Serendipitous Magic in Vermont

A late postcard from the holidays.

My family travelled up to Vermont after Christmas to visit family – my wife’s sister’s family – including their three grown-up children – all home from college and entrepreneurial heaven.

On the way up – 13 hours – we listened to a little HP 3 (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and Patrick Stewart’s peerless, 90-minute, one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol.  (My wife and I even fit in 30 pages of Zadie Smith’s NW.)

But that’s not what this post is about.

Up in Vermont the cousins – of various ages (ranging from 3 to 25!) – did their thing.  Skating.  Sledding.  Movies.  Lots of tea and reading on the couch by the Christmas tree.

We talked of matters sundry – including Read to Them’s fortunes – and my nephew’s entrepreneurial venture in California.

We talked of issues relating to all of this.  I even remember someone at some point bemoaning homes in which the TV is always on.  Not this house.  But in other houses we all know.  We lamented what it is like for children growing up in such homes – how much harder it is to find private space to think independently, to focus on a conversation or text, to – in an educational sense – to acquire language.  Such children likely have to learn means of tuning out the “narrative” or chatter of the TV – or else they get sucked in by it.  But it demands a choice – to succumb or to actively opt out.  Even then there is a cost – a cost to respecting and appreciating the beginning, middle, end qualities of a narrative – even if it’s the one on TV.  I think children who grow up w/ the TV always on become inured to narrative.  They grow to perceive stories as dispensable – not to be treasured – that one can tune in the middle – or tune out when something else – meal, phone call, friend – comes along.

My sister-in-law is a reading fool – like me – and in her house Santa Claus had bestowed copies of the Best Essays of 2012 series in several stockings.  (Best Essays; Best Science Writing; Best Short Stories.)  Everyone had been dabbling in these collections over the post-Christmas week – and sharing and marking favorite selections or finds.  (It’s a lot easier to imbibe a 20-page essay – with everyone else around – than it is to make headway on your novel.)

And lo and behold one of my nephews came along and suggested we read one aloud!  Gulp. That’s right.  He hoped or imagined that six adults and five adolescent teen-agers would all agree to be in the room at the same time, sit still, and focus on a non-fiction essay for 30 or 40 minutes.  Sans cell phones or computers.

Amazing – no?  Revolutionary?!  It’s one thing to hold your child captive for a chapter a night in your favorite children’s novel.  That’s “easy.”  But 10-12 adultish personalities?  In the 21st century?  Not reading the Bible.  Ain’t going to happen – is it?
But it did.

We read the story about Dr. Dan – the small-town pharmacist in modern Montana – originally published in the New Yorker.  And everyone was rapt.  We actually got interrupted halfway thru – I forget why – and when we were done – my nephew got everyone – everyone! – back together again to finish the essay.  Can you believe it?

What I recall most was the marvellous, furious hush of having ten stimulated (and stimulating) minds pause to devote their attention – their curiosity, their sense of humour, their desire to be informed and entertained, their desire to be asked to think in new ways – to someone else’s narrative and assorted parenthetical observations.  It was unexpected, serendipitous magic.

Of course we talked about the essay – and others – several times over the remaining days.

And then we did it again!  My niece had written a sensitive, ambitious children’s story for a college course – and my intrepid nephew (her brother) asked again if we might not all pause and hold still and attend and listen to her story.  And everyone said yes.  And we all listened.  And were rapt.  For 40 charmed minutes.

Once again the effect was strange and unexpected.  And different.  This was a mysterious allegorical story about a girl who enters a bee-hive.  Magic and science both – and lots of carefully dolloped out description.  In a room of tough critics, the spell was cast.  Once again it was magic to fall under that spell – to listen and succumb and wonder and speculate and appreciate and evaluate.

We were all sad when it was over.  We all recognized how lucky we were.  We all realized how hard it would be to re-create such moments – each in our own lives.  It shouldn’t be so difficult – but of course it is.

Driving home – and in the weeks since – I cannot let go of that marvellous unexpected and sadly all too rare feeling.  It was serendipity.  So easily claimed when we read picture books or chapter books with our children.  So much harder to claim with adults or our adult children.  But not impossible.  And also qualitatively different.  The experience is different when the minds are different.  And when the experience is so conspicuously oh so rare and treasured.

I encourage you – please – to look for the opportunity to stake and claim such time.  And share your own experience of reading aloud – with anyone.  Share your serendipity.

[Write to bruce.coffey@readtothem.org to share your reading aloud experience.]

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