Blessed are the ones who read. Beyond essentials of shelter and food, sufficient vigor to embrace the light of day, enough companionship to be reflected in someone else’s need, can anything surpass the sustaining power of reading?
Of all the privilege I was dosed with at birth, granted and fulfilled by haphazard circumstance, the ability to read gave the greatest promise for riches beyond mere survival. It still does. Entering or departing, destination irrelevant, reading can point the way.
Sometimes memories of seeing people read float through my mind charged and potent with meaning that comes from simply witnessing the power of a book in someone’s hands.
There was a little boy in my first 4-H llama youth group, who certainly loved the llamas and was wonderful with them, but at times I wondered if what they mostly provided was an exotic backdrop to the worlds he found in books. Even in the teeming, noisy crush of showing llamas at the Denver Stock Show, I would find him sitting cross-legged in deep straw beside his resting llama, lost in a fat volume of Harry Potter.
Last spring, my young friend Laurel, who also came into my life as a 10-year-old in love with llamas, spent a couple of days with me during one of my deepest pain-filled hazes of chemotherapy, and helped me trim llama toenails. She’s grown into an engaged, skilled, delightful 20-year-old. During those April days we chatted to each other and the llamas, repeatedly bent our backs over the animals’ dancing feet, swiped sweat from our eyes when the dance escalated into something more like a struggle. And then, each day at noon, we retreated inside for a lunch break, and off she would go. No farther than a few feet away with her plate of veggies and cheese, I would watch and feel Laurel slip the binding needs of my llama herd, my cancer, by finding 15 minutes of refreshment in the book tilted against her plate.
A few weeks ago, I was perched on the couch of a friend and colleague, who in a stunning twist of irony was sharing with me her own diagnosis of advanced cancer nearly identical to mine, delivered that day. Our talk of shock, fear and mundane planning were silenced by the sound of her two little girls returning from an outing with her husband.
These two children and I don’t know each other well. Well enough however, in the world of those whose ages are in the single digits, for them to gallop into the room and tumble across me as they climbed onto the couch.
That was the moment when whatever had been holding me together cracked. Conversation of cancer began in that instant to leak into real life – the life of my friend, of the husband who squeezed hard when I stood to hug him, of the little girls who prattled about their visit to the bookstore.
The parents slipped away and there I was, stuck with a pounding urge to sob I was forced to swallow in the face of children turning somersaults on dislodged sofa cushions. Not succumbing to despair was the best I could do. But the girls had more in mind. Excess energy spent, the oldest grabbed up the book she’d brought into the house with her, and waved it at me where I stood rooted to the floor.
“It’s really funny,” she promised. Her sister nodded in enthusiastic agreement. The lump in my throat expanded against any reply I could think to offer. “I’ll read it to you,” she told me, patting one cushion back into place so I could sit.
For the five minutes it took my friend’s daughter to read a used Sesame Street book out loud, we found words and a story that moved aside the anguished air in the room, and bought time away from real life that would descend again soon enough.
When nothing else worked in my own sick room hours, books did the trick. Piles of them still tower on bedside stands and bureaus in evidence. A great swath of genres tailored for various needs. Novels to transport me. Memoirs for introspection. Adventure accounts to inspire me. Biographies to broaden my view of the world and of my place in the enduring turn of time. Poetry in tiny doses like a powerful spice that pleases my palate only when used in precisely the right dish. These are the books I feasted on during illness, the ones I grasp as I make my way out.
And then there are books for the road. Audio books for the long trips I’ve taken up again as part of my work. Literature to accompany the crunch of tire on North Park’s snow covered backroads, to keep me company while I cross the Wyoming plains and invite life in, as I crack open decades of armor it turns out didn’t protect me against a damn thing.
It takes a special kind of book to work in audio form. Barbara Kingsolver’s FLIGHT BEHAVIOR turned out to be a perfect fit. With brash extravagance I bought the unabridged version on CD, as read by the author herself.
It’s a literary novel, which means it slowed me down. In every way. There I was, barreling my way with joyful abandon into yet another story, feeling the scenery slide by outside my truck, and it was as if the ground beneath its wheels turned to thick mud.
FLIGHT BEHAVIOR is about monarch butterflies. How they migrate, make us warm with thoughts of miracles, change the lives of the people in this novel, foretell of the coming of terrible endings.
Seventeen hours of Barbara Kingsolver’s voice sharing the words she’d woven into an extraordinary story. Seventeen hours of jutting up against literary excellence that feels as rich and important as it does emotional and entertaining.
In odd times when I can step outside myself and witness my own privileged act of reading, I will now remember the days so soon after my hair began to recover from the poison of drugs meant to save me, when my reading came to me from the speakers inside the doors of my truck, in the words of Barbara Kingsolver’s creation that reminded me of every flight of fancy taken by every person who holds close the gift of what can be read.