Piles (or What I’m Reading)

I don’t know many writers who only read one book at a time. (If you are one who does, I’d be fascinated to make your acquaintance and would try to question you about the reasoning behind your reading practice without making you feel as if you were a specimen under a microscope.)

I have piles, you see. 

There is a pile on the glass-topped elephant table in my bedroom, next to my favorite chair of all time. It includes my Bible, Dave Harrity’s Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and Bearing the Mystery, a collection of twenty years’ of some of the best works published in Image journal.

On the tiered side table in the living room I have The Poems of Richard Wilbur and A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with the last several volumes of Poets & Writers magazine and Writer’s Digest. The Book Thief was there until this past weekend, when my kids stole it to read after we watched the movie together. (Digression: this is one of my favorite books, and I was skeptical about the movie, but it captured the soul of the book & of the characters better than I expected.) 

My “library pile” on my bookshelf to the right of my desk has Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship, and Faith, Francis Schaeffer’s classic, Escape from Reason, and Thomas Merton’s The Springs of Contemplation. (No more pics of piles, because I don’t have time to straighten up the mess & wipe the dust off any more surfaces with my hand.)

And on the coffee table are Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (to counter-balance the weightier tomes), and the one I find myself reaching for most often this week: Compassion—A Reflection on the Christian Life (Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison). I found it in that thrift-store gem, Savers, a couple of weeks ago. A few thought-provoking quotes:

  • On a communal understanding of compassion: “Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together.”
  • On massive exposure to human misery: “When we are no longer able to recognize suffering persons as fellow human beings, their pain evokes more disgust and anger than compassion …. Anne Frank we can understand; piles of human flesh only make us sick.”
  • On our response to suffering: “Therefore, the question is, how can we see the suffering in our world and be moved to compassion as Jesus was moved when he saw a great crowd of people without food …. This question has become very urgent at a time when we see so much and are moved so little.”

If I don’t have a pile of ready reading within reach in each room of the house, I feel itchy and unprepared. When I have a ten-minute span of time between finishing an editing job and starting dinner, I grab the nearest book (and push nagging reminders about wet laundry aside). When the kids are taking an extra-long time getting ready for bed, I plop down on mine with a book and a prayer that they’ll keep dawdling.

I can’t do without my piles. With my husband’s influence, I’ve mended my pack-rat ways in most areas, but don’t ask me to part with my books. (I know some of you reading this get me. We’re a tribe.)

Finally, a list of books I keep coming back to:

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Anything by Frederick Buechner (wrote about him more here) or Brennan Manning

The New Jim Crow—Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (please read this)

What titles are in your piles, and where do you stash them?



This morning I sat in safety on my front porch.  The air was cool and an Eastern gray squirrel kept me company, scampering frenetically up and down the pine’s trunk.  I wasn’t tensely waiting for the sound of an incoming shell.  I didn’t feel the need to hide the Bible on my lap for fear that I would be dragged down the street and beheaded for my faith.  My kids had just woken up from an unbroken sleep in their own beds and were reading books before breakfast.  I knew exactly how I was going to provide nourishment for them today—our cupboards were full.

All at once, I wanted to weep.  I sat in silence and quiet tears, thinking about the mothers in Gaza whose children are shell-shocked because there are no safe shelters from the bombs.  There are no warnings, no places to hide, no way to protect them from the terror all around them.  Whole families are being obliterated in a moment.  There is no quiet morning, no comforting coolness in the air, no children sleeping well at night.

I wanted to weep, thinking about the mad rampage that ISIS has been on in Iraq and Syria.  They seem like modern-day Huns—nobody seems to be able to stand before their ferocity, barbarity and cunning.  I talk to people, everyone shakes his or her head—Where did they come from?  How did they do it?  And we ask each other, Who will stop them?

Anger rose in me as I turned my eyes to the pages open on my lap.  Psalms.  I needed some teeth-breaking gravel right then, some throwing of hands to heaven, some chest-heaving.   I wanted to scream the words, but instead I whispered them with ferocious pleading on behalf of my Iraqi and Syrian brothers and sisters in faith, on behalf of the innocent victims in Gaza.

1 Why, O LORD, do you stand far off ? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? 2 In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.….9 He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. 10 His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. 11 He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.” 12 Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. 13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”? 14 But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. 15 Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.   (Psalm 10, excerpts)

The word compassion literally means “to passion with.”  To come alongside another in his moment of passion, grief, suffering, and to weep with him, suffer with him, walk with him, until it is over.  Contrary to how emasculated the word has become, it originally meant demonstration of a fierce love and friendship, a willingness to consider another as precious, or more, as oneself—so much so that we place ourselves in harm’s way.  Compassion.  Today the word is confused with empathy, which is a feeling.  Compassion is not a feeling.  It is action.  It’s the love that lays down one’s life for a friend, or a stranger.

This morning as I sat on my porch thinking and praying, I felt empathy.  I tried to put myself in the shoes of those suffering in the Middle East.  I wept for them.  I prayed fervently for them.  But the day is almost over now, and the idea of “com-passionating” is chewing on me.  I’m asking what I can do to share in the passion of those suffering unspeakable atrocities and the grind of war.   As a person of faith, specifically of a faith that says, “Rescue those being led away to slaughter,” but that also says, “Love your enemy,” what is a truly compassionate response?

As a writer, I’ve found myself coming back again and again to writing poetry about victims of disaster, natural and man-made.  I often write in the voices of those with whom I long to “com-passionate”—my way of trying to understand their suffering, trying to feel a way through the immediate wasteland of trauma when the landscape is so blasted and foreign.  My desire to listen to people’s stories of trauma—to witness and give dignity to them—seems like such a small thing.  And maybe it is.  I want to do more.

I would love to hear from those of you who think about such things.  Specifically, what are your ideas for demonstrating compassion for those victims and oppressed people making headlines (or those who should be) lately?  What action steps have you given yourself that you can share with the rest of us?  Also, if you have loved ones wrapped up in any of these messes, and you need to tell their story (or your own), I would be honored to hear it and bear witness.  Please share.

*Note: Some of you will notice that I mentioned the suffering in Gaza but not in Israel.  While I mourn the loss of life on both sides, I believe Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza with high civilian casualties is unacceptable.  I pray for those peacemakers from both sides who are doing all they can to promote a viable two-state solution and to end the injustices that perpetuate the conflict.