Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Kelly J. Pederson
English 201
Essay 1
October 2001

Reading, Writing, Knowing

I distinctly remember the first book I read: The Little Red Caboose. Boy was I proud. I don’t believe I knew the alphabet before beginning school in the first grade, yet sometime before the end of that first year, I was reading. It was when I read my first real chapter book, though, that I felt an entirely different kind of satisfaction.

My first Scholastic book order arrived at school on a sunny afternoon. I remember sitting on my metal, red plaid lunch box, reading while waiting for the school bus home, then reading on the bus, and reading still, while walking up the hill from the bus stop. When I finished the life story of Florence Nightingale late that afternoon, I remember looking up from lying on my belly in the thick, green shag carpet to where my mother sat at the table. She was pinning up her hair while reading, her book propped open by a can of bobby pins and a mirror. I knew at that moment that I had become a member of the club. I was now and forever a "reader."

The strongest influences of my early life were my mother and maternal grandmother. They were beautiful, talented and smart. My mother, especially, seemed always to have a book open or within reach. Bookcases were central to the furnishings of our homes, and I had as many books as toys.

My mother’s mother is well-read and mostly self-educated. She studied Latin and physics in her youth. Later she knitted and crocheted, soldered electronics for NASA, gardened, baked and remodeled her own homes. My grandmother’s study of nutrition helped to restore her health after serious problems in her sixties. She worked in the Physics and Chemistry Department at WWU, sold real estate, spun her own yarn and wove with it on her loom. Later still, she studied Spanish, taught Chinese cooking and carved porcelain dolls, which have become family heirlooms. At eighty-six, my grandmother reads for entertainment and to learn even now. She’s learning to grow orchids, studying butterflies to paint and researching patterns for sweaters she’s knitting for the newest round of great-grandchildren. She maintains her own bonsai collection, and recently attended a cooking class: "Some Like it Hot."

My mother is an artist, a gypsy, forever a metaphysical philosopher and a student of her many written spiritual "sources." In her youth, she acted and sang, wrote, ran and swam. She drew pictures and painted; conversed with nature. Later, Mother worked as a hostess in the finest Seattle hotels, gill-netted in Puget Sound, cooked on a fishboat in Alaska. She wore a hard hat at ARCO and trained her harness-race horse at Cloverdale. Currently Mother is studying bonsai, creates ever more incredible soups, and is learning to "let go and let God." It is to books that she refers for help with it all.

Much of my mother’s true beauty is that she has been so enhanced by her search for greater understanding—via reading, of course. She loves me, supports my decisions and is one of my best friends.

My grandmother inspired me by how capable, talented and independent she was. My mother, by her drive for knowledge and seeming fearlessness, but more than anything, for her constant reinforcement that I was capable and had a purpose. Thus loved and confident, I embraced learning about the world and my place in it. Mother continued to help—she bought World Book encyclopedias, dictionaries and the Childcraft Library early in my grade-school career. She brought home storybooks and how-to books without needing an occasion.

Learning to read, of course, leads to learning to write. More for some than others. While in school and in business, I wrote adequately for my purposes, but I had never considered myself a "writer." Only now am I recognizing the ways in which I have used writing in the past, in attempts to soothe myself or others, and to say gently what I could not clearly communicate aloud. The urge to express my deepest feelings in writing began subtly, in what must have been a stereotypically therapeutic manner during my years as a "lost teenager."

From the beginning, I loved school—it was my favorite pastime. During adolescence, however, an accident that took a year of recovery also resulted in my change of focus. I went from being studious and athletic to hanging with the "wrong" kind of kids, partly because I was no longer able to participate in sports, but mostly because they were there when I didn’t have anything better to do.

The year I was 15, I ran away from home multiple times and began dabbling in drugs, alcohol and young men. I hitchhiked and rode freight trains, spent time in juvenile detention, jail and reform school. Somewhere around that time, I read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. In The Prophet, I found words that spoke to me like none I had read before. "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you." His words, so simple and obvious, told truths I didn’t know I knew, though I recognized them as though they were my own. "[O]f what can I speak save of that which is even now moving within your souls?"

I didn’t know what to do with these words and the feelings they evoked. This was when I wrote poetry—the only time that I wrote poetry. I don’t remember much about the poems, and it was only recently that I realized that through them, I had probably been trying to express dissatisfaction with life and asking questions that I couldn’t begin (or didn’t dare) to voice. For although I’d learned many valuable academic skills, I’d never learned to contemplate, share, or deal with my emotions.

The only person to read the poetry was my sweet, innocent boyfriend, who really knew nothing about me. I showed him the poems after he said, in frustration, that "You are a rock, You are an island." (After the Simon & Garfunkle song.) I think they must have been fairly expressive poems, for he stopped asking questions after reading them. Whatever they said to him, he was, if anything, more attentive whenever I called for his help.

After spending my "sweet 16th" birthday in jail in Kentucky, I agreed to remain at home and go along with the rules. My mother and I came to an unspoken agreement and lived more like roommates, with neither judging, nor telling the other how to live.

About that time, I started reading science fiction/fantasy novels. My high school career in ruins, I left school and got a GED. I worked building jogging trails in Cornwall Park, attended tech school, bummed around, waitressed and partied. At twenty-one, I was cleaning office buildings, living on a tugboat and attending business college, which launched a more reliable career. I got married, line danced and belly danced, videotaped weddings and softball games. My husband and I earned the joint nickname "AM/PM" because we rarely went to bed on the weekends.

During this marriage I was reading Shirley MacLaine’s books on her spiritual search, and was trying to shift myself and my husband into the next step of maturity. But I was beating my head against his brick wall. He took to hiding my books or burning them. During rough times, I would find myself writing furiously, not caring what I wrote or how it came out. He wouldn’t listen to me, nor was I allowed to talk with others about our problems. But I had to talk to someone! I was starting to think I was crazy. Worse: I was starting to think that maybe he was right – that I shouldn’t be trying to make us grow up. He’d say, "If you’d just get pregnant, then I’ll settle down."

By throwing my tangled emotions on paper, I was able to settle them into some sort of order in my mind. Thus I discovered that I was not crazy. My mind was simply a-jumble with unspoken concerns, the budding desire to explore my spiritual side, and the dawning awareness of my squelched individuality—all in the name of "preserving the marriage."

After our ensuing divorce, I spent several years trying to locate the real me. I became involved in service work and leadership through Kiwanis and worked to institute a women’s auxiliary of the Sheriff’s Posse. I bought my first home; something I’d always longed for. I’ll never forget the feeling of triumph. The power and exhilaration. The work! (It was an old house, with acreage, outbuildings, and fences.) Still, it was real, it was mine. I was me. This was all I’d ever wanted. I thought.

Then I remarried, to a man with teenagers. Then we had a daughter. Then, it started again. I had to write because the ones I needed to talk to wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t blame them, because I never seemed able to say what I really thought. When I did, it was sadly without tact, for all I tried. Eventually, I discovered that I could say in writing just what I wanted them to understand. Unfortunately, I didn’t always have willing readers. Toward the end of my second marriage, my husband simply ripped up whatever I gave him to read, without so much as looking at it.

At this time I decided that even in writing, I couldn’t express myself clearly. If I could have, surely it would have opened his heart to understanding me, and opened his mind to honest discussion. So I assumed that in writing, as in marriage, I was a failure.

Years later, my six-year-old daughter is a reader. She practically taught herself, so in love with books she was. Mikaela started kindergarten reading Dr. Seuss, following along as I read picture books, then finished the year listening to me read our first Harry Potter novel. During a long, hot day at the fair in August, we finally found a copy of the second novel in the series. Mikaela was tired and eager for quiet time, so I hoisted her onto my back, from where she read Harry Potter to me as I walked us to the car. This, to me, is motherhood at its best.

My little girl loves animals and insects, science and sports. She says she wants to be a pilot and a teacher and a basketball player and a house builder and to work with dolphins. I say, "Great! What else? You can do all that and more." Her life is so full of promise, and like me, she embraces the opportunity.

So how will I help her to avoid my pitfalls? How will I prepare her for real life beyond academia? I worry that I’ve already started on the wrong foot. Like my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother: I am now a single mother. What can I teach my daughter about healthy love relationships when I’ve yet to witness, much less be a part of one?

Well, I’m not entirely at a loss. I can model for her a self-possessed woman, both confident and capable. But this is only more of what past generations have shown us. What can I give my daughter that will also enhance her ability to establish healthy relationships?

I know. I must encourage her to learn to know herself. How? By learning to know myself better first. It seems that through writing—to me, about me—I might begin to settle my tangled self perceptions into some sort of order in my mind. I will encourage Mikaela to seek her own methods of self-discovery, of course, because "You may give [your children] your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts;" and, "You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you."

I’ve returned to reading Kahlil Gibran. These were some of his very words that first moved me as a teenager, and they motivate me now as a mother. This seems a fitting place to begin the journey inward that should have begun so long ago.

 

Copyright 2001
Kelly Pederson

 

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015