The Wonder Report: June 3, 2022
It’s been almost three weeks since we last met together in this space. So much has happened in that short span, and I can’t wait to fill you in.
For those of you who have newly subscribed in the last few weeks, welcome! You joined during an occasional hiatus; my apologies for not popping into your inbox sooner. I hope you’ll enjoy The Wonder Report now that it’s back!
I’m thrilled to be kicking off our summer reading of Kate DiCamillo’s work. When author Ann Patchett said that reading all of DiCamillo’s children’s books during the summer of 2020 was “one of the most satisfying literary adventures of my life,” I think I know why. “Not only are the books beautifully written,” Patchett wrote, “the stories have gorgeous arcs. They twist in ways you never see coming and do not shy away from despair or joy or strangeness. They are, each one, sui generis, each one extraordinary.” I’ve read six and a half of her books so far, and I feel the same way.
We’re also going to begin another summer project I’ve called “Love Your Place: 0 to 60.” I hope this challenge will help you take a fresh look at your local area and find things to celebrate.
There will be lots of details below about all these things … so let’s dive right in!
1. Everything Has Changed
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” -Leo Tolstoy
If it didn’t sound so melodramatic, I’d say my life feels a little like a Kate DiCamillo story lately.
If you’ve already read some of her books, you might know what I’m talking about. While each plot-line offers its own twists and turns and each character feels fresh and different, DiCamillo’s stories all carry certain themes that make her entire body of work feel somehow connected. Many of her main characters have lost a parent, either through death or abandonment, and they seek out other adults who will nurture and care for them. They’re often living in new homes, frequently in different cities. They’ve left behind friends and family, and their lives are characterized by loneliness, change, and transition.
If you’ve followed my story over the past year, when I lost my own mom and moved to a new home in a new city, you might begin to see the similarities.
But just as often, in the most unexpected places and through the most unusual circumstances, DiCamillo’s characters find a community of friends that help them regain a sense of belonging and purpose. This is the part of my story I want to tell you about now.
In the days following Mom’s death last August, I felt like I had lost my way. The depth of my grief took me by surprise. I’d assumed it would be easier since I’d already been grieving for my mom for years as she declined dramatically following a stroke. Besides that, I was 50 years old. When a child loses a mother, it’s a shock, a tragedy. My loss was expected, even if it happened earlier than I expected. Why was I so overcome by it?
For weeks, I struggled to sleep, to exercise, to work, to make dinner. I took lots of naps, went on many walks, and forced myself to carry on with my work, even though I was sure I’d never be the kind of writer I’d always been, or at least imagined myself to be, again.
About the same time, I began meeting with a spiritual director. In one of our first sessions together, she read the story of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) as a lectio divina practice, inviting me to listen for a phrase through which God might speak to me. During each reading, I focused on the question Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want Me to do for you?” While Bartimaeus knew exactly what he wanted (His sight), I didn’t have an answer. And unlike Bartimaeus, who immediately takes off after Jesus once he’s healed, I saw myself still sitting there at the side of the road. Empty and uncertain. Only in my version, Jesus sits down with me. And waits.
For months, I returned to the story of Bartimaeus, wondering what I wanted God to do for me out of my grief. In the meantime, my husband and I decided to move. I stopped napping all the time. I determined I wasn’t going to take up water color painting full time after all (despite the deep healing it brought to me last fall and winter). And I began to explore some actual next steps in my work. Even before Mom died, I realized that the hustle of self-employment and building an author platform had lost its allure.
Then in February, during my confirmation into the Anglican Church, our Bishop asked me the same question Jesus had asked Bartimaeus: What do you want God to do for you today? He’d warned us ahead of time that he was going to ask it, and tears formed in my eyes as soon as I heard the words. What if I had nothing to say? But during the service when my turn came, and the Bishop looked down at me and asked the question again, this time an answer came from somewhere deep inside me: “I want a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit so that I can better love God and others.”
As I walked back to my seat, something had shifted. I wasn’t done grieving. (I’m still not.) But I saw Jesus stand up from the side of the road, extend a hand to help me up too, and then we started walking, me following close behind him.
Or to put it another way, I could see again.
In just a minute or two, once I tell you a little more of this story, you’ll be asking yourself: How does “better loving God and others” translate into the decisions she’s made? So I need to tell you two more things to help it all make sense.
First, by the time I found myself kneeling before the Bishop and being anointed with oil, I’d already spent weeks thinking about Alan Noble’s You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World. I knew that whatever I did next would be a daring mix of using my gifts and desires plus meeting the needs of my community. As Noble says: while we should certainly consider our skills and abilities, even our interests and passions, “because we belong to Christ, to His church, and to our family and our neighbors, we must also discern what our community needs. Those needs obligate us.”
Second, I’ve worked at home for (and by) myself for years—beyond my actual desire to—because the flexibility and benefits of doing so allowed me to better love God and others. Being a full-time, self-employed writer for the past eight years has been one of the most meaningful and important gifts God has ever given me. It allowed me to be available for my three stepsons when they got home from school, needed rides after sports practices, and had sick days and doctors appointments. It allowed me to be a very involved caregiver for my mom in the final years of her live, performing day-to-day tasks, accompanying her to all her appointments, and spending time with her most day — even during the pandemic.
Now, Mom is gone, and our youngest son graduated from high school last Saturday. Very shortly he’ll be heading to Marine Corps bootcamp. Suddenly, the ways I can best love God and others have changed.
If Kate DiCamillo were writing this story, there might be a thunderstorm or an escaped tiger or near drowning incident about now. A lost cat might suddenly return or a nemesis might turn out to be a friend. But since this is just my ordinary life, here’s what happened.
I decided I don’t want to work for myself anymore. I want a job, with a desk and a boss and paid time off. I want to work with people, and I want to help people. And after years of occasionally thinking about it, I decided working as a librarian — where I can still read and write about books and point people to great articles and resources — would be the very best kind of job to have. So I applied and was accepted to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in library and information science. I start this fall.
But there’s more.
Since I’m planning to work at a library some day, I thought it might be a good idea to volunteer at my local library to gain some experience and learn more about the way things work. While I was looking for volunteer opportunities, I discovered my local library had a job opening doing … you guessed it … the exact kind of work I’ve been doing for myself the past eight years. I applied for a part-time position, since this whole “having a job” thing is all kind of new. But in the process, they offered me a full-time job. So starting Monday, I’ll have a desk and a boss and paid time off at our local library. I couldn’t be more excited.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be wrapping up most of my freelance work, though I’ll still be doing some of the writing I love, including this newsletter! I also am looking forward to going to school part-time starting the end of August. It’s a lot, but it also feels like just enough.
In Kate DiCamillo’s books, things always turn out the way they do because of the way things have gone earlier. Someone learns a skill early on that becomes life-saving later. A minor character early in the book turns out to be the hero. An object described in passing becomes the exact right tool at the end of the book.
Funny, that’s often how life seems to work, too. And not just “life,” but God. God uses it all … the jobs, the relationships, the stuff we accumulate … to get us where we’re supposed to be.
And boy am I grateful. For all of it. Even the hard stuff. Because the more everything changes, the more it also stays the same. And somehow, the most important stuff … loving God and others … never changes at all.
I wonder … what changes are happening in your life? What has happened in the past that has helped prepare you for what’s next? If Kate DiCamillo were writing your story, what would come next?
2. Reading Kate DiCamillo: Raymie Nightingale
PLEASE NOTE: With all the changes going on in my life this summer, I changed the way I’m planning to write about Kate DiCamillo’s books. Each week, I’ll highlight one book (or series) in The Wonder Report. You can find a reading schedule here.
The opening essay of the newsletter will be about a theme in that week’s book, but I’ll write more specifically about the book, and include a few discussion questions, in a separate section. This will allow all subscribers to benefit from the series whether you read the books or not. It will also give you a little more information about the book in case you decide to read it later or buy it as a gift.
I wanted to start with Raymie Nightingale* because it’s a book about the disorientation of change and the pain of losing a parent. (Also known as the story I just told above.) We learn a few things in the first chapter that are important for understanding the story.
First, Raymie’s last name isn’t actually Nightingale. Hmmm, what’s up with that?
Second, Raymie has suddenly and unexpectedly found herself without a father, after he runs off with a dental hygienist.
“The thought of that—the fact of it—that she, Raymie Clarke, was without a father, made a small, sharp pain shoot through Raymie’s heart every time she considered it.”
Third, Raymie has a plan to get her father back. And though the plan is questionable at best, it leads her on a path to new friendship, unexpected confidence, and a level empathy that would otherwise have not been possible.
FROM THE PUBLISHER:
Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie's picture in the paper and (maybe) come home.
To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest.
But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.
If you haven’t read the book, you’ll want to skip this section, just in case these questions are spoilers (I can never tell).
1.) Which of the three friends did you most connect with: Raymie, Louisiana, or Beverly? Why?
2.) Why do you think Raymie found so much comfort in telephoning Mrs. Sylvester at Clarke Family Insurance?
3.) How does the story of Clara Wingtip and Lake Clara fit into Raymie’s story?
4.) There are a host of older characters in Raymie’s life: Ida Nee, Mrs. Sylvester, Mrs. Borkowski, Mr. Staphopoulous, Mr. Option, Martha, Isabelle, Alice Nebbley, Granny, Ruthie, and probably others I’m not remembering. What role did each person play? Did you have adults like this in your life when you were younger?
5.) Who is Marsha Jean? Do you think she’s real? What do she and Lee Ann Dickerson have in common?
6.) Beverly tells Louisiana that she doesn’t understand how the world works. Do you think Beverly’s right? Do any of the girls understand how the world works? Do any of the adults?
7.) What does Archie the cat represent in this story? How about Buddy (aka Bunny) the dog?
NEED A COPY?
I have an extra copy of Raymie Nightingale. If you or someone you know might enjoy it, tell me why in the comments section by June 9. I’ll draw a winner from among the entries. (Sorry, but this is for U.S. residents only.)
FOR NEXT WEEK
3. Love Your Place: 0 to 60
In addition to our summer reading project, I want to invite you to participate in another challenge to help you learn to love the places you live. In Love Your Place: 0 to 60, we’ll seek out new parks, museums, restaurants, trails, and more in ever growing radiuses from our homes.
Starting with week 1, we’ll find something in our own block to appreciate. In week 2, we’ll find someplace within 5 minutes of our house. In week 3, we’ll venture out 10 minutes. Week 4, 15 minutes, etc. By the last week of August, we’ll venture out 60 minutes.
For me, this is a way to get to know the new area we moved to back in February. But it would work just as well if you’ve lived in your home for decades. There are always new places to explore, or new ways to appreciate the old places if you have favorites you’d like to visit again.
Each week, I’ll share my 0 to 60 find here and over on Instagram using the hashtag #loveyourplace0to60. If you’d like to share yours, tag your posts too so I can easily find them. Or you can tell me about them them in the comments each week.
This week, I went 0 minutes from home and found some joy right where I live.
First, I decided to take a different route on my morning run. I meandered my way over to a path that will soon be connected to our neighborhood. There were more mature trees and other new things to see! I’m going to incorporate this new path into my regular routes now!
Also, for my last day working from home, I decided to work on the patio. I’ve been wanting to try it over the last few weeks since the weather’s warmed, but it just never worked out. And to be honest, today didn’t go as well as I expected. One of my dogs barked at me through the window most of the time, and then the lawn service came for a much-needed mowing. Still, I loved being outside, especially with the cool morning air.
I wonder … what have you discovered close to home this week? Tell me in the comments or use #loveyourplace0to60 over on Instagram.
4. Imagination Itself: Learning to Truly See … a new essay by me
This week, I had a new essay published in The Redbud Post, the online magazine of the Redbud Writers Guild, where I serve on the board of directors. The theme was curiosity and imagination, and this essay connects imagination, nature, the book of Job, and our ability to know God. Here’s a little snippet:
If God’s answer to Job has anything at all to say to us, it’s that God’s written Word becomes a richer revelation to us when we also spend time walking through glowing meadows, letting the rain run down our faces, and feeling the brief coolness when the clouds pass in front of the sun. Only when we’re no longer content with the “hearing of the ear” can we allow our eyes—and especially our mind’s eye—to truly see God.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks again for joining me. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. I can’t always respond quickly, but I always respond.
Until next time,