In the Smithy of My Soul,   Chapter One

Genius means the transcendent capacity of taking trouble.

Thomas Carlyle

 

I

 

Hi.  I’ve always had a hard time introducing myself, so I figured I should start with the basics.  Hi.  Welcome to my book.

I had sent it off to so many big publishers in huge, exotic cities whose names exude wealth, sophistication, and learning—Toronto, New York, Sarnia—that I had almost given up hope that you would ever read this book.  “Look,” one rejection slip read, “you’re not a bad writer, but your life just isn’t autobiography material.  People don’t want to read the autobiography of a young girl unless she’s (a) recovered from being a drug-addicted prostitute, so the readers can live vicariously through the hedonistic pleasures that they never had the gumption to pursue, yet feel superior about their own lives from her eventual rejection of those pleasures, or (b) dying of cancer, AIDS, or (preferably) some unheard of disease, so the readers can marvel at the strength of her spirit while feeling the safe schadenfreude that come from knowing their life is better than hers.  You’ve lived your life in the middle of  nowhere, Ontario, while being relatively happy and well-adjusted: readers  can’t relate to you and they can’t pity you, so they won’t bother.

“Try your hand at fiction, and then, later in life, you can sell this as ‘the development of a writer as a young woman.’”

Fair enough.  But I never was imaginative enough for fiction: when I write a poem, it’s a poem about writing poetry; when I write a story, it’s a story about a girl writing a story.  And by the time you get to a story about a girl writing her tenth story, and how she reflects on the awkward, halting words in her first story, but now the words come assured and confident, well, metafiction gets old.

I figure this leaves four career paths in writing: journalism, academics, ghostwriting, and self-help books.  I’m not smart enough for academics–I’m the type of girl who would have her professors dissmissively write in their notebooks, “Kind, clever, and diligent, but a bit too shallow to ever make it as a student.”  Journalism and ghostwriting would require a degree–or at least some modest success as a writer–but I’m not smart enough for a scholarship, and the idea of graduating with mountains of debt over my head while searching through the sparse classifieds every day to pay the overdue rent just doesn’t appeal to me.  Besides, I can do all the learning I want here–I’ve got a copy of Plato’s republic tucked deep inside this month’s copy of Allure.  This month’s headline?  “53 ways to please your man–and still have time to get supper on the table!”  It’s an appropriate magazine to be seen reading if any customers come in.

You see, instead of being a mediocre editor or teacher, I work as a cashier in what really is best described as a general store.

Here, we sell such modern decadencies as soap, toilet paper, and canned beans.  You can even special-order a colour television!  If you position yourself so you don’t interfere with the signal, you can watch Hockey Night in Canada.

Here, sports are the thing.  The men play them, and the women marry those who do.  We built and maintain our fields without government help.  We have a schedule—the most mathematical thing in town—that dictates when each person must maintain the fields, and it’s a town scandal if you don’t fulfill your duty.  It’s worse than skipping church.

I still have to groom the fields, though I don’t enjoy sports that much  anymore.  Of course I used to enjoy them; I was a cheerleader in High School.  I wrote marvellous poetry for the captain of the hockey team, Daniel, that was sure to win his heart:

Your big, round muscle
Lets you win any tussle
Or even any bustle
Without any fussle.

I once had the chance to kiss Daniel—the second highest honour bestowed on a girl in school.  Those few girls who didn’t get a chance to kiss him were the source of endless pity and sympathy: girls felt so bad for them that, even in the middle of the halls, when everyone was around, they’d stop the girls and tell them how hard it must be to go without being kissed by the captain of the hockey team.

Of course, the highest honour went to those girls who knew how to have a good time; they brought an extra dress (or, if especially rebellious, patches for the knees of their pants) and lipstick everyday.  They got invited to all the cool parties, and not just the boring school formals, when all the adults are around.

Even though the men never end up marrying these girls, everyone sees the married men going to their apartments every day.  Of course, no one really bothers telling the wives about that: the wives are too busy taking care of the kids.

 

Don’t be mistaken; I do not claim any natural greatness in being different from them.  I became different purely by accident.  After kissing Daniel back in grade ten, I was invited out back of the school—but I was hesitant.  Surely, such a move was drastic!  I knew as well as anyone else that the girls who didn’t go out back were doomed to housework, uncaring husbands, and screaming, thankless children, but was I really ready to decide on the life of sin, where the only post-coital cuddling you can get is with a teddy bear?

Luckily, Daniel wasn’t willing to wait.  He had become bored of the same girls out back every day, and wanted me as soon as he could get me.  Since I had written that poem for him, he realised, I must be literary.  Obviously, the best way to convince me would be through a book.   But what book could convince someone to have sex?

The English teacher, Mr. Harris, would know.  He always bragged about how he managed to get through university without reading a single book, so he’d be on Daniel’s side.

Happy to help, Harris told him that Brave New World is filled with sex, and everyone in the book is happy—it’d be sure to convert me.

After an hour of fruitless searching through the maze of numbers—why they couldn’t just put the book under “B,” Daniel would never know—Daniel emerged from the labyrinth with the book, and, after school, thrust it into my arms like he was playing a game of hot potato, convinced that, in a week, I’d join him behind the school, a new dress in my bag to replace the one that dirtied beneath my knees.

I looked at the cover, confused, yet filled with dread.  What magic power could this book contain, capable of forcing me, at Daniel’s whim, to perform nefarious deeds?  What demonic soul would awaken at the crack of the spine, possessing the unwary reader and transforming the purest girl into a wanton whore?

But I had to read it—Daniel had given it to me.  Gathering all my courage, I opened the book.

The words were in English.  They couldn’t be that bad.  Right?

I began to read.

Two pages later, my head had become a swirling mess of disconnected sounds reaching critical mass.  Such words!  Such big words!  Surely they were unnecessary, some ploy to make whoever this Huxley person was sound smart.  He obviously had no idea how to speak like a normal person; he didn’t realise that big words just made him sound like a pompous ass.  I flung the book away, ridding myself of its accursed influence.

And yet, and yet, I could not be known as the girl who was too afraid to go out back, desiring yet unable.  That would be the worst fate imaginable.  Not respectable enough to marry and not cool enough to fornicate with, I would be relegated to spinsterhood.

Spinsterhood is to be avoided like the feminism.

I had to either reject Huxley with every fibre of my being, reasserting my purity, or join Daniel out back. So, with more courage than I thought I possessed, I picked up the book, flattened out the crumpled pages, and began to read again.

After a few more pages, I was even more disgusted by that pathetic person who called himself an author—he had no idea what a book was for.  What’s the point of putting science in a book?  This Huxley person was obviously a moron: didn’t he realise you read a book to forget the world?  That’s why I had never read one before—I was quite happy with the life I had.  Anyone who reads is obviously a malcontent who can’t deal with the real world.  Why else do all these artists attempt suicide?

And this Huxley person was stupider than the bunch.  Because books make you think about things that life can’t provide, he electrocuted children for reaching toward a book, making them hate books for the rest of their lives so they could focus on life and be happy.

What kind of idiot would write that?  Couldn’t he see how dumb that was?  He was showing that books were useless inside a book, which makes a contradiction.  Could he really be so stupid that he didn’t know that?

And then I realised… he was being ironic!  He meant the opposite of what he said, and I had been clever enough to figure it out!  Daniel hadn’t—he thought Huxley meant what he was saying, but no!

My entire body burst with the power of my intellectual brilliance.  I had deciphered the code.  I alone had triumphed.

It took me a week to finish the rest of the book. I worked at it until I understood it.  Huxley wasn’t saying people should have promiscuous sex and be hedonistic; Huxley was saying that being hedonistic prevented you from living life as it should be lived!  I had figured it out!

The next day, glowing with my genius, I walked right up to Daniel in the middle of the hall, shoved the book into his hands, and said, “No, I will not go out back with you.”  Then I walked away, confident in and of my intelligence.

And that, my friend, is how I became a reader.

 

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