Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tuesday Reflection: Annual Favorite Books of the Year List

In our family there is almost no better gift than a book. We quickly become almost anti-social when we get a new book, for we are that eager to open the cover and read. All of us got new books for Christmas, and now somehow the cold temperatures we are experiencing don't seem so daunting, for we can curl up with our books. 

However, before doing that, it is time look back on this year's reading. This year's reading included books read for our couples' book group--a group that has been in existence for decades. Bruce and I were part of the group before we moved away from St Paul twenty years ago, and we have been graciously welcomed back to the group now that we live here once again. Our meetings are a highlight of each month. Now anytime I am reading I wonder if the book will be a candidate for our book group. This is an added dimension for my reading, and several of my 2014 favorites are books discussed in book group. 

Here's this year's list of favorites--in no specific order. 

1. How the Light Gets In and The Long Way Home, mysteries by Louise Penny (Now we have to wait again for the next installment!)
2. The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout, the author of Olive Kitteredge, a favorite from an earlier year. (Book club selection
3. Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Nancy Horan (the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny. You may recall that Horan wrote Loving Frank.)
4. The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey. (Another book club selection, set in 1920 Alaska and based on a Russian fairy tale)
5. Mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear. (I am now waiting for a new one to be published. These mysteries are set in post WWI London and the main character, Maisie Dobbs, is a private investigator. I also really liked her stand alone novel set during WWI, The Care and Management of Lies.)
6. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Book club selection. While I thought this book attempted to hit too many themes, it still was engrossing.)
7. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert. (Book club selection again. Not everyone in the group loved it, but I was fascinated by it.)
8. Vacationland, Sarah Stonich. (This was on my "favorites" list last year and we read it for book club this year.)
9. All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville West (Book club. Do you detect a theme here? We paired this with Being Esther by Miriam Karmel, which I liked, too. Each book focuses on an older woman and the choices made in old age.)
10. Lila, Marilynne Robinson (Now I want to go back and reread all of her books.)
11. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (Challenging and creative structure, but well worth it.)
12. I also reread some Barbara Pym books and thoroughly enjoyed the reprise. 

Note: I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, but I am one of those that doesn't understand why it got such critical acclaim. Oh well!

The majority of my favorite nonfiction books are in the realm of spirituality. I am also reading (and using) books about writing
1. A Religion of One's Own, A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, Thomas Moore 
2. The Ten Things to Do When Your Life Falls Apart, An Emotional and Spiritual Handbook, Daphne Rose Kingma (My life did not fall apart in 2014, although there were challenges, but there is such wisdom here and strategies and reflections for whenever life hits us in a way we don't expect.)
3. The Paper Garden, Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72, Molly Peacock (My second reading of this gorgeous and inspirational book.)
4. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett (You know her for her novels. Now read this wonderful book of essays.)
5. Calm Surrender, Walking the Path of Forgiveness, Kent Nerburn
6. Handling the Truth, On the Writing of Memoir, Beth Kephart
7. The Rebirthing of God, Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings, John Philip Newell (I heard the author speak this year, and he was thought-provoking about the present and future state of organized religion.)
8. Fully Awake and Truly Alive, Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul, Jane Vennard
9. The Situation and the Story, The Art of Personal Narration, Vivian Gornick
10. Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth A. Johnson (Johnson is a renowned feminist theologian. Her writing is always challenging, and I am so glad I read this in the context of a class.)
11. The House on Teacher's Lane, A Memoir of Home, Healing, and Love's Hardest Questions, Rachel Simon (I have had this book on my shelf for a long time and so enjoyed her reflections on creating and being home.)
12. Small Victories, Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott (Classic Lamott. She is always a star.)
13. A Season of Mystery, 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing A Happier Second Half of Life, Paula Huston (Both this book and the book by Jane Vennard are excellent new looks at spiritual practices.)

Over the course of the year I have consulted many times two spirituality books on an ongoing basis: The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully,  Joan Chittister and The Endless Practice, Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, Mark Nepo. Both are perfect companions during my morning meditation time. 

I have a feeling that the novel I am reading now, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, will end up on my 2015 list. Excuse me while I take a reading break! Happy reading, everyone!

An Invitation
What were your favorite books this year? If you read any of the books on my list, I would love to know your opinion. What are you planning to read in 2015? I would love to know.   

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tuesday Reflections: Waiting for Christmas

Our grandson Peter has been at our house frequently lately, and each time he has arrived he has checked out the presents underneath the Christmas tree. He is six, and these days of waiting are interminably long for him. The other day he spotted a large package labelled for him, and I could feel the curiosity, the hope, the "please, let this be what I asked for" rise up in him. He didn't pick it up or shake it, but merely looked at it and then distracted himself by asking if he could watch "Star Wars." Frankly, I was impressed, and once again realized how the young people in our lives have much to teach us. 

Peter seemed to understand that "now" was not time time to open that present and no amount of cajoling would change that situation. He seemed to know that soon it would be time, and he would relish it all the more for the waiting. He was able to let it go and move onto something else that could give him pleasure and contentment in the moment. He seemed to know he could handle the wait. 

Think about all the times you have needed to wait for something--something that can only happen with time and can't be pushed or shoved or faked into being. Have you waited for
* Results of medical tests to arrive?
* A delayed flight to appear at the gate?
* A package to arrive?
* Water to boil?
* A long sleepless night to pass?
* The pain of grief and loss to diminish?
* The birth of a baby to be announced?
* A loved one to return?
* A job to be offered?
* A home to be sold?
* A cold or the flu to end?

When have you waited for change, a new direction or calling, an ease of your situation, a problem to be solved? An announcement to be made? When have you waited for a wish to be fulfilled and to be able to share the good news? 

Not one of us proceeds through this life without waiting, and I don't just mean waiting in a long line at Target. Each of us has known the kind of waiting which causes your heart to stop or your eyes to sting; the kind of waiting in which everything seems to be either in slow motion or swirling around you. 

Advent is that kind of waiting or at least offers us a chance to become more intimate with waiting and how waiting can help us grow and deepen awareness of how God moves in our lives. 

Over the two years of waiting for our house in Madison to sell I referred frequently to an excellent book about waiting, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting by Holly W. Whitcomb. http://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/7240/Seven-Spiritual-Gifts-of-Waiting The gifts she examines are patience, loss of control, living in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility, and trust in God. Take your pick--they all apply when you are in a state of waiting. Notice that Whitcomb does not include giving up or being passive or throwing temper tantrums or not caring or blaming others for your misery. 

Instead, she writes about being available to others and developing resilience, relinquishing worry, and gathering strength from others.
          Waiting is an important guest to honor in the guest
           house of our humanity. If we consciously allow 
           waiting to be our teacher, we can accommodate
           waiting more peacefully. If we welcome waiting as
           a spiritual discipline, waiting will present its
           spiritual gifts. Waiting contains some of our richest
           spiritual opportunities if we are conscious enough and
           courageous enough to name them and live into them.
                                                         p. 13

Lately, our family has experienced waiting. Our granddaughter Maren was in the hospital for a few days. Starting with a very sore throat and then having severe breathing problems, she was admitted into Children's Hospital with bacterial tracheitis and was hit hard with what her Papa calls "Big Gun" antibiotics. She received excellent care, and she is recovering, but the whole experience required lots of waiting not only by all of us who love her, but also Maren herself has needed to wait. 

As she accepted calmly and even with interest what the plan was, she taught us how to wait with grace. At the same time she was able to ask for what she needed and be a participant in her own  treatment. She showed generosity of spirit when she expressed concern  for a child in the ER who was having a seizure, even though she herself was in pain.  She missed her school party and ski outings and other fun holiday events, but has done so without feeling sorry for herself. 

         In order to convert the inescapable lessons of waiting 
         into deliberate spiritual gifts, we, too, have to be 
         present; we need to pay attention. We need to actively
         participate in this dramatic conversion from waiting as
         something to be endured to waiting as a gift.
                                               p. 13

Waiting is more than a fact of life; it is an opportunity to practice being awake. When the waiting is finally over, how good it will be to know we have not missed living and being in our own lives. 

An Invitation
Are you in a time of waiting right now? If so, what can you do to be more present to both the waiting and to yourself as you wait? I would love to know.

PS: I won't be posting on Thursday, Christmas Day, but will return on Tuesday, December 30. Have a blessed holiday, however you celebrate or honor the sacred. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: What's Under Your Tree?

Packages are beginning to fill in the empty space under our Christmas tree. The lights add shimmer to the silver paper and ribbons, and even though I know what is in the majority of the packages, the look is magical and mysterious and quite irresistible.  I remember my childhood when tags were checked frequently to see just which presents were for me and lifting and shaking, I hoped my wishes would be fulfilled. 

What is under your tree?

I invite you to sit quietly in the glow of your Christmas tree or if that is not part of your tradition, light a candle or two or three and allow the flame to illuminate your heart. What wishes for yourself or others dear to you do you wish you could satisfy? As you gaze beyond the light and into the darkness, what hopes and dreams do you extend beyond your boundaries? What prayers are most often on your lips? Who is tucked beside you and needs your care? 

What expectations are wrapped oh so perfectly, but the box seems too heavy to lift? Can someone help lift it for you or does it need to be ignored? Some expectations, especially at this time of year, are like that. You know that, especially as we live in the wisdom years, but sometimes a reminder is a good thing. 

What hurts seem to be wrapped and rewrapped year after year? I suspect that old paper and ribbon is looking quite shabby by now --worn thin and a bit raggedy around the edges. Do you even know why you put it under the tree again this year? It's not too late to remove it, to move it on and let it go. 

What memories rest under the tree? Our memories are lights to what means the most to us. Lift a box of memory and listen to its heartbeat and allow that beating heart to keep us present to the memory-making of today. 

Is there a surprise under the tree? How did that get there? Who put it there? Are you open enough to receive it? What will it require of  you? Are you ready to stretch and grow. Someone thinks you are. 

What is still missing from under your tree or is there a candle that still needs to be lit? What whispers seem to be coming from under the tree? Is someone waiting to be remembered? Is there a wish that has been unspoken? Now is the time to fill that empty space. 

Christmas Wishes
How different my Christmas wishes are these days. Like you, I hope for good health for myself and my family. I wish all could enjoy the ease of life we enjoy. I pray for peace and understanding in the world. I lift up those who are hurting and feeling raw grief and loss and for whom the holidays bring, not wonder, but pain. 
I look at the beauty of the packages under the tree and hope that all the desires of unknown hearts may be fulfilled. Including yours

An Invitation
I invite you to let your Christmas traditions and symbols speak to you in new ways this year. I would love to hear what you learn. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuesday Reflection: Recovering

Dear Friends, I pray you are all well, but the reality is that we are always in some stage of healing and recovery. 

For my husband and myself the most obvious reason for recovery is the flu. While we have removed the pretend "quarantine" sign from our front door and are back into the world, our pace is slower and more measured and our days continue to include rest periods. This has been quite the siege. 

For most of last week we moved from couch to chair to bed, dragging boxes of Kleenex with us along with mugs of hot liquids. We napped and read and watched all the seasons of Downton Abbey again and ate lightly, and every night we wondered if the next day would mean feeling better. We told our daughter who brought soup to leave it at the front door and run! She disobeyed, of course, coming inside to check on us. We set aside concerns about Christmas tasks and instead, put up our feet, books on our laps, in the glow of our Christmas tree lights. 

Now that we are at the improved and improving stage comes a new test. When you are truly down, sick, rather than not so sick, it is easier to make decisions about what you can do and what you can't and how you feel and how you don't. Now, however, as you heal and recover, temptations abound, especially with Christmas Eve eight days away. There is the need to do one more thing, to stretch beyond what seems smart. 

This is the time when it is important to really listen to your body. This is the time to be gentle with yourself. Yes, you probably could do one more thing, but is it the wise thing to do, the healing thing to do? Of course, there is the possibility of being self-indulgent, but really, how often do you actually do that? More than likely, you set high standards for yourself of what you "should" do, and now is not the time to worry about your self-imposed expectations. Yes, it is good to stretch, to pay attention to the signs of improvement, to be aware of tugs of normalcy, but make sure the drill sergeant inside isn't barking orders. 

Now is the time to stop and listen, to pause, to reflect, to ask yourself, "How am I really doing?" and "What do I really need?" 

Dear Friends, each one of us is always in some stage of healing and recovery. Only you know where you are. Sit with your own healing and be gentle with yourself.

May all be well. 
May the God who listens to our hearts and enters into our pain bless us and all who are in need with the comfort and quiet of Her gentle presence, now and always. Amen
                              Marchiene Vroon Rienstra

An Invitation
Where are you in the healing and recovery process? Are you aware of when you need to be gentle with yourself and when you need to stretch beyond yourself? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Healing

I had my last appointment yesterday morning with my orthopedic surgeon, the doc who operated on my broken ankle at the end of March. I must admit I didn't expect this would be my last appointment--not because I have been experiencing increased pain or recurring problems with my ankle, for that has not been the case, but because I had thought my appointment in September would be my last. This time I set aside my expectations, only hoping more healing and improvement would be recognized.

Although some healing still needs to occur, I don't have to return unless problems develop. 

You know the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas"? Well, I felt like the Lords A-Leapin'. A sense of euphoria.  I immediately felt lighter and stronger, and even more flexible. I felt as if I had graduated to a new state of ease and surety. Not that I won't continue to be extra careful. I promise you I will, but I don't feel injured any more. I don't even feel quite as old any more. 

Did my bones suddenly knit together completely as I walked from my car into the medical building? Did the remaining occasional swelling melt into the atmosphere as I walked into the x-ray room? Did the slight stiffness dissipate as I took off my sock for the doc to examine my ankle? No, to all those questions, but I physically felt some mending in my mind when I was told I don't need another appointment. 

Suddenly, breaking my ankle felt like an event in the past, rather than part of my current story, and that feels important. Rather than coping with a broken ankle now, I recall breaking my ankle nine months ago and moving through all the stages of healing. 

That was then and this is now.

I feel a bit more whole. True, I still often need to go down steps each foot on each step, and true, I don't yet have the full stamina, the ability to stand or walk for as long as I did before the accident. Some days a limp is detected, and I am always grateful for my husband's arm as we maneuver across an icy parking lot, and I remain puzzled by inquiries about how the accident occurred that seemed to imply I could have prevented it. However, I am now living my life in an easier fashion, and I don't feel as defined by an injury as I felt in the past months. 

So what did I learn? Well, there were many opportunities to learn patience and acceptance, along with lessons about receiving help and kindness of others. I learned how to be clearer in what I needed. I learned how quickly one's situation can change, and I learned to adapt to this particular change, which I hope will benefit me when faced with future changes. 

I slowed my pace and became more aware of where each step took me. The ordinary became more extraordinary. The light and love in my life seemed brighter and more all-encompassing. I was more able to touch all the reasons to be grateful in my life. 

Obviously, I am thrilled to be at this stage of healing, to be this many months away from the event, but it was just one event in my life. One with temporary consequences. Life has continued as I have healed, and while I have not always been able to participate in the life around me as fully as I would have liked, my life has not been on back order.  

I learned to be present to each step. 

May that be so. 

An Invitation
What opportunities have entered your life --unbidden or welcomed--to learn how to be present to each step? Are there past events that need to be in the past? In what ways do you put your life on "back order" and how might you become more present to your whole life? Now. I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: The Habit of Christmas

Earlier this week I left my garret feeling a bit twisted and conflicted with thoughts of Christmas tasks struggling for dominance in my head. It was time to fix dinner, but, instead I was drawn by the soft lights in the living room. I have been reading a small book called Christmas on Jane Street http://www.harpercollins.com/9780061626425/christmas-on-jane-street by Billy Romp (Don't you love that name?) with Wanda Urbanska, a true story about a family in Vermont who go to New York City to sell Christmas trees every year for the month of December. It is one of those heart-warming stories reminding one of the importance of love and compassion and how keeping those values in view allows us to change and grow. 

I finished reading the book, sighing with pleasure at the end, and instead of weariness overtaking me, which is what sometimes happens if I relax right before fixing dinner, I felt lighter, calmer. Then, instead of listening to the news on the radio, my more normal routine while fixing dinner, I listened to Christmas music on one of my Pandora stations. Dinner was ordinary--scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, English muffins, and clementines--but each step felt more meditative. I was in the midst of a walking meditation. I breathed in and out, finding my own rhythm, releasing the unfinished list, opening my heart to Spirit's guidance. 

As I filled our plates--Christmas dishes which always remind me of my mother, for she started us on this collection--I thought about how the habits of Christmas can haunt us; how the way we have always done something can stay with us long after its usefulness. That can be true, also, with the pace we whip ourselves into during this holiday or other busy times of our lives. When we were raising our families and working full-time and being active in communities whether it was our faith communities, schools, or neighborhoods, adding in all the must-do's of Christmas was exhausting. The pace was frenetic. 

 There were years when it all seemed overwhelming, and days were not long enough to do all the Christmas-related tasks I wanted to do or felt compelled to do. Rush, rush, rush. Too much to do in too little time. 

That was then and this is now. 

Yes, there is still lots to do, but now I am in a different stage of life; one in which the taffy-pull of life isn't as intense, but unless I intentionally move in a walking meditation, I still find myself reverting to those former years when Advent was more a time of deadlines and expectations than sacred waiting and anticipation.  I sometimes get caught in the rush-hour habits of those earlier years. 

What I try to do now, want to do now is focus on those aspects of Christmas preparations I love the most.

* I love the decorating, surrounding myself with the context for the other tasks. Re-imagining the house for these days of magic and expectation. 

* I love picking out Christmas cards and writing our annual Christmas letter, as well as more personal notes. When I write our letter I think about the highlights of our year that would be shared over a glass of wine, if we were to meet in person. Is there news that is cause for rejoicing or news that is hard to share, but those who have known us over the years would want to know? I try to express a new learning or understanding, a piece of spiritual growth and deepening that I hope will resonate our ongoing connection. 

* I love the music of the season, the Advent hymns, the carols. Most of the time I write with silence as my background, but this year I can't get enough of the sounds. The music reminds me to listen with the ears of my heart. 

Of course, I love the family times and gathering of friends and family in our home. I even enjoy the shopping and finding gifts that will be enjoyed, although wrapping is not my favorite Christmas activity. And while I love to cook, baking cookies is not my thing. I will make our traditional cherry walnut bread, and I better get started doing that next week, but leave the plates of a dozen different varieties of cookies to someone else. That decision is one way I have chosen to decrease that crazy, swirling out of control feeling of earlier years. 

This year I am trying to be present to each day and not think about the new year yet. Thoughts about what I want to do come January--the organizing typical of the new year, my writing goals, my reading plans--hover near the surface, but I won't have this day ever again, and this is the day, this Advent day, that needs to be lived to the best of my ability with love and joy and openness. 

Thanks be to God. 

An Invitation
What Christmas expectations can you set aside? Do you know what you most love to do during this season? Is that what you are doing? I would love to know.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tuesday's Reflection: Christmas Decorating

Even though we have celebrated Christmas heartily and merrily the last two years, something has been missing--the look of Christmas in our homes. One year we were in the midst of trying to sell our house in Madison and yes, people do house hunt in December. We kept decorations to a minimum. Not even a tree. The next year we moved into our St Paul house over Thanksgiving weekend, but our Madison house was still on the market and our bins of decorations were packed away, way in the back of the storage unit we were renting. Plus, we were tired, for it had been a busy and stressful fall. Decorating was not at the top of list. 

That was then and this is now! We spent almost the entire weekend  redressing the house, discovering what this house is meant to be during the holiday season. First, we unloaded bin after bin after bin--I didn't count how many bins, for I don't want to embarrass myself. No one would believe we have downsized or have been trying to simplify our stuff if they had seen our stacks of bins with Christmas decorations. Yet, I know over the last few years we have  eliminated other bins of Christmas decorations, but I can't quite recall exactly what went to Goodwill and the hospice resale shop, especially when I see what we still have.

Opening each bin was like unwrapping a present. Oh, I forgot about that large chalkware Santa going through his list of who has been naughty and who has been nice. Oooh, look at this box of vintage ornaments. I knew right away I would fill a large glass container with those--all that color jumbled together. Every bin was a delight, not only filled with treasures and memories of how they have been used in the past, but they became a vision for creating and living our Christmas lives in this house. 

As we converted corners into vignettes of Christmas cheer and hung garland and lights and filled a cupboard with our collection of Santas carved by our talented friend Al, and stationed in the entry area our Charlie Brown tree, which has survived several moves, and somehow found room in the kitchen for Christmas dishes, our house seemed to relax into a new stage of its long life. I wondered if the house thought perhaps it had forgotten how to "do" and "be Christmas. No way. 

Transformation is possible at any time. 

Joan Chittister in her book The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully, quotes Meridel LeSeur, who lived to be 96, "I am luminous with age."(p. 39) Glowing, gleaming, glittering, glimmering, shimmering. Our house in its Christmas lights reminds me to enjoy this time of my life as a time of transformation--a transformation from the roles I have worn to the potential luminosity of my own inner being. Chittister says the "blessing of these years is the transformation of the self to be, at long last, the self I have been becoming all my life… (p. 43) and this is the "softening season when everything in us is meant to achieve its sweetest, richest, most unique self." (p. 49)

I know there will come a time when we won't want to do the full-scale extravagant decorating we have just completed, but for this year we are relishing the transformative presence of Christmas in our home and welcoming the chance to be luminous in our own lives. 

An Invitation
What transformations are you currently experiencing? What does this season, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, call you to transform in your lives? I would love to know.