Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Thirteenth Winter

This book was a complete surprise for me. A few weeks ago, my mother sent me an email which included a beautiful quote from this book. It was about being a writer, and my mother was paying a compliment to me in regards to my dedication to blogging. Interested in reading the book where the quote came from, I found myself reading about a very bright girl whose world collapsed around her as she struggled through her elementary school years with an undiagnosed learning disability.

Samantha Abeel was a bright, precocious and highly confident young child. Her memories of Kindergarten and first grade are of being in the top of her class and proudly so. She knew she was known as one of the smart kids and did her best to live up to her reputation, even as she inwardly began to realize that sometimes, particularly during math time, she had to fake it.

As her school years progressed, and she couldn't keep up with her peers in math, and she couldn't admit that she had no idea how to tell time, she turned inward in humiliation and depression, while secretly praying that the difference was merely because she was special and wise, and not at all slow.

After many unfortunate delays and misdiagnoses, Abeel was finally diagnosed with a math and sequencing learning disability known as dyscalculia. Throughout her schooling, Abeel realized that although she couldn't understand the rules of grammar and had a hard time spelling, she had a gift for words and poetry and channeled her gift into a skill of writing. As a ninth grader, she, with help from several teachers and artists, published a book whose name was later changed to Reach For the Moon. While it gave her confidence and success, she still drifted into social isolation and depression throughout high school and later, college.

Reading about her change, her isolation and fear, made my heart pound as I thought about the possibility of any of my own children suffering in this way. Particularly Henry, as we continue to worry about whether or not his speech will come or if it will be a continual battle for him throughout his life.

The faults I have with this book lies in its slow, repetitive pace. As the story begins with her memories as a kindergartener and ends with her graduating from college, it's got more than enough "space" for her memoir, the sort of book usually reserved for a later time in life. Additionally, Abeel frequently transitions the style of writing from autobiography to memoir, which sometimes works but often times feels incredibly jarring. It's like she's a narrator to her own memories, but without first giving a warning to the reader to "fade to screen".

Aside from that, I think this would be a valuable and worthwhile book to discuss. From our current education model to the causes of depression and its treatment, I think many women, mothers and friends could relate to its material. I also think it would be a good book to recommend for older children with learning disabilities or their peers.

And, now, for the quote that started it all, which is actually quite relevant to her own story, but also a beautiful passage for anyone who enjoys writing.

For an admissions essay to Mount Holyoke College, she writes:

Sometimes on winter mornings, I try to see myself in gathered wrinkles, my dark hair forsaking me to silver. I try to see my hands traced by blue veins and my eyes in vintage brown. I try to see myself a little bent, a little withered. I close my eyes and see me all in white, all in gray, draped in the webs of age.

Oh, I will ache a little and have one of those chronic coughs. I will sit in my chair and pull at curtains that reveal a window etched with white doves of frost. Then, maybe just then, I will know what I was and who I am. I will know all that I took and all that I gave.

It is here that I want to be a messenger, a courier of everything I've gathered. I want to tell my grandchildren of the games my friends and I would play. I want to pass on the legends that creep around us. I want to tell them of the sand dunes and of the lakes. I want to tell them of the many ghosts that look fondly upon them. I want to say that I have made a difference. I want to give them the world through my eyes.

However, for now, my center, my sense of self, my purpose is yet unclear to me. I see it like one sees a fish in a river, only silvery flashes of fin and tail. Never seeing all of it at once. The journey to discover these things lies ahead. When I am in the November of my life maybe then I will understand my June. I do know that I want desperately to understand what I don't, and give the understanding of what I do to others.

Perhaps one day, after I have sunken into the shadows, my granddaughter will read one of my poems to her daughter, or show her a book that I collected, maybe even pass on one of the stories that I told. Then, there in that moment, is all that we can ever hope to be. That one little niche in time, when what we gave, or passed on, is given again.

I could never say it quite so well, but this is what I hope too.

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