16 September, 2021

Gimbling in the Wabe – As Much a Friend as Those Who Breathe

It doesn’t happen very often, when a time in your life is evoked in a very powerful way; when introspection (1)the shadows of your past are brought into sharp focus and you do more than remember what was:  you feel as you did at that time, with sensibilities, sensations and who you were all alive and vibrant again, and so very real.  Usually this happens when someone from your past – in person, from a photograph, perhaps through a song – reappears, and dredges up all sorts of memories.  The experience can be good, or it can be stressful, but it’s always very powerful.

Or sometimes those memories of the person you were can come from stumbling across a book that you once held close against your heart.

Recently, I re-discovered a book that I first read as an impressionable young girl.  At the time, I thought it was the most wonderful book ever written, and I must have read it multiple times although I can’t remember exactly how often, nor do I have a recollection of “returning” to it years later, as I can with other books from my past.  Certain images from the book, experiences that the heroine endured, phrases used, ideas expressed, even the final line are still very vivid in my memory.

But I put the book away when I became independent and moved out on my own, because in a way it felt too akin to the life I was leaving, as if it belonged to the person I was and not necessarily to the person I was to become.  It was part of the “clean break” that I made when I left my parent’s home.  But although I didn’t take the book with me nor obtain it later, I never completely forgot it.  Almost, but not quite.

You see, I grew up in a genuinely religious household.  My father was a minister, but more than that, he was a social progressive back before that was a label; he was compassionate, accepting of others regardless of their affiliations, a pacifist and a great humanist who led by example and never expected more of others than he could give of himself.  Whenever I hear the phrase “salt of the earth” I think of him and my mother, for they truly are the type of people that make life worth living, the epitome of what it means to be a Christian.  My mother, especially, was very literate, and it was she who fostered a lifelong love of reading in me and my sisters.

But since we never had a lot of money, those things that we owned – even the books that graced our shelves – tended to be religious, or have religious overtones.  Not all, but many.  And one of the most read and beloved of all our books was Catherine Marshall’s 1967 novel, Christy.  In it, 19 year old Christy Huddleson leaves her loving, upper class home in Asheville, North Carolina to teach at a fledgling mission school near remote Cutters Gap, Tennessee, deep in the Appalachian Mountains.  At first all she can see is the squalor, grinding poverty, and stubborn ignorance of the Mountain People (as they call themselves) but with the guidance of Miss Alice Henderson, Quaker founder of the school and mission, and the young pastor David Grantland, she begins to understand the dignity and fierce spirit of the Highlanders, and to recognize their own brand of nobility and worth.

Christy is also a book about faith, about understanding God’s will, and about finding purpose to your life.  These lessons are intrinsic to the tale, but are neither artificial nor forced.  They flow naturally from the characters and circumstances, without proselytism or a manipulation of purpose.  Christy leaves her home because of a stirring speech given at a Christian revival meeting calling for volunteers, but during her first dramatic days away from home, she begins to question her resolve, and her reason for being there in the first place.  When queried by Miss Henderson on her motives for volunteering, she admits to herself that she yearns to do more than just stay at home in Asheville, “getting married, having babies.”

Teas and receptions and ladies’ genteel talk.  Church on Sunday mornings.  Shopping and dress fittings.  Dance-parties and picnics in the summer.  A good enough life, only what did it all mean?  Where was it leading?  There must be more to life than that.

Yet out of the questions and struggles comes a growing awareness of true beauty, inside and out, and being able to see beyond the surface to the value and joy that lie at the heart of the matter.  And there is love, abundant love.  Christy eventually grows to love the Highland people, and find her place in their lives, and a purpose in her own.

And this book spoke to me.  I remember.  I remember connecting to this book and to Christy’s story in a way that seeped into my very bones, and shook me to the core, because I recognized myself there.  The questions that Christy struggled with were my questions, the reactions that she had were the ones that came to me, the doubts she admitted were ones that I wrestled with, daily.  I envied her in her sense of purpose and her emerging strength even as I searched for my own purpose and forayed out from my comfortable living to establish my own belonging.  Her anguished questions that rose out of having to confront the darkness of the human condition, from being a witness to cruelty, and to cruel ignorance, mirrored my own questions about life and god and purpose, despite of and perhaps exasperated by the nurturing upbringing that had for so long sheltered me.

But I remembered something else, too.  I remembered, how in reading Christy’s tale, and seeing in her so much of myself, I felt less alone in my doubts and fears.  Like a true friend, this book gave my young self, the me that was on the cusp of adulthood, permission to acknowledge that life is not always neat and tidy and clean, but that sometimes the best of things cannot be attained by being neat and tidy and clean.  It helped me have the courage to appreciate what I had, but then to walk away from it, so as to find out the so-much-more that lies ahead.   It helped me to accept the leap of faith I needed – a far different faith than that of my parents, but faith nonetheless – to learn the genuine me.

When I picked up Christy last week, and started re-reading it, I will admit that I was a little nervous about what I would find.  I wasn’t sure if revisiting it would reveal it to be more akin to a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie than a true work of note.  After all, are not many of our remembrances vibrant only in our mind’s eye, and of a much humbler hue when exposed to inspection?  Would the money I had doled out for a new copy end up more a momentary stroll down memory lane, a nod to nostalgia, than the powerful book that had been a witness to my childhood, the one that I remembered?

Before the end of the first page, though, I realized that I had truly re-discovered an old friend.  The effect of it was different now, but after all, I’m a vastly different person now.  Yet the stirrings that arose in me when revisiting those pages, while still memories, resonated deeply.  I did not return to the girl that I was, but I remembered her, truly remembered her with not just intellectual recognition, but with a remembrance deep in my bones and in my blood of the emotions and the sensibilities and the fears and the hopes of not only who she was, but who she would become.  The me she had become.  All that from a book.

Ah, yes.  All that from a book.

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