Brand building through storytelling

Please read to me

The last time anyone read to me, I might have been leaning on my elbows at a scratched wooden desk, waiting for Mrs. Sawyer to begin another chapter ofBeezus and Ramona. A  hush descended on 30-odd fractious kids like a snowfall worthy of a Christmas card. At story time Kevin Donahue forgot to call me “Doughnut.” I forgot about my struggle with long division. The whole class forgot about who’d been invited to the birthday party of the hour, and who’d been left off the list. One question united us all: what sort of mischief would those Quimby sisters make next?

I was eight years old, a reader so avid, I could tear through Ballet Shoes in a couple of hours. I skimmed shamelessly. I stole furtive glances at the final page. When someone read to me, I caught every nuance. The reader’s voice calmed and consoled me—but only if she took the time to dramatize the story (it was almost always she in those days). I wanted sound effects, ominous pauses and a voice for each character. What I wanted was no less than my personal radio play. No one rose to the occasion like my mother.

I might have been as old as 10 the last time she read to me. Tom’s Midnight Garden? The Borrowers? All I know is that I must have been sick to enjoy such a regressive privilege. I had no idea how deeply I would come to miss it.

When I was growing up in the 50s, TV hadn’t quite buried radio drama. Sound effects, voices and ominous pauses were still transporting listeners to other worlds. And it wasn’t altogether unheard of for grownups to read to one another. They didn’t have to be blind or ill. They had only to cherish great writing and feel moved to speak it in someone’s living room over a bottle of sherry and a platter of pigs in blankets. My parents belonged to a Dickens club that did just that, month after month, until the members lost interest in such antiquated customs.

Reading aloud for entertainment has an honourable history dating back to the glory days of Rome and Greece. Before poets knew how to write, they carried their work in their memories and declaimed it in mead halls far and wide. The spoken word revealed people to themselves—their heritage, their longings, their hard-won collective wisdom.

I wonder how it felt to sit around a fire with your tribe, all of you knowing at the same moment that what you’d just heard contained the known world. My tribe sits at computers, sharing links on Facebook and Twitter. The number of words I scan in a day, on subjects from the urgent to the irredeemably trivial, could fill a couple of not-insubstanital books. I need a refuge from the verbal storm. I need to hear words of power and courage, spoken with care.

The other night while making dinner, I decided to inject some comfort into all that chopping and stirring. I stood at the kitchen island with a book of essays that I love, Meditations from a Movable Chair by the late Andre Dubus. I turned to “A Country Road Song,” which I must have read scores of times because I’ve yet to find a more eloquent, convincing celebration of what remains after a devastating loss. That night I spoke each word and felt the weight of it.

If anyone understood loss, it was Dubus, whose life blew apart in an accident of Biblical proportions. Stopping to help at the scene of a road accident that had left a man dying, Dubus was hit by a car. He managed to pull the survivor out of the way but was injured so gravely that he lost one leg and the use of the other. Three years of gruelling treatment could not restore his mobility. Meanwhile his wife left, taking their children.

Dubus wrote a number of essays on the accident and its consequences. “A Country Road Song” is the last, a spare and unassumingly elegant distillation of the truth he salvaged from disaster. He doesn’t tell you much about his maiming and he tucks it in the middle of the essay, letting it fall like a late-afternoon shadow across the familiar road in Bradford, Massachusetts, where he used to run, and later walk, in all weathers, all year long, with a keen eye and a joyful heart. Like a runner in the zone, the essay has a steady, graceful rhythm. You could beat a drum to it, synchronizing voice and hand. I hope to do so one day but that night I had to keep a hand free to check on my roasting vegetables.

Dubus was a guy’s guy, an ex-Marine. At first it felt a little strange to speak of icicles in my beard. Then it felt oddly perfect, as if I had entered the mind of a man and gender no longer mattered.

Reading “A Country Road Song” out loud, I heard the repetitions that propel the essay toward its conclusion. There’s a fair bit of singing, a lot of seasonal donning and doffing of gear, many references to trees and earth. Through the window of memory, Dubus looks at this road with the same devotional precision that Monet gave to Rouen Cathedral. But his real subject isn’t the road itself. He concludes, “I mourn this, and I sing in gratitude for loving this, and in gratitude for all the roads I ran on and walked on, for the hills I climbed and descended, for trees and grass and sky, and for being spared running and walking sooner than I did: ten years sooner, or eight seasons, or three; or one day.”

Is that not magnificent? I wish I could read you the whole thing, but you’ll just have to read it yourself. And if someday you have the chance to read it to me, you can be sure I’ll be grateful.

Posted by Rona

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