Thursday, September 1, 2016

Books For My Mother (And Maybe For Yours If Yours Is Also Amazing)

Two months ago, my mother asked me for a list of books that would be fun, thought provoking, and new to her. She's an avid reader with excellent taste, so I couldn't just phone this in. Also, I've gotten really great at procrastinating and passing the buck this summer's September now. In an attempt to not sound like a horrible daughter, I have texted her some excellent suggestions every time she sends me panicked messages from the library. I started her on Penderwicks and Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, and naturally she has loved both series and we have had a great time texting back and forth about our least favorite cliff hangers and most favorite funny moments. Also, she graciously admitted that the fourth Penderwick book almost made her cry too (so I felt better about sob-laughing most of the way through it). 

Obligatory grandkid picture

Anyway, after weeks of deep thought, the official Mother Mine Reading List--for the discerning mother with eclectically exquisite taste and a need for awesome:

East by Edith Pattou :: This beautiful retelling of the fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" is intricately written with beautiful language. It made me want to travel and reinforced my belief in the power of our convictions and that sometimes the simplest of tasks can become the most life giving.

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni :: A lushly written story of the importance of identity and the difference between doing what is right and what is easy, I loved the cultural depth of this book that jumps between India and a post-911 U.S. 

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo :: I have a weakness for children's lit that I came by honestly. I grew up with Mom reading out loud to us every night before bed, although we made Dad read any that required British accents. Anyway, Flora and Ulysses is not a read aloud--it's an illustrated novel and I wasn't expecting to be blown away by it, but it satisfied something deep in me while still being surprisingly funny. {I wrote about it briefly here.}

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple :: Quirky and unexpected, I found this book thoroughly entertaining, but I mainly included it because I really want to know what my mom thinks of it.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio :: Exquisitely beautiful, I loved the sense of hope this book left behind. Another children's book, the gentle handling of August Pullman's story (a normal boy with a very different face) placed it on my force-people-to-read list. I know my mom will love it.

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon :: This is not a classic yet, but it should be. Plus the illustrations are incredible, so I'm going to make sure that Mom shares it with my artist dad. I gave this book to my older sister for her birthday last year because people who love each other make sure that good books get shared. A book about imagination, friendship, and a yearning for adventure, you might find yourself surprised by how the loose ends tie up. Also, now I want chocolate croissants. Thanks, Nicholas Gannon.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown :: I suggest this book to pretty much everyone I meet. Fascinating research combined with well told stories left me thinking about vulnerability and shame in all new ways. The world looks a little different after reading. {Referenced here and here.}

A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh :: Mom told me she read this years ago. One should always reread great literature. I know I've written about A Gift from the Sea on the blog fairly recently, so I won't say anything else, but all women should read this book...preferably with several years in between the readings. And it's about time for my mom's reread. {Also referenced here.}

A Million Little Ways by Emily Freeman :: A Million Little Ways is a must read for anyone finding their significance in life. According to Freeman, we're all making art in a million little ways. My mom is the consummate artist, both in the traditional sense through vocal performance, but also in the small ways that she makes the world a more beautiful place. And if you're wondering how you're making art these days, you might want to pick this one up too. {Written about earlier here.}

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri :: I just started this nonfiction pick about falling in love with another language (and I rarely suggest books I haven't finished yet), but I have a gut feeling about Lahiri's latest book. I'm pretty sure that anyone who has discovered the beauty of another culture and another means of expression will enjoy this read, but I promise a follow up if I'm unpleasantly surprised later in the book. Kind of like how doctors tell you they'll call if the test results look bad, but if you don't hear anything than you're probably fine.

An even ten, which will probably keep my voracious reader of a mother occupied for...about two weeks. And then she'll be hounding me again. Good thing I like her. Also, I refuse to write her another book list if she doesn't keep me thoroughly entertained with her reactions as she reads.

PS During this season of book sharing, Mom demanded that I read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I now feel like I have insider knowledge (no pun intended) of pop culture that I missed growing up in Indonesia. Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold. Just thought I'd share.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Hope Revisited :: From the Archives

A few years ago, I had been writing about hope. I've been thinking a lot lately about the conclusions I came to, and I hope you don't mind if I share them with you again (I did tweak a few things). These days when hope seems so ephemeral and impossible, I need the reminder.

At the time, I was reading the love chapter--which means I really wasn't thinking about hope at all. I was thinking about how J.B. Phillips translated "love is not rude" to "love has good manners". (So stop talking with your mouth full! It's unloving! And if you don't change the toilet paper roll, you might as well just tell me you hate me!) And then I got to the very last verse:

In life we have three lasting qualities--faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of them is love.

All those years ago, I asked what we do when our hope dies. Now, I think the answer to the question is love.

When our hope is deferred, we choose to love. To love ourselves, to love the faulty humans who surround us, to love Christ, and possibly most importantly, to rest in His love for us, because we are faulty humans and consequently, our love also is faulty.

So, at the end of a long day when things have not gone as planned,
when the laundry has not been finished,
the dishes have not been done,
the floors have not been vacuumed,
the muscles of my body and mind have not been stretched,
all because of the tyranny of the urgent (also known as the tyranny of twins and toddlers),
and I look in the mirror and lose hope that life will ever be manageable again,
that my body will ever be, well, not saggy and flabby,
that my mind will be able to process more than lunch schedules and tantrum management,
that our home will ever be salvaged from the dust bunnies that have taken over,
that I'll ever get things rolling…

I must make the choice to love.

When the news is filled with death and hatred and pain,
when our reality is one of fear,
when each phone call or email seems to bring more bad news,
when we have no words but grief,
when we just want to fix things now
but there's no quick fix...

I must make the choice to love.

So I remind myself that I love my children and my husband,
and that a great part of love is service,
whether that means kissing invisible booboos
or choosing to do dishes with multiple children dangling from my legs
or leaving behind unfolded laundry to fit in some outdoor bonding with my sons.

I remind myself that I need to love myself,
which might mean cutting a little slack,
or crediting piggy back rides as an aerobic work out,
or believing the Man when he tells me that what I've done with my day is enough.

I remind myself that though I can't fix everything,
I can love my neighbor
and sometimes it's one small gentleness after another
that changes the world.

Most of all, perhaps, I remind myself that I love my Jesus,
and that means believing him
when he tells me I am fearfully and wonderfully made--yes, even on the days when I feel like a failure,
believing him
when he promises to be near the broken hearted, 
believing him
when he promises more than this.

Because that's what love is:
believing the best
of others and of ourselves.
And when we can't hope any more,
when we find ourselves wondering if this is the best we get,

we choose love
(to believe the best even if this is the best we get).

Because love will always bring us back to our greater hope,
the one True Love who gave everything so that this
right here
right now
isn't the best we get,
but is only a shadow,
a taste,
a hint of what is to come:
forever with Him,
transformed to reflect Him,
completely satisfied in Him,
hope realized.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Empathy

Fiction is a great empathy builder, because the process of entering into a different—albeit imaginary—world forces the reader to see things from another point of view. 

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.... The man who never reads lives only once.
George R. R. Martin

This is what I've been doing. Well, reading Louise Penny and scrubbing sharpie off the kitchen cabinets with toothpaste, but the important part is the excessive reading of mystery novels. I plowed through all eleven of Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache books and did my best to not drive the librarians insane by insisting that they help me track them all down. In order. Immediately. I may or may not have acted a little like an escaped psych patient. It worked. I only had to buy book five on kindle.

I've been trying to figure out what appeals to me so much about this series. I do love a good mystery, but I shy away from any that are too gruesome. In that sense, these fit the bill. Nothing overly gory that would scar me for life. However, there is a fair amount of swearing included that might have turned me off had it not been for the fantastic writing, the believable characters, and the engaging story line. 

If I'm honest though, what I loved most about these books was the capacity to encourage empathy in me as I read. Penny's characters are varied, flawed, and multi-faceted. As I read, it helped me to step outside of myself and my limited life experience and get to be in someone else's shoes for a little while. I love my life, but I also realize that it's just one experience in a vast world. Reading allows me to get inside someone else's head. It then broadens me, enlarging my world view, and hopefully making me more loving and less judgmental as I go.

Don't tell me if it's not working. I'm going to keep reading anyway.

At any rate, if you're interested in reading the Louise Penny novels, my dad succinctly described them as "well written, intriguing, and very, very secular humanistic." Decide what you're looking for before you read (and don't expect an author who doesn't share your values to write your values), but also know that when I read them, Chief Inspector Gamache is Tom Selleck in Blue Bloods but speaking French and quoting poetry. Which should be a huge selling point. Just saying.

Also, invision me doing something sadly close to a pee-pee dance in front of the library counter while they check the archives once again to find book 6 for me so I can find out what happens without reading out of order. Girl has standards. I can't read a series out of order but I have no problem ingratiating myself to librarians.

Whatever you decide to do about Chief Inspector Gamache, I would love to know if there's a book you have read that has encouraged you to be more empathetic. Sometimes it's not always the books I expect, so feel free to surprise me!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Taking Credit

Tonight at dinner, both the twins told me "thank you for the meal" without being prompted, there was actual conversation that consisted of more than "Please chew with your mouth closed", and everyone took second helpings of salad.

Today after a spontaneous and fun picnic lunch, both twins threw massive tantrums, there was a water spitting war, and I lost my temper with the entire family (myself included).

Sometimes I want to say, "It's not them! It's me!" (in an echo of that famous break up line). It's my fault when they behave badly, and I should beat myself up for my failure! But it's also all because of me when they behave well! The truth I am starting to learn, though, is that sometimes it's not either of us.

My kids are not good kids any more than they are bad kids. I am not a good mom any more than I am a bad mom. My kids are kids--and sometimes they have moments that are better than others and sometimes they have moments that are worse. I am just a mom--and sometimes I parent better and sometimes I parent worse, and sadly, my children's behavior may be more a reflection of whether or not their tag is currently scratching the back of their neck than how well I am actually doing as their mom.

I wish I had learned early on to not try to take so much credit--for the good stuff, but also for the bad. I wish I had learned to thank God for the grace of good days, but also to thank him for the bad ones because they keep me humble and dependent on him. I love it when my kids act right. It makes my job easier. But if they were little angels all the time, I would probably think it was because I had figured out this whole parenting thing, and that would be a mistake.

A word to my past self...but also to my future self: love those kids and do your best, then let everything else go. And remember: sometimes a good nap can fix everything. If not, there's always brownies. Lastly, sometimes, it's just not about you. Really.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Whole Picture

Until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: wait and hope. 
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

Let me begin by saying: this is not a book post. So if you are one of the habitual few who like to skip those (I will name no names--but I know who you are...), keep reading. It only starts with a book. I promise.

The big boys and I have been slowly reading through The Wind and the Willows together before bed. Recently, we came to the portion of the book where Badger, Mole, and Rat stage an intervention for automobile obsessed Toad (who is regularly wrecking those glorious machines with aplomb). After their lecture does no good, they lock him up in his bedroom to detox, taking turns guarding him so he doesn't escape.

When I closed the book for the night, I turned to Littles and asked him what he thought of Badger, Mole, and Rat. Were they being good friends or bad friends to Toad?

"Bad friends," he replied. And it does kind of look like that. They don't let him do what he wants. They essentially kidnap him. They deprive him of his rights (to drive about in motor cars that say poop-poop!).

We talked for a while about why Toad's friends were actually good friends who were looking out for his best interests (and the interests of those he might run over with aforementioned motorcars), and then I tucked the boys in for the night.

Since then, I've been thinking about the difference between a six year old perspective and a 29 year old perspective. His life experiences lends itself to a very narrow level of understanding. Twenty three years down the line, I see and understand a bit more.

I know now that sometimes what seems painful at the time can actually be for my own benefit. We see this in almost any form of discipline. Running hurts but it keeps you healthy. Practicing scales can be mind numbing, but it helps you enjoy your instrument more. Cleaning the bathrooms can be gross, but it keeps the germs away. We know these things.

Sometimes, though, because we know these things, we forget how much we still don't know. If the wisdom gap between a 6 year old and a 29 year old is this (         ) big, how huge must the gap be between our understanding and God's?

I don't know what it is in your life: job loss, depression, miscarriage, illness, death of a loved one, even something as small as an unexpected change of plans or a bad day. When faced with situations beyond our control, our gut instinct is frustration. Why is this happening? How could this be happening to me? What can I do to make this stop? And before you jump to any conclusions, no, the answer is not always that you are being disciplined.

Sometimes we're just not quite ready to understand what's really going on. We can't see enough with our limited life experience. We just aren't there yet. We're seeing this (   ). God is seeing this (                        ) times infinity. And that's okay. Much like I don't expect my 6 year old to understand at a 29 year old level, God doesn't expect us to see and understand with his magnitude of wisdom.

I included a quotation at the beginning of the blog written by Alexandre Dumas. The truth is that God hasn't yet "deign[ed] to reveal the future to man", and it might be better for everyone if we remember that our very limited wisdom can't see far past the ends of our noses. At times it looks like we've been bullied, kidnapped, and robbed of our rights. The very Best Friend doesn't look like such a good friend any more. We feel betrayed. Sometimes, even the sum total of human wisdom--wait and hope--is very hard.

This doesn't seem like much of an encouraging word, but I am saying it anyway, even if I'm saying it mostly to myself. Wait and hope, even when it's hard, especially when it's hard. The truth is that we're not seeing the whole picture yet. It's bigger than we can comprehend, and that's okay.

Today I'm praying for all of us that we can remember that even if it doesn't look that way, Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and we can wait and hope knowing that no matter how things look we are seeing one tiny piece of the whole picture--and He is seeing it all.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Bee approves this message. She, too, brings her own book.

That's right: Bring Your Own Book--because you never know when the occasion will call for it. I'm going to provide you with just a few times where you should make sure you have a good book with you. You know, just in case this is something that's been keeping you up at night...

Apply the principles of BYOB to the following:
  • The grocery store. Sure, you think you're going to be in and out as quickly as possible. But sometimes the line at the deli is ridiculously long or you get stuck waiting forever to check out. Be prepared. Also, feel free to let your kids flip through the cake book repeatedly and dream about store bought cakes they will never get while you read. 
  • The toilet. This is a no brainer. Even quick pees deserve the dignity of a good book.
  • Any errand. What if you get stuck in traffic? What if you get held up by a natural disaster? What if you're involved in a hostage situation? Obviously, you would need reading material to help you through these traumatic events.
  • Plane and car rides. Because at some point you may want to do more than look at the scenery.
  • Dog walks...really, walks of any kind. What if--just what if--you fall off the curb while walking and break your leg and have to wait for an ambulance to come pick you up? You'll need something to help keep your mind off the pain. Also, something to swat the dog with, if he decides to fervently check out your newly acquired leg wound.
  • Any social engagement. One, it's a great conversation starter: from "Oh, you're reading that book?" to "That's one of my favorites!" to "Why did you bring a book when we're supposed to be hanging out?" (and that works as a litmus test for any friendship). Second, if your friend is late, you are thoroughly entertained while you wait. Third, if your social engagement goes south, you're already armed with a deadly weapon. James Joyce and Tolstoy are great choices in this regard.
  • At bed time. Something-something-blue light keeps you awake-something-something-yay books!
  • While cooking. Sure, you may end up putting the cauliflower in the chicken tikka masala and burning a couple of the naan, but priorities.
  • While cleaning. Vacuuming is much more fun with a book in hand. It is not advisable, however, to read while cleaning the toilet. Just for future reference. 
  • The doctor. Because otherwise you're going to be stuck browsing medical pamphlets that will leave you anticipating some kind of gruesome death or uncomfortably familiar with female reproductive parts.
The list could continue on. In fact, I think I will challenge you to come up with one occasion where you wouldn't have been better off if you'd remembered to BYOB. Go ahead. I dare you. Meanwhile, I'm going to bring my own book to bed at this point. And maybe a couple cats for company. Stereotypes, unite! Now, where's my mug of tea?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Book Nostalgia

{Side note before we get to the actual blog: it was so humid today that when I was trying to take pictures, I literally had to wipe off my sense between every shot because it fogged up so much. I know this is possibly the most thrilling thing you've heard all day. Moving on...}

I've spent the week back at Plumfield with Jo March Bhaer and her little men. When my parents packed up to move back to the States from Indonesia, my one request was that they bring their copy of Little Men for me. I have Little Women (as should every respectable home) but was having a hard time tracking down its sequel at the used bookstores I frequent. There are some books you don't want to buy on Amazon. Although, true confession, I did get the free kindle version of Jo's Boys, which I had somehow never read. And I feel no shame because, Louisa May Alcott, you done me wrong with that one.

At any rate, it got me thinking about the books that I read as a child and which ones I felt needed to be in my home and why. The year Littles was born, I spent a solid month trying to track down a counting board book by Gyo Fujikama that I felt was absolutely needed in his life. I finally gave up because it was no where to be found, but got to read it to the twins this last week while at my parents. It was as lovely as I remembered, but the desperate need to have our own family copy had passed.

One beautiful bird, two loving people, three funny goblins, four delightful dreams...
::photo courtesy of my mother who is incredibly gracious to me::

This led me to wonder if it was because we have already built our own family library at this time or because my parents (and the books they have) are now accessible to us in a new way. Sure, we only make it to Tennessee once a year (and actually, this was our first trip back in three), but the idea that it's on a bookshelf waiting for my children the next time we make it there, changed something for me.

Still, I didn't hesitate to bring Little Men back to my own book hoard. There are some books that need to be within reach on a regular basis. I may not reread Little Men for a while, but when I see it on my bookshelf, it will remind me of a few heartening lessons that I just might need in the moment.

In retrospect, I know that most readers attach memories and feelings to the books that they read. Those books read during a happy childhood, then, carry extra weight. Not only do we remember upon re-reading them how it felt to be safe, cared for, and loved, but when we have our own children, we want them to feel those same things so we give them those same books. Without realizing it, we introduce our kids to our childhood favorites, not realizing that our memories are less a product of the books we read and more a result of the fact that we genuinely were safe, cared for, and loved. And our children probably are too--with or without the same exact library.

I don't know which books my children will grow up to remember with nostalgia, but I do hope that the memories that accompany them are sweet. And that's why I re-read Little Men--because I can always use an extra dose of wisdom from Marmee and the Bhaers.

It's also why I don't stop reading to Littles at night even if Tiny has already fallen asleep. You never know what could be seeping into his snoring subconscious. It could be wonderful!