Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nature: Finding My Religion

I am selective about my reading. The writers I enjoy are varied. I’m not a follower; have a hard time reading a book because others say it is great or because it is on a list.

People often tell me, “You’ll love this book!” More often than not I don’t.

The books I enjoy, often by stumbling over them, are those that give wings to my own thoughts and act as a bridge to the world of new experiences. Perhaps I read about them or find an excerpt or maybe it is by perusing a bookstore leisurely, reading an opening sentence that sometimes (bur rarely) gets me to read the opening paragraph. If I get through that and am still interested there’s a possibility I’ll invest myself in that book by reading the entire thing.

When The DaVinci Code exploded on the scene it took me three tries to get through it. The concept fascinated me but the words; they were not orchestrated as a symphony would be. The book was written without the passion it deserved. Or maybe it was and the author simply lacked the emotional depth to convey it. The writing was made for the Wal-Mart mind, or so it seemed.

I find great pleasure in writing that is passionate and clean. A great phrase in a great sentence in a great paragraph ignites something within me.

This does not come from some high educational standards I set for myself for I was a poor to average student and very lazy. There were things that excited me, however, but I didn’t find them in a classroom or in a book my father made me read as a child. My father has been a voracious reader through the decades, although his age and eyes now limit the number of books he reads. He loves Robert Parker, especially the way dialogue moves the story quickly along.

He urged all of us to read. No, he forced us to read. I rebelled. He would make us sit down in front of him with a book and read it to ourselves. I hated this. I hated it so much I would sit there with an open book and pretend to read it, going as far as turning the page every couple of minutes.

What I did find interesting were great words. When my father was out of the house and I was alone as all my brothers and sisters had moved on, I would steal to the shelf above the doorway to his bedroom and reach up for the thick book in the blue jacket, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”, pull it down and read through some of those great words with one eye on the page and one eye on our little dead end street. My willful side did not want him to catch me reading, and so I stole moments and stole words learning and feeling remarkable things.

My father was powerful, he was controlling, it took me years to realize what I hated was not the written word, as I always thought, but being forced to read. Or being forced to do anything for that matter.

The books I love are those that move me and lift and sink me. I want to feel the words as they enter me and when words can touch me like this I am more alive and more likely to carry that into my own life.

In a letter to Oskar Pollak, Kafka wrote the following: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us….We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”


I would only add that I also want books that raise us up, that help us to ascend.

If something is being written without passion I have no need to read it. I have no desire for it. To me words and stories are too beautiful to be wasted. They are art and soul and the spirit with which they were written should still be tangible when reading them.

My books...I rarely loan them out because the pages are dog-eared and sentences and paragraphs are often underlined. I live in a book, work with it, extract what touches me. My book collection would be considered by some to be abused, but I disagree. I think of the books I love and read as was well-used.

The other night, while close to the borders of sleep, I came upon a paragraph that stirred me enough to get me out of bed to find a pen to underline it with:

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time---the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes---when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever---there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.” (John Irving, A Prayer For Owen Meany)

Through this “feeling” I get when reading something beautiful I discovered a bridge that connects my reading to my spirituality. Just as I do not want to be told what to read I reject being told what to believe in. In my spirituality, just as in my reading, I need to be moved. I need to feel it.

I love Emerson, whom I first encountered in my father’s Bartlett’s through my stolen glances. His words sing to me, touching me within and compelling me to reach out. Of all of his quotes the one that resonates with me the most is the one that gave me insight into my religion: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

Roddy Doyle once said that reading Irving’s The World According To Garp gave him the permission to write the way he wanted to, to break the rules he was taught about storytelling. With that quote, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave me permission to leave behind the church…all churches and all religions, and experience things the way Jesus and Buddha and Mohammad experienced them and to build my faith in much the same way they did, through “an original personal relation to the universe”.

Recently a friend asked me about religion. He wanted to know why I would write of God but not go to church or be religious. I told him simply that it is my belief that religion is man made, man’s interpretation of what God intended, of what God created. It is my belief that to live the life I wish to lead I have chosen to forego someone telling me what to believe or how to live.

What does this have to do with hiking and the mountains and Atticus?


Whenever I leave behind the paved road and dissolve into the woods I cannot help it, I am finding my religion. The slow march up a mountain towards the sky and the wind and sometimes the stars is to me a meditation unlike any other I have known. The kinship with the trees and rocks, the earth or snow is enough to move me. To make me feel one with what I was supposed to believe in when going to church or Sunday school.

Emerson captured this perfectly: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

And what of Atticus? Where does he come in? Who better to guide one in the natural world than one more attuned to it than my very human self? But there’s so much more to the role that Atticus plays but I think I shall save this for another time. Perhaps later tonight.