commonality

In a world of disconnection, it has felt even more comforting to gather with people all over the world as we circle the same scripture on the same day. That is the beauty of the liturgy, for me. Similar thoughts are being mulled over. Time of year is being considered. The great joining together happens at different times throughout the day and probably over different types of coffee or chai or a whiskey sour. We enter God’s presence with our burlap bags of angsty needs, we read through our ancient common prayer, and then leave that space, emboldened to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I find a great sense of connection with the world in those moments. Even in the solitude of my home.

SING, UNBURIED, SING

This family drama was true southern prose full of spirits and stories and spells. Sin and family and forgiveness. No one dies quite like a southerner, taking their specific cooking and unique lineage, leaving us our heritage and pockets full of stories to embellish for many generations to come.

“…. sorrow is food, swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”

This was a book with a strong second half. I appreciated the lyrical writing and ghostly references only a southerner could fully appreciate.

Finding Calm

These are a few books that have meant a lot to me personally during this pandemic season. I find reliance on the liturgy comforting when you don’t feel like praying. Leaning into ancient traditions (even rote memorization) gets you through at times when your heart just isn’t in it.

I especially recommend the book, Flee. Be Silent. Pray. by Ed Cyzewski. I’ve found a great deal of comfort (and shame release, to be honest) reading this book. It’s no accident I bought it right before the pandemic.

“Find a space for walking with God”, Cyzewski writes. Thomas Merton wrote about the moment he walked into his monastery to stay for the first time: ‘Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.’”

Has Quarantine 2020 been our own monastery? Has it forced us to slow down, to engage more authentically with each other, to pay closer attention to the blatant injustices that have been hiding in plain sight? I keep using the phrase ‘Quarantine as monastery.’ That’s what it’s felt like to me. I’ve been stir crazy at times, yes. But I also have come face to face with Greta in a way I haven’t taken the time to do before my regular routines were broken apart. I’ve learned some ugly traits and I’ve seen talents I have stepped around too often before. I am processing my own prejudices and I’ve embraced a forced contentment with less. I’ve found, through this pandemic of all things, the newly available space to walk intentionally each day with God. I want to go to movie theaters and hug people and travel, but I don’t want my ‘quarantine monastery’ to disappear too quickly. Or to be forgotten too easily. My mind and my heart still has so much work to do. In time. No hurry. Let’s have just one more chai together as I continue to try to memorize this nightly prayer:

‘Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Attend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest for the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love sake. Amen.’

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

I was glad to finally be able to sit down with this Book of the Month feature and all-around popular Bookstagram book, The Vanishing Half.

The concept intrigued me. Stella and Desiree are twins and both born light-skinned Black. Both of them wanting to escape the confines of their small town and to live a fuller life experience, they run away to New Orleans. But one twin, Stella, after easily passing as White, decides to leave her twin and join a race that was not quite her own, but one in which she had fewer limitations. Even Stella’s husband is unaware of her true racial identity.

Negroes always love our home towns even though we’re always from the worst places. Only White folks got the freedom to hate home.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, this interwoven, generational story captured my imagination with thoughts of ‘what if it were me‘ as well as ‘how could she do that?!‘ indignations. Just what the author, Brit Bennett, was aiming for, I’m predicting. What decisions lead us to live lives filled with secrets? Are they our decisions that determine that trajectory or are they the decisions made long before we are born? What masks do we each carry daily?

THE VANISHING HALF was an engaging story that explored racism, abuse, wealth and poverty as well as familial relationships and the ongoing dichotomy of mother-daughter relationships. How do we determine and define ‘family’? While provocative and a page-turner, VANISHING seemed to wrap up quickly and ended fairly abruptly and open-ended.

Perhaps I always think this, however, about characters I’ve invested in…

THE WATERGATE GIRL by Jill Wine-Banks

I’m really excited about this book. Honestly, Watergate was *around* when I was a kid, but I was too young to understand it. I just knew adults were talking about it – when it happened and years afterwards. ⠀

Jill Wine-Banks was an assistant prosecutor during the Watergate hearings. Her house was burgled, her phones were tapped, and even her office garbage was rifled through as she worked on some of the most important prosecutions of high-ranking White House officials. This book is her perspective of a monumental time in American history. ⠀

Thank you, Henry Holt Books, for this gifted copy. I am thrilled to get started!

My New Life as a Book Reviewer

During the last few months of 2019 I decided I wanted to get serious about reviewing books and working with publishing companies to do reviews for upcoming and newly-released books. I made it my goal toward the end of the year to research and find out as much as I could about the craft before the new year began.

And I have to tell you, I’m having a fantastic time! It’s a challenging project for me with the added benefit of free books!

The very first book I received to review was Diane Keaton’s new book, BROTHER AND SISTER. (I reviewed it here.) It is set to release on February 4, 2020. What a fun way to start this goal, right? With Diane Keaton!

I’ve received a handful of books since the Keaton book (with release dates throughout the spring.) Each time I hear the doorbell ring, I run to the door to see which book has arrived. Earlier this week a book was Fed Ex delivered. Expecting a different novel, I was completely surprised as I opened the envelope, slid out the book and suddenly, there was Rachel Maddow’s face looking straight at me. I immediately sent my sister and husband a text. “That’s your girl!”, my husband responded (knowing if Maddow ever showed up on our front steps he would be a thing of the past!) -ha! My sister (also a Maddow fan) was equally as excited. I can’t wait to dive into this book and learn more about this multifaceted news anchor.

The thing I’ve enjoyed THE MOST about this process is that it is challenging me to write. Reviewing books takes me back to my college days of writing in a concise but complete fashion. To help me hone the skill, I’ve been reading professional book reviews as examples on how best to captivate a reader’s attention and consolidate the book without giving too much away. This has become a challenge between myself and…myself. Pushing the limits and diving deeply. There are plenty of other book reviewers out there so it’s ridiculous to feel any competition with them. And I really don’t! I’m having way too much fun challenging and competing with myself. And what better 2020 goal could there be than self-improvement through an avenue I completely enjoy?!

I wish I’d paid more attention to my history professor who tried to teach us speed-reading, however. I am a slow reader. I devour too much. Underline too much. Stop and think about too much. But I’m learning!

I’ll celebrate my 55th birthday next month and I have a new (and beloved) hobby. I am convinced I’ll be saying that very same sentence when I’m 75 years old. I love the stimulation and endorphin rush of learning something new.

Rachel sits on my desk now, whispering empowering messages into my ear as we both push up our chunky glasses and get to work.

THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

Books celebrating books. Authors paying homage to readers. This enticing concoction of book-celebrating is an intoxicating elixir when it occurs in a storyline and The Giver of Stars is no exception.

This book is based on a true story in American history.

Historical reference: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration created librarians – primarily made up of women – to ride horses into rural areas and high in the mountains, bringing books to those who otherwise would have no access to books at all. The purpose of this New Deal program was to expand the minds of those that knew very little of a world outside their own immediate family.

Pack-Horse-Eleanor

These women were often referred to as ‘book ladies’ or ‘packsaddle librarians’. Riding through snow, rain, and very difficult terrain, these traveling librarians dropped off books (and picked up returning books) to the outskirts of society. It is estimated that 63% of the state of Kentucky were without access to public libraries and around 30% of rural Kentuckians were illiterate. Roosevelt understood that education was the foundation of change and a path out of poverty and that the education gained from borrowing donated books could have a lasting effect.

Pack-Horse-1

This program also created jobs for women during the Great Depression. ‘Book ladies’ made around $28 a month (the equivalent of about $500 a month today), delivering books to homes and schoolhouses between 1935 and 1943. In 1943 the service lost its funding leaving many Appalachian communities without books for decades until bookmobiles were introduced in the late 1950’s.

The Giver of Stars is a harrowing story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond, to bring books to those who had no access.

Alice Wright, born and raised in England, marries wealthy businessman, Bennett Van Cleave, an American from Kentucky. After settling into their new home in rural Appalachia, Alice soon discovers small-town living in Baileyville, Kentucky can feel very claustrophobic. When she learns of the packhorse book project, she eagerly signs up. ‘She covered her own anxiety with activity.’ The five heroic women who eventually form the book distribution team, soon learn to rely on each other as a means of support against familial and community outrage. Many townsmen (led by Alice’s wealthy father-in-law) were indignant that a woman would be capable of such a daunting task.

In any other town, such misdemeanors might eventually be forgotten, but in Baileyville a grudge could last a century and still nurture a head of steam. The people of Baileyville were descended from Celts, from Scots and Irish families, who could hold on to resentment until it was dried out like beef jerky, and bearing no resemblance to its original self.

Alice begins to gain confidence and independence through the difficult work of the packhorse library, traveling hours by herself in the beauty of Kentucky mountains and wide open skies, meeting the warm-hearted people of the rural country, while learning to trust and lean on her fellow librarians.

She had built a new Alice over the frame of one with whom she had never felt entirely comfortable.

I highly recommend this beautifully written book. At times it seems certain they cannot recover from many of their adventures and Moyes leaves you hanging until the last minute. Loss and love and renewal and commitment weave themselves through each adventure. Getting to know each of these remarkable women was a literary privilege for me as well as delving deeper into the historical facts surrounding this amazing chapter in American history.

PRAIRIE FIRES by Caroline Fraser

I finished reading a book that left me a little distraught. It was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year. But even more than that, it is a subject that absorbed so much of my childhood, leaving me with very happy memories. It was a major contributor to my lifelong love of reading.

I was excited to read the biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. I absolutely loved my copies of each of the Laura Ingalls children’s books, in particular ‘Little House on Plum Creek’ which seemed to capture every inch of my imagination with the devastating prairie fires and the onslaught locust clouds. Living in a home underground set my thoughts on fire as a child, wondering what it must be like to live that way.

What I never considered was the real-life devastation that locusts and prairie fires would have on a farming family…

I honestly don’t know if I can recommend this biography to a fan of the Little House books or tv series. It was difficult to read the true events that happened behind these childlike books of fiction. Prairie Fire covers the entirety of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, so it is exhaustive in its details taken from her diaries as well as city and state records. It is bookended by the real Charles Ingalls at the beginning of the book and Michael Landon in the end. (In fact, Landon’s….end…is discussed. His backside was so popular on the tv series ‘Bonanza’ that he decided to wear no underwear in the ‘Little House’ series. Is this something we really need to know?!)

BECAUSE I was such a fan of the children’s books and later the tv series, I found this book fascinating. But fascinating in a car-wreck-I-can’t-look-away kind of way. There are parts of Laura’s life that I now wish I didn’t know. I will not be able to look at the books with the same innocence I always have in the past. As a fellow Missourian, Laura and Almanzo’s home in Mansfield, Missouri, is that of lore. Reading Prairie Fire gave me a different perspective into her life and that of her childhood.

I mean – of COURSE her life was not as idyllic as the books and tv show led us to believe. Her books were carefully categorized as fiction for that very reason. Yet it was still disappointing to allow my adult mind to understand what my child’s mind could afford to ignore.

As a history student in college I thought a study of pioneer women would be enticing to study someday. I suppose that’s because it is a time period that I do not believe I could have endured very successfully. The arduous trek across untamed America toward uncharted land…no calling ahead for hotel reservations! So it was interesting to read ‘behind the veil’ of the hardships the Ingalls and later the Wilders endured to settle land and build their dreams.

Yes, I recommend this book because it holds valuable insight into the trials and hardships of building America. (Only slightly touching on the Native American aspect of ‘building America’.)

No, I don’t recommend this book because it will taint your bucolic image of freckled-faced Laura and her adoring family.

Have you read it yet? Tell me your thoughts…

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY by Truman Capote

Illustrator Beth Peck elegantly illuminates the words of Truman Capote as he tells the story of the uniquely loving relationship between seven-year-old, Buddy, and his ‘sixty-something’-year-old distant cousin, living in the same house. ‘We are each other’s best friend.’⠀

They make cakes together every year as the weather turns cold and fly homemade kites when the weather begins to warm. They dance together around the house, laughing and enthralled in all that is happy in life, not like the other more burdened members of their family. She relies on his youth, he on her zest for life. “When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always.⠀

‘“Buddy, the wind is blowing” and nothing will do till we’ve run to a pasture below the house, plunging through the waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel the twitching at the string like a sky fish as they swim into the wind.’⠀

Satisfied and sun-warmed they lie in the grass, happy and filled with adventure. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are…” – her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass – “…just what they’ve always seen, was seeing him. As for me, I could leave the world, with today in my eyes.”

PLACEMAKER by Christie Purifoy

I am currently reading this beautiful book by Christie Purifoy, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty and Peace. The book releases in mid-March 2019 and will be a soothing balm for our overly-stressed, multi-tasking souls.

Placemakers is for the home lover. The outdoor admirer. The family gatherer. The story collector. For the past decade I have felt very strongly that one of my biggest roles in life is to create a welcoming home. My regret? That I didn’t embrace this role stronger when my children were young. Perhaps that is a natural occurrence for many of you as well. When your babies are young, there is so much clutter and lack of sleep. As they mature, there seems to be nothing but running and doing. Concerts and sports events. Home tends to be a quick landing spot between the lines of your to do list.

But the older I get, the more I realize the respite that is home. It has been my passion to create a soothing and calm place for Scott to land after a 12-hour day at work. Even in writing that line I am aware of how genteel and old-fashioned it sounds. Perhaps even egotistical. I balk at the pollyanna nature of it, but I know in my heart that it is the mission I have been given. Does this sound anti-feminist? I certainly hope not as I stand here a proud feminist. We too often acquaint progressive women’s rights with doing and becoming. But the true essence of the movement is to create space where women can become anything they wish to become – which does not exclude the role of supporting and encouraging those we love. But it isn’t all done just for my family. Beauty and consistency makes my own soul feel calm and settled.

We plant seeds or saplings in neat rows. We prune limbs, and we tend the soil. We do not make the trees, but we make a place for them.

I did not have a word for the role I play until Purifoy so elegantly termed it: placemaker.

When I was first married and moving into our apartment (my first home ever away from my childhood home and college dorms), I found great pleasure in creating a homey home. I remember one of my friends came over for the first time and as she left she commented: “Your home doesn’t look like you just moved into it. It looks as if you’ve lived here for years.” I considered this a huge compliment – and still one of my favorites.

For friends and family to find a place that evokes feelings of warmth and welcome – that is my greatest joy. I am (…to a fault and the butt of many jokes…) constantly tweaking things around our home. And now, with the California weather, our backyard is merely an extension of our physical house. I am invigorated by dirt and the care of each plant and tree. I grieve when they die and I feel empowered when I can help to save them.

Making and tending good and beautiful places is not a dishonorable retreat. It is a holy pursuit. We were never meant merely to consume the gifts of creation. We were made to collaborate. We were made to participate. This book is an invitation to reconsider your own relationship to the ground beneath your feet and roof over your head.

I expected this book to be a pretty addition to our coffee table. How surprised I’ve been to find the girth of insight and encouragement I’ve found between its pages. A book that I could probably ‘whip out in a day’ has become a slow and methodical read – filled with underlined words and many pauses for reflection. And sometimes shouts of ‘YES!, that’s exactly how I feel!’

You can pre-order the book now. I strongly suggest you rush to your favorite book-selling site to grab one for yourself.

Meanwhile, I continue to read…

Can I tell you about something kind of cool that happened to me?…

Let me first say that I’m not posting any of this for sympathy or trumped-up praise. Please know that from my heart.

There are areas in all of our lives where we feel confident and strong – and other areas in which we lack inner strength.

I’m not sure if it’s my personality or the fact that I am a person with a bent toward creativity. Whatever the case, my confidence in my ability to write is always low. I enjoy it. I get the buzz, not unlike the endorphin rush of a runner (I’m told.) People have periodically encouraged me to write. But there are soooo many really great writers in the world. And I don’t just mean famous ones. I am lucky enough to know some extremely talented wordsmiths that work other jobs and fit it in when they can. I truly respect and admire their talent.

So every time I sit down to write, I face two paths:

  1. Be overwhelmed with all the immense talent already out in the world – and sit back and hide, or
  2. Try to be brave, sit down, and write anyway. Just for the discipline of writing.

Again, I don’t mean to sound pathetic. But it is a real and immense struggle for anyone faced with creating something from nothing. And especially when it involves personal reflection.

Yesterday I wrote a book review post on this blog. I posted a condensed version of it on my Instagram. I wrote it the day before, posted it early in the morning, and then went on with my day.

A few hours later I popped back on Instagram while waiting on a load of laundry to finish drying and found a message from Jon Cohen, one of the authors I mentioned in my blog post regarding his endearing book, Harry’s Trees. In his message he pointed out a section of text I wrote:

This book celebrated the freedom of forgiveness. The adventure of reading. The beauty of nature. The cost of holding on to self-perpetuated ‘truths’. The ripples of redemption. And as with every good story, it contained an enchanting touch of magic.

He commented:

I like the cogency and rhythm of your words, particularly, in the paragraph that starts, “This book celebrated . . .”

It’s just a little line. A line that instantly brought fat tears to my eyes. (Not a usual reaction for me.) My throat clenched shut and I sunk back into myself.

I reread the line. (And in 2019 style, I did a quick screenshot of it on my phone as if it could disappear into the ethers at any given moment. Like perhaps I was imagining it.)

It wasn’t a spouse or a parent or a friend online saying it. It was a published author I respect, commenting positively on my writing. I cannot find the words at the moment to convey the significant importance I felt while reading it. I had a small, but brief, moment of feeling like Sally Fields at the Oscar’s. Or more recently, Kalen Allen’s reaction when Oprah commented on his Instagram post.

He could have said, ‘Thanks for the great review’ and I would have been impressed he even found my post and glad he commented on it. But after thanking me for the review, he took it a step further and returned a small amount of praise to me as well. It was a quick comment that left a big footprint on my squishy, self-effacing heart.

I have so much to learn about writing as well as finding the confidence enough to push ‘publish’. We are so accustomed to seeing articles and reading online posts nowadays that it is easy to dismiss the immense amount of bravery it takes for the writer to go public with their words. It can be a suffocating and stifling fear.

—–

What an amazing moment of pure, unadulterated joy. Especially because when writing, I particularly like the flow of words. I edit when a sentence seems to lack a particular rhythm and musical cadence. That’s something that’s very important to me.

And yesterday, a published writer commented specifically on that trait. 

I must tell you. It felt really, really good…

If you get the chance today – encourage the Creatives in your life. They need it more than you’ll ever know. It’s not easy being them. Their mind is always at battle with their ability. They need your affirming words.

♥️