One of my favorite collections of poetry is Averno by Louise Gluck, and this is my favorite poem from that collection:
A Myth of Devotion
When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.
Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness
Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.
A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?
He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.
Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—
That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.
Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.
He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it Persephone’s Girlhood.
A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you
but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.
I enjoy horror more than most genres, but I’m fairly specific when it comes to the type of horror I enjoy. I’m not a fan of gore. I find jump scares to be effective in the moment, but am left feeling cold after the movie is over. I want horror to sit with me, to crawl under my skin and emerge when I find myself alone, or when I’m trying to go to sleep. I like being scared, as in really and truly frightened, not just freaked out.
I’m one of those people who will go on about how horror movies aren’t scary anymore. It’s all gore and grossness and blood and pushing the envelope in terms of how disgusting a murder can be portrayed. Or it’s lazy iterations and reiterations of scary dolls and serial killers. There are no surprises, only shock value. It’s gotten to the point where I wonder how such grotesqueness can be so…boring.
I will freely admit that I’m a total cliche – my favorite horror film is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I went through a phase when I was around 11 or 12 where I kept the VHS that my mom recorded it on in the VCR in my room and every single day when I got home from school, I’d rewind it (from the day before) and watch it while I did my homework. Every. Single. Day. In hindsight, it was more than a little strange. Still, I loved it so much and never thought I’d find another movie that bewitched me as much.
Until I saw The VVitch.
With that context in mind, I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say that there is no higher compliment I can pay a film than that.
I decided I wanted to know as little as possible about The VVitch (and I’ve decided that you should too, so I’ll keep this spoiler-free) after viewing the trailer and feeling sufficiently creeped out. I read reviews that said things like “it feels like we are watching something we shouldn’t be seeing” or “I felt like I was watching something genuinely evil” and got goosebumps and was instantly sold. (Like a totally normal, well-adjusted human!) I expected to be very scared, and I was. But it was a kind of scared that I haven’t felt for a very long time.
My mother liked horror as well, and because I was so weirdly attached to The Shining, thought I might enjoy some of her favorite movies. She thought I was too young for The Exorcist, but showed me Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie and Halloween. And then she showed me the 1976 film, The Omen. I remember that one very vividly because it was the first time I felt like I was watching something evil.
My mother raised me to be Catholic, as her parents raised her to be. She went to Catholic school, church every day, confession once a week, the whole nine yards. I didn’t go to Catholic school, but to church and Sunday school every week and to confession regularly. We watched The Omen and my mom noticed about 3/4 of the way through that I was crying. Not sobbing crying, not making a sound really. Just silently weeping, with big ol’ tears rolling down my cheeks. She paused the movie and asked if I was alright and I turned to her and said “I just don’t understand why God would let all of these bad things happen to these people. Why doesn’t he stop it?”
My poor mother probably expected this question eventually regarding real life tragedies, like war or famine, but here I was, asking some of the biggest questions you can ask concerning faith about a movie she was pretty sure I would enjoy because I loved The Shining. She had no idea what to say. I remember her stammering something about faith and free will, and said that we should probably turn the movie off. I actually kind of wanted to, but said that it was okay and I wanted to see how it ended. She hesitated again, probably thinking of how that movie doesn’t exactly feature a classic ending of good guys persevering.
I thought about that viewing experience near the end of The VVitch. Only this time I wasn’t weeping; I was transfixed. I think anyone could enjoy this film, but I also think it’s a different experience for a religious audience, no matter deep your faith lies. Even if you only believed once upon a time. Several scenes throughout left me with the same feelings I read about, like I was watching something genuinely evil. I felt like I was intruding on a real family and the terrible things happening to them. One scene in particular nearly inspired me to cross myself.
But I found myself rooting for the ending as it happened, feeling at once like it was tragic and somehow happy and the only way the film could possibly have ended. When the question, “woulds’t thou like to live deliciously?” is asked, I actually, literally whispered “yes.” Out loud.
I spent nearly every afternoon of my early teen years visiting the library that was walking distance from my house because I could think of no better way to spend the afternoon than reading, and the library was quieter than my house. My father, a prolific reader himself, had trouble believing that anyone could enjoy reading that much, and began to question where I was “really” spending my time. Our conversations began to go a little something like this:
“Dad, I’m going to the library, I’ll be back before dinner.”
“No you’re not. You’ve been “at the library” every day this week. I want you home.”
“Why? It’s the library. You’re honestly going to tell me you have a problem with me spending my free time reading?”
“I don’t think that’s where you go! NO ONE spends that much time at the library!”
“Where do you think I’m going? I’m not old enough to drive and there’s no other place to walk besides other houses.”
“Okay FINE, but when I find out what you’re really doing, we’ll see how smart you are then.”
One day I happened to glance up from my book as I lay with my head propped up on a low windowsill in my favorite, practically hidden corner of the YA section, and saw what looked suspiciously like my father skulking around and peeking down aisles with an increasingly triumphant look on his face. He finally made his way over near where I was.
He yelped in surprise.
“Oh, Kelley! You scared me! You…you really are here.”
Those were the days before the drinking and fighting started. Before I needed to find a place that was open as late as possible. Before I wanted to hang out with friends who didn’t want to spend their afternoons at the library. My brother joined a car club that liked to spend their evenings leaning on their souped-up cars outside of a Starbucks that was conjoined with a Barnes and Noble. As my parents fighting persisted, so did my desire to be somewhere, or really, anywhere, but home. I begged my brother to take me and our younger sister with him.
“No, you guys will be annoying.”
“We won’t, I promise. We’ll stay in Barnes and Noble and do our homework and hang out until you’re ready to leave.”
He relented, and I kept my promise. If all the tables were taken, we’d forgo our homework and peruse the music section or pluck books from the shelves to read while sitting on the floor in a corner. At the library I stuck to the YA stacks, but at Barnes and Noble my time was spent walking through other sections and picking up anything that piqued my interest.
Barnes and Noble is not where I learned to love books. But it is where I discovered Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda and learned to love poetry. It’s where I spotted the bright green cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and learned the healing power of a book that makes you feel like even if it’s not going to be okay, at least you’re not alone. It’s where I discovered Milan Kundera. It’s where I read On the Road, Naked Lunch and Howl while sitting in sunbeams on summer afternoons. It’s where I attempted to tackle Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and tried to be conspicuous when I skimmed chapter summaries in SparkNotes that I kept hidden in my lap under the real thing when plot points went over my head.
It’s where I picked up romance novels and whispered passages while giggling with girlfriends but secretly come back to them another day when I was alone. It’s where my best friend and I played each other the most random CD’s we could find to make each other laugh, including a Luciano Pavarotti CD and made up a ridiculously elaborate scenario to accompany the most dramatic song we’d ever heard.
I developed crushes on more than a few guys who worked there as booksellers. I swooned when one of them told me that what initially drew me to him was my taste in classic literature and that he finally decided to talk to me when he saw me attempting to stifle a laugh while reading A Confederacy of Dunces. I smiled and thought, this is like something out of a WB show. (The height of the romance bar in my teen years.)
I went to that Barnes and Noble on my first date. We stopped by the adjoining Starbucks and decided to walk around to look at books and find out if we liked any of the same ones. (We didn’t.) After I graduated from high school, my best friend and I spent every night doing the exact same thing: We stopped by Starbucks, did a lap or two around both levels of Barnes and Noble, and left to play pool or walk around somewhere.
Barnes and Noble became my true north. It’s where I have taken every close friend and boyfriend I’ve ever had. It’s where I went when I was unhappily living with my parents, and then when I was unhappy about my next living situation too. It’s where I’ve always gone when I wanted to be alone. Any time I’ve felt listless or upset or angry or sad, I’ve found myself there, drinking the same drink from Starbucks, perusing the same aisles, and pulling different books down to read. When the animosity between my parents reached its peak, I stayed until closing time, knowing that even at 11:30 at night I would arrive to a house full of screaming. I strongly considered stowing myself away behind a rack in the children’s section and secretly, happily, spending the night. I didn’t want to steal anything. I just never really wanted to leave.
I knew that I was finally in a happy place when my now husband and I moved into a small apartment, our first place where only the two of us lived. It took us more than a week to unpack and one evening I went to my bookshelf to find something to read, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t been to Barnes and Noble in more than three weeks. I was stunned.
I’ve always been a creature of habit, an admission that is probably both obvious and an understatement based on what I’ve written here. I have the patience of an oyster and rarely tire of anything that brings me happiness. Not people, not food, not things, and not places. My father has long told a story where he came home from work to find three year old me sitting on the couch, watching a movie. My mother made a hobby of recording movies and TV shows onto hundreds of VHS tapes and cataloguing them for our viewing pleasure. Upon closer inspection, he saw that I was watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which struck him as odd.
“Hey Kel, what are you watching?”
“The Brave Little Toaster.”
He checked the TV again. It was definitely 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
“This isn’t The Brave Little Toaster.”
“I know. It’s on after this.”
“Do you want me to fast forward it?”
“No thanks, I’ll wait.”
Life means change, an inevitability that I’ve accepted happily for the most part because I’ve spent as much time looking forward to moving on as I have wishing things would last. For a while, I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t want to move from where I was living. I always couldn’t wait. The only time I felt at peace, at home, was when I was at my favorite book store.
It’s said that home is where the heart is, and I think that’s true. Part of my heart has always belonged to books — I “made my home between the pages of books,” as Maggie Stiefvater so eloquently put it — so it made sense that I would enjoy being surrounded by them. But this one particular Barnes and Noble was more than that to me. It was the home my heart chose when I needed a place to go. I feel such ridiculous gratitude for the very existence of this big ol’ chain book store, even if eventually my heart chose a new home.
Because if I ever get lonely, I can just go to the book store and visit my friends.
I’m not always great about following through with standard New Years resolutions, but I am pretty good about meeting reading goals. This year I decided to take it a step further and make specific goals beyond just “read X number of books.”
So, here are my 10 Reading Resolutions for 2015:
Cut back on buying books. Either check them out from the library or read books I own but haven’t already read.
Join BookTube! (I actually wanted to join last year but I’m waiting for my husband to get a new laptop instead of buying a webcam and editing software.)
Host a monthly book club.
Read 100 books.
Read In Search of Lost Time series.
Read A Hundred Years of Solitude. This is my husband’s favorite book and I’ve been meaning to read it since he finished it a couple years ago and continues to rave about it. I’d like to attempt to read it in Spanish, but we’ll see how that goes.
Read a poetry collection from an unknown to me poet.
Read a biography.
Read a Sci-Fi novel. (I’m leaning toward The Martian by Andy Weir.)
Read 1 book each month from the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list:
Ulysses by James Joyce
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (this is actually a re-read, but I purchased The Original Scroll last year and still haven’t read it)
Here’s the description from the publisher: Marilynne Robinson, one of the greatest novelists of our time, returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.
Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.
Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband that paradoxically judges those she loves.
Revisiting the beloved characters and setting of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and Home, a National Book Award Finalist,Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence that is destined to become an American classic.
I really, really loved this book. Reading it was as comforting as sitting in front of a warm fire or having a long conversation with the kindest person you know. I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when it finally ended. It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking and relatable, even if you don’t adhere to Christianity. I’ve recommended it to everyone I know who loves a good book.