Friday, December 31, 2010

a reading list from 2010

I thought I'd list some of the books I read in 2010. When compiling this list I was surprised to see just how much nonfiction I'd read.


Small Beneath the Sky (Lorna Crozier) - This is poet Lorna Crozier's memoir of growing up on the Canadian prairies.

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott) - Just one of many books on writing that I read in 2010. Most were okay, some were good, but this one stands out. Lamott, who has written several novels as well as nonfiction books about her faith journey, is really funny and nutty but very insightful about the writing process.

Escaping into the Open (Elizabeth Berg) - Also on writing, by a very popular and prolific novelist. It's been said that there are two kinds of writers: those who love to write and those who hate to write. Berg is definitely in the former group; her joy in writing is the antithesis of Anne Lamott's neurotic angst. I like Berg's novels, which I find similar to Anne Tyler's but a little "lighter." Escaping details how she became a writer and gives lots of good advice and encouragement about writing and publishing.

Hamlet's BlackBerry (William Powers) - This book's thesis is that in our overly connected world we need regular opportunities to disconnect. Powers looks at various writers and thinkers from the past (from Socrates to Shakespeare to Marshall McLuhan) to show how we can incorporate those times of "disconnectedness" into our lives and how they can help us live more deeply and meaningfully.

The First Man in My Life (ed. Sandra Martin) - This is a book of essays by famous and less famous women (Pamela Wallin, Christie Blatchford, and Camilla Gibb are just a few of those included), telling about their relationships with their fathers.

After Tehran: Reclaiming a Life (Marina Nemat) - Nemat, who is now a Canadian citizen, was imprisoned in Iran for two years as a teenager. This book tells of the years after her imprisonment and how writing her first book, Prisoner of Tehran, helped her deal with the past and offered her opportunities to speak out against torture and persecution. (By the way, Nemat also has an essay in the aforementioned The First Man in My Life.)

The Art of Possibility (Benjamin and Rosamund Zander) - This inspiring book encourages us to reframe the situations in our lives so that we see the possibilities in life rather than just the limitations.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Henri Nouwen) - We studied this book in our Bethel Church women's group this fall. In it, Nouwen explores Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son, focusing on the three main characters (younger son, elder son, and father) and how he sees himself as like each of them in certain ways.


The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb) - It's a little difficult to describe this novel in one sentence, but essentially it is about a Columbine High School teacher, Caelum Quirk, who is faced with many crises including the trauma experienced by his wife, a school nurse who is present during the Columbine massacre.

Good to a Fault (Marina Endicott) - This book starts with a car accident between Clara, a middle-aged single woman, and a poor family who are living in their car. When the mother of the family has to be hospitalized, Clara takes the rest of the family in to her home, changing her life forever.

Blue Shoe (Anne Lamott) - The lovable main character, Mattie, deals with divorce, raises her kids, chases someone else's husband, looks after her mom who has dementia, explores her relationship with her father, and periodically checks in with God to make sure He still loves her. (Busy, busy, busy!)

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini) - This beautiful but very tough book by the author of The Kite Runner is about two women in Afghanistan whose lives are brought together through strange circumstances and whose relationship sustains them through the horrors of domestic abuse, political upheaval, and war.

I would recommend any of these books as worthwhile reads.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Birthday cakes are a big deal in our family. Whenever we get together with the Prinsens and someone's birthday is even close to the date, we celebrate with a DQ ice cream cake. For Jonathan, birthdays mean cake, candles, the camera, and that special song.

A couple of days before Christmas, our neighbours Bill & Karen gave us the leftover half of a huge chocolate Christmas cake: they'd bought it for their get-together with their kids and grandkids but couldn't finish it. It was decorated with snowy evergreen trees and topped with a plastic Santa sleigh and reindeer, and had bright red icing piped around the edge.

On Christmas night Rich was working, so Allison and Jonathan and I had our Christmas dinner together. We had leftover turkey and potatoes from our big family meal the day before. And dessert was the chocolate cake -- actually, only about a third of the half-cake we'd been given! Jonathan insisted on candles and led us in the singing of "Happy Birthday to Jesus." And of course we had to take a picture. It was a really delicious cake, and the best part is, there's more in the freezer. Sweet.

We got lots of gifts for Christmas but it occurred to me, did we give Jesus a birthday present? I mean, what do you give a God who has everything (as the song goes)?

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
- from "In the Bleak Mid-Winter" by Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

a Christmas story

For the last two years I've written a Christmas story for the women's group I attend at Bethel Church. This fall we studied a book by Henri Nouwen entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son, so I thought I would try to combine the prodigal theme with the Christmas theme and see what came of it. I hope you enjoy it.

Note: please do not distribute without author permission.

The Two Jewels
Jeannie Prinsen - December 2010

It was almost Christmas, and in the little village on the mountainside, snow had long since covered the ground. The narrow streets were crisscrossed with the footprints of villagers hurrying here and there, busy with their Christmas preparations.

In a small house at the far end of the narrowest street lived the old woman and her daughter. The villagers rarely saw the old woman venture forth from her house, especially these cold winter days. When they did catch a glimpse of her, she always had a gray shawl pulled tightly around her shoulders and head to ward off the gusts of wind and swirling snow. Beneath the shawl her wrinkled red cheeks looked like dried apples, but her blue eyes still had the sparkle of youth. The old woman was snug and comfortable in her little house with her faithful daughter, who went out daily to carry in wood and buy milk and eggs in the market place.

But as most of the villagers knew, the old woman’s life had been hard and sorrowful. Many years ago her husband had died of a terrible fever, leaving her alone with their two young girls. On the night of his death he had told his daughters always to be faithful to their mother, and they had looked at him with tear-filled eyes and promised to do what he had asked.

The elder daughter was serious and steady, but the younger had a restless spirit. And one day, years after the death of their father, she told her mother and sister that she wanted to go to the city at the bottom of the mountain. Her mother had never been to that place and could not understand the young girl’s wish to leave their cosy village, where everyone was a friend and everything one needed was close at hand. But her younger daughter’s desire for freedom was stronger than any yearning for the security of home.

The girl asked her mother for money to make her journey, and her mother replied that she had none to spare. “Come with me,” she said to the two girls, and they followed her into her small bedroom. From a drawer she took a little wooden box and opened it to reveal a gold ring and a pendant necklace, each with a clear, glittering jewel set in it. These had been a gift to her from her husband in his youth and were her only possessions of any material value. She took the ring and gave it to her younger daughter, saying, “This is yours.” The girl’s eyes lit up at the beauty of the jewel; she put the ring on her finger and looked at it admiringly.

Then the mother held up the pendant and said to her elder daughter, “And this is yours.” But the elder daughter was angry at her sister for wanting to leave, and at her mother for not admonishing the younger girl. So she turned her face away, and her mother put the necklace back in the wooden box.

The younger daughter left the village that night, and to the old woman’s great sorrow, she never returned. No one knew for certain what had happened to her. What was known for sure was that the old woman never went down the mountain to seek her daughter in the city, and now it was believed that, at her great age, she never would. Some speculated that the younger daughter had sold the ring to buy passage to a distant land. Others believed she had lost it and died, penniless and proud, on the city streets.

But these were only thoughts, not knowledge. And while thoughts alone can keep a village talking for a long time, as the years went by the younger daughter’s absence passed from the general conversation, and the villagers saw the old woman many times from one end of the year to the other without even thinking of it. Or if they did recall it, they immediately thought, “But she still has her elder daughter, and she is such a comfort to her mother.” So the old woman’s sorrow became a small matter, a trifling grief.

But to the old woman, the longing for her younger daughter’s return remained as fresh and strong as it had been all those years ago. She would still place a third plate on the table and say, “In case she returns today,” or put a vase of fresh flowers in the empty bedroom, “in case she returns today.”

As the elder daughter watched her mother do these things, an anger like bitter frost hardened her heart: anger because her sister had left home for good – breaking her promise to their father – and anger because her mother still longed for the faithless one’s return. So the elder daughter resented both her sister and her mother, yet she never spoke aloud the truth of how she felt. She just said, “She will hardly return now after so many years.” Her mother always replied, “In my mind your words are true, but in my heart...” and tears made her sparkling eyes glitter all the more brightly.

Each Christmas time, the elder daughter’s bitterness became more stubborn and chill. She watched each year as her mother lit a candle and placed it on the window ledge, so that its soft light radiated out into the night.

“Are you lighting the candle again?” the elder daughter asked.

“Yes, in case she returns this Christmas,” the old woman said.

But each Christmas was the same: the younger daughter never returned, and the old woman removed the candle from its place with a sorrowful look that the elder daughter resented. Each Christmas was the same in another way, too: the old woman would say to her elder daughter, “Remember that necklace I gave you...” But the elder daughter never replied. The necklace with its gleaming jewel reminded her of her sister’s broken promise and their mother’s misplaced love for the wayward girl; and because these things offended her, she refused to wear it. So she pretended not to hear her mother’s words, and she did not notice that this also brought a look of sorrow to the old woman’s face.

This Christmas Eve was cold, and the darkness seemed to close in earlier than usual. The old woman minded the chill especially this night, and her daughter worked harder than ever to warm the kitchen and prepare a good meal for her mother and herself. After supper the old woman took to her bed early, for a cough had come upon her and she appeared weaker and frailer than her daughter had ever seen her. She seemed distressed, so her daughter went to her bedside and took her hand, for she knew that was the right thing to do – even though her heart was not in the hand that pressed her mother’s or in the words she spoke: “What is the matter?”

“I miss my dear girl,” the old woman said.

The elder daughter’s anger rose inside her. It was always the same thing: her mother still yearned for the one who had left, sparing no thought for the one who remained at her side. “She will hardly return now after so many years,” she said, taking familiar pleasure in the words of discouragement.

The old woman hesitated, then said, just as she always did, “In my mind your words are true, but in my heart...”

Then the elder daughter’s pent-up bitterness flooded forth. “Your heart!” she cried. “Your heart longs only for my sister, who has broken her promise and abandoned you forever. I have stayed with you faithfully all these years, yet you still love her and long to welcome her home with open arms. This should not be!” These words, never before spoken aloud, seemed to hang in the cold air of the bedroom like icicles. Then the elder daughter left her mother’s side before the old woman could speak.

She lay down on her own bed and tried to sleep: at first her churning feelings would not let her, but as the night wore on, at last she drifted into a restless slumber. And as sleep overtook her, she dreamed a dream that was as real as the waking world. In it, her mother came and stood over her and said, “At last truth meets truth! You are my blessing ... my comfort ... my faithful daughter. My every small possession, my very self, is yours. Do not doubt my love.”

Then the vision faded, and the daughter awoke. Immediately she felt an unaccustomed warmth, like a single ember, inside her where icy bitterness and resentment had lodged for so long. She lit a candle and crept to her mother’s bedside, wondering if perhaps she had not dreamed at all – that her mother had really come to her in the night and spoken those words. But the old woman lay asleep, her breathing shallow and interrupted by coughs.

Led by an impulse she could not explain, the elder daughter went to the drawer and took the necklace from the wooden box. Although the room was cold, the chain felt warm in her hand. She fastened the necklace around her neck and let the sparkling jewel lie against her breast.

Instantly the old woman awoke and sat up, and in the dim candlelight her face glowed with rapture. “At last!” she cried. “So many, many times I offered you that necklace and hoped you would take it and wear it and accept it as my gift. But it was always an offense to you.”

“Because I thought you loved her more,” said the elder daughter. “Because I thought your heart was set only on her return.”

“My faithful girl,” her mother said, “you know only half of my heart. My heart is set on both you and your sister. It loves both the far and the near, the one who has gone and the one who stays. Your sister’s leaving was a great sorrow to me, but your remaining is my great joy.” Then the cold anger in the elder daughter’s heart melted away at last. She embraced her mother, and they both wept.

It was now past midnight. Christmas had come. The old woman and her elder daughter went to the window and peered out into the darkness. They placed the candle on the ledge, but immediately it sputtered out. Yet there was still light in the room, for the jewel in the necklace, lying against the elder daughter’s breast, glowed with a warm light of its own.

Then, as they stared out into the night, they thought they saw another small light moving on the mountainside below them. It disappeared from view and they thought it had only been their imagining – until it reappeared moments later, a little brighter, a little closer. The old woman and her elder daughter stood there in hope and disbelief, wondering: could this be the other jewel, at last drawn home by the power of love, and truth, and forgiveness? Finally there was no doubt. The other jewel came home, and with it came its wearer, the younger daughter.

The villagers did not see the reunion of the old woman and her two daughters. They never heard the words of love and regret spoken among the three; they never heard the younger daughter tell of the hardships she had endured or the mysterious longing for home that had come over her that night and guided her footsteps up the mountain. But what they did hear was a voice, clear as a church bell, awakening the sleepy, snow-covered village the next morning. The old woman came outdoors, her face as red as dried apples and her blue eyes radiant with happiness. “Rejoice with me!” she called out to her neighbours. “My great sorrow has ended, and my joy is complete. Rejoice with me, my friends!”

And the celebration in the mountainside village lasted all day and again into the night, and forever.


Monday, December 13, 2010

empty nest??

This past weekend Rich and I had the unusual experience of spending the night alone in our own house! Instead of having a Christmas banquet like last year, Bethel Church organized Christmas potluck meals in people's homes. We decided to sign up for one, but we didn't know where we'd be going or how late we'd be home; so we asked Doug & Caroline (Rich's brother & sister-in-law in Napanee) if the kids could spend the night there. So on Saturday afternoon we took them out there and they had a great time with their aunt and uncle and cousins.

We were invited to the home of a couple we don't know well, Dave and Monica Stewart. Including the hosts there were 12 people for dinner, ranging from a first-year student at Queen's to a man in his 90's. The older gentleman has a talent we didn't know about: he makes pies. AMAZING pies. His contribution to the potluck was in fact four pies: two apple, one cherry, and one pecan. (For twelve people.) And I'm not talking about dumping canned pie filling into premade crusts; you just had to take one look at the pie to know that it was made by an expert baker. So all in all we had a very delicious meal and got acquainted with some people we didn't know. It was a very nice, relaxing evening.

After Rich & I got home we had a glass of wine, watched the end of the hockey game, and went to bed. (Yeah, when the kids are gone we really go nuts, don't we?) But the strangest part was getting up in the morning and going to church without the kids. We went to the gym after the service and drank coffee and actually talked to people -- imagine!

It was great to see the kids when they got home later that morning. They'd had a great visit. It's wonderful to have family in the area and to know that our kids have so many people who love them.

key to the reading room

Jonathan has been working very hard at school this fall, and in the last few weeks has achieved a huge milestone: he is starting to read. Last week his EA, "Mr. O," sent home a list of about 20 words Jonathan can consistently read. It was an amazing moment when I put some of the words into sentences and he read aloud, "I like to play ball. I see the cat and the dog." Then later he picked up a puzzle piece with words on it and named the word "the" (although he can't say his "th" sounds very well, so it came out more like "vuh" -- but he definitely knew it!). It's pretty exciting because while Jonathan's pace of learning is very slow, with time and repetition he does get it. It's like he's found the key to a room he couldn't get into before, and now he can.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Why? Because it's Christmas of course!

OK, that is EXTREMELY red, isn't it? Apologies to those who hate reading white script on dark background -- I might change it back after the festive season if enough people complain. :-)

Today is our first really snowy day here, and I'm spending a quiet morning writing Christmas cards. That may seem kind of passe but it's a tradition I hate to give up. Even if that's the only time we're in contact with someone from one end of the year to the next, I love having that little bit of contact. And of course we love getting cards, so sending them increases the chance of receiving them!

I'm enjoying not feeling the pressure to write 1667 words a day -- that gets to you after a while. Last night I re-read my (ahem) "novel", Paige Turner: Reluctant Writer, and groaned a bit over the inconsistencies, gaps, and long boring passages. But there are many aspects of it that I really like, so I plan to take it apart and try to fix the problems over the next few weeks and months -- just see what comes of it. Basically it is about a 12-year-old girl whose dad is a famous writer and who feels pressured to become a writer too -- but she is reluctant to do so for various reasons. She eventually takes "The Vow of the Blank Paige," refusing to write anything at all. This gets her into some scrapes at school and at home, and she's eventually forced to choose between her vow and what she knows is right.

I really don't know what I will actually do with this piece once I've tried to fix it up. There are thousands of "tween" books out there, as I can attest from the huge piles of books Allison brings home from the library each week -- so I don't know if publication is even a remote possibility. But just the process of writing and editing it and trying to make a character come alive on the page is a worthwhile exercise. And Allison is a great first reader: she remembers details very well and she has a good sense of what is funny and interesting from a kid's perspective.

Speaking of Allison, right now she's studying Romeo & Juliet. One interesting thing the Challenge class does each year is put on a Shakespeare play, and that's the one they'll be performing sometime in the new year. She's learning a lot of interesting new things so it has been a great experience for her to be part of this program. She has to do a project called Challenge for Change in which students (individually or in groups) develop inventions, do community initiatives, or create artistic works that can help make the world a better place. Allison is not really sure what she should do for this project; I suggested she use her excellent writing skills -- perhaps write her own "Choose Your Own Adventure" book about some issue that interests her. Her face lit up at the suggestion so that's a good sign. I hope she takes this route because she is a very good writer.