The only thing more difficult to predict than the weather are the conversations you're not expecting to have at weddings and funerals.
Some years ago, when my Uncle Frank died, Aunt Mary – now, the reigning matriarch in the family – sidled up to me at the funeral home and in an animated tone – well above the whisper one might think respectful in the presence of the dead, said, “Nancy! My goodness it’s good to see you! Well, I mean, given the circumstances . . . poor Frank. What are you up to these days? And, tell me. Are you still bookish?”
While this last question was not as complex or ensnaring as a true logical fallacy, it was heavily loaded and every bit as philosophical, even if unintentionally so. I thought about the book sitting on the front seat of my car, the one I had brought, not to read, but just to keep me company on the drive from Baltimore to southern Maryland. “Still bookish?” The words kept ringing in my head. “Well, maybe I am. Probably. I guess you might say so.”
As a young person, it didn’t take long for me to discover that being bookish made you different – and, not always in ways that made you feel comfortable or validated for who you were. Reading again? Weren’t there chores to do? Little brothers and sisters requiring attention? And, why must you always bring a book with you to family picnics and on vacation? Bookish. Whether you were or were not, being called out that way felt like ninety-nine percent micro-aggression with just a whiff of envy. But, over time, books taught me that being different did not also have to mean being alone. Books were, and still are, great teachers and good friends.
For many years, Caroline Center trainees and their families have been the recipients of beautiful children’s books donated by the Christ Child Society. The books are treasures in and of themselves; but, even more importantly, the gift of each book comes with a deep understanding of the powerful role they can play in a child’s life. New worlds open up; the imagination and spirit are enlivened; curiosity is sparked; and, a sense of common humanity is formed. When books are shared, especially between a parent and child, strong, positive bonds are created for life.
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was on my daughter’s reading list as a middle school student. At night, she and I would be reading the book simultaneously – each at our own pace – and, in our respective rooms. Often, she would call out to me, obviously having reached a particularly good place in the story, “Mom, oh my gosh, where are you now?” We read like this for weeks, each anticipating the other’s discoveries as the memoir unfolded. We still talk about this time and wish we had space in our lives now to replicate the experience. We should make the space. Reading together, from childhood into adulthood, is that important.
So, am I still bookish? If you promise not to tell my Aunt Mary, the answer is, unequivocally, “yes.” The ardor with which I sought out Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick’s difficult-to-acquire A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader being a recent case in point. A paean to books, its brilliant essays and art present one compelling reason after another and myriad worthy examples of why words and images on a page magically speak to us in ways that transform. And, while I am not certain what the authors truly meant by the title of the book, I like to think about it in this way: As human beings, through physical books and reading, we can develop a more conscious and complete understanding of ourselves and of our purpose in the world.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame, whose teaching inspires the curriculum and program as well as the mission of Caroline Center, would appreciate the letter Shonda Rhimes writes to young readers in A Velocity of Being. Its words speak to many young women; and, its lessons are for all of us. She says,
Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. Trying to have friends. I don’t have to tell you how hard that is. I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent the weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. And, if you have a book in your hand, you are not alone. If you have a book, you do not need to bend and twist to fit – you’re there.
If you read a book, you are never alone. You can go anywhere. Be anyone. Do anything. If you read a book, you will be all right. Even if you only read one book. Even if you read the same book over and over. Inside that book is a whole world.
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible.
Caroline Center’s holistic approach to teaching and its focus on educating the whole woman develop graduates who are not only excellent healthcare professionals, but also exceptional women who have the wisdom to know the power of their own voices and the value of what they bring to the world – women who are willing to be more visible because they know they are invincible.
With generous partners like the Christ Child Society and the excellent teachers, counselors, social workers, and mentors at Caroline Center, we can be assured there is, most likely, more than one good book at the heart of the transformation we hope to make possible for our trainees and graduates. And, there is also a good measure of David Bowie’s “idea of perfect happiness – reading.”
Image is by artist Kenard Pak, which accompanies Terry Teachout's letter (p. 122) in "A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader," Enchanted Lion Books, NY. All proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the New York public library system.