Some people have spiritual awakenings. I have book awakenings.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love me some Jesus (and more importantly, some Jesus loves me), but for purposes of this post, books have oftentimes been the soul-waking catalyst in my story.
I learned to read in the first grade, a fact that felt neither here nor there. Growing up in the 80’s, the progression was set: you learned your ABC’s in Kindergarten, and you learned to how to read in first grade. (Now, of course, when it comes to public education in America, the present generation performs the basics a year earlier than most of us did at the same age). By the time I arrived in Mrs. Snyder’s second grade classroom, I had fallen in love with the sport – the sport only my eyes and imagination engaged in, full contact.
The beginnings of construction paper caterpillars lined the walls of her classroom, with the name of every student at each wormy head. For every ten books, we got a sticker, or maybe it was a new caterpillar circle for our body; whatever the memory (for it was more than thirty years ago, at this point), the herbivore was motivation enough. By the end of the school year, my insect tiptoed along the wall, having consumed almost 500 books over the course of nine months.
I may have been slightly obsessed with my creepy, crawly friend. Also slightly competitive, I wanted to beat Megan, the other voracious reader in our class (who ended up taking the prize when I switched to chapter books in the spring). I could have also just really enjoyed reading.
You never know.
Either way, it was the beginning of my book awakening. It was my chrysalis moment.
I kept reading, all the way through elementary school. And then a funny thing happened: I grew tired of books. When I entered middle school in the seventh grade, I also switched from a pair of glasses to my first set of contacts – and it’s like the social butterfly within me took form.
Suddenly, even though I loved reading, I loved being with my friends more. I don’t think it was an abnormal choice to make; most early adolescents I know can’t help but ask some variation of the same three questions: Who am I? Who are my friends? Where am I going?
I suppose you could say I honed in on the second question, discarding my books for the people around me. And this priority lasted well into my twenties.
Sure, I engaged in the occasional novel as an undergraduate student – but that was always because it was assigned reading. Then, I devoured a book, here or there in my mid-twenties – but, so caught up in teaching my students how to love literature, I neglected to engage in a love of it myself. I kept reading long after I left the classroom, and went on staff with an outreach ministry. But still, I wasn’t really engaging with a book because I loved it; I was reading because someone else told me it was a good idea.
I read theological books because that’s what you did in seminary. I read leadership books because that’s what you did when you were a non-profit leader. I even read YA books because that’s what you did to understand the population you worked with, a group made up of middle school and high school students.
But I didn’t necessarily read for pleasure. I didn’t read to awaken the butterfly within, to let loose the heart and soul and imagination that desperately wanted to fly.
Sure, little blips and thumps happened along the way, minor book awakenings in and of themselves. But my second book awakening didn’t happen until almost four years ago.
I’d left my job in ministry. I’d finished my seminary degree. I called myself a writer or speaker, but I hadn’t made a penny doing either, mostly because I didn’t believe myself a real writer or speaker yet.
Then my husband and I, along with our one-year-old son, left for a three-week vacation. It was the stuff dreams are made of. For the first time in his career, he had a couple of weeks off between jobs, and seeing how my job at the time mostly involved keeping the small human alive (and occasionally playing with words), leaving wasn’t a problem. A couple of weeks before we left, I remember scanning my bookshelf for a few books to take along with me on the trip. Nothing caught my eye. Do I only read books by white Christian males? I remember thinking, for those seemed to be the only unread books on my shelf.
On a whim, I ordered three books I’d seen featured on various blogs: Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey), Pastrix (Nadia Bolz-Weber), and Seven Sacred Pauses (Macrina Wiederkehr). I grabbed a couple of fiction books from the library, and set off for our three-week journey with six books I actually wanted to read.
But it was the three aforementioned spiritual books that awakened me.
Suddenly, I felt alive in a new way: free to be the “me” I’d always been, and the me I was becoming and morphing and changing into, apart from my role in ministry and my standing as a learner. I was free to challenge all the supposed-to’s and the should’s, free to take in new information, free to think differently and believe differently and even celebrate life differently from how I’d been doing it for a long time. Free to examine God with a whole new set of eyes.
And all this from a couple of books – which I think is the whole reason why writers write.
To transform, to illuminate, to awaken the dormant butterfly within.