I don’t normally do this, I know. I mostly post links to stories, poems, essays I like around the internet. I post about readings and where I will have my table. But, I’ve never taken the time to write the “Why” of it all. Why did I start Vouched? Why do I spend hours and hours of my life devoted to books and the spreading of them?
But I just read this essay by Lidia Yuknavitch at The Rumpus, “The Urgent Matter of Books,” and I’m feeling compelled.
Books saved my life. Period.
My parents divorced when I was 7. I never really thought much of it. I don’t particularly remember any childhood distress from the split. I still have some of the images of it stuck in my head. I remember my dad sitting between my brother and me on the bed, explaining it all to us, the dirty and worn brown carpet of our bedroom, the yellow walls and the light blue splotches where the yellow had chipped away revealing the paint beneath. I remember sitting on the bed a long while after Dad left. I remember walking out of the bedroom and seeing Mom sitting on the toilet, begging into her hands. I remember a sleepover with an older kid, the son of a family friend who’d gone through a divorce a few years earlier, a race car bed in his basement bedroom, talking to him through the dark, the classic phrase, “Don’t blame yourself,” occuring somewhere in that conversation. I remember those.
Beyond that, I don’t remember it being particularly tragic or affecting. But evidently it was. Until my 3rd grade year, I’d been a straight-A student, but 3rd grade, the first year in school after the divorce, my report cards suddenly developed consonants, sounded more like a magician with his abracadabras rather than a trip to the doctor, stick out your tongue and say, “Aaaaaa.”
I remember my Dad giving me a copy of My Side of the Mountain for Christmas that year–the first book I ever really remember owning, being mine. I remember the sudden realization of feeling “alone,” having never really had a word for it until that book, until Sam related the feeling just perfectly so at one point sitting in his hollowed out tree, the first sounds of winter exploding the trees around him and how terrified and alone he felt. I remember Sam becoming my best friend.
The real troubles didn’t start with the divorce. The real troubles came when my mother began trying to find my father again. It started with Chuck, a larger bearded man who I remember mostly as taking me fishing and letting me shoot a 410 gauge shotgun for the first time. I don’t remember how long that relationship lasted, just that it’s final demise took place during my birthday party in March or April of my 4th grade year when Chuck came by to get his things. My friends and I went back to my room, heard Chuck and my mother arguing in the den, heard Chuck push her, a heavy and metallic clatter as she stumbled backward into a filing cabinet. We heard his heavy steps leaving the house. He never wished me a happy birthday.
After that was Tom, and he was a good one, a worthwhile one, a grad student at the university where my mom worked in the food court. I remember most him taking me to the university library to check out books that my small town public library didn’t have–mostly books about mythology that I was devouring at the time. I remember most that he had a wife, and I remember trying to convince him to leave her and marry my mother.
Then came John, who at first wasn’t so bad. He had two sons, and they had a Super Nintendo, and I got to play it with them whenever we would visit him. My mother married him before she knew about his anger, his drinking, his speed addiction. That’s when the real trouble started. It was almost fun at first. Once when John was drunk he gave us each $50. But when he and Mom ran out of money, he started giving us bruises instead.
As the problems escalated, deeper fantasies were necessary. I stopped reading Greek mythology because of how flawed their heroes were. In my situation, reading about Heracles going mad and killing his children didn’t serve as any sort of comfort.
Instead, I turned to reading about ultimate good overcoming the darkest evils. I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series and imagined myself as Will. I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series. I read A Wrinkle in Time. I read The Hobbit 12 times. I read The Lord of the Rings. On occasion, I’d go back to the Catskill Mountains and visit Sam, still alone in his tree, eating acorn pancakes and dandelion salads.
I would escape any way I could–playing in the woods, long bike rides, long walks along the train tracks–and when I was grounded, I would sit in my room and read and read and read.
Once, when John grounded me from books, I ran away. I packed a bag with books and soda and jerky and chips and some cigarettes filched from John’s pocket, and I disappeared for an entire weekend. I found a small clearing in the woods a few miles from my house. To this day, I’ve shown it to only a couple other people. I wrote and read and when I ran out of books I climbed trees and waded in the river and occasionally thought about drowning myself and at one point tried but the wet and hollow burning in my lungs was too much for me and the stone not enough to hold me under.
I tried to be like Sam. I looked for berries and tubers. I tried dandelion salad, and it tasted awful. I caught a fish in the creek, but realized I couldn’t cook it without fire, and couldn’t start a fire for fear of being discovered.
When I finally ran out of food, I walked to my friend Broc’s and called Mom and went home. They never took my books from me again.
At school, I had plenty of friends. I played basketball and beat up the bullies and defended the girls, because that’s what the books taught me about being a hero. I even had a girlfriend, Nicole, who I dated for almost 2 years, a rather long time for a 5th grader. And, I was utterly alone.
I couldn’t tell anyone anything. You see, when my parents divorced, they respected us. They let us choose. My brother didn’t hesitate. He went with Dad. I stayed behind. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t leave Mom by herself. I knew from the after school specials that if I told anyone what was happening at home, if I said instead the bruises were from fists rather than falls, they would take me from her. Mom would be alone, with no one to protect her.
So, I began writing my own stories, mostly fantasies about the anti-hero wanderer finally recognizing the injustices of a great empire and raising an army to topple it. I would have teachers read them, my school counselor. They would smile, suggest some grammar changes, suggest maybe less violence, but they would encourage me to keep going, and I took that as meaning I was doing the right thing. I laid my wars away in books.
In a poem I wrote a few years ago, I wrote, “What have I to speak of war?” It was a poem about having never been to war, having never fought in the military, the only news I knew of war coming from the media. I intentionally wrote into it the cliches of Hollywood: holding a best friend in his dying moments, vomiting after my first kill, the giving of a letter to go to my wife “just in case.” I thought I knew nothing of war. But Yuknavitch says differently.
Listen: I used to think war was a thing governments sanctioned and soldiers fought on battlefields. After reading these books, I understood that in order to understand war, I had to demilitarize my understanding of it and learn to read beyond the sanctioned soldier’s story to get it. Basically to read beyond the paradigms of World War and Vietnam.
Here is what I learned about war from reading these books:
1. War is a structure of consciousness and cultural production.
2. Our very processes of language and psychic and social development already contain within them the very seeds of bellicosity and the archetype of agon. Protagonist. Antagonist. Fight.
3. Battlefields of war are varied and multiple; they can be social, sexual, domestic, even representational.
In these terms, I have plenty to speak of war.
Writing my story into allegories that I could let teachers read without fear of being removed from the space between my mother and John gave me what I needed to stay in that space.
I don’t ever remember finishing any of those old stories. In those old stories, my hero never overcame the empire. He fought and he never died but I never found myself knowing what it felt like to overcome. When I tried to finish those old stories, the words felt false, felt like someone else’s ending.
And of course they were someone else’s ending. They were Frodo returning to the Shire, Will and the Drews vanquishing The Dark, Taran finding it in himself to draw Dyrnwyn. I didn’t yet know my own overcoming.
In a period of such darkness, with so little to teach my right from wrong, when I didn’t have my father but a couple weekends a month to teach me how to be a man, I had books and heroes. In the great battles of man vs. monster, good vs. evil, these books taught me what it meant to endure and believe in a light after the darkness.
Those old stories remain unfinished, crumbling notebooks packed away in boxes found when we cleaned out Mom’s house years ago, the spiral binding rusted, the pages yellow, the hero still fighting. There are always new darknesses to rally against. But should I choose to revisit those old stories, the stories that dealt so specifically with that period of darkness, a darkness that almost took me but for the books that showed me what it was to survive, I know now how to write the ending.
Books saved my life. Period.
I believe in books. I believe in their ability to change and save lives as they did mine. I believe that to get books into people’s hands, to get them to love books as I do, is to save and change their lives.
Read “The Urgent Matter of Books” by Lidia Yuknavitch at The Rumpus.