My children returned to school this week.
Monday morning I took their photograph on the front steps and wondered if anything in creation grows and changes faster than a child. Of course, I know the answer is yes, many things.
The dahlias in my flower garden need only one summer to grow from potato-like tuber to five feet of sunset color. Strange mushrooms beside the wood pile require a scant few hours of darkness. The baby ducks my sisters gave me as a birthday gift in late June now wander the yard with a heavy, side-to-side waddle and consume twice as much food one week as the week before.
Right now, the whole world feels shot through with urgency. Zinnias are on a mission to bloom and dry and drop their dusty seeds. The American political landscape has become so tumultuous I hold my morning paper at arm’s length, nervous about what new controversy may have erupted overnight. A hurricane parked itself on the landscape of my childhood and young adulthood, and if I had had a thousand boats I would not have been able to rescue every person I know by name who was watching floodwaters rise.
I can’t keep up. I can’t keep my grip. Not on the children. Or the issues. Not even on the tomatoes growing in my garden. Too many drop to the ground and rot before I can bring them inside. A few more turn to puddles on my countertop before my husband, pizza-maker extraordinaire, can cook them into sauce. But what is a tomato puddle compared with a one-in-five hundred-year flood?
Who has time for small things and slow things when it feels as if the world is spinning faster than ever before?
A world hurtling from grief to grief needs speed and rescue boats. But I have only the slow work of placing one word upon another.
No boats. Only books.
I am writing another book.
In this story, this imagery, and this message, I feel as if I have tapped into floodwaters, and I am so grateful to the folks at Zondervan for partnering with me to shape these waters into something beautiful and meaningful.
But the protracted and plodding work of writing and publishing has left me feeling as if I’ve stepped out of a fast-moving river in order to bury my head in a backwater eddy. Every day, I must remind myself how much words matter.
Speed has a way of devaluing our language. In a crisis, we grab the first word close at hand. We don’t trouble ourselves over nuance or precision.
This is unsustainable, and if we don’t resist, we can undermine our true identity and our purpose in the world.
Who are we? We are those who “have tasted the goodness of the word of God” (Hebrews 6:5).
But too many of us are still hungry. Too many of us have forgotten we were ever invited to feast.
I suppose even rescue boats require time to build. Compared with dahlias and ducklings, boats and books need much more than a single summer. The helpers and rescuers may leap into action, but they do so on boats that have been built and maintained with care. They do so according to plans that have been prepared and practiced over decades.
Rescue is also a kind of discipline.
The world is saved through slow work (raising babies, restoring buildings, writing books). The world is saved through the quick and ephemeral (preaching sermons, delivering water). There is urgency, but it is not for every one of us on every single day.
The world is always spinning, always moving, shifting, and changing. Right now I feel the curl and curve of it beneath my feet, and, occasionally, I stumble.
But for the next few months, I will go on stumbling back to this chair and back to this overcrowded desk. I will do this because I believe when Jesus said “my words will never pass away,” he invited each one of us to root our words (our conversations, our social media posts, our books) in the Word. The same Word through whom all things were made and all things are being newly made.
See! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
Even now our language, full of grace and seasoned with salt, is being swept up to play its part in a new creation.
You probably know that I love to share about the books I’m reading just as often as I can, but it’s a rare day when I can tell you about a wonderful new book on friendship written by one of my oldest and dearest, real-life friends.
Never Unfriended: The Secret to Finding and Keeping Lasting Friendships by Lisa-Jo Baker
I want to tell you that Lisa-Jo was the perfect person to write this book because she is a perfect friend. I want to say this because she has always been such a very good friend to me. When we said goodbye many years ago, just before she and her husband left Chicago for Ukraine, I assumed our friendship would fade. But Lisa-Jo held on. And I will forever be grateful to her for that.
But I will not in fact tell you that Lisa-Jo wrote this book out of a place of perfection. I will not even tell you that she wrote it out of a place of personal strength. I know her well enough to know that she feels her own failures as a friend keenly, and that she has also felt the deep wounds only a friend can inflict.
Like most precious things, this book is the fruit of suffering and struggle. When Lisa-Jo reminds me that I am free to become a friend to others because I have found the most perfect friendship in Jesus, I listen.
I listen, because she knows this for herself, and because she tells the story so persuasively and so well.
One: Unity in a Divided World is the just-released book by Deidra Riggs. I don’t know Deidra nearly as well as I know Lisa-Jo (we are facebook friends who have never met in person), and yet, I know enough of Deidra, and of her wisdom and experience and passion, to know that this timely book should be embraced and widely read.
If you are troubled by the rancor and divisions that seem so prevalent today, here is a book to inspire you and challenge you to pursue the reconciling way of Jesus.
Whether you’ve never heard of the Enneagram or have read every book about it you can get your hands on, I highly recommend this new book by Ian Morgan Cron (the author of one of my favorite memoirs!) and Suzanne Stabile.
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery is probably the most user-friendly introduction to the Enneagram I have read. Not only that, it is wonderfully written (in fact, this book is proof that instructive nonfiction can feature insanely good writing).
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system with roots in Christian monasticism. I have personally found it to be a powerful tool for gaining self understanding and, perhaps most importantly, compassion and even gratitude for those who are very different from me.
I am slowly reading my way through Anne Fadiman’s book At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. I am reading slowly only because I am making myself read slowly. I want to devour these delightful, witty, intelligent essays like a bowl of ice cream (and Fadiman even has an essay on ice cream!), but I also want this treat to last as long as possible.
Tell me, do you read nonfiction?
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Today, this little book of mine turns one. Alas, I did not bake a cake, but I might have to do something about that later today.
For those of you who haven’t yet picked up a copy of Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, it’s a love letter to an old farmhouse called Maplehurst and an invitation to discover the wonder of a God who would choose to make his home with us. You can read all about the book right here.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that “These Farmhouse Bookshelves” is my occasional series of book recommendations. In honor of my own book’s first birthday, I thought I’d tell you about a few just-released books as well as some old favorites of mine.
In Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, Amy Peterson has written a different kind of missionary memoir. This isn’t a triumphant tale of changing the world, rather it is honest, thoughtful writing about a missionary learning to rest in her own belovedness. A great book for world-changers as well as the ones who feel a little more ordinary than that.
In Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk, Michelle DeRusha has written a biography of one of the most influential marriages in history. Compulsively readable and thoroughly researched, here is a book for those interested in history and theology as well as for those who simply love a good story, well told.
The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church That Has Abandoned It is a timely new release from Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Having suffered from their own misplaced desires for relevance and influence, Goggin and Strobel go in search of a better way. A mix of storytelling, theology, and personal interviews, here is wisdom for these days from J.I. Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, John Perkins, Jean Vanier, James Houston, and Eugene Peterson.
Finally, I have two more seasonally appropriate suggestions.
Though I rarely reread fiction, I have read and reread The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder many times since I discovered it as a child. This true tale of how Laura and her pioneer family survived the historic winter of 1880-81 is the most exciting of the Little House books. I am about to begin reading this one aloud to my own kids.
The writer Laura Brown has organized an online book discussion for The Long Winter on her website MakesYouMom.com. I may even contribute an audio file of me reading aloud from the book (then you’ll know just what my children have to put up with! Wink, wink). All the information on the book club is right here.
And if reading about winter is too much for you during winter, or if you live in Texas or Australia where it’s either summer or feeling like summer, I suggest one of my favorite novels: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. This coming-of-age story set in the post-war French countryside is as delicious as the ripe plums that give the book its title. Tense, atmospheric, exciting, and intelligent, I love this story in any season. You can read my full review on Goodreads.
I love the book so much I ordered a Greengage plum tree for my own backyard. It should arrive for planting in March.
Tell me, what are you reading these days?
After Shawn’s accident in mid-January, I hardly read a thing. I would sometimes pick up a book, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to read it. Life was too heavy, and it wasn’t possible to slow down without feeling the weight of it all. If I sat still in a chair for five minutes, I would feel that weight settle until my arms would lower and I had set my book aside.
Since we returned from the burial in Texas, I’ve been reading almost constantly. I am weary in my bones, tired out by grief and small talk. Temporarily at least, it is a relief to let myself fall, forgetfully, into the world of a book.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is simple yet searing, a short novel that consists almost entirely of one young woman’s reminiscences and conversations while recovering from an illness in the hospital. For so many reasons, this is my literary ideal. I read the entire thing in awe that Strout could shape the most ordinary words and experiences into something so powerful. Lucy Barton’s voice will be in my head for a long while.
I did not choose to read Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir because of our experiences as a family during the past few months. I’m fairly certain I put a library hold on the title without remembering the subject, and it was delivered to my local library branch a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Alexander is a well known poet (I remember appreciating the poem she wrote for the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration), and this is a memoir about her marriage, her husband’s unexpected death, and the first year of life without him.
Honestly, it’s the kind of book I tend to avoid (too sad!), and there has certainly been no forgetfulness while reading it. Yet, I am so glad it found it’s way to me now. It’s as much about marriage as it is about loss, and Alexander’s observations and descriptions of both are exquisite. There is a great deal of joy in this book: the joy of cooking and eating, of making art, of gardening, and the joy of witnessing your children’s growth. Alexander is open about not being a religious person, and yet her poetic sensibility and her faith in the truthfulness of poetic logic gives this honest book a spiritual weightiness that I appreciated very much.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson couldn’t be more different. This hilarious domestic memoir (those savages are Jackson’s four children) is from the queen of the creepy tale. You’ve probably read her famous short story The Lottery. Her books We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are wonderful, spooky classics.
Life Among the Savages, published in 1953, describes another world (pregnant mothers who are never far from their cigarettes and children who play cowboys and Indians with television swagger), but it is hilarious precisely because it describes so well the day to day insanity of life with small children.
My strongest feeling while reading this book was gratitude. Somehow, Jackson’s deadpan delivery and knack for dialogue reminded me how sweet this phase of life can be. Yes, our houses are a mess and children possess an illogic that cannot be reasoned with, but, this book seems to say, isn’t it wonderful?
In my own book news, you can listen to an interview I recently gave about Roots and Sky. Here is my conversation with Cara Strickland for Off the Page. We talk about writing, home, seasons, liturgy, and family.
And, you are all invited to join the Summer Book Club at Grace Table. This summer’s pick is Roots and Sky, and the conversation takes place in June. Sign up today!
Now tell me: which books are saving your life lately?
Alaska is far away.
Maybe you think you know this, but however far away you imagine Alaska to be, double that. Because Alaska is really, really far away.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a week with other writers on a remote Alaskan island. I wish that each of you could have the chance to be dazzled by the Alaskan sun and scoured by the Alaskan wind. I wish that you could taste King salmon only just pulled from the water.
If a two-day journey isn’t an option for you, what about a book instead?
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Here is a memoir of that same remote island. It is also one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America by Leslie Leyland Fields is the story of a young woman from New Hampshire struggling to make a home and a marriage on a primitive and remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.
This is a memoir of marriage, motherhood, spirituality, and poetry. It is also a memoir of wilderness and the dangerous and exhausting work of commercial salmon fishing.
Even if you can’t imagine enjoying a book about fishing (much less actual fishing!) I highly recommend this book. The writing is stellar, the story captivating, and the whole thing is edged with lyricism.
This is the most particular and most universal of stories. Now, I too, am asking the question at the heart of this book: how do we bear the terrible, beautiful grace that sustains our lives?
This was where we unraveled the rest of our lives, it seemed, even as we sewed up the holes in the nets. There was something about this space, about standing out there on the beach under the open sky – the clouds or sun, mountains on every horizon, though it was ocean all the way to the edge. The walls were gone, how could there be a larger space to stand in, and yet, it became a sort of confessional. – Leslie Leyland Fields
I picked up another Alaska memoir in the bookstore at the Anchorage airport: Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles by Heather Lende. This one reads more like a collection of personal essays than a cohesive memoir. The tone is cozy and, at times, a little too cute, but Lende’s work as an obituary writer for her small-town paper lends the book some serious depth.
Lende organizes her chapters around the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but she incorporates other traditions as well, such as Buddhism or Native American spirituality.
I kept this one tucked in the seatback pocket on the long flight from Anchorage to Seattle. At one point, my seatmate asked if she could read it, and I passed it over. She laughed out loud for the rest of the flight.
It’s a good book.
I wonder if to be human is to know that we can’t ever banish pain and ugliness from the world, only learn from it and create something beautiful and good out of it – like the newest totem pole in Sitka, the one called ‘You Are Going to Get Well.’ If you ever see it, you will believe that’s possible. – Heather Lende
One of the guest writers at the Alaska workshop was the novelist Bret Lott. You can’t go wrong picking up any of his fiction (I adore the strange, hilarious, heartbreaking first story in his collection The Difference Between Women and Men: Stories), and his novel Jewel was once an Oprah Book Club pick.
I especially recommend his latest, a collection of essays called Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.
For writers, his essay “On Precision” is outstanding. For everyone, the final long essay on the death of his father is beautifully crafted. I aspire to write personal essays like this one.
As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know. – Bret Lott
I have two bonus recommendations for you today. The first is Girl Meets Change: Truths to Carry You through Life’s Transitions by Kristen Strong, a pretty and practical book for any woman who struggles with life’s transitions.
The second is the most recent book from Emily P. Freeman: Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. I don’t think anyone writes Christian formation quite like Emily. Her writing is accessible but also lovely, straightforward but rich and wise.
In my eagerness to read it, I mistakenly ordered two copies. Leave a comment here, and I will enter your name in a drawing to win one of those copies. A winner will be notified by email.
Tell me, friends. Read any good books lately?