Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Books Are The Love Of Strangers

Traveler photograph by Cara Barer (Traveler, image copyright by Houston photographer Cara Barer, shown at Pine Street Art Works)

Books Are The Love Of Strangers

In support of my comadre GNB bloggers' posts below regarding Banned Books week, I offer this memoir -- in addition to following their excellent suggestions for action.

When I was a child, I was home sick with asthma one school day out of five, mostly confined to my bed. Until age nine, this would be in a tiny trailer room with a vaporizer running. My mother was overwhelmed with my little brother, a household to run absent my father, my enraged and epileptic teenaged brother, not enough money, and her own serious health issues. If she made sure I had books, she could leave me on my own for most of the day.

She began reading to me the day after I was born. She'd bought a children's set of encyclopedias before my birth, during a time when money was more flush than usual, and sprinkled throughout each thick maroon volume were clusters of poetry deemed suitable for kids. Which, in the 1950s, was much more challenging literature than it might be now. Probably the first poem she ever recited into my newborn ears was "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. I knew it by heart by the time I was five.

I vividly remember her voice expressively rendering "Wynken, Blynken and Nod", "The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat", "Solomon Grundy", "The Lady of Shalott", "In Flanders Fields", "Gunga Din", "Annabel Lee", "Casey at the Bat", "The Owl and the Pussycat", "O Captain My Captain", "The Swing", "Ozymandias", "Little Orphant Annie", "Stopping by Woods", "Sea Fever", "The Tyger", "Cremation of Sam Magee", and reams of Millay and Dickinson. For bedtime stories, she picked up A.A. Milne, the Villagers of Chelm, Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Parker's poetry, fairy tales, Just So Stories, or Shakespeare. No picture books or simple rhymes for me, I was already addicted to complex language.

When I reached school and the world of public libraries, I discovered horizons without end: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, Marguerite Henry, L.M. Montgomery, The Secret Garden, Harriet the Spy, Eleanor Estes, E.B. White, Beverly Cleary, Jim Kjelgaard, Wind in the Willows, Albert Payson Terhune, The Borrowers, plus thrilling series like Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins, Donna Parker, and those by Troy Nesbitt. We often moved three times a year, which meant a stream of new libraries to loot. Mama would go with me my first time to the library and, nearly always, persuade the librarian to allow me to check out as many books as grown-ups were allowed. Sometimes I had to audition for this access -- Mama would have me recite from adult literature, because memorization was a skill I had down cold. I'm sure the sight of a six-year-old declaiming with cynical passion these lines from MacBeth must have startled the old ladies who ruled the stacks in small West Texas or Louisiana towns:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If a town had no library (which was common), if the school shelves were ill-stocked or I'd read everything on them (also common), I was allowed to raid Mama's stack beside her bed. I discovered Philip Wylie and Agatha Christie by age eight. The first gave me nightmares, the second introduced me to the permanent joy of mysteries. If those ran dry, I returned to the children's encyclopedia, not just to reread poetry which seemed to be how I had learned to think and speak, but also munching my way through the listings from aardvark to zyzygy. Books were my promise of a world where people had hope and beauty, enough to eat and communities who noticed them.

When I reached puberty, we had moved to a place where I began to make the first real friends of my life and I was able to plug into a rural culture where my mother's family had lived for generations before me. That school library was perhaps the sketchiest of any I ever saw, but a new town library plus the generosity of teachers enabled me to read more than ever. And to specialize in my reading. During the four years of high school, I covered the walls of my room with poetry by Auden, Millay, Whitman, Dickinson, Hart Crane, Rupert Brooke, Langston Hughes, Alan Seeger, and Rod McKuen. (Eclectic doesn't begin to describe it.) I read my way through the entire output of Mazo de la Roche, William Faulkner, Edna Ferber, Richard Halliburton, Willa Cather, James Thurber, and Mary Renault. Mama told me we were distant relatives of Patricia Highsmith and I discovered the immoral Mr. Ripley. I read To Kill A Mockingbird and Walden Pond over and over, with a copy of one of them always by my bed.

I came out to my friends, I became an anti-war activist, I began writing fiction and poetry in earnest, I won state in University Interscholastic League essay writing, I created a weekly column for the local paper, I rejected god, I discovered feminism, I became a mother. All before graduating high school. And the books I read were what enabled me to keep going, keep dreaming, despite bone-gnawing poverty and desperate family circumstances.

In the paragraph above, when I list the writers who shaped my adolescence, of those nineteen names, seventeen were lesbian, gay or bisexual. I absolutely did not know it then, did not even guess at it. I only discovered their personal identities, in one-by-one revelations, during my 20s and 30s. Yet somehow I gravitated toward their writing, finding an essence that fed me. And saved me.

In one of my favorite sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay, she writes:

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

I was intensely romantic as a teenager. Yet, even then, when I read this poem I often substituted the symbolism of books and all they contain for the word "love" in its lines. Books are the love of strangers handed on for centuries.

And anyone who would seek to keep you from this love, this light, this source of sustenance, is NEVER thinking about your well-being. Not in any honest way. They are trying to keep you from becoming that which they choose not to love, an independent mind and justice-hungry heart.