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pink gold texas sunset sky

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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shadowshaper flowers book

Another month, another reading roundup. Somehow it’s May already (!). Here’s the latest batch of good reads:

Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor
A friend gave me this collection of Brown Taylor’s sermons last summer. That sounds dry as dust – but as I already knew, she’s anything but. I love her luminous memoirs, and these sermons are brief, thoughtful reflections on scripture and life. They’re pegged to the church year, and I think they’ll be worth coming back to. (Part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.)

Literally, Lucy Keating
Annabelle Burns has her senior year all planned out – color-coded, even. But when an author named Lucy Keating visits her English class, Annabelle learns she’s actually a character in Keating’s new novel. Does she have any control over her choices – even regarding the new boy who’s literally perfect for her? A fun, very meta YA novel, though the ending fell a bit flat.

Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, Kelly Corrigan
I love Corrigan’s wise, witty memoirs, and this one cracked me up and made me cry. She builds it around 12 essential phrases: “I was wrong,” “I love you,” “No,” “Yes” and others, with funny, honest vignettes from her life. My favorite line is in the first chapter: “Hearts don’t idle; they swell and constrict and break and forgive and behold because it’s like this, having a heart.”

Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older
Sierra Santiago expected to spend her Brooklyn summer painting murals and hanging with her friends. Never did she dream of getting caught up in an epic battle between spirits involving members of her own family. But Sierra is a shadowshaper, heir to a kind of magic channeled through art, and she must figure out how to stop the spirits before they destroy everyone she loves. A fantastic beginning to a YA series with great characters. I’ll be reading the sequel, Shadowhouse Fall.

Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Stephanie Rosenbloom
I love a solo trip, so I expected to enjoy Rosenbloom’s memoir of traveling alone. She visits Paris, Istanbul, Florence and her hometown of New York, reveling in the pleasures of solitude in each city. This was pleasant and charming; I wanted a bit more from some of her experiences, but really enjoyed it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 5).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
This novel is less well known than Montgomery’s beloved Anne series, but I love it, and I’ve returned to it every spring for several years now. Jane is a wonderful character – wise, practical and kind. Watching her discover Prince Edward Island, her estranged father and herself all at once is an utter delight.

Shopgirls, Pamela Cox and Annabel Hobley
I picked this one up in Oxford last fall (for £2!). It’s a fascinating nonfiction history of women working in shops and department stores in Britain. There’s a lot here: unionization, national politics, sexism, drastic changes in business practices and social norms, the impact of two world wars. Really fun and well-researched. Also part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject.

The Lost Vintage, Ann Mah
As she’s cramming (again) for the arduous Master of Wine exam, Kate Elliott returns to her family’s vineyard in Burgundy. Helping her cousin clear out the basement, Kate discovers a secret room filled with Resistance literature and valuable wine. Mah weaves a layered, lush, gripping story of family secrets, wartime and terroir. I loved Mah’s memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating, and savored every sip of this delicious novel. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 19).

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

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flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Easter.

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clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

A cop and a priest walk into a crime scene.

It’s a feature of several mystery series I love: Grantchester, the excellent ITV drama based on James Runcie’s novels about Sidney Chambers and Inspector Geordie Keating. Inspector Lewis, the BBC series in which Lewis and his sergeant, Hathaway (who trained for the priesthood) solve mysteries in my beloved Oxford.

And, most recently for me, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries set in Millers Kill, New York, starring police chief Russ Van Alstyne and the Reverend Clare Fergusson.

I picked up the first book at my library right after New Year’s and was captivated by Russ and Clare’s initial adventure, in which they rescue an abandoned baby and solve a murder case. As you can see from my reading roundups, I’ve blazed through the entire series over the past two months.

I love a good mystery series, though I’m not much for serious gore. Give me an engaging, thoughtful protagonist (or two) with a strong sense of justice, an interesting setting (and preferably a standout supporting cast), twisty and compelling mystery plots, and I’m satisfied.

In this series, all those elements are intertwined with Russ and Clare’s complicated relationship. They make a good team and they quickly become friends, bonding over the cases they solve together and their respective experiences in the U.S. military. Before long, they find themselves wrestling with a deeper attraction. The problem: Russ is married, and Clare’s chosen vocation gives her extra incentive to deal honestly with her feelings and take responsibility for her actions.

Spencer-Fleming writes a solid mystery plot: I’ve been amazed at the way she weaves in local Adirondack history, the tangled web of relationships present in any small town, and questions of justice. Clare’s clear-cut sense of right and wrong is often troubled by the cases she investigates, while Russ’ long experience as a policeman has left him more world-weary but no less dedicated.

I’ve also been repeatedly astonished by the rendering of Russ and Clare’s relationship. These are two people trying to do the right thing, while acknowledging that their feelings for one another could wreak havoc on their lives and their town. It feels blazingly honest and compassionate.

Millers Kill, as the characters frequently note, is a small town, and I’ve grown to love many of the supporting characters: deputy police chief Lyle and veteran dispatcher Harlene; the junior officers, especially Kevin Flynn and Hadley Knox; the members of Clare’s vestry board and her church; and others who walk in and out of the pages regularly. They all strike me as utterly human, and most of them are people I’d like to know in real life.

Writing honestly and well about faith is hard to do. I speak from my experience on this blog and elsewhere, but I’ve never tried my hand at it in fiction. Spencer-Fleming gives us glimpses of Clare’s hard-won, gritty faith, which informs every case she works on and often goes against the grain of church politics and the vestry’s expectations. I wrote about an early scene involving prayer and a subsequent one on forgiveness, but there’s at least one similar nugget in every book: a few clear-eyed lines about the struggle to be a faithful person in this mixed-up, often heartbreaking world.

During a crisis moment in I Shall Not Want, the sixth book, Russ remembers asking Clare, “So, how do you pray?” He recalls her thoughtful expression, and her answer: Say what you believe. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love. 

I’ve finished the series for now (though I hope there are more books to come), and I can say with certainty: I love these characters, and I’m thankful for them. And for writers like Spencer-Fleming who bring us stories like these.

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ordinary light book journal

This February was up and down: weather-wise, work-wise, sleep-wise (the Olympics messed with that last one). But it included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love and Ruin, Paula McLain
I loved McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, but frankly wasn’t sure I was up for another novel about the man. But the narrative voice of Martha Gellhorn, a fiery journalist who became his third wife, captivated me. McLain charts their passionate, stormy relationship and Martha’s fierce battle to build her career while living in Ernest’s shadow. Great writing, lots of drama (world and personal) and a searing portrait of complicated love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
This short novel garnered a lot of hype a few years ago, and I finally read it for my book club. It’s a string of vignettes and musings by a highly anxious woman in NYC whose marriage hits a rough patch. The viewpoint flips about halfway through from first to third person. I can see why others found this one compelling, but it didn’t work for me.

Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, turns to prose in this memoir, which chronicles her childhood in California and her mother’s powerful influence on her life. It started slowly for me, but I took my time and enjoyed it, especially the later sections. A few beautiful passages (one set in Lamont Library) and a thoughtful exploration of loss, belief and growing into ourselves. I also read Smith’s striking new collection, Wade in the Water (out in April), for review.

I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Russ Van Alstyne is grieving a great loss, and Clare Fergusson is balancing ministry and her assignment in the National Guard. They and the Millers Kill PD, including brand-new officer Hadley Knox, are swept up in a case involving undocumented immigrants, drug smuggling and murder. I can’t get enough of this series; this book was possibly the most powerful and honest yet.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
This novel opens with teenage arson: a shocking act in most places, but especially in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a meticulously planned, rule-following community. Ng explores the interplay of two contrasting families: the stable, self-assured Richardsons, and newcomer Mia Warren (an itinerant artist) and her daughter Pearl. A page-turner with some compelling characters. I loved Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and this is a solid second novel.

To Be Where You Are, Jan Karon
I’m a longtime repeat visitor to Mitford, Karon’s fictional North Carolina town. In this latest novel (#14), retired priest Father Tim finds himself with a new job, as his son and daughter-in-law struggle with their own challenges. I always love visiting Mitford; it’s small and homey, but the struggles are very real. Funny, comforting and wise.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson is struggling to readjust to civilian life after a year in Iraq. She joins a local veterans’ group, and when one of her compatriots ends up dead, she (of course) dives into the investigation. Meanwhile, the other group members are wrestling their own demons, and it’s a small town, so it’s all connected. Powerful and heartbreaking; the seventh in a fantastic series.

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor (with Michelle Hamilton)
I’m a novice enthusiastic runner; Kastor is a pro and an Olympic medalist. I was fascinated by her memoir of running: her early career, the wisdom she gained from coaches and teammates, and her focus on mental toughness. She’s relentlessly positive but not trite, and I loved following her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

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

What are you reading?

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blue sky branches

Ash Wednesday felt incongruous to me this year.

I’m sure it was partly the jet lag: I was only 36 hours out from a late-night arrival at Logan. I wasn’t quite back in step with the daily round, and I was so tired. And, as others have noted, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day this year, for the first time in decades. Talk about mixed messages.

I walked across the Yard to Memorial Church for Morning Prayers, where Florence Ladd gave a graceful talk that invoked the film Chocolat (which fit perfectly with the day’s conflicting identities). I came back on my lunch break for the brief Ash Wednesday service: readings from the prophet Joel, a quiet Lenten hymn, Alanna marking my forehead with ash, repeating the traditional words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The sun had come out after a grey morning, and I paused on the steps after service and looked up into the suddenly blue sky. It, too, felt at odds with the day’s somber message, though I welcome the sunshine any day, especially in the winter.

Walking back to work, I wondered how to reconcile the messages of these two coinciding days. Remember that you are dust; that everything is temporary; that grief and sorrow are a fundamental part of this human life. And also: remember, even after the chocolate has melted and the chalky candy hearts have all been eaten, that you are loved.

That afternoon, I walked down to Darwin’s for a cup of tea. “Ash Wednesday?” asked the barista, nodding toward the smeared cross on my forehead. I nodded, and then complimented her red sweater and vintage pink earrings. We talked a bit about the odd confluence of dates, and she said, “It’s all a form of love, isn’t it?”

I thought, then, of a line I’d read several days before, in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s fifth mystery featuring Russ Van Alstyne and the Reverend Clare Fergusson. During a scene set in Clare’s kitchen, where Russ is wrestling with guilt and doubting that he deserves forgiveness, Clare tells him, “We none of us get what we deserve, thank God. We get what we’re given. Love. Compassion. A second chance. And then a third, and a fourth.”

We none of us get what we deserve. We get what we’re given. Those words have stayed in my head for days now, and when Lauren mused that it’s all a form of love, I thought: Yes. This.

The ashes; the sobering reminder of our own mortality; the blue sky arching high above; the love that comes to us unbidden from family members, friends, acquaintances, partners. We don’t earn any of it; we simply receive what we’re given. Call it grace; call it forgiveness; call it blessing. In the end, all I can say is thank you.

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alice network book chai red

I’m back from a trip out west to see some dear friends, and (no surprise) I did a lot of airplane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
I found this one at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford, last fall. It took me weeks: it’s a bit dense in places, but fascinating. Bunting explores the Outer Hebrides off the northwestern coast of Scotland and delves into their complicated histories. Less memoir-y than I wanted, though she does muse on the ideas of home, remoteness and living on the (literal) edge.

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
During a single November day in Millers Kill, N.Y., events unfold that will change multiple lives. A young woman goes missing, a corporate land deal inches toward completion, a few men see their future plans crumbling (for varied reasons). Spencer-Fleming’s fourth mystery charts the complicated web of people affected by these events, including her protagonists, Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. So layered and so good.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This YA novel needs no introduction from me: it’s been all over the bestseller lists, and for good reason. Starr Carter, a young black woman, is the only witness to her childhood best friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. Starr is already navigating two worlds as a student at a mostly white prep school, but Khalil’s murder smashes her two worlds together. Stunning, heartbreaking, powerful. I was gripped and saddened by the main plot, but I also loved Thomas’ depiction of Starr’s tight-knit, complicated family.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
In 1915, a young Englishwoman named Evelyn Gardiner is recruited to spy for the titular network in German-occupied France. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair finds herself pregnant, adrift and searching desperately for news of her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in World War II. Quinn expertly ties Charlie’s and Eve’s stories together, with a propulsive plot, some truly fantastic supporting characters and a ruthless villain. I devoured this on a plane ride (and a passing flight attendant exclaimed, “It’s so good!”). Highly recommended.

All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are still struggling to navigate their relationship. When Russ’ recently estranged wife is found murdered in her kitchen, events spin wildly out of control. This mystery packed in so much pain and surprise – not just for Russ and Clare but for many of the supporting cast, who are fully realized characters in their own right. Broke my heart, but it was the best yet in this series.

A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley
I picked up this fascinating novel after loving Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. Sara Thomas, an amateur codebreaker, travels to France to decipher a young woman’s diary from the 1730s. Kearsley weaves Sara’s story together with that of the diary’s author, Mary Dundas, who finds herself mixed up with the Jacobites. I loved both narratives, but especially enjoyed watching Mary adapt to her rapidly changing circumstances and step into her own bravery.

Brave Enough, Cheryl Strayed
My mom gave me this little book of Strayed’s quotes for Christmas, and I’ve been dipping into it. I’m a bit ambivalent about her work, but there is some pithy, no-nonsense wisdom here.

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

What are you reading?

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