Book Report: June Round-Up

June 30, 2022

Big Books.

Books Read Again.

A Book about Books and Bookstores

Books with Spies and Intrigue

New Books, Old Books

That about summarizes my reading this month, but perhaps you want details.

Big Books

I read three books over 500 pages and don’t regret one minute immersed in all those pages.

  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fannonne Jeffers. The main character Ailey spends summers in a small Georgia town where her mother’s family lived in bondage as slaves. The book explores the complicated history of that family and leads us through the generations, going back and forth in time. As readers we see the results of the trauma, oppression, and cruelty, as well as the resiliency and passion for life. In the middle of the book I wearied of the male dominant-female abused sex scenes, but was glad I didn’t give up reading the book, for there is much to love in these characters and their lives.
  • The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. A terrific summer read, which I wrote about in an earlier post this month. https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/06/09/book-report-great-circle-by-maggie-shipstead/
  • The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. Another terrific summer read, a re-read in my case. I wonder if I read this in the summer the first time around. The title refers to a painting, and each chapter focuses on a specific character, although the main character Penelope, who is the daughter of the painter and a figure in the painting, is never far away. You will love some characters and others, not so much!

Books Read Again

Along with The Shell Seekers, I re-read The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which is well-worth reading again or for the first time, if you have not yet read it. The book is divided into sections: Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, Death. A full and complete life. Daisy Goodwin Flett’s mother, Mercy Stone was raised in an orphanage, the Stonewall Orphan Home, and her father was a stone cutter. Thus the title. The book is Daisy’s witness to herself –there is a reference to her “decoding” her life. Gorgeous writing that is at once lush and understated.

A Book About Books and Bookstores

In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch. At times obscure and too esoteric for summer reading. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being reminded of the gift of browsing good bookstores. The author says there are many types of browsers, including the idler who just wants to while away the hours, the flaneur who meanders through the stacks, observing, loitering, shuffling; the general who sees the stacks as a thing to be conquered; and the pilgrim, who seeks wisdom. Deutsch worked at the famous Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, which unfortunately no longer exists, but I am grateful I visited it a couple times and left its underground warren of rooms with piles of books for my personal library of spirituality and theology books.

Books With Spies and Intrigue

The Expats and The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone. This author has written LOTS of books, including a brand new one, Two Nights in Lisbon. The Paris Diversion is a sequel to The Expats. At times I didn’t quite follow the plot and at times I didn’t care for the main characters, a husband and wife, both full of secrets. However, I loved the twists and turns–and being in Luxembourg and Paris.

New Books, Old Books.

I’ve already mentioned three of the new books I read this month (The Great Circle–2021; The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois–2021, and In Praise of Good Bookstores–2022). The fourth new book is nonfiction, Bitter Sweet, How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain. Cain’s earlier book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) is on my personal Great Books List; a book that made a difference in how I view myself and my relationship to the world. This book isn’t on that same level, but I identified with much of what she wrote. On her Bittersweet quiz, I scored 8. Above 5.7 means I am a “true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet.” The book includes excellent chapters on grief and inherited pain.

The Shell Seekers was published in 1987 and The Stone Diaries in 1994. I also read Solar Storms, a novel, by Linda Hogan published in 1995 and Without a Map, a memoir, by Meredith Hall published in 2007. Reading Solar Storms, I felt totally immersed in Native American spirituality. Angel has been separated from her mother, who hurt her physically and emotionally, but she sets out to reconnect. The book is rich in transformation and reconciliation and also the urgency of saving the traditional native way of life. I read a used copy, and I loved seeing what the previous owner had marked as meaningful.

Meredith Hall wrote the luminous novel Beneficence, which I wrote about in a May post. https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/05/19/book-report-beneficence-by-meredith-hall-2020/ Without a Map is her stunning memoir of a life that could easily have ended in tragedy or at the very least bitterness, but instead the author is a woman of great compassion and forgiveness. When she was pregnant at age 16 in the 1960’s, she was expelled from school, totally rejected by her parents, and the baby was adopted without her seeing him. Somehow she survived, but life remained challenging for many years. This book helps me understand the insight and compassion she has for her characters in Beneficence.

So that does it for this month: 10 books for summer days.

An Invitation

What did you read this month? I would love to know.

Turn Anger into Action

June 28, 2022

When my husband and I were first married, and he was in medical school, I taught high school English at a large and diverse public high school in Webster Groves, Missouri. That job supported us during those years, but that was in 1971 and my income didn’t make a difference when I applied for a credit card. Only my husband’s income counted, but he didn’t have an income.

In his last year of medical school I was pregnant. Our first child was due in August, which meant I would be able to teach through the end of the school year, and then we would move back to Minnesota where Bruce would be a resident in family practice. He would have an income.

What I didn’t know those first months of my pregnancy was that the superintendent of schools and the principal (both white men) conferred to decide if I would be allowed to continue teaching. Apparently, school board members were consulted as well. You see, I was the first female teacher in the school district who didn’t lose my job because of pregnancy.

There is another piece to this story. There were a number of students, who were also pregnant, and during the lunch hour we gathered in my classroom to talk about how we were feeling and what we saw in our futures. I was the only one who had a bright future; a future that included a husband with a good job; a future that included good medical care; a future that welcomed this new life I was growing.

I know some faculty members felt those young women should not have been allowed to continue attending classes, and I also recall some of my colleagues who were uncomfortable working with a pregnant teacher and expressed that discomfort, making off-color remarks.

I have often thought about those young women sitting uncomfortably in my classroom on chairs not made for pregnant women. What has happened to them and to their babies? And what do they think about the recent Supreme Court decision.

I tell these stories because they are examples of women not being viewed as full human beings, as people deserving of all the rights assumed by men, especially white men.

Others decided what I and other women were allowed to do and how to move forward in our lives.

The next decades saw lots of changes. Thank you feminists of both sexes for working to make these changes. Not all was perfect. Not everything changed, and the fight for equality for all has continued, but now, just like the children’s game, Simon Says, the Supreme Court has dictated, “Take a giant step backwards.” The writer Glennon Doyle calls this time “The Great Backslide.”

I am angry and I am sad. And I am scared about the future.

Earlier in the week I sat in my “Paris” garden and addressed and wrote messages on postcards to be sent to registered Democratic voters in Florida. The message was a simple reminder to request mail-in ballots for the upcoming election. I supplied the postcards, the stamps, and the time, and Postcards to Voters sent me the instructions and a mailing list. The morning’s task felt like prayer.

Be angry. Be sad, and acknowledge your fear, but at the same time lift your voice in the way that truly makes a difference: VOTE.

Vote and remind others to vote. Are there young people in your lives who are eligible to vote? Ask them if they have registered? If they haven’t, let them know what they need to do and help them do that, if necessary. Share stories and experiences with them about what it means to live without the right to live authentically and fully. Tell them to celebrate your birthday or the 4th of July by requesting a mail-in ballot.

It is good to march and protest and certainly to support worthy candidates and causes financially, but ultimately, what each of us can do and needs to do is vote. Vote for candidates who are willing to support the rights of all people.

An Invitation

How are you? I would love to know.

Note:

For information about sending postcards: https://postcardstovoters.mypostcard.com/blogs/ptv-faq/how-to-get-addresses

Book Report: Morning Reading

June 23, 2022

June 23, 2022

In the summer I am more apt to begin my day with a walking meditation than reading, writing in my journal, and praying in my Girlfriend Chair in the garret. However, some days I still create time for devotions, study, and reading. My current stack is enticing.

  • The Seven Story Mountain, An Autobiography of Faith by Thomas Merton (1948). I can’t quite believe I have never read this classic, although I have read a number of other Merton titles. For example, both New Seeds of Contemplation (1961) and Spiritual Direction and Meditation (1960) have been important books in my own spiritual development. This spring I found a copy of The Seven Story Mountain in a Little Free Library. “Now is the time.” In the introduction Robert Giroux, Merton’s friend and editor, relates a story about receiving a piece of hate mail. “Tell this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence to shut up!” Giroux’s answer was “Writing is a form of contemplation.” That was all I needed to begin reading this work of contemplation, which I am reading contemplatively. An aside: Merton was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok in 1968. I was a student there then, but knew nothing about Merton or his death and only later was drawn to his work.
  • Unbinding, The Grace Beyond Self by Kathleen Dowling Singh (2017). I bought this book when I attended a writing retreat led by Karen Hering at the Christine Center, Willard, WI, in 2019. Sometimes books just need to percolate on my shelves, but like the Merton book, this seems like the right time. Both The Grace in Aging, Awaken As You Grow Older (2014) and The Grace in Living, Recognize It, Trust It, Abide in It (2016) have become sacred texts in my life, and I was so pleased to find a more recent book. Singh died in 2017. I am reading this slowly, too, and resting in her wisdom.
  • Awakening the Creative Spirit, Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction by Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckman (2010). You may recognize Paintner as the abbess for Abbey of the Arts. https://abbeyofthearts.com Beckman is a dancer and a practitioner of dance therapy. Over the years I have read many books by Paintner and have been privileged to be a guest writer in her weekly newsletter. I decided to dip into this book right now for a couple reasons. First, I think it may inspire some prompts for the weekly writing group I facilitate, but second, I am feeling a bit dry creatively myself, and I expect I will find inspiration on these pages. I’ll let you know.
  • Getting to the Truth, The Craft and Practice of Nonfiction from the editors of Hippocampus Magazine (2021). I almost added this to my discard pile after I decided to set aside any further work on my spiritual memoir, but some of the essay titles intrigue me, like “Why You Should Write About What You Don’t Remember” by Wendy Fontaine and “One-Moment Memoir” by Jenna McGuiggan. I don’t promise to read every essay nor do I imagine doing the exercises, but I intend to read this more as a contemplative reflection on next steps in my own writing. Again, I’ll let you know.

Off the meditation cushion, aka my Girlfriend Chair, I continue to read good fiction. I’ll give the June Book Report on Thursday, June 30.

An Invitation

What are you reading that you hope will inspire you or will lead you into deeper reflection? I would love to know.

Summer Spirituality

June 21, 2022

This is what summer looks like in our backyard, thanks to the resident gardener in our house.

Each time I walk from the backdoor to the garage or look out the kitchen window or sit, book in hand, on the patio, I am reminded to savor this season and to notice the gifts of God in these days and in our lives.

If you are an ongoing reader of this blog, you know that I am not a summer person. I am a winter person who relishes hibernation and cave time. I meet God in the stillness, the quiet, the dark that arrives early in the afternoon and leaves late in the morning. In stews and soups simmering in my small kitchen, in sweaters and shawls and cozy throws thrown over my legs. Winter feeds my introverted soul.

My Summer Story

Because my father worked for a large corporation and was transferred and promoted often, summer began when a moving van pulled up in front of our house, usually as soon as the school year ended. For me, summer was a time of loss, leaving my friends and all that was familiar and known. Instead of a time of fun and freedom, summer was a time of loneliness. I yearned for school to begin in the fall where I could meet kids my own age and find a place for myself in new classrooms. But I also felt anxiety during those summer months. Would I like my new school? Would I make new friends?

In my adult years I’ve reframed that loneliness into solitude, and I wrap my spiritual practices in silence and stillness. I realize, however, that I still carry with me the stigma of those empty summer days of my childhood.

Leave them behind, I remind myself, but also learn from them. What can summer mean for me now?

Now is the time, I tell myself, to open to the invitations of this season–to live beyond the irritation of mosquitos and sweat and frizzy hair and nonexistent breezes.

Now is the time to both create and respond to the rhythm of this summer.

Opening to this Summer

As always I begin in silence. Sitting in my comfortable chair in the garret, I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, and take a couple deep cleansing breaths, finding my own rhythm. I allow questions to emerge:

How am I as I enter this summer season?

What do I need now? Do I need rest? Change of place, of pace? Inspiration? Connection? What is the call of this summer? What is possible this summer?

How can this summer season meet my needs? How can I invite God to be with me during this time?

Is there a spiritual practice calling me or a new way of becoming present to something I currently do in my life?

What have I learned during the winter and spring months that will enhance these summer months? What do I bring with me from those recent seasons? What is unfinished? What do I need to put down?

I open my journal and jot down a few words–“spaciousness,” for example, but I make no attempt to answer all these questions in one sitting. I know some questions will answer themselves as I move through the days, and others will emerge, but in the silence I become more aware of who I am and how and to what God calls me at this time.

Summer Spaciousness

Instead of that summer loneliness I experienced as a child, I relish these open days. Days that unfold. Spacious days offering time to read, to doze, to celebrate the glories of the June color blast garden.

When our children were young, we made summer lists –things we wanted to do and places we wanted to go–but now we mention in passing trips we could take or things we could do, but neither of us seems to be making the arrangements or plans. We are both content right here, right now.

Instead of a hummingbird who is in constant motion, vibration that delights, I am more like our big old dog, Boe, who lived with us at Sweetwater Farm. He was content no matter where he was. Stretched out under the harvest table, he opened one eye as I passed through from my office to the kitchen, and maybe he thumped his tail greeting me, but otherwise he didn’t move.

These days seem to stretch out before me, and I feel the twists and turns of life untangle. No, those twists and turns don’t quite disappear, but they feel more manageable, more breathable in the slightest of summer breezes.

Summer Themes

The arrival of summer solstice can be an invitation to notice the unfolding and opening of summer days in your life. Do any of the following summer themes resonate with you? Do any of them open memories of past summers? Which of these summer themes shimmer and tickle and lift an “ah” to your lips? Pay attention. God is moving in your summer days.

  • Summer Spontaneity
  • Summer Senses
  • Summer Spaciousness
  • Summer Simplicity
  • Summer Shifts
  • Summer Sacred Space
  • Summer Silliness
  • Summer Stillness
  • Summer Stretching
  • Summer Celebrations
  • Summer Support
  • Summer Sadness
  • Summer Sweetness

Summer Spiritual Practices

Is a new spiritual practice beckoning you? Or is summer a chance to adapt your ongoing spiritual practice in a new way? For example, moving your prayer and meditation time outside. Here are some possibilities:

Keep a summer journal. Pilgrims carried a small book with them a vade mecum, which means “go with me.” In the journal they wrote prayers, poems, and wisdom for the journey, but it would also be a way to record what you notice and learn and feel as you wander and roam. Where do you notice the movement of God?

Practice visio divina (sacred seeing), which is similar to lectio divina (holy reading). This practice invites you to see with the eyes of the heart and to pay attention to what shimmers, what invites you, what startles or amazes you. Where do you discover outdoor “chapels”? Perhaps commit to taking one photo a day and at the end of the summer print your photos. Do you notice any patterns? Where did God appear for you?

Other practices include extending hospitality to guests, gardening, walking outdoor labyrinths, spending time in nature, stargazing, pausing to send blessings out into the world as you open windows, volunteering in some new way in the community, trying something new that challenges you. Change your routine in some way and notice what that opens for you.

How about inviting a loved one to a practice of sharing daily with each other one gift, one expression of God, noticed or experienced?

I invite you and I invite myself to open to summer.

A Blessing

May the God of summer give us beauty.

May the God of summer give us rest.

May the God of summer give us joy.

May the God of summer give us inner light.

May the God of summer gives us what we need for healing.

May the God of summer give us a sense of satisfaction in the work of our hands.

May the God of summer lead us to amazing discoveries as we travel the inner roads of our soul.

Amen.

adapted from Joyce Rupp

An Invitation

What intentions do you have for this summer? I would love to know.

Book Report: Favorite Reading Places

June 16, 2022

I can read and am happy to read in any location, but on these June days I most enjoy sitting on our patio with a full view of the garden; a garden developed and tended by my husband. I receive its beauty every day.

The only setting better for my reading pleasure is a view of water, preferably big water. Water where I can hear the sound of waves, gentle or with more energy. The first COVID summer my husband and I packed up outdoor chairs, cold drinks and snacks and our books and headed to nearby lakes where we could sit at a distance from anyone else and enjoy a “vacation day.”

When we lived at Sweetwater Farm, I stretched out on the sectional in the area at the front of the house we called “the nest.” When the windows were open, I often heard the clop-clop of Amish buggies passing by or I might hear our donkey, Festus, signaling that it was dinner time NOW.

As a child, I remember reading on a blanket spread out on the beach of the resort where my family spent one or two weeks each summer. It was one of those old-fashioned kind of resorts with individual cabins and not much, if any, in the way of amenities, but we loved it there. At night or if it rained, my book and I moved onto the screen porch, and I was just as content.

In one house we lived in for only a short time when I was in the 7th grade, there was a window seat in the closet of my room. Guess where I read? When our kids were young, we sat on the front porch swing, and I read aloud the next chapters in the current family book. Our house in Madison, WI, had one of those large, livable porches, too, and I often spent the whole day there reading or writing, only stopping to make dinner, which we would eat on the porch and then read there until bugs interfered with our comfort.

One of my favorite reading memories is reading in the adult pool at a country club. We lived in Dallas, TX, for two years when I was in junior high school, and we often spent hot summers weekend days at the club. My father and brother sometimes played golf, and my mother sat near the kiddie pool, watching my younger sister. Nobody, and I mean nobody, used the pool designated as the adult pool. That pool had wide steps leading into the water, and I sat on the top step, the water lapping against my legs and waist.

Once a lifeguard told me to get out of the pool because it was just for adults, and a man I didn’t know told him to leave me alone. “She’s not bothering anyone.” I suppose I thanked him and just kept reading.

More important, of course, than place, however, is the book. Right now I am reading a long and absorbing novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fannonne Jeffers, and I will need many more hours of reading in favorite locations before I write about this book.

Looking Back: Favorite Books of June, 2021

I will list my favorite June books in a couple weeks, but in the meantime here are a few of the books I read a year ago.

  • I re-read two favorites and loved them even more the second time around. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.
  • The Other Black Girl by Zakiyu Davila Harris, a debut novel, was a summer sensation. OBG stands for “other black girl,” and is used when there is more than one black woman in an office. Now think about that! In this case the office is a publishing house. I can imagine this book being the basis for a television series.
  • What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwartz is set in Bangkok in 1972. That interested me since I spent a semester in Thailand the fall of 1968, and I recognized many of the place names. The dysfunction of the American family whose son disappears reminded me of Ann Patchett’s themes at times. An engrossing read.
  • I only read two nonfiction books last June. (I think that will be true this June, too.) One was The Seeker and the Monk by Sophfronia Scott, in which the author explored her own spirituality by studying Thomas Merton. The other nonfiction title was Morningstar, Growing Up With Books by Ann Hood. I am a sucker for books about books, and this was a good one.

An Invitation

Where do you like to read? I would love to know.

It Takes A Village

June 14, 2022

I heard voices. I thought I was dreaming until I heard the distinctive “thump, thump, thump” of someone jumping on the neighbors’ trampoline.

I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen window where I could see the trampoline in the backyard next door, and three boys were laughing and talking and jumping.

Did I mention that it was 11:45 PM?

Perhaps they heard me or felt my presence, but they then quietly disappeared into the house.

I wish I could say that I slept well the rest of the night, but that was not the case. I knew I needed to talk with the parents, for middle of the night trampoline parties held by elementary school-aged children is not ok. I was quite certain it was not ok with the parents either and for whatever reason they were not aware of the backyard action, but still I was not eager to be the mean old woman on the block.

The next afternoon I went next door, and when the young Dad came to the door, I said, “I hate to do this, but did you know your boys were jumping on the trampoline at 11:45 last night?”

No, he had no idea. The boys had a sleepover and after setting them up with a movie at 10:00 pm, he and his wife went to bed, congratulating themselves that all seemed to be well. He apologized and assured me they would take care of it.

I reassured him that we thoroughly enjoy the boys and emphasized my hope that the boys knew they could always turn to us if they needed help of any kind.

A bit later I received a note of apology. The note is now on my bulletin board–a sweet treasure and a symbol of how it, indeed, takes a village to care for our children.

We have 22 children on our block, and it delights my husband and I to see them playing with each other outside, racing up and down the block, making up games, and enjoying big chunks of non-screen time. There is an air of safety, and I trust that everyone on the block takes responsibility for the care and protection of those children.

However, I also know that in the bigger picture we have failed our children. We have failed to protect them. Parents are afraid. Teachers are afraid. Children are afraid. And yet, we continue to ignore ways to protect our children, and, in fact, all of us by not enacting gun regulation laws. And it is up to each of us, everyone in the village, to create the change that will allow our children to grow without fear or trauma that will color the way they live the rest of their lives.

An Invitation

How are you willing to be part of the village that cares and protects our children? I would love to know.

Book Report: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

June 9, 2022

I always read in bed before turning out the light, but only occasionally do I begin the day reading in bed. Last Friday, however, I woke up a bit earlier than usual and decided to treat myself to what I call “Edith Wharton Time.”

Now I have no idea if the American writer Edith Wharton actually started her day by reading in bed, but when I toured her gorgeous home, The Mount, in Massachusetts and saw her spacious bedroom looking out over the gardens she had carefully planned, I imagined her enjoying the morning reading or writing in bed before attending to her agenda for the day. She had servants, of course, and perhaps even was served breakfast in bed. That was not the case for me, but I don’t usually eat breakfast anyway.

I only had 50 pages left to read in Great Circle (2021) by Maggie Shipstead, and reading them in the early hours when I felt refreshed from a good night’s sleep seemed like a perfect way to start the day.

I loved this book.

The plot summary on the back of the book is accurate and enticing:

After being rescued from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Montana. There–after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through in beat-up biplanes–Marian commences a lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen, she drops out of school and finds an unexpected patron in a wealthy bootlegger, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

A century later, movie star Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film centered on her disappearance in Antartica. Scandal-plagued and trapped in her role as a Hollywood wild child, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after getting fired from a romantic film franchise. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds alongside Marian’s own story, as the two women’s destinies–and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different places and times–collide.

Does this tempt you?

At 651 pages, reading this book is a commitment, but I enjoy sinking into a book with rich descriptions of place and engaging with complicated characters and twists of plots and staying with a story that spans lifetimes. And the circle theme–circles as endless and wondrous, but as Marian points out in the book she writes about undertaking the North-South Pole journey, “Endlessness is torture, too.”

I now have added Shipstead’s two previous novels to my TBR list: Astonish Me (2014) and Seating Arrangements (2012). My library hold list continues to grow!

Starting my day by finishing the book must have been a good omen, for the delights of the day continued. My husband, who was busy with his garage sale selling the discarded furniture he has painted, pointed out it was National Donut Day. That required a trip to a favorite bakery, The Baker’s Wife. And later I enjoyed time with a friend sitting in the sunshine on her patio. A good day, indeed.

An Invitation

Do you enjoy reading in bed? I would love to know.

Cleaning as Life Review

June 7, 2022

Folder by folder. Page by page.

What was once overflowing is now orderly and neat.

I even have empty drawers and shelves in the garret.

Such a good feeling.

Cleaning and home tending is one of my spiritual practices, and clearing the space is often the first step (or is it the last step?) when I move into the next stage of a project or prepare to start something new. That was true this time, for I have been in the process of discernment about ongoing work on my memoir. But this time the process of cleaning and sorting and discarding and letting go has also been a process of life review.

Each folder contained plans for a class I taught, a retreat I led, a talk I presented or a collection of ideas for an article to write or one already written.

One folder bulged with all the plans and materials for spirituality groups I led years ago at a center for those touched by cancer. I felt myself doing a bit of time-traveling, remembering the openness and vulnerability in those groups. I called one of those sessions “When Cancer Rearranges Your Furniture,” and brought in pieces of dollhouse furniture, which led to deep sharing about all the ways the participants experienced change in their everyday lives. In another session, I used Christina Baldwin’s book The Seven Whispers, Listening to the Voice of Spirit (2002) to discuss the topic “ask for what you need, offer what you can.” Such a privilege it was to sit with people willing to explore their spirituality during difficult times. Later I was diagnosed with cancer myself and needed to probe my own spiritual grounding for strength and comfort.

Over the years I have considered writing a compilation of those ideas and exercises, and maybe now is the time. I keep that folder.

I also keep folders of materials about this stage of life, including the folder labeled “Growing Older with Grace, Spiritual Practices for the Second Half of Life,” a retreat I co-led in 2015; one of the first programs I did for my church. That event opened the door to ongoing ministry to older adults, a focus for me in recent years. As I toss duplicate copies and handwritten notes and scraps of paper, I remember individual interactions and responses to topics like “gratitude,” and “letting go,” and “entering the new year.”

The process continued, and I filled the recycling bin with what no longer feels relevant or no longer holds my interest or quite simply, feels done. Been there, done that.

I simplified physical space, a task many of us at this stage of our lives feel compelled to do, but I honored myself. “Nancy, you have done good work.” As I opened each folder I retraced paths of what have been important to me and ways I have used my gifts. I delighted in my own creativity and my teaching and organizational skills

And that is a good thing.

I am not done teaching or leading groups, but this clearing the space process, which is ongoing, opens me to what is possible and life-enhancing in my life. Where do I need and want to spend my energy at this stage of my life? And that is the key question for me.

The garret feels fresh and clean. And open.

An Invitation

How is the process of downsizing or simplifying the contents of your home, also a process of life review for you? I would love to know.

Book Report: May Round-Up

June 2, 2022

Fiction Dominated!

Out of the twelve books I read in May, only two were nonfiction, and both of those were memoir: The Pleasure of Their Company (2006) by Doris Grumbach, written as she contemplated her 80th birthday celebration, and A Ghost in the Throat (2020) by Irish poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa. I heard an interview with Ghriofa on NPR and was intrigued, but wasn’t sure if it was a novel or a memoir or a piece of literary criticism about an 18th century Irish poet Eibhin Dubh Ni Chonaill. I conclude it is all three. (The bookseller who sold me the book was quite sure it is a novel, by the way.) Did I love it? No, but I am not sorry I read it, and I appreciate the author’s reflection on the text of women’s lives.

Out of the ten fiction books I read, five were books in the mystery series by Nicci French (a pseudonym for a husband-wife team) featuring the psychoanalyst Frieda Klein as the main character. We also listened to the audio book of one of the titles on our road trip to Montana. I have finished the series and am glad I read them one after another for there is an ongoing thread in each of the books that might be hard to follow if read out of order or one without the rest. I won’t say more.

I read five other novels in May. The most memorable is Beneficence by Meredith Hall. You can read my review in an earlier post. livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/05/19/book-report-beneficence-by-meredith-hall-2020/ This is a stunning book, and I keep thinking about its gifts.

The other four novels read in May are:

  • Take My Hand by Dolan Perkins-Valdez, a new novel (2022), which is getting quite a bit of attention. The topic, which is sterilization of black women/girls without informed consent, is an important one, and the story told is chilling and appalling. The main character is a young Black woman, a nurse from a well-to-do family. Set in the 1970’s in Montgomery, Alabama, She works at a family planning clinic and becomes involved with a family in which two young girls are sterilized. That eventually leads to a major law case. One of the themes especially well-developed was the assumptions made about how, when, and what kinds of care and involvement to give.
  • Matrix by Lauren Groff (2021). What a good book group selection this would be, but don’t judge it by the book flap summary, which says nothing!!!! The book has been reviewed widely because of the author’s previous successes, including Fates and Furies (2015) and Florida (2018), or I would have had no idea what to expect. Also, a male friend informed me there are no men in the book. NO MEN! I didn’t miss them. The book is set in the 1100s in what became England and is based on a real person. Marie was sent to an abbey where she has visions of the Virgin Mary and transforms the abbey from poverty to riches and power.
  • The Gown by Jennifer Robson (2019). A good vacation read. The story is based on the designing and creating of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress, and the main characters are two of the gown’s embroiderers. One of them is a Jewish refugee from France. Part of the story is set later in Canada when a granddaughter wants to learn more about her family history.
  • Jubilee by Margaret Walker (1966). Based on her great-grandmother’s life, the novel, written over 30 years, was in response to “Nostalgia” fiction about antebellum and Reconstruction South. The main character, Vygry, who looks and is often mistaken as white, works in the Big House of her father, the master of the plantation. The plot moves from preCivil War through the war and to the years after the war. At times the book reads like a well-written text book, and I learned a great deal, but mainly the rich writing and the wrenching story of the characters’ desire for freedom kept me reading.

An Invitation

As always, I am interested in what you have been reading. What do you recommend? I would love to know.

BONUS NOTE:

My husband has been painting and decorating discarded furniture all winter, and the garage is full to the brim. Come view and buy examples of creative talents at his garage sale, Thursday through Saturday, June 2-4 from 8:00 am – 4:00 pm. 2025 Wellesley Ave, St Paul. Access the garage through the alley ONLY. Proceeds support Lutheran Social Services for homeless youth. Wear a mask, please.

How to Mourn?

May 31, 2022

Part One

I tried to write in my journal, but nothing.

I have grieved the loss of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

I have grieved the loss of friends who died far too young and hospice patients with whom I sat at the end of their lives.

I have grieved the impending loss of others who are facing serious health concerns.

I have grieved the loss of so many in our country killed unjustly. Murdered.

I have grieved roads not taken.

I have grieved unwelcome changes.

Grief is not an unknown in my life, and I know it is not unfamiliar to you, either.

But this…

Years ago in a class on spiritual practices I taught, the participants made their own string of prayer beads. I have used mine occasionally since then, but not regularly. Now seemed like the right time.

Sitting in silence, I fingered the beads; each one a symbol for one of the children slaughtered and their beloved teachers. My string of beads were not long enough and I returned to the beginning again and again, holding the loss of all those who loved them. I wish I could say I felt calmer as my fingers moved from bead to bead, but that was not the case. Instead, I felt the pain more deeply.

I think I am to feel that pain sear through my body, for only then can change begin to take shape.

I don’t know what kind of action that means for me, other than making donations to worthwhile organizations, but in the meantime I sit with the beads; the beads that leave an impression on my fingertips.

Part Two

I gave the weekly writing group I facilitate at church the following prompt:

Write what is on your heart. Write your tears, your rage, your fears. Write what is at the bottom of your heart, and write what is touching your heart. Write your prayers. Write your lament. Write as a mother. Write.

During the sharing/listening time, one of the participants, who gave me permission to share the following, said her adult daughter had asked her, “What did you worry about when we were growing up?” She admitted she had to think about her answer. She thought she had probably worried about her children getting good grades and using good manners and living with a love of God and family.

I am not a huge worrier, but I suspect I worried about our children doing well in school and having good friends and making good decisions about difficult choices.

Not once did I worry about our children being murdered at school. That never occurred to me.

Part Three

Does anyone else see the irony, the inconsistency with the NRA forbidding the presence of weapons at their convention in Texas this past weekend, but at the same time they think providing teachers with weapons in the classroom is the answer?

Part Four

Pray AND…

You decide what that means; what action you can perform. Begin with prayer and then…

An Invitation

So many wise and important words and reflections have been offered in recent days, and I am grateful for how they have helped me sit with what we have created and allowed to happen in this country. I wonder what has been meaningful to you these past days and now where the wisdom gained will lead you. I would love to know.

Book Report: How Do I Learn About Specific Books?

May 26, 2022

A friend asked me recently how I learn about books I might want to read.

I was surprised by the question, for being aware of books I might want to read has never been an issue for me. Actually, the opposite is true, for I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of titles that interest me.

My ears have always perked up when I have been in the vicinity of “book talk,” but working in a fabulous independent bookstore, Odegard Books, decades ago certainly reinforced that tendency. I always enjoyed directing a customer to a book that would meet their interests and reading styles, and that meant not only reading widely myself, but being aware of old and new titles on the shelves. And, of course, there was the too often plea, “I don’t know the title, but it has a red cover and I think the author was a man.” Playing that guessing game was challenging, but fun and honed my book knowledge and awareness.

Back to the question at hand. How do I learn about specific books? Here are some of the ways I develop book literacy:

  • Podcasts and Online Newsletters. A favorite newsletter is Modern Mrs Darcy and the accompanying podcast, What Should I Read Next? Anne Bogel, the host, just released this week her summer reading guide and I am drooling at some of her suggestions. Each week on her podcast she interviews a guest, asking them to name three favorite books and one that wasn’t for them and what they are looking for in their reading life. Then she does some “literary match-making.” I appreciate that the titles are not just new releases, but are often backlist titles. Lots of podcasts focus on books, but sometimes podcasts like On Being with Christa Tippett or newsletters like Abbey of the Arts also introduce me to book titles. A personal requirement for me in podcasts, by the way, is a voice I can listen to –too chirpy or too fast–doesn’t work for me.
  • Newsletters from Favorite Bookstores. One of my favorites is Arcadia Books in Spring Green, WI, and their newsletter is excellent. The reviews are thoughtful and clear without giving away too much. I trust what they recommend and appreciate that they don’t just list new titles or mention what an employee recommends, but give insights to the books. The Independent Booksellers Association, by the way, publishes a monthly round-up of new titles with recommendations from booksellers across the country. You can get a copy at your local independent bookstore–another good reason to hangout in a bookstore.
  • The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Of course. I used to pay close attention to what was on the bestseller list–a hangover from bookselling days, I guess, but these days that is not in my radar. I don’t read every review, but I at least glance at titles that have been granted review space, and I always enjoy reading the interview with an author in the “By the Book” column. Questions usually include, “What books are on your nightstand?” and What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?”
  • The Washington Post Book Club Newsletter. (online) Not only do I enjoy the casual style and commentary of the editor, Ron Charles, but there are always good links to other articles, and he ends each week with a poem.
  • BookWomen. This bi-monthly publication celebrates women’s words and explores the place of reading and books in women’s lives. Over the years I have written articles for them, which has always been a privilege, but more than that, I love reading about what others are reading.
  • Other Readers in My Life. I love book talk and relish conversations with others about what they are reading. I appreciate you readers of this blog who recommend books to me, as well.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list, for I roam through other websites and I consult other venues. One thing I don’t do, however, is spend any time reading recommendations that come from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. And I am not a Goodreads subscriber. Just personal choice.

Learning about books that interest me, of course, is important, almost an avocation, but the next question is what do I do with those reading possibilities? That’s where my book journal enters the picture. I keep my TBR (To Be Read) lists in my book journal, (I try to enter the source of the recommendation, but don’t always remember to do that.) ready to be consulted when it is time to request books from the library or for my next bookstore adventure.

Sources

Modern Mrs Darcy: https://modernmrsdarcy.com

Arcadia Books: https://readinutopia.com

Washington Post Book Club:https://www.washingtonpost.com/newsletters/book-club/

BookWomen: http://www.bookwomen.net

An Invitation

What’s your favorite way to learn about books? I would love to know.

If my Thursday, Book Report post is one of the ways you learn about books, I hope you will recommend it to others and suggest they subscribe to my blog. Thanks!

Thistle Talk on Difficult Days: Dealing with Grief and Loss

May 24, 2022

First thing Monday morning my husband headed to church to confront the nasty thistles invading the gardens. This has been and continues to be an ongoing battle, and one that will not be won today or tomorrow, but I admire his determination and commitment.

Thistles appear in our lives in many ways, and lately, thistles seem to be conducting on assault.

Daily, it seems, I hear news of family and friends challenged by serious health or economic concerns or the death of a loved one. Sunday morning, even before I was dressed, my husband showed me a post on Facebook about someone in our extended family who is experiencing hard times. We discussed ways to respond, but at the same time we can not make the basic problem disappear.

That’s a big thistle.

Thistles are prickly. They sting and their roots are deep. They don’t give up easily the places they’ve claimed in the garden. They tend to take over everything that has been loving and intentionally planted, and sometimes it is hard to see the growth, other than the unwanted thistle.

No one chooses a thistle. No one says, “Do we have room in the garden for a thistle?” Nope, they assert themselves without our consent or design.

So what do we do with these thistles?

Here’s what I am learning as a woman in her mid seventies: I have to leave room in my day for grieving, for feeling loss and sadness and sometimes shock. That means being even more intentional about my morning meditation time, which more and more means holding those in my heart who need tender care.

But I also have to leave room in my day for responding to those with tangible needs. Sometimes that means an in-person response –a meal, a visit, an offer to….–or it may mean a more distanced response, writing a note, sending a check, making sure others who need to know do, in fact, know.

Dealing with thistles takes energy, and I sometimes feel the toll encountering so many thistles takes on my spirit. I know that being present to the pain of others means I must be aware of my own feelings and what I am able to do at this stage of my life.

Doris Grumbach in her memoir The Pleasure of Their Company (2000,) which she wrote as she approached her 80th birthday, used the term, “lessening.”

I prefer lessening as both instruction and slogan for my old age.

page 50.

What that suggests to me in my life is choosing carefully, thinking wisely about how I use my energy, for one thing I know for sure: There will be more thistles.

Now is a good and necessary time to ask myself how many commitments are reasonable? What is the call in my life now and how can I respond? How do I best live my essence in this third chapter of my life? How do I create spaciousness in my life to be with the expected unexpected?

Two Thoughts for Reflection

The times are urgent; let us slow down.

African Saying

May you embrace this day, not just as any old day, but as this day. Your day. Held in trust by you, in a singular place, called now.

Carrie Newcomer

May your thistles not overwhelm your garden.

An Invitation

How do you respond to your thistles? I would love to know?

Book Report: Beneficence by Meredith Hall (2020)

May 19, 2022

Goodness. The state of goodness. That’s what “beneficence” means, and this is what this book explores. “Love and all its costs.” (p. 251)

Doris, the mother of the family, opens the story, which is set on a farm in 1947, with these words:

Every morning, early, when Tup and I get up to start our chores, the whole house still quiet and the children asleep I turn and pull the bed together, tugging at the sheets to make them tight and smooth. They are warm with our heat. I slide my hand across the place my husband slept, drawing the blankets up and closing in the warmth, like a memory of us, until night comes when we will lie down together again.

p. 5

A simple scene, but so evocative and so full. Of love and promise and commitment. Making the bed is a spiritual practice for Doris and also an expression of the dailiness and the goodness of her life.

Only a couple paragraphs later, however, Doris says, “You cannot know what will come.” She alerts the reader that this is no simple pastoral account of life on a farm, but this is a tale of what any family encounters one way or another. The love and the loss and the complicated responses to that loss.

It has been a long time since I have read a book that made me cry. This one did. More than once, and more than once I re-read paragraphs and even entire chapters, relishing the writing, but I also wanted to stay with these good, but imperfect people and to support them and honor them. They became real to me. In part that happens because the narration of the story changes in each chapter. Sometimes the father, Tup, is the narrator and sometimes the daughter, Dodie. There are two sons in the family, also, Sonny and Beston.

Almost at the end of the book, now 1965, Doris’s words echo the book’s beginnings.

The cows slept with their calves in the safety of the barn. The night offered all its promise. Tup and I moved to each other, our heat and our weight and our devotion. We slept without guard. There is never a going back. What we say and what we do stays, always. The great price of love and attachment is loss, with us every day. But here, too, each day, are their great easings.

p. 257

I do hope Meredith Hall has another novel in progress. In the meantime I plan to read her memoir, Without a Map. And, I suspect, I will re-read Beneficence again for this book is good. Very good.

An Invitation

Have you read anything recently that made you cry? Or what about a book that you know you will want to read again? I would love to know.

My News Strategy

May 17. 2022

How many times in recent months or, let’s face it, these past few years, have you said, “I just can’t watch (or listen) to the news anymore”? Or perhaps you have been addicted to the news, watching and listening more hours of the day than you know is healthy for you. Perhaps the radio or a cable news station accompanies your every move, wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

No surprise, for the news –local, national, and global–is upsetting, and that is stating it mildly.

Approaching the News as a Spiritual Practice

Jane Vennard in her book, Fully Awake and Truly Alive, Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul (2013) says all spiritual practices can be divided into three categories. (page 87)

  • Contemplative: caring for my body, resting, being silent, practicing solitude, praying, writing in my journal, walking mindfully,
  • Communal: participating in the life of a faith community or other communities in which you gather with others to pay attention to the holy in your life,
  • Missional: hospitality and service.

While the lines dividing the three types of spiritual practice are not always clear and well-defined, as Vennard points out, these categories of spiritual practice can help us become more intentional about our approach to the news.

Part of my morning meditation time, my intentional contemplative time sitting quietly in the garret or walking alone in the neighborhood, often is devoted to praying the news. I may simply name the issues or the people that worry me or touch my heart. I don’t pretend to have answers, but I lean my heart in the direction of those in need, those in pain or in the midst of sorrow and loss, and those who are trying to make a positive difference. Plus, I acknowledge and give thanks for the many gifts in my life; a life lived with ease and privilege and prosperity. I must never take that for granted.

Do my prayers matter? Well, that is a big question, but what I’ve noticed is that when I pray regularly I am more aware of the life around me. Near and far. When I watch or listen to or read the news, I pay attention to my responses. In a way I test my empathy level. Have I become hardened to the news? Do I sigh in disgust (“How could things possibly be worse?”) or descend into hopelessness (“That’s the way things are and what can we do about it anyway?”) Or do I approach the news looking for connection, for our common humanity, for reminders that God is counting on us to live into his love for us?

What I’ve discovered is that the more I pray, the more I find to pray about and the more I find to pray about the more I pray. And the more I pray, I don’t just pray the hurts, the losses, the fears, the unending challenges, but I also pray the love shown, the paths created, the courage, the care, and the revealed movement of God.

Along with this contemplative approach to the news, I have a communal practice. I am an active member of a faith community with a strong commitment to social justice issues. I value our gathering times when we lift not just our individual concerns, but our concerns for the world. Being part of a community gives me a base from which to move in the world, to respond to the news, and provides opportunities for the missional type of spiritual practice. Ways to serve.

Receiving the news is not only a way to stay informed, as important as that is, but it is also a way to strengthen my way of being in the world–as a contemplative who lives and serves with purpose in community. At least that is my aspiration.

My Choices: My News Sources

Even though I try to view my approach to news as a spiritual practice, the choices are overwhelming. Here’s my current buffet of choices:

  • I listen to Minnesota Public Radio/National Public Radio when I get dressed in the morning and when I prepare meals or clean.
  • I receive daily emails from The Washington Post and The New York Times.
  • I read two online newsletters that I highly recommend: Robert Hubbell’s Today’s Edition Newsletter https://roberthubbell.substack.com and Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com
  • I read the Sunday New York Times–not always on Sunday, however. I admit I start with the Book Review and some Sundays I don’t get much further than that, but even reading the rest of the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday is valuable.
  • We watch the nightly PBS News Hour. Lately, we have fasted from watching any television news, but when we do, this is our choice.

A Thought

it isn’t more light we need, it’s putting into practice what light we already have. When we do that, wonderful things will happen within our lives and within our world.

Peace Pilgrim

An Invitation

What is your relationship to the news? What is your news strategy? I would love to know.

Book Report: April Round-Up and Powell’s Book Store Purchases

May 12, 2022

I have now read all four of Mary Lawson’s wonderful novels, and I hope she is writing, writing, writing! The Other Side of the Bridge (2006) is her second novel (Crow Lake is her first) and is set in a small Canadian town, shifting between two time periods, WWII and the 1960’s. The main character Ian, the son of the town’s physician, is often called upon to help his father, but as a teenager he prefers working on the farm owned by Arthur and his wife Laura. The story of Arthur and his brother Jake is a major part of the story, as is the story of Pete, a Native American friend of Ian’s. Many subplots, but they weave together beautifully.

Lawson’s 3rd book is Road Ends (2013). Warning: Dysfunctional family alert! The mother just wants to have babies and then ignores them when they have grown out of babyhood. Tom is the oldest of seven boys and Megan is the only daughter. She escapes to London and the father, who is a banker, escapes to his study. A heart-breaking story, but oh, Lawson can write. I reviewed her most recent book, A Town Called Solace in my March Round-Up. https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/650

I am now fully immersed in a mystery series by a husband-wife duo whose pseudonym is Nicci French. I read the first in the series, Blue Monday (2011) in April, and we listened to the second, Tuesday’s Gone (2012) on our road trip to Portland, OR, and this week I read the third, Waiting for Wednesday. I guarantee I will complete the remaining days of the week this month. Set in London, the main character is the highly intuitive psychotherapist, Frieda Klein, who could use some therapy herself. She develops an informal, but key relationship with the police department. A small boy is kidnapped and this re-opens a case from years before. Get ready for a major twist at the end. I recommend reading these books in order, by the way, for some of the characters and plots continue from book to book.

I have already reviewed two favorite nonfiction books read in April, Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jauoud https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/673 and On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/695 but I will mention two others. First, Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie, The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli. (2021) As an NPR junkie, I throughly enjoyed reading about their key roles in the early years of NPR, and as I write this, I can hear each of their distinctive voices. My only complaint about the book is that it lacks pictures, but it is radio after all!

I have not yet moved the other book, The Divine Dance, The Trinity and Your Transformation (2016) by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell from my basket of morning meditation materials to my bookshelf, for I keep re-reading sections, in order to reflect and absorb the words even more. Despite the deep topic, the writing style is conversational, and invites inner conversation. The words “flow and “relationship” are key to the discussion. No doubt I will refer to this book again in future blog posts.

The Powell’s Report

First, I should mention that one night of our road trip to Portland, OR, we stayed in Missoula, MT, which has a charming downtown and a good independent bookstore, Fact and Fiction. Even though I knew I would make a big haul at Powell’s, I can’t pass up supporting independent bookstores wherever I find them. I bought two novels on my TBR list: Beneficence (2020) by Meredith Hall, which I read on the trip and loved and will write about in more detail in a later post, and A Ghost in the Throat (2020) by Doireann Ni Ghriofa. I listened to an interview with the Irish author on NPR recently and am intrigued.

I also bought a book at the Crazy Horse Memorial; a book I have been meaning to read for a long time, and I am so happy to have bought it at the memorial location: Black Elk Speaks, The Complete Edition by John G. Neihardt.

Then Powell’s. Armed with my TBR list on my phone and a store map, which is definitely needed, I took a deep breath and realized I needed a plan. I decided to focus on two sections–mystery and literature, both on the same floor and close to the coffee shop. At Powell’s used and new books are shelved together, and I decided to only buy books that had not been published recently, instead of current books easy to find in most bookstores. I made one exception, Great Circle (2021) by Maggie Shipstead. By the time I made the decision to narrow my purchases, I already had this in my basket and couldn’t force myself to eliminate it.

These are the used books I found that are on my TBR list:

  • Solar Storms by Linda Hogan (1995)
  • The Gown by Jennifer Robson (2019)
  • Jubilee by Margaret Walker (1966)
  • The Expats (2012) and The Paris Diversion (2019) by Chris Pavone

I also decided to get a couple books I loved and want to re-read: The Stone Diaries (1994) by Carol Shields and The Shell Seekers (1987) by Rosamunde Pilcher.

Finally, a surprise find, a book I had not heard about, The Pleasure of Their Company (2000) by Doris Grumbach. This slim hardcover memoir written near her 80th birthday was on the shelf next to her novels. It caught my eye and for $6.95 used I could not resist.

I’m thrilled with my pile and the whole Powell’s experience. Now I know what our granddaughter meant when she said we would need to set a timer for ourselves or we would still be wandering the aisles when the store closed for the day.

An Invitation

What were your favorite April books and what is waiting on your shelves for the right time? I would love to know.

Re-entry: Thoughts Post Road Trip

The road is never long when the goal is time with a grandchild.

My husband and I volunteered to bring our granddaughter Maren home from her first year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. We were eager for a road trip–a change of pace and scenery–and the lure of having Maren all to ourselves between Portland and St Paul was just the incentive we needed.

What a treat to see her in her new habitat, meet some of her friends, and hear about her classes and activities, as well as plans for the next school year. Plus, we thrilled with the diversity of landscape between Minnesota and Oregon, and how fun to see bison and antelope and prairie dogs and Bighorn sheep in their natural settings. Oh, and the coyote that dashed across the road right in front of us!

Each of our families made the trek through the Badlands and to Mt Rushmore when we were in sixth grade, but this was the first time we had been to the Crazy Horse Monument with its amazing museum of Native American art. The creation of the monument, whose origin is a fascinating tale, will continue for decades to come. Put this on your “must visit” list.

We oohed and aahed our way through Portland neighborhoods, including the Japanese Garden, realizing how color starved we were, thanks to our reluctant spring in Minnesota.

A great trip, but oh how good it is to be home.

Travel As I Age

  • I enjoy traveling, but I admit I am not passionate about traveling. I loved the big trips we had in the past–Paris, London, Rome and Florence, Tanzania, along with the semester I spent in Thailand when I was a junior in college. How amazing it was to experience other cultures and to see so much of what I had read about –or knew nothing about, but I don’t yearn for big trips. I view those trips as a kind of bonus in my life.
  • I don’t like to pack, but I enjoy unpacking. Deciding what to take –how much, for what kind of occasions and weather and possibilities–flusters me. But emptying the suitcases, doing the laundry, finding places for any new treasures does not feel like a chore to me. I love the feeling of settling back in and becoming reacquainted with the routines of my everyday life.
  • I am just as content and interested in the close by, as the far away. And then after roaming for only a day, I can sleep in my own bed. (Would someone explain to me why hotel beds seem to be so high–I need a running jump or a stool to get myself up into bed and when I do the bedding is so heavy I can hardly move. And what about the lack of good lighting? Don’t other people read before they go to sleep? I’ll stop whining now!)
  • I repeat: I am just as content with the close by as the far away. I like being a tourist in my own town, my own state, and I’ve started making this summer’s list of places we can visit in a day or maybe two.
  • I prefer immersing myself in a place. When we went to France several years ago, we stayed in Paris for the whole two weeks and took day trips, returning to our apartment each evening. We wandered neighborhoods, as well as seeing the most important sights. I like getting a taste of what it might be like to live in that location. That can also mean returning to a location over and over again. For example, we never tire of returning to Door County, WI. We relish the familiar, as well as the new discoveries.
  • I appreciate the spaciousness of travel. How good it is to learn and experience new things, but travel also opens my eyes and my heart to myself. I return home with new insights, new ideas for teaching or writing or even how to rearrange the furniture. Travel is a not only a time to wander physically, but it is also a time that encourages day dreaming and imagining what it would be like to live someplace else. Travel is a time to visit the “what ifs” of the mind.

Let me be clear: We had a great trip, especially the time we had to be with Maren. No regrets, but I am just as happy to once again be home.

Travel as Pilgrimage

As I prepare for or begin a trip, I consider my intention. In this case, it was obvious; spend time with Maren and gain a clearer vision of her college life. The agenda was simple and loose, leaving room for flexibility and possibility.

Just as important, however, at the beginning of a trip is to consider what to leave behind, in order to open myself to something new or unknown. For me that meant taking a time out from writing posts for this blog and spending a minimum of time emailing or doing other online tasks. I left behind my “to do” lists, and that, dear friends, is not easy for me.

As I travel, I ask myself how can I be receptive to what is in front of me and offered to me? What do I give of myself? Are my eyes open? My heart? On this trip we saw so much poverty and homelessness, for example. At the same time we saw so much beauty.

Now that I have returned, I need time to integrate what I’ve learned and experienced. What questions do I have about what I have seen? What else do I want to learn? How will this trip enhance my life and the way I live? I am in that stage now.

Note:

My next post, Thursday, May 12, I will share the list of books I bought at the bookstore mecca, Powells.

An Invitation

What kind of a traveler are you? What makes travel pleasurable for you? What role does travel play in who you are? I would love to know.

Book Report: On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed and My Thoughts About Retirement Reading

NOTE: I am going to take a brief break from the blog. My plan is to begin posting again the week of May 9.

First, the weekly book report: On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed.

Part memoir, part history, part psychoanalysis of Texas, this slim volume enlightens the movement to make June 19, Juneteenth, a national holiday. On June 19th, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, the end of legalized slavery was announced–two years after The Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

Gordon-Reed grew up in Texas and in fact, she was the first Black child to attend an all- white school in her hometown, Conroe, Texas. Her story is compelling and offered me several new perspectives. For example, the Black high school near her home was Booker T. Washington High School, usually referred to in the community as “Booker T,” but when people outside the community called it Washington High School and assumed it was named for “George”

Another new thought: Gordon-Reed writes about the effect of integration on Black teachers. “The children were to be integrated, not the teaching staff…People who had been figures of authority were put in charge of dispensing books and doing other administrative tasks that took them away from contact with Black students, depriving those students of daily role models.” p. 51. Think of the longterm effects of that practice.

My family lived in Texas for two years, when I was in junior high school. My father was transferred there from New York and then transferred back to New York. During our brief time there I acquired a Texas accent and learned to address my teachers as “Sir” and “Ma’am”–both habits I lost quickly when we returned to Long Island. What I didn’t acquire was much real knowledge about Texas. I learned about the six flags that flew over Texas and about the Alamo and all the reasons Texas was great. I didn’t learn anything about the history of slavery in Texas.

When slavery in Texas was mentioned, it was presented as an unfortunate event that was to be acknowledged but quickly passed over. There was no sense of the institution’s centrality. Slavery was done. There was no point in dwelling on the past. Texas was all about the future, about what came next–the next cattle drive, the next oil well. the next space flight directed by NASA’s Mission Control in Houston.

pp. 27-28

In steps the historian. And we continue to learn and to gain insight about the implications of the past and what needs to happen now.

Now for Thoughts about Reading and Retirement.

After reading On Juneteenth, which I got at the library, I realized I have yet to read Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning book The Hemingses of Monticello, An American Family (2008). Don’t scold me. Periodically, I take the book from the shelf of other miscellaneous, yet to be read nonfiction books and ask myself if this is the time. It’s a BIG BOOK, and I know when I read it, I will want to focus and fully immerse myself in it.

It’s the kind of book I think I will want to read when I retire, but I’m not planning to retire anytime soon.

Now here’s a confession. Sometimes when many around me tell me I must read a certain book OR when I hear or read too many reviews about a book, I lose interest in reading the book myself. Because of that, I know I have missed reading many books I would have loved. But it is not too late. There is always retirement whenever that happens or whenever the time is right for that specific book.

In the meantime I daydream about other books on my shelves I want to re-read or read for the first time.

An Invitation:

What books do you daydream about reading? What books did you miss when they were first published but interest you now? I would love to know.

Words of the Season

NOTE: After my Book Report post on Thursday, April 21, I’m going to take a brief break. My plan is to begin posting again the week of May 9.

One of my Lenten practices in recent years has been to describe each day in a word or short phrase or to listen for a word that invites reflection. (I use a template from Praying in Color https://prayingincolor.com to record those words.)

The last word, the only word, the word at the center is Easter. How grateful I am to arrive there, to know this word, but at the same time It is good to reflect on the journey.

One of Jan Richardson’s Easter reflections in her book In Wisdom’s Path, Discovering the Sacred in Every Season is about words that have been meaningful in her life. She finds a list she made years ago: courage, comfort, dwell, and many others and decides to make a new list. She notes that many of the words on the old list reappear, but there are also new ones: threshold, voice, longing, labyrinth, shadow, passion and others. (p. 96)

What similarities are there between my 2022 and 2021 Lenten words? What can I learn by reviewing the words from these two years?

The first thing I notice is how much more restrained 2021 is than 2022. I enjoyed the coloring and doodling process this year, and I wonder if it isn’t time to resurrect some coloring books; an activity that has been relaxing in recent years.

My word for the year in 2021 was WORD, and my word for 2022 is RHYTHM. The focus for each word is reflected in each of these images, I think.

During this recent Lent I seemed to have been more aware of the movement of each day, often expressing that movement in my simple doodles, as well as the choice of words. For example, the first Lenten word this year was “let,” followed by “flow,”, “slow down,” and “exhale.” Other words reflect my awareness of the rhythm of my day, of my intentions. “Flow” appears again and “roam” is noted three times, but other words, “steps,” “easy,” “gather,” “flexible,” “wave,” and many others all indicate some kind of movement and rhythm. The movement of God in my life and the movement of God in my own being.

During Lent, 2021, I spent more time writing in my journal about the word for the day. Often I discovered the word for the day in someone else’s words. For example, early in the Lenten season I re-read The Way of Silence, Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life by Brother David Steindl-Rast and the days’s passage often revealed that day’s word. On February 20, the revealed word was “aliveness.”

If we could measure our aliveness surely it is the degree to which we are in touch with the Holy One as the inexhaustible fire in the midst of all things. p. 118.

In my journal entry I reflect on times I feel that aliveness.

        When I do things I love to do.
        When I am with people I love.
        When I read something that opens me.
        Sometimes when I am writing, and a word, a sentence feels just right.
        When I end a session with a spiritual direction client and sense they have gained insight into themselves or their relationship with God. 

A number of words in 2021 are related to the pandemic. "Relief" on the day we received our first vaccination and "rejoice" the day we received the second dose. Other words reflect a more solitary life--"cozy," "inhabit," "pray," "imagine,," "tucked in," and "safe."  The 2022 words feel more active, more indicative of a life not so confined. 

Some words are found in both years--"gift," 'listen," "gather," "host," and "space," but do they mean the same thing in both years? Further reflection is needed. In fact, I intend to sit more with both collections of words, for I know there are more insights to be uncovered. 

Perhaps, I will continue the practice of discovering my word for the day and note them on a calendar where I can see the relationships from one day to another and over time. In fact, I will start today.

Today's word is "meet.". Not only will I meet with my writing group, but as I listen to what they share and as I offer my work since our previous meeting time, I know I will meet new thoughts and perspectives. And I suspect I will meet the movement of God.

An Invitation:

What is your word for today? What words seem to keep appearing? I would love to know.

Book Report: Between Two Kingdoms, A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad

At age 22 Suleika Jaouad learned she had leukemia and a 35 percent chance of survival.

Devastating. Obviously.

Much of the book details the four years of round after round of chemo, a clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant, and near-death reckonings –written clearly and beautifully. This is all important, but what really moved me in this book was the honest revelations about herself, a young woman going through such crushing pain and uncertainty, and about her needs and desires, met and unmet.

I bent over the sink and splashed my face with cold water and looked in the mirror. I looked terrible–because I was horrible, I thought, with a nauseating swell of shame. Along with the chemo, an ugliness was coursing through my veins. Small violences. Swallowed resentment. Buried humiliations. Displaced fury. And a marrow-deep weariness at a situation that dragged on…

p. 162

When her medical team declares her cured, she learns the healing needs to begin. Jaouad quotes Susan Sontag in her book Illness as Metaphor, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” In part healing means navigating from the kingdom of the sick to the kingdom of the well and to honor that she embarks on a pilgrimage, a 100 day road trip. In response to the column she wrote for the New York Times about being so young and having cancer, many people wrote to her about their own stories, and she decides to visit some of them, including a man on Death Row in Texas.

He understands what it feels like to feel stuck in purgatory, awaiting the news of your fate; the loneliness and claustrophobia of being confined to a small room for endless stretches of time; how it’s necessary to get inventive in order to keep yourself sane. These unexpected parallels are what initially compelled him to write to me, “You’ve fled death in your own personal prison just like I continue to face death in mine…At the end of the day death is death, doesn’t matter the form it takes.”

p. 338

Throughout those long years her family was there for her completely. As was her boyfriend–until he wasn’t. Caretaking is not easy, especially when you are just starting out in your own life. Jaouad shares all the ways he sacrificed for her and expressed his love, and she is deeply grateful, but ultimately, the reality of her needs was too much. A certain bitterness remains and more healing needs to occur beyond the last page of the book.

Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn’t there or allowing it to hijack your day. It is learning to confront ghosts and to carry what lingers.

p. 312

Fun Fact: Jaouad recently married the gifted musician, Jon Batiste.

My copy of the book is feathered with tabs, and I could have marked many more memorable passages. I am grateful for the wisdom and openness found on these pages, and offer a prayer that her cancer days are over forever and that healing continues in her life.

An Invitation:

What have you read recently that encouraged your own healing? I would love to know.

Holy Days

These are Holy Days.

This week leads Christians through the remaining days of Lent to Easter Sunday, but first there is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil on Saturday. Jews are preparing for Passover. The eight-day festival begins at sundown on April 15 and ends at sundown on April 23. And Muslims are marking Ramadan the entire month of April, ending with the Feast of Fast-Breaking on Sunday, May 1.

Yes, these are Holy Days, in which those of us who practice one of these faith traditions reflect on the stories central to our beliefs, gather with our faith communities, and observe the customs of these days. For example, a recent tradition at our house is to add the palms we waved on Palm Sunday to the basket of forsythia on our front door as a reminder of these Holy Days.

Along with attending each of the planned services this week, I will also attend a Solidarity Around the Cross prayer service at the Ukrainian American Center in Minneapolis, sponsored by my congregation as one way to respond to the world’s suffering. But I will also continue with morning prayer and reflection time, holding these days in my heart and reflecting on their meaning for how I live my life.

These Holy Days ask me to be aware of and live fully each holy day.

Some days I manage that better than others. This reluctant spring has added to the challenge here in my part of the world, but I am trying to love what is, to see and feel the holiness of each day.

I challenge myself to know, really know, the fullness of the words, “Every day is a gift.” Yes, regardless of the temperature, the precipitation, road conditions, or lingering brown landscape. I can continue to become more of the person I was created to be no matter the season, and I feel an eagerness to discover the holy days of this particular spring. In what ways will I be enticed to grow? How will I nurture others and myself? Where will I notice the movement of God?

Settle to be fully present to yourself, to whatever is, to God…dwell, and absorb and be–Give thanks.

from Christos Center meditation, 3/14/22

May these Holy Days be holy days in your life. May each day to come be a holy day.

An Invitation:

What might you do to be more aware of each day as a holy day? I would love to know.

I spotted these Lego vignettes of Holy Week in the Sunday School classroom where the writing group I facilitate meets each week. Holy Play!

Book Report: March Round-Up

This was a 12 book month–maybe because March was more like a lion than a lamb. Reading was definitely the cozy thing to do on snowy and cold days.

Fiction: Seven Books

  • My favorite this month was A Town Called Solace (2021) by Mary Lawson. One of my favorite books of 2021 was her first book Crow Lake, and this month I have already read another in her backlist. In my book journal notes I wrote, “If I wrote fiction, I would like to write a book like this.” The characters in her books, which are set in northern Canada, are real, flawed, vulnerable, and likable, sometimes lovable. Clara is eight years old and worried about her older sister who has run away. She is also worried about her neighbor Mrs Orchard who is in the hospital. At least that is what she is told. Clara takes care of Moses, her neighbor’s cat, but how to do that when she realizes someone else is living in the house?
  • I also loved The Floor of the Sky (2006) by Pamela Carter Joern. Lila, age 16, is pregnant and comes to live on her grandmother Toby’s ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Toby is in danger of losing the ranch to back taxes –her backstory is revealed slowly, gently, and lovingly. Like the characters in the Lawson book, these characters entered my heart.
  • Another one of my favorite books in 2021 was This Is Happiness by Niall Williams, and now I am exploring his backlist. This past month I read Four Letters of Love (1997). Also set in Ireland, this is a story of two families. The father in one wants to devote his life to painting and the father in the other writes poetry and as a prize in a writing contest is given a painting by the other man. This is the story, as many novels are, of love and loss and discernment, but also miracles. Here is an example of one beautifully written passage (p.209):

The priest shushed them, and waved them hopelessly back towards the gate. He was a quiet man who sought quietness, and was suddenly alarmed at what landed in his parish. Panic prickled in his lower stomach like a bag of needles. It was the kind of thing you wished on your worst enemy this: miracles. Let the bishop have them, give them to Galway, but not here. Why were they always happening in out-of-the-way rural places? God! His shaven jaw stung in the salt wind and he rued the new blades he had bought at O’Gormans.

  • Jacqueline Winspear’s newest in her Maisie Dobbs series was published in March, and I didn’t hesitate to get my copy of A Sunlit Weapon. Maisie Dobbs is a psychologist and private investigator in post WWI London. This latest book is set during WWII and we get fuller views of Maisie with her American husband and their adopted daughter. While I don’t anticipate re-reading these books as I have done with the Louise Penney books, each one is a good read. I recommend reading them in order. The first book in the series is Maisie Dobbs (2003).
  • I enjoyed both Marjorie Morningstar (1955) by Herman Wouk, which I found in a Little Free Library, and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by Elif Shafak. (I will probably read Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love at some point.) I did not particularly enjoy The Camomile Lawn (1984) by Mary Wesley and am not sure why I didn’t set it aside without finishing. It is set in the early years of WWII in England and focuses on a decadent and sometimes abusive family. Some nice writing, but I won’t be reading more by this author.

Nonfiction: Five Books

  • I have already written a review of Spirit Car, Journey to a Dakota Past (2006) by Diane Wilson https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/03/24/book-report-spirit-car-journey-to-a-dakota-past-by-diane-wilson-2006/ and highly recommend it.
  • If you are in a discernment process of any kind, I also highly recommend Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way (2010) by Nancy Bieber. I have used this book more than once and am so glad it is still on my shelf and once again, it was just the help I needed.
  • The Making of an Old Soul, Aging as the Fulfillment of Life’s Promise (2021) by Carol Orsborn is a slim book, but packed with wisdom. She maintains the “purpose of life may be to clarify our essence,” and the book illuminates how awakening to that essence is possible to our final page. Previously, I appreciated a book she co-authored with Robert L. Weber, The Spirituality of Age, A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older (2015).
  • Not as high on my recommended list are two other books read in March. The Salt Path (2018) by Raynor Winn and Soul Therapy, The Art and Craft of Caring Conversation (2021) by Thomas Moore. The Salt Path is the true story of Winn and her husband Moth who undertake a 630 mile walk in the UK. They are homeless and broke, and this is a brave, but not always wise decision, especially since husband Moth has serious health issues. The story is important, but the writing was not always strong. I have loved earlier books by Moore, including The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life and Care of the Soul, but this most recent book is not his strongest. I like the notion, however, that therapy is really care of the soul, and I like this quote:

…you are the servant and secretary, not the one who heals and saves. You are the priest and minister, but not the cause of success. Your job is to assist at the healing but not do the work first hand. Sometimes I think of my job as that of sacristan. I keep the temple clean and well-supplied.

An Invitation:

What did you read in March and what do you recommend? I would love to know.

What Is Life-Enhancing?

I’m not sure what is life-enhancing about this April view of our side garden, which we call “Paris,” except knowing that it is there. It is waiting for the days when I will sit there in the morning with my devotion materials or enjoy my lunch there while reading a good book.

In the meantime I am aware of so much in my life that is life-enhancing. In fact, that is an on-going conversation with myself, and I suspect God is eavesdropping and accepting my musings as prayer.

So here’s my top of the head list or should I say close to the surface of my heart list?.

  • Facilitating the weekly writing group at my church. Not only do I love being with the group, sitting in, silence and then writing, listening, and sharing together, but creating the writing prompt and selecting readings for the day adds to my life, my being.
  • Meeting with my spiritual direction clients. What a privilege to accompany each one of them on their own spiritual journeys. I sit in prayer both before and after our meeting times and hold them close.
  • Starting my day with meditation and devotion time. Some days it is hard to leave this quiet and enriching time and move into the rest of the day, and other times I feel almost propelled with purpose and deeper awareness of next steps.
  • Attending Sunday morning worship and adult forum. I am an introvert, a contemplative content in my solitude, but more and more I realize the importance of community and how that opens me to the movement of God.
  • Being in the presence of my personal library. During my devotion time this morning I read a reference in a Lenten devotion by Jan Richardson to a small book of prayers, All Desires Known by Janet Morely. Much to my delight, I realized I own that book and then spent some time browsing its pages. Spacious time for reading, of course, enhances my life in so many ways.
  • Tending our home. Yes, sometimes that is a chore, for who likes to clean the bathroom! Hometending most of the time, however, feeds my creativity, clears space for new thoughts, ideas, and plans, and opens my heart to hospitality.

Of course, this list must include both the planned and the spontaneous times with family and friends and the days my husband and I roam, driving country roads and exploring small towns. Writing posts for this blog is also on this list and receiving your comments. (Thank you, dear readers!)

One more thought: As I listed what enhances my life, I wondered how this list differs from a gratitude list. Perhaps they are the same, but here’s what occurs to me now. Being aware of what enhances my life opens me to the rhythm of each day and helps me discern my priorities and how to best use my energy. It’s sort of like a “to do” list, a Spiritual To Do List.

I will think about that a bit more, but in the meantime, I wait the day when time in “Paris” enhances my day once again.

An Invitation:

What enhances your life? I would love to know.

Book Report: Books by Jan Richardson

Jan Richardson is one of my “go-to” writers. Her books of prayers and blessings and reflections sustain and enrich me. Enlighten and open me.

On these Lenten mornings I read and re-read and sit with the blessings for the Lenten season in Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Season (2015), as I have for many previous Lenten times. This year the book falls open almost automatically to page 117:

Next you must trust
that this blessing knows 
where it is going,
that it understands
the ways of the dark
that it is wise
to seasons
and to times.

As I move through a period of discernment, these words reassure me and lift me and lead me towards whatever is next. Easter is coming--beyond what seems dark. 

Two other books accompany me during the seasons of the church year: In Wisdom's Path, Discovering the Sacred in Every Season (2000) and Night Visions, Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas (1998). 

Both of these books are beautifully illustrated by Richardson as well.

On the first page in the section on Lent in the book In Wisdom’s Path Richardson writes:

The season begins with ashes and invites us into a time of stripping away all that distracts us from recognizing the God who dwells at our core. Reminding us that we are ashes and dust, God beckons us during Lent to consider what is elemental and essential in our lives…we find the building blocks for creating anew.

p. 53.

Each year when I read those words it is as if for the first time, as if I have never considered those thoughts, and at the same time, they feel so familiar and touch what I have always knows. Richardson has that ability in both her writing and her art work. That is also true as she guides the reader through each week of Advent in Night Vision with themes of “Darkness,” “Desire,” “Preparing a Space,” “Hope,” and then on to themes of “Birthing,” “Welcoming,” and “Thresholds” for Christmas and Epiphany. I know that season seems far off as we continue the rounds of Lent, but I suggest you add this book to your devotion plans for later in the year.

Two other books highlight the spiritual journeys of women.

Sacred Journeys, A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer (1996) also follows the liturgical year, and each week includes an invocation, biblical text, context of the scripture, daily readings, questions for reflection, a meditation, and a blessing. Along with her own words, Richards quotes women from across the ages, a rich diversity of voices. One Lent many years ago a friend and I each read the daily devotions in this book and then emailed our comments to one another–what a meaningful Lenten journey that was.

The other book specifically focuses on women, In the Sanctuary of Women, A Companion for Reflection and Prayer (2010. Each chapter highlights a wise woman of the past, including Eve, Brigid, the Desert Mothers, and Hildegard of Bingen. I knew something about each of those women, but not about Harriet Powers, the subject of a chapter called “The Mysteries of Making.”

Powers grew up in slavery and when she become emancipated, she and her husband purchased a farm in Georgia. She worked as a seamstress and created quilts. Two of her quilts, known as Bible quilts created using appliqué techniques, have survived and speak to her creative gifts and her love of God.

A dear friend gave me this treasured book and inscribed it to me:

May you always keep the vision to recognize the door that is yours, courage to walk through it, and when you’ve gathered the wisdom that is yours in that room, move on and find another door.

I think Richardson would applaud this sentiment.

Finally, two books are the result of deep grief in Richardson’s life: The Cure for Sorrow, A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief (2016) and Sparrow, A Book of Life and Death and Life (2020). Richardson’s husband and creative partner, the singer/songwriter Garrison Doles died unexpectedly after a routine surgery, and she did what she knew how to do: she wrote blessings; blessings not always easy to read, such as “Blessing for My First Day as a Widow.” But she also wrote blessings of solace and hope.

When I was asked to speak at a friend’s memoir gathering, I read the blessing, “Where Your Song Begins Again,” which includes these words:

Let it be
that you will make your home
in the chamber 
of our heart

where your story
does not cease,
where your words
take flesh anew, 
where your song
begins again.

Sparrow, which explores the first few years after Gary’s death, is written in more of a narrative style and includes journal entries. The title is based on the sparrow imagery in Psalm 84, “Even the sparrow finds a home…” This line inspired one of Gary’s songs, “I Will Be a Sparrow.” The book is the honest, compelling and often raw exploration of the key question in her life without her loved one, “Who am I, when the person who saw and knew me best in all the world is gone from this world?” I am grateful I have not lost that person, but I have had my own losses and with each one I am aware of the need to address anew, “Who am I now?”

How grateful I am for Richardson’s grace and wisdom and her companionship on my own journey.

Richardson’s website is https://www.janrichardson.com/books. You can buy her books and art prints, as well as access her blog and occasional retreats on this site.

An Invitation:

What books accompany you on your spiritual journey? I would love to know.

Daily Encounters: Soul Work in the World

Who knew that a trip to the grocery store would restore my soul?

Most Thursday mornings I do the week’s grocery shopping. I shop early when there are few people, and I can move through the aisles quickly and easily and not experience long lines at the check-out counter. That has worked well for me during this long COVID interim.

The cashier always asks if I have found everything on my list, and most days I can say “yes.” Occasionally, however, I have replied that I needed to substitute for a favorite brand or had to adjust my planned menu, but I always added, “No problem. I have no reason to complain about anything.” The cashier always seems grateful for my positive response.

What I could add most weeks is that I found more than what was on my list.

Sometimes in the aisles I find connection and a sense of community. I find warmth and pleasant openness.

An example. One of the carry-out workers, who has worked in the store for years and who happens to be mentally challenged, eagerly told a man working in the produce section about his favorite team in the state high school basketball tournament. He knew what he was talking about, and the produce worker responded with both respect and enthusiasm. After the conversation ended, I commented to the produce worker about the positive interaction and the meaningful atmosphere that creates. He brushed off my thanks and replied, “We are all responsible for one another.”

He restoreth my soul.

And then I realized a woman was standing behind me. It was clear she was waiting to add produce to her cart.

“I am so sorry,” I said, “for blocking your way.”

Instead of showing irritation or ignoring me, she said, “No need to apologize. I have all the time in the world.” We smiled at one another each time we encountered one another in other aisles.

She restoreth my soul.

I finished shopping and another carry-out person came to pack my groceries and he said, “I saw you come in and I wondered if I would pack for you.” We chatted all the way to the car or should I say, he chatted all the way to the car, and we both wished each other a good rest of the day. We both meant it.

He restoreth my soul.

I have to believe such encounters restore the world’s soul. And we need that.

An Invitation

When have you experienced soul restoring moments? I would love to know.

Book Report: Spirit Car, Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson (2006)

On November 7, 1862, a four-mile train of mostly women and children was forced to march to the concentration camps at Fort Snelling. Many of our people died on this trip. The townspeople from Henderson, New Ulm, and Sleepy Eye threw bricks as they passed by, they threw stones, one woman even threw boiling water.

Some people ask why we need to remember this, why we can’t just let it go. The march has never been acknowledged for the tragic event that it was. It’s been covered up and forgotten. It’s time for the Dakota people to remember their ancestors, to grieve for their families who were part of this march. This used to be Dakota land. It was all taken away from us. When you allow these things to be covered up, that’s part of colonization.

p. 186, Wilson quoting Chris Mato Nunpa, professor of Indigenous Nations and Dakota Studies at Southwest Minnesota State University, Marshall, MN

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

We live just a few miles from Fort Snelling in St Paul, and I had no idea until a few years ago about this horrific forced march and how so many native peoples had been imprisoned there. Our congregation participated in a Sacred Sites tour and visited not only this area, but other nearby places sacred to the Dakota people. It was a sobering day, to say the least.

Spirit Car, Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson, who wrote one of my favorite novels of 2021, The Seed Keepers, is the record of Wilson’s journey to discover her own history and the story of her ancestors. It is a complicated story, although the writing is clear and beautiful. The story is complicated because so much has been hidden and distorted, and repressed. Wilson’s father was Swedish-American and her mother of Dakota heritage. Her mother and sisters had been sent to a boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and were rarely able to return home. Imagine the trauma involved in that? Wilson’s great-great grandmother, Rosalie Marpiya Mase or Iron Cloud, was married to a French fur trader, and Wilson explores how mixed marriages were part of the strategy to take over native culture and lands.

In December, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, MN, in view of an estimated 4,000 spectators. Just imagine. Here’s where I am in the ongoing process of learning what I don’t know. When I was in the sixth grade, I lived in Mankato. At that time the social studies focus during the sixth grade was Minnesota history. Did we learn about the hanging? Did we learn about the forced march or why that happened? Did we learn anything about the land our school was built on? Nothing. Not one thing.

This book is part of my ongoing education, and I hope it will be part of yours.

Eventually, ambitious dairy farmers chopped down the forests, sold the timber to build houses for settlers, and paved the old trails. But was the past so very far away? Beneath the pavement, there remained the imprint of moccasins and the tracks of wagon wheels. They never really disappear, they simply became invisible to our eyes.

p. 203

An Invitation

Are you reading anything to fill in the blanks of your own education? I would love to know.

I Have No Ideas!

Most Monday mornings I write my post for Tuesday. I may even write the Thursday post and prepare for the writing group I facilitate on Thursday mornings. That leaves room during the rest of the week to meet with my spiritual direction clients and any other zoom or in-person events.

A good plan, but what happens when I have no idea what to write!

Usually, during the previous week, I jot notes to myself that could develop into a blog post. This past week? Nothing! Or going to church will spark a thought. Sunday, even though the sermon and service and the adult forum were each inspiring and thought-provoking, nothing percolated for my weekly writing. Surely, I told myself, when I went to bed Sunday night, I will wake-up Monday morning with an ah-ha moment. Nothing!!!

What to do?

Well, do what you always do, Nancy. Begin the day with morning meditation. I read the Lenten reading for the day, I Samuel 3. God calls to Samuel, not once, but three times, and Samuel doesn’t recognize the Lord’s voice. Hmmmm. How many times, I wonder, have I failed to hear?

What is it I need to hear right now?

My husband calls a “good morning” up to the garret and leaves to meet a friend for breakfast. I take my shower and dress and make a quick grocery list. Friends are returning home today after being in a warmer climate for almost two months. I plan to fix them an easy supper and drop it off when I hear they have returned. I send a quick prayer for “traveling mercies,” and think about how good it will be to see them again.

I decide to empty the dishwasher. Normally, my husband does that, but I am happy to do it today–a delaying tactic before I face the empty screen. Sunday evening a group of friends gathered here for potluck supper, and the dishwasher was packed. As I empty it, I think how wonderful it was to be together after a long COVID interim. We laughed and told stories, some we have told before and will probably tell again. We asked for prayers for loved ones and shared moments of grace. I confess that earlier in the day as I set the table, I wondered if we would be able to ease into one another’s company once again. No worries, for we reveled in our friendship and connection.

Still delaying going to my desk, I walk into the snug where the two chairs we found last week at an antique shop look as if they have always been there. I need to find the right cushions, but no rush, and that will be a fun search.

Bruce put the old chairs out on the curb with free signs and almost immediately the young boys next door dashed out asking it they could have them. Bruce said yes, IF it was ok with their parents. Apparently, that answer was “No,” but in less than an hour I saw four young people loading them into a SUV, and they were gone. I imagined the new owners coming to a screeching halt in front of our house when they spotted the chairs. “Yea, these are just what we need! I thought about all the books read in those chairs and prayed the new owners will find comfort and ease in them, too.

Finally, I sat at my desk. No more delays. I whispered a quick prayer, “What should I write, Lord?”

I begin to write.

An Invitation

When have you not known what it is you are to do next or say or even write? How have you responded? I would love to know.

Book Report: Browsing My Bookshelves

One book leads to another. And another.

One of my favorite projects each week is preparing for the writing group I facilitate at my church. Along with creating a writing prompt, I offer short quotations to support the subject of the prompt. Finding appropriate quotes becomes a rabbit hole of pleasure and memory. Sometimes, I confess, browsing my bookshelves becomes a diversion, a distraction from the task in front of me. Oh well.

An example: My morning meditation these days includes reading the prayers for Lent in Jan Richardson’s Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (2015). One of those blessings led me to this week’s writing prompt –a prompt about telling our own stories. Great–I had both the content for the prompt and one illustrative quote.

Let the browsing begin.

I remembered a workshop on storytelling as a spiritual practice that I took from Diane Millis a couple years ago, so found her book, Re-Creating a Life, Learning How to Tell Our Most Life-Giving Story (2019) on one of my shelves. As I paged through the book, I remembered an exercise Millis led at the workshop and wrote a note to myself to consider adapting that for a future writing group. I also noticed a reference to one of my favorite books, Composing A Life (1990) by Mary Catherine Bateson.

Here’s where the rabbit hole gets deeper. I pulled that book, autographed by Bateson, off my shelf, and as I noted what I had underlined and where I had written comments, I remember the evening I heard Bateson speak at a private girls’ school in Cleveland. Her book, Peripheral Visions, Learning Along the Way (1994), had recently been published, and, of course, I bought that book, too, and had her sign it.

We had moved to Cleveland from Minnesota just months before, and I still felt quite lost and unsure of what my next steps in composing my own life would be. I remember having a lovely conversation with Bateson and being surprised by the time she took to share her wisdom and perspective with me. I don’t remember her words, but am sure I wrote about it in my journal. I resist digging out that journal, for I might never climb out of that rabbit hole! An aside: Many years later I learned that a woman who became a friend had also attended that lecture.

Also on my shelf is Composing A Further Life, The Age of Active Wisdom (2010), and I am so tempted to begin re-reading this book right this very minute. The chapter titles, “Thinking About Longevity,” “A Time for Wholeness,” and “Knowledge Old and New” beckon me and I suspect are even more relevant for me now, but I set it aside. For the moment. And then I remember another of her books that I found at a Little Free Library, Willing to Learn, Passages of Personal Discovery (2004), but have yet to read. It awaits on a different shelf, where I keep TBR nonfiction books.

I slap my hands, reshelve the Bateson books, and turn to the shelves with my writing books. There are lots of temptations on those shelves. I start with two books: The Story of Your Life, Writing a Spiritual Autobiography (1990) by Dan Wakefield and Your Life as Story, Writing the New Autobiography (1997) by Tristine Tainer. The Wakefield book introduced me to the term and the idea of “spiritual autobiography,” which is now more commonly thought of as “spiritual memoir,” and the Rainer book reminds me of her earlier book The New Diary, How to Use A Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity (1978), which I used as a text when I taught a series of journal writing classes way back when! All three books are full of notes to myself.

I have found what I need for the writing group and force myself to re-shelve the pile of books on my desk, but that leads to another round of browsing.

The Diane Millis book is right next to a collection of Thomas Merton books and close by are Thomas Moore books. The Bateson books are near books by a current favorite, Diana Butler Bass, including her latest Freeing Jesus, Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence (2021). I notice I have starred the last two chapters, “Way” and “Presence,” and I am tempted to re-read those chapter right now. Plus, I notice a Dan Wakefield book I have not yet read, Releasing the Creative Spirit, Unleash the Creativity in Your Life (2001), and I am certain just what I need could be found on those pages.

Behave yourself, Nancy, and focus. Finish the task at hand.

An Invitation:

What books are waiting for you on your bookshelves? I would love to know.

Prayers Around the Cross

On Wednesday evenings during Lent our congregation extends an invitation to gather at the cross, to pray and light candles. Solemn, quiet moments. Moments when I not only hear my own heartbeat, but the yearning heartbeats of all those around me.

Each of us brings our own cares and concerns. Each of us brings hopes for safety and peace and life and love. We light a candle and lift the distress we feel.

And then we go home. Some of us may feel lighter. Some of us may experience clarity. Some of us may continue to feel the burdens we brought with us, but are at least grateful for the silence and beauty of those moments.

Feeling the warmth of the gathering, some of us feel even more grateful for the warmth of the homes to which we return.

A writer friend recently wrote these words in a new poem, “Doing Something,” about the war in Ukraine:

              I lit a candle
              I scrubbed the kitchen floor
              I scoured the bathtub
              I carried out the garbage
              I wiped out the refrigerator.
                                                                   
              Not because I loved the doing.
              I still have my home.
              I can do the ordinary. 
                                   Linda Schaeffer


"I can do the ordinary."

As I age, I am learning not only to appreciate the ability to do the ordinary stuff of life, but I am learning to do those tasks, those day-to-day routines, with prayerful intention. As I carry bags of groceries from the car to the house, I can carry prayers for all those who wonder where they will get their next meal. As I place clean clothes in my dresser drawers, I can pray that all those who have left all their belongings behind will be offered what they most need. As I retrieve the daily mail, I can send into the world prayers for protection and well-being. 

I know "ordinary" isn't enough, but I also know that extraordinary responses and efforts and solutions and changes are built on the ordinary. My prayerful ordinary moments along with your prayerful ordinary moments create room for the extraordinary to grow and thrive and make a difference. 

I believe that with all my heart. 

Wednesday evening I will return to the cross. Once again I will lift the yearnings of my heart and light a candle, but in the meantime, I will move through my ordinary days, praying for the extraordinary. 

An Invitation:

What are your prayers as you move through the ordinary moments of your days? I would love to know.

Note:

You may find this link interesting–the poet Matthew Guite reflects on what C.S. Lewis has to say about living in the midst of war. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngGozM0ZMG8

Book Report: Library Holds

March 10, 2022

Nothing makes me much happier than an email from my library informing me that books I have requested are waiting for me, especially since I am about to finish a a big novel.

Off I go with my canvas book bag from the New York Public Library, a recent gift from my sister.

Here’s my loot:

  1. Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams. (1997) His more recent book This is Happiness was one of my 2021 top favorites, and I am eager to read more by him. This is also set in Ireland, and the book jacket describes it as a “novel about destiny, acceptance, the tragedies and miracles of everyday, and about how all our stories meet in the end.”
  2. The Bastard of istanbul by Elif Shafak (2007). This book was recommended by one of my readers and is the story of two families–one Turkish and one Armenian American.
  3. The Floor of the Sky by Pamela Carter Joern (2006). I am embarrassed I have not read this book or her other books, for she is a Minnesota writer and writes about the Midwest. A friend nudged me to order this book, which is set in the Nebraska Sandhills.
  4. What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (2018). When I first heard about this book, I thought it was by AMY Tan, and I realized I have not read her more recent books, including a memoir. More for the TBR list. In the meantime I look forward to this debut novel by LUCY Tan about a family who moves back to China.
  5. Spirit Car, Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson (2006). You may have read Wilson’s celebrated novel, The Seed Keepers, and if not, I recommend it. Wilson explores her family’s history as Dakota people in South Dakota and Nebraska.

Which book beckons me first? I am eager to sit in my Mama Bear Chair and browse each book. First, of course, I will finish the novel I am currently reading, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (1955). I found this book in a Little Free Library and am quite sure I have never read it before. I thought it might be dated –and parts are–but the story and characters are engrossing and don’t always feel as if the book is set in the mid to late 1930s.

An Invitation:

Do you use the library? Do you have a “hold” list? I would love to know.

Age and My Relationship to Time

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

My relationship with time is changing.

For most of my life I’ve plotted how much I can accomplish in a day. I’ve been determined not to waste time, but instead, making lists for each day, I have carefully planned my time. I have been ever conscious of how to use my time efficiently and thereby, gain more time or so I thought. Often I have treated time like an enemy. “I don’t have enough time.” “Where has the time gone?” I will ________ when I have enough time.

I’ve been a time vigilante. Watching time. Timing my time. Seeking ways to improve my use of time. Congratulating myself when I use my time well–according to my self-imposed standards, of course.

How is my relationship with time changing?

The watch I wore for years died. The watch was a gift from my husband–dressy, but simple. A good watch, and I loved it and wore it every day, all day. After having it repaired once, twice, it was clear the life of the watch was over, and my husband offered to get me a new watch. I picked one out, brought it home, but didn’t wear it and finally returned it. I no longer felt a need for time to be wrapped around my wrist.

True, my iPhone is a constant companion, and the current time is visible on my laptop, but somehow that feels different to me. I like seeing my naked wrist, free from the constant reminder of time.

Not only do I not wear a watch, but I also don’t set an alarm when I go to bed. I wake up when the sun’s brightness alerts me to the day or the rumbling of the garbage truck in the alley can’t be ignored. I wake up when I wake up. This winter I have slept later in the morning than I used to and in the past I would have chastised myself for the “loss” of a half hour when I could have been writing in my journal or going on a walk. Now I am more open to saying to myself, “Well, you must have needed the extra rest.”

I still make a list for the day, but my lists are shorter. I am more gentle with myself, more realistic, perhaps, about what I can accomplish in a day. Even what I want to accomplish in a day. And I am more open to disregarding the agenda I’ve created for myself, in favor of whatever appears or opens. Instead of restricting myself to an hour of meditation/devotion time in the morning, I sit in the Girlfriend Chair as long as my heart tells me that’s where I need to be.

I pay more attention to my energy. I know I need some time between working at my desk and fixing our evening meal. I know I need more open and unscheduled time, more time for refreshment. In the recent past the ratio of work days to play days was 6:1 and then it became 5:2, but more and more the rhythm seems to be 4:3. Not that long ago I spent part of Sunday writing my Tuesday posts and also preparing the material for the Thursday writing group I facilitate. Even before going to 8:15 a.m. Sunday church I looked ahead to the coming week, noting my appointments and making my To Do lists. Lately, however, I delay the planning till later in the day. I may answer some emails, as well, but leave everything else till Monday.

Some of the change, no doubt, is due to the pandemic and the necessity to be home, but much of the change is because of my age. Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully points out both the blessings and the burdens of time in this stage of life. “Time ages things…Time deepens things…Time ripens things…Time is a wondrous thing.” (120-121)

I realize more and more what a privilege it is to have this time of my life; to have the kinds of choices I have; to still feel a sense of purpose. I am in ongoing discernment about how to live with purpose and do that in a way that “opens to the divine timing which best serves my soul,” as Julia Cameron says. (Blessings, Prayers and Declarations for a Heartfelt Life, 59) And when I am aware of how to best serve my soul, I am more aware of how to serve.

An affirmation:

It is my choice to use time festively and expansively. I have plenty of time, more than enough time. I fill my time with love, expansion, enthusiasm, exuberance, and commitment. I both act and rest at perfect intervals. Proper use of time comes easily to me. I set the rhythm of my days and years, alert to inner and outer cues which keep me in gentle harmony. Time is my friend and my partner. I let it work for me. I breathe out anxiety and breathe in renewal. I neither fight time nor surrender to time. We are allies as I move through life.

Heart Steps, Prayers and Declarations for a Creative LIfe by Julia Cameron, pp. 70-71

I love the steady, strong sound of the clock in the garret. Like a steady, strong heartbeat, a reminder to live my time.

An Invitation:

What is your relationship to time? I would love to know.

Book Report: February Round-Up

I tend to read more fiction than nonfiction, but month seven of the twelve I read were nonfiction. I read more than one book at a time–generally one that is nonfiction and the other, fiction. This month I read a long, 900+ page novel, and by the time I finished that I had several nonfiction books finished or underway.

Nonfiction

In earlier Thursday Book Report posts this month, I have written about three of the books I read this month: The Wild Land Within, Cultivating Wholeness Through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay (2021), Crisis Contemplation, Healing the Wounded Village by Barbara Holmes (2021), and The Story of Ruth, Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life by Joan Chittister (2000). I benefited from reading each one.

Here are two more to add to your own TBR (To Be Read) list.

  1. Late Migrations, A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (2019). This collection of brief essays goes back and forth between reflections on the nature and portraits of her parents and her own personal history. The two threads enhance each other. At times I felt I was peeking into her own journal, although the writing was far more accomplished than what is normally found in a journal. One example might be a list, “Things I Didn’t Know When I Was Six,” which may have grown from one or more journal entries.

The God you believe in acts nothing like the God other people believe in…

No black people live in your neighborhood even though black people work in every house in your neighborhood…

Your mother wants to work too, but there are rules that don’t let mothers work…

Your mother’s tears are not your fault.

pp.36-37

I have so many favorite lines–too many to note here–but I can’t resist one more:”Everyday the world is teaching me what I need to be in the world.” p, 126.

The book moves chronologically in time, beginning with her mother’s birth to her mother’s death and also the author’s life from childhood to adulthood with the loves and losses along the way. A bonus in this book is the gorgeous artwork by the author’s brother Billy.

2. All That She Carried, The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles (2021). Rose was a slave in 1850s South Carolina and when her daughter Ashley was going to be sold, she packed a cotton bag for her with a few items, a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of her own hair. The sack was also filled with love. Decades later, Ashley’s grandmother Ruth in 1921 embroidered the contents and the briefest of family history on the sack itself. Sounds simple and charming, doesn’t it?

But first, consider how Ruth even came to have the sack in her possession.

When I first heard about this book, I was reminded of one of my favorite books of all time, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), a novel, about the possessions soldiers carried during the Vietnam War and about what is important to hold and cherish.

But remember, slaves weren’t allowed to have many possessions nor did they have the ability to maintain family ties.

Yes, this is a book of remarkable scholarship and a book of enlightened history (Did you know that many slaves were required to wear a badge made of copper or tin that said “Servant” or “House Servant” to indicate which slaves had permission from their owners to do errands in town, for example? p. 82, or did you know that South Carolina was the only state in the union that didn’t have a two-party system or popular elections for the presidency, the governor, or other state and local positions, p. 174?), but it is also a book of heart-wrenching emotion.

Consider how the battle continues for how history is presented and learned in this country.

Fiction

I’ll just mention two.

  1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yea Gyasi (2020). The main character Gifty is a Phd candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. She has been drawn to the field because her brother who was a star athlete died of a drug overdose, and she wants to understand how that happens. Her mother, who immigrated from Ghana, is suicidal and moves in with Gifty. Her father returned to Ghana. The story moves back and forth between past and current storylines and includes many reflections about science vs religion and the role of the church in the lives of these characters. Excellent book.
  2. The Eighth Life (for Brilka)by Nino Haratischvili (2019) This book at 900+ pages took commitment, but I am glad I read it. As often is the case in a book this size, it is a family saga. Beginning with the Russian Revolution the story extends across a century. One Georgian family is highlighted–a family who owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe passed down through the generations. Love, loss, war, ghosts, joy, massacres, tragedy, hopes, dreams. It is all here, and I can’t quite believe I read this as once again we are witnessing Russian imperial ambitions.

An Invitation:

What did you read in February? I would love to know.

Snowball Discernment

I glanced out the window of the snug and saw a struggle: boy vs snow. I noticed a path that must have started at the boy’s house a few doors away from us, and now the snowball had grown to heavy and unwieldy proportions. I have no idea what the boy’s goal or intention was, but now he faced a problem-how to roll the ball to wherever it was he wanted it to be.

He patted the snow around the big ball. He paused and looked around, hoping, I imagine, to find some of his buddies who might help. He rested, sometimes on the ball itself, but then he was right at it again, determined, it seemed, to accomplish his goal, whatever that was.

Soon he had some success and got the ball rolling, but then he was done, just plain done. At least for the moment.

Had he met his goal? Was the snowball where he wanted it to be? Did he decide to take a time-out and perhaps return the next day when he felt fresher and had a different perspective on the project? Had he changed his mind and decided whatever he had accomplished was enough? How did he feel about his efforts? Had he learned anything in the process?

Will he someday in the future remember the Sunday afternoon in February when he had a plan to roll a snowball from one end of the block to the other or to build a snowman in his friend’s front yard. Or maybe he didn’t have a plan at all. He just started rolling the ball one inch at a time. What story will he tell himself about that effort?

This simple drama outside our house seems like a window into discernment. Sometimes we start something with only a vague plan or maybe we know the outcomes we want, but we have no idea how hard getting to the finish line will be. Or maybe the goal changes as we go along, or maybe we discover we have gained valuable lessons or awareness along the way and it is time to move onto something else. Maybe the situation has changed, and it is time to evaluate the initial goal.

My thoughts return to the boy.

Maybe the boy’s inner voice whispered, “Enough, boy. I have other plans for you.”

Maybe the boy’s energy needs to be directed in other ways.

Currently, I have a big, heavy snowball in my front yard, a major project, and I don’t know what steps to take next. This is discernment time, and I am doing my best to find the balance between pushing and resting. Between looking at options and stepping away to gain perspective. Between consulting with others and listening deeply to myself and the voice of Spirit.

Tomorrow, March 2, is Ash Wednesday. The 40 days of Lent are a time to open to the yearnings God has for me, as well as the ways I yearn for God. I may or may not discern an answer to my current question by the time we sing “Alleluia!” on Easter Sunday, but I know the willingness, the attentiveness I give to the movement of God in my life will somehow grow me closer to the person I was created to be.

An Invitation: Is there something in your life now that calls you into discernment? I would love to know.

NOTE: Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way by Nancy L. Bieber (2010) is an excellent resource for the discernment process.

Book Report: Morning Meditation Basket

As promised in my recent post (Tuesday, February 21, 2022, “Morning Meditation”), today’s Book Report shares my current morning meditation and devotion materials.

My collection of materials change as I finish reading a specific book, but also as the seasons in the church year change and as my personal needs change. However, two books always remain: the Bible and a journal. I only have a few pages left in my current journal and need to choose a replacement soon. That is on this week’s list.

Here are the other books in the basket:

  • Celtic Treasure, Daily Scriptures and Prayer by J. Philip Newell. (2005). This may be the third time I have returned to daily use of this book. Right now I am focusing on chapter five, “Songs of the Soul,” but other chapters include “Stories of Creation,” “Power and Justice,” and “Letters of Love.” Each day in the seven week cycle, begins with the same words, “We light a light in the name of the God who creates life, in the name of the Saviour who loves life, and in the name of the Spirit who is the fire of life.” After encouragement to “Be still and aware of God’s presence within and all around,” Newell retells a piece of scripture and offers a prayer. The brief and simple, but oh, so lovely daily meditation always ends in the same way.

The blessings of heaven,

the blessings of earth,

the blessings of sea and of sky.

On those we love this day

and on every human family

the gifts of heaven,

the gifts of earth,

the gifts of sea and of sky.

The illustrations from the Book of Kells plus children’s drawings are lovely, too.

This book provides a framework for my meditation practice right now. I begin with the opening prayer and readings and end with the closing words.

  • The Wild Land Within, Cultivating Wholeness through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay (2021). I first learned about this book on Christine Valters Paintner’s website, Abbey of the Arts. https://abbeyofthearts.com The author describes the book as

an invitation to explore your own flyover country. This book serves as a companion to search the inner and unseen but very real territory of yourself. As we attend to this land within, our journey will involve some issues you may know little or nothing about. There are places of rough and even terrifying terrain. We will learn what makes spiritual growth unnecessarily difficult or extra confusing. To explore this land within means encountering climate and storms, negotiating treacherous topography, and finding creatures both wounded and wild. p. 2

Delay, who is a writer, teacher, and spiritual director and originally from Puerto Rico, broadens my white cultural context with references to Native American, Black, Latinx, and others and asks me to define what have been my main influences and how those influences have affected my spiritual growth.

In an early section Delay spends time reflecting on the four soils parable recorded in Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15. I have been re-reading those pieces of scripture now myself, and using the practice of lectio divina, I ask what meaning they have for me after walking on the earth for almost 74 years. Ongoing exploration.

I am moving slowly, deliberately through this book. My plan is to read a chapter every day, but I keep returning to what I read previous days, finding more openings for learning and reflection. Chapter Five, by the way, is called “Weather Fronts,” and that seems perfect for the winter storm watch we experienced as I wrote this.

One more thing: Delay has a podcast, Spark My Muse. I have not yet listened to it, but I will.

  • The Divine Dance, The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell (2016) It seems I always have a Richard Rohr book in my meditation basket. If I think I am reading Delay’s book slowly, I am reading this one at an slower pace. I dip into this book, reading two or three pages, when I am willing to set aside the next task.

I was first attracted to this particular book because of the cover art, the famous icon of The Trinity created by Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century. I love that icon and the mystery it draws me towards. I was also attracted to the title of the book itself.

Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three–a circle dance of love.

And God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself. p. 27

This book will be in my basket for a long time. Oh, I also have a publication from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation: Oneing, An Alternative Orthodoxy. Volume 9, No. 2 focuses on The Cosmic Egg.

  • Soul Therapy, The Art and Craft of Caring Conversations by Thomas Moore (2021) This is another book I dip into when the spirit moves me. Moore’s books, especially Care of the Soul, have been important landmarks in my spiritual growth. Directed towards “helpers,” including psychologists, social workers, ministers, spiritual directors and others, the book reminds me to continue my own soul work as I sit with others doing their own soul work.
  • The Making of an Old Soul, Aging as the Fulfillment of Life’s Promise by Carol Orsborn, Ph. D (2021) I have not yet cracked open the cover of this book, but I enjoy Orsborn’s blog https://carolorsborn.com and I really liked her earlier book The Spirituality of Age. More than likely, I will report on this book later.

My basket runneth over!!

An Invitation: What books or other materials do you turn to for reflection and soul work? I would love to know.

Book Report: Crisis Contemplation, Healing the Wounded Village by Barbara A. Holmes (2021)

We can identify three common elements in every crisis: The event is usually unexpected, the person or community is unprepared, and there is nothing anyone could do to stop it from happening…Bereft of words, all of us hold the same question: How could this be happening? Crisis Contemplation, p. 21

We don’t need to think very hard or very deep to identify crises in the last couple years. You may have experienced a personal crisis, alongside the communal ones our society has been enduring.

I don’t imagine many of us respond by moving into contemplation when a crisis strikes. Our more immediate response is action. This book does not negate that response, but at the same time Holmes encourages us to “allow for the possibility of contemplative refuge, respite, and renewal. To slow down and be still is to allow both the source of our troubles and options for recovery to emerge.” (42)

This is hard work and as Holmes points out this work does not mean retreating to our meditation pillows. She points out that “Contemplative porch practices are no longer required of me; they are part of me.” (42). Yes! I often urge my spiritual direction clients and my readers to develop spiritual practices now, before the unexpected, which will come, for sure. Ground yourself in your contemplative practice and they will be with you.

As I read this book, I felt as if I was sitting in the back of a room where Holmes was exploring and reflecting with BIPOC peoples. I had the privilege and pain of listening, opening my heart (I hope) to the trauma, the wounds across the generations and so present now. I attempted to read this book as a contemplative practice.

Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes, author and scholar of African-American spirituality and mysticism, is on the faculty of Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) under the leadership of Fr. Richard Rohr, https://cac.org and it was in one of CAC’s daily meditations where I was introduced to her wisdom. I know I will eventually read one of her earlier books, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2017). And I am drawn back to books by Richard Rohr.

The Universal Christ, How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (2019) has become a touchstone book for me.

As I was writing this post, I remembered another book on my shelf, one I have recommended when personal crisis hits, The Ten Things to Do When Your Life Falls Apart, An Emotional and Spiritual Handbook by Daphne Rose Kingma (2010). This book focuses more on individual issues, but still, there is much to contemplate here. The ten things, by the way are:

  • Cry your heart out
  • Face your defaults
  • Do something different
  • Let go
  • Remember who you’ve always been
  • Persist
  • integrate your loss
  • Live simply
  • Go where the love is
  • Live in the light of the Spirit.

As always, one book leads to another and another.

An Invitation: When you have been in the midst of a crisis, has there been a book that has been helpful or meaningful? I would love to know.

Winter Gifts

Ice formations on top of an artesian aquifer near Maiden Rock, WI. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/nelsons-on-rush-river

At a retreat I helped facilitate for women with breast cancer the opening activity was to declare our favorite season. The floor had been divided into four quadrants–winter, spring, summer, fall–and the women gathered in the segments. The winter space was almost as bare as tree branches in January with only 3 of the 50 participants asserting love of winter.

I was one of those three, and we three actually held hands and huddled together–and vowed to meet for hot chocolate on the coldest of winter days. Each person shared what they loved about their favorite season, and we winter people had similar feelings–the love of burrowing in, of being cozy and having more time to read and write, feeling there are fewer distractions. We expressed love for the quiet that darkness brings.

None of us talked abut loving outdoor sports, although I have such wonderful childhood memories about ice skating Friday nights and Sunday afternoons at the neighborhood rink. As as an adult I enjoyed cross-country skiing with our children and later, at Sweetwater Farm, snowshoeing on our land, noting where deer had bedded down for the night. But those activities are not the core of my love of winter.

The season allows and encourages me to access not only the deepest parts of myself, but also the barest, like those skeleton bare branches.

Winter is a time of clarification for me. I see across the landscape of my soul, unhindered by intense and varied colors and textures. Instead, there is the sweep of white, the unhidden contours of the land, the places where the earth meets the sky. I note the eagles soaring above the few places of open water, and my heart soars, too, and feels the bigness of possibility, of hope. I seek that open water, not because I yearn for the flow of water in spring and summer, but because of its uniqueness during this frozen time. It illuminates the edges, the hard places, and invites me into the deep.

I wonder sometimes if the winter season was not positioned at the end and the beginning of the year, would I feel differently about winter? How much of this intentional time to go deeper, to challenge myself is related to the reflection and evaluation as we end one year and move into another? How much is about turning the page of a new calendar, clearing the space, starting again? Hard to know, but I think I am glad the season and the new year are related.

Recently, my husband and I headed out of St Paul and drove down the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi; a drive we love no matter the time of day or year; no matter the weather. We followed the easy directions to see the ice formations we had heard about and were stunned by their magnificence and their fairy tale beauty. As we continued along our favorite route, able to see Lake Pepin’s shoreline through the bare trees and also homes on top of the bluffs normally hidden by thick foliage, but now revealed against the grey sky, we counted hawks and eagles. Six hawks and at least two dozen eagles, including four in the same tree. And swans, too, holding a convention in open water. Who would not love this, I thought.

Returning home, I felt renewed, restored, and ready for the ongoing work of this winter age of my life.

An Invitation: Sit with winter, the season, the stage of life, and allow it to speak to you. What does it say to you? I would love to know.

Book Report: The Story of Ruth by Joan Chittister

I’m always happy to spend time with Benedictine nun and theologian, Ruth Chittister. I have heard her speak many times, often at the Chuautauqua Institution in New York, but other places as well, and, of course, I own and have read many of her books. I return to her The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully (2008) frequently, but value many of her other titles, also, including Following the Path, The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy (2012); The Time is Now, A Call to Uncommon Courage (2019); The Art of Life, Monastic Wisdom for Every Day (2012); and Between the Dark and the Daylight, Embracing the Contradictions of Life (2015). Many years ago when I was preparing lectures for a weeklong retreat on spiritual friendship her book The Friendship of Women, A Spiritual Tradition (2000) was a guiding star.

The Story of Ruth, Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life is a gentle and wise, but compelling reflection of the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. Who isn’t familiar with the verses:

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried. (Ruth 1: 16-17)

I’m not sure what drew me to this book at this stage of my life. I probably read some reference to it in someone’s blog, but what a welcome companion it has been recently. How good it is to be in the company of women as they meet the challenges, or as Chittister calls them, “moments” of their lives and how God calls us to become who we were created to be.

The book leads us through the Biblical story, highlighting the ways Naomi and Ruth, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, meet the challenges following the deaths of their husbands. Chittister relates those challenges to the challenges all women face, especially as women continue to struggle with inequality and stereotypical limitations. Each chapter examines one of those challenges, including respect, recognition, invisibility, and empowerment.

I suspect if I had read this book earlier in my life I would have been drawn to different chapters, but as a woman in her 70’s, I was most drawn to the chapters on loss, aging, and the last chapter, fulfillment. In the chapter on aging, Chittister writes:

There are lessons that come with age that come no other way. Age is a mirror of the knowledge of God. Age teaches that time is precious, that companionship is better than wealth, that sitting can be as much a spiritual discipline as running marathons, that thinking is superior doing, that learning is eternal, the things go to dust, that adult toys wear thin with time, that only what is within us–good music, fine reading, great art, thoughtful conversation, faith, and God–remains. When our mountain climbing days are over, the elderly know, these are the things that will chart the setting of our suns and walk us to our graves. All the doings will wash away; all the being will emerge. (p. 33)

And in the chapter on fulfillment:

What we do as women to bring ourselves to fullness makes the world around us a fuller place as well. (p. 87)

A wonderful bonus in the book is the art by John August Swanson.

An Invitation: What Biblical stories have new meaning for you as you age? I would love to know.

Books Added This Week to My TBR (To Be Read) List

  • The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer (2019). This actually is already on my list, but needs to move higher. Nonfiction
  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fannone Jeffers (2021) Fiction
  • Cabin by the Lake Mystery Series by Linda Norlander: Death of an Editor; Death of a Starling; and Death of a Snow Ghost (May, 2022)

The Rhythm of Rest

I could not do one more thing. Well, of course, I could, but I would have done the next thing without focus or interest, inspiration, or energy.

The week had been full . Full of good interactions and scattered with productive writing time, but I was done, even cranky. Perhaps it was the unrelenting cold or the unrelenting pandemic, but I sagged and slumped.

Enter my Word of the Year: Rhythm.

Most of my weeks have a defined, steady rhythm. We begin the week attending church and adult forum, followed by going out for lunch where we read the New York Times. Early in the week I write both Tuesday and Thursday posts for this blog, and I prepare for the writing group I facilitate Thursday mornings at church. I tend to do the week’s grocery shopping that morning, too. Usually, on Friday or Saturday, my husband and I plan an outing–get in the car and roam.

The weeks vary depending on appointments with my spiritual direction clients and if one of the writing groups in which I am a participant is scheduled, and, now and then, there is time with friends or family. And, of course, there are the usual tasks–the laundry, the emails, the bills, the meal preparation, the home-tending. Oh, and writing time. This past week I worked on a piece to submit to a publication that has published my work in the past.

I begin my day meditating, praying, and writing in my journal, and later, I try to leave my desk by 4:00, giving myself some space to read before fixing dinner. In the evening we binge watch something on Netflix or Amazon Prime (Right now we are watching season 11 of “Vera” on BrittBox.) and read before going to bed.

By and large, these are good rhythms, but my word of the year invites me to pay attention. What rhythm calls me right now? What is the rhythm my body needs? My soul needs? Rhythm summons me to listen to my own heartbeat.

Instead of pressing on determined to check more off a list that seems to grow when my head is turned, I took a deep breath and asked, “What rhythm wants to be heard right now?”

REST. REST.

I turned off my computer, left my desk and the garret, even though it was hours before my normal 4:00 leave the office time, and I nestled in the snug with book, blanket, and a mug of hot cider. I read and I dozed. I listened to the rhythm pulsing gently around and through me, and I restored. And I gave thanks for being at a stage of life when it is possible to respond to rhythm’s invitation.

I know, appreciate, and allow my own rhythm. Each day I take some time to be in my personal rhythm.

Sue Patton Thoele

An Invitation: Do you have a word of the year? If so, how is it present in your life? I would love to know.

Book Report: January Round-Up

January has been a cold month here in Minnesota, but I have been content to stay inside and read.

Such good books. My intention was to select one or two favorite fiction titles and one or two nonfiction titles, but I could not decide which books not to mention.

Fiction

  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. I love books set in a bookstore, and any book written by Erdrich calls to me, so this was a winning combination. Erdrich’s actual bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, is one of my favorites and the fictional representation of the store is just as appealing. The basic plot is that one of the employees is haunted by a customer who has died, but that is far too simplistic a description. The book is set during the pandemic and also refers to the murder of George Floyd and the days following that. I am so grateful for Erdrich’s ongoing elucidation of indigenous history, culture, and current realities.
  • Celine by Peter Heller. I read his more recent book The River and liked it, but didn’t love it. However, a favorite bookseller recommended this book to me, and the main character, a 68 year-old woman who is a private investigator, is intriguing. At first I was confused by lots of names and places and wasn’t sure where the focus was going to be, but Celine, who comes from an “old” family, wears Armani scarves when she tracks her prey, uses guns comfortably, and is married to Peter, a “Mainer” who doesn’t drive, kept me turning the pages. I hope Heller writes another book about these two. The story itself–searching for a young woman’s father who supposedly was killed by a bear in Yellowstone–is well done, too.
  • Songbirds by Christy Lefteri. Set in current times in Cyprus, where a maid, originally from Sri Lanka disappears. She has fallen in love with a man who poaches song birds and sells them to restaurants as forbidden and exotic treats. That’s disturbing enough, as it is, but even more so is the indentured servant conditions of the maids and that the main character, Nisha, is not the only one.
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I loved this book. William and Lucy Barton were once married and had two daughters, now grown. Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s current wife leaves him. William asks Lucy to help him confront a missing piece of his life story. Lucy, by the way, is a successful writer, but feels invisible and inadequate. Ah, the mysteries of marriage and relationships and as Strout (Lucy) says, “how we lived our lives on top of this.” After reading this book, I re-read the earlier one My Name is Lucy Barton and discovered I liked it much more the second time around.
  • The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. Think The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Not as chilling, perhaps, at least not on the surface, but…. Frida, a divorced mom with a young child, has a “bad day” and makes a mistake for which she is sentenced to a training school for mothers. There is a right way and a wrong way. One way. In the school she is assigned to a robotic doll to practice the right way. Ripe for a movie, I am guessing.
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Set in a retirement community in the UK, a “gang” of residents meet to solve unsolved murders and, of course, get involved in a real murder (or more than one). Interesting characters with interesting backgrounds (Elizabeth was former secret service), and I am eager to read the next book in the series. I assume there will be more after #2.
  • The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina. This is my “wild card” of the month–a book I just happened upon. I knew nothing about it, but the summary sounded intriguing, and it was one of those books that just felt right. The plot is based on the true story of a tsunami in Japan in 2011. People who have lost loved ones come to talk to them in a disconnected phone booth at the site of the tsunami. Two of those are Yui, whose daughter and mother died, and Takeshi whose wife died. Such a beautiful story of the rhythms of grief and re-entry into life and love.
  • Mrs March by Virginian Feito. This is the least favorite novel I read this month, but I finished it. (I discarded a few others along the way.) Mrs March is married to a successful novelist, and she has many emotional problems. I got tired of the grinding perspective of her paranoia, but still there was some nice writing.

Nonfiction

  • The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig. I read this book slowly during my morning meditation time. Zweig’s main message is to become an Elder, which means doing the necessary inner soul work, becoming who we were created to be and embracing the hidden spiritual gifts of age. She doesn’t ignore the challenges; for example, life-changing illness, but instead urges each of us to become aware of our own shadow–the obstacle(s) that prevent our own authenticity. So much here. I added many quotes in my journal and used many of the reflection questions at the end of each chapter. This is a book to move us beyond being elderly and instead, to live our elderhood with awareness.
  • Wife/Daughter/Self, A Memoir in Essays by Beth Kephart. I have loved Kephart’s books on writing and this book gave me insight into who she is as writer and teacher, but much more beyond that. Each section was divided into snatches, short pieces, but the book didn’t feel disconnected. I did think, however, that the section on “wife” was the strongest. The book made me think about how roles change or even end, but the self remains.
  • In the Country of Women by Susan Straight. Straight is a white woman who was married to a black man from the neighborhood where she grew up. They had three daughters and even after they divorced they remained connected in healthy ways. Plus, she was very connected to his large and complicated family. I couldn’t always keep every one straight and how they were related to one another, but the weaving of the stories, the texture of the connections, like the braiding of hair, which she mentioned often, were memorable. This was an unexpected gift.
  • 16 Ways to Create Devotional Writing to Renew the Spirit and Refresh the Soul by David J. Sluka. A book to keep on my shelf for the day, if that comes, when I decide to write devotions for women elders.

It is already February 3, and I have read….sorry, you have to wait till my February Round-Up.

An Invitation: What were your favorite January reads? I would love to know.

Morning Gratitude, Morning Presence

As I make the bed first thing every morning, I pause and look out the window towards the backyard and the garage. This time of the year I know what I will see: mounds of unmelted snow, tracks from the squirrel gang that frequents the base of the bird feeder, and the bare branch remnants of my husband’s glorious garden. Maybe there will be a cardinal at the feeder, but probably not till a bit later.

I don’t stand at the window hoping to see something different. No, I stand at the window to welcome a new day, to give thanks for the light of a new day, and to remind myself to be present to this day, the new and holy day.

Soon after making the bed, but still in my robe and pajamas, I climb the stairs to the garret and settle in for meditation time. Lately, my quiet time has included listening to Cat Stevens sing one of my favorite hymns, “Morning Has Broken.” You can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0TInLOJuUM

Morning has broken like the first morning;

black-bird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing!

Praise for the morning!

Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!

Text: Eleanor Farjeon and Music: Gaelic Tune

What more could I ask for than to remember that each morning is like the first morning. Oh, if I could only live present to that gift, that morning gift, the whole day, every day.

That prayer would be enough. That prayer holds all those I love and all those unknown to me, but in need of a new day.

The words in verse three lift me even higher.

Mine is the sunlight!

Mine is the morning,

born of the one light Eden saw play!

Praise with elation, praise every morning,

God’s re-creation of the new day!

Each day is a chance to re-create the sun in my own heart, my own being. This is enough. More than enough.

I invite you to sing with me. I will stand at the window and listen for your voice.

An Invitation: What is your first view of the day? How does it help you move into the day?I would love to know.

Book Report: Browsing A Bookshelf

Join me in my garret, where I keep my books on spirituality and theology. Pick a shelf, any shelf. How about the one that begins with books by Elizabeth A. Johnson and ends with a little book about contemplation by Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land?

And in-between are treasures of learning and wisdom and journeys into spiritual practice and reflection.

The Prettiest Cover: Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth A. Johnson. (2014) Inside are several pages of notes I wrote when this book was the focus of a class I took at Wisdom Ways in 2014. https://www.wisdomwayscenter.org Johnson asks the question “What is the theological meaning of the natural world of life?” and “Why hasn’t theology taken the natural world seriously?” This is a dense book and as a non theologian, I was grateful to be studying this book with a group of wise and educated women. Johnson, by the way, was being “investigated” by the Catholic Church as she was writing this book.

Right next to this book is another Elizabeth Johnson book, Friends of Gods and Prophets, A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998); a book I have yet to read. Some day.

Moving Along: A commentary on the Gospel of Mark by Donald Juel, who was a professor at Luther Seminary when I was associate director of public relations there, and I always enjoyed the brief conversations with him when he stopped in my office or during lunch. Next to Juel’s book is Julian of Norwich’s Showings. I wonder what Mark and Julian of Norwich would have to say to each other.

Other Saints–Among My Personal Saints: Thomas Keating and Sue Monk Kidd. Father Keating was the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement and two of his books have been important in my spiritual development–Open Mind, Open Heart, The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (1986) and The Better Part, Stages of Contemplative Living (2000). Centering prayer is a practice of turning within and resting in God’s presence. Not far away from the Fr. Keating books are two books by Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits, Spiritual Direction for LIfe’s Sacred Questions (1990) and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). You may recognize this author for her more recent fiction, including The Secret Life of Bees (2002) and The Book of Longings (2020), but it is “Dissident Daughter” that holds the most meaning for me. Kidd unfolds her awakening to feminine spirituality, and I went on that journey with her. I read this book more than once and underlined more each time and added my own questions and reflections and commentaries.

Next to Kidd on the shelf is Ursula King’s The Search for Spirituality, Our Global Quest for a Spiritual Life, (2008) and I see I have marked Chapter Five, ‘Spirituality Within Life’s Dance” as my favorite in the book and within that chapter, the section on “Spirituality and Aging.” I need to reread that section.

Buddhist Wisdom: Two books by Jack Kornfield. First, perhaps his most famous work A Path With Heart, A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (1993) and a collection of sayings, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (2002), which was given to me by a dear friend who died many years ago. She lives in my heart and on my bookshelf. In A Path With Heart Kornfield includes a number of meditations, such as “Who am I?” and “Transforming Sorrow into Compassion.” The techniques may be different. The definitions may be different, but I think these mindfulness meditations are compatible with the practice of centering prayer, and I think Jon Kabat Zinn, whose book Wherever You Go There You Are, Mindulness Meditation in Everyday Life (1994) is also on this shelf, would agree.

Jewish Wisdom–Books by Three Rabbis: Yearnings, Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (2006) by Rabbi Irwin Kula, The Lord Is My Shepherd, Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm (2003) by Rabbi Harold S Kushner of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame, and Jewish Spirituality, A Brief Introduction for Christians (2001) by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. A post-it note dangling from the edge of Yearnings directed me to this sentence, “The more we allow ourselves to unfold, the less likely we are to unravel.” p. 37

Interfaith Wisdom: The Jews, Christians and Buddhists all meet in Beside Still Waters, Jews, Christians and the Way of the Buddha (2003) edited by Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan, and Linda Klepinger Keenan. Another book unread. So far.

Life’s Journey: 1. A Woman’s Guide to Spiritual Renewal (1994) by Nelly Kaufer and Carol Osmer Newhouse. 2. The Ten Things To Do When Your Life Falls Apart, An Emotional and Spiritual Handbook (2010) by Daphne Rose King. (#1 on the To Do list is to “cry your heart out.) 3. Grieving Mindfully, A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss (2005) by Sameet M. Kumar. At one time or another I have consulted all of these books, both for myself and for my spiritual directees.

And More: a book on the sacred art of pilgrimages, one on dreams, a classic of spiritual literature (The Imitation of Christ) and still more. I close with a book that is a feast for the eyes, as well as the mind and the heart, Journey of the Soul (2000) by Doris Klein, CSA. It has been a long time since I sat with the words and the images in this book–perhaps now is the time to return to this book.

The soul journey is the process of spiraling into the Heart of the Holy where in reality we always are. We simply learn to see more clearly. p.3

I know I’ve just flung a lot of titles your way, but what strikes me is how one single bookshelf can open the door to new reflection and at the same time rewind a path of memory. By the way, I removed four titles from this shelf and added them to the Little Free Library pile. May they be exactly what someone else needs.

Thanks for shopping my Johnson to Laird bookshelf with me.

The Value of Solitude

Most mornings I begin the day in my version of a monastery; the room I call the garret. I climb the one flight of stairs, as if to a bell tower. I turn on the twinkle lights around the window and the wiry tree of lights that sits on the ledge before settling into a comfortable chair for prayer time, meditation time, study, and journaling time.

Solitude.

Once a month or so a group of friends gather for a meal and conversation. The hosts suggest a question or topic to consider; something that will deepen our awareness of ourselves and each other. At the most recent gathering we considered our core values. Our host had sent a long list of possible values –over 60, actually–and directed each of us to sort them into categories: Those That Matter Most to Me; Those That Matter Some to Me; and Those That Matter Least to Me.

A daunting task, but I decided to sort through them quickly and try not to second-guess myself.

The next step was to divide the “matter most” pile into the top ten and then the top five. Here’s my selection:

  1. Spirituality
  2. Family
  3. Love
  4. Solitude
  5. Purpose
  6. Self-awareness
  7. Wisdom
  8. Gratitude
  9. Mindfulness
  10. Forgiveness.

During our dinner conversation, we were each invited to focus on one of the values from our top five choices. I chose “solitude,” which is number four on the list, but as I reflected, I wondered if it is actually number two or even number one.

I learned how to be alone as a child, mainly because we moved often and there were always the summer months before starting school and making new friends. Perhaps those circumstances contributed to my introverted nature, but I think the desire for, the need for solitude goes beyond my designation as an introvert on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory.

A regular practice of solitude brings me closer to my essence, to the person I was created to be. Solitude opens me more fully to the movement of God in my life and the life around me.

It is true that sometimes I enter solitude weary and the alone time helps me renew my energy, but creating time and space for solitude means much more than substituting quiet for noise or stillness for busyness. Solitude is a time to listen to my inner voice, the soul voice, the voice of Spirit reaching out to me, into me.

Once I knew and accepted this about myself and was truly able to own that value, life became much easier for me. And as I look at this list of my values, I see how solitude is integral to each of the other values. Solitude, as my companion on my spiritual journey, helps me clarify my purpose, and opens me to self-awareness. Solitude leads me to gratitude and mindfulness and forgiveness and supports my love of family and friends. In solitude, wisdom has room to grow.

I thank Glenn Mitchell of Oasis Ministries,( https://www.oasismin.org/prayernotes )which is where I trained as a spiritual director, for this reflection about prayer, which feels so applicable to my feelings about solitude:

I think my formal prayer grounds me well in my life.I think it help keep me porous and resilient. I think it keeps my spirit receptive and responsive. I think over time it has blessed me with a greater sense of peace and calm. In many ways it prepares the soil of my life for the new day.

My word for the year, as discussed in an earlier post, is rhythm, and more and more I realize how solitude helps me recognize and cross the threshold into the life-giving rhythms of my life.

An Invitation: What are your key values? I would love to know.

NOTE: To sort through your values, check out The Live Your Values Deck https://lisacongdon.com/products/values-deck


Book Report: Book Conversations

Some of the best conversations include talk about books.

Recently, my husband and I had dinner with our granddaughter Maren and along with talk about her first semester at college, the reunion she had during winter break with the women from her wilderness canoe trip in Alaska this summer, and her plans for the 2022 summer, we talked books. Maren is not only a voracious reader, like everyone else in the family, but she is a careful and insightful reader. I trust her recommendations and value her appraisals and judgment. She is also an excellent writer herself–perhaps someday I will be able to recommend a book written by her.

Over pasta, we shared titles. She had recently read The River by Peter Heller, and I had just finished and really enjoyed his earlier book Celine. I have added The River to my own TBR list now. She had read Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and I urged her to read Little Fires Everywhere. She and her Dad are watching Station Eleven, and I mentioned how excellent the book by Emily St James Mandel is and later gave her my copy of the book.

When she was a baby, we sent her at least one book every month, building her library from babyhood through the toddler and childhood years and on into middle school. The regularity of the book-giving routine eased as she got older, but there were still occasional book-buying sprees with her and always the gift of a book or two is part of birthdays and Christmas. For Christmas this year we gave her two books related to her own wilderness experiences, The Twenty-Ninth Day, Surviving a Grizzly Attack in the Canadian Tundra by Alex Messenger and Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic by Natalie Warren. As she shared her impressions of these books, we learned more about her own 30-day plus canoeing and hiking trip above the Arctic Circle this past summer with five other women.

Earlier this year I gave her a stack of books about writing as part of her high school graduation present. Some were new copies of books I have loved and valued, but others were ones I plucked from my own shelves and passed on to her, including Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within. A true classic for all writers. My copy included a note written to me by Natalie after I helped publicize a writing workshop decades ago. How gratified I was to hear Maren say how reading that book has given her a new and renewed outlook on writing practice.

Talking books, sharing titles with other readers is always a delight, a way to connect and enrich our understandings of each other–and what a treat to do that with our granddaughter.

On another note, my book piles continue to grow. Over the weekend my husband and conducted a Book Raid at one our favorite bookstore, Content Bookstore in Northfield, MN. https://www.contentbookstore.com Here’s my stack–stay tuned for more book reports!

An Invitation: Have any recent conversations included book talk? I would love to know.

Epiphany Season and The Rhythm of My Camel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Report: A Book For My Age

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

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

Here’s what is written on the back cover:

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

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

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

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

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

Word for the Year: Rhythm

Images by Steve Sorman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your word chooses you.

The word comes as gift.

Receiving This Year’s Word

I read these words:

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

Richard Rohr

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

A rhythm that carries us into wholeness.

Jan Richardson

Let your heart enjoy a different rhythm.

John O’Donohue.

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

Christine Valters Paintner

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

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

I had received the word for the year: Rhythm.

Allowing the Word to Ripen

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

Nourish me,

Challenge me, and

Lead and even wrestle me into new growth.

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

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

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

Book Report: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Threshold into the New Year

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

Here we are on the threshold of the new year.

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

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

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

Divine Gate-Keeper, ever present to my soul,

I approach the threshold of the new year

Aware of my vulnerability and mortality,

Recognizing my dependence on your vigilance.

Your wisdom will direct my inner footsteps

As I face the future’s unmarked terrain.

Your rapt attentiveness assures me

That you will guide my comings and goings.

This day I join my heart with all living beings

As we walk together toward what lies ahead.

Joyce Rupp

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

Let your heart speak.

When I think about the new year, I….

As I let go of 2021, I feel…

As I move into 2022, I…

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

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

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

What do I treasure about 2021?

What have I hidden away?

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

What have I made visible?

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

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

What are your yearnings for the new year?

What can I do for God in the coming year?

What can God do for me?

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

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

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

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

May this be a time of loving presence.

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

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

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

Book Report: My 2022 Book Journal

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

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

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

Thoughts About My Reading Life and 2022 Intentions –page 3

Remaining Books From 2021 TBR Lists –pages 4,5

Books Unread From Books Acquired in 2021 –page 6

Library Hold List –page 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Planned and Christmas Actual

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

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

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

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

Poor Peter. Poor all of us.

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

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

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

We still had Christmas.

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

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

We still had Christmas.

Thanks to Steve Garnass-Holmes for these words:

You come to share our disappointment with us

so that we might share your hope.

You come into our uncertainties

and show us how to be ourselves.

Welcome, Beloved, welcome.

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

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

Book Report: Two Books and a Story

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

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

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

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

Are you listening Joe Manchin?

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

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

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

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

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