Yesterday I met and fell in love with a book. Its colors, its rhythm, its message, everything about it spoke to my heart in that way that deep calls unto deep, and the frozen lake of the spirit is forever fractured by the white-hot pick of knowing.
14 Cows for America, a children’s picture book by Carmen Agra Deedy, is described by the New York Times book review this way:
“This is a lovely picture book about foreign aid involving the United States and a remote village in Kenya, but it’s not what you think. Instead of an earnest tale about Americans helping an impoverished people far away, it opens with a Kenyan named Kimeli returning to his village from New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.”
The story rides on uncommon waves of compassion and empathy. It’s a simple tale about the human family which ends with the words:
“Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”
Perhaps I would not have been so moved by the book had it not been for the masterful and slow-paced approach that Dr. Diane DeFord employed in her sharing of it at the Freedom Readers New Tutor Orientation held at Christ Community Church Saturday September 4. She modeled for us the power of sharing a good book, from the jacket cover, to the artwork, to the words themselves. Each element of the story was savored and cherished. The entire tone of the sharing was respectful, no– reverent.
Diane invited us to voice the connections we made as she read and narrated the text. She shared with us along the way that she’d traveled to Africa, and we talked about the enormous significance the Masai people place on cows. I thought of the way our tutors give the gift of their precious time in much the same way that the villagers of this story give of their most prized possessions. I felt proud to be a Freedom Reader.
So much of what we do as tutors is about who we are as people. Freedom Readers spend time cultivating that well of compassion that is present in every human heart, but can so easily dry up if not visited and relinquished regularly. In the nine months I’ve spent so far on my journey with Freedom Readers, I have found that the only way to replenish this well is to relinquish it and allow myself to look with eyes of kindness. It also helps to take a moment each day to reflect on the unexpected and unmerited kindnesses shared with me at just the right times. It can be the quick sharing of an encouraging email like my friend Cindy sent to me today, or unexpected donations to Freedom Readers from Roger Quinn and Mary Neal. It can be a gift of computers like the ones board member Gregory Mitchell delivered to Huckabee Heights this week, or boxes filled with hundreds of books like the ones my friend Dominic loaded into the back of my car. And when I think of the way Dr. Diane DeFord has embraced this effort and makes the three hour drive from Columbia to share her incredible expertise, I am moved. It humbles me to consider how richly I have been blessed and am being blessed. Sometimes the road is bumpy, but it’s good to know I’m not on it alone.
This simple sentiment defines the Freedom Readers culture. We seek to connect with people on an uncommon level. We challenge the status quo through literacy in an effort to restore our communities to a place of peace.
Diane reminded the group that to experience a book you need to explore it in a variety of ways. Notice her choice of words. Experience, not cover. We experience books at Freedom Readers and uncover the wisdom, surprises, and power waiting on each page. We find out a little bit about each author and why they write. We speak to the young scholars of the feelings provoked in us as we read, and let them know that it is alright to have those feelings.
These are powerful lessons. As we prepare our hearts for the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, we take this opportunity to engage our community in a conversation about compassion, giving, and empathy. We come together to heal together. And we teach our children the lessons we must embrace so this never happens again. Books can do that. They can inspire us to wonder, move us to act. They can offer us comfort and help build bridges.
Armed with nothing more than our books, these powerful weapons of hope, light, and inspiration, we begin our fall session tomorrow, September 6.
And it is in the tradition of the Masai that we set aside our most precious gifts as offerings to our young scholars.
We are expecting great things.