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- Paul J. Dovre
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- Nick Ellig
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Virginia Connell, Library Instruction
Blessed for the Storm
March 28, 2011
When I was around nine years old, my cousins and I were all rushed to my grandmother's fruit cellar to take shelter from a tornado. These were the days before instant communication like text-messaging and before the existence of city sirens, which might serve as early warning. My grandmother had us run because she could see how close the funnel cloud was. My memories of this are still vivid. Sitting on a small bench in the cool room, I stared at rows of preserved peaches, Mason jars of canned green beans, and sacks of potatoes, and worried a little, not about the storm, but about the large spider web in the upper corner of the room. I also remember desperately wishing I had brought a book.
As I reflected on ways in which we are "Blessed...for the storm," I began to realize how consistently over the years I have depended on literature in the midst of a storm. Poetry, short stories, and novels have always served other purposes for me, of course: they provide entertainment, inspiration, insight, intellectual stimulation, and a deep-seated kind of satisfaction. But, for me, they have also always served as shelter. On all of those evenings when "The rain set in early to-night,/ The sullen wind was soon awake,/ It tore the elm-tops down for spite,/ And did its worst to vex the lake" (Browning 73), what could be better than being by the fireplace with a novel? As both literal and figurative storms have blown through my life, literature has given me another place to be-and other people to be with. Wonderfully crafted sentences can, as Adam Nicolson argues in God's Secretaries, "embrace both gorgeousness and ambiguity" (74), and at times when reality is both ugly and rigid, this is truly a blessing. So I will confess to literature-driven escapism at times...but the shelter fiction provides me has been even more valuable when trying to make meaning out of an emotional squall.
When I read, I bring my worries, my confusion, and my concerns about life with me, despite my attempts to escape them. What I usually find, however, is that some author has been there ahead of me. Ironically, the characters, by opening up their lives to me in the book, often end up driving me back out into the world. I may turn to fiction to go to another time and place, but after reading an especially compelling passage, I often think, "What could be more real than that?" The author has shown me a new context for my worries, and has made me feel less alone as a result. Though the story itself can be painful (and therefore not entirely escapist), at times the story gives me a way out. Even characters and plots that are drawn much "larger than life" can offer me in my ordinary life a new way to think through my concerns. Because these characters live in the realm of metaphor, their attitudes and actions are often more extreme than mine have ever been. Authors will "draw big pictures," as Flannery O'Connor says, when they present something most readers want to ignore. A good example comes from a novelist I read a lot of in college: Walker Percy. In his book The Second Coming, the main character Will Barrett has resolved on suicide unless God makes known some reason not to end his life early. Feeling abandoned in his emotional storm, Barrett descends into a cave to wait for a sign from God or to die waiting. Percy, who is known for sardonic wit in his plots, gives Barrett a toothache-one so fierce that Barrett has to leave the cave. Later in the novel, having had more time to consider, the main character finds love is still possible in his life. This sort of blessing, or grace, as one of my undergraduate philosophy professors used to say, comes not as a beautiful and blissful rainbow after a hard rain, but as a swift kick in the pants during the storm. So literature can both serve as solace by sheltering me from the storm and be complex enough to urge me forward through the storm. When I feel unique in my complaints, characters push me to step back a bit to get some perspective. Though my difficulties are much smaller than a character like Barrett's, sometimes, I too need a toothache.
Literature, and poetry in particular, has blessed me for the storm by either taking me away from the confusion of the wind...or blessed me by reminding me to listen to the wind. These rhythms and metaphors speak to me so that I have to listen. In our Psalm reading for today, I hear a reminder to listen, even as it storms around me: "In distress you called, and I/ rescued you;/ I answered you in the secret place of thunder" (Ps. 81: 7). For me, literature has always been a rescue, a gift, a blessing. The insight, wisdom, and resonance that poems, plays and novels have given me, in my mind, make the point that the arts are necessary and sustaining for us. Others may find the kind of sustenance I find in the written word in music or painting...but I think they are all of a piece. And that they are all blessings.
Fortunately for me, I found this blessing early in life. Well before that tornado when I was nine, I was in the habit of always having a book with me. My mother took me to the public library every other week so that neither of us would ever be without something to read. I have been blessed by these authors' works...and I suspect that I will continue to need the shelter they provide, because "the rain it raineth every day" (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, V.i. line 389), and the lightening will "flame out, like shining from shook foil" (Hopkins, line 2) when I least expect it. And in the latter part of March, when I think that winter storms will never cease, and that there is way too much water everywhere, I need poets to remind me that spring is coming. William Carlos Williams paints a ragged, but determined progress toward spring, in a poem that makes me think he has been here with us through the storm, and that he stays here with us as the snow has started to recede:
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
(William Carlos Williams "Spring and All")
Browning, Robert. "Porphyria's Lover." Poems of Robert Browning. Ed. Donald Smalley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1956. Print.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. "God's Grandeur." Poetry: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. New York: Longman, Penguin Academics, 2002. 194. Print.
Nicolson, Adam. God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: Harper Collins e-books, EPub Edition, 2003. Digital.
O'Connor, Flannery. "The Fiction Writer and His Country." Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984. Print.
The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print. Rev. Standard Vers. Print.
Percy, Walker. The Second Coming. New York: Pocket Books, 1980. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1980. Print.
Williams, William Carlos. "Spring and All." Poetry: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. New York: Longman, Penguin Academics, 2002. 226. Print.