The Wheel of Time

I often looked at the cover art and wondered what the heck they'd told the artist, who had clearly never read the books.
I often looked at the cover art and wondered what the heck they’d told the artist, who had clearly never read the books.

“The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings in the wheel of time. But it was a beginning”

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan

I was in sixth grade – perhaps seventh. Having worn through a few copies of The Lord of the Rings, my fifth grade teacher had lovingly given me a copy of Terry Brooks’ “Sword of Shannara” for graduation, as perhaps a subtle hint that there were more fantasy authors out there than just the one. (In my defense, that particular school didn’t have a library. And fantasy novels were far rarer in the 80s than they are now.) Having made that great discovery, I began reading at a great rate, along with three companions in my literary journey. Now, if I’d had the kind of heroes journey I was reading about, the four of us would’ve become inseparable companions, filled with a respect and friendship that would warm our memories.

The way it really worked was that there were four of us who like to read fantasy in the tiny podunk logging town I was raised in. If we wanted to talk about books, it was with each other. We did play Middle Earth Role Playing together. But despite my best efforts, fondness never grew from forced interaction. In retrospect, I deeply pity the guy I had a crush on who was forced to deal with me six days a week (we went to the same church) for multiple hours a day. I saw him at reunion and he got a slightly haunted look seeing me. Sorry!

I digress.

One of the books we discovered was “The Eye of the World”. It was a good one. I had bought a copy, and we all read it in turn. The seven hundred page sequel followed, and was similarly devoured. And then, bliss! The third came out! Granted, it was crazy expensive on my $40 a month food/clothes/fun money budget (if you knew me then, this explains why I dressed the way I did), but life was too short to not buy books! It would be great to finish the trilogy and move on to the next one. I may have pondered how wonderful it was to have a living author who would keep writing! I never fully got over the betrayal of Tolkien dying without knowing how much I loved him.

But what? The series didn’t conclude? I’d read all three back to back – with labyrinthine plots and a cast that had to be in the hundreds, you couldn’t rely on your memories of the last reading a year or two ago to see you through. You had to start over.

Well, a four book series wasn’t unheard of. We’d allocated out the purchasing of these books. None was available at any library we had access to, so they must be bought. This was back when a bookstore meant Waldens – before the big box bookstores came and long before they were replaced by the great online retailers. We had a deal. I’d buy Jordan. Chad bought Terry Brooks. Jack bought Lawhead. And maybe Heidi somehow weaseled her way out of being responsible for buying any author’s books.

A year later – in high school – the fifth came out. When I graduated from high school I was still there on release day, buying the seventh volume and praying that this time he’d really wrap it up. I spent hours in my bedroom reading the books and listening to “All the Best from Scotland volume II” on repeat – they’re still inextricably combined in my head. My collection of books was getting unwieldy, my budget largely spent on Starbucks, and the time commitment required to read seven books at about a thousand pages a piece was significant. But I was there. I even got that seventh book signed.

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In college when the eight came out, I may have made time to reread it. Maybe over the summer. But then it was followed by the ninth. Rumors began of his ill health. He had a fatal diagnosis. Surely, one thought, this would encourage him to oh… I dunno… actually close a plot thread for once? Ha! Great at opening them. Lousy at closing them. He even went to write a prequel. It’s possible that I was actually angry about this.

He died and I never read his last books because I couldn’t justify weeks of rereading, and he hadn’t *finished*. It all felt very tragic.

He had, though, written down how he was planning to some day finish up the plot. That thread was pulled up by Brandon Sanderson, who had probably been buying them from Waldens in the mall just like I was. That “last book” turned into three books, ponderous as their predecessors if a little better in the “closing plot threads” department.

And finally, the last book was written and the last story told in Spring of 2013.

In the Spring of 2015, I got a new job with a new commute. A car commute. By myself. As time has gone one, my tolerance for NPR has gone down. (I like the non-political news far more, and that’s been a vanishing commodity over the last two decades.) So I needed to listen to something. I figured that this was the perfect time for me to finally catch up and hear the end of the story!

So every single commute for the last TWO YEARS I have spent two hours a day listening to the Wheel of Time on audiobook. Especially around book six or seven I would get to work irritated. The entire commute could be cut by an editor (if only!) and there would’ve been no material change to the story.

But it was entertaining. And over this vast repetition, it also became much more real and tangible to me than if I’d only read it. Last weekend, recovering from a bout of labrynthitis, I laid on a chaise and listened to about eight hours of the conclusion. I realized, staring fixedly out the window, that this was it. I’d spent two years living with Perrin the Blacksmith and his strength, and Mat the womanizing gambler, and Rand the started-every-book-less-mad-than-he-ended-the-last-one, and Nynaeve with her temper and braid and Pevara who I think might be the only real hero in the whole book and and and… well, the list of characters is long. And I know them all with the intimacy of daily contact over two years.

The end of the series, if you’re curious, did not satisfy. All battle, no epilogue. There were major plot threads left open. (Spoiler alert – seriously, how did you not manage to explain that Olver is actually Gaidal Cane reborn, which is sooooo obvious!) We don’t see how the world does get remade, or how these overarching conflicts that I spent DAYS of my life hearing about were finally resolved. I got to the end, but I could’ve stood that last half of the book to be what came after. Alas, I didn’t get it.

But with all this – with the annoyance at the lack of editing and lack of satisfying culmination – I have done it. I have finished the series. I enjoyed it, whining aside. And it is almost certain that I will never read it again. That brings a sense of loss. I suppose I could read it, if I wanted. But those down sides are too steep to encourage me to ever climb them again. It’s just not worth the effort. And so it is that this journey, which I started twenty-seven years ago and spent endless hours on, is done. It is finished. I will never again hear of Thom Merrilin in his patched cloak or the hawk-nosed and fierce Faile.

Farewell, fictional friends. You will be remembered fondly.

It is not THE end, but it is AN end, for the wheel of time has neither beginnings nor ends.

Many, many first editions
Many, many first editions
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Planning for a break

I remember the week I was to have my wisdom teeth out. My sister had hers out a few months before. She’d been laid up for a week. I think my parents had taken advantage of her crankiness to send me to live with my cousin for a week (during which time I learned how to make tuna fish casserole and why I should clean my room). When my turn came, I had A Plan. I was, at the time a Very Serious Musician. I liked Wagner, despised Haydn and read music history for fun. (Ok, some things actually don’t change.) During my week of convalescence I laid in a store of books and created a plan for systematically listening through my entire classical music collection. This plan would ensure that my week of recovery would get me through every single CD I owned.

I got my wisdom teeth out. In a fit of deferentialism, I did not fill my pain med prescription. (We learn things as children…) I ended up watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, drinking chocolate milk through a straw and crying for pain when my mother came home. Early. With my ten year old brother. Who had chicken pox.

I may never have forgiven my brother because instead of my meticulously laid out classical music plan, I spent the week babysitting him.

Anyway, this returns to my memory because
a) I’ve never forgiven him
b) I have another week off

I’m older and wiser now, and I know that either I will rest in the week or I will get around to all those things I never have time for – not both. Or at least not both on a particular day. So far I’m getting fillings done (another reason to remember back to that week), volunteering in Thane’s classroom (I NEVER volunteer because I’m always busy at work) and probably going to Costco to lay in a goodly supply of sunscreen. Thus the knowns.

In the unknowns, some of the things I might do include:

  • Organizing the attic
  • Organizing the basement
  • Practicing my guitar
  • Reading books on business (I just bought Lazlo’s Work Rules to prepare me for my first day, and on the advice of my outgoing VP of HR also bought a book on how to win at your first 90 days.)
  • Sharpening up my increasingly non-existent/dull programming skills
  • Reading up on my new industry
  • Video games (Tragically I’ve finished the entire Fable series and I like happy cheerful goodspirited games – a vanishing genre. Also, my best Minecraft worlds are (ahem) on my work computer. My work computer, which I love, and I only have about 18 hours left together. Farewell good tool!)
  • Playing Ingress. (GO RESISTANCE!)
  • Meeting up with people I like who I’m always like “we should have coffee” and never have time to have coffee with
  • Packing for Mexico
  • Sleeping in
  • Reading lots and lots of Facebook
  • Pressure washing the back fence and getting the yard ready for spring
  • Making really, really good dinners
  • Picking the kids up early from school and hosting playdates from parents who invite my kids over on school nights which I can never reciprocate
  • Going on a hike in the Fells
  • Bringing the car in to have the artistic flourishes (scratches) Thane added a few years back removed
  • Finally organizing my music so I can listen to it on my phone
  • Organizing 14 years worth of digital pictures
  • Donating that cat food that makes Tiberius throw up but that is really expensive medical type cat food
  • Writing some decent blog posts
  • The thing is I know better. I know I’ll get like four of those done (sleeping in and too much Facebook are like, locks – chances are looking good for some Ingress too). The whole point of this week is to stop being productive for a week. To rest. To relax. To recharge. To lay down for one deep breath the heavy load I carry every day. But I’m always gobsmacked at just how unproductive I am when I stop being productive. I am a creature of great inertia. When I’m “going” I power through work at a phenomenal rate. But when I stop… you’ve met no one lazier.

    So – we’ll see! I’ll let you know how I do on my list. And hey – if I’ve been meaning to get coffee with you, give me a call!

    Don’t you cry for me

    The other night, I tucked a tired Grey into bed. It’s his most philosophical time, since every nine year old knows that the best way to get your parent to linger and not shut off your lights is to start talking about your rich internal life at 8:55 pm. As I returned to his bed with the water (and before I turned on his music and summoned the cats), he softly sang to the tune of “Oh Suzanna”:

    Farewell old master, that’s enough for me,
    I’m going straight to Canada where colored men are free.
    (A href=”http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Song_of_the_Free”>Song of the Free

    I was, shall we say, surprised. “Where did you hear that?” It being a way to extend bedtime, he freely answered. “From a book about the Underground Railroad.” “Was it about Harriet Tubman?” “Yeah.” We talked about race and equality. We talked about good people sticking up for other people against bad laws. I had that ever necessary conversation about how actually we don’t call our friends colored anymore. And after a successful ten minute delay, I kissed him goodnight.

    But it brought me back. I haven’t explicitly thought about my encounter with the Underground Railroad in years. As so many important encounters do, this one started in a grade school library. I got to thinking about how the reading I did in that fourth grade corner of the library changed my life and outlook on race and gender. It helped me see a world outside the Inland Empire farming town, and to see that life from someone less blonde and blue eyed than I was. It wasn’t just Harriet Tubman who spoke to me, but a whole range of these strong, amazing, not-white female characters in this great set of books. I hadn’t intentionally set out to read minority feminist adventures. But I did. And I was – and am – greatly influenced. I’d never before realized what a great collection this is, or would be.

    Freedom Trail: The Story of Harriet Tubman

    by Dorothy Sterling
    by Dorothy Sterling

    I have not read this book in over 25 years, but I remember this: Harriet had no advantages. She was black. A slave. Young. A woman. But she was gritty, determined and resourceful. This book did not sugar coat the hardship of slavery, or the dire danger of escaping. Harriet is gravely and permanently injured. But she risks snakes and dogs and slavers, overcoming so much, to escape. And then, once escaped, she goes back again and again to help others in the same journey. This is a book that inspired me by the capabilities even a young girl could have. It also helped me understand just how lucky my lot in life was. Harriet seemed very real to me, in the pages of this book. It made it clear that it wasn’t some intrinsic merit of mine that gave me a life of comfort and love, and her a life of persecution. But it did tell the horrible story of slavery in a way that didn’t condemn a white person to shame. I could choose to see myself in the helpers & conductors – the allies. I think I’d like to re-read it.

    Island of the Blue Dolphins

    by Scott O'Dell
    by Scott O’Dell

    I’ve always had a fondness for survivalist stories. I devoured almost all of them in the genre I could find: Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, The Mysterious Island, My Side of the Mountains…. This is a slim but compelling volume in that larger lexicon. It was particularly important that instead of “White person trapped in savage environment” (See…. all the others above except My Side of the Mountain) it was the story of an Indian girl. And she was not left for a few weeks, or a few months. She created a whole life for herself, by herself. It’s a heart-song to independence and self-reliance.

    Journey to America

    by Soniya Levitin
    by Soniya Levitin

    A friend and I were talking about how you introduce your children to the horrors of man’s inhumanity against man. You can’t responsibly raise children who have never heard of the holocaust… but it can be tempting. I’m not sure I want my children to understand how evil we truly can be. This book was introduction. It’s an escape story from the point of view of a young Jewish girl who fights with her family (and alone) to escape from Nazi Germany – with her violin intact. It touches on the hard edges of the horrors, without delving into them. There’s a narrow shave, but a happy ending.

    Journey to Topaz

    by Yoshiko Uchida
    by Yoshiko Uchida

    In counterpoint to that was this book. Of all of them, this might have been the hardest to deal with. It was geographically very close to me. And WWII is described as such a morally clear war from the US perspective. It would have been easy for me to get through childhood not knowing about the Japanese children uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps in the US. Yoshiko Uchida’s descriptions were memorably evocative. I can still almost feel the grit and dirt in the barren and beautiless camps. Her life had started very similar to mine, and then had taken this left turn through no fault of her own. It hit very close to home.

    Julie of the Wolves

    by Jean Craighead George
    by Jean Craighead George

    Leaving the WWII theme and returning to “awesome girls surviving in inhospitable circumstances”, we head up to Alaska for an Eskimo adventure. I don’t remember thinking about how appalling it is for a child to be literally safer with a pack of wolves in the arctic than with her family. I do remember how cool I thought it was to make friends with a pack of wolves. I believe I was cheering for her never to return to civilization. This one was again on the more mature side of the spectrum.

    Naya Nuki: Girl Who Ran

    by Ken Thomasma
    by Ken Thomasma

    This is the book that started my obsession. Ken Thomasma came as an author to speak at my school when I was in second grade. We got a number of signed books from him in my grade school library. I read Naya Nuki over and over and over. I remember driving and looking for the places in the hills where Naya Nuki would hide out. The story is of a Shoshone girl captured by Nez Pierce slavers – who escaped and ran her way back over hundreds of miles and through countless dangers to be with her people. (Although she had to leave behind her friend – a much less important character named Sacajawea.) The countryside was my countryside. I mean, I had seen and touched the man who wrote the book! This was real! And it was a fantastic start to a reading life.


    That was hardly all I read as a kid, of course. I had plenty of other books in the reread queue that were not about amazing non-white girls. But I’m in retrospect impressed with that list. I find myself wondering if some forward thinking youth librarian pulled these books out, made them attractive, brought them to my attention. I do not know. I kind of hope so.

    Dear Librarian from Whitstran Elementary back in the ’80s – thank you.

    A book report on Peter Rabbit

    I’m thinking about books a lot lately. My new commute has offered me the precious gift of time to read books. I just finished reading my favoritestestest book ever, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, which you need to immediately go out and buy and read for its epic perfection.

    I’m a re-reader. I decided, after finishing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English, that I would never again feel inferior for the way I enjoy reading… which includes returning to favorites at least as often as I open brand new tomes. But Curse of Chalion is one of those books that rewards rereading richly. This time I admired how Bujold glorified the thinking through of how complicated things are, and how complex situations do not have emotionally satisfying, one-scene confrontations successfully resolve things. In fact, our hero intelligently avoids such situations in order to preserve the safety of himself and others.

    When I was thinking about the book, and thinking about what I wanted to tell you about it, my sister announced her aspirational goal for the year. I want to learn how to play “Kathy’s Song” on guitar. She wants to publish a professional book review. She also watches with pride her ranking as an Amazon reviewer. Back in my pre-bus days, her book reviews used to mock me. I had no time to read! Of course the flip side was what little time I did have to read, I wanted to read good stuff that was rated B (not too depressing or gory). Heidi always summarizes her book reviews with a “read if” and a “skip if”. Sometimes the “skip if” is “you are my sister Brenda”. She’s helpful that way. Anyway, I mention this because I think you might enjoy her book reviews too, which you can find here on Goodreads.

    And finally, my son. My Grey. He and I just finished Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH together, and it was awesome. It’s really a great book. Action-packed, serious, takes its readers seriously for all their youth, interesting ideas. He thoroughly enjoyed it. Last night being Library Pizza night (hadn’t realized we’d just passed the first anniversary of this auspicious event!), I came home with Dragonbreath #6: Revenge of the Horned Bunnies. I read him the first two chapters last night, my voice hoarse from having read approximately 89 books to Thane prior to reading to Grey. As I have been waiting for, for some time now, Grey couldn’t wait until bedtime tonight for me to read more. Instead, he’s picked it up and sneaking reading in around the corners of his day… Grey reads all the time, but it’s so awesome to see him start in on longer books.

    So that’s it. In these days of dire news on publishing, my life is as full of books as it has been in a decade, both for myself and the people around me.

    How about you? Are you reading still? Or are you reading different things now, like, oh, your favorite bloggess? Do you still read books? How do you find them to read? How do you read them?

    Twenty bookes, clad in black or red

    It’s been a while since I last gave you an update about what my boys were doing. Now that they’re both out of the “monthly” mode (and heck, my BLOG is practically at a monthly update level. I can’t tell you how much I miss writing more frequently!) it’s more challenging to highlight their growth.

    With Grey, the big news is how big and capable he’s getting. I suppose there are a thousand steps on the road towards self-sufficiency, but each one is thrilling to a parent. For example, Grey has successfully:
    – Gotten out bowls for he and his brother
    – Gotten out cereal
    – Poured the cereal in the bowls (without spilling)
    – Gotten the milk out of the fridge
    – Poured the milk on the cereal (without spilling)
    – Gotten out spoons
    – Brought spoons and cereal bowls over to the living room where the boys break their fast
    If I could teach him to put the milk BACK, and combined with his terrifyingly acute control of the television apparatus, I might finally be able to sleep in on Saturday mornings!

    The greatest new development for Grey, though, is around books. He had a great day today. He graduated levels in swimming class, ably making his way around the pool with limited bouyantical aid. He tested for his next belt in aikido, competently demonstrating Kata-tori Kokyu-nage, among other techniques. So I decided, while obtaining the requisite present for a birthday party tomorrow, I’d get him a new book. I hesitated, among the scant options in Target. The picture books all seemed a little simple. He’s been doing a great job reading lately. So instead, I picked up a simple chapter book The Magic Treehouse: Dinosaurs Before Dark. As we headed to the airport to drop grandma off (Bye grandma!), Grey set aside his DS in order to read.

    An hour ago, sitting at my feet as I blogged, he finished the book, face flush with enjoyment and pride. He had read the last several chapters to himself, only the pace of page-turning a clue that every single word was getting its due. He really read it. Himself. It was his first full chapter book. I have a sneaking hunch that it will not be his last. (Possibly because he went to his room, pulled out about three other books, and read his favorite parts of them.)

    A real reader! I have a real reader! We can read together! YAYAYAYAYAYAY!!!!!!

    I fondly remember when my brother (who, by the way, will be graduating from Princeton Seminary this spring. If anyone’s looking for a nice Presbyterian Minister, let me know) began to read. I remember the conversation we older ones had, jealously laying out the wonderful books he would be able to read for the first time.

    Grey, reading a Scooby Doo coloring book. It’s Dr. Jekyl, by the way!

    My youngest son has been no slouch in the “fun” department either. He loves books deeply. Unlike his brother, he’s willing to sometimes be in a different room than we’re in. I’ve seen him spend a good 45 minutes alone in his room, going through all his books. (Which usually leads to a several inch deep carpet of books in his room… the prices you pay!) Thane’s absolute favorite books in the entire world are the “How Do Dinosaurs…” series. This particularly excellent set of books doesn’t have generic, badly researched dinosaurs like so many of kiddo dino books do. Nor does it happily stop with the oligarchy of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus like the rest of them do. No, there’s some new ones in these books…. Comsognathus, Pachycephalusaurus, Tapejara. And Thane, although not yet potty trained, has complete mastery over this entire pantheon.

    I think he likes to categorize things — to know the names and be able to identify things. Or maybe he just likes dinosaurs. He has finally mastered his letters and numbers. But I’ll be honest: I think he got the dinosaurs first.

    As he plops his bottom down onto my lap, beloved “How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You” in hand for the 9,234th time (demanding I identify each and every dinosaur on each and every page before reading the text – as if he doesn’t know), I admit that I’m caught between the desire for him to be an early reader too… and the desire to have many long year before me of “Mom, can you read this?”

    Thane, reviewing his dinosaurs. Dilphosaurus, Protoceratops, Carnosaurus, Dilophosaurus, Velociraptor, Apatosaurus….

    A full set of pictures

    To be a lover of books

    What gifts and passions do we hope our children have? If we were fairies at a christening, what would we bestow? I’m coming to understand that the answer isn’t the same for all parents, that the “of course” attributes that I value are not the same ones other parents do. That’s part of what makes us so wondrously different. For me, there are some key attributes. Kindness. Integrity. Courage. Joyfulness.

    But then there are the other things, the ones that I secretly really hope for, but know it’s not fair to expect. Love of music. The willingness to sing in public. Caring about what’s fun more than what’s cool. A love of nature. A disdain for hurting others. Stopping to watch the ants. Memorizing poetry for fun. And, critically, a love of books.

    For that last one, at least, my parenting hopes look like they’re on track.

    Last night, Grey requested the opportunity to read Thane on of his bedtime books. He selected his favorite from his room: Luke Skywalker’s Amazing Story. Starting with the title page, he read through it. He read about droids, and the Force, and Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and Obi-Wan Kenobi and “rebel leaders”. Of course, many of the hardest words he’d remembered from other circumstances. Let’s be honest, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a bit tough to guess phonetically. But he pronounced “Aunt Beru” differently than I did. He corrected himself when he misread a word. He paused and analyzed some of the hard words. He read with inflection and meaning, and understood the words as he read them. And I sat there, hiding tears, amazed to learn (spoiler alert) that Luke Skywalker’s father was Darth Vader! You could see the effort he put in — he actually got tired towards the end and started making mistakes out of the fatigue of his effort. But that by itself points to the reality. My son is reading! He’s a reader! He loves it! He does it out of joy! I can almost see the doors of a vast new world opening to him, whether he sees it or not.

    Now let us speak of my youngest. About a year ago, Thane went into a book stage. It was one of his first words. He showed unusual focus for a small child on listening to the stories. But, probably not coincidentally, around the time he started getting the ear infections, his love was transferred over to cars. Vroom! Clearly we continued reading to him at night and sometimes in between, but it was no longer “his thing”. Then, a few weeks ago, it all changed. Thane is having a passionate love affair with books. Specifically, books that you are reading to him. And woe betide all moments not happily consumed in book-ishness. Today was a tight morning, schedule-wise, so we ONLY read him about 5 books before breakfast.

    This would be a happier thing if Thane wasn’t quite SO upset between readings. He regularly throws epic, grand-mal tantrums with 15 minutes of loud, disconsolate weeping, arching of back, and pounding of hands because you have cruelly and viciously REFUSED to read him a fourth book! Look! He has it right here! “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus”! If he says “happy” enough times, surely you’ll understand and read it!?!? (NOTE: Books are identified by their loudest phrase. So “10 Minutes to Bedtime” is identified with “Bedtime”. In one of the Pigeon books, the Pigeon says he is “Happy, Happy HAAAPPPPPYYY!!!!” therefore all Pigeon books are “happy”. There’s a certain irony as he, tears streaming from his eyes, holds up the book and urgently says through his weeping “Happy! Happy!”) If you do not immediately oblige, the bitter crying starts. Last night when I was rapt listening to my eldest read a book, I was bouncing on my right leg a disconsolate Thane who kept bringing me different books in the fond hope that I’d finally read one to him, as he screamed and howled his disappointment.

    This is, of course, a stage. You can’t multi-task and read “How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Dinner”. I’m pretty sure that’s the point. Thane has figured out how to get whole and undivided attention from the people he loves: grab a book and plop your little diapered butt in their laps. Works every time. And of course, he really does love the books. Grey loved the alphabet at that age. He actually knew it all by 18 months. Thane? He loves the reading, specifically the one-on-one time with his parents. I don’t begrudge him, even as much as sometimes it would be nice to have him sated by, oh, three or four books.

    One of the memorable moments of my shared childhood experience was a car trip where my parents and siblings and I talked about all the books that the younger of us had not read and the jealousy of the elders that they would be so fortunate as to experience them for the first time. My sons’ feet are on that road. Oh, what stories await!

    Bored with yourself

    One of my friends is also the parent of two small children, working full time, volunteering at her church and generally strapped for time and kept very busy. She mentioned the other day that she felt desperately dull. Hoo boy. Do I know that one. Every parent struggles with different aspects of the changes that come with being parents. Some mothers really struggle with the changes to their body and autonomy. Some fathers have trouble changing their identity to match with “person who gets up with the kids at 6:30” and not “guy who hangs out with his buddies on Wow until 3 am”. Plenty of parents hit hard between the difference between who they think they are (and probably who they were) and the realities of the sleep-deprived, Dora-enhanced, macaroni-and-cheese-only life they currently live.

    There are a few reactions to this. I think we’ve all met people who have decided the appropriate response is to sign over their entire identity to parenthood. This is an understandable reaction to the overwhelming demands of parenting, especially if you have special needs children, or more than one or two kids. There simply isn’t a lot of time for crafting and maintaining your separate personhood. The downside to this comes in about two decades, which is a long time to think about the downside. That’s when all of a sudden, your children no longer want you to identify yourself by them. They become adults. They don’t call home regularly from college. You have free time. Suddenly, the question of “who am I?”, if you have been answering that question with “Mom” for the last 20 years, can hit you like a Mack truck.

    I don’t necessarily think that the absorbing parent identity is a bad or horrible thing — it can be a joyful and realistic one, I think — but it’s not what I want. Underneath the laundry, the job, the church roles, the dinner-cooking, the story reading… I still want there to be a me that uniquely belongs to me, and who I find interesting. Most critically, to be happy, I need to have something to think about.

    You’d think this would be easy, wouldn’t you? How much time does it take to have interesting thoughts? I see my mind like an old grain-mill on a river, with heavy granite grindstones. You feed the wheat in. The slow, powerful river moves the stones day and night without ceasing. And out comes flour – the nourishment I so desperately need.

    The problem is that in my life as it is right now, there’s no grain coming in. The stones mill the few kernels I pass in finer and finer. Eventually the stones grind only against each other. There’s no flour coming out. The mill threatens to bind and break. And I don’t have enough time to go gather and bring the plentiful wheat in the fields. When this happens, my life gets dreary and boring. I don’t have anything to daydream about. I don’t have anything to write about. I don’t have anything to think about. I don’t (this is the worst) have anything to dream about. My dreams grow terribly prosaic and boring. There is no space between the reality of my day and the escapes of my sleeping mind.

    The grain in my mill analogy could be anything. It could be literature, or Economist articles, theological concepts, or interesting concepts on NPR. Some things have heavier harvests than others. For example, rereading Tolkein for the 93rd time, while fun, is pretty slim-pickings for grain harvest. The bounty that came from reading the Odyssey for the first time, however, kept my mill happily humming for about two months. Lately I have been feeding it with all the new things I’ve been learning at work. While there is a great deal of volume in these new people, technologies and places, the flour that comes out isn’t particularly nourishing. The night’s dreams are too much like the day’s realities.

    I want the Me — now buried under the mounds of laundry in the basement, the piles of dishes rising above the filthy kitchen floor, the edifices of un-put-away blocks — to be an interesting person when she has a chance to re-emerge. I want to have vibrant dreams. I want the boundaries of my world to keep pushing out and expanding. The universe is so large the walls of my world would never have to stop growing, so long as I continue to push. There truly are nearly an infinite number of interesting ideas to pursue.

    For example, one of the best harvest-books I’ve read in the last ten years was Power, Sex and Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. It had all these amazing new ideas and concepts, but was written so a non-scientist like me could approach and learn. More recently, The Happiness Project has given me good thinking. The Sarantine Mosaic was full of rich images and ways of looking at the world. I look upon Lois McMaster Bujold as a great, gift-bringing prophetess of new thoughts. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve mulled over Miles’ personality quirks or had an astonishing revelation about the naming of Sergyar, thanks to her rich, idea-filled writing.

    I am time-broke. I’m pulling time-pennies out from under couch cushions and hitting my relatives up for loans. I’m doing without and buying the economy version, when it comes to time. I cannot afford to invest in something that doesn’t work. I can’t reread a book for comfort, or nostalgia. I have to be heartless when it comes to tossing aside the dregs of books that do not inspire, or who have great stuff if only I had the patience to get to it. I need dense, accessible, rich works. These are actually harder to come by than you might think.

    For my friend, I came up with my criteria for fields to harvest, books to read.

    1) It should be new. Although rereading books means that the quantity and quality are known, you won’t get as much new stuff to think about (unless you were like 12 the last time you read it).
    2) It should have depth. I love reading the pattern-heavy romances and fictions as well as the next girl, and probably better. But when starving for thoughts, you can’t afford to spend your time eating cotton candy.
    3) It should be lovely. I would not want to find enough time to read and invest your scarce energy into a book, only to have it be full of the DEPRESSING DOOM OF DESPAIR (for example, from what I’ve heard, The Doomsday Book would qualify easily for 1 & 2, but it fails my criteria for depressing).
    4) It should be readable. I love Chaucer in Middle English. Now is not the time of my life when I have the unbroken concentration and energy to plow through remembering that “eke” means “also” and “yclepd” means “called”. That was a once-and-future time.

    The Odyssey was a great example of a book that met these criteria. It was full of new thoughts and delightful turns of mind. I’d never read it before. (I KNOW!) It was truly lovely. And thanks to a good translation, it was eminently readable. Next up will be Plato’s Republic, for a reading group a friend is putting together.

    So what about you? Are you a parent whose identity risks submersion? Have you come out the far side of parenthood and had to rethink who you are? Does your sleeping mind starve for new thoughts? How do you feed it? Do you dream astonishing dreams, or prosaic ones? What should I read to ride on the wings of new dreams?