by Kim Karpeles
Bedtime stories read aloud were a big part of my family’s evening ritual. I was disappointed when we had a babysitter as it was challenging to talk them into reading anything. Even my grandmother could rarely be persuaded to go beyond the de rigueur one book that Mom included in her parting list of instructions.
With each babysitter I’d start out well-behaved with a pleasant “please”, slide toward more persuasive and affirmative tones, and eventually resort to begging – usually to no avail. How could these people who were able to read not spend their evenings reading? The ice-chip addict who did crosswords, the teenager with saddle shoes and bobby sox, and the older widow from church were early examples of people who did not love reading aloud; an illness I secretly hoped was not contagious.
The books piled on my nightstand let me venture beyond the limits of the blue gingham bedspread and soar beyond the ruffled canopy overhead into worlds that once existed, never existed, and might someday exist. Places where animals talked, friends joined in adventures, and family dramas were resolved before “The End.” I watched people discover they were courageous in trying circumstances, and others find they couldn’t make a good choice when their lives depended on it. There was magic, there was wisdom — if only I could convince someone to translate those squiggles on the page.
One afternoon my sixth grade English teacher rolled the phonograph player cart into the middle of the room and instructed us to pull out a few sheets of paper. For the next fifteen minutes she was going to play a selection from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, and we were to describe what we saw in our minds or felt as the music played. Plenty of kids rolled their eyes, shuffled their feet, and stared at the blank sheets of paper, but after a few notes I didn’t notice.
When the movement finished, she lifted the needle, and invited us to mentally return to the classroom. We passed in our pages and headed to gym class. She promised to pick a few of her favorites and read them out loud when we returned. I was amazed by what others envisioned and dumbfounded when my paper was one that had moved her.
That afternoon assignment revealed that my writing held the same power to transport me and others like the bedtime stories. This time I created the squiggles, envisioned the scenes, and watched the unknown unfold as the words sprang to life and pulled me along. The hours of listening to stories, hearing life from another’s perspective, creating the scenes in my mind’s eye, and eventually being able to read alone had equipped me to create something from the thoughts rolling around in my head.
Decades later my moment of junior high triumph (there weren’t many) was reincarnated in a seminary assignment. One course dedicated to the study of a significant theologian was required as part of my Masters degree in systematic theology. The fourth assigned reflection paper covered a semester’s worth of his writings, an overview of his life, and was to include statements of how his theological positions had impacted me. Though the professor felt my writing covered too many bases and I hadn’t reached a “profound level of personal engagement… it is so thoughtful and well-written that any grade other than ‘A’ would be an injustice.”
Reading and writing are still crucial ingredients in my life – as essential as my right and left hands. I imagine I would learn to function without one or the other as amputees or stroke victims bravely manage, but the two function best in full reciprocity. Visitors to my home often ask how many of the books on my shelves I’ve read. When I reply, “Oh, probably 85% (except for the reference books)”, the conversation invariably ends. Were I to show them the rows and rows of Moleskine journals I’ve filled trying to process life’s trials, hardships, and joys, they might remain dumb. But I know I couldn’t survive without those squiggles on pages – mine and those of hundreds of authors.
Adults regularly tell me they don’t like to read or write; they didn’t when they were in school either. I’m still puzzled, but no longer worry that I’ll catch what they’ve got. Instead of fearing contagion, I’m holding out hope that they may yet fall under the spell of a good story and be inspired to share theirs.
Kim Karpeles is the Director of Communication for a mid-sized church in Northbrook, Illinois. She holds two masters degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; one in Systematic Theology, the other in Christian Studies. Kim enjoys reading, sudoku puzzles, travel, and learning Spanish.