This post was inspired by William Stafford’s poem, ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other,’ on which I based the title for this musing. You can listen to Stafford read his poem here: http://williamstaffordarchives.org/browse/audio
I’m entirely not sure what compelled me to undertake Beowulf with my ten year-old, Sam. Even though the epic poem has remained a blazing signpost, a significant point of reference in my development as an adoring but hopeless slave to Literature and writing, I can’t today recall one thing my high school English teacher wanted us to learn when we read the Burton Raffel translation in the 1980’s. Add to this that I was that painfully shy, pimple-faced, frizzy haired kid in your English class that you’ve otherwise totally forgotten about, the guy who always looked like he was trying to hide inside his coat, was usually buried in his comic books or drawing pads, and now that you think of it looked a lot like Napoleon Dynamite. Considering where and who I was at that stage of life, I’m still shocked today that I even followed through with purchasing and reading page one of the book at all.
And while I have not retained many specific, precise details about Beowulf over the years, I know too well that an unmistakable “something” about the language with which Raffel crafted and relayed our hero’s tale immediately captivated and enlivened me in adolescence. So much so that nearly twenty-five years later, I credit that staggering recognition, my unexpected and surprising fascination with the vibrant interplay between language and story as a mysterious magnet pull, an unspoken invitation that would shamelessly seduce me into a lifelong love affair with Literature.
Fast-forward to all these years later, and Sam and I were drawing to the end of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. He shared that he was ready for a break from the Hobbits. However, he specifically requested we find something with legends and tales of knights and warriors, along with any battle that featured swords, shields, and bows and arrows. Also, Seamus Heaney had just then passed away, and his death cemented my regret that I had still not explored his translation of the oldest epic poem in the English language.
This time around, however, where I encountered scenes and lines that stoked again the familiar fires the tale sparked in me many years ago, I was also surprised to stumble upon frustrations I couldn’t recall from my initial reading of the work. There were nights with Sam that I barely slogged my way through one or another section. During various monologues or any dull-seeming scene detailing longstanding grudges and factions between families, countries, and kingdoms I would tell myself, “Well, that’s it. You’ve lost him.” Even if I wasn’t rolling my eyes on the outside, there were nights that I labored through sections of the work and wondered how the tale could have made any significant impact on me as an adolescent.
Some evenings, I would convince myself that I’d read Sam to sleep, or that “this” or “tonight” was it – he’d be done, officially bored senseless into wanting us to read something else. But no dice. Every night that I worried I’d lost him on any level, I’d check in, ask him what he thinks, and he would smile. “This is a really good story!” he gushed on one occasion. Looking over my shoulder as I read on another evening, he discovered and then pointed out the protagonist’s name on the left, the Old English side of Heaney’s bilingual text. Other nights he groaned when I suggested we pick up the tale the following evening.
As if I needed further affirmation for this puzzling effort, on the night we finished it, I closed the book, and Sam asked me if he could take it to school and share it with his teacher the following week.
I’ve known for a long time, well before I ever became a parent, that regardless of how or where our interests may diverge over the years, perhaps nothing would prove more important or a priority to me than that my children stand capable of becoming critical thinkers, able to intelligently navigate among the spoils and excess our culture indiscriminately lobs at us around the clock. From before they could even lift their heads, or sort out one stitch about the times they’ve been born into, the one way I imagined my children might manage to stand more firmly grounded, able-bodied, and aware of their footing in the world is by becoming literate, and in so doing call to life an interminable curiosity about the places in which they find themselves. Stories, throughout my experience, have consistently proven the means by which I maintain my own incessant curiosity with the world. Stories are also, consequently, the fuel that drives my unrelenting love affair with this messy and deeply flawed but no less beautiful world we all share and call home.
Sam, his little brother, Matt, and I have read a lot of stories together over the years, works full of heart – some with obvious “morals,” allegories, and a wide variety of meanings. Then, we’ve also read many tales that I imagine will reveal – or have revealed – their meanings slowly, over time. Will they change anything for the boys and how they live their lives, or how they embrace or reject what befalls them in the coming years? I can’t say. If there’s one thing I’ve learned that good Literature never arrogantly claims or promises, it’s certainty.
At this stage of life, I know only that our reading together is – and this is going on ten years now – the longstanding, undeniable highlight of my weeks. I spend many nights sick with worry about money and work-related matters. We are fast outgrowing our living space and, like many single parents, I frequently wrack my brain puzzling over the many seeming-dead ends or financial hurdles around me while trying to figure out how to improve our situation. Despite all our efforts at placing our children in spaces where they can thrive and receive a good education, the boys’ mother and I still feel endlessly besieged by a relentless and disconcerting array of outside influences in the form of media, bewildering childcare shenanigans, and everywhere-occurring technology.
But with remarkably little effort, aside from one lone intention and being sure that we attend to it, that time reading before bed every night regularly proves a nearly sacred space in my home. And even if it’s the lone sacred space every night that I have them, we’re afforded that, mostly because we afford it to ourselves. And despite the endless laundry list of “Big Life” concerns daily competing for our attention, I think we continue to do a pretty bang-up job maximizing on the wonder and quiet beauty that is made available to us in that space.
“To teach,” writes the educator and author, Parker Palmer, “is to create a space.” True – I think he’s right, though his observation is made in regards to education, the classroom, and schooling. Meanwhile, I also think that to simply and intentionally create a space in one’s day – or in this case, our day – can at its best establish conditions for the most imaginative forms of learning available to us. Without directly or overtly striving to “teach” or instruct, making a space in which to share stories together nurtures the ground where in each of us can occur subtle transformations, a quietly life-altering degree of awe towards the world, and a longed for and counter-cultural form of attention that we might otherwise struggle or intuitively know how to effectively and compassionately afford ourselves and each other.
I don't know, years from now, what Sam will take away or remember about Beowulf. He might pick up this copy one day in his teens or adulthood and not remember a lick of it, or leaf through it and wonder why his nutty Pop suggested they read it together. After all, there were times during this reading that I puzzled over its lasting effect on me.
Likewise, while still I can’t recall what my high school English teacher wanted us to take away from Beowulf those many years ago, it might be wise to stop contemplating that now. The question that intrigues me more than any other today, as a writer, reader, and also as a father – as I can only hope will prove the case for my children in the coming years – is what did Beowulf (along with so many other works over the years) want with me, or ask of me – and so insistently that the chords it struck inside me have never stopped vibrating? A vibration occurring curiously and affectionately in such a way that I have always wanted to share it like a gospel, with someone who I felt – who I knew – in an otherwise ordinary, unremarkable moment in the evening might also appreciate it?
Jonathan Bower lives, writes, and makes music in Anchorage, Alaska, and will teach the undergraduate Creative Nonfiction workshop at UAA in Fall 2014. In late spring (or early summer) he will release his second album in two years, titled Hope, Alaska. You can preview Jonathan’s music and read selected works at www.jonathanjbower.com.