Tuesday, February 22, 2011

DEVOTION by Dani Shapiro

Oh, what a searingly honest memoir! This is not just one woman's story of her search for truth and for permanence in a transitory, troubled world, but it's every mother's experience with fear and protectiveness, every daughter's questioning look at her relationship with her parents. In a way, this is my story--even though it's not my faith journey.

I am a lot like author Dani Shapiro, in that I have a questioning mind--no, actually, it's almost obsessively virulent in its grasping for answers. I read her story and I'm nodding my head over and over, even though I have never tried Buddhist practises or meditative rituals. But I've searched, I've questioned. I've stood in massive cathedrals, the year I lived in Spain, and felt a stab of yearning for what the Catholics knew that I, an evangelical Christian, didn't. Things like the sense of kneeling in pews and reciting certain novenas that reduced you to smallness while God loomed majestically before you. As Dani writes, "It was a lesson I needed to learn over and over again: to stop and simply be. To recognize these moments and enter them--with reverence and an unprotected heart--as if walking into a cathedral."

And the year we lived up in the mountains of New Hampshire in a Jewish populated community-- oh, what a glorious time that was and I absorbed and questioned and made friends with the conservative, the orthodox, those of reform faith. There was Seymour and Ethel, and Mort and Adele, my Jewish neighbors who were dear friends. And of course our Catholic and slightly ballistic neighbor, Mr. Kaminski, who thought the world of my husband and me but chafed at the questionable boundary line between himself and his neighbors, Mort and Adele.

Religious discourse, or talking about what we believe, seems to bring up boundary lines--seen or unseen. Fear arises when people ask questions that a tightly compacted faith cannot answer. But Dani Shapiro, while honestly conveying the anxiety she battles, isn't afraid to go there. Neither is her son. "Jacob piped up from the back seat:'How do we know we're not dreaming right now?' The idea that we might be dreaming frightened him. He wanted to know what was real." And so do I.

And that, in a nutshell, is Shapiro's quest: it's not just for a life of devotion, but for the depth of a a true faith, a solid foundation of awe and yet security that perhaps we all long for. This is a beautifully written book for those who grapple and grasp for truth. I opened the pages of this book and heard her heart, saw her anxious questioning mind and her courage. "I've set myself on a course that doesn't allow me to be a coward" she writes; and yet she has no problem almost boldly telling you of the panic attacks and problems that plague her.

This is a memoir, not a didactic guide book for those used to going directly from A to B. This is an ongoing conversation and a journey. I explored with her--and I'm still asking my questions without pulling back.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I receive books free from publishers. I am not required to write a positive review. The opinions I express are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Thanks to House Beautiful, I can stare at this photo for hours, wondering why it has such a hold on me. I love the bright pink here--the punch of color that jolts you out of winter doldrums and into contemplation of the colors of Spring that are on their way.

We lived with a lot of gray this winter- gray skies, gray rooms, gray salted slush piling up on all the sidewalks.

You endure a winter--unless you're an outdoor enthusiast whizzing down the mountain or cross country skiing through the woods. (Good for you, if that's you!)

Me--I take the hole-up-and-hibernate route and venture out for long walks when the snow has melted and the sun warms my skin. I've got another month or two till that happens.

Harry is wearing a cute little collar I made out of an old cashmere sweater. Safety Bill thinks he looks ridiculous in it. But I've had scissors in my hand and old magazines and old sweaters piled in my room, and my sewing box at my feet, and this is what you get from me during the winter: candles that wear custom little sweaters and Harry wearing a little blue bow-tie collar around his neck. This is me making it through winter. You do what you gotta do.

Like the other day when I went over to stay with my mom while her two main caregivers were out. We had a song fest in the living room (which looks nothing like the picture above!) On the old out-of-tune piano, I pounded away, plinking out rusty chord patterns and trying to keep the melody.

"This is what you get, Mom, after five years of me taking lessons" I called out with a sheepish smile.

She didn't care about the out-of-tune sound or the missed notes. She just wanted to sing. We sang Christmas carols and the theme song from Love Story and a couple of those old glory hymns. My mother clapped at the end of each song like I had finished a recital for the queen. That's how we passed the morning hours that day, making a joyful noise--emphasis on the word "noise."

The living room looks nothing like the picture above. The furniture is faded, mismatched. The old oriental rug pummeled to death. The only color is the plethora of green plants placed all over the room. The piano is chipped, and several keys have the ivory missing. It's not exactly a showcase of a room. But it's where I spent my childhood and teen years. It's where I practiced the piano for hours, not exactly thinking I would become proficient but thinking that it was a good thing to do.

I'm glad my mother never said to me, "This is what I get out of all those years we paid for lessons?!" Because what she got was a terrible piano player who can barely read music. But I think she hears something different when I play. I think she hears, not the botched chords or the awkward sounds of wrong notes, but instead, the years of me practicing away with her covertly perched by the sliding door listening to the comforting sound of someone just trying to get it right.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Same Life, New Story by Jan Silvious

Same Life New Story is more than a ten-week Bible Study for Women. It's a handbook for those looking to create a powerful life that's been kept on hold, a life that involves having a new perspective, a new hope, and new patterns of behavior.

Oh, beware the fickle mood! One minute you see no value, but the next minute the proverbial light bulb goes on. Or in my case it took a week or so.

When I first got the book Same Life, New Story: Change Your Perspective to Change Your Life, I flipped through the pages and thought darkly, "Another boring devotional." (Just keeping it real here, folks). I put it aside and went on to other books.

Then a couple sleepless nights occurred. Last night especially--I woke up at 3:30am and could not go back to sleep. Harry saw me tiptoe into the office and wanted to be let out but I hissed at him, "Go back to sleep!" because one of us should have been snoring away. (I don't snore--just for the record).

I opened up Jan Silvious's book and found out that she was talking straight to me, in my language, addressing my deepest concerns. "Have you ever been stuck because you had to prove a point?" she writes. Uh, now that you mention it, Jan, yes. And I've been thinking about this very thing, lately. (You'll have to read chapter 1 to see what she means by this).

Every chapter begins with a pithy saying--straight to the point. And then it only goes deeper as she delves into subjects dealing with self-sabotage, and victim mentality and all those other topics that we really, really should be done with in our life, don't you think??

She's an excellent writer, a professional life coach, and if you take your time with this book, she'll become like a friend--the very best kind, the kind who wants the best for you even when you've forgotten what that is. She wants us to learn that "changing your perspective can truly change your life." God's been dealing with me about this: how I see things, how HE sees things.

I want to get a mountain top viewpoint. And for me, I began the climb upward when I got out of bed, sleepless and weary, but oh so ready to see things in a whole new way.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I receive books free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I am not required to write a positive review. The opinions I express are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Be Still, My Beating Heart

Knight in Shining Armour Card, katespaperie.com

I was rummaging around in a cupboard and found an old photo of my husband (otherwise known as Safety Bill). I think it's his high school graduation photo.

High School is a point of contention between us because he liked me back then and I didn't know that he did.

Years later he got his chance to make his move when I needed a ride home from college for Thanksgiving break, and he gave me one.

I've been riding with Safety Bill ever since. And from looking back at old posts here, you know that he looks like a hunky contractor but drives like a ninety-year-old man. Another point of contention-- but we won't go into that one either.

All this to say....Valentine's Day is coming. For the calendar-impaired among us, it's this Monday, February 14th.

This year I'm not doing any fancy dinner for Safety Bill but I did buy him a soft wool scarf and he bought me a beautiful hard cover book (though he doesn't know, yet, that he did.) He's not the greatest in the gift giving department but I've gotten over that, finally. I had to account for the good foot rubs he gives, the way he does the dirty pots and pans that I hide in the oven (without complaining) and the fact that after twenty-six years of marriage, I still like what I see.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Sheltered from the Storm

Last night was the first meeting of a group I've formed called Writers & Readers. Five of us gathered in my home, three Readers and two Writers. The idea for this group started after I had an "interesting" experience with an initial writers group I went to. I tried to join in there, I tried to grow, to learn and receive critique but the experience was rather like wading into the deep end of the shark-infested ocean with steak juice smeared all over you. After a couple times there, and feeling like I needed to toughen up some, I relayed my experience with this group to my best friend. Her response: DONT GO BACK THERE! Now, my friend "Mu" obviously likes me and didn't want to see me hurt or battered about, but more than that, she was concerned that I would lose all sense of accomplishment or ability if I went to a group that seemed to breed bitterness and frustration in the members and relished beating the hope out of any newcomer-writer that they could do anything right.

So Mu became my writers group: it was just us two meeting weekly over the months. Some would say that she was biased , being my best friend, and how could she offer good feedback and objective critique? But Mu always shoots pretty straight with me, and at the same time, has a way of couching all her critique in a crème brulée coating of tenderness (without the flame).

Also during this time, I picked up an interesting book about Toxic Feedback by Joni B. Cole. It's not just budding writers that have to worry about this problem because I've seen this everywhere: among sisters, among supposed best friends, at the workplace, in the Church, and even on the playground. Toxic Feedback is any kind of response to a question that sends a double message-- a sort of of yes followed by a debilitating No. It's a response that is meant to make you doubt yourself, or make you question your capabilities.

It seems like there are two kinds of people in this world with power: those who have the power to make you doubt yourself and those who have the power to encourage and build up. (There are those who don't do either, but then that's why they don't affect your life). It's not like you have to lie and fudge and gloss over reality in order to encourage someone when giving a critique. There's always something of value in any man's work; you can always find something positive or noteworthy to highlight. You don't always have to go for the jugular--unless you're the kind of person who feels stronger when you make others feel smaller.

So this new group met last night, and boy did we have fun! It helps that we had lots of chocolate and coffee and tea. And it didn't matter that one member got stuck in our snow crowded driveway. And even though the women didn't all know each other, we felt like instant friends within minutes. We were there to discover new talent, to hear the beginning of a story, to approve the good, to note the noteworthy, to concentrate on spurring one another onward. We had a great time; so much so, that we ran late.

I keep thinking about all the things my Dad did right, lately. As he becomes a man softened by age, less powerful in stature, the things of his life are evident: the five children he raised, the players he coached, the students he taught, the message he continually spoke. In our home, you weren't allowed to criticize someone without first giving two compliments. It was my Dad's way of tempering the harshness of the dagger we wanted to throw at someone first. Usually we'd toss out something like "Your hair is nice, you've got got nice teeth- but you're a jerk for taking stuff from my room!!" It kind of defeated Dad's purpose, the way we'd rush through the two compliments to get to the meat of our criticism or attack.

But I know what he was getting at--I see this now, more than ever. There's a great need in this world for safe places and safe people. We have shelters (and not enough of them) for battered women. But there are too few shelters for battered souls. Real Encouragement is needed--not the frosting of random compliments. Encouraging someone has to do with noting their heart's desire to use talents and gifts to the best of their ability. It's pointing out what they did right-- or what they wanted to achieve, even if they didn't. It's seeing beyond--and in spite of--the flubbed attempt. It's seeing behind the string of dis-attached words, the very meaning... the message they were hoping to convey.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Two Words: Jane Austen

Another quazi-blizzard is here. This is a good day to go to England--not that the weather is any better there, and even in the summer time, I hear its iffy about getting any sunny days with blue skies and no rain in sight. But its England--land of teatime and Jane Austen. What more could you ask for??

And if you open the pages of Cindy Jones' debut novel, MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER: A Season in Mansfield Park, you'll get to travel to England, participate in a literary festival's reenactment of Mansfield Park, and meet an enigmatic and intriguing potential love interest that you wouldn't expect.

The main character, Lily is no silly bird, and this story is not a lilting romp through superficial relationships. Slightly darker and deeper in nature, MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER is a thoughtful reflective look at one woman's physical journey as well as her inward progress in coming to terms with the nature of true happiness.

As it snows outside, I'll just stay curled up in a chair and read through the book again-- if I can get past just staring at the beautiful cover! I was the lucky recipient of this book because of a blog giveaway, but it'll be on sale late March.

So, any Jane Austen lovers out there?