This Beautiful Truth (A Book Review)

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On my wandering path of living outside the church, I find that I am eager to hear voices of imagination, clarity, and wisdom from within her walls. People who I can trust are attempting to live in an integral, albeit imperfect, way. People I admire for their creative gifts that shine just as brightly as those outside the fold. People who are not hiding their fire, their inner light, away for fear of offending the uptight and unimaginative within the fold.

Sarah Clarkson is one such example: a lovely voice of poetic, wild, imaginative, and artistic love for the world and for her Maker. Her new book, This Beautiful Truth, tells a tale that might seem surprising to followers of her blog and Instagram, to folks familiar with her exquisite portrayal of everyday life–the message of finding of beauty wherever one is.

In this book, she lays bare her soul and shares about her experience living with a rare form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since she was quite young. She shares how she has related to God through it all, the seasons of anger and railing against, of grief and despair, and the times and places where beauty shines its golden hope through the darkness.

Sarah weaves in stories from her childhood to the recent past, told in her own delightfully vivid style. She tells of how she met her now-husband Thomas in Oxford and how love grew between them. (As an Anglophile, anything in an English setting thrills my heart.)

I appreciated her honesty and the depth of suffering she was willing to share with her readers. The messaging isn’t “Become a Christian and everything in your life will get easier.” Rather, through the appreciation of beauty in art, music, drama, literature, nature, and other people, she experienced, over and over, “the goodness of God in the land of the living”. (Psalm 27:13)

She encourages us to cultivate a sense of wonder by creating, loving, discovering, and expressing beauty in our own way, in our own lives. To realize that the kingdom of heaven is here, inside of us, in our homes and in our hands, in the ordinary time and place in which we live. In each of our own stories we will receive grace and “beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning.” (Isaiah 61:3).

If this message appeals to you, if you’re a seeker, or a person of faith, I recommend Sarah’s book. I think it will be water to your soul.

Braiding Sweetgrass: A Book For All of Us

How is your September going so far? I am feeling that in-between sense of the weather saying “Summer is still here!” yet the fall schedule has returned or is about to begin.

I’m enrolled in three Ayurveda classes at Yoga Veda Institute this term: Clinical Assessment, Chikitsa (Therapy),and Herbology II. Plus a few yoga teacher training classes. They started last week, but then here in the U.S. we had the Labor Day holiday, so this week there are no classes. And it’s hot here right now–sunny and in the 80s F. Since my daughter hasn’t started back to school yet, I want to go outside, lay in the hammock with a cool drink and a stack of books.

Which brings me to a reading recommendation:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer might be my top pick for nonfiction this year. Although it was written back in 2013, this title didn’t find me until this year. Knowing that Elizabeth Gilbert was inspired to write The Signature of All Things after reading Kimmerer’s earlier book, Gathering Moss, made me want to read Braiding Sweetgrass, which Gilbert also recommends. It’s an exquisitely written blend of personal narrative, myth, legend, history, indigenous wisdom, and science.

I thought I would like it, but more in “should read” sort of way. I LOVED and ENJOYED every page. Whether she shares about pond life, swamps, mountains, moss, salamanders, or maple trees, Kimmerer’s rich storytelling sparkled and her connection to and love of plants and the planet are riveting.

She describes experiences of gently introducing her ecology students to the natural world. She relates how raising her daughters in Upstate New York makes her think of how the earth is a good mother. We learn about endangered Black Ash tree and the symbiotic relationship between the trees and indigenous basketweavers. She describes walking through wet, mossy cedar forests in the West, feeling the land loving us back in the garden harvest, and planting sweetgrass in places it used to grow.

What I appreciated was how she shared the earth-honoring values of the indigenous peoples who lived on Turtle Island long before white people did. The beauty of ceremony and ritual, the thoughtfulness of the traditions, and the deep respect and care for all of nature is a way of life we need to return to. So do yourself and nature a gigantic favor and please read Braiding Sweetgrass, unless you have already!

I’ll end with a favorite quote from the chapter “Asters and Goldenrod”:

“That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art–matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science–can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”

(p.47, Braiding Sweetgrass)

I hope you can read this book, and if you already have, please share about it in comments!

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The Art of Loading Brush (A Book Review)

Every time I finish reading something from Wendell Berry, his words and ideas tumble inside my head for weeks afterward. What a gift he is to us and how much the world needs to listen to what he says.

This is a man who has lived longer than most of us and has seen the devastating changes that have taken place in his community and in rural America over the decades since industrial farming became the norm. He has seen land abused and soil eroded and degraded. He has witnessed generations of farmers go from being able to make ends meet with help from their strong, caring communities to farmland and farming equipment becoming so expensive that hardly any young people can afford to purchase a farm.

Wendell Berry is a farmer so he understands farming and has many farming friends and family members. In The Art of Loading Brush, he advocates returning to a slower pace of living, smaller family-run, biodiverse farms, and farming with an attitude of just enough instead of the “Get Big or Get Out” way of doing things that became popular since the 1970s. He looks at the Amish communities as examples for rural communities that have broken down. He says one question the Amish ask whenever they consider a change is, “What will this do to my community?” Rural America’s failure to ask this simple question has been to the whole country’s detriment.

Another important theme in Berry’s essays, letters, and fiction is having a strong local, food secure economy. What sense does it actually make for agricultural communities to grow crops or raise livestock and then sell them to some far off place so that the people in their own communities have to truck in food from far off places? He says that puts us in a very dangerous place should the supply chain break down. And we’ve seen this happen around the country during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic! The more I read his words, the more I wonder where our common sense has gone to.

Thankfully, I know there are family farms in the Finger Lakes region that read Wendell Berry, align with his philosophy, and are providing food to people in their own communities.

As person living in an agricultural district, (our home is surrounded on all four sides with mostly corn and soybean fields) I cringe at the way the land is treated. Just last night, there was a huge tractor spraying the fields with what I assume is some sort of weed killer, like Round Up. It made me so upset that they aren’t required by law to inform neighbors that they’re spraying! And I think of the harm these chemicals do to the bees, butterflies, birds, land, water, and, of course, to us.

But my true nature isn’t the yelling, sign holding activist–although I’ve done this too! Instead of taking to the streets, Wendell encourages us to actually make the changes that we want to protest about in our own lives and homes and with our own families.

Take care of the earth. Cut out waste–be thrifty and frugal. Love and connect with our neighbors. Slow down and think before we act! (And I recommend reading The Art of Loading Brush and all of Wendell Berry’s other books!!!)

From What Is To What If (A Book Review)

How do you think about the future in regard to climate change? If it presents you with gloomy visions of extreme weather, resource scarcity, and destruction of animals, land, water, and air, then you need to read Rob Hopkins‘ book From What Is To What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create The Future We Want.

This book is all about using imagination to design a better future for the people and the planet. Each chapter contains several uplifting examples of people all over the world who are using ingenuity and imagination to bring about positive, hopeful changes.

The chapter titles are all questions: What If We Took Play Seriously?, What If We Considered Imagination Vital to Our Health?, What If We Followed Nature’s Lead?, What If We Fought Back to Reclaim Our Attention?, What If School Nurtured Young Imaginations?, What If We Became Better Storytellers?, What If We Started Asking Better Questions?, What If Our Leaders Prioritised the Cultivation of Imagination?, and What If All This Came to Pass?

I particularly agreed with the author on the importance of liberal arts in education and thought the chapters on rethinking education and reclaiming attention were inspiring. Included within these chapters are a lot of statistics and studies that show how much is lost when art, music, drama, dance, etc., are removed from education. You will read about how our obsession with screens and fast-paced living has dulled our minds, limited our attention, and diminished critical and creative thinking skills.

And yet, even in the face of these dismal facts, Hopkins shares many stories of people who have developed schools that encourage artistic expression, learning, and creative thought. In these places young people are thriving.

In the chapter on considering imagination vital to health, we learn that poverty can be a factor in limiting attention, memory, and the development of imagination while increasing the chance of mental illness. But also included are examples of how imaginative, artistic engagement is a form of therapy that can help people with mental illnesses to heal.

There was such a happy story in the chapter about asking better questions: of how a community transformed a dreary bus turning circle into a village green for a day complete with flowers, music, dancing, art, and food just to spark the community’s imagination and get them thinking about how things could be different.

And that’s what this book is about, really. It’s about how things could be different if we think differently–both now and in the future. Maybe what we think is impossible is, in fact, possible if we collectively use our imaginations, activate our creativity, and think generatively about everything from play and storytelling to local food security and community gathering places. I highly recommend you read From What Is To What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create The Future We Want. I guarantee that it will galvanize you into thinking in a different and more positive way about the future.

Hollywood Park (A Book Review)

I just finished a new memoir that I want to tell you about. It’s called Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett, published by Celadon Books. From the description, I wondered if it would be such a troubled tale my HSP heart couldn’t take it, but, thankfully, I was wrong. Mikel writes with such beautiful sensitivity, making each part of his story alive and present to the reader, that even with the difficult subject matter, a courageous thread of hope runs through.

This is the story of a man who spent his first few years of childhood being raised in a group setting by people other than his parents in the cult Synonon. It’s how, after leaving the cult, he and his brother live with a mother who is mentally ill and abusive. It’s how Mikel interacts with and learns from his dad. How he makes it through his teen years with the pain he carries and ultimately, how he has to decide to keep hiding it or how to face it, work through it, and let it go.

And if you’re interested in musicians and bands, you’ll enjoy the last third of the book which weaves in and out of Mikel’s experience as a singer/songwriter and frontman for the band Airborne Toxic Event.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., and Hollywood Park is a positive story about how mental illness (and addictions) can affect families as well as how healing can take place. I highly recommend this book!

(I received an ARC from Celadon Books for my honest review; all opinions are completely my own.)

Good Boy (A Book Review)

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new book, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, shares the story of her beautiful, complicated, transitioned life with dogs as constant companions. She starts with herself as Jimmy, a young boy who learns to hide who he wants to become from both his family and friends. The fear of being rejected keeps Jimmy from sharing his secret with anyone, even as he becomes an adult.

Jimmy’s transition to Jennifer is infused with humor so it’s not too sad or serious. Although I’m not a dog person, I truly enjoyed the cameos of her different dogs, their unbelievable quirks, and hilarious escapades. There is a dog person vs. cat person essay that is spot-on.

Good Boy is a story that will likely resonated with many people who are transgender or who are considering this step, as well as their families and friends. It gave me a lot of insight into the inner struggle a person has as they wrestle with this decision, and try to figure out who they can trust, who they can tell.

The author shares with such vulnerability and openness that I was immediately captivated and I think you will feel the same. If you’re interested or curious about transgender issues and/or if you love dogs, you will thoroughly enjoy this book!

(I received an advanced reading copy from Celadon Books in exchange for my honest review.)

Climate Justice (Book Review)

I recently finished reading Climate Justice by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change. This is the first of several books on sustainability I plan on reading for Earth Month.

The message of this book is clear: climate change is a human rights issue. It affects people on the margins more than anyone else. Indigenous groups, small farmers, the poor in any nation–these are the people who suffer the most from floods, fires, droughts, loss of habitat and livelihoods.

Each chapter was about a different part of the world and a different people group affected by climate change. I learned about the floods and droughts affecting small farmers in Malawai and Uganda and nomadic herdsman in Kenya. I learned about the suffering of those in East Biloxi, Mississippi in the years following Hurricane Katrina. I read about the Yupik people of Alaska who lost their fishing villages to the rising sea levels and the Saami people, reindeer herders in northern Scandinavia, who lose people and reindeer to thin ice.

I learned about Vietnam’s ravaged forests which are being replanted and the Pacific Island nation of Kirabati which will most likely be lost to rising sea levels. I learned about what is being done to transition fossil fuel workers into new jobs when mines close and how a woman in Australia is inspiring climate action.

These stories carry with them a certain sense of dismay at the damage done to our beautiful planet, but they weren’t hopeless. They were filled with urgency and purpose. We all need to act now. Every person’s choices matter. We don’t have to be perfect, but we all have work to do and much to learn. The people in these stories have much wisdom to share with those of us who don’t live as close to the land. They know what has changed and what has been lost. Thankfully, they have been given a place at the table in climate talks and some victories have been won.

If you want to become more aware of how climate change affects people all over the planet, read this book. I think it will spur you on to good work on behalf of Earth and the people who live here.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

With so much of everyday life feeling upside down right now, I am doing my best to keep my life as normal as possible. This includes getting up early for yoga and meditation, eating meals at nearly the same times each day, and reading as much as I did before. (Or maybe a little bit more!) Reading relaxes, comforts, takes me out of my own story, and connects me with people past and present whose stories and experiences are different than my own.

So what have I been reading?

The first is Kitchen Table Sustainability: Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability by Wendy Sarkissian, Nancy Hofer, Yollana Shore, Steph Vajda and Cathy Wilkinson.

My lovely boss recommended I read this to better understand the way our local non-profit works and to help me see what can happen when local residents are engaged in projects that bring improvements to their community. (Thank you, Theresa!)

These pages contain stories of what worked and what didn’t. I learned that it is much better to go into a community that may have high poverty and crime rates, for example, and look for the assets already there, rather than simply focusing on the needs. What might those be, you ask?

Local people have untapped practical skills and know what they would like to change, but they have to be asked, to be consulted, rather than ignored in favor of bringing in “the experts”. They need encouragement in order to be confident enough to speak out, because they don’t want to appear foolish in front of others in their community. Engaging local residents requires patience and careful listening as people share their ideas. It requires connecting people to each other. It requires long-term thinking. If you’re involved with your community in any way, I highly recommend this book!

For a fast-paced thrilling read, here is Hide Away by Jason Pinter. Introducing Rachel Marin, a strong woman with a violent, tragic past that she is trying her best to forget. She is doing her best to care for and protect her two children and live as normal a life as possible. But she has this impulse to stop crime when she sees it. So she gets involved in helping the police with a murder investigation and things get a little scary.

I enjoyed the ease and pace of reading, Rachel’s strength of character, as well as the personalities and dialogue of the two police officers working on the case. This is going to be a series, apparently. It reminds me a bit of Dean Koontz’s Jane Hawk series, so if you like those books, you will probably like this as well!

Did I tell you I’m reading through the Bronte sisters’ novels this year? So far I’ve listened to the audio versions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Shirley. The first two were re-reads, but I’d never read Shirley before.

Set in Yorkshire, on the moors, during 1811-1812. There was a lot happening then: the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, an industrial depression focused in the mills, and the Luddite uprisings. If you’re interested in history, this novel could be a springboard into all of these subjects. Against all of this political and economical upheaval is the story of two young women who are finding their place in the world, falling in love, dealing with family, suffering losses, and discovering their inner strength. I’m glad I read it and, if you’re a Bronte fan, put this novel in your TBR pile.

So that’s a little taste of what I’ve been reading lately. What have you been reading?

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I will receive a small compensation at no extra cost to you.

You’re Not Listening (A Book Review)

If there was ever a book that was written for our time, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy is one. It brings to light the modern epidemic of short attention spans and our lack of listening skills, shares why we need to be listening, and offers ideas on how to listen better.

Truth: I am not as good a listener as I thought I was. Sometimes I think about my to-do list when I should be listening. I’ve occasionally texted while someone was talking to me–something I swore I’d never do. There are times I finish my husband’s sentence, thinking I’m helping. I’ve interrupted and talked over the top of him or my kids.

All of this bad behavior has come on gradually, and although I wouldn’t blame my smartphone, I have definitely gotten worse since I started using one.

But I don’t want to be this person and I’m sure you don’t either. I want to show people kindness and courtesy by giving them my undivided attention, not to check out mentally if they meander or take longer than expected to answer a question. The good news is that listening is an art that can be improved upon with practice, just like any other skill.

One of the first things I learned in this book is that when two people are engaged in healthy conversation their brain waves sync up. And that this requires empathy which you learn or don’t learn in the first year of your life, based on how well your caregivers paid attention to your needs. Even if you didn’t experience this kind of attention as a child and develop good listening skills, you can acquire the ability to listen through deliberate practice later in life.

Another thing I learned is that if someone is boring you in a conversation, it’s most likely your fault for acting disinterested, or for assuming you already know what they’re going to say. If you approach every interaction with another person with curiosity, as an opportunity to learn something new, you will be surprised by what people tell you, and how interesting they can be.

One subject that is especially relevant in today’s polarized political climate is in the chapter on “Listening to Opposing Views”. The author writes that when we hear someone talk about something which we disagree on, our natural response is to get defensive because our brains experience this as we would a physical threat. But by working through that instinct and actually listening to the person with another view, we will expand our understanding.

We may never agree, but we can “embrace the possibility that there might be multiple truths” (p. 88), and that another point of view is just as legitimate as our own. Don’t we all need to grow in this area?

I think the other chapter where my eyes were opened to my lack of listening skills was in the chapter entitled “Supporting, not Shifting, The Conversation”.

I learned that a support response is one “which encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding” (p. 137) which is pretty rare. Most of us take a shift response “which directs attention away from the speaker and toward the respondent” (p. 137).

So, for example, if your friend tells you about something that happened to him, you can either ask him another question about it to get him to elaborate further (support response) or you can say something like “Yeah, I had that happen to me…blah, blah, blah,” (shift response) and put all the attention on you.

One of my favorite lines is “Listening is about the experience of being experienced” (p.32). Listening is about connection, which, as humans, we all crave and need. Connection banishes loneliness and gives our lives a greater sense of purpose.

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters will be published on January 7th. I could go on with all I’ve learned and how much I think we need this book now. Instead, pre-order your copy, and let’s have a conversation about it in January. I, for one, will be listening!

Saint X (Book Review)

<a href="http://<a target="_blank" href="">Saint X</a>""Saint X is one of the very few books I’ve read this year that I could not put down! The bright, tropical cover disguises the depth of the subject matter. For although it is a clever, suspenseful thriller, this novel addresses the evolution of self, the parent-child relationship in its various stages, the advantages and guilt of white, wealthy people, and the disadvantages of poor people of color on Caribbean islands and the rest of the world.

It starts like a film, zooming in to the fictional Caribbean island of Saint X. It’s the mid-1990s. The reader is introduced to a well-to-do white family from New York vacationing at a luxurious resort for their New Year holiday.

Alison, the elder daughter, is eighteen, pretty, self-absorbed, bored, and typical of girls of that age. The unusual one and the heroine is the younger daughter, Claire, or Clairey, as the rest of the family affectionately calls her. She is seven years old, has an unusual appearance, is shy, socially awkward, and appears to display possible OCD tendencies. The parents remain on the periphery of the story, and what we know of them is seen through the eyes of Claire.

The other main character in the novel is Clive Richardson, a young man who was born and lives on Saint X, and who, along with his friend, Edwin, becomes a suspect in Alison’s death. In comparison to the comfortable lives led by Alison and Claire, Clive is without the advantages that wealth can provide. He grows up without many prospects for the future, so after high school, he and Edwin find employment serving the rich white people at the resort. Which is how they meet Alison and become involved with her on the night she goes missing.

As the novel unfolds, we glimpse some of what Alison gets up to and who she interacts with in the days and nights leading to her disappearance and death. After her body is discovered, Alison and Claire’s parents are frantic to find answers, to discover who is responsible for their daughter’s death. Although Clive and Edwin did spend some time with Alison on the night she disappears, not enough evidence is found to charge them with her supposed murder, so it goes unsolved.

The novel moves forward to when Claire is in her mid-twenties and living a fairly normal life in New York City complete with a good job and friends. She calls herself by her middle name–Emily–in an attempt to put the past behind her. Except she can’t. She still longs to learn more about Alison, and more about why and how she died.

We flash back in time to the months immediately following Alison’s death when Claire’s parents are wrapped up in their own grief and she feels forgotten. Then we see her as she grows up, through all the awkwardness of adolescence and into young adulthood, and how she must deal with the way people treat her when they discover who she is. And even though she wishes she could forget, Alison haunts her wherever she goes.

So Claire is in NYC, trying to live like other people do. As a way to assuage her guilt for her affluent background, she moves into an apartment in a part of Brooklyn that is mostly inhabited by economically disadvantaged people of color. She is still socially awkward, so she doesn’t interact much with the other tenants in her apartment building, but she wishes she could.

Then, out of the blue, while taking a taxi home one day, Claire looks in the rearview mirror and is shocked to find that her driver is Clive Richardson–the man that she has always believed was involved in Alison’s death! Everything she lived through as the sister of a murder victim comes flooding back in that instant. She becomes obsessed with getting Clive to confess. She relentlessly stalks him every night after work. She finds out everything she can about him. Then she pretends to befriend him.

What comes of this obsession with and connection to Clive? Will he eventually confess to his involvement in Alison’s murder? Will Claire ever be able to heal and let go of the past? Ah, but that would be telling! That is what you’ll find out when you read Saint X for yourself.

I was very fortunate to receive an Advanced Reading Copy of Saint X from Celadon Books; however, all opinions are entirely my own. Saint X, written by Alexis Schaitkin, will be published on February 18, 2020 and I absolutely recommend this novel to lovers of mysteries, crime thrillers, and really good fiction.