Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Gilead ~ an ache and a wonder

You’re swaying in the breeze on your front porch swing in the twilight when the postman sets on your lap a box marked Life: Fragile, Handle with Care. Fireflies twinkle in the bushes as dusk falls. Gently, you open the box and lift out the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. You begin reading.

Front Cover
On Gilead’s pages the Reverend John Ames of Gilead, Iowa, rambles through his long life there. You read about Ames’ loves and losses, his fears and struggles, always reflected in the quiet light of God’s word and His comfort, guidance, and grace. Ames, writing in 1956, spins stories of his father’s and grandfather’s lives. In the era of slavery, abolition, the Civil War, his grandfather was a hawk, his father a dove, so these anecdotes are lively, rich, and personal. Ames’ best friend, Boughton, who lives down the block, receives a visit from his mysterious wayward adult son during the novel. Prepare to hold your breath for the slow reveal. Ames is about to die and writes this memoir so that his young son will be able to know him and his heritage.

Accounts of generations of fathers and sons as well as the town’s history create a microcosm of the human condition. Marilynne Robinson’s writing style beautifully expresses the splendor in the ordinary. Gilead is both an ache and a wonder. Life is fragile; handle with care.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ne pas oublier—one year later

Ne pas oublier. To not forget. Last Christmas, nearly all my father’s earthly possessions fit in my reusable bag sporting a French grocery list and reminder not to forget. Christmas morning after he died, my husband and I cleared his belongings from his room in the Alzheimer’s wing of the nursing home. I snapped this photo because I did not want to forget.

Forget what? My dear, sweet father, of course. His smile. His dignity as his mind and body declined. His love of music, tennis, wordplay, photography. His happy spirit. His love for my mom and our family. How he  recorded precious family moments on film because he did not want to forget them. The cruel irony of Alzheimer’s stealing his memory.

I also wanted this photo to remind me that life is fleeting and possessions don’t matter at the end. Because of the photo, all year, mere sight of this Ne pas oublier bag has triggered grief so deep that I could not use the bag. I would have to remember to buy fish and fruits another way.

One year and one day into my dad-grief journey, I thank God for His divine comfort and provision of compassionate friends and their hugs and prayers and laughter—and Puffs tissues. In fact, I dab sad tears as I type this. My heart has felt like dry, torn, straw tinder—itself dead, matted in the dirt—though now bathed in sunset’s hazy gold and smoky purple light. At some future dawn, God’s healing will be sufficient for new green shoots to sprout. In the meantime though, I can choose joy in God’s faithfulness and comfort, lovingkindness, promises and healing. It has taken me a year to make this decision. Sorry, Lord, for being so slow at this.

On Christmas Eve, the eve of the dreaded first anniversary, I packed up party supplies to take to Mom’s, including the DVD I’d had made from Dad’s 8mm films from the 1950s. I wanted our whole family to share in the joy Dad had taken in preserving precious family moments. We did! I wanted him to be present at our Christmas party. I wanted to remember his creativity and love. I decided to start using my Ne pas oublier bag again. I won’t forget.

I won't forget my father. Or his and my brief sojourn, and with God's help, I won't forget to choose joy.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ~ my review

Image result for The Portrait of a Lady

If you guessed by noting two uses of the word “physiognomy” in the first three pages that The Portrait of a Lady depicts a more literate era, you would be right. If you guessed by the author’s taking 21 chapters to set up the intrigue that he might have had an eye for detail rivaling Charles Dickens’, you would be right. And that he was writing for a more patient, less video-crazed readership than exists today. Or if you guessed that this novel’s descriptions might have been drawn out into many magazine segments as was common in the late 1800s, you would be right. But if you guessed that author Henry James’ lengthy, lyrical “reedy, silvery Thames” descriptions depict only innocence and quaint dealings, you would be wrong.

The Portrait of a Lady begins with perhaps a foreshadowing of the tangled web to be woven beginning in chapter 22: “Real dusk would not arrive for many hours … the shadows … lengthened slowly …” The subtlety of evil slithers without her awareness into our heroine’s life long after we have gotten to know her character. Then she is faced with tougher decisions than she’s ever had to make before. Although Psalm 15’s concept of keeping a promise even if it ruins you is not mentioned in the novel, it certainly comes to mind as our heroine ponders options in her dismal dilemma.

Our heroine, bright, inquisitive Isabel Archer, is a young lady brought from New York to England by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. The Touchetts are Americans who have lived a life of gentility in England for 30 years when The Portrait of a Lady begins. Through them, Isabel has opportunity to travel and mingle with gentle persons throughout Europe. Acquaintances and suitors abound, as Isabel’s adventures feed her independent spirit and hunger to learn about all kinds of people. She learns some people sacrifice themselves for her, and some sacrifice her for themselves. Through her experiences, the reader sees subtle, tragic faults in two common ideals and idols of youth—freedom and defense of underdogs.

This novel evokes emotions from pleasure to pain. Although few of us have money enough to freely roam Europe for years, we can visit new lands and stroll estate gardens vicariously through Isabel. We can marvel and in some cases, laugh at the intelligent candor of this novel’s characters. We can linger in the leisurely pace of James’ descriptions. But then we also revisit mistakes of our youth. We wonder how a person can ever really know another’s character and motives. Indeed, we struggle to wriggle free of horrible ropes of reality: We can’t ever fully know another’s motives. Both love and hatred appear in different forms in this novel. The Portrait of a Lady is also an insightful study of how having or not having money affects character.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book review: The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux

Have you ever wondered what childlike faith looks like in an adult? Sometimes I wonder how a middle-aged adult like myself can “go back” to such simple trust. The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux, translated and edited by Robert J. Edmonson, helped me see a beautiful example grounded in a beautiful, biblical understanding of God—fear of the Lord based on tender, intimate love. I recommend reading this book in quiet surroundings at a pace that allows pondering.

I’m not even sure why I bought this book. I am not Catholic. I pray to Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit and find no biblical basis for praying to saints. But in fifth grade I chose Therese as my Catholic confirmation name after Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux. I have no recollection why. Perhaps it was that curiosity that led to the purchase in Paraclete Press’ bookstore on Cape Cod. After reading the book, I still do not remember what possessed my fifth-grade mind to choose Therese, but my adult faith was enriched by reading about this humble saint.

The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux consists not only of Thérèse Martin’s autobiography “The Story of a Soul,” but also of her prayers, letters, and poems, as well as “Remembrances of Thérèse by the Sisters of the Lisieux Carmel,” her convent. Appendices include French and English versions of the childhood poem that inspired Thérèse’s being known as “the little flower,” a list of important dates in her life, and photographs. The book is a lovely collection. Thérèse’s pure devotion to Jesus is palpable on these pages.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My review of Jan Karon's Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

If you liked Jan Karon’s earlier Father Tim novels (Mitford series), you’ll probably like her newest, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. In this story, Father Tim and his wife Cynthia are back in Mitford, which, as usual, suffers the same modern-day troubles (like economic recession, illnesses, accidents, political strife) towns across America suffer. And as usual, Karon presents human foibles and frustrations with humor. The usual Mitford personalities are there, a little older now, some wiser, some not. Like Karon’s earlier Mitford novels, this novel is a series of vignettes, and a fast, enjoyable read.

I had only one difficulty with this story: I found it hard to follow. I never had that difficulty before, so maybe it’s just that I’m older and less able to keep track of multiple characters. Or maybe I missed a Karon book that might contain missing links. I thought I’d read them all, but maybe not. Or perhaps when Karon included a backstory reminder, I lost track of the current thread. I don’t know. I still very much enjoyed the book; I’m just not sure I got all of it.

Some might see another negative in that the story seems too idyllic. I wondered about this myself. Earlier novels in the Mitford series did seem to have more sinister evil-caused tension in them. This novel’s characters face plenty of challenges like personality clashes, health threats, rebellion, addictions, and floundering. Several of these situations create significant suspense. So the story is not without its representation of our fallen world. And I concluded that in fact, this story is not TOO idyllic. Here’s why.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good shows, as does Charles Sheldon’s 1896 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, what Jesus might do if He lived in Mitford, or my town, or yours. Not that Father Tim is perfect. But he obeys how Jesus taught us to live, he musters courage to confront and go out of his way for others, and he gives credit to God. The “Yeah, right, who would do that?” part of me wants to call this story too idyllic, because I know I don’t do what Father Tim does. But the “Oh, this way of living is God’s best desire for us” part of me is humbled to see Father Tim’s example.

We humans long to belong. We long to be understood. We long for people to see our hearts with God’s love and to show us mercy. It’s a kind of heaven on earth, a foretaste of real heaven, and a picture of God’s love for us. In that, the novel does give us an idyllic picture, but it is not TOO idyllic. It is possible. It is true. It is the earthly love God had in mind when He gave us His commandments. In Somewhere Safe, the weekly newspaper, Mitford Muse, has a contest themed “Does Mitford still take care of its own?” I felt inspired seeing all the ways it still does.