How Books Can Change Your Life

This post originally appeared at the Mudroom, as "The Books that Helps Us Story Well."


“You see these spots?” my dad would ask, pointing at my nose. “They aren’t freckles. They’re print that’s rubbed off from having your nose stuck in a book.”

He wasn’t far from the truth. I read voraciously as a child. I took a book along with me everywhere—just in case. Just in case I got bored, just in case I wanted to slip away and retreat back into its pages.

“You need to socialize,” my parents would say, forcing me to put down my latest book and talk to people. But I was deeply engrossed in another world, and it was hard to pull myself away. The characters became my friends, and their stories fueled my imagination. Worlds and times otherwise inaccessible to me became my mind’s playground.

As I got older, the books became thicker, the stories more complex. I learned to be less of a social recluse, but I sometimes read late into the night, “just one more chapter” stretching into five or ten.

Now, my eyes scan the names of titles and authors emblazoned on the spines stacked and standing on my shelves. I remember the worlds they beckoned me into, the lessons they taught.

The golden-haired scrawny girl I was learned something along the way, in between the creases and typescript: I did not want to use books to retreat from my own story. Vicarious escape and distraction at the expense of the plot and characters in my own life was a false promise. My own story was an adventure and worth fully inhabiting.

I held onto the delight of getting lost in a story—but learned not to stay there indefinitely. I learned to come back to my own story with more vigor and insight. I returned from my imaginative escapades with pictures of love and courage, sorrow and redemption. Instead of escape, I found the stories shaping me.

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I remember the time I first came to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I was a sophomore in my undergrad English program, and we were studying a segment of Russian literature. I wish I remembered more of the class, the professor, my classmates. Instead what I remember is a story.

One of the Karamazov brothers, Ivan, tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor. It has haunted me from the first time I read it. In it, Jesus returns during the time of the Inquisition. He is arrested by order of the Grand Inquisitor who visits him in secret.  The Inquisitor tells Jesus to leave, for the church doesn’t need him anymore. He claims Jesus got things wrong; clearly he didn’t know what the people wanted. They didn’t want freedom—freedom is too much for them. They preferred ignorance; they preferred being told what to do. The Church had fixed Jesus’ mistake, though, and Jesus must leave before he spoils her work.

Because of this tale, I think often of what we would tell Christ if he returned. Would we repeat the words of the Grand Inquisitor? Would we claim Jesus got things wrong and we need to correct him? Would we say the freedom he offers is too much? Do we say this implicitly through our actions?

This story shaped me. It shaped my thinking and my vision, influencing the way I see the world, my faith, the church.  It offers a warning to the tendency I see in my own heart to turn freedom and grace into rule and law. It gives me the language to grasp and explain my world.

All the best stories, I think, do this. They put a slice of our humanity on the page, reflecting our human condition in the broken beauty of the world. They are powerful not because they are factual but because they are true to the human experience.  We see characters not so different from us at heart, and say, “Ah yes, me too.”

For good or ill, the stories I absorb affect the story I’m living. The best stories invite me in, only to release me back to the real-life story I find myself in. The power of these books isn’t in overt morals or in heartwarming endings. The power is in the story—for the story itself shapes us.

These are the stories I’ll keep reading, and the ones my grandchildren will find someday on my dusty bookshelves. These will be the books that have changed my life.

Neighbors Who Make Me Belong

We rounded the corner, and I felt victorious. I held a garishly orange spoon in my right hand and a waxy cup heaped with a creamy frozen delight in my left. The shop on our block was giving away free frozen yogurt. One of my favorite words—free. I would have walked down for nearly any free treat. But frozen yogurt? What a steal. 

We walked along the wide walkway. It was once a narrow lane, but they’d closed it off for pedestrians years ago. Now it was covered with carefully laid brick. We passed the gift shop with its nautical eccentricities and a clothing store with price tags I could hardly afford to look at. We passed the candy shop, which I somehow managed rarely to enter. We came to the stairwell that led up to our apartment. Our neighbors stood at the bottom: a thin woman with platinum hair and her sometimes live-in boyfriend. They were out for an evening smoke. 

I pointed excitedly at my bowl of frozen yogurt. “The shop around the corner is giving away frozen yogurt,” I said, eager to share our exciting discovery. “They’re open until eight.” 

They looked at me. They looked perplexed. Cautious. Concerned over my excitement perhaps. Or that I was speaking to them in complete sentences. 

“Huh,” our neighbor said. It was a glorified grunt. 

“Well, have a good night,” I said, as Scott and I started up the stairs. I wasn’t sure how to respond. 

We laugh about this now. (I mean, really, who grunts dismissively when told about free frozen yogurt within walking distance?) At the time, it only added to our feeling of isolation. We were newly married, in a new town, with neighbors who barely made eye contact. We were realizing how much we craved a place to belong, how much we missed our roots. 

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In my childhood, our neighbor across the street raised sheep. In the spring, I would walk across the slow road to see the lambs. Their new wool stood out white against the grass’ spring growth. The older sheep were hardly so delicate or so white. Their coats were yellowed from dirt and age, and they would push against the decrepit rails of the fence until they collapsed. My dad would find them grazing along the road—the grass had been greener, or taller at least. He would help our neighbor, who was too frail to do all of the pushing, to get the stubborn sheep back into the pen. By then his wife had died, his daughter lived in the city, and his son was often away. He lived in a few rooms in the old brick farmhouse. 

Across the street was another elderly neighbor. In the summer, I jumped on the trampoline with her granddaughter, who was one of my only occasional playmates in the area. In the winters, my dad and I would trek over after each snowstorm to shovel her out. We’d scrape the snow from her car and clear a path to her door. Her front porch often got a layer as well, and I’d carefully clear the green-coated concrete. She would always appear a few days later with a plastic bag from the local market. It would be ice cream or a pie—some little treat to say thank you. 

Our driveway was cleared on those snowy days by the man who shared the border with our backyard. Our dogs would play together when I was small. He and his wife had two chocolate labs: Fred and Barney. I don’t remember what happened to them. He called me “Termite.” He still occasionally calls me Termite, in those few times Scott and I make a trip home in the summer. In the years when we still had a gravel driveway, he would come to plow us out when those snowstorms hit. He sat high on his John Deere as he pushed the snow into heaps in the turnaround. He would never take money. So we continued the train of culinary thanks and made him chocolate chip cookies. The smell of them baking under my mother’s watchful eye is so linked with a snowstorm that even today I instinctively have an urge to bake when the snow starts falling. 

We all took care of each other. It was a place I belonged. It made me from a place. 

About a year after the grunting incident, we moved to a New Hampshire town. Within a few days of moving in, our next door neighbors walked over while I was unloading the car. They introduced themselves. They shook my hand. We chatted about the neighborhood and about where we’d come from. In the years that have followed, we’ve watched out for each other. We’ve commiserated over the weather. I’ve walked over some of my snowstorm-cookies. She’s come over to make use of our printer. And we’ve kept talking. 

Some, I suppose, would find this intrusive. The chattiness might make them squirm. But me...it makes me feel at home. 

Igloos, Wonder, and What God Thinks of Play

I don’t remember the storm, but I remember its aftermath. Our neighbor came, as he faithfully would, sitting high on his John Deere tractor. He pushed the snow into heaps on either side of the driveway.

My mom would be in the kitchen, standing by our oven as it filled the house with the buttery smell of freshly baking cookies. We would take him a plate of them lateralways chocolate chipas a thank you.

I don’t remember if there was more snow than usual or if we were just feeling particularly adventurous. But I remember carving the snow from the back of the snow heap in our turnaround. When we were finished, I sat in a makeshift igloo. The top was open partially, to assuage my mother’s fear of a collapsing snow cave.

I would crawl into my hideout, carving shelves into the walls, making “meals” with the pans and dishes from my toy kitchen set. I had an entourage of pretend playmates in those days, and the script of our adventures only shifted based on the time period of the historical novels I was devouring at the time.

My trusty companion Zach was there. He would romp around in the snow, jumping and twisting, lunging to catch any fistful of snow I threw at him. I would call him, and he would come to lay down beside me as I played. Clumps of snow would mat into the long golden hair along the backs of his legs.

One night, my Dad told me to suit up to go outside. I pulled on my long ski pants and bundled up with scarf, gloves, and hat against the cold. We walked out to my snow fort and climbed into its hold. He arranged some strips of wood on the cold ground and lit them with a lighter he pulled from his pocket. The wood crackled as it burned, and I watched as the orange flame danced on the frozen walls.

We may have made hot chocolate on our campfire. We may have roasted marshmallows. I don’t remember. I only remember the wonder of the fire on a winter night, the strange contrast of the chill at my back as I leaned against the wall and the warmth at my face as I stared into the flames. I remember my wonder as the snow glimmered against the heat, the wonder that it did not all melt away.

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The next morning, I was back outside with Zach-the-wonder-dog and my imaginary friends, and I discovered my fort reinforced. The thin layer of snow that had softened and melted from the heat of the fire had frozen to solid ice as we’d slept.

* * *

I don’t think I’ve made a snow fort since then. Certainly not a faux-igloo.

As I got older, the snow lost some of its magic. It was pretty to look at—as long as I could stay inside, as long as it meant a morning to sleep in.

It’s easy as we grow older to lose the wonder of childhood. Instead of a magical winter playground, the snow becomes a nuisance and source of complaint. It is a thing that must be shoveled. It is a thing to slow down traffic and make our commutes all the more treacherous. It is a thing that interferes with our sacred schedules.

We are lured from play by the sirens we’ve called maturity and practicality and seriousness. We learn to reign in our romping imaginations to be responsible in “the real world.” We forget the art of quick laughter and simple pleasures, of sprinting into life’s adventures with bold relish.

Some of us lose our wonder completely. Some of us have to fight to keep it.

* * *

I once heard a speaker share about a visit with his systematic theology professor. He was there to discuss his final grade. The professor began to ask a surprising line of questions. What is your theology of life? What is your theology of play? What does God think about them? Make it your life’s work to answer these questions…

What if we are not to relinquish our play, our wonder, our imagination? What if they are a part of our discipleship, part of our life that Jesus touches, enters, sanctifies?

What if we are called not to abandon play but to see how it may be a means of following Jesus? What if we are to cultivate wonder and not be lulled into the lie that we can fully comprehend and systematize God’s nature? What if our imaginations—not merely logic or propositions—can help us to glimpse how God is working in us and in the world?

What is your theology of play? What is your theology of wonder, of imagination, of creativity, of beauty? What would your life look like if you lived it in answer to these questions?

* * *

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
- C.S. Lewis

The Story Behind the Ancient Crockpot

I love a good yard sale. The bargain hunting, the people you meet, the range of junk and treasure you find—it’s an excellent Saturday morning amusement. (And it means I started my Christmas shopping by the end of May.)

We were out one Saturday on a wild goose chase of yard sale signs. The sight of dishes triggered my memory. There was a new, sudden refugee family arrival in only a few days. A flurry of texting later, and we had a list of items we still needed to set up their new apartment as a home.

                                                                                                              r. nial bradshaw on Flickr

 

                                                                                                          r. nial bradshaw on Flickr

We pulled up in front of a small rancher. In my mind’s eye there were awnings and carefully sculpted shrubs but that could be a bit of projection. Two elderly women stood talking in the shade of the lip overhanging the garage door. One was portly, wrapped in a cardigan. The other was petite and skinny. She had a canvas money apron tied to her waist like she was a carnival vendor. Their conversation floated over as we started looking. It was about nurses and medical problems and faith.

The portly woman left, and Scott asked the tiny lady about the fishing lures. She laughed at her ignorance and walked to the door that led into her home and yelled for her husband. The door was open, and the breeze wafted over the distinct smell of nursing homes and sickness. Her husband hobbled out. He had suspenders on over a white T-shirt and a large ball cap, the sort with the mesh—though this could be an image in my memory from a hazy photograph. Thick compression socks braced his calves. 

I paid the woman for the silverware I’d found to add to our preparatory stash, then walked across the road to see the neighbor’s wares. When I returned, the man in the hat had Scott laughing at fishing stories. And the woman came beelining toward me. 

“Your husband tells me you’re collecting things a refugee family. Tell me—what else do you need? What can I give you?”

I smiled appreciatively and tried to shrug off her offer. In spite of my polite protests, she began to make a circuit through the piles of her possessions, holding items up as she came to them. Her flitting movements were a plea: Please let me help you. Please let me give you these artifacts of my life so they can make someone else a home.

I couldn’t refuse her. A few careful yeses and firm nos later (she would have given me everything if I'd let her), I had four paper sacks filled with kitchen items and woven blankets at my feet.

With every addition, I thanked her profusely. With every thank-you, she would repeat, “Oh, honey, it’s not me. It’s from above.” Here, she gestured with both hands to heaven. “Thank you for helping these people. I’m just glad to know these things are going to someone who needs them.” 

When that family walks into their kitchen and sees that massive metal strainer or the 70s-era crockpot still in perfect working order, when they make bread or cake in those pans, when they curl up under the warmth of one of those blankets, they will never know that they came from the hands of a sweet woman in a tiny rancher in our small New Hampshire town. They will never know her generosity or the earnestness of her love in wanting to make them welcome here. But I do. And I thank God for her—even though I don’t know her name.

It Is Not Good For Man To Be Alone

I was in a hurry that morning. As I walked through the automatic doors, I pulled a red plastic basket from the stack. It would encourage me to not pick up much beyond the few items I came for. And it would enable me to dodge the other patrons. This store was notorious for shopping cart traffic jams. With only the basket hooked over my arm, I could slip between stopped shopping carts and dart on either side of the center displays to evade oncomers or those obliviously studying the packages on the shelves. I had my tactics down to a system. 

I efficiently maneuvered the store aisles, my strides long and quick. As I rounded the produce corner to check out, the only thing in my basket not on my original list was a package of bacon because who can’t use a little more bacon? The weekend was coming, which meant hot breakfast, and we had a cast iron skillet to season.

The lines were long. I would have to wait. I beelined to the express lane. Twelve items or less. I had five. I lifted the flap of my purse to pull out my phone—at least I could use the time by checking my email. Then I recognized the dark head in front of me. I let the flap fall shut. 

“Well, fancy meeting you here,” I said. 

His head jerked up from the magazine he had been flipping through, and he turned to face me. His face broke into a wide grin. “Well hello there!” The inflection was almost musical. This, I’d learned, was his standard greeting. The level of enthusiasm in his voice could have led me to believe running into me here was the highlight of his day…or maybe week…or life. There was a lot of enthusiasm. He snapped the magazine closed and let it slip back into the rack.

“How ya doin’?” Same musical lilt. It was reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. “You were on a trip, right?”

I recounted our road tripping adventures from the last week. He told me about his staycation. He was going out to dinner with his cousin that night. Every comment I made got a laugh and a “I like the way you put that.” I couldn’t help but smile. 

Standing there in the grocery store line, catching up with my neighbor, this small town Pennsylvania bred girl felt a little less out of place. Going on a “quick” errand in my childhood hometown often required a little extra buffer time for the random conversations you’d find yourself in. People there made eye contact and struck up conversation much more readily.

As a child, I thought everyone knew my parents—or grandparents—and therefore me. I’d get questions on various facets from my life, and as I was giving the latest update, my eyes would try to memorize any distinctive features so I could ask my mom who they were when I got home. 

The cashier scanned and bagged his groceries while we talked. He paid and thanked the man. 

“See you around,” I said. And I knew I would. It was hard to be a stranger to someone who lived in your building. It was hard to be a stranger to someone that friendly.

After he left, I turned, still smiling, to the cashier. He was short, young, crew-cut. “Are your neighbors that cheerful?”

He made an expression akin to a grimace and rocked his head slightly back and forth. Noncommittal?   

I laughed. “That looks like a polite way of saying no.” 

He paused. “I guess I’d have to know my neighbors to know if they were that nice."

"Touché." 

"I mean, I don't know their names. I don’t even know if I’d recognize them if I walked up on them in the store.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.