I left town earlier this week to attend a writer’s conference in North Carolina. When I called home to catch up on the day’s events in Knoxville, my wife shared a telling story from daycare.
Our daughter had recently graduated into the next age group at school, leaving behind some of her friends. On this particular day one of her former partners in crime had graduated to the new class – a reunion accompanied by much rejoicing.
Their former teacher peaked into the new room and immediately started composing a text message to send to my wife. Away from the frenetic activity, a safe distance from the shouts of “Mine” and “No”, my daughter and her friend had escaped to the corner of the room with the only friends they needed – piles and piles of books.
File one in the win column for nurture. This was a development that surprised no one in our families.
There’s a story my in-laws like to tell on my wife – about the time, in a fit of rage at a baby-sitter she deemed immature, she stormed off with a charge that still echoes: “I don’t like you. I’m going to my room to read.”
Years later, there’s not a room in our house where you couldn’t do that, because every one of them is filled with books. Most of them are mine.
They say confession is good for the soul. But I do have a defense. When it comes to my guilt in the passing on of this genetic obsession, it’s clearly my mother’s fault.
While our house is a minefield of books and toddler toys, there’s no such competition for space in my parents’ house. Words fill the house at the top of the driveway – books, magazines, newspapers, cookbooks – there isn’t a room that doesn’t bear witness to our need to turn letters into words and to group words into sentences. I suggested to my father that we buy my mom a Kindle for Mother’s Day a few years ago, an invitation he quickly accepted: “Anything to keep any more books out of this house.”
My first memory of yelling “Read!” to my mom was for more Cat in the Hat. She later badgered me into picking up Run With the Horsemen and even introduced me to John Irving, the gift that will never stop giving.
There was the time she told me I had to read this book on my high school summer reading list. It was so good, she told me. It had changed her life. Apparently this life change wasn’t as accessible to high school boys, because when it came time to discuss the book in September, I was the only guy in the room.
When I was trying to figure out what to do with my life in college, she wouldn’t shut it up about it – “Why don’t you go write for the campus newspaper? You love to read.”
I put her off as long as I could. You go to college to get away from your parents telling you what to do – not the other way around. But it was like she knew. I didn’t hate it. I loved it. I loved it maybe like I hadn’t loved anything else.
The truth is that I exited the womb with the cynicism of a curmudgeon and the mouth of a sailor – which is to say that when it came to newspapers I was a natural. Before long I wasn’t just a reporter but an editor. The office on the top floor of the student center became a second home, reading and writing, cutting and fixing, all in anticipation of the feel of the fresh copy in my hands when I was one of the first to liberate it from the rack.
It wasn’t long before my Tuesday and Friday nights were spoken for and I was off working for the local newspaper. You can actually get paid to chronicle high school sports and write about the exploits and heartaches of small town heroes.
Eventually I left the newspaper and ended up in seminary, where I read a lot and wrote even more. I started writing and preaching sermons and one day I started researching what some people told me were called blogs.
I started one – and after I posted a few times I began to hear it again. She was relentless. I guess that’s the way moms are. At least mine is.
“You have a gift. You have to keep doing this.”
That’s how I ended up this week on the front pew of a church in North Carolina, pen in one hand and notebook in the other, writing and scribbling as fast as I could. In a sanctuary full of writers, I was just like everyone else, a hungry pilgrim searching for inspiration to form the letters and make the words sing.
What brought us together was more than those letters and words, however. This was a journey to rest in the presence of the Spirit.
As I walked out the door of that thin place where I glimpsed the work of God, I imagined my wife and daughter a few hundred miles away, reading together. I thought about the computer in my bag that was was going to birth some new stories. And I gave thanks for the books that had been hoisted upon me and the vocation that someone wouldn’t let me escape.
It’s her fault.