Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books Read in 2015

Every year I attempt to track the books I read, and in recent years, I've tried all sorts of different ways to keep the list. Most recently I've been using Goodreads, which I find fun and useful. A tool is only as good as the time you put into it, however, and I confess I sometimes slipped up and still forgot to note what I read. I also don't use Goodreads to track our family read-alouds, which I continue to keep in a side bar here on the blog.

One thing I like about Goodreads is that they send you a little year-end "your year in books" note, in which they provide some enjoyable stats. This year they told me that the shortest book I read all year was Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early. They also let me know that among all my books, it was the highest rated one on their site, which just goes to show you that you don't need a lot of words to make a big impact -- especially when you're an amazing poet like Mary Oliver.

The longest book I read this year was (no surprise): David McCullough's Truman. I finished that early in 2015, but the satisfaction of reading such a well-researched and beautiful biographical tome has stayed with me. I am grateful for the way in which McCullough captured Truman's time and presidency, giving me a sense of almost having "been there." And Truman will forever after be on my list of most respected presidents.

Other fun stats from Goodreads are the "most popular" and "least popular" stats. I find these interesting to ponder. What these stats reflect is how many other readers who use Goodreads happened to have read a book I also read, so it's not precisely an accurate reflection of a book's popularity (or worth). Still, it came as little surprise again that over half a million (!) readers joined me in reading Andy Weir's novel The Martian, while only 55 other Goodreaders joined me in reading the profound essays in James K.A. Smith's Discipleship in the Present Tense. I enjoyed both in very different ways, but it probably doesn't take much of a leap to tell you which book influenced me the most and will stay with me longest. Thank you, Jamie Smith.

2015 was also the year I finished P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh series, just a few months after James passed away. It was the year I finally read and loved Richard Adams' classic Watership Down (a book we read as a family) and made the delightfully funny acquaintance of P.D. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster. I also continued my foray into Arthur Conan Doyle by reading his Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four. 

Later summer found me immersed in the world of Harper Lee, first as I tiptoed somewhat gingerly through the novel draft Go Set a Watchman and then as I enjoyed Charles J. Shields' loving biography of Lee, Mockingbird.

Besides P.D. James, I enjoyed some of the cozy mysteries of Patricia Wentworth and also returned to J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith's mystery world with The Silkworm. I also started Alan Bradley's novels starring the young girl detective Flavia de Luce

Some of my favorite spiritual formation type reading this year, beyond Smith's book already mentioned, came in Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God, and a re-read of Henri Nouwen's beautiful book The Return of the Prodigal Son.

I didn't read enough children's fiction this year, but several of the books I read in that genre were memorable: Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks in Spring, Linda Mullaly Hunt's One for the Murphys and her Fish in a Tree, and Kwame Alexander's Newbery award winning novel in verse, The Crossover.  Many of the books I read in this genre were recommendations from my sweet Jedi Teen (or else I happened to pick them up while she was reading them). I read several other good mid-grade books that somehow didn't make the official reading list.

A book that colored our family's dinner-time (and other time) conversations for quite a while was Tom Standage's The Neptune File. It made me realize that we need to read more science books written at an engaging, popular level. Similar to that are history books written in an engaging, lively fashion, such as Nathan Philbrick's The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World, which I also enjoyed this year.

While this isn't quite a full list of my reading -- it leaves out many family read-alouds, Bible reading, more devotional reading, favorite re-reads, a couple of pop culture reads, cookbooks, and plenty of books I read "at" but didn't read in their entirety -- it does a pretty good job of capturing at least a snapshot of my reading year.

I look forward to the new (and old) books I will meet in 2016!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Snow Went On....

The snow went on so bright and deep, and dark in patches where shadows grew. Sometimes white sometimes gray then silver then blue, and all around us the hushing sound of runners sliding past the icy ground and the horse’s breath misting clouds in the air and a few flakes still falling and we don’t know where we’re going but the snow goes on as far as the eye can see. So bright and deep and dark. 

Sometimes when I am most tired, like now, I find myself needing to riff on images. This beautiful painting by Winslow Homer, simply titled "Sleigh Ride," (and painted between 1890-95), called out for a swooshing rush of words last night. Poetry? Prose? A prose poem, perhaps, and one that slides along like the sleigh on the snow. 

Checked the weather forecast this morning. It looks like the cold is finally settling in to stay awhile.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sing All Ye Citizens of Heaven Above!

My last post was written a week ago, but it feels so much longer. In that time, we've finished the Advent season and moved into Christmas. And my mother has entered into glory.

At 83, my precious, wonderful mother was feeling better than she had in a long, long time. We loved our visit with her on Thanksgiving. She was telling stories....lots of them. In fact, I wrote in my journal at the time that she seemed to be putting together the pieces of her life like a jigsaw puzzle. She lingered long over stories about her childhood, youth, and adulthood, especially about her journey of faith. She and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner together. She loved watching Sarah do her Irish dancing on the backyard patio. I remember her hearing the neighbors on the other side of the fence and hurrying over to chat with them (chatting with neighbors being something she loved doing more than almost anything!). She'd only recovered from hip surgery a few months before, but she was scrambling up on tiptoes and pulling herself up so she could call over the fence.

I had no idea that less than a month later, she would be gone from this earth and in the presence of Jesus.

The sudden and unexpected heart attack she had on Sunday was all the more unexpected because of how well she'd been feeling. She had no history of heart disease. She took incredibly good care of herself (and my dad took wonderful care of her during her hip recovery and her bout of cellulitis). She always believed a merry heart was the best medicine. Her doctors often told her how strong she was constitutionally. Her own mother lived to be 92; her maternal grandfather lived to be 100. I truly thought she had lots of time left.

But the Lord called her home this Christmas, and when the Lord calls, you answer. My mother answered with peace. She was one of the most active people I know, and yet when the time came, God gave her the serenity to simply surrender into his arms with assurance and peace. She taught me so much in her life, and even in her death, she continues to teach me.

I have so many stories I could tell about the grace filled moments of the past few days. Maybe I will soon. But on this day, Christmas day, I am simply rejoicing that Mama is home with Jesus....and simply missing her so much I ache all over.

Friday, December 18, 2015

O! The Antiphons of Advent

Although I graduated from seminary, I am not a liturgy geek. I have friends (lots of them) who are...who can tell you the historical background behind all the various prayers, colors, and traditions in the church. I love beautiful liturgy and will forever be thankful that the prayer book grabbed me so many years ago and helped direct me to the Anglican tradition I now call home. But as a lay person, not a priest or deacon, I am usually perfectly content to participate in the liturgy without understanding all the exact whys and wherefores of why we do what we do.

Since I'm not a liturgy geek, but I do love history and music, occasionally I stumble upon something that I feel like I should have known about before but didn't. This year it is the "O Antiphons" of Advent.

I learned about the O Antiphons this year when I went looking for background on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." It's the sweet girl's favorite Advent hymn, and I had promised we could delve into its meaning a little bit during our evening Advent prayers around the wreath. (And yes, liturgical geek friends, our candle colors are wrong this year! We were late buying candles and the best we could do this year was dark green with one pink.)

I knew that the names for Jesus in O Come were all Scriptural, so I decided we would dive into those biblical allusions. What I didn't realize was that the verses of the hymn correspond to ancient antiphonal prayers, each one beginning with an O!

I love those Os! Isn't it a wonderful exclamation! As though you are drawing your breath in, feeling total amazement and awe. Addressing a king. Stunned by the beauty of the gospel.

An antiphon, by the way, is simply a prayer that is read or sung antiphonally -- with voices volleying the words back and forth. The seven Antiphons of Advent are typically prayed in the week leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas day. They are wonderful prayers that help us to prepare our hearts to make room for the celebration of the Nativity.

We've reflected together on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and now we are praying our way through the O Antiphons. Last night it was a prayer to "Wisdom of the Most High," and tonight we address God as "Ruler of the House of the Israel." O, I love that we never run out of names for God!

Here's a lovely site with all the Antiphons, from whence I pulled the beautiful image for this post. It's an original artwork by Jeanne Kun, entitled "The Root of Jesse."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Creativity Angel Come to Visit

I had to laugh when I walked into the living room this morning and discovered the creativity angel on the floor.

Twenty-eight years ago I spent a year in Connecticut, living with my older sister. We spent a lot of time reading, cooking, and creating together. One of her gifts to me that year a set of tiny "angel cards." Each card has a picture of a small angel on it, right next to a gift word. "Responsibility," "Surrender," "Love," "Creativity," etc.

I honestly am not sure where the whole set is anymore, but occasionally the angels turn up in unexpected places, as angels tend to do.

Today's angel was, I'm pretty sure, tucked inside a basket of photographs and cards that I keep on the white shelf between my dining room and living room. The basket overturned late last night when I was hunting for a hole punch so that Jedi Teen could finish up her Stars Wars Christmas ornaments (speaking of creativity). I scooped everything up willy-nilly and shoved it all back in the basket, too tired to organize it in any way. Apparently the creativity angel escaped my clean-up efforts. Seems fitting somehow!

And this morning, I think I finally finished this year's advent poem. 

May the creativity angel visit your house soon too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Praying Life (by Paul E. Miller)

I was going to try a reading round-up post....remember those? But I'll be honest, I'm not managing to read a lot in these crammed and tired days. The reading I am most enjoying is our nightly family reading time, where we are revisiting Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. My tried and true December reading habits are being tested in big ways this year. I didn't seem to have enough energy to tackle a big Advent reading project. The history and biography habit that always seems to feed me in the cold winter months hasn't yet kicked in (maybe because the cold weather hasn't).

But I have to give a shout-out to this lovely book on prayer which I've been sipping at for several weeks. Because I am in slooooww-reading....(think marinating, slow cooking)...I am not going to finish it before it has to go back to the library, but that's okay. It's worth getting again.

I've dipped my toes into a lot of prayer books over the years, reading some of them fully (and more than once) and skimming others. This is one of the best I can recall. It's simple, clear, and incredibly honest. Miller talks about prayer in ways that I think almost anyone can resonate with, letting us know in the book's introduction that God taught him to pray through suffering.  "...prayer isn't meant to be a production or a problem," David Powlison writes in the foreword. "And God is here, now. Prayer is meant to be the conversation where your life and your God meet. Paul Miller understands that."

I think he does, which is why sitting down with the book feels less like sitting down at the feet of someone who has all the answers and more like sharing a cup of tea with a friend who gets all the reasons I have for a dry or impatient or faith-lacking prayer life. I need to hear this book-friend's encouraging words.

"Come overwhelmed with life. Come with a wandering mind. Come messy."
"Don't be embarrassed by how needy your heart is and how much it needs to cry out for grace. Just start praying."
  "If you know that you, like Jesus, can't do life on your own, then prayer makes complete sense."

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...

Despite the unusually warm temperatures outside, it's definitely mid-December. I know this because the advent wreath is on the dining room table, the Christmas tree is up and decorated, the box of Christmas books and videos/DVDs has made its appearance in the living room, and the cookie recipes are scattered in the kitchen. I also know it because yesterday was Christmas pageant rehearsal number two (one more to go before performance on 4th Advent), and on Saturday, Santa rode into our little town at the back of the Christmas parade. S' Christmas cactus is blooming wildly on the windowsill, brightly advent pink (joy!), and the poinsettia she rescued a couple of years back is also blooming again. I love her green thumb.

Then there's the fact that I spent a few minutes this morning hunting down the elusive notebook with my advent poem jottings. Yet another year that I am feeling almost certain that a poem won't get written, but I've managed it for twenty-three years running, even in really dry and difficult years, and somehow or other, it will happen in year twenty-four.

Dry and difficult aren't quite the words I would use for this particular advent season, but there have been lots of struggles this year. My stress levels have been an almost all-time high in the past week or so, and the stress is manifesting itself in physical ways -- I am struggling with back and hip pain of the kind I only get when my body has just maxed out stress-wise. S' anxiety levels have been enormous of late, which is affecting all of us, especially as she struggles with sleep. (Though blessedly, last night was better. Thank you, Abba!)  I also know a lot my own stress is due to being deep down tired:  I've had health issues while needing to keep an incredible work pace this year, and it's not over yet. Some of it is our financial stress -- we've had a rotten fourth quarter, and the personal Christmas miracle I am praying for right now is the ability to keep our electricity on through the holidays (not an exaggeration). Some of it is also weariness in the face of difficult news of suffering from around the world, which sometimes seems more (not less) acute when we look at it with advent eyes.

In and through all of this, it can sometimes be difficult to hear the gospel sing, but sing it does, and that too is another reason I know it's mid-December. Because Jesus has come and still comes and will come again, and that means light in dark places and tender care for all aches and hope where reason tells us there's no reason to hope. So deeply thankful that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas again.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Poetry Friday: The Cedar Tree (Jessica Powers)

I woke this morning with snow on my mind. I'm not sure why, since it's still quite mild here for December, and all we've seen this week is rain. But I found myself marveling over the beauty of Monet's painting "The Magpie," and then I found myself turning to one of my favorite Jessica Powers poems, "The Cedar Tree."

The Cedar Tree

In the beginnng, in the unbeginning
of endlessness and of eternity,
God saw this tree.
He saw these cedar branches bending low
under the full exhaustion of the snow.
And since He set no wind of day to rising,
this burden of beauty and this burden of cold,
whether the wood breaks or the branches hold
must be of His devising.

The rest of the poem is here. The end of the poem almost always brings me to tears. 

The Poetry Friday round-up today is at A Teaching Life.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Advent Reading: Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas

I recently went looking through my review archives to read over some of the reflections I wrote, in years past, about Advent and Christmas books. One of the Advent books I have loved the longest is Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.  I wrote briefly about it here on the blog back in 2011, and I reviewed it in full on the now defunct back in 2004!

In honor of the first week of Advent, and in honor of what would have been Madeleine's 97th birthday on November 29, I thought I would post that old review in its entirety here. And yes, that precious 2 1/2 year old girl I talk about in the review is now a wonderful 13 1/2.

Last Sunday night, while we were still finishing the Thanksgiving leftovers, we got out our family Advent wreath and set it up with new candles. This is the first year that our daughter, almost two and a half, is really getting "into" the Advent traditions that her Daddy and I had already established for a decade before her birth. The lighting of the wreath, along with a special prayer time each night, is the best part.

For centuries, it has been the tradition of the Christian church to mark the weeks before Christmas as a time of reflection and celebration of the coming of Jesus. A good summary of what Advent is all about is "He comes; He's coming again!" Even as we await Christmas day (the celebration of the feast of the nativity) many of the appointed Scripture lessons focus our attention on the eventual return of Jesus as King. So our vision has a kind of dual focus: the humility of God coming to earth as a tiny child, and the majesty of Jesus' promised return as King to set things right and make all things new.

The wisdom of the tradition of Advent feels more and more apparent to me the older I get, especially now that I'm a parent. In the darkest days of the year, the season of Advent turns our attention to the coming of light. In the frenetic rush and busyness of a consumer crazed culture, the season of Advent refocuses our attention on the gift of the incarnation, God-become-human-being. Advent helps us to "anticipate" with joy, things both small and large. It's natural that our family is excited about good things at this time of year: beautiful decorations, time with family and friends, traditional music, delicious food, the exchange of gifts with loved ones. Taking time out to reflect and rest in the meaning of the celebration reminds us that these good things we're waiting for are just side-dishes, with the real banquet of love and light still to come one day.

Some of my first meaningful brushes with the whole Advent concept of "slowing-down/waiting/anticipating with joy" came in Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous book The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas. First published in 1964, it is still in print. The edition I own, well loved and well read, is the hardback edition illustrated by Joe DeVelasco and published by Shaw. I believe this edition is now out of print, but used copies still seem to be floating around. It's well worth it if you can find it because the illustrations are charming and help bring the story to life.

Fans of Madeleine L'Engle will recognize the family in the story. The Austins were introduced by L'Engle in 1960's Meet the Austins and were the focus of several other books she wrote from the 1960's on into the 1990's: The Moon by Night (1963), The Young Unicorns (1968), A Ring of Endless Light (1980), and Troubling a Star (1994). All of those were novel length, but in addition to these, L'Engle revisited the Austin family from time to time in "long short story" format, including The Anti-Muffins and A Full House which shows the Austins on another Christmas. Of the three shorter books, The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas is my favorite, and I think by far the strongest and most interesting narrative.

Like all Austin stories (except for Young Unicorns and A Full House), this one is narrated by Vicky Austin. Readers familiar with the novels know Vicky as an adolescent, but in this "prequel" she is only 7 years old. Also part of her family: older brother John, younger sister Suzy, father Wallace (a doctor by trade), and mother Victoria. Oh yes, also Colette the poodle and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane. In all other Austin books, one of the most memorable characters is the youngest Austin sibling, Rob. He is definitely a part of this book too, but in a different way: Mrs. Austin is pregnant and Rob makes his somewhat dramatic appearance toward the end of the book.

The Austins live in an unnamed New England village. The book opens with Vicky proclaiming "December is probably my favorite month". That's because the family gets to do something special for each day of the four weeks leading up to Christmas. They start each December with a new Advent calendar, and then each day they get to do something else new and special. Most of these are ordinary but creative family traditions: making cards, making cookies, getting familiar ornaments out of the attic, choosing their tree from the woods. Vicky relates what the family does to celebrate each day in the course of a story packed with all sorts of other anticipation. The children keep waiting for the first snowfall of the year; they are excited about the upcoming church Christmas pageant; and most of all they are excited about the new baby, due in early January.

Vicky makes a precocious seven year old narrator. L'Engle occasionally seems to give her a too "adult" kind of tone/reasoning...but readers familiar with the older Vicky can forgive this a bit, and I think even other readers will find her endearing. A lot of us have known very smart seven year olds (and even younger children) who surprise us with the intensity of their questions and the profundity of their thoughts. What feels perfectly natural about her narration is the undertone of anxiety shot through the joyful anticipation. What if she goofs up her part as an angel in the Christmas pageant? (She overhears the director say she's awkward, and spends much of the rest of the story walking around the house with an encyclopedia on her head, trying to improve her grace and poise.) Worse yet, what if the baby decides to come early and her mother ends up in the hospital for Christmas?

L'Engle delightfully resolves these childish but oh so understandable dilemmas and fears. The end result is a story shot through with the Advent themes of waiting, working, praying and loving in joyful anticipation.

Vicky is very much a member of a family, and readers will enjoy getting to see her interact with her parents and siblings in ordinary ways. Some critics have faulted L'Engle for "unreal" or "ideal" portrayals of family life, but I think that's probably more a commentary on the sad brokenness we're used to than on her writing. The Austins, at any rate, always felt much more real to me than L'Engle's other famous family (the time-traveling Murrys) and I love them here. They fuss, fret, squabble, laugh, cry, eat, pray, and read together. As the youngest member of my own family (and so basically an "only" child by the time I was 13) I loved stepping vicariously into the Austin household. Of course, I also related somewhat intensely to the gawky, introverted Vicky. Still do!

All in all, this book is a wonderful introduction for children and grown-ups to the celebration of Advent. I remember reading this when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and thinking "I want to do those kinds of things with my children some day." Now I'm getting to, and I'm still grateful for the inspiration this story provided.

And it is a story with enough tender moments to make you wish to be a part of it again and again. I am always especially touched by Vicky's night-time thoughts by the creche, and by Rob Austin's birth. Yes, he comes within the 24 days...just!

The story comes in at 48 pages of fairly packed prose, although in my edition a few of those are full page illustrations. It can be read in one long sitting -- something I've done and enjoyed on Christmas Eves past, but that might be tough going for very little children. Alternatively, it can be read and enjoyed as a kind of "serial" since each day of the month is described. Some of the days have long narrative sections and others only brief mentions, so you might want to plan ahead and plot a reading course that works best for your family.

Happy first week of Advent, and happy reading!