reading

The light at the window

As a longtime wake-in-the-night insomniac, I have become obsessed these past few hectic months with the edge of my bedroom window. Not the whole window, just the right vertical strip that I can see from behind the blackout curtains when I’m lying in bed. This slip of window has become my gauge. No light: too early, go back to sleep or woe to you the rest of the day. Soft blue-gray glow: almost daybreak; if no more sleep, day sucky but survivable. Brighter gray glow: sun mostly up, okay to get up. Bright yellow glow: A sleep-in! Must be a holiday. From that light, I know almost to the minute what time it is without clicking on my bedside clock.

I have been ruminating about this strip of light for two months, as I wave the white flag at the to-do list, as I scratch random notes and read through what I wrote back in late August/early September to try to keep it close. I wanted a neat and tidy controlling metaphor here: The light at the window is writing! Look, a story comes into focus just like the dawn! Or the light at the window stands in for the surprising goodness in a cracked world (see Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”). Or it’s knowledge, it’s awareness, it’s dawning, it’s seeing anew, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wading deep in the territory of cliche and oversimplification, fumbling about for meaning, reaching for something to hold onto.

That fumbling seems the truest now, both in the sense of writing process and also importantly for negotiating the space of American culture. Because even as I have been watching this tiny strip of light in my own tiny writing world, I also have been watching large, terrible stories unfold about the shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown and the fallout in Ferguson, and even more recently twelve-year-old Tamir Rice– stories that bring forth past stories of Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Amadou Diallo, and countless Black and Brown men and women whose lives have been brutally stolen from them without repercussion because of systemic inequality in our legal and justice system, in all of our American systems, built right in from the ground up. I have watched and read stories about rape and sexual violence and trolling threats and plain old misogyny. I have watched health crises and plundering politicians. On my own quiet and lovely Thanksgiving, shared with the loveliest of human beings, I wept into my green bean casserole as I thought about the empty places at other people’s tables, of people with no tables to go to at all.

So I here I sit at my dusty old blog, floundering with what to write about that g-d light at the window, about the darkness of the world. Light and dark, black and white. Too much freaking symbolism, and too much literal division. I desperately want to make meaning. I desperately need to make sense of it all, to fix it, to make it okay. Write a g-d happy post for Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! How hard can it be?

Hard. Which is how it goes sometimes, in writing, in the world. Even if we wish it weren’t so.

Writing is about telling the truth; who knows who said that first? Not me, but it’s worth repeating, mostly to myself. Because the truth is, too often I fear the truth. I fear that I will get it wrong, that I won’t do justice to what needs to be said, that someone else has said it better, that someone will rip me to shreds, that I will be banal and unwise and downright idiotic. I fear that I don’t even know what’s true anymore.

But not writing is worse. Silence is worse.

I wrote last year on Thanksgiving about my gratitude for reading, and this year that still holds. Even more, I am grateful these days for other writers’ writing, when I can’t seem to get my own down. I have been pouring over poems, essays, diatribes, tweets, articles, images. Some of it is complex and well-researched, some sputtering and imperfect and hot with rage, but all of it is a bright glaring spotlight on injustice, refusing to let it fester in the shadows. And there it is again: the light, the dark, not binary but fluid: both, all at once.

I have set myself up for failure in this post: how to resolve my controlling idea, the light at the window, when there can be no true resolve. To force meaning would make it untrue, when the truth is that I cannot wrangle it into cohesion yet because I’m all tangled up on the inside. And so I fumble my way through instead, with no perfect answers, but waking up to something, peering at the edge of the blinds, trying like hell to see.

Thanks for reading (and give books!)

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life–wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

That oft-quoted passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is taped to my office door. It’s what came to mind as I sat down today to write about what I’m grateful for, because I figured that would be a wildly original thing to do on Thanksgiving morning (wink wink nudge nudge). Now, my gratitude goes first, in heaping, belt-busting proportions—appropriate for today, no?—to the people in my life: the family and friends without whom this world would be impossible to navigate and comprehend. I could write and write and write and never get to the bottom of what I owe to them for the love, support, trust, and boundless joy they have given to me over the years. Then I am grateful for shelter, for health, for employment; the list, and its attendant worry and guilt for those who do not have these, has already begun to spiral in my mind. So before I head to the kitchen to devil some eggs and peel apples and get casserol-y with it, I thought I’d narrow down this post and give thanks for one thing: reading.

Mom likes to tell the story of how I surprised her by reading a note aloud when I was around 3 or 4 years old. Startled, she said, “I didn’t know you could read,” and I shrugged my tot shoulders and said, “Yeah.” In some ways, that’s how reading still feels to me: like something I have always known how to do. Yet it also stands out as one of the saving graces of my life, the act to which I have turned again and again to find solace, to escape, to expand and enrich my mind. Reading has become simultaneously the most ordinary and the most wildly magic habit of my life.

My parents read to me from a very early age. Some of my earliest memories are about those stories and the little stiff Golden Books themselves; the Poky Little Puppy stands out the most. Once I could read on my own, I never stopped. In memory I clump together favorites: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Ralph Mouse books, and then everything Judy Blume wrote. Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins. In high school, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. At the same time, I also loved the Modesty Blaise spy thrillers. And the habit continued, broadened, deepened. Nowadays, I tend to favor fiction, both novels and short stories, but I am also a fan of poetry, narrative nonfiction, and graphic narratives. A good story for me often has many qualities, but I am most drawn to those that have deeply complex, original characters in whom I am absolutely invested. As I often tell my creative writing students, “Come on, break my heart.” I want to feel something at the end, to recognize a change, to glimpse some aspect of the human condition. If I’m weeping at 3 a.m. when I finally close the cover, success! I also like dark humor, mesmerizing language, and experimental voices. I’m still a sucker for a good mystery.

I have no doubt that my life is different because I became a reader. It’s absolutely tied to my writing experience. The first time I tried to write a short story, an embarrassing foray full of clever witticisms and capital-S Symbolism, my instructor nonetheless praised it (bless her). I remember her comment: Have you written fiction before? The answer was heck no, but guess what I had done? Read. Story after story after story, whose rhythms and shapes I had absorbed so fully that I could intuit my way from beginning to end. This habit is essential for writers. What I know now is that I should be reading twice as much as I am.

Beyond the writing, though, the reason I am most grateful to reading is because of how it has taught me to see once I pull my face out of the book. What Lamott says about how an author makes us pay attention: yes. Reading champions the imagination and induces escape but it is also interactive. When we read a writer’s description, we translate the words into images that spring forth onto our mental screens– the wonderful mind’s eye. We see the characters; they become ours. We puzzle out plot cues, and we look for more. We worry for characters enmeshed in those plots. We recognize their flaws and we follow and believe in them nonetheless. We are not passive; we are active participants in the world of the story.

For me, that work of reading translates once we look up and find ourselves in this world. We are not passive; we are active. We take our lessons of reading and apply them. We learn to read our circumstances. We try to read others, scrutinizing the small details for meaning. We puzzle and wonder and worry, and this kind of reading, I am convinced, makes our lives richer.

In the midst of this holiday season, if you partake in the shopping frenzy, I urge you to give books. To everyone. Start at the baby shower. Birthdays. Give to schools that need them. Any day, well into adulthood. Get ’em at indie stores; pass ’em along used. My in-laws, now in their 70s, give me such hope in this respect: Now that they have more time, they have turned to books, reading the stories on the page from which famous movies have come.

Read to your kids. Get kids reading. Volunteer at after-school programs. Be goofy and wild in your passion for it, really mean it. I still read aloud—to college students. And you better believe their eyes still light up.

I’m grateful that mine still do, too.

Wishing everyone love, peace, warmth, shelter, health, and good cheer.

BC