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Posts Tagged ‘hope’

thought bookstore shelf books nbc

August has flown. Between two back-to-back weekends away and starting a new job, I don’t know where I am half the time these days.

The books, as always, are helping preserve what sanity I have. (Bookshelf photo from Spoonbill & Sugartown, snapped on my recent Williamsburg trip.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

Smoke and Iron, Rachel Caine
The Great Library‘s grip on power is slipping, but its leaders can still do a lot of damage. Jess Brightwell and his band of friends have hatched a crazy plan to bring them down. A fast-paced, compelling addition to a great series: I love the way several characters have grown into themselves. So curious to see how Caine will wrap it up in the next book.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Before Khan-Cullors was an activist, she was a young black girl trying to love and live in a world that often didn’t want her to do either. She weaves her own story together with the narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement. Her account of her brother Monte’s suffering at the hands of law enforcement is especially moving. The style didn’t always work for me, but this is a powerful and necessary story.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Kate Morton
Elodie Winslow, an archivist in London, uncovers a mystery: an old photograph of a beautiful unknown woman, presumably associated with the painter Edward Radcliffe and Birchwood Manor, the house he loved. The narrative switches back and forth from the present day to various points in Birchwood’s (and the woman’s) history. Mysterious and atmospheric and quite odd, at times, but I enjoyed it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott
I’ve been a Lamott fan since I discovered Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies as a college student. I haven’t loved her last few books as much, but thoroughly enjoyed this pithy, straight-shooting collection of essays on hope in a time of despair. Lamott is funny and wise, kind and honest, which is exactly what you’d hope for in such a collection. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 16).

Dear Mrs. Bird, AJ Pearce
The premise of this book is my catnip: plucky female British heroine having wartime adventures. Emmeline Lake takes a job working for Mrs. Bird, a no-nonsense advice columnist in London, and starts writing her own replies to the readers whose problems fall under Mrs. Bird’s idea of Unpleasantness. Predictably, a certain amount of chaos ensues. I loved Emmy and her best friend Bunty, and the story was charming.

This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber
England, 1919: Verity Kent, a young WWI widow, is trying to move forward with her life. When she’s invited to a house party with her late husband’s fellow officers, she finds coded messages, contention among the other guests, and murder. This one was so-so for me, though the mystery did compel me enough to keep reading.

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

What are you reading?

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Edging toward spring

forsythia branches yellow flowers

The forsythia are late this year.

I usually spot their electric-yellow blossoms toward the end of February: they are sometimes an early sign of winter’s end. But although my friend Amy brought an armful of boughs inside to force them in midwinter, I only spotted them blooming outside last week.

crocuses stripe flowers

The crocuses, my faithful little friends, arrived right on time, along with the snowdrops, which sprouted up in their beds along the paths I walk daily in Cambridge. The long, elegant stems of daffodils and the uncurling leaves of tulips are up, too, but they’re not blooming yet – as far as I know.

tulip leaves flowerbed

It’s a long wait, every year, for the budding trees and green grass and soft air. I’m still getting most of my flower fix from my beloved florist, and from the geraniums in my dining-room window. They are blooming as though it were June already, scarlet and cheerful. They care as little for the weather forecast as do the saucy robins I see hopping about on the river trail.

geraniums red flowers

Some signs of spring arrive regardless of the weather: the approach of Commencement, the joy of Easter, the pageantry of the Masters. But I’m ready for it to feel like spring. I’m ready to revel in new beginnings. (And to wear lighter clothes, for a change.)

Until the forecast improves, I’ll be over here, bundled up, drinking tea, and watching the flowerbeds for (more) signs of color and life. Surely spring will win in the end. It always does.

scilla flowers blue

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purple crocuses leaves

The City Crocuses

Up they come—the yellow ones
fierce as fighters and the purples shy and tender
wind funneling up from the river

blasts me in face and throat, winter gone,
and there’s more, the walk to the subway today
made me smile

because others were smiling
secretly to themselves, a few caught my eye
and said something grateful

about winter being over—
soon along Riverside Drive daffodils lilacs cherry
but for now the tiny snowdrops alyssum crocus

decide to stop waiting
they flex their little legs, they push
and divide the dirt and up they swim

yellow crocuses open
This is the poem that impelled me to buy Suskin Ostriker’s newest collection, Waiting for the Light, back in February. When the crocuses began sprouting a few days later, I thought of it immediately.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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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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crocus-sprouts

The crocuses in that triangular bed across from my beloved Darwin’s.

daffodil-sprouts

The daffodils tucked up against brick walls in Cambridge flowerbeds.

witch hazel bloom cambridge

The witch hazel in front of the Harvard Art Museums.

snowdrops dew flowers

Snowdrops tangled in the ground cover on a side street near my office.

Something’s coming, Tony sings in West Side Story. Something good, if I can wait. 

I’m watching and hoping for spring, which isn’t quite here yet. (We’re just knocking on March, after all.) But these sprouts are giving me joy while I wait.

tulip sprouts flowerbed

Even the tulips – a little early – are joining in the show.

What’s sprouting where you are?

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tree lights bookshelf christmas

This Advent, as I said last week, has felt a bit disjointed.

Instead of quiet and hopeful (which is admittedly a stretch, given the headlines lately), I have felt hesitant, restless, even a little angry. So much has shifted, in my life and in the world, this year, and though I’m glad to see Advent come again, my usual traditions aren’t really working. Instead of reading Watch for the Light on a near-daily basis, I’ve picked it up only a few times. I’ve been diving into Star Wars novels instead of my typical Advent stack, and even the carols haven’t been quite as present.

And yet.

At the last Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, Lucy began by reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 16: Be watchful. Stand firm in your faith. Be strong. Be courageous. Let all that you do be done in love. I took those words as a charge, especially the last two sentences. And I believed her when she said, a few minutes later, “The promise of Advent is that we will be met by the One who loves us, no matter.”

Two days later, at church, Emily read aloud from Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah spoke to a people who were weary and heartbroken. He had harsh words for them, sometimes – but he also offered comfort and hope.

I’ve been thinking, as I often do in Advent, about Mary: reading Laurie Sheck’s words about the “honest grace” of her body, her inability to hide her fear, her acknowledgment that her hands are “simply empty.” She was young and untried, alone and afraid. But as Kathleen Norris says in her essay on the Annunciation, “Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” She walked forward, with courage and love, into a new reality that must have felt uncertain, precarious, dark.

Singing carols this year feels more like an act of tenuous hope than an affirmation of faith or joy: the promise of God’s coming into our midst feels a long way off. But I am still humming O Come O Come Emmanuel, with all its aching longing. I am thinking, like my friend Claire, about the middle verses of beloved carols, which wrestle with the darkness and also seek out the spark of light. I am hearing again the voices of my dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night at our church in Dallas when I was a little girl: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. And I am humming the Magnificat, with Rachel’s words in mind.

Some days, it feels disingenuous to sing these songs: there is so much grieving, so much wrong, so much yet to be made right. But on other days it feels like an act of faith, one tiny candle flickering against the darkness. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Amen.

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candle books snowflake peace

We are nearly halfway through Advent, the quiet, candlelit season leading to Christmas (which is often beset by the noise of daily life, on all sides). While I’m usually eager to step into Advent, this year I stood waiting at the door, so to speak, for days.

I am exhausted after the rush and press of a hectic fall, distressed by the news headlines, worried and saddened by the heaviness of the world and my own heart. As Rachel Held Evans observed recently, the usual ethos of Advent – the stillness and hope – has not felt quite right, this year.

We still showed up at church on a Saturday morning, though, to drape pine garland around doorways and ledges, to fill window boxes with cyclamen and green boxwood. That night, I finally pulled out the tiny coat-hanger tree that my friend Tiffany made for a Secret Santa exchange, twenty years ago. Every year, I hold my breath as I plug it in, hoping the colored lights will still shine. Every year, they wink out at me from the blue-green branches, the wires and foil held together by masking tape and hope.

kitchen stove kettle tree

The next day at church, we sang the hymn that encapsulates Advent’s longing for me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I rubbed my fingers across the pine wreaths my friend Sarah had brought, and inhaled their sharp green scent. It smelled like Advent: like the promise of something fresh and bracing, even as the world outside grows quiet and dark.

Later, I stood behind the pulpit to welcome everyone, and borrowed a line from another Sarah. As my husband lit the first purple candle, I talked about how Advent is for the ones who grieve; who long; who hope. This year, maybe more than ever, we are stumbling forward in the dark, unsure whether we will find our way. But we believe that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That afternoon, I took a long walk on the river trail, along paths that have grown familiar, past benches and bare trees and slender, waving reeds. The morning’s sunshine had all but disappeared: a blanket of grey clouds covered the sky. As I turned toward home, it was rapidly growing dark. Yet the edges of the clouds still held a faint glow: I knew there was light behind them, even though the day had grown dim.

We hauled the tree up out of the basement that night, and unraveled eight strands of lights while listening to the King’s College singers. It sat in the living room, unadorned, for an entire week: the ornaments waited in their boxes for an evening when we had the time and inclination to unwrap them. The tree looked a little sad to me at first, but I came to enjoy its quiet glow, its patient waiting.

christmas tree lights snoopy

Advent is about acknowledging this difficult truth: not everything is as it should be, not yet.

I keep thinking of Nichole Nordeman’s words, which I wrote about after Thanksgiving: surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid. They mingle in my head with a line from “O Holy Night:” a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. Somehow, at the same time, both of these things are true.

We are tired and thirsty, weary and fearful; we are not sure how, or when, or even if God will come. At the same time, our hearts quicken with a hope we can’t explain or understand: a quiet undercurrent, a bubbling thrill of joy.

Advent is about these contradictions: walking forward in the darkness, clinging to the promise of the Light. It’s about acknowledging the hurt and the fear, the injustice and the gaping need, the despair that threatens to overwhelm us. And it is choosing to believe the words we read again every year: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Behold, I am making all things new. 

We choose hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. We sing, even when the words feel make-believe rather than true. We wait and watch, together in the darkness, lighting candles and looking for the light that hovers just behind the clouds. And we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

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