5. This Reading Bridge
This bridge is not easily constructed; and, as the song says, no one else can do it for you, you’ve got to go there by yourself. To build it, we have to think of where we are now and what we have come to understand in getting here. We have learned to live with the ambiguities of having but also wanting, of loving but also dreaming. We have seen ourselves transformed by age and experience, and we have cleared our desks, sharpened our pencils and observed the guidelines as given by the proctor.
But, speaking for myself, it has become increasingly difficult to tolerate many absolute rules or values. Please, I ask: I am negotiating one life, seeking renewal every day, and improvising constantly. I need fewer constraints and more time for explorations. I am redefining the possibilities still open to me, especially the new ones, so different from the possibilities once open long ago, but so baffling then, and now closed to me forever.
I want to know the alternative stories I might have lived, the lives of others, the horizons of others; their legacies and metaphors. What has happened to the other stories? Who lived them? How did they work out? There are so many stories, we know now, and countless ways to live them through. We never grow up, I say; we grow through.
I have learned that a man needs to disentangle himself from anger and selfishness nearly every day, needs to remember the horizon, and to take a long view of it. I am defined less by what I have done than by what remains unfinished: the explorations of intimacy and caring; the hopes for a legacy of my own; to have taught at least one memorable lesson; to leave a record.
A man living my life or one like it has become aware of the mysteries between people; how we define ourselves separately from each other, dress ourselves to be this person, and not that one. I am aware of integrity and afraid of despair, and I have often lived barely on the edges of both. Increasingly those edges are what I talk about most:
Responding to the needs of others.
Rescuing others from emptiness.
Rescuing myself from emptiness.
Practicing generosity and caring.
Recollecting and interpreting the evidences of one life.
Understanding the story I live.
Living respectfully among others.
I try to live by these ideas: a fair man works to find and understand the commonness and the equality of his own life with the lives of others. Never underestimate the power of these unfinished issues, because these edges of a life keep it in forward motion.
Until September 11, 2001, these edges for many of us were dulled, I think, by a contemporary ethos of the instant, the competitive, the entertaining, and the successful; these edges, our concerns, our hearts, were at best unexpressed. That day was our day of acutely knowing our edges. After our experiences then, we know that a common life, even our own, can have an infinite touch. And now, when we acknowledge that the world is not the same, it is as much for what we have seen that remains inside ourselves as it is for what we know has been lost.
I think there is not one person who would not have wished some heroism — some chance to rescue another person, if only we were there and able — some moment to act above ourselves and beyond our limits, solely for the life of another person. If and only. Now, these are not idle speculations, as they might once have been; they are promises we make to ourselves about who we must become, not because a disaster might occur, but because it will not occur. Our heroism must be in our awareness, rediscovered for ourselves and expressed in our behaviors.
This is my lesson about the interior life that requires our dearest attention. I think there is not one person who cannot feel possible loss, the unimaginable moment, the abyss, the edge of despair, the collapse of structures and certainties within, layer upon layer upon layer. And so we are always challenged to rebuild those layers of identity, with connection, passion, generosity, and ideas. If we are in search of compassion and understanding, if we are looking for our hearts, we must move to the edge of our lives and the lives of others as readers, searching the universe for signs of themselves, do.
6. What Reading Means
The readers are everywhere. The readers change form, attuning their reading bodies: leaning forward facedown into it, falling deeply backward into it. The readers are everywhere in silence, though they hear a voice. The readers are everywhere unmoving, though they are in motion. The readers everywhere are private, though they are open, exposed, visible. They are nearby everywhere, though they accept the premises of another world, the written world apart from this one.
The readers are immersed in another logic, different from any of their own, immersed as well in an ethics, a history, a flow of time and mind. Immersed, they are themselves created by this other world, not their own, emerging nurtured into it as though from an egg. They rise, awaken, and look about themselves, and the readers give their own senses to another place; rising, the readers are no longer simply themselves, nor are they alone. They travel among others, with others within, their voices in their ears.
The readers are at risk, everywhere. They read, always at the edge of their own lives, minds like knives, cutting new spaces in an imagined wood. They live in configured worlds, carved of language. They live in other bodies, limbs made of language. In strands of experiences, fabrics woven of language. In boats, afloat on language.
Every time we read it is an opportunity to live up to the possibilities of the open experience, the voyage in the open boat, the journey on the raft, the promise of risking who and what the limits are. Readers read at the edge of discovery, a mirror to the edge of loss. Readers live beyond the constraints of one lifespan, one culture, one gender, one economy, one intellect, one body, one vision, one experience. Readers live in trouble and danger, in love, soft and pliant in the hands of others, distant in the lives and memories of others, until they look up, more safely or less safely returning into their own.
Readers are everywhere. In reading, they enter houses, rooms, beds, bodies of others; assumptions, fears, aspirations; tenements, jungles, seascapes. In reading, they are given to encounter and explore what they have asked to be given: the recovery of some fresh image waiting among the assemble memories of the past. The oil on the skin, the remembered kiss, the breath of sickness, the inevitable loss.
The readers hold their lives and experiences as templates or screens; and art is played out upon them. As they read they give and reveal themselves in reciprocity, offering in turn their fears to honor the fears in another person’s story, their passions to honor the other’s passions. Readers fold and unfold themselves into the reading; they are not here but in their ways of reading, folding and unfolding until they move forward into different lives.
These have been my reader’s questions: Where am I at this moment? What is leading me on? What, in this story, is my story? Why have I been abandoned here? Whom can I tell about this world? What can I say?
Reading is a world. Boundless, whole, complex, perceptual, challenging, incomplete, invisible, indistinct.
Reading is also a map of the world. Locations, relationships, entrances, exits, landscapes, highways, ranges, flats, weathers, traces, the forbidden.
Reading is tension. Greed, avarice, antipathy, ethics, generosity, kindness, assistance, revenge, forgiveness, enmity, peace, jealousy, acceptance, fragmentation, integrity, falseness, illness, medicine, authenticity, distances, presence, wounds, scars, conflicts, amity, dishonor, grace.
Reading is identification. Self, other, family, tribe, lover, enemy, artist, failure, doppelganger, mirror, twin, alien, stranger, unknown one, searcher, savior, saint, exile, prodigal, outlaw, violator, transgressor, restorer, clown, martyr, hero, magician.
Reading is a passage. Problem, risk, exploration, reflection, transformation, resolution, evolution, loss, victory, rescue.
I believe that we become who we are meant to be through thinking, reading and writing, speaking with others, and giving our attention to what we believe in. We work in a fluid information environment that surrounds us every day, where our engagements with processes (and not things) are about as certain as we can be.
Neither skillful mastery nor personal identity is ever fixed. It is a fluid and inviting world. This is a good condition of life: in the face of new unknowns every day, we have the opportunity to learn anew who we are and what we are capable of doing. It never ends.
How differently would we have to live without our trust and experience in reading?
We want to move forward to embrace our own lives, but safely and fearlessly; we want to shape our own becoming among people in a place we can trust.
We are given tasks and crises by our lives and our work; we learn to assume responsibility for knowledge, and we create our strength in response.
We build a human world that has never been built before, and never will be finished.
We find that the steady tensions of one life, and each life’s compelling issues, keep us in a state of inquiry and hope, and lead us on.
We believe that the experience of living and discovering knowledge for ourselves permits us to possess something that does not disappear.
We are all held together in a fabric of stories; the possibilities of interpretation enrich us; helping each other to listen strengthens our union.
We want a life that has the qualities of wholeness and integrity; and at its center, we want there to be a fire.
We find in reading that the fire must be inside ourselves.
And so, what happens when we read? Perhaps we become almost entirely made of mind, and completely unphysical. If this is so then we are somewhat apart from our bodies when we read. Except that we are not: we are even more deeply within our bodies, less aware of others, less distracted by an outer world.
Often, when we do this, an important thing happens: a reading community takes form. Reading and talking about reading confers on our engaged participants the capacity to imagine the possible in a democratic society. Once we have introduced ideas and processes to talk about them to ourselves, we find that we can never be the same. In my experience, this is how progressive discourse and expression can enter the community mind. When we do this we learn that readers read not to escape their experiences and their lives, but to discover themselves, where they are.
Reading is something that only our own minds can do: it is always a first-person experience. No one else can do it for us, because there are parts of us, deep inside, that only books, narratives, stories and myths will stir. We need this because we are all unfinished, all of us are works in progress, never more so than when we read and speak together.
In my experience of such groups, we find that our conversations are not only about books, but also about our communities and experiences, and about our aspirations. When we talk together, we present ourselves to each other and become known to each other, not strangers. Everyone reads the same book, but we find that we have read it differently from each other. We come to understand our shared world through the eyes of others.
Books of the kind we have chosen are often the clearest places to see courage and human possibility, values to emulate in a world where models are rare. And when we talk, we complete the life of the book, what Toni Morrison calls its “talking life,” because it is talk that permits us to grasp the imagination of possibility.
What does a reading culture understand? There are other points of view than our own. We are all similar, and we are all different. We are capable of differing from others, and yet we can listen to them as well. We need to make up our own minds individually. We live through complexity; we become stronger through difficulty.
Perhaps reading is a space we enter, a place different from where we are and we become lost in it. Except we can often remember exactly where we are at times we have read something powerful and magnificent.
Perhaps reading is a premise we assume, or evidence of another person that we accept within ourselves. Perhaps it is a gift we accept.
Perhaps it is an act of travel, a going-there. A going-between the present and the not-present, between the fictions we read and the fictions we live. From the now to what Maxine Greene calls the “not-yet.” To read well is to look into an exquisite but promising or perhaps foreboding diary that we did not write, knowing it will change our lives to open it, but yet we cannot resist. We want that privacy to be open to us, those secrets to be revealed to us, we want to be present for those undressings.
Who are we when we read? Is there some wild part of us capable of being other than ourselves? Of course there is. That person is the person we look for, with hope and expectation, when we read. What do you want? What is the bridge?