There are stories that I return to again and again. These core stories satisfy me in ways that aren't always easy to explain, but I'll give it a shot. I read Hemingway's, The Old Man and the Sea, for the first time in grade school, or high school. It was a simple story, easily devoured, and I gave it not a single thought, once done. I started tutoring during graduate school. No matter what I've done since then, I've continued to tutor part-time, and sometimes full-time. I love it. I was living in south Florida and many of my students were immigrants, wanting to improve their English language skills. I encouraged them to read the very best that was available to them. We'd meet at the local library, where they could get library cards. That's when I rediscovered Hemingway. His language is simple; the stories straightforward -- I thought he would be a perfect start for my students.
The Old Man and the Sea became a staple in my tutoring kit. And then -- to play on Marilyn Hacker's poem, Nearly a Valediction -- he happened to me. Hemingway's work opened up in ways that I had never expected. Nothing like a little life experience to add depth to a work. I was reading this story multiple times a month with adults, people living the immigrant story in its current form. As part of the exercise, I would have the student paraphrase their understanding of the story. I found that I gained as much from their reading of Hemingway as I had from my own. Every one of them had empathy for the old man; they understood that he was trying for something, and failing, but the failure didn't keep him down. And then they saw that the story wasn't really about an old guy on a failed fishing expedition...something else was going on there.
We read aloud, shared the reading, back and forth in a natural pattern, according to breath and abilities. The sentences sprang to life; the world of the story opened up before us. Some students would share their own experiences; I learned a lot about fishing, and reading the water, and different ways of viewing strength: waning strength was held in balance by a lifetime of knowledge.
I keep coming back to this story, again and again, because of the beauty of its storyline: an old man, by dint of doing what he does, day after day, gains a particular knowledge of the sea and its inhabitants. The old man, made invisible by age, is left with just the young boy to see him beyond the measure of his daily catches. In those waters, in his quest for that marlin, the old man is in communion with that fish; it is this communion that changes everything. It isn't the villagers' story of bones on a beach, as the unlucky one hauls in a shark ravaged carcass that was beyond his ability to bring ashore intact. It's the story of a man who met his match, understood what was at stake in the exchange, and participated in full. It's that awareness of place, and seeing what's before you in the universe of possibilities, that makes the story one I remember. There is no dominion over, but an equal to, that gives the story its juice.
We become what we focus on day after day. What we give our attention to, where we spend our energy, counts. The old man was a fisherman, whether he was resting in his hut, or out at sea with nothing to show for a day's work. The writer in me loves this story. I can't tell you how many days I've spent writing, or thinking about writing -- circling the language -- with nothing to show for it. I've suffered some real losses along the way, but I can't think of a better way to spend a day than writing, or thinking about writing.