Seeing Fish Underwater, or, Why I Read Books and Poetry

I’ve just finished a book that made me cry a good old-fashioned Cry—a sit on the couch, blow-your-nose, cry-some-more, laugh-a-little, read-the-ending-again, cry-some-more, real Cry.

Why do people cry over good books? I’m not sad. I’m not exactly happy. I am not sure what this feeling is. Are these same tears I’ve had when I’ve read other books?

Well, what are some of the other books that have made me cry? Here’s a list off the top of my head, read in the last 43 years (bold type denotes lifelong favorites I’d like to be buried with):

Night by Elie Wiesel
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Atonement by Ian McEwan
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Country I Come From by Maura Stanton
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (tears of laughter, of course)
The Best Day the Worst Day:  Life with Jane Kenyon by Donald Hall
Persuasion by The Master, Jane Austen
Summer by Edith Wharton
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Run by Ann Patchett
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Yearling by Marjorie Rawling
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
The Blue Star by Tony Earley
The Dead by James Joyce
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (well, you know, you cry through the entire novel)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Bell by Iris Murdoch
The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats:  A Journey into the Feline Heart by Jeffrey
Moussaeiff Masson

Though not a complete list, these are some of the books I loved and that made me cry. Not even half of them are sad books. I just cried at them, sometimes for happiness, sometimes for the pitiful state of humanity, sometimes out of love or compassion for author or characters, sometimes because a book’s outcome helped me resolve or more clearly understand some experience in my own life, but most often because a book essentially reached me, then grabbed me, and clarified (if just for a moment) something that I had been unable to grasp or explain.

I had this experience tonight upon finishing Wild:  From Lost to Found on the Pacific wildCrest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. It’s a very funny, sad, lighthearted, serious, earnest memoir written by a troubled, grieving, “lost” American woman who, at age 26 in 1995, hiked a long trail in the wilderness from southern California to Oregon, met memorable people, spent time alone, and learned some things about herself. Although I loved Strayed’s writing style, the story itself, her humility, and her delightful sense of humor, none of those elements of the book made me cry.

It was a section toward the end of the book that got me started. At this point, our narrator has hiked over 1,o00 miles through the wilderness, mostly in solitude, and she’s wondering why she feels like she knows more than she knew when her hike began, though she’s not really sure what that is. She’s just reread some beloved Adrienne Rich poetry on the trail, and reflects:

I’d chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn’t know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands—so close and present and belonging to me—until I reached for it and it flashed away.

Those lines ring so true for me! They explain fuzzily, yet as clearly as possible, what I love about poetry and books. Even more important, they help me express what what “happens” when I try to make sense (usually unsuccessfully) of the things in my life that I’ve failed miserably at, yet why I know I had to go through them. In other words, it may be impossible to trace all of life’s nuances and oddities, and form them into a cohesive explanation for how we got to where we are, but guess what  . . . it doesn’t really matter. We don’t need to clearly understand everything about our behaviors, our motivations, our feelings, intentionality, or even the things we avoid. But it’s helpful to have a sense that we’re moving forward and that, mysteriously, we somehow become more than just a sum of our parts, more than what we see and experience during the passage of time in our short, messy lives.  Or as Strayed explains in the closing of her book:

It [her future, her understanding of what happened on the hike] was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

Wild turned out to be a perfect book for me to read toward the end of a year, as usually in December, then again in May (the month of my birthday), I tend to pause and fall into some uncomfortable introspection about the passage of time and what I’ve done and failed to do with the previous year and my time on this planet.

As the new year arrives this time around, I’ll try to follow Strayed’s lead and just “let it be,” honoring and loving it for whatever it is, like the poet Mark Strand suggested in his great “Lines for Winter”:

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

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