by Teri Blair
Years ago, I was given a reading list by my 11th grade English teacher. I was in the college prep class, and the list of 100 or so books were ones he wanted us to read before we graduated from high school. It wasn’t just his idea. He told us a committee of English professors had compiled it. These books were considered the bare-bones-minimum to have read before we darkened the first door of a collegiate hall. The list included all the classics. Most of us got to two or three of them. We instead invested our time cruising up and down Main Street in convertibles and drinking chocolate shakes at Hardees.
But I held onto the list. In the countless moves I have made since I graduated from high school in 1979, I never lost the list. I made several resolves through the years to read each and every book, and with every resolve I would read a few more. Finishing them before college changed to finishing them during my lifetime.
And then this summer, something happened. A fire was lit under me, and I can’t stop. I read O, Pioneers! (Willa Cather), The Crucible (Arthur Miller), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith). I read The Red Badge of Courage (Stephan Crane) and White Fang (Jack London). I have read twenty books from the list back-to-back — the intensity and desire to continue building with every book.
There is one that stood out for me. One I curiously have liked better than all the rest. Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. It is the story of Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk living in Peru. One day, the most famous bridge in the country suddenly (and without warning) collapses, killing five people. Brother Juniper is desperate to make sense of it, to understand why these five died. He researches the life story of each of the people, trying to find connecting links/clues/a rationale. He wants to know if the way we live our life really makes a difference or matters. He wants to know if a Divine Force is orchestrating events. Or even cares. The book is fabulously written, a real page-turner.
I finished the book about a week ago, ten days at the most. I finished it right before the funeral of my cousin Shawn, the one who died unexpectedly when his car overturned on a country road. I was thinking about it when we stood around his grave in silence. I kept thinking about it when I returned to Minneapolis. Why some are taken and others left. Why I am left.
And then on Wednesday, in my beloved city, the bridge went down. And Thornton’s book was no longer simply a great piece of literature. In the first hours of learning about the 35W bridge, I had the strangest sense that the book was coming true specifically for me. It was eerie and confusing and I wanted it to stop and not get that close. I did the only thing I could think of; I read the next book on my list: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Emily’s famous line, spoken from the grave, now rings in my head. “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?”
I crossed over the bridge six hours before it collapsed. The speed limit was only 40 mph, and I remember it clearly — the men with hardhats and orange vests, the traffic diverted to one side, the midday sun heating up the concrete. I replay the drive slow-motion in my head, understanding that at that moment the bridge was straining, barely able to maintain its load, almost ready to release. It was breathing its last breath. We didn’t know.
I have realized this week that I am not afraid of dying. I am afraid of never living. I am afraid of mindlessly grinding through years being half-conscious and blandly molded to the status quo. I am afraid of never realizing my life.
And so I walk slower. This one act is real. My connection to life.