Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: a year in books

Passionate Nutrition: A Guide to Using Food as Medicine From A Nutritionist Who Healed Herself From the Inside Out
Jennifer Adler, 271 pg.
I admit to an ongoing fascination with nutrition.  This year's offering is more autobiographical than others.  I liked it, though I don't know that I'm completely convinced.

Smoking Poppy
Graham Joyce, 271 pg.
I discovered this author for the first time this year.  His writing is irreverent and unexpected.  This novel of a controlling father who with his evangelical son goes off on an international quest to save his daughter from opium gangsters is a beautiful exploration of fatherhood and parental love.

Doctor Thorne
Anthony Trollope, 319 pg.
Classic series Chronicles of Barsetshire set in a fictional ideal English countryside (later revived in Thirkell's series).  This was my favorite of the ones I read -- hidden identities, snobbish older aunts, true love and virtue rewarded.

Pomfret Towers
Angela Thirkell,  316 pg. 
A very pleasant re-read.  Thirkell's novels in the vein of Jane Austen and continuing the heritage of Trollope are witty and feather-light.  A weekend party complete with matrimonial maneuverings, boorish young men, and lady authors of scandalous books.  Also by Thirkell,  Northbridge Rectory, the English village home front during the first of WWII, a meringue of a book, and Growing Up, as the war drags on, the younger brothers and sisters assume the weight of adult realities but with wit and romance.

Backyard Winter Gardening: Vegetables Fresh and Simple, in Any Climate Without Artificial Heat or Electricity the Way It's Been Done for 2,000 Years
Caleb Warnock, 176 pg.
I don't want to face what this might mean, but I picked this up at the Oregon Master Gardener' mini college this past summer -- I actually skipped one of the classes I'd signed up for and bought this at the bookstore instead.  I don't know why I'd have any need to learn about growing veg in the Rockies.  I don 't want to face what that means.  Author from Heber, Utah, writes about heirloom varieties of winter hardy vegetables.  

Terry Pratchett, 368 pgs.
His books live on.  I listened to this on Overdrive from my local library while reworking a garden.  Its not vintage Discworld, more historical, less verbal pyrotechnics, less jokey, but it was an enjoyable listen.  And the Pratchett version of Dickens' London is like a fugue on Ankh-Morpork.  So while not the best of his books, I enjoyed my time with this.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra, 384 pg.
A book listened to is different from one read, more like dreaming, more woven into the activities done while listening.  An account of war in Chechnya: death, disappearances, attacks against civilians, desperation, prostitution, torture, betrayal.  But a book of such beauty, such undrownable witness to what is worth saving.  A book of such hope and perseverance that it fills me with courage.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Rachel Joyce, 320 pg.
I listened to this book with such a bursting heart of gratitude for the deft storytelling and the believable goodness of Harold Fry.  I laughed.  I cried.  Standing out in my garden with mud on my fingers and these words filling the air along with the scent of thyme and spicy cranesbill.  I don't want to say anything else about this except READ IT.  I want you to experience it all for yourself, coming to it as fresh and open as a book like this deserves.

And then, a glut of biographies about J.R.R. Tolkien.
These are all good and pretty self-explanatory:

Tolkien: A Biography - Michael White.  292 pg.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century - T.A. Shippey. 347 pg.

The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community - Diana Glyer. 293 pg.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion - Richard Purtill. 154 pg.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship - Colin Duriez. 244 pg.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams - Phillip Zaleski.  644 pg

Monday, November 30, 2015

On a Mission - Week 12 - exploring other things

"I grew tired of myself, so I'm exploring other things."

I found that phrase in my cousin's daughter's weekly mission report and, my dears, that is so completely where I am at.

My work at the school is engrossing, exhausting, and absolutely satisfying.  And one of the best parts is the escape from myself, my worries, my fears, my opinions.  Each day I begin by dedicating the day and all my efforts to the work before me.  

I've never felt such a flow of energy as I almost daily feel.  
I've never seen obstacles bowl over so easily.
I've never felt such confidence and courage in going after goals that are not for my benefit, but for these students and for the school.

I love the hours of my day I get to live in a life bigger than myself.  If I could manage it, I would live the rest of my life this way.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

On a Mission - Week 10 - what matters most?

"When you cannot do what you have always done, then you only do what matters most."

What matters most to me?

Recently, just surviving.
This past month, convincing people they haven't made a mistake by hiring me.
Convincing myself.

But now, having scaled that initial hill, I find myself toppling over into triumphalism.

I'm good at my job.

And the generous praise coming my way now is so easy to believe, so easy on these ears, so warming to this heart that has been so anxious.  How could I not enjoy this?  The escape from grinding worry about the future, this freedom from the sense of having my hands tied while sentenced to watch other people trying to scale the wall.

I just love the routine of my day -- the early morning yoga and devotional, the laps at the pool, the conversations with other working women in the locker room as we dress up every day in our pretty, competent clothes -- with good shoes and earrings to match.  I love having co-workers to say good morning to,  to confer with, and to collaborate -- after years working alone, it feels so rich to have others pushing the same wheel forward.  And I love getting to return to a place where Eldest and Middlest are still remembered, where their shininess still reflects back on me -- I realize I've missed basking in that particular reflected light.

I love having my own desk, my own office where I can work for stretches of time without interruption.  Where people ask my opinion.  Where people act on my suggestions.  Where my education is considered valuable.  I delight in the achievable expectations, the rhythm of the day, the time set aside to accomplish, the mix of routine with larger ongoing initiatives -- which are my own initiatives -- and the scope for imagination combined with the joy of seeing ideas take physical shape. Who wouldn't love that?

I enjoy even the politics, the juggling of policies, the jostling for position, figuring out the currents of influence.  But in my enjoyment, I lose my focus, forget I'm on a mission.  Specifically that I am here to lift the young people of my town to opportunities they had not before considered. I begin to want to do well not for them but just to be the straight-A student again.  

In my morning reading recently I opened up to James 3:13-18 and instantly recognized my close-held, self-focused ambition in all its nakedness
Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you?
let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.  
And as instantly recognized that the wisdom I am chasing is of the less admirable variety:
But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not . . . This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.
Oh darn.

Meekness again -- I keep opening up to words that whisper in my ear to be "humble, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of patience."  And what is this now about the "meekness of wisdom"?
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy, and the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.
So much for the jostling and juggling.

What matters most?

When I think that question, the answer that comes is an image.  A shepherd out in the rain, inflicting on himself the same weather his flock suffers.

Why did Jesus take upon Him all our troubles?
So He could serve us better and save us utterly.

And so I've tried to take down the shiny statute that is the false idol of my pursuit of excellence.

And tried instead to look outside myself more determinedly.

To celebrate the excellence of others -- being more scrupulous in giving credit, taking time to let supervisors know of the good things their supporting staff have done, expressing thanks and appreciation directly and in definite detail.

To rejoice in this glorious autumn -- the plummy sky, the brilliant leaves beneath piled purple clouds -- biking in it, walking with my hill-climbing friend, gathering leaves and last flowers from my garden to keep in the vase by my desk.

I've tried each day to take a family member with me in my heart -- thinking of them throughout the day, dwelling on their current concerns, recommitting to serve them in all the quiet and invisible ways that no one ever seems to notice or sing praises for -- planning good dinners,  giving haircuts, talking together.

I've written a note to myself that I keep slipped under the edge of my standing-desk/ keyboard lectern -- its edge just sticking out to catch my attention as I work each day to clear my desk -- "I'm not here to build a career.  I'm here to build community."

And it is good.  My joy deeper, my purpose more firm, my conviction growing that I am privileged beyond belief to be giving myself each day for what matters most -- in the town I've come to love so well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On a Mission - Week 4 - the egg as omen?


You know that Chinese story about good luck, bad luck?

A farmer in China had one horse and one able bodied son. The son used the horse to plough the field, which was their only source of income. One day, the horse ran away . All the villagers came to sympathize with the farmer’s ill fortune. “Bad Luck,” said all villagers. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows.” 
The villagers walked away perplexed. After a couple of days, the horse came back on its own, with a mate. Now, the farmer had two horses he could use. The villagers came to the farmer to congratulate him. “Good Luck”, they said. Again, his answer was “Good luck, bad luck, who knows.” 
This new horse was wild. While training it, the farmer’s son fell and hurt himself, fracturing his arm and leg. He was unable to till the land. “Bad luck,” said all the villagers immediately. The farmer again said “Good luck, bad luck, who knows.” 
 A few months later, the Chinese king sent his soldiers to take all able bodied men compulsorily into his army. The only one spared was the farmer’s son. Again the farmer said, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows.”

Since last week our chickens have finally begun to lay.

Though neither of their first two eggs made it safely into the kitchen.

And the same day we sat outside to watch the blood moon from our back patio. Portent of doom, apparently.  Except the way we watched it, phoning and texting our faraway family as the same moon rose for them in time, made us feel lucky -- loved, loving, connected.

Maybe because what we were seeing was no more portent of doom than it was the full Chinese Harvest moon rise over the eastern hills.  Symbol of unity, apparently, as Chinese families gather in spirit if they can't in actuality, knowing they are seeing the same moon rise wherever they may be.  Except the distance between us all filled me with longingness and an attenuated sadness.

Our moon slipped into and back out of eerie shadow and was, at the very least, a reason to eat a round of cornbread and Full Moon soup.

"Here goes somethin'!"
or Bad?

The soup was very good and the cornbread sublime.
As for portents, though - who knows?

My interview last Thursday was . . . good.

I think really good.

I think.  I hope.

But every now and then I second-guess myself.  Bad?  Good?

And now, coming back a day later, I know!

"You're looking at the new
High School Assessment &
College Readiness Coordinator!"

I believe my mission is about to begin in earnest.  This feels so much like a culmination of my years of volunteering at food bank and in the schools.  Such a wonderful chance to make some of the changes in my own dear little town that I've been musing over for years!

All that bad luck that brought me here, now looks like it was good luck all along.

Monday, September 28, 2015

On a Mission - Week 3 - out of the blue

Oregon blue

Three months ago, this blue sky, these blue cabbages on the way to pick blueberries seemed only to promise the perfect Oregon summer.

"What do you need to make this summer summer for you?" I'd asked both boys.

"Picking berries," said Young.

"Pool party," said Mijo.

"I can do that," I said.  And the very first day of summer vacation, we did.  Early in the morning under the clearest blue sky, we dropped bouncing blueberries into old ice cream buckets and then in the first heat of afternoon carted Mijo and his buds to the community pool to splash and play.

Little Boy Blue and his buds

Two days later I woke singing Glorious.  I couldn't get it out of my head.  All day I kept hearing that song sing inside me, my heart rising and wings filling my mind.  In the afternoon, sitting in the sweet evening air of early summer, I poured my heart out with joy praying for my beloveds and felt a sweet, deep, unaccountable buoyancy of hope and promise rise up inside me -- such good things were coming soon, soon, soon.

a glory in the heavens

That hopeful happiness kept rising in me even through the next day when Fritz came home early, one of many high-tech over-50s who found themselves out of a job that first Monday of summer vacation.

Out of the blue, our summer was changed and our lives reshaped.

The next few days it was still too raw to trumpet the blues to anyone beyond our nearest and dear.  But the strangeness of our new reality was all the stranger because I couldn't feel cast down.  The song of lifting joy still played on in me.  I couldn't feel the loss but only how much I've loved living here.  I bored my social media circle with pictures of the things that made me happy:

The problem with having chickens is it gives me such bliss to watch them clucking around with their comfortable self-satisfied here-and-now-ness and the way the little wind ruffles up their skirt feathers and the sunlight makes their neck feathers gleam . . .
 . . . See, I can't even get a post written without straying off into blissiness and meanwhile the apples are still sagging in their canvas bags desperate to be sauced.

Summer kept grinding on, the rain stayed away.  I began to sort through the house.  Getting ready? Wasting time?  What seemed most real was just how sweet the everyday delights have been and are and surely in some sort of way will always be.

Is it just because of the sun
today that I believe I've loved
every day living in Oregon?
Nah.  I think it's really true.
Trying to let go
of things I've kept too long.
But this blue?
This blue I'm keeping.

And then a friend responded: "I hate to ask. Not my business. But why? Why get rid of your life pieces? Are you going to have to carry them with you somewhere? Portage your bookshelf?"  

Her words gave me an image of such delight: my intrepid band of adventurers tromping through the forest around the hungry rocks and roaring falls with a bookshelf-boat balanced on our shoulders.  Maybe that's what we were doing?

What are we doing?  I didn't know.  Still don't.  All I know is that the answer will be glorious.

I didn't realize when I first heard it that this was going to become my theme song but it *is glorious* how answers come sometimes before the questions.

"There are times when
You might feel aimless
You can't see the places
Where you belong

But you will find that
There is a purpose
It's been there within you all along . . . "

I'm sure as sure can be there is a purpose hovering near.  I can feel it, but I can't see it.

I can't even be sure what I should be looking for.  But I keep finding glimpses.

Because the world is forever full of delightful surprises,
just waiting to be discovered.

For example, summer has now turned at last.   It is autumn.
Officially.  Even if it's still as hot as any summer I can remember.

And out of the blue, life takes another turn.

Remember this time last week?
I barely do, the climate seems so different.

end of summer blues

Last Monday evening I wrote down a list of questions I needed answers to, starting out
*Do I get a job?  
The next day a friend forwarded an opening at the high school as College Readiness Coordinator.  Do I want it?  The more I've looked at the position and the possibilities, the more I look at all I've done volunteering and sitting on committees and all I've hoped to see happen here in this town I love, the more I'm convinced this could be the very path for me.  Not just a way to get insurance for my family (though having that would put one of my most pressing worries to rest), but a real path.  By midweek I had my resume in and the very next day the school called to set up an interview . . . and when is it?

October 1st.

Right when I said a few weeks ago I thought I'd be ready to start living with a sense of mission, back before I decided I never would be ready unless I started immediately.

Maybe something in me knew better than I knew.

Blue upon blue upon glorious blue
How everything can change straight out of the blue.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On a Mission - Week 2 - sore heart (or, what I learned from an EKG)

Well, my dears, 

This week began with a Sunday where I couldn't sleep, my heart racing and racing, that weird ache in my chest that has plagued me this summer clawing in a little deeper.  All week my lungs, or my heart, or maybe it was just a chest muscle I pulled swimming hurt, until "What a weird thing?" turned into 

"I'm sure it's nothing," turned into 

"I know Dad had a heart attack, but he wasn't young like I am,"  

into "I am still young.  And healthy really,"  

Which changed into, "Even if I really should lose some weight," 

into "No one my age has that kind of thing happen,"  

into "Right?"

And then Thursday, hope squashed down again when Fritz's interview turned out not so promising as we had built ourselves up to believe.  

Hungry, empty and aching in more senses than one, I took my sore heart to the temple to find peace and clarity and while there felt the idea come that in the scriptures I could find the path and peace I needed.  So at the cafeteria afterwards, with a steaming plate wafting out comforting aromas in front of me, I opened to this:

2 Nephi 3:13 - And out of weakness he shall be made strong, in that day when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel, saith the Lord.
Which I sent with a brimming heart to Fritz and then continued to read: words that fell, each one like the rain we've been needing this hot dry summer that keeps dragging on and dragging on.   It was a rainstorm and a feast in every sense of the word -- the relief to be found in rebounding hope.

And at this very moment, a busy little man bustled up to me. For a minute I thought, 
he isn't coming to offer to take my plate to the kitchen window, is he? 
That's incredibly kind but that really wouldn't be necessary. 

And he said, "I have to tell you . . . "
And I thought, What? Do I look like his sister? Do I remind him of his mother? 
Or is he coming with that last nugget of wisdom that I need to top this off. 
And I looked up, smiling into his eyes.
And he continued, " . . . those devices aren't allowed in here."
Because, of course, I'm not poring over a book, but over my phone.
 I said, "Oh, I didn't realize. Sorry. But I was just  - "
But he turns away on his heel, not interested in my reasons or excuses.
Correct, I'll grant him, but so curt.
I try to shake it off: I can't be embarrassed by so small a man.
There's nothing to do but shrug
and laugh off such a self-important nubbins.

But then, I am embarrassed.

Three months of unemployment and worry have been daily stripping me down to my most vulnerable core.  I sit with flaming face in my hands, taking some painful comfort in imagining a dozen kinder ways he could have delivered his correction.  If it really was so necessary for him to have delivered it at all. But my heart feels frozen with shame and though I want to get up and leave, I can't make myself get up and risk the eyes of any bystanders.

And then my heart is flooded with sudden empathy for the aching heart of someone I was worried I had offended and whom I had been praying to understand.  My heart feels so wounded and I realize this may have been how my wounded friend was feeling.  But then before I know it I pass beyond that moment of grace and I am angry, like a lava stream.  I'm going to get myself up and go see if I can run into that little dribble and if I do I'll say something that cuts him to the heart, that breaks him open so he feels more compassion, too.

I don't see the little fellow anywhere on my way out, though I look sharply in the faces of any number of startled little men. Heading out through the foyer, my heart is full of fire instead of despair, which at least is a change from the way I had felt coming in, at least anger has got me moving again.

But then sitting by the door, a tiny woman, frail, with long white hair, seems to see something of my trouble in my face and struggles to her feet at my approach. She reaches out awkwardly with a bent and knotted hand, smiling up into my face, saying, "Thank you. Thank you, for coming," her face concerned and gentle.

The utter sweetness of her tired old face and the humble kindness of her wrecked hand reaching for my shoulder, undoes me, melts me down.  By the time I get home and tell the whole story to my sister, we're both laughing.

And then later that evening, by heaven's lucky chance, I happen upon this:

“Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”  - Joseph Smith
Oh, ain't it the truth?  And now if I can only remember this just as vividly when I am dishing out and not just on the receiving end.

"A very interesting quote you posted," a friend responds the next day. "Brings up lots of thoughts and feelings... hope you are ok.  "

When I tell her the story, she sympathizes: " ...when we are vulnerable, it doesn't take much to wound us or to make it a grievous injury. I'm a bit jealous that you can recognize humble kindness because I always attach a motive when someone offers it to me."

"I'm willing to take sunshine however it comes," I type back. "My feeling about motives is they're such a mixed bag anyway.  Like Eyring says: 'We do not know the hearts of those who offend us. Nor do we know all the sources of our own anger and hurt.' That's been my mantra for years and a good one to keep reminding myself of today."

"Exactly!" she exclaims.  "We don't know anyone's heart, least of all our own. Knowing your heart is probably mortality's greatest challenge."

But then I wonder, how well do I know my own heart?

Well, I've had it examined.  That's how the week ended.  I went out walking with my usual Saturday morning buddy and when my heart did its war dance, she wouldn't listen to my, "Oh, it's just nothing," but bundled me into her car and took me to the clinic for a EKG.  Urgent Care rushed me in with no waiting.  And I lay for a long peaceful hour in a quiet peaceful room hooked up to monitors while my heart fluttered and wrung.   And then calmed.  

And then they told me I was fine.  No cardiac enzymes at all.
It was just nothing.

Just stress.
Surprise, surprise.

But the care of my friends, the gentleness of the staff at the clinic reminded me that all along, the whole summer and even now, really . . .    I. Am. Fine. 

I'm fine.  I have been fine.  I will be fine.  And next week will be better than this last.  My troubled heart will find peace again.  Maybe especially because I'm carrying with me now the memory of that bent and aged lady who rose on trembling legs to give from weakness the strength my sore heart needed.

Monday, September 14, 2015

On a Mission - Week 1: the abyss


Dearests, welcome to my life --

What do you do when your life falls into the abyss?

What can you do but climb out again?
(and write cartoon apology/love letters)

And start all over.  

And even then my gallant little ship of soul was torpedoed once again when I couldn't respond with a can-do attitude or even a how-about-this-instead approach to a (perhaps somewhat unrealistic?) request from a friend in crisis. And having to put in public words how without-a-job our family is made it all more real than ever.  And more and more the burden bore down how unpromising the horizon looks.  And worst of all is how worthless I feel.  How can I be any kind of helping hands if I have nothing in my hands to give?  

But the Lord is mindful of me always.  And when I am mindful of Him, I can come within earshot of His voice.  I was poking around on my Gospel Library app and found a whole area with support materials for missionaries.  In "Adjusting to Missionary Life"  the first section is about understanding and managing stress.  

Yup, I thought, even if my mission is just to live my life with some kind of dignity and peace and not drive the people around me crazy.

I began to read and at these words . . . 
"Be kind to yourself.  Talk to yourself with the same kind, comforting words you would use with someone else.  Everyone gets frustrated or makes mistakes sometimes.  Know that the Lord understands.  Imagine Him sitting close to you, listening and offering support.  Remember, thoughts of helplessness, hopelessness, or harsh condemnation are not from the Lord."
. . . I began to sob, laying my head down on my arms there at the table. 

For a moment it was if I really was sitting there with my Savior and He was listening to me and assuring me that I had it in me to carry on.  

And so, here I am, carrying on. As usual.  The Abyss is just my usual first stop on any important journey. 

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