Tag Archives: books

“As he stood on one leg, like a big stork bird”

Before I had ever heard of yoga or something called “tree pose” I stood casually with my left foot  (always the left) pressed against the thigh of my standing leg, watching Mom make us our Sunday pancakes.  I stood like this because my mom read us the story of Ki-pat, who stood on one leg as he watched over his herd on the dry Kapiti Plain, waiting for rain to revive the grasses and feed his herd (Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain).

Every night the four of us would pile onto one of our beds for a bedtime story.  We rotated between the girls’ room and the boys’, and we took turns picking the book.  Sometimes Mom would read us two.  We loved our books and the nightly ritual of listening to the familiar words and seeing the familiar illustrations of our well-worn picture books.

I am the oldest of four, eight years ahead of the youngest, so the books were always well below my grade level.  Literary prowess wasn’t the point.  Eventually we graduated as a group to “chapter books.” We would try to get an extra chapter out of her when things were getting exciting, but even after Mom insisted that it was time for lights out, those of us with more advanced reading skills never tried to sneak a peak to find out what happened next.  It never occurred to us.  We wanted to experience the story together.

Whatever muscular references I have now for tree pose, balancing on one foot will always make me think of the dry plains of Africa, just as overstuffed armchairs will always make me think of a little girl saving change to buy her mother a present (A Chair for My Mother) and having the heat on in winter will always make me imagine a retired piece of construction equipment living in my basement (Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel).  These are the legends and histories of our private family culture, informed by our books, the movies we watched and re-watched (no TV), the games we played, the puzzles we designed, all guided and inspired by the loving and creative mind of my mom, who established (not on purpose I think) our rituals and encouraged our imaginations.

I am conscious in my yoga practice of trying to cultivate balance.  I do poses on both sides, force myself to stretch the stiffer, less cooperative leg.  Tree pose remains much easier on my right leg.  I don’t mind this.  In fact, I like the idea that years of standing in the kitchen like the big stork bird has created a permanent imbalance in my body, that childhood memories have imprinted themselves onto my bones and musculature.

More important than any ideals of well-roundedness or symmetry is the thought of a physiological badge, linking me forever to the little tribe of children, huddled close and listening to the gentle rhythm of their mother’s voice.

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Word hunger

It was summer in Texas.  I don’t remember how old I was or the year, only that we had long reams of the perforated computer paper with the holes running down the sides.  As children, toeing the line between delightfully imaginative and pitifully dorky, we came up with all sorts of creative uses for the piles of half-inch wide, hole punched paper strings.

The paper was in the same room as the floor to ceiling bookshelf.  Where ever my parents move they have built-ins made, leaving behind curious, empty white rectangles attached to the walls when they move.

But summer, in Texas, we lived there and the shelves were packed tight with books.  My mom’s completely unpretentious organization system has always involved grouping books by size.  No alphabetization or subject sections, just maximum use of space.   Beowulf and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man are next to each other; Martin Amis’s The Information and Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power are separated only by The Last Days of the Inca.  Browsing library and bookstore shelves lacks the exciting thrill of discovery that my parents’ shelves possess.

I wanted to read all of them.  I was hungry for stories and meaning and understanding, for narratives and elegantly placed adverbs.  School was out and now was the time to devour literature not contained (and conveniently abridged) between the hard covers of English textbooks.

Mom explained to me that most of the novels were really adult books.  What was in them that was so “adult”? I asked, imagining the sex, language, and violence that made movies rated R.  Nothing like that, she explained, just themes I wouldn’t understand.

I plowed ahead, sure that adult lives could not be so difficult to comprehend.  But of course, she was right.  Novels about the subtle concerns and disappointments of life post-secondary school were written with a vocabulary that I understood but from an experience that made no sense to me.

I’ve tried re-reading some of those books, and reading other books by those same authors.  The rhythms are familiar, the tone of contemporary literary fiction feels like a childhood memory.  Only now things have started to make sense.  When you’re a kid you feel like you’ve got problems, you’ve got worries, and you do, but they lack dimension.  Then one day you’re older and you still have worries, only now you really understand them, you start to understand yourself not as the omniscient narrator of your own story, but as a character in a tangled plot populated by hundreds and thousands of other characters.

It’s not a bad thing, to be one of many.  It’s just perspective.

I thought reading those words would give me more intelligent thoughts.  I was looking for answers to questions I had not yet articulated.  I was pretty sure life had more depth than I had yet experienced and I was impatient for a glimpse of the deep.

It’s hard to be patient.  Especially when you are young and greedy for the future, before you truly grasp that the future is finite and the present substantial.  I still hunger for words, still lust after plot and creative grammar, but I no longer feel like these stories are supposed to make me who I am.  We are colleagues, the words and I, discussing life and exchanging experiences.