Tag Archive - Words

Favorite Literary Companions of 2012

A good book is like a good friend. It helps you to see the world more clearly. Perhaps it makes you laugh. Or cry. It nourishes your dreams. Very often it reveals to you a bit of yourself you did not know was there. And, as in the case of a good friend, I am sad when we come to the end of our time together, and I continue to think of it fondly in days, and years, to come.

Here are some of the more memorable encounters from the past year, in strictly chronological order as they came to me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s wordcraft is a cauldron of conundrum, brilliant characterization, and truths so deep they defy reduction. Her stories have a meandering way of taking us inside ourselves, preparing us for “almost imperceptible intrusions of grace“.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

His words are sumptuous. His descriptions of Paris in the 1920s with her rain-washed cobblestones and sidewalk bistros and cafes are perfectly delicious. And his intimate reflections on the literary luminaries who were his friends, priceless. I found myself dreaming of living in a little garret in Paris myself with daily strolls through those same avenues, the gardens, the museums… And, always, I love peaking inside the creative process of genius. I remember him speaking of how he could not write about Paris while in Paris. He needed distance to see it properly. This, I understand.

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky said of this novel that he wanted to write one character who was completely without guile; innocent and good. Gentle Prince Myshkin allows himself to be thought foolish so that he may make others wise. It is a beautiful, redemptive story. An elegant counterpoint to Crime and Punishment.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

A chronicle of genius. Albeit eccentric, unwieldy, arrogant genius. A man who thoroughly changed the face of communication in our time. Isaacson weaves an engaging narrative about his enigmatic subject. I found myself laughing frequently. Deeply saddened sometimes. But mostly awed by this man who so often saw the not yet as though it already was. And as I have watched my one year old granddaughter navigate my iPhone over the past few months, it has been clear that his passion for intuitive design was spot on.

 Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultra-marathon Greatness, Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is one of my heroes. Partly for his freakish ability to run obscene distances really fast, but also for his practice of foregoing a shower and sleep to hang at the finish line for hours congratulating finishers who have been on the trail far longer than he. This book tells the story of a spindly legged kid from a family with its fair share of challenges who grows up to be one of the most remarkable ultra runners the world has known. Jurek writes with great good humor and a deep sense of gratitude. He also includes some of his favorite (vegan) recipes.

Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet…The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wing, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence.

Do you see why I love this man? This is one of the most significant books I have ever read. I know I will revisit it often. Elder Porphyrios’ writings on love have been both nourishing and challenging. It was his belief that if we pursue love only and our hearts become filled with love–for God, and for others–that everything else takes care of itself. This is a very pedestrian reduction of his beautiful words. I invite you to come to know him yourself.

Lit: A Memoir (P.S.), Mary Karr

Liar’s Club, the story of Mary Karr’s rough and tumble childhood in Texas, is credited by many with starting a memoir revolution. This third in the a series tells of Mary all grown up. Of her ‘fairy tale’ prince, of the son she adores, and of the demons that will not leave her alone. It is raw and honest, tragic and hilarious. Ultimately it is a compelling, marvelously crafted story of perseverance and grace.

Lifted By Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, Joel Miller

“This is the staggering asymmetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

I read the whole of it in one day. I just couldn’t stop. Joel Miller’s narrative is enthralling, his theology is sound, and his subject matter fascinating. Read my review in its entirety HERE.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

I bought it on Kindle. For my phone. So it is always with me. I can’t tell you how often I pull it out. Just a poem or two. Or all of them at a go. Gift. This voice. That penetrates to the very essence of things. And renders them in such lovely expression. Par example

I HAPPENED TO BE STANDING

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self purpose.

This is the line that caused me to buy the book. (Thanks, Karissa) The Night Circus is an enchantment. Mysterious. Beautiful. All done out in black and white. It is a feast of imagery and imagination. Read it for the artist in you. The part of you that still traffics in magic. Or wants to.

Lifted by Angels

I read the whole book in one day. I just could not stop reading. In language potent, precise, and poetic, Joel J. Miller crafts an enthralling narrative supported by impeccable research on a topic that most of us know precious little about.

Miller begins by inoculating us against our sentimental, but erroneous, misconceptions about angels. He paints a picture, “...using the pigments provided by the Scripture, art, services, hymns, and teachings of the ancient Christian church. The image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.” Yes! Oh, yes!

The following chapter tells the ominous story of the “light-bearer”, that radiant angel Lucifer who, because of his great arrogance, becomes “ring leader of the apostasy” (Irenaeous of Lyons). He then seeks to use that pride as his primary weapon against humanity. “As Augustine understood it, pride is the source of all sin, and envy flows from it like a fetid stream.”

Chapter three shows us angels interwoven all through the story of Israel. Joel’s masterful storytelling kept me greedily flipping one page after another to see what happens next, even though I mostly know what happens next. A promise to Abraham, courage for Gideon, nourishment for Elijah, and a celestial army to protect Elisha, are only a few of the angelic errands explored. Then the chapter takes a sobering turn as Israel herself becomes arrogant and rebels against God. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel will all have powerful interactions with angels as God prepares them to speak on His behalf. Angels will also have the regrettable task, at times, of carrying out God’s judgement against His beloved, but recalcitrant people. By the end of the chapter I am crying out with the rebels and exiles for deliverance. As the author tells us, this time God will not send an angel, or even an army of angels, but the Lord of the Angels Himself.

Chapter four wrecks me. “The story of Christ is shot through with angels,” Miller begins. He then threads these divine appearances through the narrative of Christ. When Gabriel begins to speak to Mary of the child she will bear, I am undone. Even now, reading it again for this post, my heart burns with his words. By the time the “skies erupted over the birthplace in Bethlehem” I can hardly breathe. Then he show us the story from the vantage point of Revelation 12 with a woman travailing in birth and a great red dragon who would devour her child, and my heart pounds. We continue to see angels ministering to their Lord at his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, as he heals and casts out demons, at his crucifixion, and finally his resurrection and ascension.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.  ~Shakespeare, Hamlet

Chapter five is a beautiful and illuminating treatment of our guardian angels drawn from Scripture and the teachings of the early church fathers. My favorite passage is this, from the lips of Christ, “See that you do not despise these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father.”

Chapter six is an exciting reminder that when we worship we enter into a service that is already underway, joining the angels and the saints who have gone before us who perpetually offer their praise to the Father. We get tastes of this in Isaiah chapter 6, as well as John’s vision in Revelation. Also, God instructed that cherubim be depicted both on the tapestries of the tabernacle as well as the ark of the covenant as symbols of this. The early church followed suit by adorning their places of worship with images of the angels as well as the saints, a practice which continues in many churches today. Included in the chapter is this beautiful version of the cherubic hymn, from the liturgy of St. James, sung as the priests process with the gifts of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh be silent and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself: For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Fittingly, the final chapter looks at angels as our “guides from one world to the next“. The chapter concludes (or nearly so) with this passage that I mean to commit to memory and perhaps recite to myself daily.

“This is the staggering assymetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians is a remarkable book. Compellingly written and replete with good theology about far more than just angels. I commend it to your attention.

*All quotes in the post are from the book. Unattributed quotes, Joel J. Miller.

 

 

The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse

“Our art and our humanity are inextricably entwined, and within these pages I hope to–through story and reflection–examine the soulish ground from which creativity arises.”

Elder Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” A poet has a way of seeing that is cleaner, purer, more acute than most. One of the compelling poet voices of our age is Michael Gungor. He and his compatriots are creating art that is deep and rich, beautiful and true. Art that is born out of stillness and out of communion.

In his remarkable new book, which releases today, this poet/prophet explores thoughts about art, about the roots that shape our art, and about nourishing our soil so that what we create is life giving and worthy. He’s a great storyteller, and the book is filled with vulnerability and good humor. I have had to resist the urge to bombard you with a zillion quotes because his wordcraft is gorgeous and the ideas so important. Herein is a sampling. I strongly urge you to read the book for yourself.

Part 1: Art

“Art is the body’s pronunciation of the soul.”

“The book of Genesis begins with a poem about a Creator who took a universe writhing in chaos and formed it into something cohesive, visible, and beautiful…” Gungor reminds us that as images of the Creator, we are called to do the same. He also alerts us that how we go about that says much about who we are,

“If you want to know what is in the heart of a culture, look at its art. Read its poetry, listen to its music, and you’ll begin to know the tree from which it fell.”

Part 2: Roots

Noise

“The world is getting so loud. We are over-stimulated. Numb. Bored….We consume our art like moths. We gather, momentarily, around wherever the biggest, brightest light seems to be. The danger of art created to rise above the noise is that it may end up being noise itself.”

Technology

With auto-tune, anyone can sing “on pitch”. With self-publishing anyone can be an author. But are we cultivating a culture of mediocrity? And are we robbing our art of its humanity? He speaks of their sometimes pianist John and how his humanness infuses his playing,

“His hands carry stories, emotions, doubts, and passions, all unique to John. A man cannot spend thousands of hours sitting at a piano without having some of his soul soak into the wood.”

First World Mindset

Indolence has destroyed the arts. –Pliny, ancient Roman author

In a comparison of the cultures of ancient Rome and modern America he sounds an ominous warning about where the sensationalism we demand could lead us, and about the insidious crippling of entitlement and luxury.

Capitalism

“Art’s primary value system shouldn’t be monetary. Art is too soulish, like love or sex, to be treated like a mere commodity.”

“Money is not the root of all kinds of evil. The love of money is. It’s also the root of a lot of bad art.”

Celebrity

“The crowd’s affection, with all its adrenaline-inducing power, is a fickle and shallow drug.”

Religion

“All art is an expression of the soul, an expression of faith. All art is sacred. All art is religious. And no art is Christian.”

“There is a humility in faith, a hope, an acknowledgment of the possibility of error and the need for growth and change. This openness
leaves room for creativity.”

 

Part 3: Soil

Faith

Gungor speaks of how faith is formed of the stories we tell ourselves. And he speaks of the power of the one story. Of Body and Blood. Of community and the Table…

“So I listen to this story again and again. I let it do its work in the places that I can’t reach on my own. In a culture numbed and indifferent from overstimulation and noise, this story begins to infuse life and feeling back into my limbs, awakening my senses with the anticipation of new creation. It begins to enliven my dulled imagination with new color and possibility.”

Doubt

“Doubt asks questions that need to be asked to make our faith pure and healthy.”

Hope

“This is why people have long turned to practices like solitude, prayer, study, and meditation. These disciplines help us find our breath; they help us become more human. They help us hear the Voice.”

Love

“Faith, doubt, and hope are the stuff of good soil for creating and cultivating, as are honesty, integrity, patience, courage and any number of nutrients. But all of these only find their true value when they are made consummate in love.”

He closes the book with a benediction of such exquisite loveliness that I would like to include the whole of it here. That seems to be taking a bit too much liberty. So again, I offer you a taste. It is my fervent hope that you will give yourself the gift of reading this book. Whether you consider yourself a “creative”  or not, you are leaving your imprint on the bit of earth that has been entrusted to you. This book probes the heart and invites us to be intentional about the imprint we make. May it be so.

“…May your heart be opened to the love that formed you and everything else, the love that holds all things together and shall make all things new in the end, and may that love that was broken and poured out for you impel you into the world to break your own self open to be poured out for the world that God so loves. Poured out in acts of justice and mercy, poured out in good and hard work that brings order rather than disorder. Poured out in songs and liturgies, business plans and water colors, child-rearing and policy-making.

May your life be a brush in the very hand of God—painting new creation into every nook and cranny of reality that your shadow graces. Be courageous. Be free. Prune that which needs pruning, and water that which thirsts for righteousness…”

*All unattributed quotes in the post, Michael Gungor, lifted from the book.

Turn the Page…

Some few weeks ago, I gave birth to a darling baby boy. A little towheaded, blue eyed, bundle of joy.

Tomorrow I am carting him off to college.

I do not know how this happened.

Jake was born hungry. Ravenous from the get go. From that moment til this, he has drunk life in great gulps. Seeing deeper than most. Savoring…tastes, sounds, moments, friendships, life.

He is fiercely loyal. It is, perhaps, the hardest part of this growing. This leaving. For him. To be away from the friends who have inscribed their names into the very sinews of his heart. Away from a certain “she” who has the softest, tenderest place. And away from family…we who sometimes rub wrong, who prickle or misunderstand…AND…we who know all the stories, who have shared the houses, the farm, the dogs, the gypsy wanderings…we who have read the books and seen the quirky movies…we who have cried the deep cries and dreamed audacious dreams. We who are the always. And yet…not with. Not now.

I ask myself what I have not said to him. What I wish I had done differently. It is crazy talk, this. I adore the young man he has become. In spite of me, as much as because of me. A work of grace. Very like his Father. So very like. Whatever I might have given him could not be more important than this: He loves well. He is a passionate follower of Christ. He is curious and courageous, generous and good.

We have had a long growing toward this. All of us. This leaving. It has hovered over our heads all this summer. And we have seized and savored moments together. Precious beads to be strung along a rope called memory.

Still, my heart is sore.

I tell him he was supposed to become obnoxious so that I would be glad to see him go. He has not obliged me in this. There will be a palpable absence in our home. A marked reduction in hugs, and long happy sighs over dinner, and stories, and dreams.

We are learning to walk in the new. Our identity as a family is shifting. Again. And once again we must find our place. This is ever the shape of life.

Over the years I have recruited scripture, prayers of the saints, and words of poets in conversation with with my artist, philosopher son. And in conversations about Jake with his Father. On this auspicious threshold, I offer him a few words from that great poet philosopher, Bob Dylan. A blessing. A prayer.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

I could not find a recording of the classic Dylan rendering. (The one that has left me in tears this summer more times than I care to admit.) But I was happy to find this from one of our shared favorites, the lovely Ms. Norah Jones.

For you, Jake. Godspeed, beloved!!!

Every Writer’s Dream

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ~Ernest Hemingway

Writing is transcendent and torturous, frustrating and miraculous, wondrous, naked, and plain hard work. I find the whole process intriguing, and love reading what other writers have to say about it.

A fresh, new voice that I have been reading over the past few months is Jeff Goins. His blog is a treasure trove of honest, practical, sometimes inspirational, frequently provocative advice on writing.

Goins recently published two eBooks, Every Writer’s Dream and Before Your First Book, which contain cogent and succinct distillations of some of the very best of this advice. On the title page we are told each of these has been written for our “satisfaction, butt-kicking, and enjoyment.” I’d say that’s about right. 🙂

Every Writer’s Dream

Subtitled “How to Never Pitch Your Writing Again”, Every Writer’s Dream demonstrates how to build a platform, create a brand, and make meaningful connections. This has worked so well for the author that he received a book contract without ever writing a proposal, and has magazine editors asking him for content.

I love what Goins has to say here about being generous, about showing respect and about curiosity. He emphasizes the importance of offering value to others instead of engaging in sleazy self-promotion. It is a costly process, but honorable, effective, and important.

All of this takes work. It takes gumption and moxie. It will not be easy, and it is not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged. But I hope you stick with it. Because we need your voice. We need your art.

Before Your First Book

A writing career happens iteratively, over time. You don’t need to take a giant leap. You just need to take the next step….There are no big breaks. Only tiny drips of effort that lead to a wave of momentum.

So what is the next step? Where do I start? Begin by practicing in public, says the author. Create a blog. Write magazine articles. Guest post on a friend’s blog. This helps you find your voice and find your tribe. Important groundwork.

Goins then gives very specific advice around making initial contacts, including sample query letters which I found very helpful. He talks about who decides on the topic, about writing and re-writing, about persistence and how to effectively follow-up without becoming a nuisance, and about maintaining relationships once they are formed.

Perhaps the most compelling endorsement for both of these books is that I had to keep a notepad beside me while reading to write down all the ideas they generated.

If you dream of impacting others with your words…if you feel compelled to write and would love to reach a wider audience…if there is a book in you waiting to be written…you will not find a better friend than Jeff Goins. He may make you uncomfortable. He has little sympathy for my pathetic excuses. But he will give you the resources you need to get your story out there. And he will help you do it in a way that is honorable and generous and sustainable.

Speaking of generosity, you can buy both these resources for just $4.99. You can even sample the first section of Every Writer’s Dream free just to make sure it’s a good fit.

Thanks, Jeff, for provoking and inspiring. For making me uncomfortable and helping me know where to go next. May your tribe increase.

Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice

It is, I believe, a stroke of genius to give the task of defining a crafter of words to a crafter of words. His profound respect for language…his awe and delight…translate as well as anything he will actually say. So, I am glad that William Tyndale found David Teems. It is a match made in heaven; a literary pas de deux that says as much in the spaces between the words as in the words themselves.

He writes with tenderness, with paternal authority and warmth. His voice is immediate, scintillate, penetrating, translucent. His text has a like-there-is-no-tomorrow desperate kind of charm that is both intense and weightless at the same time…

Biographical details of Tyndale’s life are sketchy and suspect at times. So Teems elects to piece together a life–as Tyndale would probably have it–from his own words. The letters, the treatises, and, above all, the translations.

I have decided to write this review in much the same way. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice is a vast, complex, wonderful work and I can hardly do the whole of it justice. I will give you a few of my favorite bits as a taste. An enticement. And commend to you the rest.

Of Exile:

England had refused him. He would never see her again…Playing Pilate, she washed her hands of him…And once he set sail, he no longer belonged to England. He belonged to all English. And there is a difference.

[The] state of exile is the deepest memory in man. Beneath the surface of the Scripture, in its quiet heart, is the call to come home…For the Jew and the Christian, diaspora is an inevitable part of the inheritance.

Sing or go silent. Transcending exile will ask one or the other.

Of an art forged through fire:

Between imagination and faith there exists a kind of twilight…in the divide between them, eyes are irrelevant. Sight comes by another method, by a deeper more reliable sense.

And David was known as the sweet singer of Israel, her true king. To understand this is to understand the nature of the lyric itself, that mystical expressive afterglow–the inward life suddenly emancipated by an ecstasy that flows upward, forward, as from a deep gulf. David’s joy was ever as large and imprudent and unrestrained and electric and shameless and weeping as his sorrows.

Art demands intensity from its makers, complete possession. It is a kind of bright madness, one that often begins as an unrest in the artist’s center, the chaos from which order must be imagined.

The artistic, the prophetic, the headstrong, the expatriated, the exiled, all these come together in a confusion of living elements that render a single inimitable creature. It was such a creature that gave us our English Bible.

Of the lyric:

Maybe the young Tyndale was enchanted by the strangeness of the Welsh tongue, by the music it made, a kind of jazz…the carnival it made in the mouth…there exists in the Welsh language a whole system of mutations where two words “rub against each other and soften each other”…the transaction between words has a kind of romance in itself, submissive and aesthetically pleasing as great romances by nature must be.

By a passion that was “never purely academic,” we might say Tyndale’s wordcraft was a form of prayer. The result is a transcendent text.

His text possesses a kind of practical beauty, an accessible magnificence. It speaks well. It also sings well.

Par exemple:

Where the Spirit is, it is always summer.

Who taught eagles to spy out their prey? Even so the children of God spy out their Father.

And they heard the voice of the Lord as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day.

Entreat me not to leave thee

Let not your hearts be troubled

Take, eat, this is my body

In Him we live, move and have our being

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light

The Lord bless thee and keep thee
The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

All quotes, save the last section, David Teems. Those at the last are William Tyndale. May his memory be eternal.

Intrusions of Grace

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.

A whole family shot to death by the side of the road. A little boy who hangs himself so he can be with his dead mother in the stars. A Bible salesman who steals a girl’s wooden leg.

Flannery O’Connor takes a hammer to any illusion that we are evolving.

Friends and I have been reading A Good Man is Hard to Find together. It has been tough going at times. O’Connor creates conundrums, then refuses to solve them. She exposes the dark underbelly but does not clean it up. She makes us uncomfortable. And leaves us that way. What is she up to? Is her view of life this bleak? This desperate?

Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

O’Connor was convinced that we had come to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And she understood that an arrogant, self-satisfied heart has no room for grace. Her stories show us that need. And here is the genius; we may find her characters grotesque, ignorant, prejudiced, cruel, yet we can’t help but identify with them. Their selfishness is our selfishness. Their pride our pride. Their cruelty helps us see that far too often we ourselves are cruel.

It is terribly uncomfortable.

It is terribly important.

Jesus told a story once of two men who came to the temple to pray. A Pharisee and a tax collector…

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:11-14)

———————————————————————————————–

Mr. Head had never known before what mercy looked like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now…He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. ~Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

The art of Flannery O’Connor is sumptuous and grand. It is filled with luminous phrases and deliciously evocative descriptions.  But mostly, her works help us see ourselves aright. They create a space in us for almost imperceptible intrusions of grace.

*The two unattributed quotes at the top of the post are from the remarkable Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays on writing, and on life.

**Photograph at the top by Marc Yankus.

Top Posts of 2011

Writing is sometimes just for me. Thoughts I need to work out. The words give place to that. But, mostly, writing is about communing with another. And it is always most satisfying when it resounds in the heart of someone…or many someones. These are the posts that this year connected most deeply, based on number of visits, shares, and comments.

Thank you for reading. I would still write if you didn’t. But it would mean far less.

Godspeed  In January, our dear Father Seraphim was laid to rest. He was an artist and a man of peace. He will be much missed. Herein I write my impressions both of him and of the service which ushered him into the Presence. (This post was transferred from my previous blog without comments. You can read those HERE if you like.)

Delicious Agony  A Lenten post. Of the futility of striving to apprehend God, and the extravagant grace of receiving Him. Incidentally, the song featured in this post has become a lullaby for my granddaughter. Would that she could understand the truth of it without the folly and error I required.

Just Show Up  What if all that is required of us…to care for our friends, to live out our faith, to create…is simply our presence? Our willingness to be…

Soul Stink  A confession.

Daughter of My Daughter  An attempt to capture a crack in time. One of those moments that will live in the memory for always. The day my daughter became a mommy.

Dream Wall  A fanciful construct, inspired by David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey, which struck an unexpected cord. For the lover of art. Or the would be lover of art. An invitation…

Pray in Me  Of the words which bury themselves inside us, if we will let them. Of the Spirit who prays Himself in us with groanings too deep for words…

Before They Leave  Of the books I would have all our children know before they leave home.

You Don’t Have to Shave Yo’ Legs  A playful look at a volatile subject. Love that loves all the time, no matter what. Love that chooses to see good. Plus, a little ditty from Keb Mo. 🙂

Book List: The Lost Books  My most popular book list EVER. If you were stranded on a deserted island, which books would you want to have with you? Be sure and read the comments. They Are GOLDEN!!

Fringe Benefits  Of perseverance and persistence. Of the unexpected gifts that come with doing the hard things.

A Blessing Unsolicited: Part II  Sometimes the most beautiful gifts come in unlikely packages…

Empty  Of a costly exuberance. Of pouring out too much.

Booklist: On Writing  My favorite authors on the crafting of words. Again, some great info in the comments.

Lord, Make Me Humble, But Not Yet  A raw, honest confession. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

Of Being a Grandmother  Being a grandmother is, in fact, the bombdiggity. 🙂 Here’s why.

Postcards From Atlanta  Of a spectacular weekend with Women of Faith.

If I Were Really Brave  On daring and audacity, and risking it all.

11 Films to See More Than Once  The most popular of a series of 11 posts I did in October. Films that are so rich that they bear repeating. Another one where you want to read the comments.

Favorite Literary Encounters of 2011

It always makes me a little nauseous. Sitting down to make a list of favorite reads, I mean. Because there will be books I love that don’t make the cut. And they will sit there on the page imploring and asking me how they failed me. And I will want to cry. Because yes, they were very good. And I will remember some exquisite passage and exactly where I was when I read it and what it awoke in me. And I will feel like a traitor.

But the fact is, I have found my most memorable books from the recommendation of friends. And we have time to read only so many books before we die. Therefore, I feel a moral obligation to tell others about wonderful books I read, even if the process is excruciating.

Here are standouts from this year’s crop:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas  This is one of those novels that demand revisiting. The plot is complex, with subtleties and nuances that will require a lifetime to sort out. A disturbing, redemptive, provocative meditation on justice and grace.

Thirst: Poems, Mary Oliver  This book lies on a table in my bedroom. I can not tell you how many times this year I have picked it up, searching for just the right words. And finding them. Mary Oliver has proved a very good friend. Her poems give voice to rumblings in my soul. Yearnings. Delicious joys.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

~Mary Oliver

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being…” Is it any wonder that I love Merton so? His exploration of the interior life continues to compel and instruct me.

Peace Like a River Leif Enger  I recall with vivid clarity the moment I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending. Could not have a happy ending and be true. I almost dug my heels in and refused to finish it. But I could not not finish it. I had invested myself too deeply in these characters and I had to follow it through. The best books are very like life. Messy, painful, but relentlessly tinged with hope. Even when all circumstances prescribe against it. This is such.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts, Ian Cron  Too fantastic to be true, yet absolutely true. A story filled with intrigue, heartbreak, and renegade joy from a fabulous storyteller: winsome, funny, poignant. Read my full review HERE.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand  Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling narrative around the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane was shot down in the middle of the Pacific during World War II. We follow his terrifying weeks aboard a life-raft, the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, and the surprising challenge of returning home. It is a survivor story to be sure. But it is also a story of going beyond just survival. Highly recommended.

Stained Glass Hearts: Seeing Life from a Broken Perspective, Patsy Clairmont  Patsy Clairmont, humorist extraordinaire who can captivate a whole auditorium with her stories, reveals her softer, poetic underbelly in this lovely ode to the beauty in brokenness. Contemplative. Poet. She who has a deep ache for beauty, transcendence, truth. Weaver of words who can turn a phrase with a delicate, fragile loveliness that pierces the heart. Read the whole of my rave HERE.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough  While many Americans were heading west to find their fortunes, another group headed east to Paris to study. Art, science, and industry were still in their infancy in 19th century America. But Paris was a cauldron of idea and audacity. And the people who spent time there would return to shape the America of the future. McCullough carries us there with fascinating stories of people whose names will be familiar, though I’ll wager the many of the stories will surprise you. I did not write a review of the book, but you can read a post inspired by it HERE.

A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver  “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Yes indeed. Pulitzer prize winning Oliver has much to say about the craft of writing. I found much inspiration and nourishment here.

Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, John Oliver  O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Father Oliver builds his remarkable illumination of the Holy Spirit around this portion of the Trisagion prayers. It is one of the most stimulating books our Tuesday study group has ever read. You can sample a bit of his teaching in this post, inspired by one of the more difficult chapters for me personally.

Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Wendell Berry It is, perhaps, because she seems so familiar. Very like someone I have known. Or, perhaps it is simply Berry’s winsome telling of her story. But this was a comforting, sustaining read for me. More thoughts HERE.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard  I dragged out the reading of it out over a couple of months. Very unlike me. Because I dreaded being done with it. Not walking with her through the woods, over the pond, across the meadow. I miss her directing my gaze to something I would surely have missed. I miss her quirky observations and her detailed explanations. Mostly, I miss her words.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee  I can’t believe I read it for the first time at 45. A rich exploration of life inside the mind of a young girl growing up in the rural south. Some of her experiences very like my own, some completely other. Whimsy, superstition, intrigue, honor, courage, pain. All of these in generous measure. One of the best books I have ever read.

*Honorable Mentions: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury I found both of these to be terribly troubling. Mostly because the disturbing worlds they predict have so very much in common with the world in which we are living. Worlds where reading is banned and thinking for oneself is a thing of the past. Where we are spoonfed beliefs “for our own good” and for the “benefit of society”. I find it difficult to call them favorites when they made me so uncomfortable. But I haven’t the least difficulty calling them important.

What books did you read this year that rankled, inspired, or captivated?

Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

Every year I pull them out with the decorations. They go into a basket in the living room. And we read them over and over. And they are just as funny, or sweet, or troubling as they were the first time. Some of them have Christmas stickers or crayon marks lovingly added by little fingers over the years. And they are one of the threads that ever weaves us together as a family.

Christmas Books

Picture books. Advent devotionals. Classic literature. All have a place. And when I hold them in my hands, a panorama of other Christmases in other places, but with these same dear faces, plays before my eyes. And the fire of gratitude is stoked inside me.

Here are a few of our family’s every year favorites. I would love to know yours.

The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle with paintings of Giotto  The Nativity as framed by one of my favorite storytellers, accompanied by the sumptuous paintings of Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto was a landmark artist; the forefather of the Renaissance. And this series of paintings is one of the more remarkable in all of western art. Add that to the beauty of L’Engle’s words, and the beauty of the story itself, and you have a masterpiece worth revisiting, over and over.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore Just a few nights ago I was up during the night with Kenzie. I recited this poem to her. Twenty years rolled away in an instant, and I was holding her mommy as a brand new November baby, reciting the same poem into the night. I memorized it as a little girl. By osmosis. By listening to the Perry Como Christmas album approximately 478 times every year. (My brother and I double stacked it with the Chipmunks Christmas. Side one of both. Then flip the stack.)

The Cajun Night Before Christmas and The Hillbilly Night Afore Christmas My aunt introduced us to the Cajun version when she lived in New Orleans years ago. We love it! I later found the Hillbilly version. When I read it,  Appalachia is in my voice and in my heart.

Twas the night afore Christmas
‘Twixt ridgeback and holler,
No critter was twitchin
Nary hog dast to waller

Each keerful darn’t stockin’
War’ nail’t near the chimbly,
A hopin’ that Sainty’d
Be a extry bit fren’ly….

On the Incarnation by St. Antanasius It is one of the most important books I have ever read. Just over a hundred pages, but throbbing with the essence of the gospel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In language precise and potent, Antanasius defends the most pivotal truth of Christianity. This year, I make it part of my preparation…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss I never get all the way through without crying. My children indulge me. We all know someone like the Grinch whose heart is “two sizes too small”. I suppose I never want to forget that all of those someones can be made new. And that my family and I can be part of that. One of Kenzie’s favs so far. Can’t decide, though, if she just loves the black, white, and red illustrations. 🙂

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Speaking of lost causes…. 🙂 No one has ever seemed more of a lost cause than the Herdman children. And yet, remarkably, they will help all of us see Christmas with new eyes. We laugh our way hysterically through almost the whole book, until that moment when things get really quiet and my kids say, “Mom, are you crying?” Beautiful!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens There is a reason why everyone and his brother has wanted to tell this story. To give it their unique imprint. In it we see ourselves. Our best selves. Our worst selves. And, more than anything I think, we are reminded that it is never to late to choose a new course for our lives. This is a message we need to hear again and again. Some of us more than others. Read it aloud to your family. It is the work of an afternoon. It will spark wonderful discussion. and the language is delightful.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas I read it every year. Yet, I find that the events of the year…the hard things, the joys, the new experiences…color the familiar stories, and I see something I have never seen before. Beautiful, hard, thought-provoking words from some of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle…that draw me deep into the longing, the mystery, and the magic of the season.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen Nouwen has been a very influential voice in my life. I enjoy having him near in this Holy season. Short writings that orient my heart for the day.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson This story haunted me as a little girl. I could not get it out of my head. Or out of my heart. It haunts me still. But I still read it. May I always have eyes to see the unseen people in my world. May I be so discomfited that I must do something to help. I highly recommend the edition with Rachel Isadora’s luscious illustrations. They are positively captivating.

Your turn. What are the books you read over and over in this season?

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