The Wonder Report: January 15, 2021
When I was in second grade, my family moved across the county, and my brother and I ended up in a new school, me in second grade and him in sixth grade. I've always remembered that as a formative year in my young life; though I was only seven, the transition to a new school was not without its bumps and bruises. Now, for the first time, I've been thinking about how much harder that must have been for Gerry, who was 11.
For all the ways that move was hard for me, it also brought me the very best gift in the form of a 54-year-old librarian named Bette Killion, who had fluffy light brown hair and always wore button down blouses with matching polyester pants. (It was the 70s, after all.) Under Mrs. Killion's kind mentorship, not only did I become a lover of books and magazines and all things reading, she also introduced me to writing, even coaching me along to write and submit poems to Stone Soup, Jack and Jill, and other children's magazines.
See, Mrs. Killion was a librarian by day, but a poet and children's book author by night. Her life was devoted to words--in addition to publishing several children's books throughout her life, she had more than 800 children’s poems, stories and articles published in well-known juvenile magazines--and to helping others love and care for words, too. With Mrs. Killion's help, I discovered and read an entire biography series our library carried. She also introduced me to Madeleine L'Engle, Judy Bloom, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and other authors I came to cherish. Apart from my mom, who read to me daily as a young toddler and then taught me to read when I was four, no one had more influence in my life as a reader and writer than Mrs. Killion.
For an article about Mrs. Killion on the Wisdom Tales Press website, she was asked why she wanted to write. To answer, she quoted a couple of lines from an old poem: “Richer than I you can never be. I had a mother who read to me.”
According to the article, she committed her writing for children because "I love children and children’s literature," she said. "I feel children need good stories and poems and great art to go with them. They are more appreciative of what they read or hear and children provide the best soil for planting and perhaps I just never completely grew up.”
My own life is a testament to the literary seeds she planted.
But it wasn't just a hobby she was introducing me to, or in my case, a career path. Like Marilyn McEntyre, in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Mrs. Killion demonstrated with her life and love for both books and people that "the act of reading itself is not only intellectually and emotionally engaging, but morally consequential." She didn't randomly select books for kids to read; Mrs. Killion matched books with lives, hoping for the full weight of literature to mold and shape the young readers she was nurturing. And she taught us how to engage with the books, too, asking questions about what we read and inviting us to consider how the characters' lives were similar to or different than our own.
By helping us become better readers, Mrs. Killion was helping us to become better thinkers, better citizens, and better people. Through her example and her instruction, she showed us that "how we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts," as McEntyre explains. "Those habits determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises, and capable of discerning the difference between the ring of truth and the metallic clang of lies."
Even now, as I'm working toward become a better reader and thinker and writer, I'm grateful again that Mrs. Killion set me on the right path. And I'm indebted to writers like McEntyre who take up the mantle and lead me further along.
In Caring for Words, McEntyre's fourth strategy for stewarding words in lie-saturated culture is reading well. She offers three questions she always asks her "students as they embark on a new novel."
What does this work invite you to do?
What does it require of you?
What does it not let you do?
I think these are questions we actually could ask about books of any genre, and even about articles we read or movies we watch or music we listen to, because we'll be "challenged and confronted and convicted and offended, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes bored" if we are reading, watching and listening well. And these questions will help us be better prepared to truly engage with what we're allowing to influence us in this way.
I wonder ... who has been an important reading or writing mentor in your life? How did they pass along their love for words? What did you learn from them through their teaching and their example? I'd love to hear your stories.
Also, how do you engage with what you are reading? What questions do you ask yourself? How do you reflect on what you're reading? Do you underline in the book? Write in the margins? Take notes separately? McEntyre says that "one of the most important ways to be a good steward [of words] is to read well." Let's share ideas to help each other become better readers!
As an essential family caregiver who spends a lot of time in my mom’s nursing home, I was on the list for early vaccination and I jumped at the opportunity. On Monday, both Mom and I received the first dose of the vaccine, and we’ll get the second dose in a month.
When is the last time you memorized an important piece of writing?
In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntire writes: "Memorization--words taken in, digested, and carried by our very cells--may be a more powerful tool against word erosion than any other single practice."
Here's the challenge: This week, try memorizing a short passage of something you're reading. It could be a Bible verse, a stanza of poetry, or even a paragraph from whatever book you're currently working through. Ideally, it will be a passage that means something to you and will be helpful to know "by heart" for when you need a reminder. But don't wait until you find the best passage of the book or even your favorite lines. Hopefully it will be just the first of many passages you commit to memory.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. The Wonder of Truth: Caring for Words as an Act of Discipleship from my blog. In this lengthy essay, I explore the diminishing role of truth in our culture and call Christians to recommit to searching for and defending the truth as part of the mantle of discipleship.
From the Essay: "So the issue before us is not how to get Christians to agree on which problems are most pressing in our society or how to go about fixing them. I’m also not in any way suggesting that all Christians should leave the Republican party and become Democrats or Independents. Even in our churches, we should continue with healthy debate and conversation about doctrine and ecclesiology and eschatology, as long as we do it in love. But despite all the ways we might continue to disagree, we absolutely must recommit ourselves to one common goal: the pursuit of truth, or as Brooks explains it, “'eattaching people to reality.'"
2. Jesus, the Learner by Adam Whipple for The Rabbit Room. This whimsical essay about curiosity takes us down the more playful path of truth-seeking. How will we ever know the truth if we don't ask questions? And what will prompt us to ask questions if not our own curiosity? I also love the way the author explores whether Jesus, as a child and later an adolescent, possessed and followed his own sense of curiosity.
From the article: "Thinking of Jesus as curious is dangerous, I suppose. Curiosity is tied inextricably to ignorance, and we don’t like thinking of the Son of God as ignorant. Jesus’ potential curiosity as a child—or as an adult—leaves us writhing amid the fully-God-fully-man debate, a mystery, to be sure. Tacit implications of Jesus growing “in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52) make us squirm. Was there some point when he, the Lord, was not responsible for his actions? What does it mean for the God-man to learn obedience (Isaiah 7:15-16)? To actually be once-young?"
3. Online Conversation | Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, with Marilyn McEntyre by the Trinity Forum. If you don't have your own copy or haven't yet had the chance to read Marilyn McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, this video interview offers a great primer on the key themes of the book. There's also a transcript, which can serve as the "Cliff Notes" version of the book.
From the interview: "I think that the question ‘Is this a reliable source?’, which students often raise, has become much more difficult over the last decade. I think the nature of public media has changed and the variety of outlets has shifted. But I think that the question of discernment has to do with community. We need to be in communities of readers, thoughtful people who read together, who help cross-check and modify each other’s perceptions."
4. Journaling Winter - Free Nature Journaling course by Heather Winslow LeFebvre. Looking for motivation to get outside this winter? My friend Heather is offering a free four-week nature journaling class just for signing up for her monthly newsletter any time in January.
This course provides you with four weeks of nature exploration guidance for winter. You will receive nature walk prompts to guide your nature observation, be able to watch a video each week of a sample nature walk, receive nature identification sheets for each topic covered, as well as a drawing or watercolor technic video for you to watch corresponding with that week’s nature topic.
Heather also will explore flowers in winter, the shapes of branches & buds, hunt for nests and bird homes, and practice identifying trees by their bark.
Find our more on Heather's website.
What I’m Reading
Check out these books, magazines, or other publications I'm currently reading or have just finished. I'll only share resources I highly recommend ... and I'd love to hear your recommendations, too!
In one of Wendell Berry's best-known poems, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ (2012), a narrator, despairing at the state of the human world, finds relief in a journey into nature, being among ‘wild things/who do not tax their lives with forethought/of grief.' After the last several months, I can't think of a more appropriate time to read (or listen) to this poem.
Part of an animated poetry series from the radio and podcast program On Being, this adaptation features Berry himself narrating in a rich, rustic baritone, and lush watercolour imagery from the UK animator Katy Wang and the UK illustrator Charlotte Ager. I share it here from Aeon.
Also, I wanted to share again the list of 12 nonfiction books that I'll be reading in 2021. Here's the whole list, with a tentative reading schedule. You'll find my reflections on these book here in the Wonder Report, on Instagram, and on my blog.
JANUARY: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies - Marilyn McEntire
FEBRUARY: The Way of Imagination - Scott Russell Sanders
MARCH: Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Week - Tish Harrison Warren
APRIL: Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope - Esau McCaulley
MAY: Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
JUNE: A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus - Jen Pollock Michel
JULY: On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts - James K. A. Smith
AUGUST: Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers - Dane C. Ortlund
SEPTEMBER: The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry - Wendell Berry
OCTOBER: The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde
NOVEMBER: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion - Jia Tolentino
DECEMBER: The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters - Priya Parker
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
We talked above about the importance of reading well in caring for words. It's a stewardship technique we can all engage in. But for writers, reading well also serves as an essential skill for achieving mastery in prose and poetry. The best writers usually are the best readers.
But what does that mean exactly? In a recent podcast, writing coach Ann Kroeker shows us how to read like a writer.
First, she says that writers read to collect ideas for their work. Just like most people, writers can read to acquire information and inspiration.
Next, she says that authors can be our teachers in the craft of writing. "We read and pay attention to the choices an author makes that results in such engaging work," Ann writes.
She also encourages writers to "read close" by both annotating the text, making it our own through underlining words and writing in the margins, and copying the text, literally copying passages and letting the structure, rhythm, and words shape your own writing.
Finally, Ann encourages authors to choose their mentors carefully by being selective in what they read. "The way to read like a writer is to read like a student, like an apprentice to the authors whose work inspires you," she writes.
To learn more about how to read like a writer, I'd suggest you listen to the whole episode or read the transcript. You can also read an article I wrote several years ago about the importance of reading as writers. In "3 Ways Reading Will Make You a Better Writer," I cover some of the same tips as Ann does, with some additional examples.
Any time someone asks me how they can be a better writer, my first piece of advice is always to be a better reader. Not only will it help you improve your own work, it will also help you be a better steward of words for us all.
That's it for this issue! Thanks so much for reading along. I never take for granted the privilege of showing up in your inbox. If you know someone who might benefit from these emails, just send them this link to help them get subscribed.
Until next time!