Changing Lives through Literature in Action

The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.

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An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “
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                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”

Reading is Like Fishing…or Something Like That: An Introductory Blog

I’ve never been one to state how others should live or choose to enjoy their lives. I’ve never found anyone who does this to truly understand anything, to be perfectly honest. My thought on the subject, and on life for that matter, is relatively simple.

Step one: Seek out what you truly enjoy doing.
Step two: Do it.

Easy, right? Now I am going to complicate things here a bit. Stay with me.

I enjoy watching TV. When I’m in a lazy mood (which is more often than I’d like to admit) I don’t believe there is anything better than sitting on my couch or lying in bed watching bad TV. I can’t fault anyone for enjoying this, either. It is easy entertainment at its most discounted price. What is missing, however, is the sense of satisfaction. After sitting and watching TV for six hours, I receive no personal satisfaction because I put in absolutely no work and received the bare minimum amount of pleasure. This is where I’ll segue to fishing, I think.

This may make sense. Again, stay with me.

Some nights, I’ll lie in bed and set my alarm for four-thirty in the morning, promising myself that I will wake up and attempt to start the old engine on the back of my boat to putter out a mile or so into the pre-dawn Atlantic and drop a few lines into the water. “It’s worth it,” I’ll tell myself. “Just wake up and make yourself do it. It’s that easy.”

But it’s not easy. It takes effort.

In my half-asleep state, I feel that fateful time on my iPhone alarm clock ticking nearer and nearer until it’s ringing loudly into my ears. I open my eyes and squint into the darkness and stillness of the morning.  “I could just go back to sleep. I don’t have to get up. I don’t want to get up,” I tell myself. And sometimes, I don’t. But on some mornings, I work up enough strength to kick the covers off my feet and stand up out of bed. In a sleep-deprived haze, I walk across the wet grass in the moonless darkness and start my car.

When I get to the harbor, I still don’t see the moon or anyone on the street or even hear anyone on the radio. I get out of my car and re-stretch my legs. I take two, sometimes three trips to the dock and load all of my gear into the little leaky dingy and row feebly out to my 18-foot center console at the far edge of the harbor next to the white water lapping on the mossy breakwater boulders in the flood tide.

I start my engine once, putters, blows a plume of smoke, stalls out. I start it again; same thing but a bigger plume of smoke. On the third attempt, the engine shakes and rumbles and decides to stay running long enough for me to shift into gear. Finally, I’m off.

A few meandering gulls sleepwalk awkwardly out of the way of the fiberglass hull of my boat, parting the water, just barely showing the first glimpses of sunlight from the false dawn rising atop the dunes of the beach and the roofs of the beach houses.

As I near my supposed destination, I slow my little boat to a saunter just as the first glimpse of the sun shows its face. Then, I cut the engine; silence, but for a noisy tern circling, watching me, wondering what I’m doing. I prepare my rods and wait, either five minutes, an hour, three hours, all day…

For that moment, as I lean on the gunnels, rocking softly against the direction-less waves, hearing the water gurgle as it rises and falls through the scuppers, I’m happy that I woke up and dragged myself out of bed and trusted my old engine to get me to where I wanted to go. “I can’t believe I almost didn’t do this,” I think to myself. “I can’t believe I almost traded in this satisfaction of actually accomplishing something for a warm bed and a few cheap television shows.” The satisfaction of working hard to truly accomplish or understand something is more fulfilling than any creature comfort. I may even catch a fish.

When I find myself in the last few pages of a book, truly caring, understanding, feeling for characters that are completely fictionalized by some man or woman I don’t and will never know, I am granted this same, deep sense of satisfaction and self-awareness. I am grateful that I can feel this way, that if I invest enough work—be it physical or emotional—into what I’m doing, I can feel this way. For this reason, I am excited to become more involved in the Changing Lives through Literature program and blog. I feel that everyone should be able to experience this sense of satisfaction. I know that literature has the power to change and better even the most beat-down and hardened lives and I am ecstatic that I will be given the opportunity to witness and experience this first-hand.

I apologize for the lengthy preface to this introductory blog. So, let’s see. Let me start with some facts in no particular order.

My name is Billy Mitchell and I have never run a blog before.
I have a list of books I mean to read turning over in my mind that spans the number of books I have ever read and will probably ever read in my lifetime.
I enjoy beer and I enjoy a good book and a combination of the two could keep me satisfied forever.
My favorite author is very cliché, as is my favorite book, so I won’t get into that.
I read The Sun Also Rises in high school and thought to myself, “Wow what a happy book, I would love to be one of these characters.” I read it again a few years later and was shocked at how I could have been so naïve.
I was once assigned Tolstoy’s War and Peace to read for a class. I read and enjoyed the whole massive thing up until the last chapter where I stopped, and haven’t picked it up since. I’m not sure why I did that.
When I finish a book, I find myself dreaming about the characters more so than I do about real-life people. Sometimes I like to believe that the characters are real-life people, and convince myself so.
I still haven’t met Dean, or anyone who is mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.
I’m still beating on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly.
I tend to write like Hemingway when I’m drinking scotch, which is almost never, but I can wish, can’t I?
I’m not quite sure if this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I feel it’s somewhere in the middle and I can’t hate that prospect.
I’m no Ishmael and you can’t call me that.
I’m still not sure where my white whale is; I can’t remember the last time I saw him.
I hope to never go 84 days without a fish.
I enjoy fishing and the metaphorical symbolism that comes with it, and I feel it is the closest resemblance that anyone can experience to reading and understanding a truly great book.
Hemingway said “there is no friend as loyal as a good book.” I would tend to agree, unless you have a really great dog. But I hear Hemingway was a cat guy.

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So, readers of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog, I’ll leave you with this. Reading is like fishing, or something like that. In my heart, I recognize the ability of a good piece of literature to change the way that a person thinks about and perceives the world around them. And I think this is important for everyone to realize. No, I know it’s important. So never stop waking up early and putting in the work. Never let the temptation of what is easy or accessible or cheap overcome your need for your own personal satisfaction. I guess what I am trying to say, is this: Never stop fishing.