Saturday, March 24, 2012

Favorite Literary Detectives: Adding Dalgleish to the List

So I've been discovering P.D. James. How have I missed her work before now? She's 91 years old and has been writing mysteries for fifty years, and yet somehow I just stumbled upon her last year.

I first read her non-fiction book Talking About Detective Fiction, a great little collection of essays/thoughts/reflections on the mystery writing genre. That inspired me to want to read more of her work, but somehow I didn't manage it until the recent publication of Death Comes to Pemberley. Intrigued that such a renowned mystery author would move into Austenalia, I read and enjoyed that.

But I kept hearing that what I really needed to do was read her Adam Dalgleish novels. I tried one several months back, but it was firmly in the middle of the books she wrote about him and had him acting (or so it said) "out of character." I didn't want to get to know a character when he was acting out character before I'd even made his acquaintance in character. So I finally decided to do the sensible thing and track down the first Adam Dalgleish mystery. It turned out to be James' debut novel from 1962: Cover Her Face.

The mystery was terrific. James knows how to plot, and she's an excellent writer. (My review of the book posted at the above link.) Dalgleish just intrigues me...a very quiet man with a lot of depth. We're given tiny glimpses of that depth in Cover Her Face, enough that I will definitely continue on with the books in which he features.

I suspect I will be adding Adam Dalgleish to a line of literary and dramatic sleuths I already love. My list of male detectives (I'll have to do a separate post on female detectives sometime) includes Peter Whimsey, Hercule Poirot, Christopher Foyle, Sherlock Holmes, Brother Cadfael, Adrian Monk, and Luke Thanet. Oh, and Encyclopedia Brown. Hmm. I know that list could be much longer. I will have to see if my tired, middle-aged brain comes up with the rest. If so, I'll be back to edit.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

When David Gets Cranxious

I coined a word this morning while chatting on Facebook with a friend. I had been scrolling through my Facebook feed and discovered that the plethora of posts on issues big and small was making me feel overwhelmed in a very specific way. In point of fact, reading all this stuff was making me feel both cranky and anxious. Hence my new word: cranxious.

It's a good word to describe how I feel a lot of the time these days. The anxiety is my besetting sin...or my cross to bear (depending on the day, I might describe it either way). Sometimes it's vague and amorphous (that's usually when I'm giving into fear) other times it's grounded in very specific reality. That last is hard, but somehow it is easier to turn it over to God, one anxious thought at a time, when I recognize at least what I am feeling anxious about -- and let go of the things I'm clinging to with such stubborn, clutching fingers.

The crankiness is just...well, crankiness. I notice that it gets worse when I am surrounded by other people feeling cranky. And let's face it, a lot of people use FB as an outlet for their cranky feelings. Over the weather, their health, politics, the state of the world, their boredom and frustration. When you really love people, you're willing to listen to them talk about whatever they need to talk about. The problem with Facebook, of course, is that it can be very hard to turn scrolling through a newsfeed into active listening. It's a passive activity unless you're really willing to take the time to turn it into something active/proactive -- an encouraging note to someone, a prayer offered on their behalf, a willingness to read an article that they posted because they really feel passionate about something and found it struck enough of a chord that they wanted to share it. Knowing all the little details of friends and acquaintances' least all the little details they've chosen to reveal...can be food for real learning and prayer. It can also just be an overwhelming wall that you want to bang your head against some mornings. Too much information! Too much crankiness!

So today I felt cranxious.

That's when it hit me I had not had my quiet time. I woke up a little later than usual, and though I had prayed and done Bible reading with the sweet girl, I had not had any quiet, personal time with the Lord. And yet here I was, getting all cranxious over the state of the world and other people's lives. What's wrong with this picture?

I headed to the lectionary to read the daily Scripture readings. To get some good news, I said to my friend, in a laughing way. I meant that. The good news is twined in every part of the Scriptures, shot through as they are with the gospel's golden thread. Of course in some places that's dazzlingly clear and in other places, you have to grope for the thread -- it glints off in a corner or just shows up in a small knot on the backside of a story or prayer, but it's there.

And what did I hit first? Psalm 69.

This is King David at his most cranxious. In fact, the word, much as I like it, doesn't even begin to cover David's mood in this prayer. You could basically sum it up like this: "I'm sinking, God, and IT STINKS!" He snarls and complains and fumes and frets and frankly says some pretty disturbing things about the enemies that are getting him down and what he'd like done to them. Such disturbing things that the lectionary bleeps him. They actually cut seven verses right out of the middle, assuming it will be too much for our delicate ears and highly honed postmodern sensibility to deal with David's anger and desire for vengeance.

Yes, I say the last with tongue in cheek. You may have noticed, in FB feeds and other places, that frustration, anger, and even a desire for vengeance is alive and well in our day and age. We just don't tend to turn it Godward anymore, which is a pity. We excise David's hardest words in an attempt to make the whole prayer sound nicer, but what we don't realize is that David is modeling for us what we're supposed to do when we do, inevitably, feel these things. He is taking it directly to God, to the heart of love that called him and the entire world into being, the only one who can right wrongs and heal harms and restore relationships in any ultimate way. In pain, anger, and frustration, he takes it all to God -- and he leaves it there. Right at his feet. A messy, messy offering of all that is within him.

And by the end of the Psalm, he is moving into a different place. Enough that he can say "you who seek God, let your hearts revive..." The act of placing all this in God's hands, trusting God with it, seems to be working revival in his own cranxious heart. The act of seeking God, finding God, knowing God hears us -- it makes a difference in our lives.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Learning to Make Do

My parents celebrate their fifty-eighth wedding anniversary on Tuesday, and my mom turns 80 the next day. I am so very thankful for their lives, love, and witness! And I miss them so much.

I wanted to honor them with handmade cards (something I enjoy doing, and they enjoy receiving) but this past week was, to put it mildly, overwhelmingly stressful. Despite the beautiful and sudden springlike weather (I am still reeling that western PA can begin to bud and flower in mid-March) I was having a week where circumstances seemed determined to squash me. I spent a lot of the week just trying to scramble up on top of the mountain, determined to not let that happen -- and trying to remember to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving, keeping being thankful, keep praying.

It was the kind of week that found me scribbling notes to myself like this one: "Love God. Value truth. Keep a thankful heart." Or murmuring the missionary credo of Amy Carmichael, one that has held me in good stead for years, "Guard against depression. Bear evenly with all that is uneven. Never be shocked out of loving."

Be all that as it may, it didn't leave much room for creative energies. The drawing I'd been working on for my mother's birthday was clearly not going to get finished. I was determined to at least get the anniversary card in the mail today though, so I ended up revising and revamping my ideas.

The mid-point of the drawing -- a vase of flowers in a larger still-life sketch -- was essentially done. So I made a copy of it on the copier and then cut it out, following the natural shape of the flowers in the vase.

Then I planned to choose a colorful or patterned background and glue it all to a cardstock greeting card. Couldn't find those, so had to go with smaller cardstock pieces. They weren't large enough to make the background I wanted, so I glued two together. I decided on two different colors to give the background a two-toned look.

Then I glued the vase of flowers onto the cardstock and decided to trim the cardstock background in the same similar contours, so it would be a shaped card.

Then I had to pilfer a box of bought notecards (I wrote "boughten" first, but apparently that's too old-fashioned for my spell-checker) for an envelope. It appeared to be large enough until I slid the card in, and then I realized the top part of the card ran over the allotted space by about a quarter inch. I debated trimming it, then ended up making the tiniest of folds. My parents will notice and no doubt smile. They know me well.

Then I glued an anniversary message, printed in a colored script font, on the back of the card, and had the whole family sign it.

It ended up looking not at all like I'd originally imagined or planned, and it was far from perfect -- but somehow, that felt just like life. And maybe appropriate in celebration of a marriage that has weathered 58 years with grace.

Sometimes this happens in our creative lives, and in our lives period. We envision something. We try it and it doesn't work, so we envision something else. A lot of life is learning to improvise, to trim to fit, to change the direction of a fold, to compromise with our original thoughts and plans, to...well...make do. And in making do, we sometimes discover grace for ourselves and for those we love.

St. Patrick certainly learned that lesson. When his life took a turn he could not possibly expect, he discovered a new way of living. It changed his heart, his own life, and ultimately the life of Ireland and the world. May we all live with that kind of hope and creative daring in the face of whatever we discover ourselves facing. Most of all, may we keep listening to God's voice in the midst of all our "making do."

Friday, March 09, 2012

A Book to Fall In Love With

I need a book I can fall in love with.

You know the kind I mean. The kind of book you smile shyly at the first time you meet it. The kind of book you take from the shelf with hope shining in your eyes. The kind of book whose pages you smooth with careful hands as you begin.

And then when you begin to read, you fall...and fall hard. Head over heels. You drink deep, lost in delight as you turn the pages, and you barely want to come up for air. When you finally finish, you feel bereft, but it's the kind of bereft you feel after saying good-bye to a dear friend whose company is a total treasure.

That's the kind of book I need right now.

See, I'm tired. All week I've either been sick or taking care of someone sick (a kind of nasty stomach bug with fevers, aches, and general yukiness hit first me, then the sweet girl). I've been grading a mountain of papers. We're under the worst financial stress we've ever been under (and that's saying a lot). I've not really been out of the post-industrial town that time forgot for...oh, let's months. D. is working three jobs, bless him, and hardly ever here. And I am beginning to feel like if I fold one more piece of laundry, I might scream.

So you see, I need a really good book. An LOTR, Emma, Harry Potter, Guernsey, Til We Have Faces, Severed Wasp sort of book, or a really awesome biography/riveting non-fiction kind of book. The kind of book I can fall head over heels for and not come up for air for a while.

I've had high hopes about a handful of things I've gotten from the library recently, and while they've been just fine, have in fact been good books I've enjoyed (Lauren Winner's Still, P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley) they've not been books that make me want to burn the dinner while I keep reading.

I know one person's love is not necessarily another person's love, but I'd still love to hear what books you've fallen for!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Flowers and Ribbons (The Practice of Spiritual Reading)

I was up very late last night working. I won't tell you what hour I finally got to bed, but it was only three hours later that I was awakened out of a restless sleep by a rather violent stomach virus/bug. I've still only had a couple of dry crackers and a small amount of fluids. Suffice it to say, I am dragging -- and this isn't quite how I expected to kick off Monday.

So in the place of the post I might have normally written on a Monday (more of the Wrinkle re-read, a gratitude post, a week in review...) you're getting this impromptu one instead.

Fortunately, the sweet girl has been a trooper. She's cheerfully taken care of all she needs to do plus a few extras, doing her school work and checking in on mom when I need to rest (she even read to me for a while and didn't mind when I dozed off in the middle of things). Even more fortunately, I had some work related things I could read and re-visit while resting on the couch. One of them was a brief essay on Reading Medieval Texts, penned by the seminary prof I'm assisting this term. I'm about to go into a huge round of paper grading, and wanted to refresh my mind on some of the initial course documents before I did.

And I stumbled head-first, in my tired haze, into this delightful quote from Francis deSales, on the joys of meditative/prayerful reading:

"Those who have been walking in a beautiful garden do not leave it willingly without taking away with them in their hands four or five flowers, in order to inhale their fragrance and carry them about during the day. Even so, when we have considered some mystery in meditation, we should choose one or two or three points which we have found particularly to our taste, and which are particularly appropriate to our advancement, so that we may remember them during the day, and inhale their fragrance spiritually."

It's lovely, wise counsel. And it makes my heart sing because I came up with a similar metaphor many years ago (during my own seminary years, to be exact) when I was taking a spiritual formation course. I called it "carrying a ribbon." I reflected on the beauty of the image of a ribbon -- how simple it is, and yet how festive. A ribbon can tie up a package or gift, it can adorn someone's hair, it can be woven into a bird's nest, it can be woven in and out among dancers on a pole or flung into the air while one person holds it or another catches it. The idea I came up with lo so many years ago was that, when we spiritually read (or read for formation) we often find a beautiful ribbon or two we can carry with us. We revisit those ribbons later and use them for all sorts of things (including sharing and celebration).

I think I like deSales' organic image as much or even better, but we seem to be getting at the same idea. We don't just walk into a text and leave without taking something with us. (Of course the beauty is, unlike taking a flower from a garden or a ribbon from a gift, we don't actually strip anything from the text in question -- it's all still there for the next visitor/recipient to find.) We take it with us, and we continue to carry it throughout the day. And sometimes throughout a week, month, year, or even a lifetime.

You may have noticed that I have a little sidebar on the left-hand side of my blog. Long ago, I labeled it "A Ribbon to Carry With You" and it was with that idea in mind -- that I would share colorful ribbons, small snippets of things I was reading, in the Scriptures or elsewhere, that other people might also want to carry onward with them. I haven't changed the ribbon in a long, long while. It just may be a practice I want to reinvigorate.