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Sunday Reflections: Goodbye Harper Lee

sundayreflections1We lost Harper Lee last week, and for anyone who read the book, it really does feel like we is the correct pronoun. It feels personal. It feels like a part of her belonged to us. To Kill a Mockingbird was a story that moved us, that motivated us to pay attention to social injustice, to the quiet neighbor, to our own need to write things down, to the way the world works, to books.

As far as assigned reading goes, it’s been at the top of the heap for a while. I’ve talked with many teens over the years who came in to the library with eyes wide, unbelieving of the outcome, suddenly seeing the world around them differently than they did before reading it. Some of us read To Kill a Mockingbird as kids, barely Scout’s age, before we could grasp the subtleties of the storytelling and the enormity of the story. Not me. I somehow escaped being assigned the reading of that lavender covered paperback all through high school and even through my English major that focused on American studies. But I did read it at long last, and I think it hit me at just the right time.

To Kill a MockingbirdThe fall after I graduated from college, I was living back home, substitute teaching and waiting to figure out how being a “very trainable” English major was actually going to help me find a path to self-sufficiency. Fresh off my foreign study stint, and still occasionally dreaming in Spanish, I joked with my grandparents that I’d happily translate for them and their friend on their upcoming package tour of Spain, and to my great surprise, they took me up on it. I don’t remember what else I took to read on that trip, but I do vividly remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I sat on a balcony, looking out at the sun soaked hills of a place I’d briefly called home, smelling the bougainvillea as the breeze passed by, and feeling like I’d finally found the piece I hadn’t known I was missing. Ms. Lee’s book has a way of connecting us to what we most need to see in it, and in others. I spent the rest of the trip not reading, but writing a long long letter to one of my professors–there were ideas unspoken that To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t let lie still. It was one of those books that didn’t just ask for reflection, it forced it. I returned home and opened my acceptance letter to library school.

And now we’ve lost Ms. Lee just like we found her. Quietly, knowing it would happen eventually, but never really expecting how it would hit us. Others more eloquent and well versed in the details of her novel and her life will have more important things to say about her passing. But me? I am just grateful. Grateful that she lived and shared that story that so moved so many of us. Grateful to have lived in the world while she inhabited it. Grateful too that for most of her life, her one published novel stood on its own, without comparison, a stalwart and proud testament to its ideas and time.

This week we say goodbye to someone who felt like our friend, but who never knew us. Someone who lived a life to deliberately avoid us, but touched our hearts. Someone who, for all the readers and writers, lawyers and judges she birthed, never pushed out another piece that made us think about life differently.We say goodbye, united in knowing that our goodbye is our own, solitary and singular, just as our reading experience was.


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