Epistolary Day: In Praise of the Quiet Eye

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I was always an easily distractible person. I still am. I can’t write if there’s music playing or if anyone is talking (other than the imaginary people in my head, that is). Sometimes, when I’m working on a draft, I have to pull the blinds down so I don’t end up spending hours staring at falling leaves or dragonflies instead.

As a child, my report cards frequently read, “Does not pay attention.” It was true. I was a hummingbird of a kid, whirling round in dizzy gladness, drawn from one bright object to the next.

But from the time I began to read, one thing always stilled me.  A book.

Give me a book and I would instantly get lost in its pages. I would become somebody else. I would go somewhere else, and somewhen as well. I would be transformed. Back in the 1960’s I didn’t have the bright objects that children have today. No screens with easy click-throughs to tempt my easily sidetracked brain away. Books allowed me to develop the “quiet eye,” the path to theologian John S. Dunne‘s “essence of things.” It would be years before I’d realize what a gift that was.

And because I didn’t have that many books, I reread the ones I had, over and over again. You quoted Anne Fadiman, Maryanne, on reading compared to rereading:

… the former had more velocity; the latter had more depth.

It made me see how I’m skimming so much more now, reading for information and not for immersion. The screen will do this to a person. It can fool you into thinking you know a lot. In reality, that kind of reading can result in knowing about many things, while knowing very little about any of them.

You cited Lorca’s poem, “My Ancient Heart of a Child.” And I wondered, if I, the distractible ex-child, who see myself now as a literate adult, am worrying about losing my own ability to read deeply,  what can I possibly do, as a writer for children, to stay true to the magic of the perfect word? How pass along the lineage I have inherited of generations upon generations of books, all speaking to one another and so, in the end, speaking to me? It seems to me that is the heart of a reading life, something that now feels as endangered as icebergs.

Epistolary Day: A Quality of Attention

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

Your chapter on the processes of deep reading stopped me in my t-r-a-c-k-s.

I was particularly struck by your account of former president Barack Obama’s conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson and the capacity for empathy that fiction builds within us.

Excerpt:

…Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen had come from novels: “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they’re very different from you.”

It’s an ability we desperately need in the world today. It makes sense to me that reading can hold the antidote to a “culture of indifference.”

As I turn off my cell phone and computer and prepare to read for the sake of reading, I’m going to be chuckling over Eileen Gunn’s short short story. It would take me many more words to explain that story than the six words that it consists of–or, to be precise, five words, because the word “computer” repeats itself.

Praise the sentence, its opportunities, its limits. Praise reading for the worlds it opens up and keeps on building, in the only mind I have.

Standing Up for the Landscape

The Whanganui River in New Zealand was declared a person in 2017. Here is an article about what that means.

Excerpt:

The great River flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the River, the River is me.”

With these words, the Maori tribes of Whanganui, New Zealand, declare their inseverable connection to their ancestral river. The river rises in the snowfields of a trio of volcanoes in central North Island. The tribes say that a teardrop from the eye of the Sky Father fell at the foot of the tallest of these mountains, lonely Ruapehu, and the river was born.

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View from Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 2018

I knew Ruapehu as the first mountain climbed by Edmund Hillary when he was only 16, when Everest had not yet lodged in his heart and mind as the dream and life’s focus that it would become. I have been fascinated for years with Everest, the Himalayas, and the role of mountains as Earth’s sentinels.

But now the snows of Everest are threatened and the waters of our rivers are polluted beyond recognition.

7483.groundswell-indigenous-knowledge-and-a-call-to-action-for-climate-change.main.b3rw6d6drl.pngIt is past time to turn to Indigenous peoples for help in untangling the horrible mess that colonization, industrialization, commercial farming, dams, fossil fuel extraction, and so-called “forest management” have wreaked upon this planet.

 

Edited by Joe Neidhart and Nicole Neidhart, Groundswell is a collection of stirring and heartfelt essays from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. It highlights Indigenous knowledge for teenaged and adult readers and issues a call to action for climate change.

Perhaps the naming of rivers is a place for non-Indigenous people to recognize that a groundswell is what we need, if we want to stave off ecological disaster in our children’s lifetimes, if not our own.