Lots of things fascinate me to the point of stupefaction. My brain comes to a standstill and I can’t process the amazing idea or event or realization until I begin to write it down. That’s probably the main reason I write: to mobilize the old thought processes. One thing that never fails to fascinate me is how whatever I am reading at the moment affects my perception of what is going on in the “real” world. I put the word “real” in the annoying self-conscious quotes because so often my reading life seems so much more vivid than the material world which I always think of as The World of Tables and Chairs.
Tables and Chairs is the world where moving about can result in bumping into hard objects, where the shins can get bruised and the fingers burnt. In the far more interesting world of the mind you never get bruises, cuts, or burns. In that world you can get run over by a semi and then jump right up to continue your stroll down the middle of the interstate. I suppose it is a healthy thing to be fully present in The World of Tables and Chairs, to have a mind that is fully integrated with the physical world, but it’s been a very long time since I have experienced that happy state of integration. Not since I started first grade at St. Bernadette Catholic School.
In my first grade classroom the tables and chairs were heavy wooden desks with the seats attached. We six-year-olds were confined to these contraptions, arranged in six perfectly aligned rows of ten desks each for the better part of six hours per day. We did have recess and bathroom breaks, but other than that we sat in the seats in front of the desks with a slot for our number two pencils and a cubby under our butts where we kept our books and our bag lunch. I quickly caught on to the rules: We were supposed to sit still and watch Sister B talk and write stuff on the big blackboard with white chalk (oh how I longed to draw on that blackboard!). When Sister told you to do something – write letters on lined paper or answer a question or count to 100 or pray to God or the Virgin Mary – you were to do whatever it was she said to do.
My six-year-old self made no judgments about the world as I found it, but I found that world so mind-numbingly boring that my mind just naturally wandered off in search of stimulation. Seven more years of the same sort of school experience reinforced the split between life in The World of Tables and Chairs and the life of the mind, until it became as natural as breathing to live a double life – the boring restrictive one outside and the lovely free one inside. One thing I found I could get away with in the restrictive space school desk was to read a book. I could read whenever I finished my work 30 minutes before everybody else. This motivated me to work fast and gave me a couple hours of free reading time each day.
Books gave my wandering mind a destination, a path to follow with patterns more interesting than the cracks in the ceiling or the tiles on the floor. Some kids sought distraction from boredom by talking in class or playing pranks such as throwing spitballs. But I saw that reading got you in less trouble or even got you praise; and it was also more interesting than spitballs. I read books that were available in the St. Bernadette School library. In addition to the lives of saints I remember especially the Betsy books by Carolyn Hayward, Beverly Cleary’s hilarious and wonderful books about such characters as Henry Huggins, Beezuz, and Ramona, The World of Pooh, and the wonderful books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
So here I am, decades later, still a reader. The World of Tables and Chairs is way more interesting than it was in my school days but my mind developed its patterns during those formative years so I still find it hard to be “fully present.” But it’s not a big a problem. As I did as a child, I function adequately enough in the physical world and 20 plus years of motherhood have honed my multi-tasking skills to a seamless art. I don’t think many people notice when I am not fully present. My dear Mom, who knew me well, always noticed it though. “You are always in your own little world, aren’t you?” she’d say. Or “Earth to Carol. Come in. Come in.” Mom has been gone to yet another world five years this month and I miss her. Happy Mother’s Day to her and to all mothers, by the way.
How about you my reading friends? How do you switch back and forth between your reading world and the “real” world? Does your reading affect what is going on in your life, how you react to it or perceive things?
NOTE: This entire essay has been to procrastinate writing about something unexpected that happened in my life this past week and how my reading interacted with the event. That event was the death of my dog Pippin, age 10. He was diagnosed with lymphoma only last Saturday and died two days later. The whole thing was rather sudden and shocking and has put me off my writing a bit. I have a backlog of at least four book reviews and articles but I will have to write about poor Pippin before I continue with my regular program. So I give you fair warning: My next post will be a eulogy for a dog.