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Liberating Spirits

By Deborah

“[Literary works] do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice. You release into the world again a companion spirit.” ”“Louise Gluck, Poet

Plaid skirts, fresh backpacks, and blank notebooks. August belly-flops into a pool of early September mornings. It’s not always a graceful performance.

Only in education is fall a birth. Harvest comes later; teachers plant as the frost sets in. I spent yesterday preparing my room. The 3rd floor is empty ”“ teachers report next week. I put the desks in a perfect circle though I know the carpet cleaners will jumble them up again. I sit on the floor writing out poems with a fat marker. The cream walls begin to blush with color. It’s a room waiting to be consecrated by a mad rush of high school girls, intercom bells, and papers littering my desk. I’m the new teacher who has traded a carefully built reputation at one school for a saner commute to another. It’s scary-wonderful to start again, to see if I can find some magic in these new walls.

Literature is the only cause for which I am a natural missionary. If I were stripped of the voices and characters I’ve let in through the years, I’d be desperately lonely. In Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis character says: “We read to know we are not alone.”

Lonely? Is that too strong a word? After all, can fiction begin to approximate flesh and blood experiences? Here’s the plain truth: On my own, I’m too obtuse and self-centered to love my neighbors as myself ”“ or even themselves. No telepathy gene here. God bless those omniscient and first-person narrators. They let me peek into another’s mind; his choices, her fears, their embarrassing missteps and secret shames. And once I know a character, it’s easy to find her counterpart watering her plants, sitting on a street corner, or rushing in late to sacrament meeting.

It’s not enough to say “reading is important” or “I love to read.” Reading has shaped my character. Here’s my proof, in terms of twenty-five brief memories.

1. Reading aloud the last chapter in Of Mice and Men to a group of seventh graders, crying through the last three pages, and hearing the boys ask each other in the locker room, “Did you cry? My eyes got watery but I didn’t cry.”

2. Senior year in high school. Staying up late helping my mom explicate Robert Frost’s “Design” as she planned for her BYU freshman English class. Feeling a closeness that was too often missing during those teenage years.

3. Buying a Dover copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems as an 8th grader. Reading it in the birch tree ”“ shouting a poem into the wind.

4. Readathons. My fourth grade teacher let us turn the classroom to forts and we read all. day. long.

5. Readathons. I let my fourth grade students turn the classroom to forts and we read all. day. long.

6. Junior in college. I planned to read one chapter of Walk Two Moons before bed. At two a.m. I slipped the tear-stained novel under my roommate’s door. She returned it, battered, the following evening.

7. Reading Skinnybones aloud to nine-year-olds and laughing so hard I had to step into the hallway to compose myself.

8. Reading Taming of the Shrew with my mother one middle school summer ”“ every evening on the porch until the sunset. We played all the parts.

9. Ordering two copies of Harry Potter book seven and a mess of Chinese food for an all-day readathon with my husband.

10. Night. An 8th grade girl finally talked to her grandfather about his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi Germany.

11. Night. “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” said Weisel. Thirty-two 8th graders start an unplanned independent project to Save Darfur, publishing articles, gathering 1500 postcards, putting on an assembly, and meeting with their senator.

12. To Kill A Mockingbird. Period.

13. Emily of New Moon. Lucy Maud liked her best. I do, too. I reread the entire trilogy this weekend and realized how much this girl shaped my thinking. She is as real as my middle school classmates ”“ except I’m no longer in touch with most of them.

14. Interviewing my mom about Death of a Salesman for a college paper. Hearing how, over 20 years and a dozen readings, she moved from judgment to pity to empathy for Willy Loman.

15. Discovering George Herbert as a college sophomore”“ amazed that a 16th century devotional poet could make feel so deeply. I begin to look at the scriptures as poetry.

16. Reading Goodnight Moon so many times during my babysitting years that I can still recite it in dulcet tones when I struggle to fall asleep.

17. Dressing up as Harry from The Blue Sword for 6th grade Halloween. Forget Virginia Woolf. My feminism began with redheads bearing messages through the flames.

18. Hearing my 11th grade English teacher talk about “ah-ha” moments. I still search for them every time I pick up a book. I still search for them in my muddled life.

19. Finding myself in Alexandra (O Pioneers). Being thankful that she was the object of my husband’s first literary crush.

20. Thinking I loved Pride and Prejudice ”“ and then discovering Persuasion.

21. The Power Of Myth. Joseph Campbell put it all together for me ”“ why some stories felt both so new and so familiar.

22. Finding this William Stafford poem for my wedding.

23. Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Reading these prose poems pushed me to write poetry after a two-year drought.

24. A poetry writing class that traveled together to readings ”“ including Pinsky’s reading his translation of Dante’s Inferno. Because of this class, I never teach a poem without first reading it aloud to my students.

25. Sitting in front of my bookshelf when I’m feeling lonely. Finding “again a companion spirit.”

There, I’ll stop at twenty-five. Care to share a few of your own?

About Deborah

(Guest, August 2007) a middle & high school English teacher, an amateur poet, and a blogger at Exponent II.

18 thoughts on “Liberating Spirits”

  1. re-reading the last three chapters of O Pioneers, because I didn't want it to be over.

    Lying on the bed reading, surrounded by 4 children, trying to imitate my physical stance lying on the bed all around me, all with book in hands.

    Reading "From Beruit to Jerusalem" as a teenager, painfully realizing that not everyone lived like me.

    Weeping through All is Quiet on the Western Front.

    Flashlight in hand, under the covers, 8 years old, reading at 2 am From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — for the 10th time.

    Reading so much Wallace Stegner that I want to meet him. For real.

    Everyone in the house reading Harry Potter together.

    Thanks Deborah for sharing. This was wonderful to read, and wonderful to remember myself!

  2. Excellent post!

    Here's a few from me:

    Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning – empowered me not to be a victim and taught me to choose to be thankful and happy (some days are harder than others, but it mostly works for me).

    Cold Mountain and All Quiet on the Western Front taught me to find common ground and have empathy for characters I would've seen more as my enemies.

    Unless and The Riddlemaster of Hed Series moved me to tears.

    Reading Lolita in Tehran helped articulate what it is I love about good fiction and illustrated why it is important for good women to not do nothing.

  3. Thanks for the list…I am feeling excited for the first day of school too!

    My moments: Getting to the end of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and having my students ask, "Are you going to cry through this chapter?" Reading scratch n' sniff books with my grandma. Asking my students if they have a book to read over the holiday, and seeing the panic in their eyes because they haven't picked one out yet and are worried it is too late.

  4. These are fun. Two moments with "All Quiet on the Western Front" — I'll need to add that to my list.

    Dalene: This quote by Frankl is attached to one of my brain-cells: "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

    Lisa: I should have added Sadako to my list. You brought back a buried memory. When I did my student teaching in inner-city Boston, one of my students (Vanessa) wrote Sadako a beautiful letter telling her that she was praying for her family. At the end of class that day, she told me it was her last day — she and her mom were moving to a homeless shelter outside of school boundaries. I gave her the golden crane we had made in class; she began to cry and fled the room. I never saw her again. I can't look at that book now without thinking of her. She'd be turning 20 this year.

  5. Wow! I have felt very much as you CJane! And when I did not have the human connection that I do now and felt that so often things were so surface like the weather and such, reading books gave me that peak into anothers mind that I so needed. I never met the authors, but their hearts meant a lot to me. This includes fiction and nonfiction and even reading books on Vitamins. I am not that well-read, but I have really had some great experiences immersing myself in books. And now this thing called blogging as given me more of that which I love right at my finger tips. And this was one such post! I am giving a link under the website to a friend's independent learning forum. Maybe you would like to add to the section on protagonists. The link is to his web site and you link to the forum from the side panel. I hope it is okay that I post. It is free. And it is all about learning subjects such as history, science, culture, the sky is the limit. I think it is all good though. 🙂

  6. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially "No Worst, There is None" which I recite to myself whenever I'm having a rough time. For me, all of his poetry must be an "outloud" experience.

    Also, "Patterns" by Amy Lowell is another poem that I love because it connects me to strong memories of past emotions.

  7. I loved this post. Thank you. Some of my best love affairs have been with men from books. While reading those pages, I can fall deeply in love with a man, whether they are moustached rogues or scarred heroes, with no consequences. I can even forget about them a week later or I can carry them with me for years. Mr. Rochester and I have been having a torrid affair for 25 years. He hasn't aged a bit.

  8. Deborah, what a gift. Thank you.

    I have too many moments to name. So I'll just pick one: Finishing _A Wrinkle In Time_, as an eight-year-old, and knowing my life had changed. Forever.

    btw, can you explicate "Design" for me? I've never been able to grasp that poem.

  9. Liz: This is my favorite Hopkins

    Glory be to God for dappled things —
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.

    Kathy, I'll explicate Design if you tell me why you were moved by A Wrinkle in Time. It's a book I always appreciated but never loved — and I wanted to.

    Thanks to all the wonderful comments these last few weeks — it's been a pleasure posting here.

  10. Deborah–THANK YOU for your posts. What a treat it's been to have you here!

    _Wrinkle_ was the first book I read that opened my mind to the reality of other dimensions of being. I didn't know what was happening to me when I read it, but now I know I was having a door in my mind thrown open.

  11. Design
    by Robert Frost

    I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
    On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
    Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
    Assorted characters of death and blight
    Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
    Like the ingredients of a witches' broth–
    A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
    And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

    What had that flower to do with being white,
    The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
    What brought the kindred spider to that height,
    Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
    What but design of darkness to appall?–
    If design govern in a thing so small.

    My take:
    Heal-alls are blue flowers. But on this night, the speaker finds a rare white heal-all holding a rare white spider holding a white moth. Death instead of panacea. The speaker questions the coincidence – could this confluence be random? Are forces “steering” even an ephemeral bug? Are these forces benevolent or the “design of darkness?” Or do these forces appall the darkness (meaninglessness)?

    And what does it mean for us if “design govern in a thing so small?”

    Of course, Frost writes this in sonnet form, ending with a couplet – imposing a rigid design on his existential questions. Or does the form itself allow him to ask such questions?

  12. 1. Reading Lolita in Tehran–I realized that reading and writing are/can be revolutionary. Should be revolutionary? Maybe

    2. Elizabeth Archer. My favorite female character because of her strength, her very unique female honor.

    3. Newland Archer describes Ellen Olenska in Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" as having "passionate honesty." I want that. Period.

  13. OH yes. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. Now I'm wondering…did I get her name right? Am I mixing up the Archers?

    Yes. I just googled it. It's Isabel. So sorry!


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