One day when I was nine or ten years old I was walking to school on a frosty morning. The water in the gutter had frozen into bright silver glass, etched with swirls and crystals. It was so satisfying to step onto those fragile surfaces and feel them crack and hear the delicate chime and tinkle as the ice splintered into glittering shards. Children should be allowed, even encouraged, to walk in the gutter on the way to school. Every step can be an adventure!
This particular morning I was crunching through that delicate lacework when I noticed a white paper, folded into the shape of a note, that had frozen into the ice. I have always, I think, been a treasure hunter, so when I saw the paper I reached down and lifted up the long thin pane of ice it was trapped inside. I dashed the whole thing to the ground and the splinter shivered into a thousand tiny shards, freeing the note. I shook the remaining ice off, grateful that it was still cold enough for the paper to be intact, not turned to mush in cold water. I stuffed the paper into my coat pocket and walked on to school.
On the warmer afternoon walk home, I put my hand in my pocket and found the paper. I took it out and looked at it. It was a note, folded into the kind of origami envelope we all made to pass notes back and forth during class. Do kids still do that now? I hope so! Anyway, my steps slowed and I finally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as I read the note inside.
“Whoever finds this note,” the letter began, “I wish we could be friends. I am so lonely…” I read the note and re-read it. It was from a girl, about my own age, who said that all she wanted was a real friend. She poured her heart into the note, pleading for someone to play with and talk to and spend time with. My heart went out to her because she said in words the thoughts I hadn’t been able to articulate, even to myself. I also, although part of a large and loving family, wished I had a friend, a best friend, a kindred spirit, to talk to and laugh with and do all the things I imagined best friends would do. How I longed to find this girl and tell her that I had found her note and become friends with her! But who was it? The note was not signed. She left no sure clue to her identity. Scores, if not a hundred kids walked on this sidewalk every day on the way to and from the elementary school. It could be anyone!
That day my world shifted. As it began to dawn on me that someone else in the world felt almost exactly as I did about the importance of finding a friend and sharing experiences together, I realized that I was not really alone in my unvoiced longing. Maybe I would never find the person who actually wrote the note (and to my knowledge, I never did) but if I, who found the note felt similarly but hadn’t been able to express those feelings, maybe others, maybe everyone, also felt like that! From that day on, even I suppose to now, I kept one eye open for the elusive writer and the other eye open to recognize in others that similar spark of affinity: the searching for connection with others that glowed in my own heart. My search was not and never has been in vain. Not long after finding the note and having that epiphany about the universality of the quest for connection, I made a real friend, a girl a year younger than I was (and not the author of the note) who has proved to be one of the friends of a lifetime. But I have never forgotten or completely abandoned that search to connect to someone else that was sparked in me when I read that note.
There is a loneliness inherent in the human condition that even children can feel. Maybe that feeling is the cause of some babies’ tears, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have felt it, and if I have, then probably many, many people, including children, also feel that solitary loneliness. Finding a way out of that loneliness and into connection with other people, even just with one other person, is one of the great quests of life, in my opinion.
Many times children find that connection first with their family members. Maybe it is with one or both parents, maybe with siblings, sometimes with a grandparent or cousin. This is good and beautiful and it adds to the richness of life and the strength of family connections.
But what happens if the family can’t be or doesn’t seem to be that catalyst for connection? There are many places a child can turn, many of them not very good. But there are some times that a child can find true connection through reading and books. Neil Gaiman, for example, in an interview with Kate Pritchard, said, “I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the person that I am, I’m very very certain that without libraries I wouldn’t have the career that I have. I had a fairly decent local library, I used to get my parents to drop me off there on the summer holidays on their way to work, and I would just read my way through the children’s library.”
Sometimes there can be strong family ties and a good home situation and still a child needs something else. That is where books come in again. Books give a deeper dimension to life. Stories carve a person’s character by helping him or her see and feel things from a new perspective. By learning to love stories, a person can find friends and connections beyond his or her own generation. A timelessness comes in reading that really can’t be duplicated anywhere else. Jo and Beth and Meg and Amy, for example, are always young girls learning about life when you open a copy of Little Women. And even though Mark Twain wrote about Tom Sawyer in 1876, when you pick up his adventures and flip it open, Tom is still trying to dose his aunt’s cat with painkiller or planning to walk boldly down the aisle of his own funeral. These characters, these stories, these true friends will still accompany anyone who opens their books.
And of course it’s not just the old faithfuls, the early novels of American Childhood that are still able to make those connections. Modern books and characters can do it too. I marvel to think of the number of children who have found a friend in a lonely orphan boy who was made to sleep in a little cupboard under the stairs, before he went on to fame and fortune at Hogwarts. And then there are the Penderwick sisters who welcome any reader to join them in their adventures. I could go on and on.
Within the pages of a book, a child can learn not just the stories written inside, but he or she can also learn how to deal with the loneliness of life by seeing how the characters in books learn to cope. Anne of Green Gables, before she found Diana, befriended her reflection in the glass windows of a cupboard in the house where she was staying. Brian, living alone in the Canadian wilderness in Hatchet, found ways to accept his solitude. But loneliness and solitude don’t have to last forever. For a person who seeks, something is always found. In my mind, this is one of the great laws of nature. Seek and ye shall find, the Bible says. Similarly, if you pass a magnet over a pile of sand that has little shards of iron in it, the iron will be attracted to the magnet. The magnet will have “sought” and “found” the pieces.
So yes, we should encourage children to read, and read with them even after they can do it on their own. But even more than that, we should encourage children to be seekers themselves so they can find the things in life they are looking for. How can we possibly teach this? I think one of the best ways is to continue to seek ourselves. See, look, make connections, and stay true to the connections we have already made along the way. The children in our lives will see this and know that they can also seek and find.
When I was young, one of the books I listened to over and over again was Where the Wild Things Are. This book is essentially a quest, a quest for something big and powerful that can be tamed and understood. But at the turning point of the book there is this powerful passage, “And Max, king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” And then, beautifully, he found traces of the true connection he had been longing for when he arrived “into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him, and it was still hot.”
I think we all long to be where someone loves us best of all. I know I do. Mark Twain, in a letter he wrote to Gertrude Natkin, said “My child, I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat.” I can understand that, because a loving compliment can help any lingering loneliness begin to shred and float away like mist on a sunny morning. And if a compliment can do that to me, then I realize, again, how important it is to give that appreciation and love to those around me, especially children. That is what love and appreciation can do. It doesn’t cure everything, but it does help fill the heart just like that warm and waiting supper can fill the stomach.
So in short, reading books, sharing close reading experiences with children, and modeling being a lifelong seeker are some of the ways we can help children form connections between people that can stave off the inherent loneliness of life. It’s not a one-time cure, but it helps. And that way, when a person has the experience and habit of forming connections, he or she can learn to recognize the longing in someone else for connection. It is a way to build a relationship, to strengthen a family, and to forge a community and eventually a world out of the isolated individuals we all are. Reading is one step, connection is another, continuing to seek is a third, and eventually love binds it all together in the light of a morning sun.