Speaking Volumes

Over the last few months, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve gotten to see inside a lot of people’s houses. Their offices and bedrooms, living rooms and kitchen tables and back porches have all been made readily available to me through the magic of videoconferencing. I’m thankful I’ve been able to work from my library—not only because it’s a space I cultivate and enjoy, but also because it seems to delight other people.

But not all bookcases are created equal according to a brilliant Twitter account, Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), which bears the tagline, “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.” They have a wonderful time analyzing bookshelves behind people during interviews and online chats, often rating them based on a variety of factors and creating delightful reviews as palate pleasing as a well-crafted amuse bouche.

That got me to thinking about my own bookcases and what I display on them. What do the volumes I’ve chosen to keep over a lifetime say about me? Do I have too many? (As if that was possible!) Too few? Do they say my reading style is academic, eclectic, or common?

When my husband’s parents were up for the Fourth of July, my mother-in-law commented (without judgment, mind you) that I own a lot of Dean Koontz books. She’s right. I do. Sixty-two to be precise. A mix of new hardcover volumes and dog-eared paperbacks collected over a lifetime. (The only author that comes close is Stephen King at a robust 45, though I’ve likely read his entire oeuvre thanks to libraries.)

Some people might look at the three shelves, his exclusive real estate, and pass judgment on me. Perhaps they’d take me less seriously because of my love for a popular author instead of someone like Proust. (However, I will have it said that I own Swann’s Way and have plans to read it sometime soon. I just have to work up the nerve.)

But down on the other end from Mr. Koontz are two entire bookcases of classics I read when I was in college earning and working as an English teacher—everything from Kobo Abe to Richard Wright. I have one shelf devoted to modern and classical poetry. Another to drama. Epics. Memoirs. Theology. Biographies. Histories. Books about writing. Heck, I even have books about books. And I love all of them. Each has taught me something, helped frame and mold me in some way.

But Dean Koontz was there first.

When I was growing up, my family moved a lot—roughly every two years. It was hard to make friends and even harder to keep them in the pre-internet age. We often moved in the summer to avoid losing momentum at school, but it also meant that each time we came to a new city, my brother and I had a three-month long wait before we could start making friends and fitting in. Sometimes, we found a few neighborhood kids to pal around with, but more often than not we were on our own. So we spent a lot of time at the movies and, you guessed it, reading books.

Each time we relocated, my library was the last thing to be packed up and the first thing set out. It was a soothing process for me, collapsing and reconstructing the wall of safety I’d created for myself, and Dean Koontz was among the most reliable of my brick masons. When my life was messy or I felt half-crazed, I could fall into one of his novels and forget for an hour or two.

I read widely as a child, but there were some days when I just wanted the comfort Watchers had to offer or the romantic wonder of Lightning. Whether it was Twilight Eyes, Phantoms, or Whispers, I could always count on plenty of entertaining twists, and though evil might have the upper hand for a time, good would always prevail (often thanks to a Golden Retriever). That was important to an overweight, bookish girl like me who had to put herself out there over and over again. I had to believe in the goodness of people if I was going to make it, and Mr. Koontz helped me do that.

Since those challenging days, I’ve gobbled down countless books. I’ve read Moby Dick, Ulysses, Anna Karenina, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I’ve long loved Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby. I cried reading Frankenstein and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, been thrown into harsh reality by Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451, and escaped into both Middle Earth and Narnia. Thanks to a beloved professor at the University of North Florida, I’ve even read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English (and can still recite most of the prologue, which is always a big hit a parties).

But Dean Koontz will always have a special place in my heart (and on my shelves) because he was there on some hard days, the ones where I had to leave a house I liked or a town where I’d managed to finally fit in. I’d look through the rear window and sigh, thinking about how unfair life could be, but before we hit the interstate, I’d have one of his novels open, my eyes scanning silently left to right as the miles rolled around on the odometer of our Buick Regal and we eventually arrived at whatever place happened to be next on the agenda.

I never judge a book by its cover or its owner by the books he or she chooses to display. On the contrary, I think shelves contain an even greater story than any you find in the tomes that reside there. Together, they tell a person’s truest narrative: who she once was, who she is, and who she is becoming. They represent joy and sorrow, love and loss, the places where she got confused and where she found herself again. If you look at them the right way (and ask the right questions), you’ll get to know a person more intimately than a decade’s worth of conversation could manage to provide.

 

** If you’d like to see the library in all its glory, here’s a quick video. The music you hear is the peerless J.J. Johnson on trombone. **

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wSBftwaY75t5bBr1TEmAVjLFL6k1y_Qe/view?usp=sharing

Coming to Terms With It All

I thought I was handling this entire COVID-19 shut down thing fairly well. I finished the CSLI year one fellowship program in fine style. I’ve read twenty-two books, so far, and next week I’ll complete reading the Bible from cover to cover in ninety days. My family built and planted a garden, installed a Little Free Library in the front yard, and has plans for both bees and chickens. I’ve been doing Keto and have lost about twenty pounds, all while working and managing kids, both in school and during the rudderless summer days.

Don’t get me wrong; I have my down days, too. And there have been more of them than not lately. Being forced to stay in first gear for a few months has given me ample time to consider the fact that 142,000 people have died, often scared and alone. I’ve had to spend even more time coming to terms with the deep racial issues in this country as well the plight of people groups like the Uyghurs in China. I’ve watched as protestors in Portland have been abducted off the street, wondering what it means for our right to peacefully protest both now and in the future. I’ve listened as people tangle themselves in knots arguing against wearing a mask in public rather than simply choosing to love their neighbors by doing so and even witnessed a woman have a nervous breakdown in real time thanks to the glittering magic of social media.

Yeah, it’s been rough to say the least. However, I’m doing all this from a very privileged position. Both my husband and I are working from home, and our kids have space to continue schooling here as well. We have a solid internet connection, devices for everyone in the house, food on the table, and anything else that we need to be successful in these very strange times. But even with all that, it’s been difficult to keep my head above water some days. I cannot imagine how folks who have lost jobs or are trying to figure out childcare for the coming school year are managing.

But I haven’t cried over the last few months. Not even once. No matter how overwhelmed I’ve been or how sad I’ve felt, not a single tear has fallen from my eye. But then the dadgum Clydesdales came on.

I’ve been watching my team, the St. Louis Cardinals, play intersquad matches to get ready for the 60-game season starting at the end of this month, and since there are no commercials, the broadcast fills the time between half innings with great moments in Cardinals history, live shots of fans from around the park last season, and so forth. At least once a game, they show the horses pulling the Budweiser cart around the warning track, an Opening Day tradition in St. Louis going back to 1933 and the repeal of Prohibition. Every year, they announce this moment with great fanfare; even the players stop what they’re doing to watch the team of eight horses, along with two green-clad drivers and a Dalmatian complete a few laps around the stadium while the organist plays “Here Comes the King” and fans clap along. I look forward to seeing it (often on TV and once in person) every year. That procession meant baseball had come back and signaled the true beginning of summer for me.

But we didn’t get it this year. We haven’t gotten a lot of things. Maybe we’ll never get them again. It’s hard to say when the world seems to flip over every twenty-four hours. For the most part, I’m glad for the changes. I’m happy people have had to slow down and spend more time with their families. I’m beyond thrilled that the environment is healing because of a decrease in transportation and shipping. I think the BLM movement got a huge boost in visibility because things like baseball and bars and brunches weren’t there to distract us, to serve as a kind of Soma that numbed us to the reality of the world. Yet, still I grieve because life as we know it has unquestionably changed forever. I was able to keep a lid on it, to process everything that meant academically and logically, until I saw those massive hooves high stepping and shining ribbons flowing in the popcorn scented air.

One time while I was watching, a haiku by Kobayashi Issa came to mind:

This dewdrop world –
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet…

The poem expresses a Buddhist concept, one that espouses the world is in some sense an illusion (the word for it is maya). Like water rolling in an unknown direction on a leaf, the world is full of causes and effects, a web of choices and changes we cannot control. The dewdrop world is a dewdrop world. But that final line from Issa changes everything. Yes, the world may be somehow illusory, but that doesn’t mean it’s without longing or sorrow or tragedy. Those emotions as well as ones like joy, love, and peace are all part of the story we’re living.

Watching those horses trot was my “And yet, and yet…” moment. I can’t stop the bad things that are happening around me. I can’t even fully protect the good things I have or the people I love. I know that, but seeing a moment that has been part of my life for forty-plus years, something that brought me joy, and having it suddenly feel like an old newsreel was unsettling. I felt the sadness of the present moment in stark contrast to the simple joys of yesterday, and the difference was breathtaking. It cracked me wide open and mixed up all the thoughts and emotions I’d managed to keep neatly compartmentalized. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad—maybe it’s both—but I’m leaving space for it, allowing myself to feel it rather than move along to the next thing on the ol’ to do list because as Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (KJV).

Everything Which Is Yes #3

I don’t think there’s a single arena of life that COVID-19 hasn’t radically altered. Everywhere I look, trees are blooming and things are coming to life, but my kids’ sports are cancelled. We can’t go to the doctor’s office unless it’s an emergency. School and work are still going on, but they’re happening in the comfy (for now) confines of our suburban Atlanta home. Honestly, we’re beyond blessed. We each have a laptop to work on, solid internet service, and room to spread out. We have a nice neighborhood to walk in as well as a backyard with a porch. We’re also beginning to build raised garden beds to grow produce, bringing two beehives back to the yard, and applying for a permit so we can have chickens. These projects will both help us pass the time in a healthy way and, in the long run, help us be more independent.

Because I have multiple sclerosis (and am therefore immunocompromised), getting out and volunteering isn’t an option for me, but I want to help my neighbors. One thing our family loves to do is read, but our libraries are closed for the duration. And that got me to thinking about people who might enjoy a new book or two during this crazy season (especially if they can’t afford to buy them online). Thankfully, there are Little Free Libraries dotted all around us, so we decided to clean off some shelf space and donate a few well-loved tomes to folks who might welcome the pleasant distraction only a book can offer. To find Little Free Libraries near you, visit this site.

Two baskets full of books (for both grown-ups and littles) later, we set off in my trusty yellow car. The first two libraries we found had solid offerings, and we took a book from each (making sure to leave a few in return). But the third one! Oh, the third one! It was in a family’s front yard, and it was—in a word—perfect. The library was painted to match the owner’s house. It was spacious, so the books could stand up straight in two rows. The glass was clean, so you could see everything inside before you opened the door. There was a little bench nearby to sit down and scan a book before leaving, and the owners had even put a jar of precious Clorox wipes in there so people could sanitize what they took and put in! How freakin’ thoughtful is that!? I ended up taking three from that one because it had a great selection and left several of my favorites behind (including an autographed copy of A Gentleman In Moscow).

There was something about that entire experience—being able to both give and receive in such a beautiful, intentionally designed, and welcoming space—that left me feeling somehow lighter than I have in the weeks since the coronavirus hit the United States. I didn’t talk to the people in that house, but I felt like I had a conversation of sorts with them. I got to know them just a bit through their library. It was obvious they cared about it (and by extension the people who came to use it), and I was thrilled to be able to contribute something. We were making a connection in that space, however brief, and it was a reminder that people care and life will go on eventually. And when it does, I hope I can do a better job building and maintaining community.

On the way to stop number four, we passed a little house where kids had written “Everything will be okay!!!!!” in sidewalk chalk across the width of their driveway. Topped with a very detailed rainbow, it certainly stood out, and we stopped the car to look at it for just a second or two. The fact that those kiddos decided to take the time to post that message, to encourage and reassure people they’d never meet struck something deep inside me. They, too, were reaching out with all those colors and exclamation marks. They were building community in some small way. Both they and the library owners were speaking shalom into this broken, scared, sin-sick world. Bless them. Bless them all, Lord.

As night drew in on the last day of this very long and stressful week, I stood on the back porch watching the sky fade from gold to pink to a muted purple-gray and enjoying cool evening air full of storm promise. I listened to the soothing murmur of wind moving through the tall pine trees, transforming them into long-limbed dancers that graced the sky with slow waving. Perhaps they, too, were speaking shalom. Or perhaps they were simply swaying to the music of the spheres that’s just beyond our fathoming.

Stone of Help

As I mentioned in my most recent post, the last several months have been hard ones at our house. We’ve been under a fairly high amount of stress, and as a result, none of us has been our best selves as of late. No, that’s putting it too mildly. We’ve all been impatient with one another, unloving and prone to anger. Thankfully, the source of all that strife is in the rearview mirror (aside from a few little odds and ends that we’ll be dealing with for a few more months, but they’re totally manageable).

Now, we have a “mess” to clean up. We have to go back over the last year or so and really take a hard look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a family. To that end, I decided some time ago that we needed to have a kind of “reset,” something involving a spiritual application and a project we would all do together, something that we could point to and say, “This is when we made a decision to do, be, and live better.”

The idea for exactly what that something would be hit me when a co-worker shared Ephesians 4:2 from The Living Bible: “Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” If that ain’t a great verse for a family on the mend, I don’t know what is!

We did a pretty deep dive into the first sixteen verses of the chapter:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

We talked about growing in Christlikeness. We talked about the importance of love first. We talked about unity and how to get and maintain it, as well as why it is important in a family and in the body of Christ. And the way we maintain that unity is through four things (all mentioned in verse two): humility, gentleness, patience, and love. So that’s what we chose to focus on for our project.

First, I bought some supplies on Amazon—acrylic paint, paint pens, a sealant, and a bag of large basalt stones for painting. (You can enlarge any photo by clicking on it.)

I figured it would be a good idea to paint the rocks with the base coat before the event, so that’s what I did. Two coats of white acrylic paint were plenty to prepare our “canvasses.”

We sat down with the paint pens and some scratch paper. I told everyone to come up with a design that would help them remember what the word meant (per our discussion).

After about thirty minutes, we sealed them, and they were ready to display alongside a print of the verse I hired someone on Etsy to design. We chose to put everything in the foyer of our house because it’s a space we all walk through multiple times a day. We have to pass it often, and that keeps it on our minds. It’s a way to practice the commandment found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

The act of putting it on a wall also gave us a chance to discuss exactly what an Ebenezer or “stone of help” is (1 Samuel 7 and Joshua 4). We explained to the kids how Israel used them to memorialize what God had done for them, to keep from forgetting his kindness and deliverance. And that’s precisely what God did for our family—he protected us (both from the world and ourselves) and delivered us in our time of greatest need. Amen.

Here are close ups of the rocks we painted. (If you’re wondering, I’m “be gentle.”)

Everything Which Is Yes #2

Yesterday, it was raining. It had been for two days. I sat in the car and stared at the too-bright screen that told me my commute to work was going to take 45 minutes through a cold, dark morning and couldn’t help but groan. Everything in me wanted to turn around, to return to my still-warm pajamas and never crawl out of them. But that’s not an option when you’re grown, so I took a deep breath, turned on NPR, and set out.

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled with sadness. It hasn’t kept me from doing what needs to be done, but it feels like I’m covered with a lead blanket that dulls my mind and slows my body. For several reasons I won’t bore you with here, I’ve felt my “otherness” as of late, been hyperaware of things in my life that make me different from most other folks. Though I’m often surrounded by people at work, church, and home, I’ve felt painfully isolated—lonely despite the company.

But today was a better day. The sun was shining. It was wonderfully crisp and cool outside now that the rain has passed, and I spent the morning working in my new favorite coffee shop, Rev Roasters. (I have a feeling quite a few of these posts will have their origin in such a space. They’re just so full of delights, and I have the time and headspace to notice them there!) Unbeknownst to me as I stood in line, on the first Friday of each month, they serve their drip coffee for free. Their Peru Cajamarca tastes great no matter what, but mercy, I think it was even better today. I creamed and sugared up that bad boy until I was content and set to sippin’ while I enjoyed a bacon cheddar muffin and a blueberry scone.

And you know what? I felt at peace with all the people around me. Some were chatting with tablemates while others hunched over laptops, pouring themselves into whatever work or passion gripped them. In my grey hoodie, my own computer open before me and magazine proofs spread across my own workspace, I looked shockingly like everyone else. I talked to very few people, and even those with whom I spoke, we shared very few words. But it sure felt good to be among strangers, to be somehow accepted by them. We were all extras in a café scene, and for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel like I stood out for any reason, good or bad.

Strangely enough in this mixed media space, my seat was not an industrial high-top stool or a wooden chair painted with some kitschy design. It was an old church pew, one of two in the place, well-worn and smoothed by the passing of many a holy backside. My body knew its shape well, and I felt comforted by its presence beneath me. A bit of the sacred in a space where I hadn’t expected it. A man sat beside me, and when his partner, a woman (co-worker? friend?), slid over next to him to share a funny video on her phone, I felt them laughing together through the wood and reveled in the silent tremors of joy, delighted to feel their mirth.

Wonderful, too, was the moment I shared later with an older woman as I perused the calendar/planner section at Barnes and Noble, killing time before picking up my youngest from school. From opposite sides of a shelf, we sang along with America’s “A Horse With No Name,” she on the melody and I on the high harmony. A little concert for no one but ourselves.

Today, in more ways that one, “it felt good to be out of the rain.”

Everything Which Is Yes #1

Perhaps ee cummings put the idea in my head years ago with his poem, “i thank you God.” Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been laughing at and lounging in The Book of Delights by Ross Gay lately. Maybe it was Frederick Buechner’s The Remarkable Ordinary or this article by Norann Voll in Plough. But whatever the reason, I’ve been more aware of the beauty around me these days, of grace in all the beautiful, kaleidoscopic ways it can show up in a life—especially one like mine, which has been beset by stress and worry for the last year and a half.

It seemed wrong not to tell another person about the “leaping greenly spirit of trees,” the “blue dream of sky,” and “everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes” in my life. So, to that end, I hope to begin blogging periodically about the winsome, altogether lovely things that cross my path. I hope they bless you as they have me.


Today is October 22, 2019, and I spent the better part of the day in Amélie’s French Bakery & Café in Atlanta writing an essay I’ve had in my head for quite some time. Firstly, can we talk about what a delight it is to write something that’s been knocking around inside you? To have the time and space to allow words to bubble up and flow together into sentences and paragraphs, to create something that will allow another person to look and maybe, just maybe, say, “I get it. I understand exactly what you’re getting at” is a blessing I can never discount.

I sat in a sagging blue velvet armchair and read, priming the pump for writing, noshing on both a chocolate croissant, all butter and flake, and a tartine topped with melted brie, bacon, and fig. (I saw no reason to choose.) The sandwich was sweet, salty, and rich all at once. Joyful flavors. The world just doesn’t seem so dire when warm fig is spread on a toasted baguette.

In cafés and coffeeshops, there is a special level of camaraderie I have yet to find anywhere else. For some reason, people trust their neighbors, those folks hammering away nearby on their own laptops, to watch over their things while they run to the bathroom or to the counter for a refill. I know I certainly did, and that’s how I met Cheryl. Before I walked out of the building to pay for parking, I locked eyes with this hoodied angel over her copy of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and asked for the favor, which she happily agreed to. (How can a person reading Mary Karr not be wonderful!?) I did the same for her, and together, we made it all happen.

When I went back to order lunch and bit of sweetness (a lemon tart the cashier referred to as “teensy weensy” and a chocolate mousse cup the size of a half inch socket), I just happened to return with a palmier for her. “I thought you could use a little something,” I said. “It was perfect,” she told me later. “Just what I needed to finish my work…and my tea.” We talked shop for awhile (she’s a freelance journalist with a five-year-old son) and about how hard it is to be a writer and a mom in the same body. We shook hands. We blessed one another and parted ways.

I’m so full.

Martha, Martha, Martha…

When it comes to the three well-known siblings in Bethany, Martha always gets short shrift. Lazarus was the one with whom Jesus rested and dined. He was the one over whom Jesus wept and the one he raised from the dead. His sister, Mary, is known for sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to the gospel and for the lavish anointing of his head with costly spikenard. Martha, however, is rarely praised. In fact, most women are admonished not to be like her. She’s a frantic doer forever caught up in seemingly petty details. She’s a scrubber of floors, a washer of laundry, a server of food. In any sermon I’ve ever heard where she plays a part, she’s described in less-than-complimentary terms. Hence, I’ve always imagined her with strands of hair flying out of her mitpachat and flour on her sweaty, crimson face. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever written a book about having a Martha heart in a Mary world.

But I don’t think that’s fair. True, Martha doesn’t appear to be a contemplative soul. No, she’s a woman of action. She gets stuff done. And I think by examining what she does we can begin to see the surpassing excellence of this early disciple and perhaps learn from her example.

Rather than dwell on Luke 10:38-42, the story that is most often told of Martha, let’s look at John 11:1-44 when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Naturally, Lazarus is the human star of the show here. After all, he’s the one that comes walking out of the tomb wrapped in burial linens, but Martha shouldn’t be forgotten.

Despite her grief, she comes to meet Jesus while Mary remains in the house, and she makes four pretty amazing declarations:

  1. Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.
  2. I know that if you wish it, you can bring him back.
  3. Even if you don’t return him to me now, I still trust you because I know I’ll see him again at the resurrection of the saints.
  4. I believe you, Jesus, are the Son of God.

Those are some bold words, and—to my mind—a very courageous declaration of faith. Four days after burying her brother, after ninety-six grueling hours of mourning and all the work that comes with it, she stops. She wipes her tear-stained face, comes to meet Jesus, and asserts the truth she has learned from him.

In contrast, Mary waits at home, only rising to meet the Messiah when Martha returns and whispers, “The Teacher is calling for you.” Like her sister, she says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” and then she falls at Jesus’ feet in tears. She doesn’t make any statements like Martha. All she knows in this moment is grief, and judging by what Scripture says, she cannot see past it. She cannot fathom the possibility of resurrection or the life everlasting.

But Martha can. She knows it just like she knows how long to leave a loaf in the oven or the best way to mend a torn garment. Her words tell me as much. Now, ever the pragmatist, she worries about the stench that will come out of the tomb when the stone is rolled away, so we know her faith is still far from perfect. She believes Jesus can bring her brother back; she just doesn’t understand the particulars. And the particulars matter to her the same way they did to Thomas, Nicodemus, and Phillip. Those people—like some of us—long for evidence and explanation. We need to put our hands in his wounds. We come with our questions in the dead of night and strive to wrap our heads around the resurrection using what we know of biology. We beg Jesus to show us the Father. Our Savior understands this, and rather than withhold what we need or chastise us for it, he patiently waits while we touch and ask so that we may know.

I like Martha because, when it comes right down to it, I’m a lot like her. I work hard and accomplish much. Sometimes I don’t accept things on face value and have to learn them the hard way. And though my faith has come to me via a very circuitous route and doesn’t always look bright and shiny, it’s mine. I’m thankful she’s included in the Gospels because she, like so many people we meet in those pages, is real. And what she believes is, too.

 

 

Sunday Matinee

This place has seen better days, I said to myself as we entered the dollar theater, but then again so have I. The carpet—a jarring geometric affair only found in theaters, hotels, and bowling alleys—was threadbare and puckered in places. The glass front of the concession stand was streaked, like someone meant to give it a good cleaning, realized mid-swipe where he was, and gave up. The lighting was dim, and some part of me thought it was for the best. It’s hard to complain when tickets are two bucks and I can afford to get everyone popcorn and candy without having to take out a second mortgage.

On a Sunday afternoon when three of the features are kid-friendly, the place is usually packed with families like mine looking for a few hours of peaceful distraction. So, like the rest of the herd, we shuffle obediently into theater three—Junior Mints and Buncha Crunch in hand—to enjoy Mary Poppins Returns. Ready to forget all about sticky floors and ripped seat cushions for two hours while we watched Mickey’s glossy, four-fingered magic show.

Unlike the glut of Disney’s recent films—naked cash grabs that are nothing more than shot-for-shot remakes of classic cartoons—this film attempted to build on previous work. Once again, the Banks family is in trouble, but not of the Edwardian era, white-people-nonsense variety. Twenty-five years have passed, and this time Michael is the pater familias. His three children (Annabel, John, and Georgie) are the ones in need of Mary Poppins’ enchanting assistance after their mother’s death the previous year. Jane, his poor spinster sister, is around, as is the bedraggled housekeeper, Ellen. Even crazy Admiral Boom and his first mate, Binnacle, are still alive and shooting canons on the hour. And characters that don’t make a repeat performance—like Mary’s Uncle Albert, forever laughing himself to the ceiling—are replaced by analogs. In this case, Mary’s cousin Topsy who can fix anything except on the second Wednesday of every month when her world literally flips upside down.

Rather than the hyper-pristine London of the past, this film is set during the Depression and is, in the production designer’s words, “gritty” and “dipped in reality.” Unlike Jane and Michael who were only losing their home in the emotional sense (because their parents were too busy counting money or smashing the patriarchy to worry about them), the second generation of Banks will lose 17 Cherry Tree Lane if the bank loan isn’t repaid in full by week’s end. So much for escapism, I muttered to myself. But Mary Poppins shows up, works her magic and—spit spot—problems get solved and people become their best selves.

Just like the original, this film is imaginative to a fault. There are kites and balloons aplenty in the park. Every dark alley and close is safe thanks to an army of kind lamplighters, led by Jack (Bert’s apprentice as a child). There’s even a magical scene much like the one in Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawing, but this time it takes place on the outside of a chipped porcelain bowl. There’s singing and dancing every few minutes, and, of course, the obligatory happy ending is practically perfect in every way.

The film is also abounding with Instagram-worthy Mary Poppisms like “Everything is possible. Even the impossible,” “Head up, and feet beneath you,” “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost,” and “There’s nowhere to go but up.” The last of these is the title to the movie’s closing song, which is sung by people floating above a fair via the help of magical balloons. The song is about celebrating the enchanted possibilities of childhood, of keeping hope alive in your heart, and it closes with the following two stanzas:

If your day’s up the spout,
well there isn’t a doubt.
There’s nowhere to go but up.
And if you don’t believe
just hang on to my sleeve,
for there’s nowhere to go but up.

As you fly over town,
it gets harder to frown.
And we’ll all hit the heights
if we never look down.
Let the past take a bow.
The forever is now.
And there’s nowhere to go but up, up!
There’s nowhere to go but up!

We were leaving the theater, my youngest son still singing the tune, when I saw a woman sitting near the lobby’s left exit door. She was easy to miss, slumped in the corner of a high-backed bench topped with dusty plastic plants. She was dressed in the theater’s standard-issue polyester uniform, name tag unreadable on a too-tight black vest, her Vera Bradley knock-off purse wedged tightly between her swollen feet as she waited, I assumed, for a ride home.

Unlike the green-haired girl behind the ticket counter or the budding jock who’d fetched our candy with a “ma’am” so sweet I hardly minded being so labeled, she looked to be somewhere between fifty and sixty, a woman who should have been enjoying a Sunday off. But she’d been collecting trash from the floor and wiping up pools of what passed for melted butter alongside people more than half her age for minimum wage. Every stoop and heft of it showed.

Other belongings were pinned between her and the wall, and there was nothing of the “peaceful sleeper” business about this woman. She rested watchfully, tightfisted, unwilling let life take one more thing from her. Looking at what part of her face I could see, pinched with worry, I wanted to hug her. To tell her I’d been there and understood. That things might get better.

And there’s nowhere to go but up! my youngest continued to warble, oblivious to the contradiction in front of him.

No, I wanted to say. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go but down. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go at all. There are no Topsys in real life who can fix what’s broken. Rarely, if ever, do things work out the way they should. More often than not, we start out soaring but end up defeated with our faces in the dirt. Time sees to that. But how to say that to a child still holding on to his own green balloon? How to tell a woman who’s crash landed that getting up is possible again if I don’t know that it’s true? The weight of both questions kept my lips closed.

I kept silent rather than stop the song. And I knew better than to linger.

This show wasn’t for me.

 

 

 

Enough Already

I review hundreds of Christian books a year—skimming and scanning them to see what’s trending and what might be beneficial to share with our readers. These come from every publisher imaginable, and many of the works that cross my desk are solid. Writers are pushing into new territory, making biblically-sound arguments, and faithfully teaching the Word of God. The hot topic du jour changes, of course. One year, brokenness was on everyone’s mind. Being “messy” and “real” had a heyday too. The Enneagram is still going strong. Perennial topics like grace, peace, and love are never in short supply. And the leadership books…oh, the leadership books. Have mercy.

However, since I began this work seven or eight years ago, one thing has remained constant: Women’s books are pastel. And I mean that both in terms of visual design and substance.

These are two books I recently received in the mail. What do you notice? What do they have in common? Pleasing robin’s egg blue covers with pink accents. Feminine font. Encouraging titles. And flowers. Always flowers.

I read a few pages of each of these offerings and promptly put them on the giveaway pile at the office. The first reason is because we need books that apply to both genders and a wide variety of ages, and these are specifically aimed a female audience in a certain stage of life. The second is because the message of each is very self-focused, and we need writers who can speak on topics that pertain to the church as whole.

My gripe is not with these two publications in particular, but the overall market for books aimed at Christian women. I did a quick search on Amazon looking for top sellers, and here’s what I came up with.

Each cover (save three) is decorated with flowers, leaves, and vines. And the ones that don’t Make use of other common visuals—a feather and a butterfly (which symbolize freedom or lightness) and a pair of hipster casual tennis shoes (being messy or real). Ladies, I guess we never get tired of taking pictures of our feet, do we?

Perhaps this is my personal preference showing as I’m not a fan of overly-feminine things, but I feel like these covers say a great deal more about the books’ intended audience than they do about what’s inside the works themselves. The message I’m getting isn’t “Drink deeply from Scripture,” “Combat what’s sinful in yourself,” or even “Renew your mind.” It’s “Be soothed,” “Love yourself,” and “Stop trying so hard to be perfect.”

Now, I will say that several of these are Bible studies, which is a far cry better than a first-person book that uses Scripture as a reference. However, to be honest, I’ve picked up many a women’s study over the years hoping to find something challenging and convicting, something that compels me to look at God’s Word (and myself) differently. And so many times, I’ve come away feeling disappointed.

Having never read any of these books, I can’t speak about them in particular. However, most of the Bible studies I’ve tried just aren’t deep enough. They’re too focused on how I feel about a passage from the Bible or how it speaks to my experience. Call me crazy, but if the goal is to die to self, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to decrease so that he might increase, my feelings and experience don’t enter into it at all.

John’s Gospel ends with as clear (and tantalizing) a closing sentence as any in the Bible: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Not “that you may feel like God loves you” or “that you may feel he’s your Savior.” It’s that you may believe and, by believing, you may live.

I don’t know if women continue to choose these books because it’s what they truly want (or think they should want) or if they’re afraid of taking on something more substantive. But I am painfully aware of just how many books are being marketed to Christian women and what they contain. We are being well and truly shortchanged.

One of the best-selling new non-fiction books of the decade—Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be—is the natural and obvious outcome of this trend. 1.6 million copies of her work found their way into women’s hands in 2018. Its message? According to Hollis herself, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are. That’s the takeaway.”

“What sets this book apart is — this sounds so lame to say—is my voice,” Hollis told the AP. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a guru. Anything I’ve ever done, the work I’ve done, has always been like your girlfriend telling you what worked for her.” That’s what women are paying to hear, and the thinnest veneer of Jesus imaginable makes them think they’re reading something of eternal value. Both Alisa Childers and Laura Turner have written outstanding reviews pointing out the shortcomings of and the dangers inherent in Girl, Wash Your Face, so I won’t belabor the point by adding my two cents. However, one line from Childers’ review is relevant here.

“I’ll be honest,” she writes. “Reading this book exhausted me. It’s all about what I can be doing better and what I’m not doing good enough. How to be better at work, parenting, and writing. How to be less bad at cardio, sex, and you know, changing the world.”

So many flowery books about peace and balance. So many books about how we are enough and need to stop the crazy-making attempts at human perfection. And yet Hollis’ book—which encourages us to do more and try harder because, dadgummit, we’re the captains of our ships and the mistresses of our own destinies—is flying off the shelves. We’re consuming contrary messages, neither of which will ever soothe. Instead, we’re left anxious and troubled about many things, forgetting we can choose the good portion.

There are topics like cosmology, pneumatology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology to study, and books about them aren’t in short supply. So why do we consistently settle for anything less? Why are we all so concerned with finding peace here on earth (and in ourselves) when Jesus clearly tells us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword….And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:34, 38-39)?

I firmly believe that women are capable of serious theological study. We are created in God’s image, gifted with minds to explore everything from hallelujah to the hypostatic union. It’s time to leave our Pinterest-perfect faith quests behind and start demanding more of Christian publishers…and ourselves.

Redeeming Words

I get roughly two hours a day to myself. One hundred and twenty obligation-free minutes that must be spent well. There are times when I do opt to watch a movie or a couple of episodes of a television show, but more often than not, I spend that precious time with a book (usually with a baseball game on in the background).

Everyone knows that reading is certainly better than binge watching or losing endless hours in front of a video game console, but not all reading material is created equal. And, in this day and age, how we read matters just as much as what. I’m not against popular fiction mind you; my bookshelves and my library card will attest to the fact that I’ve consumed my fair share. However, I read it for an altogether different reason than I do a solid piece of non-fiction or a “classic” work.

When I was an English major, I read with an attention to detail that would impress a ship-in-a-bottle enthusiast. Pen, highlighter, and page flags at the ready, I attacked a work of literature or critical theory ruthlessly. I highlighted passages, wrote reference notes in the margins and on the blank pages at the back. Basically, I did what Billy Collins said all students do, I beat it “with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to read in such a way these days. I want to experience the books I select and enjoy them for what they are, but I also don’t want to lose the ability to read critically and with attention to detail. I want to investigate language and understand how words work together.

Apparently, I’m in the minority.

According to this article by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, “skim reading” rather than “deep reading” is the new normal. In her research, she’s discovered that, “Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ ‘cognitive impatience,’ however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.”

I’ve noticed this cognitive decay happening with people I love. Those who once read books now spend all their free time staring at and swiping on iPads and phones, and over the years, their ability to concentrate has been whittled away. I don’t know if they’re even aware it’s happening, and, sadder still, I’m not sure they care.

Hundreds of studies have been done about the impact of technology, and most of the research isn’t good. According to doctors and researchers, we’re miserable and lonely. Our kids are pretty much wrecked and suffer from anxiety and depression because they’re always connected. We bemoan the lack of civility in our culture and the fact that thoughtful debate seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, yet we won’t put down the things that make us reactionary rather than thoughtful citizens.

When it comes to books, however, the research is all positive. Reading—especially fiction—allows us to take Atticus Finch’s advice and “climb inside [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.” Through reading, we gain empathy. Immersing ourselves in good books makes us smarter. It keeps our minds sharper and helps us be more relaxed.

For this reason, I read at least fifty books per year (both in hard copy and audiobook form when I’m driving), and ten of them must be classics. In addition to a dozen works of non-fiction, some poetry, and a couple of graphic novels, I’ve read Invisible Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Raisin in the Sun, Candide, A Moveable Feast, and, most recently, Crime and Punishment.

I have thoroughly enjoyed each of these books, and I’m looking forward to finishing a few more before year’s end. However, good as Dostoyevsky’s novel was, I could feel my mind wandering in parts of Crime and Punishment. I tuned out during a few long descriptive passages, and my eyes glazed over more than once when the story seemed to rewind and repeat itself. Twenty-five-year-old me wouldn’t have done that. That version of Jamie would have read it with laser precision (though with less joy, I think) and analyzed everything about the diction and syntax. She would have marked any instance of symbolism and every allegorical reference (of which there were many). Don’t take that to mean forty-year-old Jamie is a slouch though. Whenever I caught my eyeballs getting loose, I stopped. I re-read and re-focused. I kept a pen in my hand to underline sentences I enjoyed and make observations and predictions.

All the other moms at taekwondo practice (and their kids) may have spent 45 minutes on electronics, but I spent that time in St. Petersburg, Russia wrestling with some thorny moral questions. I’m not judging, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour scrolling social media, but I’ve made the decision to severely curtail my use of those platforms in order to make room for other things. Better things. More filling and rewarding things.

Reading Crime and Punishment expanded my knowledge of Russian history and geography. I even gained a little linguistical wisdom. Take the protagonist’s name for instance. Rodion comes from Rhodes, a Greek island, and Raskolnikov derives from the Russian raskolnik meaning “schismatic.” He is worthy of such a name, for he spends much of the story isolated and of broken because he is of two minds.

Spending time with characters like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is well worth the time and effort it takes to read their stories. Being inside his head as he wrestled with an ethical dilemma allowed me to experience it up close and personal too. I had to ask myself some hard questions about the value of human life and where I stand on punishment and redemption. I was forced to re-examine my thoughts on morality and the power of God’s grace.

And beyond that, there are the soaring phrases that I will keep with me always:

  • “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
  • “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
  • “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
  • “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
  • “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
  • “There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery. If there is a hundredth of a fraction of a false note to candor, it immediately produces dissonance, and as a result, exposure. But in flattery, even if everything is false down to the last note, it is still pleasant, and people will listen not without pleasure; with coarse pleasure, perhaps, but pleasure nevertheless.”

Spending an hour on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seems so paltry, so insufficient when there are words like that out there to feast on. And yet, many of us choose technology instead. We use it to escape reality, to numb our brains to the world around us (especially when it’s unpleasant and we “can’t even”), but what we really need to do is lean in.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, John the Savage (so named because he’s grown up outside of the World State’s influence) says of mosquitos and flies, “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. [You] neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy….What you need…is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

Like John, I want to know the world in all its beauty and savagery. I want to pay the cost required to live well, to know true pain as well as joy.

Near the end of her article, Maryanne Wolf states, “The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended ‘collateral damage’ of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

The last sentence makes it obvious why deep reading essential (and why our culture is the way it is today). I’ve studied far too many dystopian works to claim ignorance. They’ve shown me what a world without thought looks like, and it is a terrifying prospect. I don’t know if the predictions of Orwell, Huxley, Lewis, Atwood, Dick, Burgess, or Bradley will ever come true. I cannot tell if our world will one day resemble the ones they created as a warning. What I do know is that our minds cannot be spent frivolously. They are precious gifts we must defend at all costs against a world eager to consume them.