Reading Your Way Through Life: One More Round Of Responses

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to tell us about the books, stories, and poems, that have meant the most to them in their lives, and a number of you have asked us to keep the thread going. So here’s another round, beginning with this reader’s appreciation of a classic novel by Alan Paton:

I appreciate Cry, the Beloved Country as I suspect only a Christian – maybe even only a quasi- CryBelovedCountrypostmillennial Calvinist – can. There is much that could and should be said about it as social commentary and criticism and the like, and this does somewhat to make it sweet to me. The lyricism of much of the language is also a cup to be savored and delighted in. There is, I suppose, much else that could be lodged against it as objectionable because of the empowerment it denies to the blacks of South Africa in themselves, but this is not a view I think of often and I think it would have been dishonest for Paton to have attempted it. But what I chiefly remember is the day I finished it, sitting on our apartment balcony on a sunny Sunday afternoon, weeping at the beauty of its content and the boundless hope of its eschatology: all is not saved (though much is), but all is safe, because all is in the hand of God. Injustice may be at hand, and much evil may remain to run its course, but faith will help us to persevere in their despite. Pain is real, suffering is real, and there is no pretending they are not. But God is real, His knowledge and guidance of all the intricacies and the final end of all things is real, and there is likewise no pretending they are not.

Another shares a story about how reading can reveal who we are:

Permit a little spin on the theme, “Reading Your Way Through Life.” I’m a clinical social worker, and in therapy sessions with clients (I work in a public mental health agency, so most of them are poor and poorly educated), I routinely ask, “What have you read lately?” I ask that of any client, regardless of age. Most clients will report they’ve read something – for teens, maybe a textbook that they struggled through; for kids, maybe only a comic book. Adults may have read a romance novel, or a magazine in a doctor’s office. Whatever they report reading, I ask, “What in it appealed to you?” The answer may be profound, or may seem cursory; but the point is, it’s the client’s answer, because it’s the client’s life – and I glean something that may help him. Perhaps the client identifies an interest that’s worth exploring, or a hope she wants fulfilled; a child reading a Harry Potter book – her eyes light up describing a character she likes. Some therapists engage in bibliotherapy, inviting clients to read books (novels, not only self-help) that have a therapeutic theme (many of the book your readers have described fit this). For me, whatever the client is reading invites me to learn something about them – and, if I do my job well, if we talk about it, they might learn something about themselves, too, that can help them in their present struggle.

This reader shares a favorite poem:

“Among School Children,” W.B. Yeats

This has been a favorite poem of mine for many years and I had the privilege of talking about it for many years. I love the richness of Yeats’s fine mind listening to itself, the interiority, the intertwining of memory and learning reaching towards understanding.

The first stanza ends:

“the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

The second begins, “I dream of a Ledaean body,”

My favorite stanza break ever. As he stands smiling before the children, he falls into his deepest self as longing for his lost love breaks over him. His heart feels the gulf between his public image and his private inwardness. And at the end of the last stanza, – a riddle that is an answer: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

I taught this poem for many years. One day I looked around the classroom and realized I was a “sixty year old smiling man.” Now, I’ve outlived Yeats, that great poet of old age.

Another poetry selection:

Stanley Kunitz, “The Testing Tree”

A story before the poem. I went to see him read at Harvard, it was a tour for his newest book on turning 90. After the reading, those of us who wanted to buy his book stood in line to purchase it and have him sign it. I stood there in line chatting for quite a while with the guy in front of me as we were the last two in line. As we approached the table, there were nine books left, and this guy in front of me grabbed all nine! I asked him if I couldn’t have just one, and he refused. Mr. Kunitz and those surrounding him were in disbelief, as was I . After signing all those nine copies for this jerk, Mr. Kunitz started to rise from his chair, but I was clutching probably his most famous poetry book, a book which had become an anthem for me. I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing it, and he obliged. He knew who the real fan was.

The last nine lines are the real anthem – so important to me still. And how perfect the number nine!

“The Testing-Tree”


On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
split on my magic Keds
from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
with my flying skin
as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
over that stretch of road,
with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
that on the given course
I was the world’s fastest human.


Around the bend
that tried to loop me home
dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
riddled with rabbit-life
where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
and a stringy old lilac
more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
remembered a door in the
long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
brushing the stickseed off,
wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
spotting the print of the deer
and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key
to an umbrageous trail
thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
gave me right of passage
as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
soundlessly heel-and-toe
practicing my Indian walk.


Past the abandoned quarry
where the pale sun bobbed
in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
where the ferns gave foothold,
I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
with the stones in my pocket
changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
to the slightest leaf-stir.
I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
at fifty measured paces,
of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
Jehovah of acorns,
watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
in its annulated core
under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
I have only three throws
bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,
I played my game for keeps–
for love, for poetry,
and for eternal life–
after the trials of summer.


In the recurring dream
my mother stands
in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
she is wearing an owl’s face
and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
I pass through the cardboard doorway
askew in the field
and peer down a well
where an albino walrus huffs.
He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
staining the water yellow,
why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
That single Model A
sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
where the tanks maneuver,
revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!

This reader appreciates a poet we featured recently:

Thanks for this thread. Reading about why specific books matter to different readers is incredibly interesting. My contribution to the thread is a poet you recently featured: Ron Padgett. What always makes me return to his work is the way he makes the most mundane aspects of life seem so interesting and beautiful. His poems are filled with found objects, overlooked phrases, forgotten expression that he turns sideways and upside-down and juxtaposes to almost anything else. I don’t want to say that he breathes new life into them so much as that he finds the life that was always there but we got tired of seeing. Padgett is a master of defamiliarization with a great sense of cornball humor. The other thing that impresses me is the way many of his poems unfold the way the mind unfolds and you watch it stumble upon a great discovery or insight that was never looked for, but there it is. His aesthetic and influences are very French, but his outlook and language is fully American. Here is a prose poem of his (my apologies if it is one of the ones you published earlier; but even if they are, Padgett is always worth returning to):

Prose Poem

The morning coffee. I’m not sure why I drink it. Maybe it’s the ritual of the cup, the spoon, the hot water, the milk, and the little heap of brown grit, the way they come together to form a nail I can hang the day on. It’s something to do between being asleep and being awake. Surely there’s something better to do, though, than to drink a cup of instant coffee. Such as meditate? About what? About having a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee whose first drink is too hot and whose last drink is too cool, but whose many in-between drinks are, like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right. Papa Bear looks disgruntled. He removes his spectacles and swivels his eyes onto the cup that sits before Baby Bear, and then, after a discrete cough, reaches over and picks it up. Baby Bear doesn’t understand this disruption of the morning routine. Paper Bear brings the cup close to his face and peers at it intently. The cup shatters in his paw, explodes actually, sending fragments and brown liquid all over the room. In a way, it’s good that Mama Bear isn’t there. Better that she rest in her grave beyond the garden, unaware of what has happened to the world.

Another reader notes a much-loved essay discovered through the Dish:

If you’re still taking posts about this, I thought I’d recommend the incredible essay, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” by Ross Gay, which appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Sun. Gay’s meditations on bee keeping and race make this a must-read for anyone interested in how personal essay can tackle the big issues.

For the past year, I’ve taught this essay to my incoming first-year students in my sections of a Introduction to College Writing course. I’ll teach it again this year with an even firmer belief in its resonance and relevance in the wake of Ferguson. Gay says at the end of the essay, when describing a panic attack when facing the bees of his new hive:

“…the possibility of the hive turning on me was all I could feel. I saw myself pouring gasoline on this hive that I loved and torching it. And I saw a billowing, and I felt such relief at their being no more. I saw cinders of the box and the sooty concrete blocks it sat on and the charred patch of grass beneath smoldering and the few bees not inside lost and circling in wider and wider loops. I saw myself standing with the pack of matches in my hand and the red fuel canister at my feet.”

These words came back to me as I watched news footage of the protests and looting after Michael Brown’s murder, all the smoke and fire and rage of those weeks. What it must feel like for the citizens to be penned in by he fear and suspicion of others, the at-once terrifying and preposterous notion that just being a young black man is akin to being armed with a deadly weapon. The rage with which you might want to greet the world and the rage with which it would greet you back, no matter how you’d acted, no matter how restrained because it is acceptable for law enforcement in your community look at you and “see murder.”

In Gay’s essay, the bees feel some agitation but manage to rely most on what’s before them–Gay’ actual actions, not his fear– and they do not attack him. He says with relief and awe that they “knew inside me was a truth other than murder.”

Ross pleads in the essay when describing the racial profiling he’s endured: “Look how this has made me.” I want my students to see this, too. That we make each other through our interactions. I want them to make a better world for each other, and to have for themselves the role model of Gay and especially his bees.

It seems pitifully small, to ask that we look at each other and not see murder and considering the magnitude of the problem (how it encodes our voting laws, housing policies, legislation, even how preschool teachers discipline black students), nowhere near enough, but as Gay points out, this is the first step to actually seeing each other, the first step towards mercy, and. “When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we’ve been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don’t want to do such things to each other, might become visible.”

I’m indebted to The Dish for finding this essay. You linked to it last summer. Since then, I’ve read it at least six times and will read it many more in the year ahead to prepare for teaching but also to marvel at Gay’s gifts as a writer, the sense of kindness that emanates from his words even as he illustrates the maddening mental work required to see himself as good in a world that repeatedly wants to write him off as bad.

Another reader mentions a treasured passage from a novel:

From The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara:

“…but still, I continued on, looking for the bathroom; passing doors, and swatches of wall, and a mail chute; then walking still further; yet I couldn’t seem to find it, the bathroom; I wasn’t even in a place where a bathroom seemed likely to be; so I decided to turn down another hallway, which led to a quiet area ­thinking that I would have better luck in that direction; and so I wandered into a darker stretch of the building, and I continued searching doors for the appropriate emblem; but I only came across signs offering Dubbing, and Post-Produc­tion; and then, without forewarning, I saw Chomsky, standing in a shadowy recess in the wall; he was just standing there, facing away from the corridor, in towards a dense stack of cardboard boxes; they were empties that were waiting to be thrown out, I believe; but Chomsky was just tucked in there among them, alone in the dark recess, holding his glasses in his left hand; and with his posture somewhat bent-so I touched his sleeve, and he turned around rapidly, and said Oh; and then he emerged from the recess, while putting his glasses back on; and then he quickly gathered himself together, he became himself again; Here, he then said, while looking down the hallway; Here: I think what you may be looking for is over here; though when I heard the wavery tone in his voice a part of me dissolved; in silence I let him walk me on; and point out the door; very graciously; then he turned away when I went in; and then, when I was finished, there were no more paper towels by the sinks, so I couldn’t dry my hands…”

Another appreciates all the poems this thread has featured:

Just loving the gifts of moving poetry. I laid in bed for an hour this morning remembering passages, one after the other. So many… the floodgates are open!

Beloved literature is a thread that runs way back through my family. My father could recite long passages from hundreds of favorites til the end of his life.

He gave each of his five grandsons, my boys, a copy of 101 Famous Poems when they could barely read. The connection lives on..

When my youngest was homeschooling we memorized what appealed to us, from Lakota speeches to Tennyson; he’s studying neurobiology in grad school now – and has a love for and way with words.

I’m sending one more favorite.

“Reverse Living”

Life is tough,
It takes a lot of your time,
All your weekends,
And what do you get at the end of it?
Death, a great reward.
I think that the life cycle is all backwards.
You should die first, get it out of the way.
Then you live twenty years in an old age home.
You’re kicked out when you’re too young.
You get a gold watch, you go to work.
You work forty hears until you’re
Young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You go to college,
And you party until you’re ready for high school.
You become a little kid, you play,
You have no responsibilities,
You become a little boy or girl,
You go back into the womb,
You spend your last nine months floating.
And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.

This is from Jack Kornfield’s excellent book, After the Ecstasy the Laundry.

And one last poem:

“The Cowpath” by Samuel Walter Foss! It always makes me understand ‘where we are at’ in any situation. And it also makes me lighthearted about it. Think about it: you can apply this to the Gaza mess, the Iraq mess, the Ferguson mess, the mess in my house, the mess in my marriage – a one size fits all explanation:

One day thru the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should,
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer, the calf is dead;
But still behind he left his trail,
And thereon hangs my mortal tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way,
And then a wise bell-weather sheep
Sliding into a rut now deep,
Pursued that trail over hill and glade
Thru those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
and uttered words of righteous wrath
Because “twas such a crooked path”
But still they follow-do not laugh-
The first migrations of that calf.
The forest became a lane
That bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road
where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The village road became a street,
And this, before the men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon a central street was this
In a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Followed the wanderings of this calf.
Each day a hundred thousand strong
Followed this zigzag calf along;
And over his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one poor calf, three centuries dead.
For just such reverence is lent
To well established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach.
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind;
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.

Read the entire thread here.