Thursday, December 31, 2015

Favorite Books of 2015: Thursday's Reflection

Our bookshelves overfloweth!

What a good suggestion my husband had when he suggested we go to a new favorite book store in downtown St Paul, Subtext Books, and pick out our own presents--an armload of books for each of us. Perfect. No wrapping was needed, and we were each thrilled with our respective pile. So before I offer my favorites of 2015, here's what I purchased at Subtext. Some are new titles. Some have been around for quite some time. Some books I have had on my "want to read" list, and some are titles new to me. All fiction. 
*  The Improbability of Love, Hannah Rothschild
*  The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
*  The Book of New Things, Michel Faber
*  Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
*  Evergreen, Rebecca Rasmussen
*  The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett

Plus, I received The Secret Chord by Gwendolyn Brooks for Christmas from a friend. What a great pile.

But now it is time to relive the year's good reading. 

My top two favorite fiction books this year are -drum roll, please-
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger and Emma by Jane Austen. I don't know why I had not read Ordinary Grace before, but I LOVED it. More than once it had me in tears, and every page was brilliantly written. This was my third time to read Emma, this time as our January book group selection. Bruce has announced he has tried, but he just can't do it, and others in the group are having a hard time with it, but, as far as I am concerned, it is the perfect lazy winter afternoon read. 

Here are my other picks, in no particular order.
* Florence Gordon, Brian Morton (wish it had been longer, however)
* The Children Act, Ian McEwan 
* Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
* The Stories of Jane Gardam
* Old Filth, Jane Gardam (A book that was on my list for a long time, and I am so glad I finally read it.)
* Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (favorite book in our book group this year)
* Vanessa and Her Sister, Priyabec Parmar
* A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
* A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (a wonderful re-discovery)
* The Nature of the Beast, Louise Penny (now we have another long wait till the next one in her mystery series)
* Circling the Sun, Paula McClain (I liked this one better than her The Paris Wife. This one is set in Africa and about Beryl Markham.) 
* To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (I did NOT like Go Set A Watchman and felt publishing it did a huge disservice to Lee, but reading that made me return to Mockingbird.)
* Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher (You will laugh out loud, but wince at the truth, as well.)
* The Tortoise and the Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins

Overrated novels in my book: Outline by Rachel Cusk, which just left me cold. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I know readers and critics alike loved this book, but I so wearied of the back and forth in the two story lines. I was interested in both, and I wanted to sink into each of them. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, which I wanted to love, but I felt it disintegrated into a predictable romance. 

Category #1: Writing Books
*  Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro
*  Braving the Fire, A Guide to Writing about Grief and Loss, Jessica Handler
*  Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
*  Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert
*  The Art of Slow Writing, Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity, Louise DeSalvo
*  The Art of the Memoir, Mary Karr

Category #2: Spirituality Books
* Pilgrimage, The Sacred Art, Journey to the Center of the Heart, Dr. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook
*  The Soul of a Pilgrim, Eight Practices for the Journey Within, Christine Valters Paintner
*  The Grace in Aging, Kathleen Dowling Singh
*  Between the Dark and the Daylight, Embracing the Contradictions of Life, Joan Chittister
*  Pastrix, The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint, Nadia Bolz Weber
*  Gifts of the Dark Wood, Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers), Eric Elnes

Category #3: Other
*  The Other Side of the Dale, Gervase Phinn
*  Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande
*  H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
*  The Light of the World, A Memoir, Elizabeth Alexander
*  Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, Finding and Losing Myself in Books, Maureen Corrigan
*  Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahesi Coates. (I must admit I am ambivalent about this. I felt it was really a too long article, rather than a book, but I also feel it is a book that should not be ignored, for it gives insights into issues most of us want to ignore.)

An Invitation
What books do you recommend from 2015? If you have read any of the books I list, I would love to know your opinion. Happy reading! 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Day After: Tuesday's Reflection

I didn't know what to do with myself. It was December 26th and I didn't have a plan. After the weeks of preparations, today was open, free space. In other years, especially when I was younger, I would come to the first days after Christmas eager to do nothing more than curl up with a new book. No doubt there would be leftovers, and little, if any, cooking would be required. I would be grateful for the breathing room, the chance to reflect on the special family and friend times, and the messages received at church throughout the season.

This year feels different, however. This year I have been able to pace myself, to pause along the approach to Christmas Eve. Some days have been busier than others, of course, but it has been a good busy. I have not felt pressured or pushed to do what I have set out to do. I have had time to snuggle under a creamy white cashmere throw and read and enjoy the quiet of the lights. Baking many loaves of cherry walnut bread has almost been a spiritual practice done to the accompaniment of familiar Christmas music. I even enjoyed the times when I have been out in the Christmas rush. Bruce and I agree this has been a spacious, but certainly not empty holiday time.  

I sort of felt like the last of the Christmas cookies. Oh, how good they tasted and how much they were enjoyed, but now there were only two left, and I didn't feel like eating them. 

So what was the problem? I was not exhausted. I didn't regret the choices made. I was not disappointed or letdown.

I was just in-between.

Everywhere I looked in the house I saw things I could do, but at the same time I sort of like the after Christmas disarray. I was definitely not ready to dismantle the Christmas decorations and yet, already they didn't quite fit any more. I was not ready to make my list for the new year or dig back into the writing I ignored the last few weeks. I could have written thank you notes, but doing that so soon after the unwrapping felt rushed, as if I just wanted to check that off my list. I didn't want to go anywhere, but it felt like there was someplace I should want to be. 

Here's the deal: I was sort of ready for the new year to begin, but I was not ready to let go of this year, especially this Christmas time. And I am missing our Cleveland kids who are with us every other year for Christmas, a perfectly logical and reasonable plan, but that doesn't mean I don't miss them. How lucky we are to be with our St Paul kids, but I admit I am a bit jealous of the fact that they are now vacationing in Mexico, even though I am delighted they are able to have this relaxing family time.

I remind myself it is possible to feel more than one thing at a time. I can be content and antsy at the same time, and I can note what I miss and feel satisfyingly full at the same time. I can feel eager to re-immerse myself in work I love to do and yet, know that this pause, resting in the wings, is a good thing, too. I can be certain of all the love that surrounds me and yet, not know what the next minute is meant to hold. 

This is in-between time. It just is. Tomorrow may not be, but this is the way it is today. 

An Invitation
How do these days in-between feel to you? I would love to know. 

NOTE: Thursday's post will be my annual Favorite Books List. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Case of the Expanding House: Thursday's Reflection

This past weekend my side of the family, the Jensen clan, gathered in our home. If you have been reading this blog, you know that I call our house The Little House, but lately, I have discovered this house has a surprising quality. It expands to fit the number of people who gather. 

We just keep adding chairs to the circle. 

I will no longer be concerned about hosting a group larger than four or six or so. Room will be found. In fact, even in the kitchen, which isn't much larger than the size of a coffee table or ottoman, four of us stood laughing and talking. Now granted we weren't trying to mix and chop and put a meal on the table, but there we were without being nose to nose. 

And then when everyone went home, the house gently, easily took a breath and returned to just the right size for the two of us. It didn't feel empty, oh, maybe for a moment or so, but the sound of the laughter and the feel of our connections to one another remains nestled on a bookshelf or windowsill. 

I think the heart is like that. 

The potential for an expanding heart is within us. The heart grows to fit the need. And when it is time for a one to one connection with a friend, your spouse or child or God, the heart knows how to do that, too. 

My wish for you this blessed season, no matter what or who you celebrate, is that your heart leads you to love and compassion.

May all be well. 

An Invitation
What size is your heart? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Color of the Season: Tuesday's Reflection

With only a couple days before Christmas Eve, I have my roller skates on, finishing the last tasks on the list. Even though I should have more time at this stage of my life and even though there is less to do, the theory that we fill the space we have seems to be true. I am still huffing and puffing to get to the finish line, which this week is called Christmas. 

However, my lists have not ruled me entirely. I have stopped to enjoy the views of the season--gorgeous concerts and meaningful religious services, times with friends and family and even the occasional hour curled up in the snuggery with my book. I love this time of the year, even when there is a lot to do.  

Here's one of the views of the season: the annual poinsettia display at the St Paul Conservatory. Against the grey sky, (Where are our winter clear blue skies this year?) the mass of red poinsettias, arranged like a choir in bright robes, were ablaze in the color of the season. I am not a huge fan of poinsettias and don't feel a need to buy one for our house, but there is something quite glorious about seeing them in such volume. 

How good it was to pause and sit on one of the benches in the sunken garden area and be present to one more beauty of the season. 

An Invitation
Where have you found beauty this season? I would love to know. 

Note: The St Paul Conservatory is one of the great gifts in our community and it is free, as is the St Paul Zoo. On Tuesday mornings, my husband Bruce is a volunteer in the fern room. We call him the Fern Man, and he would love to introduce you to some of his favorite ferns.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Memories: Thursday's Reflections

The other night I intended to make a second batch of cherry walnut
bread, but the butter wasn't soft enough yet. I wrapped a few presents, but then I turned in another direction: the past. 

My family -- father, siblings and their families, and our kids -- are gathering this weekend to celebrate Christmas, and knowing how much Dad likes to look at family photographs, I decided to find pictures of Christmases past. 

This is what I wish I could say, "I went to the shelf with all the photo albums, each one perfectly organized according to theme or chronology, and voila, how easy it was to find just what I was looking for." Instead, "organizing the family photos" remains on the retirement list and probably will for a LONG time. Instead, I opened a cupboard where there are small bins of loose photos arranged in no order, a true mishmash of time and place and people and events. 

And then I was sucked into a path called Memory Lane. Pictures from my growing up years, including the posed ones sent with Christmas cards. Pictures of our kids opening presents and visiting Santa. Sometimes I had to pause to make sure the picture was actually of our daughter Kate and not granddaughter Maren, for they look so much alike. Pictures taken Christmas Day at my parents' home--the annual grandchildren in front of the tree photo, chronicling their growth and change in hairstyles and clothes, too. 

The last family photograph taken before my Mother died. We knew it would be her last Christmas and marveled that she was still  with us, but there she was wearing her red blazer and Christmas shoes and holding her first great-grandchild. We were smiling, but we all knew what was coming. 

As I flipped through hundreds of photos, memories flooded my head and heart. Not all pleasant, I noted. Sometimes I recalled a conversation, a sadness, a regret, not apparent in the picture itself. The picture was a trigger, and how easy it would have been to sink into the past and remove me from the present moment. 

Carolyn G. Heilbrun in her book The Last Gift of Time, Life Beyond Sixty has this to say about the return of what she calls "inconsequential memories" or memories that have not been invited. "That temptation is to recall grudges, to dwell on ancient wrongs and miseries and betrayals, to allow these memories, if they are not properly controlled, to dominate thought and therefore life." 

As someone writing her spiritual memoir, I sit with memories often. I probe for the details, willing myself back into a certain time and place. Occasionally, I discover a rawness, an unresolved hurt, and I know before I can write about it in my book, I need to do some work. I need to let go of the hurt and find the growth, the wisdom, the deeper perspective. I am not suggesting we become Pollyannas about our lives. Rather, that memory, especially of what we might wish were different, make us more present in love and compassion toward ourselves and each other. 

Heilbrun says getting stuck in memories can cause us "to forget to look at what is in front of us, at the new ideas and pleasures we might, if firmly in the present, encounter and enjoy."

I gathered the stack of Christmas pictures, Christmas memories and placed them in a large crystal bowl on the living room coffee table. I imagine loved ones looking at them and I hope the visions of those previous times brings us closer together.  


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Outside the Door: Tuesday's Post

Recently, I read a wonderful poem called Triptych" by Jeannette M. Lindholm. writes about Mary going about the normal routines of her day and in the meantime the angel Gabriel is waiting outside the door. 

On that ordinary day,  there is a knock on her door, a knock on her heart. And nothing is ever the same. For Mary. And, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, nothing is ever the same for you, for us, for the world. 

I don't think this is just about Mary and the "yes" she whispers to Gabriel's invitation. I don't think this is just a poem that can resonate with those of who call ourselves Christians, whether we are on the Christian right or think of ourselves as progressive Christians. These are words for all of us about who and what is outside our door, ready to ring the doorbell, lift the door knocker. This is about you and me as we go about our daily routine. Feed the dog, the cat, the kids. Toss a load of laundry in the washer. Pay the bills. Make the grocery list. Stir the soup. 

I know in my heart there is something outside my door, waiting for my attention, waiting for me to notice and pay attention. There is something, someone, who needs me, my time and energy. There are questions I have not wanted to answer or statements I have not wanted to make or steps I have not wanted to take because I have been afraid and uncertain. I have covered my inattention with busyness, with an attitude that someone else will do it or I will have time later. Another day. After all, I have my routine and it seems to be working quite well for me.

In the meantime there is something, someone outside my door, calling my name, gently, but persistently. 

Now is the time to at least look through the window and catch a glimpse of what is on your steps, but I suspect that is not enough. I need to open the door to my version of Gabriel. 

An Invitation
Who is about to knock at your door? What is waiting for you to open the door and be welcomed into your life? I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christmas Busyness: Thursday's Reflection

I think I'll work on our Christmas cards. Nope, I should wrap the gift that needs to be taken to the post office. What I would really love to do is work on the next chapter for my book, but first there is a meeting I need to prepare for. Do I have the ingredients for cherry walnut bread? The smell of that baking would be divine, but I haven't even thought about doing any entertaining before Christmas, and here it is December 10th. 

Yes, here it is December 10th, 2015, and you would think with all the past Christmases under my belt, I would not feel quite so rushed, so scattered. You would think that by the time I entered my 60's, heck, late 60's, I would have learned to relax and to remember, quoting my husband's frequent solution, "Somehow it all gets done." 

When we were raising our family, the month between Christmas and New Year's was loaded with events--going to see Santa, hosting Sunday evening Advent suppers in our home, attending school concerts and holiday work and neighborhood parties, including our own. We squeezed a lot into a short period of time. You remember, I am sure, the late nights wrapping presents and the rushed trips to the grocery store because you were out of almond extract for the cookies you were baking. 

My body seems to remember that frenzied feeling, that need to create a "perfect" Christmas, and an alarm is ringing in my head. Do. Rush. Check the lists. Get going. Help! 15 Days and it is Christmas. 

Now, however, the pace is slower, more self-directed, and I definitely don't have to do it all. There are not nearly the number of presents to buy as there were in the past. We no longer exchange gifts with many friends, agreeing there is little we need, other than each other's friendship and companionship. Bruce and I have agreed to spend an afternoon at a good independent bookstore and buy each other a pile of books and then go out for dinner. Perfect. 

So how is it I really want to spend these days and is there anything that is preventing me from doing just that? Yes, I have presents left to buy, and yes, our Christmas cards haven't yet gone in the mail, but they are a work in progress, and they will be sent. No, I haven't done any baking yet, but this weekend looks like a good time to do that and who needs to eat all those cookies anyway? As for entertaining, well, the house will be full of family a couple different times, and how about some dates the week after Christmas. That would work. 

Now is the time, the best time, to take a breath. A deep, long breath of awareness and presence. Now is the, time to move into the living room where I can read and perhaps write in the glow of Christmas lights. Now is the time, especially since the weather is unseasonably warm, to walk the sidewalks of my beloved neighborhood. Now is the time to honor the gifts of the season, the gifts of this time of my life. 

An Invitation
What is it time for in your life? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Blessing for Now: Tuesday's Reflection

During my morning meditation time recently I have been reading a new book by Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. Richardson says a blessing is designed to "call upon and convey God's deepest desire for our wholeness and well-being, both individually and in community," and "calls upon the presence of God and asks for the aid of the Divine, often in times of peril and pain."

God knows we are in the midst of peril and pain. 

Richardson says blessings are meant to "provoke us, to incite us to a response. The best blessings awaken our imaginations." Therefore I offer Richardson's "Blessing When the World Is Ending"

Look, the world 
is always ending

the sun has come 
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

it has ended
with the gun,
the knife, 
the fist.

it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

it has ended
with the quiet 
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break 
your heart.

But listen
this blessing means 
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come 
to cause despair.

It is here
simply because
there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world 
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins 

Again, I quote Richardson.
              The best blessings awaken our imaginations. In places
              of difficulty, struggle, or pain, blessings beckon us to
              look closely rather than turn away. In such places,
              they challenge us not to accept how things are but 
              to dream of how they could be transformed. They
              invite us to discuss how God might be calling us
              to participate in bringing this transformation to pass. 

An Invitation
How are blessings alive in your life? I would love to know. 

NOTE: Jan Richardson has been a wise woman in my life for many years through her books, her art, and her online presence. You can find her at

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Facing the Four Directions: Thursday's Reflection

A Mandala of the Four Directions
I went to the Mall of America yesterday to buy requested items for the homeless project our church helps sponsor. The stores I needed were spread out on all three floors, and each errand required walking quite a distance. I needed to consult a kiosk with a directory and map frequently to make sure I was going in the right direction. Inside the mall I had no idea if I was facing north, south, east, or west, and I felt slightly disoriented. What direction was I walking? 

At the beginning of worship Sunday morning the congregation stood and faced each direction.

We turn to the North, winter wind settling around us, to look for God's mercy.

We turn to the West, horizon of the setting sun, to hope for God's compassion.

We turn to the South, fields covered in snow, resting in winter cold, to seek God's peace.

We turn finally to the East, the place of the rising sun, the resurrection of Christ, to ask for new life. 

As we turned and turned and turned and then turned one more time, I thought about how often I am unaware of the presence of God no matter where I am, no matter which direction I face. How often I feel disoriented, even lost, when all I need to do is stop and open to healing love and wisdom, which is present and available north, south, east, and west. 

Meditation of the Four Directions
As my Advent offering to you, whether Advent is a season you observe or not, I invite you to stand, take a couple deep cleansing breaths and spend a moment or two opening to the gifts of each direction. 

Face the East, the direction of the morning, spring, fire, and infancy. East is the direction of eagle representing spirit. As you face east, ask for clarity and discrimination, especially if you are confused about a particular issue. May you experience a clear mind, clarity of vision, purity of heart, and wise discernment.

Turn to the South, the direction of midday, summer, earth, youth, and growth. The south is the direction of deer, representing gentleness, mouse for attention to detail, turtle for Mother Earth, and porcupine for innocence. Ask for the ability to open your heart in true loving kindness, especially when you do not feel very loving, and to accept the love of the Divine, the Sacred.

Turn to the West, the direction of evening, fall, winter, the adult and maturity. The west is the direction of bear representing introspection and frog for cleansing. Ask for strength and the ability to overcome fear, especially specific fears and needs. With the love of the Divine, the Sacred, you are strong enough to meet the challenges in your life.

Turn to the North, the direction of the night, winter, air, and the elder. Meet moose, symbolizing self-esteem; wolf, who is the teacher; elk for stamina; and buffalo for prayer and abundance. Open to healing. Lift up any concerns you have for yourself or for others. May you be a conduit for the healing power of the Divine, the Sacred, soothing the hearts, the feelings, and the physical pains of all you encounter. 

Return to the East. Teachers come to us in many forms. There are many paths to truth and light and life. May we each find our own way, and may we respect and honor the sacred paths of others. May each direction lead you to your true essence.  

An Invitation
Which direction speaks to you right now? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Time Out: Tuesday's Reflection

One minute they were here. The next minute they were gone. 

The last few days were full, not only with smells of turkey and stuffing and other good food, but, more importantly, with the sounds of laughter. Giggles, guffaws, chuckles. The eight of us, our son and daughter-in-love and our daughter and son-in-love and the two grands, huddled in our little house, as if around a campfire, and at other times traveled in our own wolf pack from one brew pub to another. How good it was to have several days of rich family time. 

And now it was quiet. Quiet with a capital Q.  I stood at the kitchen window and heard the echoes of the love and joy of the last few days. I wandered from room to room, feeling the spirit of the previous days, and giving thanks for the gift of a warm and loving family. 

My plan was to defrock the house of its Thanksgiving finery, to do the laundry and change the guest bed, to clean the oven, and the two bathrooms, and to get out the bins of Christmas decorations and begin the transformation from one season to the next. Talk about unrealistic expectations! 

What I needed was a time-out. My not as young as it used to be body needed some time to rest, and my heart needed time to savor the days past. Intentional time before zooming into The Next Big Thing, which, in this case is Advent and Christmas. 

Therefore, I claimed the chaise in the lower level as my afternoon nesting spot. I grabbed my current book, and I read and read and read with a little snooze between chapters fifteen and sixteen and then I read some more, all the way to the end of the book. I can't recall the last time I have allowed myself an entire afternoon to read purely for pleasure. I should add that I did manage to at least do the five loads of laundry and remake the guest bed, but those were more moments to stretch than moments to be industrious and tick items off my list. 

The main thing was to honor what my heart and my body most needed. In that way, I think, I honored the sacredness of the recent days, and opened to the gifts of the coming days. A day of grace. 

An Invitation
When did you last pause and give yourself what you most needed? I would love to know.

NOTE: The book I read on my afternoon of restoration was a magnificent novel, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. We were not living here when our couples' book group read it, and it has remained one of their top reads. Now I know why. I highly recommend it.