It has turned suddenly cold and windy. Cold enough that we considered firing up the woodstove in our kitchen this morning.
It has also turned dark. Thanks to a nor’easter, we’ve had rain and clouds for days. The sun rises noticeably later. It sets before any of us are at all ready.
It feels like October. Which is right on schedule, I suppose. Isn’t it comforting when nature’s patterns prove reliable?
This week I went to one of our local farm markets and filled my cart with pie pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, and Concord grapes. Now what I really need to do is stock up my nightstand with fresh books for autumn. Dark nights were made for books.
If you’d like to do the same, here are a few I’ve picked up recently.
Earth Works: Selected Essays by Scott Russell Sanders is an excellent collection of thoughtful essays by one of the best writers working in that genre. For the price of one book, these thirty essays could keep you company all winter. Like most of the best things in life, they should be appreciated slowly (however, I’m sure you will be tempted to gulp them down. But don’t! They are too wise, too lovely for that).
Sanders writes about houses and marriages. About the stars and beauty. He writes to discover, and the thing he wants to find, the question he seems most compelled to ask, is some variation on what it means to live well. How can we live in harmony with ourselves, with one another, and with this beautiful, astonishing planet that is our home?
All of us ponder our lives. … Essayists choose to do such reflecting, remembering, and imagining in public, on the page. – Scott Russell Sanders
Here is my new favorite book for little people: A Party for Pepper: A Hazelwood Forest Counting Book by Sarah Hartsig.
I discovered Hartsig, the artist behind the world of Hazelwood Forest, on Instagram, and I love her subject and style. If you enjoy Tasha Tudor and Beatrix Potter, you will love Hazelwood Forest, too.
I think we adults should buy picture books (and support talented artists) for ourselves, but I am fortunate to still have a small book-loving person in my life, so the choice, for me, was easy. I gave A Party for Pepper to Elsa on her third birthday in September, and I can honestly tell you it was one of her favorite gifts. Numbers are her thing right now, so while I enjoyed the depictions of sweet animals taking tea, Elsa counted and counted the gorgeous watercolor numbers.
I am already eager to see what Hartsig creates next.
Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World by Suzanne Woods Fisher was sent to me by a friend who read my recent blog posts on simplicity. She thought I’d like this book, and she was right. I haven’t finished it yet (this, too, is a book best absorbed slowly), but I can already recommend it.
Here are stories from Amish lives and reflections on Amish belief and practice for the rest of us. The tone is respectful but not fawning, and the author, though not Amish herself, has family roots and ongoing relationships within a plain community. In other words, she is not a voyeur, nor does she think we should all be Amish. Rather, she knows these communities well, her own life has been enriched by their wisdom, and she is interested in sharing that wisdom with us.
The book is organized for small group discussions. At first, I skimmed the discussion questions that come at the end of each brief chapter, but it finally dawned on me how much I would love to read this book with a group. I know there are some aspects of my complicated life and world I take entirely for granted or view as entirely fixed.
Reading this with a group, I wonder if we might discover just how much we are not required to live the lives of overly busy consumers that our world demands?
We non-Amish types might object to having a church choose our house paint. The Ordnung seems confining and restrictive, invasive, even. It’s true that the Amish are not free to do some things. However, they are free from many others. – Suzanne Woods Fisher
On this same theme, I shared a story at the Art of Simple this week about slowing down to the pace of a horse-drawn buggy. It’s a story about slow travel and sacred places. It’s a story about placemaking. It surprised me as I wrote, and I am still pondering the ideas that emerged. I hope you’ll read it and ponder with me.
Happy Saturday, friends.
… 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
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.