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The Independent Critic

 Book Review: Start with Hello (and Other Simple Ways to Live as Neighbors) 

If you know anything about my history, then you already know that the word "tenderness" is significant in my life. So, it's likely not a surprise that by the time I made my way to the chapter "Tender > Tough" in Shannan Martin's "Start with Hello (And Other Simple Ways to Live as Neighbors)" that I was fully immersed in Martin's fiercely inspiring, relentlessly hopeful, and downright neighborly world.

I've felt a certain kinship with Martin since first discovering her presence via social media and subsequently trying to absorb anything and everything she writes. It could be partly that she resides in my own home state of Indiana, though I'm a couple of hours away from her in the big city while she's firmly planted in one of my favorite places in Indiana - Elkhart County.

For the author of "The Ministry of Ordinary Places," it probably shouldn't be surprising that "Start with Hello" is, well, ordinary. Martin's writing is relatable. You can't help but get the feeling that with Martin what you see is what you get though, of course, I'm sure there's a little bit of editing involved. However, I've thought on more than one occasion if I ever ran into Martin on an Elkhart County street or somewhere along my beloved Pumpkinvine Trail that her greeting would likely sound almost exactly like the voice I imagine as I'm reading along with this simple path to a more connected life.

That sounds a little pretentious or weird, doesn't it? It's not like Martin promises some miraculous development of a family or family of choice or community or whatever. When she says "simple path," she's not so much making guarantees as she's simply saying that there are rather basic ways we can open ourselves to community and to a more connected existence.

In late 2019, I experienced a hospitalization that would lead to my third amputation. While I was already a wheelchair user due to spina bifida, this left me off work for 3+ months and having to re-learn a good amount of my daily living skills. My carefully constructed life of "independence" began to fracture and, quite honestly, I kind of liked it (not the losing a limb part, of course!).

After years of being somewhat embarrassed by the condition of my home, my lack of housekeeping skills, a body that can be wildly unpredictable, and more, suddenly I was in a situation where I needed the presence of people if I was going to return to the quality of life I cherished.

So, I opened my door. I let people, including some new friends, come in to visit. I was a little more honest about my unpredictable body. I acknowledged areas of need and acknowledged the ways in which my abilities had been changed by this recent health crisis.

And I survived. I even thrived. I eventually started figuring out how to get back into my car. I figured out, at least for the most part, my ADLs and how to return to work. Life was different, but it became even better because after years of either isolating or putting on a show I showed up honestly and found that I didn't have to be nearly as alone as I'd always believed.

While "Start with Hello" doesn't deal much with the disability challenge of starting with hello (Martin does include it, though there were a couple "simple ways" that wouldn't be quite so simple for, say, a wheelchair user), but Martin's brand of building community is one that values honesty, vulnerability, simplicity, and choosing tenderness over toughness.

At one point, I realized that I wasn't experiencing a lot of "razzle-dazzle" with "Start with Hello." Yet, by the end of the book that was exactly what I appreciated about it. I didn't really laugh or cry a whole lot - instead, by the time the closing pages came around I found myself feeling connected to this writer I've grown to greatly appreciate and I found myself encouraged, comforted, inspired, and motivated to open my doors, open my heart, be real, and to actively seek opportunities to be more connected in my daily life.

In "Start with Hello," Martin addresses a variety of topics with a gentle can-do spirit and an awareness that everyone has a different path with different obstacles and circumstances. She writes with such a warm humanity that "Start with Hello" feels like she's holding space for all of us to venture into this unknown and take a few risks toward a more connected life.

Martin is a successful writer who works at a soup kitchen. This seems like the perfect description for how she writes, a unique combination of knowledge, faith, and presence that feels so honest it's almost jarring.

Perfect? Delightfully not. There are some writers who seem to want to dazzle you with their expertise wisdom. Shannan Martin? She seems to want to share her life because it creates space for all of us to do the same.

A relatively short and definitely inspired read, "Start with Hello" is a faith-inspired and incredibly motivating book for those who want to develop a stronger community, broaden the family tree, build a longer table, or simply not feel so alone all the time. With wisdom and compassion, Martin lets us all know that we all need and deserve to be connected and, yes, it all starts with a willingness to say hello.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic