Gratitude for Family — and Books

Blog, On Writing, What I'm Thinking

Thanksgiving is all about family and traditions. My family celebrated with an unusual event this year: a tribute to my parents, who are now 92 and 88, respectively.

Since retiring at age 75, my father has published three books of poetry. Many of his poems are inspired by events in his own life and in the lives of his parents and grandparents. He didn’t realize it as he was writing them, but one of his accomplishments has been to preserve our family history in his poems for future generations.

At the event, I spoke about how much my own writing has been influenced by my father’s work, and how we are all shaped by the family stories we inherit. But it was the next segment of the program that turned out to be magical: The grandchildren in our family, ages 13 to 36, read their grandfather’s poetry, speaking our family history with fresh voices. There were few dry eyes in the audience.

The warmth and sense of community that their reading created was as nourishing as sweet potato pie—a welcome respite from the unceasing discussion of the past few weeks about divisions in the country and the vitriol of the campaign. What was it about the program, I wondered, that gave us relief from the stresses of political unrest and concern about the country’s future?

It was stories. Tales that feed the soul. About other people and other times. And that reminded me how important books are. Important because they lift us out of ourselves, remind us of what’s really essential, show us other ways of being and behaving.

For most of my life, I’ve depended upon the insight of characters in books to teach me about the world and to give me a wider perspective than I could possibly have learned on my own. Novels have taught me about kindness and forgiveness, about the dangers of anger, and the consequences of holding on to grudges. They’ve shown me wisdom, and that even the wisest among us are faced with situations beyond our ability to judge or resolve. I’ve seen what happens to characters who can’t find it in themselves to forgive their own faults and shortcomings.

The only difference between writer and reader is what side of the pen you’re on. As a novelist, I get to live my character’s lives. As a reader, I get to experience the lives of characters other novelists have created. In times of turmoil, when we most need comfort and perspective, or an escape from the real world, there’s nothing like curling up with a good book. A book that feeds the soul.

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz/Flickr CC 2.0