Monday, October 6, 2014


A few weeks ago, I was thinking how to best convince my children to love e.e. cummings and Shakespeare, because I love them so much and I'm quite certain my children will encounter neither at school.  And in the midst of my plotting (clearly, it would be best to start Keilana off with "little you-i"--after that, I'm sure she'd be hooked), it occurred to me that no one introduced me to them, at least directly.

I grew up with parents who are teachers, learners, readers.  Our living room had 3-4 sets of overstuffed bookshelves, and the room we all referred to simply as "the office" (a long room at the end of the house that was the full width of my parents' good-sized home) had bookshelves made from plywood boards and bricks that ran the full length of the room, floor to ceiling, and were completely full of books of nearly every kind imaginable--and that's before we got to the books in bedrooms and in piles on the end tables and counters of our living spaces.

The personal library my parents had accumulated in their many years of reading and teaching was my best teacher.  I was free to wander through the shelves at my own speed and indulge whatever title or cover or description sounded interesting.  It wasn't merely the quantity of books available, but the quality and diversity that was truly amazing.  My father had been (and is again) a high school English teacher, and so we were awash in classics:  in high school, I read a good portion of Shakespeare's plays, several Jane Austen novels, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Republic, quite a lot of Dickens, and a tiny bit of Chaucer.  Not because they were assigned, but because they were there and sounded interesting.  There was a seemingly limitless supply of poets (I tended toward Whitman, cummings, and Wordworth).  I read histories by Stephen Ambrose and Wallace Stegnar, I read biographies of Lincoln and Jefferson and Adams, I worked my way through the Federalist Papers, I read about the Civil War and the modern South.  I discovered a love for science I didn't know I had by reading books about trees and flowers, human biology, and ecology that somehow found their way into the collection.  I read fiction of all kinds--historical, sci-fic, chick lit, fantasy.  I discovered Tolkien, and Lewis, and a great love for the kind of fiction that actually taught me things rather than just entertained me.  I read Ender's Game for the first time after picking it off the shelf in the office, and discovered my favorite living writer, and one of my favorite fiction series ever, books that changed and sharpened my own beliefs.

You get the idea.  I have tried to be good at getting the kids to the library often to make up for the fact that we don't have a lot of space in our current house for books.  We have two relatively small bookshelves of adult books, and a small bookshelf full of kids books.  We have boxes and boxes of books in storage, even after getting rid of many through multiple moves, and I hope that in the next few years we are able to get situated to where we can have them out for our teenagers to peruse at random.  We have books on the Kindle and audio books on our mobile devices, but that isn't quite the same as having shelves of actual books to let your fingers wander through.

I grew up in a small town in rural Montana.  That has many advantages, but it has disadvantages, as well.  It was easy for my parents to instill in us a love of nature and outdoor activities, taking us camping and hiking and berry picking, while teaching us the names of flowers we picked and animals we passed or saw evidence of.  It was easy for them to teach us the value of family, with grandparents  being part of our daily lives, as well as some aunts and uncles and cousins.  It has long impressed me how remarkably good my parents were at overcoming the disadvantages of that environment.  We went to historical museums, art museums, aquariums and zoos, national parks and cities that were within driving distance.  When they took me to Washington, D.C. as a 12-year-old, it was revelatory.  Despite their large family and relatively small budget, I had the opportunity to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square and the National Symphony Orchestra at the National Cathedral. I got to canoe down portions of the upper Missouri, explore the Seattle Science Center, and take in Renoirs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I saw a Sondheim musical at the Kennedy Center, and learned how to sew and raise pigs for 4-H.  They gave us everything they could, and then filled in all the spaces in between with piles and piles of books.  While I'm sure they could see many of my strengths and weaknesses just as I am capable of seeing those of my own children, they never pushed me in any particular direction, nor failed to nudge me forward.  I'm trying to find that balance, to give that gift of limitless options and knowledge to my kids.

They never told me that I could learn or do anything--they just put the tools in reach and expected me to use them, built my confidence and helped me patiently through my struggles, and somewhere along the way I became consciously aware of how much wonder and beauty and good there was in the world.  I sometimes feel like I'm not as good at providing those tools for my kids, but I hope that we can continue to show them how big and full the world is, and how delightful it is to explore, whether in a canoe, a theater seat, or curled up in bed with a book.

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