(this post contains affiliate links)
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?
(an installment in my occasional series of book recommendations; this post contains affiliate links)
These are violent days. What good are books? Of what use is poetry?
In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet the poem itself complicates this view.
Poetry may or may not change a thing, but if we feel compelled to sing, why not sing, as Mary once sang, of justice?
If we feel compelled to read, why not shed the burden of our own particular skin and view the world through another’s eyes? For a little while?
Here is a poem for that.
Here is one more.
A favorite book on our family shelves is Brown Girl Dreaming, a recent Newbery Honor Book by Jacqueline Woodson. My twelve-year-old daughter and I both loved it. The poetry is accessible but incredibly rich.
In a similar vein, I recommend Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. Written in verse, this story communicates difficult truths and complicated historical experiences with grace and lyricism. It is one of the sweetest, saddest, loveliest books I have read.
When I was a new graduate student living on the south side of Chicago, I first read the classic 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was years ago, and I don’t remember the book very well. What I do remember is the shock I felt reading a novel told from the perspective of a nameless black man. For the first time in my life I recognized how the skin we walk around in can remake the world around us. I had never even imagined a world like the one inhabited by this invisible man, but there it was, and while I read the book, I lived in it.
Like most summers, this one is too loud, too crowded, too hot. But, as I write in Roots and Sky, this cuts two ways. There are also too many lilies in the garden and too many squash on the vine. My way of dealing with the too-muchness of it all is what I call “comfort-reading.” This means I am finding most of my reading material on the shelf at my local Goodwill thrift store: fifty cent Agatha Christie paperbacks, an old Martha Stewart gardening book without its carefully photographed jacket, an Englishman’s memoir of life in Provence that must have been on everyone’s beach-read list the summer of ’89.
I revisited the Goodwill bookshelves only yesterday and found two treasures. The first was a copy of The Taize Picture Bible: Stories From the Scriptures in almost perfect, vintage condition. I have heard such good things about this illustrated Bible for children over the years, but it has long been out of print. I paid $1.97 and couldn’t believe my luck.
The second was a pristine paperback copy of Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer, the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal. I didn’t buy it only because I recently found a vintage hardback of the same title at my local used bookstore. It has been our evening family read-aloud for a week now.
My ongoing quest to discover read-aloud books all four of my kids will submit to listening to (actually enjoying the book is a higher standard; I am satisfied if two of four children say they “like” the book) has recently met with failure upon failure. The last success I remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book that has a lot in common with Thimble Summer.
On the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. After my friend explained it was a book about an old house written by a landscape historian, she said, “I think you’ll like it.” I said, “I think you’re right.”
More factual and straightforward than a historical novel, yet much more readable and compelling than a history textbook, The Manor tells the story of one of the first great European houses in North America, and the family who lived in it and preserved its history for centuries. One house might not seem so important, but the door of this house opens up a story of northern slavery that has since been either forgotten or willfully ignored.
The first Sylvesters were Quakers, and the story of their lives is revising a story I have always taken pride in. My own farmhouse was built by Quakers, and I have long given credit for the beauty of this part of Pennsylvania to the generations of residents who have sown peace and justice into the very soil of this place. That story is still true, but The Manor tells an older, darker tale. According to this story, the blood of enslaved Africans touches every aspect of our earliest history and every one of my seemingly peaceful, green hills.
Seeds of brutality and injustice were sown into our country’s soil from its earliest days. It is a small thing to know that the atrocities of slavery on sugar plantations in Barbados could not have been sustained without the animals and crops raised on New England farms, yet somehow that knowledge has brought the shame of slavery home to my own heart.
Those Barbadian plantation owners lived in homes built like fortresses. They exploited, in fact, they brutalized their workers and so they feared them.
Slavery is long gone, but we still reap that terrible harvest. We worship safety. We are afraid of black men, but it is the black men, and their communities, who pay the price for our fear.
When I hear that one more police officer has killed one more black man, I cannot throw a stone at that officer. I remember how, years ago, fear would rise up in me if I followed the sidewalk beneath a graffiti-splattered viaduct and saw a young black man in baggy pants approaching from the other direction. It took years of living in that south-side Chicago neighborhood to learn that I was always so much safer than any of those young black men. In ten years, I was never the victim of a crime, but neighbor after neighbor, innocent after innocent, male and female but always black-skinned, died of gun violence while I lived, untouched, in their midst.
Separation breeds fear, and fear breeds violence.
But if violence is a failure of the imagination, as the poet William Stafford said, then perhaps poetry can make something happen?
Comfort-reading has its place, but I must also read to bring dark things into the light. Especially, those dark things in my own self.
What if we tuned our imaginations to the songs of others not like ourselves?
If poetry makes beauty and creates hope, can it also help us to act justly and love mercy?
Can it help us walk humbly with our God?
With these questions in mind, do you have any book recommendations for me?
If you are looking for a quick Saturday read, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “What Hospitality Looks Like In A Castle.”
It has been too windy and cold since Easter for much gardening. Asparagus crowns, strawberry plants, and a net sack of seed potatoes are all waiting, more patiently than I am, to be planted out. If April showers bring May flowers, then I am hoping April hail and snow really do the trick.
While the storms rage, I read up a storm indoors.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a new release by James K. A. Smith. I don’t tend to pick up books on Christian discipleship and spiritual formation, or, if I do, my attention wanders well before I’ve turned the final page. Though I haven’t quite finished this one, I’ve begun deliberately slowing my pace. I’m already certain I’ll be reading this a second time and passing it on.
Smith’s argument is at once self-evident and astonishing. It brings into sharp focus so many of the dynamics of my own spiritual journey.
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but most of us know, intuitively, that isn’t so. What we think touches only a small, small part of our lives. Love, desire, and worship are much more powerful forces in our lives, and we will never be transformed if we limit Christian discipleship to what we think about doctrine or articles of faith.
The difficult but ultimately beautiful truth explored in this book is that we do not always love who and what we think we love.
I read the first installment in the Duncan Kinkaid/ Gemma James mystery series, A Share in Death, a long time ago and promptly forgot about it. I enjoyed the story, but I forgot that what I appreciate most in a mystery series is the slow and subtle revelation of the central characters. This means that if I think a series has potential, I should read them in order and read at least the first two or three. I am so glad I recently picked up book two All Shall Be Well.
I don’t like the look of mass market paperbacks (perhaps because they all look the same to me?), but, despite appearances, this is a great series for fans of Louise Penny. Scotland Yard detective Duncan Kinkaid interviews suspects in a London of stewed tea and curry takeaways while Inspector Gamache enjoys tender baguettes in a quaint Quebec village, but I think they have a lot in common. These books are a great way to pass the time until Penny’s newest book comes out in August.
Next week I’ll be participating in the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Michigan. I’ll be speaking on a panel with Preston Yancey (I’ve heard his latest book Out of the House of Bread is wonderful, and I’ll be reading it myself soon), Addie Zierman (I told you how much I enjoyed her latest memoir, Night Driving), and another wonderful writer Sarah Bessey (her latest is Out of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith).
I’m looking forward to hearing from some of my favorite writers, including Christian Wiman, Leslie Leyland Fields, Luci Shaw, and George Saunders.
I met blogger Anne Bogel at the last Festival of Faith and Writing. If you are looking for a new book to read, I highly recommend her podcast What Should I Read Next? In each episode, Anne talks with a thoughtful reader about three books they love and one book they hate. Based on those titles, she recommends three books to try. I almost always learn about some new-to-me title, and it was a conversation on this podcast that reminded me I’d abandoned the Duncan Kinkaid/Gemma James series too quickly.
After a brief hiatus, the Roots and Sky book club is back. Laura Brown asks such thoughtful questions. I hope you’ll check it out, either by offering your own comment or “listening” in. As a bonus, you’ll find several audio recordings of me reading from the book.
I recently shared a Roots and Sky-themed installment of “These Farmhouse Bookshelves” on writer Rachel McMillan’s website.
I have a new piece called “Comfort Food For Those Who Mourn” at Grace Table. It includes a recipe for my family’s favorite dessert.
Do you have a favorite comfort food?
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.
(this post contains affiliate links)
Is green edged with gold.
It is the first official day of autumn, but we have been observing its approach for weeks. The lingering heat and humidity made us doubt our eyes. Now that the air has shifted, now that we have retrieved our jackets from the back of the wardrobe, we cannot tell ourselves that the cherry trees with their yellow leaves are overeager.
The maples are shaded with color now. The pumpkins lined up outside the grocery store no longer seem presumptuous.
Last weekend, Jonathan and I buried two hundred daffodil bulbs on the slope above the driveway.
Every year when I trip over a just-delivered box of bulbs on the porch near our back door, I feel beleaguered. Who has time for bulbs when the younger two won’t stop poking one another then screeching and the older two are whining about after-school snacks and someone refuses to meet my eye when asked about his school reading log?
But every year when spring finally breaks through, I wish I had planted more. I always wish for more.
I am trying to remember that winter-weariness. Trying to remember what those bulbs will mean come April.
Two hundred daffodils are only the beginning. I’ll plant at least as many more when another box shows up some time in October. More daffodils, but also alliums for the new flower garden and tulips for the raised beds in the vegetable garden.
If I plant tulips anywhere else they’ll only be eaten by deer, so I fill a bed or two inside the picket fence. When the tulips are finished in May, I can fill those spots with tomatoes or peppers or beans.
I am reading Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Early on, she writes, “Peace is the perspective found in patterns.”
When I came across that line, I put down my book and went in search of a pen. Her words describe something I have been living for years now, but only dimly perceived. The poetry of her sentence, with its alliterative P, has made something invisible in my experience visible to me.
The earth is full of patterns and rhythms. Some we merely observe but others invite collaboration. Like the planting of bulbs in autumn and the picking of flowers in spring.
These back-to-school days have been anxious days for me, but feeling again the net bag of bulbs stretched tight against the palm of my hand is like feeling my head surface above deep water.
I can breathe again. The peace of a larger, more meaningful perspective fills my lungs.
Homework may go unfinished, my children may go on poking and screeching, but wasn’t it only yesterday I was digging in bulbs with a baby strapped to my back? And isn’t it only tomorrow when those bulbs will bloom again?
The earth spins so fast. There is so much to remember (not homework but the feel of a baby on my back). There is so much to anticipate.
The present moment is always what matters most. But it matters most when it is rooted in memory even as it reaches toward that which is still to come.