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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For Christmas Eve (And For Always)

I have wanted to share a guest post from my friend Laura for a long time. That I am finally able to do that, and on Christmas Eve, is one more good gift of a season that is full of them.

Laura is a dear friend. She is also a writer of rare talent. I sit up and take notice whenever I read something of hers.

Read the following reflection and then search out her gem of a book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, and you will understand why.

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After an evening meeting last spring, I turned on my phone and saw messages from my daughter. She wanted to Skype. The last time she asked, two years earlier, it was to announce her engagement. I figured this had to be job or baby.  I drove home through the silent night with a sense of wonder, hope, anticipation. I tried not to speed.

Once I got to the desk and logged on, we chatted for a moment. Then she said, “We have some news,” and slid a grainy black and white image up into the frame.

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The church tribe I grew up in didn’t observe the liturgical year. I knew Christmas carols from school music time and TV. Advent was a countdown calendar, a surprise picture or bit of chocolate behind each day’s cardboard doorflaps.

This past Sunday — same tribe, decades later — we sang some carols. The lyrics are projected on big screens, but not the notes.  When we got to the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as I sang the alto “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a” (which has six fewer o- than the melody), I had a passing thought: How do I know this harmony so well?

Not from singing. In the little church where my daughter grew up, Advent culminated in a Christmas Eve service. We are both flutists, and for several years we played a duet. We’d test-driven several carols and hymns at home, and settled on that one, precisely because it was enjoyable, more musically interesting, to play the glorias.

She took the melody. I tried to keep my volume a degree lower than hers, to support but not overpower. There’s a kind of communication between musicians, part keen listening, part familiarity, part intuition. There’s a way that music memory gets in your body. More than once, someone came up to us afterwards with tears in her eyes and told us we somehow sounded like one flute playing harmony.

At the end of the service, someone would dim the lights and we’d assemble ourselves in a circle around the sanctuary, holding our little white candles with their little paper skirts. One light. Two. Silent night, we sang as we shared the flame. Holy night. All was calm. And eventually, all was bright.

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I didn’t cry when I met him. I expected to. But it was such a calm moment. I had just arrived in their bright corner apartment. She went in the bedroom, where his daddy was changing his diaper, and I sat down in the living room. Then she brought him out, so relaxed, already so at ease with him, and introduced him. I stood, the way you would to meet anyone for the first time, and introduced myself. I sang “Happy One Week Old to You,” softly, and stroked his sweet head.

“Would you like to hold him?”

The answer will always be yes.

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I have nothing profound to say about Advent. No neat way to swaddle up this series. I’ve been in churches where it was the focus of worship for four weeks, and churches where it’s not on the radar and some people have never heard of it. I’ve taken and eaten the daily morsel of chocolate in years when I went into a church only to attend a friend’s wedding.

But I know something about waiting. Don’t we all?

I know the story never gets old, that story of the most powerful force in the universe coming to earth to be with us, to be one of us, starting out helpless and needy and soft and beautiful, just as every one of us did.

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I held and beheld that baby boy over the next few days, for hours and hours. Talked to him. Sang to him. Soothed him when he fussed, which was hardly at all. Studied his surprisingly expressive face.

His mama was studying him one afternoon, on the sofa with her knees drawn up, cradling him on her thighs. It’s still amazing to me that we made him, and he grew inside me and then I pushed him out, she said.

Do you ever look at him, I asked, and wonder what he’ll like, and what he’ll be good at, and who he’ll become?

Her heart swelled, and the overflow, you could practically see it rising in her chest and spilling out her eyes. She just nodded. The wave swamped me too.

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Let earth receive her king.

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Laura Lynn Brown vanquishes errors and makes the rough places plain as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Art House America and the High Calling, and she is an editor at The Curator. Her book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press. More of her work can be read at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her one-year daily gratitude journal, Daylilies.

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Advent (Fourth Tuesday)

Advent has nearly reached its fulfillment, yet I am finding the peace it promises just a little harder to grasp as Christmas approaches.

How easily I can be undone by one two-year-old with a permanent marker and an extra-long grocery list.

My friend Ashley has given me a gift this morning. It took me longer than anticipated to post it for you because I can’t stop re-reading it. I want to feel the truth of it that desperately. I want to forget the fourteen things still on my to-do list. I want to be overwhelmed in the way she describes.

By his light.

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We drive I-5 through Oregon’s mid-section, far from major cities, and the sky is pitch, punctuated occasionally by lines of Christmas lights and the glow of solitary windows.

For hours, days, anxiety has coursed through my body, and now in the silence of our car, I feel I may succumb to overwhelm – so many details and inadequacies pressing down on my shoulders, shouting through the quiet. But the light finds me in the calls of the dark, and then my eyes are downright searching for the light – this steadying hand, this hope slicing through.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

Out the window I see a curtain of pitch night, and then a parting to reveal the light. Light, light, light. Night.

As we follow the winding freeway, I wonder at those who traveled hundreds of miles on foot and animal back, following the light, not a road, to their destination. Keeping course by the new star on a journey itself until it came to the One worthy of all praise.

I consider the wise men’s trek to Perfect Love held within a little boy’s body, their joy at finally beholding Jesus’s light. I imagine their overwhelm bursting forth in worship, gratitude and praise, the offering of awe, gifts from hands and mouths.

Overwhelm usually speaks to burial and drowning, utter defeat. And I know this when limitations glare and glower, and I feel I might go under. But as I watch through my window at how Light overtakes the dark, I know I truly cannot be consumed by my own mind or this world.

Just look at how light pierces through. And I am guided to the place where He is, and I am overwhelmed.

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Ashley Larkin is a story collector, wife to Michael and mother to three shining daughters (ages 12, 9 and 6). She longs to be a place of welcome and seeks hard after the hope and grace found in broken things. A writer, Ashley recently has embraced God’s call to speak to groups of women, as well. She delights in sharing face to beautiful face about our completeness and utter beloved-ness in Christ. Ashley and her family live in a 110-year-old house in Portland, Oregon with a grove of horse chestnut trees that clearly has taken over. You can find her blogging about living fully awake to the messy glory of everyday moments here and on Twitter here.

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Advent (Fourth Monday)

Four candles lit. Can you believe it?

The season of Advent will soon be fulfilled. Christmas is near. And I am so pleased to share these words from my friend Allison. A fellow writer and gardener, Alison and I met at church. When I say thank you for the many good gifts I have received since moving to Pennsylvania, Allison is always near the tippy-top of that long list. I love being able to introduce you to her today.

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Why Christmas is Not About Giving

Sometimes I really hate getting gifts.

It’s not the gifts themselves I hate. It’s the getting part.

You know the feeling. Your co-worker unexpectedly gets you a Christmas gift, and you can’t hide the fact that you never intended to get one for her. Or your friend buys you an expensive present that you love, and you wonder if you spent enough money and effort to get him a comparable gift.

Sometimes I love giving gifts more than getting them. I get excited about brainstorming creative gift ideas for family and friends—homemade food items or crafts, books I know they’ll like, fair trade gifts, something fancy they couldn’t justify buying for themselves, or something they didn’t know they wanted. I can’t wait to see their faces when they unwrap what I got them and see just how well my gifts fit who they are. I even get a little jealous if they gush over something that someone else got them.

As much joy as I get from giving, it can be a distraction. It can even be selfish. “[E]veryone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity,” writes William Willimon in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.”

Giving involves power. I love to be the strong one who tips well, who feels good about writing the big check for the soup kitchen, who tries to do more than my fair share of listening to and helping my friends, who doesn’t mind spending a little extravagantly to get my family what they really want. I want them to be indebted to me, maybe even dependent on me. They usually appreciate my gifts, but even if they don’t, I get to feel useful and generous.

For me, Christmas is too often an opportunity to secure a little more power in my relationships through giving. But Christmas isn’t about using gifts to gain power. It isn’t even about using gifts to express love for people.

Willimon puts it bluntly: “We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.”

Christmas is about receiving the gift of God Himself. In this relationship, we have no power at all. We are embarrassingly needy, dependent on the generosity of another. We are forever in His debt with no hope of reciprocating. We now have the costliest, most precious gift imaginable—God’s gift of His very self. A gift we despised and rejected, because we were too proud to admit we needed it.

This lesser-known Christmas carol reminds us of just how much Christ gave—and gave up—for us:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

He impoverished Himself, left the glories of heaven, came down to our level, spent all He had on us so that we, through His poverty, might become rich.

So in the remaining days before Christmas, set aside those glittering gifts. Open your hands. See how empty they are. As empty as a virgin’s womb. Now stretch out your hands toward the manger. Receive the Christ child, and the wealth of His love, into your arms.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Yes. And this is why God’s Name is blessed above every other name, for He is the all-powerful Giver. “Hallelujah! Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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Allison Sheeler Duncan is a writer and theology nerd who is learning (slowly) to love receiving gifts as much as she loves giving them. She works as a communications specialist at a university in southeast Pennsylvania, and she enjoys writing in calligraphy, growing heirloom tomatoes, and singing at least some of the right notes in the alto section of her church choir. She blogs at www.shiningfromshookfoil.com.


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