Skeins of Silk, Ladders and Literary Lifelines by Heather Preusser
Essayist and poet Kim Stafford once wrote, “A story saves life a little at a time by making us see and hear and taste our lives and dreams more deeply. A story does not rescue life at the end heroically, but along the road, continually.” I believe stories save life.
Stories saved my life.
Shortly after I was born my parents divorced, ping-ponging my older sister and me between households and arguments. These contests exhausted everyone involved – including the school counselors and the lawyers and the judges.
In fifth grade the shuttling and shuffling stopped abruptly.
My mother ensnared me in her rented house, in her we-don’t-fit-in-here neighborhood. For reasons I didn’t understand, she no longer allowed me to see my dad.
A multitude of other no-longer-allowed-tos followed suit: I was no longer allowed to attend gymnastics practice, no longer allowed outside the house unless under my mother’s surveillance, no longer, no longer, no longer…
But I was allowed to choreograph dance routines to Barbara Streisand records, and I was allowed to read.
During my imprisonment, I flew through whatever texts were at hand: The Summer of My German Soldier; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; and Nancy Drew Mystery Stories among other titles I can no longer remember. While Patty Bergen battled her father’s rejection, I battled my mother’s mental illness (although this label only seeped into my vocabulary decades later). While Nancy Drew searched for hidden staircases and loose floorboards, I searched for reasons why my mother dressed only in black. While Margaret Simon sought growth in her training bra, I sought answers within the prose. I sought escape between the paragraphs, for each page offered not only a safe attic similar to Anton’s but also potential personalities I could try on, identities I could slip into when I was tired of being me.
And I was tired of being me.
I was tired of longingly and voyeuristically staring out my bedroom window at the neighbors’ escapades. I was tired of my mother’s vests and ties, of her whispers that forced me to order for the two of us at the McDonalds’ drive-through. I was tired of turning off every faucet because my mom was cleansing the house of who knows what. My life was exhausting and embarrassing and lonely and terrifying and monotonous and frustrating and unpredictable.
But I had protection.
Not only were books a means of escape, they were also a means of defense: my library safeguarded the only form of communication I had with my dad. After the elementary school principal hand delivered my dad’s weekly letter, I memorized every word – every word about the custody case, every word about my sister who had run away to live with him, every word about his expanding stamp collection – then snuck each message between the pages of my children’s picture books, tucked safely in a cardboard box that stood its ground on the rusty rug of the hall closet.
But even Cinderella can let down her guard, and one day the letters were gone.
Perhaps asking Harry the Dirty Dog and Miss Rumphius for protection beyond the figurative was an impossible feat. Stories aren’t heroes; they didn’t climb through my bedroom window and rescue me, but they saved my life nevertheless. They gave me a skein of silk that I wove into a ladder, enabling me to see and hear and taste my life outside my claustrophobic cell.
Like all Nerdy Book Club members, I believe in the power of stories. I believe stories save life, and that is why I’m currently an English teacher. I teach texts because I want to give students the same magical threads, the literary lifelines that were once given me. I want students to be able to braid their own tresses, so they too can see and hear and taste their lives and dreams more deeply.
Heather Preusser currently teaches high school English in Colorado. She writes MG and YA book reviews for Katie Davis’s Brain Burps About Books podcast and enjoys learning ridiculously long German words, such as Formfleischvorderschinken.