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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

 

A few weeks ago, I was at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon when I noticed my cashier had a tattoo: the word Lumos surrounded by a few small starbursts, on the inside of her wrist.

“I like your tattoo,” I said, and her expression – tired and preoccupied – transformed into a grin. “Thanks,” she said. “It reminds me to be happier.”

I puzzled over that for a second and then realized what she meant: that Dumbledore quote about happiness. He tells the Hogwarts students that it can be found “in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” I told her I have that line on a t-shirt – my mom gave it to me for Christmas.

“Ah, the Harry Potter generation,” she said with a smile. I confessed I was late to that particular party (my friend Val finally talked me into reading the books, to my everlasting delight and gratitude).

We chatted as she kept bagging my groceries, and she told me she used to have a job at Scholastic, where she got to work on Goblet of Fire during the publishing process. (!!!) She recalled having to sign nondisclosure agreements, and refusing to answer pointed questions from her friends and fellow students. (I wanted to invite her out for a drink and ask her all the questions – but I restrained myself, since I didn’t want to creep her out.)

“What’s your house?” she asked. “You look like you might be a Ravenclaw.”

“I’m a Gryffindor,” I said. (Though – like Hermione – I have strong Ravenclaw tendencies, which I told her.) She nodded, and proudly owned being a Ravenclaw herself. We smiled in shared understanding.

I walked away with full grocery bags and a grin on my face, thinking: she has no idea, but she helped turn on the light for me that afternoon.

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light leaves village nyc

I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

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The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father’s academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

As the church–historically comfortable, white and middle-class–struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another’s vastly different perspectives.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily’s twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Wall probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people “who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends.”

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: I didn’t set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional “happily ever after” wedding moment.

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes–my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion–no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents’ churches were also warm and welcoming.

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn’t experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other–they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se–it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn’t discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith–and his life–richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

The book tells the story of Charles’s and James’s work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building–it has a board and voting members. It’s a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they’re intensely invested in how it’s run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James’s inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me–I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us.

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It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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Lilac time

lilacs flowers bush

This April was an unusually rainy one – even my favorite weather guy commented on it, more than once. The grey skies didn’t help my spirits much, but I have to say, the lilacs have loved it. (That adage about April showers and May flowers rings especially true in years like these.)

A friend sent me pictures of fragrant white lilacs before I saw any in flower. But by early May, the towering lilac across the street from my house was in full, perfect bloom. I stood under it after a Saturday run, sniffing ecstatically, and thinking about the line from that (insanely long) Alfred Noyes poem: “Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac time.”

lilacs yellow house blue sky

I’m dog-sitting again in East Boston, and one day after work, the neighbor kids were selling fistfuls of branches from their grandfather’s lilac for $3. I bought a bunch – a steal if I’ve ever seen one! – and enjoyed them in the kitchen for several days. They’re the same deep, rich color as these lovelies from Back Bay, below.

dark purple lilacs

Earlier this week, I stopped to sniff a tall lilac on my lunch break, and a woman walked up to join me. “They’re my favorite,” she said. We wished each other a good day, and then she turned, walked a few paces away, and called, “Oh, you have to come stand right here!” I walked over and was hit by a wave of lilac scent. The whole exchange, and the moment of connection, was a gift.

lilacs back bay blue sky

Cambridge has any number of old, beautiful lilacs, and I was afraid I’d miss them this spring. But I did sneak over one evening last week, and got to sniff the lilacs on a side street near Darwin’s (below), and the hedge of them near the Longfellow House garden.

lilacs white fence

This year’s lilac time is nearly over: the azaleas are blazing out, and the rhododendrons are coming. But it has been glorious, in all my neighborhoods (old and new). And I’m so grateful.

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Bella Roma

view from Vatican cupola Rome

My parents have spent the first part of May on a European adventure: flying into Athens, cruising through part of the Mediterranean, then ending their trip in Rome.

I can’t wait to hear all their stories when they recover from the jet lag, especially since most of their destinations are places I’ve never been. But their final stop – bella Roma – was part of my first Oxford semester, long ago. And I’ve been remembering.

I flew to Rome for a late-March long weekend with my friends Jesse, Adrienne and Heather. We slept in hostel bunk beds and spent three days walking around as much of the city as we could cover together. I’d given up chocolate for Lent that year (what on earth was I thinking?!) but fortunately, I could still eat fruit gelato. And I ate as much of it as possible.

friends Rome bridge

I remember Rome in flashes and glimpses: elaborate public drinking fountains on every corner, cupping our hands to drink the fresh, cold water. Counting out brassy euro coins and colorful bills (mostly to pay for pasta and pizza). Open street markets and loud Italian that sounded almost-but-not-quite like Spanish. Tossing coins over our shoulders into the Trevi Fountain.

The green oval of the Circus Maximus, once a chariot racing stadium and now a public park. Doing a double take when we saw an elderly nun smoking a cigarette, and another when we spotted a gladiator at the Colosseum with a lip piercing. Buying T-shirts on a side street near the Vatican that said “Ciao ciao” in flowing script like the Coca-Cola logo. Nearly getting hit (so many times!) by crazy drivers on cars and Vespas. Trying my first tiramisu at a little hostaria with plaster-and-beam ceilings on our last night there.

We spent about half a day touring the Vatican, getting up early one morning to beat the crowds. (That was Adrienne’s idea, and she was right on.) I remember being awed by St. Peter’s Basilica and underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel (so crowded!). I fell in love with the elaborate, colorful, ancient maps in many of the exhibits, and I sent at least one postcard home from the Vatican’s post office.

We climbed up 500-plus steps to the top of the cupola, and that was my favorite view of all: Rome, in its entirety, spread out beneath our feet. If there’s a way to climb up and see a city from above, I will take it: see also St Mary’s church tower in Oxford, and a trip with my dad to the top of Notre-Dame.

That weekend was my first (and so far, only) taste of Italy – which didn’t capture my heart in quite the same way as Paris or Spain (or Oxford, which is still home). It ended with a frustrating coda: we took the wrong train, missed our flight and had to spend half a day (and too much money) trying to get back to Oxford.

Despite that, I loved Rome, and the smiles on our faces in my scrapbook photos bear out that truth. It’s been fun to walk down that particular memory lane again.

 

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fear choice mountain lyric frame

Last week, I saw an Instagram post from a local friend about a folk concert happening that night in Cambridge. An hour later, my husband called: “Want to go?”

I’d usually say no to anything that started at 9:30 on a Tuesday night (and oh, was I exhausted the next day). But I said yes, and we went. The Arcadian Wild puts on a good show, but the music wasn’t even my favorite part: it was the serendipity.

My friend who invited us knows the two guys in the band from way back: her husband worked with both of them during his youth-minister days in Florida. But it also turns out that Lincoln, the mandolinist, is the son of a couple who are close to some other friends of mine. I texted my friend Frankie to let her know where we were, and whom we were hearing. (She responded with delight.)

As the evening went on, I realized something else: the photo above, which I snapped during a visit to Frankie’s house in West Texas months ago, is a lyric from their song “Rain Clouds.” (I’d been struck by the words, but forgot to ask her about their origin.)

I’ve been gone from Abilene, where I spent my undergraduate (and several more) years, for a while now. But I still go through there at least once a year, and keep in regular touch with many friends from that community. So many of my stories, even now, begin or end in Abilene. And this one struck me as especially sweet: that a line about courage and fear, in the middle of a song about love and friendship, was the latest thread connecting my two lives.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been humming that song ever since.

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Rachel held Evans headshot

Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

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tulips red back bay garden

Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.

—Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden

I was searching last week for that von Arnim quote on tulips, because it is tulip season in the Public Garden and I agree with von Arnim: they are my favorite. While double-checking that quote, I came across these lines, and was immediately struck by them: yes.

I love looking at the graceful potted orchids at my florist’s shop, but as Anne Shirley has said, I want flowers I can live with. Instead of sensitive hothouse orchids, give me this:

crocuses rock light flowerbed

Give me the crocuses, pushing their purple and golden spears up through the snow at the end of winter. Give me the daffodils, slender but steely, dollops of bright gold against crusted snowbanks and worn-out winter dirt. Give me the lipstick-pink tulip magnolias, petals winging their way off the ends of their branches like butterflies, and the blush-pink apple and cherry blossoms, ruffled and gorgeous even in the rain.

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

Give me the tulips, holding up their vivid cups to sun, rain, brisk spring winds or anything else nature might throw at them. Give me the lilacs, budding even now as the nights persist chilly, and the shock of yellow forsythia, and the shy, trailing hellebores in cream and mauve and green. Give me the blue scilla dotting the ground, the blaze of azaleas and rhododendrons, the wild violets showing their faces here and there along the river trail.

scilla flowers blue

Give me, too, friends of stalwart courage and fighter hearts, those who don’t run away when life gets messy or tough or complicated. Give me a band of strong women who will bolster me up, and accept my help when it’s my turn to do the same. And give me a lion heart so I don’t fail those same friends, a fierce resolve and bold kindness to stand with them and for them, and for myself, when I need it.

Amen.

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