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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

This Is Me, Not Complaining About The Weather

“He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. … On the land of Lorien there was no stain.”

- J.R.R. Tolkien

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I recently placed myself in something like a writer’s Time-Out.

It was similar to the break my younger son is often required to take when his grumbling about the breakfast oatmeal reaches a critical stage. I simply told myself I must stay away from this blog until I had something better to contribute than complaints about the weather.

But then January turned into February, and though the weather has been, if anything, more disappointing than ever, I decided it was probably time to let my words out again.

We’ll see what happens.

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My older son received snow shoes for Christmas. Though he has taken them out for a few test runs each time the snow has drifted into something resembling reasonable depth, for the most part, they have sat, ready and waiting, by the laundry-room door.

For a few weeks, those new snowshoes looked optimistic. Expectant. They perched neatly with their accompanying poles. Yesterday, I realized that they had fallen behind a pile of cardboard waiting to be recycled. Their metallic blue surface was dimmed by dust.

Whether or not you are the proud owner of new snowshoes, I do not think there is anything more miserable than sheets of rain and a high temperature of thirty-eight degrees.

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This morning, the winter sun shone. Elsa and I walked the neighborhood sidewalks like puppies released from a kennel.

I noticed, as I walked, that the sky was a very pale, very delicate blue. It looked like porcelain. It looked as if a bowl of fine bone china had been turned upside-down over the treetops.

It was one of the loveliest skies I think I have ever seen. But it was also a thoroughly winter sky.

There are no skies like bone china in June.

 

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These Farmhouse Bookshelves (Writing-a-Book Edition)

Books have always felt like bread and water to me. Necessary. Daily. Delicious.

I am finding that to be even more true as I round the final bend of book writing. There seems to be an almost exact correlation between words in and words out.

These days, I am reading in order to keep the sounds and rhythms of good writing foremost in my mind. I am reading to jolt new ideas. I am reading to learn. I am reading to rest. It usually takes a book to shut my own book out of my head for a while.

Here is a little bit of what I’ve been reading.

You can find all the book recommendations in my occasional Saturday series right here. These posts contain affiliate links.

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I never, ever recommend books I haven’t actually finished, but I’m making an exception for Jean Hersey’s The shape of a year. This book is a vintage gem, and I think I bought my copy for one dollar plus shipping. It’s worth fifty times that.

Hersey was a garden writer, and this book observes the four seasons on her rural Connecticut property with curiosity and joy. This is a book all about the simple pleasures of the seasons. It begins in January, and I have only allowed myself to read through March (because I want to walk through all of this year with this book nearby).

Some might complain that nothing much happens. It’s true that this isn’t a book full of human dramas. But Hersey knows what everyone with eyes to really see the world around them has discovered. There is always something happening.

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I am afraid that the lady doth protest too much because I find myself recommending one more book I haven’t quite finished. Perhaps that is the true theme of this post: Books I’ve Partly Read! But the new nonfiction book by the novelist Ann Patchett is another one for savoring. I could sit down and read it in one gulp, but it’s January. Self-control and discipline are in the air this time of year.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays and magazine pieces. Together they explore everything from how and why Patchett became a writer to what it’s like to try out for the Los Angeles police department. There’s a great bit about an RV road trip.

Patchett’s book is funny and fun. It hits all the buttons for me right now. Good writing that prompts new thinking in a collection that makes a restful, distracting escape.

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This third book I not only finished but finished quickly. It is that mythical beast known as a page-turner. Fortunately, it is also well written and gives you a great deal to think about. It is Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey.

This is a psychological mystery with a dose of historical fiction, but, mostly, it is a powerful portrait of growing older and of care-giving. I dare anyone to read this book without growing in empathy and compassion for the elderly.

What are you reading these days? And, perhaps more importantly, why?

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