I want to introduce you to one of my new favorite authors, and two amazing books. She’s an author who can get inside the head of an individual who has grown and developed within a completely different culture or lifestyle from her own.
That’s no easy task. Take marriage, for example, we expect our spouses to think as we do…. and if they don’t, they should! (I hope you caught my sarcasm and self-confession there.) We struggle to put ourselves in another’s shoes and view the world through their lens.
I also think of living in Haiti for two years, and how differently I looked at the world than a young Haitian woman. Then five years in an impoverished Huntsville neighborhood opened my eyes to the reality of generational poverty. How can a young boy imagine a life he has never been exposed to? Of course he will repeat what he has seen, no matter how unhealthy or broken. Those seven years taught me how generations of poverty can create a mindset and culture of behaviors and values different than my own.
Okay, back to the books. I am blown away by the skillful writing of Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers and We Never Asked for Wings. Both novels are entertaining and include love stories… yet there is a deeper thread woven throughout, which threatens to challenge, and even change us.
I read The Language of Flowers first, immediately drawn into the life of a young woman facing emancipation from the foster care system. Diffenbaugh has remarkable compassion and insight into the challenges facing youth aging out of foster care. But how did she get inside their heads? How could she write from a completely different mindset and decision-making pattern, if she hadn’t lived the life herself? I found myself asking over and over, throughout the book, “How does she know this so well?!”
I was reminded of Haiti, Lincoln Village, and the complex effects of trauma as I got to know the main character, Victoria. In one scene, Victoria is given an apartment, rent free, for three months. She is expected to use this time to find a job so that she can begin to contribute gradually to rent. Victoria does nothing to look for a job. Instead, she uses her $20/day food stipend to buy gallons of whole milk so she can use the empty jugs for planting flowers. She even lets them drain onto the carpet, ruining it with mud and mildew. Her actions make no sense to some of us. In fact, they are infuriating!
And yet, Diffenbaugh is gracious in her writing style. She gradually unfolds these unhealthy patterns, and their effects, in the midst of humorous and heart-warming characters and situations. There is always hope.
In the end, I saw myself. I wept cleansing, healing tears. And isn’t that really the point? We aren’t so different after all. The circumstances, situations, cultures, and family patterns we’ve experienced may be vastly different on the surface. So our temptation is to respond with judgment, fear, and even anger. It’s easier to remain separate when we uncomfortably bump into each other. The challenge is to see the common roots of survival, self-protection, self-reliance, self-preservation, and our desperate need for love. Then something scary happens… we find compassion.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.– Matthew 9:36
Jesus didn’t agree with choices people were making. He was definitely not tolerant of the broken patterns of manipulation, control, abuse, or exploitation. At the same time, he saw the crowds of people and was moved to compassion. We need Jesus and we need his ability to give us His compassion. His compassion is not passive, but leads to forgiveness, healing, and a new beginning.
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”– Matthew 9:37-38
I just finished Diffenbaugh’s second book, We Didn’t Ask for Wings, and was gripped by the struggle of a people I don’t understand firsthand. My heart is filled with new understanding and compassion for many who have come to our country illegally, in order to find a better future. There are no easy answers. My words are not political. I just hope I never see a person created in God’s image as a statistic, or problem to be dealt with.
If you read one of these incredible novels, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Most of all, I hope you find new compassion for others…. and for yourself.
All my love,
P.s. I DO NOT have time to sit and read a book. Audio books, free through my library app “Libby,” are my new favorite past time on long drives or while cleaning the house 🙂