Summer Reading: Intro & Sarah Addison Allen

This summer, I was determined to “rediscover” reading. As a child, I rejoiced over the Summer Reading List that most students dreaded. I have memories of excitement bubbling up in my stomach as my mom took us to Borders (R.I.P.) or Barnes & Noble to purchase our needed novels. I loved the smell of the unexplored books, knowing how much I would gain from their pages. I remember distinctly devouring the entirety of one slim book the day that school let out, before summer had even started.

Now that I’m on the other side of the classroom, summer reading isn’t a requirement, and sometimes falls by the wayside. This year I discovered an invaluable resource in the form of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading List. I haven’t followed it strictly at all, but used it as a starting point. One of my favorites so far has been Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells.

Garden SpellsIt’s been so long since I read any light-and-fluffy modern fiction, but this was the perfect reintroduction to the genre. It was sweet, Southern, and about sisters, with just the right amount of common magic. The main character, Claire, is comfortable in her enviable old house with its magical garden until her estranged sister and her young daughter come into town. The plot and ensuing romances are predictable, but the heart of the novel is so pure that I easily overlooked that potential fault. Allen’s books dig deep into the landscape and social norms of the South, which grounded the novel enough that the magic did not feel forced or faked. I ate it up in the first couple of days of summer, and it left me hungry for more.

Lost-Lake

Since Garden Spells, I’ve read two more of Allen’s books: The Sugar Queen and Lost Lake. Both were good, with the same mix of Southern roots and magic. Ghosts even come into play in their plots, but what Southern author can stay away from ghosts for very long? I preferred The Sugar Queen, which is a cozy, autumnal read set in the area around Asheville, North Carolina (where Allen grew up and currently lives). Lost Lake has a lovely cover, which attracted me to it, but lacked the interest of her other novels. It was a fun summer read, though, set at an aging summer getaway in the depths of south Georgia, with flashbacks set in Paris, which immediately endeared the novel to me.

Sarah Addison Allen has published three other novels: The Peach Keeper, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and First Frost. I began The Peach Keeper this morning, which promises to be a sort of murder mystery. I recommend Allen’s books to anyone looking for a light summer read with a lot of heart and a bit of magic.

Now, your turn: What are you reading this summer? Light reads? Required? I’m always looking for more recommendations!

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The Importance of Skinned Knees

There are things that most of us forget as we get older: What it feels like to look at the world from the perspective of 2 or 3 feet off the ground. What it feels like not to know what letters and numbers mean. What it feels like to skin your knees.

As a kindergarten teacher last year, I went through boxes of bandaids and wiped thousands of tears mending skinned knees. Each time a casualty of the playground would come to me, I would give him or her as much empathy as I could spare, I’d coach them through being brave as I cleaned their wounds and applied the magical healing power of a plastic bandage. But it always seemed that these accidents happened in waves, and I’d have to work as fast as I could to help one while another hollered, or help one while eighteen other children asked questions about water or bathroom or what-are-we-doing-next. I’m sure there were times when the healing process hurt; when I was more worried about the efficiency of getting the bandaid on and class continuing than soothing tears or kissing boo-boos. The scrapes and scratches happened so often, surely the tears would dry up soon and the bandaid work its healing powers without more lost class time on my part.

But about two weeks ago, the shoe was on the other foot. Or, if you’ll pardon me, the scrape was on the other knee. B and I were coming out of a cute little breakfast place at the beach. In one hand I had my to-go coffee, in the other I clutched my wallet and the stickers and brochures I had just pilfered to add to my journal. With full hands, I was at the mercy of the sidewalk as I tripped and fell full-force on my right knee and took most of the skin off. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After ascertaining that I wasn’t too hurt, B decided to chuckle a bit, then load me into the car and take me to the nearest pharmacy.

He played the part that’s usually mine to play, picking up extra large bandaids and alcohol wipes while I limped a little and suddenly realized: this is what a skinned knee feels like. It had been so long since I had really fallen hard, I had forgotten how unpleasant the feeling was. As B cleaned the dirt out and I felt the sting of the alcohol wipe, I silently apologized to each and every student whom I had told not to cry so hard, that it was all going to be okay. Because while the antiseptic is healing, it HURTS. Even after it was all over and done, it didn’t feel great. I wanted to limp around and show off my big girl bandaid, to display how brave I was.

Maybe it’s silly, but I felt like this was a good experience for me to have as a teacher. I know I will flash back to that moment from this summer every time a child comes to me next year, and I will be empathetic. I will understand exactly what it feels like, and I will be able to understand why the whimpering happens as I clean the wound. I won’t feel so greatly the need to shush and get it over with so the next thing can happen. Because I was reminded so vividly what that pain feels like, I’ll be better able to love my children with skinned knees.

This concept pertains to so many other situations in life as well. Hard things come. Hurt comes. Oftentimes when someone is hurting, we want them to feel better as soon as possible. We shush them with words, promising things will be better soon, it’s not all that bad. But feeling pain allows us to be quiet, to empathize, not just sympathize. We don’t want to suffer, but suffering makes us better able to love those who are hurting. I hope I can use this lesson from skinned knees and apply it to other areas of my life. How can I use the hurts in my past to help me love those who are hurting now?

In that same talk that gave me the kick in the back I needed to start blogging, Don Miller said this about heroes: In our favorite stories, the hero and the villain usually both have a painful backstory. But what makes the difference is how they handle their pain. The villain chooses to be a victim of it. But, the hero redeems her pain.

So today I’m celebrating my skinned knee. Long may it remind me to love others, even amidst their pain.

Have you seen this to be true? Can pain be redeemed? I’d love to hear your voice in the comments.

Permission Granted

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Confession: I’ve had writer’s block for 26 years.

That’s an exaggeration. Between the ages of 0 and 6, I could not write. I do not remember writing until the fall of 1997, when I was in 1st grade.

So let me correct myself: I’ve had writer’s block for 20 years.

Sure, I’ve produced some pretty good essays and articles for school assignments in those times. I’ve written a few poems, a few blog entries, and even one “novel” during the rat race of NaNoWriMo. But I can count on my fingers and toes the amount of compositions I’ve come up with that I am proud of. Most of that pride came because someone else told me, “Sarah, this is great.” There was an 8th grade poetry project. An essay on media ethics I had to read to a class of scary, confident journalism majors. And an essay on nature and death that made my dramatic and wonderful professor clutch his heart when he referenced it later.

I’ve been waiting for someone to give me approval.

I’m a reader. The last couple of years were busy as I met and married the irrepressible B and began my teaching career. Books fell by the wayside, but I’m two weeks and four books into summer, and loving it. I think being a reader has made being a writer hard for me. There are already so many good words in the world, why add my redundant and possible muddled prose to the mix?

But as I read, I feel called. I know what I want to write. Or at least have a general idea. I cannot guarantee that the world needs my voice, but I know one thing: I need my words to come out. I was created for a purpose, and words seem to be wrapped up in my bones and make my head and heart spin. And I know they need to get out.

About a week ago, Donald Miller (author of the recent and highly recommended Scary Close) came to my hometown, something I never would have expected. I love his books, and they always seem to come along at the right time. I went to hear him speak, and the whole experience was wonderful on many levels. During his talk on “Common Characteristics of Heroes,” he said something that hit me between the eyes.

“We live in a consumer culture,” he said. “But we are not called to be consumers. We are co-creators. We have a God-given agency to change the world.”

I’ve been waiting for someone to give me permission.

Little did I think, when I was created with this love for words, that was all the permission I needed. I am co-creator. So here I go.

Permission granted.