My last trip to the library was a bonanza of books. A pile I had placed on hold were waiting for me, and I returned home eager to determine which one I would read first. (Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton won, by the way–and it is a gem.)
I knew that more than likely I would decide not to read each one. I would at least read the first few pages of each one, but not more than a few pages if what I read didn’t appeal, didn’t spark interest in the characters, the writing, or the plot to come. I no longer feel obligated to read something because it is on my list or someone has recommended it or because I think it is a book I “should” read. I have a long TBR list and even though I am a fast reader and dedicate parts of everyday for reading, I know I will never read every title I want to read. (An aside: I hope when I die I have a book in my hand.)
How grateful I am for the library. I request books knowing I can test the temperature, dip my toe in, but then I can retreat to shore if the book is too cold or too warm. And then I can return the book to the library for someone else’s pleasure.
Public libraries will always be on the top of my favorites list, so when I heard about what lawmakers in North Dakota are trying to do, I could feel my own temperature begin to boil.
This proposed bill is not about protecting children or anyone else, but it is about censorship.
If you live in North Dakota or have ties to North Dakota, it is time to speak up and support the gift of freedom that public libraries offer. Wherever you live, support your public libraries and librarians.
What do you love about your public library? I would love to know.
Recently, I moved this print from underneath the guest bed to the garret where I can see it from my desk. In previous homes it hung above a fireplace, but I never found the right spot for it in this house. I’ve missed it, however, and finally, with minor rearranging, “The Presence” is now a presence once again.
This print by Scottish artist, A.E. Borthwick, has been a presence in my family since I was four or five years old.
My father, who had a lovely singing voice, was the liturgist in our church in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and when we moved away, the church gave him this framed print. At one time there was a letter for my father taped to the back of the print and oh, how I wish I still had that. However, I am grateful the print has survived the many moves.
My parents were master of resettlement and within a couple days of each move to a new location, boxes were unpacked and our home was organized and comfortable. That included hanging pictures, and “The Presence” always had a prominent location, usually in the living room.
Many years later when I was grown and had children, my parents asked my sister, brother, and me which of their possessions we would want someday, and I said the only thing I really wanted was that print. It symbolized home for me. Soon after that conversation, my parents gave me the print, instead of waiting until they downsized.
History of “The Presence”
A. E. Borthwick (1871-1955) was a painter, stained glass artist, and printmaker born in Scarborough, Yorkshire. He studied at the Edinborough College of Art and also in Antwerp and Paris.
He painted “The Presence,” which is set in St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, in 1910. Before WWI began he sent the painting to Munich where prints were going to be made. When war broke out the painting was sold to an American company and “lost.” It was rediscovered when it emerged to illustrate a newspaper article answering the question, “Is Religion Dead?” The answer given was “No, because of Christ’s abiding presence in his Church.”
At the end of the war an Act of Congress was passed that meant the painting would be returned to Scotland and during WWII it was preserved in the vaults of the Royal Scottish Academy. It had been presented to St Mary’s Cathedral in 1944, and there it remains.
The painting depicts a scene in the cathedral. Communion is being administered at the High Altar, and at the back of the cathedral Christ extends his hand toward a kneeling penitent. Christ is shown in radiant light. The light is so bright in the shadows of the cathedral that one needs to look closely to see the figure.
For most of my life I didn’t think much about the meaning of the painting, and I certainly didn’t relate to the setting. The churches my family attended were far more simple and humble than this massive cathedral. Nor did I think about what would make a person hide in a corner in grief or pain or in need of acceptance or forgiveness.
No, the presence of the painting in our homes meant we were home once more.
When I was training as a spiritual director, however, the word “presence” became more significant for me. During that two-year training, I was exposed to a variety of spiritual practices, including centering prayer. Part of that practice is to use a centering word that in the words of Thomas Keating, “expresses your intention of opening and surrendering to God…Gently place it in your awareness each time you recognize you are thinking about some other thought.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating, p. 36). I tested a number of words, such as “light,” “open,” “heart,” and finally, much like receiving a word for the year, I received “presence.” I knew without a doubt that was the word.
Over time the word itself transformed in my mind into the painting itself. I felt the image, the meaning of the painting itself.
My Mantra as a Spiritual Practice
Eventually, the one word, “presence,” expanded into a mantra: “May I feel the Presence and may I be the Presence.”
I whisper these words to myself, for example,
When I begin or end my morning meditation time,
Before I meet with spiritual direction client,
As I begin to write a post for this blog or work on another piece of writing,
When I plan a new session for the church writing group I facilitate.
I find myself saying these words to myself as I move through my day, for I never know when I will need the guidance and comfort of the Presence nor do I know when I will have the opportunity to be the Presence for someone else. That can happen as easily at the grocery store or library as it does in one on one conversations at church.
The mantra is a form of prayer.
And now once again I have the physical presence of “The Presence” to support and remind me that I am beloved and I am to reflect that belovedness in the world.
Is there a word or phrase, an image or object that reminds you of the presence of God in your life? I would love to know.
I begin most days sitting in my Girlfriend Chair in the garret, meditating, praying, writing in my journal, and reading a book that will stretch me into deeper spiritual growth.
Currently, I am reading Faith After Doubt, Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It by Brian D. McLaren. Each time I read one of his books or listen to his podcast, (Learning How to See with Brian McLaren, https://cac.org/podcast/learning-how-to-see/) I can almost feel my limbs being pulled, my brain enlarging, and my heart expanding. Easy reads? Not exactly, although McLaren is such a good writer, making the experience of confronting tough issues and below the surface thoughts, a pleasure. Not only does McLaren become a real person with his own challenges, but he invites the reader into the conversation. In fact, each chapter includes questions for reflection and action.
McLaren was a conservative evangelical pastor who struggled with issues of belief versus faith for many years. Eventually, he left his formal role as a congregational pastor to write (over 15 books so far) and to live his faith as an activist and public theologian. He is on the faculty of the Living School at the Center of Action and Contemplation founded by Richard Rohr.
The first book I read by McLaren was The Great Spiritual Migration, How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian (2016). I don’t know how I became aware of him–perhaps through Diana Butler Bass whose work is also important in my spiritual development. Once I had read The Great Spiritual Migration, I knew I needed to read some of his earlier books.
I read A New Kind of Christianity, Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (2010). Those ten questions continue to be relevant.
What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
How should the Bible be understood?
Is God violent?
Who is Jesus and why is he important?
What is the Gospel?
What do we do about the church?
Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
How can we translate our questions into answers?
You may think you know the answers to those questions (and maybe you do), but I invite you to read McLaren’s explorations. You will learn something new and maybe feel something new.
Next I read We Make the Road by Walking, A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (2014). Books with “spiritual formation” in the title are always a reason for me to look beyond the cover. Even though the book follows the liturgical year, I didn’t wait to read season-designated sections. I started and just kept reading, but with Lent starting soon, I may re-read those chapters under the heading “Alive in a Global Uprising.” As I look at the table of contents I note several chapters I have marked with a star: “Women on the Edge,” “Your Secret Life,”, “Moving with the Spirit,” “Spirit of Love: Loving God,” and “Spirit of Love: Loving Self.” Perhaps I need to re-read those chapters and see what so appealed to me.
I still have two unread books on my shelf by McLaren. The first is Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World ((2012). I’ll get to it, I promise, for I agree with McLaren’s premise that we need a new faith alternative built on “benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility.”
Before reading that book, however, and as soon as I finish Faith After Doubt, I will read his latest book, Do I Stay Christian, A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned (2022). Several people I know have read this book and have encouraged me to read it, but once buying it, I realized I first needed to read Faith After Doubt, and I am almost done reading that book in which McLaren proposes a model of faith development.
Stage One: Simplicity
Stage Two: Complexity
Stage Three: Perplexity
Stage Four: Harmony
Along with defining and describing each of these stages, especially their limitations and consequences, he goes further to highlight the potential gifts of moving through the stages. He encourages faith communities to become four-stage communities because they “produce spiritual activists, harmony activists, whose faith expresses itself in socially transforming love, politically liberating love and ecologically restoring love.” (p. 184)
The operative word in Stage Four, by the way, is LOVE.
When you read a McLaren book, don’t overlook his footnotes, and have your highlighter in your hand, for you will need it.
Now back to reading the last chapter in Faith After Doubt.
“How long has it been since we roamed?” I asked my husband as we buckled our seat belts.
We guessed the last time was late in November when we drove around the lakes in suburbs west of Minneapolis. With most of the leaves on the ground, rather than on branches, we had clear views not only of lakeshore, but homes with water views –some huge and ostentatious and others old and more like summer cottages. A perfect day to imagine what it might be like to live in a lake community.
Since that day we had been occupied with the holidays and family events, the death of a dear friend, and weather unsafe for driving. The day had come, however, to resume our weekly practice of roaming. Seeing what we could see. Relaxing in the rhythm of the road. Learning something new, perhaps.
Our destination was Winona, a town in southern Minnesota situated on the Mississippi River. I did a little research and discovered that Winona means, “first born daughter” in the Dakotah language. I happen to be a first born daughter, so that felt like a good omen. When I looked up Winona on the internet I discovered there were over 40 homes or buildings listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites, including the public library, and we hoped to spot many of them as we wandered city streets. Part of our roaming this past fall was to visit the library in each town, but Winona’s was closed for the weekend as part of commemorating the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday. Next time, we said. And, believe me, there will be a next time.
Our main reason for going to Winona was to visit the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. https://www.mmam.org on the banks of the Mississippi River. That has been on our list for years, but even though a number of friends had told us what a special place it is, somehow the timing was never right. Who wanted to spend time in a museum during non-winter months and during the winter, finding the day when the weather conditions allowed for easy travel was a challenge. Besides, the image I had of the museum was a dark cavern of crusty oil paintings of old clippers ships. That just didn’t appeal to me, even though I think of myself as a person influenced by the element of water.
Instead, this museum, which opened in 2006 and is housed in a gorgeous turn-of-the century influenced building, is dedicated to great art inspired by water, including world-class impressionist and Hudson River School art. But the museum also seeks to showcase contemporary art that expands and opens one’s relationship to water.
Our timing, as it turns out, was perfect. We immersed ourselves in the work of Anne Labovitz. https://labovitz.com And immerse is the operative word. Along with nine large paintings that focus on water’s surface quality and luminosity, we entered into what felt like sacred space–an installation of gently swaying walls that mimic the slight movement of calm water. Along with seeing and feeling, one hears a soundscape recorded at sunrise on the shores of Lake Superior. I sat inside the waterscape, contemplating, remembering, as if real water was washing over me.
I know most of you who read my blog do not live close enough to visit the museum, but if you do, I urge you to go see this exhibit before it closes on January 21. Our visit to this museum reminded me, once again, that treasures reside everywhere, including our back yards.
What has been on your list forever that you simply have not accessed yet? What might you discover accidentally if you got out a map, a real map, and figured out how to get THERE from HERE? Or if that is not possible, what are the other ways to enliven your curiosity? Of course, books, and perhaps something in a genre you normally don’t read. But that can also be true for other media–watch a documentary, instead of a mystery or crime show. One friend is taking an online class on bird identification and knows that will add to the pleasures of her daily walks. Another friend told me recently that she does virtual tours offered by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and I am sure many other museums offer similar opportunities. Or even simpler, have you ever walked through the doors of the church down the street or visited a library other than the one in your loop of life? Recently, a friend and I were driving home after lunch, and I spotted a beautiful old library I had never seen before, and that is now on my list. Perhaps follow a block and see where it ends and then turn around and see where it ends in the other direction, stopping when something interests you.
Become a tourist in your own part of the world. Become a tourist in your life.
Saturday my husband I set out in sunshine, hoping to see eagles and hawks and we did. (The day’s tally was nine eagles, but only one hawk who looked permanently frozen on a bare branch.) But we had not expected to be so uplifted and amazed. We felt honored and privileged by the gifts offered to us. And we know we will return in the spring and summer when the river is open and the museum gardens are in bloom.
In the meantime, I wonder where we will roam next.
Where or in what way is your curiosity inviting you to roam? I would love to know.
It is only January 10, and I have already read a book that for sure will be on my Favorite Books of 2023 list: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell.
This is the first book I read in the new year, and it sets the standard high for my reading life this year. (An Aside: The second book was The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and while it doesn’t surpass The Marriage Portrait, it is good, very good, indeed.)
Lucrezia is a young noble girl in 1550’s Florence, daughter of the grand duke, and she finds herself married to another duke after her older sister dies. She is intelligent, curious, an amazing artist, imaginative, active, not passive, but her role in life is to produce an heir. Her husband shows tenderness and care for her, but…
He bends at the waist and, sliding a hand around her neck, stoops and presses his lips to hers–a brief, emphatic pressure. It reminds her of her father, bringing is seal down on top of a document, marking it as his.
The characters are well-developed, as is the setting. The writing is impeccable, and as for the plot, well, I felt my heart race as I read the last few pages.
I have read other books by O’Farrell, including her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am; Seventeen Brushes with Death, and she is a writer who clearly gets better and better with each book. I remember not being excited about reading her 2020 book, Hamnet, which was about Shakespeare’s wife and young son. That was probably because as a decades ago English major and teacher, I read so much Shakespeare, but the book was a gift and all the reviews were excellent, so…. Needless to say, I loved it. Now I think I will add Hamnet to my re-read list.
Now I am reading a fun palate cleanser, Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Rayburn.
What’s your first book of 2023? I would love to know.
Even the bedroom moves from holiday cheer to winer warmth.
Sometimes I feel like a set designer, but restoring order and creating comfortable, interesting spaces has always helped me move forward into the next step, the bigger task. At this time of the year the goal is to move into the new year.
Shopping the house and rearranging and fashioning a slightly different look in each of our rooms is only part of the new year assignment, however. Not as physical, but just as important, if not more so, is my annual ritual of re-reading my journals from the previous year.
Sunday afternoon I settled into my Girlfriend Chair in the garret and re-lived the past year, As I read, I wrote down in my new journal some key events and thoughts, and I noted signs of growth, along with what I still need to learn. I looked for patterns and ongoing questions. I was touched by the joys and the deep sorrows.
I honored the past year and my life in that year.
Some Key Learnings
My word of the year was rhythm. I was more aware of my own rhythm. Along with being aware of each day’s rhythm–appointments, items on the To Do list, my husband’s needs and plans etc–I became more aware of my own rhythm and the pace I needed to function and live well. I often asked myself, “What is possible now?’ as well as “What do I need right now?”
About this time last year I entered a time of intentional discernment about whether or not to continue working on my memoir. I gave myself time and space to listen to my heart and to explore what gives me purpose and meaning. I asked myself how I wanted to use my energy now. The result of this discernment time was to let go of my memoir as a book, No regrets. In fact, I have felt lighter, freer, and in some ways I have reclaimed myself as a writer, not as someone who hopes to have a book published. Here’s the other thing: I have discovered that I was not just discerning whether or not to continue working on my book, but I was discerning how I want and hope to live my life, this stage of my life. Like decluttering, discernment is an ongoing process.
This stage of life, these elder years, are tender ones in which loss plays a primary role. More and more I realize the importance of spiritual practice in my life; the need to maintain the ways I ground myself and deepen my relationship with God, along with ways to remain open. How do I continue to discover and live as the person God created me to be?
Simple Things That Added Joy
So much in my life continues to be life-enhancing, including meeting with my spiritual direction clients, facilitating the writing group at my church, attending weekly services, being with family and friends, writing this blog, and even continuing the process of decluttering. Along with these ongoing aspects of my life, I noted in my journal other pleasures.
Entertaining at 4 o’ clock. Some snacks and beverages and gathering with a couple friends in the living room or on the patio. Easy. No fuss. Wonderful fellowship.
Continuing to roam. Driving to small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin. What’s interesting here? What would it be like to live there? We made a point of visiting the library in each town, and, of course, having lunch at the local bar or coffee shop.
Installing new carpet in the bedroom. Fresh and clean. A lighter look.
Working on shorter writing projects. Submitting to various online venues and having some published.
Trying to stay away from my desk on Sundays. I’ve noticed major slippage in that department as the year progressed, but I am restating that intention for 2023.
Writing 6 words to describe my day. For example, “Explored near and not so near.” or “Practice, play, prepare for next week.”
Listening to my Pandora station, Christmas piano music, all during Advent. Such a lovely, soothing background for whatever I was doing.
Facilitating conversation groups on topics important to those 55+.
I have not completed my January list—there are closets to clean and papers to organize and the oven is dirty, but even so I am planted in the new year, and I am grateful to be here.
One more thing: Thank you so much for reading my posts and for your kind and thoughtful words. Writing this blog is one of my pleasures; one of the ways I continue to learn and grow, and I thank you for your patience as I continue in the practice of life.
What are your new year’s rituals? I would love to know.
I read a lot in December–not my usual December activity, but, thanks to a crummy cold, I spent more time curled up with good books. VERY good books.
I’ve already written about the latest Louise Penny book, A World of Curiosities, which I loved, and I re-read her first book, Still Life, but the month was full of other book delights, too.
Faces of Christmas Past by Bill Holm. A friend loaned me this charming memoir written by a Minnesota author who was a frequent guest on Prairie Home Companion. He died in 2009. The premise of this short book was writing the annual Christmas letter, whose purpose is to declare, “I am alive, it says, still on the planet. I have not forgotten you. The thread, whether of blood, nostalgia, or friendship, that sews us together has not been cut.” p. 15.
Let Evening Come, Reflections on Aging by Mary C. Morrison. I re-read this book before leading a conversation about what those of us 55+ hold in our hearts. Full of wisdom, simply, beautifully stated.
Mystery–it is all around us, and we do not know it. But sometimes when we give it time and space, whether in deep peace or great anguish, it will come up behind us, or meet us face to face, or move within us, changing the way we see everything, and filling our hearts with joy and an upbringing of love that needs no direct object because everything is its object.
A Place in the World, The Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes. Best known for Under the Tuscan Sun, a bestselling book that also became a movie, Mayes writes so evocatively about creating and being in home. Reading this book made me think about the many homes I’ve lived in and loved and how hometending remains a key spiritual practice in my life. Mayes says, “My house became my icon” (p. 126), and I understand and identify with that.
The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Ferat-Fleury. This small, one-sitting book is a love letter to books and reading and matching people to the right book at the right time, along with the power books hold to change one’s life.
Wild Geese by Margaret Ostenso. I love it when I am led to an author from the past whom I’ve not known about. Ostenso, originally from Canada lived much of her life in Minnesota, and this book, a psychological and sexual drama, caused quite a sensation when published in 1925. The patriarch of a family on the Canadian plains controls his family, always threatening to expose his wife’s secret of an out-of-wedlock child. Written beautifully, this would be a terrific book club selection.
The Ski Jumpers by Peter Geye. I have enjoyed other books by this author, such as Wintering, and I am glad I read this one, too. However, at times I was irritated by the ongoing barroom scenes and sometimes the chronology was confusing, but the characters intrigued me–the brothers who followed in their father’s footsteps and became ski jumpers at early ages. We meet them as grown men–one has become a writer–and many secrets are revealed along the way.
No Land to Light On by Yard Zgheib. I was so impressed with this book about the plight of refugees in this country that I gave a copy to our college granddaughter for Christmas, and I am eager to hear what she thinks about it. A Syrian grad student at Harvard married another Syrian who returns to Syria for his father’s funeral and then because of the presidential order is not allowed to return to this country. I’m not sure what I feel about the ending. Read it and let me know your thoughts.
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang. A young female of Chinese descent is a physician in NYC right before the pandemic. Working in the ICU is the totality of her life. At first she just seemed quirky to me, but the book becomes more serious as it explores immigration, relationships between generations, and the role of women.
The Love of My Life by Rosie Walsh. I was sucked in to this book almost on the first page. SECRETS!!! The wife in the couple has much in her past that her husband knows nothing about, but as an obituary writer for a newspaper he begins to question some contradictions. The author keeps the reader guessing in a masterful way.
The Good Left Undone by Adriana Trigiani I have not read any of this author’s previous books, but may in the future, for she tells a good family saga. The story is set in both Italy and Scotland mainly around the years of WWII. The family background is unveiled as the matriarch is dying.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. I received this book for Christmas, and if that had not been under the tree for me, I would have bought it the next day. What a book! No surprise–the writing is lush, and if I had started underlining favorite lines, the whole book would be a pink mess. David Copperfield by Dickens inspired this story of a boy who suffers terribly as a foster child in Appalachia. Sometimes the subject matter makes it hard to read–he was always hungry, for instance–but don’t stop. This character and his desire to love and be loved made me continue turning the page. And the Big Picture message about poverty and opioid addiction and stereotypes about a region in this country are profound. This book definitely needs to be added to my favorites of 2022 list.
Lucy By the Sea by Elizabeth Strout. As lush as Kingsolver’s writing is, Strout’s sentence structure is simple and clear. I read this in one day, but that doesn’t mean it is a simple book. The time period is the pandemic and Lucy’s former husband decides they should move together from NYC to Maine. Lucy is grieving the loss of her second husband who died just a year ago, and her adult daughters are going through their own struggles. This book can be read without reading the previous books in which these characters are developed, (My Name is Lucy Barton and Oh, William!) but do read the trio. Strout wrote the books Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again, too and that character is mentioned in this recent book. You get a whole family and community when you read Strout books.
Not that it matters, but I am often asked about the number of books I read in a year. This year I read 150 books–101 fiction and 49 nonfiction. But who’s counting! In 2021 I read 120 books. Why the increase? Well, I will think about it and let you know, if I come up with a theory.
Here we are in January and a whole year of reading is ahead. My TBR list continues to grow, especially since I just received the most recent copy of BookWomenhttp://www.bookwomen.net with its list of ‘best reads” submitted by readers, including me. I am moving slowly into 2023, but this coming week I will return to my normal Book Report days on Thursday.
Did you receive any book gifts this past month? I would love to know.
Along with defrocking the house and writing thank you notes–neither of which I have done yet–opening a new journal, and rereading the previous year’s journals, receiving a word for the year is a new year’s ritual.
Notice I said, “receiving” and not “choosing.” More about that later.
Last year I didn’t receive my word, “rhythm” until mid-January, but some years I am aware of my new word during Advent. For several years I made a collage to represent the word I received, but one year when a word had not appeared, I made a collage first, hoping it would reveal the word to me. And it did. “Fullness.”
(Left to right: “spaciousness,” “word,” and “fullness”)
This year thinking about a word for the year had not even occurred to me as Christmas approached.
Surprise–on Christmas Day, like the birth we celebrate on that day, my word appeared.
That morning before going to church I read the day’s meditation from Richard Rohr, “We are the beloved.” He quoted Henri Nouwen’s reflection on the word “beloved,”from his book Life of the Beloved. I have a copy of that small book, and I decided to re-read that book in 2023.
I also noted how often in recent months I have said or written to someone, “You are beloved.”
During church I experienced an overwhelming feeling of being beloved myself. First, because of my love for this community and the ways I have felt ongoing love within that community. But also such a clear voice from the Creator God, “You are my Beloved.” I felt that voice and those words reverberating throughout my whole body.
“Don’t forget this feeling, Nancy,” I said to myself. “I wonder if you have received your word.”
Once home the family festivities began, including opening a staggering number of presents. We took our time, taking turns, passing each one around the circle. Oohing and aahing. Grandson Peter immediately tried on the clothes he received–each one from his list. The used wrapping paper mounded on the living room floor. And then I opened one last present; one sent to me by a friend. It felt like a book, which my husband says is a dangerous gift to give me because I read so much, and it is hard to keep up with the books I own or have already read.
I was stunned when I saw the book: You Are The Beloved, Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, a collection of Henri Nouwen’s words compiled and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw.
Yes, I have received my word. There was no doubt. Beloved.
January 2 Meditation
In this meditation Nouwen refers to Jesus’s baptism when he hears a voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17) and Nouwen says, “Jesus lived his life from that inner place of love.” He also emphasizes how those words are for you and me, too. “Once I have accepted the truth that I am God’s beloved child, unconditionally loved, I can be sent into the world to speak and to act as Jesus did.”
I have no idea how this word will become manifest in my life, and I suspect it will be a challenge, actually as each of my previous words have been, to live the word fully and openly and to accept where the path of that word beckons me.
Looking Back at Previous Words
Asking for a word has been one of my intentional practices for many years. My words have included “devotion,” “sacred yes, sacred no,” “spaciousness,” “fullness,” and last year’s word, “rhythm.”
(Collage using the artwork of Steve Sorman)
What I am beginning to realize is how each of these words continue to live in me. To nourish, challenge, and lead me. I don’t finish with a word, accomplish or outgrow it, but instead the words grow in a kind of active relationship with each other. What does it mean, for example, to maintain “spaciousness” in my life and at the same time welcome “fullness”? I know I will continue to learn the rhythm of sacred yes, sacred no.
Each word call me forth.
Each word deepens me.
Each word is an expression of knowing I am beloved and of holding others in their own belovedness.
Receiving A Word
I have heard people say, “I’ve decided my word for the year is going to be “hope.” Or perhaps, “faith.” Who am I to doubt that the word they’ve chosen is not the word actually delivered, but I encourage you to allow the Spirit to work within you; to open to the mystery.
NOTE: I’m taking a holiday break from the blog and will be back the first week in January.
Louise Penny’s latest book is A World of Curiosities, and, no surprise, I loved it.
Although it was released (and on my doorstep) on November 29, I just read it last week. My husband devoured it right away, but lest you think I am an incredibly generous soul, my plan was to read it after Christmas when I could immerse myself in it without a long list of Christmas tasks pulling me away. And preferably, on a cold and snowy day. Well, I got the cold and snowy days, and thanks to my own lingering cold and lack of full energy, I snuggled in with the book earlier than planned.
This book seemed even more complex to me than earlier books–lots of characters, old and new; a hidden room; a puzzling painting; old cases, all connected, of course. One of the themes is forgiveness, but also the belief that there is always more than meets the eye, a statement made more than once in the book.
How good it was to be back in Three Pines with the people we faithful readers have come to love. And the cover is beautiful.
Two More Things
You may have noticed in the photo a bunch of pencils with the inscription I’M F.I.N.E. I subscribe to a couple Louise Penny fan blogs and entered a drawing to win these pencils. I’M F.I.N.E. is the title of one of Ruth’s books of poetry and in true Ruth style F.I.N.E. stands for “fucked up,” “insecure,” “neurotic,” and “egotistical.” Perfect pencils for a writer!
Yes, I watched the Three Pines Amazon series and enjoyed and recommended them–and hope there will be more. Is Gamache as I pictured him? To some degree, but I didn’t imagine his hair and eyes quite so dark. I had a softer look in mind, but his demeanor is very much the way I think of him.
I’ve been reading more this month than I normally do in December and there is still over a week left. With a predicted blizzard on the way, there may be even more reading time than anticipated. My hope, however, is that our loved ones arrive as planned, and we are too busy enjoying family time for more than bedtime reading. I will post my December Book Report early in January.
What books do you hope to receive and what books are you giving? I would love to know.
By “cold,” I don’t only mean the temperature, which will soon be below zero, but also the lingering cold I have been fighting for two weeks. No, it isn’t COVID, and I am grateful for that, but who needs to be less than at top form on these days approaching Christmas. Besides, I love the Advent season –both the waiting and the preparing–and this limited energy is frustrating.
I have cancelled appointments and missed some special events, but I am keeping the prize in mind –Christmas with our family. Therefore, I’ve gone to bed early, slept later than normal, and napped when I felt the need. I’ve wrapped myself in a shawl and sipped hot cider flavored with a slice of dehydrated orange, and read more books than normal for December.
I have baked only a few loaves of cherry walnut bread and have not made any cookies. Sigh! However, missing those good smells, I made a simple simmering potpourri, which fills the house with the scent of comfort and welcome. My husband has done most of the wrapping (Bless him!) and I did the bows, and the presents are all in place.
Every Christmas is different and no one year is apt to be exactly the way you envision. Some years will be remembered more than others. I doubt any of us will forget last year when we spent Christmas Day on the patio because our grandson had COVID. He sat by the kitchen window, and we were able to watch him open his presents. Or there was the year when our granddaughter, who is now a sophomore in college, was only six weeks old, having arrived five weeks early. We all knew that would be my mother’s last Christmas, and it was.
We try to make each celebration perfect, but perfection comes when we accept and rejoice in what is. When we start from a place of gratitude and open our hearts to the love that is present, to all the ways we are held and beloved. When we remember that our task is not to fix the perfect meal or try to find the best present, but rather to live in the light of who we have been created to be.
I admit I hope to leave this cold behind by December 24 –preferably before then–but whatever happens, I know I will feel the warmth of those I love and who love me.
May these be days of warmth in your life.
Do you recall any Christmases that didn’t quite turn out as planned? I would love to know.
NOTE: Ingredients for Simmering Potpourri
Fresh or frozen cranberries
Whole Star anise
Add 2-4 cups of water or apple juice. Simmer on the stove. Add more liquid as needed.
Some snowy and grey day before Christmas (oh let’s be real, maybe the week after Christmas or even later. After all, Christmas lasts till Epiphany, January 7) I’m going to fix some hot cider with a dried orange slice for extra flavor, and I am going to wrap myself in a shawl and get cozy in the snug. Here’s the important part: I’m going to browse our collection of Christmas books and read whatever appeals to me in the moment.
To be honest, I plan to do this every Christmas season, but then shopping and baking and writing Christmas cards and wrapping presents and… and… takes precedence. I enjoy all those activities, so I don’t feel too sorry for myself, but still… This year the desire for this kind of gentle luxury feels more necessary. Maybe it’s the crummy cold I’ve had that has lasted far too long or more likely it is the need to sit quietly with the sadness I feel about the death of a friend. I am also aware that my age, being an elder, lures me towards the simple pleasures more and more.
Over the years we’ve passed on many of the books we collected when our kids were growing up, and what remains are some special favorites plus a few old books I’ve found when antiquing. At the top of the pile is a small paper copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Bruce was in a reader’s theater version of the story when we were in college, and one of the first presents he gave me was a copy of the book with lovely wood prints. I might begin my immersion into my Christmas books by reading it aloud–even if it is just to myself.
…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…
Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the light in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
Next I will smile my way through my favorite picture book version of The Nativity. Mary, as imagined by illustrator Julie Vivas, is not exactly beatific. Rather she is LARGE with child and has a very hard time getting on the donkey and is exhausted by the labor. There is a reason it is called LABOR.
I also love Tomie De Paola’s illustrations of Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies and the De Paola book that will always be my favorite, Clown of God about the juggler, Giovanni and the miracle of his gift. Both of our books are signed by De Paola from the days decades ago when I worked in an independent book store in St Paul, Odegards.
I am just as delighted with Susan Branch’s illustrations and also her calligraphy. In the Christmas stack are two of her books, Christmas From the Heart for the Home and Christmas Joy. Branch encourages us to “Light candles, say a prayer holding hands, play music, dress up, take pictures, kiss everyone within 5 feet of the mistletoe, and keep your senses alive so you can remember THIS Christmas all year long.”
One of the books I have not read in years is The Story of Holly and Ivy by the English author Rumer Godden who wrote for both children and adults. In this story Ivy is an orphan and Holly is a doll left all alone in a toyshop window on Christmas Eve. It won’t be a surprise that there is a happy ending to the story. which in this version is illustrated by Barbara Cooney.
I’ve read a few of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket Classic, Christmas Stories, such as Green Holly by Elizabeth Bowen,The Turkey Season by Alice Munro, and several times Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory about making the traditional fruitcake with his distant cousin.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable–not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my, ‘ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’
The book that entices me most, however is also called Christmas Stories, but it is by Charles Dickens. This old, small red leather-bound book with tiny print and pages you can almost see through just feels good to hold. In the last year or so I have been feeling a tug to read some of the Dickens books I have never read like Bleak House or The Old Curiosity Shop. I loved Great Expectations when I read it in 8th grade, and I think reading that book was influential in my decision to teach English. Perhaps reading some of these stories will be the beginning of a Dickens year.
I have a plan, and my shawl and mug of cider, and books wait for me. What a good Christmas present that would be to give myself. And it’s snowing!
What Christmas books do you enjoy reading year after year? I would love to know.
the bearer of God.
Night Visions, Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas
Jan L. Richardson
Isn’t that the invitation of this time of the year? We read of Mary’s willingness to accept the call, but Joseph also accepted fatherhood ahead of schedule. We watch and listen as the shepherd and the Wise Ones followed the star to discover what might be new, what might be possible. In each of their “yeses,” they became a bearer of God.
When in the last year have you received the touch of God? When have you been the bearer of God?
In a recent sermon at our church Pastor Lois Pallmeyer quoted Jaclyn Roessel, founder of the Grown Up Navajo blog,
When we are able to act for the betterment of others…we will speak sacredness fluently.
I love that phrase “speak sacredness fluently.” Imagining myself as a bearer of God is not easy, but somehow acting in ways that can be seen, heard, felt as a sign of the sacred seems more possible. In this elder stage of life, it seems I see the sacred everywhere. Even the challenging changes that come as we grow older seem to offer more ways to practice speaking sacredness. Sometimes that means holding the hand of a loved one as she approaches death and saying, “I love you with all my heart.” Or it may mean listening more than speaking.
Speaking sacredness fluently means staying awake with gratitude in my heart.
A Grateful Summary
Our life has not changed much in the last year. We are in the same home, both healthy and doing what gives us meaning. Bruce paints and gives new life to cast-off furniture and other home decor accessories, which he sells at summer garage sales with the proceeds going to Rezik House, a program for homeless youth. He loves his monthly men’s book group at church and also volunteered as the church gardener this past summer, even while maintaining our own gardens. I continue meeting with spiritual direction clients, writing this blog along with occasional other pieces, and facilitating various groups at our church, including a weekly writing group. This fall I revived the Third Chapter, Spirituality as We Age group, facilitating informal conversations on topics like decluttering and downsizing. Our faith community remains a source of joy and growth and connection.
You will see in the picture below that grandson Peter (almost 15 and in the 9th grade) is taller than his Papa –taller than everyone in the family, except his Dad. He follows a strict weight-lifting regimen as part of his devotion to both baseball and football. We enjoyed going to his football games this past fall and now Papa drives him twice a week to a baseball class. At church he is one of the sound technicians for Sunday morning services and at school he is the lighting guy–learning great skills.
We drove to Portland, Oregon in the spring to bring our granddaughter Maren (age 20) home from her freshman year at Lewis and Clark. What fun to not only see her on campus, but then to have her all to ourselves for the return trip. This past summer she worked at Northern Lights, a YMCA family camp in northern Minnesota, co-directing outdoor activities. Perfect for her! She will return there this summer. This fall as a sophomore she was the stage manager for the college musical, Rent. How good it will be to have her home for a chunk of time over the holidays.
One of the best parts of this time of our lives is having such strong and loving relationships with our adult kids, son Geof and daughter-in-love, Cricket who live in Cleveland and daughter Kate and son-in-love Mike who live five blocks from us. How good it will be to have “together time” this Christmas.
Minnesota author Bill Holm in his book Faces of Christmas Past muses that the tradition of writing Christmas letters is a way to state “I am alive…still on the planet, I have not forgotten you. The thread, whether of blood, nostalgia or friendship, that sews us together has not been cut.”
I agree and add that these letters are a sign of our all being one. Each of us in our connection speaks sacredness fluently and has the chance to become a bearer of God.
For a fiction book to be on my “favorites” list, the writing must be superb and I must have been able to engage with the characters in some way, even if they are from a totally different time and/or background. They must become real to me. I also love books in which I can imagine myself in the setting. Plot isn’t as important to me as the feeling created in the book.
I turn to books to deepen who I am, to grow and to expand my world. That is true for nonfiction books, too. Favorite nonfiction books are ones in which I pause as I am reading to marvel at a new thought, new perspective, a new piece of knowledge. At some point while reading each of the books on this year’s favorite list, I said, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Or I might have thought, “This is just what I need right now.” Or “What a good idea” or “I can’t wait to share this with…”
As is the case with many fiction titles, one book leads to another –other books by the same author or books on the same or similar topic. Once again, so many books, so little time.
Perhaps my list of favorites will lead you forward into the next good book. I hope so.
Wife/daughter/self, A Memoir in Essays by Beth Kephart.
In The Country of Women by Susan Straight
The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig
Late Migrations, A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl
Crisis Contemplation, Healing the Wounded Village by Barbara A. Holmes
The Wild Land Within, Cultivating Wholeness Through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay
All That She Carried, The Journey pf Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles
Decision-Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Making Your Way by Nancy Bieber (a reread)
Spirit Car, Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson
Between Two Kingdoms, A Memoir of life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
The Divine Dance, The Trinity and Your Transformation, Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell
Without A Map, A Memoir by Meredith Hall
A Life in Light, Meditations on Impermanence by Mary Pipher
Unbinding, The Grace Beyond Self by Kathleen Dowling Singh
The Green Hour, A Natural History of Home by Alison Townsend
The White Stone, The Art of Letting Go by Esther deWaal
Windswept, Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abby
The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
Trusting Change, Finding Your Way Through Personal and Global Transformation by Karen Hering
How The Word Is Passed, A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
The Electricity of Every Living Thing, A Woman’s Walk in the World to Find Her Way Home by Katherine May
Such rich reading–almost takes my breath away!
What nonfiction books do you recommend from your 2022 reading? Is there anything on this list on your TBR list? I would love to know.
One day early last week I sat in my Girlfriend Chair, took a deep breath, and shuffled the Advent Perspectives, Companions for the Journey deck of cards. Discovering my companion for Advent has been one of my Advent practices for the last few years, ever since my beloved sister gave me this charming set of cards.
The set includes images of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the innkeeper, two shepherd cards, three Wise Men cards, the angel, the manger, the donkey, the sheep, the star. Each card describes the character’s role in the Christmas Story and also asks some reflective questions about the ways the character is present in your life and can lead you deeper into your own faith life.
I shuffled the cards and then turned them over, face down, and fanned them in my left hand. I closed my eyes, took another deep breath and moved my right hand lightly over the cards, whispering a simple desire, “Companion me. Be with me.”
My hand stopped, selected a card, and turned it over.
Oh no! MARY! It’s the Mary card!
Why couldn’t it be the sheep or the innkeeper? I know how to be those characters. Or why not another Wise Man. For the last two years I had chosen two of the Wise Men cards. Let’s complete the trio, I pleaded, and be the third Wise Man.
Or how about Elizabeth? After all, I know what it is to be old.
I suppose I could have called a “do over,” but I’ve learned to sit with what appears in my life–the signs, the gifts, the changes, the challenges, the disappointments, the joys.
I took another deep breath and remembered that just because the Mary card chose me doesn’t mean I have to be Mary. Rather, Mary has asked to companion me on this stage of the journey.
The day before I sat with the Advent cards, I read this in Christine Valters Paintner’s daily meditation:
Mary is the gate through which Jesus enters the world and our hearts. Her consent was required for him to cross that threshold.
I should have known.
And so I sit with Mary.
And I sit with the reflection questions on the back of the Mary card:
What experience have you had with God that altered the course of your carefully made plans? How did you respond?
How comfortable are you in being honest with God, wrestling with God. and asking questions of God?
How do you, as Mary did, feel like God’s favored one? How are you being asked to birth your special gifting of God’s light and love in our world?
In recent weeks the word “vessel” has hovered in and around my heart. https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/1413 Mary was a vessel of love and nurturing and willingness to be and do the hard thing. And these last few days have been hard. A dear friend died, and none of us who love her were ready. My vessel has overflowed with tears.
This was not the plan. I was expecting to be fully immersed in Christmas delights, just as I expect engaged Mary was preparing for her wedding. Perhaps her girlfriends were planning a wedding shower for her, and her parents were consulting with her about wedding details? Did Mary and Joseph sit quietly and talk about their future hopes and dreams?Well, that’s not how life unfolded. Gabriel appeared.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and powdered what sort of greeting this might be.
Luke 1: 28-29
Mary is with me as I ponder how to hold and to be in this new loss. I ponder how to be a vessel.
Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain...
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this because you must be large.
People will find their way through you.
Light will glow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light...
by Christine Lore Webber
I trust that Mary is the chosen companion for me right now in this place and time, and I promise to open to the learnings and gifts she offers me–even through my tears.
When you think of the Christmas story, what characters do you most identify with and why? I would love to know.
Today’s post will do double duty. First, a look at what I read in November and then a list of my favorite fiction of 2022. Last year I was asked by a few readers to post my favorite books of the year before the year ended as an aid for Christmas shopping. Next week I will post my list of favorite nonfiction from this year. So here goes.
Compared to October when I read 13 books, I was a slouch this month! Only 9 books.
Three of the fiction titles are on my 2022 favorites list —The Overstory,Foster, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Each of those books were emotional reads in which I felt such warmth and concern for the characters, although these books could not be more different from each other. I thought The Maid was an ok read–a good one to read in one sitting. I was disappointed in Fly Away by Kristin Hannah. I have enjoyed other books by her, but in this one the characters never seemed to rise above their whininess and I didn’t see much growth. It was a long running soap opera kind of book.
The last book I read this month was Writing and Healing, which I have had on my shelf for a long time, and it is a series of exercises used in a group of cancer survivors. I got some possible writing prompt ideas for the writing group I facilitate.
I borrowed one of the books from the library, and I am sorry I don’t own it. How The Word Is Passed, A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith is an amazing book, beautifully, poetically written and it opened me to so much I didn’t know or had never considered. I littered the book with tags and have made copies of many of the passages. Smith visits several key places in the history of slavery, including Monticello, Whitney Plantation (Louisiana), Angola Prison (Louisiana), Blandford Cemetery (Virginia), Galveston Island (Texas), New York City, and Goree Island (Senegal). It felt like an honor to read this book, and at the same time I felt shame for the necessity of this book.
No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler is about the author’s struggle with colon cancer (at age 35). She writes openly, honestly about this life-threatening challenge and wonders about the ways we approach adversity in this culture.
Finally, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home by Kathering May. I was attracted to this book because I am always attracted to books about people going on extended walks (I wonder about that attraction in myself!) and also because I loved her more recent book, Wintering, The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. This book was a surprise, however, for it was really a journey in her discovery of herself as someone with autism. The walking gave her room to realize and contemplate this about herself. Quite the book.
I suspect I won’t read as many books in December, but there is always January and snow days. Now onto the end of the year lists.
Favorite Fiction This Year
When I decided which books to include on my “favorites” list and then gathered books to illustrate this post, I realized how much I now use the library. Most of my favorites are books I borrowed from the library and few are ones I acquired. Because my list of favorites is so long, I divided the list into First Tier and Second Tier. I listed the books in the order in which I read them–not according to which favorites were my most favorite!
First Tier Favorites
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Oh William by Elizabeth Strout
The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina
Transcendent Kingdom by Yea Gyasi
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (a reread)
Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams
The Floor of the Sky by Pamela Carter Joern
A Town Called Solace, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Road Ends–all by Mary Lawson
Beneficence by Meredith Hall
Great Circle, Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me –all by Maggie Shipstead
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (a reread)
French Braid by Anne Tyler
Three by Valerie Perrin
Honor by Thirty Umrigar
Recitative by Toni Morrison
The Midcoast by Adam White
Fencing with the King by Diane Abu-Jaber
The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams
Landslide by Susan Conley
The Other Mother by Rachel Harper
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Foster by Claire Keegan
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
Second Tier Favorites
Celine by Peter Heller
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
Zorrie by Laird Hunt
The Eighth Life by Nina Haratischvili
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Sharfak
Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Jubilee by Margaret Walker
Solar Storms by Linda Hogan
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher (a reread)
The Love Songs of W. E. B. DuBois by Honore Fannone Jeffers
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery
Violetta by Isabel Allende
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian
As I write this I await for the arrival of Louise Penney’s latest. Because I am such a generous soul, I will hand it over to my husband to read it first. I will wait for a day when I can fully immerse myself in it and savor every word.
The fist two in the series by Richard Osman: The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice. I am on the list for the third one.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
A Sunlit Weapon, the latest in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear
The Frieda Klein series by Nicci French. The first is Blue Monday and they progress through the days of the week, ending with Sunday Silence
A couple by Chris Pavone: The Expats and The Paris Diversion
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers
The Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. I think there will be more in this series.
Fox Creek by William Kent Krueger, the most recent in the Cork O’Connor series. I didn’t think this was his best, bu I can’t not read WKK.
I make the decision to not continue reading a book quickly, which is why I don’t have many books listed in my Book Journal that I didn’t like. Sometimes I will bring home a pile I have requested from the library and only read one or two. I am sure that there are times if I had continued to read a specific book, I would end up enjoying it, but that is a chance I am willing to take. Too many books–too little time.
What were your favorite fiction titles of 2022? I would love to know.
I’m ready for Advent now, but Friday morning as I defrocked the house of its fall look, I wasn’t so sure. Our grandson had retrieved all the Christmas bins from the storage area underneath the snug, and they waited for me in the lower level bedroom. EEEK!
When I read a novel, setting and characters are more important for my reading pleasure than plot, and that is true for me in my day-to-day life as well. Creating an interesting and creative setting that inspires reflection and growth, as well as an atmosphere for connection with others has always been a priority for me. That is especially true at this time of the year.
I confess that this year the process felt daunting to me. I wondered if this was the year I would say “been there, done that” and limit myself and decide to be a convert to Christmas Minimalism. (Is that a thing?)
Once I opened the bins, however, and became reacquainted with reminders of Christmases past, I was on my way, and the house is now alive with a Christmas glow.
The setting welcomes me into Advent reflection –this time of waiting and promise and finding the light in the darkness. The setting creates a space for the birth that needs to be revisited over and over again. The setting is a threshold for whatever unfolds. The setting asks me to open to what most needs to be discovered and honored, as well as the ways I need to challenge myself.
I am ready.
How do you prepare for this new season? I would love to know.
Not only did I prepare the house for Advent, but I also continued the ongoing process of decluttering. I packed up one bin of fall decorations and two bins of Christmas decorations ready for our annual spring/summer garage sale. I suspect when I pack up the Christmas decorations after Epiphany, I will add more to the “ready to let go” piles. How good that feels!
My post on Thursday, December 1 will include a list of my favorite novels of 2022. On Thursday, December 8 I will list my favorite nonfiction books of 2022.
Note: No post on Thanksgiving Day. I will return on Tuesday, November 29. Have a blessed holiday.
One day this past weekend I wrapped myself in my favorite shawl and moved into the snug to browse through a pile of new home decor magazines. I needed a time-out. Escaping into pictures of beautiful homes, possibly delicious recipes and contemplating holiday decorating is one of the ways I am gentle with myself. One of the ways I restore myself into a rhythm that is calm and open and essential.
These are confusing days; these days right before Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas. At least for me.
These are days of conflicting messages. The grocery store is loaded with all the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner, but at the same time stores are full of Christmas decorations. Driving through neighborhoods especially in the evening, I am surprised by the number of homes with Christmas lights sparkling against the snow, and I even catch glimpses of Christmas trees all aglow inside homes.
Some people have strict guidelines about not decorating until after Thanksgiving and others are busy doing that right now.
We have received our first Christmas cards, and a couple people have told me they are done with their shopping. And that is fine. Whatever works for you and however you meet the demands of your life is your decision, but I can feel myself tightening, wondering how I will get everything done.
Advent begins in a few days, and I am not ready!
There is always a lot to do this time of the year, and I wonder how I managed before our children were grown when I was working full time and my husband was a busy family doc or those years when we traveled from our home in Ohio to the rest of our family here in Minnesota. Now we don’t host Thanksgiving, and we don’t have as much shopping to do as we once did nor do we decorate in the same extravagant way.
Our grandson will come get the bins of Christmas decorations out of the storage space for us this week, and I will decorate beginning Friday. On Thanksgiving Day we will have our photograph taken with our grandkids and then I can order copies for our Christmas cards, but I am not yet in the mood to write an accompanying letter. Maybe I won’t do that this year.
I want to do some entertaining, and I always bake many loaves of cherry walnut bread. It would be fun to make some different cookies this year, too. My husband said he would help. (That’s when I will miss having a big kitchen.) We’ve done some shopping, and I bought wrapping paper, but need to get ribbon.
In the midst of the December list, I also need to do some planning for the new year. When in January should I start the winter series of the church writing group I facilitate and when can I set aside time for the planning of those sessions? What about the other groups I lead?
For the most part I relish it all, but at the same time I am aware that day to day life continues. I meet with clients, fix dinner, pay bills, do laundry and even write my twice a week blog posts. (I don’t anticipate much other writing will get done.) I am also aware of those I love who are in pain and trying to manage what is unwelcome and unexpected. How do I stay open to those needs?
We live near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. A place sacred to the Dakota people. An area important in their creation stories; an area of great energy and meaning.
These November-December days feel like a confluence to me–time flowing into each other, joining the past year, leading to a momentous birth and on into a new year and new beginnings. Beginnings that may grow from endings. Past, present, and future almost all at the same time, and at times that can feel chaotic. But eventually the rivers of time become one, and order of some kind is created.
I wonder how many times I have advised someone to “Be gentle with yourself. Remember to breathe.”
When we seem to be in a time of confluence, when the past is moving quickly into the future and the present is overflowing, treating oneself with gentleness is not just a good idea, but a necessary one.
What are the ways you practice being gentle with yourself? I would love to know.
I will spend a chunk of the day planning two more sessions for the writing group I facilitate at church. Each session I offer some quotations related to a specific theme, followed by a writing prompt.
For example, the theme this month is hospitality. Last week the quotes I presented included:
In your own way, do you keep a lantern burning by the roadside with a note saying where you may be found, “just in case?” Do you place a jar of cool water and a bit of fruit under a tree at the road’s turning, to help the needy traveler? God knows the answer and so do you!
Howard Thurman in Meditations of the Heart
The guest in Benedictine spirituality is a visit from the God of surprises…Guests bring the world in, place it at our feet, and dare us to be who and what we say we are.
Joan Chittister in The Monastery of the Heart, An Invitation to a Meaningful Life
The quotes may be poems or prayers. They may come from novels, as well as books or articles on spirituality or they may be Biblical passages. The first week we explored hospitality, for example, I included only one quote and that was the Martha and Mary story as told in Luke 11:38-42. Most often, however, I invite exploration of the topic through a variety of quotes–and a variety of sources and writers, balancing men and women’s voices, also.
Sometimes the theme is the result of something I have just read. Sometimes I think of a prompt first and need quotes to support it. No matter the doorway into the planning of a writing session, I love the scavenger hunt for supporting content.
I stand in front of my shelves in the garret and ask, sometimes even aloud, for guidance. What books will have the perfect words for deeper understanding and insight and inspiration? Sometimes the answer is obvious, for there is a specific book that addresses the topic. For example, Invited, the Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness by Leslie Verner or The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. I glance at what I have underlined and I note sources the author mentions. As I immerse myself in the topic, I think about other books within my reach or file folders in my drawers that may have a nugget on the topic. I have a journal of quotes I have read in other people’s blogs and I may page through that, often finding just the piece of wisdom I need for myself that day
I turn to my favorites–Jan Richardson, Christine Valters Painter, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer.
I add sticky book flags to pages that seem relevant and begin a stack of books on the top of my desk.
One book leads to another. And searching for material for the current topic often leads to ideas for future topics or for other programs I facilitate. Or for my blog posts or essays I may want to write.
Ultimately, I only use a few of the quotes I find, but engaging with this process, an intuitive and playful process, immerses me in the topic and opens me to whatever direction the participants in the writing group may go with their writing. The process broadens me and deepen my own reflection. It is a process that leads me into a kind of stillness, even as it energizes me.
Moving from book to book I realize this is meditation, this is prayer.
Yes, today I am a happy woman.
Is there a quote in your life that continues to inspire and guide you? What does that quote prompt you to do, to be? I would love to know.
At a recent session with my spiritual director, she noticed how I cupped my hands as I spoke. That posture suggested a word to her. Vessel. The word resonated with me, and I wondered about the implications of that word in my life.
Soon after that session I read a prayer, “Blessing the Fragments,” by Jan Richardson in her book, The Cure for Sorrow, A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief. This is the first verse.
Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but open
to welcome what comes.
Welcome what comes? I’m not so sure about that. Why, for example, would I welcome the sadness I feel about a friend’s dire cancer diagnosis. Then I read the last verse.
Look into the hollows
of your hands
what wants to be
what abundance waits
among the scraps,
will offer itself
from the pieces
“Oh, Nancy, ” I say to myself, “You do not yet know the gifts of this time. And you can’t know if you live with your hands clenched in a rigid fist.”
With my hands cupped I …
Receive and Release
Open and Offer
Honor and Hold
Isn’t this what we envision for ourselves when we walk with someone who experiences pain or confusion, doubt or fear?
At those times I want to receive what is shared, spoken or unspoken. Not only do I want to release my own fears, but also my need to control or correct or fix or solve.
I want to open my heart and listen with the ears of my heart. I open to the inner voice, the Divine that whispers to me.
I open to surprise, to possibility, to what feels new and perhaps not quite acceptable. I open to change, to transformation, to hope and salvation. I open to imperfection and a lack of answers. I open to the spaciousness of this time, whatever that means.
I offer what I can, what I am able. I offer myself, my heart and my intuition, too, along with my understanding, even when I don’t understand.
I offer my presence.
I honor for we are beloved. We are holy. I honor our fragility that lives within our wholeness. I honor vulnerability and the willingness to be seen, to be known.
I hold the space for all that is swirling or sometimes for all that feels static. I hold the fear and allow love to be borrowed, if love feels distant. I hold the in-between times. I hold myself accountable, even as I am gentle with myself.
I hold the present moment with my presence.
I hold open the door.
I remember my prayer bowl, a vessel that sings. When I strike the rim the tone is clear and strong and reverberates for a long time, fading gradually into the space around me. The energy and the memory remain.
May I be that vessel–a vessel that receives and releases, opens and offers, honors and holds. A vessel that sings even as she cries.
Cup your hands. What do you see? What kind of vessel are you carrying? I would love to know.
I’m not sure why I finally decided to read this book. It has been on my “fiction yet to be read” bookshelf for a long time. Often when I finally take a delayed plunge I wonder why I waited so long, and this was the case with The Overstory by Richard Powers.
Perhaps I finally settled into this big book (500 pages) because I had discarded several books I put on hold at the library. The descriptions of each of those books appealed, but after reading the first few pages I knew they would not satisfy a barely perceptible itch for something more substantial.
Perhaps I finally turned to The Overstory because of the season and how much more aware I am of trees as they shed their leaves and reveal their bones.
Perhaps I was influenced by the paperback release of Richard Powers most recent book, Bewilderment.
Perhaps after reading thirteen books last month, I was ready to settle into the world of one book.
This is a novel about trees–their significance and how we treat them. That is a simple statement, but this book is not simple.
In the first section, “Roots” we meet nine main characters. Yes, nine, and each one is essential. We learn their backstories, each one fascinating, and then in later sections, “Trunk,” “Crown” and “Seeds,” we learn how some of them interconnect as tree defenders and for others the understanding of the essentialness of trees is discovered in more solitary ways.
As I read further and further into the book, I thought about a walk I took almost every day when we lived in Ohio. Sometimes our old dog Boe went with me, sniffing and shuffling along the trail. At the beginning of my walk a large oak tree, a tree I thought of as the Grandfather tree, welcomed me each day. I often stood in front of the tree, taking several deep breaths, before veering off onto the trail along a small lake. Boe was always eager to get moving, but I needed a moment to settle myself and find the rhythm of the day and to listen to what whispers the tree might offer. Further on I encountered another large, very large tree, with a sizable opening at the base of the tree. I imagined this was where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys descended into their underground world. Once I peered into the hole, almost as tall as I am, hoping I could hear them. There were other trees at other stages of their lives, juveniles reaching into the sky or fallen elders, still present, but giving life and wisdom in more discreet ways.
I didn’t think much on my walks about how trees are above and beyond and deeper than humanity and how they are our ancestors, but I think at some essential core, I knew that. Powers clearly knows that and wants us to know it, too, and his beautiful and passionate writing creates and reinforces that knowing.
If you’re holding a sapling in your hand when the Messiah arrives, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.
…a great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.
Now they only need to learn what life wants from humans. It’s a big question to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren’t alone, and they never have been.
I look out our front window and realize the ash trees along the boulevard (or as it is called in Cleveland, the “tree lawn,” which I think is a wonderful name) are at the end of their lives and soon we won’t benefit from their shade and their energy. How sad that makes me, and I think about a Chinese saying Powers quotes, “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.”
This book is Powers’ contribution to increasing awareness and call to action regarding climate change. What will be your contribution?
What big books are waiting for your attention? I would love to know.
One of my favorite nonfiction books about trees is The Healing Energies of Trees by Patrice Bouchardon (1999), but I also have on my TBR list To Speak for the Trees, My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
What do you see here? How would you describe this scene?
I imagine some would call this bleak, cold, barren, dismal and wonder why I would even take this picture.
This landscape is exactly what I needed recently.
Last week I was cranky, easily irritated. Unsettled and touchy. When I feel that way, I know I need more time in morning meditation. I need to write in my journal, read sacred words and ponder them, sit in silence, and pray. But this past week, although it looked spacious enough on paper, somehow zoomed past without room for what I most needed. A correction: The time was there, but I failed to use it in the ways I knew would help.
A dear friend has received a dire diagnosis, and I am grieving for her and for her family. And I am grieving for myself, too. I wake up in the morning in the midst of thoughts for her, and a prayer for her is the last thing on my lips before I shut my eyes at night. I experience both grief for what is being lost right now, and I anticipate the grief that will come.
I am so sad.
At the same time I want to be present to my friend and whatever she needs right now. A helper. A doer. A responder. A receiver. A calm and quiet presence. Whatever is needed in the moment.
A Call to Roam
The past week was beautiful, warmer than normal temperatures. Sunny, and many leaves were holding on in a continuation of fall’s majestic show. But Friday was cooler and grey; a day signaling introspection and contemplation.
How grateful I was that my husband and I had set aside that day to roam. At his request we drove down along the Mississippi River on the Wisconsin side of the river–one of our favorite routes. The towns along the way. Maiden Rock, Stockholm, Pepin, are busy on summer weekend days, and I imagine not long ago the leaf-peepers were oohing and aahing at the color and the sparkling water.
Now every tree was bare. The skeletal branches revealed the essence of each tree, and the sky and the waters almost blending together as one whispered a message of connection, of wholeness.
How grateful I was to be able to rest my eyes. Instead of missing what was no longer there, I paused in what is. This is beauty, too. This is love, too.
I still felt sad, but I also felt a kind of peace. The spaciousness I glimpsed between the branches reminded me that we are each part of the ongoing cycle the seasons offer us.
We crossed the river back into Minnesota and found a quiet place for lunch, next to a railroad track and right on the river. How fun it will be to return there in another season when the days are warmer and the scene is livelier and more colorful, but this was just what I needed in that moment.
What landscape nurtures your soul’s need? I would love to know.
Oh my goodness, what a good reading month it has been. You would think this was a hibernation month, when, in reality, the weather has been fall perfect.
I read thirteen books this month, but who’s counting! People ask me how I manage to read so much. (Is there an implication that my life is dull?) I guess the answer is that I structure reading into my day, beginning with my morning meditation time, which includes reading a book on a spiritual topic. This month I read three books in that category:
The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Prya Parker (2018). I am quite sure this would not be shelved in the spirituality section of a book store, but thinking about how we connect with one another and how we offer hospitality is a totally spiritual topic, I think. Written in a breezy, conversational style, this book has lots of helpful and insightful ideas that can make a difference when you plan a small dinner party or a big work or community event.
Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman (1953). This book had been on my list for a long time, and I read it slowly, savoring one brief meditation at a time. For example, in #10, “In the Moment of Pause, the Vision of God,” he writes, “It is good to make an end of movement, to come to a point of rest, a place of pause. There is some strange magic in activity, in keeping at it, in continuing to be involved in many things that excite the mind and keep the hours swiftly passing. But it is a deadly magic; one is not wise to trust it with too much confidence.” Keep in mind, if you read this, the time period, for the language is sexist, but there are gifts to be found here, and Thurman is one of the greats of the 20th century.
Trusting Change, Finding Our Way Through Personal and Global Transformation by Karen Hering (2022). One of the first programs I attended at Wisdom Ways when we moved back to St Paul in 2013 was a book launch for Karen Hering’s Writing to Wake the Soul, Opening the Sacred Conversation Within (2013), a book that has inspired my own writing. Since then I have participated in writing retreats and sessions with her. She is a gifted teacher and writer, and this book is packed with insights and inspiration. The book offers ten skills for living on the threshold (actually, I wish the title included the word “threshold”) and deep and creative exercises to do by oneself or with others. I have a feeling I will refer to this book often as I plan for the writing and other groups I lead. Hering is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who has worked as a literary minister. Isn’t that intriguing?
Along with devoting part of my meditation time to reading, I read during lunch, but I also try to leave my garret desk at about 4 and read before I start fixing dinner, and, of course, I read before going to bed. That time adds up to a bunch of books. I guess I am a fast reader, and sometimes that is not a good thing, for I don’t always retain what I read. That is one reason why I keep a journal of what I read.
Here are my top four October novels:
The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian (2022). An American movie star invites friends and colleagues to join her and her new husband on a honeymoon safari in Tanzania. The novel is set in the 1960’s when the country was still called Tanganyika. Kidnapping, murder, page-turning suspense. The big question is who survives? The descriptions of the Serengeti and the animals they see are breath-taking, but be still my heart, so is what happens. This is the first book I’ve read by this author and I went on to read The Hour of the Witch (2021), which, even though I have never been drawn to books about the days of witch-hunts in the colonies, this book intrigued me, and I am afraid I am going to have to read Bohjalian’s extensive back list.
Fencing with the King by Diane Abu-Jaber (2022). Amani accompanies her father from the U.S. back to their Jordan homeland where he has been invited to celebrate the birthday of the king by engaging in a fencing match with him. What is more important about the story is Amani’s search to learn about her father’s mother, whom she resembles. Secrets are uncovered in this beautifully told story.
Landslide by Susan Conley (2021). I almost read this book in one sitting, for the witty and natural dialogue moved the story along so easily. Set in Maine, Kit has a serious fishing accident and Jill needs to cope with their two teenage sons, whom she calls “the wolves.” I loved all the mother-son interactions, reflecting teenage angst, the mother’s typical, but also difficult worries, and all the love needed to survive and move forward.
The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper (2022). A complicated story of secrets and trauma related to the secrets. Two women are in a relationship with one another, but one is more committed to the relationship, and she wants a baby. The other woman agrees, but even though she adores the child, does not want to adopt him. Much of the story takes place when the child, Jenry, starts college at Brown University where the man whom he believes is his grandfather is a famous African-American professor. Some secrets are revealed, but others….well, I don’t want to reveal too much. I was intrigued by this book.
I also read five other books, each worth reading or I would have discarded them fairly early on!
Violeta by Isabel Allende (2022)
The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams (2021)
A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie (1993)
The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg (2010)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)
One more book note. This past weekend our roaming destination was Red Wing, MN, and, of course, we visited the library. I was impressed with the comfortable and set-apart reading room, but also liked some of the hand-outs available to patrons, including this one:
I would love to know what books are read to fulfill this challenge.
What did you read this past month? How are you challenging yourself in your reading life? I would love to know.
Some people hide their heads in the sand, but, I guess, squirrels choose to hide their heads in the pumpkin. I love my pumpkins, and seeing them become squirrel food is frustrating, but I had to laugh. And some days you need to laugh.
We are bombarded these days with so much that worries us, especially as we head towards election day. How important it is to open ourselves to what amuses us and makes us smile, even if I wish my pumpkins had not become a feeding trough.
Sunday I drove through the neighborhood, stopping to fill Little Free Libraries with a stack of books —food for other readers, and I felt fed by what I saw.
What a gorgeous fall it has been, and I am grateful for each of these days; each one calling me to open my eyes, to find beauty, to notice what brings us comfort and joy. And to smile.
What feeds you these days. What has made you smile? I would love to know.
My husband and I love to roam. “Roaming,” I think is a bit different than traveling. No tickets are involved or reservations. There is no need to stop the mail, board the dog, if you have one, or hire the neighbor kid to shovel your walk it if snows. Nope, all we do is pick a destination, make sure the car is filled with gas, the plat book is handy, and off we go.
This fall we decided to include in our casual itinerary the libraries in the towns we visit. Because it has been such a busy fall, we have only explored two Minnesota towns so far, St Peter and New Ulm. At some point I intend to write about what we learned about each of these towns, but since it is Book Report Thursday, I will focus just on the libraries.
The St Peter library is a new structure–not particularly inviting from the outside, but the inside was an entirely different experience.
I immediately felt welcomed and uplifted without feeling overwhelmed. Even though the limestone could have felt cold and unapproachable, the light pouring in from above and the entire perimeter of the building added to the hospitality of the space. And it was busy. Not noisy, but buzzing with people of all ages.
I know libraries these days are not just places for books and readers, but are an integral part of the community, responding to community needs and interests, and that was evident in the St Peter library.
Along with bags of books for book groups, we spotted these Memory Kit bags. Clever, creative, helpful, innovative, and accessible. Good job, St Peter.
We visited New Ulm on a Friday and the downtown was active and bustling, but that was not the case in the library, even though it is located not far from the downtown area. In fact, Bruce and I were the only people in the library other than the librarians who quizzed us about why we were there. Did they think we were state library officials on a surprise inspection?
That isn’t quite fair, for I think the library staff have done the best they could do with an extremely unattractive building in the Brutalist style of architecture.
Brutalism dates from the 1950’s and is characterized by minimalist constructions showcasing bare building materials and structural elements over decorative designs. Cold concrete, and I ask you is that the look you want in a library!
As I said, however, they have done the best they could do with what they have, and I loved the sculpture of children’s writer/illustrator Wanda Gag (Millions of Cats) outside. We had hoped to tour the house where she grew up, but it wasn’t open.
The saving grace of this library was the spacious and bright children’s space. This was the old Carnegie Library and is attached to the newer facility. The space was filled with art work and areas for creative activities. I hope on other days and times the space is alive with children and their excitement for books and reading.
We intend to continue our library tours, including ones in our own area. One summer when our grandson who is now fourteen was nine, he and I visited a few St Paul libraries, and, of course, came home with stacks of books. Obviously, we don’t do that when we visit libraries in other parts of the state.
How grateful I am for the public libraries and urge you to use and support them in your community. In fact, I am about to head to my library where a stack of books I have placed on hold is waiting for me. Happy reading!
What do you appreciate about your library? I would love to know.
Next week I will share my October round-up of books read in the past month.
The love of variety is one of my challenges when I think about downsizing/decluttering.
I love decorating for the seasons, and the house never looks the same, one season after another. Not only is that because I have so much stuff, but because I enjoy rearranging and using what I have in new ways. I’m not very good with my hands–don’t sew, don’t do crafts, but I know I have a good eye and know how to put things together. And oh, how fun it is to discover something tucked away in a cupboard that is just the perfect touch on a tabletop or shelf.
My mother once commented on a neighbor, a dear friend of hers, who in all the years they knew each other never changed the centerpiece on their kitchen table. A wooden bowl of artificial fruit, if I recall. She couldn’t imagine living that way. At least I know where my comfort and desire for change comes from, but as I declutter, little by little, I wonder if there will be a time when I won’t feel the urge to change the dining room centerpiece or the living room coffee table? As I continue this process of simplifying what is tucked in cupboards and closets, will I simplify my interest in and need for variety?
Here are some positive signs:
One day last week when I sat with a client in the snug, I noticed cobwebs floating under a bookshelf. Ugh! It was time to do a more thorough cleaning, and as I did that, I gathered a few small pieces of silver sitting on top of piles of books. Just sweet little accessories collected over the years with no real purpose, but adding a touch of shine to the shelf. Each one needed to be polished, which I started doing, and then I asked myself, “How would it feel to add these to our garage sale pile? Will I miss them if I no longer own them?”
Much to my surprise, I was ready to release them. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but one thing leads to another. By the way, I did keep two pieces I particularly love–a small English chocolate or tea pot from a hotel and a creamer.
As I continued cleaning, I pulled a few books off the shelves and added them to the Little Free Library basket, and I also made another decision. Decades ago when I worked in an independent bookstore, I bought books signed by every author who visited the store, usually for a book signing event. Many of those books I have never read, and as I stood in front of the living room bookcase, I realized I probably never will read them. Obviously, I will confer with my husband about this, but I envision clearing much more space soon.
Bruce and I have been antique collectors all our married life. Going to antique shows and shops has been our hobby, a form of entertainment, and although that activity has decreased in recent years, it has not disappeared. This past weekend, however, we decided not to go to an annual fall show; one we have always enjoyed and where we have often found treasures. Making that decision wasn’t difficult. Not a sacrifice. We quite simply didn’t feel a pull to go. I recognize that doesn’t mean our interest in antiquing has retired, but it is more moderate. That feels like a good thing.
Decluttering is a process. Unless you have a team of people who swoop in, take over, and do it all, once and for all, decluttering can not be done in one big now or never moment. Decluttering is a one drawer at a time process. One closet at a time. Even one shelf at a time. And as a process, it is possible to integrate it into my daily life–to organize what is scattered and to choose what still gives joy and what just feels like stuff, and to clear space as I clean.
Stay tuned, for I have a feeling there will be more Dilemmas in Downsizing to share.
What are you learning in this process? I would love to know.
Recently I read The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams (2021). I am attracted to books about books, bookstores, booksellers, and libraries –both fiction and nonfiction–and this one is a delightful example of that genre. Another example is The Sentence by Louise Erdrich(2021), which is set in a bookstore and is one of my recent favorites. I also remember reading years ago a memoir by the mystery writer Susan Hill, Howard’s End is on the Landing (2009) about the year she read only books she already owned. I could do that, but then I better hurry up and buy the new Maggie O’Farrell and Barbara Kingsolver and…
Back to The Reading List. I loved each of the characters, especially the two main characters. Mukesh is an elderly man who is grieving the death of his wife and Aleisha is a young woman who has a complicated family. They meet at the library where Aleisha has a summer job. A list of books labeled “In case you need it:” appears to both Mukesh and Aleisha as well as other characters and thus begins a reading adventure, but more than that, support and even transformation.
And what a great list this is! I have read each of these books; some, more than once. I love how the lessons and the insights gleaned from these books are woven into the narrative–once again suggesting the power of books and reading.
Thinking about my own “In case you need it list,” I remember a charming illustrated book, My Ideal Bookshelf, Art by Jane Mount, Edited by Thessaly La Force. (2012). Over 100 cultural figures share the books that matter the most to them and why. Here, for example is librarian Nancy Pearl’s bookshelf as depicted by Jane Mount.
I am not familiar with most of Pearl’s choices, and that, of course, could lead to an even longer TBR list.
Here’s doctor and writer Atul Gawande’s shelf. I’ve read more of these books, but this isn’t a contest. Rather, an insight into a person’s life and development.
Naturally, this makes me think about what would be on my shelf. These are a few of the possibilities–novels I have read more than one time and that have impacted my life.
Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag
All of Jane Austen’s books
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Persuasion by A.S. Byatt
A sampling of Nancy Drew books
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
I need to stop or I will need a very long and sturdy book shelf.
What is on your “ideal bookshelf”? I would love to know.
“I don’t want my children to deal with this when I’m gone.”
I wonder how many times I’ve heard someone declare this as a reason for downsizing and decluttering.
On one level that is a noble idea, with which it is hard to disagree. Bravo, you! And yet at the same time, there is something inside me that isn’t 100% aboard that idea.
If you read my post on Thursday, October 13, 2022, https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/10/13/book-report-downsizing-my-books/ you know that I am not ignoring the challenge of my own stuff. That post focused on books, but I could have written about my “Dish Problem.” I inherited the problem, along with actual dishes, from my mother, and my sister has the same problem. We love setting a beautiful table with dishes appropriate to the season or the occasion. Perhaps the problem would have been more under control, if my husband didn’t also love dishes and if we hadn’t been antique collectors all our married life.
Even though I still have enough dishes to serve the neighborhood, I want you to know that I no longer have as many sets as I once did. I have pared back significantly, and am proud to say, all our dishes, other than a set of Christmas dishes, are easily assessable in cupboards and not packed away in bins. I know I will continue to evaluate what I really want to keep and use for now, and it’s certainly possible there will be more than two place settings of the white dishes we use everyday when I die or move into a care center.
Our children will have to deal with our stuff.
Is that so bad?
First of all, let me say I believe in the principle of “like with like, ” which means staying organized, and I also believe in knowing what one has, which also means staying organized and not storing “maybe I’ll use this one day” items in difficult to reach storage items. I also don’t believe in keeping things like 25 year old tax returns, and clothes that haven’t fit for 5 years and if they ever were to fit again will be out of style anyway, and stacks of jigsaw puzzles that were fun to put together once, but twice? Not so much.
All that being said, I think there is some value for our children in dealing with the stuff that remains.
A story about my mother.
My mother loved jewelry, and she was blessed with my father who loved giving her beautiful jewelry. Before she died she designated her major pieces, but that still left boxes and drawers full of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings.
One of the first days after she died, we opened up the dining room table as far as it could go and filled it with piles of her jewelry–the pearl pile, the turquoise pile, the silver pile, the costume jewelry pile. You get the idea. Then we all gathered and starting with the oldest, which was me, went around the table one by one selecting one item from one of the piles. We went round and round and round draping ourselves in the treasures until what was left was not wanted by anyone. My father in the meantime sat nearby beaming. He was so happy we were delighting in these bits and pieces of Betty Ann’s baubles.
I still fill with tears as I think about that day, which was almost 20 years ago. That day was part of our grieving process, and because my mother had not figured out what to do with all those boxes and drawers of jewelry, she gave that day to us. We told stories and laughed and honored her gypsy nature.
When my father died, there was less to do because he had moved into a senior living facility a few years before, but, trust me, there was still enough stuff. Strange as it may sound, I am grateful for the days my sister and brother and husband and brother-in-law spent together sorting and tossing and packing and moving. Because of COVID, the grands and greats were not able to be with us, and they missed our storytelling and the moments when each of us needed some comfort.
I hope when the time comes my family won’t resent the fact that somehow I never got around to creating beautiful family albums and instead left boxes of loose photos. I hope they will pass around pictures and tell stories and comfort each other. I hope when they pack up the dishes I only use in the fall they will remember how good my applesauce tasted and the baked spaghetti hot dish and the pork loin with wild rice and how I loved setting a pretty table even when dinner was only pizza.
I am not suggesting you avoid what must be done or use this post as a justification for holding on tightly to what is only cluttering your present life, but going through the stuff of our loved ones’ lives also can be a tool in the process of grieving. Just a thought.
What are your thoughts about stuff and grieving? I would love to know.
A frequent conversation among elders is what to do with our stuff. We all have it.
We know it’s only stuff. But it’s our stuff, and we don’t want anyone telling us what to do with our stuff.
I can feel my body become rigid, my throat constrict, and my eyes narrow if anyone dares tell me I have too many books. What is too many? I am not willing to have that conversation.
But, of course, the truth is I do have lots of books.
What to do?
I know that the next move, if and when that happens, will be to a much smaller space; one in which there will be much less room for all our books. Does that mean I need to empty our bookshelves now and never purchase another book? Or do I just ignore the elephant –in this case hundreds of books–in the room(s)?ownsizing
Strategies and Process
My main strategy is to recognize and to practice the PROCESS of downsizing. Here’s what that means:
Use the library more and buy fewer books. So far this year I have checked out almost 80 books from the library, and I have purchased a little more than half that amount.
Every time I read a book I own I consider if it is one I might want to read again or refer to in my work as a spiritual director or small group facilitator. If I decide I don’t need or want to keep it, it is placed in a basket of books to take to a Little Free Library or set aside for our annual garage sale or pass on to someone else and say, “No need to return.” Occasionally, I want to re-read a book I no longer own. Well, there’s the library to save the day!
The last two years my Lenten spiritual practice has been to eliminate at least one book from my spirituality/theology bookshelves each day. I intend to continue that practice this year, too.
Each time I return a book to a shelf or find space for a new book, I spend time looking at the other books on those shelves and often I decide I don’t need to save one of the nearby books any longer.
No books are allowed to gather in piles on the floor. Books do not become the base for a lamp or prop up a table leg.
There are no boxes of books in storage areas. Seeing my books not only gives me pleasure, but that prevents the “out of sight, out of mind” issue that solves nothing.
The books I have acquired, but not yet read are kept on two shelves. Nonfiction books are on a shelf in the garret and fiction in the snug. That means I am aware of them when I finish a book and wonder what to read next.
Part of this downsizing process is to ask myself –not just once, but periodically–what is the meaning of this specific category of stuff? Why do I hold on to these books?
There is more than one answer. First of all, I am a passionate reader, and I prefer to read books in their paper form. You may prefer listening to books or reading on a Kindle. Good for you, and maybe, someday I will do that, too, but not now. Books are beautiful and are part of my decor and add to the warmth and personality of our home. I feel the presence of the writer and their words by having books physically present. Also, I am a writer and a teacher and browse my books for inspiration, for answers, for reinforcement and support and for ideas to broaden my perspective. I suppose I can do that on the internet, but it’s not the same. Finally, my books offer a glance into my history, a view into who I am. And my books remind me to continue the process of growth and evolution.
I know someday I will have to face (or my family will) the challenge of what to do with all these books, and I guess should apologize for that, but oh well… I continue to remind myself that downsizing is a process, and I am in the midst of that process. I am becoming aware that each book I let go of makes it easier to let go of another one.
One more thing: I’ve noticed it is much easier to prod someone else to do something about their stuff, than it is to tackle our own stuff. I’m guilty of that, and I am trying to reform and focus on my own stuff. Enough said!
What stuff is plaguing you and what are you doing about it? I would love to know.
This past weekend we visited family in Nebraska, including our niece and her husband. We had dinner in their lovely new home, and I have a confession. I had an extreme case of pantry envy. Kitchen envy, too.
Their pantry is the size of my kitchen. Need I say more?
And it was organized, spacious, and beautiful.
I was in love. Or should I say, IN ENVY.
Envy is not an unknown feeling for me. I am an enneagram FOUR and envy is the “sin” or “passion” of this personality type. In this case “sin” is not meant to be viewed as something bad or evil, but rather as the tendency to miss the mark in some way. When experiencing the sin or passion, we lose our center and are not our best selves.
Envy and the Enneagram
First a word about the enneagram.
The enneagram is an ancient system of self-understanding and self-discovery; a tool for personal transformation and development. Pronounced “ANY-a-gram,” the enneagram is a geometric figure that maps out nine fundamental personality types of human nature and their complex relationships.
My husband and I were introduced by a friend to the enneagram many years ago and studying it, returning to its subtleties and complexities over and over has been life-enhancing. The key step is to determine which of the nine personality types one is. After being introduced to the types, I knew almost immediately that I am a FOUR: an individualist or some times called the romantic or artist.
Envy is the sin or passion of the four.
Envy is based on the feeling that something is missing. Envy leads Fours to feel that others possess qualities that they lack. Fours long for what is absent but often fail to notice the many blessings in their lives.
The Wisdom of the Enneagram, The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson.
They see immediately who has more style, more class, more taste, more talent, more unusual ideas, more genius than they do. They see who is simpler, more natural, more normal, and ‘healthier’ than they are. There is nothing that a FOUR couldn’t be envious about.
The Enneagram, A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert
Envy has been an issue in my life, for sure. And while I am not able to say it has disappeared nor have I conquered the green-eyed monster, but I am more apt to recognize it quickly and ask, “What is this about and why am I feeling this now?” Plus, I am more able to turn the feeling into gratitude for my own blessings and to honor the gifts in someone else’s life.
So here’s how my pantry envy evolved.
What happened first was genuine delight for my niece. She and her husband had waited a long time for their dream house, and they had worked hard to make it happen. Bravo to them. In addition, how fun it was to see my niece’s hometending skills, her creativity, ingenuity, and her love of beauty, and I hope I expressed my appreciation for her gifts.
Then I sat with what I was experiencing within myself. Here’s what I uncovered:
I am living in what is sure to be my last house. I assume wherever I live next I will have a kitchen, but chances are it will be smaller and simpler, more basic than what I have now. This is because I am in my mid 70’s and closer to the end of my life than the beginning. I have had many kitchens –some bigger, some smaller–than my current kitchen and I have cooked and entertained no matter the size or the design, but I realize I no longer do that on the scale I once did. I feel some sadness about that. I know it is time to let go of some of that need. How grateful I am for all the times we have gathered family and friends around our table. How grateful I am for the ability to feed others and ourselves and to never lack for food in our home.
My envy opened me just a bit more to what I still store in my inner pantry, and that is a good thing.
By the way, my current pantry, which is a closet a couple steps down from the kitchen, is adequate. More than adequate for my current needs, and I need to remember that. It could use a bit tidying, however. I will put that on my list.
What moments of envy do you experience and how can they be a teacher? I would love to know.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway mysteries dominated my September reading time. I read the last four in the series of fourteen books, but the last line in the most recent book certainly indicates there will be a fifteenth book to come.
Along with the Ruth Galloway books, I read other mysteries this month.
The second Richard Osman,The Man Who Died Twice(2021). His third in the series featuring old and retired characters solving mysteries was recently released and is, of course, on my list–The Bullet That Missed.
Fox Creek by William Kent Krueger(2022). I enjoyed it and swallowed it almost whole in a couple chunks of reading time, but I didn’t think it was his best. But, that being said, his best is better than good.
The novel I want to highlight from this month’s reading, however, is The Midcoast by Adam White. (2022) I wish I knew who recommended this or where I learned about it. Sometimes I note in my TBR list the source of a recommendation, but I didn’t in this case. The title refers to a section in Maine where the story takes place. The narrator, Andrew, grew up in the area and returns there with his family. He is a teacher and a writer and becomes an observer of another family: Ed, a lobsterman, his wife Steph and two children, Alli who is a lacrosse star and son EJ, a police officer. How is it that this family seems to have unlimited funds and money is no object? Thus, the story unfolds.
I also recommend a nonfiction title, Windswept, Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abby (2022). I’ve always been attracted to books about walking; for example, Wanderlust, A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I do like to walk, but I am not a long-distance walker or major hiker, so I laugh at myself when I read a book about walking. Am I like the woman I once knew who collected a pile of books about running, but never put on her running shoes and headed out the door? Oh well.
This book features women for whom walking, and often walking solo, was a major part of their lives–Georgia O’Keefe, Simone de Beauvoir, and others unfamiliar to me. The author then decides to walk some of those same paths, musing that the women walkers she admires, “walked to become,” and also how walking often leads to new thoughts. That is certainly true for me–even my short walks in the neighborhood.
The author also writes that silence is an element–like water and fire–and I keep thinking about that.
September was an incredibly busy month, and I was grateful, as always for my book companions, which allowed me to pause and take a deep breath. As much as I enjoyed the mysteries I tended to reach for in recent months, I now feel a desire to read fiction with a bit more substance. I’ll keep you posted.
What did you read in September? I would love to know.
For two other nonfiction books I read in September and highly recommend see my September 15th post.
I love fall. The crispness. The colors. The sweaters. The apples and cider. And, of course, the pumpkins.
But oh how hard it is to shut the door. I know it is necessary to close the door, as the weather gets colder, but I miss the light pouring in through the storm door.
May the door of this home be wide enough
to receive all who hunger for love,
all who are lonely for friendship.
May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,
thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the door of this house be narrow enough
to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity...
May this home be for all who enter
the doorway to richness and a more meaningful life.
"The Siddur of Shir Chadish in Life Prayers from Around the World
edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon
Doors in our Lives
Many years ago I asked the women in a retreat I facilitated to draw a picture of a door and its threshold. An outside door or an inside door. A real door or an imagined door. The door could be from their present life or one from the past. I asked them to draw the image of what came into their minds when they heard the word “door,” and to draw a door with as much detail as possible, but assured them this exercise was not about being an artist.
The group moved into silence and using the offered crayons and markers drew their doors. Here are some of the questions we discussed after drawing our doors.
Is this a door that welcomes or does it feel unwelcoming?
Who enters this door? Is there anyone who is not welcome at this door?
What do you notice about this door that you have not noticed before?
How do you know when someone is at the door?
What is on the other side of the door?
What does this door reveal about you?
What needs to be healed as you enter the door?
What a rich discussion we had as we shared the drawings of our doors. Some sweet memories. Some painful ones. Some surprises and new insights, and even a few intentions to make their doors more welcoming and inviting.
The Door as a Symbol of My Heart
What is it, I wondered, that we were really talking about when we reflected on the doors of our lives? What happens if we substitute the word “heart” for “door.”
Is my heart a welcoming one or does it feel unwelcoming?
Who enters my heart? Is there anyone who is not welcome in my heart?
What do I notice about my heart that I did not know before?
How do I know when someone is waiting outside my heart?
What is outside my heart?
What does my heart reveal about me?
What needs to be healed in order to live with a full heart?
What would a picture of your heart look like? Are there any improvements you would like to make in the doorway of your heart?
The Door as a Spiritual Practice
Every time you open or close your door can be a moment of prayer, of blessing your home and all those who cross that threshold. As you stand at your door, pause, give thanks, and imagine God in your doorway. Every time you open or close your door, put your hand on your heart and feel it beating love and openness and welcome. Your door can remind you to invite God, the Sacred the Holy into your life.
I lock the door. I unlock it.
My days are punctuated with this act.
It is a rhythm, a kind of pulse.
Just now the door is locked.
I want to think of this not as
shutting the world out or shutting me in.
I want to think of this more
like dwelling in a rhythm...
sweet measure. Soon it will be morning
and the door will be unlocked again.
I can dwell in this home as if it were a heart. When I feel that pulse
I know that all that comes to me will also go.
Living in this stream I understand
You are my lifeblood. Let me feel
You course through me, through this door,
throughout my life.
"Locking the Door" by Gunilla Norris in Being Home, A Book of Meditations
What do you notice about a door you open and close everyday? I would love to know.
Recently blogger Melanie (http://comfy house.blogspot.com) posted a series of fun book topics (“Best sequel,” “Currently Reading,” “Drink Choice While Reading,” etc.). The one that captured my attention was “Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book.”
I modified that somewhat and decided to pick the 14th book on several of my bookshelves housing fiction. Why the 14th? Well some of the shelves don’t hold 27, and I just chose #14 at random.
Here are the 14th books from seven different shelves–four shelves with only hardcovers and three with paperbacks.
The Tomcat’s Wife and Other Stories by Carol Bly (1991). Carol Bly was a Minnesota writer who died in 2007. She was married to (and divorced) the writer Robert Bly, who is probably better known than Carol, but she was known and respected not only for her writing, but also her teaching and speaking gifts. I heard her speak on a number of occasions and always appreciated her wit and wisdom. My favorite book of hers was a collection of essays, Letters from the Country (1981), originally published in Minnesota Monthly. Do I still own that book? I will check. Anyway, the copy I have of The Tomcat’s Wife is autographed, but frankly, I am not sure I actually read it. Yet.
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton (2016).I loved her previous books, The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World. I only have a vague memory of this book, a coming-of-age story set on her family farm, an apple farm, the main character “Frankie” loves dearly and worries about its future.
Green Earth by Frederick Manfred (1977).Manfred was another Minnesota author (1912-1994) perhaps best known for his book Lord Grizzly, but he wrote many books, many in the “western” genre. Green Earth is a big book, over 700 pages, and Manfred was a big man with a big presence. I remember noticing his big hands when I met him at a book signing event at the independent bookstore where I worked many decades ago, Odegard Books. I don’t think I ever got around to reading this book, but I am attracted to it now because it is a family saga set in what he called Siouxland (northwest Iowa, southwest Minnesota, southeast South Dakota), an area that intrigues me for its prairie landscape. At one time he lived in a house that eventually became the interpretive center of Blue Mounds State Park in Rock County, Minnesota.
Moo by Jane Smiley (1995). Another autographed book, this book brings back memories. I won this book in a raffle at a library event in Cleveland, OH. This is not my favorite book by Smiley, but I love how she has written books in a variety of styles. My favorite book of hers is A Thousand Acres for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. More recently, I throughly enjoyed the quirky novel Perestroika in Paris.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (2008). Just holding this book makes me want to read/re-read all of Erdrich’s books, first to most current. I know there are book groups who are doing just that, and I admire their devotion, as she has written 28 books–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books and has won the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A Plague of Doves, which is the story of the unsolved murder of a farm family that continues to haunt a community, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And I would be remiss not to mention that Erdrich is the owner of one of my favorite bookstores, Birchbark Books, Minneapolis.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively (2011). Lively is a prolific and celebrated English writer, whose works often explore the power of memory, which perhaps is why I am attracted to her books. I loved The Photograph (2003) and Moon Tiger (1987), and I recall thoroughly enjoying the disparate cast of characters in How It All Began. I can imagine re-reading it.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943). This is one of my all-time favorite books, and if you haven’t read it, do not delay. If you haven’t re-read it since your youth, re-read it now. If you decide to pick one book from this eclectic list of books, let it be this one. Enough said.
In plucking these books off some of my shelves, I thought I might discover some I could donate to a Little Free Library, but that is not the case. I was surprised by how many of the authors are Midwestern–Bly, Hamilton, Manfred, Smiley, Erdrich–and I wonder if that would be the case if I focused on a different number or other shelves. Also, I am pleased that I have only NOT read two of the five, and I am more inclined to read them soon. All in all, I am delighted to become reacquainted with these books.
What are the the titles of your #14 books? I would love to know.
Next week’s Book Report Thursday will be a summary of what I read in September.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8
Sunday afternoon I cleaned the kitchen. All afternoon.
I emptied the refrigerator, throwing out what was no longer edible, and scrubbed the inside. I rearranged some of the cupboards, moving what is used most frequently onto the lower shelves and what is used less frequently onto higher shelves. I finally tackled the space under the kitchen sink where I keep cleaning supplies –a task that had been on my list for a long time. I sanitized the garbage can, scoured the microwave, re-organized the pots and their covers in the oven drawer. I moved methodically from one area to another, shining and cleansing and tidying and finished by washing the floor cloth first and then the floor.
I enjoyed every minute of the process.
In fact, when I stood in the dining room looking into my small kitchen, I felt refreshed.
This feeling of refreshment felt like my version of a “Sabbath exhale.”
Without the Sabbath exhale, the life-giving inhale is impossible.”
Sabbath, Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight In Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller
My Sabbath started more traditionally the night before–taking a shower, washing my hair, deciding what to wear to church the following morning, and getting a good night’s sleep. We had missed church the previous Sunday when we were staying with friends in their northern Minnesota lake home and that was its own kind of Sabbath, but I was eager to return to the Sunday morning ritual.
How good it was to sit in the sanctuary before the service started–to take a deep breath and release the busyness of the previous week. How good it was to close my eyes, to pause, to remind myself to be there, only there, to listen to the music and prepare myself for the gifts of that time. How good it was to be in community, to witness the baptism of a beloved baby and to receive the bread and the wine. I sent blessings to each person who came to the table.
How good it was to greet one another and to rejoice in this gathering, both during worship and during the education hour.
Sabbath time, and I felt refreshed.
Our tradition for many years, beginning when our children were young, was to go out for lunch after church. More than giving me a break from fixing a meal, although that was greatly appreciated, Sunday lunch in a casual restaurant was a time to relax with one another. To check-in. To remind ourselves of who we were as a family. To pause before moving forward into what was sure to be another busy week often of conflicting and complicated schedules and responsibilities. My husband and I have continued the tradition throughout our empty nest years. Now, I confess, we take the NYT with us, but it is a time of ease, an in-between time.
This past Sunday our grandson Peter joined us. He had been staying with us for a few days while his parents were out of town. He is a good conversationalist and oh how good it was to have him all to ourselves.
Sabbath time, and I felt refreshed.
Once home I continued my Sabbath–by cleaning the kitchen. Yes, by cleaning the kitchen. Doing that felt like a kind of rest because I didn’t approach it as drudgery or something that needed to be done or something to cross off my too long and too dictatorial TO DO list. No, one of my spiritual practices is hometending, and cleaning the kitchen that afternoon was a Sacred Yes. I entered the time with joy and gratitude for the privilege of living in a lovely home, for the delight of sharing my life with my husband of 51 years and in remembrance of all those who have crossed our threshold and in hopes and expectation of future gatherings.
Sabbath time, and I felt refreshed.
Here’s a warning–mainly to myself. How easy it would have been for the pleasure to have turned into obsession. To clean out all the cupboards and drawers. To clean the inside of the oven, and yes, it needs it. To polish all the copper pots hanging in the window. And then to push myself to continue into a cleaning frenzy of the first floor.
The refreshment could easily have become exhaustion. And that would not have been Sabbath rest.
Dinner was easy–only leftovers. I spent the rest of the day reading in the snug.
The day had been “a piece of time that opens space for God.” (Dorothy C. Bass)
I realize my Sabbath rest may not have been a literal or traditional way of keeping and remembering the Sabbath, and many Sundays I attempt to be more intentional about resting, but this past Sunday I paid attention to my own rhythm, and I felt refreshed.
What does Sabbath rest look like for you? I would love to know.
Here are three resources about the Sabbath from my library:
Sabbath by Dan Allender (2009)
Sabbath Keeping, Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest by Lynne M. Baab (2005)
“Keeping Sabbath” by Dorothy C. Bass in Practicing Our Faith, A Way of Life for a Searching People, Dorothy C. Bass (editor) (1997)
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951)
A Sabbath Life, One Woman’s Search for Wholeness by Kathleen Hirsch (2001)
Sabbath, Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller (1999)
The Sabbath World, Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz (2011)
Even though I have MANY books on my shelves I have not yet read, including those recently acquired, and even though my list of books I intend to request from the library is long, I still covet many new books–yet to be released this fall or recently released. Here’s my list:
Lucy By The Sea by Elizabeth Strout
A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny (Nov 29)
Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Rayburn
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman
The Ski Jumpers by Peter Geye
The Evening Hero by Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Lessons by Ian McEwan
Oh, and I am attracted to the British Library Women Writers Series–forgotten works by mid-century women writers. I think there are 18 in the series.
Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World by Karen Armstrong
A Place in the World, Finding the Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes
Hagitude, Reimagine the Second Half of Life by Sharon Blackie
How We Live Is How We Die by Pema Chodron
The scary thing is that I know I will be enticed by many other titles along the way–and every time I enter a bookstore. I guess as addictions go this problem isn’t too bad.
What new books are tempting you? I would love to know.
Since returning from our Labor Day weekend road trip to Cleveland, the days have been full. Notice I said “full,” not “busy.”
For me “full” indicates choice. What do I choose to do? What do I prefer to do? What brings meaning into my life and in what ways do my choices have potential meaning for others?
“Fullness” versus “busyness” reminds me to pay attention. When am I responding from my essence, from the person I hope to be, was created to be, instead of responding out of duty or obligation? Obviously, sometimes a task simply needs to be done, but the more I open to the life I think I am asked to live right now, the more those tasks fall into place.
All that being said, during these last two weeks I have needed to use my time and energy well, moving from task to task deliberately and intentionally and calmly. And that’s the way the next couple weeks will be, as well.
As I have moved through these days, I have thought about my word of the year, rhythm, and also the flow I hope to experience.
Word of the Year: Rhythm
As you listen closely for your deepest call, what are the greater rhythms to which you must accommodate yourself.
Christine Valters Paintner
You may recall that my word of the year is “rhythm.” I’ve been more aware in the last few months of how I need to respond to the rhythm of a day–what is planned and required in a day–but also I am more able to notice and create my own rhythm.
For example, I know my rhythm becomes raggedy and I begin to unravel when I don’t begin my day meditating, praying, reading sacred texts. Doing that faithfully, allows me to adjust my preferred rhythm to the needs of the day. At the same time immersing myself in slow silence also helps me adjust the needs of the day to my own rhythm. Much to my amazement when I ground myself in that spiritual practice, the needs of the day and my needs accommodate one another.
When that happens, I experience flow–when one thing streams into another naturally and easily.
Sometimes I need a physical reminder, an illustration of what flow looks and feels like.
We spent the weekend at the home of friends who live in northern Minnesota, and one afternoon we cruised their beautiful lake. We were the only ones on the water, except for a few loons, who have not yet migrated.
My favorite part was going through a narrow and shallow channel to enter another lake. Our friend turned the motor down and guided the boat under the low bridge, reminding us to keep our hands inside the boat and to lower our heads.
How appropriate was that–to bow our heads as we crossed a threshold.
Pause and bow your head.
Rest in the silence.
Experience the flow.
Discover the rhythm.
Often when I lead a guided meditation instructing participants to breathe deeply in and out, I include the phrase, “find your own rhythm.” I think I need to add, “Feel the flow. Notice the flow around and through you.”
This morning when I closed my eyes, lightly, not tightly, and breathed in and out, gently and deeply, finding my own rhythm, I imagined the shallow water in that channel, and I remembered the feeling of unrushed, undemanding, gentle and yet noticeable flow.
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
The Message, Matthew 11: 28-30
May I live my life that way.
When have you experienced flow? I would love to know.
Sometimes a book does everything but jump into your hands. That was the case with two books I read recently.
I must have read a review of The Green Hour, A Natural History of Home by Alison Townsend (2021), for I added it to my TBR list, but when I saw it in Arcadia Books on our recent trip to Spring Green, WI, I knew I could not wait for it to come out in paperback or for the library to add it to their shelves.
First of all, look at that cover. So beautiful, and it is the kind of book that simply feels good to hold. But more than that is the topic, the themes. The author grew up in Pennsylvania and as a young adult lived in Oregon and California, but later in adulthood moved to the Madison, Wisconsin area. She writes beautifully, richly about each landscape–the kind of multi-layered, descriptive writing I love–but having lived in Madison, those are the sections I loved the most.
Her essay, “Strange Angels: Encounters with Sandhill Cranes,” is perhaps the best nature essay I’ve ever read.
Like a group of pilgrims or spiritual seekers collecting before their journey begins and uttering preliminary prayers, the cranes seem to be readying themselves, preparing for the long flight they must make, some of them for the first time.
Like the author I love the sound of the cranes and always feel blessed hearing them. “Perhaps that is why their call is so evocative, why it seems to float across the millennia as it does, immutable and enduring.” p. 160. Cranes are not part of my life here in St Paul, and I miss them.
I also loved the essay “An Alphabet of Here, A Prairie Sampler” as well. C is for Canada Geese. G is for Great-Horned Owl. Q id for Queen Anne’s Lace and Queen of the Prairie.
Z is for zigzags, zaps, and zings of summer lightning, the zed-shaped folds of the aurora opening its luminescent green curtains on a winter’s night when it’s twenty degrees below zero, and the z-z-z-z-z-ing as we sleep–cat on the bed, collies on the floor beside us–the zodiac swirling around us like the well of life that is here, now, the only one we are given.
Some books beg to be read aloud, and I am grateful my husband was willing to listen as I read select essays to him while driving through the countryside on our way to Cleveland recently. This books was our perfect companion.
I discovered The White Stone, The Art of Letting Go by Esther de Waal (2021) when we toured the gardens at St John’s University, Collegeville, MN this summer. Because I can never resist a bookstore, we browsed the Liturgical Press bookstore on campus, and I found this little treasure. Years ago I read her book Seeking God, her book on Benedictine spirituality, but it is no longer in my library–I may need to get another copy. This book was written during the pandemic and at a time when she is moving from one home to another, and she employs what has sustained her through the years–the Rule of St. Benedict, the gifts of Celtic spirituality, the teachings of Thomas Merton, and the Psalms–to guide her through a time of transition.
I hold on to stability but I must not be static. Here is the paradox…I must be prepared for the continual transformation in which God is bringing the new out of the old…It is just a matter of somehow keeping on keeping on, a continual bending one’s life back to God whatever happens.
I was especially moved by the chapter titled “Diminishment,” in which she reflects on how time seems different as we age, but also that “Life now brings a greater opportunity to pay attention to look consciously at the ordinary minutiae of daily life in the things around…”
She also underscores the key question of Benedictine life: “Am I becoming a more loving person?” When we were driving through Indiana, I noticed a small sign on the edge of a cornfield, “Fear God,” it said, and I thought to myself, “How does fearing God make me a more loving person?” Instead, I suspect adhering to that idea would make me a more fearful person. I want to be a more loving person. Thanks for the reminder, Esther de Waal.
Ok, that’s it. I am so happy these two books will live on our bookshelves.
Have any books found their way into your hands, your heart recently? I would love to know.
This is the only photograph I took while visiting our son and daughter-in-love in Cleveland.
I could have taken pictures of the backyard party at Geof and Cricket’s house the night of the first football game of the season (OSU 21, Notre Dame 10) or the delicious BBQ ribs prepared by Cricket.
Perhaps I should have taken pictures of the many friends who came to see the game projected on the inflatable outdoor screen or the array of dishes spread on the dining room table–as good as any church potluck. Why didn’t I take a picture of the many pots of flowers framing the backyard?
The view of Lake Erie from the restaurant where we enjoyed snacks and something to drink was certainly lovely enough to warrant a photograph and what about the cute cottage, soon to-be-an AirB&B where we stayed–just three houses away from Geof and Cricket’s house?
And why-oh-why didn’t I ask someone to take a picture of the four of us together? Silly me!
Here’s why: I was simply being present. Enjoying the conversations, the companionship, not only with our dear ones, but also with their friends. I was content to be in their presence, to feel the love and the delight in one another’s company.
And that was enough.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the ability to take pictures on my phone and I do that often. And sometimes I regret not taking pictures–like our grandson at his first football game this fall or this past Sunday at the potluck after church. I love documenting the change of seasons and oh, how I love scrolling through my visual library of past events.
There are also times, however, when what I most need to do is rest in the presence and allow my memory, the camera inside my head and heart, to take the pictures.
Sometimes I need to be part of the scene and not separate from it. Sometimes I need to let the moment flow, instead of attempting to freeze it into a particular time and place.
And let’s be honest, sometimes I simply get so caught up in the moment that I forget to take a picture. Oh well.
What pictures live in your memory alone? I would love to know.
Along with continuing to read the Ruth Galloway Mystery series by Elly Griffiths (5 more this month), I read some stellar fiction, checking off several titles on my TBR list. I also read more nonfiction than in the last couple months–4 titles. So here’s the report.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (2014). I have now completed Shipstead’s back list and I have enjoyed each one for their originality and freshness of plot and her development of characters. This novel, her second, is set in the world of ballet. The main character is a dancer in her young years, later becoming a ballet teacher whose son is a talented dancer. An important part of the story is her relationship with a Russian ballet dancer.
Honor by Thrity Umrigar (2022). I have enjoyed earlier books by the author, such as The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven, and was so pleased when this new novel was ready for me at the library. The main character, Smita, is an American journalist born in India. She is in India to cover a story about a Hindu woman who marries a Muslim man and suffers tragic consequences for that love. As Smita becomes involved with this woman, she is forced to confront her own background and to make life-changing decisions. At one point another character says to Smita, “You know what your problem is, Smita? You focus on the cat hair. Try focusing on the cat.” (p. 319)
Recitatif by Toni Morrison. (1983, but in a 2022 edition) This is the only short story Morrison wrote and the introduction by Zadie Smith is longer than the story itself. The story focuses on two women, one black and one white, but the reader does not know which is which. Clearly, the story is meant to highlight our own racism and adoption of stereotypes.
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson (2022). I loved this book and so admire the deft way the author (This is her debut novel.) kept all the twists and turns and number of characters and the changes in their lives clear for the reader. The book is based first on an island, perhaps Jamaica, but also England and the U.S and the “black cake” of the title is a family tradition and also figures in the plot of the book, as does long-distance swimming and surfing. How’s that for an interesting combination? I don’t want to say more, at the risk of giving too much away. I repeat, I loved this book.
I also read The Woman on the Orient Express by Lindsay Jayne Ashford (2016), and it was a so-so read. Agatha Christie was the main character, so that was promising, but by the end I wondered what the point was. Can’t win them all.
I wrote in two previous posts about two of the books I read in August. Things to Look Forward To, 52 Large and Small Joys for Today and Everyday by Sophie Blackall (2022) in the August 11 post and Exit, the Ending that Sets Us Free by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in the August 25th post. I read two other nonfiction titles.
I Came All This Way to Meet You, Writing Myself Home by Jamie Attenberg (2022). This was a plus-minus book for me. There was much in the book I didn’t enjoy and couldn’t relate to–drugs, drinking, uncommitted sex– and I am not sure I would like the author if I met her nor am I planning to read her novels. However, I copied two pages of quotes about books and writing in my book journal, and I appreciated much of what she says about solitude and about issues with her body. So plus-minus.
Unbinding, The Grace Beyond Self by Kathleen Dowling Singh (2017). I read this book over a long period of time, savoring and reflecting. Before this book I read and loved two others by Singh, The Grace in Aging, Awaken as You Grow Older (2014) and The Grace in Living, Recognize It, Trust It, Abide In It (2016). Unbinding, alas, was her last book before her death in 2017. I think I could read this book over and over again and not begin to receive all that is offered. Three chapters stand out for me, “Becoming,” “Aging and Death,” and “The Sacrament of Surrender.”
We are already into September and summer reading is behind us. Most of the books I read this summer were ones I got from the library, but in the meantime I acquired a number of books for my own library. I am planning to focus on those this month. We’ll see how that goes! Happy reading!
What do you recommend from your summer reading? Any reading plans for the fall? I would love to know.
I was 61 when I read Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, published in 2009. I am now 74 and almost at the end of the time of life Lawrence-Lightfoot writes about in the book.
This book was pivotal in my aging evolution.
We were living in Madison, WI, at the time, and I had not found my place in that community. I had trained as a spiritual director when we lived in Ohio and had a private practice there. I had led spirituality groups in an organization for those touched by cancer and also facilitated retreats and taught T’ai Chi in a variety of places, but in my current life I simply had not found a foothold. That was for a variety of reasons, I realize now, but at the time I had no idea how to adjust to this unexpected loss of role, let alone what might be next.
The Third Chapter helped me acknowledge the sadness and grief I felt, but also opened me to imagine new possibilities; new ways of viewing myself and who I might become as I aged. When we moved back to St Paul, after almost 20 years away, I was thrilled to discover ways I could live with purpose and meaning. The time described in The Third Chapter has been and continues to be a time of thriving for me.
The book also gave me a name for this stage of life. “The Third Chapter.” The other day a writer friend, who was feeling certain life changes swirling around her, said she felt as if she was experiencing a midlife crisis again, but of course, we are well beyond our midlife years. How important it is, I think, to give voice to these elder years.
In the inside cover of the book I wrote two questions: What are the words you use to describe this stage of life? What words do you find yourself using frequently when you talk about yourself? I didn’t know when I wrote those words how those would not only be key questions for my own reflection, but they would become questions as I helped develop Third Chapter programs at my church.
So back to the book. By telling others’ stories, Lawrence-Lightfoot focuses on the creative and purposeful learning that goes on in this stage of life and explores the ways men and women at this stage
find ways of changing, adapting, exploring, mastering, and channeling their energies, skills, and passions into new domains of learning. I believe that successful aging requires that people continue–across their lifetime–to express a curiosity about their changing world, an ability to adapt to shifts in their developmental and physical capacities, and an eagerness to engage new perspectives, skills, and appetites. This requires the willingness to take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from experimentation and failure, seek guidance and counsel from younger generations, and develop new relationships of support and intimacy.
No small task. That should keep us engaged!
This book was the first of what is now my extensive collection of books and aging and spirituality. I am still in my “third chapter,” but I would welcome a new book from Lawrence-Lightfoot about the years after 75. Hint, hint.
In the meantime I found another book by her, Exit, The Endings That Set Us Free (2012). Once again deftly telling others’ stories, she explores the variety of endings in our lives and how to navigate them. She notes that our culture values beginnings, launchings. We hold entrepreneurs in high regard. But exits are ignored and often viewed as failures.
We often slink our way out the door, becoming invisible as we do so. One of the women she interviews says, “I don’t want the exit to be about closed doors. Where is the open door! Where is the new life?” (p. 68)
How do we open a door when we end a relationship, a job or career, a role, a major project? And how do we purposefully and meaningful approach the final exit, our own death or the death of a loved one? This book, like The Third Chapter, tells illustrative stories so well, encouraging readers to reflect on our own lives and the endings we have experienced or will experience.
I thought about the acknowledged ending to a job I loved–how I felt celebrated and honored and how that helped me let go. But I also remember another time when my last day in a role I had also loved was totally ignored. No “Thank you.” No “We’ll miss you.” I am sorry I didn’t take it upon myself to create an exit ritual.
A note about Lawrence-Lightfoot: She is a MacArthur prize-winning sociologist, the author of ten books, and is the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor. She is someone worth reading, for sure.
Have any books been a guide for you in this aging evolution? I would love to know.
On another topic, for those of you in the St Paul, MN area, my husband Bruce is having his second garage sale of the season this weekend, Friday and Saturday, August 26-27, at our house, 2025 Wellesley Ave. As many of you know, he paints discarded furniture and accessories and the proceeds from his sales go to support the work of Lutheran Social Service’s Rezik House, a residence for homeless youth. Access to the sale is through the alley only.
These days my morning meditation time is spent first in the garden and then in the kitchen. The basil hedge calls, “Nancy, it is time to make pesto.”
Before clipping enough basil for two batches of pesto, I run my palms through the leaves, filling the coolness of the morning air with the aroma that whispers, “green,” “fresh,” “delicious.” I smell my hands, telling myself to remember this day when the garden is bare and in hibernation.
I fill the gathering basket and promise I will harvest more the next day –and the day after that until both the basil and I, the harvester, are done.
On the way back into the house, my gathering basket on my arm, I pause and listen to the bees humming as they keep the allium company. I know this may sound silly, but they remind me of the llamas humming their own sweet songs when we lived at Sweetwater Farm. Stay in the present. You can write about the past in a minute, I tell myself.
Now it is time to transform basil into pesto.
Sprinkled clean, the basil leaves air dry–two cups of basil for each batch of pesto. One of my tricks is to cover the leaves with a towel and roll a rolling pin over the top, releasing and exploding the basil flavor. My food processor awaits–the basil, nuts and garlic first, followed by a mix of olive and vegetable oil. Then grated Romano and Parmesan cheese with salt and pepper to taste.
I spoon the, let’s be honest, messy mix into a freezer bag. Yes, I know the trick of storing the pesto in refrigerator trays and using it one cube at a time, and that is a good idea, but storing it in freezer bags means it lays flat, leaving more space.
Then on to batch number two.
And tomorrow batch three and four.
As I separate the leaves from the stems and later as I put away the needed ingredients and clean the kitchen, how easily I remember other pesto making days and even before that how I became enamored with using herbs in cooking and growing my own herbs.
One summer when our children were young, we took a family vacation in the Boston area. One of our stops was the Plymouth Plantation where I had a fascinating conversation with a woman who was tending an herb garden. She stayed in perfect character–a woman in early colonial days– as I asked her about the herbs she was growing. I wanted to know what her favorite herbs were for cooking and she was surprised by my question, for she used herbs for medicinal purposes. That brief encounter led me to a desire to know more–and, of course, I amassed a library of books about herbs.
That interest led to a small herb garden complete with a white picket fence in our small St Paul backyard, but later, when we lived at Sweetwater Farm in Ohio I had a chance –and the space–to more fully indulge my interest in herbs. Thyme, rosemary, sage, of course. Chives, cilantro, oregano, dill, tarragon, marjoram, a variety of mints. But I also loved lemon balm and lemon verbena for lemonade and other summer drinks. And lavender–perhaps my favorite. I grew lavender right outside the back door where I could enjoy the laundry fresh scent with each going out and coming in. I dried long stem bundles and later filled sachet bags to hang in closets and tuck in dresser drawers.
On pesto making days I moved from my tiny kitchen to the harvest table, spreading the bounty across the surface. I became a pesto making factory. Sometimes friends joined me for the process–each taking home a batch or two.
Oh, how I loved and am grateful for that time of my life.
I grew herbs mainly for food, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t healing. Walking in the Sweetwater Farm gardens the summer of my mother’s recurrence of colon cancer and my diagnosis of uterine cancer soothed me. I extended healing and loving blessings to spiritual direction clients when I offered a carefully tied bundle of lavender or fresh sprigs of rosemary and thyme. I gave thanks for the bounties of creation as I tended the earth. I thought about my grandmother, who loved to garden, and wished she had been able to visit us at Sweetwater Farm.
I am in a time of my life when memories rush like a waterfall. Everything seems to remind me of something. The present leads me gently into the past–not to be stuck there and not even to pretend those were the “good old days,” but more simply as a reminder of all the days I have been privileged to live. And to note growth where it has occurred, but also those darker, tighter spaces where more growth is needed.
Pesto over spaghetti is in the future. Cold winter nights when a reminder of summer is just what is needed. Meal times when I am tired of or bored with cooking. How jolly to open the freezer and pull out a bag of pesto. I make sure to never be without pasta in the pantry.
I know others who buy bushels of tomatoes or corn on the cob and spend hours in the kitchen preparing the bounty for later enjoyment. Or those who make strawberry or peach jam.
When we do this, we are not only preparing food for another day, but we are harvesting and storing memories. And, taking in the smells and sights and tastes of the present moment, we are in the midst of spiritual practice.
What do you harvest from your garden–your internal or external garden? I would love to know.
The basket where I keep the current books I read and refer to during my meditation time almost overflows. My Bible is a constant, of course, as is my current journal and my prayer cards (See my post on August 9, 2022), but the other books are a potpourri of what I want to study right now, or books by favorite or recommended authors, or daily devotions. The basket is also where I keep new books, browsing and welcoming them to my library, before I decide if I want to read them now or keep till later.
Here’s what is in the basket now.
Unbinding, The Grace Beyond Self by Kathleen Dowling Singh. I have been reading this book slowly and for quite some time. I don’t pretend to understand everything in this book about some of the foundational teachings in Buddhism, but the ongoing practice of awakening and all that means and involves challenges and inspires me. Singh, who died in 2017 was the author of other books that have had deep influence on my life, The Grace in Dying, The Grace in Living, The Grace in Aging.
Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman. How often I have read a powerful quotation by this spiritual leader (1899-1981), but I have never owned a book by him. It is about time. This book is a collection of meditations and prayers and as in the words of the first meditation is “an island of peace within one’s soul.” That is not to say, however, the book is without exhortation to action, for there is nothing about Thurman’s faith or life in faith that is passive.
The White Stone, The Art of Letting Go by Esther De Waal. I remember reading her book on Benedictine Spirituality, Seeking God, many years ago and am eager to sit with this slim book. According to the back cover, this book is about the houses she has loved and the process of letting them go and moving into new environments. I have done that many times and am sure De Waal’s experience will deepen my own. I discovered this book recently when we visited the Liturgical Press bookstore on the St John’s University campus in Collegeville, MN.
Trusting Change, Finding Our Way Through Personal and Global Transformation by Karen Hering. The dedication in this new release is “For all of us sharing this chrysalis time.” I loved Hering’s earlier book, Writing to Wake the Soul : Opening the Conversation Within, and have also enjoyed retreats and classes I’ve taken from her. She is a gifted teacher and writer, and I have no doubt this book will be a gift itself. I am especially intrigued by the chapter, “Practicing Equanimity.”
Conversation, The Sacred Art, Practicing Presence in an Age of Distraction by Diane M. Millis. I have read sections of this book, including the chapter “Listening to Your Life,” but as I begin preparation for two conversation groups I will offer beginning this fall at my church, now is a good time to read and study this book. As I have with Hering, I have benefited from Millis’ gifted teaching and writing and know this book will be helpful and inspirational. I recommend her Re-Creating A Life, Learning How To Tell Our Most Life-Giving Story.
The basket also holds one edition of Oneing from the Center of Action and Contemplation and at least one issue of Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship. I am always behind reading those journals. Sigh!
With this basket at my side, morning could extend into afternoons and evenings!
Does your devotion/meditation time include reading? I would love to know.
This past weekend we saw our niece Alli, who is an improv comedian in Chicago, in two performances. Alli has been funny all her life–the family lore is full of Alli stories, and I don’t think anyone who knows and loves her was surprised when she chose comedy as her career path. She is also a substitute in the Chicago Public School system. Just imagine how often she needs a comedic attitude and improvisational skills to get through her teaching days!
We loved seeing her perform and oh, how good it was to laugh and laugh and laugh.
Improv comedy, it seems to me, offers good life lessons.
From the moment these performers walked on stage they had no idea what was going to happen from one minute to the next. In both shows they were given the bare minimum as a beginning and from that moment on anything could happen. Their job was to be completely present to what the others were saying and doing. They needed to react and respond as the narrative unfolded.
At the same time each performer adopted a persona for the show, and they needed to be true to that character. How would that character react and respond in the given situation? In a manner of minutes the essence of the character became clear through physical actions, the tone of voice, as well as words.
We each live an improvisational life. Who knows what will happen one minute from the next? We can plan and make lists–and that is often necessary and helpful, but at the same time we need to be able to open to what is unfolding and changing before our very eyes. The present moment. There is not always time to say, “Time out. I need to write the next scene. I need to decide how to move the plot forward.” Nope, something happens or someone says or does something, and the next line, the next step is yours. Now. It is time to improvise..
When I was a freshman in college, I remember the junior counsellors on my floor often saying when life got a bit crazy and chaotic, “Punt. It is punt time.” Do what needs to be done. You can’t always wait and weigh the pros and cons. It is time to act and maybe even take a chance.
Now I am more apt to adopt “pause” than “punt,” but I know there are times when pausing, at least longer than a second is not possible. It is time to improvise when the best plans are not possible, when life gets in the way, when the unexpected and often unwanted occurs.
Fifty-one years ago my husband’s mother died of a brain aneurysm–a month before our August wedding. In the months of planning before the wedding day, how could we possibly have anticipated the loss that would accompany us on our walk down the aisle? We were 23, mere babies, and along with the improvisation that marriage itself requires, we had to figure out how to respond and cope with such deep sadness, even as we were embarking with such joy on our lives as a new couple. We did the best we could, but we were not yet as practiced in the art and skill of improvisation.
Part of becoming a good improviser is knowing oneself. Who am I and what is my essence? Instead of playing a role, developing a character, I respond from my own ground of being, the person God created me to be. How helpful that is as life diverts us from what we envisioned for ourselves.
Here’s hoping that laughter is part of the journey.
When was the last time you had to improvise? How did that go? I would love to know.
Yes, I know how important it is to live in the present moment.
Breathe in and tell yourself that a new day has been offered to you, and you have to be here to live it.
You Are Here, Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hand
This gentle and charming book, Things To Look Forward Toby author and illustrator Sophie Blackall is a doorway into remembering what brings us joy and the pleasures that sustain and guide us, even when the present moment is fraught with angst. This book is a guidebook for being in the present moment, even as we look ahead.
Some of what Blackall looks forward to are on my list, like “making lists” and “returning home,” and other items, like “rain” and “visiting a museum,” open me to greater appreciation and gratitude. Maybe that’s what this book is–a gratitude book for a life being lived.
Here’s my list, a list that keeps growing, and that is a good thing, I think.
Sunday morning church.
Fall: weather, food, clothes, pumpkins
Being with our kids and grandkids. Anytime. Anyplace.
Having written the first sentence or paragraph of a new writing project. The first is always the hardest.
Meeting with my spiritual directees.
Anticipating the next book to read. I love adding titles to my TBR (To Be Read) list and then checking them off as I read them. And what is better than getting an email from the library saying a book I have requested is now available!
Making pesto with the basil from our garden.
A cold Diet Coke, especially from MacDonalds. (Remember, Blackall says the list contains both large and small joys)
One day road trips and counting eagles and hawks.
Cozy days in the snug.
The first trip in the morning to the garret.
Perfect weather to sit in the side garden, I call Paris.
Shopping the house as I clean to create new vignettes.
Ironing. Pressing out the wrinkles.
Seeing a friend cross the threshold.
Morning Meditation Time, whether it is walking in the neighborhood or sitting in my Girlfriend Chair
Setting the table for a gathering and thinking about the love that will be present.
My husband filling vases with flowers from his glorious garden.
Going to a play or concert.
A good night’s sleep.
Unpacking. I don’t enjoy packing, but unpacking always feels like a new beginning.
Normally we say that the future is not here yet, but we can touch it right now by getting deeply in touch with the present moment. Because it is of an interbeing nature, the present cannot exist by itself. It interexists with the past and the future. It’s like a flower that cannot exist by itself: it has to interexist with the sun and the earth. This is true for time, too. The present is made up of material called the past and the future, and the past and future are here in what we call the present.
You are Here, Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh
Blackall’s list and my list are the result of past times, which we look forward to living again in the present. Past, present, and future are all one.
What’s on your “looking forward to list”? I would love to know.
Some days I feel the presence of shadow more and am not as aware of light.
Those days seem to happen more frequently now that I am in my mid70’s.
When I was in my 40s and 50s, people in my life faced difficult times, too. Loss is not limited to one decade of one’s life, that’s for sure, but what I realize now is that when I was younger, I experienced space around sadness. For example, when a friends was diagnosed with cancer and later died at a far too early age, the sudden news felt totally unexpected and out of the ordinary. A shock, yes, but I was able to hold each one of those out of the ordinary situations, mainly one at a time, with tender care. I now see how there was recuperation time between encounters with the suffering.
That is no longer the case. A reality of being in the Third Chapter of life is that every day I hear of someone in my own beloved circle or in the circle of someone I know who is facing challenges — health, loss, relationship issues, etc. An unwelcome change of some kind. Prayers are asked for and needed. And sometimes more practical or visible help is needed. A meal or drive to an appointment or a hug or a conversation. Or…
I ache with the news. Each announcement. Each cry. Each plea. Each shock wave.
How do we cope with the daily revelations of sorrow?
More and more I realize the importance of spiritual practices.
More and more I realize the importance of spiritual practices to keep me grounded, to find sustenance and equanimity.
More and more I realize how spiritual practices lead me to clarity and the next step.
More and more I realize how spiritual practices support me and sustain me as I attempt to support others in ways that are appropriate and needed.
More and more I realize how employing spiritual practices on an ongoing basis ground and steady me for the days when there is no time or energy to practice them.
I also realize the importance of having more than one spiritual practice in my back pocket.
In the non winter months, I tend to start my day walking in the neighborhood, instead of sitting in the garret for an hour or more of devotion time. I practice walking meditation. As I feel the ground beneath my feet and breathe in and out, filling with the sights and sounds and smells around me, I lift the names of those I hold in my heart, but I also refresh myself and return home better prepared for the day ahead.
Some days, however, the walk doesn’t feel like enough, and I return to the Girlfriend Chair for more quiet time. In recent months I have created my own tangible prayer list, using sweet small cards. I write a name or a situation on each card, along with the date and any important details. I hold each card, whispering the name, one at a time. It’s not much, but this is something I can do, and I know that as I lift each person’s heaviness, I am steadying myself, as well.
Over the years my spiritual practices have included walking labyrinths, practicing T’ai Chi, and the most constant, writing in my journal. Those practices are still part of my life, along with meeting with my spiritual director monthly, reading and studying scripture and other sacred texts, but more and more my spiritual practices are simple, in the moment, practices. Pausing between tasks. Sipping a glass of water slowly. Smiling. Gazing out the window. Sending a handwritten note or choosing an E Card to send.
Each practice is at once a practice of gratitude, but also a practice of being present and opening myself to being a presence.
I can’t end this without also noting the spiritual practice of being in community–attending Sunday worship services. We often arrive early, even as the musicians are practicing. I love settling in and feeling the space, readying myself for whatever message I need to receive. Moving through the worship service, I feel myself deepening and opening. And that is a good thing, for I know before returning home I am apt to learn about someone in pain or distress, and I want to be whatever is needed in that moment.
if your everyday practice is to open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that–then that will take you as far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.
Yes, there are more shadows in this elder age, but notice the light in the photograph at the beginning of this post. I am convinced spiritual practices not only help me notice the light, but even create the light.
What are your spiritual practices and how do they help you cope with difficult news? I would love to know.
French Braid by Anne Tyler. I’ve read most of her long list of books, enjoying some more than others. This one is especially good. Few people write dialogue as well as Tyler does, for one thing, and few people create a window into family relationships as she does. True, the characters are often quirky, but still, recognizable. In this story the family members maintain distance from one another, not out of dislike or fear, but simply this is the way it is. The title is referenced towards the end of the book describing a French braid when it is undone, “ripples, little leftover squiggles…that’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (p. 234) Later, Tyler writes, “This is what families do for each other–hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few deceptions. Little kindnesses…and little cruelties. (p. 342) Classic Tyler
Three by Valerie Perrin. Her earlier novel, Fresh Water for Flowers, was the first book I read in 2021 and was one of my favorite books that year. It remains a favorite. I loved Three, as well. The title refers to Etienne, Adrien, and Nina who grew up together, forming their own kind of family. The story moves between their growing up years and years much later. Sometimes a scene is repeated, but the second time we, the readers, know much more than we did the first time we read it. Much of the story is told by Virginie, but we don’t know who she is till much later in the book. “Intriguing” is the word that occurred to me as I read this book. Flawed characters, for sure, but characters who want to live as their better selves. One line that stays with me, “How many people do we miss out on in a lifetime?” (p. 261)
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. After reading her most recent novel Great Circle in June https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/06/09/book-report-great-circle-by-maggie-shipstead/, I knew I wanted to read her backlist. Seating Arrangements is her first novel, published in 2012, and it is worth reading. The story takes place the weekend of a wedding–Winn and Biddy’s oldest daughter, Daphne is getting married to Greyson. Daphne is seven months pregnant, which doesn’t seem to be an issue for anyone. The wedding party gathers at the family’s island home, and the story could have focused on any one of the characters, but this is really the father’s story. “His wedding had been a wedding, not a family reunion and missile launch and state dinner all rolled into one.” (p. 93). Winn is attracted to one of the bridesmaids, and his younger daughter Livia is recovering from an abortion and being dumped by her boyfriend, and there is the matter of the beached whale. Shipstead not only tells a story well, but I love her rich descriptions and her often ironic tone. Now I am ready to read the next novel on her backlist, Astonish Me.
I feel I should mention another novel I read in July, Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m not sure I loved this book, but it felt like an honor to read it, and at times the story of a widowed father, Theo, and his unusual nine year-old son, Robin, moved me to tears. Theo doesn’t accept the encouragement from Robin’s teachers to start him on medication, but instead homeschools him and enrolls him in an experimental kind of therapy. Theo is an astrobiologist and often tells Robin stories of imagined planets. All this is in the context of a world that seems to be destroying itself and Trumpian anti-science politics. I’ve not yet read Powers’ The Overstory–I know I should. I know I will, but not yet.
As part of my morning meditation time, I am reading, slowly, very slowly, Unbinding, The Grace Beyond Self by Kathleen Dowling Singh, which has been on my shelf for several years, and it is worth the wait and the intentional slow pace. Other than that, I am not reading much nonfiction right now. I do recommend, however, a writing book, Getting to the Truth, The Craft and Practice of Nonfiction by the editors of Hippocampus Magazine. Excellent essays.
it’s going somewhere without ever taking a train or a ship, an unveiling of new, incredible worlds. It’s living without having to face consequences of failures, and how best to succeed…I think within all of us, there is a void, a gap waiting to be filled by something. For me, that something is books and all their proffered experiences. p.73
The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin
What did you read in July? Anything you recommend? I would love to know.
One of my favorite blogs about writing is Brevity. On Monday, August 8 you can read an essay I wrote called “Writing in a Garret.” I hope you will read it and would love to know your response. https://brevity.wordpress.com
Every morning while making the bed, I pause and look out the window towards our backyard. This is what I see.
This is the view, thanks to the creative talents and physical efforts of the gardener in our house.
I stand at the window and receive a gift of color and the variety of shapes and textures. I see abundance and growth, reminding me to be grateful for the abundance and ongoing growth in my own life. I think about the season we are in and how each day may seem the same, but yesterday I did not see any roses on the tall rose bush, and today two are in view. Creamy with a blush of peach.
I wonder if the blueberry bushes are ready to be harvested again. A couple weeks ago I made muffins using our own blueberries, and I am eager to repeat the taste treat.
Standing at the window each morning, I receive energy for the day, even if I didn’t sleep well the night before. I wonder how I will be asked to bloom today or is it someone else’s turn?
I celebrate the miracle of creation, and I give thanks for the gardener in my life and his holy work.
This is sanctuary.
Love this Earth as if you won’t be here tomorrow; show reverence for your Garden as if you will be here forever.
Later in the morning I walk up the stairs to the garret and pause at the windows on the landing. I take a deep breath as my view expands over rooftops and into the backyards of neighbors.
In the stillness, I send blessings:
to the boys next door who seem to create their own universe, jumping on their trampoline. May your imaginations and energy enrich you and those who love you.
to the neighbor newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s. May you adjust to the new reality in your life.
to the neighbor across the alley who often forgets to shut her garage door and to the neighbors who do it for her. May you be safe.
to new neighbors on the block. May you find warmth and happiness here. May you find home here.
to each of the 22 children on the block. May you know fun and joy on this summer day.
to all those whom I don’t know, but who live within my view. May you feel support as you face whatever causes anxiety in your life. May you feel peace as you cross your own thresholds. May you know love.
The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.
Terry Tempest Williams
And, I add, daily prayers are delivered, also, while looking out a window.
What do you receive as you stand at a window and what do you send beyond your window? I would love to know.
Steve Laube is an agent in the Christian publishing marketplace and in a recent blog post (https://stevelaube.com/21-influential-books/) he listed books he called “punctuation marks” in his life. “Some books were a comma, some an exclamation point and some a period or full stop.” Books that have been influential in his life.
What a good idea, I thought, and besides I was struggling with an essay-in-progress. What a good distraction that would be. Limiting myself to my spirituality and theology books, all in the garret, I soon had a pile of over 50 books.
Could I limit myself to 21 books? And why did Steve Laube choose that number anyway, but I decided to discipline myself and see if I could choose the most important from the towering stacks. Here’s the list–in no particular order.
The Wisdom of the Enneagram, The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (1999)
In Wisdom’s Path. Discovering the Sacred in Every Season by Jan L. Richardson (2000)
Walking A Sacred Path, Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool by Dr. Lauren Artress (19950
The Universal Christ, How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe by Richard Rohr (2019)
The Circle of Life, The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr (2005)
Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2012)
Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges (1980)
The Gospel According to Woman, Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West by Karen Armstrong (1987)
The Seven Whispers, Listening to the Voice of Spirit by Christina Baldwin (2002)
Composing a Life, Life as a Work in Progress–The Improvisations of Five Extraordinary Women by Mary Catherine Bateson (1989)
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1996)
The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister (2008)
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, A Woman’s Journey From Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd (1996)
Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue (1997)
The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life by Thomas Moore (1996)
An Altar in the World, A Geography of Church by Barbara Brown Taylor (2009)
Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting by Holly W. Whitcomb (2005)
A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey Toward An Undivided Life by Parker J. Palmer (2004)
The Grace in Aging, Awaken As You Grow Older by Kathleen Dowling Singh (2014)
The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig (2021)
Holy Listening, The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther (1992)
Traveling Mercies, Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (1999)
Awakening the Energies of Love, Discovering Fire for the Second Time by Anne Hillman (2008)
Holiness and the Feminine Spirit, The Art of Janet McKenzie, edited by Susan Perry (2009)
Why did I choose these titles?
I don’t know. A top of the head, top of the heart reaction. Some of the titles are ones that radically changed my way of thinking. Some are titles that offered me deep insight into who I am and who I was created to be. Many are books I keep returning to. Sometimes re-reading them, but sometimes it is enough to simply hold one of these books and feel the wise energy rising from the pages.
In many cases I was choosing an author more than a specific title. It was not easy to choose only one Joyce Rupp or Joan Chittister, and how could I not add Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church to the list or Dakota by Katherine Norris or any of the other titles by John O’Donohue or Thomas Moore.
And you might notice authors who are not there; other authors important in my spiritual growth–Thomas Merton, Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong or more recent writers, such as Brian McLaren or J. Philip Newell or Diana Butler Bass. And what about the ancients–my beloved Julian of Norwich, for example?
Choosing just 21 books was a tough assignment, for sure. And you will notice I cheated, and there are 24 titles on my list. Would the list be the same in a week or if I had created it a few months ago, in the midst of winter? No doubt, but what would remain the same is the power of other people’s thinking and creativity and expertise to deepen my awareness of the movement of God in my life.
Laube decided to gather all the books from his list in one place as a “visual reminder of those moments when God reached out through the pages of creative people…and touched me.” I like that idea, but I decided to keep each one in its current spot on my shelves. Each shelf is like a neighborhood, and I like the idea of all of Karen Armstrong books keeping each other company and sharing space with their neighbors.
Oh, and one more thought. The day will come, I imagine, when I will need to drastically pare down the number of books in my library, thanks to a move to a smaller space, (A friend calls this process, giving oneself a haircut.) and this recent exercise shows me I will be able to do that.
What 21 books are on your “most important” list? I would love to know.
I made a list of the other 25 or so books that didn’t make the “A” list. Maybe I’ll share that someday, too. That list includes devotionals and writing books.
Next Thursday, August 4, I will post my end of the month book summary.
I often walk pass a daycare center on my morning walk, and one morning I saw a little girl race down the ramp into the building. I heard her father say, “Face forward.” I suspect he was reminding her to pay attention to what she was doing, where she was going, so she wouldn’t trip and fall. And then there would be tears and maybe a scraped knee.
Hearing this simple instruction, I thought about other directions we give our young children.
I remember saying, “Hands behind your back,” when we were in a store, and there were temptations to touch appealing objects. I also remember often saying “Inside voice, please,” hoping for less noise, and when behavior disintegrated, saying, “Use your words.”
It occurs to me these basic instructions offer a wise standard for adults, too.
Hands behind your back.
Use your words.
Each one implies a level of civil conversation and behavior, along with respect for one another. Instead of engaging in violence we will keep our hands behind our backs and lower the volume of our voices, in order to engage with one another. Instead of resorting to sticks and stones, we will use our voices to explore and ask questions and reflect with openness and curiosity. And we do so with hope, moving in a forward direction towards justice and peace.
Laura Kelly Fanucci in a recent post, “Yearn the Heart Forward” on her blog, “The Holy Labor,” https://laurakellyfanucci.substack.com says stretching ourselves forward means we are “willing to love, willing to be loved, knowing that both could hurt, but believing the risk is worth the cost.” There may, in fact, be some scraped knees along the way, but what is gained by standing still or moving backwards or wearing blinders?
One more instruction and it is one I know I said often to our children, especially when I was exasperated,
Listen to me.
Yes, we each want to be heard. We each want our opinions heard and honored, but what is even more important right here, right now, is to LISTEN. Listen to one another. Listen without thinking about the important point we want to make. Listen with the ears of the heart. Listen to learn, to understand. Listen as an act of love; an act of living God’s hope for all She created.
May each of these instructions become an invitation.
Which of these instructions is most challenging for you. I would love to know.
Note: I’m taking a break next week. The next post will be Tuesday, July 26, 2022.
I’ve always loved reading mysteries, beginning with Nancy Drew, of course. Later, I worked my way through Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and more recently, I’ve indulged my Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear addictions. (The next Louise Penny, by the way, won’t be released until November.)
I’ve always balanced reading mysteries with reading nonfiction and literary fiction, but this month? Not so much.
At the beginning of the month I read one of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. My only regret was that I wasn’t on vacation at a lake resort where the only diversion was the occasional putt-putt of a motor boat or the haunting call of a loon. It is that kind of book –witty and subtle and oh, so upperclass English.
Then I got sucked into the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. I recall reading at some point the first book in the series, The Crossing Places and enjoyed it, but I did not feel compelled to grab the next in the series–and there is a total of 14 of them with a new one planned for 2023. This month, however, that changed, and not only am I reading them, but so is my husband and our daughter.
I am currently reading #5, A Dying Fall, and will more than likely finish that today.
Ruth Galloway is an English forensic archaeologist who often helps the police, developing a close relationship with copper Harry Nelson. The unfolding of the plot is always interesting, but as is usually the case for me, the characters interest me more. I just discovered when I looked up the author website that she has also written other mystery series and stand-alone books as well. Oh no!!!
I know I don’t need to justify, nor should you, why I choose to read a particular book or series of books or genres, but I admit I am curious why I am so enamored of mysteries right now. I seem to need lighter reading, a quick read, or what is often called “summer reading,” or “beach reading.”
Yesterday I received the weekly online newsletter from one of my favorite bookstores, Arcadia Books in Spring Green, WI, and the opening column referenced a bumper sticker, “It’s brutal out here.” How true that is. Often, the crimes committed in the mysteries I read are brutal, too, but in 300 or so pages, the mystery is solved and good people have worked to make that so. The known is made known. The uncertainty is resolved. And life goes on.
if only the real world was that simple.
So…to balance watching the January 6 hearings and listening to the news on NPR and reading the NYTImes and Washington Post, as well as informed and thoughtful online newsletters, I am reading mysteries, and Elly Griffiths is a good choice.
Has your reading changed in recent months? I would love to know.