July 15, 2007

Lessons from a Spider

Though I was not a reader as a child I did derive some pleasure from reading. I read through a few picture books several times, like Little Bear and A Monster at the End of This Book. But my first real book, one with chapters, was Charlotte's Web.

I really loved this story as it unfolded otherwise I would have given up on it like I did so many other books that took too much time and effort to complete. But I read this one to the end. I loved the characters and the storyline. I could see the webs that spelled out "some pig". And this is why I was so disappointed in the ending.

Yes, disappointed. In fact, pretty darn angry. It probably took me weeks to get to the end. I was so excited to have finished a book that the melancholy nature of the ending left me feeling like I'd been socked in the stomach. How could Charlotte have died? Why couldn't Wilbur be as close in friendship to any of her children? I wouldn't have put so much of myself into the story if I had known that it didn't have a blissfully happy ending. For a while it really turned me off to reading.

I'm relieved that I didn't give up on reading completely. And I have been blessed with rereading this classic to my own kiddos; but I still feel tense whenever I near the ending, knowing that Charlotte doesn't survive. Of course, I now understand that people(and spiders) don't live forever. Death is just a part of life. As a sensitive child(some would say over-sensitive) I felt Charlotte's loss as if she were a cherished pet or loved one. I felt deep anguish but I didn't understand that I was reacting to the text. I just didn't like feeling like that. What I didn't understand was that I loved Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern and the farm with all it's animals as if they were a part of my everyday life.

What made Charlotte inspirational wasn't that she could read and write but that she lived a selfless and honorable life while she was alive. She was wise, gentle, and patient. Even her flaws(eating flies) were handled with dignity and concern for others. She was the perfect mother figure. I wanted to be like Charlotte. I still want to be like Charlotte.

There are so many beautifully crafted stories out there for children and adults that have less than happy endings. I no longer require a happy ending to consider my reading time to have been worthwhile. In fact, several of my most cherished books have very sad endings or dismal outlooks. There was a time when I would have claimed that any book that didn't depict a hopeful ending wasn't very realistic. That was the optimist in me. Sadly, I have learned through hard experience that the world can and often is a harsh place. A sensitive heart will be trampled many a time. But I can't give up my hopes and prayers for a gentler creation. I have seen it all too often. I have been with people who are genuinely kind in spirit. I have seen a world that holds beauty that can take my breath away.

I'm no longer afraid to mourn for Charlotte. But I also admire her. Her sacrifice was an act of the deepest beauty.

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