A Great Friend I Never Met

Featured

A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson, Translator of The Message  -     By: Winn Collier

The book, “The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson: A Burning In My Bones,” by Winn Collier, came today. I just now finished reading the preface, gazed at the map, buzzed through the contents, and read the introduction. Haven’t even read the first page of the first chapter of Part One and tears already fill my eyes. Why?
I never met Eugene Peterson but for seventeen years, a group of women got together weekly at 6 A.M. to read and pray through the Psalms, and Eugene joined us there — in a way. Each week we read one psalm in the NIV, or KJV, or NESV, and then we read the same psalm in The Message, the paraphrase of the Bible written by Peterson. What happened next around that kitchen table was up to the Holy Spirit. It was always unpredictable, surprising, and lively. The room was filled with worship, prayer, singing, meditation, discussion. We wept, laughed, got angry, questioned, rejoiced, and very often one of us would say, “Would you read that section in The Message again, please?” We loved the perspective Eugene Peterson brought to our time in the psalms. His rendering of the psalter gave us great delight and plenty of fodder for deep reflection.
After 17 years of weekly fellowship around a table, Bible at the center, coffee cup in hand at the crack of dawn, we women came to know one another pretty well. I felt like I knew Eugene Peterson, too — his tempo, his imagery, his heart. I mourned deeply when he died in October, 2018. I reminisced about the early morning coffee, conversation, prayer and scripture we had “shared” for almost two decades. I was going to miss him. And yet, it was a great comfort to know that even though he himself might be gone from us, The Message he wrote for us was still here.

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to get to know Eugene Peterson better through Winn Collier’s biography, “A Burning In My Bones.” Reading will begin tomorrow morning. The coffee will be ready by 6 A.M., if you care to join us.

What’s in a Name?

Featured

A Facebook friend shared that she sent a letter to a well known writer in response to an article he posted at his website. The article included a reference to Emily Webb Gibbs, a character from the Sinclair Lewis play, “Our Town.” My friend’s comment triggered a memory of my high school classmate, MerriJo Morton*. MerriJo was a member of my sophomore class when we went to see Lewis’s play “Our Town.”  The character Emily Webb Gibbs made quite an impression on her too, as you will see…

My high school American Lit class was given free passes to a production of “Our Town” at the Seattle Rep as part of an arts appreciation effort directed toward Seattle area high school kids. One member of our group, MerriJo, was not the least bit pleased about going to see the play but was glad to get out of the standard classroom setting for an afternoon. We were all in our seats, the play ready to begin when MerriJo, unhappy and feeling stifled in the theater, began to get noisy and somewhat disruptive. Her behavior generated scowls and urgent whispers of “Shhh!” and “Sit down!” from teachers and classmates alike. 

 Once the play started, MerriJo relaxed and became attentive to and engaged in the stage presentation. No one knew just how engaged she was until the moment in the play when it became clear that the main character, a young mother named Emily Webb Gibbs, had died. Shocked and obviously upset, MerriJo suddenly sat up in her seat and leaned toward the stage as she keened, “No-ooo! No-ooo!” This time, her noisy outburst was met with compassion, tissues, and hugs. Many of the students in the audience were weeping, but MerriJo was the only one who let her feelings truly, intensely, enter into the action of the play. She had crossed the threshold from a passive observer in the audience to a fully involved participant in the story.

On our way home after the play, there was plenty of discussion about what we had just experienced at The Rep, and MerriJo spoke with a seriousness that no one had seen in her before. The play had affected all of us, but it had changed MerriJo.

MerriJo’s emotional reaction to the death of Emily in the play initiated several surprising outcomes. First, it improved some opinions about MerriJo, herself. She earned a new level of respect that day because she illustrated to us how powerful the arts can be, even for someone who was not particularly interested in them.

Second, MerriJo’s grief-stricken response to Emily’s death drew attention to the importance of the ghost-Emily’s question in the play – a question which also happened to be the central theme of the play: Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?

And finally, thanks to MerriJo, I think the actors in that presentation of Seattle Rep’s “Our Town” went home happy, maybe even saying to themselves, “Mission accomplished.” 

True story. 

Has a work of art ever been the source of a profound impact on your life?

*Story is true but the name MerriJo is not.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell — a book review

Featured

Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.

Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.

In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.

An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.

I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.

Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” This results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure magic. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Where did I put that birthday card?

Featured

My sister Pat, who is 86 today, has sent birthday cards to all our family members for decades. She is finally ready to admit that this self-assigned labor of love is getting the best of her. She read me a birthday note written to nephew Yoji Kono, whose birthday is in November:

“Dear Yoji,

HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY!

I know – your birthday wasn’t belated – this card is.

Besides that, this is my second try. I addressed the first version to ‘Dear Joe,’ (my nephew Joe Junttila.)

In my third try I said, ‘I think the world of you, Rob.’ (my nephew, Rob Hyrkas.)

Do you think I am confused?

Anyway, I hope you had a great time with your beloved family. ‘Hi’ to Genny and all.

P.S. I lost the card that goes in this envelope.

Lots of love,

Pat

P.P.S. Do you think that forgetfulness is a symptom of the pandemic?”

Happy Birthday to YOU, dear Pat, and thank you for the many wonderful birthday cards and loving greetings you have sent to all of the family for so many years. You are the best!

The Gift of Purple

Featured

In our fellowship, the kids in Children in Worship learn about the church calendar through the use of a color wheel. Purple is the color of the seasons of Advent and Lent. Both are times of waiting and holy expectancy. The teacher of Children In Worship explained that whenever the kids see the color purple, a good question to ask is, “What is God up to now?”

A youngster from that class helped his dad take their garbage cans out to the road for the next day’s garbage pick-up. It was sunset. The youngster noticed the color of the sky and said, “Dad! Look! The sky is purple. I wonder what God is up to now?” *

What a great application of the color wheel lesson from Children in Worship. I hope I can incorporate that same exercise into my own life, and remember the meaning of the gift of purple.

*The story of the little boy who saw the purple sky was related by a Children in Worship leader at a training session in Princeton, MN, at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in 2014/2015.

A Place in the Choir

Featured

I attended Mass last year at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Before Mass started I noticed a young woman had walked into the church with a service dog. The two sat in the front of the church – I sat in the back and a lot of people sat between us as the church was full that morning.

At the conclusion of the Mass, while we congregants sang the recessional, I heard a strangled cry, a sort of moaning, echoing from somewhere in the church. Having worked in health care for thirty years, my emergency response adrenaline kicked in and I searched the church for who might be in distress and may need help immediately. “Call 911” ran through my mind as I stood up in the last pew with my phone in hand, ready to go to someone’s aid. Then I caught sight of the service dog at the front of the church and realized it was this dear canine servant who was singing along with the rest of us, howling away, happily joining in. As the dog yowled merrily, I recalled the lines of a folk tune written by folk musician and singer-songwriter, Bill Staines:

“All God’s critters got a place in the choir

Some sing low, some sing higher

Some sing out loud on the telephone wires

And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got, now.”

And some merrily howl along during the recessional at church. True story.

“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”

The Allure of Library Book Kits

Featured

Have you heard about book club book kits? They are available from many libraries. Below are a couple of pics of a book kit from my local library. (The unreadable white sheet of copy paper on the table in front of the book kit bag is the Readers’ Discussion Guide. It has suggestions for ways to run a book club and ideas to help get the discussion rolling.)

BCBK’s contain 10-12 books – one large letter edition and one audio book, where possible – and a Readers’Discussion Guide in each kit. They are the only library “book” that has a return date that is six weeks from the date of check-out rather than three weeks. This extended period of time allows users to dispense the books, read, meet, discuss and return the kit, and pick up the next book kit so that the book club can meet monthly.

For those who want to join a book club but find buying a book every month financially prohibitive, or for people who simply prefer to use the library, BCBK’s are a super option. Laura, a librarian at my local library, said that the popularity of BCBK’s is becoming greater every year.

Maybe it’s time to start a book club using book kits? Check it out! 📚

Road Trip Roundup

Went on a lovely drive yesterday. It was a beautiful day — sunny, high clouds, perfect for a road trip to Tallahassee, FL.

One of the things on our “to do” list was to visit Bradley’s Country Store. Just a bit outside of Tallahassee proper, we arrived there by means of a country lane, County Road 27. Portions of this narrow but scenic roadway are crowned with a canopy of tree branches that reach over to each other from both sides of the road and sometimes meet in the middle overhead. The canopy drive is a beautiful thing to behold and delight to experience.

We arrived at Bradley’s early in the afternoon on a Thursday. As you can see from the picture above, the store is small and the parking lot in front of the store is small, also. Even though we visited on a slow business day, there were plenty of cars and customers coming and going at Bradley’s during our short visit.

Established in 1927, Bradley’s is known for stone ground corn grits and homemade sausage, which is what attracted us to their place of business. On entering the wood A-frame structure, we caught the delicious fragrance of sausage being cooked — a fragrance that draws you to the back of the old wood building, back behind the jar filled and product-laden shelves to the meat market where customers line up for a sausage link on a bun. Irresistible! It was obvious by the earnest faces of those in line that purchasing this item was the reason for their visit to the Bradley’s. There was plenty of foot traffic moving from the front to the back of the store, and we filed right in with the throngs of lunch-seeking pilgrims. That sausage dog was quite a treat!

The store’s board walls are lined with old painted-metal trade signs and advertising images. One large section of wall is covered from floor to ceiling with plaques, most of which are printed with black lettering on distressed wood panels. These are obviously new but fit the old-timey atmosphere of Bradley’s Country Store. A small square plaque on the wall said, “CALL YOUR MOMMA.” That item almost came home with me.

You can see in the picture that Bradley’s has a nice front porch with wooden rockers available for use. Inside, this inviting old building has well used, uneven floorboards,(watch your step), numerous shelves of home canned pickles, peppers, salsa, and sauces, and plenty of other nostalgia-inducing (and I didn’t even grow up in the South!) goodies. There are several Southern cuisine cookbooks to browse, homemade lavender soaps to admire, and of course, Bradley’s homemade sausage and stone ground grits. The staff was cordial, helpful, and knowledgeable.

We happily purchased some of Bradley’s Country Store’s most famous foodstuffs that day (you can order online as well) which we plan to share with family and friends soon. Cheese grits, anyone?

http://www.bradleyscountrystore.com/index.php?route=common/home

Reading is more than what you think…

I am astonished by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by books containing imaginative fables, fantasies, and allegories. My curiosity being what it is, I have asked some of the “no fantasy for me” proponents what books kept them company as kids. Some can’t remember what they read, but a few said that they were drawn to books about animals, family sagas, science, and history. All good choices but I don’t think I could have made it through childhood without the help of Narnia, Half Magic and The Hobbit.

Active imaginations and creative pursuits were an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I almost always had a book or a pen and paper on our person. Music of some sort ran on a continuous soundtrack through the house – always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children admired and emulated the quick-witted and clever people around us, both those on the radio and TV and the gifted members of our family and community. For instance, Mom quoted long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and recited poems & silly songs to us during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring situations. Because Mom insisted, we listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home. During those live radio performances, we experienced great dramas and fantasies put to music.

And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Those wonder-filled hours of chanted prayer and fragrant incense stood in sharp contrast to the times in our home that featured alcohol abuse and tense, fearful situations Thankfully, the reading of an entertaining book or a trip to a movie theater could serve as a way to cope with the pain and confusion those events brought on. Good stories and music had the power to calm one’s fears and presented the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies” were good skills to have when it came to dealing with the harsh realities of life.

I think my childhood reading of myths and fables also helped to teach me to read between the lines in the real world, which is a great survival skill. I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager, and J.R.R. Tolkien for the comfort their works provided and the resourcefulness their stories brought with them. My youthful reading experiences taught me that wonderful books of fantasy help to exercise one’s mind not to simply escape trying situations, but also to train one to learn to deal with unsolvable difficulties. It was in those early reading years that I learned to trust my imagination to lead me to a deeper, more inventive understanding of the world around me. And don’t despair! It’s never too late to read books of fantasy and fairytales and receive all the good they have to offer. Pick one up today. Your imagination will thank you.

Final day of “Fun With Flannery”

What?! It’s over! Fun With Flannery is finished?? NO! Rats! Dang. Phooey. Sadness… sigh.

 

Flannery

But what an amazing week of discovery it was, led by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. A teacher I know frequently warns his students, “Don’t miss your moment!” This workshop was certainly the moment to experience an immersion into Flannery O’Connor –  her writing style, her art and her calling.

The larger context of the Fun With Flannery class is The Glen Workshop –  a marvelous week long art-and-faith event which seems to defy everyone’s attempts at describing it. I like the paragraph on the landing page of The Glen’s website:

“Situated in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains [in Santa Fe, New Mexico], the Glen Workshop is equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. The Glen’s arresting natural environment is contrasted by its casual and inviting crowd of artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes.”

If as an artist you are dry as dust, this gathering of kindred souls in the High Desert location of St John’s College, where The Glen takes place, will drench you in beauty, friendship and inspiration. The Glen Worksop is sponsored by Image Journal which is out of Seattle Pacific University,

But back to Flannery O’Connor. All thirteen of us Glensters agreed that the most surprising discovery of the workshop was the power of reading O’Connor’s stories aloud.  As we listened to a story, often read in long sections, Flannery’s uncanny insight into the human heart became more illuminating, more comical, more touching,  more shocking.

In addition, each short story video Dr. Prior presented gave us a new picture of a Flannery story, illustrating how wondrously visual she is in her writing. Color, setting, sunlight, shadows, symbols — all play a part in an O’Connor short story. “Flannery has a purpose for everything she puts in her stories, ” said Dr. Prior, “Nothing is extra, nothing is wasted.”

What about the violence contained in O’Connor’s stories? It wasn’t long before the class could see the paradox that Dr. Prior suggested was in Flannery’s work:  Violence was a means of grace for her characters. Violence was O’Connor’s method to force her figures to shake-off the blinders of the skewed moral judgments and cliched thinking that plagued them. As we students progressed through nine short stories together, we found that the lens we used to study Flannery’s tales transfigured itself into a mirror which reflected back to us our own flawed judgments and prejudices.  One commentator in the documentary we watched on Flannery’s life, called Uncommon Grace (2015), said that O’Connor was “continuing Jesus’ work by telling parables to the modern world.”  After spending a week deep-diving into Flannery O’Connor’s life and art, I believe she was indeed a parable teller of extraordinary skill.

Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at age thirty-nine from lupus, an autoimmune disease. At that time, according to Wikipedia, Flannery’s oeuvre included two novels, three short story collections, and five other works. An addition to her work, a prayer journal, was published in 2013. I am hopeful that more of Flannery’s work will be published in the future.