The Need to Read

“Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I’ve started reading Anne Lamott’s book about writing and the above quote was what spoke to me most deeply, so far. The book appears to read part-biographical and part-instructional, which might be why it’s resonating so strongly for me, so quickly.

I am surely in need of guidance, but more so, I am thirsty for relationship. And I don’t mean the kind to replace the wonderful one I have with my wife. I just mean  connection; I mean “friends” of sort, both real and imagined.

Lamott writes about having read Catcher in the Rye and feeling she “knew what it was like to have someone speak for me (her), to close a book with a sense of both triumph and relief, one lonely isolated social animal finally making contact.”

I’ve had that feeling after finishing several books before, but none more recently, or perhaps more profoundly than after Frederick Buechner’s, Now and Then.

Don’t worry, I’ll be sparing you a long synopsis – I only mean to illustrate my feeling. Like the moment after you’ve poured out your worst fears to numerous, ill-prepared listeners, only to, finally, have one person actually nod and say, “Yes, I’ve been there too.”

Buechner’s book is a memoir on vocation, which, if it isn’t obvious already, consumes  my mind more than managing my fantasy sports teams, and that says a lot. He was both writer and minister – and embraced his dual professions with grace and gratefulness – considering the privilege he had to spend his days teaching, writing, and collecting stories!

I can’t help but look at Buechner’s life, at Anne Lamott’s life, and wonder if there any patterns to their life trajectories that align with my own.

Going back to the quote I included in the beginning – as a child, I did feel a bit strange. I didn’t have any obvious quirks; I was never the object of other boys’ silly taunts or the recipient of undeserved beatings behind the playground. In fact, I was really well-liked. Respected, even. I hardly had any problems with anyone, and other kids looked to me to lead. I hadn’t ever asked for that sort of responsibility, but I do know that I always took it when given to me.

My greatest achievement before my teen years was probably getting elected to the position of “Class President”, twice. That is, without ever nominating myself. Not that I remember anyway. I do recall asking for the “Sports Moderator” position, which I was probably most excited about. My classmates, however, had other ambitions for me, and I took them graciously. The authority and power that comes with leading 40 other little school boys can be daunting, but I rose to the challenge, nonetheless.

All this to say, I had no problems making friends. Then. I had most everyone in my pocket. I spoke to anyone and everyone confidently, shared my thoughts on matters I knew little about. I was the kid who could have grown-up conversations with grown-ups, and leave them wondering what business I had hanging around them in the first place. I was a charming little kid, well-spoken, polite, and funny when the opportunity arose for humor. I played sports just well enough to get picked, and performed just well enough to succeed academically. I was good at many things, but never so great that I alienated anyone that was less talented.

What I wasn’t, however, was much of a reader. Anne Lamott devoured books. So did my brother. He and I probably played with our action figures more than anything, but when I wasn’t doing that, I’d be out kicking around a ball or re-enacting whatever it was I saw in basketball games with a wastebasket and rolled up paper. My brother was reading, or writing, or drawing.

Perhaps this stuck with me subconsciously, witnessing how differently he and I had spent our time. Maybe, I felt I needn’t engage that part of me that actually longed to be creative. If I did, it would be solely because I was little brother doing whatever big brother did, but nothing more.

I read whatever was available, but I never asked to read anything more. I never went searching for the next book through which I could live out my wild fantasies. The closest I would get to doing so was picking my brother’s old, Choose Your Own Adventure books and skipping to both page options to see which alternative I liked better. For me, even then, I relished in the safety and comfort of the real, protected world I lived in. There wasn’t this nagging desire for escape and adventure, begging for the freedom to run freely.  I was perfectly content, right where I was. I was a kid comfortable in his own skin, happy being happy and having friends.

But, there was always this one thing I couldn’t quite make sense of, and I still have a difficult time putting my finger on it even now, decades later.

It wasn’t so oppressive a thought or feeling that tortured my young soul into making sense of the world and my place in it. I was too young, too naive, and too content to really care much for it – that is, until I got older, and I left home.

It just wouldn’t leave me, this thing, and neither would I let it. Like a stuffed animal I had obviously outgrown yet took to my college dorm anyway. Except this stuffed animal was really turning into a wild, horned, beast of a thing waiting for it’s moment to run free, and hunt, and reproduce without inhibition.

Yes, something like that…

Maybe I’m getting lost in my own illustration here, but simply put, something in me no longer wants to be tamed.

See, that thing Anne Lamott was talking about – that struggle to make sense of the world – I’ve had that in me since the very beginning. It’s one of the first things I recall about being a kid, having this internal wrestling I couldn’t quite communicate to anyone. How could I, after all? What words did I have then to make sense of something I can barely still describe now?

But whatever it is, it is getting restless. I feel it every time I read something beautiful or heartbreaking, some nugget of truth that I wish I had thought of first, some story that captures the solitary struggle of making sense of one’s self and one’s place in the order of things. My heart beats harder, like it is knocking on the cage of my chest to come out and see the world in all it’s glory and ugliness.

Perhaps, it is here that I can best employ some double-negatives

I can’t, not know. I can’t, not try.

And I won’t wake up these days without wanting to read something, or write anything, just to figure it all out.

As a child I hardly remember reading, but now I can’t stop collecting books. It took long enough to realize that books for me, are the key to a deeper sense of awareness and not just knowledge. They are not merely the answers to whatever questions arise in my head, but they are the food that nourishes my heart.

Books are starting to save my life from the lies I’ve been telling myself for the longest time. Reading writers like Henri Nouwen, Buechner, and Lamott, and a  long list of others are fueling that beautiful, beast inside me that longs for wisdom, for freedom, and most of all, for peace.

So a call to other lovers of books and of words…do send stories my way. I’m hungry, and need to be fed.