I love books. There is something magical about the way a good story engages the imagination, allowing you, if you are willing, to be caught up in a story other than your own. I am not ashamed to admit that some of my most favorite books of all time are children’s books. Perhaps this is because of the huge role books played in my life as a young girl—they were my friends, my escape, my source of comfort and inspiration. It didn’t matter that I was different or didn’t have a lot of friends; I was always welcomed into the story.

During this season of transition in my life, I find myself returning to stories and characters outside myself again (as evidenced by the towering stacks of books in our library with no room left to shelve them). There are times when losing myself in a book is a familiar means of escape, times when I need relief from the painful, disruptive heaviness of life. But I am also finding that books have become a pathway that leads me to begin dreaming again.

In my sophomore year of college, I began to dream of doing something different, unexpected. I had followed the expected path after high school by attending the same college most of my classmates did—the one supported by our denomination. I majored in Elementary Education since teaching and nursing were the two “acceptable” fields for college-bound women in my family culture.

Away from home for the first time, I began to question some of the things I had always believed simply because my family did, and I wondered if teaching was what I really wanted to do. I thought about how much I loved my history, sociology, and psychology classes, so I took tests in the career counseling center to identify my interests. Sociology and social work were consistent leaders; they fit with my love of story and the relational dynamics that make up culture. I began to seriously consider changing my major, voicing my “what if’s” to my parents.

Their answer was swift and decisive: “Why would you do that? You couldn’t do anything with a bachelor’s degree in social work. You would have to go on for a master’s degree as well.” The unspoken “That would be ridiculous” was loud and clear. By this time, I had already experienced the importance of performance and practicality in what I pursued. My father had told me he would no longer pay for my vocal lessons because I wasn’t doing anything with it (at least anything he deemed worthwhile). The message was clear—what you want isn’t as important as what is judged to be practical and appropriate.

Back then, I didn’t have the wherewithal to stand up for myself and risk engaging my desire more fully. Better to be smart and follow the safe path, one where acceptance was earned through conformity.

While I would eventually express that I did not, indeed, love teaching children (at least in the classroom), I did retain my love for children’s literature. I think it is because children’s books are aimed at an audience free of judgment and inhibition, full of curiosity and impractical dreams.

 

 As I allow myself to wonder what is next for me in this stage of life, I am trying to be open and curious.

I am trying to not shut ideas down quickly with judgments or fear. So the fact that I find myself gravitating to books about characters who are different, who dare to defy expectation and step courageously into the unknown, is not so surprising.

My curiosity has led me to think about social issues and relationships, about the impacts of inequality and the struggle to bring about security in the presence of conflict and injustice. I wonder if embracing the “different” in me will require a path forward that is not expected or traditional or even practical—a thought that is equally terrifying and exhilarating. Last week, in the pages of a simple, yet magical story, I encountered a character who articulated perfectly what has been swirling around in my heart:

“What if? Why not? Could it be? We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?”  (The Magician’s Elephant by Kate Di Camillo)

Ah, yes. What if? I want to ask questions that change me and, in so doing, change the world. What about you? Will you dare?


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Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.