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.