How Catholicism led me to Crazy Horse, who landed me in an Orthodox Yeshiva

There are pre-Vatican II Catholics, who are the folks whose liturgical calendar is stiffly inflexible (and full of fasting and masses) and then there are post-Vatican II Catholics, who are more like Episcopalians, except for that transubstantiation thing (meaning, the belief that the priest has power to transform the host and wine into Jesus Christ’s actual body and blood). I was a pre-Vatican II eight-year old when I stumbled onto Crazy Horse, and he made perfect sense to me.

It was the vision quest thing that hooked me-the perfect intersection of magic and religious practice. I could only do better if I joined a coven! Medicine men in Lakota society retreated from society (not necessarily into the desert or on top of a mountain) and fasted until a vision materialized. Their spiritual guides helped them interpret the vision, and that interpretation shaped their adult lives. In Crazy Horse’s vision, he charged into battle on a lightning-painted horse with a pebble behind one ear. He was told that if he rode into battle like this he would be untouchable, and he was. He developed a reputation as the first to volunteer as a decoy, the first in the charge of battle. Just as the vision said, he did not die in battle but because of a betrayal from one of his own people. The vision was True.

I closed the book, went to the back yard, climbed the biggest tree I could manage and sat there, waiting for my own vision. After a while I got hungry, climbed down, made myself a peanut butter sandwich and read CALL OF THE WILD. Novels, it has turned out, have always been my vision quest. I still believe that they might not be real, but they are the truth. Not everyone agrees.

I teach in an orthodox Jewish day school–which given my rulebound religious past feels oddly familiar to me. But there’s a place where the world I grew up in clashes with the world I teach in. There’s just so far you can go as a reader or writer if you don’t truly have a feel for metaphor–for the way one thing stands for another in a way that reveals its truth. It’s the old problem: believe that what we see is merely the skin of forces that control the world, or believe in the material world. It’s hard to be a passionate reader if you fall into the more practical category. .

And my students tend to be pragmatists, following a faith that for centuries was a body of law more than a spiritual discipline. To be religious, to most of them, is to follow law. And they believe that there is a “right” interpretation to narrative, though they can see that there’s disagreement about what that is.

At the end of his senior year a young man finally turned to me and said, “I don’t mean to offend you, Ms. Pywell,but why do we do this?” Do what? I asked. “Read these things. He held up a novel. “I mean, none of them is true. None of it happened. So why bother?”

This is actually a good question, but I thought I’d spent the preceding eight months with this group wrestling with this very question, so it was disturbing to hear it put out there quite so baldly.

A couple years before that I’d asked some students to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s NICKEL AND DIMED . One of my brightest young charges came to class pretty irritated. “This Ehrenreich woman knows so much stuff about all the inequities and problems she knows about. Why doesn’t she DO something about it?” I suggested that writing a book was doing something, and my student looked at me blankly. “That’s what I mean,” she said finally. “I mean, she only wrote a book. Like I said. . .”

When parents come to me and ask me how I can make their children readers, I think, but don’t say, “Why would you want to do that?” Passionate readers are, according to research, one of two kinds of people. If the first, they read because they think it’s good for them and they came from families that modeled reading as a productive use of time. If the second, they read because they didn’t really fit into the families they were born into and they turn–will always turn–to characters in books and to authorial voices for intimate company.

In a country where the books that used to be part of our landscape are now text message screens, I’m getting lonely. But I know there will always be some of us–the ones who believe it’s all run by invisible (and true) forces.

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