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I moved to this old farmhouse with dreams of a garden, but it wasn’t a flower garden. What an extravagant dream that would have been. I was a garden do-gooder. If you had asked me to place a spiritual value on a box of seed packets, tomatoes for canning and cucumbers for pickling would have risen right to the top. Morning glories were an indulgence.
Extravagance is something I have had to learn.
Jesus told us he came to give us life. But not just enough life to scrape by. Not a pinched and narrow life. Life to the full. Abundant life. Life like a cup overflowing.
Life like a garden bursting with flowers.
There is a ministry of flowers. I don’t think I can yet claim it as my own. If I practice it, it is only in small ways. A bouquet for a neighbor here. A flower photo on instagram there.
These days, the ministry of flowers is God’s ministry to me. The flowers that grow here at Maplehurst have become an emblem of God’s wild love and evidence of his generative presence on this earth. They are extravagant. Foolish in their ephemeral beauty. Profuse and profligate and anything but practical.
But this is a post about books.
And it is a post about the ministry of cake.
D. L. Mayfield is one of my favorite online writers. Her first book comes out today, and it is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and wise collection of personal essays.
Assimilate Or Go Home shows us how Mayfield’s own do-gooder dream deflated, not in the garden but on the mission field. In her own words:
The more I failed to communicate the love of God to my refugee friends, the more I experienced it for myself. The more overwhelmed I felt as I became involved in the myriads of problems facing my friends who experience poverty in America, the less pressure I felt to attain success or wealth or prestige. And the more my world started to expand at the edges of my periphery, the more it became clear that life was more beautiful and more terrible than I had been told.
There are so many reasons to read this book, but I especially recommend it for Mayfield’s final reflections on the ministry of cake. Cake, like flowers, seems like a nonessential. In a world rocked by wars and rumors of wars, in a world of unbearable sorrows and grief, a world where too many people lack even basic necessities, what is the point of cake? I am reminded of Marie Antoinette. If we celebrate flowers or cake, if we celebrate at all, are we hopelessly out of touch? Extravagant to the point of selfishness?
Sometimes we must receive something in order to understand that it is worth giving. Because God gave me flowers, I tend those flowers and I give them away knowing that they matter. Mayfield wanted to give her refugee friends everything: answers, solutions, even the love of God, but they gave her cake and that changed everything.
Her most of all.
Here are two more book recommendations (one for cake and one for flowers). Perhaps they might help you to receive the love of God in more beautiful and more delicious ways.
This is my new favorite cookbook. It’s a book of seasonal desserts inspired by homegrown produce and farmer’s market bounty. As soon as I opened it, I wanted to bake my way from first page to last.
The banana and summer squash cake is my children’s new favorite cake. Seriously. Also, there is a cake recipe inspired by those apple cider doughnuts so beloved at Amish farmstands and pick-your-own apple orchards. Need I say more?
This beautiful book was a birthday gift to me from my sister Kelli. It is pretty and inspiring, but it’s also informative and practical. I still have so much to learn about floral design (okay, I still have everything to learn), but I’ve already implemented a few good tips and ideas from this book. Because the bouquet we take to a neighbor, and the flowers we arrange for our own bedside table, matter more than we know.
Tell me, what books are on your nightstand?
My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
No doubt most of you are not sitting under a foot of snow as we are here at Maplehurst, but early March days are still ideal reading days.
I’m reading mostly gardening books, which, I suppose, must mean that I am a very hopeful person. Or else that I am practiced in denial.
I have a stack of gardening books currently checked out from my library, including the coffee-table treasury Visions of Paradise by photographer Marina Schinz. It begins with these words:
To create a garden is to search for a better world. In our effort to improve on nature, we are guided by a vision of paradise. … This hope for the future is at the heart of all gardening.
I think this is true of gardening, but my late-winter prayer is that these words would be true in every area of my life. That my reading, my loving, my working – everything – be motivated by hope for the future.
The following post contains affiliate links. You can find all my book recommendations here.
My favorite book in that stack of gardening books is The Essential Earthman: Henry Mitchell on Gardening.
Henry Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post. This posthumous collection has been called “one of the great American gardening books,” and I absolutely agree. This is wonderful reading: informative, practical, hilarious, witty. In its own subtle way, it is brilliant.
Its appeal for gardeners is obvious, but as I read I decided the book was worthy of an even broader audience. Almost all of the pieces are wonderful examples of what newspaper opinion writing can be.
We can all learn something from Henry Mitchell. We might learn about planting peonies or which varieties of daffodil are the most glorious. Or, we might learn the subtle art of communicating one’s own strong opinions in the most disarming and entertaining way.
Dept. of Speculation (Vintage Contemporaries) by Jenny Offill is not like any other novel you have read. I am sure of that. It is more like one of those works of art that looks, from a distance, like a hyper-realist portrait but is, upon closer examination, found to be made up entirely of buttons or bottle caps.
From a distance, this is the story of a marriage that is falling apart. Now, I know that sounds entirely too depressing for late-winter, but the full arc of the story is hopeful and beautiful.
But close up? This is a strange collection of thoughts and facts and memories. I tend not to like experiments in fiction, James Joyce excepted, of course. But when an experiment works, it really, really works. And this one works.
There is nothing self-indulgent about Offill’s writing. Instead, she has found a new way to tell a familiar story, and the result is astonishing.
I sometimes postpone writing these book recommendation posts because I worry that I haven’t read enough new, great books. I forget that the premise, when I began, was simply to tell you about the books on my shelves. Or, more accurately, the books taken off the shelves and left lying near beds and armchairs.
We’ve loved Mary Ann Hoberman’s picture book The Seven Silly Eaters for years, but this book has recently come off the shelf for round after round of reading. Elsa loves it, but my nearly-six and nearly-nine-year-old boys come like moths to a flame when they hear me reading it.
We are big fans of other Hoberman books, especially A House Is a House for Me and The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems, but The Seven Silly Eaters is special. It’s the rhyming story of a tired mother with seven picky-eaters for children, but, like all great picture books, it offers so much more. Every illustration tells a story of its own, and, I think, every family will find something of themselves in its pages.
Do you think your child is too old for picture books? Do you think you are too old for picture books? Then I recommend The Seven Silly Eaters as a very necessary corrective.
Happy reading, friends.
It’s the coldest weekend of the season for us here at Maplehurst.
The week did not begin well. The same night Jonathan left town for a business trip, the tank of heating oil that supplies our furnace ran dry.
Elsa and I spent the next morning wearing coats by the parlor fireplace waiting for an oil refill and a technician to restart our heating system.
However, the week ended with the installation of our much dreamed-about, much anticipated woodstove. It sits in our once freezing kitchen, but, as I type this from the kitchen table, the room is throbbing with warmth.
If you’re looking for any of us this weekend, you’ll find us here. In the kitchen. Feeding logs into the mouth of a cast-iron stove on four, pretty little legs, reading picture books and gardening books and the woodstove manual.
You’ll find us here, drinking coffee and cocoa, reading about mice who drink “acorn coffee” and deciding the very important question of whether or not acorn coffee might be something we’d like to try.
The following post contains affiliate links. You can find all my book recommendations here.
The acorn coffee appears in Winter Story (Brambly Hedge) by Jill Barklem, but we love every beautiful book in the Brambly Hedge series. You might begin with the four seasonal books (I am very fond of the June wedding of the miller mouse and the dairy-maid mouse that takes place on a bark raft floating at the edge of the stream), but don’t miss the other stories. My boys, especially, love to follow the winding staircase in one of the images from The Secret Staircase (Brambly Hedge).
These books are thirty years old, but they were old-fashioned when they appeared. They celebrate English seasonal folk customs as depicted in a community of hedge-dwelling mice. The mice wear straw hats and drink delicate, floral wines. There is a lord and lady and a palace, but they store their food communally in a stump. They enjoy picnics and outings to pick blackberries. Do I need to say more?
I will say more but only this: it is the highly detailed illustrations that make these books so magical. Every intricate twist in a mouse cottage burrow is depicted in delicious detail. A patch of trees lights up with tiny mouse windows. A cottage kitchen drips with stored crabapples, homemade jam, and embroidered tea towels.
I pretty much want to move in to Brambly Hedge.
One of the most surprising and inspiring books I’ve read this winter is Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson. Recommended by a friend who studied with Peterson at Eastern University, this is a book about the spiritual value of housekeeping. It is for men and women, married and single, university students, empty-nesters … what I’m trying to say is that this book offers something important and encouraging to anyone who has ever found themselves with a dirty dish in their hand or a bed in need of making.
As someone who values the home but loathes just about every task associated with keeping one (I tolerate laundry, I despise cleaning, I rarely make my bed), this book completely reoriented the way I see my home and the work involved in caring for it. I’ve always said that washing dishes can be holy work, but I don’t think I ever really believed it, until I read this.
Keeping House is rich in theology, but it is clearly written, thoroughly accessible, and seasoned with personal stories. I loved it. I can’t recommend it enough.
One book I’ll keep close to the woodstove this weekend is Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. This is an enormous, treasure of a book, and it is not inexpensive. Even though I was cashing in a gift card, I still debated quite a bit before I hit purchase.
But, wow! I am so glad I did. This book is the work of a lifetime, particularly of famed botanist Michael Dirr’s lifetime, and you will not find a more exhaustive, thoroughly researched, delightfully written, well-photographed book of trees, shrubs, and vines.
I love the personal, witty writing style (if a tree is rubbish for gardens, Dirr will let us know), I love reading the histories of familiar trees, I love the lists of particularly worthwhile varieties. I’ll be planting three crabapples this spring, and I’ve already chosen the named varieties based on Dirr’s descriptions.
If you aren’t quite ready for the financial commitment (not to mention the commitment of coffee-table space), you might prefer to read Dirr’s earlier volume Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. This is a smaller book (though not small), and the information is slightly less up-to-date, but it remains an excellent resource. Also, you should be able to find it at your library.
Today, I have one bonus recommendation. Dawn Camp’s just-released collection The Beauty of Grace: Stories of God’s Love from Today’s Most Popular Writers is lovely. It is brimming over with brief reflections from some of my favorite Christian bloggers. I love that this book gathers some of the best of ephemeral internet writing and gives it permanence.
I think this book would make an especially fine gift. I love giving books as gifts, but sometimes it is difficult to find just the right book match. This book solves that problem entirely. Everyone will find something to love in this book. But my highest praise? It has earned a place by my bedside table.
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?