I’ve been Ross, digging my cocoa-colored hands into the dirt of a community garden, where “everything makes me mildly or more hungry” pruning poetry from “pear blooms howling forth their pungence,” celebrating Black joy and lamenting Black sorrow.
I’ve been Tara, traumatized by the white survivalists who raised me, singing sweetly in choir, sweating in the junkyard, choked by my brother, fighting to get Educated, mining the context of my life, the lies I was fed, for the truth that defined me — and sets me free.
I’ve been Isra, missing Palestine, abused by the husband I never wanted, raising my four daughters and, “reading [my] books . . . beginning to find a different kind of love.”
I’ve been Paul, diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, clinging to hope, loving my wife, my work as a neurosurgeon and words, always words, I keep writing even in the face of death, marking the moment When Breath Becomes Air.
I’ve been Alice, cradling close the lifelong pain of a childhood accident, startling when my baby daughter saw a “whole world in [my] eye,” which taught me I am “beautiful, whole, and free.”
Each story a ticket to a place where I
l o s e
Storytellers and stories referenced in order of appearance: Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Tara Westover’s Educated, Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Alice Walker’s essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is Self.”
I wrote this ekphrastic poem as part of Exhale Creativity‘s Reading Well, Writing Well 2 Workshop.
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.