I don’t normally post on Saturdays, but today I feel compelled to do so because I have so much in my heart that simply cannot be contained. I was sitting in the waiting room at Mayo Clinic yesterday when my phone pinged with an Associated Press update. Usually I glance at these but don’t pay them much mind. But yesterday, the words on my screen caused my heart to plunge straight to my feet. The tagline read, “Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author, has died at 89.”
How is it that the passing of someone you’ve never met can have such a profound affect upon a person? I read the words, then read them a second time. I simply couldn’t believe them. When I finally gave myself a moment for the words to sink in, I wept — right there in the waiting room of the Mayo Clinic. Harper Lee, my superhero, was gone.
In the next several days, there will be countless tributes made to Ms. Lee, and all of them will certainly focus on the indelible mark she left on the hearts of so many. I don’t expect my words will be any more unique, but they are absolutely as heartfelt as those who knew her personally, and who will miss her daily presence.
I was “introduced” to Harper Lee in 8th Grade English when we were required to read To Kill a Mockingbird as a class assignment. At that age, I didn’t have the vocabulary to put into words what it was I felt upon reading her novel, but I knew I’d hit upon something very special. The ideas of not really understanding a person until you “walked around in his skin,” together with the themes of racism and understanding, were all new to me at the time; but the words struck a cord with me even then. Since that time, various themes and quotes have come back to me at odd moments as maturity and my own improved education have allowed me to understand the truly spectacular life lessons I had received.
As an avid reader, I’ve read literally thousands of books. I’m such a prolific reader that it’s not uncommon for me to purchase the same book twice — even three times — without realizing until I start reading and the story seems familiar. I read so much that I seldom remember the titles, often don’t remember the authors, and even less often remember the characters and plot. I read a book, enjoy it, then move on to the next. And I almost never re-read a book. There are just too many wonderful books in the world to waste time with something I’ve already read.
With one exception.
To Kill a Mockingbird.
For nearly 35 years, I’ve read and reread this beautiful novel at least once every year. At any given time, I have at least two copies in my house. One for me, and one to pass along to someone who has never read it. And every time I read it, I get something more out of it — something I missed the other 33, 34 or 35 times I’ve read it.
To say that the words of Harper Lee have defined who I am as an adult is absolutely not an understatement. In my every interaction with people, I think about the words of Atticus Finch when he tells his children, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” And it’s thinking about this statement that changed my world view. It’s caused me to pause — especially in moments of conflict — and wonder about the experiences the other person is bringing to the table. How does his/her experiences affect the conflict we’re having, and how does my reaction affect the outcome?
Harper Lee has made me hyperaware of the differences between my own culture and life experiences compared to those around me, and it’s made me more accepting of others and sensitive in my daily interactions.
Through Atticus Finch, Harper Lee taught me that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” No…I’m not taking about the literal killing of a mockingbird; rather, I’m referring to the implied sin of harming those who cannot protect themselves, or who have done nothing to find themselves the target of scorn. Harper Lee has taught me to be a fighter for the underdog. Like Atticus Finch, the “winning” isn’t as important as the action taken to actually do something to right a wrong. And, as I became a writer and author in my own right, there can be no doubt that much of what and how I write has a firm basis in the teachings of Harper Lee.
As a newly published author, it’s no accident that one of the characters in my book, The Edge of Nowhere, is named Atticus. It’s also no accident that my second novel, In My Shoes (represented by Tina Schwartz of The Purcell Agency), takes its direct themes from the lessons of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. As a writer, you write what you know; and you take lessons from your own heroes. Harper Lee has been my superhero for more than 30 years.
So today I bid goodbye to Harper Lee — a woman I never knew, and yet one who guided me to be the woman I am today. May she rest in peace with the knowledge that what she left behind will teach and guide readers for generations yet to come.
In closing, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not as profound as learning to understand people by “walking around in their skin,” but I’ve always wondered if this line was maybe an “Easter Egg” to readers from Ms. Lee herself. You see, I’ve always kinda hoped that a little bit of the real Harper Lee might be represented in her character, Scout Finch. I’ll never know for sure, but I’m never able to eat ham without giggling a little and wishing I could share little bit with Harper Lee. If I could, I would say to her (politely, of course), “Pass the damn ham, please.”