To enjoy bourbon, you have to roll it around your mouth for thirty seconds and let it burn. When your tongue is a little numb, you can swallow the bourbon and take another sip. This time, instead of just feeling the alcohol, you’ll taste the complexities of the bourbon. You’ll find the notes of vanilla and the oakiness that were masked by the burn of the alcohol before. You have to sit with it a minute before you can enjoy it.
Now, sit with this sentence from The Great Gatsby for a second: “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” Roll that around. Take another sip. “So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star.” Mmmm. Take one more sip. “But [my lips] made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.” Pick up on that saltiness, that bittersweet flavor and savor it. Gatsby is the book that taught me to relish language many years ago; it was the first time I treated a literary work like a fine dinner or good bottle of bourbon. It must be savored.
If I’m going to be honest, I am often guilty of reading through a work quickly in a feverish rush to get to the end. I want to get not just to the climax but also the resolution – I want it tied in a neat literary bow. When I read Jane Eyre for the first time, I was pulled into the story line so much that in my anxiety for Jane I read the entire book in three or four days. I’d love to say that I’ve gotten better about this as I’ve grown older, but just a couple of months ago I did the same thing. I started reading The Bronze Bow to prepare for a literature class I teach and although I read carefully initially, making notes and jotting down discussion ideas and questions, as I grew more interested in the characters and plot, I stopped writing down thoughts or even underlining anything. The race to finish the book was on, and I was determined to sprint my way to the end. When I finally finished the last page, it was 3 a.m. and although I definitely had a Wow, what a book! moment, it wasn’t completely satisfying. Looking back at that first reading of Jane Eyre, I doubt it was satisfying either, beyond the simple satisfaction of my curiosity. It was about as satisfying eating fast food in the car while rushing to an activity rather than sitting down to a meal with my family or friends.
More than ten years ago, I read a few short stories by Flannery O’Connor for a book club and I absolutely hated them. They were violent, grotesque, and difficult. It was like driving past a train wreck and not being able to look away. I had a particularly difficult time reading, “The River.” It’s about a young boy who is baptized in a river by a preacher who tells him, “If I Baptize you. . .you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.” In his childhood innocence, the boy thinks, “I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.” Eager to escape the neglect of his parents, he sees baptism as a literal gate through which he will be able to enter the physical Kingdom of Christ, having no real understanding of the sacrament. When he returns home, his selfish, self-absorbed mother cares nothing about him or his baptism and puts him to bed without even taking his shoes off. When he wakes up the next morning, he is on his own to rummage for food while his parents sleep off their drunkenness, and when he remembers the river, he decides to go find the Kingdom of Christ. He submerges himself in the river over and over again until finally the current catches him and pulls him, “swiftly forward and down.” That’s it?! I thought. The poor neglected boy drowns himself looking for the Kingdom of God? I hated it. What a train wreck. I spent the next decade hating O’Connor’s work, at least in theory. I refused to read it.
Then one Sunday my priest talked about Flannery O’Connor in his sermon. I was not entirely surprised because over the course of the last decade I found one person after another who loved Flannery. When Monsignor, who is also my friend, spoke lovingly of O’Connor and her work, somehow it was different. I decided I must be missing something. I asked another friend, Elizabeth, what she thought about O’Connor. I anticipated that she would also be a fan but was still surprised by her enthusiasm. By this time I was not only curious but also determined to give O’Connor’s work another chance.
I began the first story of The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor with some trepidation but was pleased to find that I was actually enjoying it. “The Geranium,” was not the train wreck I remembered of her stories. However, when it abruptly ended with the main character staring out the window and down into the alley where a geranium plant lay on the ground, its pot smashed and its roots sticking up in the air, while the man in the building next door says, “I don’t like people looking at what I do. . .I only tell people once.” I kind of threw my hands up. WHAT?! I shouted inwardly. Fortunately, I saw Monsignor that day. When I asked about these ending lines, he opened the book, read it aloud, and said, “Mmmm. That’s good.”
There was no explanation offered aside from his apparent satisfaction, but this alone changed my view completely. As I continued reading, I grew comfortable with the fact that I didn’t understand everything perfectly. I learned to appreciate the abrupt, untidy endings and to expect catastrophes, which I learned were opportunities for the characters to accept or deny the grace of God. “If you read from a naturalistic perspective,” Monsignor had said, “it’s going to appear grotesque. But if you read it from a supernatural perspective, you’ll see more.” Not only have I gotten better at seeing more than the train wrecks the characters are and the wrecks they make, I’ve grown to enjoy the language and to savor the work, taking nutrition as well as enjoyment. I’ve even learned to appreciate imperfect endings, which is good because life rarely presents us with perfect endings wrapped up in a neat little bow.
When I first read, “The River,” I rushed through it, mouth agape and eyes wide, horrified. In my rush to get to the end, I missed any beauty along the way. When I read through it this time, I noticed sentences like, “The sky was a clear pale blue, all in one piece—except for the hole the sun made—and fringed around the bottom with treetops.” Even though this sentence was leading up to the boy’s death and I had the anxiety of anticipation, I could appreciate its loveliness. I’m learning to find beauty where it exists, despite stress, anxiety, and tragedy.
This past year, I was incredibly grateful for a particularly gorgeous Spring. I remember clearly one particularly beautiful sunset that cast a pink glow over everything, making the pink buds on our trees even lovelier. Actually, I remember that one evening far more clearly than any other in that six weeks.
This time, when I read, “The River,” I savored it. I appreciated the sentences, images, symbols, and ideas rather than rushing to the inevitable outcome. Rather than just hating that the poor boy drowned, I thought about the tragedy of his lack of formation, how horribly the adults around him either neglected or used him for their own purposes and how on one side, people ridiculed religion while on the others sought to convert him more in conquest than in love. No one took the time or spent the energy to show him the love of God. I considered the characters and their faith or lack thereof for the first time. Although the boy was so grievously misunderstanding what the Kingdom of God was and how to get there, I have to appreciate at least a little the zeal with which he sought to find it, misguided though he was.
“The River,” actually reminds me of some happy moments at Mass. Our priest uses a fair amount of incense, which is heavenly, and every week it’s a particular joy to see the clouds of incense rise toward Heaven, escorting our prayers to God. Once in a while, though, the incense rises from the swinging thurible, floats around the Sanctuary, then floats out toward the pews where it hovers over our heads, playing with the light streaming in from the windows above us. The first time I noticed this, it was like being underwater and looking up to see the surface of the water flowing and rippling over me, and it was mesmerizing. When this incense stream happened again, I couldn’t help but think of, “The River.” Perhaps I have not literally dived into a river to find the Kingdom of God, but I have been immersed in the river of His grace and mercy.
It could be argued that I was distracted by the incense, but I would say that those moments of visualizing God’s grace swirling around us were not unwelcome distractions. It could even be an aid in appreciating and praying the Mass. Sometimes allowing yourself to notice details, giving all your senses the opportunity to soak up what you’re experiencing, can bring you more deeply into an experience. When you go to a nice restaurant, you don’t just stuff your face, pay your bill, and leave. You enjoy the ambience, the music, the candlelight, the smells and textures and tastes. You linger over the menu and the conversation, maybe even trading samples of your dinner or drink with your friends, and you allow yourself – all of you, your senses, your mind, your focus – to be in the moment and this, not the food alone, is what makes the meal satisfying.
This world is crazy, and most of that craziness is beyond our control. It’s so very tempting to worry about it all, which really only serves to rob us of our peace and the opportunity to be fully present to the people around us or even to our own thoughts. It’s difficult to really enjoy a book that you’re devouring as though you’re stuffing your face rather than enjoying a good meal, but there is so much reward in taking the time to enjoy those beautiful sentences and to enter into the depth of the ideas. Things won’t always have a nice, neat ending and there will be things I can’t completely understand, but if I accept these things and focus instead on the beauty along the way, I can make the most of the stories unfolding before me.
Looking back at those sentences from Gatsby that I loved so well, I am a little surprised to find that they fit this theme as well as they do. “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” The control we imagine ourselves to have is unreality, a dream, “founded securely on a fairy’s wind.” To quote Monsignor, mmmm. That’s good.
“So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star.” In the moment before Gatsby kisses Daisy for the first time, he realizes that doing so will transform her from the dreamlike figure of his imagination to a woman of flesh and blood and that the moment will be fleeting, so he pauses, soaking up every ounce of the moment that he can. Time passes. Everything changes. We have the present for a moment before it becomes the past. Though this is sometimes a good thing, some moments must be savored in their entirety, using all your senses. See the stars, the sky, the look of a loved one’s eyes; hear the music of the breeze, birds, orchestra, or children around you; feel the softness of your child’s hand, the sand beneath your feet, the breeze in your hair; smell the saltiness of the ocean, the scent of your child’s head, the earth, the rain; taste the saltiness of tears and the complexity of your coffee. Soak it all up because in the next moment it could all be gone.
“But [my lips] made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.” Time passes and once a moment is gone, it is gone forever. I don’t know how many moments I wish I could relive. I would love to hold my babies to hold my husband’s hand for the first time again, but those are all firmly in the past and, all too often, what they meant to me then as well as what they mean now are uncommunicable. These are things that must remain forevermore in my heart because they will never mean to another what they do to me, which makes it all the more important to really savor these moments as they happen.
Dinner is not just about filling your belly, it’s an opportunity to connect with family and friends and to feed your heart and soul as much as your stomach. Reading is not about finding out how the story ends, it’s about learning from other people’s experiences, savoring creativity, and digesting ideas. It’s about broadening your vision, experiencing something new, and finding greater depth. It also feeds the heart and soul, which is why a good book can feel like an old friend. More than that, literature can connect us to people, places, and times, helping us to experience life more profoundly, but in order to do so, you have to dive in, involve yourself, and savor it. Move it around your mind and find those tasty morsels, delicious sentences, and meaty ideas. You can’t really appreciate bourbon if you don’t take the time to roll it around your mouth looking for those hints of flavor, you can’t get the most out of a moment or meal without involving the senses, and you can’t be truly satisfied in a book or experience without investing yourself in it. Listen, just for a moment, for the tuning fork struck upon the stars.
Kiera Petrick is a Catholic homeschooling mother, teacher, photographer, writer, and is great at making cakes, at least according to her daughter. Her blog, Talking in the Shower, contains a variety of her writing.