A New Name

 

“you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls”

Isaiah 58:12

*

DSC_8733_1

 *

We have arrived at those muddy, brown days between winter and spring. When I cross the yard to the chicken coop, it feels as if I am walking on a sponge. We have had a few warmer days and a few sunnier days, but it is not yet clear to me if the damage of this winter can be undone.

Somehow I find it harder to believe in spring the closer it comes.

*

My daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school. Every afternoon she shows me some newly acquired fact, as if she half believes that this time, this time, I will contradict her teacher. I will say, No, no, it wasn’t as bad as that. Instead, I only ever say yes. Yes, it’s true.

Here is what she does not say: How do you go on living in a world where such things have happened? Still happen?

Here is what I do not say: I don’t know.

*

As a writer, I pick up the pieces. Even the ugly, broken pieces. I arrange them and rearrange them, and I search for hidden meaning. I find patterns, and they always say the same thing. They say, Look! Here is something beautiful. Here is good news.

Except that recently, I can’t seem to find the pattern. The broken pieces remain only broken pieces.

They are so many. They are so sharp.

*

Because it is Lent, we begin each Sunday service with The Decalogue rather than a hymn. We hear the list of God’s ten commands, and they are like stones that form a wall that enclose a garden.

Gardens grow best within the shelter of a wall, but we have torn down the wall with our own hands.

*

Perhaps we must first listen to the bad news if we hope ever to hear the good.

Perhaps it is sorrow for all the broken pieces and all the tumbled stones that gives us courage to stand up. To rise up, leave the sackcloth and ashes, and go searching for our new name.

*

These Farmhouse Bookshelves

No doubt most of you are not sitting under a foot of snow as we are here at Maplehurst, but early March days are still ideal reading days.

I’m reading mostly gardening books, which, I suppose, must mean that I am a very hopeful person. Or else that I am practiced in denial.

I have a stack of gardening books currently checked out from my library, including the coffee-table treasury Visions of Paradise by photographer Marina Schinz. It begins with these words:

To create a garden is to search for a better world. In our effort to improve on nature, we are guided by a vision of paradise. … This hope for the future is at the heart of all gardening.

I think this is true of gardening, but my late-winter prayer is that these words would be true in every area of my life. That my reading, my loving, my working – everything – be motivated by hope for the future.

The following post contains affiliate links. You can find all my book recommendations here.

 

books

 

My favorite book in that stack of gardening books is The Essential Earthman: Henry Mitchell on Gardening.

Henry Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post. This posthumous collection has been called “one of the great American gardening books,” and I absolutely agree. This is wonderful reading: informative, practical, hilarious, witty. In its own subtle way, it is brilliant.

Its appeal for gardeners is obvious, but as I read I decided the book was worthy of an even broader audience. Almost all of the pieces are wonderful examples of what newspaper opinion writing can be.

We can all learn something from Henry Mitchell. We might learn about planting peonies or which varieties of daffodil are the most glorious. Or, we might learn the subtle art of communicating one’s own strong opinions in the most disarming and entertaining way.

*

Dept. of Speculation (Vintage Contemporaries) by Jenny Offill is not like any other novel you have read. I am sure of that. It is more like one of those works of art that looks, from a distance, like a hyper-realist portrait but is, upon closer examination, found to be made up entirely of buttons or bottle caps.

From a distance, this is the story of a marriage that is falling apart. Now, I know that sounds entirely too depressing for late-winter, but the full arc of the story is hopeful and beautiful.

But close up? This is a strange collection of thoughts and facts and memories. I tend not to like experiments in fiction, James Joyce excepted, of course. But when an experiment works, it really, really works. And this one works.

There is nothing self-indulgent about Offill’s writing. Instead, she has found a new way to tell a familiar story, and the result is astonishing.

*

I sometimes postpone writing these book recommendation posts because I worry that I haven’t read enough new, great books. I forget that the premise, when I began, was simply to tell you about the books on my shelves. Or, more accurately, the books taken off the shelves and left lying near beds and armchairs.

We’ve loved Mary Ann Hoberman’s picture book The Seven Silly Eaters for years, but this book has recently come off the shelf for round after round of reading. Elsa loves it, but my nearly-six and nearly-nine-year-old boys come like moths to a flame when they hear me reading it.

We are big fans of other Hoberman books, especially A House Is a House for Me and The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems, but The Seven Silly Eaters is special. It’s the rhyming story of a tired mother with seven picky-eaters for children, but, like all great picture books, it offers so much more. Every illustration tells a story of its own, and, I think, every family will find something of themselves in its pages.

Do you think your child is too old for picture books? Do you think you are too old for picture books? Then I recommend The Seven Silly Eaters as a very necessary corrective.

Happy reading, friends.

*

This Table Prepared For Me

When I was invited to write about “quiet hospitality” at Grace Table, I knew just what I would say.

I meant to tell you all about the loud hospitality we used to practice. About the parties and events and big efforts. Those days were good, but they are long gone.

I meant to tell you about the daily rhythms of our current life at Maplehurst. Those quiet practices, like a cooked breakfast every morning and homemade pizza every Friday night, that are easy and natural to share with others.

But all the while a very different story was unfolding at my own kitchen table. And that is the story I’m sharing today.

*

DSC_2616_1

*

Grace Table is about love for God, love for neighbor, and love for the table. If you haven’t yet spent time there, I suggest you do. The storytelling is excellent, and the recipes are mouthwatering.

It’s a delicious combination.

Find my story here.

*

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (Cabin Fever Edition)

It’s the coldest weekend of the season for us here at Maplehurst.

The week did not begin well. The same night Jonathan left town for a business trip, the tank of heating oil that supplies our furnace ran dry.

Oops.

Elsa and I spent the next morning wearing coats by the parlor fireplace waiting for an oil refill and a technician to restart our heating system.

However, the week ended with the installation of our much dreamed-about, much anticipated woodstove. It sits in our once freezing kitchen, but, as I type this from the kitchen table, the room is throbbing with warmth.

If you’re looking for any of us this weekend, you’ll find us here. In the kitchen. Feeding logs into the mouth of a cast-iron stove on four, pretty little legs, reading picture books and gardening books and the woodstove manual.

You’ll find us here, drinking coffee and cocoa, reading about mice who drink “acorn coffee” and deciding the very important question of whether or not acorn coffee might be something we’d like to try.

The following post contains affiliate links. You can find all my book recommendations here.

 

fire and snowflake

The acorn coffee appears in Winter Story (Brambly Hedge) by Jill Barklem, but we love every beautiful book in the Brambly Hedge series. You might begin with the four seasonal books (I am very fond of the June wedding of the miller mouse and the dairy-maid mouse that takes place on a bark raft floating at the edge of the stream), but don’t miss the other stories. My boys, especially, love to follow the winding staircase in one of the images from The Secret Staircase (Brambly Hedge).

These books are thirty years old, but they were old-fashioned when they appeared. They celebrate English seasonal folk customs as depicted in a community of hedge-dwelling mice. The mice wear straw hats and drink delicate, floral wines. There is a lord and lady and a palace, but they store their food communally in a stump. They enjoy picnics and outings to pick blackberries. Do I need to say more?

I will say more but only this: it is the highly detailed illustrations that make these books so magical. Every intricate twist in a mouse cottage burrow is depicted in delicious detail. A patch of trees lights up with tiny mouse windows. A cottage kitchen drips with stored crabapples, homemade jam, and embroidered  tea towels.

I pretty much want to move in to Brambly Hedge.

*

One of the most surprising and inspiring books I’ve read this winter is Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson. Recommended by a friend who studied with Peterson at Eastern University, this is a book about the spiritual value of housekeeping. It is for men and women, married and single, university students, empty-nesters … what I’m trying to say is that this book offers something important and encouraging to anyone who has ever found themselves with a dirty dish in their hand or a bed in need of making.

As someone who values the home but loathes just about every task associated with keeping one (I tolerate laundry, I despise cleaning, I rarely make my bed), this book completely reoriented the way I see my home and the work involved in caring for it. I’ve always said that washing dishes can be holy work, but I don’t think I ever really believed it, until I read this.

Keeping House is rich in theology, but it is clearly written, thoroughly accessible, and seasoned with personal stories. I loved it. I can’t recommend it enough.

*

One book I’ll keep close to the woodstove this weekend is Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. This is an enormous, treasure of a book, and it is not inexpensive. Even though I was cashing in a gift card, I still debated quite a bit before I hit purchase.

But, wow! I am so glad I did. This book is the work of a lifetime, particularly of famed botanist Michael Dirr’s lifetime, and you will not find a more exhaustive, thoroughly researched, delightfully written, well-photographed book of trees, shrubs, and vines.

I love the personal, witty writing style (if a tree is rubbish for gardens, Dirr will let us know), I love reading the histories of familiar trees, I love the lists of particularly worthwhile varieties. I’ll be planting three crabapples this spring, and I’ve already chosen the named varieties based on Dirr’s descriptions.

If you aren’t quite ready for the financial commitment (not to mention the commitment of coffee-table space), you might prefer to read Dirr’s earlier volume Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. This is a smaller book (though not small), and the information is slightly less up-to-date, but it remains an excellent resource. Also, you should be able to find it at your library.

*

Today, I have one bonus recommendation. Dawn Camp’s just-released collection The Beauty of Grace: Stories of God’s Love from Today’s Most Popular Writers is lovely. It is brimming over with brief reflections from some of my favorite Christian bloggers. I love that this book gathers some of the best of ephemeral internet writing and gives it permanence.

I think this book would make an especially fine gift. I love giving books as gifts, but sometimes it is difficult to find just the right book match. This book solves that problem entirely. Everyone will find something to love in this book. But my highest praise? It has earned a place by my bedside table.