Looking Back: Books of 2013

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The kiddos last January at Makoto Fujimura’s Four Quartets exhibit.

As I look back at the adventures, mishaps, joys and trials of the past year, it seems fitting to recount the books that have gently adjusted my vision. Some books have been read and discussed in a group, while others I’ve enjoyed with my family or alone with a cup of hot tea. Here are a few books that left their mark on my life during 2013:

With the Reading Group
In 2011, a small group of folks came together (virtually) to read and discuss The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. Greener Trees Reads was born. In the past few years, we’ve read and discussed several books, each of which has stretched, challenged, and inspired me in unique ways. These are the books that we read together in 2013:

Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet*
If you watch movies, read this book. If you’re a parent, read this book. If you want to better love your neighbor, read this book. It’s as much about posture of heart as it is about movie-going. As a result of reading Through a Screen Darkly, I’ve viewed not only movies, but also current events and the people in my life through a different lens. You can get a taste of the book and our group’s discussion of it here.

The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner
I’m an ardent supporter of Makoto Fujimura – both his art and his writing. Last year, our group read his book Refractions, and Mako was kind enough to join our discussion. At his suggestion, we read The Art of T.S. Eliot in preparation of the Four Quartets exhibit at Duke University. This book was a stretch (to say the least) for me, but it was successful in illuminating Eliot’s work as well as exercising literary muscles of mine that had previously been inactive. More on my stretching here.

So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger*
Shortly after Leif Enger was announced as the keynote speaker for Hutchmoot, I was asked to lead an online discussion of So Brave, Young, and Handsome over at the Rabbit Room. I was hesitant. My only experience of reading with a group had been limited to non-fiction. I had no idea where to start. But this book made the process easy. Enger is a master with words and subtext. I took pages of notes from So Brave, Young and Handsome and enjoyed hearing the insights of others. I emerged from our weeks of discussion reminded and hopeful. Redemption is a messy, beautiful business.

“A line only gets grace when it curves, you know.” Leif Enger (So Brave, Young and Handsome)

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capon
I’m not sure how one book can simultaneously be about cooking, seeing the miracles in everyday life, and idolatry, but this one is. An entire chapter dedicated to the cutting of an onion is potentially life-altering, and I own a new whisk and two new knives as a result of my reading.

“Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful. Necessity is the mother only of clichés. It takes playfulness to make poetry.” Robert Capon (Supper of the Lamb)

With the Kiddos

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This one took me by surprise. A story of friendship, character revealed in hardship, and the hope that creativity can offer. I almost didn’t make it through.  My painful experience of the first few chapters is chronicled here.

The Singing Tree and The Good Master by Kate Seredy
Seredy has quickly become one of our favorite authors. Hard to find in hardback, but worth the hunt.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
It was an honor and a privilege to read and discuss The Hiding Place with my children. A glimpse into our conversation and an explanation of why we still read aloud to with them here.

On My Own

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge
My last read for the year. If you’ve never read Goudge, this is a good place to start. I look forward to reading the remaining books of the Eliots of Damerosehay Trilogy in the upcoming months.

“Beauty and shabbiness are quite compatible. . . A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but it must be a costly and strong beauty, purchased at a high price of service or sacrifice, not skin-deep but bone-deep, if it is to be as desirable at the shabby end as it was at the sumptuous beginning.”  Elizabeth Goudge (The Bird in the Tree)

Death by Living by N.D. Wilson*
Last year, Notes from a Tilt-A-Whirl was significant in shifting the culture of our family (a bit more on that here). Death by Living had a similar impact. “Life is meant to be spent.” Those six words play out in a million everyday choices. I’m fairly certain that the recent decision to add a new member to our family can be traced back to seeds of ideas planted by Wilson. A book can be a dangerous (and glorious) thing.

“When Job lifted his face to the Storm, when he asked and was answered, he learned that he was very small. He learned that his life was a story. He spoke with the Author, and learned that the genre had not been an accident. God tells stories that make Sunday school teachers sweat and mothers write their children permission slips excusing them from encountering reality.” N.D. Wilson (Death by Living)

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger*
For years, I’d heard friends proclaim that Peace Like a River was their favorite book. A few come close to swooning when they speak of it – for good reason. Enger weaves an endearing tail of adventure, family tragedy, and healing, with the bright thread of hope running throughout.

“We see a newborn moth unwrapping itself and announce, Look, children, a miracle! But let an irreversible wound be knit back to seamlessness? We won’t even see it, though we look at it every day.” Leif Enger (Peace Like a River)

Fiddler’s Green by A.S. Peterson*

The sequel to The Fiddler’s Gun. If you’re looking for a meaningful, rich, story that is full of adventure, Peterson’s books are not to be missed.

Lilith by George MacDonald
I read this book by sheer will. It’s been a long time since I started a book and so desperately wanted to quit. But I love MacDonald’s work and decided to trust the author more than my own judgement. I trudged through the first 3/4 of the book, wavering between being bored and wondering if I just wasn’t smart enough to “get” it. The last 1/4 was more than worth the work. I’ll read this one again. And perhaps again.

The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse by Michael Gungor
This is the year I became a fan of Gungor‘s music. Although this book was written with “creatives” in mind, it has significant insight to offer to everyone. After all, we are all “creatives” in some capacity.

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis
I’ve heard quotes taken from The Weight of Glory for years. Now I know why. Lewis never disappoints.

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* I’ve had the very good fortune to meet the authors of several of the books listed at a gathering called Hutchmoot in Nashville, Tennessee. This year, the sessions of these authors as well as a number of additional writers, musicians, and generally swell people were recorded, and you can purchase the 17 hours of audio here.

May your 2014 be filled with beauty, friendship, and many a good book!

 

 

 

 

 



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The Invisible Thread to Nashville… and Back

If you haven’t read The Princess and the Goblin and missed the earlier post giving a bit of background information, you can catch up here.

 

Back to The Princess and the Goblin… As the story continues, Irene’s grandmother (who lives in the attic and is invisible to everyone but Irene) spins an invisible thread.  She attaches the thread to a ring, then instructs Irene that if she ever finds herself in danger, she is to follow the thread wherever it takes her.   The story proceeds to unfold as Irene is frightened once again by the creatures. Yet this time, she follows her grandmother’s thread rather than reacting out of fear.  Instead of leading Irene upstairs to the safety of her grandmother, the thread leads her outside, down the mountain, through the dark forest and into a dangerous cave.  Although the thread takes her through places of great peril, she ultimately discovers and saves her friend Curdie, who had been taken captive by the goblins and hidden deeply away in a cave.  The thread miraculously leads them through seemingly insurmountable dangers, then ultimately back to the safety of the castle.

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“We’re moving to Nashville.”  Although we knew it had been a possibility and had seen friends who were in the same position, we never thought that we’d be the ones preparing to leave.  Two years ago, my husband’s group at the bank was disbanded.  It was the day before our anniversary when he received the news.  In his words, “While most wives were understandably worried about what was coming next, mine was giddy.” Only weeks earlier during our weekly small group meeting, I had casually uttered, “I wish it would all stop.  That the hamster wheel would come to a screeching halt.” After years of over-commitment and unrelenting activity, I longed for a slower pace of life.  Be careful what you ask for…

 

After absorbing and then processing the news, we decided to take a 6 month break before looking for employment.  By worldly standards, it was a risky thing to do.  David was an unemployed banker in a banking city, which was filled with 2,000 of his best friends in the same situation.  But we knew who held the cards.  We knew for whom we actually worked.  We were given the gift of peace.  Our hope was simple.  We wanted to step back, enjoy our family, and open our hands to receive what had been planned for us. This was an opportunity to live in the kind of dependence for which we were created.   Great peace came from living in the moment regardless of the outcome.  David, who tends to be prone to anxiety, slept soundly.  We loved having him home.  The hamster wheel had stopped, and we were having a happy little hamster party.

Within a few months, two ministry opportunities unexpectedly surfaced and became viable possibilities.  Well-meaning friends would ask, “Do you feel called into ministry?”  Our answer seemed somewhat illusive, but it was true.  We’d answer, “We don’t know if we’ve been called into ministry, but we feel like we’ve done what we were supposed to for today.” Seven months flew by, and it turned out that neither of the two ministry opportunities would be our ultimate destination.  During those months, David had chosen to pour himself and his talents into organizations and people we loved dearly, and that had been a gift unto itself.  But still no job.

Eight months into the adventure, it was time to consider banking opportunities that may exist in Charlotte.  He began the job-hunting process. With 2,000 of his best friends. Although were not married to a particular home or life-style, we had been holding white-knuckled to our amazing community in Charlotte.  We couldn’t fathom leaving.  “God, we’ll do anything… but that. “  Of course, it’s the “anything but that” which he uses to teach us that all we really need is him.  And it’s the “anything but that” which proves that idols don’t have to come in the shape of houses, country clubs, or lifestyles.  They can also come in the form of Godly people and unique community.

Shortly after commencing the job search,  David received “the call” from a bank in Nashville. We had always said that we would grow old here, but if we ever had to move, Nashville would be our top city of choice. I started doing homework on churches, ballet studios, and music programs.  We made the house-hunting trip, and I found a beautiful old bookshop in which to make my dwelling while David had his final round of interviews downtown.  The kind old shopkeeper asked if I’d like to go behind the shop to the warehouse, and I spent over an hour digging through stacks of dusty, ragged books.  This could be my new home.  The great finds in the bookstore helped.  I do have my priorities, you know.

We returned to North Carolina and put our house on the market.  Homes in our neighborhood had been lingering on the market for months, and we didn’t want to waist time.  We had talked for years about moving to another neighborhood, so there seemed to be no downside and we had plenty of time to sort out the details.  Or so we thought.  Our home went under contract in less than 12 hours and after 3 showings.  We were shocked.  We were moving.

Later that week, David received an unexpected call from a former colleague.  We were surprised to learn that he was a final candidate for a job in Charlotte. The folks in Nashville graciously allowed him the time to decide, and the folks in Charlotte sped the process up beyond what we could have anticipated. You can guess the end of the story.  We’re still here.

Although we all know that life can turn “on a dime” and that we ultimately have little control of our own destinies, we spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy fighting that universal truth.  We think we can plan, maneuver, and even convince God to give us what we want.  We’ve inherited an insidious spiritual cancer that tries to convince us that we know best.  Then God is gracious enough to intervene and remind us that it’s not true.  That he knows what we need far better than we do.  What we need is often not what we want.  What we need most is dependence on Him. 

Today, we stand grateful for the invisible thread that led us through such an adventure.  The path was never clear.   It was full of twists, turns, caverns, and surprises that didn’t make sense at the time. We experienced many great gifts during those months – time together, peace in the midst of turmoil, steadfast friends, and the storybook ending of staying in Charlotte.  Yet we’ve seen enough life to learn that although these are good things, they too could be taken away at any time.

The greatest gift that we received along the way has been the assurance that “no, we are definitely not in charge.”  And yes, the One who is in charge is good and faithful and true.  He gently leads if only we’ll choose to unwrap our white-knuckled fingers from around whatever it is that we grasp – in order to hold tight to the invisible thread. We can’t hold both at once.  May we remember and believe, as Irene’s grandmother promised, “You must not doubt the thread.  Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too.

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For the rest of the story, visit “Lest We Forget”


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The Only Thing to Fear

 

I’m particularly persnickety about what books we choose to read aloud as a family.  I have my own personal stack to be read, as does each of my children, but we like to keep one family book near the dinner table (or on the screened porch) to be read together after dinner.  The “to-be-read” list is a long one, so it is a rare occasion when we read a book out loud a second time.  However, when I found an out of print copy of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin from one of my favorite collections (Illustrated Junior Library), I decided to make an exception.  I read this book to my boys several years ago, but our youngest was not old enough to be included.  At that time, I had a teenager, a toddler and 4 and 6 year old boys in the house, so I was too bleary-eyed to remember much of it.  In reading the book aloud again (with more sleep and life perspective under my belt), I feel like I’m reading it for the first time.

Several days ago, we meandered into a scene where the little princess, Irene, is alone in her bedroom.   Bounding in through the open window is a frightening creature.  If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll recall that there are subterranean goblins who are plotting against people living above ground.  The goblins only come out at night, and they have pet-like beasts which dwell with them.  It is one of these horrifying creatures that invades the room.  Irene is terrified, and instead of running up the stairs to a place of safety, she reacts out of fear and darts from her room, down the stairs and out the door of her palace into the dark of night.  “It was foolish indeed – thus to run farther and farther from all who could help her, as if she had been seeking a fit spot for the goblin creature to eat her in at his leisure.”  And then came the line that stopped me.

 “… But that is the way fear serves us; it always sides with the thing we are afraid of.”

Now I don’t consider myself a particularly fearful person.  Of course, there are the biggies – death of a loved one, chronic illness, safety for our children from the evils of the world.  But I’d suggest that we all are fearful at a much deeper level.  Our fears are often unspoken and often unrealized, and we have become extremely sophisticated in our management of them.  Although our outward behaviors appear to be unrelated, at their core is the same propelling motivation: “ I can make life work on my own terms.  I will not be disappointed. “  And therein lies the great mystery of the human condition:  the very strategies we implement on a day-to-day basis undermine the true joy and contentment that we are ultimately seeking.

~Some of us manage fear by being quiet… Others by talking incessantly.

~Some of us manage fear by achieving…. Others by failing to try.

~Some of us manage fear by erecting high barriers around the heart…  Others by demanding more out of relationships than they could possibly provide.

I try to avoid the fear of disappointment by engineering “the ideal”… My husband tries to avoid the fear of disappointment by wanting too little.  We both strive to control our worlds in very different ways.Same disease.  Different symptoms. We all are uniquely gifted in the way we try to become masters of our own little universes. Thank goodness our strategies don’t work.  If they did, well, then I really would be in control of my life which would be overwhelming.  Nevertheless, we keep trying. Hoping that we can control life and subdue the fear of ultimate dependence.

Oh –  back to the rest of the story. The Princess and the Goblin is worth a read for children and adults alike, so I won’t give away any “spoilers.”  But I will say that eventually, Irene learns to react less from her own fear and insecurity only when she decides to trust the one who loves her deeply…. Regardless of circumstance.  She can’t see the big picture and has to rely blindly on the character of the one who does.  A lesson for us all.



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