A Lump of Playdoh – How to Make Metaphors

My students walked into the classroom to see a ball of playdoh wrapped in wax paper sitting on their desks.

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The directions were pretty simple: See how many different objects you can make with the amount of dough you have. No trading or combining, you can only use what you have. I gave them a few ideas to get them started, and then for about twenty minutes they played.

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At first, they stuck with the basics. One kid made the letter I, the number 1, and a J. The more they worked though, the more creative they got.  I also noticed they would say things like, “If I can make this, I wonder if I can try this…”  This is exactly what I hoped would happen.

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Of course I turned the activity into a writing assignment. This is English class, after all.  They packed up their playdoh (after I assured them they could keep it – sorry parents), and turned their worksheets over for a little reflection.  I had them answer two questions:

1. How is working with a lump of playdoh like writing Creative Nonfiction?

A few answers:

You can turn what you thought was a mess into something amazing.

Both allow me to bring them “to life.” Also, both help me to explore and discover new angles and perspectives.

Because a blob of playdoh is the truth and you can twist the truth into something new. (Clearly this kid is going to be a CNF expert someday.)

We get to mold things that are rather plain and grim into something beautiful.

2. If you are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, then you are a creator, too. How can you apply this to your writing?

To be a creator you have to give life to something. In order to successfully become a creative writer you have to give life or love to a topic or idea.

We have one good idea for a story but sometimes it doesn’t turn out how we want. However, we have to be confident and take risks just like God does with us. A boring story is going to remain boring until you pick it up and mold it into something interesting and of good quality.

We can look at the stuff he has done and the moments he has created in our lives and write about them.

We are called to create, so we can write about the great life God has given us. We can share our thankfulness (our finished stories) with others, too.  It would be a shame to keep it all to ourselves.

We must write about what we don’t want to write as God has to work with some things (sin) he doesn’t want to work with.

A few days ago, while the class was working on CNF rough drafts, one of my students was concerned that what she was writing was too sad. I reminded her of the playdoh and told her to see what she can create from what she’d be given. About a half an hour later she called me over and tapped on her notebook paper excitedly, telling me to read what she’d just wrote.  It was a bit of dialogue between two people in her story and it was funny. “I totally forgot about that part,” she said.  “It’s funny, isn’t it? I forgot that something funny happened.”

Another kid, who felt miserable because his story didn’t have a bit of conflict in it, almost fell out of his chair in glee when he discovered a piece of tension in his story. He never reads from his writing, but on this day, he proudly read what he’d found out.

Twisting the truth into something new.  That’s what I think is going on in my classroom right now. Their stories are still true.  I think the students are learning how to make them shine a bit more.

 

 

 

 

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Right Now

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{reading} Romeo and Juliet. I have to teach it in a few weeks and I’m reading it with quite the flutter and trepidation in my heart. Those poor kids. But I have to say, I think Shakespeare got it right when he decided to make them fourteen instead of Brooke’s  Romeus and Juliet, who are sixteen. What other age group understands this sort of ridiculous passion then middle schoolers? Also, is it mean that I’m teaching the story in February? Love is rough kids. It makes you do some crazy things. You could die. Happy Valentine’s Day.

{keeping track of} the things I’ve been making for my Create365 Project.  It’s easy for me to mark off the days when I’ve written a blog post or started an essay, or even made lesson plans.  What I’m pushing myself to do though is create outside of my boundaries. So each morning, when the girls and I are frantic trying to get out the door because someone isn’t wearing the shoes she wants to wear, and another gal forgot to pack her lunch, and another one can’t find her keys, I have been trying to be aware of what I can create in those moments. I can create a frenzy in two seconds. That’s easy. What’s been difficult, and what I’ve been trying to do, is create peace and make the girls laugh in those moments. It’s a much better ride to school when I can do that. I also washi-taped a  garbage can, started latch-hooking, set up a reading corner in our bedroom, made Jesse an anniversary picture with each of the names of the streets we’ve lived on the past sixteen years, baked banana-crunch muffins and a candy bar pie.

{excited about} being asked to give a talk for an upcoming banquet at Washington Christian Academy, the school where I teach. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I am having so much fun writing this essay. I love me some public speakin’.

What should I wear?

{also excited about} being a part of a new website called Makes You Mom. If you click on the link I shared, you’ll see my name under “Contributing Writers.” No big deal. I’m up there with Laura Brown (she’s the publisher), Laura Boggess, and L.L. Barkat.   (It’s actually a huge deal: Barkat’s book, Rumors of Water, is one of my favorite books. Her words influenced me to think about how to be a writer and a mother, and begin thinking about graduate school.

Thanks for reading!

2008: Jesse and Hadley watch Sesame Street like Joey and Chandler.

2009: Hadley uses a glue stick for the first time and Harper sits in a swing and I swear is thinking, “Who the HELL invented this dumb ass thing? Get me out of it.”

2010: OH!! A trip to Colorado to see my college friends!  That was fun (hi Christina, Alison, and Valerie!!!).

2011: Just click on this link to see the first picture. It’ll be worth it. Also, check out one of the coolest apartments in Baltimore. I want to live in a warehouse turned apartment. That would be awesome.

2012: Taking out the trash. This is a favorite of mine.

2013: Watching Obama getting sworn in. I ought to read this one every day.

2014: I talk to Annie Dillard.

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How To Be A Neighbor – Observing and Trying to Write the Sad

On a day in November last year, I introduced my 8th graders to Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s book Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love. The story is about many things: faith, motherhood, marriage, but they all swirl around the devastating loss of Anna’s son Jack who drowned in a flash flood on a September afternoon.

I’m pretty sure I remember that September day well. Hadley was in her first year of preschool. I’d realized when Harper woke up that morning, we’d run out of diapers and all we had were Splashers, those things you put on kids when they go swimming and for the record absorb about as much as a Kleenex. I had no idea how I would get a new pack of diapers in the storm outside, and I was mad at myself for not realizing we were low. Or maybe I did notice and was just too tired to get more. So maybe I was mad at myself for being lazy.

There is a creek that we had to cross in order to get to Hadley’s preschool, and with all the flash flood warnings I was worried about driving over the creek. Or what if, I thought while I snapped barrettes into Hadley’s hair, I could drop her off, but wouldn’t be able to pick her up? Darnestown Road, the road that the creek crossed, was the only route I knew of that got me to the school.

While the setting of my story does not a tragedy make, I remember that morning with sadness because I was going through a hard time. It’s cliche really. A gal who’s in the earlier stages of motherhood can’t seem to catch up with herself. Everything that happened back then seemed like a big deal, and keeping up was exhausting. Nothing back then felt easy.

This time is not something I like to write about or sift through. Not because there was nothing good about those years but because I’d have to sit with a lot of loneliness and uncertainty and sadness amongst all the beautiful things that were happening. It was hard to sort out then and it’s hard for me to express that now.

And I’m in no way equating my story with Anna’s, but when I opened up Rare Bird I brought with me the sadness I’d been carrying with me from those early years. Not to get rid of it, or to say, “I know what you’re going through.” Conjuring up those feelings felt more like an offering of attentiveness.

I think reading stories is a practice in empathy, but to do that, we have to bring what we have to the page. I brought my shame and sadness of those murky mothering years with me in the hope that I could not only share in her pain but also handle both our stories with care.

Still, this is not a “God has a plan,” or “God has a reason for everything” post. I hope you know my writing (and me) well enough now that I run away screaming from phrases like that. I think this is more of a post about paying attention with everything we have to a story we do not want to live.

So what do you do when a thing happens that you don’t want to write about? Why write it? And how do you write it? These are the questions I asked my students when we took a look at Rare Bird.

I wrote some of their responses on the board as they spoke: We write tough stories to express our feelings, to release tension. We write because sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk. We write to get a new perspective. And my two favorites: we write to “re-see” the event and we write to figure out.

When we got to the “how to write the sad,” we took a look at a few excerpts of Rare Bird and talked about how she told her story:

I mean, why are we so ready to give God the credit for every good thing in our lives, from finding our mate, to doing well on a test or landing a job we like, yet we let Him off the hook for all the bad stuff? That seems ridiculous. Isn’t He powerful enough to command our destiny? Because that’s the God I want to worship, not some good-luck charm we call upon to help us find a parking space when we’re running late. I want a powerful God who is willing to make the hard, unpopular choices because He sees the big picture and knows what’s best. Sure, He wants our worship, but He doesn’t need our approval.”

Here, we noticed that the paragraph has a sort of call and response feel to it. We also noticed that Anna asks a lot of questions, so we decided that we could ask questions as we told our stories, and that it would be OK if we didn’t answer them.

Another excerpt we took a look at was a poem Anna wrote:

Heaven had better be:
            Better than any stinkin’ Youth Group costume party.
            And being trapped inside a Lego Factory over a long weekend with
                        plenty of Cheez-Its and Dr Pepper
            And the buzzy feeling you get when the person you have a crush on
                        crushes on you back.
            And sledding down a huge hill with your best friends until it’s cocoa time.
 
            And a wonderful, fumbly first kiss.
            And skiing black diamonds with your dad in Colorado.
            And a high school debate trip to New York City with fun but
                        slightly lax chaperones.
            And praising God at a retreat and finally getting how much He
                        loves you.
 
            And sitting around with your friends at college laughing until your
                        stomach hurts.
            And falling in love.
            And watching in person as the Yankees win the World Series…
                        again!
            And surprising your little sister by flying in for her college
                        graduation.
            And doing work that fulfills you and honors God.
            And dancing with your mom at your wedding.
            And holding your newborn baby.
            And giving that baby a bath and zipping hi up in footy pajamas.
 
            Okay, God? Good.

“Write a poem,” went on our “how to write column”, but I asked them to tell me what was going on in this poem. Who is Anna talking to? What is she doing?

We decided Anna is talking to God and that she’s telling him about the things Jack likes: Cheez-Its, Legos, Dr. Pepper – like a mother might tell a babysitter before she goes out for an evening. But she’s also sharing things she wanted him to experience: holding a newborn baby, dancing with her at his wedding, a first kiss. We realized that she’s releasing Jack to God, but it is not an easy release.

Some of the students were uncomfortable with this idea that Anna was perhaps making demands of God, or questioning Him. Some of them wondered whether this was OK.

I told them what my mom told me when I was their age and said to her (through sobs because I was ashamed and scared) that I was angry at God (the reason I was mad has left me, but it probably had something to do with the existence of long division). “You can get mad at God,” she told me. “He can take it.”

I told the students that when they are frustrated, or sad, or angry, God already knows so they might as well write it so they can see that emotion on the page. Then they can name it. I think that’s what attentiveness looks like.

So with that, I had them write “Heaven Had Better Be” poems, and with their permission, I’m sharing some excerpts here:

“There’d better be no guilt, or sadness, or feeling my work’s incomplete…”

“Heaven had better be better than being given a home and parents…”

“Heaven better be like the time I was at the park with a special girl and saw the sunset…”

“Heaven had better be better than an automatic rebounder that gets your ball after you shoot, and anti-gravity rooms to float around in, and bike riding to Baskin-Robbins…”

“Heaven had better be better than seeing the longest playoff game in baseball history…”

“Heaven had better be happier than the moment your dad comes home…”

“Heaven had better be better than knowing your parents are happy…”

One student ended his poem with this line: “Alright, God? Thanks, I’m trusting you!”

As I wrote this, I kept thinking of the word neighbor, and what writing has to do with being a neighbor. On a geographical level, Anna is a DMV resident, and there was something comforting about sharing her story with my students. None of us can do a thing about what happened but now there are about forty more of us around the Beltway that have our hearts and minds connected to Jack.

And I don’t think Anna wrote her story in order to show the rest of us how to write the sad. But I think of that verse in the Bible about a man laying down his life for his friends in order to show how much he loves them, and I wonder if that’s what we do when we lay down our lives on the page. I wonder if, when we pick up a pen and attend to a story we don’t think we want to tell, whether we are looking around for love to show others and ourselves even when the story is incredibly dark. I wonder if it is the act of a neighbor to attend to others’ stories as well as our own.

 

 

 

 

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Choose Your Words

When Hadley wants to add a dash of funny into an anecdote, or say, a weeknight dinner she finds dull, her go to tactic is to use the word, “fart.” The word works in almost any situation that (she thinks) needs livening up.

For example, do you have extra shredded cheese on your dinner plate? Then do this:

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You will be sure to create a ruckus.

The thing is, I get bored with this word. I’m all for a good body humor joke but this word is so easy to insert that after a while I find it monotonous.

“That’s lazy story telling, Hadley,” I say on my literary high horse.

“Only use that word every third day because it loses its humor,” I suggest.

“Not to me,” Hadley mumbles.

Harper agrees. “Mommy, ‘fart’ is always funny.”

But one afternoon, after what I believe was the 5,000 time of hearing this word, I decided to give Hadley the equivalent of a Coach Taylor talk.

“Hadley,” I say, pacing around the living room while she sat on the couch, moving her head out of my way so she could see Minecraft on the TV.

“Hadley,” I say again, shutting off the video game. “No more using fart.”

I sat down on the coffee table, my knees touching hers. “You’re a better kid than that. You’re so smart. So creative. You can do better than this word.”

I sounded like I was reading a script from an ABC After-School Special except instead of saying, “Don’t do drugs,” I was saying, “Hadley don’t use the word fart.”

“OK, Mama,” Hadley says.

I ruffle her hair and walk away.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose y’all. My job here is done.

At dinner that night, Hadley made this:

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She was so proud of herself, and laughing so hard she could barely breathe.

“This is great, Hadley!” I say. “Is this somebody on a skateboard?”

“Hahahaha! NO!” Hadley’s standing next to me laughing so hard she bends over and holds onto her knees.

“What is it?”

She looks me in the eyes, and hers are glistening from the giggles, and I cannot wait to get in on my blue eyed beauty’s joke.

“It’s a guy who’s give off his digestive gases,” Hadley says then collapses on the floor in a heap of laughter.

Hadley – 2, 461 Mama – 0

Full hearts, indeed.

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My Week In Words

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Because I wonder what would happen if I thought of some of the more mundane and tedious things I did as art.

IMG_0725Because the entire book tore me apart. I don’t think that story will ever leave me, but I do think I’m now in the right frame of mind to teach Romeo and Juliet.

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Because I’m certain this is how I communicate. I have to be better about arguing, but the idea of telling you a story that evokes sounds more fun than convincing you of anything. Still, it seems a writer needs to know how to do both.

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Because the fitness instructors at my gym say the best things and I always want to write them down but I’m worried I’ll look like a freak pulling out a notebook and pen during spin class.

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Beauty All Around

The problem is that there are a lot of things I want to resolve. I want to learn to knit. To make sourdough bread. I think quilting would be fun. And writing a book. I’d love to send some of my essays out into the world. I’d love to redesign this blog, and set up a shop for journals, reading guides, and such.

And then there are habits I’d love to establish: reading the Bible and writing down a verse or two that shimmers or startles me. Baking and cooking more. Setting the table for breakfast and not just dinner.

I ran across this quote a while back: I will make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life,” (Elsie DeWolfe) and I think that it perfectly fits what I’m leaning towards when I think about these things I want to learn and do. I’m not saying I’ll turn a blind eye to sad or scary things, in fact, I think it’s the opposite. What makes me afraid, filled with worry, what keeps me up at night, or what makes me sad, I’ll turn towards with care. I’ll look at these things as “dragons…who are waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage,” as Rilke suggests.

So my New Year’s Resolution is to make what’s around me beautiful by creating something every day. It could be a blog post, a note to a friend, a recipe, the beginning of an essay. It might be a lesson plan or a DIY project. Maybe it’ll be a scarf I knit for one of the girls’ Barbies because let’s be realistic.

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I made a sign with the Elsie DeWolfe’s words on it and am using Elise Blaha Cripe’s letterpress print to track my progress. Here is a grid of photos of some of the projects I’ve been working on so far:

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Sometimes I’ll write about them as well.

Elise’s print came with a sticker that says, “Big things happen one day at a time,” and I hung it on the whiteboard in my classroom above my student’s seating charts. I hope they fill their last days of middle school making everything around them beautiful as they sift through what’s murky right now.

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I’m happy with my plan for 2015. It feels creative and challenging, and right up my (sometimes very dark) alley.

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You Will Be OK If You Try

One Saturday this past fall, I was at a soccer game of Hadley’s. She was playing goalie and during a block, got kicked in the mouth by an attempted goal.

I jumped out of the lawn chair I was sitting in and ran on the field towards her, and about five strides in, I started to wonder whether this was the right thing to do. Phrases like, “over-reacting” and “helicopter parent” popped into my head. What’s more, those of you who have spent any amount of time with Hadley, or have read this blog since its beginning, know that the last thing she wants when she’s out in the world doing her thing is her mama up in her face.

But I wasn’t going to stop running because how much worse would that’ve looked? A mom hauls ass onto the field then half-way towards her kid, turns around and goes back to her seat? So I ran toward Hadley, ready to accept any shame or screaming she and/or the ref might shoot my way.

I write about this incident because this feeling: the heart skipping from excitement then the dreaded second guessing is very similar to how I feel when I sit down to write. When I think I have a story, it’s easy to crank out one or two words (I wish I could say sentences) and then skip to, “What if nobody likes this? What if it doesn’t get accepted in the place I’m thinking of submitting? What if what I’m writing is wrong or stupid?”

I wish I could say the second guessing goes away after a certain amount of years writing, but it hasn’t (for me). Neither does the feeling of excitement I get when I think I’ve discovered a story. Perhaps the trick then, is to sit with these two feelings and do what it is you think you’re interested in doing instead of allowing one of those feelings to give you an answer. Because in my experience, what grows when I’m in the thick of work is an understanding – an acceptance – that I will be OK, no matter the outcome, because I am trying.

I write all this in order to introduce you to the Listen To Your Mother 2015 auditions. Of course if you get a chance to tell your story on stage you will have an amazing experience. Of course you will work with a director and a producer that will not only make you feel like a rockstar but will take care of your words and show you how to polish them so you see things about your story you hadn’t seen before. Of course you will meet a group of people who are just as daunted, mystified, and in love with motherhood as you are, and who are doing their best to name those feelings through story.

But most of all, if your heart skipped a beat when you found out about LTYM, and then if you began to second guess yourself, I want you to know that you will be OK if you try. I’m not going to tell you how to write or what to write so that you’ll get a spot. That’s for you to figure out (and also, I don’t know). I want to tell you that if you want to write, the only person who can find your voice and your story is you. I can’t promise you that you’ll get in, but I can promise you that you’ll be OK if you audition.

(Sometimes people ask me how I knew I was supposed to be a writer: what signs pointed me in this direction? I pay no attention to signs because a)I am a stubborn donkey and b)if I paid attention to signs they would all point to me trying out for the Luv-a-Bulls and/or shopping for a living. Yet another reason to take a few moments when those raging feelings scream: YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS, or THIS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA.)

The other thing I can promise you is that whether you are on stage or in the audience, you will be shaped  by the stories you hear. What also kept me running that Saturday I ran onto the field, was Stephanie’s story. Because she was brave enough to write and share her story, I was comforted and encouraged by another mom who never knows if she’s doing the right thing. I knew that if she could keep running without knowing what the outcome would be, I could too.

That day, Hadley slammed into my arms. She was terrified. She was hurt. She was angry. And for a few shorts seconds (before the ref told me I had to get off the field), she needed me. My jeans had grass stains on them from slamming my knees on the ground so I could grab Hadley, wrap her up so her face went just under my chin, and my right hand cradled her head.

And I happened to end up with a spot in last year’s LTYM show. It was a great experience and something I wish I could do every year.

But those are just two outcomes in a long list of false starts and failed attempts. Hadley doesn’t always need me to comfort her. I get many “thanks but no thanks” responses on the writing I submit.

I’m not convinced the outcome matters so long as you keep running or keep writing or keep mothering, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.

You will be OK if you try.

 

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My Week(s) In Words

Some from before Christmas break, and a couple after.

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Because mostly I wish I could say more than I do, and I feel bad about not being able to say (or write) what it is that would like to come out. Words take so much time. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

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Because while I was partial to Wil Wheaton’s character in Stand By Me (after all, he was the writer), I appreciated Miranda July’s essay on River Phoenix and I know all my girl friends from Longfellow Elementary School would, too. We watched Stand By Me so many times in sixth grade, each of us internalizing it in a different way as we stepped into adolescence. I’m sad that the some of the boys in that movie, the guys that showed us a snippet of what adolescence was like, couldn’t survive their rebellions. I think the story they performed helped us in some way survive ours.

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Because I found my New Year’s Resolution (more on that later).

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Because I am thankful for a lot, but being able to sit with the events of my life and create something out of them is one of my favorite things to do. It’s troubling that some  people have that taken away from them. This probably means I should stop assuming that she and I would be best friends if we met because not only did I marry the equivalent of Ross but surely she would see the similarity we have due to our Greek heritage.

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Because everyone? The year is eight days old. What you’re dreaming of doing, what you’ve resolved to do, that thing will probably take a lot of starts and stops, lots of failures and mistakes if it’s an endeavor with any heft to it. Also, it won’t go away if you rest for a bit. Don’t stop trying, but go buy yourself a nice cup of coffee and read a book and take a break for a bit. Erin’s quote can be found here.

For an explanation on My Week in Words, go here.

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January C + C Essay

I’m over at Coffee + Crumbs today talking about Hadley’s aspirations to teach her classmates the song AND dance, “Gigilo.”

What’s that? You don’t know about this song? Well, stop over. You’ll not only learn the words, but you’ll read a little story about a similar endeavor I pursued in second grade with some friends of mine. For us, it was a Michael Jackson song. What else would it be in 1982?

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What To Read In January

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When we left Chicago last week, it was 12 degrees. There’s something about walking outside in the morning and smelling twelve degree air that excites me. I suppose the tingling could be coming from fingers and toes beginning to sting, but there’s something more than that. Twelve degrees for me is nostalgic, for sure, but this sort of bitterness welcomes work, don’t you think? It’s the sort of work that will be hard, grueling perhaps, and I love that.  I think we’d do well to believe that hard does not necessarily equal negativity, and I think standing outside in the twelve degree weather and deeply inhaling is a nice metaphor for welcoming the hard stuff.

This is all to say that January is not the time for Jan Karon or Stephenie Meyer. January is time for Frederick Buechner and Katherine Paterson. Like the food you are probably preparing during winter: stews and roasts, potatoes and other root vegetables, January reads should leave you with something that sticks, something that digests slowly.

For You:

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Read Wiman’s book for the sentences: “God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless. How to speak of these things? Language, even as it reaches for life beyond this one, must bear the mark of being lost. Not having been lost. Being lost.” Or, “The mistake many young artists make is in thinking they can will such changes, or – much more dangerous – floats close to the fires of circumstance and suffering without being burned.” And my favorite: “There must be a shattering experience.”

I love this book for the confusion I felt about God, and that the more confused (and afraid) I was, the more I wanted to sit with the confusion. I suspect that’s how my faith will continually resolve itself: I don’t necessarily look forward to a shattering experience, but I can’t turn away from it, either.

For the kids:

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I think this is my favorite winter book. A father and his daughter go owling one night, and if the story isn’t an example in how to lay down words so the reader can hear, feel, and smell them (the entire story is a poem), then it is a charming story where exuberant children meet the world of quiet, subtlety, and patience.

Happy Reading!

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