My first sanctuary was the top bunk of my baby blue wooden bunk beds in my New Orleans East childhood bedroom.
A pile of pillows stacked on one end against the wall, my boom box with a permanent blank tape in the cassette holder should a favorite single play on B97, and a pile of books, stories that I would sneak by flashlight after bedtime. It was in those moments of complete stillness that my mind raced. In the comfort of my own little pocket of the world, in the simplicity of suburbia, life moved at my fingertips as I turned each page of my books.
A good story sticks with you long after the epilogue, sometimes because it delights and other times because it haunts. But the ones that always squirmed their way back to the top bunk, the same ones that join me today, snuggled under my red chenille blanket by the French doors of my patio, are those that introduced lifelong awakening.
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard
I have a whopping D in Biology Lab on my college transcript. Watching cells divide under a microscope made me squeamish. And yet, the autobiography of someone with a penchant for science made me wonder more than any book before (and possibly since) all because of one particular question repeatedly explored in the narrative: What does it mean to be alive?
At 17 when I read this, I’d spent a short lifetime doing things, but what within my actions equaled living? It was an intellectual awareness that bolstered me. My interests weren’t just some dumb hobby. They were a sign of life, and if I stumbled, which I continue to do today, that was worth living too.
Rima the Bird Girl, by Rona Jaffe
Riveted, we read this short story aloud in English II, Esplanade Avenue bustling below but never pulling us from the spoken words. It was one of those moments that upon completion, we stared at the wall for a good minute, lost in the realization that we just read about ourselves. Rima is in a perpetual cycle of changing her identity to match that of the women on the arms of the men whom she desires. Others call Rima into existence, never herself. At 15, lost in the ways of self-loathing, we remedied our undesirables through continuous reinvention, whether persuaded by magazines or by the girl in the desk beside us. Rima never learns who she truly is. She never nails what I know now to be a most necessary assignment in a woman’s life—how do you adapt to the life you chose without second fiddling yourself?
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
I was 13 the first time I read this play. Initially it was unbearably plain for me. And then I read Act III, and for the first time, I splattered the pages of a book with tears.
When Emily dies, despite the advice of others to not cave to her curiosity, she observes a day in her past life—her thirteen birthday, ironically. She learns a horrible truth: she savored so little of life. In an awful moment of agony she screams, “It all goes by so fast; we don’t have time to look at one another!” It’s not the big moments she mourns, but the smallest of the small—someone’s words skipped over, a smile, eyes, even just waking up and hot baths. What is missed when we only see the bigger picture?
Annie Oakley: Little Sure Shot, by Ellen Wilson
My game changed when Sister Marie directed me to the Biographies section in our little elementary library. I was eight, and until then, all characters in books were make-believe. Suddenly, actual humans—that had my name—could be just as vivid and sensational as the fictional ones. I found these real humans far more stimulating. And thus began a lifetime of pouring over the accounts of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Amazingly, through their moxie, I saw mine. In their struggle, my growth. What is my story to others?
Babar and Zephir, by Jean de Brunhoff
Before I could read, books were mesmerizing pictures. It was a two page spread of a dozen treehouses comprising a monkey village in this book that captivated me most. Restaurants, hat shops, barbershops, all in the trees and drawn with such detail that it inspired a game up in my top bunk. What could I find that I hadn’t discovered yet? To my surprise, there was always something new—a watering can, a teacup. I can’t help but wonder if my world is as fascinating as that monkey village. What can I marvel over today that I missed yesterday?
I know enough to know that the story I go back to the most is the one still in development—my story. And while its plotlines twist and turn, and I often want to throw it against the wall, mine will be the ultimate page turner if I’m willing to do the deepest character analysis yet.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.