Friday, March 16, 2018

My Travels with Charley

When I was in the second grade, I had a teacher that darn near ruined school for me. Often, she was incredibly unkind. If her hair was curled, we were going to be alright but if it was straight, everyone knew to steer clear. As an adult I realize that, maybe, on the days her hair was curled, she'd gotten up, had her morning coffee and then spent some quality time with the curling iron. The days when it was straight, well, maybe she'd rolled out of bed and we were seeing her in some kind of decaffeinated state. I don't know. She insisted that we call her Mizz Boyle. Not Miss Boyle. Mizz. She scared me. The rough terrain of second grade didn't stop with her incredible mood swings. The woman barely taught math. She focused so greatly on language arts and reading that one of my most vivid memories from all of grade school involves me sobbing at the kitchen table while I wrote a lengthy (way too long for a seven-year-old) research paper on Mary Cassatt. That class entered the third grade above average in all things to do with literature and well below average in our math skills.

It haunted me throughout school, always trying to play catch up in math and build on skills that weren't taught at the crucial age of seven. However, for all that I blame her for with my subpar mathematics skills, I do credit the woman for being the base for which my love for literature and language arts was launched and, in fairness, she's the sole reason I have any idea who Mary Cassatt was.

My foundational love for English took me into honors courses, on to Advanced Placement my senior year, and eventually landed me in a great many writing and literature classes in college where I graduated three courses short of a second degree in English Education. I say all of that to hopefully give some credit to what I'm about to say. (It was a long introduction. What can I say, I'm not short and to the point like Hemingway.)

In high school, as part of our honors program, I was forced to endure a few AWFUL books for summer reading. Terrible books. Books that made me question whether I should even bother with advanced classes. But here's the thing. I reread some of them in college and had a profound awakening to them. It was then I realized that some of what we'd been forced to read in high school was way over our heads. Listen, I was not in over my head in advanced classes. I never got a grade lower than A in English until college. So I can only assume that no one was understanding or connecting to much of our summer reading lists. When in college a few years later, my perspective had changed. I'd lived a little more life. The themes and concepts of some of the books we'd had to read in high school suddenly made sense. I firmly believe that we were introduced to some of that material well before we could even begin to chew it up and make sense of it.

I'm not blaming the teachers. Not a bit. I adored my high school English teachers. They were teaching what they needed to and in the end, we all survived. During school we were able to dissect books with our faithful leaders standing by, guiding and helping. It was those hot summers with long passages that made no sense that really got to me.

The summer before my freshman year, when I was a mere 13 years old, I powered, somehow, through Travels with Charley. I declared then and there that I detested John Steinbeck with the burning fire of 10,000 suns. It was so so very terrible. It was boring. It was dated. Still, for some strange reason, I held onto that paperback novel all these years. My mother, year after year would ask me why I saved it, as awful as it was. Then, later, my husband would ask the same question. I had no explanation. Perhaps I kept it in my bookshelf as some sort of badge of honor.

I have nearly tripled my age since I first experienced that novel. Suddenly, I had the overwhelming urge to read it. O, world, is it ever beautiful. Still, I look at its pages and I think, "There is no way a 13 year old could have possibly grasped this." Now though, I am helped by the fact that I have fallen in love with Steinbeck. Travels with Charley In Search of America was my maiden voyage nearly a quarter of a century ago. It is not the place to begin. One must first know Steinbeck. I believe, even, that The Pearl and Of Mice and Men (books which also came with my high school education) are not, on their own, up to the task. Perhaps, if one has held tight to the pages of East of Eden, it will have been enough. To embrace Charley, one must feel as though Steinbeck is an old friend and one must believe that America is meant to be discovered again and again. We must understand that she is always in a process of metamorphosis so intricate that one man's experience will never be the next man's. One must possess within her that restlessness, that wanderlust that so many of us, inherent in our Americanness, feel in the marrow of our bones. What 13 year old grasps these things? Nay, what 36 year old can do much more than open her mouth and hope to drink the entire ocean?

I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed. I have felt this way in the Prado in Madrid after looking at a hundred paintings--the stuffed and helpless inability to see more.

A few pages later...

Charley licked the syrup from his whiskers. "What makes you so moony?"

"It's because I've stopped seeing. When that happens you think you'll never see again."

What 13 year old is worried about absorbing that much, being saturated to the point of rejecting what is seen, heard, and experienced? Ahhh, but what 36 year old, in a moment of respite, enveloped by warm water and bubbles while her love plays with her three smaller loves, has not experienced the gripping reality that sometimes we lose sight of everything important?

There are moments when I wish I could visit myself. I would absorb wisdom from the soul of older versions. I would implore younger versions to listen, to give it all the time that it needs, to soak in as much as possible.

"Yes, younger me, the only part of Travels with Charley In Search of America that you will grasp and appreciate will be the parts about California. You have been there. You have experienced the land and everything he says about it is still true. One day, you will have seen more of it. You will have met more of its people. You will understand what John was looking for. One day, the book will move you. One day, you will wish that he invited you into Rocinante, poured you a glass of whatever he was serving, and asked who you were. Or not. Perhaps you would only discuss the weather. One day, you would consider paying top dollar to scratch Charley's head. That time has not yet come."

But it will.

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