Saturday, October 19, 2013

First Cup—Some of my best friends are books....

My Story
I love stories and I love Story.

I think of my life as a story informed by story, stories, and Story. Maybe my life is “nothing more than” storying. When asked about something that happened in my life, I often respond, as a warning: “I have no short stories in my life—only novels.” There’s little I’d rather do than read novels and think about novels and talk about novels. (Of course, there’s also poetry. One formative story of my life revolves around that, but that’s another story….) But what I value even more than novels is hearing personal stories, talking about them, and helping people both write and understand their own stories.

I believe that my faith is an extended narrative and my life is an extended conversation about that narrative in the context of story, stories, and Story—and within a community of extended conversation about how all of these stories “work together for the good.”

All persons are writing their own stories. I am writing my story—sometimes fairly elegantly and often times clumsily; sometimes it reads like that tale written by the proverbial monkeys in a room with typewriter. Sometimes, it reads like Macbeth’s: “…a tale told by an idiot, / full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.” But I’m not the only idiot writing it. As these reflections on 70 years show, my tale is a collaboratively written story and my fellow writers are students, friends, the church, novels, and, ah yes, not to forget, the Author.

My formation with story began at 920 S. Van Ness, Santa Ana, California in the late 40s-early 50s, sitting next to my Grandma Cochran, listening to her tell story after story—some real and some imagined and some, I learned later, down right, fiction (aka lies) in which she starred. (She was so good that a few years ago at a Cousin’s reunion, we all discovered that the stories told only to us were, in fact, told to all.) Many of the stories were told over and over again because I couldn’t get enough of them. My favorite piece of fiction was the story of “Willy and the Hole.”

Willy was playing in the open fields outside of his hometown, which I took to be Elk City, Oklahoma, where they lived for so many years. In this field were many failed wells into one of which Willy and his dog fell. They tried heartily to get out but it was just out of Willy’s reach. However, it was not out of Willy’s ability to get his loyal dog just over the edge. Meanwhile, of course, it is getting dark and Willy’s parents, mindful of these failed wells, had roused their neighbors, formed a line, and were walking across the Bad Lands. Here, they met the dog that led them back to Willy. I can’t do justice to the terror of this story and the relief I experienced. I LOVED this story.

Grandma told it well but Grandma got tired of telling it. So, one day, as soon as I could get her to the couch so that I could sit next to her for a story time: Tell me the story of Willy and the Hole. To which Grandma said, Well, you know what, Willy’s mom and dad got so tired of Willy falling in that hole that they filled it up; Willy can’t fall in it anymore. End of story. And I learned what Aristotle would later teach me: every story has a beginning, a middle—and an end. It needs all three to be satisfying. I never asked for the story again; but Willy and his dog live on in my memory, precious and famous among the stories I embody. In some ways, a meta-story.

The four points of the compass of my childhood: 920 S. Van Ness, Glenn L. Martin Elementary School, the Santa Ana First Church of God, and Lathrop Library. Which is more important would be hard to say, but my home away from home was the Julia C. Lathrop Junior High School Branch Library, where Miss Leona Calkins, head librarian, held absolute sway.

Access to books, four rooms, full of books—well, it was a church of sorts. My first job and the first and only time I was fired was working in that library (for spending too much time talking and reading on the job). Working in the library was also my only consistent job from high school all the way through college and into graduate school.

I grew up in a home with books—not much of a library, but there they were: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Good Earth, What the Bible Teaches, and The Bible. Douglas, my oldest brother, already had his own library and sometimes I sneaked in there and borrowed a few (some I still have), especially collections of poetry. But it was the library where the whole world opened up for me—a world of books, stewarded by persons who loved books and lived to help others discover their same passion. I read indiscriminately and was, I think, allowed to read what today would have been considered off limits. I read books from the “youth” room. There I discovered the Enid Blyton series about English school kids adventuring on holidays. I read the Freddie the Pig series of barnyard mysteries. I read The Leatherstocking Tales and The Count of Monte Cristo (both unabridged because Miss Calkins would not have it otherwise).

I also discovered early the pleasures of the Caldecott and Newberry award books. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting; Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes; Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray; ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds; Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry; Daniel Boone by James Daugherty; The Story of Mankind (with those strangely wonderful illustrations) by Hendrik Willem van Loon; The White Stag by Kate Seredy. I also read from the children’s room where I discovered Dr. Seuss— The 500 Hats Of Bartholomew Cubbins and To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street are still two of my all time favorite books. There was also a wonderful book about a snake named Amanda (by WOLO, Wolf Von Trutzschler)—it is a lovely story and the art is amazing!

I read from the California collection where I fell in love with Ramona—and that whole California mission romance genre consumed many hours. But I was also allowed into the adult reading room where I discovered the best sellers and made a commitment through high school to read all the number ones. That kept me busy for a long time. But I also discovered Mary Renault (The Charioteer and The King Must Die) and Anya Seton (Avalon, Dragonwyck, and, much later, Green Darkness) and William Saroyan (The Human Comedy) and then W. Somerset Maugham (The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage). Then, I discovered Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Big Two-Hearted River) and Steinbeck (Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat). I will never forget the experience of reading these powerful stories told well. I was even allowed to check books out of the “behind the desk” collection of adult books, where The Grapes of Wrath was kept because of its “communist/socialist” worldview. I should add Salinger and Golding and Kerouac, Ellison, Pasternak, White, Asimov, Shute, Baldwin, and Richard Wright.

Later, in college, there were many more: Graham Greene and Alan Paton and Heller and Vonnegut and Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Bradbury, Stoppard, Solzhenitsyn, Fowles (The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver—this list goes on right up to today when I am reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

What is the point of such lists? On one level, it is a list of accomplishments—see what I’ve done? I’ll show you mine, if you’ll show me yours. On another level, it is some kind of ego statement—ain’t I grand? Top that! There is also a kind of autobiography in such lists. There is a reminder as well, I think, that such lists matter because the books matter—at least, these particular books matter to me—and tell you something about me. But, this morning, what matters most is that these books and their stories connect all the way back to Grandma Cochran and me sitting on the coach at 920 S. Van Ness, Santa Ana, California, telling and hearing the story of Willy and the Hole. That story and all the others took me where I would likely never go provided a sense of experience that I would likely never have, and added to my own story. These books and the stories that they contain were the Doors that opened me to a whole new world, a whole new spirituality, and a whole new worldview. In many significant ways, whoever I am today is, greatly, the result of the rich vicarious experiences these stories provided and the internal and communal conversations about these stories, the story tellers, and the story telling. I don’t know how to say this fully in Latin, but to a fairly great extent: Books ergo sum.

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