Book Report: May Round-Up

June 1, 2023

Five Nonfiction Books.

Six Novels.

No duds! Now that’s a good month. I should say, however, that I quickly discard a book, if it doesn’t engage me in the first few pages, so the chances of being disappointed by a book is less and less. I am sure I miss some books because of such fast judgment, but so many books, so little time is becoming more true with each birthday. Sometimes, however, I know a particular book just isn’t the right one at the moment, and I don’t discount returning to it at another time.

Thus, the reading adventure continues.


Three of six novels read in May receive the “I couldn’t put it down.” rating

  • The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. I initially thought of this book as a good “palate cleanser” book after reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, the first book I read in May and highly recommend. (See May 11, 2023 post ). I needed something lighter, but the further I read the more engrossed I became in the story, which focuses around a group of mapmakers, map experts. Much of the story is set in the New York Public Library, but also in a town that doesn’t exist. Mystery, some fantasy. A good summer read–and just out in paperback.
  • The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn. I have not seen this on any other list and only heard about it through Minnesota Public Radio’s book newsletter, The Thread. I am so glad I was led to this book–even though there are so many books about WWI and WWII right now. The story is about three siblings (complicated–different fathers, different mothers) who grow up in rural England and are devoted to one another. One day a dead whale washes up on the shore and Christobel, the oldest, claims the skeleton and uses the bones to build an outdoor theater. She later becomes a spy in France. Well, the plot is involved, but I loved the characters and the writing was fresh and even at 50 pages kept moving.
  • Homecoming by Kate Morton. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect this book to be as good as it was. I think I expected a fluffier, more lightweight book, but I was impressed with how the story kept unfolding, revealing new facts, new information, new aspects of the characters. Set in Australia in two times–1959 and 2018. A mother and three of her children ( a 4th, a baby, is missing) are found dead at a picnic site. The same day the visiting sister-in-law, who is pregnant, has her baby early. In 2018 that woman is dying and her granddaughter Jess, who was raised by her, returns to Australia from England to be with her–and the story begins to unfold. Lots of secrets. I like this quote from close to the end:

Being old, he had come to realize, was like being stuck inside an enormous museum with hundreds of rooms, each crammed full of artifacts from the past.. He understood now why the elderly could sit, seemingly still and alone, for hours on end. There was always something else to take out, to look at from a fresh angle and become reacquainted with.


As mentioned earlier, I started the month reading American Dirt. I also read Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal, a Minnesota author, and the book is set in Minnesota. The story is about a family, with emphasis on the women, who has owned a supper club for generations. A pleasant read. One other novel on the May list is Private Way by Ladette Randolph. Earlier this year I read and liked her memoir Leaving the Pink House. (March 30, 2023 post.) Set in Lincoln, Nebraska, I liked parts of Private Way very much, especially the references to reading Willa Cather’s books, but I thought the premise of the book–why the main character leaves her life in California and rents a home in Lincoln– a bit of a stretch. She learns much about herself along the way and develops key relationships, and I am not sorry I read it, but it was a bit uneven.


The star on May’s nonfiction book is One Hundred Saturdays, Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank, which I wrote about in the May 18, 2023 post, but I can easily recommend four other titles.

  • South to America, A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry. A remarkable book. I didn’t always understand each of the references, especially related to music, but repeatedly I felt stunned by her insights and revelations. Perry examines specific states/cities in the South–a chapter on each– and in that way it reminded me of Clint Smith’s How The Word Is Passed (see December 1, 2022 post). No matter how much we know about the terror of slavery, more needs to be understood, along with the legacy of that time. This would be a good book to read in a group, one section at a time.
  • Sacred Nature, Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World by Karen Armstrong. In her brilliance and her exhaustive research, Armstrong’s books are never easy reads, but worth the effort. This book looks not only at the dire straights we are in because of how we have separated ourselves from nature, but also the views of a variety of religions about nature. In Christianity and Judaism, nature hasn’t played much of a role, but that is not true in other traditions.
  • Catching the Light by Joy Harjo. I am so attracted to her words, and this little book in the “Why I Write” series is no exception. I loved her memoir and also her book of 50 poems for 50 days. (See post on March 30, 2023.) Harjo writes to remember (“The old ones urge and remind us, remember. Remember to remember.” p. 42)–and we white privileged need to read about and understand the ways we colonizers have traumatized indigenous people.
  • Lost and Found, Reflections on Grief, Gratitude, and Happiness by Kathryn Schulz. This is another book now full of my underlining. At times, I admit, I found the book a bit tedious–for example, when she wrote about how the last letter of the alphabet was not “Z,” but “&”. Interesting, but what most engaged me was the focus on the dying and death of her father and the finding of love. And then the “and” of life; how life goes on. Beautifully written, which is no surprise because she is a writer for The New Yorker. One quote out of so many I could share:

This type of circular mourning, the grieving of grief itself, is perfectly normal and possibly inevitable yet also misguided and useless. There is no honor in feeling awful and no betrayal in feeling better, and no matter how dark and salted and bitter cold your grief may be, it will never preserve anything about the person you mourn. Despite how it sometimes feels, it has never kept anyone alive, not even in memory. If anything, it keeps them dead: eventually, it you cannot stop mourning, the person you love will come to be made only of grief.

p. 67.

So now that it is June, summer reading begins. I have started The Postcard by Anne Berest. You can check out my thoughts about summer reading in my May 25, 2023 post. Happy Reading.

An Invitation

Did you read anything this past month that deserves the “I couldn’t put it down rating”? I would love to know.

Re-reading Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”

May 30, 2023

My mouth dropped open when I heard the reports about Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” being removed from shelves in the elementary school section of the library in a K-8 Florida school. One parent said the poem included “hate messages” that served to “cause confusion and indoctrinate students.” The objection to the book did not include examples from the poem to support the parent’s argument.

I always wonder when I hear about yet another book being banned (or in this case, the school argues, it was not banned, but rather, “moved.”) if those who are so concerned about a specific book have actually read the book. In this case I also wondered if they had seen Amanda Gorman read her poem at President Biden’s inauguration–days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

When I heard the reports about the attack on her poem, I remembered how striking this young woman appeared in her tailored yellow coat, a column of gold, standing and speaking confidently as our country’s leaders sat behind her listening intently. I remember the beauty of her hands –motioning not in accusation, but beckoning all of us to climb the hill of justice, the people we have always said we want to be. I’m afraid I don’t remember what Biden said in his speech, although I remember thinking, “Good job. This is a good start.” But I do remember, however, Gorman’s play on words: “‘just is’ isn’t always justice.”

I don’t remember words of hate.

I don’t remember thinking “Oh dear, this could be really confusing for young children to read or hear.”

But then again I am an old woman and I forget where I put my phone and just this morning I misplaced a favorite pen, so perhaps I needed to read “The Hill We Climb” again. I had purchased a copy of the poem, with its Forward by Oprah Winfrey –the complainant said Winfrey was the author–as soon as the book was published.

I read the whole poem aloud. And then I read it again, pausing often, asking myself, “Is this phrase full of hate?”

Somehow, we've weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn't broken, but simply 
To compose a country committed
To all cultures, colors, characters,
And conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not
To what stands between us,
But what stands before us.
We close the divide,
Because we know to put
Our future first, we must first
Put our differences aside.
We seek harm to none, and harmony for all.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover,
In every known nook of our nation,
In every corner called our country,
Our people, diverse and dutiful.
We'll emerge, battered, but beautiful.

I found no hate. I found hope wound in an out of the hard work required of us all.

In a way I am glad this decision by a Florida school has come to our attention, for it highlights the gift of Gorman’s words. Jo Harjo, the twenty-third Poet Laureate of the United States, in her book Catching the Light refers to poets when she writes, “As scribes of our generation, we are called to remember what matters.” (p. 39) She also says every poem is a prayer, and Gorman led us in prayer.

I found no hate.

One more note. I believe children generally know what they can handle, what they are ready to read–and it is usually more than what we give them credit for. People who want material removed from libraries or classrooms often do that, they claim, in order to protect their children from things they aren’t old enough to understand, from what might be confusing or might influence them in an unhealthy way. I am more inclined to believe that those parents are protecting themselves from the need to explore hard questions with their children and from confronting their own contradictions and fears. I wonder if they aren’t afraid they might not really believe what they say they believe if they open themselves to a different vision.

The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light,
If only we're brave enough to see it,
If only we're brave enough to be it.

An Invitation

Can you recall a time when a book led to a serious or deep conversation with a child? I would love to know.

Amnda Gorman reciting her poem at Biden Inauguration:

Book Report: Summer Reading

May 25, 2023

This is the time of year when lists of books for summer reading appear. Often summer reading is lighter. Beach reads. Vacation reading. Summer reading often appeals to people who don’t feel they have enough time to read during other months

Well, I am a voracious reader all year round and always have been, so what I read or if I read is not dictated by the time of the year. What changes for me is where I read. Not only do I continue to read in the snug or in bed, but during the summer I also read on the patio and in our side garden, “Paris.” However, I am still attracted to those summer reading lists, and one of my favorite summer reading lists is Anne Bogel’s guide. I listen to her podcast, “What Should I Read Next” and get her “Modern Mrs Darcy” newsletter/blog. I have browsed the new guide and know I will spend more time with it, weighing which titles to add to my TBR lists.

In the meantime I have a number of books waiting for summer reading time on my shelves.

  • For Mother’s Day I received two books: The Postcard by French author Anne Berest is getting lots of attention, even though it is long and some have called it “weighty,” but compelling. The other book is The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Indigenous author, Debra Magpie Earling. Both books are appealing, and my daughter was delighted she selected books I have not already read or purchased myself.
  • The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. Through some great luck I was at the top of the library hold list. I loved Verghese’s earlier novel Cutting for Stone and based on the reviews I know I will love this new one. It is a long book–over 700 pages–which is not a problem for me, but I want to savor it and not worry about returning it on time. Plus, I am quite sure my husband will want to read it and perhaps others in the family, so I returned the library copy and bought my own.
  • At the same time I bought the Verghase book I bought The Midnight Library by Matthew Haig. This book has just been released in paperback after a long life on bestseller lists as a hardcover. Here’s an intriguing sentence from the back cover: “We all have regrets–choices we could have made differently, paths we didn’t take, other lives we might have led. But what if you were given a chance to fix your past? Enter The Midnight Library.”
  • At that same trip to a favorite bookstore, I bought two other books from my TBR lists: Lost and Found, Reflections on Grief, Gratitude, and Happiness by Kathryn Schulz; Indiana, Indiana by Laird Hunt (I loved his National Book Award finalist title Zorrie. The character Zorrie is introduced in this book.); and a title I had not heard about but it just appealed, and was my Wild Card purchase of the day, Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams. She has a long backlist, so this could be a great discovery!
  • Earlier this spring I bought one of the titles in the British Library Women Writers series, Father by Elizabeth von Arnim This is a case of being attracted to the look of a book. Pretty. The whole series appeals to me because of the focus–female authors who enjoyed broad appeal in their day. The fictional heroines in these books experienced life at a time when the role of women changed radically. Von Arnim (1866-1941) is perhaps best known for her book, The Enchanted April.

If I have a goal for my summer reading it is to finish the books on my 2022 TBR lists. I have only four more novels to read, and I am currently reading one of them, Private Way by Ladette Randolph and another is waiting for me at the library, Flight by Lynn Steger Strong. And I have three titles left on the nonfiction TBR. One of those is Lost and Found, mentioned earlier.

I have no doubt I will veer from this pile of proposed books for summer, but shouldn’t summer be all about fun and discovery and being open to what presents itself. Needless to say, I will keep you updated on my June, July, and August reading.

An Invitation

Do you have any reading plans for summer. I would love to know.

A Week in Review

May 23, 2023

Have you noticed how some weeks just glow? The days flow with a kind of ease. Perhaps there are more than your usual share of special moments or perhaps the ordinary becomes extraordinary. This past week was one of those weeks, beginning with Mother’s Day and rich family time and ending on Saturday with a top-down drive in my husband’s Miata to a favorite nursery and an outdoor lunch in small town on the St Croix River.

In between I enjoyed productive writing time–writing my posts for the week, as well as working on an essay to submit to a publication. Oh how good it was to write in “Paris.”

I met with my spiritual director and we explored the ways I am lightening my life as I age, including a shorter haircut –silly or trivial as that may sound. I met with spiritual direction clients and the writing group I facilitate. The moments of silence, of sitting with one another open my heart and clear the space for what most needs tending. Such a privilege those times are.

The grandkids delivered homemade cookies one evening (delicious) and another evening we had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Sea Salt overlooking Minnehaha Falls. I walked every morning and read on the patio. Finished a book and started another.

We attended a gala for Theater Latte Da, a local theater that specializes in musicals, often new and never before produced, and enjoyed time with friends but also the wonderful musical entertainment. Once I figured out what I was going to wear, all was well!

One morning I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) to see an exhibit called “Eternal Offerings, Chinese Ritual Bronzes.” Yes, the objects created to honor ancestors or to communicate with the spiritual world were beautiful, but the atmosphere created —sound, murals on the walls, lighting— all added to the appreciation of the objects. I took my time moving through the rooms–allowed myself to relax into the beauty and the history, as well as the spiritual life of a culture not my own. I had not been to MIA for a long time and made a mental note to return soon.

The Foundation of Each Day

I began each day reading a meditation from You are the Beloved, Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living by Henri J. M. Nouwen, compiled and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. Perhaps this past week shimmered for me because each of those readings so resonated with me, beginning on Sunday, May 14 when Nouwen writes about prayer as a “careful attentiveness to the Presence of Love personified inviting us to an encounter.”

I felt as if I encountered God each day, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, and whomever I was with.

Contemplative prayer can be described as an imagining of God’s Son, Jesus, letting him enter fully into our consciousness so that he becomes the icon always present in the inner room of our heart.

May 15

…many words from the Scriptures can reshape the inner self. When I take the words that strike me during a service into the day and slowly repeat them while reading or working, more or less chewing on them, they create new life.

May 16

But when we believe that we are created in the image of God himself and come to realize that Christ came to let us reimagine this, then meditation and prayer can lead us to our true identity.

May 17

Listen to your heart…Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus who dwells in the very depths of your heart.

May 18

Prayer allows us to lead into the center of our hearts not only those who love us but also those who hate us. This is possible only when we are willing to make our enemies part of ourselves and thus convert them first of all in our own hearts.

May 19

Just because prayer is the most precious expression of being human, it needs the constant support and protection of the community to grow and flower.

May 20

Here it is day three of the current week, and my days continue to flow, to glow, to shimmer, to open me to the movement and presence of God. Ah, how grateful I am.

An Invitation

What do you notice as you review your days? I would love to know.

Book Report: One Hundred Saturdays, Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank

May 18, 2023

I waited for this book for a long time. The library only had two copies and the people who checked it out must have renewed it more than once and then not returned it on its final due date. Finally, I received the notice that it was my turn. I must admit I wondered if the wait would be worth it. It was.

Stella Levi grew up in the Jewish area called Juderia on the Aegean Island, Rhodes. That Jewish community had existed there for half a millennium until the Germans seized control of the island in September, 1943. The following July all 1650 residents were deported to Auschwitz. It was a mystery why, when Germany was so close to being defeated and the end of the war so near, they went to all this expense and effort, but that is the nature of war, I guess.

Stella survived and eventually immigrated to the U.S. As an elder she met Michael Frank who was interested in her story, and this book is the result of 100 Saturday visits over a period of six years. Frank listened, asked respectful questions, and over time she trusted him, and they developed a rich friendship.

I’ve read many books about WWII and the Holocaust, but in each one I learn something new and come just a bit closer to imagining the horror of that time, but there are also moments of rejoicing when people somehow live beyond the terror and the evil. Stella is one of those people.

“You have to remember that the first time I ever left Rhodes was when they took us to Athens and from Athens through Europe by train. I looked out the window, I watched the stations flash by: here was the continent I’d dreamt about for so long. And afterward…afterward in the camps themselves, we met the French women and Madame Katz and Paula, who were from Belgium. They spoke about Paris, Lyon, Brussels. They had actually seen and experienced, or were connected to, the places I had longed to know and to visit. They’d lived there. They were from there, of there…”

Under the unlikeliest of circumstances, the wider world came closer.

p. 68

“Very early on, almost from the beginning, something curious happened. I detached myself from the Stella who was in Auschwitz. It was if everything that was happening to her was happening to a different Stella. not the Stella I was, not the Stella from Rhodes, the Stella I knew. I watched this person, this other Stella, as she walked through this desert, but I was not this person.”

After a moment she adds, “There was no other way.”

p. 140

About Stella’s relationship with Frank:

“And then you came along and were curious. And patient with me, even though I wasn’t always so…so easy. And in speaking to you I have learned a good deal about myself. As I tell you my stories, I learn. One thing I learn is that there is no single truth; there is a changing truth…and you understand a good deal from going back, returning, and more than once, to what you thought you knew, and felt, and believed.”

p. 208

A bonus in this book is that it is illustrated by Maira Kalman who is the author and illustrator of over 30 books for adults and children, and her work is exhibited in museums around the world.

This is her portrait of Stella.

One of my favorite books she illustrated is the classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White. Her illustrations make grammar palatable.

Here are Strunk and White:

And here is Maira Kalman.

An Invitation

What books have you waited for? Have they fulfilled your expectations or been a disappointment? I would love to know.

Notes about Spiritual Practices

May 16, 2023

Every morning our neighbors across the street walk the block and a half to the Catholic Church for mass.

Every morning.

Attending the service is certainly a spiritual practice that no doubt strengthens their faith, but the walk itself is a spiritual practice: a time to prepare for the ritual of worship and prayer; a time to open to the movement and presence of God, a reinforcement of the gifts of contemplation; and perhaps, incentive to be partners in God’s reconciling love for the world.

That’s a lot happening in a short round-trip walk, but when you make room for a spiritual practice in your daily life and commit to a regular practice, God will notice and you will notice God.

Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?
As little as you can do to make the sunrise in the morning.
Then what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?
To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.
                              Anthony de Mello

I’ve written often in this blog and elsewhere about spiritual practices and the role they play in aiding the discovery of and living as the person God created me to be. That process is an ongoing pilgrimage, and I need spiritual practices to fortify and sustain me in my intentions:

  • To feel God’s presence and support,
  • To feel connected to the whole,
  • To integrate the model of Jesus into my life,
  • To give my life meaning, even as I age,
  • To move from fear to love.

I have core spiritual practices; practices that have been part of my life for a long time, including writing in my journal and starting the day with meditation and prayer time, but at various times in my life, and often with a change of the season, I add in other practices to spark and surprise me as I move through my days. Two examples:

  • Take one photograph on my daily walk. Just one. Right now as spring is bursting how tempting it is to click, click, click on my walk, but confining myself to one photograph only seems to open my eyes even more. When I see something of beauty, of interest I stop and ask myself, “What do you notice? How is this a sign of God? What does this sight awaken in you? What of this moment will you carry with you?” Even when I decide not to take photograph at that moment, the pause, the taking a breath, the observing is a gift that becomes part of who I am and how God is present in my life. And somehow I seem to know when it is time for the one photograph of the day. No doubts. No hesitation. It is time. Do I ever regret not taking a picture of something I’ve seen. Not so far, but that could happen. Instead, that makes me aware of the abundance of wonders all around me, and understanding I can never capture them all. Why not let my one picture of the day symbolize the whole, the all.
  • Adopt a mantra and whisper it throughout the day. Lately, thanks to a meditation in You Are the Beloved, Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living by Henri Nouwen, I recite the words, “I am the glory of God.” I repeat the sentence as I walk up the stairs to the garret or make the bed in the morning or open the refrigerator when it is time to fix dinner. I change the mantra to “You are the glory of God,” as I see my husband working his magic in the garden or I insert the name of a spiritual direction client as I sit in silence before the beginning of a session. Here’s what Nowen writes,

Make that thought the center of your meditation so that it slowly becomes not only a thought but a living reality. You are the place where God chose to dwell, you are the topos tou theou (God’s place) and the spiritual life is nothing more or less than to allow that space to exist where God can dwell, to create the space where his glory can manifest itself. In your meditation you can ask yourself, “Where is the Glory of God? If the glory of God is not there where I am, where else can it be?”

May 10, p. 144
  • Planning the week. On Sunday I turn the page of the notebook I keep on the top of my desk and I write down the schedule for the week. The events, the appointments. Yes, those are on my laptop and phone calendars, but writing them on this clean page is an act of mindfulness, of blessing. I also create my To Do lists for three categories–Writing Tasks, Church Tasks, and Other Tasks. Again, doing this on the Sabbath is an act of mindfulness and blessing. I’ve been blessed with a fresh start, another week to live with intention, but even more than that, with gratitude for this life I am privileged to live.

During the Sunday service one of our members played a gorgeous piano solo. He is a busy physician, husband and father, and I imagine that playing the piano is relaxing for him, but as I listened to him, I had no doubt this was a form of spiritual practice for him, also. All of us listening received the fruits of that spiritual practice.

Practices are a way of embodying the spiritual journey rather than merely thinking about it. Practices help us to bring the reality of what we seek into the physicality and earthiness of our lives.

Christine Valters Paintner

An Invitation

What are your spiritual practices? What is currently part of your life that is actually a spiritual practice without your realizing it? I would love to know.

Book Report: A Controversial Book–American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

May 11, 2023

When American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was published in 2020 and selected for the Oprah Book Club, controversy erupted. I remember hearing and reading about the objections–that the author who identified as white, although her grandmother was from Puerto Rico, had indulged in stereotypes and didn’t accurately portray the truth of migrant experiences. A conversation arose about who has the right to tell a story, and that conversation continues.

I didn’t rush to read it, but kept the title on my TBR, and there it remained until last week.

I was moved by it, often feeling tears on my cheeks, and I sometimes needed to remind myself to breathe, as I worried about the fate of the characters. One criticism is that it was too easy of a read–a book meant for the screen. I didn’t find it easy on the emotions, however, and should s book be criticized because it eventually, through a long and arduous process, finds its way to the screen? (American Dirt has not yet been translated to film, by the way.)And just because a book is a page-turner does that make it any less worthwhile?

The main character is Lydia who owns a bookstore in Acapulco. Her husband Sebastien is a journalist who writes about Mexican cartels, and he and many members of their family are murdered after he writes a particularly incriminating article. Lydia and her young son, Luca, realize they need to flee because one of her customers is head of a cartel, although initially she was not aware of that fact, and he has fallen in love with her. The bulk of the novel is their harrowing movement towards el norte. I read the chapters describing the dangers of accessing and traveling, illegally, of course, the trains called La Bestia, with my mouth open and my heart pounding.

I rooted for Lydia and Luca and for some of their companions as they did what they needed to do to escape. The ethical and moral issues raised are as harrowing as the physical dangers and demands. I realize that this is one picture, one story, one perspective, but the depiction of fear and strength and hope seems authentic.

Something to Think About: Two Passages

The first passage is about Luca, the remarkable young son, learning about his own situation. Rebeca, mentioned in the section, is a teenage girl also trying to get to el norte.

As Rebeca reveals what scraps of story she does have to Luca, he starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well-educated, some illiterate, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering on top of that train and into el norte beyond. Some, like Rebeca, share their stories carefully, selectively, finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers. Other migrants are like blown-open grenades, telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet, dispensing their pain like shrapnel so they might one day wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would feel like to blow up like that. But for now he remains undetonated, his hours sealed tightly inside, his pin fixed snugly in place.

p. 166

We are invisible, Luca says to himself, and he closes his eyes. We are desert plants. We are rocks. He breathes deeply and slowly, taking care that his chest doesn’t rise and fall with the cycle of the breath. The stillness is a kind of meditation all migrants must master. We are rocks, we are rocks. Somos piedras. Luca’s skin hardens into a stony shell, his arms become immovable, his legs permanently fixed in position, the cells of his backside and the bottoms of his feet amalgamate with the ground beneath him. He grows into the earth. No part of his body itches or twitches, because his body is not a body anymore, but a slab of native stone. He’s been stationary in this place for millennia. This silk tassel tree has grown up from his spine, the indigenous plants have flourished and died here around his ankles, the fox sparrows and meadowlarks have nested in his hair, the rains and winds and sun have beaten down across the rigid expanse of his shoulders, and Luca has never moved. We are rocks.

p. 333

I think this book is well worth reading. At the same time I have no doubt there are major discrepancies in the white publishing world and that people of color do not get deserved recognition or financial support and payment in the same way that white writers do. Perhaps the debate about this book will make a difference.

An Invitation

What authors and books about migrants and immigration do you recommend? I would love to know.

Clearing and Creating New Space

May 9, 2023

Recently, my husband “suggested” that it is time to simplify the kitchen cupboards. After all, we have twelve white plates, but we use the same two over and over.

And bowls–how many bowls are really necessary? Cereal bowls, mixing bowls, pasta bowls, serving bowls. I admit I do have a thing about bowls. One of my favorite bowls is the light blue bowl on the top shelf, and I only use it when I make cherry walnut bread at Christmas time. I suppose I could use it at other times, too, but somehow, that doesn’t seem right. And then there are the 24 small vintage bowls or as my grandmother called them, sauce dishes. I bought them several years ago when we hosted an informal soup supper for Bruce’s colleagues. How likely is it that we will ever again need 24 bowls at the same time?

Over the years we have hosted many dinner parties and parties. I have spent days planning menus and cooking and cleaning and have loved the whole process, but it now seems unlikely that we will host large groups again or even have more than six people for dinner.

Our entertaining style has changed. What we most enjoy now is inviting two people over (We have four comfortable chairs in our living room.) for “4 o’clocks”–a drink and appetizers. Cheese, sausage, crackers. A dip, maybe some fruit. Something hot. Nibbles. Often a recipe I have wanted to try. Most important is the relaxed, but intimate atmosphere for fun and meaningful conversation. Oh, and much easier clean-up. Now with warmer weather we will enjoy our “4 ‘clocks” on the patio.

I realize the issue here is not my deep attachment to a material thing, but instead I sometimes struggle accepting who I am now–my age, my energy. At the same time I have become more and more clear about how I want to spend my time and use my gifts. Still, however, I cling to the earlier images of myself. Those stacks of dishes and a bowl for every purpose under heaven represent the ways I lived in earlier years when I had much more energy. The more the merrier when it came to entertaining.

I still have a good amount of energy and lots of interests and am blessed with many people with whom I enjoy spending time, but how much of a good thing I can hold in a day is more limited. Susan Moon in Alive Until You Are Dead, Notes on the Home Stretch, reflects on what she can do with “joyful effort” in her late 70’s. I love that.

An Ongoing Process

Our daughter and son-in-love have hosted the previous two Thanksgiving dinners, but this coming year they may be visiting our granddaughter, who will spend a semester in Greece. How grand is that! Our son and daughter-in-love usually come for the Christmas holidays, and we love all of us being together. But what does that mean for Thanksgiving? Well, my husband, open and generous person that he is, suggested we should host a friendsgiving for all those in our life who are alone. Only a few years ago I would have rejoiced with the idea, but this time I didn’t respond–at least not aloud. I admit I thought about all the work, all the energy that would take (and the bowls!). I know this is a decision that doesn’t need to be made now, and there are lots of ways to make an event like that happen, but it is another one of those opportunities to pay attention to who I am now.

If you have read my essay in Next Avenue ( you know how decluttering and managing the stuff of life is an ongoing process. I suspect that leaving some room on the kitchen shelves will open some space in my heart and mind to more fully live as I age.

Words of Wisdom

When I look around the crowded room and wonder why I am keeping the large desk when a smaller one would do just as well, something inside of me is beginning to change. When three sets of dishes are two sets too many, I have begun to need more than just things. When the house is too crowded and the car is too big and the perfect lawn too much of a bother, I have begun a whole new adventure in life…It is the shaping of the soul that occupies us now. Now, consciously or, more likely, not, we set out to find out for ourselves who we really are, what we know, what we care about, and how to be simply enough for ourselves in the world.

The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister, p.91

My Intentions

  • I will pay attention to what I actually use–how and when I use what fills my cupboards. Just looking at the above picture, I see two bowls that can go.
  • I will add some of my kitchen treasures to the annual garage sale my husband has in June to sell the discarded furniture he has rescued, painted, and given new life. The proceeds from his sale go to a program for homeless youth.
  • I will simplify the stack of 24 sauce dishes –keep 6 of them. Or maybe 8.

An Invitation

What outer and inner shelves in your life need to be cleared? I would love to know.

Book Report: April Round-Up

May 4, 2023

Have you noticed I read far more fiction than nonfiction?

Part of the reason is, quite simply, that I prefer fiction. My first career was as an English teacher—reading novels and short stories and poetry, too, was just part of the deal. That preference has only grown throughout my life. Another reason relates to my reading routine. I often read a book related to spirituality during my meditation time, and I tend to read those books more slowly–perhaps, only a few pages in one sitting. Finally, one of my daily reading times is in bed before turning out the light, and many nonfiction books require more concentration than that posture allows. Most of the time I read a nonfiction book alongside a novel, but the novel is usually my first choice during my reading times.

This month I read three nonfiction books. Two were about aging. I have an extensive library of books about that topic, which is becoming more and more relevant in my own life, but I am also becoming more choosy about what I add to that collection. I decided to keep only one of the two I read in April and put the other in the basket for a Little Free Library.

  • Alive Until You’re Dead, Notes on the Home Stretch by Susan Moore. Moore is a Buddhist and has written extensively about aging, challenging readers to be curious about this stage of life. I need to think more about her desire to “release my grip on my preferences. I wanted to stop worrying about whether what I was doing was the very thing that I most wanted to be doing.” (p. 23) I find myself thinking more and more about what it is I most want or most need to do; how I want to spend my time and energy, so Moore’s perspective interests me. The book includes an excellent chapter on practices to contemplate death, including walking in cemeteries, reading obituaries, and making a day of the dead altar. This book has found its place on my bookshelves.
  • Growing Old, Notes on Aging with Something Like Grace by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. I appreciate the author’s sense of humor and her common sense treatment of loss, including losing one’s hearing or keys and other things, along with losing significant people in one’s life, but the picture of her on the back cover lighting her cigarette with a birthday candle seemed inappropriate and not funny. I am not keeping this book.

The other nonfiction book I read was Enchantment, Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age by Katherine May. Perhaps you’ve read her earlier book, Wintering, The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. I had intended to buy Enchantment, but before I did I spotted it on the Lucky Day shelf at the library. Lucky Day shelves hold current and widely requested books–just your luck to find one–but they can’t be renewed. By the time I was done reading it, the pages were dotted with colorful sticky tabs highlighting passages. I don’t often buy a book I have already read, but that’s exactly what I did in this case.

It occurs to me that I am resting. It is not the same as doing nothing. Resting, like this is something active, chosen, alert, something rare and precious. (p. 26)

I tend to think that God is not a person, but the sum total of all of us, across time. That only makes the imperative greater. We have a duty to witness the broad spectrum of humanity, rather than to defend our own corner of it. That is the work I crave: the sense of contact. The possibility that it might change me in ways that I can’t predict. The possibility that I might one day do better. (p. 100)

Play is a disappearance into a space of our choosing, invisible to those outside the game. It is the pursuit of pure flow, a sandbox mind in which we can test new thoughts, new selves. It’s a form of symbolic living, a way to transpose one reality onto another and mine it for meaning. Play is a form of enchantment. (p. 137)

April Fiction

I read nine novels in April and in earlier April posts wrote about three of them, each book memorable: Still True by Maggie Ginsburg and Women Talking by Miriam Toews and Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano.

Out of the remaining six my least favorite was Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. My main objection to the book, a family saga, is that the characters, mainly women, didn’t grow or change in any significant way. If these characters were real, I am not sure I would choose to spend time with them.

The other five were well worth reading, and I recommend each one.

  • Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson. A friend recommended this book to me. (Thank you!) In fact, she has bought several copies and given them away as “must reads.” Set in Sweden, Veronika, whose fiancé has recently died in an accident, rents a home next to an older woman, Astrid, whom the village sometimes refers to as a witch. She prefers her solitary life. The two women gradually become close friends; a model of intergenerational relationships, I think. They share their pasts, hurts, secrets, and develop deep trust with one another. They often shared a meal together –a kind of sacred ritual. Veronika is a writer and there were many lovely passages about writing.

It was as if the story were a fragile cobweb, and she had to take the utmost care not to rip the thread…The words on the screen in front of her seemed to paint an almost forgotten landscape. It was as if she were slowly unpacking, pulling out one scene after another and exploding them to this bleak light. The effort was enormous. Here, now, each passage seemed out of place, like clothes bought on holiday.

pp. 17-18

One of my favorite passages is about change.

It is in the nature of things to change. Nothing can last beyond its given time. And I think instinctively we know what time is. What is it that makes us know when the summer turns? The smallest shift in the light? The slightest hint of chill in the morning air? A certain rustling of the leaves of the birches? That is how it is–suddenly, in the midst of the summer heat, you are overcome by a tightening of your heart. The realization that it will all come to an end. And that brings a new intensity to everything: the colours, the smells, the feeling of sunshine on your arm.

p. 72

Now I want to read Olsson’s back list.

  • My Antonia by Willa Cather. I decided to sign up for a series of zoom events sponsored by the Willa Cather Foundation, and the first book discussed was My Antonia. I needed to miss that conversation, unfortunately, but oh, how I loved reading this book again, my third time. The story is told by Jim Burden, who as a boy was orphaned and leaves Virginia to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. The day he arrives on the train so does a Bohemian immigrant family, the Shimerdas, including daughter, Antonia. Antonia’s spirit sustains her, and she is loved by all who know her. She is not the only character in the book, however, who displays a hardworking and resilient nature, hopeful and strong.

The landscape is a major character, too, and reading the descriptions made me want to drive to the prairie right now.

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it, the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running…I felt motion in the landscape, in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…

pp. 17-18

One of my favorite books of all time is Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag, another immigrant story, and I am drawn after reading My Antonia to reading that once again. I read someplace that books are like nesting dolls–one leads to another. How true that seems.

  • Writers and Lovers by Lily King. I had read this before and didn’t much care for it, but recently I heard a conversation about it and decided to re-try it. This time I really liked it, which goes to show how much mood and timing enter into an assessment of a book. Casey is a struggling writer living in a potting shed (!) and her awful landlord says to her, “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” (p. 2). She becomes involved with two men–one, a writer her age and the other, older and a successful writer with children who adore her. How will it turn out?
  • I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makai. I loved her earlier book, The Great Believers, and I am happy to say I really liked this one, too. Bodie returns to teach at the boarding school where she was once a student –and where her roommate was murdered. She becomes obsessed with investigating this murder, convinced the man convicted was not guilty. There are lots of threads in this book, but Makai is a deft writer, preventing confusion for the reader. A couple favorite lines;

“When my husband passed,” Sheila said, “it was like losing the bookend to a row of books. We all tipped over sideways.”

p. 82

Not a single cell of his body was the same as it had been in 1995. But he was still himself, just as I was still, despite everything, my teenage self. I had grown over her like rings around the core of a tree, but she was still there.

p. 418
  • The Last Painting of Sara DeVos by Dominic Smith. A good novel about an art restoration expert, a young woman, and the man who owns the painting she forges. The original was painted by a Dutch woman in the 1600s. The art forger and the art collector develop a relationship (of course!), but it is told beautifully and not stereotypically. They meet again 40 years later when the painting is part of an exhibit. Good story. Good writing.

Wow–that’s a lot of books to share! Hope this didn’t detract too much from your reading time. Perhaps your TBR has just grown, however.

An Invitation

Any recommendations from April? I would love to know.

Spiritual Practices for My Elder Years

May 2, 2023

When I turned 70, I made a collage to honor that milestone birthday, but also to envision how I hoped to live as I aged.

I quickly sifted through the stash of pictures I kept in a pretty flowered box; pictures torn out of magazines, outdated calendars, and greeting cards too appealing to toss. I sorted them into two piles–the “maybe” pile and the “nope, not today” pile. No judgment. Just a quick “yes” or “no.” Cutting and pasting, I arranged selected images on the paper.

Only later did I sit back and ask, “What are the messages for me in this collage? How can this collage be sacred text for me?”

An image of the labyrinth anchored the center of one side. A candle with wispy smoke and a feather suggested the tentativeness of life. Chairs gathered around a fire and an aged hand that held the model of a house with a red door, just like our house, reminded me of my love of home tending. A big basket seemed to contain memories, as did the leaves gathered into a harvest handful. Of course, there were books stacked along the bottom of the paper. My terra firm.

Almost every collage I have made over the years has included at least one open gate, door, window, or path. This one includes two gates, an open door, and a window, plus a green path, all beckoning me onward, forward, it seemed. I remember, however, feeling some inner hesitation. What was across the threshold? What awaited me down that snow-lined path?

A prickly plant in the corner of the page and a pile of rocks taunted, “Beware. Obstacles ahead.”

Youthful innocence and naïveté were no longer my companions.

An older woman, smiling, pleasant looking, gazed at the labyrinth. I heard her whispering the words I included on the collage:

Choose simplicity.
Keep growing.
Learn something new.
Make room for what matters.
Breathe deeply.

She is my observer, my witness, my companion. My guide.

Being 75

Now I am 75, and I must admit, that age feels a bit daunting,

Since creating my 70th birthday collage, I have experienced losses–the death of my father and a dear friend, for example. I have sent so many sympathy cards and frequently re-order copies of Healing After Loss by Martha W. Hickman to give when someone in my life loses a loved one. And then there were the COVID years. Enough said! My health remains good, however, as does my husband’s, and we both continue to pursue our interests and to serve in ways that matter to us. True, I may not pack as much into a day as I once did, but my days remain full and rich.

I am grateful for these past five years.

I know I need to tend my days wisely, not only not to waste them, but to unfold into the gifts of this time. I’m not done yet, for I am both living and aging, but I respond now more with patience and curiosity, then with urgency and a desire for productivity.

I embrace a posture of contemplation.

A New Spiritual Practice

Recently, while browsing through my library of books about aging, I re-read a section titled “Pebbles of Life” in Aging as a Spiritual Practice, A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond. He shares a story about visiting the home of a fellow Zen priest who had a bowl full of pebbles next to a Buddha statue. Richmond’s friend said each pebble represented a week in the rest of his life, based on statistics about average life expectancy. Every Monday morning after his meditation he removes one of the pebbles. One week gone; who knows how many left to go.

“A mindfulness practice.”

The average life expectancy for a woman in the United States is 80. I am 75 so if I live five more years that equals 260 more weeks.

I counted out 260 little glass discs and placed them in a green glass jar. I was a bit dismayed at first that they didn’t fill the jar, and I wished I had started this practice when I was 70 or even younger. I no longer overflow with weeks ahead of me, I thought.

“A mindfulness practice.”

Of course, I have no idea how much longer I will live, but my mother died at 79, several pebbles shy of her 80th birthday. However, my father died just three years ago at age 96. He would have needed more pebbles in his jar.

I realize some of you readers may find this practice depressing or it might make you anxious, but my hope is that when I remove one of the glass discs every Monday morning that I will reflect on a week lived in gratitude and joy. I hope each glass disc will remind me to live in the present moment; to live with purpose and to open to ways I can become more of the person I was created to be.

I hope the words from my 70th birthday collage will continue to direct and honor my days.

Choose simplicity.
Keep growing.
Learn something new.
Make room for what matters.
Breathe deeply.

These elder years are found time. Sacred time.

An Invitation

What are your guiding words and spiritual practices during these elder years? I would love to know.