Looking Back on Fave Reads

So, lists like this are supposed to come out at the end of the year. However, the end of 2017 afforded me no time for reflection, much less thinking back on things I read.

Of the 35 books I read last year, three were fiction. I strongly prefer nonfiction to fiction. Not sure why. A few years back I went through a phase when I couldn’t stand music. These days I can’t tolerate most fiction. Give me a stylized slice of real life, and I’m happy.

The exception to my nonfiction preference was Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. I’m not sure how I came to read this work of historical fiction, since it’s far outside my usual taste in books. Still, I could not put it down. After I finally did put it down, it haunted me.

Glancy narrates the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk woman who was converted to Christianity by the Jesuits. A smallpox epidemic has left her badly scarred, nearly blind, and orphaned, but her life in the aftermath is both piercing and tender. (Another novel I read last year, Molokai, similarly told the story of a girl whose entire life was altered by leprosy.) My fave quotation:

Father James de Lamberville read the scriptures for scriptures to read to us. He told us about the cherubim in Ezekiel—they had four faces, a man, a lion, an ox, an eagle. They had hoofed feet on wheels and wings. They were full of eyes. There were animals in heaven, they said. The Indian spirits were counterfeit of these (30).

My favorite 2017 book, nonfiction category, was Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink. Kurshan tells the story of her life as an American woman living in Jerusalem in the aftermath of divorce, and joining the “world’s largest book club”—that is, reading the daily page of the Talmud with fellow Jewish people all over the world.

First off, a memoir about reading is right up my alley. Second, I’m fascinated by Torah study and the wild creativity that seems to be not just acceptable but standard in midrashim. I lapped up this book. Here’s a favorite quotation:

I knew God—and I continue to know God—primarily in shadows cast by other people. . . . I sought out God the way a traveler through the forest might seek out the moon through the trees; sometimes it was hidden, other days it was just a faint crescent, still other days it was a full orb with mountains and valleys of variegated hues. But it was still just a play of shadows, as all moonlight is (70).

Other favorites in 2017 include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (once I worked up the courage to read it), Bitten by a Camel by Kent Dobson (a work of astonishing honesty about finding God), and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs (a well-researched book exploring infertility and the author’s individual experience of it).

What magic words will 2018 hold? Well, I just finished my pastor’s book, Love God, Love People, Don’t Do Dumb Crap by Rev. Shane Bishop, and I will soon crack open Philip Jenkins’s Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made Our Modern Religious World. (Caroline also assigned me some Rainbow Magic Fairy titles to read.)

What book(s) will stick with you beyond 2017?

school hallway

Dream. Read. Learn. Good advice from the hallway at East St. Louis High School.

Lowercase Life: happy arrival in christmasland

[Note: this is Part 5 of a 5-part advent series. If you missed the earlier posts, start here!]

Every year I’m surprised at how quickly Christmas is here and gone. In our house we extend the fun by having the whole family over in the evening on Christmas Day. We eat a big meal. Again. Then we scoot the furniture back and have a dance party, to the tune of Kidz Bop songs.

***

Jesus was born at the wrong end of time for many—too late for all the people who died awaiting their Messiah, too early for those who didn’t get the political firebrand they wished for. I think of Baby Jesus wrapped in linen and sleeping in a nest of hay, like the baby bird hatched at the tail-end of November.

He was born at the bottom of the staircase, among the animals, a horse of a different color, a baby bird nestled with hopes and dreads. Unlike you and I, who never asked to be born, Jesus freely poured himself out and put on animal skin.

***

Early Christmas morning, cold and dark, I heard the phone ring downstairs. I tried to go back to sleep, but I knew even then that a phone call at 4 a.m. meant bad news. Christmas 1984 was a blur of funeral arrangements and phone calls and disbelief that God hadn’t healed my grandma.

At the bottom of the staircase in her house of wonders was a wooden baluster topped with a finial that looked just like a fat cinnamon roll. She had stood at the foot of the staircase as long as she could, but that Christmas morning she was carried upstairs, healed into another place. When I meet her someday in brand new skin, I believe she’ll be wearing blessed assurance all over her face and gold dancin’ shoes on her feet.

***

On a recent morning too cold to exercise outside, I drove to the mall and stood in the warmth near Dillard’s while untangling my earbuds. Over the mall speakers a Christmas song I’d never heard before pierced the pre-shopping silence: Tony Bennett’s recording of “Christmasland,” with lyrics by Brian Farnon.

It begins with some pleasant holiday-song clichés: “Come along, follow me / Let me take you to Christmasland.” Then it veers in a whole new direction: “Waiting there for you / You will see all the friends you knew.” What is this place? It’s a place where all the friends you knew—past tense—are waiting. Christmasland sounds a lot like heaven: “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore . . .”

The song returns in the next few lines to twentieth-century Christmas themes: “Santa Claus will be there / There’ll be toys and some mistletoe / All the things that you loved as a child / Many years ago.” So, it’s like heaven, but it’s located in the past, somewhere east of childhood and west of nostalgia.

I was struck by how the song conflates Christmas and heaven in a way I’d never seen before—in a way that losing my grandma on Christmas morning had already whispered to my subconscious. It allows for seemingly unlike things to sit side-by-side: anticipation and sorrow, Baby Jesus among the animals, expectation and not knowing just what to expect. In the subtlest way it sweeps from hope to peace to joy to love to the arrival of a long-expected savior. It’s a song of advent, in the lowercase.

“Come and take my hand. / We’ll find happiness. / Let’s go to Christmasland.”

Tony Bennett Christmas

We’ll go, you and I,
To find our Christmasland . . .

Lowercase Life: fourth regular old sunday of advent

[Note: This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. If you missed Parts 1, 2, and 3, start here!]

The problem with fixating on the big holidays, Christmas and Easter, is that it collapses the life of Jesus into too small a space, like Alice in Wonderland, grown to gigantic proportions in a little room. This mash-up of birth and death suggests that Jesus was born only to die, was given a newborn body just to grow up to be brutalized, the cradle no more than a casket. But Jesus had three decades of lowercase years in between—a lifetime of playing with his brothers and sisters, of studying the Torah like a good Jewish boy, of growing facial hair and learning a trade beside his dad–three decades of love.

***

When I could take the suspense no longer, I texted my mom. What happened to baby bird? She wrote back, We forgot about it! Will try to look tomorrow… Then, the next day she sent this message: Baby bird was gone today!?!?! She’s not punctuation-shy. I felt the same way as her !?!?!, surprised and perplexed. I wanted to believe the baby bird learned to fly and claimed a high branch in the big oak tree. I suspected it was a midnight snack for a hawk or a cat. Hope and dread a single breath. We’ll never know what happened to the baby bird, born at the wrong end of the calendar. All we know is the nest is empty.

***

Summer 1984 I was glued to the TV in my grandparents’ spare room since Mary Lou Retton had won my heart. Years later, I learned that same summer my grandma had been fighting lung cancer. I remember the watch on her wrist getting looser as her body grew thinner. I remember her not having much energy. I did not think we would lose her. After the new school year started my mom told us that Grandma was very sick. I believed her, but I was certain she would be healed. At age eight, I overflowed with faith, hope, and love.

To be continued . . .

empty nest2

The bird has flown the nest.

Lowercase Life: third regular old monday of advent

[Note: This is Part 3 of a 5-part series. If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, please read those first!]

As an outsider to the practice of Advent for most of my life, it seems to me a useful kind of imagining. It reminds those who know Jesus of the anticipation of Jewish people in ancient times waiting for someone to save them—and the dread of wondering whether rescue would come in their lifetime. Advent thus collapses the expectant mood of centuries of ancient Jewish history into a four-week window on the calendar. They were expecting but didn’t know just what to expect.

***

I thought about the baby bird off and on all weekend. Did it make it through the cold night when temps dipped down into the thirties? One moment I was sure the mama bird fed it and kept it warm, but the next moment I pictured a tiny, feathered body, unmoving and alone for the winter to come. Hope and dread in the same breath.

***

I have many happy memories of Grandma’s house: sitting at the kitchen table slathering saltines with butter, hiding under the dining room table with the long lacy tablecloth that made it as cozy as a tent or a womb, watching envelopes drop through the mail slot onto the linoleum floor, making unwelcome contributions to Grandpa’s crossword puzzle. But Grandma holding out her golden “dancin’ shoes” for me to see might be the most vivid.

When she told me her gold house slippers stored high in the spare-room closet were “dancin’ shoes” I didn’t question it. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I realized she was joking. Talk about a delayed response. I can’t remember ever seeing her dance, and I’m pretty sure my grandpa never went dancing in his life. The shoes that dazzled me that day were a pair of house slippers, fancy ones that lived in a box, unworn.

To be continued . . .

gold slippers

“Like these? They’re my dancin’ shoes.”

Lowercase Life: second regular old tuesday of advent

[Note: Part 2 of a 5-part series. If you missed Part 1, please read it first!]

Some people live in the past, others fixate on the future. I’m a future person, often anxious about how things will come out. When Monday morning arrives, I feel a flutter in my stomach, an edge of worry about all the things to be done during the week. Will I accomplish the things on my list? How? Is it even possible? I never get to the logical next step of asking, “So what?” Truth be told, the anxiety is less about personal productivity than the simple fact of not knowing what’s coming.

***

When we saw the baby bird in the nest on the last day of November, I thought to myself: poor thing, it’s a goner. Then, as my dad stepped down from the bucket he stood on to look into the nest, I heard a bird somewhere out of sight chirping. Maybe it was perched high in the tree at the back edge of the yard; maybe it was the mama bird. Hope and dread in one breath.

***

One day at Grandma’s house, when I was maybe six or seven, she stood on a wooden step ladder getting things down from a high closet shelf. I don’t know if she was clearing it out or putting stuff away. The thing I remember is a pair of golden slippers, brought down in a shoebox that said Kinney or Connie or Soft Soles. Any memory of the box was eclipsed by my total astonishment at the shoes, metallic gold slippers with no heel. Made from pink terry cloth, these would have been regular old “house shoes” for scuffing around before noon. But these were more like Dorothy’s ruby slippers or a genie’s shoes, the most enchanting footwear I’d ever seen. Today, it seems every piece of apparel has glitter or sequins or metallic bling, but not back then. I could not wait for my feet to grow so I could wear them. “You like these?” Grandma said. “These are my dancin’ shoes.”

***

We celebrate Advent knowing the Savior who came–Jesus–but the people awaiting the Messiah didn’t know what to expect. They longed for a powerful figure in the line of King David who would throw off political oppression and end Roman occupation. What they got was someone obsessed with love and unity, not politically pragmatic or overly concerned with the power structure of the Roman Empire. During Advent we have the benefit of rearview-mirror vision, which gives us the nice sensation of knowing what’s coming—and knowing he’s unequivocally good.

In other parts of life, we have no idea what’s coming.

To be continued . . .

bird on nest

Mourning dove, symbol of peace and sorrow

Lowercase Life: first regular old wednesday of advent

[Note: Part 1 of a 5-part series.]

I just realized this past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t grow up with Advent. Didn’t even know what it meant until college. I’d seen Advent calendars at the grocery store but thought they were all about chocolate, not church.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me advent means “important arrival,” . . . “an extended sense of Advent ‘season preceding Christmas’ (in reference to the ‘coming’ of Christ), late Old English, from Latin adventus ‘a coming, approach, arrival’ . . .

So, while big-A Advent is meaningful to some people, with wreaths and candles and such, I tend to feel more at home with the lowercase advent. I need something to look forward to, and I want to know what’s next.

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote. These regular old Tuesdays and Thursdays and even Saturdays are the lowercase days of Advent. I’ve decided to celebrate them by looking back—in order to look forward.

***

Birds lay eggs in spring. That’s what I always thought anyway, but when we were at my parents’ house on the last day of November, my mom noticed something moving in the nest built on the side of their shed. I thought she was seeing things—because what kind of cuckoo lays eggs in Illinois in late November? I watched the nest intently but saw nothing. My dad grabbed a five-gallon bucket to stand on and peered into the nest.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said. “There’s a baby bird in there.”

***

My grandma lived down the street in a house of wonders. She was a bit of a hoarder—the neat and tidy kind, who kept her treasures tucked away in nooks and closets. Her upstairs cubbyholes were stuffed with fabrics, fat bolts of material you could upholster a couch with and smaller remnants with the receipt still pinned on, fabric store finds just too good to pass up. I remember loving to look through her jewelry box, handling rhinestone brooches and bright gold chunky necklaces and sparkly clip-on earrings as if they were treasures of the sea. I didn’t want to just see these treasures, I wanted her to tell me about each one—narrate them for me.

***

The Christmas story I know pretty well starts in Luke 2. The part I know almost by heart is from Charlie Brown: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. . . .” But there’s a whole chapter before that, a prologue that tells about a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth who were getting up in years and had no children. Like other Jewish people of their time, they had not given up hope for the Messiah. The other Zechariah, centuries before, had spoken of the coming Messiah and encouraged people never to give up: “Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; / even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you” (Zech. 9:12). I think of Elizabeth and her husband as prisoners of hope, hoping against hope for the Messiah and a child of their own. They might not have imagined they would see both in their lifetime. But they did.

To be continued . . .

hope front porch

Hope is right on my front porch. (And yours.)

Yay for Compulsory Thankfulness

‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I love that there’s not much hype around Thanksgiving. Minimal pressure or obligation. Family, food, and giving thanks, all good stuff.

Giving thanks is pretty easy. I can rattle off the things I’m thankful for without strain: Phil, Caroline, family, friends, house, clothing, food, Charlie the cat, trees, teachers, church, Jesus. Easy-peasy. Let’s eat.

This year, however, I challenged myself to give thanks every day in the 100 days leading up to Thanksgiving—on Facebook—and include a photo. Sometimes, finding a photo was the toughest part of the challenge, because it forced me away from abstractions and intangibles (love, peace, happiness). Instead, I learned to be thankful for the things around me: dark-red leaves, a blue feather on the ground, a striking wallpaper pattern, Popeye’s mashed potatoes and gravy. These might seem mundane or trivial – because they are – and I truly am thankful for them.

And the challenge became easier the more I exercised my thanks.

At the start, I was trying so hard to find the very special thing, the highlight of the day, the memorable and beautiful this or that. I was just learning to exercise gratefulness, like a kid with training wheels riding so deliberately.

After nearly 100 days, my thankfulness expanded recklessly to include oxygen, blackberry jam (seedless), clean water, cell phone, daughter’s artwork, Dr. Seuss, and the friendly mail man. Whereas I used to say thanks for the same things day after day—this meal, my people, easy left turns—now nothing is safe from my appreciation.

(Beware, friend: I appreciate you.)

This broadening gratefulness reminds me of the tendency to think about your “spiritual life” in limited ways. Your spiritual life might involve going to church, reading the Bible, praying, or maybe some other spiritual discipline. But I’m reminded that this life—all of it—is our “spiritual life.” Kent Dobson puts it this way: “The car ride on the way to church, when we’re yelling at our kids to shut up, is just as much our spiritual life as the music we pretend to like when we get there.”

Similarly, before the 100 Days of Thanks challenge, I had a “thankful life” that was limited to brief, contained spasms of thankfulness. Now I look around with a greater appreciation for all the good there is—not just the stuff I’m lucky to have but the stuff that used to seem like a given:

sunshine on a cold day,

being alive,

a stapler that works,

starlings doing drill routines in the sky,

piano music,

the magic power of spray paint,

the chance to walk my daughter home from school every single day.

(Sometimes she lets me hold her hand.)

The compulsory thankfulness challenge has bridged some of the distance between my small, earthbound gratefulness and Paul’s advice, “in every thing give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:18).

It’s also given me new eyes for the world. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it first and best: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God . . .” Truly, there is happiness in giving thanks.

orange-fall-leaf.jpgHappy Thanksgiving!

-Em, as always, thankful for you taking the time to read and respond