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What words can mean to your life, even when they come with a price

One book down and working on the other three
Kevin Woster
One book down and working on the other three

There’s nothing quite like words on a page.

That’s why, lately, I’ve started to read again, even though it makes me sick.

Imagine that: a guy who has loved words and stories his whole life, who made his profession with them, and now they make him sick.

Make me sick, to read at least.

But they also make me better, in the unique way that only words on a page can make you better.

So, I slogged my way through a book by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, a few pages a day, sometimes up to 20 or more on a good day, or maybe two or three on a not-so-good day.

But some. Some time spent with words. On a page. Each day.

They come at a premium now, those words. What I gain, I pay for. And I paid for those I read over more than 300 pages in the Milbank Book, which is called The Destructionists and is subtitled The Twenty-Five-Year Crackup of the Republican Party.

It’s a well-written, well-researched book that informs and disturbs. It’s also one-sided, of course, and it’s not the Trump-Republican side. But really, what is the side of Trump and of the once-proud party of Lincoln anymore? It seems to be the side of a former president who inspired a U.S. Capitol attack by insurrectionists intent on overturning the legitimate election of Joe Biden.

And the party that enabled him. Or at least some members of that party. Far too many.

Learning to live with a handicap, as so many others have to do

But, wait, I don’t want to get into that. What I want to get into here is words, their meaning and their value in the world. Their value, in particular, to me.

Of course, words can be used without great redeeming value, as Shakespeare suggests when Polonius asks Hamlet: “What is it you read, my Lord?”

“Words, words, words,” Hamlet answers.

He might respond in the same way to your typical political press release today. But even those often-degraded assemblages of words now seem more valuable than they ever did. To me, at least.

That’s because I’m able to read them. Or willing to read them. Or, perhaps most accurately, determined to read them.

At both a cost and a gain. Oh, what a gain.

The cost is aching eyes and head and queasy stomach, as if I were riding a Tilt-A-Whirl or a small boat in big waves rather than just sitting in a chair in my den reading words on a page. About two years ago, something changed for me. And that change made it hard to read without getting sick. It also made it hard to watch TV or spend much time on the computer, without the same result.

So I cut back on such things, especially my reading. Cut back, for a time, almost to nothing. Sooner or later, reading wears me down and wears me out. It sickens me. Doctors aren’t sure why. And when I say doctors, I mean doctors from Rapid City to the Mayo Clinic and back.

I’ve seen five different neurologists, a couple of neuro-ophthalmologists, a couple of regular ophthalmologists, an internist, a couple of GP docs, a couple of ear-nose-and-throat docs and their certified nurse practitioners, an allergy doc, a physical therapist, a psychiatrist, and a couple of psychologists.

Out of all that came news that I’m a little low on copper and that I have a lesion in my brain that isn’t cancer, isn’t an infection, isn’t from an auto-immune disorder, doesn’t seem to be getting bigger or worse and might or might not be contributing to my eye-head-stomach issues.

It was a relief and I feel grateful to know the bad things that it isn’t. I might never know what it is.

Whatever it is and whatever the cause, I’m doing what so many people do at one age or another, but especially at older ages: I'm learning to live — with the help of a couple of meds — with something that affects the quality of my life.

“You have a handicap now,” my primary care doc told me. “And you’re not the only 70-year-old I see who lives with a handicap.”

He told me that last year. I’m 71 now, and still learning to live with the change that elbowed its way into my life two years ago. I’m also remembering how many have much-bigger challenges and also the friends and acquaintances who are no longer here.

Listening is fine, but it’s not the same as reading

Early on in all this, I pretty much gave up trying to read books, or do much of anything else that provoked the symptoms. Of course, there is the radio. And public radio especially has been a godsend. Some online newspaper and magazine stories are available in audio. And I’ve listened to many audio books, something I appreciate more than ever and will continue.

But listening isn’t reading. I retain better when I read. And there’s a joy to it that's different from the pleasures and rewards of listening.

Books. Oh, how I missed books. Reading them. Somewhere back when things were pretty tough for me in all this, I lamented the fact that I sat in our den surrounded by books I could no longer read.

It was probably more of a wail than a lament.

“I’ll probably never read another book,” I wrote on Facebook.

And I didn’t think I would. It didn’t seem likely.

I have been able in the last two years to continue writing my blog for the South Dakota Public Broadcasting website. This blog. And each Thursday I've continued to talk about what I write on the blog with my friend and SDPB colleague Lori Walsh on her In the Moment public-radio program.

There were many times during the really hard days and weeks when this blog and that radio segment were my lifelines to the world, my connection to relevance and my elevation to hope.

So were my family and friends, my time outdoors and my time in mass, where for months I suspended reading scripture — words on a page — as a lector at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church in North Rapid City. Proclaiming the Word was another of the many things I lost for a time, because of the ailment.

A Catholic neighbor suggested it was the devil’s work.

“That’s the Evil One, taking away something you love so much,” she said.

I don’t know about that. But I certainly was missing something I loved. And I wanted badly to return to it.

So, I tried proclaiming once, asking others to let me have the shortest scripture readings. Then I lectored again. And again. And eventually I was back to lectoring regularly, both at weekend masses and daily masses, even on the long scripture readings.

Proclaiming the Word, which means reading words on a page, of course.

And little by little I tried more of other types of reading. Two or three newspaper stories a day. Short ones at first, longer ones later. A magazine story on the internet. Short at first, then longer.

I learned to be more accepting when reading made me sick. And I was more determined to try again.

The toil and joy of proving myself wrong on books

And, finally, I tackled The Destructionists, which was loaned to me by my pastor, Father Ed Witt, who had often loaned me books before my reading problems developed. I had been declining his offers of books. But for some reason, I took The Destructionists and started to read it.

Five pages at first, as I recall. Then five more. And then 10. On a good day, I might read more than 20 pages. On a bad day, maybe none at all. Maybe none at all for days.

A couple of times I got frustrated and angry and gave it up. Then I picked it up again, and started to read again.

As I was slowly reading that book, I was also writing my blog, reading a few things online, reading a few magazine stories in print, pushing the envelope of discomfort. Then resting. Quitting for a day. Trying again.

Finally, I finished the book. I proved myself wrong. I did read another book, after all! And I celebrate that. And I came to believe I could and would read more.

I started to nose around in the book cases in the den, reading a page or two of one book here, a few pages of another book there, getting nauseated and headachy before quitting.

But sometimes I’d read five or 10 pages or even more of a book before I started to feel that way. And, oh, how wonderful that was.

I started a book I’d read years ago called Beyond the Wall by Edward Abbey, a man who could be difficult to like as a person and easy to love as a writer. Beyond the Wall is a collection of essays on the outdoors focusing mostly but not entirely on Abbey’s experiences in desert country.

And I didn’t have to get far into it before I was swept up by words on a page. Page 53 to be exact, where Abbey recalls his first glimpse of canyon country in the deserts of the southwest.

“There were holy mountains in the far distance. I saw gleaming meanders of the Little Colorado and the red sandstone cliffs of Manuelito. Too much. And hard-edged cumulous clouds drifting in fleets through the dark blue sea of the sky. And most of all, the radiance of that high desert sunlight, which first stuns then exhilarates your sense, your mind, your soul.”

Just like the sun, Abbey’s words first stun, then exhilarate.

Beyond the Wall with Abbey and Going over East with Hasselstrom

When I took a break from Abbey, I went back to the book shelf and came out with Linda Hasselstrom’s Going Over East — Reflections of a Woman Rancher, a book I’ve had for many years and read long ago. And I had only to reach the second paragraph of the first page to remember why I liked it so much.

Hasselstrom was 9 years old when she was adopted by her stepfather, a man she would come to know and love as her father. She describes a photograph of herself on the day her stepdad adopted her, wearing a “ruffled plaid dress” and “clutching a little white purse with white shoes perfectly aligned.”

This paragraph follows:

“After the ceremony, my legal father, John, bought me the gold ring I still have, and we all had ice cream. I didn’t realize that by becoming the daughter of a rancher I had changed the direction of my life forever. I didn’t realize that I had pledged my soul to a ranch, to acres of tawny grass and dry creeks that would absorb my blood and sweat, as they had my father’s, and still look parched. I was still dreaming of prancing black stallions; now my dreams are full of waddling cows.”

Then Hasselstrom takes us ahead to her first trip “Over East” with her mom and dad to get the cows out of summer pasture. It was autumn in a land where weather changes quickly. And it changed after they had reached the summer pasture and its vivid view of the “knife-sharp ridges of the Badlands, looking blue and icy.”

While her mother, Mildred, drove the pickup ahead of the herd in “super low” gear, Hasselstrom and her father walked behind the cattle. Then snow began to fall, heavily, cutting off vision of the surrounding landscape and muting all sounds.

For a time, the slow blotted out the view of the pickup and her father and the young Linda Hasselstrom felt “very small, alone and terrified — until, dimly, I saw the tall, slightly bent figure of my father, almost lost in the blowing snow. He was striding along, looking sure of where he was and where he was going. That may have been the moment when I really began to know him.”

Those words on a page took me back to my youth and moments of uncertainty and even fear, out on our farm in Lyman County and elsewhere, and how my father’s confidence and his long, certain strides often comforted and strengthened me.

Stories from the Grand Canyon almost a century past

I’m chipping away now at Hasselstrom’s book, along with Abbey’s. But I also picked up another, again on our book shelf, untouched by me in any meaningful way for more than two years: The Best of Grand Canyon Nature Notes 1926-1935.

The book is a compilation of notes and essays written by park naturalists and visiting scientists and published monthly at the time. The essays, now almost a century old, include reports on trail building, rock slides, looks at the mariposa lily, the blue-bellied lizard and the kaibab deer. They also include an account of the tragic drownings in the Colorado River of park Naturalist Glen Sturdevant and park Ranger Fred Johnson in February of 1929 as they returned from a 10-day trip into the canyon on field research.

Chief Ranger James Brooks survived the ordeal to tell the story.

Sturdevant, an Army veteran with a geology degree from the University of Arizona, was the park’s first naturalist. He developed the park’s first interpretive-education program. And he started Nature Notes and wrote essays for it.

One of Sturdevant’s essays from 1926 is on the water ouzel and its feeding habits, which include “flying” underwater to capture insects or insect larvae or even tiny fish.

“With the aid of their short, muscular wings for power, they are able to propel themselves about underwater without the customary aid of webbed feet,” Sturdevant wrote. “According to the best observers, this extraordinary power of flying underwater is their process of diving in search of prey.”

The water ouzel, which was a favorite bird of naturalist John Muir, is these days more commonly called the American Dipper. And we have a limited population of dippers here in the Black Hills, notably along Spearfish and Whitewood creeks.

They’re delightful birds to watch as they stand on rocks along the creek, bobbing up and down — the “dipping” is a protective trait that makes them harder for predators to see against the moving water — before dropping or something walking into the water and submerging to hunt for food.

J. L. Crawford, who decades ago worked as a park ranger-naturalist at Zion National Park in Utah, had this to say about ouzel watching in his light-hearted poem The Dipper:

“Should you go hiking and stop for a drink
From a clear mountain stream, just pause at the brink,
Sit down, look around, eat a snack, make a wish,
And you may see a bird that thinks it’s a fish.”

Not great poetry, perhaps, but good entertainment. And pretty good advice.

After the dipper, a poem about rising up with the earth in you

Speaking of good advice and words on a page, I went searching for one of my favorite poems by Minnesota poet Nancy Paddock. I couldn’t find it in our book shelves, although I believe it is around here somewhere. So I cheated and Googled it.

Instead of words on a page, I relied on words on a screen, which will have to do until I find the book.

Paddock’s poem, which has been read and loved by many, is called Lie Down.

Lie down with your belly to the ground,
like an old dog in the sun. Smell
the greeness of the cloverleaf, feel the damp
earth through your clothes, let an ant
wander the uncharted territory
of your skin. Lie down
with your belly to the ground. Melt into
the earth’s contours like a harmless snake.
All else is mere bravado.
Let your mind resolve itself
in a tangle of grass.
Lie down with your belly
to the ground, flat out, on ground level.
Prostrate yourself before the soil
you will someday enter.
Stop doing.
Stop judging, fearing, trying.
This is not dying, but the way to live
in a world of change and gravity.
Let go. Let your burdens drop.
Let your grief-charge bleed off
into the ground.
Lie down with your belly to the ground
and then rise up
with the earth still in you.

Oh my. I do like that poem. So much. I like what it says about making a close connection with the earth and carrying that connection into our lives.

You could say something similar, I think, about lying or sitting down with a book, then rising up with the words still in you.

Words that can inform you, change you, comfort and enrich you.

Words on a page.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.