682. Happy are those: a new book by Heather Choate Davis

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Heather Choate Davis is a new virtual friend of mine. We “met” last summer when I was considering taking on a medical writing project for a new client: writing a packet of information for parents of children with brain tumors. It felt daunting and sobering. Years ago I had read the classic memoir by John Gunther, Death Be Not Proud, about his son’s illness and death, but I needed more insight into the parental experience. I went to Amazon and put in some combination of the search terms: memoir child brain tumor. I narrowed the results to what was available on Kindle, because I needed it fast and was going away for the Fourth of July weekend. Up popped Heather Choate Davis’s memoir, Baptism by Fire, about her experience of her daughter’s brain tumor. It’s also a story of coming to faith. I loaded it onto my Kindle and went out of town, reading it in the car, lakeside, and amidst holiday sparklers and barbecuing. I had a hard time putting it down.

After finishing the book, I looked up Heather online and from her website saw that we had some things in common, such as the Glen Workshop experience, and so I sent her an email telling her I loved her book and was happy to find her work. She wrote back, and we found each other to be kindred spirits.

Heather’s latest book is happy are those: ancient wisdom for modern life. I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of the manuscript and loved it. It’s a meditation on the first psalm, the one that starts with “happy are those who….” I’ve read that psalm more times than I can count, but this was an experience of hearing it new. The book is small and a pleasure to hold - it really is no longer than a pen. Its layout and structure moves you forward bit by bit almost without you realizing how broad and deep an understanding of wisdom it's building from the first page to the last. So much wisdom! I love its gentle and peaceful tone.

Awhile back I wrote a blog post about a young woman who came to see me and told me that it seemed like there were no adults around and life was so chaotic, inside and out. Reading Heather’s manuscript brought that blog post to mind and made me think: this book is like having a grown-up present; this book can speak calm hope and order into lives that often feel confusing and chaotic.

I asked Heather a few questions about happy are those, and here's what she had to say.

What's the rationale for making the happy are those so physically small?

HD: Well, I think the size is a big part of its appeal. We are all so overwhelmed with content. And most books about the spiritual life are pretty weighty (or worse, filled with fluff). The Barna Group tapped into this problem a few years back and experimented with a series of small books called Frames. Great idea, and again, based on the premise that we buy lots of books and never seem to get past the first few chapters.

I wanted happy are those to feel really fresh and light and unintimidating—something you could put in your purse or backpack or even back pocket. And just in the first weeks of the release I’ve seen this to be true. People love the color and the cover, which really draws them in. And then when they pick it up they get sort of a child-on-Christmas-morning look as they thumb through it and see how short it is and how much white space there is, and they think, “this is a book I could actually read!”

With all the passages of wisdom in the Bible, why did you pick Psalm 1?

HD: It’s funny you should ask that because I didn’t really pick it—it picked me! I have used the psalms and the prayer practice of lectio divina for as long as I’ve been a Christian — 20+ years now. So that aspect wasn’t new. But then last fall a writer/theologian friend, Gary Neal Hansen, sent me a little booklet about the prayer practice, and one of the suggestions he had was to try praying the first psalm. So I did. And I found myself going deep into the psalm, and starting to make feverish notes, and doing some follow up study on key words and phrases. After a few days I wrote in big letters along the top of one of the scrawled pages: Is This A Book? As soon as I wrote it I knew that it was.

I think it also helps that the psalms are sung prayer-poems, an idea which resonates with many in the new creative economy. They are also part of world’s trove of “wisdom literature,” which is a more compelling, less fraught source than other parts of Scripture. The fact that the first psalm is also known as The Two Ways of Living speaks to clarity and simplicity of message, as well.

How do you recommend a person should read this book?

HD: I originally thought people would read it straight through over a cup of coffee. It takes about an hour and a half. But what I discovered is that folks—particularly young adults—are really taking their time with it. Reading a few pages that riff on a single word or phrase from the psalm, and then pondering that for a while before going on. The book is an interesting mix of deep wisdom and easy conversation; as with most things, approaching the work slowly and thoughtfully is going to bear more fruit.

Who are you imagining your readers to be for happy are those?

HD: I didn’t initially write it with a target audience in mind, but as I came to revise the work it became clear to me that the heart of it was all about millennials—those beautiful young people who long for answers about how to navigate their lives, to find purpose and meaning—and, yes, happiness—but wouldn’t think of going near a church for that kind of wisdom. So what this book really tries to do is remove some obstacles and create some entry points for them. To help them see that there is some life wisdom that tolerance and technology have not made obsolete. That this desire they all have to know who they are Meant To Be doesn’t really make any sense without a One Who Meant It.

Ultimately, I hope they walk away from the book knowing that they do not have to live with this incessant pressure to perform, compete, and self-actualize. To know that who they were meant to be is already more than they could ever dream of. And happy are those who are willing to receive the gift of knowing just that.

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Think about getting a copy of this book for yourself or for someone you know who needs a voice of calm hope in their life. You can order happy are those from Amazon. You can read more about Heather and her other books on her website.