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the ministry of reading aloud

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.

dance to yellow submarine at six

A brief life update:

College students, professors, and preschoolers are finished for the year. Elementary students have four days left. On Memorial Day, Jack will head to Pennsylvania and to eight weeks of PhD classes. The day he finishes his intensives, I'll start my first 10-day residency for an MFA. 

We ate asparagus from the garden this month, and yesterday we picked the first strawberries. But half my beds are producing only weeds: I'm cutting back. This year we will travel instead of garden, wander instead of plant. I have baby relatives to meet, and I get antsy when Jack's not around.

Earlier this month I spent a week in Brooklyn with nephew Cedric while his dad started his second round of chemo. While there, I wrote an essay about cancer that doubles as a love-letter to my family's obsession with food. 

The kids have finally gotten into The Beatles, and our disc of The Beatles 1+ has been on repeat for a month or so now. So this morning, when I was reading through some old journals (I'm adding a chapter to my book - and that's another thing, final revisions are happening this summer, and I might have accidentally revealed the new book title in my bio here), I smiled when I found this letter that I wrote to Rosie before she was born. I wanted, at 27, to capture all the things I'd learned so far. I suppose there are bits I'd change and add now, at nearly 35, but mostly, I still think it's all true.

Rosemary,

Dance to Yellow Submarine at six. It's not ever going to make better sense.

You won't ever do even one thing perfectly. That's ok.

Don't let anybody do your imagining for you.

You were created to create,
and blessed to bless.

Hold everything with open hands.
What's ours is ours.
What's ours is God's.

You can't save the world.
You can barely learn the right way to love it.
But you will love it.

If you are not sure, then it's not love.

God's ways are higher than our ways.
We start with faith.

Never go to Matagorda.
View the ocean from Isaac's House,
skinny dip at midnight.

Be surrendered, but don't give up.

Find rhythms in life.
Find stillness.
Learn how to be.
Try highway driving, alone,
or listening to cicadas,
if you need to pray.

For now, we see trees walking.
A dirty windowpane view, at best,
or at least,
nothing.

It doesn't matter what you do
if
in doing it
you are finding broken parts
piecing them back together.

Don't live within your competencies.
The kingdom is breaking out all around you.

You can build your card house ideas;
in fact, you can't help but build them.
When they fall, Love is still there.

Trying to know a person you love
is like hitting a moving target.
It changes. You keep trying.

 

 

 

 

Advice for New Parents

Dear Tricia,

When I was pregnant with Rosie, I went to a fabric store.  I had never quilted before, but I wanted to make a blanket.  Standing there in the aisles of fat quarters, I found myself drawn to certain colors and patterns: paisley, roses, vines, dusky pink, sage green. As I connected the baby in my belly with a certain physical vision of where she would live and what colors would tuck her in at night, I felt linked to her in a way I hadn’t felt before that point. She would be a little woodland sprite of a baby, in a magical midwinter’s forest - or she wouldn’t - it didn’t really matter, what mattered was that I found a way to connect to her when I couldn’t see her yet.

The quilt I'm sending you today is my fourth baby quilt, and I still feel like a total novice.

Seven years into parenting, and I still feel like a beginner in that, too. I think kids change too quickly for you to ever feel like you’ve got a real strong handle on parenting. But as I finished up this quilt over the last couple of weeks, I kept thinking that the things I need to remember to be a better quilter are also good advice for a first-time parent.  

It’s not like you asked for my advice. But don’t you know me at all? I love telling people what to do. Here goes:

Write it down. You won’t remember later.
I started this quilt almost a year ago, and then set it aside for a few months before finishing.  When I came back around to it, I couldn’t remember exactly how it worked. Had I cut the triangles this way, or that way?  Had I pre-washed the fabrics, or not? 

When you’re in the middle of it, you think you’ll never forget how old she was when she took her first step, what it was that made him smile for the first time, or when she finally starting sleeping through the night (note: the medical definition of “sleep through the night” = a five hour stretch). But I’ve already forgotten. It doesn’t have to be a baby book.  Get a small, inexpensive notebook you can carry around, and when something lovely happens, write it down. Here are sample entries from an old notebook: 

9/6/11 Instead of saying “yay” or “woo hoo” when she’s happy, Rosie says “yay hoo!”

9/14/11 Owen has smelled like a grape jolly rancher since the day he was born.

Trust your instincts. 
My quilt squares were not coming out right.  I followed the instructions, but still the corners weren’t matching.  So I re-read the instructions, tried again, and failed again. I abandoned the instructions. Instead, I tried to understand what was underneath the instructions. I tried to understand the project holistically rather than as a series of steps, and then I trusted my instincts.

If he’s not sleeping, or won’t stop crying, or wants to eat every twenty minutes, go back and check the book. Call your mom, ask Google and Facebook. But in the end, your baby is a person, not a project, and people don’t always go by the book. We’re unpredictable and individual. Sometimes following all the right steps just doesn’t work.

If the expert advice is failing you (and honestly, so much of the "expert" advice is contradictory, depending on which experts you ask), trust your instincts.  God chose you to be your baby’s mother, and that tells me that you are the most perfect mother in the world for your particular baby. 

Play.
For me, sewing is play: I try things I’ve never tried before, even -and especially- when I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. I like to experiment and see what happens. 

See where those points don't match up?  Hopefully this is not the end of the world.

See where those points don't match up?  Hopefully this is not the end of the world.

Tricia, I basically never know exactly what I’m doing when I’m parenting, and I’m guessing this is true for most of us. It’s all experimental. If you’re hoping to do it perfectly, you’re going to need to adjust those expectations. Just experiment. Play. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes and that, most of the time, these mistakes will not be the end of the world.

Get comfortable.
Sometimes your iron will burp up rust-colored steam and water droplets, staining your white fabric for good. Sometimes your baby will do the same, minus - hopefully - the steam. Parenting is a messy business.

You might be one of those people who feels an immediate bond with her baby, an overflowing well of love at first sight. That doesn’t happen to everyone, though, and that’s ok too. For some of us, love grows more slowly, as we get to know our kids, and deepens over time. 

You might be someone for whom mothering is all rainbows and lollipops. Or, you might find, in the early months of motherhood, that you are slipping into the darkness of postpartum depression. Statistics suggest that one out of five new moms does suffer from some form of it. Be kind to yourself. 

Quilts are about comfort, after all. They’re about warmth and cuddles and naps and taking bits of old scrap fabric and making them into something new and beautiful. They are about grace and transformation, not perfection; honestly, I think that’s what parenting is mostly about, too.

We don’t know yet if your little one is a girl-child or a boy-child, so I made this quilt less with gender in mind and more with you in mind - to me these colors and happy prints are all you. If they don’t suit your firstborn, feel free to save this quilt for your second, or pass it on to a niece or nephew.

Love always,

Amy

a few things in January {+book giveaway!}

Well, in January I went to Italy, and what else is there to say? Plenty, actually. Because I haven't told you about the books, movies, and music that accompanied me on the planes, trains, and buses.

Books

My editor suggested that I read The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber - and boy does she get me! This weird story about a British missionary to aliens (like, the sci-fi kind) had as much relevance to faith and missions and cross-cultural communication and what it actually means to be human as anything I've read this year, and it was a page-turner, to boot.

I loved the descriptions of growing up in the South in Amber Haines's lovely Wild in the Hollow. At some points, her prose was so raw and vivid, full of unexpected yet concrete images of the physicality of the human experience, that I was reminded of Annie Dillard.

Also, I read the latest Veronica Mars novel.  I was in an airport for 10 hours.  It was perfect.

 

Movies
I watched three movies worth mentioning on the plane: 

The Intern - totally charming

The Martian - I thought the writing was a bit uneven (particularly the scenes on earth run toward cliche), but Matt Damon was pretty fantastic.

Paper Towns - I'm always up for some John Green, and I loved the way the ending of this movie dismantled the "manic pixie dream girl" thing 

Music
I spent more than a few hours listening to the music that I listened to last time I was in Italy - stuff like Indigo Girls and Pete Yorn - but I also tried some new bands that Emilie recommended, The Staves and Daughter. Another new favorite is this little album by Joan Shelley.

And Also
When I couldn't sleep on the plane, I listened to The Gilmore Guys podcast, and the soothing sounds of conversation about my favorite tv show helped.

Family
Rosie turned 7.  
We took the kids to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Writing
Aleteia launched a new website called For Her in January.  I have several pieces there-
Tuning In To Taylor Swift - how I dealt with my six year old's TSwift obsession
The Joy of Being Alone (Without Your Phone) - the proven sociological value of solitude
Fall in Love with Fair Trade Fashion - I love these pieces, especially the Noonday earrings, which I got for Christmas
Resolve to Retreat - I did not write the deck copy on this piece, and kind of hate it, but this is a list of affordable retreat centers across the States

I might have book title news soon... when I do, I'll announce it first through my newsletter.  Sign up if you haven't!

And Finally, the Giveaway!
When I got back from Italy, I had a package waiting for me - two advance copies of Christie Purifoy's new book Roots and Sky. Since I had also preordered a copy, I want to share these two! I haven't finished the book yet (because: first week of the semester + jet lag), but I've valued Christie's words and her friendship for several years now.  She wrestles honestly with darkness and still finds hope. (See, for example, this post she wrote for my blog about the pain of infertility.) If you've been following her over the last few weeks, you know that this has been an especially dark time for her family.

If you'd like to read this book (and yes, you probably would - it's a lyrical, meditative reflection on home and hope), leave a comment on this post.  On February 10th, I'll close the comments and choose a winner at random. {Update: random.org generated 14, and the 14th commenter was Hannah! You'll be receiving your copy soon.}

The second giveaway copy will be given away randomly to a newsletter subscriber, so if you haven't yet, sign up to receive my very occasional newsletter.

PS this post is linked up with Leigh!

#ciaobellahonors

By popular demand (two of my siblings asked for it - I'm so popular), here is the non-exhaustive list of my favorite things about my trip to Italy this month. Just to be clear, it was a work trip: I helped organize and lead 36 first-year honors students on a two-week trip as part of a course on The Italian Cultural Legacy. But honestly, most of the work happened in advance of the trip. The trip itself was all pleasure - and that's due to how awesome (I do not use that word lightly) the students and our guides were.  

I don't know if these students are part of the first wave of Generation Z (which the NYT predicts will be conscientious, hard-working, somewhat anxious, and mindful of the future ) or if we've hit upon the perfect formula for admissions or if they're just a very special bunch, but they made the trip great. They were the opposite of entitled: they were selfless, caring, prudent, curious, uncomplaining, enthusiastic, considerate, and frankly, hilarious. And our guides, brothers Adam and David from Footstep Ministry, ensured that everything ran smoothly and provided just the right amount of insightful instruction at each site.  Even though almost all the places we went were places I had been before, they kept things interesting.

Alright, alright, the list, in sort-of-chronological order:

  • The coliseum
    It had been closed for renovations when I was in Rome in 2002, so I was thrilled to be able to walk inside this time.
  • Remembering Ostia/sitting in the sun
    I thought I hadn't been to Ostia Antica, the archeological site on the harbor city of ancient Rome, but when we arrived, memories came rushing back. After the tour, some of us spent an hour or two eating lunch in the remains of an old bathhouse, and soaking up the sun. Also, don't you love umbrella pines?

     
  • Late nights with the leaders
    Sometimes we'd stay up late talking, and it made me feel young, it reminded me of the way we used to sit around and talk and talk in Chiang Mai or in college, when we didn't have to get a babysitter, when cafes were within walking distance.
  • Assisi, and the bus ride after
    Obviously, I've always had a soft spot for Francis and Clare, and Assisi is one of the most beautiful spots in Tuscany.  But what made this particular visit so good happened afterwards, when Kirsten said, "Amy Peterson! Coolest person I know!," then sat next to me in the bus and asked why we shouldn't all be monks. A dozen of us spent nearly two hours discussing what it means to live right, to love God, to be crazy, to change the world.

     
  • Telling my stories to a captive audience, playing never have i ever
    It was at lunch one day - who was I sitting with? Kirsten, Katie, Kaylen, and Joshua? - and the table question was most adventurous thing you've ever done. Three stories came to mind, and they wanted to hear all of them, and I realized how much I love telling stories. I think this means I've reached Peak Professor: I love hearing myself talk. But I also just loved being with this group of students. I even stayed up one night playing round after round of Never Have I Ever with them.

     
  • The side chapel of Santa Croce
    It was built with acoustics in mind, and we had some gorgeous voices in our group.  We sat along the walls, all the way around, and sang hymns. Most of us did not leave the chapel with dry eyes.
     
  • The sculptures, especially: Canova's Paolina Borghese as Venus Victorious, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, Michelangelo’s Pieta
    I did not think I would cry again at the Pieta, but I did.  It makes you ask a lot of questions of God.
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  • Going back to Castiglion Fiorentino
    Since everything was going so smoothly, I took off for a half-day on my own, and returned to the town where I spent four months in 2002.  I walked up the long hill from the train station into the old town, not totally remembering which direction to take, but I wandered my way into it, past the shop where we used to buy ice cream bars, through the archeological site and the churches, and to cafe ignoranti. The town was quiet - students hadn't arrived yet - but I talked to the barista and ate a slice of pizza at the overlook.

     
  • Surprising everyone with a trip to Venice
    Venice was not on the agenda, but we had all reached capacity of churches and galleries, and so one night at dinner, Adam announced that the next day, we'd have an earlier start - we'd meet, and board a train, and go to Venice. There's a video floating around of the reaction to the news.  You should try to watch it.
  • That sandwich in Florence
    Italian food is amazing, right?  Right. But we were on a student budget, and most of our meals fell more into the "fine" than amazing category.  We ate a lot of pizza, plain panini, and pasta. Lots of carb+ cheese.  This sandwich place, right next to the Duomo in Florence, was one of the best, though.  All local Tuscan cured meats and cheeses - and we got to taste them all before making our choices.
  • The University of Pisa
    Yes, I saw the leaning tower, and I assume you've seen it too.  So here instead are some pictures from our tour of the university - Galileo's Dialogues (he was both a student and a professor at the university), and the view you'd have stepping out of an administration building if you were a student in Pisa.  Not bad, right?
  • That gnocchi in Siena
    The church in Siena is so striking, right? Probably the best meal of my trip was around the corner from here, in a little restaurant with a high ceiling and enormous pictures of horses on the walls.  I had gnocchi with greens and bacon.

     
  • The final night on the Tyrrhenian Sea
    We would have to get up at 3 am to leave for the airport, so we stayed at a little hotel in Ostia, near the airfields. After dinner and time spent reflecting together, we walked across the street and dipped our toes (some people dipped more than their toes) into the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The students sang a medley. We looked at stars. And after, I stayed up talking with people until 1:30, and then I just couldn't sleep. I was happy. I stayed up all night.

    These are just the edges of our trip. I didn't tell you about most of the churches or galleries, about the gelato or the searching for David Bowie on vinyl or the music they were playing in that one place in Rome or really anything about the history. I didn't tell you about going to the Trevi Fountain at dusk and throwing a coin in so that I
    'll come back.  These are just the edges of the trip, the gold ones.

    Jack and the kids managed beautifully without me (he's the best), and Cassidy was just the perfect babysitter, too. So thankful they let me wander a little. I'm still working on coming back down.

top fives, 2015

I voted on two end-of-year lists that are online now: the Off the Page writers' favorites, and the 2015 Christ and Pop Culture 25, which is going online five at a time this week.

But here are my full lists of favorites from the year, top picks in bold. I called this post "top fives" because that's what Rob Gordon would do, but my "5" is loosely interpreted.

Top Albums
Carrie and Lowell - Sufjan Stevens
Divers - Joanna Newsom
Every Open Eye - Chvrches
Vestiges and Claws - Jose Gonzales
Pageant Material - Kacey Musgraves
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett
Waiting Songs - Rain for Roots 

Note: I got to go to four concerts this year. That seems to be a very high number for a mother.
-Sufjan Stevens
-Joanna Newsom
-Indigo Girls
-Denison Witmer

Top Fiction
the Neapolitan novels - Elena Ferrante
I Want to Show You More - Jamie Quatro
Re Jane - Patricia Park
The Nature of the Beast - Louise Penny
East of Eden - John Steinbeck
the Lunar Chronicles - Marissa Meyer
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
No Graven Image - Elisabeth Elliot

Top Nonfiction
Love and Salt - Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson
Short-term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel and Experience - Bryan Howell
The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash - Judith Kunst
Wearing God - Lauren Winner

Top Movies
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (read CT's review, and Vox's What Is A Mary Jane, and Does Star Wars: The Force Awakens Have One?)
Brooklyn
Inside Out
Selma
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Top TV
The Great British Bake Off
Gilmore Girls (which I re-watched while Jack was gone this summer)
Empire
The Good Wife
UnREAL (which I wrote about for Christ and Pop Culture)
Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt

Top Instagrams (viewers' choice, not mine, but pretty good! Easter, the opening of the Bridge cafe, Two Rivers park, Grandma's cape, trip to China, book contract, first day of 1st grade, Jack's marathon, and the chicks who shortly after that picture became lunch for a predator...)