Before becoming an international sensation and household name at the age of fifty-four with the publication of her first novel, Sue Monk Kidd was a writer of personal spiritual nonfiction. And earlier yet, writing was not her primary career at all. A longtime nurse, Kidd began her writing career by surprise when a piece she submitted to a contest was published by Guideposts, an interfaith publication founded in the 1940s. She went on to write for the magazine for twelve more years; thus began a superstar bestseller’s unexpected journey. From there, Kidd went on to write and publish an array of personal nonfiction, from pieces in magazines and eventually three memoirs on spirituality before she would ultimately publish The Secret Life of Bees. Her 2006 book Firstlight gathers together these early writings from her Guideposts years and other publications as well.
When approached with the idea of gathering her early inspirational writings together, Kidd was highly uncertain. “It seemed likely that the writing I’d done in my literary pubescence would possess a natural greenness,” she writes; “less maturity in my voice, technique, style, and language.” She wonders, “Did I want to revisit what seemed like less seasoned times?” But revisiting the creations we put into the world helps us to ground ourselves and disconnect from ego in profound ways. “Opening myself to the creation of this book,” she says, “became an unexpected act of reclamation.”
At the core of this collection is the warmth of compassion and the energetic honesty of the imagination. Although the writings vary in length, some a page or two and others a mere paragraph, they feel as though their selection was done with great consideration and a hope that they would serve to inspire readers in even the smallest of ways. And they do inspire: from the heart-rending journey to acceptance after a routine surgery renders her husband nearly and indefinitely mute to her scare with cancer, and her experience of caring for a cancer patient in her time as a nurse. Kidd writes with touching empathy as she recalls her moments of weakness, how spiritual – even physical – strength came in unexpected ways. She writes about her childhood, her marriage, her travel; all are separated into thirteen themes that range from “awareness” and “compassion” to “severe grace” and “the sacred ordinary”. She chronicles in a voice fit for one friend to another of her desire to be available to others, to be present for her children, and in one particularly remarkable passage she writes with a sort of earnest grace her soul’s longing for spiritual reverence.
The writings in this collection are untitled save for the chapter’s themes, giving readers the freedom to read as much or as little as they want in a sitting; allowing their minds to work over, discover, and rediscover the treasures of insight tucked into Kidd’s accessible and poignant writing style. One of the jewels of this early writing is the chance to see a writer at her most open-hearted. Perhaps never is a writer more actively, willingly vulnerable than in their early years, before they realized they were being vulnerable in the first place. And in Firstlight, Kidd’s vulnerability carries an emotional charge that one finds quite inspirational in itself.
Some of my favorite passages in the book are the author’s stories of what she learned in times when she was in service, whether as a nurse or working in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Often she sends the message that when one sets about to be of help, they ultimately find themselves gifted with help they didn’t know they needed. Her availability to others and her openness to learn, to allow new perspectives and insights to touch her, is one of her most admirable qualities. Her gift to her reader is to share some of her incessant wonderment – be it at the world, society, the beautiful sides of love and human nature, or the confounding lucidity of grace. As such, she instructs us all by passing along the way grace has instructed her life, and she does so in a voice of unfaltering compassion.