Books: January

Processed with VSCO with t1 presetI am not one for New Year’s resolutions, particularly because I am too ambitious, fail miserably a few weeks in, and then beat myself up about my lack of discipline for as long as I can remember what my resolutions were. So I didn’t make any this year, but I made one goal, shall we say. I want to read 30 books in 2018.

All of my life I have been a reader, but the exhaustion of parenting and new babies and little sleep has taken a toll on my book list. If I am being honest with myself, Netflix has also taken a toll—something I am also looking to remedy with my goal to read more. So far it is working out great. I feel entirely dedicated to this task, and the more I read, the more I love to read, the more I want to read, the more I drag myself out of bed every morning at least an hour before my children wake up, so that I can just read some more. So far so good. But it is only January.

That being said, I finished five books this month, and if you are looking for any suggestions, I recommend all of them to you.

  1. The Second Coming, Walker Percy
    I love Percy. I love him so much. His novels are strange, eerie, bizarre, unsettling, and I feel them in my bones long after finishing them. This one was no exception. I discovered after reading it that it is the second part of a story he began in The Last Gentleman, a book I plan on picking up this year, as well. However, I wasn’t lost or “behind” on the details because I read this one on its own. The story follows a man who has spells of depression, bordering on insanity, and who sets out to categorically prove or disprove the existence of God. His experiment fails, and he is left questioning, only to come across a girl with supposed mental issues herself, who lives in a greenhouse. In the end, he finds that perhaps God exists after all, and that he has known Him in the love of another. It is one of the most satisfying endings—one of the best final paragraphs—I have read in a very long time.
  2. The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle
    Madeleine is the writer I most want to emulate. As always, this book is full of poignant questions and lovely reflections. I find reading her books always feels like talking to a friend. She lets us in on her wonderings and her searchings, and in her words we can find comfort and hope. My favorite parts of this whole book, though, would be the poems she intersperses throughout.

    This is the irrational season,
    when loves blooms bright and wild.
    Had Mary been filled with reason,
    there’d have been no room for the child.

  3. The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander
    One of the most profoundly moving and life-changing spiritual works I have read in a long time. The chapters are short, the writing simple, but her reflections on Christ and His Mother are infinitely beautiful and infinitely practical, all at the same time.
  4. Joy, Georges Bernanos
    After I finished Diary of a Country Priest at the end of last year, Travis gave me this book. It is little-known, recently translated, and very dialogue-driven. I wasn’t sure what to make of it until the end, which is so redemptive and filled with hope for a priest wrestling with apostasy. The last few pages alone made this book entirely worth it.
  5. A Wrinkle in TimeMadeleine L’Engle
    I returned again to one of my all-time favorites in children’s literature after watching the trailer for the movie version of this story, set to come out in the spring. It is as profound and magical and Christian as I had remembered it—even more so, really. I hope to read the rest in the series as the year continues.

(Consider this an open invitation for any and all book recommendations!)

Just doing Nothing

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“I like that too,” said Christopher Robin, “but what I like doing best is Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it.”

“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.

~

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?” said Pooh.

“When I’m—when—Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

(A.A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Pooh)

This ending to Winnie the Pooh tugs at my heart every time I think about it and hear it on the 45-minute adaptation on Spotify that Edith listens to every day.

I think about how beautiful it is, that my children can do nothing with their days and nothing with their time, and that this nothing is a good and right and beautiful thing for them to do. I think about how never again in their lives will they be encouraged to do nothing, never again will it be a positive thing.

Most days, I feel like I did “nothing,” but I am learning that it is actually a good thing. I am guarding their ability to do nothing. I am protecting their days of playing and reading and exploring, for truly they will be gone, as one day they must be.

One day they will have classes and worksheets and assignments and schedules and logs and calendars and everything else. But not now.

For now, their nothing is everything.

Written Words, II

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The Bright Field, R.S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

On the feast of the Annunciation

DSC_0210In 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)

Written words, I

_smo1082-copyHere 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

2016: Books I Read

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Here’s how much of my reading has looked in the past few months.

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:

Fiction
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.

Nonfiction
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.

For class/teaching
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.

Making the world more beautiful

miss-rumphius-inside5Recently, 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.