Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Caring (Spiritual Direction by Sue Pickering)

This will be one of my shortest blog posts ever as this is a review of a specific genre: spiritual writing, even more specifically an introduction book to spiritual direction. I have no idea how I wound up with the white background for some of the paragraphs (other than for the first time I copied from my review on Goodreads over to the blog instead of the other way around, but not all of this is on Goodreads, and then suddenly the white background stops), but I haven't time to retype everything so it stands as evidence of my stage of still learning.

If you are looking for a book on spiritual direction: what it is, listening and responding to God, listening and responding to ourselves, listening and responding to others, listening in context to community, and you are familiar with spiritual direction vocabulary, then this is a five star, clearly buy it, book. 

Everything about this book -- writing, style, reflections, examples -- are clear and well-written. No boredom here. 

However, if you're not accustomed to spiritual direction vocabulary (let's say you just want to know what spiritual direction is and you're not interested in learning how to participate in spiritual direction), then you might not want to pick up this book.

💕💕💕💕💕 I am currently taking a summer class in spiritual direction for children from the Companioning Center. Experiencing life with God and children has been eye opening. Smart children who can tell me a bible story clearly and recite a memory verse exactly but have no idea where God fits into either (and who were bored during Bible story time because the storyteller "talked and talked and talked") yet given the opportunity to engage with the story or make connections, leading the way, tell of a rich, deep relationship with God. 

---------------- Christian Spiritual Direction is not freaky weird, or, at least, it's not supposed to be. If you have had a situation where someone said he or she was doing spiritual direction with you, yet the "director" is telling you what you need to do, what God is saying to you, or even trying to counsel you, then find a different director or, if you did want a counselor, go to a professional counselor. If you wanted a mentor or advisor or teacher, go to those people.  Spiritual direction in the simplest words is having someone (the director) listen to you (the directee) and allow you to recognize the movement of God in your life (God who loves you and calls you beloved), and give you space to respond. The director does not choose how God is moving nor choose how you will respond. He or she may ask if you have tried this or that (journaling, psalm praying, imagining oneself in a particular bible scene, drawing while talking with God, to name a few examples), but choices are the directee's, not the director's. (Ugh, that last sentence now edited if you happened to read the autocorrected version the first time through.)

From the author of Spiritual Direction: "...spiritual direction...a one-to-one conversation in which one person helps another reflect on and deepen his or her connection with God" (xi), and "...spiritual direction is about listening to people's stories, listening for glimpses of grace and hints of the holy, listening for the breakthrough presence of God in the midst of ordinary life" (xiii). From page 3, a director "supports and encourages another person (the directee) to attend and respond to God...discover God's care in the midst of difficulties; become aware of the sacred within the ordinary events of life; honestly share with God their feelings, doubts, and questions..."  

Monday, July 23, 2018

Aging Well or Aging...Well...(Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall)

First, I fell in love. Then, the honeymoon was over, and I started to take the book out of my Amazon cart. Still, I read on. Now, the book stays in the cart, waiting.

I picked up this book from the library (although photo credit here goes to iBooks or Google or Amazon or the publisher) because a friend had read some Donald Hall poems at a gathering. It turns out Hall just died in July 10 of this year so, in my case, I fulfilled a statement he makes in his essays about a poet becoming popular after he dies! This is not a book of his poems. In fact, he doesn't even include one of his poems. After eighty years, he feels the poetic muse has left him and he turns to prose...superb prose...well earned superb prose as he revises often over thirty times! Clearly Hall was willing to put in the time to become a master of his art. His art and skill at writing alone tempts me to buy the book.

I went looking for a book of his poetry and came home with White Apples and the Taste of Stone (selected poems 1946-2006), Anecdotes of Modern Art (written with Pat Corrington Wykes), and this book Essays After Eighty. Before he died, he finished A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety which also sits in my shopping cart.

I fell in love with the first essay "Out the Window" as he describes the view out his window and his mom turning ninety as she looked out that same window, living in the same house for almost sixty years (a nice counterpoint to my last book review of Miller's Valley and musings on moving on). Still, in this chapter the years that lie ahead of the reader might look a bit foreboding based on Hall's descriptions. (Believe me, if I did not use the lie/lay correctly here, I did try to discern the proper usage!)

As I moved into the second essay on writing "Essays After Eighty," I thought surely I needed this book if only to learn how to avoid beginning "paragraphs with 'I'" (14) Not to mention avoiding a lot of other problems in writing already demonstrated in this post!

In "Yeti in the District" and other essays, Hall takes negative situations and brings in his sense of humor. Yet, as I read on, Hall has an edge of cynicism, perhaps, some would say "understandably so" as he survived a wife and an ex-wife who both died of cancer.

Sometimes timing even in reading matters. I have read a number of books lately that have involved such deep thinking that I am ready for some belly laughs. There are some gentle laughs in Hall's essays, some name droppings that are so subtle that it takes one a moment to realize he just dropped a lot of famous names, and a lot of memoir from an old poet who writes extremely well. My guess is that he did not intend for the book to be about teaching anyone else how to age well.

My (there's that personal pronoun again) favorite quote: "Yesterday my first nap was at 9:30 am, but when I awoke I wrote again." I'd have to say Publisher's Weekly's blurb for the book describes Hall's work well: "Laconic, witty, and lyrical, Hall is a master stylist, yet he remains refreshingly humble and matter-of-fact about fame (his and others)...By exploring the joys and vicissitudes of a long life, [Essays After Eighty] offers revealing insights into the human condition -- and the grit and openness it requires" (from the front flap of the cover).

💕💕💕💕💕 Getting to know older adults is important for children. Older people have stories to tell and too often I hear at memorials or when it is no longer possible to hear their stories, "Oh, how I wished I had listened or asked questions when he or she was able to tell me all about life back then."  Our family did a fair job of our children knowing older people. Not the best, not the worst.

---------------- Here I am now one of those people wishing I had paid more attention to the stories of my elders, so I read books like Essays After Eighty. As for spiritual practices, there are people around me who are older than I am that I can still get to know, can still practice being attentive to. Journaling makes for a beneficial practice as well. Not everything needs to be saved for those who come behind us but both types of journaling -- for one's own eyes only and for others to read -- can be a blessing. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Moving On (Miller's Valley by Anne Quindlen)

Nothing like walking through reviews of a book and realizing that I am going to be one of the few who rate it with 3 stars. Three stars: I liked it. It was fine. There's the issue, isn't it? We don't like to receive a 'C' grade, an average grade. We don't like to be "fine" or "nice." I can't really label the book as "nice" as once again this summer I've just finished a sad book (with somewhat of a "happy" ending, I guess). I am desperate to move on to something witty and humorous and happy. However, I didn't choose this book (it was a book discussion group choice for the month of July-August), and moving on from sad books is not why I chose the title "Moving On" for this post.

The people of Miller's Valley must move out and move on because their town is going to be covered in water; it will be a "drowned town". This is not a plot spoiler as we learn this immediately in the novel.

Still, I could have chosen a variety of themes to focus on from Quindlen's novel: eminent domain, 1960s and Vietnam (or any war era sending back soldiers into civilian life), family relationships, friendship, pro-life/pro-choice/sex, growing up / growing old, loneliness, identity and home.

All those themes touch my life in one way or the other, but I keep coming back to what it means to "move on." When does moving on help us grow and thrive, and when is moving on equivalent to cutting ourselves off from what matters and/or simply running away? When does someone else's moving on become something we have to deal with, get through, and get over?

If a reader is willing to look into that theme running throughout Miller's Valley and throughout the lives of its characters, then she or he will have lots to think about in this "quiet" book (a number of reviewers who rated this book three stars were wishing they had paid attention to the "quiet" label -- this means the story may move a bit slower than one would like).

The book is an excellent choice for discussion, but I'm not purchasing the book for my own shelves.

💕💕💕💕 One of the most important actions we can take with our children (and with ourselves) is to help them build up friendships that will last a lifetime. Some childhood friendships will fall by the wayside -- oh! what a great analogy I've fallen into! Some friendships will fall on footpaths where the busy birds of this life will eat them up. If the friendships seem like good ones, pick up the seeds and move them to a place where they can be nurtured. Some friendships fall  among the rocks. Make sure that not all of your children's friendships and your own friendships stay in the rock or acquaintance region. Some friendships will fall among the weeds. Those are the tough calls to make when it comes to friendships. To have friendships among the good soil, those are friendships that last a lifetime and in rain and shine, help us to thrive and grow. Too often I've either moved on from friendship to friendship or planted friendships everywhere without making sure that I have deep friendships.

--------------Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts in the New Testament all write of "shaking the dust off of   [one's] feet." Words for moving on. My comments here address whether we read those stories in light of the reality that God is Love (see my ongoing blog post about this in this link here.  ) or if we read it as if God were made in our own image and if we shake off dust, then we either hate you or can't stand you or feel something other than God love for you. What if we look at "shaking of the dust" as moving on and moving past so that we can thrive and grow, so that we are not continually dragged down into the taking any number of unhelpful actions: being someone's rescuer and getting in the way of the Holy Spirit; becoming morose and stuck in the past; getting angry and becoming depressed about the past, unable to hear the goodness to which God is inviting us...

What if "shaking off the dust", "moving on", means we are invited to move away from bitterness, wrath, malice, evil words -- to put them off, to shake them off -- and to put on, move toward kindness compassion, and forgiveness? It may mean that moving on and away from someone or something is healing for our souls...and may lead to healing for theirs as well.

What if "shaking off the dust" means a moving on which is also helpful to the person or people from whom we are moving on or moving past? If the person can not hear and feel our love, can not hear and feel that the kingdom of God has come near to them, do we trust God in perfect love to send someone else? Just because we need to shake the dust off of our feet does not mean that God has abandoned the people. Truly, if these actions of shaking off the dust in protest as a testimony does not change any minds, if after time and time again, a person chooses to walk away from the freedom offered in Jesus, in God, in Love with a capital 'L', then the person gets to have what he or she wants and that is a life outside of the kingdom of God. That is sad, but the judgment does not come from us. Shaking dust off of our feet does not make us superior. It is merely an action done in love directed by God who is Love because we who are moving on are not the ones to carry the message of love there. We need to discontinue reading the words of Jesus as though he is saying them with hate and instead read them as a parent who deeply loves his children. "And you, Capernum, [think, dear children, about this] will this get you to heaven? No, you will go down to Hades [Sheol, a place of darkness, a place of death, a place where nothing grows or thrives; this is not what I want for you; change your mind, dear children, for I love you with an unfailing love].

**********I continue to think on this topic of moving on, shaking the dust off my feet. This question comes to mind. When do I move on and when do I stay put? It might have to do with what leads me toward  God and which leads me away from God. It probably has a lot to do with what is most helpful for both the one who is not listening and to me as well. Which "moving on" "shaking the dust off" move me toward God and away from anything that puts me in the place only God can hold or takes me away from anything I idolize? Which "moving on" or "shaking the dust off" takes me farther away from God's invitation to me (think of Jonah and Ninevah)? 

Monday, July 09, 2018

Sleuthing (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley)

In my pursuit of some light reading, I discovered I do not possess my own copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I intend (barely and briefly) to compare Scout, the protagonist of TKAM (as it was known by my students) with Flavia, the protagonist of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (TSATBOTP -- goodness, even with initials, the title is still long). I went to take a picture of the two books together and that's when I realized that I did not own TKAM (my children, take note, my birthday is coming).

From the title of this blog post -- "Sleuthing" -- and the picture of the dead bird, you can deduce ("arrive at by reasoning, reach a logical conclusion") that this is a mystery, not my normal genre to read. However, several friends rated this book highly (4 stars) on Goodreads, and I longed for something light-hearted to read.

Eh, dead bodies but no blood and guts, just lots of talk of poisons...lots. No deep philosophical discussions but lots of multi-syllable words...lots. I like multi-syllable words even when they are written as coming out of the mouth of a precocious eleven year old. The thoughts and conversations of Flavia can be funny. It is meant to be "over the top" (hyperbole, exaggeration). It has to be when the author names the characters Ophelia (Feely), Daphne (Daffy), Flavia, Antigone, Dogger, etc.

Therefore, if the book is meant to be jolly good fun (even with dead people, poisons, kidnapping, etc.), readers shouldn't expect reality in the story. Yet, at the bottom of this custard pie (part of the story), there is some sweet (or not-so-sweet) reality in the form of how the murders happen and in the kidnapping. All's well that ends well so have no fear there. I like the relationship between Inspector Hewitt and Flavia, but I confess to being annoyed by the family relationships.

One, why are mothers generally dead and fathers cold and distant (or vice versa)? Can one not have an adventuresome life with a live mother and father who care for and love you? Maybe not. I finished two memoirs this summer Calypso and Hillbilly Elegy (reviews in the links) and one author has a dead mother and father who was cold and distant in younger years and warm and loving in later years, and one author has a drug addict mother, and a father who left the family.

Two, Flavia's siblings. Flavia's talk of poisoning her sisters and how they treat each other is flat-out painful for me to read. Not because it sparks painful thoughts of my own relationships with siblings but because I have such good relationships with my siblings and whenever I have seen painful relationships, the situation has not been funny. I know, I must remember this is exaggeration for the sake of fun. Keep that in mind and you'll be fine...if you like long words and long explanations of how poisons and crime work. Nothing gory, and the explanations are well done. Also, Flavia is not perfect in her sleuthing, just as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird is not perfect. Scout is a believable character. Author Harper Lee catches the right temperament, the right expression for a smart, intelligent young girl written in a style where the character is looking back. Then again, To Kill a Mockingbird is meant to be realistic...a lot.

I'm conflicted. I can't give the book 4 stars like my friends and many reviewers, but I can't give it 2 stars like some other reviewers who hesitated going against popular opinion that Flavia and her sleuthing are as good as...the sweetness at the bottom of the pie. I liked the book. I started the book one day and finished it the next. Not a perfect solution for my desire for light-hearted reading, but a fair choice. 3 stars. Go into it as something over-the-top and laugh at the names of the characters.

💕💕💕💕 Sibling love. That has to be my topic for this section of my blog post. How to get it. Some of it may take time, but surely parents helping children to love one another has to be one facet of sibling love. I confess I did my whole ambitious, not present, time of parenting which I regret. Now, I pray, God of the past, present, and future, will redeem the years the locust have eaten (all biblical references)...that God who is outside of time will redeem ("compensate for the bad aspects") of those years.

-------------It took me a moment to think what could go into this spiritual transformation section, and then it came to me: Being Present. Scout's dad Atticus (one of the most beloved characters in literature) is a lawyer and busy. When he reads his newspaper, he concentrates on reading his newspaper, still there is a sense that he is attentive to his children. Flavia's dad Colonel de Luce (in Italian, luce has to do with light, but in late Middle English, it's a pike fish!)...laughing out loud here...her dad is a cold fish and not attentive to his children even with their mother dead. To practice being present to people, I stop what I'm doing; I look with my eyes; I keep my mouth closed and listen with my ears; I'm thankful for the person. Being present while alone, for example, eating: I enjoy looking at the food; I taste and savor each bite; I'm thankful for food. 

Saturday, July 07, 2018

To Read or Not to Read (Shelf Life ed.Gary Paulsen and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler)

I don't have to read every book I start. This was an important decision I made last week. See the stack of books below.

These are just a few of the books I intend to read! At the time I took this picture, I forgot there was one in my purse.

(Yes, the purse looks like it could be replaced, but that's a blog piece for another day: not filling our waste or dump sites.) My actual decision not to read a book came while reading these two books:

I finished Shelf Life; I returned Vinegar Girl to the library. Both of these books have something in common. In Shelf Life, editor Gary Paulsen asked prominent authors to write short stories  which included the mention of a book. This was done to promote and benefit ProLiteracy Worldwide. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is the third book of Random House's "Hogarth Shakespeare" project where a novelist updates a story from Shakespeare.

I picked up Shelf Life from work and I almost did not finish it as the stories at the beginning did not interest me. Sure, they mention a famous book (or two) in each story, but the stories came across like the results of a writing assignment rather than what would naturally come from the author. However, some of the students at the school where I work had this book as required reading so I pushed on and I liked the stories at the end. Also, the last section "About the Contributors" fascinated me.

Vinegar Girl written by well-known author Anne Tyler was supposed to be my "light-hearted" read after reading through a series of depressing books. It was okay, but I kept thinking the original Shakespearean play The Taming of the Shrew was a lot better. This isn't just me insisting on the original Shakespeare. I like his stories retold in modern language. I just kept thinking: "Wait, she's changing up the actual story." In the middle, I decided that I could stop reading. Just because I had started reading the book did not mean I had to finish it. Not only did I have all those other books I wanted to read (see first picture), but these books came in two days later (and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley looks like it might be the light-hearted read I have been looking for.)

💕💕💕💕 About 70% of the people who look at my blog do so on a mobile device and I now realize the website post does not always come out well on a mobile so I'm working to fix that. I still have not figured out how to add the translation widget to the mobile format, but I'm playing with how to divide up the sections such as this one that connects the reading to family life and the one below connecting to spiritual transformation.

I don't actually have the answer to the question I'm raising in this section. How do we get our children and students to enjoy some of the best literature of the ages when testing on anything kills most of the joy?

-------------As for spiritual transformation and reading, I have not, I believe, mentioned reading scriptures which surely would be included in any spiritual transformation plan. Again, testing destroys a whole lot of joy. While reading Old Testament scriptures and New Testament scriptures will help any reader because of the vast number of biblical references and allusions made in books, reading of the bible can make a transformative difference. And, while some readers may gasp at the word "can", reading the bible knowing that God loves you, the reader, and delights in you, makes a difference between reading it  and being transformed and thinking that God is out to get you and not being transformed. Also, skillful readers know to picture in their minds what they are reading. See the second book review You Gotta Be the Book in this blog post "Five Books..." to read a discussion of how important it is to picture what we are reading, yet so often that information is not offered to those reading the bible.