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?


The Truest Thing I Know

By my desk, there is written on a green index card this quote that I see every day as I sit down to write:

“Say the truest thing you know, line by line.”

In Writing

I read it in a guide to writing poetry by Suzanne U. Rhodes, The Roar on the Other Side. My tendency as a writer and poet is to hide behind metaphor, or to talk my way around a thought, couching it in beautiful lyricism or visceral imagery. Many times I’m unaware that I’m doing it at first, but my phenomenal poetry workshop partners point it out with gentle stubbornness. They encourage me to push deeper, to dig for the stone at the heart of the poem and bring it into the light. Rhodes’ quote challenges and helps me in the same way.

An editor who gave me feedback on a short story of mine said it was “85%” there.” She told me to go back through it and expose the emotional state of the main character in a few key scenes. “Twist the knife,” was how she put it. Don’t be afraid to dig in, to poke at the wound.

In Life

If I have to push myself to write the truest thing I know, the challenge also applies to life, and specifically, to my relationships with others. I’ll be turning forty in less than a year, and the older I get, the less I can tolerate wearing masks in conversations with others. But to speak about true things—deeper things—with others requires courage and a killing of my own ego, or vanity. It forces me to push past self-protection (which can manifest as “niceness,” cynicism, sarcasm, judgment, and even shyness).

But speaking true things from our hearts, and listening when others do so, happens when love overrides fear, when the desire to connect our own humanity with others’ takes precedence. A couple of weeks ago I kept feeling a prompting to write a letter of empathy and encouragement to a woman I knew who was struggling with the long-term aftermath of a devastating end to her marriage, inability to get a job despite trying daily for two years, and anger at God for allowing so many trials in her life. I felt a bit foolish—we weren’t close friends—and I definitely didn’t want to preach at her. But I ended up writing four pages, letting her know that I see her, that I hurt for her, that I understand what it’s like to feel like you’re a ghost looking in at everyone else living their normal lives when your life is unraveled and on pause. I shared with her some words from authors* who have helped me to hope for something sacred and even beautiful to emerge from my own “dark nights of the soul.”

It was a pretty raw letter. I held onto it for a day before having the courage to put it into the mail. I heard back from her after a couple of days, and one thing she said was, “Just knowing that someone notices that I thirst and tries to bring me water…girl. No words can express my gratitude.” That letter opened up a life-giving dialogue. We were set free to be who we are with each other, no masks. (And it inspired her to apply to one more job that day, which led to an offer of employment as a teacher! She said she was “raw and genuine” in her cover letter, as I had been in my letter to her, and that is what caught the attention of the woman in charge of hiring.)

This morning I spent time reading, journaling, and praying about this very thing—how to be life-giving and human and real in my relationships. But I was also having a bit of a pity party because my deepest relationships with those who know and love me best are long-distance ones, dear friends scattered to the far corners of the earth, literally.

I finished, took a shower, and was just getting dressed when the phone rang. It was one of my best friends, who lives a few hundred miles away and is dealing with the pain and confusion of a recent divorce and doubts about her faith. We’d been emailing but hadn’t spoken on the phone for months. She just felt prompted to call me today, and to open up to me about her faith struggles and the grief she’s carrying.

A Balm

What followed was a half-hour, deep drink of the draught of heart-to-heart connection. It was a balm to my soul that she trusted me and loved me enough to express her doubts and pain, and that we were able to listen to each other and to hear everything beneath those words. We encouraged each other to be brave in the things each of us is facing even as we feel fear or grief, and we shed a few tears together.

In his sermon-essay, “The Killing of Time,” Frederick Buechner writes, “We are really alive when we listen to each other, to the silences of each other as well as to the words and what lies behind the words. ‘Looks as though we might get some rain,’ somebody says. Speak to me for Christ’s sake. Know me….I’m bored and tired as hell, if there’s such a thing as hell. A cup of cold water.’”

May the true things we dare to say, and the deep way we learn to listen, be a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty today.


*Frederick Buechner, Brennan Manning, Larry Crabb

“And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business…to speak with our hearts…and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by the true word of [Christ’s] holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all.” Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark

On The Cusp

“It might take me a little time to find my way in this new season,” I whispered to Jim as we lay in bed last night.  As of 11:30 yesterday morning, I am officially retired from seven years as a homeschooling mom.

The unknown future is suddenly now.  The bigness of it is startling.  Even though I was watching it come, it came more abruptly than I anticipated, like goodbyes always do.  One moment I’m working on decimals with my son, the next I’m handing out certificates and reading aloud the letters I’d written each of my kids, wiping away tears.  Image

After the ceremony in our living room, Jim and Collin went to build Legos together and Jackie said she wanted to have a little down time listening to music in her room.  And there I sat, alone in the living room, wondering what do I do next?  So I got on Facebook (yes, I’m admitting this, to my shame) to post about the end.  That done, I sat in my chair and thought.  And I realized that after an end comes a beginning.

Now I begin to apply for part-time jobs.  I begin to research grad schools that have good creative writing programs.  I begin to work on my writing and networking more.  I also begin to prepare the kids for their transition to “regular” school— teaching them about raising hands, working with other students, following a bell schedule, and finding others who share their love of learning.

Over these next months, my role is going to change.  Lying in bed last night, I realized that while I have certain ideas and hopes for what that will look like, there is so much I don’t know.  “Are you scared?” Jim asked me.

“No,” I replied. “Mostly excited.”  And I think that was a truthful response.  There are some butterflies and some little worries that nip at me like mosquitoes, but overall I feel light and charged up and ready.

So here is a poem in celebration of launching out into the glorious unknown.



today the word I’m rolling

around in my mouth, testing the diving

lip of it, is cusp.


its smoothness is startling

sweeping over an unseen edge

like it’s the natural next step


cusp: both an ending

and a starting point

but without the sharpness of a point


instead it curves over:

a waterfall, a joyous dive


I imagine the possibilities


a deep blue pool, a splash

and then a strenuous, satisfying swim

for new shores