Throughout my childhood, Dad read to me every night, and Mom read to me every morning. Nowadays government programs promote this practice, citing research which shows that it encourages emerging literacy, language development, and healthy parent-child relationships, but as a child all I knew was that it opened other worlds to me: Narnia, Oz, Deep Valley; Midwestern prairies, the Highlands, the Holy Land. Those stories burrowed into my soul, forming a foundation of truth that shapes my person and my priorities to this day.
In my life this reading-aloud has been a gift: a gift from my parents, a gift from the librarian, a gift from a fifth grade teacher doing all the voices in Hank the Cowdog. Most memorably, maybe, a gift from Jack, when we spent a month camping across the country and reading The River Why to each other, chapters in the car during the day, and chapters in the tent at night.
I’m an adult, now, but I still want people to read to me. I still want to listen. And I don’t think this is a childish impulse, but a human one, and even a subversive one.
At my graduate residency last month, people read aloud to us every day. In class my mentor reclaimed rhetoric. “The only place in contemporary, public society where you find rhetoric and poetics at work is in political speeches,” she said. “In fact, when we think about the word rhetoric, we now have all kinds of negative connotations because of politicians - we think rhetoric means twisting the truth. But in its original usage, rhetoric meant the most eloquent, moving expression of the truth. We need to take it back from the politicians,” she said. We need to care for words.
What if we read aloud to each other? At book release parties or poetry slams, at the preschool storybook hour at the public library, in the Sunday liturgy, during a cross-country car trip, what if we read aloud? What if we listened? What if we read novels, building empathy? What if we read poetry, letting cadence and metaphor shape our sentences and our sight? What if we read stories that taught us about experiences other than our own?
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells a story about a man who came to listen at a poetry workshop she led, and how his presence changed her:
And then this farmer showed up in Oklahoma at a workshop and told us all that he had come just to listen. He just wanted to hear everyone read their work. And we thought, “Wow. Look at this. The wandering audience. He doesn’t even want to participate; he just wants to listen.”
And he said, “No, listening is participation. It’s very important.” And he talked about being a child and being awakened every day by his granddad who read to the kids in the house as a wake-up call every morning, stood in the resonant hallway outside their bedrooms, and read poems. And my brain clicked. I thought, “This is what I’ll do for the rest of the time our son is at home. I’ll waken him every day with reading poems.”
So we did that for years, and I think he really liked it. And we would occasionally talk about the poems. Later in the day, he’d bring something up about one of the poems I’d read.
...It feels beautiful. And you feel better.
What if we read our poems aloud, and what if we listened? Later in the interview Shihab Nye tells another story of a school principal who begins each day by reading a poem, or a portion of a poem, over the school loudspeakers. Students there tell her they “carry poems” with them every day.
This week I've carried with me a few lines from Shihab Nye’s poem “History”:
“We were born to wander, to grieve,
lost lineage, what we did to one another
on a planet so wide open for doing.”
Our planet is so wide open. There are so many things we could do, so many surprising moves a person or a country can make that might be imaginative… And what have we done to each other?
I am looking for surprising, imaginative ways to make some holy mischief here and now, to reclaim rhetoric, to love words, to listen well. The ministry of reading aloud is a subversive practice to counter bigotry and hate. On a planet where we have the most refugees history has ever seen, in a nation where we’ve nominated a man full of toxic words and self-importance to run for our highest office, this is my next move: to stop and listen to you read your poems. And when it’s my turn, I’ll open my already well-thumbed copy of my friend D.L. Mayfield’s new book, and read you a chapter. Together we’ll learn how to listen well, how to be a witness to the world's brokenness, and how, as Danielle says, to run toward it.
Easily my favorite book of 2016, Assimilate or Go Home is a collection of stunning and surprising essays that invite us to reconsider our concepts of justice and love, and to reimagine being a citizen of this world and the upside-down kingdom of God. It officially releases tomorrow, but if you order today at Amazon, you can get it for under $9 - a steal.