What’s Essential

Originally Posted: September 16, 2011

Birthdays are times of reckoning – days when we think about what’s essential – unless we can stay busy enough to avoid such awkward analysis. On my own birthday this year, I woke to fever and a burgeoning headache, and knew I wouldn’t spend the day distracted by friends, as planned. ‘Do you at least have a good book?’, my friend wailed when I called to cancel our lunch date.

After driving my kids to school in the drizzle, I lit a fire and scanned my precarious bedside pile of novels, choosing The Scent of Rain and Lightning, by Nancy Pickard. A literary murder mystery – not my usual fare, but the title perfectly mirrored this day: rain was now lashing the windows in time with my headache. Thunder brewed darkly over our neighborhood.

I can’t really say much else about what happened in our neighborhood that day: from Pickard’s first chapter, I was gone, whisked to a resession-era west-Kansas cattle ranch where the seed of old resentment sprouts into something more sinister. I had, as John Gardner says, stepped into the ‘continuous dream.’ I was so engrossed, I don’t really remember rising to make tea, feed the dog, throw wood on the fire; I just know these things happened.

Around mid-afternoon,  I shook myself from the spell to finally dress and walk the dog, noticing that the rain was clearing, that I no longer felt so sick. During my walk, I thought about life without books. Hard as I tried, it was impossible to imagine surviving without the redemptive possibility of inhabiting other lives, opening to the voices that find us, against all odds, across borders of time, space, circumstance. The power of stories is so profound; in fact, it seems almost to come from another realm. At least, it’s been this way for me since I was ten and first discovered Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Later, it was Tolkien and the Brontës, then Moore and Morrison, Kincaid and Kingsolver… During my angst-ridden adolescence, I burned through books the way my peers consumed sex and alcohol: only the archetypal shape of stories helped me make meaning from the chaos of my life.

When I began writing my own fiction, the world offered itself, for better or worse, as grist and fodder: nothing could happen that I couldn’t somehow make use of, spin into narrative. There’s something slightly utilitarian and addictive about this. My husband teases me that stories are my crack – when I’m not engrossed in a good one, I’m jumpy, irascible. Non-fiction books don’t quite answer the itch, though poetry might sooth it momentarily, as will a good film. But it’s not long before I’m scratching at my novel pile, thirsty for that essential spark of connection – that friendly and intelligent voice in the universe that says things are better, or perhaps worse, but certainly more meaningful than we thought.

As I finished my walk, the late afternoon sun had made its appearance, streaking sideways through dissolving cloud. My husband and daughters were due home soon and there would be take-away food, birthday cake… I only had five chapters left of Pickard’s riveting tale, so I settled back on the couch, savouring the luxury – no, necessity – of this solitary immersion. Fever and botched plans notwithstanding, the day was, in fact, perfect.

Posted by: Dori

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