A Year of Reading Part 3: On The Books Never Finished

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book unreadLooking back over a year of 40 books has given me ample opportunity for self-reflection. It’s drawn my attention to the two conspicuous omissions which I purposefully left off my list: the book I put down and the book I have yet to finish reading.

The Book Put Down

I can remember only three books in my life which I have consciously put down. Of course there have been plenty of those forgot-to-keep reading books, those one chapter reads you pick up while at a friend’s house, or give back to the library, or that dreadfully boring book like Moby Dick which makes you turn the last 400 pages in an absent-minded forgetful kind of way. But by put down I mean slammed down with revolted decision: I mean really interesting books which you chose not to finish.

One of these three was a Freudian-psycho-sexual analysis of Queen Victoria & Prince Albert. Bizarre. The other two were for the same reason and by the same author, the last one just a month ago.

The troublesome author? John Steinbeck.

I love Steinbeck, and am revolted by him, too. We have had a strange relationship, he and I. When a beloved literary professor recommended East of Eden I tried to read it—but put it down only a third of the way through. The synopsis I got online said it was about the consequences of adultery (and the lurid descriptions I had already endured did not bode well for a novel devoted to a moral precept I was already thoroughly convinced of).

Years later, my husband and I stayed in John Steinbeck’s writer’s studio in Monterey, California—a darling little cottage just our size.

When I picked up East of Eden for the second time (I had, on reflection thought the lurid passages not-so-shocking when viewed from the married state), the familiarity of his 411ws+zkdpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_California descriptions washed over me in waves of nostalgia. I am myself a Californian, and he was describing places I knew and loved.

There is no denying Steinbeck’s an amazing author. His ability to get behind the human psyche and in just a few words paint a picture which is tantalizingly familiar and physically tangible is magnificent. My second attempt at East of Eden left me in no doubt that it was a masterpiece. And despite one (or two) truly wicked characters, they are pitted against good ones, and the theme of the book is love: and what is real love? It was a deeply moving (and, I believe), over-all a very true book. It also had a happy and redemptive ending.

And then a few weeks ago I began Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I’d read Of Mice & Men some time ago with no ill effects so thought I’d give good ol’Steinbeck another go. The Long Valley is a collection of short stories which mostly take place in California’s Salinas Valley. Each story pulls you in with eerie humanness of his writing—the almost-adorable couple, the pretty ideal, the fascinating scene, the beginning of manhood—and then just when he could resolve the story he ends it: the protagonist hopeless, possessed, crying, or dead.

I am glad I do not live in a world of Steinbeck’s making.

Each story was so fascinating—and then so gruesome. I kept reading one after the other hoping the next would end happily, maybe this time Steinbeck won’t ruin it all.

The book had me in its depressing grip—I was forcing myself to keep reading the last few short stories to the end of the collection so I could say I read it, when my husband (talking to me online) gave me this piece of wisdom:

You don’t have to finish bad books, love. It’s very freeing when you decide a book isn’t worth reading all the way through—don’t give the author the pleasure.

Don’t give the author the pleasure.

It sounds strange but what he said is amazingly true. There is a a kind of pleasing the author in reading. For reading is a kind of war, is it not? A battle-dance between you and the author. The author has an idea, a vision, a story to tell, and he presents it to you. And you? You can be won over, you take a willing step further into the world of the book, you can read, enjoy, praise, and share. Or you can put it down. You can step away. And if everybody were to put the book (or article, fake news, etc) down, the author has lost: and what they have written fades into oblivion.

In one of my favorite “writer-verses” in Ecclesiastes, Solomon encourages his son to hold fasts to the scriptures and warns him, “Of the writing of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12B)

To the writing of books there is no end.

As a writer I am acutely aware of the excess of literary thought committed to paper. I am myself an example of the inexhaustible impulse to write and record. I know it is a gift and I don’t exert any particular strain to contain it.

But I realize its limits.

There is no end.

There is no end to what could be written: most of it rubbish which will be forgotten.

There are words worth reading and books worth putting down.

We have a limited amount of time.

The Book Never Finished

There is another book I left conspicuously off my list. The Bible. Technically I read several biblical books, however when I looked back over my long list of mostly-Fiction I realized I didn’t read it nearly enough—not when I clearly had so much time.

Don’t get me wrong, time for pleasure reading is a wonderful gift, and reading is excellent for the improving of the mind and the honing of one’s God-given literary talents. But personally, I admit to you that I feel a pang of sadness rather than pride when I look back and see how much time, which could have been devoted to knowing my Savior better this past year, was spent on a lesser and far less lasting purpose.

There is another “writer-verse” which is one of my favorites. It is at the end of the book of John, where he says (and I can almost feel his heart swelling with the enormity of what he writes): “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

All the books in the world.

I think one of the reasons I often don’t read more scripture is that there is indeed a battle going on—and not only against flesh and blood (my own laziness, tiredness, etc)—but also “against the powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12) who would so dearly prefer us to swallow Steinbecks than to sup at the table of the Word.

download2My brother-in-law recently shared with me how he was reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord: refusing to let him depart until he had received a blessing. And he did receive a blessing. Reading scripture is like that, he shared, wrestling with it until you receive a blessing. And isn’t it wonderful that when you wrestle you will be blessed?

And so in conclusion of this long year of reading my heart is full with many things.

My heart brims with thankfulness: for the hours of dead time turned to better purpose, and for discovering a few really good authors—some insightful and wise, others delightfully human.

My heart is furthermore resolved: to strengthen my arms to wrestle with the Word.  To not depart until I receive its blessing.

And lastly I am comforted: that for as many books as I’ve read or put down, finished or not finished, there is a Word which I’ll never be done reading, which I’ll never be finished with, and (thank God), will never be finished with me.

A Year of Reading Part 2: Book & Author Reviews

Looking back over a year of books, a few stick out as being particularly memorable—for good or ill! I thought I’d take just a few from each genre and give you a review.

Mystery: Louise Penny, P.D. James, & Others

Reading Louise Penny gave me an epiphany: I suddenly realized what characterizes authors whom I want to keep rereading. My seven-book Louise Penny stint came on the heals of reading P.D. James—who originally intrigued me in Devices & Desires with her serial-killer thriller opening which had me jumping and starting and ripping through pages—however she lost me after reading Cover Her Face. I had seen a pattern emerge.

You see, there are more or 9d26b7a9373c3dc26385aaa2d7b4827aless three different kinds of mystery novels. The queen of mystery writing, arguably in the category by herself, is, of course, Agatha Christie—wherein her pages she gives you every.single.detail you need to know to figure out the mystery—but you never will. (I got awfully close once or twice, just close enough to realize how brilliantly she lays her plots). She is a mystery writer for the brain.

Then there are mystery writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Elizabeth Peters (I’d also throw in much of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mysteries, Jeeves & Wooster, etc.) which are better termed Adventure Stories. They are read for the fun of the chase—the bizarre and ghostly happenings, the melodramatic dangers, the clues the detective analyzes (i.e. dirt on the shoes you can’t see until the protagonist makes a comment about it). Personally, these are my least favorite kinds of mysteries, however much beloved by people I know. They affect your blood (and maybe your funny-bone)—but rarely your brain or heart.

220px-DevicesAndDesiresThe third kind of mystery novel is the psychologist mystery–the study of human nature. They are character driven stories, motivated by the people in them (such as Dorothy Sayer’s series with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane). P.D. James is such a novelist, and she certainly does have a keen understanding of people which I appreciate—however the kinds of people which fill up her stories are the very worst sort. By the near-end of the novel, you have seen the disgusting under-belly of each character: you hate them all. Any one of them could have done the dirty deed. Every one of them had murder in their heart. James relentlessly (and rather callously) exposes each corrupt motive—and you are left the sadder (and mildly depressed) for having seen the worst of human nature.

I do not need to read books to know how wicked people can be. Nor is it the reason I personally pick up mystery novels.

338691Louise Penny is also a character-driven mystery novelist. However, what sets her and other authors like her apart is tenderness. She clearly loves each of her characters—even the would-be-villains.  You start out despising someone—and then come to know them, and see yourself in their selfish choices, fears, obsessions, and mistakes. Her books are peppered with truly kind and wonderful people—and when she reveals their faulty motives you see a fundamentally human heart: your own. Her stories are filled with a perpetual hopefulness, that wounds will be healed, that pasts will be redeemed, that forgiveness triumphs. Is her moral-compass infallible? No. After 7 books, I have found a few moral appraisals which I disagree with, but as her stories are about humans and their choices (and the ramifications of most of her character’s choices are pretty on-point), I’m ok with our differing point of views. She is not a Christian as far as I can tell, but her own loving-kindness towards her characters seems to inform her view of God which makes for an insightful and stirring read.

Other recommendations for the series? It’s about the sleepy Canadian city of Three Pines (which apparently gets more than its usual share of murders) and the easily most honorable and lovable of men, Inspector Armand Gamache. Basically imagine the combination of rugged New World terrain with the classy trappings of the British Commonwealth peppered with all the textural delights of linguistic and culinary France. What could be better?

Non-Fiction: The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace

51P+WH1-CNL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_This book, lent from a church friend, was a game-changer for me! Wow, what a fantastic read. Martha Peace seamlessly weaves scripture in with biblical, practical instruction. Not only is it basically a hand-book for marriage, but it tackles so many important issues I would recommend it to single women as well. I think one of the most valuable things I took away from it was her practical lists of “godly vs ungodly” thoughts. I never really realized that the way to combat inner ungodliness was to consciously replace ungodly thoughts with biblical ones. Now when I catch myself thinking about things or in ways I shouldn’t—I am practically armed to combat the deceits of my heart! Just purchased my own copy and will be reading again soon!

Fiction: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

30597I made the mistake of picking up this book on my French-kick after returning from our trip. Can I be blunt? THIS WAS THE MOST HORRIBLE BOOK EVER. Literally. Terrible. On sooo many levels. Where to begin? First, let’s begin with the structure and writing. Imagine a rather boring professor decides to write his graduate thesis on medieval architecture. It is bland and rhapsodic in the kind of way only a man enamored with a dry subject could find interesting. Somewhere around page, oh, 67, the professor realizes this and decides, to attract readers, to turn his thesis into a novel. (No joke. Hugo was, in fact, on an architecture craze when he penned the novel). The plot-half of the book is devoted to mocking the church with a lurid, heart-breaking tale of a gorgeous woman who is betrayed by every single man in her life (who are each beastly in their own unique ways). Rapist priest? Check. Brutish and in the end unhelpful hunchback? Check. Cruel, self-absorbed and philandering soldier? Check. Stupid and cowardly poet? Check. Will the male-fantasy of a temptingly-half-dressed-but-totally-innocent-and-slightly-stupid-16-year-old gypsy Esmeralda be saved from a horrific and unjust death at the hands of the barbarous church and murderous people? Let’s TORTURE HER WITH MEDIEVAL DEVICES FIRST (in a rather great stretch of historicity) and then let’s almost save her and then!!! KILL EVERYBODY OFF.

The end. Zero likable characters. Zero heroes. Zero people live to tell the tale except the stupid poet. (Maybe that’s Victor Hugo in disguise.) There! Now you don’t have to read it.

Fiction: Georgette Heyer vs. Austen & Bronte

My mother-in-law turned me on to this delightful author. She is, to quote Publisher Weekly, “the next best thing to reading Austen.” I would contend that she is actually a good deal more fun than reading Austen.

51w9kyK-n5LDon’t get me wrong, I love Jane Austen. Her books are magnificent and technically the superior in craftsmanship. But she wrote so few of them. And I’m inclined to think her romances lack substance—probably a result of her never having had a real one herself—and I tend to think if I’d met her in real life I wouldn’t have liked her. I’ve read Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra—whole pages of mockery and small-minded nitpicking of people’s personal appearance. “A wit,” she was, no doubt, but not to my taste. Likewise, (lest anyone accuse me of favoring the author of one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre), Charlotte Bronte, while able to come so close to the human soul in her writing, was in person an awkward, silent, mousy creature who would have probably bored me to tears (as she apparently bored the people who met her). Thus it is that I have decided that among the romance writers it is Georgette and I that would have gotten on famously.

The woman’s a riot. Her novels are delightful romantic adventures from beginning to end—and everything concludes exactly as you hoped it would. While most of her books are a good laugh, The Civil Contract was quite serious and proved to me Heyer’s depth and capacity for realism. She is a woman who understands women. Georgette Heyer led a perfectly normal married life, eschewed publicity despite her novels’ immense success, and fully understood the nature of her own writing. “I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense,” she is known to have written, “But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.” Or, I might add, on a stuffy, smelly, and very long subway ride.

Fiction: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

all-kings-men-jacki-kellumI first read this book in a Southern Literature class in college—I liked it then (read at a helter-skelter pace in several hour shifts) and I liked it even more a second time. It is a book about politics and the ramifications of our choices and actions—or failure to act. Honestly it’s a must-read for anyone in politics. Even after twice reading I’m not entirely convinced I’m sure of the overall point Robert Penn Warren intends to make with his conclusion—I think he spends much of the book building up to a point he never actually spells out. The concepts of fatalism and personal responsibility are held in tension almost until the end when one wins out. But having also read Brideshead Revisited and Father Brown, I find my own answer forming as I close the book. If I could spell out the conclusion which Warren aught to (and almost) makes, it is the Irresistible nature of Grace—and that just like the spider in Warren’s web metaphor (where in one single action has countless ramifications), in a single second Grace can snap your string—bringing you back even from the ends of the earth into its grasp.

Fiction: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

I hannah1really don’t have much to say about this book except that it is a must-read. Wendell Berry makes a compelling argument for the importance of place in our lives, (this book pretty much made me want to never move again). It is a beautiful story of a woman’s reflections on her life, marriage, and children—and furthermore has one of the most beautiful chapters on marital love ever penned.

If you want to know why even in telling of trouble and sorrow I am giving thanks, this is why.” – Wendell Berry

A Year of Reading Part 1: A Purse and 40 Books

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Stack of books at the bookshop

Two Christmases ago my husband gave me a “big-girl purse.” I’d gotten through most of my life with hand-me-downs and 20-dollar bargains and was content to do so. But this was the real deal. Kate Spade, black, mega, kickin’ and stylin’. Other than suddenly noticing the purses of other women around me (and feeling pleased-as-punch about my own), I credit this single gift with launching me into a literary marathon.

You see, for a year and a half I had commuted for nearly two hours a day and had barely read a handful of books. How did I account for this colossal waste of time? Not very well. The best of days were spent in a mish-mosh of music, prayer, and sleep, the worst in day-dreams, people-watching, general grumpiness, and commuter malaise.

But with my husband’s gift came a change! I suddenly had the means by which to carry very large books with me to and fro from work! It took a little while, but on April 18, 2016 I began reading in earnest. Between then and now I read fully 40 books, ranging from timeless classics like Bronte, Lewis, Hugo, and Dickens, to the lesser-known classics like Robert Penn Warren and Agatha Christie, to my new-found favorites, Louise Penny and Georgette Heyer. These forty books were read mostly, (if not always exclusively), on the bus, train rides, and lunch breaks of my daily work-life.

Can one oversized purse make such a difference?

I share this not to make busy-mothers or over-loaded students feel guilty about not being able to read for pleasure. There are far better things than even reading which one can do with one’s time. But I say this to encourage my fellow commuters who currently may be loosing perfectly good time to as silly an excuse as mine was: not having a big enough purse to carry a book in.

So grab your knapsack of choice and start reading!!!

Below is the list of books read (not including scripture). I’ve separated them into genre to make my clear preference for “Fiction” less obvious. (Truth be told, Fiction won hands-down, 36-to-4…. Oops.) In the next few days I will share some book/author reviews and a few of the insights and thoughts which I’ve had after a year of reading. Part 2 & Part 3 to come!

Books read in entirety between 4/18/16 – 4/18/17

* = first time reading
! = recommend to all
# – recommend to select audience
^ = Well that was a waste of good time

MYSTERY:

Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters*
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie#
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith*
Devices & Desires – P.D. James*
Cover Her Face – P.D. James* ^
Death Comes to Pemberly – P.D. James* ^
Still Life – Louise Penny* #
A Fatal Grace – Louise Penny* #
A Rule Against Murder – Louise Penny* #
April is the Cruelest Month – Louise Penny* #
A Brutal Telling – Louise Penny*
Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny*
A Trick of the Light – Louise Penny*

NON-FICTION:

When People are Big and God is Small – Edward T. Welch*
The Excellent Wife – Martha Peace* !
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo*
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Butterfield* !

FANTASY/SCI-FI:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling !
Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis !
Perelandra – C.S. Lewis !
That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis !
Dune – Frank Herbert*

FICTION:
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome* !
Castaways of the Flying Dutchman – Brian Jacques
The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer* !
Pistols for Two – Georgette Heyer*
The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer*
The Civil Contract – Georgette Heyer*
The Reluctant Widow – Georgette Heyer*
Hannah Coulter – Wendell Berry !
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens !
The Hunchback of Notre Dame –  Victor Hugo* ^
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte ^
All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren #

La La Land and the choices we make: an analysis

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la-la-land-marriage

La La Land: a dazzling symphony of human emotion, delightful harmonies, and picture-perfect 50’s pastels. What’s not to love between Emma Stone’s ordinary-face-meets-extraordinary-soul and Ryan Gosling’s swoon-worthy jazz playing? It’s a heart-stealing masterpiece and it’s taking the country by a storm. Yet despite this, I have heard quite a few people express confusion (or outright dismay) at the ending. I believe this is because they do not understand it, as I firmly hold that it is precisely the film’s ending which makes the film so poignant and furthermore so true.

You see, if one doesn’t know that the film has a Casablanca ending (and really, you should know this ahead of time! Warning: real spoilers ahead!), you go in expecting Oklahoma! and the couple riding off into the sunset at the end and instead get a rhapsody of regret and you’re left being like, “Yo-wait!?!! So they don’t have each other but they have their careers and this is a happy ending?”

No. It’s not a happy ending. But it’s the right ending for the film.

The film isn’t about careers, it’s about choices, the consequences of our actions, and how we choose to live. Throughout the entire time we’re watching two ways to live contrasted—a train-wreck in slow motion.

It starts with Sebastian. Sebastian is running from commitment. As his sister complains in an opening scene: he’s not really living. He’s neither following after love nor his passions: he has a STOOL which he won’t even sit on.

Mia, in contrast, is SEIZING life. She putting herself out there for rejection over and over and over and refusing to grow cynical.

What happens when the two cross paths? You’d think Sebastian’s initial responses to her would serve as a warning: rude honking, blowing her off, running away (see the amazing “He Ran” scene), even physically knocking her aside with a brush of the shoulder.

Then, thanks to Mia’s direct intervention, something happens. Despite a “wasted” evening in the moonlight—they do in fact connect. Sebastian starts reaching out—and a relationship begins.

But Sebastian hasn’t actually changed.

The second half of the film is watching everything fall apart. But what destroys their relationship is not one of them choosing a career but rather one of them NOT choosing the dinner-sceneother. In their breakup scene, Sebastian reveals he has been using Mia as an excuse not to do what he loves. But what astounds Mia most is that he has CHOSEN a life in which they cannot be together: there is no marriage, no children, no togetherness in sight. Sebastian is choosing a life without her… WHILE blaming her for the choice as if it’s for her that he’s given up his dreams. Mia suddenly sees his pattern of selfishness, his cowardice, and, in short, his complete BS.

So what about the ending? In the final montage, we see what would have happened had Sebastian made the right choices. Notice, neither of their careers change: in both Mia goes to Paris and Sebastian starts a club. Furthermore, notice, Mia’s life doesn’t change–either way she would have been  a gorgeous pregnant lady with an adorable child and a wonderful husband. It is Sebastian’s story which could have been the most different.

As the scenes flash before us, we see every wrong decision reversed: Sebastian NOT brushing Mia aside, NOT joining the awful band, BEING THERE for her audition, FOLLOWING her to Paris, STARTING his club, getting down on one knee and proposing, and yes, babies and date-nights and them together. The montage shows us how EASILY Mia’s marriage could have been with HIM, how that beautiful baby back home could have been THEIRS, how the date to the club could have been TOGETHER.

A series of choices, all in which Sebastian chooses Mia. Notice they don’t have Mia change anything. Mia did everything right, she put herself out there, she left that dinner table and MADE it to that date—and in the end she found a man who was willing to commit. You feel her sadness for Sebastian, perhaps regret for what might have been, but she walks out of that club. She doesn’t return to Sebastian like he’s some kind of long-lost soul-mate (true or not): life has gone on. She smiles at him and then walks away. I think several things are going on here: I think Mia knows she made the right choice. I think she also values all that they taught one another, and furthermore I think we see that Sebastian realizes where he went wrong. LLL d 12 _2353.NEFHe is filled with regret. But he also got a wake-up call, and he’s finally started his jazz club. And this is what makes La La Land such a good film. You have Sebastian living his dream yet deeply unhappy and then you have Mia who’s moved on with her  life. You don’t actually want her to be with Sebastian. Sebastian didn’t choose her—and Mia chose LIFE, life with scary auditions, a husband, babies, diapers, babysitters, and all that jazz (ok, maybe no literal jazz for Mia). But we see what might have been: and it would have been beautiful.

How easily life could have been different.

When my husband and I see a film like La La Land, we hold each other close, because we know the pain of choosing “no,” and we know how close we came to not choosing YES. My husband and I spent years side-stepping romance. Sometimes it was in small ways—ruining what might be a romantic moment—other times it was a much clearer decision, a “no” and another “no”—if not verbally spoken, proclaimed in a choice.

What turned us around, in addition to the Lord using the circumstances of our lives, was a few very ordinary things. An email. A letter. A phone-call. A visit. A few simple actions that launched a chain of events which has led to our present happiness and years of marriage.

La La Land is a beautiful tribute to love: and a warning to those who don’t seize it. Life goes on. It doesn’t stop for you. You can have the love of your life staring you in the face and you can choose to say no. And guess what? Life will still go on. I love how it is no single choice of Sebastian’s that ends their relationship: it is a habit of being. And that’s what the film is telling you, too: it is never too late to start making the right choices and embracing life in all its fullness now. 

So choose to love. Love is always a choice. It is a choice in marriage when I cook my husband his favorite cookies, or when he goes 10 minutes out of his way just to see me sooner. It is a choice when you keep back hurtful words and choose words of grace: when you honor instead of malign, when you choose time together over time apart. It is a choice every single day.

So realize that this is your life: right now. This is your La La Land.

And Life is made up of the choices you make.

Pizza-Booze-Telly & Divine Rest

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Decorative vase with flowers

There is a phrase my husband and I picked up from the British television show Doctor Who. Said very simply and quickly, (and with an accent), it goes: “Pizza-Booze-Telly.”

The phrase invocates the perfect stay-at-home evening: a delicious (and comforting) mix of carbohydrates and entertainment. And while we don’t replicate it exactly (neither of us feeling pizza so often would be healthy—nor being inclined towards beer—nor having enough money in the budget for alcoholic beverages EVERY time we watch TV)—the phrase has nevertheless come to embody our mutual love of cozy evenings.

The recipe goes something like this: You say to yourselves: Shall we eat in the kitchen? Nah, let’s bring our bowl of hot-something to the couch. Shall we stay in our work clothes? Of course not. Comfy pajamas it is, then. What shall we watch? Nothing scary. Nothing intense. Something sweet. And almost kind. Nothing cruel, or corse, or unrefined. How about something British?

Pizza-booze-telly.

We sit, swathed in blankets and pajamas and each other’s arms, and we forget the aches of the day, the cares of tomorrow, and for just a little while life is simple.

I remember at times, in days past, feeling a pang of guilt that such evenings weren’t spent more productively. Like… reading. Time has replaced that guilt with thankfulness.

Our days (and evenings) are now what you might call over-productive. I have a twelve-hour day and get home from work late in the evening only to cook, clean, grocery shop, and fall into bed to do it all over again. Due to long commutes, I even read over two hours of literature a day. My husband likewise has a long day and late evenings of study for his two masters degrees. We are nothing if not productive.

And do you know what it’s made me realize? That leisure is a gift. That while comfort, when at the expense of work, is laziness, that rest from one’s toils is both needed and not always forthcoming.

We are not owed evenings of cozy togetherness. But in a culture where being busy is deified as an inherent virtue, I am reminded that we are called to live daily lives. Sufficient to each day is its troubles. Give us this day our daily bread. Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.

I am reminded of Abraham—sitting out on his tent porch in the heat of the day, eating a meal with his heavenly visitors.

I am reminded of God Himself—walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Perfect industry, taking perfect rest.

Isn’t that what He calls us to in the Lord’s supper? Come all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest? We break the bread and drink the wine remembering that the perfect sacrifice was paid for our guilt: that blood and sweat were spilt so that we might cease striving and find perfect peace in Christ.

So if you will excuse the comparison of the common to the holy, at the end of our daily labors there is sometimes (and not always) a kind of supper and rest. For a lucky few, I suppose it looks a bit like our pizza-booze-telly evenings. But for most of I suspect our rest takes different forms. It is when the busy mother cherishes those few quiet moments of bed-time story telling. It is when the father bows his head and prays over the meal. It is when the student puts his books away for a Sabbath Rest. It is in the few cherished moments a couple gets at the end of a long day. And always it is in the bowed head—when we who are burdened quiet our hearts, cast our cares upon Him, and remember: He has given you rest.

Let us meet those moments with joy—and accept rest with thankfulness.

L’essence

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l'essence

Over the last week I have nearly cried three times missing France. Three times.

If you think about it, that’s kinda pathetic. Miss something you experienced for 9 days? Miss the “vacation” experience—which is so different from every-day-life (even in a foreign country!). Cry over French bread? Sigh wistfully over 2 hour lunches where the waiters don’t bother you and the dry, brilliant sun casts long shadows under cypress and olive trees? Ah, yes, sigh.

We are learning to take our once-in-a-blue-moon memories and experiences and weave them back into our everyday lives. For one, we are learning to eat our meals slowly. Growing up in big families our meal-times were always something of a race. (“Let’s see who can make the meal which took an hour to cook go from plate to stomach in under 7 minutes?!?”) We are learning to put our forks down in-between bites, to take our plates outside, and to sometimes just gaze at each other while our food takes in the air.

I know the French would approve. Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

French books now intermingle with English ones on our bookshelves–particularly a gilded copy of Flaubert’s Salammbo purchased after wondering over Paris’ Latin Quarter, peering into every librairie we passed until we discovered a Dickin-ish mess of a store with a haphazard Professor-type who knew the history of each of the wondrous novels which towered from store floor to ceiling (intermingled with papers and a good deal of dust). We wanted something très vieux, très beau. He had no English to speak of, but we understood one another, and we did not leave till the old book, the beautiful book, was triumphantly in hand.

Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

Speaking of old things, we visited the Catacombs in Paris. Wifey (c’est moi) had saved up her “standing in line” points by skipping the touristy attractions such as the Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe—and she spent them all lavishly on seeing the Catacombs. The line wasn’t long–scarcely half a block–but it moved at a deathly crawl. Two and a half hours we waited, while making the acquaintance of a Christian Lebanese man named Rudolph. He was considering moving to the States and wanted to know about Social Security and which states were best for business. We spent our time doing everything from talking about marriage and Islam to sharing a Nutella crepe off of a street cart and playing a hand-game in which we relentlessly slapped each other.

Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie. 

Inside the Catacombs I had a moment which I am indescribably proud of. I have long had a rather persistent inclination to over-accommodate everyone around me. (It’s the wide-eyed, people-please-er part of me which makes strangers tell me their secrets.) After our two hour wait we whirled down what felt like eight stories down a narrow, spiral staircase into the earth. We walked along a narrow passage for a long time—till we reached the entrance to the underground ossuarie where 6 million people are buried. There are signs reminding you to be respectful, this is a place of the dead, ne touche pas, do not touch the bones. For there are bones! Walls and walls of stacked bones and skulls for passageway after passageway: we saw just an hour of a 200 mile matrix.

We had only just entered, our breaths caught in our chests in dreadful awe, when our respectful reverie was broken by raucous laughter some 10 yards behind us. A group of American teenagers had entered the catacombs.

As our skin crawled in embarrassment, we felt anguish for the visiting nationals—wondering if any (usually) quiet-spoken French person would find it worthwhile to take another annoying group of American Tourists in hand. Unlikely.

Then something happened that I simply couldn’t bear. They began to touch the bones. And then, horror of horrors, while laughing in a hysterical, jeering sort of way, one of the boys grabbed a large femur off of a burial mound and started waving it in the air, “LOOK! This used to be a DEAD person!”

I felt a hot surge of anger flood over me. Every ounce of older-sister indignation (or college RA authority) I’ve ever possessed came rushing to my aid. All at once I heard my own voice ringing out in decisive, cutting clarity, “GUUUYYS—!!! YOU NEED TO PUT THEM DOWN!”

I think if their own long-dead American grandparents had suddenly coming to life out of the bones to scold them they could not have been more shocked or chastened by hearing “ne touche pas” declared in their native tongue in the French House of the Dead.

The bone was returned, and they henceforth behaved themselves.You’re welcome, France. Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

We did our best never to self-identify as tourists of any kind. We always tried to speak as much French as possible (Bonjour, je voudrais deux billets, si vouz plaît). I did my best to dress as French as possible (no patterns or bright colors—a dead giveaway even in fashionable american women). We met nothing of the so-called French rudeness, not in Provence where we stayed nor even in Paris. But we saw enough rude tourists to warrant any reactionary behavior! I figure, in the end, that the French are like any people group—if somebody came up to you New York City (let alone rural Michigan) and asked you without so much as a how-do-you-do in a huffy, annoyed sort of voice where the National Park was… in Spanish, or German, or French, you would be annoyed too. We did our best to speak French—we smiled and bade pardon—and were met with as much eagerness to known and be known and communicate back as we offered. It was delightful.

Instead of rudeness we met the eager warm of our host in Aix-En Provence, where we had olive oil pressed from her garden, were urged with smiles and careful instructions into zip-lining on the property, and received a vineyard recommendation communicated in French-for-children (for we were like children with our small sentences and eager gestures).

Instead of haughtiness, we met one of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met. Our Parisian host waited for us on the street to arrive, gave us wine and got up early every morning to bring us a French breakfast (croissants, baguettes, cafe). He shared his stories, and he shared his medicines in the middle of the night when we were at various times unwell! He spent hours giving recommendations and hand-writing directions and tracing routes on our map. He laughed with us at the funny pictures and stories we brought back every evening. He teased us, (the 1815 building had a small glass elevator… “Very small—but then—you are small people!”). We exchanged ideas. He was the consummate gentleman–a man who welcomed us into his home and heart as if we were not just staying a few days but had known each other all our lives.

Dans ces petites choses est l’essence de la vie.

I found myself loving little things I noticed. The way everybody says hello to everyone. The way I saw such tenderness to children—I never heard a raised voice or an impatient tug (until once by an American mother in Paris). Every parent’s hand was holding their child’s, or stroking their arm or their head. Even the two-year-old who wailed almost the entire plain-ride there was lovingly rocked all six hours.

I had also expected, in some strange way, to find a more aggressively secular society. And I suppose France is as modern and agnostic as any modern nation these days. But I think I had expected that, whereas in America we were founded by Puritans and God-fearers who revolted “justly” and “lawfully,” (and now our cities are virtual alters to selfishness and sensuality)—France! (surely) who had built alters to the Goddess Liberty—would be even more devoted to her unrighteous causes.

It would be unfair to make any direct comparison based on 9 bare-eyed days. But I will say I was surprised. I was amazed and comforted at the unabashed presence of cathedrals, saints, crosses, and even the little Christian bookstore we wandered into and purchased Le Petit Prince (l’essential est invisible pour les yeux). The places we visited in Provence were as wholesome as idyllic villages in 1800s Austen novels. Even the quasi-nudity in the rocky coves of Cassis’ calanques took on an au-naturel wholesomeness I had not expected to find so unshocking. (Perhaps a culture that has never, in Gnosticism, accused the body God made Good of being evil, finds the body more natural than sexual when unclothed.)

We were also surprised to find Christ’s Body in France. In the little city of Aix-En Provence, known for its fountains, we found a Reformed Evangelical Church. On Sunday we worshiped with God’s people—and there I cried again. Cried to connect so deeply with worshiping Dutch and German and French believers that there gathered. Touched that the language of Divine Love translated so easily through word, look, and song. Moved that I could sing “A toi la gloire” and know, “Thine be the glory, O Lord forever and ever, Amen.”

L’essence de la vie.

I understood very little of the sermon, but I gathered it was on Acts 20, Paul’s heartfelt farewell to the church of Ephesus—whom he was leaving, never to see them again. I kept hearing the Pastor talk about the “situation difficile” the difficulty of Paul’s situation, the difficulty of ours.

The church is the same the world over. Somehow worshiping in France brought all the beauty and wonder of our trip into perspective. Perhaps, yes perhaps, one could live somewhere else in the world where it is better. Simpler? Safer? Older? Realer? Tastier? More lovely? And sometimes those chances come to us and I think it is okay to take them. But it will never be our aim in life to live easily, or our best lives now. God has put us where we are, just as he put Paul in Jerusalem and Rome, not to gorge ourselves on what this earth has to offer but to take these tastes of heaven (whether in God-made beauty, the family of believers, or at The Table) as sustenance during our journeys Home. Even the Christians in France are strangers in a foreign land. We “taste and see that the Lord is Good—happy are those who take refuge in Him.”

And so we return to our church, our jobs, and our little New England town. And we say, “this is ours”—ours to show Grace to, ours to show Christ to, ours to Love. For in these small things is the essential of life.

Waking Up to Wonder

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Bedroom with bed and linen. Natural lightAll my life I’ve hated waking up. Something about being very nice and warm and accepted under the covers and the room being cold and the day foreboding and starting in-any-and-every case too early. Why not just stay asleep?

The unknown is strange and foreign, the best place is where we already are.

I sound like a poster-child for the agrarian movement with that last sentence. Stay rooted! Wrap yourself up in the comforter of contentment! Be Ok with Bed.

But that’s not where this post is going. You see, I always hated getting up in the morning until about seven months ago. Seven months ago my mornings changed—and with them each subsequent day.

Seven months ago I woke up the morning after my wedding and found to my utter and almost uncontainable delight that I wasn’t alone. And then, as the Someone whom I was with slowly woke and realized that he wasn’t alone either—he had me—suddenly our morning turned into rejoicing.

You’re still here. With me. My love.

Rejoice.

Suddenly waking up became one of my favorite things—and falling asleep often delayed simply for the delight of being consciously in my beloved’s company.

Toe-touch. Are you still awake?

Hand-in-hand. I love you.

Kiss. We should probably go to sleep now.

One last hug. Ok.

Roll-over. Good morning.

How could I have known? That what I hated most about the first few moments of the day was not the loss of sleep but the fear of being awake. There I’d lay: alone in bed, dreading another day. I remember particularly depressed times in my life when I would delay going to sleep for as long as possible not because being awake was all that fun—but because waking up to face the next day was so overwhelmingly daunting. Sometimes the sheer knowledge of my waking consciousness in the first few moments of the day was enough to spark tears. Burying myself in the sleep and warmth of the covers was in a very real way a denial of the day. And no, I’m not saying that there aren’t still days when I truly am incredibly tired—or facing a day full of challenge—but I am saying that my dread of the morning has been wonderfully replaced by a joy in what the mornings bring.

You, my sweetest man. I look forward to the sleepy smile. The strong arms wrapping around and drawing me close. The struggle together to leave the wonderful comfort and start the day—eager for the work week to be done or the weekend together to begin. Love makes the difference.

Isn’t it strange that when love shines on even such a small corner of our lives morning turns to gladness? And isn’t that what Christ is at work at within us? Shining the light of the gospel on our marriages, our children, or home, our work, our passions and ambitions saying: Love makes the difference.

But we are slow to wake up, aren’t we? We’d rather cling to darkness—known and familiar.

And maybe this is just another way we’re being prepared for heaven. We’re still learning what it means to love as we are loved. For I imagine now that arriving in Heaven will be a bit like the moment I realized I no longer feared mornings. Sunlight, warm, accepted, with our Beloved. All our striving will be over. We’ll wake up and realize, “This! This is love.” We will walk in the glory of His Truth—in the Light of the Son—and we’ll realize the darkness is gone, and there is nothing left to fear.

Endnote: I feel compelled to add a caveat. I am quite sure that not everyone’s dislike of mornings drastically evaporates once married. My husband’s mornings have, in his words, gotten “much worse” since he now has the added trial of leaving ME ever morning to go to work—and leaving me he does not like at all.