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

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

Spirituality Books

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

Writing Books

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

Other Categories

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

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

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

Advent: Week #1, Choosing My Advent Companion

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

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

I am ready to turn my heart to Advent.

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

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

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

I turned over the card.

One of the Wise Men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Three Favorites

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

Other Favorites–No Particular Order

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

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

Books I Re-Read in 2021

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

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

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

Ok, get shopping–and reading!!!!

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

JOY Comes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bene Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy comes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy comes.

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

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

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

Book Report: Little Free Library Treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Snow of the Season

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

I am ready.

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

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

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

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

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

And all because of the first snowfall.

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

Book Report: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bittersweet

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

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

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

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

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

Bittersweet

Bitter Sweet

The mix of bitter and sweet.

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

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

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

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

Bitter. Sweet.

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

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

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

Bitter. Sweet.

Shadow and Light.

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

Bitter. Sweet.

Shadow and Light.

Blessing and Burden.

Yes.

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

An Inventory of the Week

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

Some highlights:

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

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

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

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

Re-Entry Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Thoughts

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

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

What motivates us to ornament our homes with seasonal decorations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 1

Your ear, beloved Listener, opened wide,

Pressed to each portion of my heart, my life.

Attuned to the slightest vibration of my being,

Attentive to the constant rhythms of my soul.

You hear the cry in the throat of my heart.

My troubles do not cease with your awareness.

But they soften, loosen some of their grip,

Become bearable, touchable, endurable.

If your attentive solicitude blesses so fully,

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

Fragments of Your Ancient Name

Joyce Rupp

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