My grandmother, mother and I sit comfortably in our own chairs on the back porch. We are all reading. I am five or six years old. I have been told that I am a good reader. My mother writes down the title and author of each of my library books in a notebook. From this time I remember Pippi Longstocking and Ramona Quimby. I like girls who like to run and play, have big imaginations, and don’t obey the rules. This predilection will not change as I grow older.
I am turning nine years old and in the fourth grade. It is my birthday and my friend Cara gives me a three volume set of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I read the total of eight Anne books countless times. Opening each worn paperback cover calms and comforts me. I am sensitive, a little chubby, and not completely comfortable with the neighborhood kids. The girls all seem to be paired up and reluctant to take on a third. I wish for a “bosom friend” like Diana. I share Anne’s tendency to daydream and to get into trouble, often simultaneously. Though she despised it, her red hair inspires a lifetime longing, one I finally commit to in my late thirties when I decide to cover my gray.
Ms. Creech enters my life in the ninth grade, and then again my junior year. She is a Southern intellectual, who speaks of literature as great and reads us the entirety of Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” with a cultured twang. She presents us with Flannery O’Connor and I make my first attempts at deciphering symbolism with Joy/Hulga’s wooden leg in “Good Country People.” Ms. Creech’s praise of my essay makes me feel like I have done something unique and important. Deciphering the meaning of a text opens a new world, one I giddily choose as my own.
In Ms. Creech’s class, I first encounter The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Characters Edna Pontellier and Janie Crawford, respectively, refuse to be defined by others’ expectations, though each comes to a very different end. Restricted by the conventions of her day, Edna ultimately takes her own life. Facing down a string of challenges, Janie becomes gifted in the art of self-transformation and lives to tell her own story. Angered by Edna’s lack of choices and inspired by Janie’s perseverance, these two women accompany me through college and graduate school, as I write and rewrite my way through my twenties.
I have not given up my habit of reading books more than once. My appetite for plot and character sated in the first quick go around, I am free to read like a writer, more attuned to technique and language. Books still comfort me and provide me with companionship. Often I will buy a book knowing it will pass through my hands to those of my mother and grandmother. I read to explore new worlds and to find reflections of my own. Each new book holds the possibility of another Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Anne Shirley, Edna Pontellier, or Janie Crawford. Each new book holds the promise of sustenance, of connection, of grace.
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Forget your perfect offering
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— Leonard Cohen
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For over two decades, Dawn Dreyer has worked as a writer, mixed-media documentary maker, and teacher. Since 2005, Dawn has been an outspoken advocate for herself and others with the lived experience of mental illness. Her current project is the animated documentary Bipolar Girl Rules the World.