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.
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?
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.
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.
This is a familiar story (though I’ve never told it before). I’m sure you have your own version. It’s a story about how one song comes to represent something big: young love, say, or new parenthood, or that one particular summer when the weather just couldn’t be believed.
It actually was summer, and, yes, the weather couldn’t be believed. The coolest Chicago summer in a decade. I’ve never liked hot weather, but I was heavily pregnant and extra grateful for lake breezes.
I’d emerged from the long, dark tunnel of infertility. I’d survived the euphoria and illness of the first trimester. I was cocooned in the mellow hormones of the third trimester.
I’m sure it wasn’t all mellow dreaminess, but that’s how I remember it. The worst was behind. The earthquake that is a first baby was still to come. My husband and I took long walks. Went for long drives. Ate out in all our favorite restaurants.
That summer we could hardly turn on the car radio without hearing the song “Yellow” by Coldplay. Perhaps it only happened once, but when I think of that summer this is what I remember: a nighttime drive down the length of Chicago’s lakefront, overhead the city lights like glittery stars, windows rolled down, a baby girl filling me up, and “Yellow” playing on the radio.
That song and my firstborn: they’ve been tangled up in my mind ever since.
Which is a good thing.
Now when I hear that song, I’m taken right back to a place and a feeling it’s important never to forget. I hear the song, and I remember all of the joy and love and hope that a mother feels when her baby is tucked up inside, still unknown.
It can be difficult (often impossible) to hold on to those feelings through sleepless nights, temper tantrums, sibling fights, meltdowns over homework … well, all the ordinary awfulness of day to day life.
And my own mother-failures are the most awful of all.
But the ordinary awfulness is a distraction. It’s not the real thing. It doesn’t tell us who we really are. It tries to obscure the truth of who our child is.
More and more, I’m convinced that good parenting is learning to coast through the awfulness without losing my grip on the truth.
And the truth is this: life is magical, motherhood is an indescribably good gift, and my child (yours too) is more precious and beautiful than even the nighttime sky.
That is the truth, and this song helps me remember.
Just in time for Mother’s Day: a gorgeous cover of “Yellow” by Renee and Jeremy:
When my life is in waiting mode, I sometimes wish I could go to bed and just sleep for a few months. Oblivion seems so much more appealing than the hard, day-to-day of waiting.
Waiting is painful, and it often feels pointless too. So much so, that I fantasize about hitting some kind of cosmic fast-forward button.
The firstborn feels it too. For weeks now she’s been murmuring the same refrain: “I wish that today was Christmas Eve!” From my grown-up perspective, I can clearly see that she, in her impatience, is wishing for the lesser. The not quite-as-good.
I always tell her, “No! You don’t want that. It would mean that Christmas is almost over.”
What I’m trying to say, but can never quite convince her of, is that Christmas will certainly come, so why wish away all of the good that happens in the meantime? The daily Advent calendar, the classroom parties, the cookie baking. It may not be what we’re waiting for, but it is good nonetheless. And Christmas will come. Speeding it up doesn’t make it any more of a sure thing.
Other times, waiting is less enjoyable. That’s when I fantasize about becoming a modern-day Rip Van Winkle. God, just wake me up when it’s all over. Wake me up when it gets good.
This is when age comes in handy. It’s good to no longer be eight years old. Because I can remember.
I can remember the painful waiting of our first few married years. All we wanted was to leave Texas and live in a big city. We had exciting dreams but felt painfully cramped by our current circumstances. An uninspiring white box of an apartment. The heat and humidity of a Texas river valley. The fact that we couldn’t go anywhere unless we started up the car.
Moving to Chicago was a dream fulfilled, and the magic of it never really wore off. I could still feel it even ten years later. There was our corner apartment in a converted jazz-age luxury hotel. Our windows were at tree-top height, and the views included the lake and the museum’s grand front lawn. There were the honey locust trees that gave every neighborhood street a golden canopy each October. There was a downtown skyline that glittered, and a lake that sometimes looked like a wind-swept arctic wilderness. And there was snow! But best of all, we could walk everywhere.
I could hardly step outside my door without being grateful that God had brought us to this place. I would often marvel to myself that this – this! – is what he’d had in mind all those years of our waiting. The friends. The church. The old, ivy-covered buildings. The bookstores like underground caves stuffed full of treasure. It was good, but it was made even better because we had longed for it before we ever even knew exactly where it could be found.
I remember these things and know that it is precisely the discomfort of waiting that urges us forward into the plans God has prepared for us. The people. The places. We long for them before we even know their names. But this is good and necessary. Because when the things of God are finally revealed in our lives … we recognize them. We know them. And we know exactly who to thank.
“Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.”