Friday, December 27, 2013

what I read in 2013

Here is my annual list of books I've read in the past year, rated out of five stars.  I hope you enjoy reading these mini-reviews.

I read so many memoirs and biographies this year that I've given them their own section, separate from other nonfiction. 

Disclaimer:  the opinions expressed here are mine only, in case you wondered otherwise.  Results may vary:  one person's five stars might be another's one star.  The writer of this blog takes no responsibility for anyone else not liking a book she liked.


After (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor) - After the death of his wife, Harry struggles to navigate his new life with his three adult children, friends, and co-workers.  If you like Anne Tyler, you'll like this book; it's got the same kind of quirky, interesting characters but is way better than Tyler's last novel The Beginner's Goodbye, which is also about a recently-widowed man.  
* * * * 

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) - This was my first (and, I admit, probably only) time reading this massive classic.  I found quite a contrast between the romantic but ultimately pathetic plotline involving beautiful, doomed Anna Karenina, and the at-times boring but satisfying plotline involving unromantic cranky-pants Constantin Levin.  How Levin learns to love the people in his life and eventually come to faith in God seemed so believable to me, maybe because it was drawn directly from Tolstoy's own experiences.  * * * *

Evangeline (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) - This summer we went to see the new Canadian musical "Evangeline" at the Charlottetown Summer Festival, and in preparation I read Longfellow's beautiful long poem (the fictional story of a young couple separated during the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750's) for the first time.  * * * *

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) - This novel follows three people through Biafra's fight for independence from Nigeria in the 1960's:  Ugwu, a servant boy; Olanna, the lover of Ugwu's master;  and Richard, an Englishman in love with Olanna's twin sister Kainene.  This is a really good book, but it is more sweeping than Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (see below), with many minor characters and political events to keep straight.  I would have preferred a narrower focus on the twin sisters, whose relationship I found the most interesting.  * * * * 

Heading Out to Wonderful (Robert Goolrick) - Loner Charlie Beale arrives in a small town in Virginia and settles down, befriending the local butcher and his young son Sam.  Then Charlie falls in love with the wife of a rich man, leading to shocking repercussions for the two of them, Sam, and the whole town.  This novel's many Biblical echoes are interesting and would make for good discussion; it wasn't a great book, but it was worth reading.  * * * 

Little Bee (Chris Cleave) - Last year I read Cleave's Gold and gave it five stars -- and Little Bee is even better.  Sarah, a London editor, and Little Bee, a Nigerian teenager, encounter each other on a beach in Nigeria under horrifying circumstances.  Two years later Little Bee shows up at Sarah's home, forcing Sarah to face up to what happened between, and to, them both.  Little Bee is an unforgettable character, and I loved hearing her speak in her unique voice about what she has endured in her homeland and what she observes in England.  The book didn't totally satisfy me in terms of how the plot wrapped up (and it has some very disturbing scenes), but it's excellent just the same; Cleave's a great writer.   * * * * * 

Painter of Silence (Georgina Harding) - A deaf-mute man named Augustin collapses in front of a hospital in Romania; a young nurse, Safta, recognizes him as the son of a servant from her family's former estate.  The novel explores their childhood relationship, their separation during WWII, and their journey to new lives after they meet again.  The descriptions of how Augustin communicates through art are beautiful.  * * *

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) - This was the best novel I read in 2013.  Like Half of a Yellow Sun (above), it is set in Adichie's native Nigeria.  Fifteen-year-old Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their mother live a rigidly controlled life with her strict, religious Catholic father.  When Kambili and Jaja go to visit their Aunty Ifeoma, they taste freedom for the first time.  A wonderful book -- riveting from the very first sentence.  * * * * * 

The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout) - Brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, both New York lawyers, travel back to their hometown in Maine when their sister's teenage son gets in trouble.  This event forces the siblings to deal not only with their own troubled relationships but also with the fallout from their father's death in a car accident when they were children.  I liked this book a lot, especially "lovable loser" Bob Burgess.  * * * * 

The Unfinished Child (Theresa Shea) - A novel about two friends (Marie, who is worried about an unexpected problem pregnancy, and Elizabeth, who is unable to have children) -- intertwined with the story of Margaret, who bore a daughter with Down Syndrome in 1947.  A pretty good story, though the Down Syndrome part seemed more like a plot device than a portrayal of real people.  * * * 

Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden) - Best friends Xavier and Elijah, young Cree men, go off to Europe to fight in WWI and become expert snipers.  Only one of them returns alive after the war, to be met by Xavier's aunt.  She takes him home by canoe, telling him her stories to keep him alive and listening to him tell how the horrors of war changed him and his relationship with his friend.  This is an excellent novel, though quite tough to read because of the relentless description of the violence of war. * * * * * 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple) - A very quirky novel about Bernadette, an eccentric agoraphobic; her longsuffering husband Elgin, a Microsoft genius; and their brilliant daughter Bee.  The novel mixes straightforward narrative parts with email exchanges, letters, etc.  Laugh-out-loud funny in some places, numbingly tedious in others, kind of sweet and touching in others.  If you like something really different, try this; it didn't do a lot for me, but I know people in other book clubs who loved it. **


Believing God (Beth Moore) - If our faith isn't working for us, it might be because we believe in God, yet don't always believe Him:  who He says He is, who He says we are, etc.  I read this book with a group and it led to good discussion, but when you read Moore's books on their own you miss out on her dynamic personality.  Doing it in conjunction with the accompanying videos would probably have been better.  * * 

Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Andrew Solomon) - The best nonfiction book I read this year, no question.  This huge (900+ page) book explores how parents raise and relate to children who are very different from them.  Covers ten categories in great detail, with numerous case studies:  Deaf, Dwarf, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, and Transgender.  This book will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.   I did a longer and more personal review of the book a few months ago on this blog; you can read that HERE .* * * * *

Happier at Home (Gretchen Rubin) - I haven't read Rubin's previous bestseller The Happiness Project, but I've read many of her magazine articles -- and as a confirmed homebody, I found her title appealing.  Here she discusses ways to make one's home happier by making it both more restful and more energizing -- emphasizing of course that what works for her won't necessarily work for others.  She divides the book into nine categories (one for each month from September to May):  Possessions, Marriage, Parenthood, Interior Design (i.e. "self-renovation"), Time, Body, Family, Neighbourhood, and Now.  * * * * 

Love Wins (Rob Bell) - Ever wondered if Hell is a real place with horned devils carrying tridents?  Rob Bell has.  Seriously, this small book poses some big challenges to many traditional Christian beliefs around heaven, hell, and salvation.  A controversial book that raises many questions.   * * * 

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Susan Cain) - The title says it all:  this big, fascinating book explores how introverts' often-untapped strengths and contributions are essential to society, in spite of the fact that our culture prizes extroversion.  One interesting part of the book is Cain's discussion of how western culture has shifted in the last century from a "culture of character" to a "culture of personality" -- and not for the better.  * * * * * 


A Good and Perfect Gift (Amy Julia Becker) - Becker writes about finding out, two days after her first child's birth, that Penny had Down Syndrome -- and about her own journey of coming to terms with the diagnosis while falling in love with her baby.  Very honest and moving. * * * * 

Booked:  Literature in the Soul of Me (Karen Swallow Prior) - This excellent memoir deals with the role of books in the shaping of the author's life and faith, dealing with specific books at various stages:  from Charlotte's Web to Jane Eyre to Great Expectations and more.  (But that sentence doesn't quite do the book justice.)  I really enjoyed it. * * * * 

C.S. Lewis -- A Life:  Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Alister McGrath) - Very interesting new biography of C.S. Lewis, with in-depth discussions of his major writings.  Loved this passage about Narnia:  "The stories of Narnia seem childish nonsense to some.  But to others, they are utterly transformative.  For the latter group, these evocative stories affirm that it is possible for the weak and foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe, and that this may be found, embraced, and adored."  * * * * * 

Half-Broke Horses (Jeannette Walls) - This book by the author of The Glass Castle is the story of Walls' maternal grandmother Lily Casey Smith.  (Walls calls it a "real-life novel," but for the purposes of this post it fits better in the biography category.)  Smith was a real character:  she became a horse-breaker at age 5 and a travelling schoolteacher at age 15, then later a rancher and pilot.  This book is very interesting as background to The Glass Castle and has a similar matter-of-fact style.  
* * * * 

No Easy Choice (Ellen Painter Dollar) - Dollar has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a congenital brittle-bone disorder, as does her oldest child.  The book covers not only the explorations Dollar and her husband made in the area of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, but also more broadly her thoughts about disability in relation to Christian faith.  * * * * 

L.M. Montgomery:  Complete Journals, Vol. 1 - I've read (and own) all five volumes of Montgomery's selected journals; now they're being published without omissions.  Although there wasn't a lot here I hadn't read before, it's an amazing life record of a complex woman. 
* * * * 

Nocturne (Helen Humphreys) - A tribute to the author's brother Martin, who died of cancer three years ago at age 45.  This book is written directly to her brother, so it is very moving and poignant.  * * * * 

Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) - In this small but meaty book, Chesterton explores his journey to Christian faith:  how he speculated about many things such as optimism and pessimism, free will, progress, even fairy tales -- and came to realize that Christianity answered his questions and solved the riddles he'd been pondering.   * * * * 

Sober Mercies (Heather Kopp) - This book is about the author's journey from "Christian drunk" (her words) to sober, loved follower of Jesus.  I discovered Kopp's blog "Sober Boots" some time ago and kept reading it because of her warmth and honesty; then I won her book in a draw on someone else's blog.  I especially enjoyed Kopp's discussion of how she needed to reshape her Christian faith when the answers she'd always relied on didn't help her with her addiction problem.  * * * * * 

The Brontes (Juliet Barker) - Huge, detailed biography of the Bronte family.  I learned a great deal about the reality beyond the Bronte myths and also came away with an appreciation for a real unsung hero:  Charlotte Bronte's husband Arthur Bell Nicholls.  Nicholls fell in love with Charlotte, won her respect and love, married her, cared for her until she died nine months later at age 38 of severe morning sickness, supported her father until he died several years later, and showed humility and grace in the face of Charlotte's intrusive friends and biographers. * * * * 

Wave (Sonali Deraniyagala) - The author and her family were vacationing in southern Sri Lanka when the 2004 tsunami hit.  In an instant she lost her husband, her two young sons, her parents, and her friend.  A harrowing look at how one woman responded when the unthinkable happened to her.  * * * * 

Wild (Cheryl Strayed) - At age 22, Strayed lost her beloved mother to cancer; four years later she was divorced, estranged from her stepfather and siblings, and experimenting with heroin.  She decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California to Oregon in an attempt to deal with her demons, but got much more than she bargained for.  Great book.  * * * * *

I hope this list has given you some ideas for things you'd like to read or re-read.  Now, what have you read this year that you've really enjoyed?  Please share in the comments!


YOUR Favorite Books of 2013 | Modern Mrs Darcy

Note:  Modern Mrs. Darcy is doing a "best books of 2013" linkup on Jan. 3/14, so I've decided to link this post up with that one.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas story: "Martha, Mary, and the Missing Jesus"

This year I've been posting some of my Christmas stories on the Wednesdays leading up to Christmas.  Last week I posted "The Cardinals' Christmas," two weeks ago it was "Christmas at the Coffee Shop," and the week before I posted "The Two Jewels." 

The one for today is another piece I wrote for my church women's group in 2008, when we were discussing Joanna Weaver's book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.  (My original title was "A Mary and Martha Christmas.")

I hope you have a very joyful Christmas celebration!  


Once upon a time there were two sisters named Mary and Martha.  They lived in a little house at the edge of a village, and they were very happy.  They loved to visit with their friends along the main street, and have company in for tea. 

But this particular season they were especially happy, because it was almost Christmas.  Martha and Mary both loved Christmas.  Martha would say (a little sarcastically) that Mary loved Christmas because there was someone named Mary in the Christmas story.  Martha thought privately that if she were to be one of the Christmas story characters, it would probably be the innkeeper’s wife:  the kind of person who did all kinds of work behind the scenes and received absolutely no credit.

But, if she were honest, Martha would have to confess that she loved the “work” of Christmas:  the decorating and baking, wrapping and shopping.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the little house was a whirlwind.  Martha would climb the ladder to the attic, carefully take down all of her decorations and knickknacks, and spend hours getting everything just right.  Martha was all about themes.  One year she had an all-white theme, so that all the napikins, tablecloths, and tree decorations had to be white.  Another year she focused on stars, so that all the napkins, tablecloths, and tree decorations had to involve stars.  Another year … well, you get the idea.

Martha was a whiz in the kitchen, too.  Her cooking was legendary.  It wasn’t enough just to make one kind of Christmas cookie; she had to make seven.  It wasn’t enough just to have a ten-pound turkey; she had to have a twenty-pounder (after all, you never know how many unexpected guests might show up for Christmas dinner).  And heaven forbid that she buy a can of cranberry sauce, slide it into a bowl and chunk it up with a fork; she had to make the real thing from cranberries she’d picked herself on a farm within a 100-mile radius of her home.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday morsel: "and his name shall be called...."

Allison and I had some fun the other day listing the many nicknames we've given Jonathan over the years.

Jonathan was an extremely fat baby (and still, at 11 years old, has endearingly chubby cheeks); therefore many of the names we gave him related to that fact:
- Super Pudge
- Pudgy-Poo
- Pork Boy
- Porkahontas
- The Grand Old Duke of Pork
- Chubber C. Chubs
- Fatty Farts
- Fatty Fatty Fat Fat
- Fatosaurus Rex

Many of his other nicknames have been riffs on his actual name:
- Jon-Jon (that's how he said his name for quite a long time, and we still regularly call him that)
- J-Man
- J.J. (even though his second name does not start with J)
- Jage (rhymes with age -- short for J.J.)
- Jagey-Boy
- Jagey-Poo (he calls himself this sometimes)
- Jujube

So many names -- and they all refer to only one person!

Jesus is called many different names too, and the Bible passage I've chosen for today's Monday Morsel -- one of my favourite Christmas-related verses -- lists several of them:

For unto us a child is born, 
unto us a son is given: 
and the government shall be upon his shoulder: 
and his name shall be called 
Wonderful Counsellor, 
The Mighty God, 
The Everlasting Father, 
The Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas story: "The Cardinals' Christmas"

This Advent season I'm posting one of my Christmas stories on this blog every Wednesday.  (Last week I posted "Christmas at the Coffee Shop"; the week before it was "The Two Jewels." )


The Cardinals’ Christmas

In a small clearing, deep in the middle of a great forest, there lived a community of cardinals.  In wintertime, when snow carpeted the ground and turned the trees’ boughs heavy and white, the little birds sang and hopped and flew from ground to branch, happy and free.  What a pretty sight it was to see them, with their red beaks and their red and brown feathers, rummaging on the ground for seeds, calling to one another, and peeking in the nests some had made in stumps and hollows.  And above the clearing, Snowy Owl would often look down from a branch and smile, even as his watchful eyes swept the sky and treetops, looking for anything that might endanger his little friends.

            Once a week the female cardinals met for a special get-together, and how the chirping and singing increased then!  They loved to drink maple sap, so one of the birds always came to the meeting place early to ensure there was enough sap for everyone.  A couple of them were in charge of bringing special treats, and it was delightful to ooh and aah over what was brought: perhaps some extra-tasty berries from a far-off bush or some delicious seeds or nuts.  The birds would eat, and laugh, and gossip a bit, and mostly just hear each other’s news.

            One of the cardinals was named Goodberry – or at least that was what they called her, for she had an exceptionally red beak and wing-tips.  Even her cheeks were unusually red.  Goodberry had been part of the group for a long time.  She was friendly, and caring, and somewhat quiet.  She did not speak often, or very loudly, but when she did, she said things that were wise and thoughtful, things that clearly came from a deep heart.  And when she laughed, it was a beautiful sound.

            Week after week, the girls met to talk, laugh, eat and drink, and celebrate their friendship.  Their cosy clearing seemed like a place of warmth and safety, and their hearts were light and carefree.

            Then one day as they were visiting together, Snowy Owl called down to them from a nearby tree.  “A hawk has been seen not far from here,” he said in his deep voice.  “Be on your guard, and keep watch.”

            All of the cardinals began chirping anxiously.  “A hawk?” said Goodberry.  “I do not want to meet up with a hawk.  I hope he stays far, far away and does not bother us.”  And all her friends agreed.  Yet in the coming days they all became a bit more watchful and wary, and their little clearing somehow no longer seemed as cosy and safe as before.

            One day, as the cardinals gathered for their weekly meeting, they noticed that Goodberry was missing.

            “Where is Goodberry?” asked one.  “She is never late; we can always count on her.”

            “And she is not bringing treats today,” said another.  “If she was, I would say she was out finding something extra special.  Her treats are always so delicious, you know.”

            “Maybe she stopped to help a friend on her way here,” said another.  “That is just the kind of thing she would do.”

            They were all sure that Goodberry would be there soon, for she was very faithful.  But time passed, and she did not come.  Just when they were beginning to worry, Snowy Owl swooped down into the middle of the clearing, a grave expression on his face.  “I have bad news,” he said.  “This morning the hawk was in this part of the forest again, and it saw Goodberry’s bright red beak and feathers against the snow.”

            The cardinals gasped.  “Did ... did the hawk attack Goodberry?” asked one.

            “Yes,” replied Snowy Owl.  “I was able to chase it away, but not quickly enough.  Goodberry is still alive, but I do not think she will be able to survive much longer.  I carried her to a hollow tree” – here Snowy Owl’s voice became choked for just a moment – “and she wants to spend her time quietly resting.  She was sure you would understand.  I am sorry to have to tell you this – but because you love Goodberry, I knew that you would want to know.”  Snowy Owl bowed sadly and then flew away.

            The days afterward were hard ones for the cardinals.  A few of them, who were Goodberry’s closest friends, were able to visit her for a short time; but although they all hoped she might recover, it became clear, as the days passed, that that was impossible.  One stormy afternoon, Snowy Owl flew back into their midst to deliver the sad news that Goodberry had died.  It was a dark day for the birds, and the howling wind and bitter, swirling snow seemed to reflect the cold sorrow in their hearts.  When they realized they would never see Goodberry again, they mourned, and their carefree songs were silenced, so that no sound was heard but the whistling of the wind through the trees.

            Snowy Owl visited the cardinals often in the following days, because he knew that his presence was a comfort to them.  One day, one of the birds said, “I still cannot help thinking of Goodberry, off by herself that morning.  What was she doing?  Why was she late?”

            Snowy Owl smiled, and his face looked happier than it had in many days.  “I can show you what she was doing,” he said.  “Would you like to come and see?”

            He led them out of the clearing, a short distance through the forest to a sheltered area in a small valley.  In the middle of that hollow was a spruce tree – not too tall, but full and thick.  And covering its fragrant boughs were shiny berries of all colours ... thin strips of white bark that draped like icicles ... pieces of lacy fern ... glossy brown acorns.

            The cardinals all exclaimed in delight.  “Do you mean,” said one, “that Goodberry was decorating this beautiful tree for us?”

            “Yes,” Snowy Owl replied.  “It is a Christmas tree.”

            “A Christmas tree!” they all cried together.  Then one said timidly, “What is a Christmas tree?”

            “A Christmas tree,” said Snowy Owl, “is a tree that is decorated to celebrate the birthday of the Forest King.”

            “The Forest King!” they all cried.  But they were all wondering the same thing, and one of them voiced the question:  “But ... aren’t you the king of the forest, Snowy Owl?”

            Snowy Owl laughed:  a lovely, deep, wise laugh.  “Oh, no,” he said.  “No, I am not the king of the forest.  Beyond the tallest treetop lives a great King who created these woods, the high mountains, the wide oceans and rushing rivers – everything in this vast world.”  Here the cardinals looked at each other in amazement, for they had not known there were such wonderful things beyond their little clearing. “And we celebrate his birthday by loving one another, being thankful, giving to the poor, making our homes beautiful, and singing songs of joy.  Would you like to hear one of those songs?”

            They listened eagerly, for the cardinals, who loved music, had not realized that Snowy Owl knew how to sing.  In his low voice, he sang these words:

                                    Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!
                                    Let earth receive her King!
                                    Let every heart prepare Him room,
                                    And heaven and nature sing.

            “That is a beautiful song,” said one of the cardinals.  “So if Goodberry decorated this tree, then she must have known all about the Forest King.”

            “Yes, she did,” said Snowy Owl, looking around at their serious faces.  “My little friends, it is right to be sad that Goodberry is dead.  I myself feel sad that I could not chase the hawk away in time.  And I know that you feel sad because the one you loved is no longer here among you.  But even in our grief, we can also be joyful, because Goodberry has gone to live with the Forest King, and she is happy there.”

            Then the birds all wept – even Snowy Owl – and some of their tears were tears of sorrow, and some were tears of joy, and they all mingled together.

            The cardinals spent a long time enjoying the beauty of Goodberry’s tree, but soon it was time to return home.  Snowy Owl led the way, and they followed him back to their clearing.  It seemed somewhat bare now, so some of the birds began to decorate the tree branches with berries and acorns and other things to make their home beautiful.  They discovered that Snowy Owl knew many more songs about Christmas and about the Forest King, so they asked him to teach them these songs.  When they sang them, they felt closer to Goodberry, and to the Forest King, whom none of them had ever met, but who they knew – deep in their hearts – was loving and good.  And at night, when the stars were glittering far above the treetops, the birds gathered in their woodland clearing, their hearts warmed with a strange, sad joy.  And heaven and nature sang.


 © Jeannie Prinsen 2009
(This story was written in memory of Sharon Goodberry Hogan,
who was a member of my women's group at Bethel Church
and who died in the fall of 2009.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

December "Twitterature": three memoirs with one-word titles

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for her monthly "Twitterature" post.

In the last month I've read three very interesting memoirs:

1. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

The author and her family were vacationing in southern Sri Lanka when the 2004 tsunami hit.  In an instant, she lost her husband and two young sons, her parents, and her friend.  This riveting book explores the devastating process of grief after the unimaginable happens.


2.  Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

Poet-novelist Humphreys writes about the death of her brother Martin from cancer at the age of forty-five.  Written directly to her brother, the book reminisces about their lifelong relationship and the sadness of losing someone who was more than just her sibling but a part of herself.


3.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed

When she was 22, Strayed lost her beloved mother to cancer; four years later she was divorced, estranged from her stepfather and siblings, and experimenting with heroin.  In an attempt to deal with her demons, she decided to walk the Pacific Crest trail from southern California to Oregon.  This fascinating book tells of Strayed's adventures on the trail, the people she met, and how the hike changed her.

What have you been reading?

Monday morsel: "wave after wave"

Yesterday at church our Family Ministries Director spoke about Mary, the mother of Jesus and how she experienced a "divine interruption."  Afterward I was reading the story of Mary in the Message translation, particularly focusing on Mary's song:  "The Magnificat."  So I thought I'd share that today.

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
 - Luke 1:46-55, The Message

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas story: "Christmas at the Coffee Shop"

Every Wednesday of this Advent season, I'm posting one of the Christmas stories that I've written.  Last week I posted a story called "The Two Jewels".  This week's story is another one that I wrote -- this one in 2011 -- for my church women's group.  That year we were doing a book about six women of the Bible:  Eve, Rebekah, Leah, Hannah, Abigail, and Gomer.  So I chose to incorporate all of those women in my Christmas story and also add another:  Mary.


Christmas at the Coffee Shop

It was a week before Christmas, and the six friends – Eve, Rebekah, Leah, Hannah, Abigail, and Gomer -- met at their local Fourbucks coffee shop for a much-needed break in the middle of Christmas shopping.  The cafe was crowded, but they managed to find a table and plopped down exhaustedly, their shopping bags, purses, and coats forming a huge pile on the floor beside them.

They had barely had a chance to catch their breath when a friendly young server with a perky smile came over, carrying a tray.  “Would you like to try a sample of our triple mega ultimate decadent amazing white chocolate peppermint squares and our super festive holiday apple-cider eggnog latte?” 

“Yes,” Eve said.  “Yes, I would.”  The other women all raised their eyebrows; after all, Eve had already ordered a grande cappuccino and a cranberry scone.   “I know, I know,” Eve said with a sigh.  “I really shouldn’t -- but I can’t resist the temptation!  It’s like there’s a little voice in my ear saying ‘But it’s so delicious – what harm can it do?’ so I give in.  I have eight pounds and two ounces to lose before Adam’s company New Year’s Eve party, but with all these festive goodies I’m not sure I’ll be able to fit into my little black dress in time.  And don’t get me started on money!  When I’m out shopping and I see something adorable for little Cain or Abel, I just have to buy it even if it’s not in my budget -- and I already have ten gifts for each boy.  I have no will power whatsoever.  My credit cards are almost maxed out, and I only have half my shopping done.  I want to lose weight and save money, but it seems impossible.  Christmas is nothing but one big temptation.”

“For me Christmas is nothing but work,” said Rebekah.  “It’s exhausting.  Yesterday I asked my elderly neighbour if he could use any help.  I thought he’d just ask me to lick stamps or something – but he asked me to help him put up his tree and decorate it.  Phew!  I made fifteen trips up and down his basement stairs carrying boxes of decorations.  I know I’m in good shape from all the Pilates and kickboxing classes I go to, but my muscles are really feeling it today.  And then I have to do all my own decorating too.  Isaac is so busy at work, he can’t help me; and the twins are so sweet – especially little Jake – but they’re too little to help.  I wish my mom was here to do the baking and cooking with me.  When we moved here I left my whole family behind, and I miss them.  We used to do everything together.  Now it’s just me:  helping everybody else and being Mrs. Competent Superwoman.  Sometimes I get so tired of doing it all on my own.”

“I wish I had your problem,” Leah said.  “My family’s too close to me.  I wish they lived twenty hours away instead of twenty minutes.  My younger sister especially:  she just drives me around the bend.  I decided to do a blue Christmas theme this year – blue lights, blue dishes, blue ornaments – well, lo and behold, my sister decides she’s going to do blue too!  I went to Wal-Mart and bought my little Reuben the Spiderman backpack he’s been asking for; my sister goes right out and gets her little Joey the very same one!  It’s always been like this ever since we were young:  whatever I got, she wanted.  To be honest, I think she even wishes she had my husband!  And if she gets something, she flaunts it in my face.  She always says she’s the pretty one.  Well, I might not look like a fashion model, but I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, which is a lot more than she can say.  She is so competitive and immature.  So for me, Christmas is just a time to tolerate my huge, loud, bickering family.  I grit my teeth till it’s over and everybody – especially my sister – goes back home.”

“For me, it’s not any one thing that bugs me about Christmas,” said Hannah.  “It’s just the overall disappointment.  I spend all my time getting my hopes up, waiting for the perfect Christmas … waiting for the perfect present that’s just what I always wanted … waiting for the perfect new year that will be better than the year before.  Every day I open the little tab on the Advent calendar (and of course I eat the chocolate inside – though it’s really not high-quality chocolate; what should I expect when I bought it at Dollarama?) … and I get more and more excited because I know this is the Christmas everything is going to change … and then when it finally comes, it’s such a letdown because it hasn’t been the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER.  The same thing happens every year – it’s depressing.  And my husband just says, ‘Well, sweetie, at least you have me.’  Like that helps.  Men just don’t understand.”

“Speaking of men,” said Abigail, “I have this annoying issue to deal with this Christmas and it’s driving me crazy.  My husband – foolish man that he is – got into a big competition with our next-door neighbour, Dave, trying to see whose house is decorated the best.  So far he claims he has 33,917 lights, and our neighbour claims he has 34,268.  But my husband goes out in the middle of the night and unscrews bulbs from the neighbour’s strings of lights or flicks the power switch on and off until a fuse blows.  He’s completely out of control.  And we really need to stay on our neighbour’s good side because he just happens to be our city councillor.  So I have to play mediator.  Mind you, I’m good at it, seeing as how I have a Master’s in Industrial Relations.  So I go over to the neighbour’s house and smile sweetly and say, ‘Now, Dave, my husband’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, metaphorically speaking…’   It’s so demeaning.  I just want to sit back and enjoy hot cider and watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and listen to carols – but instead Christmas has turned into a diplomatic mission.  Plus it is really hard to sleep at night with a total of 68,185 Christmas lights shining in your bedroom windows.”

“I’m sure it is,” Gomer said.  “But it’s better than receiving 68,185 Christmas presents.  Okay, I’m exaggerating – but Jose absolutely showers me with gifts every Christmas.  I know:  you’d all love to trade places with me!   I know I should be able to enjoy it, but instead it makes me feel so inadequate because I’m – well, I’m just not worthy of all this love and affection.  I try to tell Jose that I don’t deserve so many presents, but he doesn’t listen; he just keeps doing it because he says he loves me.  Let me tell you, it’s very unnerving.  For me Christmas ends up being just a guilt trip.”

Gomer’s friends looked at her in sympathy – not just because of her unfortunate name, which had been given to her by her father who was a huge fan of "The Andy Griffith Show" – but because she had always been chronically plagued by low self-esteem.  Fortunately a new book by Sarah Tun had just come out in the bookstores entitled Free to Be: Defeating Insecurity, Transforming Relationships, Building Character -- and all five of Gomer’s friends were planning to give her a copy for Christmas.

The six women sat in silence after pouring out their hearts to one another.  It was as if a cloud hung over the coffee shop:  the Christmas music sounded obnoxious, the smell of coffee was oppressive, and the decorations looked cheap and phony.

At the same moment they all caught sight of a shabby-looking teenage girl in a bulky parka, standing at the coffee counter.  “There’s Mary,” whispered Leah.  

The women all recognized Mary as the daughter of the woman who cleaned their houses.  She and her mother lived in a trailer park on the other side of town.

“Well,” said Leah, “She’s gotten herself into quite a state.  How old is she – fifteen?”

“How sad,” Gomer said, shaking her head.

“It’s not just sad,” Abigail said.  “It’s an absolute tragedy.  And so unnecessary!   I suppose people like that just don’t have the information and resources they need to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”

“My goodness, she’s coming over,” said Eve.  The women looked at each other in consternation – what on earth were they going to say to her?

Rebekah let out a sigh of annoyance and whispered, “Frankly, I have enough to deal with this Christmas without having to listen to her problems.”

The girl made her way over to their corner, gingerly carrying her hot chocolate, and slumped down in a vacant chair.  Snow dusted the shoulders of her threadbare parka; she brushed it away with her worn mittens.  She smiled shyly at the women.  They tried to smile back, but it was hard not to stare at her huge pregnant belly.

“It’s crazy-busy in here,” the girl said.  “I was lucky to find a seat.  I’ve got such a long walk home – I just need to sit and relax for a minute.”

“Well, Mary,” said Eve, “you seem to be quite far along.  You must be feeling pretty exhausted by now.”

“Yeah, sometimes,” Mary replied.  “I’m about 39 weeks, so it could be any day.”

“It must be terribly overwhelming for you,” said Gomer.

“I do get a bit nervous,” Mary said, “mostly ‘cause I don’t know what to expect with the delivery and all.” 

 “Well, clearly you’ll need support,” Abigail said.  “Do you have resources in place?  Have you contacted Social Services?” 

“Well, my mom will help out when I need her,” said Mary.  “And my boyfriend Joe’s been so great.  We’re actually going to his hometown for Christmas.  It’s a long drive, especially so close to my due-date, but—”

“My goodness, you can’t travel at 39 weeks!” Hannah exclaimed.  “What if you went into labour on the road?”

“Joey and I talked it over, and we’re pretty comfortable with it,” said Mary.  “It’ll be fine.”

The women exchanged glances again; they were all troubled by the girl’s naïve cheerfulness.  It’ll be fine?  Didn’t she see what a disaster this was:  to be pregnant at fifteen – forced to quit school, no husband or job or prospects for a better life?  “It sounds like it will be a tough Christmas for you,” Leah said pityingly.

“It’ll be a challenge, for sure,” Mary said.  “But I’m excited too.  I can’t really explain it, but I have a feeling this will be a good Christmas.”

“In my opinion, a good Christmas is a Christmas that’s over,” said Rebekah cynically.  The other women nodded in a ‘tell-me-about-it’ kind of way, but Mary’s eyes widened and she shook her head.

“I love Christmas,” she said.  “I’m looking forward to it -- really.  You know, I didn’t want this to happen, and I was really scared at first – but I just feel that I’m supposed to have this baby.  I think whatever is meant to be will happen, and I’ll take each step as it comes.”  She paused and sipped her drink, and when she looked up her eyes were shining.  “I guess I just sorta believe that God will help me.  Whenever I think about the baby and start to get worried, it’s almost like God is with me -- right there inside me, comforting me and telling me everything’s going to be okay.  Did you ever feel like that?”  

And every one of the women had the same thought:  No.  Not for a long time.

“I guess that does sound a little flaky,” Mary said with a shrug.  Then she smiled and got to her feet.  “Well, I better get going … have a nice Christmas, okay?”

When she was gone, the women sat in silence once again, but somehow the atmosphere in the coffee shop seemed different from before.  The oppressiveness was lifting, and the air seemed light and fresh again.  A Christmas carol was playing:  it was O Little Town of Bethlehem.  A particular line seemed to catch all the women’s attention:  “Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.”  They sat and listened until the words had ended and the final notes had died out.
Eve spoke first.  “Well, this has been nice, girls, but I really must go.  I think I need to do a few pre-Christmas returns.  Fortunately I’m meticulous about keeping receipts!”

“Yes, I should run, too,” Rebekah said.  “It occurs to me that the old gentleman next door might need a bit more help with his Christmas preparations.  He’s kind of like me – he doesn’t have family around, either.”

“I think I’ll go to Winners before it closes,” said Leah.  “I saw some really nice star earrings there, and my sister collects star things.  Of course I started collecting them first … but I think she’d like these.”

“Sounds good,” said Hannah, “But, you know, I actually think I’ll sit a little longer and savour the moment.  It’s cosy here.”

“Well, I’m going to ‘savour the moment’ at home,” said Abigail.  “I’m going to put my feet up, play my Christmas CD's, and let my hubby handle his own dispute with Dave next door.  And I’ll use room-darkening shades when I go to bed tonight – 68,000 bulbs won’t keep me awake again.”

Gomer looked at her watch.  “And Jose’s done work soon – I’d like to be there when he gets home … just to let him know I love him and that he makes me feel so special.”

The women gathered up their coats and shopping bags and said goodbye to one another, but they were more subdued than they had been when they entered.  They were all pondering Mary’s quiet, peaceful words:  “God is with me -- right there inside me.”   

As they went their separate ways, they looked up at the late afternoon sky; it was filled with swirling snowflakes that seemed to touch the earth with a fresh dusting of joy and hope.  And more than one of the women found herself softly singing the same carol that they had heard in the café, paying special attention to its last line:  “O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.”


"Chrstmas in the Coffee Shop" by Jeannie Prinsen copyright 2011