Sometimes I hide outside. I flee into the forest or scale an individual tree — sugar maples are best for this, though there aren’t any here in the Columbia Mountains — and slip into silence. Entering the quiet requires both concentration and luck. Or maybe it requires practice. But even for the well practiced, becoming part of the quiet needs regular attendance, otherwise the psyche can err on its path. The psyche has specific groups of muscles, much like the body. Every few years, I have the opportunity to milk goats. My hands remember the gesture after a few tugs at the teats but it takes many milkings before the muscles in my hands are tuned to this activity again.
What my mental muscles are well attuned to, is slipping into books. That sideways motion of the mind that allows me to enter the pages, and unseen to all, stand at the edges of the story in thrall. Not even a house is as good a place to hide. Everyone knows you dwell there and can trace your movements from room to room, but who can follow you into a book? You can climb into a book, scaling the limbs of the story, shimmying up the trunk of imagination, playing in the plashes of light that reach, like hands, through the needles, the leaves, the weighted boughs of your knowing. A book is somewhere where you can lose yourself. It is no surprise that I grew up to be a writer.
When I was a teenager, my brother said the house could burn down around me and if I was reading a book, I wouldn’t notice. That was the point. But he had nowhere so fine to run and hide and was simply envious. He and my mother did their best to locate me, taunt me, yank me out of my safe tree — after all what right did I have to flee? — but my determination exceeded theirs. Throughout my childhood and youth, I never actually saw a family member read a book from beginning to end. The irony of this was that we had a bookcase in prominent view in the living room full of Estonian novels with old style cloth bindings. My father was purported to have read every book on these shelves and was even a distributor for the Orto publishing company during his first years in Canada.
Only now that my mother is older and has more time on her hands, has she thought to try follow me into the land of literature. As a child I would never have guessed that my mother would take up reading. Even though we rarely read the same books, we have at last found a way to encounter one another, a bond. My brother has yet to discover our secret. Has he even read the books I’ve written? Do other writers’ families read their books? And if so, what do they say to their familial author?
Every time I go to Estonia, I am awed and slightly taken aback by the prominence accorded to writers. Every city and town has streets named after Estonian authors, statues of writers in the park, and the countryside is dotted with museums dedicated to specific authors, usually in the homes where they lived and wrote. I’ve even come across brass plaques attached to perfectly ordinary houses on obscure streets that read “So and-so lived and wrote in this house from 1927-1929”! Though I’ve visited a few writer-museums, the sparse writing room with desk, chair, lamp, open scribbler and pen, perhaps a picture or two on the wall, fail to inspire me to make an exhaustive survey of writer-museums. Sometimes, displays of editions of their books, in Estonian and translation, pages of handwritten manuscripts and photographs round things out, but the riches of their lives are elsewhere. These can be experienced in only by reading the books they have written, or, in a few cases, listen to the songs made from their poems or see the plays or movies made from their work.
The sad and honest truth is that I’ve read relatively few of the Estonian classics. In spite of the fact that Estonian is my mother tongue, I am only marginally literate. My profoundly oral relationship with my first language is evident as I read, sounding the characteristically long, compound words out loud in order to understand them. In this manner, I managed to plow my way through 1 1/2 volumes of the epic classic by Anton Tammsaare, Truth and Justice. Every year, I make it my goal to read at least one book in Estonian. This year, it was To the Cold Country by Eduard Vilde, a truly sad, well written and depressing book.
There is certainly no shortage of works to choose from. During the first period of independence (1918-1939), Estonia managed to publish more books per capita than any other country in the world. Estonian literacy rates have been astonishingly high for the past century, especially considering that Estonian wasn’t a written language until the German occupiers translated the Bible in 16th century and the first secular books appeared only in the mid-19th century. Estonian literacy is, in part, an outcome of German colonialism.
Where did this lust for the written word come from? High literacy rates can be accounted for partially by the fact that being able to read and write were requirements for obtaining a marriage licence. Also, many of the first newspapers and books to be written in Estonian expressed the people’s grief over subjugation and contained seeds of resistance to foreign rule. Books and choir festivals gave rise to the political independence movement. Words and song: they do go together, but at the same time they represent profoundly different aspects of the Estonian character. Writing and reading is a deeply personal, even introverted, activity. Singing, especially in groups, is gregarious and outward.
Sometimes, I wish I were something other than a writer. Sometimes I feel just plain confined by my hideaway in the land of the 26 symbols (24 or so in Estonian) laid flat on a page. By my mid-thirties, I had read over 1000 books and written over five, book-length manuscripts. I have probably read more books than all my ancestors combined. I continue to read over 50 books a year. This kind of erudition is valued in our society, but I cannot help but wonder what is lost when I hide from a many dimensional world, in the two dimensions of writing, in the limitations of human language. I am so immersed in this world, that I sometimes catch myself translating as I experience nature or an event, into words and sentences, sometimes complete with punctuation, describing what I see and feel reeling through my head. All my other senses, all my other abilities, have suffered from a lack of attention, a lack of education. I can experience and imagine smell, sound, taste, a vista, a touch, but the actual breadth of knowing in those experiences could be so much larger.
Sometimes I dream of being a shoe-maker or a stone mason, playing an instrument well, revelling in the flavour of food or of simply being more wild. When I think of the greatest challenge I can conjure up for myself, I don’t think of climbing a mountain, crossing a desert on foot or sailing around the world. I think about living, even for one year, without the written word. But where would such a thing be possible? Not here, not now. I would need to join an oral culture in order to have an authentic experience of de-literacy. Unless it was Estonia, I would need to learn new songs. And it would need to be a place with lots of good trees to climb.
The reading of a writer