JN Fenwick, author, In the Eye of the Storm | In the Aftermath of the Storm


A room without books is like a body without a soul.

Cicero
Image by Pixabay

Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has always been one of my favorite places to visit; especially, his library. Standing in the dim room, surrounded by Jefferson’s many books, their spines lined neatly on the shelves, the smell of old parchment and the musty scent of tomes that, at one time, rested in the hands of the man himself, is inspiring to a history lover like myself.

I can almost imagine Jefferson standing there amid the shadows, searching for a particular title, running his hands over the volumes until his fingers touched upon the one he sought; smiling as he pulled it down, certain that within its pages he’d find the passage he needed to complete a letter, or a thesis, or perhaps even a document that would one day guide and inspire a country through a war for independence. 

Books are indeed timeless treasures. They inspire, convey, impart, teach, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, transport us to different times, different worlds, allowing us to become something other, for a while, then who we are.


Image by Pixabay

A quote I came across the other day, “I am part of everything I have read,” brought to mind just how much reading has transformed and informed my life. Honestly, though, I think, much more than me becoming a part of the books I have read, that they have become a part of me. A part that I carry with me like a treasured friend. A friend I revisit from time to time, to discover an ever-evolving world; a world changing as I have changed; growing as I have grown; and through the years moving and becoming along with me. 

Since I was a young girl, books have been an integral part of my life. Growing up in a big family, I often escaped from the chaos of so many siblings and the constant blur of motion, into a book; sometimes for hours at a time. Or at least until I’d hear my mom’s call for me to come help with something or other.

I even had my favorite hiding spots, places my siblings wouldn’t think to look for me; like the big oak tree in our back yard. I was notorious for getting stuck in high places once I’d climbed up. I’d inevitably look down and then freeze, almost every time. “Get the ladder,” my brothers would call, “Jen’s stuck in the tree again!” So, climbing up as far as I’d dare to settle comfortably on the wide branches of the sturdy oak, was a clever hiding spot! I’d grab an apple or a peanut butter sandwich and settle in for the day. I loved the classics, and Judy Bloom, and To Kill a Mockingbird was a title I must have read a hundred times. I even wanted to name my first daughter, Scout!  

As a grew, my horizons expanded, as did my library. My ever-increasing love of history took shape in a myriad of biographies, historical non-fiction, and then gradually historical novels. In my early twenties, I was introduced to Anne McCaffery and her dragon-filled world of Pern. I not only quickly devoured every single book in the series, I hunted eBay and old book stores until I had an early edition hard copy of each book. They were all second-hand, but I felt that added to their beauty and charm.


Image by Pixabay

Eventually the magical world of Harry Potter was introduced to the world, and like so many others, I stood in line at Books-a-Million to get my hands on the next volume as soon as it was released. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was no less compelling and deserving of the same attention and dedication! When eReaders hit the scene, I initially balked at the notion. I wanted a book in my hand; and a hardcover one at that. I loathed paperbacks! It wasn’t until my husband brought to my attention the exorbitant amount of money and the increasingly growing amount of space my book habit required, that I consented to a Kindle. I’d still rather hold an actual book, but I’m nothing if not adaptable!

As I stand in front of my own bookcases and delve into the many containers full of books stored in my spare room, I can trace the evolution of my life, from childhood to young woman; through college and graduate school; through my years as a history teacher and through my progressing physical and spiritual journeys.

My daughters’ favorite books reside there along with the many intrigue and mystery books my husband also enjoys reading. They are nestled there, along with my own hand-written journals.


Image by Pixabay

Taking it all in, I can’t help but think that perhaps one day, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren read one of these books I love so much, that maybe the part of me that resides within their pages will speak to them; and that for a moment, despite the distance and time that may separate us, we will exist alongside each other, sharing a secret, speaking the same silent language. And perhaps in that moment, they will know with certainty that I lived, that I breathed; and that I once held the very same book and read the very same words. That is the magic of books, and therein lies the treasure.


“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”
~ Albert Einstein.

My students used to tell me I was a nerd. I’d laugh and thank them, taking it as a compliment. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I loved books, and words, and writing and research, and well, learning in general.

Since I was a young girl. I got excited at the thought of finding a new author to follow, eager to read their words and to become a part of the fabric of their story. I got downright giddy when I’d come across a new word. I’d excitedly add it to my “Word Journal” – yes, I kept a journal of new words I came across. I’d write them down and then look them up and use them in conversation and in my writing. I’d been doing it since I was very young. When I shared this with my students, hoping to encourage them to do the same, they’d look at me as if I’d just spontaneously sprouted wings and a tail right in front of them! “What?” I’d ask them.

“Google transformed the way most of us get our information with a search engine that enables us to find citizen-created media content alongside the work of professionals.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon, American Journalist

“Ms. Fenwick,” they’d explain, exasperatedly, “You can Google anything;” like I was from a different planet, rather than a different era. “In my day, Google wasn’t even a word in the English language,” I’d mutter under my breath, further proving the vastness of the cavern between us.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only once.”
~ George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

What was the fun of “Googling” everything? It wasn’t the same as writing a word down and then looking it up in an actual dictionary. The act of writing it down made it personal. And seeking out the meaning, turning the pages of the dictionary, running your fingers across the pages until they located the word you were searching for – it was like a treasure hunt; and writing down the definition, well that just meant you’d taken ownership of the knowledge. It was tangible and therefore something that would then become part of your vernacular, part of your story.  

“You can’t get that from GOOGLE!” I’d say, throwing my hands out, pleading for my students to understand the beauty of the process as I did. Nothing. Blank faces.

“Um, Ms. Fenwick,” one brave student would finally raise their hand slowly, speaking for the whole group, “Google has dictionaries too.”  Of course, it did! Apparently, GOOGLE had everything. How had I managed to get through my life, let alone three college degrees, without Google!

My love of language, history, reading, of learning in general, I could attribute to my father’s influence. He grew up in a poor, rural community in Georgia. After graduating from high school, he entered the Coast Guard, where he served for four years. College wasn’t something his family could afford, so the service was the next best thing.

For my Dad though, life was his university, living, his degree. He surrounded himself with the classics. He made sure we had a beautiful set of encyclopedias and a Webster’s hardbound dictionary in our home. A library card was a well-earned privilege. I spent many hours talking with him about history, current events, even philosophy and spirituality. He was well-read, and wise, and engaging, encouraging us to think for ourselves, to never stop asking questions.

“When you cease to learn, to continually seek knowledge, no matter what your position or pedigree,” he’d explain, “You cease living.” I loved that about my Dad, his humility and his understanding of the importance of being an active seeker of knowledge, rather than a passive receiver.

I couldn’t help but wonder at times, if the advancements being made in technology and the ease in which today’s students could access information, wasn’t somehow diminishing that active pursuit of knowledge my father was talking about.

The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” ~ John Locke, English Philosopher (1632-1704)

Was “Googling” for information the same as opening a book and searching for answers? Was it the same as actually going to the library and looking up book titles and then searching the shelves and finding them, checking them out?

Though a great tool that allows access to a wider world of information, should Google be the only way students seek information? Is the resulting knowledge somehow less appreciated because it is so easily gained? Or am I simply as antiquated as my students think me to be; resisting the new because I had grown up in an era when Google wasn’t an option?  

I taught Language Arts and American History, so reading, research and writing were a big and natural part of my lessons. I found incorporating modern technological advances into my curriculum, along with a good dose of the old-fashioned tools – like the library and actual books – was a happy medium. I wanted my students to experience both worlds. I wanted them to uncover the answers to their questions and to seek out knowledge on a personal level; to understand the intrinsic value of life-long learning and to experience the feeling of pride and accomplishment for a job well done.

“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” ~ Bill Gates

I understood that Google was part of their generation, as were electronic books, video games, social media, and easy and instant access to everything on their cell phones.

In order to grow with my students, to engage meaningfully with them, and to remain relevant as an educator, I would have to embrace these things, BUT – and it was a pretty important “but” to me – I also felt a responsibility to keep the past alive as well. To give them opportunities to do things the old-fashioned way; to open actual books; to understand how to use and to experience a library, to write a research paper, to increase their vocabulary through reading, and yes, to keep a word journal – even if it was using the notes app on their phone.

Acquiring, retaining, and applying knowledge was the most important part of their education. And though they might not appreciate that in the moment, I knew there would come a time when some of them would actually be grateful. And for this life-long logophile and lover of learning, that’s the reason I became a teacher in the first place. 


© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

My niece’s essay on the pitfalls of blindly seeking perfection is as timely today as when the short stories on which it is based were written.

Based on The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver and The Birthmark, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Physical perfection is something our society places great value in. There are multi-billion dollar industries devoted to health, fitness, anti-aging, cosmetic surgery, skin, make-up, hair; the list goes on and on. It’s often this focus on perfection, to the exclusion of all else, that prevents us from seeing and appreciating the beauty and form that can be found in the world and in the people around us.

This is the case for the main characters, in The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver and The Birthmark, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Written almost 140 years apart, these short stories tell, in compelling and tragic ways, the age-old story of man’s illusive search for and focus on perfection, and the often uncomfortable, almost dismissive way we perceive imperfection, disability, and physical defects in others.

In laying the groundwork for both stories, Carver and Hawthorne focus first on the actual physical defects and imperfections of Roger and the scientists wife, Georgiana, before moving on to the transformation that takes place in both husbands as the stories progress. 

In the beginning of The Cathedral, Carver provides the foundation for the central premise of the story by describing the relationship, the main character’s wife has with Roger, a blind gentleman she’d met some years before their marriage. Roger has recently lost his wife to cancer and is coming for a visit. “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to,” Carver wrote, admitting that his ideas on blindness mostly came from the movies.

Likewise, in The Birthmark, the scientist, Aylmer, although in his mind he loves his wife and thinks her beautiful, is focused so single-mindedly on the small hand-shaped birthmark upon her cheek, that soon this all he sees. After asking his wife if she’s ever considered that “the mark upon your cheek might be removed,” Aylmer is dismayed when Georgianna replies that she had not, seeing the mark as a “charm” instead, as it had often been called. Aylmer’s response that “upon another face” the mark might be considered thus, but not on hers deeply hurts Georgianna. ”No dear,” he says, “Nature made you so perfectly that this small defect shocks me as being a sign of earthly imperfection.”

Hawthorne’s use of the word “shock” here is especially poignant, since that is the emotion, we most commonly feel when faced with deformities and physical imperfections. We try not to stare, but in the end, like both men in the stories, the defect is often all we see.

As The Cathedral, progresses, Roger and his host find themselves sharing drinks and smokes before the television on which a documentary about cathedrals is playing. Having the benefit of sight, the host feels compelled to provide Roger with a synopsis of what’s being shown on the screen. While Roger can hear perfectly, the man is acutely aware that he can’t see and so “waits as long as he can before feeling he has to say something.”

Roger begins asking questions about some of the details the man is describing. For example, at one point the man mentions the cathedral’s paintings and Roger asks, “Are those fresco paintings, bub?” To which the man replies, “That’s a good question,” but that he doesn’t know.  It then occurs to him, that Roger in fact, may not even know what a cathedral is, having never actually seen one. This is the point in the story when the host’s preconceived notions about Roger will be challenged most.

The evolution of Aylmer and Georgiana in The Birthmark, occurs in a similar fashion. Georgianna becomes increasingly aware that her husband’s focus is not on her, but rather on the birthmark on her cheek.

“With the morning light, Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the sign of imperfection. When they sat together in the evening near the fire, he would look at the mark,” Hawthorne describes.  Soon, Georgiana “began to fear his look,” and agrees to having him remove the mark through scientific means.

All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.


Ruskin

Hawthorne describes Georgianna’s trust in Aylmer’s scientific prowess, but also her apprehension going in. Following the description of Aylmer’s dream about his failed attempt at removing the mark, there’s an undercurrent that the outcome of this actual attempt will not be a good one.

The transformation that occurs in Roger’s host and Aylmer by the end of each story is markedly different, yet the underlying message is the same. In The Cathedral, Roger answers his hosts inquiry about whether he knows what a cathedral is with the detailed facts he has gleaned from listening to the television. Facts, it is apparent, the host himself has not picked up on since he focuses on what he sees rather than on what’s being said. 

Roger asks his host to describe the cathedral and in doing so, his host soon realizes that providing this description is quite a bit harder than he’d imagined it would be. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he finally says, “But I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me.”

Roger than suggests getting “a pen and some heavy paper” so they can draw one. It’s the experience of drawing the cathedral with Roger that ultimately changes the host’s perception of blindness and Roger himself. With Roger’s hand covering his, they begin to draw, in great detail, the cathedral that just moments before he’d been trying desperately to describe. By the end of the story, though he can see the world perfectly, he realizes that maybe he has suffered from “blindness” as well, and that Roger, even with his defect, has viewed the world with much more clarity.

In The Birthmark, the transformation of Aylmer is much more tragic and heartbreaking. Trusting implicitly in Aylmer’s scientific skill, Georgianna, though fully aware of the risks, agrees to try whatever Aylmer proscribes. By the final attempt Aylmer is certain “the chemical process went perfectly.” After testing the clear liquid on a plant, he gives it to Georgiana who drinks it trustingly.

Sitting by his wife and taking notes on the changes occurring, Aylmer is once again so focused on the now fading birthmark that he doesn’t see his wife’s imminent death. “My poor Aylmer,” Georgina says, before taking her last breath, “You have aimed so high. With so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the Earth could offer. I am dying, dearest.”  

As Hawthorn states at the end of the story, Aylmer’s focus on his wife’s meaningless imperfection cost him her life and along with it his own chance for happiness, “In trying to improve his lovely wife, he failed to realize she had been perfect all along.”

While the endings of The Cathedral and The Birthmark are very different, the message is the same. Roger’s host and Aylmer both discover that what they perceive as defective and imperfect are actually the things that make Roger and Georgianna who they are, and in reality, perfect just as they exist. True beauty, after all, goes much deeper than the just the surface and the skin. By focusing only on the imperfections confronting them, both men are incapable of appreciating these imperfectly perfect human beings.

For one the transformation comes too late. For the other, the opportunity to learn a beneficial lesson and experience a change of heart is provided by the blind man himself. By the end of The Cathedral, Roger’s host realizes that his “sight” had in fact, improved markedly when his eyes were closed. 

by Taylor Derbes