reading

what i’ve been reading lately

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Yesterday I made a shocking discovery.

(For a book-lover, that is.)

I was rummaging through my bookshelves, trying to find something for work. When I suddenly realized that I had completely failed myself.

I hadn’t organized a single book I’d read since I became a mom.

Allow me to back up for a minute. Of course I’ve shelved all the books I own. (It took us months longer to get settled into this new house when we moved with two teeny kids, but I did manage to get that essential unpacking done in short order.)

And of course, the book geek in me did find time to arrange by genre: all the theological tomes together on one towering bookshelf in my office, fiction on another, poetry and art history on a third, and old French paperbacks (and even a few of my husband’s books I let him sneak in) on the fourth. Perfect, right?

Wrong.

Because here’s the full geeky truth: the only way I really want my books arranged is autobiographical.

(When John Cusack whispered that same line about his record collection in High Fidelity, I swooned.)

I’ve done this ever since I was a little girl. I kept books together on the shelf that I read at the same time (because of course, true book lovers are always reading more than one book at a time). And as I finished each book, I filled up the row.

I loved looking back and remembering the serendipitous connections I’d made between books – the novels I read during that winter, the poetry I dove into after that breakup. My life made sense through books, and my shelves told the story.

Fast-forward a few years? I’m lucky if I find a home for the stacks of books that (still, to my husband’s dismay) steadily enter our house year after year. Now when I finish something, it sits on my nightstand for six months, then on the floor of my office for a few more weeks, and finally – in the last-minute flurry before visitors are coming over – I shove it thoughtlessly onto the shelf where most people would assume it belongs: novels with novels, non-fiction with non-fiction, and so forth.

So since I became a mom, I have no record of what I’ve read. Fail.

It’s not looking good for my housekeeping skills to improve any time soon, especially not with #3 on the way. But I realized that I could still chronicle my reading adventures if I only wrote them down somewhere. This combined with the fact that I’ve gotten some of my favorite recent reads from other bloggers’ suggestions means that I’m inspired to pull together the list of what I’ve been reading lately (or rather, what I’ve read since the beginning of this pregnancy, because – let’s face it – pregnant women are obsessed with documenting the passage of those long weeks till the due date.)

And because I’m always eager to get new suggestions, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately, too! Make no mistake: we’ve got many months of winter to go in Minnesota, and I need all the good reads I can get while the wind howls through the blizzard outside.

So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading. The beginnings of a virtual, chronological bookshelf of reading through maternity (five years after this journey started):

What I read to make myself feel better at the beginning:

Let’s start serious. Pregnancy after loss is hard and dark. I needed help and hope to boost my spirits during that tentative first trimester. Roxane recommended After Miscarriage: A Catholic Woman’s Companion to Healing & Hope, and I was so glad I took her advice. This small book is a comforting collection of stories and suggestions, gentle and healing, about grieving and opening yourself up to the possibility of another child. I’d highly recommend to any mom who’s suffered a miscarriage.

Moving on. (My sense of humor is too twisted to stay in the melancholy forever.) When I was sick beyond anything you’d want to imagine in those first few weeks, I could barely make it out of bed some days (and every evening). Curled up with my trusty Kindle, I tried to find any offerings from our library’s e-collection that would take my mind off the gut-wrenching reality that is me in the 1st trimester. And I came across this – riveting? harrowing? choose your clichéd but true adjective here – story of a catastrophic climb up Mt. Everest in 1996. I flew through Into Thin Air, grateful for every awful description of altitude sickness and toes lost to frostbite, because it reminded pitiful, pathetic moi that things could be much, much worse. Always a good lesson.

Anyone who knows me in real life knows I never care if I’m late to the party. Even if I’m years late. I Don’t Know How She Does It was so hyped when it came out a decade ago that I was too annoyed to read it then. But – returning to pathetic, pukey me confined to my comforter – I came across this one from the aforementioned e-library offerings and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

I hated this book. The narrator’s frenzied descriptions of her life as a working mom stressed me out just reading them. And yet I made myself finish it, just to see how things turned out. (Which proves to you how desperate I was for distraction.) But it’s still worth remembering on my chronological shelf since it does define one image of motherhood our culture is wrestling with today: the woman who tries to have it all.

What I read when I started feeling 2% better:

For me, the second trimester doesn’t bring so much relief as sheer annoyance at how long I’ve been feeling sick. So once I made myself get out of bed for good, I stopped reading solely on the Kindle and started dipping into real paper books again. These three were perfect to read in short snippets (even while pretending to hide in the bathroom – let’s be honest about how mothers of young kids sneak in their reading time).

I adored this book. Katrina Kenison’s writing is beautiful, and I’d long admired it from afar. These short pieces in Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry felt like deep breaths in my frenzied days, like sitting down with a dear friend over a warm cup of tea. Katrina is wise and real and thoughtful and inviting, and when I reluctantly finished the last essay, I started scheming which book of hers to read next. I wish I could buy this for every mom I know.

I doubt I would have ever read this book if a dear friend hadn’t literally dropped it in my lap. I’d heard of Nadiz Bolz-Weber in the blogosphere and appreciated some of her radical Jesus-thoughts as an edgy Lutheran pastor. But I’d never spent any real time with her writing until Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. And I thoroughly enjoyed it: thought-provoking, challenging, laugh-out-loud hysterical at points.

This memoir-ish collection of essays made me think hard about bad habits it can be easy to fall into as a person of faith – I especially loved her notion that whenever we draw a line between ourselves and another group to declare ourselves in the moral right, Jesus usually winds up looking back at us from the other side – and I’m so glad I took a chance on a book I probably never would have picked up otherwise.

Another book I wish I could give to every parent I know, new or experienced. On a rare bookstore jaunt at summer’s end, I found this volume tucked in the back of the poetry section. I tend to be wary of poetry collections (too often full of the schmaltzy and sentimental), but I was drawn to flip through this one and immediately I ran up to the counter to buy it.

Morning Song: Poems for New Parents is a wonderful collection of poems celebrating everything from conception and birth to sleepless nights and first steps. But the poems chosen so thoughtfully by its editors resonate far beyond the first year and the first year. These are classic and contemporary poets reflecting on the deepest truths of what it means to bring new life into the world. I’m still savoring this one.

What I’m reading now:

Eowyn Ivey’s incredible novel The Snow Child almost convinced me that the frozen north is a beautiful place to live. I’ve rarely read such vivid, poetic descriptions of the land as a character (1920’s Alaska, in this case), and her creative spin on the traditional fairy tale versions of a heart-breaking story about a childless couple and the fantastical child that changes their life was simply a gem to read. One of those where you let out the long sigh when you finish the last page, wishing it weren’t over. This book was brutal and surprising and nothing what I expected when I started reading, but I won’t soon forget it.

A few years ago, I started noticing a pattern in my favorite essays from Notre Dame Magazine. They were all by Brian Doyle. Then his words started showing up in reflections in Give Us This Day, and I read his words again in the National Catholic Reporter, and I started wondering why I’d never sat down with a good stack of this man’s brilliance?

Oh my.

This book is incredible. I’m savoring it in small bites, like one of those delicious restaurant desserts you want to make last, and I’m elbowing my husband in bed every other night to make him read one of the zinger reflections in Grace NotesThis will assuredly not be the last book I read by Brian Doyle. (Here are a few teasers to convince you.)

Sarah Jobe’s theological reflection on the joys and pains of pregnancy is the other book vying for my attention on my nightstand these days. In a bittersweet way, her book’s title – Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy – rings even truer for me today than when I first bought it for myself, back in late July when I was delighting in the prospect of baby #3. When we lost that baby, the confusing become much more real. For months I couldn’t pick this book up, remembering how excited I had been to buy it, my treat to myself to get through that first trimester of blech and burden. But just a few days ago I came across it again (at the bottom of a stack in my unorganized office – see, dear reader, it all comes full circle!). And I’m so glad I decided to jump in.

The author writes in such a thoughtful, unsentimental way about the power of pregnancy as an experience of co-creation with God, of bearing the marks of Christ, and of embodying the practices that draw us closer to the Spirit. Much more to say about this in weeks to come; she’s really got me thinking about pregnancy in a whole new light. (Every other page is underlined or dotted with exclamation points, so you know it’s good stuff.)

So there you have it: nearly 22 weeks of reading. What will the next 18 bring? Only the library and my Kindle can tell… But I want your suggestions!

What are you reading these days?

morning: mumbling towards mystery

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He is up at dawn, hours before his older brother starts to sing. Bright sunlight slips through the slats of his window blinds, enough to rouse his tousled head from sleep.

Two rooms over, I hear his protests grow louder. I give up the dream of sleep, untangle my limbs from their warm cocoon and stumble across the cool wood floor. Morning birds in the pine tree near my window chirp too cheerfully for anyone without caffeine.

As I slowly push open the door to his soft yellow room, he turns with wide eyes, then beams delight when he recognizes my face. She’s here!

We roll into regular rhythm of morning routine: cuddle, kiss; nurse, change; breakfast, books. The house wakes up slowly around us, creaking as it stretches into sunshine.

He begins to rub his eyes, push away the spoon. I wipe smears of banana off his cheeks and gather him into my arms. We climb back up the stairs, slowly and soft to keep big brother sleeping.

We settle into the rocker in the corner, cool breeze fluttering curtains. I pull a stack of small books onto my lap next to him, their gnawed corners proof of baby belovedness. I read a counting book, a barnyard story, an owl tale. His chubby fingers fumble to turn the pages.

I wonder how my words sound to his ears. The rise and fall of their cadence, a sing-song of mystery. Only by tuning to the rhythm of language will he learn to speak for himself. But for months it must seem a strange mumble that tumbles from our mouths.

Does God’s word fall the same? I wonder. Muffled and mysterious on ears that make no sense of strange sounds.

Only over time and the slow, steady turning of my mind’s desire to learn does their shape become clearer. The heart senses meaning where it couldn’t before: maybe God sounds like this; maybe God means like this.

God keeps speaking, patient and prodding, while I fumble to turn the pages. Trusting that truth will emerge, hoping that small epiphanies will awaken me to some deeper understanding.

A glimpse of a face I recognize as beloved: She’s here!

wisdom for childbirth

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There is a secret in our culture,

And it’s not that childbirth is painful,

It’s that women are strong.

Laura Stavoe Harm

I came across this quote in a Lamaze book when I was pregnant with S. And I loved it. I was so anxious about the pain of childbirth the first time around that I hungered for any bit of wisdom I could find that would calm my fears. This little nugget gave me a lot of strength.

Second time around, the bar is low. The expectations are low. The birth plan is nonexistent. I have hopes, certainly – hopes that this time won’t involve the dreaded Pitocin or the skyrocketing blood pressure or the baby stuck full of IVs in the special care nursery.

But my one true hope is simply a safe delivery and a healthy baby at the end of the day. The rest is just details.

I’m still collecting nuggets of childbirth wisdom, though. So I delighted when I came across this unexpectedly in a collection of writings called Work and the Life of the Spirit.

From Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year:

Most of the instruction given to pregnant women is as chirpy and condescending as the usual run of maternity clothes – the wide tops with droopy bows slung beneath the neck, the T-shirts with arrows pointing to what can’t be missed, the childish sailor collars, puffed sleeves and pastels. It is cute advice: what to pack in the hospital bag (don’t forget a toothbrush, deodorant, comb, or hair dryer). Or it’s worse: pseudo-spiritual, misleading, silly, and even cruel.

In giving birth to my daughters, I have found it impossible to eliminate the pain through breathing by focusing on a soothing photograph. It is true pain one is attempting to endure in drugless labor, not discomfort, and the way to deal with pain is not to call it something else but to increase in strength, to prepare the will.

Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we’re pushing out our babies. We are too often treated like babies having babies when we should be in training, like acolytes, novices to high priestess-hood, like serious applicants for the space program.

If that doesn’t just make you want to pump your fist in the air, I don’t know what does.

settling: maybe not such a dirty word after all

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Walking the miles, singing the blues

Learning to love what God gives to you

 – Brandi Carlile, “Way To You”

Last night I took the dog out under a twilight of dramatic clouds. As I waited for him to sniff the entire row of pine trees in search of the perfect place to do his business, I turned back towards the house, now outlined with the last traces of the setting sun. For some reason it took my breath away as beautiful.

And I was suddenly struck with the realization that this was My Place, my chosen corner of the earth.

Lately I’ve been reading all sorts of interesting things about the information and sensory overload facing us in the digital age. We can’t read it all (“The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re Going To Miss Almost Everything”). We can’t do/see/learn it all, as this essay describes in respect to today’s generation of young adults, whom the author calls “possibility junkies”:

Its members have a spectacular hunger for life and more life. They want to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they’ve ever known. And there’s something else, too, that distinguishes them: They live to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.

Yet regardless of age, part of our challenge in discerning vocation means that we have to close certain doors. We cannot live there and here. We cannot marry him and him. We cannot work there and there. Life is shaped by limitations, carved by the choices we make.

Gazing up at the outline of my house against the summer sky last night, I realized that this is the first childhood home of my babies. This is where they take their first steps, speak their first words, learn to explore the world around them. This is not just a starter house or a pit stop on the way to somewhere better; this is a sacred space.

Many days my house drives me nuts. It’s too small. It’s not well-designed for a young family. It has too many things to fix. While I recognize that we are incredibly fortunate to have a roof over our heads, I still grumble about the not-quite-rightness of our house. I dream of the next house, the bigger house, the house with a real office for my work and a bedroom for each baby.

But this is the house I have today. This is the home I have been given. This is the life we are creating for ourselves.

Learning to love the life that God gives to you means celebrating this path, these choices, without indulging in too many daydreams of how it could have been different. And realizing that we are the sum of our choices, but we are also something more – something mysterious and unknowable, and that is the proof of God’s hand at work in our lives.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, I listened to the night noises, the house creaking into its foundations.  The sounds of its settling reminded me that I’m slowly doing the same.

And despite the connotations the word might have conjured up for me a decade ago – the shudder of resigned acceptance of something less than ideal – I begin to see that “settling in” does not have to equal “giving up.” Instead it means that I am settling in to the life God gives to me, which lets me put down roots and push up shoots.

There’s a beauty, a fruitfulness, a grace in that kind of settling.

40 days of lent with the under-4’s

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At 19 months, S has more books on Christmas than he is months old. We have a nice stack of children’s Bibles, some lovely books on baptism, and a few assorted board books on religious themes (the 10 commandments, the Our Father, the Hail Mary).

But we don’t have a single book for him on Lent. Or Easter.

I realized this when someone asked me for a recommendation for a book on Lent and Easter for her 3-year old. She wanted something to explain the seasons to her daughter and talk about why we give things up during Lent. Great question, I thought. And I’m embarassed to say I don’t have a single answer for her. (Yet.)

Advent and Christmas are much simpler to explain to children and certainly easier to illustrate with pretty colors and smiling faces. They’re about a baby! A birthday! A family! Animals and shepherds and kings – things kids love!

But nailing an innocent man to a cross? Repentance and resurrection? No wonder Golden Books stick to Easter eggs and bunnies.

I know there must be good resources on Lent and Easter for the toddler set, and I’m hoping some of you will pass along ideas. I’ve heard of a Jesus Tree kit to walk children through the days of Lent with the stories and teachings of Jesus. But I’m still waiting for the time and inspiration to tackle the creation of our Jesse Tree, let alone take on another liturgical season.

But what kinds of books are out there? Or even educational toys? S is still obsessed with the plush Nativity set we have, and I can’t bring myself to put it away with the Christmas decorations when he gets such delight out of finding baby Jesus and putting him in his manger bed. But I feel my liturgy professors cringe every time he sets it up on our coffee table in mid-March.

I know he’s too young right now to grasp what Lent is about. But I’d love to find some good resources for down the road. Any suggestions?

we’re not kidding here

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If you have small children in your household, then perhaps your bedside tables and bathroom shelves find themselves in a similar situation to my own: buried under piles of parenting magazines.

The glossy guides started trickling in when S was still in utero. Euphoric from some hormonal high, my pregnant self signed up for all the free baby magazines that Babies.R.Us had to offer. And go figure, in this age of “we’ll never sell your personal information to any other company – honest!”, two magazines turned to four, four turned to eight – you get the picture. Every month a new round of beaming babies and well-coiffed parents appear at our doorstep, promising us brilliant brain development and restful nights for the whole family.

Now granted: no longer a brand-new mother, I have come to read these issues with a slightly more critical eye. I finally figured out that the “gift guides” they suggest just happen to showcase products that are coincidentally featured on the ad on the facing page. And I realized that if I read every article about what to feed or not feed my child based on the latest studies, I would only offer organic steamed broccoli wrapped in kale every other Tuesday. We would all hate our lives. And all those “quick guides to squeeze in your tummy-toning workout in 10 minutes or less”? I no longer even pretend to read them.

Yet I still faithfully leaf through most magazines, while I dry my hair in the morning or sneak a few precious moments to myself. (No one needs to know what mama is doing in the bathroom.) I welcome a little education on parenting, and I have no time to read entire books on the subject. So every month I dog-ear a few recipes to try, some creative play ideas to file away. I’ll admit that I have learned some valuable lessons from these mags: tips for helping baby sleep through the night, reasonable advice on discipline, eye-opening perspectives on parenting.

But sometimes the best thing these magazines offer me is a good laugh.

Take December’s issue of Parent and Child (which we get free from our early childhood classes). In the middle of an article entitled, “How To Stay Calm During Stressful Parenting Moments” (which I of course DEVOURED with high hopes that it would offer searing insight into how I could instantly transform myself into a serene, zen-like mother. It didn’t.) I came across the following brilliant quip:

Hal Runkel, founder and president of The ScreamFree Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families connect and find peace, offers two similar thoughts. “Before we can grow our kids up, we need to calm ourselves down,” Runkel explains. “Parenting is about parents. If it was about kids, it would be called kidding.”

Are you kidding me? (Pun intended.) That is both hysterical and true. I focus so much of my parenting time and energy on my child without considering the reality that most of the learning and the growth has to take place within me before I can ever hope to influence him. It’s not called kidding for a reason. The process of learning how to live, love and grow as a family must start with us as parents. Only then can it change our children. And perhaps, the world outside our door as well.

I find it ironic that it took one small quote in one article to make me realize that all of these parenting magazines should really be about precisely that: parents and how we raise our children. But the focus can quickly become kids-kids-kids: a temptation for advertisers to exploit and a trap for well-meaning parents to fall into. Until we take care of ourselves, step back to understand our reactions to a situation, and reflect on how we can respond to create the kind of family life we want for our children, then we’re only kidding.

Parenting is about parents. A simple but provocative thought for my week. If I only react and respond, I can fall into the trap of kidding. But if I calm and center myself, create the space to act as the kind of mother I want to be, then I can better engage the work of parenting.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take a quiz to determine exactly what kind of stroller fits our family’s lifestyle.

How about you: Do you read parenting magazines? Do you find that they help you as a parent? Have they ever given you any memorable advice?

picture, picture

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Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. C.S. Lewis

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article proclaiming the death of picture books. Parents eager to see their children read are evidently pushing chapter books on their kindergardeners. Increased hours of screen time that preschoolers and even toddlers spend each day have also contributed to declining sales of picture books.

My mother discovered this article in our Sunday newspaper while she was visiting us to help with S while F was gone on a long business trip. “How sad!” she declared, a lover of children’s literature and art in every form.

We both scoffed at the idea that picture books no longer had value in a high-tech world. In protest, we visited a local bookstore that afternoon to check out the latest selections of big, glossy pages for S to turn. (Or rip.)

I’m happy to hear that many experts disagreed with the NYT’s claims about the death of picture books. (Check out this great blog for a response from a small bookseller, who writes reviews of new children’s books, including many religious titles.) I can’t imagine a childhood without them.

We all need more poetry and fantasy, art and fiction in our lives. Starting when we are very young and every day thereafter.

his favorite place in the house. and yes, he is sitting on the bed of a wooden truck to read.

Who are your favorite children’s book authors? Whether Sendak or Seuss, we all have a favorite. While I’ve always been a big fan of Tomi dePaola and Eric Carle, I recently discovered one new author and one new illustrator that have become treasures in our house:

Mem Fox, author of Time for Bed and Whoever You Are, which we read with S nearly every day. Both books have poetic rhythms, eye-catching illustrations, and peaceful messages – all “musts” for a children’s book. I am hunting down everything Mem Fox has written (and thus recently discovered that she is the author of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, which I love as well!)

Marla Frazee, illustrator of Everywhere Babies and All The World. I remember reading Everywhere Babies with my niece and nephew when they were tiny, and I loved the diversity of families shown cuddling with their babies. (And nursing babies as well!) I discovered All The World in a bookshop this summer and quickly added it to my mental “Christmas gifts for S” list. Her art offers soft and inviting images of loving families of all shapes, sizes, and shades.

And lo and behold, gentle readers, while researching links to these fine artists, I learned that Mem Fox and Marla Frazee have done a book together! Next stop: our local library, for Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!

Excuse me while I take a Sabbath, turn off the computer, and take up a book to read. Fingers crossed, I’m getting old enough to start reading fairy tales again…