Portions of Every Day

light.jpegI don’t think that I have had a single book recommended to me more often, and by a wider variety of people, than Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.  A work ten years in the making, Doerr’s novel spans the years of World War II and weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, a blind French girl residing with her eccentric, agoraphobic great-uncle and a German orphan forced into military school and then enlistment. 

As Marie-Laure and Werner witness and experience the tragic destruction — physical, mental, relational, and emotional — wreaked by the war, readers — if not the characters themselves — catch glimmers of light in the interactions and inner lives of the intertwining stories.  No doubt the novel is in many ways a dark one, and Doer certainly doesn’t romanticize or gloss over the suffering endured by his characters, but as his title suggests, he demonstrates that, whether or not a person can see the light in their present circumstances, there is light. 
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Looking at Churchill and Looking at Myself

I’ve been a longtime fan of Gretchen Rubin, an author with whom I became aquatinted through her more recent books about happiness and habit formation (The Happiness Project, Happier at Home and Better Than Before).  Because I liked these books so much, I decided to check out one of her biographies, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. 

I welcomed the opportunity to study Churchill (he’s one of those figures about whom I feel like I should know something, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Queen Victoria), but what I liked most about this book had less to do with the facts that I learned about Churchill and more about the thoughts that it sparked in me about reflecting on a life.  Read more

Putting Myself Out There

Busy StreetI’ve been on a Brene Brown kick recently, and I’m finding that her key themes of vulnerability, shame, wholehearted living, and surviving failure are really resonating with me.  Brown is my kind of author, and I am always going to love a book that integrates self-help, research, spirituality, storytelling and list-making, but during this year of moving, making friends, and new jobs, her work feels especially helpful.

“People who live wholeheartedly are people who are facing their lives and living their lives, putting themselves out there and in consequence knowing that they will get hurt.  They are living with gusto and intention and not taking a backseat in their life.”

This has been a year of putting myself out there, and, if I am being completely honest, I didn’t love it.  With each new class that I’ve taught, service trip that I have led and event that I have planned, I have had to wonder: how will this go?  Will the students respond well?  What if I get lost on my way to the site/event location?  I’ve had to meet a lot of new people, which is tiring for an introvert, and I’ve felt overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, and frustration at numerous points.  Read more

A Fly on the Wall

At some point, we’ve all probably been asked to “say something interesting” about ourselves during an icebreaker or getting to know you activity.  Or, we’ve been asked if we know any good jokes.  These are the types of questions that drive me crazy, because I know that I have good answers to them, but the answers always seem to escape me in the moment of need, and I resort to posing “What’s the difference between snow-men and snow-women?…” Read more

“Death is the engine that keeps us running”

51mpnt7lw4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_I just finished reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty — author, mortician, and public advocate of the good death.  The woman who recommended the book to me described it as “a good read, if you don’t mind morbid,” and so I braced myself slightly as I began Doughty’s reflections on death, corpses and working in the funeral industry. 

The fact that I didn’t find the book morbid (sure, there was plenty of talk about the smells and sounds and sights of death, but nothing that I wouldn’t read while eating) tells me that I must not mind morbid.  This might have something to do with the fact that one of my numerous part-time jobs is in hospital chaplaincy.  Though nothing in comparison to Doughty, I do spend a decent amount of time with dead people.  This has normalized death — the sounds, smells and sights of it, but also the inevitability of it — for me, making it seem less morbid and more like an ordinary fact of life.  Read more

Channeling Atticus Finch

Somewhat recently, I entered a social situation that I knew leading up to it would be challenging for me.  I was about to spend the weekend with an individual whose personality —more than anyone else with whom I have had an ongoing relationship — consistently clashes with mine.  This individual’s worldview, words and actions make it really hard for me to like him, and I’m ashamed to admit that my dislike has manifested itself in subtle but slithering ways: a skeptical facial expression here, a stony silence there, and at worse, a curt verbal response or a refusal to engage in conversation. 

In the past, I have spent a lot of time trying to trick, cajole and force myself into liking this person.
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Sacramentality

70HIn my first blog post, I wrote about how taking notes on life helps me pay attention to life, that writing for me is a practice of taking notice and cultivating appreciation.  I just finished reading a book for work (I’m a Youth Ministry Coordinator at a Catholic Church) that put my understanding of writing and my commitment to paying attention to life into spiritual terms. Read more

Slowing Down

red doorI have neither read nor had the particular desire to read anything by Marcel Proust, and yet, when Gretchen Rubin (one of my favorite contemporary authors) recommended Alain du Button’s How Proust Can Change Your Life in her monthly book club blog post, I was drawn to the title.  I am glad that I was.  Offering historical information, humor, and bites of wisdom, this easy-to-read blend of literary biography and self-help was a gem.  I gained a tremendous appreciation for Proust without having to slog through his seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which I also tremendously appreciated.   

Ironically, avoiding a slow process (reading In Search of Lost Time) is very anti-Proustian.  A central theme of the book is that much can be gained from taking things slowly.  Du Button tells the story of Proust meeting Henri Nicolson, a young French diplomat, and asking him to recount his experience at a peace conference after the Great War.  When the diplomat began “we generally met at 10:00” Proust stopped him, wanting to hear all the details.  The diplomat went on, and Proust was enraptured.Cover Image How Proust Can Change Your Life

“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.  For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed by the terse statement “Well, we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons – the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness , of what gets noticed when we don’t go trop vite” (46).

Proust’s attitude called me to think about my reading process.  I read quickly, which I usually consider an advantage, and especially when I dislike the book I am reading.  Recently, I re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and despite my desire to like it (I feel sloppy admitting that I don’t like Virginia Woolf), and my attempt to like it (I hoped that reading it for leisure rather than for school might change my outlook) I found it dull, and so I rushed through it…only to turn the last page with a disappointing aversion.  When I spoke to Caleb about my distaste, he asked what I thought about a particular scene that had captured him.  Though I had just finished the novel, I had no recollection of the scene.  I rushed through a novel that I considered boring, but perhaps if I had moved more slowly, like Proust suggests, I wouldn’t have missed the very details that make the novel compelling to so many people. 

The next time I find myself desiring to rush through a book, a meal, or a process, I’m going to channel Proust and slow down.