Just a month after getting married we moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s a marvelous place where ancient castles still stand atop of cobblestone streets and sheep out number people by A LOT. Beautiful woolly cows and mysterious lake creatures beckoned us to explore the legendary highlands. The terrain was breathtaking; expanses of yellow-green hillsides and deep, dark mysterious lochs (lakes). We could drive and drive and drive on the left side of a two lane road without seeing any signs of human life. If the apocalypse were to happen while in the Scottish wilderness, it might be possible for a person to live very peacefully; completely oblivious of any ensuing zombie attacks or rabid monkey infestations. For the two of us, alone in the untouched, untarnished muddy countryside of Scotland, life was a mountain of possibilities.
Our itty-bitty (nearly microscopic) flat in Edinburgh was our first home. We loved it and the quaint view from our window of the private whiskey club across the street. We even sort of enjoyed the smells of fried food that wafted up from the chip shop down stairs. These were treasured times. We worked for minimum wage in separate coffee shops. It paid our bills (mostly) but what most delighted us was the tasty espresso and new friendships. We were so poor, probably the poorest we’ve ever been, but we had so much fun!
In Scotland we had no TV so we had to find other forms of entertainment. In the absence of TV we found books. Becoming a person not just capable of reading, but enjoying reading was a radical switch for me. As a kid, reading was a hugely difficult, anxiety riddled activity. I read slowly and I stumbled over my words. On those days, when my teachers would ask us (students) to read out loud; those moments were traumatic for me. Even thinking about it as an adult, imagining my turn coming closer and closer...it can still make my heart race, my palms sweat and my saliva build to the point that it threatens to drown me. Reading was so much effort and work. It wasn’t relaxing or fun. It wasn’t until Scotland that I began reading full books; book after book. And a love for reading was born!
We still romantically reminisce about the hours we used to spend side by side absorbed in fantastically, exciting novels. Sometimes we’d even walk and read, too captivated by our stories to set them down. Some of the books were cheesy, others more cerebral but all were fiction and absurdly far fetched. They swept us away to even further away places and we never missed the telly (TV), not even once!
For us, opening a new book would begin like a nerdy boxing match. Each of us in our opposing corners, books in hand. Then the flirtatious taunting would begin. One of us would raise an impassioned eye brow while the other might cast a crazed and menacing glare. Then an imaginary bell with clang and our fake seriousness would dissolve into laughter. We’d rush at those words…chewing through pages and chapters, a race to the finish.
I remember all those stories so clearly but it almost feels like they're a piece of someone else’s life. After coming back to the U.S., we did what big, grown-up college grads do: we got meager grown-up jobs. Then babies came and those cozy evenings, curled up on the sofa, each with a book in our hands and our legs intertwined…they stopped.
For a while I really mourned the loss of reading. Reading made me feel smart in ways I never had before. But I’ve found that reading is a lot like exercise, prayer and sex…the less you do it, the less you want it.
But over the last 6 months my dead, gray, lifeless love for reading has been resuscitated. It happened with the 2015-2016 school year, when I became an unintended ‘home school mom’. It definitely hasn’t been a joy ride although every day I experience a roller coaster of emotions. Our curriculum requires us to read heaps and piles…mountains of books together.
My tall sweet boy is exactly like I was with reading. He slowly feels his way over words, bumbling around. Then he’ll get to a longer word and obviously guess without truly trying, just wanting to end his misery. For him, reading feels like punishment…or a third world torture tactic. He’d maybe rather have his fingernails slowly pulled off or battle 1000 sword wielding men, than read.
Half of our school books, my son reads and the other half I read…out loud (my least favorite thing). At first it was just part of the job, a portion of our daily work. But then slowly I began looking forward to it…and I know Christian did too (although doesn’t like to admit it).
Last month, we read Freedom Train, The Story of Harriet Tubman. Harriet was an amazingly courageous woman who escaped slavery in the U.S. then selflessly sacrificed everything, over and over again, to free hundreds of slaves using the Underground Railroad (a network of God-fearing people who helped hide and sometimes transport slaves to freedom). Every chapter left me crippled with emotion, grasping for composure. Public displays of emotion have always made me feel naked and exposed.
I worked hard every few pages to swallow away the choking ball of tears in my throat. For weeks I was able to disguise my emotion laced words. Until one day, nearly arms reach from the book’s finish line, all my dammed up emotions overwhelmed me as I read President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The scene depicted in those couple of pages about thousands of slaves gathered with eager anticipation, waiting to hear the announcement of their freedom…it was too much for me!
“There was breathless silence in the grove. Throats were too choked for cheers. The commander of the First South Carolinas stepped forward to present a flag to his regiment – a flag made for the freedmen by the ladies’ sewing circle in New York State. As he help out the Stars and Stripes, a voice broke the stillness. It was a voice which had been heard before, on lonely paths in the woods under the North Star: My country, ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
A quavering man’s voice joined in, then two women’s, until the whole assemblage was singing:
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrims’ pride!
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
Verse followed verse, while the officers on the platform stood at attention. Then Harriet spoke the final words of the ceremony: “This is the first flag we have ever seen which promised us anything. This is the first day we have ever had a country.”
Such a beautiful, soul piercing scene! As I read that portion, I paused in odd places trying to keep myself from a full bodied weep: that unadulterated ugly howling sort of crying that always comes with a blotchy face and spit strings. Then, from the sofa behind me I heard a slightly mocking but also confused voice ask, “Mom…are you crying??? Are you crying over a book…??”
The tears needed explaining. Seems that sweet, smart, amazing 9 year old boys don’t always understand tears; not their own nor other peoples’. I tried REALLY hard not to sound defensive (which I was) or furious (which I also was) with the fact that an explanation was needed at all.
But there was a personal beauty in that awkward mother-son moment. I felt reborn, filled with life again! I’d been transported through my reading to another time. I too was standing there in that grove. I felt the mix of despair and hope. I felt my heart overflow with pride and relief when freedom was pronounced. And I marveled in awe that the now former slaves would choose to join together in song, in beautiful unison honoring the country that had so long enslaved them. What an incredible moment in history! None of this would ever be known except that it’s been written down and published in a book. I have a thousand reasons to be thankful for my time in Scotland, but one of the reasons closest to my heart is that it was there that I learned that I could love reading.