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Posts Tagged ‘questions’

For a lifelong reader, I came late to the work of Madeleine L’Engle.

madeleine l'engle books shelf collection

I didn’t have a taste for fantasy as a child, so I never read A Wrinkle in Time or any of its sequels. For years, I didn’t know that Madeleine had written other books, that in fact her oeuvre ranged from adult fiction to memoir to poetry. But when my friend Teresa sold off a few of her books at the end of one semester in college, I picked up an old paperback copy of Walking on Water, Madeleine’s book of reflections on faith and art. And for nearly two years after that, I could be found with one of her books – The Small Rain, A Circle of Quiet, the entire Time Quintet – in my hand.

I love all Madeleine’s work in different ways, but A Circle of Quiet gave me a phrase that continues to resonate, striking a deep gong in my soul.

She recounts:

A winter ago I had an after-school seminar for high-school students and in one of the early sessions Una, a brilliant fifteen-year-old, a born writer who came to Harlem from Panama five years ago, and only then discovered the conflict between races, asked me, “Mrs. Franklin, do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?”

“Oh, Una, I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.”

But I base my life on this belief.

That quiet anecdote, slipped in between Madeleine’s musings on ontology (the why of being) and a digression on the punctuation of A Wrinkle in Time, has changed the way I view faith, and the way I view life.

I’m at Micha Boyett’s blog today, participating in her One Good Phrase series. Click over there to read about how Madeleine’s phrase continues to resonate for me.

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We were lucky

boston public garden tree lake autumn fall

The Public Garden, still intact after the storm

I keep hearing the same phrase, in conversations on the street, on Facebook, in text message exchanges with friends. I used it myself, to reassure my parents and my sister, my aunts and my grandmother, about the minimal fallout we experienced last week from Hurricane Sandy. We never lost power, I explained over and over. We lost some leaves, but no tree branches. J even worked a half day on Monday. They reopened the subway on Tuesday morning. We were lucky.

I know, as most of you do, people who were not so lucky. One friend went to work west of Boston on Tuesday, but was stuck at the office until nearly 8 p.m. because of flooded roads. Co-workers lost power, as did friends both nearby and in Maryland. And my friends in New York have had their lives totally disrupted, though some neighborhoods are already recovering.

When I was a child, my family’s relationship with the word “luck” was uneasy, ambivalent. We called my sister “lucky” when she won repeatedly at Yahtzee, when she turned up just the right card in a poker match, when she beat all of us at Monopoly (again). We used it to refer to sporting events, weather conditions, narrow escapes of various kinds. But when it came to bigger things, to health issues and job worries and college acceptances, we used the word “fortunate” instead, or named it a “blessing.” I know plenty of people who would have said God spared us this week, instead of praising our luck.

But I can’t think of it quite that way in this case. If we were spared, then God must have seen fit not to spare other people whose homes and lives were devastated. If we were blessed, did he choose not to bless others, or to visit a curse on them in the form of this storm? (Hurricanes and other disasters, oddly, are still called “acts of God,” even by secular insurance companies.)

But the God I believe in, the God whose essence is love, is not so capricious, so arbitrary. He did not pick out certain houses to lose their power while others kept it. He is not laughing at the destruction of Breezy Point or the frustrations of lower Manhattan. He is hurting with all the victims and survivors. He may seem far away, but he is there.

I have been frazzled this week, my mind taken up with the usual worries: what to make for dinner, the state of my kitchen floor, which book to read next. But I am still lucky. I get to worry about domestic details and work obligations, instead of how to recover my possessions or where I’m going to live. I get to worry about church events and how much I miss my family in Texas, instead of staring down injury or death. I get to continue my normal routine, while thousands of people just a few hours away are dealing with huge, life-altering problems.

Despite my belief that God noticed, and cared about, all the destruction we’ve seen this week (and all the pain we never see), I don’t quite know how he is involved here. I can’t explain why I escaped disaster when so many did not. I know it was not because of my strength or intelligence or wisdom; such decisions are beyond my power.

Maybe one day I will understand more about how this works, how God is tied up with the winds and waves, what factors influence the number of griefs and disasters in a person’s life. I doubt I’ll ever understand fully; this tapestry is too large for me to see the whole pattern.

For now, I will send money to those who need it, and I will breathe a prayer of thanks and relief. And almost in the same breath, I’ll continue to admit:

We were lucky.

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After my rich, nourishing, thoroughly enjoyable week at Glen East, it’s been a difficult re-entry. Boston feels grey and gritty and overstimulating after the lush green cocoon of South Hadley. After a week of leisurely meals, late-night talks, blossoming friendships and so many good words, it feels a little cruel to be thrust back into commuting and email and the thrumming bass note of traffic downtown. (Though I am grateful to see my husband and catch up with friends.)

mount holyoke college gazebo

Gazebo by the lake at Mt. Holyoke

Re-entry after a powerful experience has always been a struggle for me. This was the missing piece at every church camp I attended as a teenager. After a week of fast-paced fun and emotionally charged spiritual highs, what next? Our youth ministers meant well, but I always felt poorly equipped to make the experience (or what I’d learned from it) last.

As I boarded the bus to leave Oxford in 2004 and then in 2008, the same questions pounded in my head: What now? How do I re-enter my regular life without feeling jarred, and how do I take what I’ve learned and transmute it into that life, so the changes I’ve experienced here don’t fade away?

“How will you go back and live differently?” my friend Janine asked me in 2004, as we walked in University Parks Oxford (and as I wept at the thought of leaving). I didn’t have an answer, but that is still my question after every life-changing experience, whether joyous or tragic.

This time, the question (or its permutations) has to do with both my writing and my life. How will I look at the world differently, based on what I’ve learned and thought and felt and seen? How will I keep asking thoughtful questions about my writing, particularly in the absence (or shifting) of the Glen community? What do I need to jettison or limit in my daily life, to make space and set aside energy to do the work I love? How do I let the good words of the Glen permeate my daily life, make it fuller and deeper and richer and more true?

be here now smith college

Wise advice at Smith College last week

I’m feeling the need for a few practices (writing and non-writing) to ground me, to “grid my growth,” as Julia Cameron says, and to spur me to keep a gentle discipline rather than falling back into writer’s block and laziness. Some of these non-writing practices (cooking dinner, washing dishes) can’t take shape until we return from yet more travel. But some – writing every day, underlining beautiful sentences in new books, paying attention – can start now. In the middle (this is key) of the questions and tiredness and frustration.

How do you re-enter after a life-changing experience? What practices do you use to nudge you a wee bit closer to the ideal life, to the big questions, in the everyday?

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Many years ago now, a wise old priest invited me to come speak to his church in Alabama. “What do you want me to talk about?” I asked him.

“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered.  [...]

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

I read these words a couple of weeks ago, in the introduction to Taylor’s luminous second book, which made me nod and say “Amen” and itch to underline quotes and scribble notes in the margins. (I didn’t, because it was a library book, but I am buying my own copy ASAP and it will be underlined, you can bet.)

Every day since, these words have been ringing in my ears and I’m asking myself, “What is saving my life now?” It has become the question I want to ask people instead of “How are you?” (which we know most people don’t answer honestly anyway). What is saving your life now?

orange tulips flowers spring garden

Sometimes flowers save my life.

Sometimes the small and mundane saves my life – tangible, life-giving objects like a sturdy pair of re-soled boots or a plate of steaming homemade enchiladas or a mug of tea that heats both my fingers and my core with its warmth. Frequently it’s community, those hilarious texts from my sister or those just-checking-in phone calls from my mother or husband, those chats over tea with my girlfriends on Tuesday nights, those tweets, emails or letters from far-away friends.

Words are the way I make sense of the world, so writing often saves my life: either struggling over my memoir pages for the Glen East Workshop in just over a month (!), or typing frantically on the super-secret project that fills my daydreams these days. Sometimes the books, the inviting stacks of stories and memoir and poetry that cover most of my coffee table, contain the words that save my life on any given day.

Most often, though, all these things add up to the same thing that is saving both Taylor’s life and mine: the insistent call to the difficult but rewarding task of paying attention, of looking other people in the eye, of noticing not only my life but theirs too. What is saving my life now is the practice of trying to live it, even when it is drab or lonely or uncomfortable, so that, as Mary Oliver says, I do not “end up simply having visited this world.”

What is saving your life now? I really want to know.

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boots pine needles amherst ma

Boots and pine needles in Amherst

I had a pair of boots re-soled recently, after both heels and one sole developed cracks (a result, no doubt, of my pounding the Boston pavement in them several times a week this winter). These are the black riding boots I bought in the fall – good quality, though still on the inexpensive end of the boot spectrum. I am used to buying cheap shoes at Payless, wearing them to death within a year or two and repeating the cycle, which is unsatisfying, not to mention wasteful. (I also hang onto worn-out shoes for a long time. A few years ago, my dad offered to buy me a new pair of black dressy boots if I would just let him throw the old pair – cracked, broken-heeled, beat-up faux leather – in the Dumpster.) So I splurged on these, feeling both grown-up and virtuous, hoping they would – will – last me for years.

Needless to say, I was disillusioned when the heels and then the sole developed wounds, and after the cracked sole left me with a soggy sock from walking on damp pavement, I bit the bullet and paid to have them re-soled. I was shocked at the price tag (more than half what the boots cost), but I want to keep wearing these boots, and I did not want to simply go buy another pair (I can’t afford it, and also Micha’s post about shopping responsibly and wearing our clothes humbly is still pricking at me after a whole month).

I got them back last week, still feeling virtuous, and put them on Thursday morning to wear to work. And before I had gone five steps I noticed: these soles are not the same.

Well, of course they’re not, said the voice in my head. What did you expect?

The new soles are thicker, of a slightly different material (which will probably hold up better as I continue to walk my daily miles in them). They feel heavier, which made my ankles ache a little as I lifted my feet; they give the toe box a slightly different shape, though probably no one but me will notice the change. They are the same boots, with new soles – which means they are not the same boots at all.

I was expecting, subconsciously, to pick up the same boots from the repair shop, minus the cracks and fissures. I was expecting them to be repaired, but not changed, by the process. This is disingenuous, maybe, but it occurs to me: I often expect the same thing from my life.

We have been in Boston nearly two years, and I keep expecting, subconsciously, for something to shift and click into place, for a life similar to my life in Abilene to spread out before my eyes. I keep expecting, despite all evidence to the contrary, the same life in a new city – the same kind of relationships, the same way of being, the same assurance that I am right where I’m supposed to be. As you may have guessed, I’m not getting any of that.

This new life still feels like a worn-in boot with a stiff, slightly clunky new sole. I am the same person who moved here from Texas, and yet I am not at all. I live and move through Boston in different ways than I lived and moved through Abilene, or Oxford, or Midland, where I grew up. I cannot expect the new life to look like the old, though it is made from similar material and occasionally feels the same.

This new life, and these semi-new boots, often leave me uncomfortable, standing in my stocking feet wondering how to wear them. Sometimes I’d rather opt out of wearing either one. But in the end, I put on both of them and head out the door into this still-unfamiliar world, because both the boots and the life are mine. They are the ones I chose, and the only ones I have.

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The elegant, thoughtful Lindsey of A Design So Vast tagged me the other day, and her questions were so thought-provoking I simply had to answer them. Below, for your enjoyment:

tea cafe journal gloves

1. What is your favorite book?  Why?

There are a handful of books I come back to over and over again, many of them childhood favorites: Little Women, the Anne of Green Gables series, the Betsy-Tacy series, the Little House series. As an adult, I’ve been drawn to Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs, particularly A Circle of Quiet, the first volume. She so perfectly articulates the joys and challenges of being a woman, a writer and a person of faith.

2. What song brings you back most viscerally to a moment in your history?  Where does it take you?

In high school, my friend Mike and I would blast pop music as we drove to lunch in his dark red Toyota Corolla. One of our collective favorites was Eve 6′s “Here’s to the Night.” On my way out the door to school one morning, I opened the front door to find a small, glass bottle of Stewart’s Orange & Cream soda (my favorite) on the porch. Wrapped around it was a strip of paper with the title line from the song – “Here’s to the nights we felt alive” – scrawled in Mike’s handwriting.

I still have that bottle. And I don’t hear that song often any more, but every time I do, my breath catches in my chest and I remember.

3. Who is your favorite character in fiction?

Oh, I can’t pick just one. I have so many heroines, many of them from the books above – Anne Shirley, Betsy Ray, Jo March, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Byrd Starr. Since I was a child I’ve made lifelong friends in the pages of my favorite books.

4. What is your favorite food?  What about foods you abhor?

I love fruit. Raspberries are my favorite, but I’ll eat any kind of berry, and I adore peaches and nectarines, grapes and bananas (but not melons). I’m a chocoholic (dark chocolate preferred), and a lover of tomatoes, goat cheese and anything with fresh basil. I could live on soup for weeks. And my last meal will be Tex-Mex, with plenty of chips, salsa and guacamole.

I despise: pickles, hot dogs and anything from McDonald’s. (Ew ew ewwww.)

5. Are you a morning or a night person?

I’m a night owl – which is rather unfortunate since I hold a 9-to-5 job. I like mornings, but I like them quiet and unhurried – which is rarely the case these days.

6. What is your default font when you write on your computer?

Georgia or Garamond – they’re both more whimsical than boring Times New Roman or juvenile Arial, but still classy.

7. How many siblings do you have?  How many children do you have (as of now)?

I have one sister, who is 17 months younger than me. She’s tall, blonde, sporty, extroverted – so many things I am not – but we grew up side by side and we love one another fiercely. I don’t have any children yet, but I will be an aunt twice over this summer.

8. What season do you like best?

I am an autumn girl. Scarves, boots, red leaves overhead and dry ones crunching on the ground, indigo skies, fingers wrapped around mugs of tea, chai lattes, crisp breezes and sunny days. The sweet melancholy of the year’s turning, the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” and the sharpened-pencil anticipation of back-to-school time.

9. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

First I wanted to be a mom (like my mom), then a teacher, then a writer. So far I’ve got two out of three.

10. If you practice yoga (even sporadically), what is your favorite pose?

I’m a lapsed yogini, but oh, how I love a good downward-facing dog.

11. When was the last time you cried?

I tear up almost daily over books or blog posts that move me. But the last time I sobbed, really sobbed, was in a dark car talking to my mother, after learning my Mimi was in the hospital with pneumonia. (She died a couple of weeks later.)

The game is to tag other folks, of course – but I had trouble coming up with a list of people to tag. So, if you like, answer these questions below, or on your own blog. It’s always such fun to learn these little snippets about people.

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For many years, it seemed to me that my favorite literary heroines inhabited their own universes, hardly ever running into real (read: historical) people, and only touching actual events peripherally. The American Girls books were carefully set in decades that didn’t quite touch each other (I always found it amusing that they all began in years ending with “4″), and though I adored Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, Molly and Addy, it was highly unlikely that they’d ever cross paths, or even have been alive at the same time.

Some of the heroines I loved, like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Shirley, were such sacred figures to me – such larger-than-life girls who were the center of their own universes – that I could never think of them together (though Laura and Anne were born around the same time and lived through many of the same world events). They simply lived in different worlds, bounded by different families, life stories and writing styles. And some characters’ place in history is rather vague – Nancy Drew, for example, has shifted back and forth in time over the years, and the Baby-Sitters Club girls, though resolutely contemporary, seemed to live in a sort of bubble in small-town Connecticut.

More recently, I’ve tried to mentally piece together a sort of timeline of heroines’ lives – and it blows my mind, frankly. Even if the stories are similar, it’s still difficult to think of Rilla Blythe as being just seven years younger than Betsy Ray – they were both young women at the time of the First World War, though Betsy was already married and Rilla was just a teenager. And across the ocean, Maisie Dobbs was serving as a nurse in France at the same time, while the women of Downton Abbey (I’m loving season 2 so far!) were learning that the war would change their lives forever.

I’ve read rather a lot of World War II fiction, since it looms large in the American consciousness, and it’s a little easier for me to connect Annemarie of Number the Stars to Patty Bergen of Summer of My German Soldier to Frankie Bard of The Postmistress and even Juliet of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. But still it seems that they all inhabit their own universes – touched, perhaps, by the same earthshaking events (which in turn have affected my own life, decades later). But mostly they still seem to live on parallel tracks, with no knowledge of one another.

Do you ever try to piece together a timeline of heroines, or think about how some characters lived differently (or similarly!) in the same period or decade? Does your reading of a book from a certain time period inform your understanding of other books from that era? Or does this just happen to me?

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I’ve been rereading Anne of Windy Poplars, because it’s the perfect fall comfort read. Anne moves to a new town, finds a charming tower room in a house with two adorable old ladies and their quirky housekeeper, and proceeds to win the hearts and minds of everyone in Summerside, as she seems to do everywhere she goes. And she chronicles her three years apart from her beloved Gilbert in dozens of letters, which remind me strongly of my emails to J when we were apart for our yearlong engagement.

This time around, I noticed a detail I’d never noticed before, in her first letter to Gilbert:

From the left window in the tower I can see the roofs of the town…this place where I am to live for at least a year. People are living in those houses who will be my friends, though I don’t know them yet.

I had always blithely assumed, in my previous reads, that Anne had planned to spend those three years in Summerside before Gilbert finished medical school and they got married. But reading that phrase (italics above are mine), I realized: she didn’t know, at the outset, how long she’d be there. The fear of resigning at Christmas (when the Pringles plagued her life out), or at the end of a year, was very real. And her musings on a new life with an unknown end date struck a deep chord with me -  since I, too, am living in a new life with an unknown end date. We’ll be here a couple of years yet, but I am not sure what lies around the “bend in the road,” either in Boston or after we leave it.

This is one reason I love rereading – noticing these details for the first time, and feeling an entirely new kinship with a character who has long been a good friend. (And, of course, it was deeply reassuring to read about Anne’s three years in Summerside and watch her build a rich, full life there.)

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Besides being a bookworm, I am an inveterate recommender of books and authors I love – as you may have guessed from my periodic book reviews. I’m constantly saying to my friends and husband, “Have you read…?” and pushing books into their hands.

Since I read more (and faster) than most people I know, I search out most of my book recommendations on the Internet these days, particularly from the brilliant e-newsletter Shelf Awareness, Book Club Girl’s blog and the frequent reviews at She Is Too Fond of Books. (And I pay attention to what my favorite bloggers are reading, when they mention it.) I still hear about books from friends, of course, and I keep up with events at the Booksmith and the Harvard Book Store, as well as browsing the shelves at the Brattle.

I hadn’t realized how much information about books I was taking in until recently, when Abi and I were browsing the 3-for-2 table at Borders in Dedham. I kept pointing to books, saying, “Oh, that one was good,” or “I bought this one – loved it,” or “I read the reviews of that one – not sure I’d like it.” Abi went home and told her husband (and later me), “I knew Katie read a lot, but I never realized just how much she read.”

Even with all this information (and the well-stocked shelves at my library and favorite bookshops), I was recently in a dry spell, book-wise. (Does this happen to anyone else?) Wondering what to read next and wishing for someone who could take inventory of my tastes and preferences and deliver a perfect recommendation, I commented to Abi, “I wish there was such a thing as a book dating service.”

You’re my book dating service,” she replied. “I always know I’ll like the books you lend and recommend.”

Her comment made me curious – so I wonder, dear readers, who is your book dating service? How do you get information about books? Do you have someone who knows your taste and recommends books to you, or are you at the mercy of the New York Times bestseller list?

As a reader, a reviewer and a lover of sharing all good things, I’m all ears.

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Recently, an email appeared in my inbox from the Reverb10 crew – the women who brought us 31 days of thoughtful prompts in December. I didn’t write about all the prompts, but I found inspiration in several of them. This month’s prompt (they’ll have monthly ones throughout 2011) is: What questions are you living?

I immediately thought of this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were rooms yet to enter or books written in a foreign language. Don’t dig for answers that cannot be given you yet: you cannot live them now. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer.

And this one from Zora Neale Hurston:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

So far, it seems, 2011 is doing a lot of both asking and answering. When I received the email, I was still asking: where and when will I find a job? How will we pay the bills this month without dipping deeply into savings? Can we make it financially here in Boston? Will it ever stop snowing?

Now, I’m asking a slightly different set of questions: what will my new job be like? Will I like it? How will I balance my own writing with full-time work? (And I’m now asking, Will it ever be warm again?)

Of course, these are the everyday questions – along with the more mundane ones of what to wear, what to cook, which flowers to buy, what to order at a restaurant. But there are deeper questions I’m living, too, the most salient of which I’ve been asking for six months now: How will we make a life here in Boston?

I don’t think that last question has one answer; indeed, I think it has many answers. I am still discovering many of them. But for now, I think, the most important answer is: we are making a life here. Slowly, slowly, with each day and week, each workday and each evening at home, each hour spent with friends new and old, we are carving out a life for ourselves here. We are living an adventure we only dreamed of back in Abilene (though we still miss it, and our dear ones there). We are living the answer to a huge question: What would happen if we moved across the country to pursue our dreams?

At times, the answer can feel difficult or lonely. But I’m glad we decided to ask the question, and so far I’m enjoying living out the answer.

What questions are you living lately?

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