I write about me, my experiences, my own observations. Yet, somehow, I still manage not to tell you very much about myself.
Danielle Ayers Jones, writer, photographer, and an all-around lovely woman, is helping to rectify that. Danielle has posted an interview with me as part of her blog series Inspire: Women Who Create.
It is, as the title suggests, an inspiring series. I feel pleased and privileged to be a part of it.
If you have any interest in my personal and creative journey, in my upcoming book, or just want to see a photo of my cute kids (they are cute, even if we never do manage to capture all four smiling at once), I very much hope you’ll read all about it.
I grew up in Texas. In that place, it is possible to be surprised by spring. A river of bluebonnets might bubble up overnight. A heatwave might suddenly stake its claim on a handful of early February days.
Here, among rolling Pennsylvania hills, spring is never a surprise.
We wait so long for spring, and its coming is so slow, that no change appears without being watched from a great distance and for a long while. The view from my office window today is as brown and bleak as ever, but for days, weeks, even, I have watched the buds on the forsythia swell.
The snowdrops in the lawn do tend to pop up without warning, but no sooner have I noticed them than my two-year-old daughter has flattened the whole patch with one pink, rubber boot.
Observing a northern spring, I realize how small a great, new beginning can be. I dream of spring all winter, but the dream comes true only in fits and starts. In much waiting and a great deal of work with shovels, rakes, and pruners.
I once dreamed of becoming a mother, but the dream was realized in sleepless nights and temper tantrums (hers and mine).
I once dreamed of a farmhouse home, and the dream came true as we cleared hornet nests from behind every window shutter and poison ivy from every fence and tree.
I once dreamed of becoming a writer, and that dream came true through the slow, daily accumulation of words.
But dreams are like spring.
There will always be some moment of joyful recognition. Some moment when the dream drifts down around you. Light, like dandelion fluff, but real enough to see and touch.
Perhaps when the baby says I love you. When a friend says your home is so peaceful. Or, maybe, when you read the proposed back-cover copy for your book and burst into tears. Because, for the first time, the book with your name on it sounds, even to you, like a good book. Like the kind of book you would love.
It is like the moment when the magnolia opens its first pink blooms. It won’t matter then that I’ve been studying those gray buds all winter. It won’t matter that I noticed the first narrow edge of pink weeks ago.
I have lived enough springs to know that I will always greet that moment with astonishment.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I’m afraid it’s been too long since I wrote anything new for this, my occasional series of Saturday book recommendations.
Truthfully, I’ve been reading up a storm, but it all felt so weirdly personal. Either I was reading very particular books intended to fuel my own book writing, or I was escaping into novels that seemed either too lightweight or too well known (or both!) to be worth mentioning.
But then I realized something. The only thing really holding me back from writing another addition to this series was pride. Pride because I didn’t feel I’d been reading anything earth-shattering enough, or esoteric enough, or special enough. As if I share book recommendations in this space in order to cultivate a certain self-image.
But pride is so boring. My own pride, especially. So, I’m kicking it aside and telling you, honestly, what I’ve been reading. It’s an oddball pile of books, but I think you might just find something you like. I know I did.
(P.S. These posts contain affiliate links. Find all my book recommendations here.)
I first read A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell months ago on a good friend’s recommendation. Hubbell is a university-librarian-turned-beekeeper in rural Missouri. This book offers four seasons worth of reflections rooted in her mountain home. It’s a quiet book. A plain book. But it sticks with you. Lately, I’ve been rereading it, hoping that some of Hubbell’s no-nonsense, beautifully observant style will wear off on me.
The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is new to me, though it was released a few years ago. Wilson-Hartgrove is probably best known as one of the so-called “New Monastics.” He writes simply and straightforwardly about his choice to stay in an impoverished, urban neighborhood. The book offers an easy introduction to monastic spirituality and what that might look like for us today. That is, it’s easy to read and Wilson-Hartgrove’s storytelling is easy to enjoy, but the stability he describes is hard. The kind of hard I want and need and hope to spend the rest of my life learning.
My love for picture books is well documented in this space. I’ve told you before that I think we push chapter books too often and too early. Quality picture books are not only works of art, but they tend to aim at a higher level of storytelling and language. All the Places to Love by Patricia Maclachlan is no exception.
This one was recommended to me by another friend. It isn’t new, but I’d never encountered it until this year. The art feels slightly dated, but that is a small, small quibble with a beautiful book. This one makes me cry. Every time. It isn’t a sad story; it’s a lovely story. Reading this book you realize just how heart-breakingly beautiful are our small lives and small homes and ordinary days. This book is for anyone who has ever loved some special place, and, especially, for anyone who has ever shared that love of place with another.
I’m reading a lot of heavy, heady stuff right now, but if my own book is inspired by anything I hope it is inspired by this picture book.
Anyone ready for a big, fat, fun novel? Liane Moriarty’s novels always fit the bill. I’ve told you before how much I loved What Alice Forgot, and Moriarty’s latest, Big Little Lies, is another excellent, fun, funny, thought-provoking romp. This one tackles the heavy topic of domestic violence, but does so with such a uniquely hilarious Moriarty touch that you can’t help but be charmed even as you find your eyes being opened, your heart softened.
This isn’t high-art by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Moriarty is a genius.
Tell me, what’s sitting on your shelf these days?
Some beginnings are brown. There is nothing fresh or new about them.
Take autumn, for instance. In my mind, it begins with the first gilded edge on the giant magnolia tree. In my mind, it begins with the weeping willow’s coppery sheen.
Apparently, my mind is wrong. Has been wrong for all these years. Because autumn is beginning, and it is brown.
It is brown where the seed pods rattle in the flowerbeds. It is brown where the first leaves have fallen and turned crispy. They were overeager. They could not wait for their orange or red transformation. The reward for their impatience is to be mistaken for dull oak leaves rather than the vivid maples they are.
Some have asked how the book writing is progressing. I tell them all the same thing. I tell them I have written a lot of words, and I despise every one of them.
The response to my honesty has been, universally, a wide-eyed look of concern. I appreciate the concern. It draws out the nurturer in me. I want to pat each friend on the hand, I want to pat myself on the hand, and say, “There, there. I think it will be okay. It is only that some beginnings are brown.”
Beginnings rarely make a clean break with endings. The two are usually muddled together.
It can all be a bit discouraging without eyes to see. I am praying for eyes to see.
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)
Do not dwell on the past.
What relief there is in those words. How light is their burden.
Light enough that we are able to keep walking. Perhaps even with a spring in our step, which, as you know, is a sign of anticipation. We know we are closer.
Every day brings us closer to that place where the water runs fast and clear.
“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.
The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.
It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.
Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.
Because no dream lives that has not yet died.
Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.
I prefer to call it planting.
First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.
That is the seed.
Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.
We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.
Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.
This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.
This is how we live with dry bones.
Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.
T.S. Eliot warned us:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.
But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.
I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.
On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.
It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.
Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.
We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.
Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.
Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:
Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.
I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.
And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.
Let it be, let it be, let it be.