It wasn’t very easy to hold my book open with one hand nearly paralyzed with pain, but with a careful yogic splaying of a knee, a wrist, and my good hand, I braced open a dilapidated copy of Watership Down in the near dark of the Salt Lake County Juvenile Center for as long as they left the lights on. I’m not really sure how many nights I kept this vigil. In that distant memory I doubt I have any real sense of time passage. I know that it was probably the first time, but certainly not the last time, that I read a book cover-to-cover during the late hours. I continue that habit even now, every time I find one that I love.
My love of literature sprouted at the oddest of times. When I compare my experience with the likes of Malcolm X, for whom reading was a “literal” salvation, I am puzzled by the oddity of my own experience. Mine was so utterly opposite, as this devouring of a novel occurred, not during an awakening to an alternative life toward the straight and narrow, but rather an awakening to a world outside of a conservative, sheltered world. One characteristic is shared; we both were in the throes of a spiritual awakening.
I was raised poor-ish. I was definitely not poor for the entirety of my childhood. Just long enough to be humiliated by wearing hand-made dresses from salvage-quality fabrics, to be teased for wearing my older brother’s hand-me-downs, and to be a latch-key kid suffering the unfortunate ‘parenting skills’ of a barely-older brother.
We suffered these humiliations so that my parents could afford tuition to elite Parochial schools (yes, angry nuns and all… which may be a form of suffering in itself). That serves as counter-weight to my argument of poverty, but it didn’t change the experience of lack by comparison to other very wealthy children that shared my class. I felt very poor when comparing my bus pass with someone else’s warm ride in the car or the regular suggestion that I would look cuter in braids or something, though no one at home had time or the know-how to teach me to do it. The fact that my parents were slowly obtaining wealth changed nothing once my reputation for dumpiness was established.
Maybe it will help to understand how Catholic schools are run. You enter at age 5 for preschool and are placed in a small class of 15 or so for ½ a day. Then, at 1st grade, the morning and afternoon classes are blended into one class of 30+ students. You remain with them through 8th grade with little variation in classmates from then on. We may have lost 2 and gained 3, but not much more than that.
Despite my relatively minor sufferings, I had a stellar opportunity for education. I was educated in classical literature, including the Bible, from the earliest of days. I have read the Bible cover to cover many times since being deemed old enough to own a whole one in 7th grade. Some of my first lessons in advanced annotation and critical reading came from one priest’s admonishment to students whose bibles looked as though they were in mint condition. He said “if I don’t need to give you a new one next year, you’re not reading it.” I read it regularly. I read it right up through the age of Confirmation, a sacrament provided to “confirm” that you wanted to be known as a Catholic. It is a second baptism of sorts.
Maybe the path I was eventually to follow is to be blamed on the fact that sinning and suffering were somewhat eradicated within the fold. We were so isolated. We were allowed only to socialize with other Catholic school kids at basketball games, baseball games, football games and church. There was no mingling with the public school kids because they are, by definition, intellectually and spiritually inferior: gentiles. Don’t laugh, I do know now that we Catholics are gentiles by definition; we weren’t taught the real definition. We were taught that Protestantism was the same as being a gentile. That was a nice biblical slur that helped to solidify our culture and create a sense of pride within the community.
The world I was entrenched in had few opportunities for expression of the values it taught. My world did not demonstrate significant sinning, so it provided little opportunity to exercise forgiveness or penance. My world did not appear to contain true poverty (certainly none worse than my own), so it gave few chances to exercise charity or generosity. All of these virtues that I was supposed to be learning were useless virtues in the sheltered community of the well-to-do. What it did provide was hypocrisy and an inconveniently good education about the Bible.
It was in the summer between 8th grade and High School, while studying the Bible (again) for Confirmation, that I began to take the hypocrisy seriously. Inside my Catholic community, I was taught “humility” but learned to be haughty and prideful. I was taught about “charity” but I only learned to do so with cardboard boxes for coin collection to help Unicef. I never learned to be charitable spiritually with people. I observed uncharitable thoughts and words about those “gentiles.” I was taught about the Good Samaritan, but learned that this was a service the church provided through the soup kitchen. We were spared the hands-on work. It was possible only to know those I was taught by, but never did I learn to know my neighbor, a fundamental principle of Christianity. Did my teachers and family forget to read the Bible that they gave me? I balked at the contrast. I wasn’t disagreeing with the religious ideals they taught me; I was having a fundamentalist argument with the practitioners.
Within that dissonant period, I discovered the world outside of Catholicism. Outside of Catholic schools there were these amazing, courageous people. I met them on the bus and talked to them. I went places with them and observed their ways. I was enthralled with the experiences. I was drunk on their freedom. They were adventurous and daring. Yes, as it turns out, many of them were drug users and drinkers. They all smoked. We had all of that in Catholic schools. That wasn’t what drew me away from home. I wasn’t lured into sin by wayward Protestants and gentiles. Catholic schools were notorious for excess, and for getting away with it. I smoked as much as anyone in school or out. I drank little and used fewer drugs. What seduced me was freedom and a desire to “know my neighbor.”
I knew my neighbor in ways my family and friends found frightening. My poor parents suffered through my preference to leave the house all night, roam the street at all hours talking and laughing with friends. Ride busses here and there. Get lost. Hitchhike. Be Free. The people were pleasant, caring, generous, non-judgmental, happy, and free-spirited. It was as though I joined a band of gypsies. But, like you can imagine in this scenario, I got into trouble.
I found myself spending a week in D.T. (some would know it as “Juvie”) during the Christmas break of my sophomore year. With an injured wrist, acquired in a domestic battle over my right to roam the city, I was booked into the facility on the first leg of my liberated journey. One fantastic counselor (a gentile, mind you) was dedicated to giving me what she perceived to be the educational encouragement that I lacked. While it’s doubtable that I lacked any classical education, her diligence, kindness, and attention confirmed my suspicions of the “gentile” myth. She noted that I had artistic talent and that I was a good reader. She encouraged my talents and gave me that tattered copy of Watership Down, which remains a favorite read.
One element of this book encouraged my delinquent thinking. I was enthralled with the rabbit lexicon. They were not words, but I could read these non-words and incorporate them into my lexicon. It was proof that there was a non-canonical language the world had yet to teach me. There, in D.T., what should have been my greatest shame by anyone else’s definition, I was being reassured that my rebellion was valid. There were things the world had to teach me. The virtues that the bible had taught were applicable, but not inside of that sheltered world where I was raised. In fact, I was learning humility on a scale that was both earth-shattering and a relief. The world away from those parochial schools gave me my first opportunity to apply the values I learned there. Here in the “gentile” world people were people and I was able to practice charity, humility, generosity, and love.
Upon leaving D.T. that counselor made me promise that I’d never be back. It was a promise I couldn’t keep. There were just too much to learn from the world outside my own. I spent a number of years following people (yes, eventually I stopped identifying them as gentiles) on an anthropological expedition through cities and states. I found myself traveling to Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California and Nevada by hitchhiking, mostly from truck stops. I attended concerts of my favorite rock bands by partying with them the nights prior. I even, and I am not making this up, joined the circus for two weeks. I merely sold “Candy! COTTON candy!” but how many people can say they ran away and joined the circus?
Not all of my adventures were so liberating. My adventures
included holding a job and an apartment at the age of 16, (and again at 17 and
18) with my roommate and friend (not Catholic), who remained my closest friend
for over 22 years. I had long since left
the flock of Parochial schools to join the band of Protestants at public
school. I finished two and a half years of high school in one year and a night
course, graduating with almost straight A’s. I learned to hold my own in the
dangerous, free-world away from the security and the hypocrisy of the world
where I was raised. As always, I continued to read and study classical texts. I
studied religions, including apocryphal
texts. I studied Shakespeare. I found that the more I studied the more
liberated I found myself from prejudices because I could, through this exposure,
argue multiple sides of the same argument and do so credibly. I could believe
anything or I could believe nothing. In the end, I had to move to studying the
Bible in the source languages with a diglossia* because the translations couldn’t be
taken at face value. In short, books and language
became a passion.
Malcolm X left a life of crime when he learned
to read. I embarked on a life that included many mistakes but that led me to think critically about everything. There is power in the
written word. Some argue that I found a truer Christianity, when I retell this.
I don’t know if that is true; certainly I strayed from much of what
Christianity teaches, but the Bible challenged me intellectually and changed my
life. Isaac Asimov had words to say
about libraries, which I argue could be extended to the books within “… [it is]
a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.” He wrote those words
on the exact date of my birth, March 16, 1971. As such, I will enjoy it as a
birthright to love books this much.
*diglossia- side-by-side translation.