Fiction and Nonfiction

I read a lot of nonfiction these days. I haven’t checked the list I keep of books I’ve read to corroborate this, but I would venture to say that I probably read a roughly equal number of fiction and nonfiction books anymore. It has not always been this way.

I read nonfiction to find out the truth on a topic, but ironically enough, I often read fiction for the same reasons. A story doesn’t have to be real to be true. The feelings and reactions, the relationships, the ways of looking at the world and seeing God in it–these things make fiction live for me and keep those characters going in my mind for a long time after the book is done. I can recognize myself and those I love in the pages of a good novel, or I can recognize the state of the world, the things people really do to other people. 

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One recent novel that I have found exceptionally helpful for this is Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. This is the story of friendship, marriage, family, and forgiveness, and the unexpected detours that they take. The people in this story make real mistakes–from the relatively minor, like keeping secrets from a spouse, to the major, like ignoring mental health issues and gun safety–and have to try to figure out ways to trust people and reach out with love again after their worlds fall apart…or if reaching out is even worth it when forgiveness seems like such an impossibility. The events of the story were very different from my personal experience–in my family, there was no adultery, no shooting, no rehab–yet, there was learning to trust after betrayal; there was tragedy and recovery after it; there were mental health issues and reaching out for ways to help and love. I came away from reading this book with a grounded feeling of shared humanity, and assurance that I’m not messing it all up–reaching out and trying again, and then again after I fail, is part of what it means to be human.

Reading helps to broaden the truth of my own experience. Have I read excellent nonfiction on the topics that stood out to me from this book? Of course–the great Pat Conroy comes to mind, and Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, and they are writers I would recommend to anyone. They both share from real life many similar events to what the characters in this book faced, and their experiences also broadened the way I understood these issues. As researchers would tell you, it’s important to find multiple reputable sources before coming to a conclusion. Maybe that conclusion is somewhere between fiction and nonfiction.

Maybe we have to read both to find it.

What to Read?

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It’s late, and snow is falling outside–the first soft, white, wet flakes of winter, and I love it all so much I can hardly stand it. School has already been called off for tomorrow, so there is a whole lovely day stretching before me, filled with coffee and freedom and a winter wonderland. Which leaves only the question: what am I going to read?

Snow days clearly call for good books, and I have a to-be-read stack that stretches into infinity. There’s no shortage of material; the question is only how to choose. Over decades of conundrums just like this, I have a few guidelines I use to help me make these difficult decisions.

  1. What else am I reading? It’s hard to have two novels going at once. Occasionally I can do it if, say, one of them is young adult and the other is literary. I always try to be reading two different books at a time–one fiction and one nonfiction. So the first question is what’s already going on in my reading life so that I can create a balance. Right now I am reading two nonfiction books: one is on faith and one is on culture, and I’m near the end of each, so tomorrow begs for some fiction for simple balance.
  2. What is happening in my life? If I have long stretches of time, some literary fiction is a good choice. I need to read literary fiction when I can go more slowly and just absorb. A car trip with my family is not a good time for Faulkner–I need to concentrate on the writing without people begging for the alphabet game. But a car trip is ideal for something fast, fun, and attention-grabbing. A snow day runs along the same lines, but the book gets bonus points if it relates to the weather in some way, or at least makes me feel cozy. A good romance is a solid choice.
  3. What is my frame of mind? When I’m well-rested and not as stressed, I can handle more heavy subject matter. But when it’s hard to keep my mind on anything without letting it bounce back to work, I want something that’s light and playful, or something that grabs me and won’t let go. I need an escape.

Based on the above criteria, it looks like I will need a novel, and one that’s fairly light, considering a snow day doesn’t last forever, and I want to get out of the work-day hustle. Thankfully, Book of the Month Club and my local Barnes and Noble have each delivered something that might fit the bill. I’ll update on my final choice after tomorrow, and if you need me in the meantime, I’ll be on my couch with a cup of coffee, drifting off to faraway lands with every turn of the page.

Silence

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Bernheim Forest

Joe and I were still young marrieds when we got Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages. The concept immediately made sense to us–to love someone well, you need to express love in the way that they recognize it, not necessarily the way you recognize it. It was a shift for us that has shaped the rest of our marriage, and although we don’t always do it perfectly, this idea is a North Star for us, and we return to it especially when we feel ourselves out of sync.

My only problem with The Five Love Languages was that I could never figure out which language was mine. Joe figured his out easily, but I bounced around, and still am bouncing to this day. Gifts? Give me all of them. Works of service? I certainly won’t feel loved if you don’t pull your weight around the house. Quality time? I’ll take all that too, but only when I’m not reading, or watching TV, or trying to get ready, or cleaning something. Don’t bother me then.

I think I read somewhere where Jen Hatmaker said that she values quality silence, and I wonder if that might be my love language. I feel so at peace when Joe and I sit on the couch together after the kids are in bed, each of us doing our own things, but my feet are in his lap, or we’re holding hands, and every now and then one of us might read the other something great we found online or in a book, or he will growl at the game he’s watching, and I’ll glance idly over to see what he’s worked up about. We don’t have to talk; we can just be together, and it’s so beautiful.

I love reading side by side with the kids too, or just having us all together in a room, quietly engaged in whatever, but all together. I sometimes worry that my kids will remember “Be quiet!” as the words I said most, because they are kids, and they like to scream in sheer joy, but I am 40, and I like to sit quietly and collect my thoughts. 

When they were still very little, I started getting up an hour before their regular time just to have some quiet and peace to do whatever silent thing I wanted to do: write or read or lie on the couch. It didn’t last long–they realized I was up and started getting up earlier–but it helped me to establish a morning routine that savors some quiet time, even if it’s short.

Sometimes I worry that my love of silence makes me a bad person, but I’m starting to accept that it just makes me me. I don’t ignore my family; I try to give them the space to be themselves; I invade that space often just to be with them and to give them what they need, which is usually the opposite of silence. But there is nothing wrong with recognizing what I need and carving out space for that, in those few minutes in the morning and those last minutes at night, which is, in fact, when I am writing this. 

So now I just try to let myself relax in the silence, when I get it, and let it wash my mind and soul clean for the moment when one of my kids comes bursting out, screeching and laughing and ready to play. I will be better able to stand up, shake off the silence, and play, play, play.

Escape

Yesterday afternoon, Joe spent a couple of hours sitting on the roof and cleaning the gutters, and then replacing the panel of our fence that was broken when a tree fell and knocked it out. We are not outdoorsy, work-in-the-yard kinds of people, which the state of our landscaping clearly reflects, but he did a good job, even if he did tear his jeans, drop sludge on my head, and say a lot of words I didn’t come close enough to hear while he was hammering away from the other side of the fence. In the meantime, I found a trail of ants swarming a piece of dropped food near the dishwasher. We set up an ant trap, and then I forgot about it while I was running the vacuum. 

Some days, you can’t win for losing. I love my house, but as soon as everyone had showered, we headed down to Nashville, both to celebrate the good work and to escape the site of it all.

I have always loved Nashville, from the time I was a kid and my parents would take us to Rivergate Mall on a Saturday when we needed an Easter dress or a Christmas dress, or just a chance to shop for something that our own local mall did not have. I loved shopping and sometimes getting new things, eating out, and then falling asleep in the car on the way home, usually to the sound of my parents’ Christmas music, whatever the season.

My kids love Nashville almost as much as I do, although they have some different reasons. They do love the food–Slow Burn Hot Chicken is a particular favorite for all of us–and they are fine with hitting a mall, although my own choice, Green Hills, is on their blacklist now that the candy store is gone. They will suffer through Trader Joe’s, which gets my husband and me way too excited. But for the kids, the purpose of the whole trip is McKay’s.

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McKay’s in Nashville

McKay’s Used Books is an escape from reality. The store is a giant warehouse filled with row upon row of used books, CDs, DVDs, records, video games, electronics, musical instruments, and other odds and ends. I first visited McKay’s in Knoxville, when it was still located in an old restaurant, and the aisles were painfully tight, and the whole place was filled with the utter magic of what might be in the next stack. Joe brought me there when we were dating, and his love of that place was one of the ways I knew he was a good one. That store has moved now, but he doesn’t like to go through Knoxville without stopping by. Or Chattanooga either, for that matter–there are no bad McKay’s outposts, and there are a couple in North Carolina as well. 

I have my route through the store: religion, general fiction, writing, travel, cooking memoirs. Then I’ll catch up with Joe and the kids in sports before taking my daughter to look at the young adult series she’s currently in love with. By the time she and I meet back up with the guys, it’s unusual for all of us not to have an armload of books, and we still have to go upstairs to peruse the CDSs. 

McKay’s is a labyrinth of delight and wonder, and the best part is that it’s often free. Having a McKay’s so close has allowed us to keep our bookshelves a little neater than we otherwise would have done, as we are learning to ruthlessly purge things we won’t read again. We pile our old books in the big white boxes and lose ourselves in shopping while we wait for our number to flash on the board. The trade credit is decent, and often we can pay for whatever we’ve selected with the little slip of paper we’re issued at the counter. 

Sometimes it strikes me how counterproductive it all is: I clean off my shelves just to fill them again. But when you have the chance, you should always, always buy the books. Books are the best way I’ve ever found to be alone in a crowd of people, and McKay’s has a million opportunities.

Solitude

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Kentucky farmland in the fall

I grew up with three little sisters. The youngest was born eight years after me, and for a while, all four of us shared one room. We lived in a two-story house on land wrapped by my grandfather’s farm, a perfect place to grow up–surrounded by fields and trees and woods and few other people. It seems like it’s the ideal place for solitude, but inside our house, I had to create it for myself.

My parents still say that what I most wanted was a room of my own. I just wanted my own space where I could think thoughts, or plan stories, or stare at the ceiling and no one could bother me, whining, “It’s MY room too!” My husband marvels still at how our kids can be shrieking and the TV blaring and the timer on the stove beeping, and I can sit quietly on the couch in the midst of all of it, reading or looking at my phone, tuning it all out. But if I wanted any privacy when I was growing up, it had to be in the quiet of my mind.

I still value solitude, although as an adult I have more control over my time and space. Of course, as a parent, some of that control is illusory. I may not have any major chores to do on a Sunday afternoon, but will I have all that time to read or nap? False. I will not have it. And that’s okay. I have learned that I can find solitude in other ways.

I discovered in college that my favorite form of solitude is being alone in a crowd. I still remember the night I realized this was true. I was alone in my dorm room on a weekend, and I turned around to look out the window and saw my reflection in it. Outside, it was dark, cars rushing by in the street below under the streetlamps. I held a mug of something hot in my hand, and Bob Dylan was playing on a mix CD my boyfriend made for me. Down the hall, I had multiple friends I could call if I felt like company or like doing something, and that knowledge made me perfectly happy to tuck up with my drink in my bed to listen to music or watch a movie and drift off to sleep with no alarm the next day.

This type of solitude is still my most comfortable. Often as I drive to pick up my kids after school, I don’t turn on the music in my car, but the silence isn’t oppressive, because I know at any minute I could call my husband or my sister, and I would no longer be totally alone. I need my solitude tempered with the possibility of community, which makes it rich, probably because of its temporary nature. My grandmother, who is wired very much like me, used to crave her alone time but was afraid to say it out loud for fear of the day she might be truly left all alone. It’s a fear I shove down deep, unwilling to think about it. 

I try to push away these fears because I dread loneliness. I love being alone in a crowd, but I don’t want to be lonely in it. I need to feel like I’m wanted, or at least like I belong, like I fit, even if I’m all alone. The loneliness of not belonging paralyzed me for years. As I get older, I find I can choose to get through that by remembering whose I am, and that my acceptance does not depend on people. I can take a deep breath and belong wherever I am because of Jesus’s love for me, and the difference there, too, is startling, knocking my fears aside.

Everything about solitude is not pretty, but I think I will always be a person who needs it. My days go better when I have the ability to step aside for a few minutes and process what just happened, to remind myself that I’m not the center of the universe. Certainly there are down sides to solitude, but there’s also the solitude of a quiet Saturday morning, when one of my kids gets up early and joins me on the couch. I sip my coffee and scroll through Instagram, and he or she puts a head on my shoulder and stares out at the day, each of us thinking our own thoughts and feeling our own feelings, shoulder to shoulder to welcome in the new day together.

Photography–Week 4

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Fall break adventures

It’s the last week in this learning series. Here’s what I did this week:

  1. I looked at another site, this one made by Apple, for photography tips, some specific to my iPhone. I am no longer finding new and surprising things, so I feel like I must have learned many of the most common tips for good pictures.
  2. I played with editing a little bit, not with any new apps, but just with what’s built into my phone in the camera app. Honestly, I’m not wild about it. I like most of my shots better the way they are rather than putting an artificial light over them. This might be different if I had done something else, like actually try out Photoshop, but as I’m not expecting to be a professional photographer, I just need some ways to improve what I do. I feel like I have some options now, even if I mostly prefer not to use them.

That’s pretty much my week. I took some more pictures, paying attention to centering the frame and keeping an eye on background objects and people. 

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More fall break adventures

This whole learning thing has been a good experience. I didn’t feel like I learned as much as I expected, but it’s an iPhone, not a Nikon, so I need to keep my expectations realistic. But I appreciate the way this experiment has made me think about photos more, and has led me to consider more carefully how I frame my pictures and be more aware of lighting. These are all steps I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t been thinking of what I wanted to learn and how I was going to share that learning.

I may try this experiment again with another topic, but this time after I have more carefully considered what kinds of things I want to learn. Photography has always interested me, so it seemed like an easy beginning, but as the weeks passed, I found that I would almost always rather read than research photography tips, which might not have happened if I’d been more invested in the topic. Still, I’m glad I did this, and look forward to seeing how what I’ve learned carries its way into my future.

Why I Love Shauna Niequist

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I can’t remember how I first heard of Shauna Niequist. I wish I knew who recommended her to me. I do know that the first book of hers I read was Bread and Wine, which mixes essays with recipes, and I absolutely fell in love.

Shauna’s writing is like great wafts of fresh cool air on a hot day. It’s water when I’m so thirsty. It’s a hand reached out and a voice calling me sister, pal. Her style is lyrical and accessible and lovely, and it soothes the soul.

I’ve read all her books except for Savor, which is a year of devotionals, and I have that one too–I’m just not so great at always remembering to read a daily devotional. Her books are collections of short essays loosely centered on a theme: Cold Tangerines is on finding joy in life; Bittersweet is about clinging to God and to hope in the hard times; Bread and Wine is about hospitality and community and peace, and about finding God and love at the table; Present Over Perfect is about how to be centered in your one and only life, exactly the way you are.

My favorites are probably the last two, although I love them all and recently just whipped through a reread of Cold Tangerines. I really do love the food in Bread and Wine, especially the blueberry crisp–it’s so good!–but also the way she writes with sensory details, making the experience come alive, and pulling my introverted self into the excitement of opening my home and table.

Present Over Perfect hit me at exactly the right time, as I was beginning to make some progress in letting go of the anxieties that had crippled me for so long. Shauna’s essays, especially in the second part of the book, were inspiring and kind and so full of grace. They helped me forgive myself and release the stranglehold for control I had on my entire life, and when I reread that book, as I am currently doing, my soul relaxes as I remember to do this again.

What I like most about her writing is its lyricism and sensory appeal, but I also like its accessibility. I have learned that when people say an author writes like she’s talking directly to you, I should avoid her book, because it’s going to be filled with sentence fragments, poor grammar, sloppy word choice, and even emojis (major pet peeve for me). I struggle with the sacrifice of good writing in an attempt to sound like a best friend. But reading Shauna Niequist is like listening to the smartest and kindest person you know speak at your church. It’s full of wisdom without being preachy; it’s personal without being a diary; it’s relatable but still written with style. As my writer self grows up, I want her to be like Shauna.

I read Shauna Niequist’s books when I need to let my soul rest in wisdom, thought, and grace. Her writing is challenging in love, and that’s incredibly appealing. I’m thankful for authors like Shauna, who show how to value who you are in God more than who the world tells you to be, and whose words hug your heart while you figure out ways to get there. Life is trial and error, and Shauna’s writing provides both inspiration and love to help you find your way.