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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

This year, I’ve been pulling out my favorite Christmas albums, most of which I still own on CD: Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, Elvis and (of course) Charlie Brown. But on my morning runs through the snow, I’ve been listening to a newer favorite: Nichole Nordeman’s Christmas album, Fragile.

I’ve loved Nordeman’s music since I was in high school, when I saw her open for Avalon and bought her second album, This Mystery. I rediscovered her a few years ago when she released an EP, The Unmaking, but didn’t pay much attention to Fragile when it came out last year. Now, though, in the quiet of these days before Christmas, it has been a balm to my soul.

My favorite Christmas albums mix traditional carols with the artist’s own interpretations and sometimes an original song or two. Nordeman’s voice shines on classics I love, like O Holy Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come O Come Emmanuel, but I also love her remix of What Child is This? with a song called Fragile (originally performed by Sting, of all people). The few original songs – Maybe, How Love Comes and We Watch, We Wait, – capture the longing and heartbreak of Advent against the good news we are all waiting for. Her voice is reverent and lovely and so familiar: it is a voice of truth to me, and has been for twenty years.

Between my divorce, my own church grief and the pandemic, I haven’t been to church in a long time, nor do I expect to go for a while yet. But on Sunday morning, running along the snowy trails, Nichole’s voice in my earbuds felt like the closest to church I’ve come in a long time. I am grateful, this Advent, for the writers and artists and voices who hold the beauty and the brokenness, and help the rest of us do the same.

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Running has brought me, as I keep saying, lots of unexpected gifts – many of which I didn’t even know I needed. Before I became a runner, I would have said I had a healthy relationship with my body, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say I lived in a state of neutrality toward it.

I’ve spent as much time as the average American woman trying to ignore the conflicting messages we get about our bodies: the magazines that scream at us about which kind of bodies are acceptable, the fashionable clothes that don’t seem designed for real women, the airbrushed images of Hollywood stars or elite athletes. I’ve made an effort to eat (mostly) healthy food and get some regular exercise my whole adult life. But I wouldn’t have said, prior to running, that I loved my body.

I grew up in a culture that prized the life of the mind: my early reading skills, spelling prowess and writing skills earned me a lot of acclaim as a child and teenager. I make a living these days by writing and editing, also activities of the mind, and the Christian faith in which I was raised also emphasized the brain and heart over the body. (The particular brand of evangelicalism with which I’m most familiar has often spoken about the human body in mostly negative terms: the need to subdue and control the body, or what the church believes people should do with their bodies. Those messages make an odd contrast to the notion – which I also heard growing up – that God’s creation is good, and that we, along with the rest of creation, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”)

As I began and then kept on running (and doing boot camps and yoga classes), I started to marvel at what my body could do, how it felt to move through the air with fluidity and grace, the strength in my legs and endurance in my lungs that I hadn’t known existed. Under Erin’s guidance on Monday nights, I learned that I could lift weights and do push-ups and squats and other exercises in a way I’d never done before. I started learning more about my body’s capabilities, feeling more in tune with it. And overwhelmingly, I started to believe: this is good.

We all grow up absorbing some notion of the “ideal” body: through statues or magazines or the messages we hear from media outlets and the people we know and love. I was teased for my curves as they started to develop, and I used to feel inferior because I was short. I didn’t believe my body was the “ideal” body. But I’m starting to revise my definition of “ideal,” and to care less about that altogether.

My body, whether or not she comes up to anyone’s standard, is mine: she’s been supporting and sheltering me for 37 years. She is healthy and freckled, petite and sinewy, curvaceous and stronger than I ever thought she was. She deserves my loving care and attention, and on most days, she wants to run. And it’s a total joy to be out there, in my body, loving my body, moving through the world in this vessel I will always call home.

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July has been a long hot month – and clearly books are one of my coping mechanisms, as always. Here’s what I have been reading:

Other Words for Home, Jasmine Warga
I flew through this sweet middle-grade novel in verse, narrated by Jude, who leaves her native Syria (with her mother) to live with relatives in Cincinnati. She misses her father, brother and best friend terribly, but gradually adjusts to her new life. Lovely.

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, Kate Hattemer
It’s April of Jemima Kincaid’s senior year and she’s burning to do something big to leave a legacy at her tony prep school. But she’s also dealing with teenage stuff: learning to drive, an inconvenient crush, friction with her best friend. A fun novel with a likable, flawed protagonist learning to confront her own privilege. (Warning: some truly cringeworthy teenage sex.)

Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, Cecilia Aragon
Bullied as a child in her small Indiana town, Aragon found her way to a career in computer science, but still struggled with crippling fear and anxiety. A coworker’s love for flying ignited her own, and she threw herself into her new hobby, eventually competing on the U.S. Aerobatic Team. This straightforward, fascinating memoir chronicles her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 22).

Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World, Osheta Moore
Moore is a wise, compassionate voice on Instagram and elsewhere, and this, her first book, is about pursuing shalom – God’s vision for true peace. It’s part memoir, part theology, part real talk. Warm and thoughtful.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I picked up this lesser-known classic by the author of the Betsy-Tacy series for a reread. Emily Webster is one of my favorite heroines: thoughtful, sensitive and brave. She struggles with loneliness after finishing high school and feeling stuck in her small town, but she learns to “muster her wits” and build a life for herself. I love her story so much.

Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto, Kate Sekules 
Mending has existed as long as clothing has, and Sekules is here for the visible mending revolution. Packed with clothing/mending history (chiefly in the West), practical tips for sourcing vintage/mendable clothing, an extensive stitch guide and lots of snark. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 8).

House of Light, Mary Oliver
I’ve been rereading Oliver’s poems over breakfast. They are “lovely, dark and deep,” to quote Frost. Most of them are set in the woods or ponds. She is so good at paying attention.

Deadlock, Sara Paretsky
When V.I. Warshawski’s cousin, a former hockey star, dies under mysterious circumstances, V.I. begins to investigate. She finds herself drawn into a complex case involving corruption in the shipping industry. I like her snark and smarts and will keep going with the series.

Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
Twelve-year-old Amal dreams of becoming a teacher, though her family struggles as her mother deals with postpartum depression. But then Amal unwittingly offends the village landlord, and is forced to work as a servant in his house. She’s determined to find a way out, though. Bittersweet and inspiring, with a great cast of characters.

Bitter Medicine, Sara Paretsky
In V.I. Warshawski’s fourth adventure, she’s investigating the death of a young pregnant woman, a family friend. What she finds is potential malpractice, corruption and gang involvement – not to mention her smarmy lawyer ex. I especially loved the role played here by her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras.

Wild Words: Rituals, Routines, and Rhythms for Braving the Writer’s Path, Nicole Gulotta
My friend Sonia recommended this book months ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly all summer. Gulotta is wise, warm and practical, and this book (organized by “season”) has been deeply helpful for me.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson
Kamala Khan is an ordinary teenager, until she’s suddenly invested with strange powers she can’t quite control. A girlfriend lent me this first volume of the adventures of a young superhero growing into herself. The plot is a bit thin, but it was fun.

Blood Shot, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski isn’t crazy about going back to her South Chicago neighborhood. But a high school basketball reunion and an odd request from a friend pull her back in. Soon she’s investigating chemical corruption, chasing a friend’s (unknown) birth father and trying not to get killed. This was a grim one, but (see above) I am hooked on V.I.’s adventures.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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I’ve been reading up a storm this month, so far. Here’s the latest roundup:

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski
I loved Emily Nagoski’s previous book, Come As You Are, a brilliant exploration of women’s sexuality. This book, co-written with Emily’s identical twin sister Amelia, explores the stress we experience as women, and shares strategies for naming and dealing with it. Witty, insightful and thought-provoking. I especially liked the parts about completing the stress cycle (so it doesn’t just build up in your body) and befriending your inner madwoman. Will be thinking about this one for a while.

The Women and the Men, Nikki Giovanni
I picked up this poetry collection at Manchester by the Book and have been reading it slowly. I find Giovanni’s work powerful and engaging – I love her imagery and the way she plays with language.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, Mira Jacob
I loved this wry, warmhearted, piercingly honest graphic memoir about what it means to live in the U.S. as a person of color, a woman, an artist and a part of an interracial family. Jacob is American-born to Indian parents; her husband is a white Jewish man. Their son, Z, is funny and smart and asks really good questions. This memoir chronicles many of their conversations as well as Jacob’s personal history. Fantastic.

Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, Angie Schmitt
Pedestrians are dying in the U.S. at a truly alarming rate – especially older folks, disabled people and people of color. Schmitt delves into the urban planning, car design and systemic inequalities that created this epidemic, and offers some solutions for reversing it. Incisive, accessible and thought-provoking. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 27).

Float Plan, Trish Doller
Ben and Anna had planned to sail the Caribbean together, until Ben’s death by suicide. But Anna, in a desperate attempt to move forward somehow, decides to take their boat and sail anyway. She meets Keane, a handsome Irishman, and still has to deal with her grief. Funny, sweet and romantic. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2021).

The Road to Memphis, Mildred D. Taylor
Cassie Logan and her friends all know to keep their cool around white people – but one day her friend Moe has had enough and severely injures three white men. Cassie, her brother Stacey and two of their friends flee town with Moe, hoping to get him to Memphis so he can head north. A powerful installment in Taylor’s Logan series.

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, Mildred D. Taylor
This book picks up Cassie’s story in the 1940s, when she’s a young woman and her brothers are also reaching adulthood. It spans two decades, as Cassie moves from Mississippi to Toledo to California and finally back south, to participate in voter registration drives. I love Cassie’s honesty, her stubborn sense of justice and her warm, fiercely loving family. I wanted her adventures to go on and on.

Yes No Maybe So, Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed
Jamie Goldberg gets roped into political canvassing by his cousin, the campaign manager. Maya Rehman is missing her best friend, her parents are separating, and she grudgingly agrees to canvass with Jamie. To both their surprise, the work isn’t that bad – and they like each other’s company, too. A sweet, funny YA romance about dealing with big change and standing up for what’s right.

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God, Kaitlin B. Curtice
Curtice is a Potawatomi woman who is also a Christian, and she explores that tension in this book. It’s beautifully written, and at times it’s clear and powerful. At times it didn’t quite land for me. Still important, as we continue to face tough, long-overdue conversations about race and discrimination.

Watson & Holmes: A Study in Black, Karl Bollers, Rick Leonardi & Larry Stroman
My guy lent me this graphic-novel reimagining of Watson and Holmes as black men fighting crime in 21st-century NYC. I’m not a huge comics reader but I liked their witty banter. It amazes me how Conan Doyle’s characters are endlessly being reinterpreted.

The Fountains of Silence, Ruta Sepetys
I love Sepetys’ gripping YA novels about largely forgotten corners of history. This one explores the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the effects of Franco’s regime on young people in the 1950s. I loved the two main characters: Daniel, a visiting Texan who is half Spanish, and Ana, who works as a maid at his hotel. Compelling, lushly described and very romantic.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith.

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Somehow, it’s June – and my heart is heavy from the last week or so of murders, police violence and protests. I’m doing a lot of reading and listening to black folks online, and I urge you to do the same. These horrors cannot continue, and we are all responsible for our part in making sure they don’t.

Meanwhile: I have been reading a combination of long-unread paper books, old favorites, physical books borrowed from friends, and digital books on my sister’s old Kindle. I do not love ebooks, but the Kindle is a lot better than scrolling through pdf files on my laptop. In all formats and at all times, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Everything is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here, Rob Bell
Bell is a former megachurch evangelical pastor, who these days is (still) a writer, speaker, podcaster and thinker. His new book traces his journey from small-town Michigan through his young adulthood and those pastoring days to the point where he wanted something more, outside the confines of church work. It’s got quantum physics and family history and lots of Big Questions. The style is unusual and it wanders, but the ideas are big and interesting, and Bell’s style is warm and conversational. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I was in serious need of some cheer, so I turned back to this first book about the Melendys. Siblings Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver live in pre-WWII Manhattan with their father and their beloved housekeeper, Cuffy. They decide to pool their allowances for Saturday adventures, and they have all sorts of fun. I adore this series – the characters are all so creative and funny and kind.

The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys (see above) move to a big house (topped by a teeny cupola, hence the “mistake”) in upstate New York, and continue having adventures. Enright’s writing is both lyrical and funny, and I adore the siblings and the fun they get up to together.

The War Widow, Tara Moss
World War II is officially over, but even in Australia its effects are still being felt. Journalist Billie Walker, who lost her photographer husband in the war, takes up the mantle of her late father’s investigative agency. This first book in a new series follows Billie and her assistant, Sam, as they look for a missing teenage boy and try to unravel a case that points to war crimes, theft and kidnapping. Lots of setup, but once it got going this was a solid mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 29).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I rediscovered Jane a few years ago, and I reach for her story almost every spring/summer. She (grudgingly) goes to PEI to visit her estranged father, and ends up falling totally in love with both him and the Island. I love PEI almost as much as Jane does, and her story is so full of hope and charm and spunk. Wonderful.

Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley
Henry and Rachel used to be best friends. But then Rachel moved away and her brother drowned, and she’s been reeling ever since. When she moves back to town, Henry’s family bookshop is struggling, and the two of them gradually find their way back to one another. I liked the setting (Howling Books) and the secondary characters much better than Rachel and Henry, but this is still a sweet, sad story. Recommended by Anne.

The Wedding Party, Jasmine Guillory
I like Guillory’s fun, snappy romance novels featuring loosely connected characters. This one centers on Maddie and Theo, who are the two BFFs of Alexa (from The Wedding Date). They think they hate each other, but (spoiler alert) this is not the case, as they embark on a secret affair that might be something more. I had to seriously suspend my disbelief (did they really think no one would catch on?) and skip over a few steamy scenes (not my thing), but this was fun holiday weekend reading.

Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise, Richard Beck
Richard is a friend of mine, and a psychology professor at my alma mater. He writes an excellent blog, and he also spends a lot of time these days with prisoners and low-income folks. Stranger God is his memoir-cum-psychological exploration of why most of us (privileged) Christians don’t do that, and why we should. Thoughtful, straightforward and very well-researched (in other words, vintage Richard).

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Friendships are vital to most of our lives, but there’s hardly any sound research or advice on how to make them work long-term. Sow and Friedman, who have been close for more than a decade, unfold the story of their Big Friendship (known to some through their Call Your Girlfriend podcast) alongside expert voices on friendship. They share their hard-won wisdom and their challenges, in a wise, fresh, thought-provoking format. I want to buy this for all my girlfriends when it comes out. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 14).

Then There Were Five, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys (see above) are loving their lives at the Four-Story Mistake. This third book introduces them (and readers) to Mark Herron, an orphan who (spoiler alert) ends up becoming part of their family. Full of warmth, charm and summer adventures. (The cover art on these new editions is kind of terrible, but the stories are so good.)

The Land, Mildred D. Taylor
I loved Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as a child, and picked up this prequel, which tells the story of her biracial grandfather, Paul-Edward Logan. It’s set in post-Civil War Mississippi, and it is powerful and compelling. I raced through it in two nights.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, Pénélope Bagieu
My comics-loving guy gave me this book for Christmas. It’s a collection of graphic mini-biographies of badass women, from a Chinese empress and a gynecologist in ancient Greece to contemporary figures like Leymah Gbowee and Temple Grandin. The art is both whimsical and arresting and the stories are fantastic.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

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We’re halfway through May (how??), and while I am not nearly halfway through my long-unread stacks, I’ve been working through some of them. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Once Upon a Sunset, Tif Marcelo
I really enjoyed Marcelo’s previous novel, The Key to Happily Ever After, and I liked this one, too. D.C.-based ob/gyn Diana Gallagher-Cary heads to the Philippines after a work crisis to investigate her family history. Her free-spirited photographer mother and various relatives and friends help Diana navigate a series of epiphanies. Lush descriptions of the Philippines, and several engaging subplots.

House Lessons: Renovating a Life, Erica Bauermeister
I love Bauermeister’s delicious, warmhearted novels, so was excited for this memoir about renovating a trash-filled house in Port Townsend, WA. She weaves together anecdotes about the physical house – staircases, windows, light fixtures – and learning to navigate her marriage and motherhood, and see herself, in new ways. Lovely and insightful.

Two in the Far North, Margaret E. Murie
The good folks at West Margin Press sent me this book after I wrote a Shelf Awareness column about women in Alaska, last year. Murie spent many years in Alaska, first as a young person and then with her biologist husband, Olaus. Her memoir describes some of their travels in detail, and oh my, it is lovely. Clear-eyed descriptions of birds, wildlife and flowers, and so much joy and wonder in the natural world. I’m so glad I kept it all this time, and finally read it.

Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig
This novel has sat on my shelf since last summer (!) – and I finally picked it up after loving The Whistling Season. Donal Cameron, age 11, is packed off to his great-aunt in Wisconsin when his grandmother has to have surgery. After enduring several maddening weeks, Donal and his great-uncle, Herman the German, head back to Montana on the Greyhound bus and have all sorts of adventures. A rollicking tale of adventure, and so much fun.

The Key Lime Crime, Lucy Burdette
It’s nearly New Year’s in Key West, and food critic Hayley Snow is juggling her new husband, her enigmatic mother-in-law, her octogenarian roommate and a local key lime pie competition. Things get stickier when one of the chef-contestants ends up murdered. I like this cozy mystery series following Hayley’s foodie adventures. To possibly review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 11).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

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Good morning, friends. Here we are in week 9 (I think). The weekends do still feel a little different, mostly because I’m not trying to work from my kitchen table.

The past few Sunday mornings, I’ve been tuning into a livestreamed church service from Highland, my church in Abilene. This is a little fraught, I admit: Highland is where I spent countless hours singing on the praise team with my ex-husband, who was the worship leader there. We had our rehearsal dinner in the Highland atrium, and we lived across the alley from the church when we were first married. It was our place, and it is still full of people who love both of us.

Many of you know that we lost our church community here in Boston in September 2018, a loss which has echoed through the following year and a half, especially when my marriage subsequently fell apart. I did make a few attempts to find a new church, or just a place to sit and cry, after we stopped going to Brookline, but it was always hard. (The exceptions were special occasions, like the glorious carol service at Memorial Church in early December, and the lovely, twinkly Christmas Eve service at my childhood church in West Texas.)

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In this time of quarantine, I couldn’t walk into a church if I wanted to, and while that is tough, I’ve also felt a sneaking sense of relief. I’ve been turning back to the things that comfort me (haven’t we all?), and the familiar sight of the Highland auditorium, and a few faces and voices I know, is a deep comfort to me. They start with singing – my favorite part of any church service – and then a child recites the Lord’s Prayer via video. I’ve enjoyed seeing a few of the elders, whom I know, get up and lead prayers, too. Sometimes I skip the sermon, but when I’ve listened, I have found wisdom and grace there.

I’ve also been enjoying some of the “Daily Thought” videos from St Aldates, the big, vibrant, loving church in Oxford where I went as a student. And the best “sermon” I’ve heard in this strange time came from my friend Richard Beck, who spoke at the last virtual chapel of the semester for ACU, my alma mater, last week. He reminded the graduating seniors, and all of us, that status and productivity and wealth don’t really matter: what matters is that we are deeply, inherently loved. (His talk starts about 30 minutes into the video.)

Where are you finding encouragement – spiritual or otherwise – in these times? I’d love to hear.

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In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

—Bertolt Brecht

The thing I miss most about church is the singing.

I enjoy other parts of church: the community, the prayers, communion, a thoughtful sermon. But the thing that often gets me in the door is the chance to lift my voice and sing. And while most of us are quarantined, I’ve been missing the faith communities I love, whose music moves me.

But the singing, like so many aspects of “normal” life, hasn’t disappeared altogether. One of my neighbors is a musician, and I can often hear her singing as she comes in and out the front door, or when I go down to the basement to do laundry. When my guy comes over, he sings as he moves around the kitchen: Motown or gospel or classic R&B. We know some of the same hymns, too, and once in a while we sing one together.

I’ve been streaming the occasional church service during this time, and tuning into the weekly chapel service from ACU, my alma mater. It’s not the same as being present with others to sing, but I like at least hearing other voices. I’ve sat at my kitchen table singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” or hummed “In Christ Alone” while I’m heating up lunch. On Good Friday, I streamed the afternoon service from St Aldates, and sang along with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

A couple of weeks ago, ACU put out a call for video submissions of a song all of us know and love: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” It’s our unofficial school song: we sing it at graduation, at the end of Sing Song, at the beginning and end of every school year. Our college choir used to sing it at the end of every week, and it was the final piece in every concert we performed. (My ex and I even had the congregation sing it at our wedding.) And now, you can hear more than 500 of us singing it on YouTube.

Whether you are religious or not, I wish this for you, and for all of us during this time: mercy and peace, hope and love. With an a cappella sevenfold Amen.

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I don’t know about you, but this is one of the strangest Holy Weeks I can remember.

Navigating this pandemic has either been the most fitting or the most terrible way to walk through Lent: isolated, alone. I struggle with Lent, anyhow: the focus on grief and penitence is difficult to sustain for that long. (Real talk: it’s even harder in the years where we have tough winters.)

This year I have been (loosely) following some of Sarah Bessey’s kind, pragmatic Field Notes Lent practices. And I have been extra glad I went to the noon Ash Wednesday service at Old South Church, because – though I didn’t know it then – I wouldn’t get to go to church again for a while.

I have heard a couple of mini-sermons this week, from an acquaintance back in Texas and from my friend Simon, in Oxford. (I don’t have much patience for sermons these days, but I will listen to him preach any day of the week.) Both talks included exhortations to hang onto God, who has not let go of us, and reminders that Jesus, of all people and all deities, understands fear and suffering. I also heard a little looking ahead to Easter Sunday, which to me seems premature. I know it’s coming, but I am not ready yet; we are still sitting in the darkness after that earthquake on a Friday afternoon, not knowing what the hell just happened or what might be coming next.

Tied up with the general isolation grief is my lingering church grief: I lost my church community here in Boston, abruptly and painfully, in the fall of 2018. I have tried to move on, to forgive and let go, but the wound has not fully healed yet. I had heard stories of churches hurting their members and their ministers, treating them badly, but I never thought it would happen to me. Palm Sunday used to be a glorious day at Brookline; the kids would march around the sanctuary waving palm branches while we sang every song we could find that involved the word Hosanna. I could hardly face the thought of it, this year.

I’ve been streaming bits of the Sunday services from two churches that are still mine: Highland, in Abilene, where I spent my college, post-college and newlywed years, and St Aldates, in Oxford, where Simon preaches and where I went every Sunday (sometimes twice) when I was in graduate school. I couldn’t stream anything on Palm Sunday, though: the mere fact of it broke my heart. We are usually together, singing Hosanna, and this year so many of us are alone.

We are sad and aching, fearful and weary, and on the days when I can muster up a little faith, I know this is where God meets us. I also know that faith resists all our attempts to write it into a tidy narrative. I grew up among tidy narratives, alliterative three-point sermons, questions and answers easily matched with Bible verses. My adulthood has brought doubts and change, messiness and grief – they do not fit into those neat boxes. Neither, I have to say, does the joy that comes bursting out when you least expect it, found in the most unlikely of places.

I am often full of fear these days, and I don’t have the answers, either for the current crisis or any others I might face. For now, I am holding onto the words my friend Christie wrote on Instagram earlier this week: “the good news is that ours is not the last word. The Word has spoken—is always speaking—and the message is mercy and love.”

If you are marking Easter or Passover or simply the arrival of each day, I wish you joy, mercy, and love where you can find it, in these days.

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maisie dobbs in this grave hour book

Female sleuths have been my heroes since childhood, from Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane. But these days, my favorite female investigators have an extra dimension: their complex, layered backgrounds inform their approaches to the cases they take.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs starts out as a scullery maid, but thanks to a wealthy patron, she attends university, then works as a battlefield nurse before hanging out her shingle as a private investigator. Her eponymous first adventure lays out her background and her first few cases, and sets up a richly drawn, insightful historical series. My favorite installments illuminate aspects of Maisie’s personal life, such as A Dangerous Place, which follows her to Gibraltar and Spain in the wake of great loss. 

mary russell books series sherlock holmes mystery

Orphaned, bookish and prickly, Mary Russell literally stumbles over Sherlock Holmes while walking on the Sussex Downs. The great detective takes her on as his protege in Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and they eventually become full partners in crime-solving and life. But Mary resolutely pursues her own scholarly interests at Oxford, which leads her to a mystery that quickly goes beyond the academic in A Letter of Mary. Russell’s complicated history, academic prowess and sharp wit make her a more-than-worthy compatriot for Holmes. (I blazed through this series when I discovered it some years ago, and have loved each new installment.)

clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

Arriving in Millers Kill, N.Y., the newly ordained Reverend Clare Fergusson, carrying the scars of her Army career, must prove she’s a capable priest (In the Bleak Midwinter). But as Clare is drawn into several local mysteries and a growing friendship with the married police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, things get messy. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s gripping series ably explores Clare’s grit, compassion and her complex bond with Russ. Hid From Our Eyes, the long-anticipated ninth installment, is out this spring, and I can’t wait to see where Clare’s unusual talents take her next.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. 

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