This article was originally published on the Art House America Blog.
The glare of fluorescent lights was only to be outdone by the radiance of expectant faces. Two rows of pure eagerness, flanked by shiny new leather briefcases. He leaned back against a table and surveyed the latest group of recruits. His stance was relaxed, yet always alert, as if ready to spring into action if duty called. His designer suit was completed with a signature power tie, red with blue and white stripes. He exuded confidence and authority as he leaned forward, paused, and began to speak. “Welcome to the bank. I’ve come here today to teach you the most important lesson you’ll learn in your year of training. It will direct your choices, your actions, your effectiveness. It all starts with one word. Culture.”
For the next two hours, the busy executive defined and illustrated the culture of his corporate family, a family that had adopted me as one of its own. He explained what the culture looked like and how it felt. “We are the people walking swiftly through the airport — we have places to go and goals to achieve. We always operate with highest integrity. We always play fair. And we always win.” He spoke with pride, not born of arrogance but derived from years of affirming experience. The words sprinkled upon us during that early morning meeting baptized me into a new way of looking at life. At the end of our session, his point had been made. We had departed forever from the land of college campuses, including its myths, customs, and traditions, and had entered a foreign land. The culture of this new territory had been clearly defined. It oozed from every conference room and permeated coffee-break conversations. It prepared us for what we would encounter in the future, dictated our priorities, and directed our steps. The culture bound us together.
So life’s journey moves us from one foreign land to another. Each has a unique combination of influences that define and shape the culture. As I moved from corporate life to family life, I began to build a new kind of culture, a family culture. When I began to think about the things that mattered most to me in this new creation, I discovered that I wanted my children to possess a love of books and reading, to be captured by the power of words and stories as I’d been when I was young. It was a gift I’d been given, and I wanted to pass it on to them.
The terrain of my childhood was marked by dance classes, the sweet smell of honeysuckle, long bike rides, and books. Growing up in a home as the younger by five years of two children, I didn’t have readily available playmates. I longed to see the world, meet interesting people, and have grand adventures. I found the world in which I existed limiting and, at times, lonely. Yet unexpectedly one afternoon, the terrain began to change. As a byproduct of my sister’s move to a different bedroom, I inherited a small wooden bookcase. It was the kind with tilted shelves, where gently deposited books slid back easily to their designated spots. The group of Disney books was most prominent: a new one was delivered through the mail each month. On one side of this growing collection was Encyclopedia Brown. A boxed set of Newberry Award winners was nestled on the other. The carefully arranged collection of books brought a sense of order and dependability into my world. Their words introduced new voices and ideas. Their pages invoked delight and adventure. The books revealed beauty.
As a teenager, I experienced the dissolution of family life as we had known it. My father, who was living hours away, made the choice to step into my life despite the torn family fabric and the miles that lay between us. For my fifteenth birthday, he inscribed and sent a copy of The Complete Works of T.S. Eliot to me. For my sixteenth, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Long days at the dance studio left little time for quiet and introspection, yet when activity did cease and granted space to think, I was never alone. Eliot whispered to me,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
”Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tunes without the words —
And never stops — at all —
Their voices affirmed what my soul had suspected. The world was bigger, richer, and more complex than the sum of my everyday experiences. Faint shadows of a land beyond what could be seen. And in that discovery, I found traces of hope.
Fast-forward several years. Sitting in a hospital room with my six-year-old son, I was informed that his oxygen level continued to be dangerously low. What had begun as a bad cough had progressed into a serious case of pneumonia. It was our third day in the hospital, and we were both exhausted. He missed the rest of our family. He wanted to play outside. He wanted to feel like a little boy again. For the first time in his life, my son experienced pangs of loss that couldn’t be remedied with a Band-Aid or a good night’s sleep. And I wasn’t doing much better. I was trying to be strong in the face of a mother’s greatest fears, but my resolve was waning.
We were surrounded by reminders of brokenness in the world. The setting — a sterile room devoid of Legos, super hero characters, plastic weapons, or any of the tools needed for the serious work of play. The musical score — a twenty-four hour symphony of scuffling feet, beeping monitors, and hissing oxygen. The cast of characters — a multitude of nurses and doctors, who poked, prodded, and voiced ominous concern about his lack of improvement. The extras — very sick children, some who had been in and out of the hospital for years. Some who would never return home. Despite the bleak environment, a ray of light broke through the darkness. A beam of hope streaming from an unlikely place.
From our hastily packed bag, I pulled out the tattered green copy of the book we had been reading as a family. Curled up tightly on the hospital bed next to my pale, tired boy, I flicked through the yellowed pages to find our place. Yes, that was it. A pile of neatly arranged feathers, topped with two carefully crossed crow’s feet and a beak, had been found in the center of the barnyard. Jinx the cat had been framed. As we read together in that hospital bed, what took place was a holy alchemy. Ordinary words on paper were transformed into extraordinary glimpses of hope. Faint shadows of a land beyond what could be seen. We hadn’t escaped the dismal reality surrounding us. Rather, through Freddy the Detective, we were able to transport a new reality into the midst of our circumstances. One filled with clever farm animals and their political maneuverings, anticipation of a problem resolved, and ultimate barnyard justice. In that book, we were comforted by a tangible piece of fabric from the culture of our family. Through a pig named Freddy, my boy (and I) remembered how to laugh, and dream, and hope again.
After the hospital ordeal was over, that green tattered book became a memorial stone marking a significant event in our family history. Inscribed to my son and recalling the specifics of the scenario, it will forever serve as a reminder. Of the frailty of life. Of God’s gracious provision. Of the hope that can be found in the midst of despair. Of a six-year-old boy’s infectious belly laugh that couldn’t be contained behind an oxygen mask.
Encyclopedia Brown books mark the adventure and innocence of my childhood. Eliot and Dickinson are indelibly intertwined with my transition to young adulthood. Each book a stitch, each stitch combining with the next to form a fabric unique to my personal story. When we read books with our children, we’re spinning the finest thread to be woven with care into their lifelong stories. Thread of the highest quality. Thread of vibrant color that won’t fade over time. Thread that is strong, able to withstand the pressures and weathering that life will bring.
When my children were young, we spent countless afternoons adventuring through the Hundred Acre Wood, a dense area of forest located at the far end of our neighborhood. If we wanted an adventure closer to home, Pooh Corner was located behind the woods in our backyard and would suffice (although we were much less likely to catch Heffalumps). Many a morning we were found “Going on a Bear Hunt.” At night, after prayers, we reminded one another to say “Goodnight to the light, and the red balloon.” The books were seamlessly woven into our adventures and conversations. They gave us a common vocabulary. We sang their songs during our morning stroll and retold their jokes over dinner. The characters became cherished friends to us. Each book, a stitch, weaving together the fabric of our family.
As my children grow older and try to make sense of the world around them (and under our roof), the power of story has become more potent, not less. My boys were delighted when our family read Anne of Green Gables together. Through each chapter, they found affirmation and definition of the feminine peculiarities which were so perplexing (and humorous) in their little sister. The summer we read The Princess and the Goblin, my husband was facing unemployment, and our family was dealing with the possible move from our home and our city. Along with Irene, we fumbled through the uncertainty of that season, trusting that the invisible thread would take us all through the darkness to a place of safety and rest. In the last several years, my husband — not a read-for-pleasure kind of guy — has become hooked on Ralph Moody’s Little Britches series. Together, he and our sons experience the trials and triumphs encountered as a boy journeys from childhood into manhood. We all have limited vision as we navigate new territory. Great stories allow us to step back and consider life from a different angle. We emerge from our reading with a deeper understanding of the world, having gained perspective of our personal situations, and often with renewed vision and hope for our lives.
Great books carefully chosen serve a similar function to the executive perched on the edge of that conference room table. They help shape and define the culture of our family. They create shared experiences. They develop a framework through which we can make sense of the world around us. Rather than a culture being defined and passed on by the voice of an executive, books whisper to us in a thousand different voices. Each giving hints and guesses, revealing bits of universal truths, echoing ancient warnings, affirming and stirring deep longings that will one day be satisfied.
When our children emerge from home and set out on their own journeys, they will encounter many foreign lands, each with its own set of myths, customs, and lands to be explored. Yet they will not be venturing on their own. Deeply embedded in their souls, they will carry the expeditions of Pooh on a blustery day, Sir Lancelot as he fights for all that is good, and Bilbo Baggins, although conflicted, as he sets off for his Tookish adventures. They will encounter a full cast of characters, some who resemble the delightfully dramatic Anne with an “e,” and others, like Edmund, who must fight the battle within himself before he can fight on behalf of Aslan and all that is good. They will have been cautioned that indeed, there are foxes in wait of gullible victims, wizards behind many a curtain, and queens who offer power and treats in exchange for deadly allegiances. As in every great fairy tale, not only is evil disguised as good, but good is often mistaken for evil. Yet in the end, all will be made right when the truth is revealed, and each will be known by his true name. Every great story tells in some part The Great Story. Each truth revealed helps us make sense of our world. And through each tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, the Truth is woven through the fabric of our being. The fabric that will, for all of eternity, bind us together.
* * *
Here are the books I mentioned as well as a few other favorites we’ve read aloud as a family:
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
Freddy the Detective (Freddy the Pig series) by Walter Brooks
Man of the Family (The Little Britches series) by Ralph Moody
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit
The Complete Book of Dragons by Edith Nesbit
A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
And of course, anything else by Nesbit and anything by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien
Here are some great “books about books” where you can discover your own special reads for your children:
Read for the Heart by Sarah Clarkson
Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson
Who Should We Then Read by Jan Bloom
Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease