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From the Bookshelf: This Same Sky

Written by Jamie Barton, 15th August 2023

As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.  This month, The Reader's Programmes Manager, Sami, reflects on reading a poem from This Same Sky (ed. by Naomi Shihab Nye) with the Shared Reading group that she leads. This Same Sky is a collection of poetry from around the world that includes over 125 poems from sixty-eight countries. 

‘But it’s difficult to sacrifice yourself
when somebody’s watching
So hard to be good
for more than a few minutes’

I recently shared ‘Goodness’ by Benny Anderson from the collection This Same Sky  with my Time Traveller’s Shared Reading group which takes place on Reading Rooms as part of the NLHF project ‘Making Meaning at Calderstones.’ The aim of the group is to bring heritage to our 'literature' audience, creating a link between our Shared Reading mission and the very human relationship we all have with places and the people from the past (even if we think we are not that interested in history). This week we were looking at the 1861 Mansion House census, in particular Sophia James, a 38-year-old Housekeeper.

I’ve always tried to be good
it's very demanding
I'm a real hound for
doing something for someone 

Reading the little information we have about Sophia made me think about the idea of giving yourself completely, to a person, action or thought, through choice or, like in Sophia’s case, out of necessity. From an early age most of us are told to ‘be good’ but now I think about it as an adult I’m not entirely sure what ‘goodness’ means. We are told to be kind to others and not to be selfish but at what point does the balance tip and our ‘goodness’ to others becomes a ‘badness’ to ourselves? In Sophia’s, and other Victorian servants, case was anyone watching to make sure that in giving so much she was not losing herself in a sacrifice to goodness?

The first reading found some group members looking back to parents and grandparents who had been in service and the difference between belonging to a household and being at home, living to serve versus expecting to be served. Many were drawn in particular to the lines ‘I’ve always tried to be good/it’s very demanding,’ and wondered why being good is something that demands and something we constantly have to try to succeed at? Surely, goodness should be an innate human ability. What does it mean if we fail to be ‘good’?

This led to discussions about these transactions of goodness in our own lives, the times we have felt the need to be good, to make choices that put others before ourselves in the pursuit of ‘doing the right thing’ and the reasons that might do this – love, duty, friendship, wanting to present ourselves in a certain way.

I sit all alone
with my watch in front of me
spreading my arms
again and again
no trouble at all
I am certainly best
when I'm all alone. 

These final lines of the poem really resonated with the group. There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely and ultimately, I think most of want to be capable of goodness.

It is clear why this anthology is on our ‘Weathering the Storm’ bookshelf. It does not pretend that the sky is always calm, that it is always easy to be good. Rather it reminds us that whether still or in storm, we all share This Same Sky and under it, there is a common language that some might call ‘goodness’ in us all.


To listen to a reading from This Same Sky, click here.

Words by Samantha Wilson

Illustration by Gill Smith


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