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Posts Tagged ‘grace’

bookstore lenox sign natalie goldberg event

A couple of Sundays ago, I skipped out on church early and drove out to the Berkshires for the afternoon.

I’m a longtime fan of The Bookstore in Lenox, despite the fact that I only get out there every couple of years. Matt, the owner, writes a rambling, erudite e-newsletter which I love reading every week, and in early July I opened it to find that Natalie Goldberg was coming for a Sunday afternoon reading and book signing.

This came the day after I’d been talking to a friend about Natalie’s work – explaining how I stumbled on Writing Down the Bones the summer after I graduated from college, when an acquaintance was selling off a few of her books. I bought it and a few others (including Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water), never dreaming what an effect Natalie’s words would have on the way I thought about my writing and my life.

The whole afternoon, from start to finish, was a delight. It felt – as these things sometimes do – like grace unbidden.

bookstore lenox interior shelves

It started with the drive there, listening to good music on the radio and Elizabeth Gilbert’s delightful On Being episode, about following your curiosity. It continued when I walked into the store and heard the events manager testing the mic by reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in an Irish accent. He stopped after a couple of lines and mused, “Should I do the whole poem?” Everyone who’d already gathered responded, “Yes!”

I browsed a little while, then perched on a stool near the front counter for the event itself. Natalie arrived with her cousins in tow, and she was warm and down-to-earth, as I always hope authors will be. She read a few sections from her new book, standing in the middle of the store in a long black dress, telling us about love and illness and noticing, about grief and doctors and paying attention.

“You’re such deep listeners,” she kept saying to the group gathered in folding chairs or leaning against the back shelves. I think we were all simply fascinated. But it was clear that everyone in the room was so happy to be there.

I loved every moment: the breeze wafting through the open door, other browsers wandering in and out, my fellow audience members listening so intently and asking good questions. Most of all I loved hearing Natalie’s voice – which I have heard so often in my head over the years – in real life. Afterward, I went up and asked her to sign both her new book and my copy of Writing Down the Bones, bristling with Post-Its. “I’ll sign as many books as you want,” she had said to the crowd, and many of us took her up on that offer.

The great pleasure of any bookstore is browsing, of course, and I wandered among the shelves for a little while before and after the event. I ended up with a copy of Natalie’s new book (of course), a memoir by a 747 pilot, some Alastair Reid poetry, and Matt’s slim, self-published memoir of his years working at the now-defunct Gotham Book Mart in NYC. He exclaimed when I brought it to the register, and we had a delightful exchange. I told him I’d been there before, and how much I love the store. Matt offered to sign his book, and when I peeked inside I saw that he’d inscribed it – to my delight – “For Katie, who came back!”

I left feeling nourished in a soul-deep way: from having spent an afternoon among people who love words and good stories and this world. “I wanted to grab a hunk of living again and hold on tight,” Natalie writes in the introduction to her new memoir. That afternoon in Lenox was a vivid, flavorful hunk of living, and I savored its sweetness all the way home.

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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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texas sunset sky december pump jack

“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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sunset cape cod

You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

—G.K. Chesterton

We often say grace before meals at our house – sometimes a spontaneous prayer, sometimes the old Lutheran blessing I learned at my grandparents’ kitchen table when I was a child. We fell out of the habit for a couple of years, but have come back to it. I like the ritual, the brief pause to give thanks before plunging into a meal and an account of our days.

We say grace, too, before Sunday night dinners with friends, joining hands in a wonky circle around a long wooden table. When it is Amy’s turn, she always says, “We are so thankful for all that we have been given.” When she says, “Thank you for our family,” I know she means both her blood family and us, the family we have chosen, the family we have become. Tomorrow, when we gather in our church basement with Amy and her kids and some other friends, to eat and celebrate and be together, we will say grace, and perhaps we will sing about thankfulness.

I don’t always say grace verbally at other times of the day. But in one way or another, I am saying grace all day long.

I say grace at the sunset and the sunrise, at the streaks of gold on the horizon and the deep cobalt twilight of the Cambridge sky. I say grace before snatching half an hour with a cup of tea and a good book. I say grace before traveling to places known or unknown, before spending time with family or friends.

I say grace when I receive a text or an email from someone I love, and when I walk across Harvard Yard to Morning Prayers, the bells of Memorial Church ringing through the crisp, cold air. I say grace when my colleagues make me laugh, and when I pull off a complicated piece of writing, and when a package of shiny new books comes in the mail. I say grace when I cook a delicious meal or wrap up in a warm sweater or watch a good movie.

Every year around this time, I reread W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks,” which admits a prickly truth: saying thank you can be difficult in a world that is often dark and dangerous. But I believe the very act of saying it, and Chesterton’s parallel act of saying grace, both create pinpricks of light in the darkness. No matter how dark it gets, or how mundane the days can seem, we have much to be grateful for.

This week, as I bake treats and wash dishes and laugh with my husband and call my mother, I will be saying grace, and saying thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. See you next week.

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when we were on fire synchroblog

That may as well be the subtitle of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, out tomorrow from Convergent Books.

I’ve never met Addie, except via blogland, but we were born in the same year (albeit in different regions of the country) and we spent our teenage years immersed in the same strange, insular, oddly intense subculture of Christianity. We both went to small Christian colleges where we met the men we married, and we have both spent a large part of our post-college years trying to hang onto our faith while having to unlearn a lot of things we thought we knew.

To celebrate her book’s publication, Addie has invited fellow bloggers to share their experiences with the evangelical subculture and the subsequent impact on their – our – faith.

The evangelical subculture, with its rah-rah zeal and catchy T-shirts and tidy, well-reasoned arguments in favor of faith, left me with some baggage, for sure. There wasn’t much room in it for doubts or questions, for the messier, blurrier side of faith or relationships. But for a few years, that didn’t matter, because it provided me with what all teenagers need: a safe place.

I grew up in a tightly knit, loving, Christian family and I had a group of close friends at school, most of whom went to church with their parents but sort of rolled their eyes at my Jesus-freak-ness. But at youth group and the Bible studies I attended, my devotion was normal, even encouraged. I could hang out with other kids who loved Jesus as much as I did, who were trying to figure out how to be good and faithful people as they navigated the halls of high school. And for six years, those other Jesus-freak teenagers were my people.

I sang with the worship band and led prayers at youth group. I worked diligently through the homework questions before Teen CBS each week. I had a black WWJD bracelet and a whole drawerful of Christian-themed T-shirts. (I still have a couple of them somewhere.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, a handsome senior (whom I later dated) asked me to sing with the praise band at a new lunchtime club called the Fellowship of Christian Musicians. The audience was mostly our fellow band nerds, and they mostly came for the free food and the fun of singing songs with goofy motions. There was never any preaching or theological debate at FCM; it was simply a loud, friendly, loosely connected community, fueled by trays of Bagel Bites and taquitos pulled warm from the oven by a few dedicated parents.

And here is what it took me a long time to understand: that was enough.

I grew up in a denomination that prizes words, specifically the words of the Bible (usually interpreted a certain way) and the words of respected theologians. It also prizes testimony, the retelling of one’s own faith story, even one as quiet and nondramatic as mine. Salvation, according to a lot of its pastors, depends on a specific set of words (the Sinner’s Prayer). Baptism (adult baptism, by immersion) is accompanied by a public “confession of faith.” Rhetorical arguments for faith – even when one is literally preaching to the choir – are encouraged.

As a lifelong bookworm, I felt right at home among all those words. But I sometimes became uneasy when participating in a faith activity that didn’t involve preaching or praying, that lacked a neat rhetorical way of tying it all together.

On a September day during my senior year of high school, I learned, along with the rest of the country, about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania. Because it was a Tuesday, I headed to Bible study with my parents and sister that night, craving the comfort of normalcy and community (and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies) after a day of strained expressions from my teachers and friends, and increasingly horrifying news coverage.

After eating dinner, I slipped into a metal folding chair next to my friend Adam, who looked as exhausted as I felt. One of our leaders got up on stage for the weekly welcome and greeting, which was somber, matching the tone of the room. As the worship band began to play, Adam reached over and slipped his hand into mine. We sat, silent, not even singing, in the darkened room, as Russ and the band played songs of quiet comfort. For almost the first time in my life, I had no words – only mute grief, and the solid presence of a community around me.

And here is what I began to understand that night: it was enough.

I am a long way from those Jesus-freak days, far from those lunchtimes when I led the FCM crowd in yet another rendition of “Sanctuary” or “Peace Like a River.” I still know all the words to those songs and many others; after years of repetition, they have made their way deep into my bones. But the words, then used so often to argue and convince and persuade, have settled into something quieter and gentler now: a background hum, steady as the blood pumping through my veins. They are no longer rhetorical weapons, polished and honed to perfection. Instead, they are part of my makeup, like my mother’s green eyes and the freckles on my nose.

These days, I am less interested in the old rhetoric of “saving souls” than I am in living a steady, quiet life of grace and peace. I refuse to be drawn into battles where people use “the sword of the Spirit” to stab each other. I have my beliefs, and they are deeply held, but I am not interested in arguing with anyone about them.

Instead, I want relationship, community. I want to offer my own presence and take comfort in the presence of other people, through times of joy and grief and through the long, everyday stretches in between.

And here is what I began learning in the evangelical subculture, and have continued to learn long after I left it: presence and community, even in the absence of so many words, are enough.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with faith in the comments, and I’d encourage you to pick up Addie’s book – it is sensitive, honest, well-crafted and beautifully told.

(I received a free copy of When We Were on Fire in exchange for an honest review, but all opinions, experiences, etc., are my own.)

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Walking into the light

Harvard Yard is a different place in the early morning.

Clear, lucid sunlight falls in patches through the leaves of trees still lush with summer green. Colorful chairs lie scattered across the lawn, angled limbs akimbo, facing every which way like the passersby on the street, everyone intent on his or her own errand.

Later, the Yard will hum with students hurrying to class and tourists snapping photos with the bronze statue of John Harvard, placing their hands on his buckled shoe, rubbed gold by generations of pilgrims seeking luck. But now, in the early morning sunshine, all is quiet.

memorial church tower harvard yard

The spire of Memorial Church stretches tall and white into the sky, framed by red-brick buildings and wrought-iron gas lamps, cutouts of blue visible in its bell tower. Inside, white box pews trimmed with varnished wood march two by two up to the dark, carved pews of Appleton Chapel, the whole scene illuminated by shafts of light in the window above the altar.

memorial church interior harvard yard

We file in quietly, alone or in pairs: bleary-eyed students, grave faculty members, the occasional staff member like me. We find our places in the pews, the slim black psalters and crimson-covered hymnals sedate in their racks. The choir, a dozen or so undergraduates in long black robes with crimson yokes, processes in to the sound of the organist’s voluntary. And we begin.

I got into the habit of sleeping in this summer, hitting the snooze button a few times as the sunlight drifted in the window, rolling over for an extra cuddle with my husband. But as the new school year begins, we are getting up earlier: he to head to the gym, me to get into the shower and start my morning so I can get out the door in time for Morning Prayers.

Since we moved to Boston, J and I have been increasingly involved in the life of our little church, where he leads worship (which we often plan) nearly every Sunday. I read Scripture aloud and fill communion cups, send out the weekly email update, wash the coffeepot, write down prayer requests. We both plan and attend events, and generally help keep things humming.

We love this community, and we would not be content simply to sit on the sidelines, especially in a small place where all hands are needed. But at Morning Prayers, I have no responsibilities, no public part to play. I can come, sit, listen, and be.

We stand and reach for the black psalters, repeating familiar words of comfort, protection and grace. We sit and listen to the anthem, sung a cappella by the choir, delicate harmonies lingering on the air. We listen to a brief address by a member of the Harvard community, carefully considered words of welcome, challenge or wisdom. We bow our heads in our pews, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer together.

And then we stand, reach for our hymnals, and our voices swell with the organ in a final, soaring hymn. During the first week of school, we sang two of my favorites: “We Gather Together” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The minister raises his hand and gives a benediction: “Go in peace.” He reminds us what the Lord requires of us: “to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”

We walk out silently, behind the choir, after the final Amen. The notes of the organ follow us out, and we scatter in all directions, to our offices and classrooms, to the work we have been given to do. This morning ritual grounds us, gives us space to begin again, to reflect on what it is to do justly and love mercy. It is a brief window, before the rush of our busy days, a chance to glimpse again the life of grace and peace we are all pursuing.

Amen.

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Every fall, when the apples appear by the bag at the grocery store (or when we go and pick our own), I reach for the same recipe: Ina Garten’s Apple and Pear Crisp. It has all the best attributes of a crisp recipe: fresh, tart fruit; a crumbly topping of butter, oats and brown sugar; dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg; zest and juice from both an orange and a lemon. (It tastes fine with one or the other, but including all four hits of citrus definitely makes a difference.)

apple tree close up fruit orchard

My friend Kara, who pointed me to this recipe, recently posted a photo of it in progress. As I looked at her blue mixing bowl, full of chopped fruit speckled with cinnamon, my mouth watered. And my mind went back to a cozy kitchen outside Fort Worth, Texas, on a frigid February night.

Earlier that day, I had hopped a plane from Abilene, sporting new fleece-lined boots and toting a smart red suitcase, headed to New York for a writing retreat. It was my first trip to New York, my first time flying solo in quite a while, and I was jazzed. But my excitement quickly turned to frustration and then deep disappointment when the “snowpocalypse” on the East Coast grounded all eastbound flights out of DFW. I wasn’t going anywhere that day.

I called Kara, with whom I had shared several college classes and a glorious semester abroad in Oxford, knowing she was living temporarily at her parents’ house after finishing graduate school. Kind soul that she is, she drove to the airport, loaded me and my suitcase into her car, then drove me back to her family’s house. After hugging me, her mom teasingly reminded me of the first night I spent there, when a late-night flat tire after a concert left several of us college girls stranded. Apparently I show up at their house when I am in trouble. But they always welcome me as though I were an expected, even an honored, guest.

It was Kara’s turn to cook dinner, so I went with her to the grocery store and then we donned aprons and got to work. We had shared a kitchen in Oxford, with nearly a dozen other girls, heating oatmeal and pasta and chopping vegetables for stir-fries, baking scones and cookies, drinking countless cups of tea. We also volunteered at our church once a week, cooking meals for a theology course they offered on Tuesday nights, spinning salad and singing hymns and teasing the church’s chef, Jules. It had been several years since all that chopping and cooking, but we fell easily into the rhythm of the kitchen again.

I don’t remember anything else we ate that night, but I remember this: chopping apples and pears on a wooden cutting board, lemon juice soaking into the creases and cuticles of my hands, stinging a little. I remember cinnamon and nutmeg coating the fruit as it glistened in the bottom of a deep baking dish. I remember zesting a lemon and an orange, mixing oats and brown sugar and butter together with my fingers, crumbling it on top of the fruit mixture, sliding the whole thing in the oven.

Later we sat at the long wooden kitchen table with Kara’s parents and her brothers, one of them newly arrived from Africa. I was nearly limp with exhaustion, but I remember smiles and laughter, and conversations about Kara’s new boyfriend in Costa Rica (whom she would later marry) and the newspaper her father runs, and my newlywed life in Abilene. I remember the warm smell of apples, pears and cinnamon, as we dug into our dessert. I felt beloved, embraced, like one of the family.

I haven’t seen Kara in a couple of years, though in a nice bit of irony, she moved back to Abilene right around the time I left for Boston. But every time I peel and chop apples, douse them with lemon juice and cover them crumble topping, I remember that dark, cold night warmed by love and cinnamon and the simple grace of hospitality.

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