. All of which is unfair, somewhat illegal and wholly unethical: but, there it is. Aside from a thick and convoluted lawsuit upon the institution that deemed me worthy of a doctorate, I am without recompense. (Yes, yes. There were “uncool” factors that pushed this action along–but still. Even those are not totally to blame. This one lies squarely upon the heads (ahem) of university bias. I know better than to blame the actors and let the director walk.) And still . . . I am not yet centered upon the subject of this post. Let’s try harder.
I think that losing the job had something to do with gaining my soul back.
A long time ago, I lost my love for reading. After hundreds of memorized books and comprehensive examinations, I couldn’t bring myself to read again. The words had been stripped of their heart-thump and laid to rest alongside theoretical propositions and critiques in French, German and high-falootin’ New Englanders. Not much was left standing of the salt and meat that had fed my frame as a child. Be warned. Upon passing through the Ivory Gates of Academia, they beat the living shit out of your passionate heart and leave it bloody on the steps of “who you know” and “publish or perish.” I’ll be damned if even then you won’t know your ass from a hole in the ground unless *they* approve it and call it “ass.” Or “hole in the ground.” You lose your way. But worse, you lose . . .
And so, I stopped reading. Even magazines. Damnable things would slip up on you, arguing for “right interpretations” of recipes, sewing, whatever until everything smelled, tasted and sounded like dogma. Dry, no salt, intensely dense and tall without sauce. Like sex with an audience and perfectly shaved legs when all you long for is some sweaty, inappropriate screw against an oak tree. Y’all know what I mean. Reading had become . . . a duty.
On the phone with my spiritual student (and her very pregnant belly), I remembered.
The most magical moments I ever shared with my children were while reading. Bedtime stories became this liquid translator of my heart to theirs, all messy and with “voices” and those “eyebrows up, eyebrows down” places. Runaway Bunny. Like Butter for Pancakes. Strawberry Girl. The Velveteen Rabbit. Analogies and euphemisms snuggled up against the push and pull of time while my child snuggled closer and closer, safe, against sleep. There was a “letting go” that had to happen. Y’all know what I mean. That tiny slip between the footing of the daily world and the stars of the story world as we walked toward dreams, unafraid and totally our most base selves. Like that. Totally like that: losing our mom/dad selves in their wonder and innocence and finding truth there unlike anything we could put our hands on in the light of day. And this thing, this wondrous transference of reality for something more real had been buried within my chest for so long that, when it shivered, it drove me to my knees.
“When I say to a parent, ‘read to a child,’ I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. ” — Mem Fox
I was starving. The flesh of my soul was hanging from my proper bones, gnawing at the cardboard of academia and an approved life. Yes, I have the doctorate. Yes, yes. I know the theories. But I had forgotten:
Everything. The way a new book smells like the one you left behind, so many lives ago. Sawdust and ink, lost amongst electric bills and frozen dinners. I had forgotten the magic of reaching out with the typed word and finding the carve of springs and caverns, oceans and broken hearts. My first love, thrown into boxes. I had followed them to a finish line of sorts, but left them as only markers.
And I’m sure this post seems like nothing. Perhaps it is only the ramblings of an aging woman who has spent too much time nursing idealism and sharpening an oyster knife when the water has turned to sand.
But I remember something else. I was seventeen–a huge pain in the ass–and had moved back in with my Grandma. No one else would take me. One night, after drinking too much and smoking too much and acting a complete eighties bonafied fool, I came home very late and tried to tip-toe down the hall. Grandma (who never slept until her chickens were safe) called out from the hall and asked me to lie down beside her in the dark. And I did. Whiskey on my breath, thinking about some hot Alabama boy I can no longer name, I did. And, there in the dark, she did the unthinkable and the totally uncool. She said:
“Once upon a time, there were three little bears . . .”
I am forty-eight but I still remember the last time a story weaved itself into the air, up in wispy webs, down into my heart. Transference, complete.
“Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.”
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
And the older witch loved the little girl she had been, somehow forgiving all of those who had hurt her along the way. For none had hurt her as badly as she had, herself. So, she picked up a book and told herself a tale of living and dreaming and starting over. It began with . . .