Jonathan Bower: This Ritual of Reading to Each Other: On Reading Beowulf with My Ten Year Old

This post was inspired by William Stafford’s
poem, ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other,’ on which I based the title for this
musing. You can listen to Stafford read his poem here:
I’m entirely not sure what compelled me to
undertake Beowulf with my ten
year-old, Sam. Even though the epic poem has remained a blazing signpost, a
significant point of reference in my development as an adoring but hopeless
slave to Literature and writing, I can’t today recall one thing my high school
English teacher wanted us to learn when we read the Burton Raffel translation in
the 1980’s. Add to this that I was that painfully shy, pimple-faced, frizzy
haired kid in your English class that you’ve otherwise totally forgotten about,
the guy who always looked like he was trying to hide inside his coat, was
usually buried in his comic books or drawing pads, and now that you think of it
looked a lot like Napoleon Dynamite. Considering where and who I was at that
stage of life, I’m still shocked today that I even followed through with
purchasing and reading page one of the book at all.
And while I have not retained many
specific, precise details about Beowulf
over the years, I know too well that an unmistakable “something” about the
language with which Raffel crafted and relayed our hero’s tale immediately
captivated and enlivened me in adolescence. So much so that nearly twenty-five
years later, I credit that staggering recognition, my unexpected and surprising
fascination with the vibrant interplay between language and story as a
mysterious magnet pull, an unspoken invitation that would shamelessly seduce me
into a lifelong love affair with Literature.
Fast-forward to all these years later, and
Sam and I were drawing to the end of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.
He shared that he was ready for a break from the Hobbits. However, he specifically
requested we find something with legends and tales of knights and warriors,
along with any battle that featured swords, shields, and bows and arrows. Also,
Seamus Heaney had just then passed away, and his death cemented my regret that
I had still not explored his translation of the oldest epic poem in the English
This time around, however, where I
encountered scenes and lines that stoked again the familiar fires the tale
sparked in me many years ago, I was also surprised to stumble upon frustrations
I couldn’t recall from my initial reading of the work. There were nights with
Sam that I barely slogged my way through one or another section. During various
monologues or any dull-seeming scene detailing longstanding grudges and factions
between families, countries, and kingdoms I would tell myself, “Well, that’s
it. You’ve lost him.” Even if I wasn’t rolling my eyes on the outside, there
were nights that I labored through sections of the work and wondered how the
tale could have made any significant impact on me as an adolescent.
 Some evenings, I would convince
myself that I’d read Sam to sleep, or that “this” or “tonight” was it – he’d be
done, officially bored senseless into wanting us to read something else. But no
dice. Every night that I worried I’d lost him on any level, I’d check in, ask
him what he thinks, and he would smile. “This is a really good story!” he
gushed on one occasion. Looking over my shoulder as I read on another evening,
he discovered and then pointed out the protagonist’s name on the left, the Old
English side of Heaney’s bilingual text. Other nights he groaned when I
suggested we pick up the tale the following evening.
As if I needed further affirmation for this
puzzling effort, on the night we finished it, I closed the book, and Sam asked
me if he could take it to school and share it with his teacher the following
I’ve known for a long time, well before I
ever became a parent, that regardless of how or where our interests may diverge
over the years, perhaps nothing would prove more important or a priority to me than
that my children stand capable of becoming critical thinkers, able to
intelligently navigate among the spoils and excess our culture indiscriminately
lobs at us around the clock. From before they could even lift their heads, or
sort out one stitch about the times they’ve been born into, the one way I
imagined my children might manage to stand more firmly grounded, able-bodied,
and aware of their footing in the world is by becoming literate, and in so
doing call to life an interminable curiosity about the places in which they
find themselves. Stories, throughout my experience, have consistently proven
the means by which I maintain my own incessant curiosity with the world.
Stories are also, consequently, the fuel that drives my unrelenting love affair
with this messy and deeply flawed but no less beautiful world we all share and
call home.
Sam, his little brother, Matt, and I have
read a lot of stories together over the years, works full of heart – some with
obvious “morals,” allegories, and a wide variety of meanings. Then, we’ve also
read many tales that I imagine will reveal – or have revealed – their meanings
slowly, over time. Will they change anything for the boys and how they live
their lives, or how they embrace or reject what befalls them in the coming
years? I can’t say. If there’s one thing I’ve learned that good Literature
never arrogantly claims or promises, it’s certainty.
At this stage of life, I know only that our
reading together is – and this is going on ten years now – the longstanding, undeniable
highlight of my weeks. I spend many nights sick with worry about money and
work-related matters. We are fast outgrowing our living space and, like many
single parents, I frequently wrack my brain puzzling over the many seeming-dead
ends or financial hurdles around me while trying to figure out how to improve
our situation. Despite all our efforts at placing our children in spaces where
they can thrive and receive a good education, the boys’ mother and I still feel
endlessly besieged by a relentless and disconcerting array of outside
influences in the form of media, bewildering childcare shenanigans, and
everywhere-occurring technology.
But with remarkably little effort, aside
from one lone intention and being sure that we attend to it, that time reading
before bed every night regularly proves a nearly sacred space in my home. And
even if it’s the lone sacred space every night that I have them, we’re afforded
that, mostly because we afford it to ourselves. And despite the endless laundry
list of “Big Life” concerns daily competing for our attention, I think we
continue to do a pretty bang-up job maximizing on the wonder and quiet beauty
that is made available to us in that space.
“To teach,” writes the educator and author,
Parker Palmer, “is to create a space.” True – I think he’s right, though his
observation is made in regards to education, the classroom, and schooling.
Meanwhile, I also think that to simply and intentionally create a space in
one’s day – or in this case, our day – can at its best establish
conditions for the most imaginative forms of learning available to us. Without
directly or overtly striving to “teach” or instruct, making a space in which to
share stories together nurtures the ground where in each of us can occur subtle
transformations, a quietly life-altering degree of awe towards the world, and a
longed for and counter-cultural form of attention that we might otherwise
struggle or intuitively know how to effectively and compassionately afford
ourselves and each other.
I don’t know, years from now, what Sam will
take away or remember about Beowulf. He might pick up this copy one day
in his teens or adulthood and not remember a lick of it, or leaf through it and
wonder why his nutty Pop suggested they read it together. After all, there were
times during this reading that I puzzled over its lasting effect on me.
Likewise, while still I can’t recall what
my high school English teacher wanted us to take away from Beowulf those
many years ago, it might be wise to stop contemplating that now. The question
that intrigues me more than any other today, as a writer, reader, and also as a
father – as I can only hope will prove the case for my children in the coming
years – is what did Beowulf (along with so many other works over the
years) want with me, or ask of me – and so insistently that the chords it
struck inside me have never stopped vibrating? A vibration occurring curiously
and affectionately in such a way that I have always wanted to share it like a
gospel, with someone who I felt – who I knew – in an otherwise ordinary,
unremarkable moment in the evening might also appreciate it?

Jonathan Bower lives,
writes, and makes music in Anchorage, Alaska, and will teach the undergraduate
Creative Nonfiction workshop at UAA in Fall 2014. In late spring (or early
summer) he will release his second album in two years, titled Hope, Alaska
. You can preview Jonathan’s music and read selected works at
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