December 2020 Newsletter

Reading Books Is Our Super Power

I was a confused and awkward middle schooler (weren’t we all?), who struggled to make friends and to understand the world outside my tiny experience of it. I was always saying the wrong words, doing the wrong things, ending up in places I didn’t want to be.

Where I felt the most at home was inside the pages of a book. There, I could discover new truths, I could see myself (or my sisters or family or neighbors) in a different light. I could experience the world without the risk of getting it wrong.

From Bridge to Terabithia to the Judy Blume series to The Thorn Birds saga that I picked up from my mom’s bedside table then couldn’t put down, I inhaled these places, these people, these events as I tried to figure out who I was and what I was meant to do.

Even the classics in high school thrilled me. Dostoevsky, Ionesco, Milton. Each one opened my awareness a crack wider and let in a breath of this big, crazy, hard-to-fathom universe.

When life as we all knew it stopped last March and continued its long, strange trip through 2020, I was reminded of those middle and high school years — of how off-balance I felt, how insecure and lost. And how reading helped me find my way — or sometimes run away.

Over my 50 years, books have been my map for discovering the world (James Michener), my guide, providing context and perspective (John Steinbeck, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison). They’ve been my friends during the lonely times (E.M. Forster, Louisa May Alcott) and taken me to exotic places during the years when I could not travel (Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez). They’ve given me fantastical lands to inhabit with my children (Thomas the Tank Engine, Little House on the Prairie, Harry Potter). And life lessons that have fundamentally shaped who I am (the Bible, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Mary Oliver). Books have been my lifeline, saving me from depression, boredom, stagnation.

This year, they have been all of those things again, helping me to understand the new and disorienting, helping me to escape the stressful, helping me to expand my horizons even as my actual day-to-day squeezed tighter and tighter.

Books can also connect. They’ve been a way for me to reach my far-away family during this time when we cannot be together. We’ve recommended books to each other and discussed the ones we’ve shared.

And they can pave a path forward. After the racial justice protests of this summer, books became a way to shift the cultural conversation and re-imagine a nation of true equality and opportunity for all.

As we head into a new year, with our hopes for brighter days, I am walking with this recognition that books are a kind of super power, able to transport and teach and touch — and help us hear what we need to know in order to do and be better.

No matter what 2021 brings, the characters that have lived with us all these years will still be there. And the ability to discover so many more beautiful, flawed, honest stories is waiting for us. We need only reserve it at the library, pick it up at our local book store, crack the spine and the let the words wash over us.

We can take comfort in that fact, that books are the tools we need to make sense of whatever the future holds.

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The nights are long and the weather is chilly, making this an excellent time to settle onto the couch and enjoy a good movie. Cue up Enola Holmes, a creative, feminist-forward imaging of Sherlock Holmes’s sister (2020). Or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a moving coming-of-age tale with a great ’90s soundtrack (2012). Or I Am Mother, a wild, thought-provoking sci-fi ride (2019).

Podcasts I keep coming back to: Proof (off-beat tales about your favorite foods); Terrible, Thanks for Asking (sure to make you cry — but in a good way); TED Radio Hour (a compilation of TED Talks around a chosen topic; this oldie-but-goodie about creativity is a must-listen).

I’ll be hiking my way through January (and likely February and March and April) in an effort to tap into nature’s ability to center, uplift, heal. And I’ll be doing it close to home (thanks, COVID). Here’s a piece highlighting my favorite winter hikes for those in the Roanoke area. And here’s a defense of hiking local (wherever you are) even when the jaunts are not jaw-dropping.

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Two titles (out soon!) that I reviewed for Publishers WeeklyPlant Over Processed is a beautifully photographed dive into a raw, plant-based diet. Even if you’re not headed in that direction, these recipes can inspire your weekly menu planning. Parenting while Working from Home is encouraging and realistic — and speaking to many more of us than it was this time last year. Making your way through its evaluations and advice will likely help you feel better about all the juggling you’re doing these days.

What will 2021’s food trends be? More than ever, no one has any idea. But here are two takes on what we might see on our plates and in the conversations we’re having about how to build a better food system.

This essay is interesting and appeared in one of my favorite online publications and addresses so many questions I am mulling these days. Mostly, how can we do a better job of embracing both faith and science?

Finally, a question: Will you be continuing with or joining an online or in-person book discussion group this year?

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About a year ago, I shook up this newsletter, giving it a new name, a new focus, a new design. Then I set out to invite everyone I could to read along. My aim is to share ideas, share resources, inspire subscribers to eat local and dig in to their communities — wherever they are. Since then, the number of subscribers has climbed 150 percent. The percentage of you opening the email and exploring the offerings has stepped up, too. In the works are several reader meet-up opportunities. And I love hearing from so many you via email. I’ve made progress on the freelance writing front, as well: I am at work creating my middle grade novel; I’ve found new, national markets for my personal essays; and I’ve added book reviewing to my mix. If there’s a word for how I’m feeling about this movement, it’s grateful. Thank you all for reading, recommending, responding. Here’s to a hopeful 2021!