Becoming a Contemplative with “My Side of the Mountain”

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The following is excerpted from Sweeney’s new book, “My Life in Seventeen Books: A Literary Memoir” (Monkfish Book Publishing), by permission.

There have been many happy moments in my life that did not involve books, but I rarely remember them. Joyful times often pass like clouds on a pleasant summer afternoon, but bookhood — a “book’s physical autonomy and life-ishness” — leaves a mark. Emma Smith coins that term in her lovely “Portable Magic.” A book’s bookhood is its unique qualities that allow it to grab hold of us.

I’m not sure if Smith means this, but I do: no two copies of a book are the same.

The French philosopher who died in 2021, Jean-Luc Nancy, used different language to express this idea. He said that every book is “sacred” in that it “poses and imposes itself at one and the same time as a given, fully formed, integral and nonmodifiable entity, while also opening itself liberally to reading, which will never stop opening it wider and deeper, giving it a thousand sense or a thousand secrets, rewriting it, finally, in a thousand ways.”

In my experience, a particular volume, no matter its subject, in its qualities as a sacred, imprinted thing, can be like a womb.

This is a story about a bookish womb, in childhood, learning to love spending time alone, and how a book can help express our worries and fears. Before we really know how to feel, the language of a book helps to give our feelings voice. I wouldn’t suggest that this happens all the time. In fact, if we’re fortunate, there will be just a few books in our lives possessing bookhood in a way that latches on, and when they do, it is clear — back to Emma Smith wisdom — that “form matters” and “we read form almost unconsciously as an aggregate of the senses before, and alongside, reading the words on the page.”

My copy of Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain” had wrinkled waffle-patterned pages characteristic of a book that’s been left out in a light rain. Some earlier young reader had done so, before returning the book to the school library where I found it. I was in seventh grade.

There are books we read, and then there are those that we dream with. This was a dreaming book. I was fearful, in all of the usual ways. Every child is afraid, whether or not they demonstrate it in front of you. We ponder frightening things that our parents prefer to pretend don’t exist. Monsters under the bed are real possibilities. Death is the most obvious of these things that frighten. I remember attending my first funeral, for an old man I knew from church. It was an open-casket affair and for two nights after seeing him lying there I cried myself to sleep, not for him so much as in a sudden, painful realization that my parents would also someday be gone.

I don’t remember talking about this with either my mother or my father at the time, and I don’t remember them noticing or hearing my crying at night. Or maybe they thought my crying was part of a process.

We also sometimes pretend in order to cope with what’s otherwise impossible to face. This must be why so many children are drawn to play-fighting with pretend weapons, or more often today, violent games on their electronic devices and screens. When blood spurts in imaginative play, it allows us to cope with the fears we don’t express about our real blood, which we hope never spurts.

For as long as I can remember, I have craved time alone. I spent a great deal of time in solitude as a child, usually by choice. So when I found “My Side of the Mountain,” it allowed an 11-year-old boy to imagine running away from his suburban home to live with an owl in the woods, a delicious fantasy of self-reliance that I still seriously entertain.

Although it began as a library book for me, I carried it for so long that my mother ended up paying fines. Then, for several years after I began reading it, I dreamed that Craighead George’s character Sam was in fact me; that I too had run away from home; and that like Sam, I was living by my wits in the woods with birds and animals as my best friends.

It was that magical opening sentence. “I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here” — which speaks to every child’s feeling at one time or another of being invisible, of not mattering, and yet knowing otherwise in their gut.

It also brought a certain measure of comfort that I could stand on my own if necessary. Maybe, like Sam, I was all that I needed. Because kids know that their people will someday die. It was when I was five, and attended that first funeral, when I realized that everyone dies, and with that sudden bursting of my bubble, and after silently cried myself to sleep for two nights, I was no longer a little boy. On the third day, I got up and put away my sadness.

I would fantasize about the things I was reading in Sam’s life. Even into young adult, married life, career and travel to faraway places, I would imagine I was still all alone in the world with no one to look out for me. No one loving me. No one knowing me like my pet owl. Like Sam, I would feel that I too could, or would, leave everyone I knew behind in search of something else in the mountains.

In Craighead’s novel, Sam narrates his leaving New York City one day in May with only “a penknife, a ball or cord, an ax and $40 which I had saved from selling magazine subscriptions.” I too had sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door; I also had a paper route — the old-fashioned kind, rolling papers on the living room floor, wrapping each with a rubber band, placing them in a cloth shoulder bag, and delivering them on my bicycle, throwing each one as hard as I could at the metal screen doors of my neighbors.

Sam makes preparations for leaving home, for becoming independent. In my version of Sam’s fantasy, I pondered, I have five dollars. How long can I make it last? I knew I didn’t need to purchase much. I remember making many lists of necessities, planning as if for the inevitable and ordinary reality to come soon. I was dead serious, as if my apocalyptic future were likely to begin tomorrow. One list looked like this, and became my “My Side of the Mountain” bookmark:

Gallon of milk, 95 cents
Loaf of bread, 50 cents
Bananas—six, 35 cents
Red licorice, 25 cents
$2.95 left over.

What can I say, I loved red candy.    

“My Side of the Mountain” carried me into the woods, but here I use the word “woods” metaphorically, like a mystic recalling the place where mystics before him have met the Source of their Mystery. “Wilderness” and “desert” are words that work equally as well. My woods were no less unknown to me than were Sam’s, even though mine were in fact a large piece of Illinois prairie.

I was a young reader in the late 1970s in the west suburbs of Chicago, in the fastest growing county in the United States, where some of the last family farms were being bought up by developers seeking to meet housing demands. One 30-acre farm bordered the neighborhood where my parents built a new house for us when I was in second grade, and I watched as the prairie grasses and pheasants who lived in their depths, slowly ebbed away.

“My Side of the Mountain” took me and also allowed me to go to lonely places where we decide to face our aloneness. Only because of the companionship of this book was I able to begin to experience a contemplative life (contemplatives face their death honestly) as a child. And I have never really left the places where it took me.

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