For as long as I can remember, I’ve known how to live life as someone other than myself. For much of my childhood, it was an effective and unobtrusive means of escape.
In first grade, too shy to join in games of tetherball or foursquare, too scared to flip my body in perpetual motion around slippery metal jungle gym bars, I became Ramona Quimby. I had read all the Ramona books over and over to the point that I could flawlessly narrate my life in third-person limited. While others screamed and laughed with their friends, I sat under the desert schoolyard’s lone tree, softly murmuring a carefully edited and stylized version of my day, merged with a few exotic details of Ramona’s Oregonian existence.
I escaped chicken pox that summer by pretending to be Pippi Longstocking the entire time. My teacher heard my family was calling off our summer trip to Disneyland (my first and, as it turned out, last opportunity to go) and lent me a big box of books, Pippi’s eponymous novel among them. As my illness dragged on, I drove my mother nuts by insisting she call me Pippi, braid my hair every day, and let me sleep with my head at the foot of the bed (she harbored a nagging fear I’d suffocate under the covers).
Later in grade school, like so many girls, I became Harriet the Spy. I couldn’t tell you why her persona in particular is so addictive, but I lived her life for years. I kept a journal with a faded blue cover in which I recorded true stories of my life, interspersed with episodes from the book which I wrote out word for word from memory. My desire to be her is pretty comical in retrospect, since our lives could hardly have been more different. Harriet attended private school begrudgingly, came home to a house with a cook and a largely superfluous nanny, and then shot back out again to soak up and analyze the bustle of New York City. Meanwhile, public school was my refuge from a sometimes very unstable home life, and we lived so far into the untamed desert that I literally had no one to spy on. Our nearest neighbor lived at least a quarter of a mile away, and beyond that, I could barely make out cars pulling up in front of distant houses, even when I used my binoculars.
Another lonely summer, I discovered Anne of Green Gables, and despite being a lifelong brunette I made my home in her carrot-haired head. I kept another journal in her persona, romanticizing events like my parents’ separation and my mother’s stint in rehab just as Anne bestowed magic on her prosaic farm life.
As an adult, my need for escape has lessened, but I still catch my thoughts slipping into the style of an author I’ve been reading. My internal monologue can come in clipped, powerful Hemingway sentences or string clauses together in Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness style. In a real sense, you could still say that I am what I read.
The book I’ve read most consistently over the last few years is the Bible. In the next month or so, I will have read the whole thing through for the third time. My daily reading of Scripture is a recent development. I still have an old New International Version I got free from Campus Crusade for Christ shortly before my conversion, and while the spine is taped and re-taped back together, the cover frayed, the pages bent, this doesn’t necessarily mean I read it much while in college. Its wear and tear is mainly the mark of travel; I took the cheap paperback back and forth with me on cross-country flights home for holidays, even on overseas journeys, but I rarely cracked the cover, apparently seeing it as more of a good luck charm than a good read.
I still don’t find daily Scripture reading easy, particularly in dense parts of Leviticus or Revelations. Reading along with others has been helpful, as has breaking the task down day by day with a ready-made Bible reading plan, of which there are many. But I think I’ve also really been helped by my long habit of entering the story, letting it affect the way I think and see the world.
This is more difficult with the Bible than with other books, and there are two reasons why. First, sometimes it’s too strange. It’s hard for me to identify with people from another culture, time, and place, and although a good commentary can provide much-needed background, it takes a lot of study to come close to savoring the authentic flavor of the text as its first audiences did. Second, sometimes it’s too familiar. Particularly in the Gospels, sometimes the words have already echoed in our cultural consciousness so long that they’ve become mere background noise. How can I recapture the shock value, for instance, of these words ringing out for the very first time: “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone”?
In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, imaginatively entering the stories of Scripture is encouraged as a way of digging deep into the text and writing it on your heart. You’re invited to imagine yourself standing there with Jesus, hear his challenging words afresh, watch his tender and decisive actions, join the throng in following him. And this process is far from a narcissistic, me-first approach to Scripture. On the contrary, you can learn from it how best to tell the great Story to others, to translate it into their language, to “become all things to all people” as St. Paul did. More than that, if you go deep enough, it can be a way to acquire “the mind of Christ.”
This is my reason for writing what I’ve been calling stories retold. By retelling these narratives, I don’t seek to appropriate them, but rather to find an imaginative place within them, their overlap with my own life. Perhaps you’ll want to come with me as I take a fresh look at old words or step into another time. Perhaps you can write your own retelling, flavored with the lessons unique to your life. In this way, entering the story becomes not an escape route, but an invitation to live more fully.