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First Date

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 11:28 AM

War of the Roses,” I say when he asks me to name my favorite romantic movie. His smile falters and he cocks his head to the side, perplexed. I know I’ve gone off script. The right answer on a first date is something along the lines of You’ve Got Mail, but I took a gamble that he meant it when he said he wanted to get to know me better.

He decides I’m joking, and he chuckles. He leans in across the table as if we’re conspirators sharing a deep secret, then confides, “I’m a sucker for a good romance. ” My internal bullshit meter is sending up flares of red alert.

I smile and sip my water. Already I know the date is over and we haven’t even ordered. Why in the world did I let my mother guilt me into this?

“Kate is a beautiful name,” he says. “It suits you. Tell me, why is such a beautiful woman still single?”

Because men are scum, I want to say, not that I’m bitter or anything.

A vision of my mother flashes: a mixture of wariness and hope in her expression. She’d come over earlier to the apartment I share with my sister to give me a pep talk, following me relentlessly as I got ready. “Mark is such a catch! You’re just going to love him.” I give her a look and she rephrases. “I thought he was absolutely charming. And he really needs someone to show him around town, help him get back into the dating game, you know. He said right away how much he wanted to meet you when I showed him your picture. Did I tell you he’s a lawyer?”

“Did you check his teeth?”

My sister snorts, but my mother sighs heavily and frowns. “All I’m saying is that you’re 39 and never been married. You could do worse.”

By worse she means I could stay single.

She stops me in the middle of putting on an earring, intent on making a point. “Katie, just try. Don’t be so closed off all the time. Please. For me. Just try.” She holds out the prospect of Mark to me like I’m a five year old who doesn’t want to eat her spinach.

I look over at my sister, the rebel in the family and so free from my mother’s machinations. She smiles knowingly at me and says, “She means, don’t turn into me.”

Remembering my spunky sister makes me smile. Mark, believing I’m flattered that he’s called me beautiful, relaxes back against his seat, encouraged. I’ve been through enough first dates to know the rules and the stakes.

“So, Mark,” I say. “Mom tells me you’re a patent lawyer. That sounds fascinating. Tell me all about your work.”

Pleased, he begins at the top of his resume, glad I’ve made it easy for him to impress me. I lean in and keep my eyes unwaveringly on his face, nodding my encouragement, asking a few questions when I think he needs to be wound up again. This keeps him talking so I can be free to think.

What I’m doing isn’t fair, I know.

I take good stock of him: 45, lean build, a little graying at the temple but no receding hairline. He is intelligent, responsibly employed, articulate. His greeting card compliments make me cringe, and I’m bored with the inane first date conversation, but I give him a pass because I know he’s just doing what is safe. Besides, I know my cynicism makes me judge him much harsher than I would have a scant few years ago. He’s probably a nice guy. My mother’s right. I could do worse.

Except that I don’t think I have the energy to do this all again, this delicate masquerade dance. I look across the table and feel the weight of all the dates we might have had. And I realize I want out.

At the end of the evening, I am genuine when I tell Mark thanks; definite when I decline an invitation for a second date.

I could do worse is not enough to take a risk, to make the effort.

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Gertrude

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 8:57 PM
I turned the radio down despite the din of the vacuum cleaner. I didn’t want to accept that my heart had leapt to my throat four times already thinking I’d heard the phone ring, only to discover the real culprit to be an aria from Madame Butterfly. That was humiliating enough, but let’s not even contemplate that the only reason I was even vacuuming was to give my nervous hands something to do while I waited, breathless, with sweaty palms and clenched stomach because a boy had said he’d call me.

At this thought a giggle erupted from somewhere that was far too giddy to belong to me. I covered my mouth to trap in the mirth and let my hands linger over my lips, daydreaming again—indulging memories of days to come. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the expression on my face in the mirror that hung in the hallway, the four foot expanse of space I’d been vacuuming for the past half an hour. I turned off the ancient appliance with my foot and approached my image with interest, as if seeing it for the first time.

There. That light in my eyes. He’d put that there with four simple words, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” I giggled again, this time because it was just so absurd. I continued examining myself in the mirror and a little of my smile slipped away.

“God, I don’t feel sixty-five.” But I couldn’t deny the evidence of it right in front of me. The lines that ridged my mouth; the bloated bags under my eyes. And my neck. Oh, dear Lord, I was so mortified about my neck. It didn’t waddle. Not exactly. The skin under my chin had one day decided that my neck was as good a place as any to go and have a lie down while it waited for the rest of my face to catch up to it. And despite the yoga class I attended with more regularity than Mass, there was a puffy, pasty doughnut in the place where I’d last seen my waist. I stuck my tongue out at my reflection and my insecurities: it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. He knew what I looked like and still he’d leaned toward me across the dinner table last night, covered my hands easily with one of his and said simply, “I like you.”

Andrew.

I smiled again, oh so glad I lived alone and no one, not even a pet, was witness to how I glowed merely remembering his name.

“Gertrude, get a hold of yourself,” I scolded good-naturedly.

Gertrude.

I sighed. The name of the unholy, humorless spirit that had possessed my parents on the eve of my birth, I’d surely like to know. Not that I let anyone call me that, of course. Gertrude was reserved for telemarketers and bankers.

The telemarketers always pronounced it with practiced familiarity hoping to convey trust and likeability. The banker had enunciated every syllable in it clearly as he endeavored to explain to the diminutive, crazy woman sitting uncomfortably in the faux leather chair across from him why it made no sense to want to open an art gallery in Midway, a town of only 1200 souls.

But no one who called me Gertrude would ever understand why one day twenty years ago, I’d awakened with a desire to create that simply would not be denied. I’d quit my job that day and used every last penny I’d ever saved to sustain my simple lifestyle while I took art classes in the community college. And from the caterpillar I’d been for the whole of my life emerged a sculptress. The worst thing I’ve ever done to her was to make her try to explain her dreams to that puny man, to reduce her talent to numbers for him to approve or deny. I was ridiculously joyous when he turned me out on my ear. My dream would never be beholden to the likes of him.

Andrew never called me Gertrude.

He’d called me Ma’am that first day when we met over coffee in the small lounge of the Motel Six that was his only option if he wanted lodging right in town. He’d seen my work showcased on network television six months earlier when I’d been part of a special report on female artists. He needed art for his home in Seattle and had agreed to come discuss it with me here, since the home had yet to be built.

With the architect’s plans spread out, but ignored, on the table in front of us we talked instead of life and dreams and the quest to find meaning somewhere in between. By the end of our time together he was calling me ‘honey,’ but he was originally from the South so I told myself not to make too much of it. Yet one day slipped effortlessly into the next and I couldn’t ignore that something inside me soared every time I looked into his eyes.

Last night at dinner, I flirted shamelessly for the first time in thirty years. Meaning that on exactly two occasions I “accidentally” let my hand brush his across the table. Both times I blushed furiously and thanked my guardian angel for the dim lighting in the restaurant. I couldn’t believe that at sixty-five I’d have a reason to feel like this.

The phone rang.

I turned my attention again to my reflection in the hallway mirror and coquettishly brought a hand up to smooth my hair. The sweetness of that ring turned sixty-five into sixteen.

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Bird Attack

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 8:44 PM
“Don’t move a muscle,” Roldan instructed, his voice carefully controlled and authoritative. If he was feeling any panic, I could not detect it in his voice. Then again, since I was the one most likely to become the bird’s next meal, perhaps it was fitting that the heart about to burst through a chest and become airborne should be mine.

As for as not moving a muscle, I was way ahead of him on that one – terror had cemented me to the floor and my legs felt about as useful as a martini umbrella during a category five hurricane.

The bird circled the room above my head, its magnificent plumage already beginning to change colors from deep purple to red-violet as it concentrated on me. I remembered from Roldan’s lecture that when its satiny feathers turned blood red, the bird would be ready to devour its prey and its strength would multiply tenfold, making it able to bring down animals many times the bird’s own size and strength.

I hoped “don’t move a muscle” wasn’t the sum total of Roldan’s plan.

It all happened very quickly then.

With a piercing shriek the bird zoomed toward me, and I swear I saw the sunlight that poured in through the floor to ceiling glass windows reflecting off its razor sharp talons. I put my sleeveless arms up to defend myself, but I easily imagined them being frayed to ribbons in the space of a single breath.

“No!” I heard Roldan roar as he launched himself at me. He hit me with the force of a gale and knocked me out of the bird’s reach as we both tumbled to the ground. He immediately rolled on top of me, tucked my face in the crook of his neck and shielded my body with his.

Despite being in a protected I could hear terrible sounds around us, the bird’s banshee-like screeching joined by a second gruesome snarling that sent involuntary shivers down my spine. I struggled against Roldan’s steel embrace until I could glimpse at the action unraveling just over his shoulder. One of Roldan’s beasts – the word "dog" had never seemed less appropriate to describe the animal than now – was crouched in a fighting position inches from where Roldan and I lay, defenseless as field mice. As the bird, its feathers finally a bright red, swooped once again in attack, the canine bared his sharp incisors, growled a low warning and seemed, impossibly, to grow larger before my unbelieving eyes.

With a final roar, my improbable defender launched itself through the air and sunk its fangs into the bird’s neck, and blood started to gush from the wound. I gasped and recoiled from the gory sight, burying my face against Roldan’s neck again. But closing my eyes didn’t spare me from the horrible sounds of the bird as it screamed in agony – or from the metallic scent of blood. My stomach roiled and lurched dangerously. Because the nightmare we’d just experienced or from the weight of Roldan’s body on top of mine – but most likely from a combination of both – I found it impossible to take a breath.

Roldan rolled away from me and managed to sit me up all in one swift, smooth motion. The expression in his face was the familiar stone-like inscrutable mask I’d grown accustomed to. But he knelt beside me, leaning close to examine me. I could feel myself trembling beneath his scrutiny, and I tried to collect myself.

Roldan flinched and his eyes narrowed. “Looks like I didn’t get to you in time.”

I followed his gaze to discover a deep gash in my upper left arm that was pouring blood. For a moment, I felt confused as to how that had happened when I’d never even felt it. As if reading my mind, Roldan supplied an answer. “You’re in shock. In the middle of a fight, sometimes people never even realize they’re hurt until afterwards. Once your brain registers that the immediate danger has passed, that’s going to start to hurt like mad.”

On cue, I began to feel searing pain that started at the top of my arm and radiated, it seemed, all the way to my toes in waves. I felt light-headed.

“We need to put some pressure on that.” He stood up at once and then reached down to lift me into his arms with ease.

“I’m fine. I can walk,” I protested feebly.

He ignored me as he took long strides out of the room, through the main entry hall and out to the kitchen, where we found Brenda and Holly. Both gasped in unison when they saw my condition.

“What happened to her?”

“Is that blood?”

He lay me on the kitchen table. “Yeah, it’s blood, so let’s not just stand here, letting her bleed all over the table, shall we? Holly, go get a clean hand towel to staunch the blood. Brenda, I have a first aid kit on the floor of my closet.”

For a moment they still both stood looking at me uncomprehending, but one more hard look from Roldan sent them running to their assigned tasks.

Holly returned first from her mission. She handed a folded blue hand towel dutifully to Roldan, who immediately pressed it against my arm. I cried out loud at the fresh insult and pain.

“What happened?” Holly demanded.

I wanted to answer her, but I had to clench my teeth to keep from screaming out again as Roldan applied pressure to the wound. It seemed my entire universe had been reduced to the throbbing feeling in my arm. I closed my eyes and tried to find a happy place.

Just when I thought the pain couldn’t get worse, I felt Roldan take away the cloth and pour a warm liquid over the gash in my arm. My eyes flew open in surprise as my arm felt like it had been dipped in molten lava. I forgot all about being stoic. I yelled out in protest and tried to sit up, instinctively looking to find a way to flee from the pain.

Roldan growled at me, “Hold still, will you?”

I noticed Brenda was back in the room only when I felt her soft hands caressing my forehead. “It’s alright, baby, Roldan knows what he’s doing.”

“Baby?” He said with a sneer. “Heaven help me! That’s it… both of you: out of here! You can hover all over ‘baby’ as soon as I’m done with her. But right now, you’re in my way.”

Brenda and Holly looked torn. And afraid. In my short time in the house I’d discovered how intimidated both of them felt whenever Roldan bullied them.

“It’s ok. I’m fine.” I lied easily for their benefit.

“Of course she’s fine. I’ve never seen such a commotion being made over a scratch,” Roldan muttered under his breath as he did something unpleasant to my arm.
With reluctance, both Brenda and Holly turned away from the room.

“Why do you always have to be so mean to them?” I asked the minute we were alone. I concentrated on his face to distract me from what his hands were doing. Apparently, he believed my question to be purely rhetorical since he didn’t even bother to look up at me, much less give me an answer. “You know, you really scare them when you snap at them that way.”

“Good.” The hard set of his jaw made it obvious that he was not interested in any more conversation. I ignored it.

“Half the time you walk around here like we’re all some terrible burden that you would just as soon get rid of and the other half you just pretend we don’t exist. The only time you deign to talk to us mere mortals is when you have some order to issue, an order which of course can’t be questioned or disobeyed; and if one of us has anything at all to say to you, you act like a pesky fly invaded your private picnic and shoo us away with one word answers if you even answer at all. It’s annoying and rude and---"

"Are you quite through?"

"Of course not! Did I take a breath and give you the impression I was done talking?"
He looked at me, his stone face hard and cynical, the look in his eyes murderous. I didn't care. "It was natural for Holly and Brenda to be concerned when they saw me and you made them feel small and afraid. Why? Why do you need to frighten women and children in order to make you feel more like a man?"

Perhaps I'd gone too far.

A low hiss escaped his lips and he stopped tending to my arm. I had his undivided attention. He brought his face close to mine; his eyes shone bright with emotion as he glowered at me. His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides as he fought to bring his anger under control. His lips were pursed together into a tight, angry line and the veins in neck were bulging.

But I refused to back down.

Encouraged by the fact that he hadn't yet snapped my neck, I felt emboldened to go on. "I don't get you. Today you risked your own life to save me ---"

"A mistake I don't intend on repeating ---"

"But the minute I'm safe you treat me like you wished I had become bird food back there."

"And just exactly how did you come to be in harm's way today? That bird didn't attack you because it didn't like your political views, it attacked because that's what wild animals do… it was just acting on instinct. And now a beautiful, rare creature lies dead because some brat used to having her own way decides she needs a closer look. I told you its cage could never be opened!"

That revelation made me gasp in surprise. "You think I opened its cage?"

"Well, it sure as hell didn't open itself!"

I struggled to sit up and managed it this time. My fury gave way to confusion. "Roldan, I didn't open that cage. You have to believe me. When I walked into the room, I didn't even realize the bird wasn't safely locked away until it was too late. And if you hadn't walked by when you did, I would have been … " I couldn't let myself finish the sentence. As I remembered the attack, my fury ebbed away and left me deflated. He had stepped away from me when I sat up on the table and I stared at him now. I shuddered from the memory of my recent ordeal.

"I haven't thanked you. For saving my life. I don't know how the bird got out, Roldan. And I wouldn't have even been in that room, except that ---" In all the commotion, I'd forgotten the reason I'd walked in there in the first place.

"Except that what? Why were you there?"

"Except that I distinctly heard Hannah's voice inside the room. She called to me for help, but when I rushed in, she wasn't anywhere that I could see. And then I noticed the bird out of its cage. You know the rest."

Roldan's face twisted into a new expression. "Hannah was not in that room."

"I heard her clearly, I swear to you."

We stood in silence, staring at each other across the small space that separated us.

He seemed to be searching for something hidden in my eyes. I'm not sure what he found, but presently he sighed and returned to my side. "How does your arm feel now?"

I glanced down at it with surprise. Some time during my tirade against him, I'd forgotten all about it. Whatever he'd poured over the wound had the effect of numbing my arm completely.

"It feels fine," I mumbled.

He grunted something unintelligible and finished his makeshift medical attention by wrapping a bandage around the cut. His efficient hands were done in no time. When he started gathering his supplies, I placed my hand on his arm to get his attention.
"I'm not going crazy, Roldan. I heard her voice in there."

He hesitated a moment before meeting my eyes. "No, you're not going crazy. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for what happened today."

Something in his voice stopped me from sighing in relief. "What is it?"

One side of his mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. "Someone in this house wants you dead."

1

Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 7:31 PM in ,


I closed the last pages of the book feeling as if I were standing outside on the porch, waving goodbye to a cherished friend who's been over for a long visit, remaining there until long after the taillights have disappeared into the night.

I react to my experience with the book on many levels – as a reader, a daughter, an artist, a woman – grateful for a story with layers of meaning and interest, a trademark, I now know, of Headley's writing. My weekend with Girl Overboard was, indeed, an experience, not a simple act of turning pages and absorbing words.

I found myself especially touched by Syrah, the protagonist. As I read her story, I revisited some of my own ghosts and self-doubts, crying when I needed to; ultimately, satisfyingly, reaching the same sense of peace.

One of my favorite authors, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once wrote that Love (and here I would substitute "Art") is the process leading you gently back to yourself.

And that is what Headley's writing does, why her books are different from the rest. To be sure, she is a master of the craft: her characters are believable, the plot is interesting and moves forward at a good pace, her subject matter is well-researched and yet presented in a manner that is accessible to a novice. But going beyond the technical and into the mystical is where she shines.

For me, Headley's writing is that gently leading back to oneself that Saint-Exupéry defines as love; a presentation of a story that rises above entertainment and leads softly, unrushed, to catharsis. Girl Overboard does entertain, but it invites self-reflection as well. Not because it is preachy, because it isn't at all, but because Syrah and the other characters live through a cacophony of emotions that resonate loudly with readers. The need to feel loved and the lengths to which we'll go to get it, the sometimes clumsy journey we take as we find our place in the world, the delicate balance we must achieve in understanding and accepting other...these themes (among others) awakened an answering chord in my heart as I read.

As a bonus, Headley sets these universal themes against a backdrop that is novel. Syrah is a snowboarder and a manga artist, two things about which I had little (in the case of snowboarding) or no (in case of manga art) knowledge. She is Chinese-American, a culture with which I'm not familiar. Headley interweaves information about all of this smoothly into the story, not to impress with her knowledge, but to lend more substance and depth to the writing, much like an artist adds shadows to a drawing. These details don't attract attention to themselves, but without them, the characters would be one-dimensional, stilted, unreal.

As a writer, Headley’s work inspires me; as a reader, it delights me. I know her characters will stay with me for a long time to come.

For a synopsis of the novel and information on the author, please visit her website at http://www.justinachenheadley.com.

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Acceptance

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 1:05 PM



My birthday is coming up and I am now older than I'd ever pictured myself being when I was a teenager. As a kid, you know, you always imagine the cool ages: 18 when you'll finally be able to tell your parents off, 21 when you are more "officially" an adult, 25 because that age just sounds right – like you'd have your whole life figured out by then. Looking into the future, I couldn't wait for life to begin; couldn't wait for my license, my first car, graduating from college, getting my own place and decorating it with the modern furnishings my mom would never bring into our home. And then marriage and 2.5 kids, the perfect job where I'd be so successful. Then, well, nothing.

I never dreamed about anything beyond mid-20s. There was no other age that I considered magical or special. During my teen years, whenever I thought of life between 30 and 80 – the few times I ever did – I only thought of it in decline. Getting older, getting sick, dealing with whatever trials your own kids might bring. Nothing cool or appealing about any of that.

So here I stand, on the edge of 36, looking over the rim into the canyon of "Downhill."

And, I gotta say, it's a good view.

What I didn't know all those years ago is that life is less about the stuff and more about the being. Of course, I had hoped and expected—I'd gotten the car, the college degree and a career I love, the first apartment I got to decorate just like I wanted. (Although, to my mother's never ending sense of worry, there isn't yet the marriage and the 2.5 kids.) But none of that is what has brought me here. To this place of knowing myself, to this place of acceptance.

And OK, so there was a time when "acceptance" had such negative connotations for me; it sounded too much like giving up, like saying: yeah, this is all there is to me, so I'm just going to go have a lie down.

Conventional wisdom – you know, all the things "they" say – is that in looking back, the regrets people often have revolve around the chances not taken, the risks avoided, instead of the mistakes that were made. As I look back, I wouldn't say that I have regrets, per se. If anything, I'd want to spare Younger Me the emotional rollercoaster that came from always looking outward, always wondering if she was enough.

If I could go back, I would take Younger Me out to lunch. Someplace hip and expensive so she could see that 36 can be cool.

We'd be girlfriends gabbing and laughing over overpriced salads. Sometime during the meal, the talking would die down and I'd know the time was right.

I'd look at her and say: You're OK, you know. OK is all you ever have to be. You will have dreams and you will strive for them; you will want some materials things and you will get them. But at the end of the day, the only thing that will fill all the dark little corners you're afraid to into is being able to accept yourself for who you are.

I won't say much more, because I remember that Younger Me hates lectures. And as I drop her off I at home, I hope she'll think about what I said, but I know better.

Some lessons can only be learned through the passing of time.

I have goals and dreams and ambitions; but they've become things on my bucket list – not the measure by which I define my existence. And happiness is linked more closely to a sense of wonder and gratitude than a bank account or professional success.

Today is a lazy, quiet, summer afternoon. Even though it's warm, I've turned the AC off and opted for open windows. I can hear the birds calling out to each other, the constant ringing of cicadas; Michael Buble is playing softly in the background. Once I'm done writing, I'll go back to the Justina Chen Headley novel I started last night. I'll let myself sink into the story as if walking into the cool waters of a placid lake on a hot day. And like water, the words will embrace me, lift me until I'm weightless and serene. This day, this afternoon, taken and enjoyed on its own without comparing it to any other, real or imagined, brings contentment.

That's what I've learned about myself, too. When the roar of the should'ves and could'ves and might haves drowns out what is I am lost. Being content with who I am only comes when I can let myself be, without comparing to a better version of me. I know I haven't set the world on fire, but I am well loved for being just as I am. That is enough.

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Review: North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 2:46 PM



As I browsed through Borders for something to read, I was drawn to the lyricism of this title. North of Beautiful. It sounded so poetic. As I read the back cover, I became intrigued. The blurb described the story of a girl, Terra Cooper, who'd been born with a birthmark on the side of her face and who was struggling with understanding the meaning of beauty. I read a few passages from random spots in the book and liked the author's tone and writing, so I bought the book.

What I found within the pages was such a pleasure that I didn't want the experience to end. The story was complex and complete: the meaning beauty was central, of course, but so many other themes were also woven in a manner that felt effortless and natural. All of the characters were fully developed, not only in relation to Terra, but as figures of importance in their own right. The author, Justina Chen Headley, also introduces many other interesting things (art, mapmaking, geocaching, a trip to China) with enough details to educate, but not so many to overshadow the story.

As the central theme of the book, readers are swept along with the protagonist to examine the concept of beauty through its many forms: the way Terra deals with her scar; the way relationships can uplift or damage the soul; the healing power of art; the splendor of things others might find mundane. As Terra struggled with her insecurities, I found myself identifying with her as a woman and as an artist.

One of the things I most appreciated about this novel was the way Headley addressed the love interest. The love story was not an all-consuming issue for Terra; there was no "I must have him or I'll die" moment. The relationship grew from a friendship, over time, and it was a healthy, supportive one. The boy in the story, Jacob, is himself someone with a scar, with a differing understanding of beauty and with his quiet thoughtful ways, he encourages Terra to challenge her own perceptions.

Surprisingly, Justina Chen Headly, the author, has only been writing YA fiction for a few years. Her first book, Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) won the 2007 Asian Pacific American Award for Youth Literature. Her second novel, Girl Overboard (which I'm reading now) was a Junior Library Guild Premiere Selection. North of Beautiful has earned terrific reviews from Publishers Weekly and others, and recently became a finalist for the Walden Award (ALAN). She is hard at work on her next novel, Return to Me. I can't wait!

Find out more about the author and her work at www.justinachenheadley.com. But don't forget you first heard about her here!

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I am a Reader

Posted by Cecilia Leger on 3:28 PM


I started reading fiction when I was in the sixth grade because of a Read-a-Thon we had at school. Long before the Read-a-Thon ended, I was hooked. I loved diving in and losing myself completely within the welcoming pages of a story. Books became my most constant, most loved companions. Each month I devoured the Scholastic catalog my teacher made available to us and I invested every cent that came my way (sometimes by nefarious means, I can confess) in my favorite authors and series. Of course there was the library at school and one not far from my house, but it never occurred to me to borrow a book; no, I had to possess it.

My books were my treasures.

Many adults turn to fiction in order to escape; but I don't think this is the case for children and teens. In my case, I know stories helped me interpret my world and gave me a vocabulary to define my feelings. The girls I read about didn't have lives like my own – they weren't recently transplanted to the US from another culture, another world – but they didn't need to be. They knew loneliness; they knew fear; they understood rejection. I found out through them that my insecurities were universal, maybe even normal. Reading was a way for me to safely experiment with trying on other versions of myself in my head: could I ever be as bold as Joanna? Would I ever be as beautiful as Rachel? What if I could run away like Laura?

I grew to love more than just the act of reading to encompass the whole experience of it: the weight of the book in my hands; the sharp smell of new pages, the musty smell of old ones; the enticing pictures on glossy covers; the sound of the characters' different voices as I imagined them.

I didn't read; I devoured. And in consuming these stories, they created much of who I am.

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