Bell, Book, and Candle: How Books Saved This Lonely Child

School started this week; with students split between virtual and in-person teaching, economic disparity and the limitation of resources for students in the lower socio-economic strata has been thrust into sharp relief. Kids without high speed internet, quick pay Amazon options, or college-educated parents are in a pickle.

I was one of those kids, back in the 1970s, before high speed internet. But the plight was the same. Disparity is a constant, after all.

Ramona celebrates a new book.

We didn’t keep books in my house. My parents didn’t read much themselves, and they definitely didn’t read to me. My literacy was fostered by the captions on coloring book pages, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. Then I discovered the library at school. Ramona Quimby became my best friend in the years when my unbathed, scraggly self didn’t have pals. Beezus was my big sister, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby my parents. Though I never would have dreamed to indulge the sass that lay buried under my compliant surface, it was there. Every time Ramona mouthed off or struggled with her woolen stockings, I loved her. The days at school when we received our Scholastic book order forms were highlights that thrilled me; on newsprint paper was a four-page brochure of paperback books we could order. I saved up, or sometimes my dad had a little spare change, and I proudly turned in my order, anticipating the day a box of books would be delivered to the teacher and I’d have something new and wonderful: with a slick, untouched book cover that would open upon magical words and worlds, I could inhabit every wish I had ever made. Even in the seven years I taught elementary school, I kept up these book orders, bookworm-y teachers love getting new books just as much as bookworm-y kids.

Our bookmobile looked a lot like this one!

I learned that our town had a portable Book Mobile, a converted bright blue school bus, it was an extension of the town’s public library and traveled to all the elementary schools in the afternoons so that kids who didn’t have transportation to the library could access its wonder. A Wrinkle in Time never had a more devoted follower. I made Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit my own fairy godmothers, Charles Wallace my brother. I imagined visiting other dimensions by tesseract. I wondered what a Bunsen burner was and how a mom could be a scientist.

I saved my pennies for the book fair and bought a graphic novel of Dracula. My maternal grandmother took me to the library when I visited her in New Mexico or, later, at their lake house in Brownwood, Texas, and I checked out Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl over and over. It was a summer touchstone, I only read it when visiting my grandma. My paternal grandmother had Encyclopedia Brown books in the den, and I tucked in on the bright orange mid-century linen couch and read when it got too hot to play in the west Texas sun. I wept every time that Old Dan and Little Ann perished at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.

Once my teachers noticed my voracious appetite for books and looked at my grades in spelling, they realized I could be a contender in the Scripps spelling bee, it’s the one that you still see on television. Now I had a booklet of words to study and learn! I cloistered myself in my pretty yellow room, copying the words over and over with a pencil or recording them in the cassette player my dad had bought as an Amway tool. I carried my booklet with me everywhere, and begged people to quiz me over words.

At the bee, as each word was called, I repeated it, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and visualized the page. Here was the miracle of my spelling strategy: I could see each page, find the word’s location on it, and, using my finger to trace the letters as my right hand hung by my side, spell it perfectly. I spelled with confidence, emphasizing each final letter with a declarative tone that left no room for doubt. I wasn’t smug, I just knew. I trusted my own voice and my own gift. The youngest girl in the competition, I watched competitor after competitor leave the stage and take a seat at cafeteria tables. Then, a snag.  A problem. A hitch. The pronouncer called out the word “forte,” pronouncing it “fort-ay.” This was not a word that had ever been called to us in our after school practices with Mrs. Goodwin. My brain searched for such a thing on the F page that existed in my memory, but came up with nothing. I asked for both definition and sentence, neither helped. I relied on my phonics comprehension, took a deep breath, and spelled the word phonetically: f-o-r-t-a-y? Ending my spelling on an upward inflection alerted everyone in the room that I was unsure. I waited anxiously, but not for long. They rang that stupid little silver bell. Ding! Neither my homeroom teacher, who had been the coach at school, nor the pronouncers at the table caught on to the fact that the word has multiple pronunciations and meanings, and so one was giving me “a person’s strong suit” and the other was giving me “the musical term meaning to get louder” along with both pronunciations. I was thoroughly lost. When I sat down, I spelled every word to myself, furiously and correctly, for the rest of the contest.

You never forget your first spelling bee loss.

As I continued up grade levels, I kept spelling, and I kept winning. When I won the eighth grade bee, and thus the right to move on to the district level competition, the Jackson Middle School newspaper sent a boy to interview me, which he did before the tardy bell rang in English class. We were surrounded by other students, who were listening attentively:

“Why do you think you’re so good?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just have a knack for it.”

He didn’t recognize the word. He did not have the vocabulary.

“A knack? What’s that? Are you trying to show us how smart you are? How much smarter than all of us?” He laughed. Others laughed. I was both embarrassed and indignant. Why should I have to pretend I didn’t know these words? Why should I have to dumb down my vocabulary, which was extensive, to meet the lower denominator? I learned to be more discreet about my intelligence that day. I didn’t stifle it, my hunger for words was too powerful to ever be curbed, they were the flame that fueled every step, every decision I would ever make. Words, books, stories, they were a candle in the dim shadows.

I kept competing, and winning, in spelling all the way through high school. I even have two adult spelling bee trophies that I treasure. I admit that I mentally correct spelling on social media, and the office has me proof everything.

Studies indicate a direct correlation between literacy and mental health. Being equipped to succeed in reading or given the opportunity to develop empathy through identification with a character helps kids to move through the world in emotionally healthy ways. Books and words saved me when I was a struggling kid. They still do, and all of us who are fortunate enough to have easy access to knowledge and its delivery systems owe it to our fellow humans to find ways to share the light.

So, what’s your favorite book?

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If you’re interested in supporting literacy, here’s a link to the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.

https://www.bushhoustonliteracy.org/

The End of the Great Pause: Establishing Rituals to Renew and Reset

I sense in my bones that the long pause of spring and summer is over. The pace of our lives is quickening. Months of binge-watching Tiger King (a show which ultimately hurt my heart, I wish I had never seen it) and rereading the Harry Potter books are coming to an end. Maybe it’s because school is starting, the election is ramping up, tickets went on sale for the festival where I work, a festival that plans (perhaps foolishly, but no one asked my opinion) to open October 3, as is tradition. The light is changing, and with it, my own inner metronome is recalibrating to a steadier, quicker tempo.

I have never really been a morning person. I don’t hit the ground running. I sort of slog into my day, shuffling around in a haze of clouded, fuzzy thoughts. Coronavirus quarantine has exacerbated this tendency, for months I slept in until mid-morning, waking up just early enough to make a phone conference meeting at 10:00 twice a week. I didn’t start working until afternoon, I have been fortunate enough to be allowed to work from home, and working on my own schedule has meant later hours, albeit always in yoga pants, rarely in anything with snaps, buttons, or a zipper.

But a couple of weeks ago, I began to desire an earlier start to my day.

The fog is lifting.

The cobwebs are blowing away.

The dust is shaking off.

I’m taking real, measurable steps to reset my days, for while I no longer want to be driven by compulsive productivity, I do want to create and make work that is valuable and moves the needle toward positive change and the realization of my deeply held, lofty dreams.

I am getting out of bed earlier and then making it.

I am riding my bicycle in the early morning hour, before 9:00, when the south Texas heat is still just a glimmer.

I am journaling in the form of my morning pages, according to the method of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a practice that helps me set my intention and connect with my innermost motivations early in the day.

Of course, it’s yellow…

I am reciting my “litany of blessings and thanks.” I keep a recipe card file, a vintage one from the early 1970s I found on Etsy, within it are index cards where I have written the names of people who I know are struggling or have a need. I read their names, and then simply say, “Be Blessed.” I speak it at my window, where I can see all the treetops and I send their names into the sky and the trees. Praying this way has become such a balm to my spirit, it has lifted the burden of the wordy prayer where I struggle to articulate my thoughts, thinking I need to somehow find the right, perfect, mellifluous words that will translate my thoughts in a pretty enough way to get the Divine One’s attention. Also, I don’t fall asleep. And, to be rigorously honest, this way of praying is efficient. My home is not a place where lengthy prayer sessions are even possible. Spending just a few minutes in a prescribed ritual has given my spirit structure, as sense of safety and well-being. I understand the Catholic rosary tradition in a whole new way, it’s the contact with God that matters. She can hear the communication of our souls in the simple, repetitive phrases, “Be Blessed,” or “Thank you.” It is enough, for what is prayerful communication but the opportunity to commune?

And then, a small protein-rich breakfast. Now, I am ready to face my day. To tap into my dreams for my career, to write, to create, and yes, to do the mundane tasks that accompany any job: emails, deliverables, meetings, schedules, and timetables.

These routine actions are signaling to my spirit that the challenges of the life I am meant to live on this day are ready to be met.

Dear reader, do you have routines, whether early or late, that help you stay on track? I’d love to know them, I believe we can all learn from each other! And if you’d like your name on one of my prayer cards, say the word. Have a blessed day!

Starting at the End: Owning the Remnant of Our Trauma

I am really glad to share the words and work of mental health professional and fellow blogger, Hannah Siller. She and I share some common life experiences: traumatic childhoods, addicted parents, fractured sibling relationships. Coming from trauma doesn’t sentence us to sitting in pain, though. There is, in everyone’s story, an opportunity for redemption, for repair, for reclaiming who we are in our very deepest souls. I hope you’ll be encouraged by Hannah’s story:

To start at the beginning is too complex. This isn’t a bedtime story that can begin with a “Once upon a time” and end with an “And they lived happily ever after”. Trauma is messy, living in an abusive and toxic environment is messy. Those who have been allowed to glimpse these less pretty parts of my life often say it would make a great movie or book. I guess in some ways they would be right, but it’s not that simple. To know the past I endured doesn’t get anyone any closer in knowing the me that I am now. For a person that has experienced prolonged types of trauma such as childhood abuse, there is this permanent change that happens. We are our past, but at the same time, we are also our journey to heal. This is a process that is continuous and is lifelong. But if that is the case then where would one consider to be the end of their story? Where would I set the last chapter of a book or the final scene of a movie? Searching for this answer kept me from really telling my story. But then it found me. So instead I’m going to start at the end, or at least what I consider to be the end of my trauma story. 

The summer of 2018 was kind of a big-time in my life. I had just graduated with my master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in trauma and crisis and was figuring out what my next steps would be. A lot of defining moments would come from this summer, but for this entry, we will focus on just one, Jess. Jess had been the daughter of my dad’s girlfriend for a good part of my younger years. The four of us lived together, Jess and I were raised as sisters. Our parents’ relationship was problematic, as they were both drug dealers and users. With a relationship like that comes many issues of violence and potential legal problems. It ended in epic fashion with her mother in jail and my father not. Emotions in both families were high, for obvious reasons, and Jess and I were separated and kept apart, forcibly at times.

Given that this was far before the internet was commonplace and social media was yet to exist, there was little I could do to connect. Once I reached adulthood, even with these means, so much time had passed it was near impossible to even know where to look. But it was Jess, and I had to try. Every few months I would spend a late-night scrolling through Facebook for a lead, occasionally messaging someone who looked similar to her mother or who had her name. For years I did this with no luck. Then on August 19th, 2018, I tried one last time. The next morning, I received a response. After almost 30 years I had found Jess and she was once again in my life.

Our relationship wouldn’t be the forever I had wanted, but that is a story for another time. At the moment I had found a missing piece of my life. It’s impossible to completely explain all of the emotions I experienced during this reunion, but what I can say with certainty is that the experience changed me. Suddenly I found a connection between my past and my present that I never had before. Growing up in an abusive environment like I had, there is this question you tend to ask yourself, who would I be if I had never had to endure such pain? Being around Jess answered that for me. There were these times she would comment “oh that’s my Hannah” as if she almost expected me to do or say exactly what I just did. It would take me by surprise that this person who had been so long removed from my life still knew me so well. Somehow through all of the bad stuff I still at my core retained who I really was. Maybe in a different environment, I would have had more opportunities or chosen a different career path, but as far as the root of my being I was always this person.

I gained closure from this relationship. Jess set straight things about myself and my life that no one else could. She had experienced so much of the same things I did in those early years. She could confirm the memories of events I had and allow me to discuss the pain of these events with complete understanding. But most importantly I found that the love I had carried for her was the same she had carried for me. Through everything, I went through there was one person out there that loved me and thought of me and to whom I was important. By finding Jess I was finally able to find an ending of my trauma story. My past will always have a degree of influence over me but the story and the pain from that part of my life is officially over.  

the-importance-of-ending 

*Names are modified to protect the identity of the individuals discussed. Please respect the privacy of these individuals and refrain from posting additional information.

* I have worked hard to heal from my past through professional therapy and personal growth. Over the years I have become comfortable enough to start using this story in public speaking events and as a major part of my writing. Writing about personal trauma can be very triggering and is not recommended for those still working through trauma unless instructed to do so by a mental health professional.

About the Author

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After pursuing a career as a clinical counselor for at-risk youth, I made the important decision to go back to school. I am currently working towards my Doctorate in psychology, which I hope to find better trauma preventions and PTSD treatments. My spare time is devoted to my business Serene Life Consulting, which provides life coaching, public speaking survives, and is home to home to my blog. Like in all areas of my life, the purpose of my writing is to bring mental health education and an inspirational message to others. My dream is to continue this message throughout my life in everything I do. From teaching to publishing a book to research, I just want to make everything I lived through count. 

To check out more of Hannah’s work including Life Coaching Services and her current blogging project “Diary of a Trauma Survivor” see her website:

https://sillercounseling.com/

serenelifeconsulting.com  

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She Was A Voice: A Review of “The Book of Longings”

“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings

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The reclamation and rediscovery of my voice have been the driving throughline of my life since 2011 when my vocal cords were damaged resulting in a year of silence. I already felt pretty invisible in my daily life, as though I was seen and heard only by my husband and kids. Though I regained my voice through the miracle of a silicone implant, the trauma of the muteness has never fully left the deep recesses of my heart and soul. Those who have known me in an up-close way, or who read my work know this truth about me.

In her latest and most audacious work, inspirational author Sue Monk Kidd imagines another invisible and unheard woman, telling a life of her creation, a wife of Jesus during the period of unknowing: the years between his temple conversations with the rabbis and the day he stepped into the river Jordan to be immersed by John the doomed prophet. Only an undiluted curiosity undergirded with a fertile and open mind will be able to read this beautiful fiction unthreatened.

We meet Anna as a teen, full of restless joy and enormous dreams of writing, a voracious reader who had begged her father unrelentingly to be taught how to read and write. Anna is a young woman of expansive ideas trapped in an ancient patriarchal culture. I recognized her heart-cry immediately, I too was once a young bookworm with a passion for justice and a tendency toward the favoring the underdog.

The Hebraic culture of the New Testament era comes vividly alive in the author’s adept hands. Ms. Kidd revealed in an interview with researcher Brene’ Brown that she spent 14 months of eight-hour days immersed in history and religious study, joking that she was smitten by Roman aqueducts in Galilee; her daughter finally intervening with an exhortation to get on with the writing. Her dynamic descriptions of the terrain, the architecture, the food, the daily life are so real I expected to see dust on my sandals and to smell olives on the breeze upon lifting my eyes from the page.

Anna is to be married to an old man in a play for power by her father, a wealthy, landless scribe in the court of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who would eventually see Jesus in his court. Events twist and turn, and Anna is instead married to young Jesus, a man so full of compassion and the spark of joy that he is utterly captivating. I have wondered since I was young enough to watch Sunday School stories be told by puppets and felt board cutouts what the young man Jesus might have been like, and this imagining feels completely credible.

SMK

Ms. Kidd is careful to craft a plot that is fully supportive of the sparse details of Jesus’s life that are written in the Biblical gospels, she doesn’t rewrite or recreate Jesus and his ministry, she simply attempts to create a fictional idea of what might have been, and in doing so, she provides a feminine window into the early Christian world that has not often been seen. Anna is, in truth, a proxy for all the women who have ever felt absent in the Jesus story, who have been unheard in the power plays and overlooked in the histories executed by men. “The deeper we go into our own experience, our own journey, the more likely we are to hit the universal,” says Ms. Kidd.

As a companion read to The Book of Longings, Ms. Kidd’s spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, is a remarkable deep dive into the fracturing and rebuilding of feminine faith; it too is universal. I have been working through it for some time. I say “working,” because the truth of what Brene’ Brown calls her “mid-life unraveling” is unfolding in my own life, and has been for a period of long years. It was only in the last three that I began to tiptoe from the desert created by church trauma to embark upon newer vistas of grace on my way back to verdant faith. Reading the final chapters of Dissident Daughter simultaneously with Longings scored the truths of both deeply into my heart in the same way that Anna inscribed her prayers into a bowl: women are deeply, tenderly, radically loved by God.

If a reader can access her imagination and be unafraid to ask “What if?” there is abundant grace, wit, and courage in this gorgeous novel. What a bold, yet humble gift is Sue Monk Kidd. I encourage all to read, and to listen to her episode on Unlocking Us. Its radical, gentle message is both balm and benediction.

Brené with Sue Monk Kidd and Jen Hatmaker on Longing, Belonging and Faith

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