In Praise of Fiction

books-024

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

IMG_8463

IMG_8470

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?

Word Ablution

IMG_7393

The ablution of words continues. On my days off I sit with a stack of books and immerse. It’s a lovely way to avoid the laundry and thoughts of sending Teddy off to school in the fall. Would you like to know what’s in the stack right now? I’ve shared a bit in other posts, but here is what I’m currently baptizing my mind with:

  1. I’ve shared about how my thoughts are running wild as I re-read my old favorite Women Who Run With the Wolves. I’ve been stuck on the fifth task of Vasalisa the Wise this week. Perhaps I’ll write more about that later.
  2. The writing book I’m working through has inspired me to listen better. I’ve started Writing Down the Bones several times, but this time around I’m committed to finishing. I think, before, my faith was too narrow to appreciate Natalie’s Buddhist perspectives. But now, I love when Natalie talks about her Zen teachers/masters. I let these lessons speak to my Christian roots and am finding the shared soilbed encourages them to tendril deeper. Often, I get a little weepy with the desire that our Christian mindset would be so tender, so generous toward the earth and ourselves.
  3. While my running life is slowed, I’ve been enjoying walking some with Jeff. A timely read recommended by a friend, A Philosophy of Walking, has added to the enjoyment.
  4. Nothing makes me happier than a new children’s book to feed my hungry eyes. I found a lovely one while researching a children’s message to go with my sermon last week. Sidewalk Flowers is so beautiful, and tells the story of noticing life without any words at all. I like to sit with it and study the thoughtful images. I haven’t grown tired of the tender story yet. I adore it. I can’t wait to share it with the kindergarteners I will read aloud to next year.

IMG_5903

5.  A few years ago I purchased Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose after stumbling into one of Wallace Stevens’ poems that shook me up a bit. Ever the student, I ordered a reader’s guide by Eleanor Cook to go along with the weighty volume. But after a friend and poet I deeply respect commented that she has a “visceral reaction” (not in a good way) every time she sees the black cover of this book, I quietly shelved it, second-guessing my judgement, and went back to reading Wendell and Mary for a while. Here’s a word for beginning poetry readers: follow your heart where it leads you. I am learning so much about poetry from this duo.

For example, I kept coming across the word “trope” in the reader’s guide. Having never studied poetry, I didn’t know what this term meant. Eleanor Cook generously tells me, “A trope is a figure of speech in which meaning is turned or changed.” A metaphor is a type of trope. And Eleanor tells me, “It means ‘transport’ etymologically. Literally in modern Greece … you may actually ride on a bus called metaphora.” From Eleanor, I learned that in my favorite stanza of Stevens’ Le Monocle de Mon Oncle (The Monocle of My Uncle), stanza II, “wind” and “wet” and “wing” are “all common types of trope for song or poetry.” Isn’t that cool?

Eleanor says that “reading figures of speech by distinguishing tropes and schemes” is like “distinguishing birdsongs and birdcalls.” Well, anyone who knows me knows learning the language of the birds is something I rather enjoy. So this may be one reason I am drawn to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. He and Eleanor Cook are teaching me to pay closer attention to words.

  1. I always end my reading by praying the Psalms, reading once from my Bible and then again from Praying the Psalms, an old favorite that invites my heart to step onto the wide path of the Psalmist’s words.

There are more books and more lessons, but these I am dipping into every day. What are you reading?

 

Playdates with God: Sabbath Slowing

iphonephotos047_zpsd9c4d0d2-1_zpsea2be31a

I’ve been finding my play dates in books lately, letting summer storms and busy days rush over and past me unawares. For me, a good book has always been a way to savor time, something I am finding an urgent need to do these days. As we prepare Teddy to head off to school, I am alternately seized with nostalgia, excitement, and often fear. I have been praying through the Psalms this summer, finding comfort in the kinship of all those ups and downs.

Since I injured my foot, I’ve struggled to get back to running. If you’ve read my book, you know how my runs nourish me, open my eyes to beauty, and soothe my mind. It’s been slow healing, with a lot of ice and ibuprofen. In the mean time, I’ve traded the more vigorous pounding of the run for the gentler step of walking. The slower pace has been a treasured gift and I find I long for more hours in the day to simply walk—one more mile, one more country hollow, past one more barn. There is so much to see, so much beauty that we race past every day.

Knowing about my hungry eyes, a friend recommended the book A Philosophy of Walking to me not long ago and I have recently dipped into its pages. The author takes a look at the walking life of some of our most influential writers and philosophers, but also reflects on the value of walking as a way to slow so that we may see.

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.
But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour. Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints. Hurrying means doing several things at once, and quickly: this; then that; and then something else. Whey you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly-arranged drawer in which you have stuffed different things without any attempt at order.
Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone … ”~Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

Don’t I know that each moment is not absolutely equal? Haven’t I felt the way the kairos time—the holy time—slips into the regular ticking away of the chronos time? When the sun falls just so over the meadow, or my son looks into my eyes and sees me for once, or my husband reaches unthinkingly for my hand … these are the moments when the ticking of time becomes the steady dripping of a top on stone, the moments when time stands still.

According to Greek mythology, Kairos was the youngest son of the god Zeus. He is often portrayed as having wings on his feet, showing how quickly he rushes by. Ancient artwork also gives Kairos hair on his face but not on his head. This symbolizes that he must be grasped as he is approaching, because once he has passed, the opportunity is gone.”~Laura Boggess (that’s me!) in Playdates with God

The only way to grab the kairos moments is to always be open to them. Walking does this for me. As does running. And reading. These are ways to turn my entire being toward God, to listen with my whole self. Sabbath moments.

What works for you in this way?

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. Click on the button below to add your link. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.

Laura Boggess

Playdates with God: Why You Should Never Stop Reading Aloud to Your Kids

Bookdrive016CR2_zps7bdeb589

Bookdrive012CR2_zpsab0140fc

Bookdrive018CR2_zpsf8d3d2fa

“We exist to change the literary climate in West Virginia.”

Her name is Mary K. Bond and she is the executive director for Read Aloud West Virginia. She stood at the head of the table and looked each one of us in the eye. There were five of us sitting, five potential volunteers. Before we can go into a classroom and read to children, we have to complete this training.

“Seventy-three percent of our children do not read proficiently by fourth grade. And we know that fourth grade is a benchmark. From pre-K to fourth grade you are learning to read. But from fourth grade on, you are reading to learn.”

She went on to tell us that many children’s reading skills plateau at fourth grade. Poor readers are less likely to complete a high school education, she said. And this puts them at risk for things like substance abuse and teen pregnancy.

Mary K. told story after story of how her read aloud volunteers have changed lives. The one about the woman who, at her daughter’s high school graduation was approached by a girl she didn’t recognize. “Why would you,” the girl said, “When the last time you saw me I was in the first grade?”

The young woman thanked her and told her that she had sparked in her a love of reading that without, she probably wouldn’t have graduated high school. “When I saw you I realized that you are part of the reason I am here today.”

The one about the man who read Shakespeare to a classroom of inner city kids. The principal later told him that he heard one boy yell to another one on the playground, “Wherefore art thou?”

Change the literary climate.

It’s an audacious goal. West Virginia is the only state entirely in the Appalachian region. Our poverty rate is 17.6%, compared to a national average of 14.9%. We are below the national average in percentage of high school graduates and average household income. For many in our state, poverty is a way of life.

This makes a difference in the reading climate. Mary K. shared some information from the Study of Meaningful Differences. Two researchers studied families from different SES levels over a period of years. They discovered that there are significant differences in the total number of words heard by children from different SES backgrounds. By the age of four, children from professional families heard 45 million words. Children from working class families heard 26 million. And children from families whose income was below the poverty level heard only 13 million words. These differences are startling, and they appear as early as eighteen months.

A Stanford University study found that talking directly to toddlers strengthened their language skills. What better way to talk to a child than to read to him or her?

A University of Nevada twenty year study on increasing economic stability found that the number one thing that impacts this is increasing the number of books in a child’s home.

And don’t I know first hand the power of reading? When I contacted Mary K. about volunteering, I told her, “I’m one of those Appalachian kids whose life was changed by reading. If I can pass that on, that’s what I want to do.”

“When you go in the classroom to read,” Mary K. said, “You will change lives.”

I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been missing someone to read to for a while now. And I know I will be changed too.

I’m having two giveaways on my blog this week. Don’t forget to visit this post and this post for chances to win. 

Every Monday I’ll be sharing one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find Him. Be with Him. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us:

Laura Boggess