The Courage to Expand Horizons

I had to round out this week of childhood favorites with one I read over and over again, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, the story follows Francie Nolan through childhood and adolescence. Even though this book starts around the same time period and the protagonist is the same age as the Meet Samantha series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn explores deeper issues like poverty, alcoholism, and the American Dream.

IMG_0786As a child, I loved Francie for the bookworm she was. Smith’s description of her first library card and her ritual of reading on the small fire escape captured my imagination.

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

When I first read the book, I saw a girl who idolized her father, clashed with her mother, and had the freedom to run around her Brooklyn neighborhood in ways I could only imagine from my place in the suburbs. As an adult, I read into the tragedy of a father who died of alcoholism, a mother who worked endlessly to make sure her family was cared for, and a girl who grew up all too quickly.

What Francie did for me, though was to normalize living in a world of books. I loved that this girl, who lived decades before me, could have that very same love as I did. I connected with her visits to the library, her eagerness for books and learning, and the desire to stretch beyond her neighborhood.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn taught me that, regardless of the specific books I read, the empathy and glimpse into a world beyond my own can give me the courage to act differently in my own life. Francie’s big move may have been to a different neighborhood but what I learned was that the foundation of imagination makes those moves possible. I wonder if I would have ended up in Paris without those faithful literary friends of my childhood? Did all my bookish habits give me the courage to move outside my comfort zone? According to Francie, I believe so.

I reread this book into my twenties as a comforting reminder that a foundation of reading can give us the courage to expand our horizons.

A (1)This post is Day 5 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

From Homemaker to Social Activist

Recently I found out that Frank had been putting my career as homemaker on our tax forms for the past six years. When I found out, I did not love that title. In his defense, apparently, this is an accepted phrase that won’t get your return flagged by the IRS. I pushed back against this antiquated term – I’m so much more than a simple homemaker!

51BEYPk-dtLWhen asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my childhood answers ranged from nurse to missionary to artist to teacher. I wasn’t limited by the realities involved in pursuing a vocation and I loved dreaming of all the things I could do. I always assumed I’d be a mother because that’s what most women in my life were.

And yet, when I read books, I identified with the characters who dreamed big dreams and pursued artistic careers. I wanted to go on adventures and live an exciting life. I never connected with the quieter characters, even if they more reflected who I was – and am.

When I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I, of course, imagined myself to be most like the character of Jo. Partly because she’s the story’s protagonist and partly because she’s the sister who accomplishes it all. She travels (though not as she imagined she would), she pursues a career, and she gets married in the end. Unlike housewifely Meg, sickly Beth, and flighty Amy, Jo seemed to grapple with all the things I could imagine myself working through those same issues.

I look at my life now and see myself most in the character of Meg, staying home with the girls, struggling with my own high expectations of these years, trying to figure out what it means to live a domestic life well. In the story, Meg is the responsible oldest sister who follows the path laid out for her. Though she doesn’t marry a wealthy man, she does marry someone who befriends her parents and is approved by all. She is content living close to her parents and figuring out life as a wife and mother.

As I reflect on these characters, I suppose I have a bit of each sister in me. These days, I do identify most with Meg. When I was living abroad, Amy’s homesickness and exploration resonated with my experience. As I dabble in the world of writing and pursuing creative dreams, Jo’s experience of finding her own story hits home in so many ways. And, though I love to venture out and explore, I also love creating a safe space for our girls, just as Beth dreamed of.

Reflecting on these characters makes me want to go back and reread this story before my own girls are old enough to experience it. It’s been years since I’ve read this classic and I wonder how my perspective would shift if I read it as a mother. Would I see the world through Marmee’s eyes more clearly? How would I respond to Jo’s hopeless romanticism?

Frank just filed our taxes again and told me he changed my occupation to unpaid social activist. Maybe I have a little of Jo’s feistiness and desire to change the world after all.

Have you read Little Women? Which sister did you most identify with? Is there a character you imagined you’d grow up to be like?

A (1)This post is Day 4 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the A Literary Life. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

When Fiction Sparks Recognition

The other day, I pulled out stacks and stacks of books I bought in my tween years. I know quite a few are still at my parents’ house and even more have been given away over the years. But these books that have been saved were like a treasure trove.

41LS4enKBZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Even though now I have to set goals to read more fiction, as a kid fiction was my go-to genre and more specifically, I adored historical fiction. Books like Number the Stars, about a family who helps their Jewish neighbors escape Denmark and Back Home about a British girl who was sent to America during World War II brought these events to life. I reread Lyddie about a girl who works at the mills in Lowell, Massachusets. The girls in the stories were around my age and I could easily imagine a role in the narratives.

Reading these fictional books set the stage for later history classes. My imagination had already been sparked so learning the dates and historical accounts seemed easier.

Looking through the books that shaped me now, I see a theme: A young, scrappy, often white, girl overcoming challenges in her world. Beyond the young white girl, I didn’t have much in common with these heroines. And looking back, these stories often romanticized the details a little bit. There was some tension, yes. But the stories ended happily and with a neat conclusion.

Now I look for a bit more grit in my fiction. I don’t necessarily want or need that tidy conclusion. My characters still don’t represent me much. I look for protagonists who are people of color and often their lives bear little resemblance to my own.

But as a child, I think seeing myself a little bit was important. I connected with these girls because I could imagine myself in their (made-up) stories. As we fill our library with books for our own girls and I dream about the day when I can introduce them to my old favorites, Frank and I are intentional about including books from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. I love reading Peter’s Chair and A Pocket for Corduroy with Elle before bed.

But I’m also remembering that it’s developmentally appropriate to find ourselves in the books we read. That as Bea gets old enough to absorb these deeper chapter books, we’ll continue to mix in perspectives from people of color. But I also hope that by seeing herself in the story, a spark is ignited to find more and more stories, even if she’s not the heroine.

When you were young, how did you see yourself in the books you read? How has that changed as an adult?

A (1)This post is Day 3 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the A Literary Life. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

Meet Samantha: A Groundwork for Social Justice

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been tuned into unfair practices and their impact on the underdog. In the second grade, after reading a Scholastic News article about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets, I insisted we buy only brands that had “Dolphin Safe” stamped on the tin. When our local Alpha-Beta grocery store was bought by Lucky, I insisted we boycott, unable to support this quintessential capitalist move.

5164XF0x7LL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Whether my motives were well-researched or not, the idea of siding with the oppressed has been part of my outlook from my earliest memories.

When American Girl dolls first became popular I was too old to really play with dolls anymore but just the right age for the books that came with each doll. I don’t remember my exact age – probably 9 or 10 years old – when I received Samantha, the wealthy girl who grew up in New York at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the first book of the series, Meet Samantha, readers are introduced to Nellie, who works for Samantha’s neighbors. She is employed as a maid because factory work was impacting her health. In the second book of the series, Samantha Learns a Lesson, the storyline continues as Samantha researches child labor in factories for an essay she writes for school.

I loved these books because Samantha, who was about my age when I first read the series, stood with the oppressed. She listened to the stories and experiences of those who weren’t part of her economic class and let those stories change her perspective. She fought for acknowledgment and used her own privilege to give space and voice to someone who didn’t have that same audience.

I haven’t read these books in years but recently my old Samantha doll was rediscovered. Bea slept with her for a while and now Elle carries her around by the hair and brings her everywhere. This doll is definitely not a collector’s item but certainly has the potential for Velveteen Rabbit status one day. I remind myself that toys are meant to be loved, not preserved.

The books are still a bit above Bea’s comprehension but I’m looking forward to the day we can read them together. I’m sure that now, decades later, I’ll see flaws in the plotline. I’m sure the stories aren’t as well developed and there’s the clear issue of white privilege through the pages.

And yet, I saw myself in Samantha as a 10-year old reader. I read about a girl who first listened to stories and then acted toward reconciliation. I read about a girl who looked out for those whose circumstances didn’t offer the same privilege and who included them as friends.

Simplistic and formulaic as the stories may be, this American Girl series gave me a relatable example of what social justice could look like in my own world.

Which book most impacted your journey when you were 10 years old?

A (1)This post is Day 2 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the A Literary Life. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

A Literary Life

If you’ve been around here any length of time, you know I’m an avid reader. Books, learning, and expanding my perspective are among the numerous reasons I value and carve out time for good books. Plus, there’s nothing like getting lost in an incredible story, is there?

A (1)I debated participating in the Write 31 Days challenge this year. I’ve written far too much about our transition (or lack thereof!) this fall. I wondered if I needed to just lean into letting ideas settle and grow. But I also thought about discipline and work. Ideas need to grow, yes. But I also need to practice the craft of writing and the accountability of this 31-day challenge often kick-starts a slump.

I thought about our rhythms and family culture and decide to tweak the challenge a bit this year. Recently, I’ve been shutting off apps and really limiting my time on the internet. I wondered how I could balance writing and interacting every day while also keeping these boundaries so I decided that, instead of writing every single day for the month of October, I’ll write every weekday. I suppose I should really call this Write 23 Days instead.

As I was reflecting about letting ideas settle and seeds dig into the soil, I realized I can do that and continue to write. So I’m keeping it lighter this year. I thought about all the books that have shaped me from childhood through adolescence, from my twenties into motherhood. I mapped out the books that shifted my worldview.

Some of these books are the actual book that sparked a change in thinking; other books represent a genre or series that impacted my perspective.

I hope this inspires you to map out your own literary journey and maybe you’ll add some new books to your to-read shelf.

And, if you’re a writer and interested in joining the challenge, link up over here! You have until October 5th to join the community.

Letting Autumn Guide My Days

The nights are getting cooler and our garden’s harvest is slowing down. We ate tomato and cucumber salads, made tomato cobbler, and I baked two apple pies using the fruit from our backyard tree. It was a flurry of seasonal eating and delicious vine-ripened produce.

IMG_0705Less than a month later, things are slowing down. We’ll pick a few more tomatoes before it gets really cold but not many. Our squash plants are officially done and we’ll soon be turning our compost that’s been churning all summer into the earth as we prepare the ground for a long winter’s sleep.

It’s funny how we wait all season for a big harvest only for that harvest to be over in a matter of weeks.

Last week was a busy one for our family. Usually, I try to create space in the week with no plans or activities but through a variety of planned and unplanned visits and errands, we had a jam-packed week. One of my planned activities was to go for a walk with one of my pastors. We had talked about getting together for coffee but as we confirmed, a walk was suggested and I’m so glad it was!

I know that, especially with deeper or more intense conversations, walking helps my thought process. Sitting across from someone in a crowded space can feel a bit intimidating – not because of our relationship but because of the environment. It’s harder for me to have vulnerable conversations in the intimacy of a shared cafe space. But on a path out in the open, not looking directly at my friend? The conversation winds and meanders and we’re able to touch on big topics, comment on a puppy or flock of birds or beautiful garden, and circle back to those discussions.

As we were starting the second half of our six-mile loop, my pastor returned to a comment I had made earlier in our conversation about time and vocation and the big questions of what’s next? She reminded me that in order to produce, we must plant the seeds and then let them germinate and grow in the soil. She pointed out the books and conversations and groups I’m part of and wondered if I’m in a growing place. That I may not be producing much right now because I’m preparing for the harvest.

The way she phrased this thought fit into what I’ve been pondering and reading on my own but it all clicked as we worked up a sweat on that sunny morning. Recently, I’ve been in a production season. I’m seeing friendships grow at school and writing had come fairly easily. I was reading books that pushed my boundaries and was able to process those ideas quickly.

But the past few months have felt a bit more forced. I assumed it was our summer routine but, now that we’re over a month into school and autumny sorts of things, I’m still struggling through the work.

I just finished Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer. This is a book that needs to be read at the right moment. If I had read it earlier this year or last year, I don’t think it would have meant as much as it has at this moment. In his last chapter, all about the seasons of life, he says,

“I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die. My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life” (pg 98).

I’m watching our own leaves fall to the ground as the weather starts to shift. I love the changing of seasons – the active process of watching leaves turn brilliant before they fall. But the season itself can be quiet and melancholy. After the leaves fall but before the winter snows come, life is brown.

Similarly, in spring Palmer reminds us of the slush and mud that precedes the blooms. That each season has that time of transition and muck before the brilliance.

I’m learning to lean into the burrowing nature of autumn. I’m quieting my soul, reading books that may not emerge in thought or conversation for a while, and putting aside that list of hopes and goals.

Practically, this looks like making lists of thoughts and ideas for writing but not putting pressure on myself to hit “publish.” This looks like starting and abandoning books that may be incredibly interesting but not what I need right now. It looks like really limiting my time reading the news, checking social media, and instead focusing on engaging in the small work of the now.

I was talking with another friend and she reminded me to give my soul space to breathe. I’m learning to do that. To balance breathing with discipline; to let the plants grow and nestle while still tending the garden. I’m leaning into autumn and remembering that, while seasons are predictably three months, my own life’s seasons aren’t so neat and tidy. And there’s something beautiful about that, too.

Life seasons don’t always follow actual seasons. What season are you in right now? How are you finding balance through it all?

Books Referenced:

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Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

Creating Space In a Crowded Week

This week has felt mentally crowded. Frank’s had to work late in preparation for the tax extension deadline so bedtime has been on my own. But what’s really thrown me for a loop is that Elle has decided to stop napping. Right when I thought I was going to have two mornings a week to myself and an afternoon of quiet, it’s become a battle.

IMG_0627I decided to handle this shift in routine like the mature and capable adult that I am. I grumped and threatened and got really, really annoyed. How dare my three-year-old ruin my ME time?!

Often, my go-to defense is to turn inward. I go into a self-sufficient mode, I don’t ask for help, and I don’t vent to my friends. This usually doesn’t help anything. I finally emerged from this space, went for a walk with a friend, Voxed another friend who has kids farther along than mine and gained some perspective.

I realized I need to recalibrate my expectations. Much like sleep regression, we need to start a new naptime training and move toward “quiet rest time.” Maybe on the days when it’s too much of a fight, we run errands or do other chores. Maybe we’ll go for a hike. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the woe is me feeling isn’t helpful. It has me reflecting on the ways life so often doesn’t go according to plan. I expect to enter a new season with grace and ease, floating through the transition beautifully. The reality usually is something quite different.

I hope what I’ve learned from this start-of-the-school-year nap boycott is to step back and assess what I can do when life doesn’t go according to plan. I know I can always throw a fit, but maybe there’s another way. Maybe next time, I’ll go for a walk first or Vox my friend with the gritty parts of life.

That’s what community is all about. I’m hoping that by leaning in, I find space to breathe this next week. That this crowded feeling eases and we move into a new rhythm.

How do you deal with the unexpected? What’s your best way of dealing with these crowded weeks?

Linked with Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is “crowd.”