Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: ALL THE BOOKS.




As I've done for the last few years, I'm presenting a list of all the books I read this year, arranged alphabetically by title, with brief synopses/reviews and ratings out of 5 stars.  (If you're interested in my previous lists, you can find them here at these links:  20132012, 2011, and 2010.)

The opinions expressed here are mine alone; no one has paid me to say something nice about his or her book (I wish!).  My apologies if I disliked books you liked and liked books you disliked. 

The prevalence of 4- and 5-star books on my list means it was a great reading year, and I mostly managed to steer clear of duds.  (I did start one dud and quit part-way through:  I couldn't make it past about p. 50 of Wally Lamb's We Are Water, although I love his other books.)

Last year I created separate categories for Nonfiction and Biography & Memoir, but I found that many of the books I read didn't fit neatly into one box or the other.  So I've gone back to just Fiction and Nonfiction groupings.   Somewhat surprisingly, I read more than twice as much nonfiction as fiction this year.

FICTION:

Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) - This was the first book I read in 2014, and one of the best.  While an opera singer is performing at a party hosted by the Vice President of a South American country, terrorists enter and take the guests hostage.  Friendships and love affairs develop among captives and captors in the most surprising and lovely ways.  (Just in case the subject matter concerns you, be assured that the book is not violent or graphic.)  * * * * *

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner) is about a friendship between two couples, lasting from the 1930's to the 1970's.  Stegner is wonderful at depicting the seemingly small events that shape the couples' relationship over the years.  There was one odd thing, though:  the couples would be going on some trip or outing and I'd think, "Uh, did the author forget that these people have small children? Or did the parents themselves forget?"  The kids were invisible!  But that inconsistency aside, this was a good book.  (Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, but I haven't read that one yet.)   * * *

I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - Seventeen-year-old Cassandra writes in her journal about her eccentric and penniless family's life in a crumbling old castle.  When two wealthy brothers move onto a nearby farm, and one shows an interest in Cassandra's beautiful older sister, the family's fortunes seem about to change.  This book, which was published in the 1940's, is just delightful, mainly because of its endearing, wise-beyond-her-years narrator who learns some important lessons about love and maturity.  * * * *

Lila (Marilynne Robinson) - This novel follows Robinson's books Gilead (in which dying Rev. John Ames tells his life story to his little son) and Home (about Ames' friend Rev. Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his prodigal son Jack).  Lila is told from the point of view of Ames' young wife, an orphan who has lived a life of loneliness and destitution before wandering into Ames' church and hearing him preach.  She marries him, but learning to trust him -- and his God -- is a slow process.  This is a beautiful novel that reflects on themes of God's grace and the eternal destiny of those we love.  * * * * *

Road Ends (Mary Lawson) - This novel alternates between the perspectives of three members of the Cartwright family in small-town Ontario:  father Edward, trying to deal with both his past and his present; son Tom, grieving a friend's death; and daughter Megan, escaping the duties of home by moving to England.  This book was OK, but it didn't come close to Lawson's first book, Crow Lake.  I wish she had focused on one character rather than weaving three plots; the three weren't equally interesting and never came together as one.  And the timeline was confusing:  if you're going to have subplots that are less than a year apart, it might be better just to make them simultaneous.  (The Invention of Wings handled multiple narrators much more successfully.)  And I found the ending a flop.  * *

The Distant Hours (Kate Morton) - A young woman named Edie goes to Milderhurst Castle to meet the reclusive, elderly Blythe sisters and find out more about her mother's experience boarding there as a girl during World War II.  As Edie makes her discoveries, her relationship with her mother changes, and we see just how much more there is to the Blythes' story than even Edie realizes.  I absolutely loved this huge novel;  it was my companion through numerous sleepless nights and plane and train rides.  It has everything:  mystery, suspense, romance, and total "unputdownability."  * * * * * 

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) - Hazel, who has terminal lung cancer, and Augustus, who lost a leg to cancer, meet at a teens' cancer support group  and fall in love.  This is a touching and funny young-adult novel about love, death, and the kind of legacy we leave to the world.   (The movie version, which came out this summer, was very good as well.  This is the kind of book that has "movie" written all over it.)    * * *

The House at Riverton (Kate Morton) - This is the first novel by the author of The Distant Hours, and I really enjoyed it.  Morton has such a talent for taking us into her characters' minds and allowing us to discover events along with them.  In this book, a girl named Grace goes to work as a housemaid for the Hartfords at Riverton estate (as her mother did before her) and becomes involved in the lives of the young Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline.  Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy this book because it is set in the same time period and has a strong upstairs-downstairs element.  * * * *

The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd) is based on the real-life story of Sarah Grimke, a wealthy girl in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800's (who later became an abolitionist), and her maid/slave Handful.  The story alternates between the two girls' perspectives; Kidd conveys their voices so convincingly that she makes us care about both of them even though their social situations and experiences are so different.  I love Kidd's writing, and here it's at its best.  * * * * *

The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) - Oddball Don Tillman (who is probably on the autism spectrum) is looking for a life partner, so he develops a detailed questionnaire that he hopes will lead him to the perfect match.  But then free-spirited Rosie shows up and disrupts his orderly life.  A funny novel about an likeable guy who just wants to belong in a world that often makes no sense to him.   * * * *

NONFICTION:

A Beautiful Disaster:  Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Marlena Graves) - Graves, who grew up in an unstable home with poverty and alcoholism, discusses how God uses the desert times of our lives to shape us and draw us closer to Him.  She speaks with a combination of gentleness and authority that is very appealing.  * * * *

A Grace Disguised:  How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Jerry Sittser) - I found this powerful little book in our church library.  In 1991, a car accident caused the deaths of Sittser's wife, mother, and four-year-old daughter.  This is an honest, wise, clich√©-free exploration of how suffering can be processed and ultimately lead to growth.    (I'm also interested in checking out Sittser's new book, A Grace Revealed:  How God Redeems the Story of Your Life.)  * * * * *

A Hidden Wholeness:  The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Parker Palmer) discusses how "circles of trust" -- intentional communities or relationships that focus on creating safe spaces for the soul -- can help us listen to our "inner teacher" and gain wisdom and wholeness.  The circle-of-trust model itself didn't resonate with me that much, but I found his broader reflections on  the divided self, community, silence, etc. helpful.  Palmer, author of the insightful book Let Your Life Speak, is always worth reading.   * * *

A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Rachel Held Evans) recounts Evans' one-year project to explore the concept of "biblical womanhood."  She tried a wide variety of experiments, from sleeping in a tent during her period, to calling her husband Master, to holding a vigil in honour of forgotten Biblical women, to staying silent in church, and many more.  She describes her project, and the lessons she learned from it, with hilarity and humility.  * * * *

Call the Midwife (Jennifer Worth) - Memoir about Worth's time as a nurse-midwife working with Anglican nuns in East London in the 1950's.  She describes, in fascinating and often heartbreaking detail, the realities of childbirth, prostitution, poverty, and religious life in that period.  I've been enjoying the BBC TV series of the same name, and the book fills out the real-life backgrounds of many of the people and events depicted in the show.  Apparently Worth wrote three volumes of memoir; I look forward to reading the other two.  * * *

Carry On, Warrior (Glennon Melton) - Melton's blog/website, Momastery, is devoted to her desire to live life in an authentic and "unarmed" way and to encourage other women.  She has described her central message as "Rest: life is brutal.  Wake up: life is beautiful.  Be brave: you're a child of God.  Be kind: so is everyone else."  This book is a collection of essays and blog posts about her addictive (or as she puts it, "festive") past and her struggles with parenting, marriage, and faith.  Kind of manic, but funny and endearing, with a lot of wisdom beneath the craziness.  * * * *

Creative You (David B. Goldstein and Otto Kroeger) explores creativity in relation to the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator.  This (sometimes overly) detailed book encourages each of us to see ourselves as creative and discusses the many different ways creativity can be expressed depending on our MBTI type. * * *

Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) - Brown is a scholar who researches shame; in both of these books she discusses the things that keep us from living wholeheartedly, such as feelings of shame, fear, scarcity, and unworthiness.  Daring Greatly, the more recent book, focuses particularly on how practicing vulnerability can help us live more courageous, authentic lives.  Although Brown's books are not  from an overtly Christian perspective, they have a strong spiritual element.  Encouraging and practical.  * * * *

Evolving in Monkey Town:  How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Rachel Held Evans) - Memoir of Evans' upbringing in conservative Dayton, Tennessee.  When doubts threatened her airtight Christian worldview, she realized her faith had to change and grow.  (This book has been re-released under a new title, Faith Unraveled.)   
 * * * * 

Five Days at Memorial (Sheri Fink) This book details how a New Orleans hospital coped during Hurricane Katrina; it focuses particularly on the controversy surrounding patients who died under questionable circumstances.  Besides being a great narrative about the disaster, the book is also a very interesting discussion of important issues like disaster response, health care rationing, euthanasia, and societal values in general.  * * * *

Found:  A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer (Micha Boyett).  I've followed Boyett's blog for some time, so I was eager to read her book, which came out this year.  In it she reveals her struggles over whether she is doing/being enough for God as a mother, and how, through her exploration of Benedictine spirituality, she discovers joy -- hers and God's -- in her ordinary life.  The book is structured according to the divine hours, which helps emphasize that faith is not a once-and-for-all achievement but a daily practice.  Boyett's writing is so vulnerable and real.  This is a great book for anyone who's ever wondered if their small life matters.  * * * *

Home:  A Memoir of My Early Years (Julie Andrews) tells of the actress's challenging childhood, her introduction to music and theatre, and her first marriage.  I enjoyed this book, but I hope there will be another installment; it seemed strange to end so abruptly and so early in her life (before even getting to The Sound of Music!). * * *

If Only:  Letting Go of Regret (Michelle Van Loon) is a wise and helpful discussion of the regrets we all have in our lives.   She shows that regret, rather than being something either to ignore or to become trapped by, can be a sign of our need for God's healing and redemption -- and by His grace God provides far more than just a do-over.   Questions at the end of each chapter make this a great book for personal reflection or group study.  * * * *

Parting Gifts:  Notes on Life, Love, and Loss (Ann Hines) - Canadian writer/humorist Hines reflects on many of her life experiences -- divorce, depression, aging, having a transgender child -- and how these events, while characterized by loss, also have hidden gifts.  * * * *

Pastrix:  The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (Nadia Bolz-Weber) - In her youth, Bolz-Weber rejected her fundamentalist faith, becoming an alcoholic and stand-up comedian; then God interrupted her life.  When a fellow AA member died, her status as the only religious person in the group made her the default choice to conduct the funeral -- and she soon felt called to be "a pastor to her people."  She now leads a church called House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.  I was very moved by this memoir.  I expected it to be snarky and edgy (and it is somewhat, as well as having a fair amount of foul language, so be warned), but it's mostly just a down-to-earth account of a woman's faith journey, her humbling struggles in community, and the way God continues to surprise her with love and grace.   * * * * *

Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion (Fr. Gregory Boyle) - Boyle shares stories of the L.A. gang members he has worked and lived with for over 20 years, weaving those stories with reflections on the need to love and be loved, to receive God's compassion, and to realize that every life matters.  This is one of the best books about faith (about anything, in fact) that I've ever read.  "I laughed, I cried" may be a clich√©, but it truly applies to the experience of reading this beautiful book.   
 * * * * * +

The Book of Forgiving:  The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu) explores what the Tutus call the Fourfold Path of Forgiveness:  telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship.  This small book is simply written yet profound, with examples from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and elsewhere.  Questions and exercises for personal work appear at the end of each chapter.  * * *

The Spark:  A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius (Kristine Barnett) - When Barnett's son Jake was diagnosed with autism, she was told to put away his letter flashcards because he would never read.  Barnett took Jake out of school and began her own program based on "muchness":  letting him pursue what he loved and ensuring he had a normal childhood.  Today Jake is a happy teenager who also happens to be a genius mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.  Amazing story of an amazing boy and mom.  (And don't worry:  Barnett is not a loon like Jenny McCarthy, just an energetic, passionate mother committed to helping her child reach his potential.) * * * *

The Thorny Grace of It (Brian Doyle) - I've read many of Doyle's short pieces in journals like The Sun and Ruminate.  The essays in this book touch on his Catholic upbringing, fellow parishioners and family members, and other subjects.  Doyle is great at infusing ordinary people, moments, and events with significance and doing so in a warm and funny way.  Loved this book.  
 * * * * *

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) - This book consists of essays about Patchett's upbringing as a child of divorce; her Catholic schooling; her life as a writer; and her relationships with her grandmother, husband, dog, etc.  Patchett has led a fascinating and unusual life, yet she comes across as a very ordinary person.   * * * *

To Know as We Are Known:  A Spirituality of Education (Parker Palmer) focuses on how education has become impersonal and objectified and on the need for the classroom to be a safe place to explore truth in community.  Too abstract and (ironically) impersonal for my taste at times, but thought-provoking; a good book for discussion. * *

What Matters in Jane Austen?  Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (John Mullan) - The title's a little misleading; these aren't really puzzles but short essays on interesting themes in Jane Austen's books, such as "Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?"   This book can be read for sheer enjoyment or for a deeper exploration of Austen's writing techniques.   
 * * * *

Why We Write (Meredith Maran, ed.) - Interviews with 20 successful writers (including Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, and Mary Karr) about their writing techniques, habits, failures, and triumphs.  Informative and inspiring.  * * *

I'd love to hear if you've read any of these books and what you thought of them -- or if you've read other good ones in 2014 that you'd recommend!


(I'm also linking up this post with Modern Mrs. Darcy's "My Favourite Books of 2014" post.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Our 2014 Christmas letter

(photo taken in June 2014 at the 80th birthday party for Richard's mom, Audrey)

Best wishes for a blessed Christmas and New Year
from the Prinsen family

Our annual Christmas letter comes to you in virtual form this year.  Because of a combination of life circumstances and ever-rising postage costs, I sent out only a handful of Christmas cards -- yet still wanted to send greetings to everyone and give a brief update on what has been happening with our family in 2014.

It has been a difficult year for us in many ways.  The year began with Richard's brother Doug having major surgery for colon cancer, followed by six months of chemotherapy.  He has made a good recovery, and we're all very thankful.

On Easter weekend our family went to PEI to spend a week with my parents.  We don't normally travel there in the spring, but we had a sense that it was important to see my mom and dad more frequently than just once a year.  That inner prompting seems so significant now, because when we went again to PEI in August for our usual summer vacation, my mom was feeling very unwell and had to be admitted to the hospital.  After extensive testing she was found to have stage 4 liver cancer.  She spent four weeks in hospital and came home to her and Dad's new apartment for a couple of weeks before her death on September 28.  (I've written in more depth about all this in several other blog posts -- see Oct. 13, Oct. 20, Oct. 30, and Nov. 24 -- so I won't repeat all of those details here.)

As you can imagine, I've been reflecting a lot on how quickly our lives can change and how important it is to prioritize family and other significant relationships.  It's also important to make and cherish good memories when we can.  And sometimes those memories will be of things we didn't consider especially significant at the time.  My best, last memory of my mom when she was well comes from our April trip:  she and Allison and I went to see the musical "Happy Days" performed at my former high school, and all three of us laughed from start to finish.  It was a great evening, and a special moment preserved in time.

As Christmas comes closer, I feel the absence of my mom more strongly.  Although we usually didn't see each other at Christmas, we would chat on the phone about gifts and plans.  Last Sunday Richard and Allison and I went to the Barra MacNeils' Christmas show here in Kingston, and I thought how much my mom would have loved such a concert.  I said to a friend, "She'd have been in heaven!" and my friend said wryly, "Well ... she is."  And we talked about how maybe those who are in the presence of God don't have the space/time limitations we have here on earth -- that maybe Mom was there enjoying the music right along with us.  How the tears would have filled her eyes (as they did mine) when the group sang 

"For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne, 
we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne."

There were some highlights to our year, too, however.  Even in the midst of my mom's illness in August, I was able to attend a reunion weekend for the New Christian Singers, a musical group I was part of when I was in my teens.  We had a social and sharing evening, and it was so uplifting -- especially given what our family was going through -- to hear people talk about God's faithfulness in their lives over the past 30-40 years.  We also performed three concerts (I sang in two), and the tears and laughter flowed as we sang old familiar songs together and met past friends and acquaintances.

Still on the musical theme -- but in sharp contrast -- Allison and I went to the Rogers Centre in Toronto this summer to see the British singing group One Direction.  We went with Allison's friend Alex and her mom Juliann, who obtained the tickets for us.  It was quite an experience to hear 50,000 girls screaming when the boys took the stage.  What a blast!

As for what's going on with each of us individually:

Richard continues to work at Kingston General as a nurse and at Queen's University as a clinical nursing instructor.  He still runs regularly, plays soccer, softball, and squash, and volunteers with the Run & Read program and at Circle of Friends at our former church.  He was such an amazing support during my mom's illness, taking over with the kids while we were in PEI in August and also making it possible for me to go down for a week on my own just before Mom died.  I appreciate him so much.

I'm still working as an online writing instructor at Queen's, doing some blogging and creative writing (although that's taken a bit of a back seat this summer and fall), and participating in two women's studies at church, a writing group, and a book study group.

Richard and I also both celebrated our 50th birthdays this year, which I wrote about here and here.

Allison is in grade 11 and having a good year.  She is in concert band, and we love hearing her play her clarinet and seeing how much she's progressed in the last couple of years.  (Last week was the school's Evening of the Arts and Allison performed with her band as well as being one of the MC's for the evening.)  She continues to do a lot of reading and writing, attends a social club and church youth group, and volunteers weekly with Richard at the Run & Read program.

Jonathan is in grade 7 and enjoying school with the support of his awesome E.A., Joe O'Connor ("Mr. O").  Although Jonathan still enjoys many of the same pursuits he always has, such as jigsaw puzzles, DVD's, and "yellow-blue-red" (see photo), he is becoming more independent and showing more pre-teen tendencies.  He can be a challenge at times but he is also very loving, and his enjoyment of simple pleasures reminds us to take time to enjoy life too.

May your Christmas or other holiday celebrations be full of joy and wonder, 
and may 2015 be your best year yet.  
Love and best wishes,
Jeannie, Richard, Allison and Jonathan


Monday, December 15, 2014

December "Quick Lit"




Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's "Quick Lit" (formerly "Twitterature") post, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.




Pastrix:  The Cranky, Beautiful Faith
of a Sinner and Saint
  Nadia Bolz-Weber
 I really enjoyed this moving and funny memoir.  In her youth, Bolz-Weber rejected her fundamentalist faith, becoming an alcoholic and stand-up comedian.  After God interrupted her life, she entered recovery; when a fellow AA member died, her status as the only religious person in the group made her the default person to conduct the funeral -- and she soon felt called to be "a pastor to her people."  She now leads a church in Denver called The Church of All Saints and Sinners.  In this book Bolz-Weber describes the stages in her journey and the way God meets her and continues to change her through her ministry experiences.   (Warning:  language.)

******


Road Ends 
 Mary Lawson
I loved Lawson's first book, Crow Lake, and liked her second, The Other Side of the Bridge, but found this one only OK.  The book alternates between the perspectives of three members of the Cartwright family in small-town Ontario:  father Edward, who is haunted by his past and overwhelmed by his present; son Tom, who is stuck in grief over a friend's death; and daughter Megan, who escapes the responsibilities of home by fleeing to England.  Their individual subplots are sort of interesting, but for me they never really come together to create one strong story line.
******

Currently reading:  Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth.  I've been enjoying the BBC series by the same name, about midwives in the London dockyards in the 1950's, so I thought I'd read the memoir on which it is based.

On Dec. 31 I'll post my complete reading list from 2014.  (If you're interested, check out my previous lists from 20132012, 2011, and 2010.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

"Airport" post is over at Laura Droege's blog today

My recent post "Airport parable" is being reblogged over at Laura Droege's blog today.  I appreciate all of Laura's thoughtful and honest writing and would encourage you to check out some of her posts and see for yourself.

(Thanks, Laura!)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Airport parable


On Sunday, September 28, I arrived at Charlottetown airport at 4:45 a.m. to catch my 6:00 a.m. flight to Montreal.  I had probably slept for no more than fifteen minutes total the previous night:  a combination of flying anxiety, worry about oversleeping through my alarm, and sadness had contributed to my sleeplessness.  

I had said goodbye to my mom just a short time before.  Dad and I sat by her bed for a few minutes, and then I had to wake her and tell her I was leaving.  She tried to speak to me, but couldn't articulate any words.  It didn't matter.  I will never forget those moments.  I knew this was the last time I would see her on this side of eternity, though I didn't know that she would die only 18 hours later. 

My brother drove me to the airport.  I had naively thought there would be only a few passengers on such an early flight -- but instead the airport was hopping with activity (at least as hopping as Charlottetown Airport can be).  A flight for Toronto left just before ours, and then we boarded.  The plane was full; there were quite a few families with small children chatting about their destination in Guadalajara, Mexico.  

We took off, the cabin lights were dimmed so people could snooze, and quiet descended.  It was a clear, calm, starry morning.  Even at our maximum flying altitude I could see the lights on the ground below.  I stared down at the sparkling patterns, letting my mind wander -- and wonder:  was I was the only person on the plane who had just parted from a loved one for the last time on this earth?

We touched down in Montreal after a perfectly smooth flight -- a welcome contrast to my flight to Charlottetown a week earlier, which had had a rough descent.  We deplaned, disembarked, or got off, depending on what terminology you prefer, and started the long hike from our gate, following the "Connections" and "Baggage" signs.  I avoided the moving sidewalk and chose the aisle between the two sidewalks, just for the sake of a little exercise.  People flooded past me on both sides.

We all converged at the bottom of a staircase and when we climbed to the top, a "Baggage" sign directed us straight ahead, and "Connections" went off to the left.  I had one suitcase to pick up, so I walked through the automatic doors toward the Baggage area.

Suddenly I was alone.

Yes, it was 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday -- but still.  Everyone else was gone.  Was I the only person on my flight not making a connection or heading straight to the exit?

I walked over to the luggage carousel corresponding to my flight.  The screen said bags would be out in 15 minutes.  So I did what any good Canadian would do at 7:00 in the morning:  I went to Tim Hortons and bought myself a coffee.  After drinking it, I wandered back to the baggage area.  A woman sat on a bench some distance away, texting on her phone; a couple of businessman types stood chatting by a counter.  I hoped I hadn't made some mistake about where I was supposed to pick up my bag.

Then the carousel belt started moving, and out came ... 

my suitcase.

Was I the only person who had checked a suitcase through for that flight?

I had decorated my suitcase with two yellow ribbons to make sure it wouldn't get mixed up with all of the other black luggage -- but apparently I needn't have worried.  I grabbed it (looking around a little self-consciously) and headed back to the main airport concourse, where the bustle and activity of the day had already begun.  I was going home, and the sorrow of what I was leaving behind was already becoming mixed with anticipation for seeing Richard and the kids again.


****
In the last eight weeks, three people I know have died.  Of course, my dear mom died on the 28th of September, having been diagnosed with cancer just six weeks earlier.  Then a close friend of Mom and Dad's, whose family I've known all my life, had a massive stroke in late October and died a few days later.  A week ago my sister-in-law's mom, a wonderful woman, died after a three-year battle against cancer.  So I've been thinking a lot lately about the mystery that death is, yet I don't feel I understand it any better than before I was brought so close to it.  No one escapes death, but everyone's path is different:  some people have time to prepare themselves and their loved ones, while for others it is so sudden and unforeseen.  

Yet right now I'm imagining that death is a bit like that experience I had in the airport.  We're moving along through life, surrounded by other people -- family, friends, strangers -- and then all at once we're redirected.  As if a voice says, "Everyone else is going that way ... but actually, you're coming this way."  We look around, watching the crowd disappear in a different direction, and we feel so alone.  The voice speaking to us is a gentle one, though, accompanied by a guiding hand on the elbow to let us know that it's going to be OK -- and that we won't be going on alone.  I find it comforting to think that God is with us every moment of the journey and at our destination.  

For all three of those women, God was the destination.  Now they know what the rest of us who remain on earth can only imagine with our finite minds.  I Corinthians 2:9 says that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”  So I know my imagined picture of the process is a poor substitute for the unimaginable reality.  But for now I'll draw hope and reassurance from these mundane sketches.

 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

November "Twitterature"

 
Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly "Twitterature" post, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.



This month I read two books by Brene Brown:  

- The Gifts of Imperfection:  Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are  

- Daring Greatly:  How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, And Lead
I was pleased to hear our pastor quote from Daring Greatly twice in the last month.  Although Brown's books are not  from an overtly Christian perspective, they have a strong spiritual element.  Brown is a shame researcher, and in both of these books she discusses the things that keep us from living wholeheartedly -- such as feelings of shame, fear, scarcity, and unworthiness.  Daring Greatly is the newer of the two and is the one I've seen mentioned in many recent "Twitteratures"; it focuses particularly on how practicing vulnerability can help us live more courageous, authentic lives.  I liked both books very much, though I found Daring Greatly's tone a little over-the-top at times:  some of her expressions seem cutesy (such as "Gremlin Ninja Warrior Training" to combat shame), and her frequent references to "my dear friend [name famous writer/researcher here]" start to wear a bit thin.  I suppose this is mainly a function of her excitement about her work, and in any case it's a minor criticism.  Both books are very powerful and practical, and I had many "Been there, felt that" moments as I read them.


I also read Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  This novel follows her books Gilead (in which elderly minister John Ames reflects on his life, his relationship with God, and his legacy to his young son) and Home (which is about Ames' friend Robert Boughton, Boughton's daughter Glory who comes home to care for him in his old age, and his prodigal son Jack).  Lila is the story of Ames' wife, an orphan who has lived a life of loneliness and destitution before wandering into Ames' church and hearing him preach.  She marries him, but learning to trust him -- and his God -- is a slow process.  This is a beautifully written and very moving book that reflects on themes of God's grace and the eternal destiny of those we love. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

House and home

The other night at my writers' group, we did an exercise where we had to write for ten minutes; whatever we wrote had to include four words that were written on a piece of paper.  The four words we got this time were

car, yellow, promise, farmhouse

I thought I'd share what I wrote.  (Keep in mind it was unedited and spontaneous.)

********

I spent the last week of Mom's life at the apartment with her and Dad.  On the Thursday I took Dad's car and went over to the farmhouse to pick up a few things.  Mom wanted to be buried in the blue and white dress she'd got for their 40th anniversary party, so I went upstairs to the wardrobe to get it.  I also got panty hose and underwear from a drawer and took a pair of slingback shoes out of the closet.  I didn't know if they would put shoes on Mom in the casket but I thought we should be prepared.

I wandered through the house, which looked, as my brother had warned, like a bomb had gone off.  I looked at the odd rectangles of yellowed wallpaper where pictures had been removed from the wall.  I looked into the bedroom where, just 6 weeks before, Rich and I and Jonathan had slept, with Mom sick down the hall and no one knowing just how sick she was.  My other brother had said, "It's a house, but it's not a home."  He was right.  The rooms seemed desolate, with no more promise of warmth and laughter within their walls.

I went outside, where it was sunny and much warmer than inside.  I was glad to drive away.  I'd gotten what I was looking for -- Mom's dress, Dad's suit, a few odds and ends -- at that moment there was no reason to stay.


photo by Alycia Adams-MacEachern - October 2, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

A time to laugh

In our bathroom we have a wall-hanging with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 on it:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,

 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak

,a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

I love this passage; almost every time I glance at the wall-hanging I spend a moment thinking about some particular phrase in it.  In fact, I've been pondering the idea of doing a blog series about it ... someday.  (I suppose if there is a time for everything, then that time will come.)

But the part that has struck me the most in the last while is this pairing:

A time to weep, and a time to laugh.

When I look back at the past three months from the time of my mom's illness to her death and afterward, I remember so many laugh-out-loud moments.

The day we took Mom to the hospital and she was admitted, Dad and I were helping her into the van.  She was very weak, but as she climbed in, she said, "Well, they'll be able to tell we're from the country:  we're all wearing plaid."  And we were!  It was not at all unusual for my mom and dad both to be wearing plaid, as this photo attests -- but I was, too. 


In the early days after she was hospitalized, Mom was very confused.  She had high calcium in her blood, and was being given fluids and IV meds to bring it down.  During that time she said some very strange things.  Of course if someone were in a chronic state of hallucination and confusion due to mental illness or dementia, it could be terrible for that person and his or her loved ones; I don't want to make light of that.  But there were many times when we couldn't help laughing.  Mom kept talking about letters -- "how the D's and the F's were all coming in waves" -- and at one point she looked right at me and said, "And I just didn't know how to interpret that!"  She said once (and keep in mind this was August), "It must be snowy out there; they put these green leggings on me.  Well, my legs always were my best feature."  She pointed at one of my brothers and said, "He's the sign of the promised land, you know."  And when my cousin, who had lost her hair due to chemotherapy and was wearing a knitted hat, came in to the hospital to visit, Mom looked at her for a while and then said, "What does she do with that hat?"  ("Uh -- wear it," my cousin laughed.)

When Mom was more back to herself mentally and helping -- from her hospital bed -- to direct the packing for Dad's move to the apartment, she told one of my brothers that she really should be at the house herself to make those decisions.  "After all," she said, "It was my kingdom."

A day or two before her death, Dad told Mom that she was the best woman he'd ever met.  Her response:  "You haven't met many women."

I'm glad that sentence is there in the Ecclesiastes passage, telling us that there is a time when it's good and right to laugh.  But I'm sure the writer isn't talking about malicious laughter at others' expense or cheap laughter at vulgar things (sitcoms come to mind). Rather, the moments of laughter that I've described seemed to happen when we were living intensely and deeply at the heart of life, not just skimming the surface of existence.  I've never had that experience before of spending hours and days at a person's bedside, watching for signs, counting breaths.  These times were accompanied by so many feelings:  sorrow, exhaustion, gratitude, hope, fear ... and laughter.  I look back and think, "We really lived during that time."

There was weeping, too.  But right now, I'm remembering the laughter.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October "Twitterature": hilarious and unputdownable



Today I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy again for her monthly "Twitterature" linkup; that's where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

I read two books this month that I'd highly recommend:


Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton.  Melton is best known for her Momastery website and blog where she strives to live life openly and unashamedly.  In her words, "My job is to wake up every day, say yes to life’s invitation, and let millions of women watch me get up off the floor, walk, stumble, and get back up again."  This book is a compilation of essays and posts about her addictive (or as she puts it, "festive") past and her struggles with parenting, marriage, and faith.  This is a woman who puts a bag on her head during her kids' tantrums, endures her child yelling "Mommy, you smell like a bar!" at the dentist's office (she meant candy bar, honest), and faces the unfair truth that laundry must be moved from washer to dryer well before a week has elapsed.  Hilarious and endearing, with a lot of wisdom. 


 The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  A young woman named Edie goes to Milderhurst Castle to visit the reclusive elderly Blythe sisters and find out more about her mother's experience boarding there as a child during WWII.  The secrets she unravels -- about the youngest sister's long-lost fiance, Mr. Blythe's mysterious writings, and her own mother's surprising past, just to name a few -- keep the reader turning the pages ... and this book has a lot of pages!  I've only read one other novel by Morton, The Forgotten Garden; that was good, but this one was greatIt's the kind of book the word "unputdownable" was made for.  

What have you been reading this month?  What's the most "unputdownable" book you've ever read?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Giving thanks through it all

Thanksgiving feels different this year.

Since I last posted in this blog, life has changed forever for our family.  My mom, Meredith MacEachern, died on September 28 after being sick for about two months.  


When we arrived in PEI in early August for our usual summer visit, Mom was not well.  She described it as a kind of physical and mental collapse all at the same time:  she was lethargic, sleepy, emotionally blah, and lacking in appetite; she had gastrointestinal issues and a gross phlegmy taste in her mouth that actually bothered her more than almost all the other things she was feeling.

At first we hoped it might just be a minor problem:  a virus or infection, maybe, or stress over apartment-hunting and the prospect of her and Dad moving off the farm -- something that time or antibiotics or a change in circumstances would alleviate.  But day after day she got worse until she was sleeping 20 hours a day and eating almost nothing.  Because Mom's own doctor was on vacation, we took her to the Emergency department twice; the second time, August 16, she was admitted to hospital where she would spend the next four weeks.  Soon after her admission, blood work revealed that she had high calcium levels in her blood, which had been the likely cause of all her symptoms and which the doctor told us could very well be an indicator of cancer -- and a CAT scan soon revealed that Mom had stage 4 liver cancer, inoperable and incurable.

 During the last couple of weeks of Mom's hospitalization, she rallied somewhat, as treatment with fluids and meds brought the calcium down and revived her appetite.  In early September she was strong enough to get around with a walker and was able to move home to her and Dad's new apartment and have some brief quality time there.  But her condition quickly started regressing, and the night of Sept. 28 -- about 18 hours after I'd said goodbye to her before flying home -- she died while asleep in bed with Dad.

There are many more details I could include, and probably will in future posts, as I reflect more on all that has happened.  The paragraphs above certainly don't do justice to all we saw and heard and did and felt since August.  But today I will just share a few things for which I'm grateful:

- Mom never experienced any physical pain or, it seemed, much mental suffering either.  She was peaceful through everything.  She went "gentle into that good night"; not everyone does.
- There was enough time for her and Dad to discuss the future, prepare themselves as much as possible for what was coming, even settle funeral details.
- The doctors, nurses, and other medical staff we met through the hospital and Home Care and Palliative Care programs were uniformly helpful, kind, supportive, and professional.
- Church friends, family, and neighbours (even people in Dad and Mom's apartment building who had only known them for a week or two) showered us with care, concern, and practical help.
- My brothers (I have 4) and I all had our own periods of quality time with Mom and Dad and were able to be present at important parts of the journey:  I was there for the early crisis time when Mom was hospitalized and then for her final week of life; in a six-week period one brother made four trips from Maine to PEI to provide support at key times; another orchestrated the move from the farm to the apartment; another was there for Mom's discharge from hospital and early days at home; etc.
- From my dad, brothers, and other people I witnessed love in action: love that costs and requires sacrifice, not just nice-sounding words.

Especially in these early days, it's comforting to draw on memories that are suffused with gratitude and grace, rather than riddled with regrets.  There will undoubtedly be other stages to come -- but for now I feel thankful for how we were given strength and spirit to get through this time.


Mom photo:  Richard Prinsen 2012
tree photo:  freeimages.co.uk