I’ve been writing about simplicity. This means, of course, that I’ve been reading about it, too.
So here is one more peak at the bookshelves in this old farmhouse. Though, to be honest, most of these books haven’t yet found their place on a shelf. Too new, too needed, they are piled on that one chair in our tiny sunroom or the little bureau I use as a bedside table. I’m fairly sure my almost-three-year-old has already taken a ballpoint pen to one or two of them.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Not even comprehensive. Perhaps it isn’t even a good place to begin if you are new to the topic. But these are the books I’ve been reading. These are the books I would pass on to you if you came to visit us at Maplehurst.
These are merely a few books that have found their way to me. And I am trying my best to listen.
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I’ll give you the best right up front. It’s called In Celebration of Simplicity: The Joy of Living Lightly by Penelope Wilcock. Recommended by an internet friend (she and her words are wise and beautiful; I recommend especially this recent post on dimming the lights), I think of this book as a lovely little dagger.
It is a pretty thing, like a gift book. The edges of every single page are devoted to Scripture and inspirational quotations. But don’t be fooled. There is nothing sweet about Wilcock’s message.
This is a book about discipleship. About following Jesus in every part of our lives – our eating, our shopping, our words, our clothing, our hospitality, our entertainment, our work, our everything.
The Way of Christ, The Way of simplicity is narrow. Reading Wilcock I see it. I believe it. I am afraid of it. Yet somehow, reading this book, I want to run in that direction. And never come back.
The discipline of simplicity is the magnifying glass that focuses the sun, so that the concentrated force of the Holy Spirit can be trained upon the insignificant bits and pieces of the common way in which we tread, effecting amid all the dross and distractions the living fire of a kindled life. – Penelope Wilcock
Another book suggested by an internet friend (on my facebook page, are we connected there?), is The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life edited by Scott Savage.
I am only halfway through this anthology, but I already know it’s one I want to pass on.
You’ll find at least one well known name (Wendell Berry and his essay on health is excellent) but most of these voices are not often heard outside their small circles. Most are Amish (by choice, not birth), Quaker, or members of other “Plain” communities.
The choices and viewpoints reflected in this book can only rightly be described as extreme. The temptation for many readers, myself included, is to put up defenses, to feel judged, to argue, and so to hold tightly to our usual ways of thinking and living.
But that is a waste.
If we can read this book with openness and curiosity, there is so much to gain. First, there is the benefit of seeing how radically different some live their lives all in the name of Christ. Second, though we may not adopt all, or even very many, of the practices of these writers, their radical choices can help us realize how much of our lives we actually can choose. So much of how we live, work, play, and worship seems already determined. But the essays in this book reveal how very possible it is to change everything about the ways in which we live.
And I find that incredibly inspiring.
In an odd sense, when every taboo has fallen, then the only way to be subversive is to have more fun than other people – to fill your heart and your home with more joy and warmth and pleasure than the frantic, slightly pathetic, ersatz happiness offered by Disney and the mall and the chat room. This is a book, finally, about joy. – Bill McKibben
A book I’ve mentioned before is Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender. Bender’s book, part-memoir, part artistic vision, asks whether it is possible for a thoroughly modern woman to live life as beautifully and simply as the handmade Amish quilts she admires.
Must our lives be the crazy quilts we often feel them to be?
The feeling went beyond everyday cleanliness and order. The air felt alive, almost vibrating. Can a room have a heartbeat? Can space be serene and exciting at the same time? I’d never been in a room that felt like that. – Sue Bender
One reason I am feeling beckoned towards this thing we call the simple life, is that I want space in my life for the things that matter.
I want space to breath (to cut flowers every morning, to sit in stillness with a child in my lap). I want space for paying attention (there is trouble and injustice in our world, but if my life is too crowded I cannot notice, and I cannot do anything). And I want space for the absolutely essential non-essentials.
I don’t want to live a life that has no room for a book like A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry.
I recommend it. Both the space-making and the poetry-reading.
I sometimes worry that I have run out of books to recommend. Surely I’ve shown you every single book worth its shelf space in this old farmhouse?
But then I glance at my lap (there is almost always a book in my lap), and I realize that some of the books I love the most, some of the books I am so used to seeing, always at hand, are books I’ve never mentioned in this space.
Over the next few Saturdays, I will tell you about those books. They are the books I trip over on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. They are the books I find splayed and dusty underneath my little boy’s bed. Alas, they are the books most likely to sport ink or crayon marks from the budding baby-girl artiste.
They are rarely new or hip or trendy. I probably haven’t bothered to review them on Goodreads. But they are my constant companions.
And I hope you learn to love them, too.
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Quite a few of these special books are illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I have recommended one of her books before. It may be my favorite picture book I never read as a child. Recently, I pulled our copy of 1 Is One down from the shelf. I’m fairly certain I bought this book as a first birthday gift for my oldest (which means it’s been on our shelves for nearly a decade).
This is a counting book (1 is one duckling swimming in a dish, 2 is two sisters making a wish …), and every child deserves to learn their numbers by counting twinkling stars (18!) and baby birds (12!). It features Tasha’s signature watercolors, old-fashioned settings, and naturalistic details. I am pleased as punch to report that one-year-old Elsa now adores it. We never read it unless we read it three times through.
Tasha Tudor was a prolific illustrator, and her books are fairly easy to find at used bookstores and thrift shops. I still remember the pleasure of finding her edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.
Though she published her first picture book in the 1930s, Tasha and her books seem to come from a much earlier time. Apparently, she believed, only half-jokingly, that after dying she would return to her home in the 1830s, a strange sentiment I’m afraid I can relate with all too well. There is still a small part of my mind that believes, against my better judgement, that life would be so much better if I had twenty-two tiny buttons marching up my boots and was skilled with a button-hook (a romanticism inherited by my daughter who sighs deeply and says she wishes she were Amish every time she spies a little girl wrapped in bonnet and shawl).
These illustrations are like miniature worlds, and they are worlds I long to recreate. This may be why I spend so much time with two books written for adults: The Private World of Tasha Tudor by Tasha Tudor and Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin.
These large photography books take you inside the beautiful eddy in time that Tasha created at her Vermont farmhouse. Full of antique clothes and toys and cottage-garden flowers, these books prove that Tasha created her paintings from life. She dreamed it. She cultivated it. And then she painted it.
I do not actually own either of these books, but I have checked them out of my local library so many times that I really should buy both (but I might wait a few weeks since my birthday is June 23, ahem).
I especially love Tasha Tudor’s Garden. The writing is a bit too hero-worshipful, but I could live in the pictures.
Tasha’s ideas about plants are quirky and idiosyncratic, and I find that they give me permission to garden just as personally. I happen to love African violets, but their velvety leaves make Tasha shudder. I’ve always been skeptical of daylilies, so it’s a relief to read that Tasha finds them “raggedy.” And I have shamelessly copied the formula of her peony beds by planting a mass of peonies with lily bulbs to bloom after and edging the whole affair with purple verbena.
In researching this post, I discovered that Tasha illustrated a picture-book version of Psalm 23 (The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Twenty-third Psalm) and the Lord’s Prayer, or “Our Father” (Give Us This Day). It is possible that I purchased copies of each before finishing this post.
Life isn’t long enough to do all you could accomplish. And what a privilege even to be alive. In spite of all the pollutions and horrors, how beautiful this world is. Supposing you only saw the stars once every year. Think what you would think. The wonder of it!”
… for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.
– T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The kids and I are reading the Little House books. One chapter each night. We began with Farmer Boy and a fire in the old stone hearth. Now we are in the big woods of Wisconsin, and there is birdsong through our open window.
It is also haying time in the fields west of this house. When we drive in that direction, to buy chicken feed from the feed and lumber store or flats of annuals from a greenhouse, we watch teams of muscled, shaggy horses at work in every field. They look as if they have been plowing the same red-clay soil for two hundred years. Day in, day out.
Sometimes there is a young boy holding the reins. He wears suspenders and a straw hat, and together we wriggle to keep from pointing and shout “Look! Farmer Boy!”
In this place, when the breeze carries the bracing smell of hay, just-cut, I am able to understand something about time that is normally hidden from me.
Time is not a line carrying us always farther from the past. Time is not a thread, and we are not simply biding it until the day ours is cut.
These days, in Lancaster County, I can see that time is a spring. Past and present and future bubble up together, and the sound is like music. Like the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Like birdsong through an open window.
But my children appear to be lines racing, racing away from me. Willowy is the word that comes to mind when I observe my firstborn girl. For nearly two years, I’ve seen her baby face when I look at my youngest, my second girl, but that face is now lost. Elsa Spring has grown into herself. There is a family resemblance, yes, but more and more she looks only like Elsa. Something has been shed, and the lines of her eyes and chin are now hers alone. No longer her older sister’s.
And thus, two baby girls vanish from every place but memory.
I don’t really know if I am living in a country of lost things or a kingdom of restoration and everything made new. I look around, I read the news, and I find both. Hopelessly jumbled.
We lose babies and grandmothers. We lose marriages and homes. We lose our younger selves and friendships and health and peace between nations and on and on forever, it seems.
But every new season is also a return, and the month of May, this pivot between spring and summer, reminds me that it is possible to root myself in that bubbling spring. To live sure of what I cannot always see: that time is not linear but rhythmic. It is a song where every note returns and every note is new.
And this is the living water that sustains me. This is the living water I hold out. To my racing children. To my thirsty neighbor.
Maybe eternity begins when I read a favorite story for the third, fourth, fifth time.
Maybe eternity begins here. Now.
Here is something you should know: my bookshelves are brimful with the very old and the very odd.
I bring them home by ones and twos. I bring them home by the bag. I bring them home from library sales and thrift stores. I find them in junk shops and antique emporiums. When I wake early on a Saturday morning to scour the deals at a children’s consignment fundraiser, I always rush past the piles of shoes and battery-operated toys to find, there are the back of the gymnasium, the table of cast-off books.
I am lucky enough to live nowhere near a big-box bookstore but in the neighborhood of 4 or 5 well-stocked used bookstores.
This is a post in praise of second-hand books.
I like buying used books because I prefer buried treasure to the latest thing. I like drifting in the past more than jumping on the bandwagon. If books are windows, I prefer they open on a view I simply cannot find in yesterday’s blog post or this morning’s op-ed.
I also like a good deal.
I recently found the DK book of Forgotten Arts and Crafts by John Seymour at a local second-hand bookstore. I paid seven dollars. Seven dollars for a big coffee-table of a book. A book heavy enough to press maple leaves to perfect, dried crispness.
Everything we once knew but have forgotten. This is the book to tell you how your ancestors … thatched a roof, built a canoe, made their tea, washed their clothes. [Big breath here.] Also, how they made nets, and brooms, and coffee. Not to mention, how they built a rock wall, where they stored the dishes, how they mopped the floors, how they blacked a stove. Would you like to learn about peat cutting, blacksmithing, or chair-making? I could go on. And on, and on, and on.
The many full-color illustrations, ink drawings, and photographs in this encyclopedia of forgotten skills make it a great choice for curious children (and their parents). I especially enjoy Seymour’s personal memories and commentary. He is no impartial recorder of forgotten lore. He remembers, he cares, and he believes that this modern world, a world in which very few people know how to make anything with their hands, is not sustainable.
Moreover the British are as inept at making coffee as the Americans are at making tea. So difficult and mysterious does this simple process seem to them that they resort to those horrible ersatz mixtures, either in powder or liquid form, which have no right to be called by the name of coffee. Perhaps there should be an exchange of missionaries between the two countries. – John Seymour
I found this next book at a local store with a good selection of books about the history and culture of “Plain” communities like those of the Amish and Mennonites. But Sue Bender’s Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish is no straightforward history or tourist’s introduction. Bender is an artist. Hers is an artist’s meditation on living the good life. Is it possible, she wonders, to live the beauty and simplicity she sees in an Amish quilt? Or, must our modern, busy way of life only ever resemble a crazy-quilt?
Bender’s first encounter with traditional Amish quilt-making in the 1960s led her to the previously unthinkable. This wife, mother, and artist, a woman who had always despised all things domestic, spent months living with two different Amish families.
The result is this beautiful, little book. It is quiet, reflective, scattered with white space and ink drawings. It is a book of good questions and wisdom worth pondering.
Before I went to the Amish, I thought that the more choices I had, the luckier I’d be. But there is a big difference between having many choices and making a choice. Making a choice – declaring what is essential – creates a framework for a life that eliminates many choices but gives meaning to the things that remain. – Sue Bender
My favorite section of any used bookstore is usually called “Local Interest,” or some variation on that. This is where you’ll find the odd little books that would never be given a shelf in a big chain store. They are books rooted in a particular place.
Which means I am not exactly recommending this last book. I doubt it would interest many outside my own Chester County, Pennsylvania. Instead, I mention it for inspiration. This is the kind of odd-ball treasure you will only ever discover through a devotion to the dusty corners where old books lie in wait.
The book is Fine Food, Wine, and Pickled Pine: The Story of Coventry Forge Inn by Ann Kilborn Cole. I found it at a local used bookstore housed in a converted eighteenth-century barn. All I can say is of course this book would be found living in a converted eighteenth-century barn.
This is one woman’s memoir of working, with her sons, to turn their colonial-era Pennsylvania home into a fine-dining restaurant. Written in the 1950s, this is a quirky, eye-opening, unintentionally humorous book about one family’s dream and the good food that fueled it.
Did I mention there are recipes? I can’t imagine I’ll ever try one, but I spent a happy hour perusing the sample menus and imagining all those mad-men era businessmen and housewives enjoying a special Saturday night out. My very favorite moment came after several breathless paragraphs in which Cole describes a newly invented oven with the potential to transform the high-end restaurant kitchen. I’d never heard the name she used, but it slowly dawned on me that the modern marvel she was describing was most likely … the microwave oven.
Perhaps you imagine you have no time for such a useless book? You know your reading time is limited and there are so many “must-reads” out there? You are right. A book like this is the very opposite of “must-read.”
And that, my friends, is why I love it.
So, why don’t we finish this post with a quotation from yours truly?
Reading is not an item for the to-do list. Reading is a way of life, and life should never be contained within the confines of a bestseller list. – Christie Purifoy
When I was young, dreams were easy. I wanted to marry that one boy from the church youth group. I wanted to live in the big city. I wanted a PhD. Later, I wanted (desperately) to have children.
In those days, dreams were like stair steps. One after the other, they fell into place. Some were realized easily, some only after the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, but they were all my dreams. I could take full credit for the dreaming, and I thanked God when my dreams came true.
Then the day when I exhausted my carefully hoarded stash of dreams. I had thought I carried an endless supply. I imagined I was Mary Poppins reaching deep into her carpet bag. But mine was only an ordinary duffel.
I remember it precisely. I sat at my desk with one dream heavy in my belly and another being typed out word by word on the screen of my computer. I was preparing to defend my PhD dissertation. I was preparing to give birth to my third child. That day, I opened my Bible and read these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
I knew then that I had come to the end of my own dreams.
I wasn’t unhappy. I had plans, though they were disconcertingly vague. I wasn’t ungrateful, though I was nine-months tired and dissertation stressed. The problem was that I read the phrase desires of your heart but saw only emptiness. I was no longer a dreamer. Had I ever been?
A few months after the baby and only days after graduation, we moved to Florida. There I learned that heart desires are born in God’s own throne room. I also learned that the door to the throne room is usually found in the wilderness.
Florida was my wilderness, my wandering place. It was the place where my own small plans were broken and then burned. And what was revealed in those flames? Of course. Desire.
We Christians profess selflessness (though too often we practice it as badly as anyone might). But in our profession we come to fear desire. Isn’t it wrong to pay such close attention to my own heart? Aren’t desires like sirens tempting me from the Way?
And so, like some foolish Ulysses, we stop up our ears, we tie ourselves to the mast of our ship, and we focus only on our plans. I will do this today. I will do that tomorrow. When always God is calling us to let go of our plans and listen to his voice.
It is so like the beautiful siren song, but it is calling us, not to our destruction, but to life. The abundance of the wide-awake but dreaming life. A life that will look differently for each of us. A life dreamed up for us alone. Dreamed up by Love and planted within us in the form of desire.
It might take getting lost. It might require fire. It might look like a struggle on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. But the thing that is left is worth everything. Every tear. Every question. Every dark, uncertain day.
The thing that is left is a God-breathed, God-given desire. It reveals the self you were made to be. It turns your gaze toward the One who made you.
The realization of this desire is like coming home after a long, uncertain sea voyage. But this is a home you could never have imagined. It is fully beyond your own capacity for dreaming.
I know this is the way of it when I find myself behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Yes, me. The same me who traded the flat fields and cowboy hats of Texas for skyscrapers and snowflakes. Here I am, driving a truck loaded with mushroom compost and baby trees.
Sitting high in my seat, the view through the tunnel of August corn is washed in golden, late-day light. I can just glimpse a far green hill. It is topped by that perfect couple: a white farmhouse and a red barn.
An Amish family clip-clops by behind their horse, and, for a moment, I cannot fathom how I have come to this place. This beautiful, never-before-imagined place.
And that is a heart’s desire. It is a place prepared for you. A place that satisfies your heart like nothing else.
It is a dream come true, though, walking your own way, you would have never dreamed of it at all.
“The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. … The kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home …”
– Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry
On the Friday after Christmas we piled our over-stimulated, over-sugared children into the car and drove. We were chasing peace and quiet down the backroads, and we found it.
The three-year-old had fallen asleep and the big kids in the backseat had stopped pinching each other when we drove straight into a flock of children.
Startled, I noticed a one-room Amish school on the top of the hill to our right. The schoolday had just ended.
Slowly our car parted a sea of boys in straw hats. Next, we inched our way past a dozen little girls circling the tall figure of their teacher.
One tiny girl with a heart-shaped face tilted her black bonnet to flash a smile through my window. She gave a little jump and waved both hands in greeting. The wind caught her cloak, and I saw a flash of its royal blue lining.
She looked so much like a little bird.
Our car moved on, but I kept thinking how vulnerable they seemed. All those small children flitting like birds on the edge of the road.
I turned back to look again at my own little birds, two of them sleeping, two of them staring outside at the passing farms.
I’m not sure I would have given it much more thought, but Sandy Hook is branded on our hearts, and I can’t stop seeing the flashing blue of that little girl’s wings.
How do we keep them safe?
It wasn’t that long ago evil invaded a classroom of Amish children (did those girls also skip and smile like little birds?).
Some say our schools need guards with guns. I have no rational argument to make against that proposal. All I know is how much it hurts me even to imagine it. I love our public schools, but I don’t think I will ever send my children out to classrooms guarded with guns.
I want my children to live unafraid, but I don’t want them to find that courage in a gun.
When I imagine that Amish schoolhouse – when I see it again silhouetted against a blue sky at the very top of a high hill – I see forgiveness. I see love.
I see children who may not be safe but who are free. Free from fear. Free to love the stranger in their midst.
I have always said I believe love is stronger than anything. Stronger than hate. Stronger than death. Stronger than whatever weapon humanity will come up with next.
I have always said what is only now being tested.
Because now I send my children out into the world with only the protection of an old, old prayer.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.