Small graces on a fall morning

Sunlight slices through the night,
washing the world in color.
I rise, grateful
for earl grey tea in my cup
lavender swirled in
each inhale,
another chance to get it right
or rather, live gently —
to soften my heart where it’s been hardened
toward others (and myself).

Cold nips the air,
dew drops deck blades of grass,
yellow and purple mums brighten porches,
leaves shift their outfits for the season,
a reminder that change often seems slow
until one day you arrive,
bursting with beauty.

The promise that those same leaves will fall,
carpet the yard in red and brown,
become fuel for a backyard bonfire,
smoke curling in the sky
while we sip hot cider
and embrace its warmth.

The last dandelion puff,
placed in my hands by
a child who knows how his mama trusts
dreams and prayers…
in every ending and beginning
shining on the horizon,
bathing us in hope.

This list of “small graces” was inspired by this reflection.

My body, a wonder

She used to race, Nikes flashing across worn asphalt, Lakefront wind slicing against her, heart pounding, flying free.

She swam, limbs threading Lake Michigan’s rough, cool waters, gulping air, rocketing herself forward, weightless. Back then, she measured her worth with numbers: pounds, pace, calories. Afraid of everything and nothing.

She once saved two men from drowning.

Nearly drowned herself in tears when she labored for hours, failing to deliver, landing in the OR, waiting with bated breath for her baby’s first whimper. For 20 months, she nourished his small body with her breasts.

Sometimes, I am astonished by her power.

Other times I’ve felt trapped by her, my body: too flat-too heavy-too blotchy-too lumpy. Wished I could shed her like a second skin, my body. The times she’s attracted honks, heckles, stares, touch without permission? Wished she wasn’t so dangerous, my body.

But there was also this: her standing in the dusty infield, mit held high, mit finding the ball again and again and whipping it through the air to the tune of cheers. “You’re out!”

She traded her cleats for tap shoes, dancing across the stage, singing and smiling. Oh how she danced — once at a swanky, smoky club in Madrid with seven levels, dressed in blue jeans, black top, very American, eyes laughing. She was thirsty for pleasure, and drank of it joyfully.

Shape-shifter, she’s spun and curved and stretched her limbs on the mat into a dog, a crow, a cobra.

She’s softer than she was last spring. New creases and curves grace her form, stubborn weight sits at her once taut middle.

Yesterday morning I took her for a walk in the neighborhood. The sun was out, and whirligigs sprinkled down from the Maple trees, twirling lazily in the sunshine, scattering across the pavement like confetti. She can twirl too, this soft, strong, aging body of mine. She still runs on occasion — mostly after her son. She is still afraid of everything and nothing.

She isn’t done changing. Not even close.

I wonder, what will she do next?

God only knows (a sonnet)

Where can we get a baby?
my son asks, his blue eyes piercing
in the morning’s heel.
It’s far too early to navigate this task.
Oh Jesus, where are you? Please take the wheel!

He wants a brother — he’s an only child.
Stalling, I tell the tale he loves to hear,
You once lived in my tummy —
isn’t that wild?
He nods and smiles at me, his joy sincere.

A baby is a miracle divine:
from clay the Artist sculpts a newborn soul
with aptitude to love, create, refine.
How wonderful the sight is to behold!
My thoughts don’t make it to my child today;
instead I say, It’s a mystery. Go play!

Advice to myself at the close of a pandemic

tulips

Be gentle
with yourself.
Listen closely
to your heart
to the robins’ chirping
to neighbors, far and near.
Speak slowly,
and with intention.

Breathe in the aching beauty
of this strange world — open
restaurants, churches, playgrounds,
children’s laughter sailing in the breeze,
your son hugging his grandparents,
exhaling without fear of harming them.

(You can cry — it’s healthy to cry.)

Unmask your trauma:
name each wound, each loss,
and cradle it close
apply the salve of time
and progress. Remember healing
is rarely linear, rather, it unfolds
mysteriously.

Make plans but hold them loosely.
Let time stretch out before you like
a rolling wave. Savor it.

Stay humble,
and cultivate kindness.
Keep disrupting hate
in all its ugly manifestations
search your heart
call it out
call your reps
send a call up to your Creator.

Keep tending to simple pleasures —
yellow tulips on your table,
mint chip in a sugar cone
from the corner creamery,
a lazy morning snuggling in bed with them,
new library books to devour —
relish their sweetness.

Move at your pace;
don’t let the rush
of hustle lure you
into the race again.

The truth? There is no race.
But there is one sun
around which we all orbit
searching for meaning
and love, and
aren’t you glad you made it this far?
Can you feel the thrill of spring rising?

Dare to dream again
make it bold
make it juicy
make it lavish with hope.
This is your
“one wild and precious life”
said the poet.
Now what will you do with it?


// inspired by Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to myself”; final quotation from Mary Oliver.

At home together (a tiny love story)

photo: Rachel Liv Photography

I.

The first notable thing about Jay was his hair: shockingly blonde and spiky.

The second: He was late to class on day one, strolling in during introductions. The only open seat was next to me, so he took it. His very presence shifted the air from stale to charged.

On our first date, we talked for hours about school, Greek life and growing up. He was my foil: analytical, relaxed, naturally gifted. Yet we worked. Being together felt like home.

II.

I spent the following semester in Cambridge, England. When a classmate’s boyfriend booked a flight to visit over Thanksgiving, Jay did too. 

Under the glow of fluorescent lights, I scanned the crowd at Heathrow Airport. Jay’s hair caught my eye first: blonde spikes gliding across arrivals. When he saw me, his gait quickened. He dropped his backpack and wrapped me in an embrace. A stream of travelers flowed around us, rushing to their destinations, but us? We’d arrived. 

We saw several sights that week. Yet the memory that stays is Heathrow — his hands around my waist, my head against his chest. Being held. 

III.

We are eight years married, with a home in Chicago. Over this pandemic, we’ve spent most of our time here with our son Jack, a preschooler. 

Recently, Jay left for his first work trip in nearly a year. Without him, these walls feel hollow.

One night over video chat, Jay reads Jack I’ll Love You Forever. After Jay closes the book, Jack circles his arms around the phone. Jay “hugs” him back, blowing kisses.

What is home? Not a place, but a feeling inside. It’s the joy that he brings when we’re wrapped in his love.

image: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this post as part of a Blog Hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in the “280 words” series.

He is four

at four

He is brightness and joy,
the glow of the warm sun
rupturing cloud cover.

He is the boom-boom-pop of fireworks,
the roar of the mighty lion,
laughter rising from my belly.

He is crisp apple slices
and ooey gooey cheese pizza,
chocolate chip cookies fresh outta the oven.

He is “Follow me!”
“Come to me, Mommy!”
and “Just one more story?”

He is Hot Wheels races,
Magna-Tiles with Daddy,
our brave superhero.

He is not what they say boys are: hard.
He is sweet and strong,
wild and tender.

He is the leap of faith,
the spark of curiosity,
“Who is God?” and “Where is Jesus?”

He is scaling a sand dune,
chasing the tide,
pointing me to beauty.

He is the bubble bath, the fuzzy robe,
the last kiss before lights out.

He is not the seeker nor the one who hides but
the feeling of being found.

He is a prayer
and its answer.

// Celebrating my son, who turned 4 at the end of January.

Miracles in the year of pandemic

// Spring //

They said we were experiencing a pandemic. They said that we’d be under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. They said “don’t be afraid” but people were hoarding toilet paper and Lysol and it all seemed very apocalyptic, like a scene from Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.

My husband tracked rising case numbers in an excel spreadsheet, while I coped by doom-scrolling doing downward dogs in the living room. Sleep came in fits and starts, and my appetite diminished. News of the coronavirus consumed us.

Yet, alongside my looping worry of “Would we be okay?” a peculiar thought arose: this sudden pause made me happy. I even declared to our preschooler that we were on a “staycation.” (Ha! An older, wiser Erin is shaking her head.) Five days a week, since he turned three months old, life was: rush out the door to daycare, rush from work to daycare pick up, rush through dinner to playtime, rush through bath time to bedtime. Rush. Rush. Rush. Rush.

I’d longed to be the kind of mom who was present and unhurried. 

In the year of pandemic, we could linger in bed on a Tuesday morning and discuss our dreams. Stay in our pajamas. Savor juicy blueberry pancakes and the view outside our bay window. Beyond the glass is a tree I never used to notice — red pinpricks fleck its branches in early spring before becoming pale green buds that unfurl into cream-colored blossoms.

My son Jack blossomed, too. He’d begun counting and recognizing letters. Snuggled under his comforter, he told epic bedtime tales of imaginary treasure hunts, races and rescue missions. Jack traded his red balance bike for an orange “big boy bike” with training wheels. He adored dancing. Together we’d twirl around the living room, accompanied by “Into the Unknown” and other songs from the Frozen 2 soundtrack. 

I witnessed it all. Miracle.

// Summer //

People picked up a plethora of pandemic pastimes: baking bread, cross stitch, watching Tiger King. (Remember that?!)

I started walking.

First as a means of self-care, an activity my therapist suggested I try to manage my anxiety. In the beginning, I took short bouts around the block with my dog Gus, usually over lunch or after dinner.

As the days warmed and lengthened, I began leaving Gus behind to explore the trail that edges our neighborhood. (A pug, he can’t handle much heat or distance.) I wanted to know where the path ended, and if I had the stamina to reach it. I wanted to see how far my legs could carry me.

The habit gelled. I came to crave the rhythm of my soles touching ground, my breath rising and falling, an inner stillness earned in the midst of motion. The kaleidoscope of wildflowers skirting the path, Northwest Chicago’s deer gracing me with their presence, other walkers on the trail. Open sky, open path, open heart. Walking became a form of prayer.

One summer night, reeling from the news, I walked and walked until I finally reached the path’s end. An OnBeing episode featuring author Jason Reynolds flooded my earbuds as I stood and surveyed a nearby baseball field. That dusty, empty field looked like it had been deprived of care for ages.

Black Lives Matter protests had erupted across the country and world after a white police officer suffocated George Floyd by pressing his knee on George’s neck for eight minutes and 15 seconds. George, a Black man, cried out for air, cried out for his mother, but was shown no mercy. Even typing this now I want to wretch.

Jason said, “Black folks have a right to have a conscious rage. … If you are a Black person who is conscious in America, then you are basically living in a state of anger.” His words washed over me as I stood outside that crappy baseball field and wept for our broken country. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist cries. I cry too.

My feet drug as I trudged toward home. I had miles to walk and little drive to keep going. Up ahead, I spied a cloud of insects shimmering in the sunset. I veered off the path to investigate.

Ah, dragonflies! I couldn’t help but smile. I marveled at their circular dance and brilliant shine, even catching the eye of a fellow pilgrim on the path who’d stopped to watch. We shook our heads together in wonder.

In a chapter of Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist offers a meditation on the Celtic concept of “thin places.” A thin place is where the sacred and ordinary intersect, where the line between heaven and earth blurs. She wrote, “When we find a thin place, anytime, anywhere, we should live differently in the face of it, because if we don’t we miss some of the best moments that life with God has to offer us.”

It was a miraculous and biblical thing, those dragonflies soaring in the sun, lifting my heart, reminding me of God’s goodness. A thin place. A salient sign of beauty amid brokenness.

// Winter //

I was having a down day, one of those days when you move through life’s motions as if you’re a zombie. I needed a nap, and maybe some Advil for my throbbing headache. During December, it feels near sacrilegious to admit you’re hurting. But I was hurting. 

Christmas had come and gone, a quiet day mixed with joy and grief. We rejoiced over Jack’s delight as he opened presents. We grieved memories missed with extended family due to the pandemic. I’d just turned 35, a bittersweet day during which I reflected on two unrealized dreams: I longed for another baby. I longed for a book deal. Achieving both was taking much more time than I’d expected, and it felt as if both dreams might slip out of reach. If we ever conceived again, I’d have a “geriatric” pregnancy. And the writing workshop I did earlier that month, the one I hoped would advance my work in progress, had deflated my confidence as a writer. I felt lost. 

On that down day, I bundled up in my heavy coat and returned to the trail I’d grown to love. Clumps of snow and ice had infiltrated the barren forest, and the trail was a bit… slimy. With each mud-caked step, I attempted to untangle my thoughts.

In two of the three essays I’d brought to this workshop, the leader noted that it wasn’t clear to the reader if the narrator was okay. “Readers need to know their narrator is going to be okay,” she said. “I can tell she’s okay in this piece, but not the others.”

Those essays I wrote touch on dark seasons of the soul. Even re-reading them in the workshop made me agitated. I wasn’t sure if I, the author, let alone the narrator, had recovered from the trauma. I asked myself why I was writing this book.

I had reached a dead end. Ice-glazed trees shot up from a massive frozen puddle. There was no way around – too much ice. I needed to retrace my steps. Walking home, I recalled that I had written through these difficult times – a disorder, family illness, a faith crisis – to heal and to uncover hope. I wanted to write the book I needed during those seasons so it might bless someone else who needed it. Goodness grew in the darkness, I knew, I just needed more time to dig for it.

When you exit the trail that edges our neighborhood, there’s a gravely old road that leads you to the place where the sidewalk begins. Nearby you’ll find a lone old-fashioned light post, reminiscent of the world of Narnia, on a meticulous patch of lawn. The sight is a marker that home is near.

Is the narrator okay?

After I took up walking, I called it my escape. Most often I was escaping the house, the crushing exhaustion of working and parenting for months on end without outside assistance. Other times I escaped a deluge of deadlines or news of another tragedy. On the path I felt free, powerful and a little wild, like the fawn I spotted crossing into prairie grass one summer afternoon. She was so sure of herself and peaceful.

A block away from home, I increased my pace. In a couple minutes, I would walk in the door, shed my coat and be greeted by Jack and my husband. Jack would abandon his Magna-Tiles, hug me and invite me to dance. We’d turn on “Into the Unknown” once again and twirl until we were dizzy. Later, I’d return to the page, hunting for hope and beauty. I would not abandon the book, or my dreams of another baby. I would keep trying. I would be okay. The narrator is okay.

Maybe walking wasn’t so much an escape as it was a return. What was I returning to? Creation, of course. A semblance of community. Peace and quiet. Deep questions that niggled me. My faith. Myself.

Heroes and villains

All I can think of is the news — the violence at our nation’s Capitol, the security breaches, the deaths, the racism on display. Worry lodges itself in my stomach while I scroll, scroll, scroll, searching for answers. The question I keep coming back to: Who have we become?

My son only wants to talk about superheroes. He suggests he could use his “powers” to help. He says it sounds like people are really angry. We often talk about how, when we’re angry, it’s easier for us to hurt others.

“They are,” I answer. “And it’s not our job to fix this, the Justice Department will do it.” I pause. I am not sure I believe my own words. I go on, “Everyone who made bad choices that day will be held accountable; some will need a long time out.”

My son is in preschool, and we are trying to teach him about the difference between right and wrong. We want him to know that God created this world and everyone in it and called it good. We want him to know there are no bad people, only good and bad choices.

This is what I’m thinking about at bedtime, while we read from his book of 5-Minute Marvel Stories. Captain America must block MODAK, an alien bent on taking over the universe with the aid of mind-controlled creatures. Once the hero breaks communication between the villain and his minions, the minions are freed. “I’m glad they’re okay, Mommy,” my son says, and I give him a squeeze. He has a tender heart, just like his mama.

As I kiss his head and wish him goodnight, I wonder what it would take for us to free ourselves from seeing our neighbors as villains. I know it’s easy to cast myself in the role of hero, rather than admit my faults. I know the story we read is missing repentance and reconciliation, true justice and mercy, grace and healing. It’s missing a hero who modeled the way of love. What will it take for us to write a new story? What will it take for us to create a just society?

We need to use our powers. We need to pursue the path of love. We need to speak out against hate. But we can’t do it alone.

“Hey buddy,” I ask, curling up in bed alongside my son. “Can we pray?”

A slant of Light

Advent journal, 12/22/20:

It’s my birthday. As I write, I am wondering what wisdom I have to share after 35 revolutions ’round the sun. Probably something about motherhood or paying attention. Or how to listen, how to make peace with your body, how to spot a seed of faith in a field of doubt. Those are essays I’ll write someday, once I find that pesky seed.

Earlier this month, I took a Zoom writing workshop led by an author I admire. I hoped the experience would advance my work in progress. Yet, as I sat across from a screen filled with accomplished writers, many of whom have degrees and accolades I could only dream of obtaining, I thought, “How did I end up here? What lessons do *I* have to offer?” I found myself lost in doubt.

Honestly, I thought I’d have more figured out by 35. My peers are growing their families and platforms and making job moves. During a pandemic! It’s been a good year, all things considered, but my two big dreams? Neither came to fruition.

While walking to the woods, I confess this to a friend over Voxer and my voice cracks. She is a pastor, and someone I can trust wholeheartedly, and sometimes when I Vox her it feels like I’m talking to God. My voice cracks as I finish my message and I’m confronted with the reality that my plans aren’t God’s plans, and perhaps I ought to loosen my grip.

When my boots touch the trailhead, the sun’s dipping toward the horizon. Sunlight washes over barren branches and brittle leaves, painting them gold with its Midas touch. I turn toward the source of light and a word comes to mind: Peace.

***

I don’t know what you’re longing for this December. Maybe it’s rest. Maybe it’s an end to loneliness or too much togetherness. An end to this pandemic, to injustice. A baby to adore. Someone to notice your unseen work and tell you it matters. (It matters.) Maybe it’s all that and more.

I’m sharing this because I’d forgotten: as surely as the sun sets, waiting seasons end. You uncover answers — or not (a non-answer is an answer, too). You release old ways and make room for revelation. You stop searching, scatter new seeds, trust their growth. A virus dies. A long-awaited child is born.

We witness a slant of Light.

Hungry for stories

bookshelves
photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

The vent above the laundry room, located directly beneath my bedroom window, was the best spot in the house for reading. The natural light there could not be beat, plus it offered peak airflow. What I’d do is snuggle my back against the white dresser, position my bottom and feet over the vent slats, then prop across my thighs my latest book — in fourth grade, I was fond of the Little House series — and lose myself in the story.

When the Midwestern wind howled at our walls, I’d tent a fleece blanket over my body like a Snuggie and grasp the magic tome that transported me out of the suburbs and into the frontier with Laura and her pioneer family. We collected sap and made real maple syrup, churned butter, carried out the day’s chores and danced to Pa’s fiddle in their cozy cabin. I was fascinated with Laura’s life: there was always something to do or explore, people used their hands to make everything from meals to calico dresses, and new adventures awaited every season.

I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales in the mid-90s, an era in which I played Oregon Trail on early model Macintoshes and ate McDonald’s Happy Meals regularly. I imagined pioneer times with a great fondness, perhaps because I never felt like I fit in much in my small world. We’d moved to Aurora, IL, from Clarksville, TN, when I was in second grade. By the time I arrived on the scene, it seemed everyone already had a friend group at McCarty Elementary. I’d left mine back in Clarksville.

Books became my closest companions, my security blanket, my transport away from the loneliness that ached inside me. A quick and early reader, I was voracious for stories. I visited The Met for the first time thanks to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I solved myriad mysteries alongside the Boxcar Children. I became obsessed with hieroglyphics due to The Egypt Game

Then I found a girl in the pages of A Wrinkle In Time whose sensitivity and longing to be liked matched mine. The passage “‘Why can’t I hide it, too?’ Meg said. ‘Why do I always have to show everything?’” roused tears of recognition.

There was so much to learn about the world – and myself – and I was discovering I could do it through stories. Each book I finished left me hungry for more.

Woosh. After the vent in my bedroom blasted hot air, my blanket would trap it, toasting my body long after the air shut off. Between the heat, the light and these stories, I wanted to grasp onto the warmth I felt and never let go. 

***

My first real job after college was at a large, progressive church on the Gold Coast of Chicago. I’d grown up in a church due to my mother’s work as music director and organist for Immanuel Lutheran; never had I ever imagined working for one. I’d studied English Literature with a minor in New Media Journalism and, as graduation loomed, I dreamed of becoming an editorial assistant at a fancy magazine in New York City. Maybe I’d work at one of my favorites, Self or Glamour. Or I’d become a cub reporter for a local newspaper before moving onto the Chicago Tribune. I’d worked all four years at our college newspaper and interned at a magazine senior year. I thought I had a fleeting chance at making it.

My career aspirations disappointed those who asked, “What are you going to do with an English major? Teach?” No, I had no intention of teaching. I wanted to write. 

Instead I found myself situated in the old servants’ quarters of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, copy editing bulletins. It was 2008, and the economy was in free fall. Unpaid internship opportunities beckoned, but I couldn’t afford to work for free. A chance job opening, passed on by a professor, led me to work here, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Chestnut Street, where privileged shoppers met persons begging for coins, where rich and poor alike found solace from the city’s cacophony in the church’s gothic sanctuary. 

I would have missed this opportunity, were it not for Professor Ed Uehling. For the final required class for my major, I’d debated between a popular Children’s Literature course and Uehling’s course on Contemporary Literature. I chose his course, likely because it best suited my schedule. Thanks to him, I fell headfirst in love with the genre.

I feasted on Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars. I savored Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The most delicious book on the syllabus was How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. Each of these authors were still alive and writing to the world in which we lived. The thought exhilarated me. 

Even with (or perhaps because of) the pressure of OMG-what-will-I-do-after-graduation building in my head, I dove into alternate realities and faced familiar truths in the pages of those books. I wrote the strongest papers of my college career and developed a good relationship with Uehling. When he suggested I consider the editorial assistant opening at the church, I applied. At that point, I was desperate for paid work.

“She has been too frightened to carry out any strategy, but now a road is opening up before her,” Julia wrote of Yolanda, one of the Garcia sisters. “She clasps her hands on her chest—she can feel her pounding heart—and nods.”

Like Yolanda, I wasn’t quite sure of the path I was taking, I only knew I had to be brave and embrace it.

Several months into the role, I stood in the church narthex, slipping stacks of sermon booklets into the literature racks. Hands full, I resisted the urge to question if I was wasting my time here. After all, everyone had to start somewhere, and why not start with a salaried job with benefits?

The task completed, I turned and took in the expanse of the sanctuary – rows upon rows of empty pews; its vast, vaulted ceiling; panes of jewel-toned light that streaked down from stained glass creating a mosaic on the floor. Come Sunday these pews would be full. I’d witnessed it myself a handful of times. Though I was already intimately familiar with the church’s inner workings, it never quite felt like home. Especially on a Sunday morning.

Sitting through an unfamiliar liturgy, I longed for the Lutheran hymns and prayers of my childhood. But I hadn’t yet found a congregation of my own.

Each week, as I reviewed Fourth’s “News and notes bulletin” for typos, every book club or Bible study posting spurred unexpected pangs of jealousy. Young and new to Chicago, I realized something: I wanted what these people had – community.

***

A couple years later I was at my desk in the church reading during my lunch break when I happened across an essay called “What To Know When You’re 25.” It left me breathless.

I was 24 at the time, and work at the church had grown stale. I couldn’t figure out how to move forward so I just stayed there. Even though all our friends were getting married, my college sweetheart hadn’t yet popped the question, and I didn’t dare push him. Furthermore, we still hadn’t found a church for ourselves in Chicago. 

I was drifting.

How had the writer of this essay stepped inside my consciousness and rendered it in words for all to see? I couldn’t fathom it.

I printed her advice in my planner: “Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. Walk away, try something new. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming.” 

That writer’s name was Shauna Niequist, and the essay was from her book, Bittersweet. I later purchased a copy and practically inhaled its contents. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to write like her someday. More than that, I wanted to live her stories — rich stories of marriage, motherhood, close friendships and deep faith.

I was hungry for those stories. Now I needed to seize them for myself.

***

It’s 7:30 p.m. and my husband is putting our preschooler to bed upstairs. In our basement I’ve set up my laptop on a box and I’m facing a Zoom grid of nine other women. We raise our glasses — some filled with wine, others tea and one whisky — to the screen and virtually toast our friend Ashley for her recent birthday. Due to COVID-19, we’re meeting remotely.

Ashley thanks us, then remarks that it’s been nearly 10 years since we started this book club. Shortly after I read Shauna’s essay, Ashley joined the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church. We became fast friends, bonding over books and faith and staff happy hours. 

On one of our lunchtime walks around the track near Northwestern’s downtown campus, I told Ashley how much I admired Shauna’s cooking club that she writes about in Bittersweet. I always wanted to have my own small group like that, I said, but my group would meet to talk about books. Ashley agreed that it sounded lovely. 

As we turned back to the church offices, I grew bold. “Well, why don’t we start one?”

Ashley turned to me and gushed, “I love that idea!”

We decided she’d host, and we’d invite some coworkers and friends from college. Our first book would be Unbroken, a fascinating true story of a man’s resilience captured by Lauren Hillenbrand. It was Ashley’s favorite.

That first meeting was a great success, and thus, we kept our club going. Over the years, we read contemporary fiction and nonfiction, occasionally dipping into the classics or poetry. We most often read books by women — Ann Patchett, Sue Monk Kidd and Elizabeth Gilbert were favorites. The year I got married, Ashley and some of the book club girls attended my wedding. The year I started working at my dream job as an associate editor for a magazine, we read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. On a cool spring night that sparkled with the joy of another dream realized, I hosted a foodie book club on Shauna’s Bread and Wine, complete with her mom’s blueberry crisp.

As some book club members inevitably moved away from the big city, we stayed in touch and kept recruiting new members. We’d celebrated engagements, weddings, promotions and new babies. We’d watched books we loved turned into movies and attended readings of favorite authors. My participation waxed and waned, especially the year I became a mother. Yet page after page, books brought us together. We created a beautiful story with each other in nearly 10 years.

Realizing I’ve been daydreaming, I redirect my attention to the computer screen. Tonight we’re discussing A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum, and one of our friends says she’s worried it promotes negative cultural stereotypes.

I disagree. This book covers domestic abuse and misogyny, I say, but it’s also about the unique strength of women. Though its heroine is isolated in her struggles, in the end, she derives courage to act from reading and from motherhood. The mothers in the group nod their heads in recognition. 

Conversation shifts to the next topic, and I think of a line of Etaf’s that drove straight through my heart: “It’s the loneliest people who love books the most.” 

I watch the smiling faces of each of my friends, some of whom moved years ago and are now tuning in for this special remote gathering, and offer a silent prayer of gratitude. Etaf’s words about loneliness may be true, but when bibliophiles come together, magic happens. In this time of COVID-19, while we cannot meet in person, when I long for nothing more than human connection, this feels especially significant.

“Reading her books, she was beginning to find a different kind of love,” Etaf later writes. “A love that came from inside her, one she felt when she was all alone, reading by the window. And through this love, she was beginning to believe, for the first time in her life, that maybe she was worthy after all.”

I smile and soak up the moment’s warmth, thankful for the young girl who loved books and the young woman who decided it was time to push her narrative forward. For the friends — in books and real life — who helped me see I am worthy.