There is something about autumn in this Pennsylvania countryside that turns my mind to ghost stories.
When the fog curls around the trunk of the weeping willow, I half expect to see the headless horseman ride by.
When I pass the field where the Hessian soldiers camped before they joined the redcoats, I think I almost see their faded muskets between the trees.
There aren’t many places left in our world where the past feels so near. So everpresent.
Truthfully, I’m not sure I believe in death when I cross vast parking lots or stand beneath fluorescent lights. But I am learning. This place of somber black horse-drawn buggies, covered bridges, and old stone farmhouses is working a change in me.
I am learning that fluorescent light and concrete don’t tell the truth. I am learning that some realities can only be glimpsed in the low, golden light of Autumn.
I’m sharing a story about a covered bridge and a cloud of witnesses. I hope you’ll click through to read it at Living the Story (via BibleDude.net).
There never is enough time for reading, is there?
I’ve heard the same thing from so many of you. Something like Oh no! More recommendations! I’ll never catch up! Of course, I know you’re winking. I know you’re dropping everything to read that novel though there are so many more important things to do.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we?
When I’m honest with myself, I am never truly afraid that I won’t make it to the bottom of my must-read list. When I’m honest with myself, I know that my real fear is this: I am afraid I will run out of good books. I am afraid I’ll be caught waiting for a child somewhere and I won’t have a good book in my car. I’m afraid the baby will fall asleep at the exact same moment when the kids busy themselves with a game and I won’t have a good book on my desk.
I know. This is crazy talk. But let’s just make sure shall we? Let’s keep those bookshelves and nightstands and library order queues nice and full.
As always, I am here to help.
(P.S. This post includes affiliate links. You can find more info about those right here.)
Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. – Lemony Snicket
This was my recent stop-everything-must-read-to-the-very-last-page reading event: The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaimon.
I’ve mentioned before my weakness where fairytales for grownups are concerned. Gaimon’s newest book makes an excellent addition to this list. It is the book I want to write when I grow up.
This is a slim novel about a young boy living in an old house on a country lane in England. On the surface of the story, you’ll find a fairy ring, three generations of mysterious, ageless women, and an evil housekeeper/creature. Beneath the surface, you’ll find a boy growing into a man, a family breaking apart, and all the big questions about life and death and loss and the meaning of it all.
This is what I love about fairytales: something small and simple like the death of a beloved kitten is at the same time something big and meaningful and important. It is both. This is a novel exactly like the ocean at the end of the lane: it is so much bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside.
‘Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.’
‘Oh, monsters are scared,’ said Lettie. ‘That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups …’
– Neil Gaimon
My love for books about food (a category not to be confused with actual cookbooks) is well documented on this blog. A new-to-me classic of this genre is Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries).
These essays are part memoir, part hilarious confession, part cookbook, and, well, I’m sure a few other secret ingredients have been added to the mix, but the result is delightful.
Colwin was a writer and a home cook. Her book is funny, informative, and mouth-watering. Most of all, it’s a book that makes me just that much happier in my kitchen and at my table. Good things happen at the table, whether we’ve cooked our meal on a hot plate or a community center’s professional oven. Colwin knows this and celebrates it. And I love her for it.
The ultimate nursery food is beef tea; I have not had it since I was a child, and although I could easily have brewed myself a batch, I never have yet. I am afraid that my childhood will overwhelm me with the first sip or that I will be compelled to sit down at once and write a novel in many volumes. – Laurie Colwin
Here’s a book I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about, but maybe you have yet to pick it up? It’s Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books), the first in the series begun in 1940 by Maud Hart Lovelace.
I somehow missed this one as a child. My firstborn (recently turned ten) nearly missed it. But, thank heavens, we rectified that error in time. This may be a book well suited for little girls (ages four to eight, perhaps?), but, really, we are never too old to snuggle on the couch and read about childhood through the eyes of best friends Betsy and Tacy.
This is an old-fashioned book full of old-fashioned pleasures. Playing paperdolls. Building a backyard house out of a piano crate. Filling old bottles with rainbows of colored sand. It isn’t a life without hardship or sorrow, but it is a life made beautiful by friendship and imagination.
I’m not sure we’ll make it to the end of the series (Betsy’s Wedding? Maybe not). But this first book is a treasure.
Besides the little glass pitcher, she got colored cups and saucers, a small silk handkerchief embroidered with forget-me-nots, pencils and puzzles and balls. But the nicest present she received was not the usual kind of present. It was the present of a friend. It was Tacy.
And I am sorry. I wanted to give you metaphors that sing, but I have only this empty page and a blinking cursor. This is doubly unfortunate because today’s essay was intended for the column at Living the Story. In other words, today’s essay had a deadline.
I feel embarrassed by this blank page, as if it exposes something of which I am deeply ashamed. It seems to matter more than a blank page should.
This page is my life, I think. I rush and worry, trying to fill it up with words. I am terrified that I might run out of words.
Typically, I fill my empty pages quickly. So quickly, in fact, I rarely notice their emptiness. That this page has stayed blank longer than most, I blame on my ragged throat and tissue-burned nose. I blame it on my flexible work-from-home husband who was not, this week at least, able to work from home. I blame it on the baby girl whose cough matches my own.
She knows the baby signs for “milk” and “more” and “banana” but not for “sick.” I have to read it in the way she clings to me, the way she asks for food then tosses it down, the way she makes it impossible for me to live. Because isn’t my life composed of tasks ticked off, essays written, deadlines met? Which means today my life is not being lived. It means today this essay is not being written.
Or is it?
Perhaps even our blank pages have stories to tell?
I hope you’ll click through to read the rest of this one for the Living the Story column at the website BibleDude.
While you’re there, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know you stopped by.
If this room were hanging on the wall of a museum, like a painting, I would call it “After the Celebration.”
The fabric birthday banner is draped over a dining room chair (having fallen, gracefully, from the top of the china cabinet). A pile of gift bags, in shades of pink and purple, is stacked on the floor waiting for a return trip to the third-floor closet. I think there may still be a few candles, slick with the crumbs of a cinnamon-apple cake, hiding beneath the birthday cards lined up across the tabletop.
I am not yet ready to sweep away the remains of this past year or the party with which we ended it. I am following the trail of these crumbs trying to piece together the story of my baby girl’s first year.
I suppose it is more my story than hers. One day she will look at photos from this day and feel utterly disconnected from the beautiful baby in the pink dress. If I can discover the story, the meaning that lurks in a messy pile of remembered odds and ends, I can pass it on to her.
A better gift, I think, than any doll or keepsake book or slice of cake.
I don’t have what it takes (and what does it take? Time? Skill? Dedication?) to pray long or complicated prayers for my children. Instead, I ask for a verse, I write it on an index card, and I pray it just whenever I find myself sitting at my desk.
All year my prayer for this child (my second daughter, my last of four babies) has been less of a prayer and more of a long exhalation of gratitude. I have prayed this: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).
However, this story doesn’t begin with longing. It begins with my determination not to ask or desire. It begins with a hole in my heart where longing should have been.
After the birth of our third, I gave away the baby things. I packed clothes in boxes and mailed them off. I left books at the used-book store. I sold the pricy breast pump on consignment.
This made perfect sense. Having finally earned my PhD, I was embarking on a career that left little space for more babies. I would soon round the corner of my late 30s. But beneath the reasonableness was something much darker: fear.
I had three children, but I had never conceived without doctor visits, invasive tests, medications. Even the surprise of my third pregnancy arrived only after months of tearful prayers.
I had always assumed we’d have another daughter. I sometimes remembered the tiny pink things I had packed away years before, but when I tried to imagine praying for another baby, waiting for another baby, I couldn’t.
Whatever store of desire had fueled my prayers for three children I had used it all up. I was empty, so I gave away every last object that might say hope.
Here, then, is the beginning of the story.
It is the quiet, twilit hour of bedtime. I am sitting at the end of my daughter’s turquoise bedspread. Her face is lost in shadow, but I can hear her voice clearly: “I want a sister.”
I have heard these same words before. I have heard them many times. I think it is exasperation that prompts my reply, but I wonder now if it was my own desperation?
I tell her, “I can’t give you a sister. Only Jesus gives babies. If you want a sister, you have to ask him.”
You might think this memory became meaningful only in hindsight. But that is not the truth. I knew something had happened as soon as the words left my mouth. It felt as if a boulder had shifted. Where there had been nothing within me but irritation there was something new.
Was it desire? Was it hope? I’m not sure I can name it, but it felt like this: pain.
My daughter prayed, and here is where hindsight does color this memory. Looking back, I really cannot say whether it was her prayer being offered or my own.
“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.”
I Samuel 1:27
*first photo by Kelli Campbell, second photo by Christie Purifoy
When I turned 29, I ate coconut cupcakes.
They were baked by my mother, in my kitchen, with my daughter. They were brought to my maternity ward hospital room by my pastor and his wife. That day I ate coconut cupcakes and introduced you to my dearest friends.
Tomorrow, June 23, you and I will celebrate.
I made those same coconut cupcakes this week. I shared them with neighbors and sneaked more than a few myself after your bedtime, but, tomorrow, we won’t eat coconut cupcakes. We will share a dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free birthday cake with Lego-shaped candles.
In the hospital, the day you were born, the nurse looked at the date on my admission bracelet and said, “Here is a son who will never forget his mother’s birthday.”
Tomorrow, I will probably remind you two or three times that it is also my birthday. But you are seven, and I do not mind all that much. Because you are the best birthday gift I have ever been given.
There is a story behind those words. A story to which I return every year on this day.
It is a story first of all about longing. I wanted a baby. I wanted a sibling for our daughter, but my body refused to cooperate. I had thought after our first experience, after the diagnosis and the referral to a good specialist, that the second time would be easy. We understood the problem, we would not wait to pursue the solution.
It was not easy.
It was so much harder. Because the drugs in which I had placed my faith did not work, it was also more hopeless.
Today, I am grateful for every month (months turning over into years) that I waited for you. Because of those months, the words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Now when I imagine, like all the parents in this world, every horrible thing that might happen, I am not afraid. I know that God can meet us in the pain and there is nothing else like that encounter.
But our hearts are not so easily untangled from fear. After the miracle of your conception, fears I didn’t even know I had twisted my thoughts. I felt as if I owed so much to God, and I became convinced there would be some price to pay. I became convinced there was something wrong with you.
Until that day. That day, six months along, when a stranger placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. That day a river was unleashed and when I came up for air the fear was gone. I heard God’s own voice whisper: “This boy is a gift. A good and perfect gift. There is no price to pay.”
You’d think I would have known. Your due date was close enough to my own birthday. Why didn’t I guess?
Somehow, I never dreamed I would meet you for the first time on my birthday. God’s stories are so much better than the ones we imagine for ourselves.
Yes, you were born on my birthday. You were a good and perfect gift, given the day I turned 29.
Since that day, I have had reason to be afraid. So have you. I have given you food with my own hand and seen the fear in your eyes as your throat begins to swell. I have called 911 on your behalf too many times to count. I have seen how tiny you seem lying there on an emergency-room bed.
And yet I have never questioned those whispered words.
There is nothing wrong with you. Not really. You are, indeed, perfectly made. The worst thing can happen, but the Love who made you will take care of you. I pray always that you will be healed, but I know my prayers have been answered before I ever prayed them.
We have journeyed from coconut cupcakes to blue marshmallow cakes to gluten-free bakery cakes with Lego-shaped candles, and now I know these three things:
God is good.
There is no need to be afraid.
And this: our lives are stories, and these stories are written by Love.
I think this is the first Friday evening when I have not been excited to sit down and give you another peak at my bookshelves. The reason? I’m in the middle of a new book, and I would really rather be reading.
My internet connection was out all day, and I was secretly thrilled. It meant I felt a little less guilty propping the baby in her bouncy seat and getting back to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
However, since I have one of you to thank for this book recommendation, and I want to keep the good times rolling, here are three more books for your reading pleasure.
Today, I’m giving you characters.
When I read novels what I want more than anything – more than a great plot or beautiful language – is character. I want human beings who are so fully realized, so perfectly flawed yet sympathetic, that I struggle to believe they have been created out of nothing more than the alphabet.
Cassandra Mortmain is a marvel of a narrator. She is the wonderfully awkward heroine of Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. The incredible thing about this novel is that the narrator, who hovers somewhere between childhood and adulthood, does not know herself and yet she fully reveals herself to us. We have only her words, but we know things she is only slowly discovering.
This novel is sweet, funny, and over-the-top in so many good ways. We have a crumbling English castle, first love, eccentrics around every corner, and poverty that is a little worse than genteel. Cassandra, like the story she tells, is a gem.
And no bathroom on earth will will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate. – Dodie Smith
Next, I give you a character who is much darker and more mysterious. He is a young, Irish police detective, and he is the narrator of In the Woods by Tana French.
French writes what some have called “literary mystery thrillers.” Literary is a rather inadequate word, but what it should tell you is that French is an incredible writer. In particular, she has a gift for characters.
Although the plot will keep you turning pages late at night (my life pretty much comes to a standstill whenever French publishes a new book), if you value plot (especially those of the neat and tidy variety) you may be disappointed.
I think I love French’s books because, though they are atmospheric and wildly creative, I find them to be more honest than most mysteries. French gives us compelling characters and page-turning stories, but she does not pretend that all mysteries can be solved, that all questions can be answered, or that the past can always be known.
What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie. – Tana French
I am always amazed that one small island can produce so many gifted writers. Here is another: the Irish writer Colm Toibin. Brooklyn: A Novel is told by Eilis Lacey. She is a young woman who has grown up in a small Irish town just after the second world war. Sponsored by a priest, Lacey leaves her family and goes, alone, to make a new life in America.
This is a quiet book. Beginning it, you may find it too easy to put it down and forget to pick it up again. Don’t do this: you are in the hands of a master. Turning pages you will begin to care for Eilis, you will see the world through her naive but curious eyes, and you will know, having turned the last page, that you have been richly rewarded.
‘She has gone back to Brooklyn,’ her mother would say. – Colm Toibin
Tell me, who are the characters you especially love?
You can find earlier recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, week six, week seven, and week eight.