The gift of literacy

December 15, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

A Japanese legend tells the story of a shogun warrior whose favourite tea bowl broke into a half dozen pieces. After sending it out for repairs, the bowl was returned to him held together by metal staples. He could still use the bowl, but he was disappointed with the aesthetic. 

He wanted to restore the bowl to its original beauty, so he asked a craftsman to find a more ornate solution. The craftsman tempered the cracks with a resin infused with gold. 

When the bowl was repaired, there were streaks of gold running through it. The old bowl was preserved and told a new story. Kintsugi shows that there is something beautiful in imperfections and that these imperfections are something to celebrate, not hide. 

I’m hoping we can all work a little harder to make this holiday season feel like a new, more refreshing take on the old and tired holiday traditions. I understand that tradition plays an important role in our lives, but I feel like something has to give. 

Of course, it’s been a tough past couple of years: COVID is still with us; inflation is crushing us; there’s war in Ukraine; Doug Ford is still premier of Ontario. If there were ever a time to take comfort in tradition, perhaps it’s now. But ‘comfortable’ can also be dangerous. 

Comfortable can also keep us from moving forward, from taking risks and trying something new. Besides, when have the holidays ever been about comfort, peace and rest? Why does tradition have to come with so many expectations, pressures and anxieties? A lot of it has to do with the tradition of giving presents. 

For this reason, I propose we do things differently this gift giving season: instead of spending money on gifts that don’t add any real value to the recipient’s life, how about we replace those gift cards, candles, tea towels and socks with…words. Yup, that’s what I wrote. I’m suggesting we replace the gifts under the Christmas tree with words.

Let me explain: I love words. I teach them, I volunteer them. I collect words, study words. I think about words and feel words; I can even taste words. We all have words at our disposal, but how much thinking ever goes into the words we say and use? We throw words around like chump change. There is no real value in most of what we say to one another (like there is no real value in most of the holiday gifts we give to one another). In other words, we take words for granted — we shouldn’t. 

Statistics show that strong literacy skills result in higher earnings, a healthier mind and body, and a richer, more fulfilling life. When you give words to someone, you’re not just giving them something that they can use today. You’re giving them something that will keep on giving for the rest of their lives.

In her book ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’ Maryanne Woolf writes: “In much the way reading reflects the brain’s capacity for going beyond the original design of its structures, it also reflects the reader’s capacity to go beyond what is given by the text and the author. As your brain’s systems integrate all the visual, auditory, semantic, syntactic, and inferential information…you the reader, automatically begin to connect with your own thinking and personal insights.” 

Translation: reading is an intense workout for our brains. Reading improves memory and helps prevent dementia. Reading books (not texts and Facebook posts) promotes empathy and emotional intelligence, better mental health. Can you say that about a salad bowl? A purse? A scarf? 

This year, I’m hoping for a holiday filled with words and books. This Christmas I’ve asked for a notebook and some pens. My children will get plenty of books. As for you: Why not visit the library with your child, or another young family member and sign them up for their own library card? Visit Booklore and buy a book for a loved one. Or buy them a gift card and let them choose a book for themselves. How about a subscription to a magazine (every month the recipient will have something to look forward to)? Write a letter to a loved one, a friend. Copy out a poem and share it with a loved one. Better yet, write your own poem and share it with a loved one. Make a donation to a literacy organization on behalf of someone you know. 

There is hope in language. Ali Smith writes: “… one of the most exciting things about language, that grammar’s as bendy as a live green branch on a tree. Because if words are alive to us then meaning’s alive, and if grammar’s alive then the connection in it, rather than the division in us, will be energizing everything, one way or another.” Electrifying. If we can find new ways to tell old stories we can imagine a world that looks different from the one we live in today.

Spend less money this holiday, and spend more time thinking and feeling and sharing what truly matters. You don’t have to break all of your traditions; just smash a few of them into pieces, and then void with words and stories. You’ll come up with something new, exciting and hopeful. 

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