(an installment in my occasional series of book recommendations; this post contains affiliate links)
These are violent days. What good are books? Of what use is poetry?
In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet the poem itself complicates this view.
Poetry may or may not change a thing, but if we feel compelled to sing, why not sing, as Mary once sang, of justice?
If we feel compelled to read, why not shed the burden of our own particular skin and view the world through another’s eyes? For a little while?
Here is a poem for that.
Here is one more.
A favorite book on our family shelves is Brown Girl Dreaming, a recent Newbery Honor Book by Jacqueline Woodson. My twelve-year-old daughter and I both loved it. The poetry is accessible but incredibly rich.
In a similar vein, I recommend Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. Written in verse, this story communicates difficult truths and complicated historical experiences with grace and lyricism. It is one of the sweetest, saddest, loveliest books I have read.
When I was a new graduate student living on the south side of Chicago, I first read the classic 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was years ago, and I don’t remember the book very well. What I do remember is the shock I felt reading a novel told from the perspective of a nameless black man. For the first time in my life I recognized how the skin we walk around in can remake the world around us. I had never even imagined a world like the one inhabited by this invisible man, but there it was, and while I read the book, I lived in it.
Like most summers, this one is too loud, too crowded, too hot. But, as I write in Roots and Sky, this cuts two ways. There are also too many lilies in the garden and too many squash on the vine. My way of dealing with the too-muchness of it all is what I call “comfort-reading.” This means I am finding most of my reading material on the shelf at my local Goodwill thrift store: fifty cent Agatha Christie paperbacks, an old Martha Stewart gardening book without its carefully photographed jacket, an Englishman’s memoir of life in Provence that must have been on everyone’s beach-read list the summer of ’89.
I revisited the Goodwill bookshelves only yesterday and found two treasures. The first was a copy of The Taize Picture Bible: Stories From the Scriptures in almost perfect, vintage condition. I have heard such good things about this illustrated Bible for children over the years, but it has long been out of print. I paid $1.97 and couldn’t believe my luck.
The second was a pristine paperback copy of Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer, the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal. I didn’t buy it only because I recently found a vintage hardback of the same title at my local used bookstore. It has been our evening family read-aloud for a week now.
My ongoing quest to discover read-aloud books all four of my kids will submit to listening to (actually enjoying the book is a higher standard; I am satisfied if two of four children say they “like” the book) has recently met with failure upon failure. The last success I remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book that has a lot in common with Thimble Summer.
On the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. After my friend explained it was a book about an old house written by a landscape historian, she said, “I think you’ll like it.” I said, “I think you’re right.”
More factual and straightforward than a historical novel, yet much more readable and compelling than a history textbook, The Manor tells the story of one of the first great European houses in North America, and the family who lived in it and preserved its history for centuries. One house might not seem so important, but the door of this house opens up a story of northern slavery that has since been either forgotten or willfully ignored.
The first Sylvesters were Quakers, and the story of their lives is revising a story I have always taken pride in. My own farmhouse was built by Quakers, and I have long given credit for the beauty of this part of Pennsylvania to the generations of residents who have sown peace and justice into the very soil of this place. That story is still true, but The Manor tells an older, darker tale. According to this story, the blood of enslaved Africans touches every aspect of our earliest history and every one of my seemingly peaceful, green hills.
Seeds of brutality and injustice were sown into our country’s soil from its earliest days. It is a small thing to know that the atrocities of slavery on sugar plantations in Barbados could not have been sustained without the animals and crops raised on New England farms, yet somehow that knowledge has brought the shame of slavery home to my own heart.
Those Barbadian plantation owners lived in homes built like fortresses. They exploited, in fact, they brutalized their workers and so they feared them.
Slavery is long gone, but we still reap that terrible harvest. We worship safety. We are afraid of black men, but it is the black men, and their communities, who pay the price for our fear.
When I hear that one more police officer has killed one more black man, I cannot throw a stone at that officer. I remember how, years ago, fear would rise up in me if I followed the sidewalk beneath a graffiti-splattered viaduct and saw a young black man in baggy pants approaching from the other direction. It took years of living in that south-side Chicago neighborhood to learn that I was always so much safer than any of those young black men. In ten years, I was never the victim of a crime, but neighbor after neighbor, innocent after innocent, male and female but always black-skinned, died of gun violence while I lived, untouched, in their midst.
Separation breeds fear, and fear breeds violence.
But if violence is a failure of the imagination, as the poet William Stafford said, then perhaps poetry can make something happen?
Comfort-reading has its place, but I must also read to bring dark things into the light. Especially, those dark things in my own self.
What if we tuned our imaginations to the songs of others not like ourselves?
If poetry makes beauty and creates hope, can it also help us to act justly and love mercy?
Can it help us walk humbly with our God?
With these questions in mind, do you have any book recommendations for me?
If you are looking for a quick Saturday read, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “What Hospitality Looks Like In A Castle.”
In our home, Friday night is for pizza. I imagine that is true for many of you as well.
For ten years, we lived in pizza heaven (also known as Chicago.) Late on Friday afternoon, we would decide which neighborhood pizza place was calling our name.
Within a few blocks of our apartment we had two long-time pizza restaurants that served traditional, deep-dish Chicago pizza. I still dream about that spinach pizza pie. One slice would make you grab your belly and groan. Every once in a while my husband managed two.
There was also the little Italian restaurant on 53rd Street with its gourmet, thin-crust pizzas. We loved a version with thinly sliced potatoes and fresh rosemary, but I made the mistake of eating it early in my pregnancy with my firstborn. It was years before I could eat that pizza without remembering first-trimester suffering. Every few months, my husband would ask, plaintively, “How do you feel about potato pizza?”
Toward the end of our decade in the city, a new “bake-at-home” takeout place opened up. It was a little more affordable than the other options, and the ingredients were incredibly fresh. Baby spinach, large leaves of basil, golden, caramelized shallots, rich, briny olives … I think we tried a new combination every Friday night.
Then we moved to Florida.
In Jacksonville, we sampled every pizza place in a 15-miles radius before accepting that things had changed. We’ve been making our own pizza ever since.
Our homemade pizza is cheap, quick, easy, and, oh my goodness, is it delicious. It may not be Chicago deep dish, but it is good.
I’m sharing a story of homemade pizza, practical hospitality, and prayer over at Grace Table today. I am also sharing our recipe.
Won’t you join me?
It must have happened eight or nine years ago. One particular day about midway through the decade we spent in that southside Chicago neighborhood.
I know this because my firstborn will soon turn eleven, but that day her stout little legs just managed to reach the sidewalk. We were sitting with my husband and a friend on the front steps of our apartment building.
Our little girl hopped up and ran a short burst down the sidewalk, and I heard him. Our friend. He had his eyes on our daughter when he whispered to my husband,
She isn’t afraid of me.
And I heard his surprise and his pleasure.
Our friend was black, and I wish I could say that I didn’t understand his words. That it took me a moment to grasp what he had said. But I understood instantly, and instantly I was ashamed. Ashamed that what should have been a given, a starting point, was, instead, a gift.
It would be simpler if I could say that our friend did not deserve fear and end my story there. If I could outline in a few easy words the injustice of a culture that perpetuates the association between black men and danger. Because it is deeply unjust.
I could remind you that he was our friend. I could tell you that he wrote poetry and loved his children, and we could share the satisfaction of our outrage.
But the full story is more complicated.
Yes, he was our friend, but he was unemployed. He was sometimes homeless. He was a recovering drug addict, and he had only recently been released from prison.
And now when I tell you that he used to hang out with my husband in the living room while in the kitchen my daughter and I filled a bag with food for his children, you might wonder if we should have been afraid.
When I am feeling especially desperate I tend to pray this: Jesus, where are you?
I pray these words as if I don’t know the answer, but today I am remembering the answer he has already given. In Matthew 25 he tells us where to look.
If you are seeking Christ look for the one who is hungry. The one who is thirsty. Listen for the stranger knocking at your door. Watch for the criminal, the one who is or has been in prison.
In other words, searching for Christ is anything but safe.
Our king has aligned himself with the suffering, and suffering is messy. Wounded people can be explosive and ugly in their anger and in their pain.
They might say hurtful things.
They might even throw Molotov cocktails.
My Pennsylvania neighborhood is peaceful and green. I am sure Jesus meets with me here. I am convinced he makes a home with us even on ordinary, suburban streets.
But I am sensing an invitation to travel somewhere else. To a place where suffering is no longer polite and hidden but erupting in deeply messy ways. Perhaps it is only a figurative journey, a journey I will make in my thoughts and prayers and in my storytelling, yet I still hesitate.
I hear Jesus speaking the words he once spoke to Thomas. I hear him saying Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.
I always imagined it to be a straightforward request. Reach out. Touch. Now I see that in reaching out we might be carried farther than we ever intended. Our reaching might draw us right out of our circles of peaceful green and on toward wounded people in troubled places.
Not because we have solutions. Not because we know what to do. Or even what to say.
Only because we are following a wounded Lord. And we want to be where he is.
The cherry trees behind our house may be old, but they are scattering yellow leaves like overeager flower girls before a wedding.
It isn’t time yet, I whisper.
But it is time. No matter what the calendar says, it is time. I know because I have seen this once before. On August first, we began our second year at Maplehurst, and this, yellow leaves on green grass, is the first return.
The first year is a surprise. The second is a return.
She is eleven months going on all-grown-up, and I have unpacked some of her older sister’s clothes. Here is the white dress Lily wore in her one-year-old portrait. Here is the rainbow-striped sunhat she wore our first summer in our 48th Street condo.
We no longer live in that city, though it was the first place that ever felt like home to me.
My first baby girl is also lost (replaced by a nearly-ten-year-old whose legs look impossibly long in their roller skates). Of course, she returns in memory, she returns in the soft curve of her baby sister’s chin, and, who knows, maybe she’ll show up again when I unpack this dress for a grandbaby someday.
Nothing good is ever truly lost (which is another way of saying that all is being made new).
Today, I reread my journal. I remember the wandering years. Those drought years when the smoke of Florida wildfires was like a pillar of cloud. Back then, I wrote down the words of Zechariah.
Though I scatter them among the peoples, yet in distant lands they will remember me. They and their children will … return. I will bring them back.
Moving to this place one year ago felt like this return. Once again, we would know the rush of four seasons, the familiarity of a good friend’s face, the comforting rightness of the words this is my home. All this while watching another baby girl grow.
But return is not a one-time thing.
One year in, and I know that life with God is all about return. I am returned. And every day I am returning.
The prophet’s words tell the story of my life. Of my rescue. They also tell the story of the world:
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence (Hosea 6:1-2).
We die so many deaths, but we are never lost. The son of God gives himself up but is returned to us on the third day. And every day this world is made new.
If creation sings, then those are the words to her song. It is a song about birth. It is a song about coming home. It is the song of our God and our world.
I have seen these yellow cherry leaves before, yet I have never seen them before.
They have returned. They are new.
At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.
Are you visiting from Deidra’s place today? You are welcome here.
I’m an English PhD who recently traded the university classroom
for an old farmhouse and a writing desk.
I write about motherhood, I write about Jesus, I write about books.
I write to remember that life is magical.
We all have questions. We each have stories to share. We need safe places to ask those questions, to tell those stories. When it comes to experiences of race those safe places can seem rare. Perhaps nonexistent.
I am grateful to be sharing this story at Jumping Tandem. I am grateful that Deidra Riggs has created a safe place.
I am an introvert, and I am white.
I grew up in a technically desegregated, too-often-still segregated south, and whiteness eased my way.
It was my camouflage. My cloak of invisibility. It meant I never stood out in a crowd. Never felt all eyes on me. I was just part of the scenery, and I took the easiness of that for granted.
Until the day I stood in line for a new driver’s license.
You can read the rest of this story here.
Will you take the time to leave me a comment while you’re there? I’d love to hear your thoughts, your questions, your stories.
I’ve been thinking about my Summer List.
This once-favorite tradition hasn’t traveled well. I started writing Summer Lists in Chicago. At first, they were just for me, but my oldest child did contribute an item or two in recent years.
A Summer List is exactly what it sounds like: a list of activities and experiences you want to do and have before September arrives. It might sound sentimental and overly precious, but my Chicago Summer Lists were deadly serious things.
Having endured months of bitter cold and forced hibernation, I often felt a little stressed at the beginning of Chicago’s second season (you know, don’t you, that Chicago is called the Second City because it has two newspapers, two baseball teams, and two seasons? You don’t need me to tell you what those seasons are, do you?). A Chicago summer offers so much goodness, I actually worried about fitting it all in.
What if Labor Day arrived and I hadn’t seen a film on the grass in Grant Park? What if the wind turned cold, and I hadn’t yet eaten apricots and just-made goat cheese on a blanket at the Green City Market? What if busyness or laziness kept me from packing up the kids and the snacks and listening to music under the stars at Millennium Park? What if we said “yes” to too many weekend birthday parties and forgot to leave time for blueberry picking in Michigan City?
Thus, the Summer List.
Those lists helped me to make the most of a glorious but, ultimately, fleeting season. It felt like an antidote for the to-do lists that kept me rushing and preoccupied the other nine months of the year.
The problem with a Florida Summer List is that the season is not fleeting. I’ve discovered that this part of our country also has two seasons: hot and not so hot. Everything I could think of to write on my list today caused me to think, “Well, but I’d rather do that when it’s not so hot.”
Beach? I prefer to collect seashells in February sunshine. Pool? Yes, of course, but we’ve been swimming since March, and I’m already a little tired of wet swimsuits. The zoo? It was beautiful in January. Disney? Not if you paid me. Too many tourists this time of year. And did I mention the heat? Maybe fruit picking? Beau’s two favorite episodes of Caillou are the one in which Caillou picks strawberries and the one in which Caillous picks apples (which makes me very, very happy). Oh, but Florida’s strawberry season ended months ago.
So many people love Florida because the joys of summer last for most of the year. And even I can’t complain about weather like this. After all, I enjoyed those grilled pizzas in January. But what do I make of summer now? Is there anything special about June, July, and August when our activities and experiences are mostly the same? What is summer, anyway? A date? A point of view?
For now, I’m focusing on the one thing I have in abundance only during these months: time. I’m not teaching, baby girl isn’t due to arrive until the end of September, my two oldest are out of school, even the two-days-a-week preschool is on summer break. We have time.
We’ll get bored. We’ll get hot. No doubt, tempers will flare. But, unlike summer itself, these hours will never come around again. Once crossed off the list, they’re gone for good. I do not know what they’re for or why they’ve been given, but I’m glad that, for now, they’re still mine to anticipate. Each hour listed neatly on pristine paper.
Edited and reposted from the archive.