How Books Have Shaped My Life
I have three children. One loves to read, one is sporadic in his reading and another seems to put reading in the same category as scrubbing the toilet. This lack of interest distresses me for several reasons.
Firstly, reading gives you an education which far surpasses what you learn in school. From the pages of fiction books, I have developed a wide vocabulary, learned about history, science and specialised topics like boxing. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay not only taught me that there is an art to boxing but succeeded in making it seem positively romantic! Twenty years later, I still find myself drawn to the game. More than that, though, the book made me think about how one person can make a difference in this world. It reaffirmed my belief in doing what is right, not what is easiest, and that hasn’t always been easy.
Secondly, books can help shape your beliefs and value system. For instance, when I read Black Beauty as a young teenager, I was shocked by the ill treatment of animals described in it. Ever since, I have done what I could to ensure animals are treated well, including volunteering at pet shelters and teaching my children to be empathetic towards helpless creatures. I want my children to think about what kind of person they are and what kind of person they want to be. If I tell them about the values I want them to live by, I’m preaching. If they read it, however, they imbibe the lessons without even being aware of it. Sneaky of me, I know.
Thirdly, books allow you to live more than one life. I want my children to know what it is like to be a child wizard, a Dalmatian trying to find his 100 puppies or a little girl who wanders through a wardrobe into another world. I want them to immerse themselves in a life where they can experience great love, sadness and horror, and still feel safe in the quietness of their bedroom. I want them to imagine how they would feel if they were a queen awaiting execution because she’d loved unwisely, or living in a city gripped by the Black Plague. I want them to dwell with wolves, fight with swords and fly with dragons. Most of all, I want them to live a full life. From a book, can come the dream, and from the dream can come the reality. This is something they won’t discover from ipods, cell phones and television.
So, back to my dilemma. How do I expose my children to the joys of a good book without having it backfire on me? I’ve already done the things the experts said to do. I set a good example by reading myself (oh boy, did I do that. I usually have a stack of thirty books in my TBR pile); I read books to them every night till they were about ten years old; I took them to the library; I bought them books. Heck, I even wrote a book (turns out they think that’s an incredibly nerdy thing to do). As far as I can tell, my efforts have achieved zip. Oh, they loved being read to, but they showed no desire to pick up a book themselves.
My oldest daughter finally fell in love with books at the age of 11. Stuck in bed for several days, she picked up Harry Potter in desperation and never looked back. Alas, my other two show an unfortunate robustness of health.
My approach in the face of their total lack of interest is to, firstly, limit time on their electronics in the hopes that boredom will drive them to books. Secondly, I monitor the television shows and magazines they read in an attempt to find a genre that will prove irresistible.
Imagine my excitement when I recently saw a sign that my approach is working! My middle daughter is currently reading a book in the Vampire Diaries series and there are another ten from the series sitting on her bed stand! I took a punt based on the tv shows she was watching and it paid off. As this is the child who would rather scrub the toilet than read, you may appreciate the back-patting going on here.
Other parents get excited when they kid gets an A or kicks a goal; I’m not ashamed to say I get excited when I see a book in their hands. Score!
The first hint of the plague that was to destroy our world arrived with a brief report on the morning news. I noted something about miners being diagnosed with an unidentified form of encephalitis in the nearby village of Mossman, but I barely registered it, really, as I tried to persuade the twins to stay in their seats and eat their breakfast.
My brother Joe snorted from his easy chair. "That's what you get for messing with nature. The Cape Tribulation rainforest has been untouched by humans for millions of years. You've got species of plants and insects that have never been identified! I wouldn't be surprised if they discover that this strain of encephalitis predates the dinosaurs."
I rolled my eyes. I loved my brother dearly but the last thing I needed this morning was a lecture on the dangers of destroying the virgin rainforest of Cape Tribulation. He had been impossible for the last few months since the mining companies had won permission to mine part of the rainforest around Mossman. I guess it was part and parcel of living with an environmentalist.
"Are you likely to get called into work this morning?" I asked, simultaneously wrestling a porridgy spoon away from Sarah and pushing Alex firmly back into his high chair.
"Lori, if they do call, they're sadly out of luck," he grinned, hazel eyes twinkling. "Or have you forgotten that somewhere out there is a marlin with my name on it?"
"Hmph," I sniffed disdainfully, sidestepping the fact that I had forgotten all about the fishing trip. "I'll wager that the marlin with your name on it will still be safely swimming in the ocean when you get back!"
Joe switched off the television and stood up, miming a dagger in his chest. "Ouch. Low blow, sis." He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug. "But I forgive you, seeing as I have the most understanding sister in the world, offering to drive me in, holding down the fort for the whole weekend, picking me up at an ungodly hour..."
I smiled and squirmed away. "Stop crawling and help me clean these kids up before we go."
He grabbed three-year-old Alex and lifted him high, heading for the bathroom. "Okay, rugrat, try not to make your mum's life a misery while I'm away!"
Alex squealed and tried to swat his uncle's face. I smiled affectionately at their disappearing backs. Although I had protested when Joe had said he was moving in after Charles' death, it was impossible to imagine life without him now. In six months, he had become an indelible part of our family's life, helping me out with the kids, bringing in much needed money and reminding me that I could laugh again.
Watching her twin brother leave, Sarah demanded loudly to be picked up as well. As I gingerly tried to lift her out of the chair without getting porridge all over my clothes, Michele wandered out of her room. At 15, she had reached an age where she seemed to want to sleep all morning so I was a bit surprised to see her before noon.
"Good morning, sweetness," I called out as I shepherded Sarah ahead of me to the bathroom. My teen grunted a greeting as she flung cupboard doors open, no doubt in search of a breakfast that didn't scream ‘healthy’.
All in all, a normal morning in the Nelson home. There was no awareness that our world was already in the process of changing forever; no hint that, somewhere, an impossible disease was taking hold; no clue that some of us would be committing unthinkable acts before the day was through.
With twins cleaned up and occupied helping their uncle double-check his gear, I poured myself a cup of tepid coffee and joined Michele at the breakfast table. She was looking a bit more alert after a sugary cereal hit.
"So what gets you up so early, honey?" I asked chirpily, knowing how she hated cheeriness first thing in the morning. Michele narrowed her golden brown eyes, one of the few features she had inherited from me, but refrained admirably from making a sarcastic reply. Instead, she smiled sweetly, which immediately sent off alarm bells.
"Seeing we don't have any exams today, Hannah wants me to go shopping with her. Can you give me a lift to Central Shoppingtown? Please, Mummy?"
That's the thing about being a parent; even though you can spot your kid's manipulations a mile off, they still work more often than not. "Yeah, yeah. If you want a lift, you'd better be ready in half an hour. I have to drop your uncle off at the jetty and your brother and sister at Aunty Kaye's, not to mention get to work on time for once."
Michele jumped up and gave me a hug. "Thanks, Mummy! Oh, and can I borrow $20?"
Surprisingly, we got out of the house on time. Cairns was enjoying a glorious winter day with brilliant blue skies, balmy breezes and lush green hills on all sides. Even after all these years, its beauty could still take my breath away. I loved the way you could be in the midst of rainforest country one minute and at the beach the next. It was the best of both worlds, however, it seemed I was the only one taking notice of our beautiful surroundings as I drove along the highway. Michele had her IPod plugged in, and the twins were loudly singing a Wiggles tune while Joe tried to listen to the news. "Shush, kids!" he called out abruptly, turning up the radio.
"...at least 5 suspected cases of the unidentified strain of encephalitis are currently being transported from Mossman to the Cairns Base Hospital where they will undergo testing to confirm the diagnosis. All the victims so far have been employees of the Coldman Mining Company; however, anyone who has visited the Mossman region recently should see their doctor immediately if they experience symptoms such as a sensitivity to light, headaches, vomiting and a stiff neck. It is suspected that the victims contracted the virus from mosquitoes disturbed by the mining operations..."
I sighed. "Looks like I am going to be busy at the hospital today." The shortage of nurses at the hospital meant that we were spread pretty thin, and an influx of emergency cases was going to make it a hairy day.
Joe frowned. "Five cases in one day - that doesn't sound good. This could be like that dengue fever epidemic we had last year."
I hoped not. A dozen people had died in that outbreak. The downside of living in a gorgeous place like Cairns was that we weren't the only creatures that did so. Being such a humid, tropical place, the mosquitoes loved Cairns just as much.
At the jetty, my brother in law, Andy, was already waiting with a few other guys in front of a medium sized fishing boat.
"About time, Joe," he called out as we pulled in. "Putting on your makeup, were you?"
Joe pulled his gear out of the back of our four-wheel drive. "Don't need makeup, mate. I'm naturally gorgeous. You, on the other hand..."
I interrupted their good-natured bantering. "Hey Andy, make sure you guys do less drinking and more fishing this time, will you? That puny fish you brought home last time was an embarrassment."
Andy leaned through the car window and gave me a hearty kiss on the cheek. "Leave the fishing to the men, Lori, and we'll leave the childbearing to the women."
As I searched for an appropriate comeback, Joe laughed and pulled Andy away. "We'd better get on the boat now, mate! Lori may be five feet nothing but she's a fiend behind the wheel, and I don't like the way she's looking at us!"
I grinned at them as I reversed out of the car park. "This is me secretly jumping for joy at the prospect of not seeing either of your sorry asses for a whole weekend." My last glimpse of them was in the rear view mirror as they laughingly loaded their gear onto the boat.
I drove along the highway towards my sister's home in the hills. Droves of tourists were lounging on the Esplanade, a green stretch of park paradise that separated the city from the sea. It was an irresistible attraction for families, bird lovers, sun seekers and active people with its boardwalk, mudflats, palm trees, playgrounds, bicycle paths, skateboard park, barbeques, and saltwater pool.
"Muddies, Muddies!" the twins chorused as we passed the adventure playground. Even this early, it was already full of children climbing ropes and running through fountains.
"Maybe tomorrow, kids. Mummy's got to work today," I answered distractedly. For some reason, a mother and child standing outside the gate to the playground caught my eye. Maybe it was the nurse in me, but I immediately recognised that the woman was sick. She was clutching the gate, her skin was pale and sweaty and she seemed to be struggling for breath. My foot hovered indecisively over the brake but before I could make a decision, she had opened the gate and was gone.
“I guess she'll go see a doctor if she is sick," I muttered under my breath, trying to talk myself out of the instinct to find the woman.
My sister was sitting on her verandah drinking a cup of coffee as I parked at the bottom of her steep driveway. Nestled in the midst of a rainforest, Kaye and Andy had built a beautiful pole home, or as my children called it, the tree house. A gorgeous wooden home, it stood high off the ground on thick poles, accessed only by a large spiral staircase. So reluctant were they to disturb their natural environment, that their back door opened directly onto the jungle covered hillside. I wasn't sure what purpose that back door served, actually, as I couldn't see either of them fighting through the jungle for fun.
As always, I complained about the hike up the driveway, lugging the twins behind me while Michele followed at a more languid pace. "Ever thought about installing an escalator?"
Kaye's dark hair fell around her laughing face as she leaned over her balcony. "And deny you the only exercise you get? I think not."
"Hey, these kids keep me plenty fit, thank you very much!" I retorted, ushering the twins up the wooden staircase. As always, the view from the house was breathtaking. There was lush rainforest on three sides and a river running through a deep valley on the remaining side. On rainy days, a low mist hung over the tops of the mountains making you feel part of a world untouched by man.
I greeted my sister with a kiss and gratefully took the hot cup of coffee she held out for me. I plunked myself down on a chair and took a sip of freshly brewed black coffee. "You do know the way to a woman's heart," I sighed blissfully.
"Of course - coffee, chocolate, massages and time alone to read a good book." She sat down gracefully in the cane chair opposite me and picked up her china cup. Next to Kaye, I often felt as graceful as Fergie must have felt next to Princess Di. Kaye was all finished elegance and gentle manners, while I was a t-shirt and jeans gal with foot-in-mouth disease. She took after Mum with her dark colouring, whereas I had inherited my Dad's honey-coloured hair and fair skin, not to mention his short stature.
"Ooh, you really do know me!" I said admiringly, as the relaxing effects of caffeine seeped through me. From within the house came the sound of four toddlers creating havoc, but we ignored it with an ease that only mothers can. Michele finally made it up the stairs and greeted her aunt with genuine affection before moving inside to sprawl on the comfortable sofa and check her text messages.
"Ugh. I suspect I am going to need a caffeine drip for the day ahead." I closed my eyes as I took another long draught. Really, nothing beats a good cup of coffee.
"Yes, I heard about the encephalitis outbreak on the news. Do you think you will be looking after them?"
"There's a good chance of it. I'm just worried that the shortage of staff at the moment will mean that I am going to have to work a double shift," I sighed. "I'm supposed to finish at 7 pm but if I'm not here by 8:00..."
Kaye grinned. "Feed 'em and bed 'em. Yeah, I know."
With a glance at my watch, I finished off my coffee and went inside to bid farewell to my babies. They brushed me off with a hasty goodbye and returned to their game with their cousins, Beth and Allie. I grinned to myself as I returned to my car. At least I was able to go to work without worrying about separation anxiety.
Author BioSue was born in Malaysia to French and British colonialists, had a very exciting childhood in the jungles of Borneo, the Australian outback and tropical Queensland, and is the proud mother of three children.
She manages to steal the time to write by ignoring the state of her house and pretending that the kids can look after themselves.
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