In one of his Advent homilies, Bernard of Clairvaux offers a stirring presentation of the drama of this moment. After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free “yes” to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforcable “yes” of a human being. So Bernard portrays heaven and earth as it were holding its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes? She hesitates … will her humility hold her back? Just this one—Bernard tells her—do not be humble but daring! Give us your “yes”! This is the crucial moment when, from her lips, from her heart, the answer comes: “Let it be to me according to your word.” It is the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made.
(Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Benedict XVI)
Here is the first in, I am sure, a number of small posts collecting words that I read and want to remember. To begin is a rather sad poem, but I find the last lines incredibly striking.
After the storm and the new
stillness of the snow, he returns
to the graveyard, as though
he might lift the white coverlet,
slip in beside her as he used to do,
and again feel, beneath his hand,
her flesh quicken and turn warm.
But he is not her husband now.
To participate in resurrection, one
first must be dead. And he goes
back into the whitened world, alive.
The Rejected Husband, Wendell Berry
We aren’t much for New Year resolutions in this house, but most Januarys begin with a goal or two for the year ahead. Among a few perhaps more meaningful things (and therefore ones I hope to stick to!), one of my goals is to blog once a week. It might just be a few sentences; or maybe a more thought-out, crafted sort of piece. I want to better document both our family’s life and my own thoughts in the midst of it.
To begin, I thought I would do a few posts looking back on the wild and full year we have had. Starting with the books I read. This list is sadly quite short, but I am reassuring myself about its length by remembering all that 2016 held. However, I am hoping to have a much longer list by the end of 2017.
That being said, here’s what I read in 2016:
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
This book was grand in both language and story, and I found myself not being able to put it down. The story is engaging and page-turning, but the more I look back on the book, the more disappointed I feel about it. It seems to me that the author is trying very hard to say something meaningful, to make important and profound connections, but I always felt like he never quite got there. (Maybe I’m the only one who feels that way!) The book was good enough, though, that I tried another Doerr book.
About Grace, Anthony Doerr
The thing I appreciate and enjoy about Doerr is his fascination with and love for the natural world. This comes through beautifully in About Grace, but again I found the story to be trying too hard to make a point that it never really makes. I got the feeling that he wanted desperately to be saying something important, but didn’t even know himself what that thing might be.
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
This is the best book I read all year by far, and is now on my list of top three books. Gorgeous, provoking, horrifying, tender, insightful, magnificent, beautiful. I loved it so much that I felt sad moving on to another book. I read the last few chapters of the book over and over and over again and might just read the whole thing again in 2017.
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph…
“And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”
Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
I don’t have much to say about this little book. It is lovely, but my reading of it directly followed East of Eden and most of the time I found myself wishing I was reading about Cal and Lee and Adam.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Morrison is the winner of numerous prizes, and she is clearly a skilled writer. Her words are lyrical and beautiful, but I did not enjoy this book. I disliked it in the process of reading it but kept holding out hope that something would prove me wrong, or that my mind would be changed as I know that many speak highly of it. While Beloved brings to light important questions and reminds us of the horrors of American slavery, it seemed that she dismisses evil because it was caused, or provoked, by evil. The book left a bad taste in my mouth, but I would be very curious to discuss it with anyone who has read it, especially anyone who might feel differently about it. I am hardly a literary critic and can easily miss important moments in a story.
Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Ruin the Humanity of Your Children, Anthony Esolen
I liked this book much better than his first in this sort of mini series. His insights not only gave me much to think about as a parent, but also as a person myself in this modern age.
God or Nothing, Robert Cardinal Sarah
This conversation with Cardinal Sarah is absolutely beautiful. The man is unflinching in his faith and conviction, but communicates these truths with mercy and compassion. As an African who grew up in a war-torn country, his perspective and critiques of modernity are especially insightful.
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
I closed this book feeling sad. It is engaging, funny at times, profound and insightful, and a fascinating look into a very American culture. Vance’s story is one of profound struggle and success. In many ways, he “beat the odds” and overcame many difficulties to become the sort of person who could even write a memoir looking honestly at the world that he came from. It is sad, however, to consider all of the children in situations such as his, and I found myself again thinking about foster care.
The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden
Homer Price, Robert McCloskey
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Adam of the Road, Elizabeth Janet Gray
The Door in the Wall, Marguerite D’Angeli
And with there ends my little list. On the list to begin 2017: A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit and Elena Farrante’s highly-acclaimed My Brilliant Friend.
Recently, my beloved Hillsdale College has produced beautiful marketing videos, many of them highlighting alumnae doing remarkable things. It is exciting to see classmates of mine who are working for the Denver Broncos or producing for Fox News. They are polished, driven, and remarkably successful. I love seeing the amazing work of my friends and the passion that they have about their work.
But when I watch the promotions, I don’t only feel pride at the accomplishments of my friends. I feel something else, too. A twinge of jealousy, perhaps. An underlying doubt, certainly.
My life is not one that will sell my alma mater to prospective students. My teaching job and my days of raising a child, loving a husband, and doing the dishes at 9 p.m. every night aren’t necessarily polished, marketable sorts of things.
I believe in the goodness of motherhood. I know the goodness of family. I believe that what I am doing is important, and meaningful, but saying those words is not always easy to believe.
What am I doing, I wonder? Ought I be more ambitious? My degree, my journalism experience, my Washington Times internship, all formed me and made me but in light of those, my life now sometimes feels as if I am not doing anything.
These feelings come and go, never settled, although usually quieted by the knowledge—but perhaps a less solid conviction—that what I am doing matters. I tell myself that often, hoping that I will learn to believe it.
But tonight Edith was sitting on my lap, calming down before bed. We were reading Miss Rumphius, one of my beloved childhood books and one that I hope she will come to love, too.
Miss Rumphius is a librarian, a traveler, a polished, worldly woman who sees remarkable places and meets fascinating people and has many stories to tell her grandnieces and nephews as she grows older. She moves to the seaside and has her own sweet little cottage by the sea. But one thing in her life remains undone, the most important task her grandfather gave her, “the most difficult thing of all!”: making the world more beautiful.
Miss Rumphius plants lupines by her house and the wind scatters the seeds into the fields and hills by her home. She discovers the flowers far from her little spot of coast the next spring and finally knows how she will make the world more beautiful.
So she plants lupines all over the town. She walks the roads and the fields, past children laughing and calling her That Crazy Old Lady, around the churchyard and by the school, throwing seeds as she walks. And the lupines bloom and the town glows and the children call her the Lupine Lady.
As I sat there with my sweet little girl on my lap—which is quickly growing smaller as my belly grows larger with another new life—I heard the words in a new way. You must do something to make the world more beautiful. And I realized: this, right now, is how I am asked to make the world more beautiful.
I am not asked to do something remarkable or noteworthy or publishable. That doesn’t mean those things are wrong, or less worthwhile. But it does mean that we are all asked to do more than only those things.
We are asked to make the world more beautiful, each of us in our own different ways. This task is ultimately the most difficult and the most important thing we can do.
And this little girl and this new baby and this husband and this grad school wife life right now, these are mine. Perhaps one day they will include writing a book or getting another degree. But that is not now.
So I will work, and pray, and hope that my small efforts are even now and will one day make the world more beautiful.
C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is my first reading project for the year, and I just loved Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis’ imagination fascinates me, and I was especially struck by Ransom’s experiences of and philosophizing on space.
He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory.
“Love, which awakens our souls and to which we cling like the splendid mortal creatures that we are, asks us to let it go, to let it be more than it is if it is only us. To manage this highest form of loving does not mean that we will be showered with earthly delights or somehow be spared awful human suffering. But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence. We feel love leave us in unthreatening ways. We feel it reenter us at once more truly and more strange, like a simple kiss that has a bite of starlight to it.”
(Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss)