I often marvel at how fortunate I am to have centuries of human wisdom rolling around in my head. Whether they’re passages from Shakespeare’s plays, P.J. Harvey lyrics, or ancient sutras, literary works are companions who help me make sense of life’s terror, beauty, and banality. And they grow as I do. Or, rather– as I experience more, I see more facets to the literary gems I thought I had known so well.
But there are two works for which I have an irrational fondness—The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s true that our fabulous student and Canon editor Shannon asked me to write about one book that has been influential, that has taught me something valuable or gotten me through a tough time. But instead, I’m going to tell you about two works that I encountered at just the right time.
Maybe I was nine or ten years old. My father presented to me a boxed set of books called The Chronicles of Narnia. I was instantly fascinated by the strange words “chronicles” and “Narnia.” The fact that Dad had bought me these books added another layer of mystique. He never bought presents. Years later, I realized he must’ve read about these “children’s books” in one of the many Catholic newspapers he still reads, thirty years later.
Already an avid reader, I instantly dove into The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But… I didn’t like it! The words were weird. I found the story and characters a little frightening. Dad asked about the books and I told him they were scary. He seemed sad. I felt bad.
Back then, in the mid-80s, before cell phones, internet, and cable T.V., I frequently found myself “bored”. When no friends could come play, when my chores and homework were done, when mom and dad were watching something tiresome on television, I would poke around the house, in kitchen drawers, in my big brother’s or big sister’s closets and bookshelves, seeking ways to entertain myself.
At some point, boredom led me to crack the spine of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again. This time, at eleven, I was ready for it. I eventually devoured the Chronicles and re-read them annually for many years.
These books confirmed my suspicions that the world is a magical place. As a child I had felt those “thin places” palpably and still do today. I frequently feel that, at any moment, I could stumble into a new world, or, better, see this ol’ world alive with a new light and vibrancy. The Chronicles put words– grown-up words– to my child-like wonder.
The next author to tap this vein of wonder was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don’t know which edition of his collected works I had or how I got it but I was reading it “for fun” as a senior in high school. Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” put words to vague and misty feelings of transcendence I had experienced while sitting in a tree in my backyard and by a stream in the wild and un-trailed regions of Fahnestock State Park. Like C.S. Lewis, his works corroborated my notion of the world, and particularly “the woods,” as enchanted and enchanting.
Rob Angiello, the language arts teacher at the alternative school Walkabout, indulged my infatuation with this dusty old preacher from the 19th century. He let me write papers on “Nature” and “Self-Reliance,” then nudged me towards other, more contemporary nature-writers such as Edward Abbey. Rob was also the first person to call me a “writer.” Swoon.
I am grateful to so many authors for enriching my life, expanding my experiential and semantic fields, and for creating vital companions for my life’s journey. But for that formative and encouraging spark of wonder, those glimpses of joy, and for the permission to feel unbridled delight with the world, I have to give mad props to C.S. Lewis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kevin Kinane, and Rob Angiello!