I finally read The Secret Life of Bees.
Maribeth loaned it to me a few years ago, around the time I first tried beekeeping in fact, but one of my friends in book club said it was about a motherless young girl, overall a bit sad, and yes my friend cried when she read it. At that time in life I was not ready for such material. My youngest had just left home under really painful circumstances, and I was about as lost as I had ever been. The flip side to motherless daughters, what people don’t talk about, is daughterless mothers. But that’s for another time. I wonder if this quote Maribeth often shared with me was layered with meaning? Did she know?
She liked to tell everybody that women made the best beekeepers ’cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting. It comes from years of loving children and husbands.
So I slipped this pretty little paperback on my shelf for a while, tucked among beekeeping manuals and eventually my Papa Joe’s apiary journal. Every so often I picked it up and tried nibbling at it, but a gentle warning light would pulse in my head and that still, small voice would whisper, Not yet. You’re not ready yet. So I reshelved it over and over.
Something has settled in my heart now, and it is good and strong. Not only am I ready for this material; I am primed for it. Emotionally, spiritually, and poetically, I am set to receive every syllable of a book just exactly like this. Don’t you love it when that happens? It’s thrilling. The synchronicity of reader and writer, across years and miles, sharing a wide ribbon of words.
Author Sue Monk Kidd uses all the lilting, mysterious beauty of an apiary to convey her ideas and messages. And I am thirsty for this right now. I am also knee deep in bee yard activities of my own, so it’s fun to read about them in between doing them.
She reminded me that the world was really one big bee yard, and the same rules worked fine in both places: Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates, while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.
Okay, enough about me. Let’s talk about this gorgeous novel. Another debut novel, but the way. How fun! I am always curious to read the first book a writer publishes. And when it is this extraordinary, I am floored.
The Secret Life of Bees reads like a smooth old cotton tablecloth, the kind printed with simple aqua and salmon flowers and spread on your great-grandmother’s kitchen table. It is set in the 1960’s, another wonderful if bittersweet ground-level view of the civil rights movement in the southern United States. I had assumed it was written closer to that decade, too, it is so unpretentious and calming. So removed from the present day. I was surprised to see that The Secret Life of Bees was actually published in 2002. So if it is not a vintage tablecloth, then it is a modern one from somewhere like Anthropologie, destined to become an heirloom for us all.
Kidd has crafted believable, touchable, lovely characters who braid themselves together and become something far more than the sum of their parts. They experience loss and cope with it both individually and as a family. They fall into roles and nurture each other. They explore unique, highly personalized spirituality and are keenly attentive to social bonds and struggles. But they don’t spend their days in turmoil; they seem to have learned how to dam the river, so to speak, and protect their hard won peace. They navigate Love in common, every day ways that broke my heart to read, like painting their house pink.
You know, some things don’t matter that much, Lily. Like the color of a house. How big is that in the overall scheme of life? But lifting another person’s heart- now, that matters.
Not all the characters are so lovely, of course, but Kidd writes those just as well. She boils the pain up in your belly when you read the unsavory parts, and with very few sentences she twists your heart and rattles your thoughts. You can scarcely appreciate the light without some dark, after all. And Lily, the main character, has quite an ocean of darkness against which to kick.
As I read this slim little treasure (302 smoothly written pages) I kept thinking of people in my heart who should read it. I thought of my husband’s sister, who is so immersed in grief over the loss of their mother last autumn and all the precipitating loss our family has experienced since then. Queenlessness is what we’re enduring, really:
The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness.
The inner dialogue we enjoy with Lily is so truthful and recognizable, I think anyone drowning in grief or just coming of age with some difficulty would at least take comfort in hearing it expressed in another person’s life. More importantly, though, the reader is taken on a simple, sensual journey that has very real healing powers. Kidd writes us into the moment, allowing us to feel the sweat of hard work, the pleasure of a meal prepared by someone who loves us, the relief of sleep and quiet. Since we’re in the south in the 1960’s there are no electronics to numb us. There is little driving around away from home to keep us from enjoying nature. There is the mostly the pink house, the honey house, the lawn, the forest, the river, the people, and the bees. Heaven.
Oh, the wall. Something else has captivated me and you’ll probably hear more from me about it soon. One of the characters has a special coping mechanism for her difficult emotions. She has built a crude rock wall and visits it at times of overwhelming pain. She writes her pains (prayers) on little slips of paper and inserts them into the crevices of the wall. I just love this. It touches on what I know to be true about journaling, and it is so simple. Several people close to my heart are in crippling pain right now, and I thought of them over and over, imagining them writing their pain into a rock wall and feeling better.
Unbelievably, the book also touches on lunar cycles, a topic near and dear to me. I will be expounding on this soon, too!
As long as people have been on this earth, the moon has been a mystery to us. Think about it. She is strong enough to pull the oceans, and when she dies away, she always come back again. My mama used to tell me Our Lady lived on the moon and that I should dance when her face was bright and hibernate when it was dark.
Isn’t that beautiful? And consistent with what we know about energy flow and the moon?
Well friends, I could basically retell the entire book to you. There’s so much more to it, and obviously it’s made a deep impression on me, and I want you to read it, so long as that still small voice in your own heart is not warning you away at the moment. When you are primed for some life instruction, a smooth serving of poetry, and a powerful boost in your belief in Love and all the miracles it can perform, read The Secret Life of Bees. Then consider diving into the world of beekeeping yourself. I dare you to not be tempted after reading Kidd’s seductive descriptions of the art.
When a bee flies, a soul will rise.
~Sue Monk Kidd