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A Font of Our Individuality [snapshots of a bookshelf, snapshots of ourselves]

There are many sayings related to how external forces and behaviors shape who we are. One well-known saying is, "You are what you eat."

I'd like to think that this is true. Not necessarily on just a health-conscious level, but consider with me, for a moment, something much deeper.

A tomato isn't just a tomato. It's the rain and groundwater that provided water to the plant. It's the seed that sprouted into the plant, from the tomato that came before it. It's the sun that nourished the leaves. It's the hands that picked the tomato from the plant. It's the journey it took from the plant to your table. It's the soil that nourished the seed, the soil that is brimming full of both death and life, the same juxtaposition that meets us with the tomato. The death of the tomato, providing nourishment that bring us life. Ourselves, too, constantly growing, living, and dying, all at the same time.

I consider this, now, this morning over breakfast. For a moment I actually have time to think over breakfast. Something I haven't had time to do in months. Being a working mama of three during the pandemic has definitely impacted my opportunities for uninterrupted thinking time. I am currently taking some time away from my job, pausing my career, essentially, to be able to support my children with remote learning. I'll be back to teaching my beautiful kindergartners soon, but right now I get to be mom. And as mom, this morning, I got to make an unhurried breakfast, and during a few minutes while my littles are busy on their computers, got a chance to digest some things I've been thinking about lately.

I grew up on a farm, and even though I've been away for more than two decades, I still hold that identity very near. Understanding plants, cycles, animals, and food affects my views and understandings of the world. I consider, just like a tomato, I am not just myself. I am also the tomato I ate, the plant, the water, the soil, the animals and ancestors in the soil, the hands that picked the tomato.

So when my mom sends me boxes of tomatoes she grew from seed, from the soil on my grandparents' farm, she is providing me the opportunity to return to who I was, to where I'm from.

To nourish me and my family, to become again the soil, to experience the hands that picked the tomatoes, to communally share an internal biome with my family, even while far away. We're eating the same tomatoes. The experience almost feels sacred, beyond what can be explained by common sense.

I then also pondered, might reading together, apart, provide a similar experience? My family just started a family book club. Aunts, moms, cousins, grandmas... all willing to have a shared experience with something that will inevitably shape who we are.

Last night, while finishing a reading for a grad school class, a section of Cynthia Ballenger's Teaching Other People's Children, one of Bellenger's reflections resonated with me and connected to what I've been thinking about food, books, and how they shape who we are.

While we consider the depth of "you are what you eat" on a physical level, might we also consider, "we are what we read" on a soul-level?

Here is the part that stood out to me:

"Books are precious, something I treat with care, something I separate from other toys, other paper, other text. These patterns of behavior and emotion are finally rather difficult to explain. My behavior, the behavior of many of us, in an age of printing and photocopying, suggests that we might truly be adherents of a cult in which books have sacred value, value beyond what can be explained by common sense. John Willinsky (1900) is perhaps attempting to describe this cult when he suggests that for many educated people, reading great literature is seen as the source through which they truly become themselves as unique individuals. 'Literature might well be thought of as a font for anointing our individuality,' he claims (p. 215). When my son asks me if we have a copy of Thoreau's Walden I tell him I am sure we do, although I don't immediately know where. He asks me why we keep it, since I am clearly not very involved with it anymore, and I have a sense of seeing my own picture almost, at the age of 16 or 17, the age he is as he asks, in that book. On further reflection I realize that there are many books I keep because I feel they are like time-lapse photographs of myself at various points of becoming who I am. This idea sounds somewhat narcissistic but I think, in fact, narcissistic or not, it is rather widely held. I know I am not alone in this because I look in the bookcases of friends and see many of the same sort of things there, books they will probably never read again but that appear to be serving as a reminder of something quite important. I think it is this that Willinsky is trying to identify when he says, 'a font of our individuality'; we, my friends and I, regard certain books as embodying some of our values and our outlook on life, as marking a spot where these were acquired or articulated. They are consequently quite important to our understanding of who we are." (Ballenger 1999)

Do you find this true of yourself? I do. While there are some books I would gladly donate, share with friends, or toss, I do believe that my reading has shaped who I am, and I continue to grow and change along with what I read. A snapshot of my bookshelf would be a snapshot of who I am. There are certain books that are snapshots of moments in my life. Others are pivotal moments of reflection and understanding. The range of genres and topics on my shelf serves to show what I'm willing to consider and let into my circle of influence.

I recently saw a middle school assignment on Twitter, posted by Karina Yan Glaser (@karinayanglaser) about an assignment that her daughter completed - a timeline of books that were influential in her life.

What would your timeline be? What would your bookshelf reveal about yourself? What books would serve as snapshots of moments in your life? What are you reading right now, and how does that fit into the bigger picture of who you are?


Continue the conversation...

Video: Why You Should Shop At Your Local Farmer's Market

Video: Intentional Reading and How to Diversify Your Reading Material

Blog Post: The Power of Story to Shape Minds

Blog Post: Reading Together, Apart



Ballenger, C. (1999). Storybook reading. In C. Ballenger, Teaching other people’s children (pp. 52-68). NY: Teachers College Press.


Today's Pairing: Book & Mom's Tomatoes

I wish I could share my mom's tomatoes with you in person. There really is nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden. I can, however, encourage you to head to your local farmer's market this week - it's nearing the end of tomato season, so see if you can get your hands on the last of this season's beauties. If you're in the mood to try growing some yourself or just learn more about different varieties of tomatoes, I suggest the gorgeous book Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier.



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