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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

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Halfway through October and I can’t believe it, as ever. Here are the books I’ve been reading on the train, before bed, and on (rare) sunny lunch breaks:

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans
I’ve been following Evans’ work since the publication of her first book, Faith Unraveled. We’re about the same age and we come from similar evangelical backgrounds. Her latest book is an exploration of the Bible as the messy, often frustrating, powerful text it is, rather than the tidy answer book some folks would like it to be. I loved Evans’ reimaginings of well-worn biblical stories, and appreciated her broad-minded perspective on what the Bible can be.

An Act of Villainy, Ashley Weaver
Amateur sleuth Amory Ames and her dashing husband, Milo, are drawn into a mystery involving the players in a theatrical production. The director is a friend of theirs (and the leading actress is his mistress). When murder ensues, Amory and Milo work to unmask the killer. I like this elegant series, set in London between the wars; Amory is an engaging narrator and this fifth entry was fun.

Digging In, Loretta Nyhan
Two years widowed, Paige Moresco is struggling: she and her teenage son are still grieving and now her graphic design job is in jeopardy. On impulse, she digs up half her backyard and plants a garden, to the horror of her neighbors. A fun novel about digging (literally) through grief, though I wanted more depth. Reminiscent of The Garden of Small Beginnings; not as strong, but still really enjoyable.

The Lost for Words Bookshop, Stephanie Butland
Loveday Cardew has spent her whole adult life (so far) working in the same York bookshop and avoiding her past. But the appearance of a handsome magician and copies of her estranged mother’s favorite books throw all that into question. This book broke my heart with every chapter; it’s well done and lovely but so, so sad.

The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory
Two people meet in a stalled elevator and end up going to a wedding together; he needs a date, and she thinks he’s cute. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. This delightful, sexy novel follows Drew and Alexa as they navigate a modern-day, long-distance relationship and face their own fears (and Alexa digs into a major work project). Sweet and spicy and so much fun.

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes
One of my coping mechanisms in the current political climate is reading these Obama staffer memoirs. Rhodes worked on communications and foreign policy for Obama for a decade. This thoughtful, fascinating, well-written insider account recalls a saner time in national politics and helps explain how we got to where we are now. Lots of flashbacks to my last job at HKS; Rhodes’ days – not the setting but the focus and the rhythm – bore some striking parallels to mine.

Our Homesick Songs, Emma Hooper
As the fish disappear from Newfoundland’s waters in the 1990s, the local families leave to find work. Ten-year-old Finn Connor, left almost alone, hatches a plan to bring the fish back. Meanwhile, his parents are taking turns leaving the island to work, and his older sister Cora is trying to find her own way. Haunting and beautiful and sad; started off slowly but I ended up loving it. I also adored Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life, Marianne Power
I’m a little tired of “stunt” memoirs, but gave this one a go. British journalist Power recounts her year-plus of reading and trying to follow one self-help tome per month. Predictably, she does not turn into a perfect, worry-free version of herself – but she does learn some important lessons, often with hilarious effects. Dragged in the middle (when she became a bit self-obsessed), but I thought it ended well. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15 in the U.S.).

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, Karina Yan Glaser
When their elderly neighbor has a stroke, the Vanderbeeker kids want to do something good for him, so they begin turning an abandoned lot into a garden. Challenges and hilarity (as well as the threat of a condo complex) ensue. A heartwarming sequel to the first Vanderbeeker book. These siblings are the 21st-century Harlem version of the Melendys, whom I adore. So much fun.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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bookstore lenox interior shelves

Looking at this month’s reading list, it’s clear I’ve been reaching for comfort books: historical fiction, poetry, a bit of mystery, a few familiar characters. (See also: new job + milestone birthday.) Here’s the latest roundup:

Wires and Nerve, Marissa Meyer
I’ve enjoyed Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series (Scarlet is my fave). This graphic novel focuses on Iko, the smart-mouthed android who helped Cinder and her friends save the galaxy. I’m not a huge graphic novel reader, but I liked following Iko’s adventures on Earth, and enjoyed the appearances by other familiar characters.

When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss, Jessica Wilbanks
Jessica Wilbanks’ early life in rural Maryland was dominated by her family’s Pentecostal faith. But as a questioning teenager, she began challenging the sermons she’d always heard, eventually leaving the church altogether. Her memoir chronicles that struggle, which included a trip to Nigeria to investigate the origins of American Pentecostalism. She’s a gifted writer, though the book’s ending felt a bit unfinished. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 13).

The Gown, Jennifer Robson
I love Robson’s compelling, richly detailed historical novels. This, her fifth, follows the creation of Queen Elizabeth II’s exquisite wedding gown through the lives of Ann and Miriam, two seamstresses who worked on it. I loved both characters, though the present-day protagonist (Ann’s granddaughter) was less engaging. I did love the way the narrative threads wove together. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 31).

A Light of Her Own, Carrie Callaghan
As a young female painter in 17th-century Haarlem, Judith Leyster struggles to make a living. Her friend Maria, also a painter, wrestles with her Catholic faith. This historical novel follows Judith’s attempts to set up her own workshop and the efforts of the city’s male painters to shut her out. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 13).

Refuge, Merilyn Simonds
At ninety-six, Cassandra MacCallum is content to live alone, on an island near her family’s farm in Ontario. But when a young Burmese refugee shows up insisting she’s Cassandra’s great-granddaughter, she tugs at the complex threads of Cass’s life story and her relationship with her son, Charlie. Gorgeously written and compelling; I couldn’t stop following Cass’s adventures from Mexico to Montreal to New York. I picked this one up on impulse at the library and I’m so glad I did.

Yesterday I Was the Moon, Noor Unnahar
Unnahar is a young Pakistani poet, and this slim volume collects her verses and drawings. They’re vivid and raw and often heartbreaking, but lovely. I read this one slowly, dipping in and out. Found at Three Lives during my August NYC trip.

Bellewether, Susanna Kearsley
During the Seven Years’ War (known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War), two captured French officers are housed with the Wilde family on Long Island. Many years later, a museum curator digs into the legends and ghost stories surrounding the Wildes and the officers. Kearsley is a master of compelling historical fiction with romance and a hint of the supernatural. Such an enjoyable read, with important themes relating to slavery, agency and freedom.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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I am a person who loves to hear the same stories over and over again.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved hearing my dad’s stories: anecdotes about family members or friends, or stories from when he was growing up in rural Missouri. We read – as many parents and children do – the same picture books over and over, before bed at night. (I still have a special place in my heart for a Little Golden Book called Home for A Bunny.)

I am my father’s daughter in this as well as other ways: I tell the same stories over and over again. My long-suffering husband and many of my friends have heard my stories more than once. And I am – as you know if you’ve heard me talk about my favorite books – an inveterate reader and re-reader.

I do this with music, too: I listened to Hamilton for six months straight once I discovered it and fell in love. I know nearly every word to a couple of Wailin’ Jennys albums (and so many George Strait songs from my childhood), among others. And lately, I’ve been listening to Headed Home, a 2015 release by The Light Parade, on repeat.

The Light Parade is Alex and Kara, two friends of mine from college who began making music back then (as Thus Far). I recently rediscovered their music, and it’s been keeping me company on long runs and train rides. I love many of the songs, but the first track – You Are Loved – is one of my favorites. I’ve been listening to it so often that its first line – you are loved with a fierceness you cannot understand – is playing on repeat in my head.

Yesterday I stood behind the communion table at our tiny church, looking out onto pews full of people I love and a few new faces I barely know. I told them about Alex and Kara’s song, and I said to them: we come together, every week, to hear the same stories and sing some of the same songs. And the message carried by many of those is the same: you are loved. With a fierceness you cannot understand. 

We come to church every week as ourselves: hurting, joyful, brave, broken, despairing, confident. We brim over with stories and wounds, and what we hear at church will – I hope – open up the way for healing and wholeness. If there’s one message, I said, that we should take away from here, one story I want to tell and to hear over and over again, it is this: you are loved. We are deeply and wholly loved.

May you know that today, wherever you are.

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the long run book snow menzies-pike

I know we’re more than halfway through the year, but I still thought it would be worthwhile (and fun!) to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. Technically I’d read 102 books by the end of June, so here are the real standouts from the first half of 2018:

Most Eloquent, Relatable Memoir of Running and Grit: The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. I think of lines from this witty, beautiful book regularly while I’m running.

Candid, Witty Essays on Marriage: Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun. Honest and funny and so real – perfect for reading after a decade of marriage.

Most Compelling Mysteries with a Side of Faith: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s brilliant series featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I cannot shut up about these books: the mystery plots are solid, but the characters and their complex relationships are on another level.

Best Twisty Tale of Badass Female Spies: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Just so good.

Most Blazing, Gorgeous Novel of Love and Heartbreak: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. I did not think I could read another Hemingway novel, but Martha Gellhorn’s narrative voice grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Most Vivid and Heartrending Refugee Story: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. (I liked Exit West too, but this dual narrative with its two scrappy female protagonists stole my heart.)

Best Reread: A Wrinkle in Time, which I picked up after seeing the new film. I liked the movie, but L’Engle’s classic has more depth and heart and grit – and oh, I love Meg Murry.

Best Travel Memoir That’s About So Much More: Lands of Lost Borders, Kate Harris’ luminous, gritty memoir of spending nearly a year cycling along the Silk Road.

Most Perfect Gothic Novel to Read in Spain: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Twisty, atmospheric, witty, packed with great characters and surprise moments.

Your turn: what are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

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waves neponset summer

I keep hearing that phrase in my grandfather’s voice, these days.

To be clear, I am hearing it inside my head: Papaw died when I was 16, before I’d ever faced problems bigger than a difficult history exam or a temperamental band director.

He was my dad’s dad, a quiet man from Mississippi who spent his adult life in small-town Missouri. He was mostly deaf in one ear as a result of his time serving in Korea, and he wore plaid shirts that snapped up the front, and black-framed glasses, and baseball caps when he went golfing.

When my sister and I were young, we would try to arm-wrestle him, and though I’d push with both hands and throw all my weight against his big hand, I never managed to move it an inch. This made him throw back his head and laugh, a raspy, joyous sound that I loved to hear.

I don’t ever remember hearing Papaw say “It’ll all work out” when he was alive. My mom told me, not long ago, that he used to say it, and immediately I heard it in his voice, infused with the simple, rock-solid faith that I associate with him and my Mimi. They didn’t say much about their faith, but they helped out their neighbors and served their church and raised their three sons to love God and love others.

This summer, I am searching for a new job: combing job boards and sending out applications and trying my absolute best not to panic. I don’t know what is next, and I don’t like that at all. I am a person who likes to have a plan.

There’s no magic formula to quiet my soul when the fear sets in, though I am using all the good, healthy tricks I know, like yoga and running and lots of tea. But sometimes, Papaw’s voice floats through my head, saying this one simple phrase that I never heard him say in life. And it settles me, in a way I can’t quite explain: to know that if he were alive, he would say it to me, believing that I’ll find my next right step.

I don’t know if Papaw ever had doubts or dark nights of the soul. I’m not sure how I could explain to him the work I do, how I worry, what I’m hoping to find. I don’t quite believe he’s speaking to me from beyond, not that way.

But sometimes I hear him say these four words. And it helps me believe they are true.

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Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

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I’ve been carrying Frank’s funeral program in my purse for days.

I slipped it in there at the end of his memorial service, a couple of weekends ago, in the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the church where I spent nearly every Sunday growing up. I nearly forgot about it, until I reached in a few days later to retrieve something else and my fingers brushed the paper. I saw his law firm portrait again and thought: That can’t be right.

Frank was an attorney, a father and husband, a percussionist, a dog lover, a man of faith. He and his wife, Kim, have been friends with my parents since the mid-eighties, since my sister and I were tiny. We grew up seeing them at church every week, where they worked tirelessly alongside my mom and dad, teaching Sunday school and directing events, serving in countless quiet ways. I used to baby-sit their sons and daughter, going over to their big, friendly house with its assorted dogs and cats (and, for a memorable time, a corn snake named Queenie). They have loved me, and I have loved them, nearly all my life.

When Frank went into the hospital in mid-April, none of us thought for a second that we’d be sitting at his funeral service in early May.

This is how it happens sometimes: without warning, in the middle of a full and busy spring, with school programs and work assignments and birthday parties and all the stuff of life. Kim is a preschool teacher (she taught my older nephew last year) and found herself taking days off school, both when Frank became ill and when he died. Their sons and daughter-in-law came in from Houston and North Carolina, and friends local and far-flung have rallied. And I think all of us have been wrestling with the sense of sturdy disbelief that Lindsey described in a recent post.

That day at the funeral, and the next day at church, people spoke about Frank and shared stories, funny and tender. He loved Mexican food, the spicier the better. He was a stickler for doing things well: his secretary learned years ago that there is a right and a wrong way to affix paper clips, and his kids knew he had high standards. He was a disciplined, faithful servant to his church and his community. He helped more people, in more ways, than I think any of us will ever know.

But the whole time, I was thinking about something much simpler: he was my friend.

Frank embodied discipline and duty, as his son Joey said at the funeral. (I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when Joey started crying in the middle of his tribute to his dad.) He served, as so many people said, without fanfare and without ceasing. He showed up, quietly and consistently, over and over again. These things are important.

But what I will remember – what I suspect all of us will remember, too – is his warmth, his compassion, his smile.

I don’t get back to my hometown too often these days: a few times a year, for a long weekend or a few days at Christmas. I don’t have the kind of daily or weekly interaction with the folks there that I once did. But there are still places where I am sure of a welcome, and one of them is the big Sunday school room at the north end of the church. And Frank was one of the people who always welcomed me home. He always wanted to hear about Boston; he and Kim had enjoyed several trips to Nantucket. It made him happy that we shared a connection to this part of the world.

Those chats on Sunday morning, that rock-solid welcome, is what I will remember, and what I will miss the most.

We are all grieving: Frank’s family, his coworkers, his many friends, the church family he was a part of for so long. My parents are deeply sad and shaken by the loss of their friend. There are no easy words for this; I hesitated to even write these. But it feels important to mark his passing, to say: he was here and he lived and loved. And we loved him. We still do.

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