Book Report: Christmas Books

December 15, 2022

I have a plan.

Some snowy and grey day before Christmas (oh let’s be real, maybe the week after Christmas or even later. After all, Christmas lasts till Epiphany, January 7) I’m going to fix some hot cider with a dried orange slice for extra flavor, and I am going to wrap myself in a shawl and get cozy in the snug. Here’s the important part: I’m going to browse our collection of Christmas books and read whatever appeals to me in the moment.

To be honest, I plan to do this every Christmas season, but then shopping and baking and writing Christmas cards and wrapping presents and… and… takes precedence. I enjoy all those activities, so I don’t feel too sorry for myself, but still… This year the desire for this kind of gentle luxury feels more necessary. Maybe it’s the crummy cold I’ve had that has lasted far too long or more likely it is the need to sit quietly with the sadness I feel about the death of a friend. I am also aware that my age, being an elder, lures me towards the simple pleasures more and more.

Over the years we’ve passed on many of the books we collected when our kids were growing up, and what remains are some special favorites plus a few old books I’ve found when antiquing. At the top of the pile is a small paper copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Bruce was in a reader’s theater version of the story when we were in college, and one of the first presents he gave me was a copy of the book with lovely wood prints. I might begin my immersion into my Christmas books by reading it aloud–even if it is just to myself.

…I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six…

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the light in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Next I will smile my way through my favorite picture book version of The Nativity. Mary, as imagined by illustrator Julie Vivas, is not exactly beatific. Rather she is LARGE with child and has a very hard time getting on the donkey and is exhausted by the labor. There is a reason it is called LABOR.

I also love Tomie De Paola’s illustrations of Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies and the De Paola book that will always be my favorite, Clown of God about the juggler, Giovanni and the miracle of his gift. Both of our books are signed by De Paola from the days decades ago when I worked in an independent book store in St Paul, Odegards.

I am just as delighted with Susan Branch’s illustrations and also her calligraphy. In the Christmas stack are two of her books, Christmas From the Heart for the Home and Christmas Joy. Branch encourages us to “Light candles, say a prayer holding hands, play music, dress up, take pictures, kiss everyone within 5 feet of the mistletoe, and keep your senses alive so you can remember THIS Christmas all year long.”

One of the books I have not read in years is The Story of Holly and Ivy by the English author Rumer Godden who wrote for both children and adults. In this story Ivy is an orphan and Holly is a doll left all alone in a toyshop window on Christmas Eve. It won’t be a surprise that there is a happy ending to the story. which in this version is illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

I’ve read a few of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket Classic, Christmas Stories, such as Green Holly by Elizabeth Bowen, The Turkey Season by Alice Munro, and several times Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory about making the traditional fruitcake with his distant cousin.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable–not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my, ‘ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The book that entices me most, however is also called Christmas Stories, but it is by Charles Dickens. This old, small red leather-bound book with tiny print and pages you can almost see through just feels good to hold. In the last year or so I have been feeling a tug to read some of the Dickens books I have never read like Bleak House or The Old Curiosity Shop. I loved Great Expectations when I read it in 8th grade, and I think reading that book was influential in my decision to teach English. Perhaps reading some of these stories will be the beginning of a Dickens year.

I have a plan, and my shawl and mug of cider, and books wait for me. What a good Christmas present that would be to give myself. And it’s snowing!

An Invitation

What Christmas books do you enjoy reading year after year? I would love to know.

My Christmas Letter: Advent Week #3

December 13, 2022

Dear Friends,

                                                 ...become
                                                 the bearer of God.
                                                                  Night Visions, Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas 
                                                                  Jan L. Richardson

Isn’t that the invitation of this time of the year? We read of Mary’s willingness to accept the call, but Joseph also accepted fatherhood ahead of schedule. We watch and listen as the shepherd and the Wise Ones followed the star to discover what might be new, what might be possible. In each of their “yeses,” they became a bearer of God.

When in the last year have you received the touch of God? When have you been the bearer of God?

In a recent sermon at our church Pastor Lois Pallmeyer quoted Jaclyn Roessel, founder of the Grown Up Navajo blog,

When we are able to act for the betterment of others…we will speak sacredness fluently.

I love that phrase “speak sacredness fluently.” Imagining myself as a bearer of God is not easy, but somehow acting in ways that can be seen, heard, felt as a sign of the sacred seems more possible. In this elder stage of life, it seems I see the sacred everywhere. Even the challenging changes that come as we grow older seem to offer more ways to practice speaking sacredness. Sometimes that means holding the hand of a loved one as she approaches death and saying, “I love you with all my heart.” Or it may mean listening more than speaking.

Speaking sacredness fluently means staying awake with gratitude in my heart.

A Grateful Summary

  • Our life has not changed much in the last year. We are in the same home, both healthy and doing what gives us meaning. Bruce paints and gives new life to cast-off furniture and other home decor accessories, which he sells at summer garage sales with the proceeds going to Rezik House, a program for homeless youth. He loves his monthly men’s book group at church and also volunteered as the church gardener this past summer, even while maintaining our own gardens. I continue meeting with spiritual direction clients, writing this blog along with occasional other pieces, and facilitating various groups at our church, including a weekly writing group. This fall I revived the Third Chapter, Spirituality as We Age group, facilitating informal conversations on topics like decluttering and downsizing. Our faith community remains a source of joy and growth and connection.
  • You will see in the picture below that grandson Peter (almost 15 and in the 9th grade) is taller than his Papa –taller than everyone in the family, except his Dad. He follows a strict weight-lifting regimen as part of his devotion to both baseball and football. We enjoyed going to his football games this past fall and now Papa drives him twice a week to a baseball class. At church he is one of the sound technicians for Sunday morning services and at school he is the lighting guy–learning great skills.
  • We drove to Portland, Oregon in the spring to bring our granddaughter Maren (age 20) home from her freshman year at Lewis and Clark. What fun to not only see her on campus, but then to have her all to ourselves for the return trip. This past summer she worked at Northern Lights, a YMCA family camp in northern Minnesota, co-directing outdoor activities. Perfect for her! She will return there this summer. This fall as a sophomore she was the stage manager for the college musical, Rent. How good it will be to have her home for a chunk of time over the holidays.
  • One of the best parts of this time of our lives is having such strong and loving relationships with our adult kids, son Geof and daughter-in-love, Cricket who live in Cleveland and daughter Kate and son-in-love Mike who live five blocks from us. How good it will be to have “together time” this Christmas.

Minnesota author Bill Holm in his book Faces of Christmas Past muses that the tradition of writing Christmas letters is a way to state “I am alive…still on the planet, I have not forgotten you. The thread, whether of blood, nostalgia or friendship, that sews us together has not been cut.”

I agree and add that these letters are a sign of our all being one. Each of us in our connection speaks sacredness fluently and has the chance to become a bearer of God.

Warm Blessings, Nancy and Bruce

Book Report: Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2022

December 8, 2022

For a fiction book to be on my “favorites” list, the writing must be superb and I must have been able to engage with the characters in some way, even if they are from a totally different time and/or background. They must become real to me. I also love books in which I can imagine myself in the setting. Plot isn’t as important to me as the feeling created in the book.

I turn to books to deepen who I am, to grow and to expand my world. That is true for nonfiction books, too. Favorite nonfiction books are ones in which I pause as I am reading to marvel at a new thought, new perspective, a new piece of knowledge. At some point while reading each of the books on this year’s favorite list, I said, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Or I might have thought, “This is just what I need right now.” Or “What a good idea” or “I can’t wait to share this with…”

As is the case with many fiction titles, one book leads to another –other books by the same author or books on the same or similar topic. Once again, so many books, so little time.

Perhaps my list of favorites will lead you forward into the next good book. I hope so.

  • Wife/daughter/self, A Memoir in Essays by Beth Kephart.
  • In The Country of Women by Susan Straight
  • The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig
  • Late Migrations, A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl
  • Crisis Contemplation, Healing the Wounded Village by Barbara A. Holmes
  • The Wild Land Within, Cultivating Wholeness Through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay
  • All That She Carried, The Journey pf Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles
  • Decision-Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Making Your Way by Nancy Bieber (a reread)
  • Spirit Car, Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson
  • Between Two Kingdoms, A Memoir of life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
  • The Divine Dance, The Trinity and Your Transformation, Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell
  • Without A Map, A Memoir by Meredith Hall
  • A Life in Light, Meditations on Impermanence by Mary Pipher
  • Unbinding, The Grace Beyond Self by Kathleen Dowling Singh
  • The Green Hour, A Natural History of Home by Alison Townsend
  • The White Stone, The Art of Letting Go by Esther deWaal
  • Windswept, Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abby
  • The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
  • Trusting Change, Finding Your Way Through Personal and Global Transformation by Karen Hering
  • How The Word Is Passed, A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
  • The Electricity of Every Living Thing, A Woman’s Walk in the World to Find Her Way Home by Katherine May

Such rich reading–almost takes my breath away!

An Invitation

What nonfiction books do you recommend from your 2022 reading? Is there anything on this list on your TBR list? I would love to know.

The Mary Card: Advent Week #2

December 6, 2022

One day early last week I sat in my Girlfriend Chair, took a deep breath, and shuffled the Advent Perspectives, Companions for the Journey deck of cards. Discovering my companion for Advent has been one of my Advent practices for the last few years, ever since my beloved sister gave me this charming set of cards.

The set includes images of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the innkeeper, two shepherd cards, three Wise Men cards, the angel, the manger, the donkey, the sheep, the star. Each card describes the character’s role in the Christmas Story and also asks some reflective questions about the ways the character is present in your life and can lead you deeper into your own faith life.

I shuffled the cards and then turned them over, face down, and fanned them in my left hand. I closed my eyes, took another deep breath and moved my right hand lightly over the cards, whispering a simple desire, “Companion me. Be with me.”

My hand stopped, selected a card, and turned it over.

Oh no! MARY! It’s the Mary card!

Why couldn’t it be the sheep or the innkeeper? I know how to be those characters. Or why not another Wise Man. For the last two years I had chosen two of the Wise Men cards. Let’s complete the trio, I pleaded, and be the third Wise Man.

Or how about Elizabeth? After all, I know what it is to be old.

Mary? This is too much. I can’t be Mary. The first year I had these cards I selected the Mary card too. What didn’t I learn then? What is the reason for this card now? http://clearingthespace.blogspot.com/2018/12/mary-and-my-advent-practice-thursdays.html

I suppose I could have called a “do over,” but I’ve learned to sit with what appears in my life–the signs, the gifts, the changes, the challenges, the disappointments, the joys.

I took another deep breath and remembered that just because the Mary card chose me doesn’t mean I have to be Mary. Rather, Mary has asked to companion me on this stage of the journey.

The day before I sat with the Advent cards, I read this in Christine Valters Paintner’s daily meditation:

Mary is the gate through which Jesus enters the world and our hearts. Her consent was required for him to cross that threshold.

I should have known.

And so I sit with Mary.

And I sit with the reflection questions on the back of the Mary card:

  • What experience have you had with God that altered the course of your carefully made plans? How did you respond?
  • How comfortable are you in being honest with God, wrestling with God. and asking questions of God?
  • How do you, as Mary did, feel like God’s favored one? How are you being asked to birth your special gifting of God’s light and love in our world?

In recent weeks the word “vessel” has hovered in and around my heart. https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/1413 Mary was a vessel of love and nurturing and willingness to be and do the hard thing. And these last few days have been hard. A dear friend died, and none of us who love her were ready. My vessel has overflowed with tears.

This was not the plan. I was expecting to be fully immersed in Christmas delights, just as I expect engaged Mary was preparing for her wedding. Perhaps her girlfriends were planning a wedding shower for her, and her parents were consulting with her about wedding details? Did Mary and Joseph sit quietly and talk about their future hopes and dreams?Well, that’s not how life unfolded. Gabriel appeared.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and powdered what sort of greeting this might be.

Luke 1: 28-29

Mary is with me as I ponder how to hold and to be in this new loss. I ponder how to be a vessel.

Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain...

I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this because you must be large.
A passage.
People will find their way through you.
A bowl...

Light will glow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light...
             by Christine Lore Webber


            

I trust that Mary is the chosen companion for me right now in this place and time, and I promise to open to the learnings and gifts she offers me–even through my tears.

An Invitation

When you think of the Christmas story, what characters do you most identify with and why? I would love to know.

Book Report: December Round-up AND Favorite Fiction of 2022

December 1, 2022

Today’s post will do double duty. First, a look at what I read in November and then a list of my favorite fiction of 2022. Last year I was asked by a few readers to post my favorite books of the year before the year ended as an aid for Christmas shopping. Next week I will post my list of favorite nonfiction from this year. So here goes.

November Summary

Compared to October when I read 13 books, I was a slouch this month! Only 9 books.

Three of the fiction titles are on my 2022 favorites list —The Overstory, Foster, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Each of those books were emotional reads in which I felt such warmth and concern for the characters, although these books could not be more different from each other. I thought The Maid was an ok read–a good one to read in one sitting. I was disappointed in Fly Away by Kristin Hannah. I have enjoyed other books by her, but in this one the characters never seemed to rise above their whininess and I didn’t see much growth. It was a long running soap opera kind of book.

The last book I read this month was Writing and Healing, which I have had on my shelf for a long time, and it is a series of exercises used in a group of cancer survivors. I got some possible writing prompt ideas for the writing group I facilitate.

I borrowed one of the books from the library, and I am sorry I don’t own it. How The Word Is Passed, A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith is an amazing book, beautifully, poetically written and it opened me to so much I didn’t know or had never considered. I littered the book with tags and have made copies of many of the passages. Smith visits several key places in the history of slavery, including Monticello, Whitney Plantation (Louisiana), Angola Prison (Louisiana), Blandford Cemetery (Virginia), Galveston Island (Texas), New York City, and Goree Island (Senegal). It felt like an honor to read this book, and at the same time I felt shame for the necessity of this book.

No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler is about the author’s struggle with colon cancer (at age 35). She writes openly, honestly about this life-threatening challenge and wonders about the ways we approach adversity in this culture.

Finally, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home by Kathering May. I was attracted to this book because I am always attracted to books about people going on extended walks (I wonder about that attraction in myself!) and also because I loved her more recent book, Wintering, The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. This book was a surprise, however, for it was really a journey in her discovery of herself as someone with autism. The walking gave her room to realize and contemplate this about herself. Quite the book.

I suspect I won’t read as many books in December, but there is always January and snow days. Now onto the end of the year lists.

Favorite Fiction This Year

When I decided which books to include on my “favorites” list and then gathered books to illustrate this post, I realized how much I now use the library. Most of my favorites are books I borrowed from the library and few are ones I acquired. Because my list of favorites is so long, I divided the list into First Tier and Second Tier. I listed the books in the order in which I read them–not according to which favorites were my most favorite!

First Tier Favorites

  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  • Oh William by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yea Gyasi
  • Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (a reread)
  • Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams
  • The Floor of the Sky by Pamela Carter Joern
  • A Town Called Solace, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Road Ends–all by Mary Lawson
  • Beneficence by Meredith Hall
  • Great Circle, Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me –all by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (a reread)
  • French Braid by Anne Tyler
  • Three by Valerie Perrin
  • Honor by Thirty Umrigar
  • Recitative by Toni Morrison
  • The Midcoast by Adam White
  • Fencing with the King by Diane Abu-Jaber
  • The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams
  • Landslide by Susan Conley
  • The Other Mother by Rachel Harper
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Foster by Claire Keegan
  • The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Second Tier Favorites

  • Celine by Peter Heller
  • The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
  • Zorrie by Laird Hunt
  • The Eighth Life by Nina Haratischvili
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Sharfak
  • Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
  • Matrix by Lauren Groff
  • Jubilee by Margaret Walker
  • Solar Storms by Linda Hogan
  • The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher (a reread)
  • The Love Songs of W. E. B. DuBois by Honore Fannone Jeffers
  • Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
  • Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
  • A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery
  • Violetta by Isabel Allende
  • Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Mystery Favorites

As I write this I await for the arrival of Louise Penney’s latest. Because I am such a generous soul, I will hand it over to my husband to read it first. I will wait for a day when I can fully immerse myself in it and savor every word.

  • The fist two in the series by Richard Osman: The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice. I am on the list for the third one.
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • A Sunlit Weapon, the latest in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear
  • The Frieda Klein series by Nicci French. The first is Blue Monday and they progress through the days of the week, ending with Sunday Silence
  • A couple by Chris Pavone: The Expats and The Paris Diversion
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers
  • The Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. I think there will be more in this series.
  • Fox Creek by William Kent Krueger, the most recent in the Cork O’Connor series. I didn’t think this was his best, bu I can’t not read WKK.

I make the decision to not continue reading a book quickly, which is why I don’t have many books listed in my Book Journal that I didn’t like. Sometimes I will bring home a pile I have requested from the library and only read one or two. I am sure that there are times if I had continued to read a specific book, I would end up enjoying it, but that is a chance I am willing to take. Too many books–too little time.

An Invitation

What were your favorite fiction titles of 2022? I would love to know.

Ready for Advent: Week #1

November 29, 2022

I’m ready for Advent now, but Friday morning as I defrocked the house of its fall look, I wasn’t so sure. Our grandson had retrieved all the Christmas bins from the storage area underneath the snug, and they waited for me in the lower level bedroom. EEEK!

When I read a novel, setting and characters are more important for my reading pleasure than plot, and that is true for me in my day-to-day life as well. Creating an interesting and creative setting that inspires reflection and growth, as well as an atmosphere for connection with others has always been a priority for me. That is especially true at this time of the year.

I confess that this year the process felt daunting to me. I wondered if this was the year I would say “been there, done that” and limit myself and decide to be a convert to Christmas Minimalism. (Is that a thing?)

Once I opened the bins, however, and became reacquainted with reminders of Christmases past, I was on my way, and the house is now alive with a Christmas glow.

The setting welcomes me into Advent reflection –this time of waiting and promise and finding the light in the darkness. The setting creates a space for the birth that needs to be revisited over and over again. The setting is a threshold for whatever unfolds. The setting asks me to open to what most needs to be discovered and honored, as well as the ways I need to challenge myself.

I am ready.

An Invitation

How do you prepare for this new season? I would love to know.

An Aside:

Not only did I prepare the house for Advent, but I also continued the ongoing process of decluttering. I packed up one bin of fall decorations and two bins of Christmas decorations ready for our annual spring/summer garage sale. I suspect when I pack up the Christmas decorations after Epiphany, I will add more to the “ready to let go” piles. How good that feels!

NOTE:

My post on Thursday, December 1 will include a list of my favorite novels of 2022. On Thursday, December 8 I will list my favorite nonfiction books of 2022.

Be Gentle With Yourself/Myself

November 22, 2022

Note: No post on Thanksgiving Day. I will return on Tuesday, November 29. Have a blessed holiday.

One day this past weekend I wrapped myself in my favorite shawl and moved into the snug to browse through a pile of new home decor magazines. I needed a time-out. Escaping into pictures of beautiful homes, possibly delicious recipes and contemplating holiday decorating is one of the ways I am gentle with myself. One of the ways I restore myself into a rhythm that is calm and open and essential.

These are confusing days; these days right before Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas. At least for me.

These are days of conflicting messages. The grocery store is loaded with all the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner, but at the same time stores are full of Christmas decorations. Driving through neighborhoods especially in the evening, I am surprised by the number of homes with Christmas lights sparkling against the snow, and I even catch glimpses of Christmas trees all aglow inside homes.

Some people have strict guidelines about not decorating until after Thanksgiving and others are busy doing that right now.

We have received our first Christmas cards, and a couple people have told me they are done with their shopping. And that is fine. Whatever works for you and however you meet the demands of your life is your decision, but I can feel myself tightening, wondering how I will get everything done.

Advent begins in a few days, and I am not ready!

There is always a lot to do this time of the year, and I wonder how I managed before our children were grown when I was working full time and my husband was a busy family doc or those years when we traveled from our home in Ohio to the rest of our family here in Minnesota. Now we don’t host Thanksgiving, and we don’t have as much shopping to do as we once did nor do we decorate in the same extravagant way.

Our grandson will come get the bins of Christmas decorations out of the storage space for us this week, and I will decorate beginning Friday. On Thanksgiving Day we will have our photograph taken with our grandkids and then I can order copies for our Christmas cards, but I am not yet in the mood to write an accompanying letter. Maybe I won’t do that this year.

I want to do some entertaining, and I always bake many loaves of cherry walnut bread. It would be fun to make some different cookies this year, too. My husband said he would help. (That’s when I will miss having a big kitchen.) We’ve done some shopping, and I bought wrapping paper, but need to get ribbon.

In the midst of the December list, I also need to do some planning for the new year. When in January should I start the winter series of the church writing group I facilitate and when can I set aside time for the planning of those sessions? What about the other groups I lead?

For the most part I relish it all, but at the same time I am aware that day to day life continues. I meet with clients, fix dinner, pay bills, do laundry and even write my twice a week blog posts. (I don’t anticipate much other writing will get done.) I am also aware of those I love who are in pain and trying to manage what is unwelcome and unexpected. How do I stay open to those needs?

We live near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. A place sacred to the Dakota people. An area important in their creation stories; an area of great energy and meaning.

These November-December days feel like a confluence to me–time flowing into each other, joining the past year, leading to a momentous birth and on into a new year and new beginnings. Beginnings that may grow from endings. Past, present, and future almost all at the same time, and at times that can feel chaotic. But eventually the rivers of time become one, and order of some kind is created.

I wonder how many times I have advised someone to “Be gentle with yourself. Remember to breathe.”

When we seem to be in a time of confluence, when the past is moving quickly into the future and the present is overflowing, treating oneself with gentleness is not just a good idea, but a necessary one.

An Invitation

What are the ways you practice being gentle with yourself? I would love to know.

Book Report: Bookshelf Browsing

November 17, 2022

I am a happy woman today.

I will spend a chunk of the day planning two more sessions for the writing group I facilitate at church. Each session I offer some quotations related to a specific theme, followed by a writing prompt.

For example, the theme this month is hospitality. Last week the quotes I presented included:

In your own way, do you keep a lantern burning by the roadside with a note saying where you may be found, “just in case?” Do you place a jar of cool water and a bit of fruit under a tree at the road’s turning, to help the needy traveler? God knows the answer and so do you!

Howard Thurman in Meditations of the Heart

The guest in Benedictine spirituality is a visit from the God of surprises…Guests bring the world in, place it at our feet, and dare us to be who and what we say we are.

Joan Chittister in The Monastery of the Heart, An Invitation to a Meaningful Life

The quotes may be poems or prayers. They may come from novels, as well as books or articles on spirituality or they may be Biblical passages. The first week we explored hospitality, for example, I included only one quote and that was the Martha and Mary story as told in Luke 11:38-42. Most often, however, I invite exploration of the topic through a variety of quotes–and a variety of sources and writers, balancing men and women’s voices, also.

Sometimes the theme is the result of something I have just read. Sometimes I think of a prompt first and need quotes to support it. No matter the doorway into the planning of a writing session, I love the scavenger hunt for supporting content.

I stand in front of my shelves in the garret and ask, sometimes even aloud, for guidance. What books will have the perfect words for deeper understanding and insight and inspiration? Sometimes the answer is obvious, for there is a specific book that addresses the topic. For example, Invited, the Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness by Leslie Verner or The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. I glance at what I have underlined and I note sources the author mentions. As I immerse myself in the topic, I think about other books within my reach or file folders in my drawers that may have a nugget on the topic. I have a journal of quotes I have read in other people’s blogs and I may page through that, often finding just the piece of wisdom I need for myself that day

I turn to my favorites–Jan Richardson, Christine Valters Painter, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer.

I add sticky book flags to pages that seem relevant and begin a stack of books on the top of my desk.

One book leads to another. And searching for material for the current topic often leads to ideas for future topics or for other programs I facilitate. Or for my blog posts or essays I may want to write.

Ultimately, I only use a few of the quotes I find, but engaging with this process, an intuitive and playful process, immerses me in the topic and opens me to whatever direction the participants in the writing group may go with their writing. The process broadens me and deepen my own reflection. It is a process that leads me into a kind of stillness, even as it energizes me.

Moving from book to book I realize this is meditation, this is prayer.

Yes, today I am a happy woman.

An Invitation

Is there a quote in your life that continues to inspire and guide you? What does that quote prompt you to do, to be? I would love to know.

NOTE:

An essay I wrote is featured on the Brevity’ Nonfiction Blog site today. I hope you will read it. Here’s the link: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2022/11/17/to-continue-or-not-writing-the-memoir-that-is/

Being A Vessel

November 15, 2022

At a recent session with my spiritual director, she noticed how I cupped my hands as I spoke. That posture suggested a word to her. Vessel. The word resonated with me, and I wondered about the implications of that word in my life.

Soon after that session I read a prayer, “Blessing the Fragments,” by Jan Richardson in her book, The Cure for Sorrow, A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief. This is the first verse.

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but open
to welcome what comes.

Welcome what comes? I’m not so sure about that. Why, for example, would I welcome the sadness I feel about a friend’s dire cancer diagnosis. Then I read the last verse.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be 
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps,
what feast
will offer itself 
from the pieces 
that remain.


“Oh, Nancy, ” I say to myself, “You do not yet know the gifts of this time. And you can’t know if you live with your hands clenched in a rigid fist.”

With my hands cupped I …

Receive and Release

Open and Offer

Honor and Hold

Isn’t this what we envision for ourselves when we walk with someone who experiences pain or confusion, doubt or fear?

At those times I want to receive what is shared, spoken or unspoken. Not only do I want to release my own fears, but also my need to control or correct or fix or solve.

I want to open my heart and listen with the ears of my heart. I open to the inner voice, the Divine that whispers to me.

I open to surprise, to possibility, to what feels new and perhaps not quite acceptable. I open to change, to transformation, to hope and salvation. I open to imperfection and a lack of answers. I open to the spaciousness of this time, whatever that means.

I offer what I can, what I am able. I offer myself, my heart and my intuition, too, along with my understanding, even when I don’t understand.

I offer my presence.

I honor for we are beloved. We are holy. I honor our fragility that lives within our wholeness. I honor vulnerability and the willingness to be seen, to be known.

I hold the space for all that is swirling or sometimes for all that feels static. I hold the fear and allow love to be borrowed, if love feels distant. I hold the in-between times. I hold myself accountable, even as I am gentle with myself.

I hold the present moment with my presence.

I hold open the door.

I remember my prayer bowl, a vessel that sings. When I strike the rim the tone is clear and strong and reverberates for a long time, fading gradually into the space around me. The energy and the memory remain.

May I be that vessel–a vessel that receives and releases, opens and offers, honors and holds. A vessel that sings even as she cries.

An Invitation

Cup your hands. What do you see? What kind of vessel are you carrying? I would love to know.

Book Report: The Overstory by Richard Powers

November 10, 2022

I’m not sure why I finally decided to read this book. It has been on my “fiction yet to be read” bookshelf for a long time. Often when I finally take a delayed plunge I wonder why I waited so long, and this was the case with The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Perhaps I finally settled into this big book (500 pages) because I had discarded several books I put on hold at the library. The descriptions of each of those books appealed, but after reading the first few pages I knew they would not satisfy a barely perceptible itch for something more substantial.

Perhaps I finally turned to The Overstory because of the season and how much more aware I am of trees as they shed their leaves and reveal their bones.

Perhaps I was influenced by the paperback release of Richard Powers most recent book, Bewilderment.

Perhaps after reading thirteen books last month, I was ready to settle into the world of one book.

This is a novel about trees–their significance and how we treat them. That is a simple statement, but this book is not simple.

In the first section, “Roots” we meet nine main characters. Yes, nine, and each one is essential. We learn their backstories, each one fascinating, and then in later sections, “Trunk,” “Crown” and “Seeds,” we learn how some of them interconnect as tree defenders and for others the understanding of the essentialness of trees is discovered in more solitary ways.

As I read further and further into the book, I thought about a walk I took almost every day when we lived in Ohio. Sometimes our old dog Boe went with me, sniffing and shuffling along the trail. At the beginning of my walk a large oak tree, a tree I thought of as the Grandfather tree, welcomed me each day. I often stood in front of the tree, taking several deep breaths, before veering off onto the trail along a small lake. Boe was always eager to get moving, but I needed a moment to settle myself and find the rhythm of the day and to listen to what whispers the tree might offer. Further on I encountered another large, very large tree, with a sizable opening at the base of the tree. I imagined this was where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys descended into their underground world. Once I peered into the hole, almost as tall as I am, hoping I could hear them. There were other trees at other stages of their lives, juveniles reaching into the sky or fallen elders, still present, but giving life and wisdom in more discreet ways.

I didn’t think much on my walks about how trees are above and beyond and deeper than humanity and how they are our ancestors, but I think at some essential core, I knew that. Powers clearly knows that and wants us to know it, too, and his beautiful and passionate writing creates and reinforces that knowing.

If you’re holding a sapling in your hand when the Messiah arrives, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.

page 89

…a great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.

page 89

Now they only need to learn what life wants from humans. It’s a big question to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren’t alone, and they never have been.

page 489

This book is not an easy read, but that’s not a good enough reason not to read it. You might want to consult one of the many reviews of this book for some guiding insight. Here’s one: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/books/review/overstory-richard-powers.html

I look out our front window and realize the ash trees along the boulevard (or as it is called in Cleveland, the “tree lawn,” which I think is a wonderful name) are at the end of their lives and soon we won’t benefit from their shade and their energy. How sad that makes me, and I think about a Chinese saying Powers quotes, “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.”

This book is Powers’ contribution to increasing awareness and call to action regarding climate change. What will be your contribution?

An Invitation:

What big books are waiting for your attention? I would love to know.

Note:

One of my favorite nonfiction books about trees is The Healing Energies of Trees by Patrice Bouchardon (1999), but I also have on my TBR list To Speak for the Trees, My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger.