Friday, February 6, 2009

Literary Autobiography, Part I

People who know me know that I am a reader. I'll read almost anything---cookbooks, "chick-lit," classics, memoir, non-fiction. A lot of what I read goes in one ear and out the other. It's like eating a salad for lunch---good at the time, but I'm hungry two hours later.

Luckily, there have been books that satisfy, that sate the appetite like a four-course meal. These are the books I push on others with an urgency..."You must read this book." I think these books were placed in my hands at just the right time for just the right reasons. A literary perfect storm, if you will (not to mix my metaphors or anything...)

Anne of Green Gables, hit my world in seventh grade. I can't imagine why an awkward, bookish, smart heroine would appeal to me! Anne Shirley was my "kindred spirit" when I was twelve and I felt like a stranger in my own skin. Someday, I'll travel to Prince Edward Island and fight all the Japanese tourists to see the land described so beautifully in the books.

Oh, and the name "Nancy" is a derivative of "Anne." See, I knew we were kindred spirits!

To Kill A Mockingbird, thankfully, was a book that I discovered on my own, instead of in the classroom. I read it the summer of my junior year. I was never forced to deconstruct it or analyze the characters. I could just sink into the world of Atticus, Boo Radley, Scout, and Dill on my own terms. The last line of the book, "[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning” is hopeful to me. Although the world is spinning and nothing is as safe and easy as it once was, Jem could depend on his father to be there, to be present. Likewise, this book reaffirmed the power of my own dad to be there, to be present---right when I needed it the most, that is, right before I began the process of applying to colleges.

Paul said, "No son of ours will be named Atticus." So, I declare it here that the next Campbell dog will be Atticus.

A Prayer for Owen Meany was a book selected by a teacher-friend of mine for a student book club. This book is one of the few that makes me cry. Although John Irving wastes a lot of print rambling on about the Iran-Contra Affair, the rest of the book is transcendent. I was floating around with my faith at this point in my life, and this book reminded me that God has a plan, and it unravels in ways we could never suspect.

Yes, Owen Campbell is named after Owen Meany.

Romeo and Juliet humbles me. I was lucky enough to teach this play to seventh graders for several years. The story can be silly, but the poetry is sublime. The sonnet between Romeo and Juliet when they meet and kiss for the first time gives me chills. Just listen to this:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do

They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

In one beautiful sonnet, Shakespeare shows how smart Juliet can be---she basically manipulates Romeo into kissing her. She's so clever---and the fact that Shakespeare wrote such compelling female characters in the Elizabethan era is astonishing. This is the same time that people were dealing with the plague. The plague, people! I mean, really.

If Owen was a girl, we would have named him Julia (because Juliet is a bit much to carry around every day). See a trend here?

One more, and then I'll pick up this idea another day:

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (another Anne!) is a book about writing. I encountered it when I did the Southern Arizona Writing Project (a graduate class on writing and the teaching of writing) in 2000. She tells a story about her younger brother, who was struggling to write a report about birds. He was getting wound up about the enormity of the project. She describes how her father sat down next to her brother and said, "Just do it bird by bird, buddy." Eventually, he got it done.

This has stayed with me. When I get too caught up in my lists and to-dos, I find myself thinking, "Just do it bird by bird. It will get done." I can't say that this magically calms me down, but it's a good mantra to repeat. Someday it might stick.

And no, nobody in our household will be named "Bird." That is, unless we get a bird. Which isn't going to happen.

To be continued another time...

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