Books saved my life. This is no overstatement. And so I am pleased to join the folks at Bloggers Unite and dedicate today’s writing (September 8) to the marking of UNESCO’s International Literacy Day. On this day every year UNESCO reminds the international community of the status and literacy and adult learning globally. First celebrated in 1966, its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. At the time of this writing, 774 million adults lack minimum literacy skills, one in five adults is still not literate, and TWO THIRDS OF THEM ARE WOMEN. I offer my small voice for those women especially in this post.
I say again: Books saved my life. When other children were learning to walk, I was learning to read. Some ill-advised orthopedic surgery at the ages of three and five had done more harm than good, turning a minor issue into full-on disability for me. My mobility was severely compromised. I was confined to a bed recovering for the first five years of my life and spent much of the rest of my childhood sitting in one chair or another. I look back on those years in wonder, because while I was aware that I was different, and while the rejection of children and strangers was often hurtful, and while I fell down a lot, (o la) those are not the images my memory shows to me. Instead, I remember the books. The books that saved my life. The first one being an enormous, glossy storybook called Pi Gal (who wrote it, where is the book now, how can I get another copy?), a reading prize in third grade. It was the story of an island boy and his dog. I remember reading that book a thousand times, transfixed by the tale of their adventure, which had something to do with the poet Shelley, something to do with beauty, strength and survival, and something to do with me. I remember instead the book The Secret Garden, that beloved, liberating, magical Place, where Mary found her resurrection, where Colin found his legs and where I found something precious that I can only now begin to name. Then there was Alice in Wonderland, which I always read with a little trepidation, a little fear… what if the next time I went into that land of grinning cats and smoking caterpillars I couldn’t get back out? But I’d always jump down that rabbit hole with Alice anyway. It felt like bravery, it felt like freedom, it felt like fun. Oliver Twist was my brother orphan, I loved him because he knew what it was to beg for gruel and suffer for want of love, he knew what it was to dream, and best of all, his dream came true. These were more than stories to me, these were Ways out of no way, they were messages to me from the Spirit World telling me to persevere, that life was indeed a beautiful thing. These stories were my legs, they were my wings.
Books saved my life again in later years when I was struggling to become an empowered, ie, creative woman in the island patriarchy. We were a small tribe of emerging, womanish writers and we were making a journal of literature by and for women, writing and gathering up stories that told the truth about island women’s lives, stories that were full of radical ideas like, women’s stories are powerful, women’s voices are crucial for a civilized, i.e., ever growing culture. There were no local models, we were working in the dark, but we had some candles. We knew if we kept writing we could rise up the sleeping sun. The book, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr Clarissa Pinkola-Estes was the pivotal sun-rising, work-inspiring book of that time for me. In that book Estes gave me story of the Handless Woman, It was about how even a handless woman will make it through the deep forest to the other side, with the help of the earth and her attendant spirits, ie, her own instinct, and when she gets there she finds her hands have re-grown. I think of that story nearly every day. Another book to bring on a new dawn for me in those years was The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor. This monumental book tells the story of women on earth, from the day before the first day of time, two and a half billion years ago to the present time and tells the story of the central and fundamental role that women played in the creation and development of human culture. This was the book that opened the door to imaginings of what the Earth Religion of our Lucayan ancestors might have once looked like, and how it could be revived and applied to my modern island life, and what kind of stories that such a revival would beg to be written. These are the books that saved my writing life, that changed me from a disgruntled, i.e., victimized journalist to a striving poet and activist, a feminist book publisher, a writer in a community of writers, bearing witness, planning and scheming, writing the new age into reality. These were the books that revealed to me that the written word and the story told have the innate, active, magical power to change the shape and colour and meaning of the physical world around me. They opened my eyes to the power of poetry, and of journal writing both, the latter of which has now become this advocasy blog.
I am forever grateful to the writers of these books, and I am grateful I learned to read at such a young age. It is hard to believe that so many millions around the world are still struggling to live without the empowerment that reading and literacy provides. I am thinking now: How many children in my country don't have books to read today? What kind of state are our community libraries in? What are our literacy rates and what needs to be done about them? I mean to find out.