Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Literature Saved My Soul

When I was a little girl, about nine years old, I lived in Jackson, Mississippi. This is where I was born, moved away from and moved back to for one hot year in 4th grade. My mother, sister and I moved in with my grandparents Gardner in a small house with a large porch and the widest, greenest backyard a girl could want, fenced only by a meandering forest.

The summer was hot. Stifling heat that lay curled in your mouth like a dead cat. Oppressive heat that drove me to the cold bathtub three, four times a day. My grandmother Elizabeth played the piano with sticky fingers and cooked dinners with flushed cheeks. My sister spent hours drawing and painting, a gift that she had young, like our grandmother. I read. And read, and read and read. I spent hours with my head plastered in a paperback Pet Cemetery by Stephen King, and didn't sleep for years. All right, not years, but it felt that way, lying in bed in the dark, waiting for a dead cat or child to come up and put their freezing fingertips on my legs.

Perhaps my grandmother noticed my literary inclinations and wanted to save me from them, or perhaps she knew that I was small and sad and worried, or perhaps she just wanted me to love something that she loved. She handed the books to me with her soft eyes, and smiled. Anne of Green Gables, the cover read, by LM Montgomery. A small redheaded girl sat on the top, her fierce little face just waiting to light a fire under any unsuspecting little girl who came along and needed one. I did, I needed a fire, and I needed Anne ( with two 'n's ), and her constant chatter, and dead parents, and grim Auntie, and sweet souled Matthew, and Gilbert, and freckles, and poetry and beauty and enough sass and gumptom to keep my soul alive through my childhood.
That book. That one book. There had been books before, and there would be books ever after,
but this was the book that stamped and typed and wrote it's way into my heart and mind, and took up shop, changing me forever. I had been saved by art.

The entire series of Anne and her growing up, follies and foibles (all terrificly and endearingly and refreshingly innocent ) and then her inevitable marriage to Gilbert, and their children, and Rainbow Valley, and the death of her son: this series of books taught me about true love, true personhood, how a person can be simply pockmarked with faults and still dearly, truly and deeply loved. I needed to learn about love. I learned through books.

It was Pippi Longstocking and The Black Stallion and Izzie (with her amputated leg) and Lad: A Dog; it was Sophie's Choice and The Path Least Taken and Anne Frank who taught me about courage.

It was Gone Away Lake and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mrs Marsham's Repose; it was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Littles and The Borrowers who taught me real magic.

It was The Bridge to Terabethia and Greek Myths, it was Of Jacob Have I Loved and The Witch of Blackbird Pond who taught me I was not alone in my pain, that life was hard for many, many people, terribly hard, and there were ways, secret ways, of surviving it, heart and soul intact, and I would find them, if only

I would read.

And I did. I read through my parents entire library of books, quite formidable for poor people. I read Henry Miller and Socrates, I read the entire Rabbit series by Updike, I read Good Sex by Dr. Ruth, The Biography of Hitler, US History, Shel Silverstien, RL's Dream, My Antonia, Robert Frost, and many more.

I read to escape, but more, I read to understand. I wanted to understand why my father broke my mother's vases and smashed the fruit bowl to the wall, why he put his fist through the car windshield and why he hurt the cat, why he scared me before I knew the word fear, and why my mother never talked about it. I wanted to understand why my mother went into her room and locked the door and didn't come out for hours, and why I was mean to my sister when I didn't want to be, and why I hurt the cat. Why were we so poor? Why did the man in the alley scream and howl at night? Why did the next door neighbor girl poop in her underwear and hide them? Why was sex so scary? Why didn't anyone ever ask me the simple, simplest question in the world, ' Maggie.... What Is Wrong? '

Why, if they had asked, could I not tell them.

Something is wrong in my house, I wanted to tell someone. I thought that something wrong was me. My existence, my filter, my soul was warped. This explained the way my home felt, my mother's eyes looked, my sister's fragile face, my father's swollen angry one. I saw things, felt things, experienced things Wrong.

Literature beckoned for me to see myself through it's porthole. ' Something is wrong with your Mother. Something is wrong with your Father. You are a little girl. You are being hurt. Your sister is being hurt. It won't always be like this. One day, you'll grow up. And you will be like these people in these novels, fucked up, yes- but FREE. You WILL BE FREE. '

And so I was, and so I am:
And so it goes.

In my books in the above picture, I have both a Henry Miller first US edition and a first edition Rabbit at Rest. This makes me ridiculously happy.
Annie said...

Thank you, yet again. I'd write more, but it's 3am where I am, so I'm just about going to way past bed. Your essays have the power of bringing the reader into the room with you. I believe in the power of books to help us discover who we are, and to know there is good in this world and in ourselves.

steenky bee said...

Thanks so much for stopping by! It's so good to meet you. You may looove the name Henry, but I looove my Henry more. This was a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Even when talking about sad things--you managed to help my mood improve today. I'm having a bad day:(

jen said...

wow. broke my heart a little.

freakish how so many words here echo ones in my head. you are brave to share them.

i am glad you are free.

Alexis Rivas said...

True crime books saved my life. Go figure. As Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Magpie said...

books are good. books can change a life.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

Beautiful. A girl after my own heart.

Unknown said...

I'm so glad to have discovered your blog; wonderful writing.
I like what you are reading now; great combination, ha!

Rachael said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

This is a beautifully written and courageous post. I felt a strange kinship to what you were saying: my ex-stepdad ruled our house with an iron fist of terror for 10 years. We are estranged now and it's not something I really ever talk about much. It's not really something you work into polite conversation, and sometimes it's easier (for me) to not waste energy or emotion thinking about it. Apathy towards him agrees with me better than anger.

Anyway...moving on...

I was just thinking tonight as I was reading to my daughter (we are reading Ralph and the Motorcycle) of compiling a list of my favorite children's literature. I have the whole Anne of Green Gables set and always meant to read them and never did: I think I'll start that with my daughter next! Thanks for the nudge.

Maggie May said...

Racheal I loved Ralph and the Motorcycle! now you gave me a nudge to find those for my kids.

let me know how you like the Anne series. I bet you love em, and your daughter too!

Barbara- i know, wierd huh! i can't find time to read so CandP is taking foreeeverrr

thanks everyone for reading and commenting. makes the world seem lovlier.:)

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