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The Kindness of Words: A Review of "A Welcome Shore," by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Shore One of the kindest books I read this past Summer was A Welcome Shore, by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes. I say "kind" because to read the short narratives of this book is like having a friend take you by the arm for a walk and a long conversation, one that covers the little tragedies and comedies of life, one punctuated by the rejuvenating sound and air of the ocean.  It is, in short, a good and insightful walk in words, guided by a gifted wordsmith.

She begins in the fragile aftermath of divorce, of deep brokenness, and yet as her meditations on faith and life unfold, it is evident that the author's feet are on the solid ground of grace.  She draws vivid metaphors, like this one comparing her former weather-ravaged house to her dying marriage:

My house was the mirror of a dying marriage.  Ivy twisted through cracks in the cinderblock, and cave crickets like frog-sized horrors sprang out of the basement's dark.  During storms, rain gushed in at ground level, and there was always a kind of seepage at the heart of the house that put me on edge, a damp uncertainty as I tended soup or made the bed or went upstairs to soothe a child's fretting.

A house, a town, the natural world around her --- this is someone who knows the importance of place, the deep rootedness of life and the importance of our relationship to the immediate world around us.  She says that "Geography, the spaces on this 'pale blue dot,' cannot be understood apart from each of us in relation to the place where we have been set down, for the world was made the home of man and woman."  This particularity, this attention to place, extends not just to the natural world of birds, starfish, butterfly shells, and sea glass but also to the names and faces she encounters, people like Grandmother Lillian, Claire Evelyn, O.D and Ruth, and Delmas Jones, as if we have come upon them on our walk and, after making our greeting, are given given me the "backstory" on each of them.

In deep faith, she is a kindred spirit of Luci Shaw (who wrote the Forward for the book); in her keen observation, she recalls the seaside observations of Mary Oliver.  And yet the voice is uniquely her own, like her memories of houses in which she once lived, high school, visits with old friends, or moments with her husband.  There is a wonderful ordinariness about her stories.  If we haven't traveled her exact path, we can at least draw our parallels and nod knowingly at her tentative conclusions.

When it comes to faith, she has a provocative way of defamiliarizing the familiar.  For example, she says "prayer is pheasant-like," a phrase that sends me wondering to the encyclopedia to find out more about these birds.  Or "prayer is an embryo: unspoken, understood."  It is not Sunday morning language.  It's like being given a piece of treasured sea glass to hold, to enjoy, to wonder from where it came.

And that's how it goes.  A walk through the shoreline, tributaries, channels, and tide pools of her life. . . and ours, as we see in her experiences our own.

Near the end, there is this prayer: "Lord, keep me from the poverty of habitual sight."  Yes, Lord help us all.  But while you wait on the Lord, start here, with this kind book, this walk with someone who tends to see things new.

Read A Welcome Shore.  It's 117 pages of pure pleasure, a needed walk in Word and World.