Category Archives: Reflections

This is for the blog Beyond Dyslexia: Reflections on Life, Spirituality, and Possibility.

The Power of Audio Books and Uncovering the Wound Beneath the Scab

Published / by Mary / Leave a Comment

Writers often report having begun a love affair with books even prior to entering first grade. I’ve struggled for years to squash my envy, and still, when a friend announces having consumed a book on their three-hour plane flight home (one I’ve been pining to read or listen to), my envy quotient rises well beyond my comfort zone.

When at last I learned to read, it remained a slow word-by-word moonwalk. This served me well in graduate school, reading Neuroscience of Text Comprehension, but made it impossible to pass a literature class without cheating (i.e., using Cliffs Notes).

In 2009, my literary life came alive upon discovering audio books. Audio books had been around some good many years prior to ’09, but I had no compelling reason to seek them out. I was satisfied with my slow nonfiction reading. That year marked my awakening to the importance of reading fiction as a writer of fiction. In fact, I bought one of my first books addressing the art of writing, Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. I loved the advice: read slowly, word by word; notice each word. That’s the way I’ve always read. This book gave my writerly self permission to view my reading as a strength. Unfortunately, it did nothing to promote my reading of actual novels.

Somewhere between seventh grade and adulthood, I had foreclosed on being a reader of fiction. I continued to hold dear books from childhood, such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, read by my sixth grade teacher, and Black Beauty. They and other favorite stories sat on an undusted fantasy bookshelf with a promise to someday read them myself. My teachers successfully instilled the love of fiction, yet failed to provide me a pathway to read these wonderful works with leisure. I have yet to experience a “beach read.”

Like Maddie in Once Upon a Time a Sparrow, I had been told if you can’t read you can’t write. I wrote anyway, in journals. Like Dr. Mary Meyers, I needed to reacquaint myself with a past I had rejected. I did not enter therapy with a goal to get in touch with my early experience of being a nonreader. I had firmly buried this aspect of my past; considered myself well beyond this. I recall wanting my therapist to know I was smart (because I had doubted this). All I needed was a little help in managing depression as the bouts of crying created misery in my life. I should have known, given my training as a psychologist, healing one’s dysphoria is not accomplished with surgical precision. Once the door is opened, the many unresolved injuries receive an invitation to join the examination table. Including my struggle with reading.

Had I not ripped loose the deep-seated scab protecting my wound of reading failure, my writing would have remained confined to journals. Seven succinct words continued to haunt me: “If you can’t read you can’t write.” I could read. Yet never did it feel like real reading. I read ploddingly. As a college freshman, I took a class on speed reading and failed. My sturdiest memory of reading is my pointer finger moving word to word.

When I finally began to view myself as a writer, I was terrified to read fiction. I knew reading fiction of any quality would cast serious doubt upon my own endeavors. Wisely I pushed on, writing my story without cracking open a single book. And I must say, I was ecstatic in the process. Loving it. I gave myself no critique. Later I more than made up for it. I believe there is wisdom in letting our beginner self be thrilled with taking simple, uncensored first steps. I wonder how many perfectionists lose their passion on the crucifix of comparison.

Like all beginnings, there comes a time when new sprouts benefit from being tossed into the wind—children who are overprotected fail to develop resiliency. Strengthening through exposure to the elements is a delicate balance. Once I knew what my story was about and had faith that it was a story worth telling, I tenderly started exploring how fiction is written. This is when audio books opened a new vista for me.

Listening to instead of reading a story granted me additional cognitive resources. I could both “read” the story and simultaneously consider the author’s choices in the telling. While listening, I took note of the writer’s selection of words, phrases, pauses, and breaks and the impact of these choices on tension and tone of the piece. In addition, I noticed whether I was drawn in or not. Furthermore, I could analyze why I was or wasn’t. Listening made possible “the flow”: phrases perfectly articulated, emphasis as author intended, with single words no longer presenting barriers to a fluent sentence. I “read” without fatigue, achieving what I couldn’t do when physically reading—devoting hours to a book.

At times, listening to audio books feels like cheating—getting the goods without doing the work. I have chosen to reframe this. Removing the “work of reading” has allowed me the gift of paying close attention and noticing the many choices made by the author and my response to these choices. This is invaluable information for anyone desiring to learn the craft of writing fiction: a peek at a finished product while catching sight of the details that make a scene come alive or fall flat.

I find this metacognitive process similar to the practice of meditation. A pulling back from and observation of the incessant chatter without being captured. To see the craft at work, I need to detach from getting lost in the magic of the story and simply notice what I am feeling in response to the made-up characters. I seek to catch the details contributing to the craftsmanship. Admittedly, with certain compelling stories, I simply can’t resist doing what any good reader does—allow myself to be carried away. To cast a hypnotic trance upon one’s readers is, after all, the goal of fiction writers.

Often, I listen while jogging or walking in neighborhoods. Interestingly, a certain emotionally laden part will come back to me when I physically return to the spot where I heard it. Frustratingly, I will hear a beautiful string of words and want nothing more than to read them over and over. This drives me to check the book version out from the library or buy the book, allowing me the best of two worlds. This past year, I’ve been awed by the writing and storytelling in Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Without audio books, these stories would have joined my undusted someday-I’ll-read bookshelf.

I suspect I’m on the extreme end of calling myself a writer without being schooled in writing/literature. I recall in one of my graduate classes in cognitive psychology the phrase “story grammar” and not getting it—and knowing that to inquire would be to reveal an embarrassing lack of knowledge. Thankfully, I am now more than catching up.

The more would not have happened had I not been granted the experiences that drove me to seek therapy, thus reacquainting myself with a wound pleading for healing. I wonder how many others are sitting on a potential life, stifled by a scab that has worked its way into the realm of the undetected. A scab that conceals a wound with the potential for delivering transformation upon healing.

What are the consequences when we fail to uncover the wound beneath the scab?

Power of Peer Mentors

Published / by Mary / 1 Comment on Power of Peer Mentors

Some of you may have seen the following post on my Facebook page:

Sometime in my thirties, I lost touch with my best friend from high school. This was before the Internet. I forgot her married name and I couldn’t find her. A year and a half ago, she sent me a message through her husband’s Facebook account. I didn’t know about Messenger, and I discovered her message only last month. We are thrilled to be back in touch. Recently she sent me this picture of a gift I had given her when I was fifteen. This is what she wrote:

Remember this?

I have had this gift from you sitting on my shelf ever since I moved into my own home 36 years ago. (Please pardon the dust!!) You inscribed on the back side “Your Friend Allways.” Just wanted you to know that I’ve cherished our youthful friendship all these years and rejoice at having reconnected with you.

Friends allways,

Kim

Of course I was very touched. I have a confession to make. When I shared on Facebook, I was embarrassed over my spelling of allways and I corrected it. Kim later wrote to say she loved how I spelled allways. To her it meant, “Throughout thick and thin good and bad, in all ways, I will be your friend.”

Now I’d like to share the backstory. Kim was my best friend at a time when the other friends I had felt like “pseudo friends.” In the mid-1970s in my small Minnesotan town, children were “tracked” (i.e., grouped by perceived ability). Many public schools today continue to track children. They go about this in a more refined manner, such as placing English language learners and special education students in the same classrooms, removed from general education students; providing separate classes for children deemed highly capable; or grouping the special education students together to make serving them easier, even when they have different needs.

Tracking became a reality for me when I entered seventh grade. Prior to seventh grade, I knew most of my elementary school classmates. In our rural town, we had one building with three floors. The first floor was the elementary school. The second was junior high and the third was high school. Since our town of just under two thousand residents had a junior high and high school, smaller outlying farm communities bused their older students to our town for secondary school.

Excited and nervous to advance to seventh grade, I expected to see my former classmates and hoped that the few I felt close to would be in my section. We were notified over summer what our section would be, and thus, where we should report. I was assigned to section three.

I had not been aware that moving to the second floor of our school also meant an introduction to many new faces from the various surrounding small towns. Except for a couple rambunctious boys, I recognized no one when I stepped into my first class. By the end of the week, I became aware that being assigned to section three meant I was in the “dumb” section. Like me, most my classmates could barely read. Unlike me, they seemed uninterested in learning, preferring to place their energies into antics. And I was outnumbered in gender four to one.

My classmates made it hard for teachers to teach. They managed to keep each class in a state of perpetual commotion, raising hands while impulsively blurting out off-topic comments designed to generate laughter. I missed my smart former classmates with whom I had rarely communicated (having felt completely inferior to), but I welcomed how they would spark interesting class discussions that I leapt into with abandon. In seventh grade, I found myself adrift in a sea of students I had not known but strangely recognized. They echoed back to me a version of myself I desperately wanted to hide.

I wanted order, control, and a teacher who could deliver a lesson that didn’t require extensive reading. With hindsight and years of working in schools, I understand now that the least skilled and experienced teachers were assigned to teach in section three. This crippling dynamic of placing those with little preparation in the most demanding, unappealing assignments continues today.

I briefly made friends with a new girl in section three named Evelyn. With her, I could carry on a thoughtful conversation. She read much better than I did and I wondered why she too was stuck in section three.

Much later, I realized Evelyn’s assignment to section three had everything to do with how those in charge viewed her family circumstances and made faulty assumptions from their observations.

The new friend I’d made in section three, Evelyn, wore shabby clothes, sometimes the same set several days in a row. What I noticed most were her rotting teeth. Desperate to have a friend, I talked my parents into allowing me to have a sleepover at her house. We romped around on her bedroom floor listening to Simon and Garfunkel sing “Cecilia,” laughing hysterically at the suggestive imagery. We were thirteen. That evening I learned about incest (without ever having heard the word or been given prior introduction to the concept). She simply informed me of what boys do to girls and that her older brother does it to her big sister and sometimes to her.

I never returned for another sleepover. Not once did I share with anyone what I had learned that night. Growing up with three rollicking brothers who I would wrestle with, and, in the early days, bathe with, to save water, I couldn’t begin to piece together what I had heard.

Section three continued into high school, although it became less distinct. We became the students not allowed into college-prep English and who were counseled into practical math instead of algebra. By the time Kim and her family moved to our small town, I was steeped in the practice of skipping classes, sneaking out and smoking, and identifying with my section-three classmates in a misguided effort to fit in and find a friend. Ninth grade was also the year we gals, regardless of what section we were assigned to, were finally given the opportunity to try out for basketball—something I had longed to do since fifth grade.

Kim and I met two weeks before the official school year started. We met in the gymnasium (which doubled as the lunch room) during basketball tryouts. The two of us were paired up to improve our passes and free throws. Kim was different from students I had been grouped with in class. She had enough confidence in herself to reveal her vulnerabilities, her challenges with basketball. My older brother played basketball and I knew more than most of the girls. I could tell she admired my skills.

With time, our conversations deepened, and I experienced being seen and heard on a level unimagined. As the weeks progressed, I realized she had no idea that I passed through junior high in section three. I could tell she was smart and unlike my section-three peers; she addressed me with an assumption that I too had a natural curiosity and love of learning.

School started, and Kim was new to everyone except me and a few other basketball teammates. We were best friends. Yet I had this group of pseudo friends that now embarrassed me. I loved talking with Kim about ideas, often from books she had read (that I hoped someday to read). I took my time to reveal to her that I could scarcely read.

Kim chose to go to the library to study or read before school and after lunch, a practice completely foreign to me. I typically went off school grounds during lunch break to hang out and frequently skip out. Since we shared no classes together and I wanted to remain friends, I, who could barely read, made friends with the library and joined her. At first, I found it boring. She was serious about using her time to study and work on assignments. In time, though, this new studious behavior miraculously rubbed off on me and I too began to put effort into school.

Kim modeled what a good student does and gave reinforcement with occasional conversation. She appeared oblivious to my initial cluelessness about what to study or read. Yet somehow her style of being a student seeped into me, and for the first time I began to take school seriously.

Kim was a straight-A student and graduated valedictorian. The fact that we were best friends contradicted my assumption, on some level, that I had been placed in the dumb section because I lacked intelligence. I found myself wanting to brag about having such a smart friend. Yet, in retrospect, it took much more than the validation of having a smart friend to resolve the damage that placement in section three enacted upon my self-esteem. I had hoped earning a PhD would put it all to rest; but ultimately, I also needed therapy. Writing my novel has become a transformational lever in finally resolving doubts about my ability to transcend what’s expected of section-three students.

My parents each worked full-time jobs while the four of us kids were in school. Now, as a parent with a supportive spouse, I have complete admiration for their efforts, as we raised only two children and found the school years to be a huge challenge. Understandably, my parents were confused by my needs. My father agreed with the teachers, that something was wrong with me. For him, learning to read and compute numbers was an effortless task. My mother, in whom I confided all kinds of philosophical concerns, refused to believe there was something wrong with me. They had no idea that before I met Kim, I was steeped in the practice of skipping classes and had been considering dropping out. They could not have straightened me out. Nor could the teachers I encountered.

The harm that is done to children grouped into predetermined categories of ability is long-lasting and frequently irreversible. Not only does it impair self-esteem, often irrevocably, it denies them the opportunity to experience a diverse learning environment. Had I not met Kim on the basketball court, I never would have found her among my section-three classmates. I often think, where would I be had I not met Kim?

A Call to Journal

Published / by Mary / 3 Comments on A Call to Journal

Navigating the complicated link between letter names and sounds stretched miles beyond my elementary school years. Seventh and eighth grade brought continued bafflement with the apparent ease in which others effortlessly deciphered the code. What were the hidden rules they were all privy to? Again and again I pondered the unfairness of being plagued with a burning desire to express myself in writing while lacking a mysterious ingredient to make this possible.

As early as first grade, I saw the line drawn between those who could and those who could not figure out the hidden code of letters. Years later, my fifth-grade teacher displayed exaggerated joy when I participated in a play with lots of words. With help from a third grader reading the play aloud for me, I was able to memorize my lines and pretend to be the master of those words. My performance was a façade. Nonetheless, it impressed upon me the power and status of fluently reading words. An awareness that came with a price. My desire to read intensified as did my anguish with the many word by word failures.

I was eight when my parents allowed me to select a kitten from our babysitter’s cat. I had already brought home several stray dogs and was obsessed with horses. My relationship with Samantha ignited my initial desire to write. I longed to tell the story of our adventures together in a way that would last. Tossing verbal details into the crowded airways seemed akin to dipping the plastic circle into the container of soapy water and blowing bubbles, waiting expectantly as they rose, and watching them perish much too soon. I knew treasured books were read over and over.This I knew as a non-reader. Written words were solid; they did not disappear. I wrote my first journal entry as a story about Samantha. My memory of writing down my experiences was one of thrilling satisfaction.

I shared the story with a friend a year or two later. She called it “cute.” Much later, I revisited my story and found myself shocked that not a single word was decipherable. I could barely translate what I had written. Disgusted and embarrassed, I tore it up. And yet, the desire to express myself in words continued to outsize the frustration in doing so inadequately.

I wrote in journals even before my spelling and conventions made reading the journals possible. Journals have provided a way to honor my writing desire without passing credentials. I kept my journals even while I embarrassingly failed English 101 in my path to becoming a special education teacher to help others like myself. My journals gave me hope and solace.

Now that I have written a novel (bordering on memoir but not), I have learned that the brunt of publicity falls heavily upon my introverted shoulders. Furthermore, I’ve learned that blogging can be helpful.

WELCOME to my Beyond Dyslexia blog. I’m relieved to know that what I write can be read. Not so sure others will want to read. But I trust that blogging will work for me if I view the activity as an extension of what I do as a writer. Journal writing is my authentic writing, and I plan to translate this into blog writing. Committing to a blog was not a decision taken lightly. Sharing precious novel-writing time (as I am indeed on to the next one) with blog writing created a formidable obstacle for me. (Have you noticed “blog” rhymes with “fog,” “hog,” and “slog”? The word itself saps my inspiration.)

I journaled for years and then in my fifties wrote a fictionalized version of my path to the writing life. My forthcoming novel, Once Upon a Time a Sparrow, is about transformation. I hope to inspire others. Writing my first novel (and the desire to share it) has brought me full circle to journaling, which I now translate into blogging. I hope you join me and stay tuned as I continue to be true to my journaling self.


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