When I was an idealistic college student studying classic literature, I knew that when (never if, always when) I had children I would teach them to love books. I would take them to the library, teach them to read (preferably by the age of three), read aloud to them (preferably the classics). I would sit in the college library, writing bad essays and even worse poetry, and dream of sweet trips to the small public library, to children’s book readings, to the famous Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. I saw in my mind their little faces aglow with wonder and delight as they smelled the scent of musty pages and explored the endless stacks.
They would be time travelers, adventurers, explorers of strange lands. They would meet their heroes and know their legends. And I would be their guide, spirited and spontaneous and wise. I wonder how different my dreams would have been if I’d known the darkness that was to come.
Over a dozen years have passed since those college daydreams, and I am the mother who brings her children to the library—at least three times a week. I am their guide, although not in the way I’d expected. They know the smell of old books (we walked into a used bookstore once and my ten-year-old yelled, “Why does it smell like old farts in here?”). They know the wonder of time travel (“I’ll bet in the future books will have screens in them so you can watch the movie that goes with it,” says my eight-year-old). They meet their heroes (Captain Underpants. The Hulk. The one-eyed Pigeon who drives buses and hates baths).
I am the mother who brings her children to the presence of books. The journey to their presence, however, is not quite like I’d imagined it to be.
Three times a week, I wrangle four children and diapers and wipes and the inevitable bribe snacks into a minivan that always smells a bit like spoiled milk. I ask 187 times if everyone is wearing shoes (you would not believe the number of times we’ve pulled into the parking lot and someone has said, “Wait, we’re going somewhere? But I’m not wearing shoes!”).
I never imagined that what would draw me back to the library again and again would not be my children’s experience. It wouldn’t be little faces aglow with delight (faces aglow generally means leftover jam stains). It wouldn’t even be their deep respect for the library, miraculous as that is. Somehow, despite the missing-shoes-and-sticky-jam problems, my children respect the wisdom held in books. I know this because in the library (and even on the way home and, if I’m really lucky, for 37 seconds after we get home), they will sit quietly, blonde heads together, lost in the pages. No, for me, the dreamer-turned-mother-of-four-boys, the biggest draw of the library is the quiet. They know that the librarian will hush them if they get too loud. So, for those hours, in the presence of books, their souls and bodies and mouths are quiet while their minds run wild.
Three years ago, I packed up my four boys—then ages two, four, six, and eight—and took off on a road trip. We had no itinerary, no solid plans. We packed only our sense of adventure, a few changes of clothes, an old-school map, and Costco’s entire supply of fruit snacks. Roughly halfway through our fruit-snack stash, we ended up in Portland, outside of Powell’s Books. I worried they would be bored, that I would be frustrated at their boredom, that they wouldn’t love the rows and rows of books like I did. I needn’t have worried. We spent the entire day roaming, skimming, snuggling on aisle floors and reading bits out loud. We each chose four books. We discussed our choices with deliberation, pulling books off shelves and mournfully putting them back. One of my boys chose a battered 1950s copy of White Fang. Another chose a selection of poems by Maya Angelou. They chose books about trains, unicorns, dinosaurs, planets, and pirates. And there was one beautifully illustrated book about seeds, with scientific names written in looping calligraphy. Satisfied, we hauled our stacks to the cashier and headed out to VooDoo Donuts where the boys laughed and clapped and pointed at donuts covered in their favorite sugar cereals. “It’s the best of all my favorite worlds!” one of them said. I wish I could remember who.
I wonder if I would’ve savored that trip more had I known that I was just weeks away from falling into the abyss of major clinical depression. Shortly after we returned from our adventures, the secrets life had buried deep in my body came bursting to the surface. I’d known bouts of depression before, but this was different. It was relentless, determined to have its way with me. Slowly, slowly, I fell deeper, farther away from the life that I’d lived and loved (or, at least, thought that I’d lived and loved). This depression has been the hallmark of my life since then, pulling and pushing as the moon moves the tide, fruiting and stripping away as the seasons move the trees.
Depression as a parent, as a mother, is intolerably inexpressible. There are no words to describe the pain of knowing that you are not—that you cannot—be the person that you want your children to be raised by. But still, always, there was the wisdom (and the quiet) of books. On the days that I did not leave my bed, little bodies snuggled beside me, books in forever-sticky hands, dirt under their nails telling of the day’s adventures. On the nights when I could not tuck them in, they listened to audio versions of stories we used to read together. On the days when I mustered the strength to walk to the yard, to drive to the park, to move toward the rhythms of life again, there were always books—in the car, on the sofa, in the old farmer’s market bag, on the picnic table.
When we returned to the library, my oldest son asked me why I wasn’t checking out any books for myself. My breath caught, and I said, “I’m having a hard time reading right now.” He nodded, old and wise. He has struggled with reading at what the powers-that-be deem an “age-appropriate level.” He understands and puts his hand on my arm. “If the new words get jumbled up, it’s ok, Mom. You can always go back and read what you already know.” Tears well up and I hastily wipe them away as he turns to find a favored graphic novel.
Now, we’ve just returned from the library. My littlest holds out a tattered book to me and demands with all the authority of the youngest-of-four, “Read.” I recognize the cover from another life a million years ago, our trip to Powell’s Books. I read:
A seed is sleepy. It lies there,
Tucked inside its flower, on its cone, or
Beneath the soil. Snug. Still.
(This is the only time he is still, this littlest one, with a book and my voice).
A seed is secretive, the book says, it does not
Reveal itself too quickly.
He turns the pages, and my voice begins to sound very far away from where we sit. I hear the older boys arguing over who will be the captain of their pirate ship and who will be the scurvy brats. I feel the youngest’s elbow nudge my side and he whispers, “Mama, keep reading.”
The oldest known seed to sprout came from
An extinct date palm tree. After it was unearthed from
A long-ago king’s mountaintop palace in Israel,
A scientist planted it. Four weeks later, it grew!¹
He laughs loudly and I am aware of the tears forming in the corners of my eyes. I do not understand why. My youngest boy, the last in the line of four, the one who has known me wrapped in this depression for the majority of his life, tucks his head under my arm and flips the book back to the first page. “Again.” I begin again. I feel stuck in that dark, secret soil of Israel. I have spent these past years thinking that no one was coming, that no one could possibly find me in the midst of this darkness that pulls and pushes. I did not realize until this moment in this book how much I live in fear that no one has remembered where I am buried. But that little ancient seed came to life at the hands of someone who was willing to dig in old earth, to give fresh soil and clean water and clear light.
My youngest son asks me to read that book to him three times, like three days in the grave. It is dark down here in the ancient earth, I think. I can’t breathe. His still-dimpled hands slap the book’s cover shut, declaring himself ready for a snack. My body moves but my soul does not. Three days in a grave, waiting for resurrection. Three years in a tomb, waiting to be unburied. We wash our hands and spread peanut butter and jelly on bread and slice apples and I call the oldest to set everything out on the picnic table in the sunlit yard. I go back to the couch and sit very still. I am still the oldest seed, buried by the palace of Israel’s king. This is what depression is like, I think, staring at the cover of the book about seeds. It is waiting, knowing that the King’s palace is nearby, knowing that you are in the country of the Messiah, knowing that wisdom says to hope even while experience says that you will die underground, buried alive.
Much of my children’s relationship to literature is not what I’d expected, but much of it is beyond what I’d hoped for. With all that this underground darkness has put them (us) through, they love to sit in the sun and hear me read out loud. In ways that I have forgotten, they live what they read. At the dinner table, after their catechism recitation and the Apostle’s Creed, they share their wisdom with each other, with me. The littlest tells his brothers about the ancient seed that was found and sprouted again. They nod, impressed but not entirely surprised. I look at their faces, seeing the wisdom they’ve gleaned, the wisdom they hold now in their minds and their bodies. These books have led them to the heart of the gospel.
They are not surprised that dead things can come back to life.
Later, I tuck the younger two into their bunk beds and go in search of my older two. They are prone to invite danger into their adventures and I find them poking holes into empty tin cans with their pocketknives. Alarmed, I ask what on earth they are doing. They look up at me and say, “We’re workers on the Underground Railroad. We have to put these patterns into the lanterns so people escaping slavery know we’re a safe house.” After a brief lecture on safety and asking permission and tetanus shots, I join them. We hang the lanterns from the front porch. Perhaps the ancient seed, buried somewhere deep inside me, will see their light and sprout again, near the palace of Israel’s King.
Cover photo credit: Johnny McClung
¹Dianna Hutts Aston, and Sylvia Long. 2014. A Seed Is Sleepy. Mankato, Mn: Amicus.