Instantly, I recognized her voice, tinny on the other end of the line. “Hello, Nick. This is Miss Hodgens.” Miss Hodgens was my sixth grade teacher.
“Can I speak to your mom or dad, please?”
For any kid in elementary school, a call home from your teacher was nauseating enough to never want to answer the phone again. I yelled to my mom to pick up the cordless extension and waited on the line, stomach churning, to secretly listen to what Miss Hodgens was going to rat me out on.
My tenuous relationship with books started with this phone conversation and would last for nearly two decades. Prior to that call, sharp with the rasp of '90s telephonics, books and I were able to peacefully coexist. I would go outside and play, building forts in the woods or riding my bike. The books would stay in the musty basement. I felt no guilt about this relationship. Outside, I felt comforted by the truths of nature. The way the natural world worked through the eyes of a child was mathematical and reliable. Books had stories that required some suspension of disbelief but my mind didn’t want to play that game. Now Miss Hodgens got involved and changed things. She left this welt, a bruise on my soul, forever complicating the way I saw reading as a part of my life.
“Nick hasn’t been completing his book reports,” Miss Hodgens said. “It doesn’t have to be one of the class books but he needs to read and should pick something he cares about.” My mom relayed this message to me after she hung up, not knowing I was listening in from my room.
I followed the first part of Miss Hodgens’s scolding and read some book about King Arthur. I’m sure my book report was nothing more than adequate. Not until recently did I heed the advice about picking things I cared about.
A pattern of literary delinquency followed me. I treated novels like textbooks, only reading them for content and by no means trying to enjoy them, often not even finishing reading them. In my final essay of 12th grade English, I failed to convince my teacher, Mrs. Edwards, that Winston died in Room 101. I would have known this was more than a minor error in detail had I read that far in 1984. Onward to college, having passed that English class and graduated, I continued actively avoiding reading. I became smug about how the web, blogs, or Twitter had obsoleted the novel.
Even though our relationship was tenuous, I appreciated the natural form of books, revering them as totems, yet just felt like I needed to keep a safe distance from what they had to say. I tucked them away on shelves and piled them fashionably in the corner. By the time I was 30, I had collected a library of serious works like Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and, of course, War and Peace. The idea of owning these books brought me pleasure yet these books are all still on my shelf, spines unbroken, nothing more than dusty decorations.
Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.
As I grew up, made friends in the city, got married, and saw my twenties come to an end, I started to become aware of the tragedy that could come from spending the rest of my life trading joy for security. In my twenties, I was often hiding in times excused as solitude, actually just being afraid to be myself.
My humble, quiet upbringing led me to the literal and obvious rather than the creative and inspired. (Dutch Canadians aren’t often known for being impassioned raconteurs.) Conscious or not, as a child I had deferred dreaming for the reasonable, muted reality within reach. This numbness continued as I grew up. Though I had some adventurous leaps in my life, twice moving thousands of miles from coast to coast, my days were dry. Routine was my goal, not richness, and I shied away from much that would bring vibrancy to my life. I had thought that happiness was only a byproduct of a good work ethic. I was expecting regimen to bring me structure and structure to bring me satisfaction and satisfaction to bring me joy.
Developing a passion for novels and stories—finally making amends—started as an experiment to subdue my dull disorder of indifference yet ended up being a necessity of a vibrant life. Books weren’t boring, I just needed to have something in me for the book to amplify.
When embraced, the stories told in books became a way to open up my life to new ways of understanding the world, of learning how to feel new things, and showed me risk, reward, and raw, unmeasured passion—something I had little of within me. I could see what life can be when seized. The most genuine world we live in might be the one captured in books by authors spending their life’s energy on understanding the world enough to tell a true story. These nuanced moments, borne of inspiration onto a page or by vibrant sparks in our day is what makes life real. It is where we find the deepest meaning for ourselves and the place we find our best understanding of the world around us.
Joy comes from the pages of our life story, not in blissful ignorance, child-like in hiding in the reliable truths of nature. Creative passion is sourced from learning to love the complexity and depth of humanity and in seeking it out in every possible moment of our lives. These true stories open me up to a vibrant life when I come with a smoldering imagination inside of me, ready to be lit by a new view of our world.