What I’ve Been Reading…

I have been reading two books that “talk” to each other. Each of the authors is learned in his or her field, witty and charming, a good storyteller. Sometimes, when I’m quiet and listen carefully enough, they break through the walls of the resistance I’ve been feeling lately (about my own writing, about my mother’s journey) and I learn something that I can’t quite pin on either author. It’s something that emerges from the conversation.

The books are THE POWER OF DREAMS by Jeffie Pike and OUR GREATEST GIFT by Henri Nouwen. Subtitles: How an American Quarter Horse Impacted the Life of an Aspiring Grand Prix Dressage Rider, and A Meditation on Dying and Caring. Both books are quite short and both are full of wisdom. Other than that, most readers, I think, would not see that they share much in common. Nouwen is a well-known writer and spiritual philosopher, widely published. Pike is an accountant, blogger, and horse enthusiast who lives in northwest Washington State. She is also the daughter of a friend of mine.

One of the things the books are saying has to do with how our passions define us. Nouwen’s fascination with the soul and the soul’s journey drew him into caring for the sick and dying.Pike begins her narrative with this revelation: “I’ve loved horses my entire life. I think it must be something that you’re born with. I remember very clearly sitting in an ice cream shop when I was 6 years old and for some reason a very strong thought popped into my head—you love horses. Ever since that time, my life has revolved around them.”

These books have much to say about how our relationships define us. Pike is writing about an American Quarterhorse named Justine; her subtitle gives away that this little mare defied classifications and competed with bigger, more elegant horses , but—perhaps more important—Justine taught the author how to, well, relax and enjoy the ride. Nouwen begins his book with a personal story about a friend with Down’s Syndrome, Maurice Gould (Moe), who, as he aged, developed Alzheimer’s. Justine taught her owner how to live; Moe taught his friend Henri how to die. But they turn out to be the same thing.

Jeffie Pike was obsessed with the German Warmbloods who she typically competed with in dressage. She had enjoyed Justine, who came to her by a happy accident, and when she decided she didn’t have enough room or time in her life for her, went to considerable trouble to find her a new home. When she learned that Justine wasn’t valued by her new owner, Pike went to great lengths, again, to get her back, overcoming financial and geographical difficulties. “How much sense did it make?” she asks more than once. What made sense was that she loved Justine and cared for her deeply, and, as it turned out, that was enough.

Nouwen teaches the same lesson on the human plane: love is always enough. We are not valuable because we are a certain height, or have eyes of a particular color. We are not valuable because we graduated from a certain Ivy League institution, or because of anything we, personally, do or can do. We’re valuable because we are beloved children of God.

One of the features I loved about THE POWER OF DREAMS are the chapter epigraphs, which Pike draws from Temple Grandin, Robert Greene, basketball coach John Wooden, and Star Trek. Again, I found numerous intersections to Nouwen’s insights. “It is possible to commit no errors and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life” (Captain Picard to Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Peak Performance”). As Nouwen might put it: “The mystery of life is that we discover this human togetherness not when we are powerful and strong, but when we are vulnerable and weak.”

Late in her book, Pike offers a quote that I, on coming across it, immediately wrote down in my journal: “Your fears are a kind of prison that confines you within a limited range of action. The less you fear, the more power you will have and the more fully you will live” (Robert Greene, The Fiftieth Law). While reading both of these books I thought, often, of the prodigal son; I thought, too, of his older brother who doesn’t understand why their father welcomes the errant son home. (I am still thinking about this.)

THE POWER OF DREAMS and OUR GREATEST GIFT also reminded me of something I’ve read about the bumblebee, that, aerodynamically speaking, it should not be able to fly. But no one has ever told the bumblebee this, so it flies.