Hail! Hail! National Reading Awareness Month

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. – Frederick Douglass

National Reading Awareness MonthMarrying my husband has taught me two important things about reading:

  • not everyone loves reading.
  • people who don’t love reading are as smart and informed and wise (or not) as people who do read.

That said, I still don’t understand him in this because in a very fundamental way, reading is part of who I am.  But just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I don’t respect it.

My husband, however, can read.  He has been taught to read and encouraged in that task by his mother – a school teacher – and by me, as much as I can without becoming obnoxious.  (I’m fairly sure I don’t toe that line very well all the time.)  Not all non-readers are like that however.  Many folks are not given the opportunity to learn how to read, and if they can read, they don’t have access to the books that might encourage them to delve deeper into that experience and knowledge.

Illiteracy is a very real, very pressing issue. 

According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. – Huffington Post

A few years ago, I had the honor of teaching a young man in my college English class. He had been recruited to the school because he was a big man who could play basketball.  This guy was amazing – kind, funny, smart – but he could not read . . . not with the proficiency required to even apply for a bank loan.

Reading is a fundamental life skill.  We need it to navigate the basic elements of life – from driving to grocery shopping to banking to working.  What must it be like to be a 21st century American and not be able to access the information online?  I cannot even imagine.

Under the system of slavery in the U.S., enslaved people were not – in almost all settings – allowed to read and write.  Enslavers and the institutions that supported slavery (which was almost all of them) knew that if people could read and write, they would gain knowledge, and as that slogan goes, “Knowledge is power.” In many places in the South, the education of enslaved people was illegal.  On the plantation where I grew up, the master was almost beaten to death because he did educate the people he enslaved.  (Note – that does not make him “good.” It just makes him, in this one way, a bit better.)

Literacy matters. 

I often think of that young man in my class and wonder how he is doing.  I wonder if his basketball skills have carried him far enough into financial stability that he’s okay.  I wonder if he found someone who could teach him the way I could not find my way, too. I wonder if he ever gets angry that we, his teachers, failed him.  He should be angry.

We all should.

National Reading Awareness Month is an effort to encourage ALL OF US to read aloud to children for 15 minutes each day. We need parents to do this work, yes, but we all need to work to this goal as well.  Reading to children . . . it’s a simple beautiful thing . . . we can all contribute. 

***

My friend Tom DeWolf responded to my post from yesterday about author autographs.  He doesn’t agree with me. . . . and that’s totally okay.  Check out his post here – http://tomdewolf.com/why-i-love-to-collect-author-autographs/

6 Reasons I Don’t Get Author Autographs

Last night, I had the honor of seeing Nadia Bolz-Weber give a lecture in Richmond.  She was funny and challenging and downright beautiful in body and language.  Her new book is coming out in September, and I will be making the rare choice to pre-order this one.  Nadia Bolz-Weber

I was really excited to see her speak last night because her book Pastrix came to me in the recent spat of dark days I’ve had of late, and it gave me light in just the shadows I needed illuminated. She was all I hoped and more. . . she read from her new book, and her words brought tears to my eyes because she is honest and profound and gifted with the kind of bare language I love so much.  When she answered an audience question about the atonement and dissected the horrible way I had been taught that our wrong-doings pile up against us and how we can then only be loved by God after Jesus dies to remind me that God came to carry the hardstuff and give us back grace, I felt myself crack open.  By the end of the night, I had come to decide I needed to go back to church, a decision I have not felt called to consider for almost 3 years now.  It was a big night for me.

When my dad’s beautiful friend Jenni had slid my copy of Pastrix to me at dinner before the talk, I thought about getting it signed. I tucked it into my purse and though, “Well, maybe. . . ” But when the talk was done, I took the book out and moved it down the balcony rail back to Jenni’s hands so she could finish reading it.  “I’m not going to get it signed,” I said.

That’s my typical choice, in fact.  I almost never get books signed, even though I truly love the opportunity to sign my book for other people.  I love writers. I love talking with writers. I love drinking with writers. I love hearing writers.  I don’t love their signatures as much.  It’s just true.

Here’s why I don’t usually get author autographs:

1. I don’t like crowds.  In fact, more than anything else in the physical world, crowds make my nervous. I can’t see well, and I get jostled, and there are so many people to attend to, people I don’t want to butt in front of or disregard that just being in a crowd for a few minutes can make me exhausted. Last night, several hundred people headed to the reception to buy books and get Pastor Nadia’s signature. It just wasn’t worth it to me.

2. I don’t do small talk well, and really, the only thing that’s appropriate in a book signing line is small talk.  When I meet a writer whose work has changed my heart, I want to talk with them, sit down, hear them really share themselves, and have the chance to share a real bit of me.  Sometimes, people try to do that in book-signing lines, but really, that’s not fair to the writer – there’s a line, for one, and two, the writer doesn’t know us . . . so for me, the brief chance to meet someone is usually disappointing.

I’m not an extrovert, so what I write and what I am able to communicate as a speaker is all I have to give folks who are not my parishioners, family or personal friends. That used to feel selfish but now it feels sane. – Nadia Bolz-Weber

3. I remember that it’s the writer’s work – not necessarily the writer – that I love.  Sure, I hope that a writer’s persona on the page of her nonfiction work is similar to her actual personality, but I know – because I do this for a living – that a book is a crafted piece of art – it is not the writer.  In fact, if done well, it is a carefully chosen representation of life – maybe the writer’s life in some way – but life, not the human being who penned the words.  So I know that meeting the writer will not be the same – in any way – as reading the book.

4. I know what it’s like to give a presentation and then do a signing.  Like I said, I REALLY LOVE book signings.  They make me feel good about my work, and they allow me the wonderful opportunity to meet new people, people with whom I have a natural affinity since they care about some of the same things I do.  But book signings are also exhausting, so since I don’t really get a great deal personally out of a signing, I try to spare the writer a few minutes of time by not putting myself in that line.

5. I cannot delude myself enough to think that the writer is actually caring about my inscription.  I’ve had people ask me for some pretty intimate inscriptions – “To my dearest —– with all my thanks for the love and support,” and I gladly sign that way because it’s not skin off my back if that’s meaningful to someone.  But of course, I don’t mean it – not in the personal way that the kind soul holding out my book means it.  Sure, I care about my readers, absolutely, but not in a personal friend kind of way.  So when I go to book signings for other writers, I expect they feel the same, so even if I was to want to ask them for an inscription, I know it’s not really as meaningful as some of us might want it to be. . . unless maybe David Sedaris is signing; he seems to really care about the people whose book he signs.

6. I once passed up a (potential) chance to have drinks with Sherman Alexie after a book signing. A few years ago, I went to hear Alexie read at The Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. He was, as usual, funny and smart and wise in the most endearing way, and I wanted to meet him.  So I stood and waited until I could get in the back of the line (because in the back of the line, I don’t feel so bad if I actually try to have a conversation with a writer; I’m not making a slew of people wait for me.).  When it was my turn, he signed my book, and I opened my mouth to say, “David Ulin said to tell you hello,” echoing the comment my MFA mentor had relayed through me, but instead I said, “Thank you,” blushed profoundly, and left the room.

I have replayed that scene over and over again, wondering what might have happened if I had told Alexie that we shared a common person.  In my most extravagant dreams, he invites me out for drinks with his friends, and I get to listen to him tell stories all night.  Then, at conferences and book signings, I hang around and chat with him a bit after his talk.  We become casual friends, in other words.  But in all likelihood, he would have said, “Tell David I said Hi,” and I would have blushed profoundly and left the room.

Still, a girl can dream  . . and imagine every book signing as the time I didn’t become friends with Sherman Alexie or Nadia Bolz-Weber.  Just another reason to not subject myself to the crowds or the small talk.

How do you feel about author autographs? Do you treasure them? Dismiss them? Only seek certain ones? 

Speaking My Fears About Writing

Write about the thing you fear the most. – Ed Cyzewski

Writing and Fear

© 2013 Patrik Theander, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

On the surface, I’m not a very fearful person.  I’m not anxious about big disasters or concerned about the government and surveillance.  I don’t spend a lot of thinking time about the bad things that might happen or shy away from experiences because I don’t know what to expect. I’m blessed in that way.

But I’m still fearful a lot. . . particularly when it comes to my writing.  Honestly, just putting down those words has made my throat constrict.

  • I fear that I will offend – or worse – hurt people with my work, particularly when it comes to writing about enslaved people.
  • I fear I will spend too much time on work that doesn’t matter, writing books no one cares about or that don’t have any lasting merit.
  • I fear I will work too much for money and too little for meaning.
  • I fear I will never be “successful” enough to feel satisfied.
  • I fear my work doesn’t matter at all.
  • I fear I’m not a good writer.

At root, all of those fears come from placing the value of what I do outside of the work itself, and while I know – in my mind – that putting value in anything beyond the practice of writing itself is futile and dangerous, my heart still craves affirmation – that’s really the core of all those fears – my desire for affirmation.

I’m still battling through all these things, trying to find peace and the courage to keep moving forward. I expect this will be a lifelong battle for me – this fight to find value in the work, not the response to it.

But it helps to write out the fears, to speak them into an existence beyond my mind.  It helps to remind myself that my value does not come through any word I put down, not through any sale, not through any idea of “success.”  It helps to remind myself that my work matters because it is done out of an obedience to who I am created to be, because I am made – at the core of who I am – to write.

I will surely offend. I will surely not sell “enough” books. I will surely spend far too much time trying to pay bills and not enough on art. I will surely find that most people do not care about my work, that my work does not matter in some global sense, that sometimes I am not very good at this work at all.

Yet, I must ground myself, again and again, in the affirmation that matters – the Voice that says, “I love you, Andi, for all of who you are and all who you are becoming.”

If it would help, please share your fears about writing – or anything else – here.  I will hold them precious and true.

 

Herding Chickens and Lifting Dogs – The Grace of Farm Life

This morning, it was warm and light enough for me to do chores at 6:30 am.  I donned Grandpa’s quilted flannel shirt and stepped out into a toasty 36 degrees.  It was like that first warm day of spring, where my arms feel sun after months of deprivation.

The Joys and Foibles of Life on God's Whisper Farm

Sabeen, in the days when the chickens outweighed him.

I blessed the straw that Philip had thrown on the ground that is quickly helping me appreciate that New England time of year – mud season – and got the chickens loose with my usual “Good morning, every birdy.”  I fed them and carried hay from the wagon shed to the goats, who have been waddling about the pasture with a bit of spring-hoped vigor all morning.  I dropped some food in Bella and Boone’s dishes and patted the white gal on the head – her eyes cross every time.  Then, I watched the goats’ delight as the sweet feed made an reappearance after a rather disappointing bag of regular grain.

One more chore to go – water for the chickens.  I came inside, put the kettle on to boil, and started the human sustenance of coffee.  A pretty typical and easy morning, I thought.  Of course, this was a jinxing thought if ever there was one.

I picked up the kettle and leftover quesadillas for the chicken’s treat and headed out the side door to the run.  After pulling open the run door, I tossed the tortilla, beans, and cheese to the crew and bent to pour steaming water in their frozen water trough. . . . just in time to hear the tell-tale squawk of a chicken under attack.

I turned  to see Sabeen chasing Lily (or was it Petunia? To my human eyes, these gals are twins) up into the crepe myrtle outside the run.  Good thing our girls can fly.  Xander the rooster was screaming his fool head off, and I was dropping the kettle and headed for Lily when I heard the side storm door slam open and saw Meander charging, her collar for the invisible fence tucked neatly on the table by the front door.

But here’s where miracles happen.  Sabeen gave up on Lily, and I was able to lift Meander (remember, no collar by which to pull her) up 5 steps back into the house.  I grabbed the offended cat and tossed him after her, hoping Philip and Mosey didn’t mind a little tussle for a wake-up call.  Then, I went back and coaxed Lily – after a few tries – back into the run, where Xander quickly herded her into the coop for safe-keeping.

This balmy morning had me in a sweat before 7am, and I am very grateful I didn’t have to do all this shuttling and guiding on the frozen rain of yesterday.  Small gifts.

Here, we have a lot of lives to keep going, and sometimes, little things get missed – like shutting the door to the chicken run when doing morning chores.  Yet, in equal measure, we have grace and gift and the miracle of fickle cat nature.

I’m doing my best these days to see these little fiascos for what they are – reminders that much of life is beyond our control and, therefore, it’s just best if I learn to herd a chicken, lift a dog, write the story, and laugh all the while.

 

We are hosting three Writing Retreats here on the farm this summer – two day-long workshops and one weekend retreat.  We’d love to have you join us. You can get more information and sign up here – http://andilit.com/writers-retreat-at-gods-whisper-farm/.

Unfilling My Days of Doing

A Bluejay eye

© 2010 nosha, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

I know from bitter experience that when I allow busy little doings to fill the precious time of early morning, when contemplation might flourish, I open the doors to the demon of acedia. Noon becomes a blur – no time, no time – the wolfing down of a sandwich as I listen to the morning’s phone messages and plan the afternoon’s errands. When evening comes, I am so exhausted that vespers has become impossible. It is as if I have taken the world’s weight on my shoulders and am too greed, and too foolish, to surrender it to God.  — Kathleen Norris in The Quotidian Mysteries

Right now, a bevy of sparrows, juncos, and one female bluejay are perched on the ancient apple tree outside the dining room window.  A dove has just lofted itself to the walnut from its feast on the goat’s discarded hay.  I expect soon a cardinal and her mate will join them to celebrate Philip’s gift of fresh seed in this frozen March beginning.

I could watch these beauties all day – their tittering, their hopping, the way the bluejay studies me through the glass.  In fact, I expect that the healthiest wisest thing I could do with today would be just that – to watch.

I am in a conscious time of braking, pushing in that pedal, pulling the Jake Brake on my life, which feels far too often now that it is barreling out of control toward a cliff.  My only recurring nightmare as an adult is that I will drive myself and everyone I love off a precipice into a rocky death.

I’m learning to let my yes be yes and my no be no, but I’m also learning to say no more.  A lot more.  In fact, I think I’m going with “no” as my default answer for the next few months.  I need to flip my impulse from “bring more in” to “keep more out.  Or maybe what I need to be doing is saying “yes” to myself, to the deepest calling on my life.

Ed Cyzewski’s new book Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together has landed on my Kindle at just the right moment (and by the way, you can pre-order it for $.99 right now at the link above.)  Ed has reminded me of what I once knew – that I need time to pray, to think, to write.  For the past months, I have given that time away far too often.

Here’s how I know I’ve made my life too full:

  • I feel anxious all the time. Anxious about all I have to do. Anxious about money. Anxious about relationships. Anxious about whether Mosey will get bloat.  Anxiety is a symptom of too much doing, not enough thinking in my life.
  • I never feel like I have enough time.  I like to do things well, to be sure they are right.  But of late, I’m rushing just to get things done, not taking my time to do them well.
  • I resent people when they ask me for things. Rather than simply saying, “No, I’m not available.” or looking at my calendar to schedule those requests in for later, I push my frustration onto the person asking.  That’s not fair or kind.
  • I am aching to sit and sew. Quite truly, I wake every morning with a desire to simply sit with thread or yarn in hand for hours.  I read the posts of people in crochet groups who are finishing project after project, and I am jealous.  Jealousy is a sign that I am not giving myself to the things I need in this moment.

I need to find my way back to prayer, to quiet contemplation, to the aching silence that I love so much in Thomas Merton’s work.  I need that silence and space in my day for my own health, but I also need it for my writing.  Writing is not something quick – or at least the writing I want to do is not.  I want my writing to be steeped and rich, dug deep from the truth, hard-won in a world where noise and constant “inputs” are the norm.

I need more quiet in my life.  As Kathleen Norris says, “No small part of the process of writing is the lifting up into consciousness of what has long remained in the basement, hidden, underground, as in a tomb.” For me to write the truth as I see it, for me to find what is hidden, I have to have time to walk around in the dark a bit, my fingers outstretched, searching.

Fumbling in the shadows for the truth is not quick work.

I’m not sure what this turn to the shadows of NO will mean for me.  More writing. More reading. More quiet time washing eggs in the sink.  Definitely.  Less social media. Fewer projects. More offline time. Probably.

Here, though, I will be. With words. With myself. And with all of you beautiful people who join me in this quiet soft space.

How are you these days?  Feeling good and full?  Or feeling anxious and stuffed?  I’d love to hear.