all of the selves we Have ever been
(In memory of Allison St. Claire who loved books, her library card, and bringing our words into print.)
Fueled by SPAM and saltine crackers, we made our way from California to Ohio in the back of a Rambler station wagon. Our father had orders to deploy to Pakistan. Amidst the upheaval, I deployed to first grade. While my father had many years of military experience and was ready to go, I did not have the benefit of basic training—no preschool, no kindergarten. A shy and quiet child, I was not just reluctant, I was terrified, but there was no choice. And so, like my father, I donned the uniform. He marched off to Pakistan, and I marched off to Catholic grade school.
Dressed in her traditional 1960s nun’s habit, the teacher was every bit as intimidating as a drill sergeant. Following orders, I sat up straight, eyes forward. We turned our attention to a large flip chart that seemed to be the height of a first-grader. Sister Eulalia turned back the cover page, and with her long pointer, she tapped the word at the bottom of the page: “Look,” she read aloud. We all repeated, “Look.” And so it began. I was officially a reader. Never again have I felt so powerful and proud.
I had no idea that Dick and Jane and the Catholic school version John and Jean would soon be on their way out along with Spot and Puff. I had no reason to be aware of the debate going on in academia about methods for teaching reading: site reading versus phonics. I was too young and my world too small to be aware of the biases and stereotypes depicted on the pages filled with white faces and white picket fences. I, along with 85 million other American children, learned to read with Dick and Jane and John and Jean, Sally and Judy, Spot and Puff. Unaware of the catalog of faults, I enjoyed my school books with the watercolor art, sweet stories, and urgent action words: Look! See! Run! Come!
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I cannot live in a world without books.” And since that first day when I was ordered to look, I cannot stop looking at books. A lifelong student of human behavior, I have maintained a preschooler’s incessant need to know why. Why do people do what they do? Why do I do what I do? Inside a book I can mingle with unsavory characters and walk away with my reputation unscathed. I have the privacy to get to know myself. Without an audience and without shame, I can get down into the dark corners of my own dusty layers. I can sort out what I know, what I think, and what I might do next. Books allow me to see myself, but they don’t demand that I mount a defense.
Though books now come in many forms, I still love print--the firm cover that cracks when opened for the first time. I love the smooth pages and the dog-eared ones that remind me to look again. I am awed by the power of words and the importance of order in giving meaning to language. The words liberty and death can be “Death to liberty,” or “Give me liberty or give me death.” I melt into the pictures painted by the brushes of gifted writers. I swear I have tramped through the marsh Where the Crawdads Sing. I have traveled through time with Kristin Hannah and felt the grit in my eyes blown there by the ferocious winds of the dust bowl in The Four Winds. I have wept for the curse that was slavery as I rode The Underground Railroad with Colson Whitehead. I have learned history and geography in meaningful and memorable ways not possible in the classroom.
I also love the companionship that books provide. Every character becomes someone I know, a wise old friend. There are authors I trust. They give me confidence and something to look forward to. I turn to them again and again. William Zinsser wrote that writing is a public trust and that truth is a gift. He speaks of clear thinkers with a passion for their subjects and notes that how we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves. Yes! “We can write to affirm and to celebrate or we can write to debunk and destroy…nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.” Character is revealed through writing. In this crowded world, it can be hard to find your people. I find mine in books. And I find solutions. I am better prepared for the future having walked the unfamiliar path upon a page with someone who has been there, with someone who knows. And when I am weary, and fresh out of dreams, I find something new that restores my spirit. Without books, my mind is homeless.
It is Read Across America Day! Thank you, Sister Eulalia, for teaching me to read. And thank you Dick and Jane for inviting me to Look!
“We seldom leave places we understand.”
I came across that quote during my morning time of prayer and reflection. It is from the early works of the psychologist Jordan Peterson before he fell off the deep end.
Those words sink in; they explain a lot. No wonder I am a wanderer. I never know what the hell is going on.
On the outside, I am a focused, tea-drinking, worker-bee. I miss the scoop to be had at the coffeemaker, the closed-door gossip sessions, and the after-work drinks at the bar. I have a quiet, orderly, and rich interior life; the outside world can be so loud, chaotic, and mean. With the added layer of social media, I sometimes feel that words have become a spray of bullets from an automatic weapon. I try not to travel extensively in that world. And so, it all remains a mystery to me.
Perhaps that is why, as a school-age girl, I was so taken by Nancy Drew, and why I love her to this day. She loved a mystery, and there was nothing holding her back.
In 2020, the year of the pandemic, Nancy Drew turned 90. Since the world was preoccupied with a mysterious new virus, Nancy’s birthday did not get the attention it deserved. If only someone had put Nancy Drew on the case…If only her father had won the White House, we’d know where and how this pandemic got started.
For nine decades, Nancy Drew has remained a teenager. Detective work aside, one would think that many years of adolescence would exhaust anyone, even a super-sleuth. I suffered four quick years of high school. That was enough. Why anyone would do it for longer remains yet another mystery to me.
I try to imagine Nancy Drew, the idol of my youth, growing older, getting old. Would she have survived to the age of 90? Survived the pandemic? Would she still be driving? If so, would she still favor a sporty blue convertible? Would she color her hair or proudly flaunt the gray? Would Bess and George still be her best friends? Would any of them be married? Divorced? Have endured breast cancer or other health crises? Would they have become parents or grandparents? Would they still be rocking sweater sets and pearls?
And what of Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson? Did he graduate from Emerson College, or did he get drafted and shipped off to Vietnam? If so, did he survive the war? Did Nancy and Ned’s relationship survive the Women’s Movement? Did they ever marry?
Did Nancy’s mind remain active, clear, and clever? How did she cope with the changes of aging? Was she ever lonely or sick? Did she have regrets? What was it like for her when her father retired? After he died? Did Nancy remain faithful to the housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, as Hannah got older?
What happened to River Heights, Nancy’s hometown? Would Nancy have solved mysteries at Wal-Mart? Shopped at Bed, Bath & Beyond? Would she have cursed the increasing traffic on those old, familiar streets? Did any creepy mansions remain with secrets left to expose?
Did Nancy remain able to live on her own into her eighth and ninth decades of life? Or did she move into an assisted living facility or require a skilled nursing home? What mysteries might she have found in those places? Did she still find the answers to everything?
It is difficult to imagine Nancy Drew grown old because I am young when I think of her. As a child, Nancy Drew allowed me to forget about my own life and enter hers. While I remember many of the book titles, I don’t remember too much about the actual mysteries. What stayed with me? Her spirit and her lifestyle. She was free to gravitate to what interested her. She was not weighed down by life and chores and homework. She was not limited by age. Adults sought her help and advice. Nancy’s lawyer- father trusted her, and Nancy was the one to look after his safety. Nancy had company in her adventures; she had resources and encouragement.
Nancy Drew fed my hunger for an interesting, active life. I am not alone—Hilary Rodham Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are among the many gals who took Nancy Drew as a role model for smart women. But Nancy wasn’t just smart, she was self-assured, the quality most lacking in children, teens, and women of my generation. Nancy was free of all bondage and baggage. She didn’t just try to solve problems, she went looking for them.
Try as I might to imagine it, my mind resists the image of an aging Nancy Drew. I prefer her gumshoes to my orthopedic shoes. It was never in the program for her to become more like me. The real mystery was how to become like her. She was an early female superhero. Her superpower was helping young women to believe in themselves.
I really don’t want to see Nancy Drew in the nursing home—unless she is there to bust me out. We’ll go to a garden patio and eat dainty sandwiches and drink tea served from a silver tea set. We will discuss missing figureheads, missing grandsons, and missing violinists, spooky mansions, and our suspicions about the traveling circus. We will find the lost sheet music, the stolen statues, and the hidden wills. We will pour over the mysterious diaries and ominous notes. We will not be deterred by cryptic warnings of danger. We will live on—smart and self-assured with good friends, a swell car, the right clothes, and no homework. And always, always, always--we will fight for what is right.
Nancy Drew can see what the world cannot. It is no mystery to her that there is still a teenage girl in me.
I have added a new page to this website, "Shelf Life." You can access it from the drop down menu.
On this new page, I will be sharing the books I am reading, and the ways in which I and my thinking have been changed by what I am reading and learning. I invite you to read along with me and to share the books that are influencing your life. As always, I value your insights and feedback.
This is one of my favorite poems about mothers.
It was written by Ohio humorist and poet,
The Reading Mother
I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,
"Blackbirds" stowed in the hold beneath.
I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.
I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness blent with his final breath.
I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings--
Stories that stir with an upward touch,
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!
You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be--
I had a Mother who read to me.
Happy Mother's Day!
I am in love with a doctor.
For years he has entertained me and taught me about kindness and generosity. When I doubted myself, he reassured me, "Oh, the places you'll go!" What I love most about him is that he taught me to read--"One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.”
But a few months ago, I had occasion to look deeper into my relationship with the good Dr. Seuss.
I was having dinner with a colleague and her two beautiful little girls--B One and B Two. As we waited for our food to arrive, mom attended to the infant, B Two. I offered to read to B One, a curious and busy preschooler. I pulled a copy of The Cat in the Hat from my bag. B One advised me that she had several copies of this book at home. While B One drew on her paper place mat, I started into the story. When the Cat in the Hat arrived on the scene, B One said, “He’s mean.”
“Mean? Or is he playful?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s mean!” B One said with certainty.
I was taken aback and needed to quickly revise my own point of view. I have learned not to doubt the profound wisdom and insight of preschoolers.
As an adult, I still love the rhymes that fill me with joy, the bright primary colors, all of the action in the story, the suspense. When I am overwhelmed, I still recite to myself “…this mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we cannot pick it up. There is no way at all!” And then I remember that the Cat in the Hat had no fear at all. The mess did get cleaned up—and in the nick of time.
B One’s words prompted me to consider the experience of a preschooler who is busy trying to grow a conscience. The Cat in the Hat was not merely playful; he was mean. I stand corrected. Imposing yourself and temptation on the vulnerable is mean. Rules matter… because they do…and for our safety.
I began to think about the book as a moral tale--a couple of bored kids at home alone on a rainy day-- definite potential for trouble. Then, of course, trouble arrives with a BUMP, and the Cat in the Hat steps in on the mat. He reminds the children that they can have fun even when it is not sunny. Now that seems like some good cognitive restructuring—at least on the surface.
The children don’t know what to do, and there is a stranger in the house! The fish in the dish serves in loco parentis—the voice of the parent IS the voice of conscience at that age. The fish reminds the children they should not get involved with the Cat in the Hat. Then the Cat in the Hat brings some friends to this impromptu party. Things get out of hand and the house is trashed. The boy worries what his mother will say and what she will do to them if she finds them this way. So the boy gathers courage and takes control. He tells the Cat in the Hat “Now do as I say.” The Cat in the Hat gets rid of his friends and returns to help clean up the mess. The story ends with another moral dilemma—“Do we tell our mother the truth about what went on there that day?”
Wow! That’s some heavy reading!
It is hard work growing a conscience. Some people never do.
So lessons learned:
Thanks, B One, for making me wiser!
And thanks, Dr. Seuss, for making me a reader!