Epiphany Season and The Rhythm of My Camel

Crossing the threshold into the new year has been challenging for me this year. Normally, I tackle my list, completing or adjusting tasks from the previous year and eagerly moving forward on a list of intentions for the new year. This year I have done this and that, now and then, but without much energy or focus.

This is not my normal rhythm, and since “rhythm” is my word of the year, I am paying attention to this change in my pace.

I’m not the only one whose pace seems slower.

My camel, the one I rode to the manger in Bethlehem and who now is returning me home, is moving slowly. Very slowly. Why isn’t my camel moving faster, especially since we Wise Ones dropped off our gifts to the Holy Family and the load is lighter? I do realize that we are taking a different route home, in order to avoid Herod. The way is new to me and to my camel.

My camel has been a faithful servant and the days on the journey have been long and uncertain, and perhaps it is tired. I am tired, too. I am weary of living with the uncertainty of these days and the plans unmet and the need to be ever-vigilant and flexible and resilient. Perhaps you are feeling this way, too.

Thanks to one of Diana Butler Bass’s recent blogs, https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/epiphany-now I remembered that Epiphany is not just the day the Wise Ones arrive at the manger, but rather Epiphany is a whole season that lasts until Ash Wednesday, which, this year is later than usual, March 2.

Therefore, I whisper to my camel as I pat its long neck, “No need to rush. Take your time. I trust we will get there when we get there, and who knows what amazing sights we will see along the way. Didn’t we see the brightest of stars at the beginning of our journey, and oh, how miraculous that was?

And who knows what dreams we will have when we stretch out under the expanse of the night sky and what thoughts will occur, as I rest in the slow and steady rhythm of your movement, dear camel companion.

This journey into the new year may be a new direction, but one that requires a kind of spaciousness and time to unfold. Perhaps this year ahead is one in which deeper clarity and understanding will emerge, bringing unexpected gifts. My task is to pay attention, to stay awake, but also to rest when overwhelmed or weary. I trust your ability to guide me and get me where I need to be. In your good time, dear camel companion.

An Invitation: What is your rhythm as you move into the new year? I would love to know.

Book Report: A Book For My Age

A growing area of my garret bookshelves is books about aging, about living as an elder.

The book I return to over and over is Joan Chittister’s The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully, and another ongoing favorite is The Grace in Aging, Awaken As You Grow Older by Kathleen Dowling Singh. Both are rich and, in fact, offer even more riches as I grow further into elderhood, but lately I have been immersed in a 2021 book, The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig.

Here’s what is written on the back cover:

With extended longevity comes the opportunity for extended personal growth and spiritual development. You now have the chance to become an Elder, to leave behind past roles, shift from work in the outer world to inner work with the soul, ad become authentically who you are. This book is a guide to help get past the inner obstacles and embrace the hidden spiritual gifts of age.

The author, Connie Zweig, PH.D, is a retired psychotherapist who is known as the “Shadow Expert.” Many years ago I read her now classic work, Romancing the Shadow, Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul (1997).

I am reading this new book slowly, taking time to respond to questions she offers for reflection, along with the guided meditations and other spiritual practices presented at the end of each chapter. The chapter that has resonated with me the most so far is “Retirement as a Divine Messenger,” but this morning I finished reading “Life-Changing Illness as a Divine Messenger,” a rich preparation for when illness enters my own life.

I am hesitant to say much more about this book, except that it feels momentous to me. The right book at the right time–both opening me to new thoughts and information, too, as well as reinforcing what seems to be unfolding in my own aging process. I am certain this will not be the last time you will find references to this book in my posts. Stay tuned.

An Invitation: If you are an elder or approaching that time of your life, what books do you recommend to support and enhance this Third Chapter state. I would love to know.

Word for the Year: Rhythm

Images by Steve Sorman

One of my spiritual practices at the beginning of each new year is to ASK FOR A WORD; a word that will nourish, challenge, lead, and even wrestle me into new growth.

Perhaps you have heard about the Desert Monastics, monks and nuns, ammas and abbas, who retreated into the Egyptian deserts in the third to sixth centuries. Their goal was to live as close to the basics of life as possible. They devoted themselves to fasting and asceticism, in order to concentrate only on God.

In response, others flocked to these Desert Monastics, hoping to receive a WORD to guide them in their daily lives. The word might be a parable, a saying or a lesson, a few words or even one word–guides for pursuing a meaningful life.

We can do the same thing–without making a pilgrimage to the desert.

Here are some ways to open to your word, to discover that guiding word, much like the star guided the Wise Ones to the Christ Child:

  • Practice lectio divina as a way to reflect on the past year. Sift through some key experiences of the past year. Big and small. Spend time with one or two of these experiences, remembering them in detail, including the senses. Look back at them as the person you are now. Is there a word or phrase that emerges? Sit with that word. Rest with that word.
  • Go for a contemplative walk. The object is not to get somewhere, but to be in the movement, the creation around you. Listen and smell and watch and perhaps even touch. Ask yourself why you decided to turn left, rather than right. If the walk is a familiar one, what feels new? Take a picture of what appeals to you. Be selective. Receive an image. Does a word or phrase emerge? Sit with that word. Rest with that word.
  • Listen to your dreams. Keep paper and pen at your bedside, and when you awaken, note what presents itself to you. Before you go to sleep, ask for a word to come to you. Is there a word or phrase that emerges? Sit with that word. Rest with that word.
  • Invite your spiritual director or wise elder or loving friend to offer you a word. Have they heard you use a word frequently during the year? Share with them your reflections of the past year and your intentions for the coming year. What do they hear you say? Is there a word or phrase that emerges? Sit with that word. Rest with that word.
  • Pay attention to what you read or hear. Are there any themes that keep appearing or specific words? What resonates with you? Does your body react in some way? What emerges? Sit with that. Rest with that.
  • Make a collage. Use random pictures from magazines or other sources. Use what appeals to you, resonates with you. When you have completed the collage, notice what emerges. Sit with it. Rest with it. Here is my 2020 collage, which led me to my word for that year, FULLNESS.

Be patient, for here’s the thing. You can’t decide or think your way into the word. You might like the idea of your word being “hope” or “love” or a word that might motivate you to keep a new year’s intention, but as a spiritual practice, it doesn’t work like that.

Your word chooses you.

The word comes as gift.

Receiving This Year’s Word

I read these words:

It is not the words themselves as much as the rhythmical repetition that localizes one in the heart.

Richard Rohr

When I read the word “rhythmical” something inside twitched. I felt a glimmer of something. And then the word “rhythm” or words alluding to rhythm kept appearing.

A rhythm that carries us into wholeness.

Jan Richardson

Let your heart enjoy a different rhythm.

John O’Donohue.

As you listen closely for your deepest call, what are the greater rhythms to which you most accommodate yourself?

Christine Valters Paintner

And there were others, as well. I decided to create a collage, and in the box of assorted pictures I keep for that purpose, I found the pieces artist Steve Sorman includes in his Christmas cards every year. I have always intended to do something with them, for they are too gorgeous not to be seen. All of a sudden what I noticed about them was the movement, the flow in each one. Expressions of rhythm.

I arranged them in a large frame I can see both during morning meditation and while working at my desk.

I had received the word for the year: Rhythm.

Allowing the Word to Ripen

I have some idea about the meaning of the word “rhythm” for my life and how it differs from the word “balance,” which has always seemed impossible to achieve, but I know I need to live with the word, stay awake and present to the word, and allow it to

Nourish me,

Challenge me, and

Lead and even wrestle me into new growth.

One more thing, a gentle reminder: You don’t need to do anything major or creative or what might be considered HOLY to receive a word. All that is required is an open heart. Ask for a word–and it isn’t too late to do so–and be present and awake.

An Invitation: Do you have a Word for the Year? I would love to know.

NOTE: Thanks to all, especially Abbey of the Arts, but also many others along the way, who have offered guidance and encouragement in the use of spiritual practices to discover and receive a word for the year.

Book Report: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

How happy I am that the first book I read in the new year was so good. So very good. A book the calibre of The Sentence by Louise Erdrich sets a tone of excellence for the rest of the year.

The basic story, -as if it were possible to confine the plot to the word “basic”- is that a bookstore employee who had been in prison, convicted for stealing a body, is haunted by the ghost of a former customer. The bookstore is modeled after Birchbark Books (one of my favorite independent bookstores) owned by the author, and the setting for the book is mainly Minneapolis from 2019-2020, which means the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic are part of the book’s context and action.

The sentence refers to the prison sentence of the main character, Tookie, a Native American woman, but also sentences in books and beyond that, one’s life sentence. The book’s epigraph gives a hint of the complexity to follow: “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” Sun Young Shin, Unbearable Splendor. I kept returning to that quotation as I moved further into the book.

I apologize to anyone who reads my copy of the book, for I underlined so much and many little post-it notes are flapping on the book’s edges.

…this dimming season sharpens one. The trees are bare. Spirits stir in the stripped branches. November supposedly renders thin the veil. p. 41

Think how white people believe their houses or yards or scenic overlooks are haunted by Indians, when it’s really the opposite. We’re haunted by settlers and their descendants. We’re haunted by the Army Medical Museum and countless natural history museums and small town museums who still have unclaimed bones in their collections…p. 81

When everything big is out of control, you start taking charge of small things. p. 202

I keep thinking about this perspective about forgiveness–forgiving one’s self and forgiving others.

You can’t get over things you do to other people as easily as you get over things they do to you. p.358

I could go on, but I prefer that you buy your own copy and mark your own favorite lines and passages. One more thing: I hope I never again use the phrase “the calvary’s coming,” for one of the characters says that phrase is really a reference to genocide. Think about it.

And yet one more thing: I know I am an old lady who has not kept up with all the abbreviations used in texts, but I was not familiar with DWW–Disturbed While Writing. Now that is one I will remember and probably use!

I promise this is the last thing. Several reviews have described this book as “wickedly funny,” and it is, but it is also deeply disquieting and seriously absorbing.

An Invitation: What is your first book of 2022? I would love to know.

Crossing the Threshold into the New Year

Welcome to the new year! As with any year, all years, we have no idea what will happen in this new year. We never know. It is always unknown. We certainly had no idea on January 1, 2021 what we would face in the coming months, but one thing we know for sure is that the old year has turned.

Here we are on the threshold of the new year.

What a good time to pull up your chair to silence.

I invite you to close your eyes lightly, not tightly and take a deep cleansing breath. Breathe in and out gently, finding your own rhythm.

Stay in the silent space as long as you wish, and when you are ready open your eyes, glance around you, as if seeing your space for the first time, and read these words:

Divine Gate-Keeper, ever present to my soul,

I approach the threshold of the new year

Aware of my vulnerability and mortality,

Recognizing my dependence on your vigilance.

Your wisdom will direct my inner footsteps

As I face the future’s unmarked terrain.

Your rapt attentiveness assures me

That you will guide my comings and goings.

This day I join my heart with all living beings

As we walk together toward what lies ahead.

Joyce Rupp

Before opening the gate and crossing the threshold fully into the new year, I invite you to pause on the threshold and reflect on the lessons and gifts of the past year. We have an opportunity before we become used to living in 2022, to reflect on the ways 2021 was sacred text for us.

Let your heart speak.

When I think about the new year, I….

As I let go of 2021, I feel…

As I move into 2022, I…

This is a good place to start, but perhaps you want or need to go deeper.

Imagine that you are preparing to walk a labyrinth. You stand on the threshold and see a long winding path in front of you. What do you imagine as you begin the journey. I think about the Wise Men–and I choose to believe there were Wise Women, too, who are still on the journey to the Christ Child. They are bringing gifts, but they will receive gifts, too. They just don’t know what they will be.

Here are some threshold crossing questions to consider as you reflect on the past year?

What do I treasure about 2021?

What have I hidden away?

What griefs and losses, regrets and changes do I need to process?

What have I made visible?

How have I become more of the person God created me to be?

And now as you envision 2022, here are other questions to consider:

What are your yearnings for the new year?

What can I do for God in the coming year?

What can God do for me?

How might the new year offer you space in which to dream, create, act, be?

What is the heart of your new year’s prayer?

Allow the questions to live within you. Sit with one that seems to resonate or one you wish I had not asked. The journey is more than one step, but begins with one step.

You’ll notice I did not mention “resolutions.” I prefer the word “intention,” for intention implies to me a gradual and ongoing unfolding. And that unfolding grows out of reflection and contemplation.

May this be a time of loving presence.

An Invitation: What are you feeling, experiencing, learning as you cross the threshold? I would love to know.

NOTE: You may want to read my new year’s post on my previous blog, Clearing the Space http://clearingthespace.blogspot.com/2020/12/crossing-threshold-into-new-year.html

NOTE: In my Tuesday, January 11 post, I will share my WORD OF THE YEAR and offer strategies for how you can discover your own word of the year.

Book Report: My 2022 Book Journal

One of my favorite end of the year projects is to organize my book journal for the new year. My previous journal documents two years of my reading life, but doesn’t haven’t enough pages for a third year, so off I went to my favorite store for notebooks, pens, and other good stuff (Wet Paint on Grand Avenue, St Paul, https://wetpaintart.com) where I found the same notebook in blue, rather than red. Change is good!

I added a fun notecard made by an Etsy artist to the front cover and started numbering the pages.

On the first page is my Index or Table Of Contents where I will add headings as the year progresses. Here’s what on that page right now:

Thoughts About My Reading Life and 2022 Intentions –page 3

Remaining Books From 2021 TBR Lists –pages 4,5

Books Unread From Books Acquired in 2021 –page 6

Library Hold List –page 7

I also included pages for new TBR (To Be Read) Lists divided into alphabetical divisions, according to the author’s last name, such as a page for ABC and another for DEF etc.

As the year progresses, I will add other headings and pages, such as Books Acquired in 2022 or specific categories of books, such as Books to Re-Read.

Of course, the main purpose of the journal will be to note what I have read. I like keeping separate lists for fiction and nonfiction, and I also divide the lists into the months of the year. Each entry includes a brief summary of the book, along with my reflection/evaluation of the book and perhaps any quotes I want to remember.

Rather than setting aside a certain number of pages for these lists, I simply note in the index an additional page number for the new part of a list. This is the Bullet Journal style. For example:

Fiction Books Read –pages 15, 20, 27, 31, 33, 34, 37, 39, 41, 42, 45,

Last year I read 120 books–76 fiction and 44 nonfiction. In 2020 I read 137 books with about the same ratio of fiction to nonfiction. I don’t set a goal for how many books I hope to read in a year, but this year I have set an intention to read more carefully. I read quickly and don’t always savor what I read, as much as I want to.

I acquired 72 books last year. Some books were gifts and some I found in Little Free Libraries, but, of course, I purchased many of them. Books have always been necessities, rather than luxuries in our household. Out of the 72 books added to our shelves, I have read 59 of them so far. Not all of the 59 remain on our shelves. Some have been passed on to Free Libraries in the neighborhood or to friends or family.

My reading intentions for the new year are to continue making good use of the library and to shop independent books stores MUCH more than Amazon. I will also continue with the ongoing process of letting go of books. The last two years one of my spiritual practices during Lent has been to remove at least one book each day from my garret bookshelves.

I also intend to shop my own shelves. What haven’t I read yet or what do I want to re-read? Last year I re-read all the Louise Penny books and enjoyed them just as much, maybe more, as I did the first time. I also re-read other favorites, such as Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House and Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. This year I think I may re-read all of the novels by Minnesota writer, Jon Hassler, along with other favorites by Ann Patchett. Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf are calling my name once more, and in an article I read about all-time favorite books, novels by Carol Shields were mentioned, and I think I would enjoy re-reading those too. But no promises–I will read what appeals and read where my heart –and my attention–is drawn.

And, of course, I am like a crow attracted to the bright, shiny, and new. My husband gave me Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Sentence, and I think that will be my first read of the new year. He just finished reading Amor Towle’s The Lincoln Highway, and I am eager to read that as well. I suspect early into the new year a couple of the books I requested from the library will be on hold, and those will take precedence. The piles never diminish, but merely shift in shape and content.

Another intention is to note who recommended a book when I add it to a TBR list. My favorite sources include BookWomen (http://www.bookwomen.net) and Modern Mrs Darcy (https://modernmrsdarcy.com –both her blog and her podcast), but I read the NYTimes Book Review, the Washington Post and a variety of other blogs that mention books, too.

I also intend to note the number of pages for each book and to take more care with my summaries and include more favorite quotes or passages.

Keeping a book journal is not a necessity, but for me, doing so adds to the pleasure of my reading life.

All this writing about books and my book journal makes me want to read. Who says I need to wait till January 1 to start reading Louise Erdrich’s new book? Today is a perfect day to turn more pages.

An Invitation: Do you have any reading plans for the new year? I would love to know.

Christmas Planned and Christmas Actual

Our plan for Christmas Day was in place. Our Cleveland kids arrived Christmas Eve, and our St Paul kids would join us for Christmas Day at our house. After sharing snacks and other treats and opening presents, we would have a late afternoon dinner. The table was set, and we were eager for togetherness, our Agneberg Love Fest.

You know the saying, “The best laid plans…” About an hour before our beloved were to join us our daughter called, and I could hear in her voice that something was not right. In a flash a number of scary or at least upsetting possibilities occurred to me.

“Mom, Peter tested positive for COVID and he is sick.”

Peter is 13 and has had the first two vaccinations, but does not yet qualify for the booster and for that reason he is the most vulnerable in the family.

Poor Peter. Poor all of us.

We needed to absorb the news, and Kate needed to make necessary phone calls to other people they had been with in the previous days. Eventually, however, a new plan emerged: Backyard Christmas.

We loaded up the presents, plates of cookies, cherry walnut bread, lefse, and other good stuff, along with a pile of wool blankets and headed to their house where the fire pit was ablaze. Peter stood on the back porch away from the rest of us, but close enough to participate in conversation and to give his Aunt Cricket the play by play account of the Cleveland Browns/Green Bay Packers football game, and we had Christmas.

One of the questions I have asked myself during all these drawn-out COVID months is “What is possible?” We figured out what was possible, and we managed. We adjusted. We cried, but we also laughed, and we did the best we could.

We still had Christmas.

On December 26th we finally got around to eating the planned Christmas Day dinner. Half of it was delivered to our daughter’s house, and the other half was eaten at our dining room table re-set for four, instead of eight.

We managed. We adjusted. We did the best we could.

We still had Christmas.

Thanks to Steve Garnass-Holmes for these words:

You come to share our disappointment with us

so that we might share your hope.

You come into our uncertainties

and show us how to be ourselves.

Welcome, Beloved, welcome.

My Christmas prayer for each of you is that whatever adjustments you may have needed to make this past week still left room for joy and love. May you remember that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

An Invitation: How well did your plans for the holiday match the reality? I would love to know.

Book Report: Two Books and a Story

December is a good time to discover your reading rhythm. When during the day are you compelled to stop whatever you are doing, no matter how long the list might be, and read? I invite you to pay attention to that inner voice, that voice calling you to reading time. Some days it may be necessary to ignore the voice as life intervenes, but don’t let that happen too often. That voice encourages you to take care of yourself, to find balance in your day, and to open your heart to imagination or new knowledge and awareness.

This past week I read two books and both should be added to my 2021 Favorite Book Lists (see https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2021/12/02/book-report-my-favorite-books-of-2021-part-two-nonfiction/ and https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2021/11/25/book-report-my-favorite-books-of-2021-part-one-fiction/

  1. The Road Back to Sweetgrass, A Novel by Linda LeGarde Grover. Published in 2014. If you love books by Louise Erdrich, you will also love this book. The author is a member of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe and an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. The story focuses on three women and their lives from the 1970’s to the present and how they navigate changes in their lives and their connection to the fictional Mozhay Point reservation. Each of them are drawn back to the Sweetgrass Allotment, which is the result of federal Indian policies. The final chapter tells the story of the first days of the allotment when the Muskrat family became transformed into the Washingtons by the pen of a federal land agent. I loved the use of the Ojibwe language–sometimes I could figure out the meaning of a word because of its context, but even when I couldn’t, I imagined how the word sounds, and I reflected on how important it is to make sure that language lives and is honored and respected.
  2. These Precious Days, Essays by Ann Patchett. Published in 2021. I ordered my book from Parnassus Books where Patchett is a co-owner. The Nashville bookstore is on my “someday” list, but in the meantime I now have a signed copy of her most recent book. I have no doubt Patchett is a wonderful person and not just because she cares enough about books to own a bookstore. She is the kind of person who opens her home to someone she barely knows when that person is enrolled in a cancer clinical trial (the subject of the title essay) and because she looks for saints in her life (the essay, “The Worthless Servant”).

“The trouble with good fortune is that we tend to equate it with personal goodness, so if things argue well for us and less well for others, it’s assumed they must have done something to have brought that misfortune on themselves while we must have worked harder to avoid it. We speak of ourselves as being blessed, but what can that mean except that others are not blessed, and that God has picked out a few of us to love more? It is our responsibility to care for one another, to create fairness in the face of unfairness and find equality where none may have existed in the past.” p. 52

Are you listening Joe Manchin?

My favorite essay, however, is “To The Doghouse,” which is about Snoopy in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics. Snoopy the writer, the novelist of “It was a dark and snowy night.” fame. I needed the lightheartedness in this essay and the reminder that inspiration comes in unexpected places.

I found something to love in each of these essays –especially the writer herself. And now I want to re-read her earlier book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

I also re-read the wonderful story by Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory” after a friend sent me a note about her favorite Christmas reading. On her list is the Capote story because she “likes a little melancholy” in her Christmas reading. This is the story of making Christmas fruitcakes –and as it happens I was making my annual cherry walnut bread on the day I read this story again. I was right in the kitchen with Capote’s Buddy who is seven and his friend, a distant cousin who is sixty-something, but “still a child.” Enjoy the language, the tenderness, and yes, the melancholy. Thanks, Mona, for the reminder to read this story yet again.

What’s next? Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, which is only 115 pages and should be read in one sitting. I will listen to when my inner reading voice tells me to sit in the snug and read without allowing interruptions. The other book I am drawn to is the novel Painting Time by the French writer, Maylis de Kerangal about a young artist enrolled in an art school in Brussels. Stay tuned.

An Invitation: What is your inner voice telling you to read? I would love to know.

Advent Week #4: A Different Rhythm

Yesterday I slept till 7:30. How is that possible when Christmas Eve is only days away!

In another stage of life I would have been up much earlier, whittling away at my too long list. Most years I finished my shopping by this time, but not all the baking I thought I needed to do. And the stack of presents, including many that required delivery, remained unwrapped. Cards! Entertaining! Holiday events! ETC. ETC.

And all done alongside the normal stuff of life, including parenting and working a full-time job. You know what I mean. You’ve been there, too.

At this current stage of my life I can move more leisurely through the list; a list which is not as long and involved as it used to be. I still intend to do some baking this week, but except for a couple gifts I still need to buy and another one that will arrive on my doorstep today or tomorrow, the wrapping is done. I mailed most of the cards last week and finished the remaining over the weekend while listening to Christmas music, and I will walk to the mailbox with them later today. Entertaining has been simple–mainly snacks and drinks in the living room–and the menu for Christmas Day is planned. I will grocery shop tomorrow.

Do I miss the hustle and bustle of the years when our family was much younger? Some days I do, for it all passed so quickly. But at the same time I am so grateful for the many wonderful memories stored in my heart. I unwrap those joys frequently.

What I realize now is that those years were in large part about creating not only memories for ourselves, but also about creating holy times, sacred times. The focus for many years was on the creating and the doing –not just the gift buying and giving or inviting special guests for Sunday Advent suppers or filling the house with glowing lights and the smell of fresh greens or even reading from our stack of Christmas books at bedtime, but doing all that in honor of the gift of the Christ Child. And what that birth, that gift means for the ways we are asked to live our lives; our ongoing journey to be the person we were created to be.

Oh no, I regret none of it.

Now, however, I realize at this stage of my life this season is much more about being, about resting, about knowing and feeling and cherishing and paying attention. A different rhythm.

And remembering–not just the past, but remembering and holding, although with a light touch, the love that surrounds us always. “…for God’s steadfast love endures forever…” (Psalm 136)

Yes, I slept later than usual and perhaps, I will again tomorrow, but I am ready, not only for the arrival of our son and daughter-in-law from Cleveland, but I, a woman no longer young, am ready to BE, to live fully in this different rhythm of my life. May you be ready, too.

An Invitation: What are you noticing about yourself during this Advent time? I would love to know.

Book Report: The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

I love books in which nothing much happens. I know I am not the only one or otherwise Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, originally published in the 1920’s, would not be loved and absorbed to this day. In fact, I am tempted, after reading The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff to re-read Woolf’s classics.

Back to today’s book.

The Fortnight in September, originally published in 1931 and recently re-issued, is the story of a London family, the Stevens, and the two weeks of their annual holiday in the seaside resort town, Bagnor Regis. We experience them as they prepare for the trip; embark on the journey via trains, of course; their stay at Seaview which over the years has become quite shabby, but they are loyal to the owner, Mrs Huggett; and then as they head back home to the routine of the rest of the year.

Nothing much happens, but in a way that is the point. The family consists of Mr and Mrs Stevens (we never learn their first names) and their children, Dick, age 17 who is somewhat unsatisfied with his work; Mary, age 21 who has a first glimpse of romance while on holiday; and Ernie, still a schoolboy who happily sails his toy yacht, which he almost forgot to bring with him. We experience their days–cricket on the beach, walks on the promenade in the evening, tea time, and it is all quite magical, an escape from the everyday, a satisfaction with another kind of routine.

In fact, the family is quite unsure of itself when unexpectedly they meet a man who is an important customer where Mr. Stevens works. This man invites them to his home for tea and while it is a bit of an adventure, something different, in some ways they would have preferred to have their usual kind of day.

Does that sound dull? I was never bored and in part that speaks to the quality of the writing. Often the writing style of books that rely on creating a certain atmosphere is lush and overdone, but the writing here is delicate, even though the descriptions are clear and complete. I can turn to most any page and find a passage that immerses me in the time and place.

For Mr. Stevens always put down the train journey as a doubtful quantity in the sum of happiness. Even under the worst conditions you might conjure up a faint sense of exhilaration in racing through the country toward the sea, but when anything happened like this: when suddenly your limbs are freed from the aching pressure of other people’s hips and elbows: when luxurious spaces of empty seat lie around you for the spreading of your magazines and papers, and arms and legs—only then can you triumphantly sweep the doubt aside. (p. 86)

The Stevenses settled themselves with half-closed eyes: the sea was lapping drowsily against the wall, and the soft breeze turned its gentle murmur into the rustling of distant elms. They could hear the evening train puffing out from the station, the murmur of voices on the promenade, and the padding of feet–but the music of the band seemed to gather these other sounds and weave them into its symphony. p. 173

The Stevens create routine away from routine, and they rest and quietly rejoice in it. The holiday feels less like escape from what might be unpleasant in their lives, although we readers don’t have much of a sense about that, and more about how the two weeks are part of the routine of their lives. This is what they do every year and this is what is part of who they are and how they live.

I think about my family when I was growing up and how we would go to the same family-run resort in northern Minnesota. How exciting it was when we extended our vacation from one week to two weeks, indicating a growth of income.

We definitely had routines. The Stevens had a trunk. We had a Lake Box with beach towels and the blanket to spread on the grass by the lake and a pin-up lamp to hang on the screen porch and–I wish I could remember what else was in the box. Year after year we did the same thing. I walked to town in the morning for the newspaper for my parents and for rolls or doughnuts for breakfast. We spent the afternoon on the beach most days, but also one day went to Bambiland to feed the deer. One evening we had dinner at Lumbertown, a real treat. I read book after book, only breaking the pace to go for an occasional swim.

Nothing much happened and we loved it and were grateful for it.

At some point life will more than likely change for the Stevens, as it did for my family. Mary will marry and form her own family routine. Mrs Stevens, perhaps, will become ill and not be able to make the journey. Mrs Huggett may die and the Seaview will be sold or torn down. But for the moment this is life as they desire it to be, and while they don’t take it for granted, they don’t hold it too tightly either.

In this Advent season of lists and preparations, this book was a gentle time-out, and I loved it.

An Invitation: What is most important to you in a book? Plot? Character? Setting? Theme? I would love to know.

Advent Week #3: Signs of Joy

Who needs the latest iPhone upgrade or Facebook to communicate when all you need is to look out your window?

One evening last week I decided to sit in the living room, in the Mama Bear Chair, to read, instead of the snug, and as I turned on the light, I glanced out the window and noticed a sign in our neighbors’ window. Three elementary age boys live next door, and we so enjoy watching their antics, whether they are on their trampoline or selling lemonade in the front yard. They are a delightful family, and we love having them as neighbors.

Back to the sign. Written clearly by a young person were the words, GOT ANY COOKIES?

I started to laugh and so did my husband, when I showed him the sign.

Of course, we sent cookies over to those hungry and desperate boys! We learned it was the youngest boy, Sam, who made the appeal and not just to us, but also to the neighbors on their other side, who are also old folks like us. They responded to the cry for cookies, too.

Soon there was a second sign in the window. “Thank you.” And I put up my own sign, “You are welcome.”

This is the time of the year when we remember the star that guided the Wise Men (Women) to the manger where Jesus was born. We are told in the Gospel of Matthew that when the star stopped, they were “overwhelmed with joy.” The star was a sign of great joy.

That’s how I felt when I spotted Sam’s sign. Overwhelmed with joy. Joy for his innocence and trust –and willingness to ask for what he desired. Joy at being able to meet that desire. And joy in this simple and easy relationship.

You can bet I will continue to check for signs in the window.

Only a few days later this is what I saw when I looked out another window –the beauty of a winter day.

An Invitation: What signs of joy are you noticing? I would love to know.

Book Report: Christmas Books

Snow is lightly falling, making this open afternoon perfect for browsing the collection of Christmas books stacked on the living room coffee table. Just as photographs tease us into memories, so do books, especially Christmas books.

I begin with A Child’s Christmas In Wales by Dylan Thomas, which begins

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

I am tempted to quote the whole book. The lushness of the language, the warmth and the humor and Dylan’s ability to create scenes almost convinces me I once lived that life myself. I resist the temptation, however, but hope you will add this book–and read aloud to anyone who will listen–of this classic. My husband, by the way, once acted in a reader’s theatre production of the book and one of his first presents to me oh so long ago was a copy of the book. I remember reading the book aloud to each of my classes the day before Christmas vacation when I taught high school English.

Perhaps my favorite version of the Christmas story and one we have loved sharing with our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, is Julie Vivas’s version of The Nativity with its earthy and charmingly humorous illustrations. Did you ever consider how difficult it would have been for Mary to mount the back of a donkey or how exhausted she was after the birth, handing off the new baby to Joseph? It’s all here—the scrawny angels, the crowds of people looking for an inn, the sheep who didn’t want to be left behind and the wonder, the joy, the awe.

No stack of Christmas books is complete without books by Tomie de Paola. I love his illustrations of Miracle on 34th Street, but even more special is The Clown of God, an old story he told and illustrated. Our copy was signed by dePaola in 1980 when I was working at a wonderful independent book store. The story, in case you don’t know is a French legend about a young juggler who offers his gifts, and a miracle occurs. Many years ago when I was on our church council I read this book for devotions at the start of the meeting. After reading each page I turned the book around to show the pictures–just like our kindergarten teacher did when we were young.

Next I browse Susan Branch’s Christmas from the Heart of The Home which is basically a cookbook, but each recipe is done in calligraphy and accompanied by charming illustrations. Branch also includes anecdotes and pieces of advice about celebrating the season.

Recipe for a Happy Christmas

Fill a house with equal parts of Love, Hope, and Peace. Add the Joy of children, the Strength of older people, and the Spirit of Christ. Spread over all the Blessings of Contentment. Season with the music of Laughter, and some Mistletoe Kisses warm before a crackling fire. Serve with Great Welcome, Much Cheer, and All the food in this book!

And there is lots of food in this homey book, but maybe this is the year to fix Orange French Toast or Chocolate Poached Pears, and then I’ll read once again A Cup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg.

When I open the Everyman’s Pocket Classics edition of Christmas Stories I see I have checked off several of the titles in the table of contents–stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen and others, but, honestly, I can’t tell you the plot of any of them. I suspect I will enjoy re-reading them. Perhaps I should set aside the current novel I am reading and sink into this book, story after story.

Finally, I am intrigued by a little book I found recently in an antique shop, Readings and Recitations for Winter Evenings compiled by B. J. Fernie and published by The Christian Herald in 1895. I imagine a gathering of elegantly dressed men and women passing the book from person to person and each one reading aloud for everyone’s entertainment one of the selections by Dickens or Bret Harte or Mark Twain or Longfellow. What a civilized pre-Netflix idea!

At one time our collection of Christmas books was larger, but over the years we have passed many, like The Night Before Christmas, also illustrated by dePaola, on to our kids and grandkids. The pile on the coffee table is just enough to add to the blessings of the season.

Hot cider and a story are calling me! Happy reading!

An Invitation: What are your favorite Christmas books? I would love to know.

Advent Week#2: An Invitation to Be Overwhelmed by Joy

The first gift of each new day is the last one of each day: the lights of our small Christmas tree.

The lights accompany me all day long.

I see the lights when I stand at the kitchen counter and chop red pepper and onion for a Mexican taco pie or cherries for the first batches of cherry walnut bread. I see them when I come down the stairs from the garret after an hour of deep sharing and listening with a spiritual direction client. I see them when I walk through the dining room to our bedroom with an armload of fresh laundry. I see them when I sit in the snug, my feet on the ottoman and a book in my hands. I see them when I open the front door after a walk in the neighborhood. I think about the Wise Men who followed the light and when the light of what must have been the most amazing, most dazzling star stopped, they were “overwhelmed with joy” according to the Gospel of Matthew.

I admit I often feel overwhelmed, but not with joy. More often I feel overwhelmed by what I have agreed to do or feel I must or should do. I even feel overwhelmed by all I want to do. Ideas and interests overwhelm me sometimes. And then there is all the pain, the struggles and injustices in the world. How can one not be overwhelmed!!!

But then there are the Wise Men who left their comfortable homes where no doubt servants were ready to handle the everyday tasks of life. They left their responsibilities–advice to give, solutions to offer, leadership to provide, magic to make–and hit the road. They loaded the camels with what they hoped would sustain them, along with the gifts worthy of a new king, but let’s face it, riding on a camel all day couldn’t have been very comfortable. They were mystified by where to find the king and hoped Herod would help, but frankly, he was more intimidating than helpful and they second guessed their decision to consult with him. The wandering continued.

And still the light in all its brilliance moved across the horizon.

Until it stopped, and they were overwhelmed with joy.

And that is my prayer. May I be overwhelmed with joy. Even as I pray for healing of the world and for balm for all those hurt, I pray that I may, too, make room for joy in my heart. May joy be a gift I live and I give.

May you know joy. May you be joy.

May we each be the light.

An Invitation: When have you been overwhelmed with joy? I would love to know.

Book Report: My Favorite Books of 2021–Part Two, Nonfiction

Get ready for an eclectic list of nonfiction books: spirituality, memoir, writing and creativity, nature, and books on race and justice issues. Old. New. A few I revisited, as well. Here are my lists–in no particular order.

Spirituality Books

  1. I re-read three titles: The Grace in Aging, Awaken as You Grow Older by Kathleen Dowling Singh, which I first read in 2015 and it certainly feels more relevant today now that I am in my 70’s; The Way of Silence, Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life by Brother David Stendl-Rast–a wonderful reminder of the gifts of silence; Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, a spiritual mentor, although I have never met her.
  2. Two books by John Philip Newell: A New Harmony, The Spirit, The Earth, and the Human Soul and Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening To What Our Souls Know and Healing the World. In the first chapter of the second book he writes, “In Celtic wisdom we remember that our soul, the very heart of our being, is sacred. What is deepest in us is of God. every child, every woman, every man, and every life-form is in essence divine.” During my meditation time I often turn to his Celtic Treasure, Daily Scriptures an Prayer.
  3. Two books by Rachel Held Evans: Inspired, Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again and the posthumously published Wholehearted Faith, which her friend Jeff Chu finished for her after her death. I always feel I am in the same room with her when I read her slightly irreverent, but always wise words.
  4. Dusk, Night, Dawn, On Revival and Courage because who can resist Anne Lamott?
  5. Marrow. Love, Loss and What Matters Most by Elizabeth Lesser. Lesser donated bone marrow to her sister who has cancer. Moving story of family and love and knowing yourself. Also, how meditation is a kind of liberation.
  6. A Rhythm of Prayer, A Collection of Meditations for Renewal, edited by Sarah Bessey. I dip into this book frequently during my meditation time.
  7. Freeing Jesus, Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence by Diana Butler Bass. My favorite chapter was on Way and Presence, but also loved the conclusion in which she uses the term, “memoir theology,” which is understanding the nature of God through the text of our own lives.
  8. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love by Stephanie Dowrick. I have had this book on my shelf for a long time and now that I have read it, I suspect I will read it again. She explores the human virtues: courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness.
  9. The Seeker and the Monk, Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton by Sophronia Scott. Scott explores Merton’s journals for guidance on how to live in these fraught times. No conversation with Merton could be considered “everyday.”

Writing Books

  1. Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read this when I needed an infusion of inspiration. Gilbert oozes enthusiasm for her belief that we all have the capability of being creative.
  2. Ron Carlson Writes A Story by Ron Carlson. Lots of good nuggets in this short book. My favorite: “All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I wanted to leave the room.”
  3. How the Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice by Pat Schneider.This book invites readers/writers to contemplate our lives and the deepest questions through writing. Excellent writing prompts on topics such as fear, freedom, forgiveness, joy, social justice, and death.
  4. Take Joy! A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen. Mainly for fiction writers, but I love her exuberance and her love of writing.

Other Categories

  1. Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson. An absolutely amazing book describeing racism in the United States as an aspect of a caste system. This is required reading, as is her earlier book, The Warmth of Other Suns.
  2. Yeh Yeh’s House, A Memoir by Evelina Chao. In the 80’s I was Chao’s local publicist for her novel, Gates of Grace. Chao grew up in Virginia where her parents fled after the Maoist Revolution in 1949. As an adult she and her mother went to China to visit her relatives living in her grandfather’s house. It is a journey of discovery–of one’s roots, of familial love, of a culture that is disappearing.
  3. I’ll Be Seeing You, A Memoir by Elizabeth Berg. Many will identify with this memoir of her parents’ last years–her father’s Alzheimers, her mother’s anger about taking care of him, and the struggles of the rest of the family to care for both of them. Honestly, painfully, beautifully told.
  4. A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks. I remember reading this when I was in college. For a class? Parks was a photographer, writer, and film director; an African-American whose early years were difficult as he contended with racism and poverty. What a legacy he left!
  5. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I am embarrassed to say this is the first time I’ve read this book. I have read so much about it and references to it over the decades, since it was published in 1964, that it feels as if I actually had read it. I was struck by how what Baldwin wrote is still so relevant today–unfortunately.
  6. Born A Crime, Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. I learned so much about apartheid, including the arbitrary decisions about who was viewed as white, black, or colored. Noah is impressive–a gifted entrepreneur, although his enterprises were often shady–and I hope there will be a sequel about his life as a comedian and tv host.
  7. The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. A memoir set in New Orleans. The house, destroyed during Katrina, which Broom calls The Water, was owned by Broom’s mother. Powerful story of love and connection, resilience, and an attempt to understand where she came from and how it lives in her.
  8. Morningstar, Growing Up With Books by Ann Hood. I love to read books about others’ favorite books. Hood reflects on some of my favorites, including Little Women and Grapes of Wrath.
  9. Owls of the Eastern Ice, A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaught. Fascinating story of a U of Minnesota ornithologist who studies fish owls in the extremely remote Russian Far East. Hard conditions and unusual people and THE OWLS.
  10. Poet Warrior, A Memoir by Joy Harjo. Prose and poetry from our current poet laureate. She deftly and magically leads us to her ancestors and culture.
  11. Flower Diary in Which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries and Opens a Door by Molly Peacock. Another gorgeous book by Peacock. (Her earlier book The Paper Garden: Mrs Delaney Begins Her LIfe’s Work at 72 remains one of my all-time favorite books.) Reid was a Canadian painter, and oh I would love to see her paintings in person, but the book includes many lovely plates in color. Peacock weaves her own life into the narration, including the approach of her husband’s death.
  12. Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Kimmerer. Much of the biology was above me, but oh, the stories, the wisdom, the passion, the lyrical writing, the insights.
  13. I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Each essay is breathtaking. As I read, I had to remind myself that O’Farrell survived each of the incidents she relates.
  14. All Entangled by Ann Niedringhaus. Last, but certainly not least. An exquisite book of poetry.

Excuse me, but I need to grab my current book and retire to the Snug for more reading time!

An Invitation: What are your favorite nonfiction books of 2021?

Advent: Week #1, Choosing My Advent Companion

Even though I spent a good chunk of time last week decorating the house for Christmas, I had not thought much about Advent. How often I leap ahead, instead of being present to what IS right now.

Now to be fair, what I know about myself is that I love to create settings, and often the setting is the first step for me as I enter a new season or a new task. The setting is now complete: the tree is in its cozy corner, the big blue cupboard is home to brush trees, all the Santa Al’s are stationed in the kitchen, and the Nativity Set is once again arranged on the white cupboard in the dining room.

I am ready to turn my heart to Advent.

One of my practices in recent years has been to select an Advent companion from the Advent Perspective cards illustrated by Tracy Mooty with questions and narration by Janet Hagberg https://www.bibleadventuresmn.com/product-page/the-advent-perspective

Sunday morning before getting ready for church I sat in my meditation chair in the garret and shuffled the cards. I took a deep breath and whispered, “Who will be my companion this season? Who will be my teacher, my guide and what are the lessons waiting for me to open and to receive?

I turned the cards over facedown, fanning them on my lap. Taking another deep breath, I moved my left hand over the cards, hovering like a hummingbird near a bright blossom, until –for whatever reason–I knew the card under my hand was THE card.

I turned over the card.

One of the Wise Men.

Wasn’t one of the Wise Men my Advent Companion last year? I checked my journal from December, 2020, and yes, that was the case, although it was one of the other Wise Men, one with a rainbow patterned cloak.

Last year I wrote in my journal how I have always appreciated the Wise Men’s openness to revising their plans; how open they were to new information and how they paid attention to their intuitions. They followed the star. They listened to their dreams, and isn’t it interesting that they had the same dream? What a conversation they must have had. “I had the most in intriguing dream last night.” “Wow, I had that dream, too.” “So did I.”

They listened to each other’s dreams about Herod’s ill intentions and after visiting the new child, they returned home by another way.

Much of 2020 and on into 2021 has been about adjusting, finding another way, and about listening to what we most need to do and be. I wonder how well I integrated those lessons. If at all. Apparently, the Wise Men still have much to teach me.

Here are the questions posed on the back of my Wise Man card:

How would you describe the journey you’ve been on this year? What course corrections might be needed now to better lead you in the direction of Bethlehem?

What precious gifts are you most eager to offer God in this Advent season?

Where in your life might you need to travel a different route in order to avoid danger or harm?

The Wise Men (WOMEN!!!!) will be my companions once again this year, and I look forward to the journey. Stay tuned.

An Invitation: What characters or images in the Christmas Story most interest you? Mary? The Sheep? The Star? I would love to know.

NOTE: This Thursday, December 2, I will publish the list of my favorite nonfiction books of 2021.

Book Report: My Favorite Books of 2021–Part One, Fiction

In year’s past I have posted my favorite books lists closer to the new year, but some readers have requested I offer my list earlier as an aid to holiday shopping. I am more than happy to oblige, if it means more books in readers’ hands.

I know I say this every year, but what a great reading year it has been, and a month of reading remains. Who knows what great titles await! First, however, are my treasures from the past eleven months.

My Top Three Favorites

  • Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin. This novel, translated from the French, was the first book I read in 2021 and I still think about it. Perhaps I will start 2022 re-reading this book. (I wrote about this book in my previous blog http://clearingthespace.blogspot.com) Violette is a cemetery caretaker and the story is hers, along with her unfaithful husband and the tragic loss of their daughter, but also the stories of those buried at the cemetery and those who work there. All the stories are woven together masterfully.
  • This Is Happiness by Niall Williams. I not only loved the setting of this book–an Irish village on the brink of getting electricity–but I loved the descriptive, immersive writing. I kept re-reading passages, not because I was confused by them, but because of their beauty. Not much happens in this book and yet it does, as we get to know the narrator, a young man who promised his dying mother he would become a priest and then leaves the seminary; his grandparents Ganga and Doady, and their boarder, Christy, who wants to be forgiven by the woman he left at the altar. I will read Williams’ earlier books.
  • The Seed Keepers by Diane Wilson. This book rates right up there with Louise Erdrich’s stories of indigenous people. The books spans many years from the 1860s and the hangings of native people to the 1920s when native children were kidnapped and taken to boarding schools to current times of farming in the age of chemicals. The sacredness of seeds and all of nature is an ongoing theme.

Other Favorites–No Particular Order

  • The Huntress, The Alice Network, and The Rose Code –all three by Kate Quinn. Books to sink into.
  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. The story of an immigrant from Ethiopia who owns a small convenience store in Washington DC.
  • One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney. A little gem. The main character is a hospital chaplain and the plot focuses on one night in that hospital.
  • The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. Based on a true story. Set in the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The plot of Shakespeare’s young son dying of the plague did not appeal to me when I heard about this book, but I read it and was swept away by it.
  • The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Nella works for a publisher and when another black woman (OBG) is hired, the intrigue begins.
  • The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. The main plot is the establishment of a Jane Austen Foundation. Although a light read, I gained new insights about Austen’s books, especially about grief and loss.
  • The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. Based on a true story about J. P.Morgan’s collection of rare manuscripts and the woman who developed the collection. Belle daCosta Green is an African American woman who passes as white and kept that secret her entire life, even from her lover Bernard Berenson.
  • Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. I wondered why I had never read this book before, published in 2002, even though I had heard about it. Parents in a small farming community die in a car crash leaving four children–two teenage boys and two younger girls. The boys decide to raise their sisters and keep the family together.
  • The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer. I remember reading her earlier book, The Dive at Clausen’s Pier, and enjoying it, and am glad I finally read this one. A dysfunctional family story. The father is a much loved doctor and his wife is an artist who is undone when she has their fourth child.
  • Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. A coming of age novel about a teenage girl very attached to her uncle who has AIDS. He is an artist and paints a portrait of her and her sister.
  • Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger. This is the prequel to his Cork O’Connor mystery series. I have enjoyed each of those books, but this book not only explains so much about Cork and his world, but also shows what a good writer Krueger has become. This ranks with his nonCork Books, This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace –two all-time favorites.
  • ShadowTag by Louise Erdrich. An earlier book of hers, which I somehow missed. Story of an abusive marriage. The wife keeps two diaries–one locked in a safety deposit box and the other she knows her husband reads. The key question? What is truth?
  • State of Terror by Louise Penney and Hillary Clinton. A political thriller and a page turner, for sure, and now I hope for a sequel. Part of the appeal is the friendship and the collaboration of the authors, but the book is a good read.
  • Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. A plane crash with one survivor, a twelve year old boy. The story moves back and forth between the boy’s life after the crash and the scene inside the plane before the crash.

I also recommend the mysteries by Mark Pryor, set primarily in Paris. His main character is Hugo Marston, a former FBI agent now head of security at the American Embassy. I only have one more book left in the series and hope there will be more to come.

Books I Re-Read in 2021

  • All of Louise Penney books. Perfect books for winter (and pandemic) days. I loved them all just as much as the first time. I do admit, however, that the most recent one, published this past August, The Madness of Crowds, was not my favorite, but still worth reading.
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Love, love this book, as I do all of her books.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I read this so many years ago and felt it was time to bring more mature eyes to this amazing book.
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I read and loved Pigs in Heaven this year and wanted more Kingsolver. I am tempted to do a Kingsolver marathon this year.
  • I also re-read two books by Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping and Gilead. I remember loving them, but this time was not as enamored. Once was enough for me.

I wrote about a number of the books on these lists in my previous blog and invite you to browse there. http://clearingthespace.blogspot.com

I will list my favorite nonfiction books in my post on Thursday, December 2.

Ok, get shopping–and reading!!!!

An Invitation: What are your favorite novels of 2021? I would love to know.

JOY Comes

Once a week I facilitate a group of writers at my church. We meditate and then I present a writing prompt and we write for twenty minutes. The weekly sessions are not just a set apart time for writing, but have become a kind of spiritual direction group. Contemplatively, reflectively, respectfully, even lovingly, the group listens each other into deeper understanding of their own spiritual journeys.

Preparing for and then being with this group is always a highlight of my week.

Sometimes (often!) I am the one who needs the deeper learnings possible in this kind of sanctuary.

Last week I led them through a process of lectio divina–holy reading or feasting on the word. I gave each participant two pages from one of the editions of the publication Bella Grace. https://bellagracemagazine.com If you are familiar with Bella Grace, you know the sumptuousness of the photography, along with the inspiring essays and quotations. Each of the pages I selected had a single quote, and I passed them out to the writers randomly with no attempt to match writer and quotes. I invited them to focus on one or both of the quotes. Their choice.

Two of the remaining pages were for me. I didn’t self-select a quote for myself either.

When I read the quote on one of my pages, I gasped.

Joy comes to us in the ordinary moments. We risk missing out when we’re too busy chasing down the extraordinary.

Bene Brown

Nice, huh? Well, here’s what you need to know.

I am currently preparing to present an adult forum during our church’s education hour, and the topic is–you got it–JOY!!!!!

Even though I suggested the topic and volunteered to lead the session, I have not been overjoyed about doing this. In fact, I have been a bit of a drama queen about the whole process. For those of you who know anything about the enneagram, I am a 4 and 4s have a tendency to become dramatic when they are anxious about something. I have presented many adult forums in the past and feel so privileged to be able to do that, but there are new challenges this time. Mainly, technology issues–how to present effectively to in-person and at home audiences at the same time. The hybrid model.

Normally, I would create a setting, an atmosphere to experience the topic, to engage with a spiritual practice and to interact with each other. But this new and necessary way of being together limits my usual way of teaching and responding. And Power Point? What’s that? (Yes, I am behind the times.)

When I read the quote in front of me, I had no recollection of reading it before and deciding to include it in the selections for the group. Surprise! Receiving this quote was just what I needed; a reminder to slow down and breathe and to reclaim joy for myself.

In the quiet of the room and in the company of the other writers, I entered the lectio divina process.

  1. Lectio (reading, taking a bite). Get acquainted with the quote. Write down the word or phrase that stands out for you.

Joy comes.

2. Meditatio (reflecting, chewing on it). Read the same passage again. What touches your heart? Allow it to resonate within you. Close your eyes, take those words into your heart and reflect on them. Try to feel them in your body. Write down your reflection.

I feel the first prickling sensation of tears as I sit with this phrase. “Joy comes.” And I notice there is not an “I” in the phrase. Without my asking or seeking or trying to make something happen, joy comes on its own, unbidden. I am reminded that I am a beloved child of God. No matter what. From the very beginning–even before the beginning. What a glorious affirmation, “Nancy, you are a beloved child of God, and joy comes.”

3. Oratio (being active, savoring the essence). Reading the word(s) again, you may feel “so what?” What am I going to do about what I am learning and feeling? Is there a call here? Is this a place for surrender or new level of commitment to deepen your spirituality? Write about your new awareness, thought, feeling or desire.

Be joy and open to joy. Remember all the learning you do when you prepare a new presentation and how that learning deepens because of the interaction with others. Be joy. Open to joy. The most important thing to remember is that joy is an affirmation of God’s presence, God’s love. Not only does God come, but God remains. Ever and always.

In a recent sermon Diana Butler Bass commented that if there was ever a time we need joy, it is now.

Yes. Grief and loss and confusion and uncertainty and fear surrounds us, but still joy comes. In the ordinary. My task is to receive it and reflect it.

4. Contemplatio (resting, digesting and integrating). Once again read the quote. Be aware of presence. This is the time for the prayer of silence, the prayer of the heart. Rest in God, the sacred, the holy.

I feel the drama disappear, at least for the moment, and I relax. I breathe. Make room for joy, I tell myself. Joy comes and needs space in which to shine, to grow, to be.

I expect there will still be technological challenges, but oh, the joy when joy is allowed to flourish.

Joy comes.

An Invitation: Are there words, such as a scripture passage or a lines from a novel or something read in Facebook or even an expression you or someone else uses frequently that beckon you into reflection? I would love to know.

NOTE: Stay tuned for my “Favorite Books of 2021” posts, which I will publish the next two Thursdays–Thanksgiving Day and December 2.

Thank you for reading my blog and sharing my thoughts with others.

Book Report: Little Free Library Treasures

Our neighborhood has an abundance of Little Free Libraries, adding to the pleasure of my daily walks. As I approach one of the sweet boxes, I feel my heart rate increase. What will I find? Will one of the books on my TBR list be waiting for me or will I be attracted to something I didn’t know I wanted to read

Most days, of course, I don’t return home with a book under my arm, but there is always a possibility, and I lean into the thrill of the hunt.

Our grandson who is 13 is reading Stephen King books, and one day I found one for him, a hardcover even, and immediately changed the route of my walk to include a stop at his house. He was delighted. And then there was the day when my husband returned from his walk with a book he had just mentioned he wanted to get, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBA by David Grann. How about that for a God-moment!

Recently, I have had great luck myself. Here’s what I’ve found:

Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, originally published in 1955. I am not sure I have read this book before, although I have a vague memory of reading the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of this book when I was quite young. Do you remember those books? My mother was a subscriber, and I can still remember seeing the books lined up on the living room bookshelves on both sides of the fireplace. Occasionally, I was allowed to read one of the selections like The Nun’s Story by Katherine Hulme or Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West. This feels like the perfect read when a Snow Day is declared.

The Lake House by Kate Morton. (2015) I’ve read The House at Riverton, and The Secret Keeper is on my TBR list, so what a treat to find this book waiting for me. Another chunky book like Marjorie Morningstar and the perfect kind of book when I need a palate cleanser between books with heavy topics. I am quite certain that I will return this to a Little Free Library when I have finished reading it.

I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. (2017) I had read glowing reviews of this book, which is a memoir of the near-death experiences she has experienced with far too much frequency, but I hadn’t warmed to the topic. I have read her This Must Be the Place (2016) and enjoyed its quirkiness, but didn’t love it and so also shied away from her more recent bestseller, Hamnet (2020) about Shakespeare’s son who died of the plague. A friend gave me the novel for my birthday and said she loved it and was sure I would, too. I trust her recommendations, and this time was no exception. So when I spotted the memoir, I grabbed it, and if I wasn’t writing this post, I would be tucked in the snug reading it.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano (2020). I had heard of this author, but the titles of her other novels didn’t ring a bell with me, and I knew nothing about this book either, but I was attracted to the cover and the description intrigued me as well. What did I have to lose? That’s the thing about “shopping” at a Little Free Library. Free and easy returns! What a good book this turned out to be. A family of two boys, age 12 and 15, are moving from New York to Los Angeles and their plane crashes, leaving only one survivor, the youngest boy, Edward. I promise you that I didn’t give the plot away–the inside cover flap reveals the basic facts. I love Edward and the young girl who gives him life again and the way this book offers hope when only basic survival seems possible

Now doesn’t that list make you want to head for the Little Free Libraries in your neighborhood–I hope you have at least one, and if not, maybe you are the person to build one. Here’s the link: https://littlefreelibrary.org And when you are done with a book and don’t intend to keep it in your own library, someone else may be looking for that very title.

Our basket of books ready for a Little Free Library delivery!

An Invitation: Have you found any treasures at a Little Free Library? I would love to know.

First Snow of the Season

Late Saturday afternoon gentle snowflakes began to fall. No surprise, for the weather folks had been predicting this slide into more wintry weather. Soon the rooftop was covered, as well as the lawn, but the sidewalks remained clear. Just a hint of things to come.

I am ready.

My sweaters are folded neatly on the closet shelves. More than one chair has a shawl draped over it. I have everything I need to make chicken-mushroom-leek soup, and have stocked ingredients for hot chocolate, as well. The freezer is full of all the pesto I made this summer, and the pantry has several packages of spaghetti for simple and delicious, “touch of summer” winter meals.

My husband moved the patio furniture into the garage and has put the garden to bed. The furnace man comes tomorrow to make sure we will be cozy and warm all winter.

We don’t have a fireplace, unfortunately, but I can light a candle with a woodsy smell.

Of course, I have plenty of books to read. In fact, over the weekend I added to my piles when we visited a favorite bookstore where we met the shop dog, Nellie, and the new owner. Such good book talk we had. https://excelsiorbaybooks.indielite.org We even bought a couple Christmas presents. And speaking of Christmas I bought our Christmas cards recently and will soon write this year’s letter.

Yes, I have everything I need for cozy indoor days, and once more I thought to myself, “I love my life.” That feeling bubbles up in me so often, bringing me close to tears. I cross my hands over my heart in gratitude for all the blessings that fill my days, my life.

And all because of the first snowfall.

An Invitation: Are you ready -for the first snowfall or for whatever change is sure to come in your life? I would love to know.

Book Report: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013) has been on my “To Be Read” (TBR) list for a long time. Robin Wall Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and she is a distinguished scientist and professor. She is also storyteller, a writer of lyrical prose. She is a truthteller.

I not sure why I finally took the plunge; why this was the right time for me to read this book, but perhaps it was because my husband has been reading David Treuer’s monumental The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (Riverhead Books, 2019).

I am also aware of how one book leads to another. Another book by the same author or another book set in the same place or time period. Or another book on the same topic. In October I read Poet Warrior, A Memoir by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, (Norton, 2021) and I felt immersed in the stories and poetry of native peoples and the need to unearth the truth and move towards healing.

What I know for sure is that I need to continue my education. I need to reframe and reform what I thought I knew—the incorrect and the missing.

I loved this book. I savored this book. I felt drawn into the depths of this book, but I need to be honest about my experience of the book. I did not read every word. At times I got lost in the biology, the botany of her descriptions.

Perhaps a story from my own background would be helpful here. When I was a freshman in college, I took an intro biology class in order to fulfill a distribution requirement. I was quite certain Biology 101 would be easier for me than any math course that would meet the requirement. Well, one day during lab time, we were all diligently dissecting and probing some poor specimen. Truth be told, I was poking more than probing. The professor, a kindly, grandfatherly-looking man, peered over my shoulder and then he said, “Ms. Jensen, what is your major?” “English,” I replied, and he said, “Good.” I got the message!

Frankly, I was proud of myself for delving into material out of my comfort zone, but Kimmerer’s writing about nature and our connection to the earth and the depth of her wisdom is what carried me along. In the Preface, she says the book is an “intertwining of science, spirit, and story.” So true.

She begins by telling the creation story of Skywoman. At the beginning there was only Skyworld, and much of the book explores the constellation of teachings called “Original Instructions.”

These are not “instructions” like commandments, though, or rules; rather, they are like a compass: they provide an orientation but not a map. The work of living is creating that map for yourself. How to follow the Original Instructions will be different for each us and different for every era. p. 7

The book explores how she has done that in her own life–as a mother, a teacher, a scientist, a resident of this earth.

One of the original instructions she refers to frequently is the notion of reciprocity. We give and we are given. We receive and we return. How important that is to remember as privileged white people who often feel good about our giving to less fortunate. We forget we are in relationship, and in relationship we receive, as well. She writes, “Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world.” (p. 252)

I was also very moved by the ways she asked a tree or a plant for permission to harvest, to use and to receive as a gift, rather than feeling entitled to the corn, the sweetgrass, or herbs. She never assumes she is owed something or owns something. When approaching a plant for her own purpose, she leaves a gift of tobacco, a traditional native gift. I confess I have not done that when I have cut basil to make pesto or in years past, lavender to bundle into sachets.

Recently, when we were in Door County I found a birch bark limb the perfect length and size for a walking stick. I have always loved birch trees–the startling white trunks in contrast to the darkness of oaks, maples, elms, and others. My eyes are drawn to the white birch in the winter when branches are bare and the landscape lacks obvious color. I have learned that birch represent the qualities of gentleness and sweetness, reminding us that life is not only struggle and suffering, but gifts are everywhere. Seeing that fallen branch on the side of the path where I was walking felt like a gift. However, I didn’t ask the branch or the trees around me or the earth where I paused, if the gift was for me. I apologize.

In return for that gift I have written this book report not only to attract new readers, but also to honor the earth and all its gifts.

An Invitation: What have you read that opens you to what you did not know? I would love to know.

Bittersweet

One of the treasures of the fall is the bittersweet plant with its clusters of bright orange pods. 
In the past when we roamed country roads at this time of the year, we have been on the look-out for bittersweet vines entwined around roadside vegetation. How triumphant we felt if we found some.

One year when we were still living at Sweetwater Farm a friend who lived at the base of a mountain in Pennsylvania sent me a large box full of bittersweet she had harvested on her property, and I swagged it along the white picket fence from the driveway to the backdoor. Such lavishness! Such luxury, especially since bittersweet is quite expensive to buy in nurseries or other stores.

Another year neighbors invited us to go with them to an area where bittersweet grew in abundance. The owner of the property had given permission to cut as much as we wanted. I suspect he thought we were all a bit crazy as we filled the back of the Jeep.

I no longer have to scrounge country roads hoping to find this fall treat, however, for a couple years ago my husband planted bittersweet in our backyard, and how delighted I was this year to cut the scraggly branches and fill containers with clusters of the orange berries.

I welcomed their beauty as one more signal of the transition from one season to another, but on the other hand how could I ignore the implication of the name itself? Bittersweet.

Bittersweet

Bitter Sweet

The mix of bitter and sweet.

Sometimes this stage of my life –elderhood– feels like a mix of bitter and sweet.

On the one hand I relish the freedom and flexibility of this age. For the most part I decide how to use my time and energy. But on the other hand I look back and see how time has passed so quickly. How is it possible that I am in my 70’s and our kids in their 40’s! And as for my energy–well, I still am able to do a lot in one day, but more and more I need to pay attention to how I use my energy.

I treasure all the gifts of my life, but at the same time I wonder how well I have lived those gifts–shared them, developed them, honored them. Some days I delight in the memories and stories of earlier years and other days I feel the gloom of regret. The echoes of what I should have done, could have done.

How grateful I am for the love woven throughout my life. So many cherished relationships, but now is also the time of loss. In this last year how many times have I tucked a vintage handkerchief into a sympathy card and written words I hope bring some comfort and connection?

Bitter. Sweet.

Joan Chittister refers to the bitter and the sweet of this stage of life as blessings and burdens. Both are present. Both are real. Both need to be acknowledged. Here’s what she has to say about the blessings and burdens of regret, for example, in her book The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully.

The burden of regret is that, unless we come to understand the value of the choices we made in the past, we may fail to see the gifts they have brought us.

The blessing of regret is clear–it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming. (p. 5)

Bitter. Sweet.

Shadow and Light.

Or as our thirteen year old grandson Peter said when I asked him after his sister left for freshman year of college what it was like to be the only kid in the house, “The good news is I am the only kid. The bad news is I am the only kid.”

Bitter. Sweet.

Shadow and Light.

Blessing and Burden.

Yes.

An Invitation: How do you experience the presence of the bitter and the sweet in your life? I would love to know.

An Inventory of the Week

Some weeks are richer than others. This past week was one of those.

Some highlights:

  • My daily walks. What a glorious fall this is. Still. The leaves capture the sunlight, and the golds are more golden; the reds more aflame, and the branches now bare, create more space for the sun’s warmth. One day I stood and watched a man at the nearby ballfield throw a tennis ball for his German shepherd and golden retriever to fetch. The shepherd never tired of the exercise, but the retriever said, “enough,” and stretched out near homebase to watch the rest of the game. Another day a woman in a car rolled down her window and asked me if I could tell her about the neighborhood. “My adult son would like to buy a house here. What’s it like to live here?” In a flash, I became a one-woman public relations agency.
  • Gatherings in our home. Oh, how I love setting the dining room table with pretty dishes and then welcoming loved ones for an evening of fellowship. This past week one of our potluck groups met here one evening and after enjoying a delicious meal of pumpkin-apple soup, a couscous salad, hunky bread, and a cranberry dessert, we settled in to explore the topic for the evening: what have we learned about ourselves because of the travels we have enjoyed? Such thoughtful, interesting, and revealing responses. Just as sacred, however, are the times during the week that I meet with spiritual direction clients. Such a privilege to hear the challenges, the joys, the puzzles of their lives and to reflect on the ways they are inviting God, the Holy, the Divine into their lives. And how could I forget to mention the afternoon our daughter dropped-in to tell us all about visiting our granddaughter at college!
  • Time at my desk. One of the tasks of this last week was to combine all the chapters of my spiritual memoir draft into one document and then before printing it, correct spelling and usage errors. I am sure this is not the final version, but holding the manuscript in my hands, I knew the past effort and the work yet to be was worth it, for I have learned so much.
  • Reading time. I finished reading a marvelous –and gorgeous–book, Flower Diary, In Which Mary Heister Reid Paints, Travels, Marries and Opens a Door by Molly Peacock. Peacock’s earlier book The Paper Garden, Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life’s Work at 73 remains one of my favorite books ever, and this one is just as special. You know how some books just feel good in your hands. Well, both of these books remind you of what it means to give yourself to a book and to let a book into your life. The author, by the way, weaves her own life into the lives of the women she explores.
  • In Your Own Words, Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice. One of my ongoing joys is preparing the weekly writing prompt and then sharing time for writing and reflecting with a group of lovely women. The prompt last week was about crossing a threshold–to consider the current questions and yearnings in our lives.
  • Just the Two of Us Time. Saturday afternoon we drove along the St Croix River marveling at the color and the gifts of this lingering fall. The day was too beautiful to miss. In the evening we returned to watching episodes of The Crown on Netflix, which has enraptured us just as much the first time we watched the series.
  • My Guest Post in Abbey of the Arts, Monk in the World series. You can read it here: https://abbeyofthearts.com/blog/2021/10/27/monk-in-the-world-guest-post-nancy-agneberg/ I am so delighted and honored to be featured in the weekly blog from Christine Valters Paintner.

Listing these riches is a kind of examen, which is the prayerful reflection on events of the day –or in this case, week–in order to detect God’s presence and to discern God’s direction for our lives. This was a week in which it was easy to feel God’s presence. I know not all weeks feel that way, but my sense is that the more I practice this kind of awareness, the more I will know that presence when I am challenged and shaky. During this week I also sent a sympathy card to a friend from the past whose son died, and I held my daughter-in-love in my heart on the anniversary of her father’s death. And then there are the heartbreaking stories in the news. The pain and sorrow sit right alongside the riches. And God is there in the midst of it all, and it is my job to open to the presence.

I do admit, however, I am not having kind thoughts about the squirrels who have devastated all my pumpkins. They apparently love fall food. But so do I. Sigh!

An Invitation: What riches have you known this past week? And where/when have you felt the presence of God, the Holy, The Divine? I would love to know.

Re-Entry Blues

We have returned from a brief time in our beloved Door County. Too brief a time. Usually after being away, I am eager, ready to return to home base. Not this time. Perhaps the reason is that Door County is a place where I always feel at home. Or perhaps we weren’t away long enough to feel the tug of home.

Whatever the reason, I am in the midst of re-entry blues.

In the past when I have led retreats of more than a day’s duration, I have offered suggestions to participants about how to prepare for re-entry–even before arriving at the retreat. I ask them to think about what will be helpful when they return home. For me that includes leaving the house clean, for who wants your first home view to be a dirty bathroom or kitchen? I think ahead to what our first meal will be once home–something simple; something that doesn’t require a quick dash to the grocery store. I pay upcoming bills and handle other correspondence and in general, try not to leave a long To Do list that flashes on top of my desk. After all, enough will accumulate while we are gone, and there will be more than one load of laundry to do. The stuff of daily life.

Not only did I do all those tasks, but I also prepared material for my personal writing group and the weekly writing group I lead at church. Both were scheduled to meet the first days after our return, and it eased my mind to know I was ready.

All that was helpful, but I still feel like I am not quite home. My body may be here, but my mind, my heart have been left behind. I can’t quite push myself to move forward beyond the mundane tasks of being home. I thought I would be ready and even eager to begin working on a book proposal, as well as an upcoming adult forum at church, but I don’t feel motivated to take any of those steps. Instead I want to stay in Door County mode–take another long walk schussing leaves, read chapter after chapter in another good book, and enjoy deep conversation over a delicious meal fixed by someone else. I want to drive yet another back road stunned by beauty at every turn.

Ok, I’ve acknowledged to my self–and to you–that I would rather be there than here, but I am here and as my father often said, “That’s the way it is.” So what to do?

First of all, it isn’t as if we have been home for several weeks and I still haven’t done what I say I need to do. No, it has just been a few days. Second, it isn’t as if I have been idle since returning home. I have handled all the basics of life here at home. I fully engaged with the two writing groups, met with clients, communicated with family and friends, went on daily walks, fixed good meals, slept well, and enjoyed reading time in the snug. My husband and I even gave ourselves an extra vacation day and went to a monthly antique sale in a town about 90 miles away.

Maybe I am just being hard on myself. That would not be unusual.

Here’s what I suspect: I needed the time away. More time than what was allotted, so I have unconsciously built more downtime into these first days at home. I know myself well enough that sooner, more probably than later, I will get bored with not doing much of anything and I will be drawn to the next steps waiting for me.

How often have I advised others, “Be gentle with yourself.” I guess that is what I am doing now.

An Invitation: What does being gentle with yourself look like for you? I would love to know.

Fall Thoughts

Oh, how I enjoy my morning walks these days. Not only do I appreciate the cool, but not too cool temperatures, but I love seeing the ways homes are decorated for fall and Halloween. Pumpkins sprawled around tree trunks or marching up and down stairs. Monster-sized spiders stretched in tree limbs and every manner of ghoul and ghost extending their bony arms to unsuspecting neighbors.

Most homes in our neighborhood are painted in conservative and neutral colors–browns and beiges, grays, maybe crisper whites with black trim–and seeing the pop of pumpkin orange, even just a solitary one perched near the front door, makes me smile.

What motivates us to ornament our homes with seasonal decorations?

For families with young children the decorations are part of the excitement and the customs leading to Halloween, but what about the rest of us? Why am I attracted to images of black cats in windows and why do I chuckle when I see witch legs pushing up out of the middle of a garden?

Decorating for fall and later for the Christmas holidays is a way to mark the changing of the seasons; to be aware of time passing. We come to the end of another summer, and we are close to the end of another year. We ask ourselves, “Wow, how did that happen? It seems like the weeks and months pass even faster now.”

We may check in with ourselves about the plans we made for the summer months. During our children’s growing up years our family made a “summer list” of all the things we wanted to do and the places we wanted to go. We added to and adapted the list as the summer weeks passed, and as we crossed off the accomplished items on the master list, we were aware of the passage of time and the desire to live fully and enjoy summer’s gifts.

Moving into fall may be a time to check in with ourselves about our hopes and plans for the summer months. How did we do on our summer list–official or unofficial? I praise myself for accomplishing the main writing task I set for myself, but at the same time I knew I had not enjoyed time in our “Paris” side garden as often as I had planned. Next year, I tell myself and file that thought in my imaginary summer file.

Arranging pumpkins on the front steps, I reminisce about other falls. I remember moving our daughter into her dorm freshman year of college and now this fall she and our son-in-love launched their daughter, our granddaughter, into college life. I remember our son’s football games, my father standing proudly on the sidelines, and this fall my husband attended our grandson’s middle school football games. I remember so many “first days of school,” both as a student and as a teacher, but also as a mother waving goodbye. “May this be the best school year ever.” I remember fall trips to New England and Northern Wisconsin to see the fall colors and one special September when we spent two weeks in Paris to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.

The leaves swirl around me, and I am flooded with memories.

Seasonal decorations spark memories, for sure, but they also are a way to acknowledge ongoing transitions in our lives. I am a year older than I was last fall and I wonder what I will experience in the coming months. Beyond getting out cold-weather clothes and including soups on the weekly menu, how do I prepare for the coming winter time of my life? Who am I now and who is it I can be, will be, as I transition into winter grace?

It seems to me that these autumn decorations affirm life, even as we move into a time of stillness and bareness in our physical landscape and perhaps spiritual landscape, as well.

Does this sound too bleak? I hope not, for I rejoice in the pumpkins, witches and ghosts. And perhaps that is why we adorn our homes in fall splendor–for the pleasure of it. The pleasure of the doing and the pleasure in the giving.

An Invitation: What sights of fall bring you pleasure? I would love to know.

Listening 101

Many decades ago ago I provided publicity services to several Minnesota authors. One of the writers sometimes called me first thing in the morning and after only a brief greeting, he read a few lines or paragraphs from a current work in progress. When he finished and before I could respond, he said, “Have a nice day, Nancy,” and then he hung up.

After only a couple of those early morning phone calls, I realized he did not call to get my response to his writing. Instead, he simply wanted to know someone was listening. He needed to hear himself reading his own words and know they were landing in someone’s ears. We never talked about those calls, and now I wish I had asked him why he called and what he learned or thought because of that brief and silent, on my end, interaction.

Not only did I feel privileged to hear him reading bits and pieces of work in its early stages, but over the years I recognized those phone calls were a kind of class, Listening 101.

Remember when we read books to our children or grandchildren and how they gave their total attention to what you read? They snuggled next to you, silent, almost holding their breath as you read about the adventures of a favorite character. They received every word. They absorbed the tone of your voice, as much as the words. Yes, sometimes they asked a question, a clarifying question, (“Why is he running away, GrandNan?” “I don’t know, Peter, but I bet we will find out on the next page.” ) but they seemed to know that the story would unfold, if they just listened.

You may think this post is about listening to other people, and in a way, it is, for I suspect each of us could polish our contemplative listening skills. We could each learn to open our hearts to what someone is telling us. We could each silence our own responses, often formed before the other person has come to the end of a sentence. We could each set aside our own brilliance for at least a moment.

As important as it is to listen, really listen, to others, what I am thinking about right now is the importance of listening to ourselves.

How often do you dismiss a recurring thought as not important or accurate? Do you even recognize the sound of your inner voice? How good are you at receiving your own thoughts?

Our inner voice speaking directly to us, asking us to listen, can be a wise and loving companion, a witness to what is coming alive in us or needs to be recognized.

So how do we develop a relationship with our inner voice?

Well, let’s go back to a guideline from Listening 101.

When we truly listen to another, we offer a kind of spaciousness–room for receiving, room for acceptance, room for reflection–and that is true for ourselves, as well. When we are intentional about listening to ourselves, there is room for that inner voice to speak. That may happen as you take a solitary morning walk (Leave your ear buds at home!) or when you sit in the quiet darkness at the end of the day and think about the day’s unfolding. That may happen as you breathe gently in and out, finding your own rhythm before you lift the name of loved ones in prayer.

What I am beginning to learn–and it is taking lots of practice–is that the more I learn to listen to myself, the more able I am to lean listening ears to another. And the more I open to my inner voice, the more aware I am of the presence of God listening to me.

October 1

Your ear, beloved Listener, opened wide,

Pressed to each portion of my heart, my life.

Attuned to the slightest vibration of my being,

Attentive to the constant rhythms of my soul.

You hear the cry in the throat of my heart.

My troubles do not cease with your awareness.

But they soften, loosen some of their grip,

Become bearable, touchable, endurable.

If your attentive solicitude blesses so fully,

Surely I, too, can listen that closely to others.

Fragments of Your Ancient Name

Joyce Rupp

An Invitation: What has your inner voice whispered to you today? I would love to know.