Words that Teach Me How to Live

I’m drawn to books and words that offer me new ways of looking at life and teach me how to live in a good way. I dip into the ancient Greek philosophers and some modern ones, but reading novels and poetry resonates with me more than theory. For instance, in Middlemarch, George Eliot has Caleb Garth say something about “’tis the duty of us old ‘uns to help the young ‘uns….” ‘Tis true—or what’s the point of life? The Garths are the model family in this book—even though they do espouse Victorian values of hard work and morality and as a child I yearned for a family like this, with right values. I see now that I felt at odds with my birth family’s values but had no means of articulating my feelings. (My one wish as a child was to be sent to boarding school to be with soulmates, like the Four Mary’s. Yes, yes, I know…) Caleb Garth’s words remind me of my paternal grandparents, who helped me and were the steady foundations of my childhood. They and the words in books helped me survive. Maybe one day I will go through Middlemarch and note all the wise sayings and it will be my manual for the rest of my life.

Mary Oliver is a contemporary poet who never fails to give wise guidance for life. Poets say things that we ordinary mortals feel but don’t have the words for. You read Mary Oliver and are stunned by a blow to the belly as the words unlock your frozen heart–the sudden blow that sends us reeling—for someone else has witnessed our pain. One of my favorites is Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” in Dream Work. It’s like the voice of God as she says to you:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

I’d like to be a modern Caleb Garth, capable of giving wise advice like the poet’s to myself and others. There is a sad lack of wise sages and mentors in real life and we must turn to books. I wonder if our lack of wise mentors is because we pay no respect to the middle-aged and elderly and don’t value their experience?

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I hear the nightingale sing

I hear the nightingale sing…

As a child growing up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, I’d read the Brontës and Enid Blyton from behind my window curtain, but not many other female writers. Since then, I’ve studied a lot of literature, all the way up to a terminal degree (a PhD), and discovered many female authors who resonate with me. A detour into Greek mythology led me to the story of Philomela, who was transformed into a nightingale after she’d had her tongue ripped out so she could not tell how her brother-in-law, King Tereus, brutally raped her. She had told of her sorrow by weaving her story into a tapestry, so it’s easy to see why Philomela and the nightingale have become feminist icons for rape, silencing of women’s voices, and empowerment through women’s arts. Margaret Atwood, a feminist and great transformer of myths, has a novella Nightingale in The Tent.

 During menopausal years, I used to have recurring dreams of children who could not speak and so this myth became a beacon of inspiration for me, during my years of teaching. I have tried to mentor and support those who have been silenced through gender, ethnicity, lack of education, low income, etc. and have taught first-generation college students at a community college and a university in East Tennessee, USA, and a technical college in Buckinghamshire, England. I have taught English to undocumented immigrants, the invisible ones who don’t speak the language.

My love of poetry and melodious prose came from my Welsh mother, from the lyrical words she read to me in childhood. I repaid this gift by reading poetry to her during her Alzheimer years, when the rhythmic words pierced the plaque in her brain and she could join in enthusiastically. She taught me to love the sounds of words in harmony and the lilt of her language, then I went on to study linguistics and learnt how to describe the mellifluous sounds.

Some of my favorite authors are the Romantics who were heavily inspired by the sweet sounds of the nightingale’s beautiful song and they, like feminists, found it empowering. (Refuting the myth, sorry to say this but only the male nightingale sings in the real world.) In A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley (1792-1822) invoked the image of a nightingale: “a poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” In “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats (1795-1821) used the nightingale as a muse who achieved the poetry and music that he longed to write. In “The Nightingale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn’t see the nightingale’s song as melancholy and full of pain; instead he thought it conveyed the joy in nature.

So I am not the only one to load this bird with the heavy symbolism of sweet sounds and empowerment for the silenced.