I was lying in the dark last night, staring up at the ceiling (truth be told, I really do have a very old, very unusual fascination with ceilings but that, in addition to making me sound even more odd than I already am, is beside the point), when, from out of nowhere, an image flashed into my head. It was of a library. Only, it wasn’t a real library, not a public one, anyway. It was in my home. It was dimly lit, with bookcases that went from the top of the ceiling to the bottom of the floor (I really do have two of these and they are beautiful. I’d like ten more of them, though) and every shelf was jammed with books. There were old books, new books, children’s books, photo albums, my books, diaries, fat books, skinny books, classic books, decadent and totally useless Judith McNaught books. There were books with dog eared pages, books with printer fresh pages, books with ripped pages. There were books with dust jackets, there were books with soft covers and there were books with no covers. There were books stuffed sideways on top of other books because the shelf said books lined were filled to overflowing. Not only were there books on the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves, there were books on the deliberately sparse other pieces of furniture.
There were no chairs and no sofas in the room because, instead, there was a large bay window, equipped with a ledge that was adorned with large, yet muted in color, pillows and cushions. An open edition of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” lay on end of the ledge while, at the other end, lay a pad of wide-ruled paper. Words I couldn’t read were scribbled in my worse-than-a-Ph.D’s-penmanship all across its blue lines. Atop the pad of paper lay two blue Bic pens. A very worn, too often handled and weary outline lay beside the pad of paper, on which the handwriting was not only totally illegible but also filled with symbols, short-cuts and signs that no one on earth besides me could possibly hope to decipher.
The carpet was plush, spotless white. The wallpaper was a dark mauve color, peaceful, dark, yet feminine as well. In the corner of the room opposite the bay window’s ledge was a rocking chair. Thrown over the arm of the rocking chair was a blanket covered with sewn-on pictures of my girls and my favorite Bible, bookmarked to Isaiah. The bookcases completely covered all but one wall. Upon it hung a large portrait of my girls, both laughing and beside that portrait hung the painting of the girl reading I have always loved. Below each portrait, displayed on an easel, were mounted, large posters displaying the cover of two of my novels. Most of all, there was a no noise. No air conditioner hum, no conversations, not even any music. Only the whispered sounds of pages turning, either those in bound books or in the pad of paper, could be heard. The room was small, too: only barely large enough for its massive bookcases and the thousand books that lined their shelves.
So many things permeated this room, in this image that formed for only the briefest of seconds. Primarily, it was the feelings of hope and peace that seemed almost tangible to me. For me, hope was the most important one. Throughout my life, there have been a number of things known to offer me peace: namely, God’s promises, my mother and sister, perfect strangers, writing, music, horses, volunteerism, conversation, education and, even, in its finest moments, nature. There were a multitude of ways for me to meander my way around to a peaceful feeling. Reading and writing were merely two of those avenues.
Hope was something altogether different.
I have no idea how old I was but, when I was fairly little, maybe ten or so, I remember one night I was laying in bed, crying. By then I’d learned that tears were supposed to be silent and I knew how to control my breathing so that I made no noise when I cried. As I tried to do that, I remember trying to think about the next time. I told myself that, next time, I’d be ready. I’d be stronger. I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t make a mistake. Next time. It wasn’t if this happens again, it was when this happens again.
I was a freshman in high school, attending a private school, and I was the target of three girls who were the biggest bullies in the history of bullying. One day, I was writing and, they managed to snatch a sheet of my the book I was writing. They tossed it up and threw it around the room like a baseball. I asked nicely for it back, and when they laughed at me, I sat and resolved to just re-write the page I’d just lost. When they threw it in the trash, I walked to the trash can and retrieved it, thanking God the whole way that they hadn’t torn my words. When they put catsup on a sanitary pad, stuck it to the classroom television and told the embarrassed teacher upon arrival that – I – did it, I just cried. When my mom told me she’d switch me out of that class, I told her no, that was my class, and I wanted to stay in it. It wasn’t that I held out hope of redeeming them and becoming their friend. No. I just didn’t want to regret giving in to them. (I’m really not all that passive. I’m closer to passive-aggressive). I didn’t hope to change them, I just wanted the journalism class.
There are countless other examples I could give, from childhood on, of when I was faced with obstacles and could not see the forest for the trees. It was more like treading water. I recognized the problem and could not see the way around it. No matter how much weight I lost, no matter the clothes I chose to wear, I’d never be mistaken as pretty enough. Even though I’d joined the Student Ambassador’s Program and provided tours of the campus for visitors, there’s no way anyone would view me as popular enough or savvy enough or cool enough to hang with. I didn’t drink. I didn’t party. I didn’t attend pep rallies or homecoming games and would have avoided sororities at all costs, even if I had been invited. I knew no one who did drugs, and would have run if I had. I graduated high school without a single date, and did not care. And I really thought that was the way things were going to stay. I wouldn’t be changing anytime soon, and I knew it. All the psychology I’d taken told me that I had to accept it because if I didn’t, I’d be doomed to all sorts of internal psychological war that could last for years. Instead of that, I just accepted my role. I accepted things the way they were and didn’t question them.
Hope was not really part of my vocabulary.
Except when I read, or wrote.
When I was about eleven, I guess, I read a “Baby-Sitters’ Club” book called “Stacy’s Big Crush”. It wasn’t the first of the series I’d read, and it wasn’t the only one that impacted me (think “Claudia and the Sad Goodbye”, in which her grandmother dies). But, as I read that book, I laughed so hard that a picture of me reading it could have made me the poster child for the public library. It takes a real concerted effort to embarrass me. But, during the course of that book, my face was as red as a tomato. As I read about how Stacy’s heart palpitated and she wrote love poems to her teacher, whom she was positive she was going to marry, all I could think about were my own ill-fated letters mailed in perfumed envelopes to my – Bible – teacher, the one who was an honest-to-God model, and who favored Mickey Mouse ties. I hoped for Stacy. Even though I knew the inevitable conclusion of the book when I started it, I truly hoped. And I remembered hoping, when I mailed that perfumed-enveloped letter, that Mr. Daniels would see how good of a teacher he’d been, and how much he’d impacted me in just the short time we’d known each other.
When I was in the sixth grade, my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Haymer, allowed me to read one of the books I’d written aloud to the students in my classroom. Before this, my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Krutsinger, had allowed me to do the same thing, so I had some practice at reading my work aloud to others. But, when I read to Mrs. Haymer’s class, I specifically recall the reactions of my classmates. As I finished reading a chapter, they all came up to me and asked me what was going to happen next in the story. They liked it. And that day, as I walked to my desk, I wasn’t only proud of myself, I was hopeful too. Reading the book, and seeing the reactions of others, made me hope that I maybe I wasn’t as dysfunctional as I’d thought I was.
I was in high school when I read Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust. Admittedly, I may have been a wee bit on the young side for such an endeavor. But it altered the way I viewed life and trauma. I remember reading these horrific stories of the survivors and thinking, “My life is a party compared to that. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Zero. Nothing.” Thereafter, I deliberately began to choose hope. I would look at a problem and try to see something about it. I knew it had to be there. I was not in a concentration camp. Therefore, hope had to be present. I still had to work at it, but that book and the story of the holocaust concentration camps really impacted me on levels I still don’t think I fully grasp. All I know for sure was that after that it was harder to ignore hope.
When I read “Island of the Blue Dolphins” or “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” or, later, pretty much anything written by Faulkner (especially, “A Rose for Emily” and “As I Lay Dying”) or when I reflected upon Thoreau’s pond dimensions (which, granted, at the time, I thought, “He’s measuring the pond. Really??”), a door seemed to open in my heart. I wrote a book in high school called “Dreams of the Heart” that showcased Landon Montgomery. Landon is a completely fictional character. He’s a figment of my imagination. But he is a darned good one. I swear, just thinking of the man makes me smile and gives me hope. He survived and became a rather incredible man. He was not treading water, and he was not going to allow the child in his care to do the same. Later, I wrote a book called “Graduation” that detailed the true life story of my mom and three of her friends who led rather interesting lives. In my latest novel, “The Character”, I didn’t want the book to end because I didn’t want to leave Ash behind. Every time my pen moved on paper, something stirred within me. It was, in part, peace, yes, but it was also more than that. When writing time was over, and my pen was put down, I walked away hoping that the next moment in my life would be even just a tiny bit similar to my characters’. When I read my first Judith McNaught book, “Whitney, My Love,” I fell in absolute love. I wanted to clone Clayton. But, most of all, what I really wanted as I laid the book down ,was to believe that men were inherently good and were not all out to hurt me. I wanted to believe it so stupidly much. Books gave me the proof I needed, the incentive I desired, to believe in the inherent goodness of people. I wasn’t scared of men. In fact, if anything, I tended to prefer them. Not because my own father was such a prime example of what I wanted for my own children, but because my books whispered of another kind of fatherly love. I wanted the security, acceptance and love that my books, the ones I wrote and the ones I read, told me existed. I could not read and come away without hoping that such creations were not just figments of the author’s imagination.
There is a verse in the Bible, in Isaiah, that says, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand, saying, ‘Do not fear, I am with you.’” That verse still, to this day, comforts me and rings in my ear, along with several other biblical verses that were written and that I read, such as, “Draw closer to Me, and I will draw close to you.” The Bible really is the greatest story ever told: it has all of the main ingredients of a good plot: war, love, heroes and villains. But, most of all, because its true, it offers the greatest of all: hope. God gave us the written word because He knew it would last but also because He knew that it was capable of producing hope in our hearts.
Books have opened up doors in my heart and in my life. They have made me want to believe and what are we doing when we want to believe, if not hoping. And if I can think that tomorrow will be better than today, if I can truly believe it, then, what obstacle of today is too big for me to cross? People think of using a knife on their own skin, or of picking up a gun and turning it to their own temples not because they want to but because they cannot believe that tomorrow will be better. They have no hope that the next stranger they meet will be a Landon Montgomery, Clayton Westmoreland, Ash.
People think that our nation is low on love.
Have you watched the documentaries on 9/11 and seen how our people rallied around each other? Were you here in my hometown when it was covered in water to see how our churches and our citizens met the needs of the victims? Do you know that our soldiers fight for justice, peace and equal rights? Do you know who the President is, and what color skin he has? For every hate group, for every angry protestor, there is its counter: a peaceful group, a group demonstrating tolerance and love. Our country is not low on love. The ingredient our country may be low on is hope.
To tell you the truth, I’m not altogether certain I would have had hope either, if not for the written word. Of course, the written word is just that: the written word. It isn’t the same as a hug, smile or the warm glow of acceptance. It isn’t the same as experiencing the Holy Ghost. You can’t cultivate a relationship with the written word. It would be counter-productive and possibly dangerous to try. I know that as many good things as are written, there are bad things. I know, too, that as sacred as the Bible is, it’s ultimate purpose is to inspire us to do more than read it. But anything that has the potential of offering someone hope should always be taken seriously. Anything that has the potential of making a hurting soul laugh out loud should be admired. Anything that is capable of evoking change within a person should be utilized.
When I had the image flash before me last night, I instantly felt comforted. I don’t have such a library for real. I wish I did. But it was nice to be reminded that, if I’m ever short on it, one way to find hope is to pick up a book, or a pen.