I've been thinking about the basics lately--the basics of reading.
We read for simple reasons: to learn, to escape and to be entertained. We read, I believe, to be changed somehow, enriched and transformed by someone else's story. The beauty of other people's words is that they grant permission, their imagination inspires and experiences give perspective. So reading, in it's most essential nature, gives us often more than we asked for when we opened the covers and began to turn the pages.
I read three books last year that changed things for me. The first, Defying Gravity: A Celebration of Late-Blooming Women, by Prill Boyle, was one of those permission-granting books. Published in 2004, Boyle outlines the stories of 12 women who made dramatic career changes late in life.
It's sounds so simple. Yet last year, I was struggling in my own crisis--feeling mismatched for the career I had called my life for the prior 16 years. For the first time, I wondered if the work I had done for my entire adult life was all wrong.
I wanted to finish my novel, I wanted to leave corporate America...but then, where would I go? I didn't know of any other place. I wanted my work, whether it was as a novelist or any other choice, to have meaning and purpose. Defying Gravity gave me permission to make a major change, and I decided not to wait until I was 50. When the opportunity came to me, I decided I would take it.
I focused on changing my career because Prill Boyle wrote this book.
Silas House's first novel, Clay's Quilt, was published in 2001. Lucky for me, by the time I found him last September, he had also written three more novels: The Coal Tattoo, A Parchment of Leaves, and Eli the Good. I inhaled all four books in two days' time--stunned by his prose and inspired by his imagination. You see, Silas lives in Eastern Kentucky, a part of this planet that I know very well. I grew up in a small town that they call the Gateway--caught between the world of bourbon and horse money or moonshine and coal money. I know the voice that talked to me in Clay's Quilt. He inspired me, and brought me to terms with my own writing and my goals for the novel.
I recommitted to my manuscript because of Silas House.
Then there was Jantsen's Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue and Grace, by Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy. This book changed everything for me. It is Pam's memoir of losing her 15-year-old son, Jantsen, and everything I had worried about that seemed so magnanimous was now more trivial than I can ever admit. (I also faced, for the first time, my own terror at losing my children. Nothing else seemed important anymore.)
After Jantsen died, Pam and her husband, Randy, went on to upend everything that they had once called normal, by crashing through their grief and healing by giving to others. They adopted Van and Tatum from Vietnam in the early 2000s, and through a long list of serendipitous events I can only call "God-things," they saved child after child from lives we cannot imagine. (Read. This. Book.) They now support over 300 at-risk children in Vietnam and Cambodia through their foundation. In 2006, she read an article in the New York Times about Mark Kwadwo, a 6-year-old child slave in Ghana, west Africa, and went on to rescue Mark six weeks later. Today, they support over 80 other former child slaves in Ghana. They are committed to their housing, medical care and education until they are grown.
This book, however, became more than just influential for me. In August, I met Pam Cope, who lives here in Dallas. By September I was volunteering my time, providing marketing assistance for the foundation, Touch A Life. In November, I quit my "Corporate America Job" when she hired me full-time. In January, I went to Africa to see the child slaves on the waters of Lake Volta, and I came back fueled with purpose and passion.
As you read this, I am in Africa again, with Pam by my side. We are under this African sun next to these boys who will soon be men--these boys who call me "Ma" and wrap their arms around my neck with love and simplicity. Soon, I believe, they will lead their country as modern day abolitionists. And I will stand behind them, as one of the "Ma's" who changed their lives, all because I decided to read some books.
And because of Pam Cope, my life has flipped upside down (Whoa. You have no idea.)
We read for pleasure and escape and entertainment. But for me, because of these three books, I changed everything in my life. There is a ripple from that change...that flows from little ol' me, here in Dallas, to the hollers of Kentucky, to the wide open waters of Lake Volta. It only takes one person to do something different. I applaud Prill and Silas and Pam for writing these books, because reading their words changed me.
Now, it's my turn to change somebody else.