Thursday, May 12

Books that Change Everything

Sometimes there are books that change your life.
When I was 5 I read Bears in the Night. It was an old book that was mostly about bears who sneak out of the house at night and get scared in the dark. It was light on plot but it was as good as a door opening for me.
When I was 11 I read The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews. I wanted to write. I wanted to fall into my imagination and get lost.
When I was 21 I read Jane Eyre and The Yellow Wallpaper and I started really reading poetry. I read a lot that year.
When I was 23 I read Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World by Kathleen Ragan and I wanted to be a storyteller. A Storyteller. I wanted to tell those stories.
Tonight I finished The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness and many things I thought I understood about myself fell away.
I think I first heard the folktale of The Crane Maiden when I was a child. Maybe on Reading Rainbow? Thematically it's related to the story of Bluebeard, Mr. Fox and Fitcher's Bird (which are all variants of the same story, really), as well as a story called Skywoman's Basket that a friend of mine tells. All of them are lovely stories that I've read and reread and some that I've told. I know this story. In many ways, it was and is my story.
Aboriginal Storytelling traditionally does not explain the stories they tell. Instead, the repeat them until they eventually understand them. I wonder if I hadn't repeated those stories until I wasn't listening to them anymore.
Patrick Ness turned this story sideways and upside-down and inside-out and handed it back to me. I thought I knew this story. I thought this story was my story and that it belonged to me. I thought it was about me and about who I was. I was wrong.
Or maybe I just became wrong. The understanding I had of who and what I was changed because I changed. The story is the same as it always was but I see it differently now. It is part of me in a different way.
I remember the first time a story changed for me. I read The Awakening by Kate Chopin in high school I honestly think that having teenagers read that story is a ridiculous idea. It's like giving Joseph Campbell to kindergarteners. They simply don't have the context to really understand the complexity of the story.
I reread the story a few years ago after I'd had children and after I'd lived a little of my life. It wasn't a different story, but I was a different person. I had a lot more empathy for the main character.

We all want to think we're the complex one in any story. We are the hero. We are the righteous ones. But, sometimes you are Psyche and you end up wandering the earth to try to regain what you've lost. And sometimes you discover that you are Bluebeard with blood on your hands. Sometimes you realize you're the wolf. You're the husband who has locked up his wife's seal skin. You're the witch with a deep resentment for the lovely step-daughter you've inherited. You're the black bride. You're Jack's eldest brother.

Part of living a growing life might partly be the process of being able to see the part you really play in the story and being able to discern the part you want to play.

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