In Praise of Fiction

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While skirting the headlines of the local paper last week, I was delighted at a little gem tucked away at the bottom the front page. The article chronicled a London theater group’s attempts to determine if being exposed to Shakespeare would increase milk production in a herd of dairy cows. The Changeling Theatre Company performed scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor for Friesian cows at a Kent dairy farm.

“We selected scenes from the play we felt to be lyrical and relaxing,” said Rob Forknall, artistic director for the group.

Milk production was found to increase by four percent. It is believed that exposure to the Bard’s work relaxed the cows, therefore boosting milk production. I’ve never read Shakespeare to bovines, but I can vouch for the relaxation effect of a good piece of literature. Stories soothe the wild beast. And, um, the more placid, cud-chewing, lactating one (apparently).

When I was a girl, there were no books in my home. When money is tight and the library too far away, Dr. Seuss takes a backseat. There was no toddler lap time with eyes focused on colorful pages. No picture books with single words to jump start my reading skills. No sing-songy poems to capture my attention. No books. But there were plenty of stories.

At night when my mother tucked us in, she would always give us a bedtime story. Mostly, she offered well-known fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs—but sometimes she would spin her own. These were always the favorites. She was an animated storyteller—changing her voice with each character, giving sound effects where indicated. My brothers and sister and I would cocoon together in the dark, eyes wide with the wonder of pages of pictures turning in our heads.

That is where my love for story began. I learned to read with Dick and Jane in the first grade. But the decaying school I attended those first years of grammar school had no library. Still no books. Then, the summer before my third grade year, that old school building was condemned and the kids from our hollow were transferred. The first time I entered the library at Adamston Elementary, I was astounded. The walls were made of books and books and books and I had never seen anything like it. That library is where I found Nancy Drew, traveled to Narnia and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s where I first experienced A Wrinkle in Time and spied my first Little.

That library was a place for a shy girl from an impoverished family to find new friends. Reading opened up the world for me. I learned about other cultures and other ways of life while nestled in  a small country lane in West Virginia. It connected me to the world in ways that simply were not available to me at the time. Reading showed me possibility.

I have carried my love of a good story with me through the years. There are few things I enjoy more than spending a free afternoon  with a well-written novel. But a good story is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It is widely regarded that reading fiction helps develop imagination in young children (and probably adults … know anyone who can use some improving in this area?). Some maintain that reading novels is a more engaging way to improve vocabulary and thus improve scores on standardized tests. There is much documentation of the benefits of reading fiction for stress relief and improved mental health. Research by psychologist Raymond Mar found that fiction readers have better social skills and more empathy than those who purport to only read nonfiction. One study even suggests that reading fiction can change our personalities.

A well-crafted story reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the reason humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Stories help us make sense of the world and understand who we are. As researcher Keith Oatley says, … fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds. Anyone who has ever been swept into an imaginary world and emerged to find himself changed in some way understands this very well.

Reading fiction enriches the way we experience life. We are, after all, each writing our own story in the way we live our lives. As for me, I plan on bringing some Shakespeare along the next time my phobic son has an orthodontist appointment. I just won’t make it MacBeth.

This article first appeared in variation at The High Calling.

Summer is for Reading

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Summer is for reading. For as long as I can remember, this has been true. Falling into a good story makes deliciousness out of the longest of days, especially when it’s too hot to do much of anything else.

A couple weeks ago I asked my husband, “Why doesn’t it feel like summer?” He shrugged and I pondered. After much thought, I realized I hadn’t been reading much fiction. I resolved to change that, because, after all—for a grown-up—summer is a state of mind.

There are sooo many good books waiting for my hungry eyes to devour, but not just any book would do. To step fully into summer, one needs the kind of book that will feed the heart, sing into the spirit, and whisk you away to a different world. I asked my friend Kelli what she would recommend—because Kelli is one of those people who is always growing, always learning, and being with her makes me feel young and happy. She always knows the kind of things that will sing into my spirit. Do you have a friend like that?

Well, Kelli recommended not one, but four books! A four-book series called The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. “Are they good?” I asked. “They are so good,” she said, “that I can’t think about them without crying a little.”

Sold.

I was already familiar with Andrew Peterson’s music (thanks to Kelli and the Rabbit Room) and I knew I was in for a treat. Have you ever listened to Andrew Peterson’s music? It’s so lyrically rich and real. When we were going through the darkest parts of Jeff’s depression, this album in particular sustained me. And this song wrote deep things in my heart. If you aren’t familiar with his work, I can’t recommend it enough. Since I love his lyrics so much, I knew I would go gaga for his prose.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Wingfeather Saga is technically a series for kids—young readers who devour chapter books (you know the ones). But in my experience, I’ve found these books to be the best for instilling wonder into the grown-up heart. This saga is the story of a family—the Igibys—who are caught up in an epic tale of dragons and dark creatures and good verses evil. The Igibys include three children: Janner, Tink, and Leeli, and their mother and grandfather. They live in a land ruled by evil but in their hearts is a memory of a time when goodness dominated the land. This is the story of their journey to restore that goodness and of all the things they learn about themselves and the world along the way. It’s pure beauty. I couldn’t put the books down, turning page after page until (in disappointment) I finally finished the last book. And then I had to wait a while before starting to read something else, because the characters were still so alive in my mind. The characters had become my friends along the way and I began to miss them even before I read the last word. Does that happen to you too? I felt sad that my boys are too old to read through these books with them. I wanted to resurrect read aloud at bedtime. But they wouldn’t go for that.

Another fiction book I’ve read recently and loved is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I’m embarrassed to say it’s the first of his works that I’ve read. Gaiman came to the West Virginia Book Festival back in the fall and I was amazed at the response to his presence among my peoples. Who is this guy? I asked my nineteen-year-old son. He’s a guy, he said. You’re probably too old to understand. So when some folks in my writer’s group were raving about his stuff I asked, “If you were going to read just one of his books, which one would you recommend?” The Ocean was it. It was another page-turner. Gaiman’s prose is beautiful and graceful and he weaves a world that instantly drew me in. If you love stories with elements of fantasy while still remaining rooted in this reality (maybe I should say, the fantasy is so well-done if feels like reality), you’ll enjoy this book tremendously.

Currently, I’m reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m almost done with this book and the contrast between it and the above Gaiman selection has been an interesting thing to behold. Not many authors can effectively pull off long stretches of exposition and inner dialogue, but Berry is one. He paints a picture of small town America before, during, and immediately after the Great Depression that made me long for a simpler time. He manages to place ideas about farming and war and progress strategically into the characters’ stories in ways that made me think, and think hard. But also, his leisurely way of describing nature and human nature is a delight. A familiar to his lovely poetry (here’s my all-time favorite, and I share another favorite at the end of this post), I was expecting to fall in love with his prose. And I did. Wendell Berry’s writing is the full package.

Also on this stack you’ll see Gillian Marchenko’s Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. While this book is most definitely not fiction, I’ve been balancing out reading it in-between all the lovely stories described above. This is because it’s been a hard book for me to read. Marchenko describes living with Depression in such a real and heavy way that sometimes I find I’m holding my breath as I read. Our family is still recovering from the most recent episode of Depression and the pain of it remains close. If you’ve ever loved someone who has Depression, this book will help you understand what goes on in the mind and body of that person in new ways. This is a brave and much needed telling from the eyes of Depression.

I have another stack of other nonfiction books I’m reading this summer, but I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, remember this: Summer is for reading. What’s on your summer reading list?

The Best Black Friday Find: A Light Shining


Remember Michael Kent? That Dancing Priest who stole our hearts? He and his new bride, Sarah, are back. The Kent-Hugheses return to story in an adventure that kept me turning pages well into the night. A Light Shining: A Novel, the sequel to Dancing Priest by Glynn Young, was just released on ebook and Kindle today. The print version will be released in ten days. Perfect timing for that sweet holiday read to distract from all the stress of shopping and decorating and planning and bustle.
When they are not rescuing homeless children off the street, or combing obscure Italian villages for long lost family, Michael and Sarah are tangled up in a plot that is so malevolent, it will shake the world. In turns suspenseful and heartwarming, A Light Shining has all the qualities of those classic tales that stay with you for the long journey. These characters become friends and fellow sojourners…making their way into a reader’s heart and encouraging a deeper faith—one that has hands and feet. We all need such role models as Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes.
I don’t want to give away the plot, but I was hooked in the first few pages. Glynn Young’s masterfully developed characters and gift of story make this book hard to put down.
If you are partial to a good yarn, A Light Shining does not disappoint. And if you haven’t read Dancing Priest? You might want to start there. Nothing like a good book to ward off the chill of the cold season coming on.
Go ahead. Find a cozy. Read all day.  
You are going to want to.

Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs: Part X

I started this little story as I waited for Maureen Doallas’s  Neruda’s Memoirs: Poems. I had been so looking forward to the release of the book, had ordered it the second I heard it was available–and then was frustrated by what seemed like a terribly long delivery (it was only a few days, but felt much longer). It was very windy that week–I watched religiously for the mailman each day amidst flying little bits of this world–leaves, papers, my neighbor’s flag. As I waited, I entertained myself with the story of Amy Pinkleberry–a young divorcee who struggles with depression. Amy’s depression is characterized by auditory hallucinations–destructive voices that prevent her from finding the happiness she so longs for. Only one thing stops the voices…
This is part ten of the story. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for links to previous parts.  I hope to post a little each week. Enjoy!

Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs
“Do you want to move in with us?”
“Excuse me?”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and flashed her a crooked smile.
“It was Justine’s idea. She thought it might be a way we could help each other out. Right now, she is unable to do so much for Alice. Alice is alone so much these days. She adores you, Amy. We just thought…until you get back on your feet…and since you aren’t working right now…”
“That I would have nothing better to do?”
The watchers started laughing in her head and she put her fingers to her temples. The anger was their trademark and she fought hard to control her emotions. Oliver looked stunned.
“No, Amy. That’s not what I meant. Justine mentioned you are having some financial concerns. She said she thought you needed some healing time before going back to work full time. She only wants to help. And it would be invaluable help to us. Of course, we would pay you very well, I know we’re asking you to give up a lot…”
Amy stood up and grabbed the book off the table.
“I have to go.”
Oliver stood up beside her.
“Amy, please…”
She moved toward the door. He followed.
“At least let me walk you home, I feel so horrible. This didn’t go the way I planned…”
“I’m fine. I know my way home.”
He put his hand on her arm and she shrugged it off, whirling around to face him.
“Look, Oliver, I’m not for sale. Nor am I some kind of social project to entertain your family. I am a woman who is trying to put her life back together. This may be hard for you to believe, but at one time, I was quite successful. I’m very good at what I do. I just haven’t found the right opportunity, I just…”
She was shaking. He put his hand back on her arm.
“I know all this, Amy. Did you forget I’ve seen your vitae? I had never been more impressed by a candidate before you came into my office. Justine just thought you need some time…”

“I’m fine! Would you please tell Justine to mind her own business? I need a real job to pick up the pieces of my life, not some glorified babysitting position.”
She saw the words hit him and he flinched. Even as she said them, she knew she didn’t mean them. She had grown to love Justine and Alice. The hurtful words came from the watchers.
They stared at each other, her icy blue locked with his steel gray. Finally, he looked down.
“I guess there’s nothing more to say then.”
She cried on the short walk home, berating the voices in her head, berating herself.
“Why? Why did I say those things?”
She stumbled into her apartment and dropped onto the couch. She stared at the ceiling, tears leaking out the corners of her eyes leaving wet tracks down her cheeks.
“Why do I always ruin everything?”
She must have fallen asleep because the pounding came at 3 am to wake her.
“What?” she mumbled in her half sleep. She could hear someone pounding on the door. Really? Was someone pounding on her door at 3 am? She sat bolt upright. Fear seized her and she crept through the hallway to the front of the small living quarters. She peeked through the sidelight.
It was Oliver.
She flung the door open.
“Oliver, what in the world?”
“I’m sorry to come at this hour. I wouldn’t, you know I wouldn’t. It’s Justine. She’s had a seizure. She’s in terrible pain. She won’t let me take her to the hospital, Amy. She’s asking for you. And that damn book. I don’t know what to do. She’s in terrible pain…”
The panic and helplessness in his voice shed any remnant of sleep left in her body. She ran into the living room and grabbed Neruda’s Memoirs off the couch and flew back to him and out the door.
“Come on.”
She could hear her loud moans as soon as they walked through the door. She ran to her, clutching Neruda’s Memoirs tightly to her breast. Alice was at her grandmother’s side, face streaked and pinched.
“Alice, what are you doing out of bed?”
Oliver’s voice was filled with agony.
“Daddy? Daddy, please help her! I can’t help her, Daddy. I’ve tried everything.”
He went to her and wrapped his arms around her. Alice sobbed into his chest.
Amy cautiously approached the bedside. Justine’s body arched in pain and she cried out. Her whole body shook with sobs.
“Oh, God, make it stop! Oh, God, oh, God, oh God…”
Amy recognized a prayer in Justine’s pleas. She said nothing by way of greeting; just fell right into the words.
Trial Season
Only yesterday did earth redress
its layers of browned forgotten bloom
shedding its sheath for winter with the pace
of an old man making do with a gimp left leg…”
Justine turned empty eyes on Amy. She squinted in concentration, vacancy flickered.
“Amy?”
Amy leaned over the bed and grasped Justine’s hand.
“Yes, it’s me. I’m here, Justine. I’m here.”
A pain gripped the old woman and her back arched again in response to the violent conversation taking place in her body. She screamed.
“Oh, God. “
She searched Amy’s face, struggling to maintain recognition.
“Help me.”
Amy reached up and smoothed her friend’s brow. Over and over she caressed her face and hair.
“Shhhh. It’s ok. I’m here. I’m not leaving.”
“The words…”
Amy scrambled to open the book again.
Things happen.

Spring starts up
a widespread yellow operation

braced for the challenge,
armed with emerald swords…
She read on. She was vaguely conscious of Oliver and Alice shifting noiselessly on the  settee.  She paid no mind. Only read the words until Justine’s body was still and quiet. Finally giving in to the magic of poetry.
Related:

Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part I
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part II 
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part III
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part IV
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part V
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part VI
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part VII
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part VIII
Waiting on Neruda’s Memoirs, Part IX

Taking Care of Kittie: A Story

There he was again. That darn cat. And right underneath her birdfeeder too. The last of the bluebirds were just about to fledge. She felt a twinge of guilt but knew she couldn’t have it. The children had waited too long to see those baby bluebirds.

Kaitlyn had waited too long.

She grabbed the broom and ran out the back door.

Shoo! Shoo, you!

She waved the broom menacingly. He was gone in a flash, a streak of yellow through the neighbor’s fence and off to whereabouts unknown. But she knew he would be back. Just as he had been every morning for six weeks.

She stood for a moment, looking after him. He was a pretty cat.

Back inside, she trudged through the kitchen into the addition. To Kaitlyn’s room. At this rate she would never have the child ready for school on time.

She lingered in the doorway of her eldest child’s room, studying the beauty of the girl’s sleeping face. The dim morning light kissed her chubby cheeks and highlighted the blond hair cascading over her shoulders. It looks like a halo, she thought, and tried to stop her mind from going any further. But it was no use. The thought came before she could stop it: You can’t even tell from here, it whispered.

She shook Kaitlyn gently and planted a kiss on her forehead. The large eyes opened–blinked, but the covers remained motionless.

Time to get, sweetie, she said, as she leaned down and lifted the way the nurses had shown her.

When Kaitlyn was sitting in her arms she used her legs and hips to move the child’s lower extremities over the edge of the bed. She dropped her own legs onto the floor, squatted slightly with Kaitie still in her arms and shifted the girl’s weight cautiously off the bed into the wheelchair that sat ready and waiting.

She wheeled her daughter into the large bathroom. As she plaited the girl’s hair she chatted mindlessly about the coming school day.

Kaitlyn bobbed her head up and down excitedly.

After ten minutes she kissed her daughter on the top of the head and ran upstairs to get Joey started. Piggyback ride back down, bowl of rice crispies, and to Kaitie again. She’d let the baby sleep a little longer.

After wrestling her daughter into her clothes for the day, she grabbed the pop tarts and they headed out to the curb. She broke the sweet pastry into bite-sized pieces and fed them to the girl with one hand.

They had just finished the second pastry when the bus came around the turn and stopped in front of them with a low screech of brakes. The aide wheeled Kaitie’s chair onto the lift. As she rose up into the vehicle, the child smiled sweetly at her mother. Kiss blown into the air, caught with her eyes…those eyes that said everything.

She watched the bus drive up the street.

Away.

She turned and went back into the house. Joey was almost done eating when Caleb awakened. She sat with the two year old on her lap as his five year old brother talked baby talk to him with a full mouth.

Upstairs. Brush teeth. Pull the clothes on. Much easier this time. Only supervision is needed. She had some difficulty realizing his capabilities at first. Now she was so thankful for them.

Again, out on the curb, this time with attachment on hip. They both wave frantically to the small face in the window.

Life slows down now. On the floor with Caleb she feels young again. The tiredness leaves for a while. But when he sleeps she longs to as well. The laundry can wait. She cradles him in her arms…

Away…

******

She didn’t want to answer the telephone. But no one ever calls. So she knew.

Everything’s ok. She’s stabilized. Another Grand Mal seizure.

She placed the receiver down in its cradle. Brushed her hair and put on some mascara. Called her husband. Gently picked up the baby and tried to ensure his continued slumber. Drove like a bat out of hell to the Med Center.

Her insides were trembling as her daughter smiled sweetly up at her. She knew the day would come…

Away…

She squeezed Kaitie’s lifeless hand and tried not to cry. Caleb reached for his sister–unaware the girl would never embrace him.

Ki-tie, Kit-tie, he cried in his baby voice.

Daddy will come tonight. We’ll all be here. You’ll be home tomorrow.

****

Joey knew before she told him. Kaitie was always there to smile him off the bus.

Where Kit-tie? Caleb asked over and over.

She wanted to stay but knew it would be impossible. Caleb needed her still in the night. John stayed with their daughter instead. Katie loved having Daddy to herself. Even if it meant hospital food for dinner.

So hard, this being away from her child.

She cried herself to sleep that night, telling herself she should be used to this by now. But it never got any easier. And it felt so lonely in her bed without John there. When Caleb woke at two a.m. she let him fall asleep in his daddy’s spot just so it wouldn’t feel so cold.

****
They had cake after dinner to celebrate Katie’s homecoming. The girl smiled her happiness.  They were all right there; there in that moment. This happens so rarely, she thought, and laughed at the cake on Kaitlyn’s nose.

After they tucked the kids in they made love. She had missed him. Though she was tired she felt the belonging. And it was right. It felt like it did in the beginning. So far away…

****
It seemed like they always needed milk. As she reached for the gallon she vaguely tried to calculate how many they had already consumed this week. This is number four, I think. Kaitie loves milk. And Joey loves the chocolate milk. Caleb doesn’t care.

On the way to the register she made a sudden turn. She put the cat food in her cart without even thinking about it.

****
Are you feeding that nuisance?

Jill looked accusingly at the small plastic bowl she had just filled with cat food.

She made no reply.

That darn cat has been defecating in all of my landscape beds. They’re a mess! The smell is disgusting too. I’ve half a mind to call animal control.

The neighbor looked disapprovingly at her out of the corner of an eye.


I know, Jill, I know, she said wearily. But I’ve chased him away too many times. At least if I feed him he may not get my bluebirds. He’s a stubborn little guy.

Jill grunted, obviously unconvinced, and walked back into her own yard.

Her eyes threw daggers at her neighbors back. He was just a little kitty. What harm could he do?

****
I don’t like you feeding that cat.

John’s face was set.


What if one of the kids came upon him and he scratched them? He could have rabies and Lord knows what else. We don’t need him prowling around. Think of the mess we’d be in.

She tried to hide her disappointment at his lack of sympathy for the creature. But he was right. What if one of the children was to get scratched? Or even bitten? She felt foolish for creating the problem. She said nothing.

****

They all crowded around the window.

Here comes the last one!

She clapped her hands excitedly. Kaitie managed to rock back and forth in her chair a bit. Joey’s eyes were glued to the spot. Caleb was sucking his thumb intently.

He teetered on the edge of the doorway for a brief moment. Then a small blur of brilliant blue flew into a nearby tree. They let out a collective cheer. All five of their charges had not only survived, but had successfully fledged the nest.

Caleb pressed his hands and nose against the window, smearing the glass with syrupy sweetness. They all watched their last tenant fly away into the nearby meadow and disappear in the distance.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a yellow shadow. When she turned her full gaze on him he boldly returned her stare with feline eyes. After a moment he blinked his eyes knowingly. He was waiting for his breakfast.

****

Every day was much the same. She sent the kids away and spent the rest of the day holding her breath until they were all safely back together again. She hadn’t the time or the energy to think about herself. Was she happy? What did she want from life?

The other mothers at the school talked about their dissatisfaction with their husbands, different ways to clean their kitchen floors, and the sale on chicken at Kroger’s. How do you do it? They always asked. The same way you do, she wanted to scream. But that wasn’t true, was it? Instead she smiled and said very little.

But today she sat on the back deck and drank her coffee in the warmth of the autumn sunshine. How lovely it felt on her face, the rest of her body chilled by the frost in the air.

He was watching her watching him. Slowly he crept forward, never taking his eyes from her face. He sniffed around the carrier. It was new. Unsure, he sat beside it for a moment, looking up at her with those occasionally blinking eyes.

The surgeon said there would be some risk to the procedure. There was always a risk, it seemed. But if they could remove the mass from the base of Katie’s skull, the seizures may stop. The MRI’s did not reveal how involved the cervical spine was. The fear being that the child’s mobility may be further compromised.

How? She wondered. If Katie lost the movement in her neck and shoulders she would lose such a valuable means of communication. John was adamant that they go through with the surgery. But she was so frightened. She stared away at the distant hills. It was so far away over there.

A movement caught her eye.

He gingerly stepped inside to consume the bits of meat and food she had placed there. The bait.

Just as agile as her yellow ghost, she descended the stairs and in a flash had the door closed to the carrier. She was careful to carry it arms length so as not to feel his fear. She placed the hissing cat in the back of the van and ran upstairs to get Caleb. After placing the sleeping child in his car seat she ran back in the house briefly. The vet had told her to call before she came and he would be ready with the anesthesia.

****

They were all packed and ready to go. John had taken a week’s vacation. He would return with the younger two after the surgery. They didn’t want either Joey’s or Caleb’s schedules to get too off. She didn’t want Joey to miss a whole week of school. Kids fall behind so easily these days, she thought.

She would stay with Katie the whole time. There was no other way she could agree to the whole thing. The recovery would be arduous. The treatment team would fly their daughter by copter back to a local hospital for most of it. There would be hours of physical therapy and rehab. She knew it would be taxing for both of them. They had been through this so many times before. Katie bore it better. But she had to be there for her little girl. Katie needed her mother with her.

She walked around back to fill the dish before their departure. John had begrudgingly agreed to fill in during her absence.

Here, kitty, kitty, she called softly.

She smiled at his interest in her approach. He would never eat another of her birds. He moved a bit slower and more cautiously than before. The vet said the discomfort would only last a few days. She still felt sorry for betraying his trust. Now that he was neutered, she would only have to do so every couple years when the shots were due.

But she had to take care of him. He was her little kitty.

Besides, he needed her now.

**Inspired by a true story. Well, ok, two true stories. 🙂