Thursday, December 29, 2016

Favorite Fiction of 2016: Thursday's Reflection

Even as I reflect on my favorites of 2016, a pile for 2017 is growing. I am currently reading for our January book group discussion, Believer, My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod, and I am surprised by how much I am enjoying it. Not only is it well-written and satisfyingly readable, it reminds me of other times of turmoil in this country, times I remember well. And we not only survived, but good things, good people flourished. Reading this restores some hope.

I am eager to read some new fiction, too, however. In my pile is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Nix by Nathan Hill. 

But before I get ahead of myself, here are my fiction favorites for 2016--another splendid year of reading. 

Top Favorites
1. Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. While this book can almost be read in one sitting, the theme and characters will remain with you for a long time. This is Haruf's last book, for he died soon after finishing it, and what a lovely legacy it is. Don't miss his earlier books, Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction, and others.
2. Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. Yes, I know there are lots of characters, and it may be hard to keep them straight, but get over it. And yes, I know Bel Canto is one of your favorite books of all time (mine, too), and nothing else is quite as good, but take a deep breath and dive into this all too real story of merged families and the toll it takes on the children. Some laugh out loud moments, too. Wonderful, just wonderful.
3. These Granite Islands, Sarah Stonich. A couple years ago I read her book Vacationland, a book of related short stories, and loved it, as did the rest of our book group. I also really enjoyed her memoir, Shelter. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to read her first novel, These Granite Islands, but it was just what I needed on these cold winter nights. Set in northern Minnesota for the most part, it is a story of marriage and friendship, and a strong woman, and old age, and memory. Wonderful descriptions along with deep character development. I have not yet read her novel, The Ice Chorus, and I think that needs to be on my 2017 list. Please, Sarah, I hope you have something new in the works. 

The Rest of My Favorite Novels of 2017--in no particular order.
1. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, Faith Sullivan (author of the wonderful The Cape Ann)
2. The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (a surprise selection for me--give it a try.)
3. Abide with Me, Elizabeth Strout 
4. My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout. (I must admit I like the earlier title, Abide with Me, more than this most recent title.)
5. A Banquet of Consequence, Elizabeth George
6. The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman (I am behind in my Hoffman reading--haven't read her newest one, Faithful, yet.)
7. The Dust That Falls From Dreams, Louis de Bernieres
8. Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear (latest in the Maisie Dobbs series)
9. A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman ( a book most everyone loves)
10. LaRose, Louise Erdrich (almost one of my Top Favorites)
11. Two by William Boyd, Restless and Any Human Heart
12. The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin (another one almost on the Top Favorites list)
13. Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks (Avoided it because it was about the plague, but thought it was excellent. Liked it better than her newest, The Secret Chord)
14. The Excellent Lombards, Jane Hamilton
15. The Cork O'Connor mysteries by William Kent Krueger. I am late to reading these. I read the first four this year and am so pleased there are many more ahead of me.)
16. A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny (Of course!!!! Love, love the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series set in wondrous Three Pines)
17. The Mothers, Brit Bennett

Overrated or Disappointing (In my opinion)
1. The Nest, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
2. Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld 
3. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Now I know there is an ongoing love fest about this book, but I just don't get it, and I won't be reading the next two books in the trilogy. 

An Invitation
What are your Top Favorites of the year? I would love to know.

Note: If you missed my post about my favorite nonfiction books of 2016, go  here.

A Collection of Christmas Books

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2016: Tuesday's Reflection

Bookcase in Sunny Snug Decorated for Christmas
I love this time of year--the time of "Favorite Books" lists! 

Of course, it is fun to see if any of the books on a specific list are ones I would also rate as "favorites," but I also hope a list will lead me to an author or title unfamiliar or overlooked by me. Often someone else's list means I have a much longer "What I Want to Read in the Coming Year" list. 

This year my "favorites" list is divided into two posts. Today's post features nonfiction titles, and my post on Thursday, December 29 will list fiction titles. Note: While many year end lists highlight books published only in the past year, the books on my list have no such limitation.  

Here goes:

Category #1: Writing Books
Instead of reading books about writing this year, I actually wrote much more myself. Still here are three titles I recommend.
1.The Great Spring, Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life, Natalie Goldberg. 
2. Why We Write About Ourselves, Twenty Memoirists on Why The Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Moran. 
3. Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider. 

Category #2: Spirituality Books
My top two favorites in this category are:
 * The Artist's Rule, Nurturing Your Creative Soul With Monastic Wisdom, Christine Valters Paintner. This book actually is located with my writing books--a good crossover book that feeds my writing soul, and one I will consult again at the beginning of this year.
Word by Word, A Daily Spiritual Practice, Marilyn McEntyre
1. The Other Side of Chaos, Breaking Through When Life is Breaking Down, Margaret Self
2. Sanctuary, The Discovery of Wonder, Julie Leibrich
3. Desperately Seeking Spirituality, Meredith Gould
4. In God's Holy Light, Wisdom from the Desert Monastics, Joan Chittister
5. Accidental Saints, Finding God in All the Wrong People, Nadia Bolz-Weber
6. Gratitude, Oliver Sacks
7. When God Is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor
8. Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Season, Jan Richardson
9. Becoming Wise, An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett

Category #3: Other
My favorite in this category was the biography, Elizabeth the Queen, The Life of a Monarch, Sally Bedell Smith. I read this after watching the Netflix series, "The Crown". Loved both.
1. The Only Street in Paris, Life on the Rue des Martyrs, Elaine Scolino
2. The Latehomecomer, A Hmong Family Memoir, Kai Kalia Yang
3. Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain
4. Rez Life, David Treuer
5. Essays After Eighty, Donald Hall
6. Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Debby Irving
7. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance

An Invitation

What nonfiction books have you read this year that you recommend? I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Advent Mandalas: Thursday's Reflection

Yes, I know this is a very busy time of year, but I knew as I approached Advent that this also needed to be a time of stillness, of resting in the heart of God. A time to listen to the beating of my hurt and restless heart and to connect once again with the energy of hope. 

I asked myself, "What will be my Advent practice this year? What will help me move out of the busyness to the beauty and the meaning of this time of preparation and waiting?"

After hearing a wonderful presentation by the author/artist Ann Gerondelis, in which she shared meditations and art from her book Open Our Eyes, Daily Prayers for Advent, I decided to create a mandala every day during Advent. 
"Angels Hov'ring Round"
(Cut and Paste from National Lutheran Choir program)

I am not an artist and feel art-challenged. I may feel art in my fingers and see it in my mind, but the jump from colored pencils to paper is a very big leap indeed. And yet, over the years I occasionally have drawn mandalas, finding the practice soothing and enlightening. 

Quite simply a mandala, which is Sanskrit for "sacred circle" is a symbol of wholeness, of healing, of eternity, of unity. Mandalas can be found in many cultures. The Medicine Wheel of Native American spirituality, for example, or in Christianity in the form of stained-glass window designs and labyrinths, where they may be used for teaching, contemplation or symbolic pilgrimages. In nature mandalas are easily found--snowflakes, flowers, ripples on a pond. 

So did I fulfill my Mandala A Day Intention?
Not really. The one a day evolved into a Mandala Every Few Days. By the beginning of the last week of Advent I had drawn a dozen mandalas. 

Each one was a prayer.

Sometimes a mandala took me more than one sitting. Sometimes I could feel a mandala taking form in my head before I sat at my desk with my materials. Sometimes I didn't have any idea what would happen after I drew the circle and was amazed at what appeared. Some times I knew exactly what my mandala prayer was and other times the meaning revealed itself gradually to me. Sometimes drawing a new mandala was quite simply time-out. A time to breathe. 

I read someplace that the mandala seems to reflect a person's longing for wholeness and unity with the universe and God. That may be true, but what I know is that when I open the sketchbook to a new page, and I spread a wide array of colored pencils in front of me, and I whisper a brief prayer, asking God to be with me in my play, in my search, in this process. I open myself to Spirit.

Come, draw a circle and move into the center of your whole being.

An Invitation
What has been your practice this past month? I would love to know. 

Ann Gerondelis

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Last Week of Advent: Tuesday's Reflection

Well, here we are--the last week of Advent. How did we get here so soon? 

This question reminds me of something my 93 year old father says frequently, "I didn't think I would get old so fast." 

And yet, here we are, ready or not. 

In an email earlier in Advent a friend mentioned how she now only decorates the main floor of her condo and not the basement family room area. She added, "I don't want to become one of those people who doesn't decorate at all" because "it's too much work." 

I happen to love decorating and most everything else that is part of this season. Yes, it is a lot of work, but does that work bring you joy? Does that work add sparkle and light to your life? Is it more than work? True, I don't have to go off to a job everyday and squeeze in Christmas preparations along the way. I remember those days, and they were exhausting.

However, even though my life is more spacious now, I have less energy than I did when we were raising our family, but perhaps I now ask wiser questions that lead to more thoughtful answers. 
         What is it that truly gives me joy at this time of my life? 
          In what ways can I bring joy? 
          Is my heart open in this holy season? 
         Where do I find hope and how can I create hope? 

Perhaps it is time to think about what you most want to do, rather than what you don't want to do. If something feels like too much work, what playful act will replace it? I don't mean to suggest that just because something is "work," doing it isn't worthwhile or important and meaningful or just plain necessary, like doing the laundry. What I am instead suggesting is that this is the perfect season, the perfect time of our lives, to be conscious about the choices in front of us. 

One more thought: My great-grandmother, whom we called Aunt Annie, after doing something requiring effort, time and just plain hard work, often said she felt a "good tired." 

My prayer for you is that if you are tired these last days of Advent, may it be a "good tired."

An Invitation
What new choices have you been making recently? I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Cards: Thursday's Reflection

What Christmas tasks do you enjoy and which ones bring out your
inner Scrooge? Have those likes and dislikes changed over the years? Are there ones you delay doing or have even decided not to do at all?

What I have heard over the years from a number of people is how they don't enjoy all that is involved with sending Christmas cards, but then in the next breath they encourage me not to stop sending our annual letter and card! 

I actually enjoy finding the "right" card, writing our letter and choosing a picture or two to include. This year's card pictures a red front door, similar to our own door.  When Geof and Kate were young, I tried to find cards with two small children, a boy and a girl, and during our years at Sweetwater Farm the card usually featured a country scene. I don't know if anyone every noticed my themes, but I enjoyed the hunt. 

Writing our letter sometimes is challenging, as it was this year. The issue was not that it has been a personally difficult year for us. Our children and grandchildren continue to grow and thrive, and Bruce and I are content and busy in our third chapter lives. Instead, I pondered how much to say about the concerns we have for our country. Oh well, I did the best I could and then let it go. 

Addressing the cards is almost a contemplative activity, during which I think about each person on our list. If we have not been in touch since the previous Christmas I wonder about the joys and sorrows of their past year, and if the card is going to someone in our more immediate circle, I think about our ongoing connection and the pleasure that brings. 

Finally, I sign the card, "Light Blessings, Nancy and Bruce," tuck it in the envelope and seal it with a lick and a light prayer. Today our stacks of cards went into the mail--done till next year. Traveling Mercies.

A Prayer
I wrote this prayer for our church's Advent prayer booklet.
          I love seeing our mailbox full of annual Christmas
          letters and cards. May I find delight in the travel
          adventures of dear friends and the achievements of
          their children and grandchildren, and may I open
          my heart to all those who have experienced loss
          and pain. Amen.

An Invitation
What Christmas tasks do you most enjoy? And which ones do you wish you could delegate? I would love to know. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

First Snow: Tuesday's Reflection

We have been ready since Thanksgiving, and finally, here it is. The First Snow. Yes, there have been snowflakes here and there, now and then, but this is the real deal.

And it is gorgeous. One of those light, fairy wonderland kind of snows where you can almost see each snowflake, individual and all its own. The kind of snow that creates new shapes, an undiscovered landscape, and transforms the neighborhood. Instead of looking dull and bare, now each house looks charming and inviting and surely only interesting people live here. 

I admit I am a winter junky. You know this about me, if you have read my posts in past winters, but I also admit I can afford to feel this way. I don't have to drive in rush hour. In fact, if I don't want to go someplace, I don't have to. I don't have to leave my car on the street and move it on Snow Emergency days. Beyond that, I have a toasty warm house where I can observe the outside beauty from the inside. Yes, I am fortunate indeed, and it is important to add in some way those who are in need to my Christmas list.

In part I love the first snow of each year because it suggests other firsts--first loves, and first jobs, and first grade, and first airplane rides, and the first time driving a car after getting my license, and the first grandchild (and the second one, too!), and the first time I saw the ocean, and the first time something I wrote was published. 

Each of these firsts lifted my heart in some way. 

True, sometimes a first includes a bit of anxiety and even loss. There may be the first time you enter your home after a loved one has died or the first time you sensed, truly sensed, your own mortality. 

With the first snowfall what I am trying to hold close is the anticipation of the first day of Advent and each succeeding day as we approach the culmination of our waiting on Christmas Eve. At the same time I see in the not so far distance, the first day of the new year and I pray I can meet that day with hope and openness and purpose. 

Do you remember when the phrase "the first day of the rest of your life" was popular? Well, trite and overused as it was, it is also an invitation to live with our eyes and hearts open to possibility and surprise and enchanting beauty. 

In the Cleveland, Ohio, area where we lived for fourteen years each snowfall was like a first snowfall, for in-between snowstorms, the snow usually melted, and we got to start all over again. Here in Minnesota, where it stays cold more consistently throughout the winter, the snow remains and layers are added upon layers. The snow becomes crusty concrete. 

This week, however, we received the first snowfall in all its bewitching beauty. 

I rejoice in the first time. 

An Invitation
What "firsts" in your life do you recall? How can you restore the magic of a "first" back into your life? I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Joy and Your Bucket List: Thursday's Reflection

One of the activities our Third Chapter Planning Team offered
recently at church was a Movie Morning. A small group gathered to enjoy popcorn, a movie, and fellowship. We watched The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in which two men, unlikely companions, with a diagnosis of only months to live tackle items on their "before I kick the bucket" list.

Two questions are posed in the movie:  Where have you found joy in your life? and How have your brought joy into the world? 

Good questions. 

I have felt and known so much joy in my life and experience meaningful moments of joy every day. 

Being with a warm group of Third Chapter folks yesterday and sharing in their wisdom was one of those. Later in the day I met with my writing group and felt the joy of connection and acceptance and encouragement.  Plus, the joy that comes from relief when one of our group shared good medical test results. Those all feel like big moments of joy, but there were so many small moments, too, when my heart lifted in joy. 
         --Turning on the Christmas lights
         --Seeing a cardinal on top of the birdfeeder
         --Feeling the car's seat warmer
         --Tasting a  piece of my cherry walnut bread
         --Opening Christmas cards

The second questions is a bit harder to answer. It feels immodest to state where I have brought joy into the world, but I know where and how I have tried to do that, although certainly not always successfully --through my loving relationships, through my teaching and writing, through my practice as a spiritual director. Sometimes I feel another's heart lift because of something I have said or done, and there is a sense of shared joy. 

I know when I try to live in light, to stay awake and aware, I am more apt to both feel joy and deliver joy, however miniscule. That seems like a good thing to remember during this season when we can be diverted so easily by our culture's view of how to experience joy and what "things" represents joy. 

An Invitation
How do you answer the questions in The Bucket List?  I would love to know. 


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Quotes for Reflection: Tuesday's Post

It is time to open a new journal. That isn't quite like starting a new
year, but almost. I always have a sense of wonder when I begin writing in a new journal. What discoveries will I make? What memories will I record? What tales will I tell? How will this new journal unearth the person I was created to be? 

Before putting a journal to bed, however, I reread what I have written, paying particular attention to quotations I have recorded from books and articles and blogs read along the way.

I invite you to open each of the quotations as if it were a wrapped gift. Take off the bow and the paper carefully, for who knows, you might be able to use it again. No need to hold your breath as you take off the top of the box, for what is inside awaits to be discovered. Is it just what you wanted, needed? Is it something totally unexpected, but you suspect will be one of your favorite presents? Perhaps what is inside the box will become even more precious when it is shared with someone else. Does this gift show you how well you are known by the giver? If so, what is the best way to show appreciation for this gift?  

         I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall,
         withdrawn inside it as one might into a convent cell
         and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and 
         more collected again.
                                                Etty Hillesum
                                                An Interrupted Life

         Hope is the instinct in us that something greater
         can become real. 
                                                Joan Chittister

         Enveloped in Your Light, may I be a beacon to those
         in search of Light. Sheltered in Your Peace, may I offer
         shelter to those in need of peace. Embraced by Your 
         Presence, so may I be present to others. 
                                                Rabbi Rami Shapiro

         Salvation happens every time someone with a key
         uses it to open a door he could lock instead.
                                                 Barbara Brown Taylor

          I can't decide whether to enjoy the world or improve
          the world; that makes it difficult to plan the day
                                                  E. B. White

           Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not 
           living in eternity. We have only this moment, 
           sparkling like a star in our hand--and melting like
           a snowflake.
                                                     Francis Bacon, Sr.

Consider these quotations as an early holiday gift. I hope one or two resonate with you--for I forgot to ask for a gift receipt. 

An Invitation
If any of the quotations inspired or opened you, I would love to know. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Change: Thursday's Reflection

Our house is in disarray this week as we deck the halls. Well, actually, we don't have halls in this house, but you know what I mean. 

Some things are the same as other years. For example, all our hand carved Santas, created by our talented friend Al Edwins, are housed in the big cupboard in the living room. The Charlie Brown tree is in the same entry way corner, and the vintage candle choir is singing on the kitchen window sill. 

But some things are different. I almost decided not to display the Snow Village houses this year. Previously, they have perched on the living room bookshelves, which meant removing piles of books. Piles!!!! 

But then I decided to arrange them on the bookshelves in the snug. Not only are those bookshelves not packed quite as tightly as the living room shelves, but what a cozy addition in the room where we spend much of our time. 

Intentional changes and ones that can be easily reversed are not so difficult, but not all changes are in those categories. 

I think about the changes many will experience during this holiday season. Loved ones no longer present. Or perhaps you have become consumed by caregiving, leaving little time or energy for the expected traditions. Maybe you feel physically more limited yourself this year. Or maybe retirement, unexpected or planned, has created space in your life, but you don't know exactly how to live in that space. 

When I hear others (or myself) talk about the "way we have always done it" or if the word "always" is inserted into conversation a bit too frequently, I feel a little rumble inside my head. A warning signal that change is coming no matter how we try to prevent it. 

Changing the placement of some of our Christmas decorations may not seem like much, but I think this simple act reminds me to be flexible, to be open to change and to prepare my heart and mind for the changes I least want to happen. 

An Invitation
What changes will you create this season? What change in your life means a change in the holidays? I would love to know.