Cold Weather Comfort Reads

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

I’d had the idea, once, that if I could get the chance before I died I would read all the good books there were. Now I began to see that I wasn’t apt to make it. This disappointed me, for I really wanted to read them all.

-Jayber Crow

 

They say that between the pages of a book is a lovely place to be and in this long and cold winter we are currently having, maybe you need a few extra recommendations to curl up with.

 

Mysteries

I don’t know why I consider a good mystery to be the ultimate comfort read, but this is what I reach for when I’m not in the mood for anything else!  Here are my 2 favourite series:

1. The Maisie Dobbs Series by Jaqueline Winspear

A rich historical setting and an interesting heroine – what’s not to love?!  Mystery, psychology, war stories and romance combine in these gentle but compelling whodunnits.

2. The Chief Inspector Gamache Series by Louise Penny

Set is Quebec these character-driven mysteries involve the uncovering of secrets, the searching of souls and the eating of good food.  You will want to move to the idyllic fictional setting of Three Pines, you will want to eat all the food, you will even want to witness an unconventional murder so that the wise and lovely Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec might arrive and add you to his long list of suspects.  This series is hard not to binge-read.

 

Old Favourites

I’ve been curling up these evenings with Port William’s deep-thinking, slow-moving bachelor barber Jayber Crow (don’t tell Chris).  I am always in a happy place with Wendell Berry’s gentle prose and any of his stories about the Port William Membership. If these books are new to you then Hannah Coulter is a good place to start.

 

New to Me!

There’s nothing like finding a new favourite author and having a back-catalogue to work through!

I recently discovered Anna Quindlen through Blessings and Still Life with Bread Crumbs… and Kent Haruf through Our Souls at Night.  I am catching up but there are still many more to read, insert the praise hands.

 

Quirky Reads

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is a charming read about the grumpy old man next door.  (It might inspire you to host a Swedish film night which I did for my Book Group – we watched the film and ate IKEA food!)

Wonder by R. J. Palacio is one of those ‘kids’ books’ that everyone should read.  I have heard it described as ‘a book that has made grown men weep’, which my husband can confirm!

In Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig gives voice to a wonderful and fascinating heroine – a fostered teenager with autism.  It’s a hilarious, and deeply moving, page-turner.

The One-in-a-Million Boy (and the 104-year-old woman who saved his family) by Monica Wood is rightly described as ‘As a lovely, quirky novel about misfits across generations’.  Flawed characters, unlikely friendships, redemption… I loved this book.

 

What about you? What books would you recommend curling up with as we take shelter from the Beast from the East?

 

 


(All Amazon links are affiliate links which means I get a few pennies from your purchase, at no extra cost to you!)

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On Quiet Stubbornness and Messy Creativity

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“Ok, but your teacher would like you start your ‘a’ here”  I say for what seems like the millioneth time in the last 2 years.

You know those girls who are really prim and proper? Who are precise?  Who colour inside the lines?  That’s not Liv.

It’s not just that her handwriting’s messy.  It’s not just that handwriting is not her favourite thing.  It’s that she’s found another way to do it!  She’s found a different place to start the letter! It’s that she has noticed ‘four’ looks like this in some books: ‘4’, so she has decided to write it like that now (said ‘4’ is formed with great care, in a sea of otherwise illegible numbers).  It’s that she LIKES CAPITALS! It’s that I look away for one moment and she has ‘accidentally’ written in her right hand! (She is entirely left-handed, “Woops”).

I feel her quiet stubbornness dig in, take hold.  I feel my stress levels rise.  I do not want to be locked in a battle with my 6-year-old about handwriting, but here we are.

Later, I sit down with my yellow writing pad and inky black pen.  I form my ‘a’ like a type-written ‘a’.  My ‘g’ has no tail.  I form ‘s’ from the bottom.  Random capital letters creep in, or go missing.  I don’t write on the line.  I don’t dot every ‘i’.  My writing slopes in inconsistent, ever-changing form.  Still, “start your ‘a’ here”, I tell my daughter.

*

Last year Liv had one of those ‘Craft’ homeworks – build an emergency vehicle with recycled material in the course of a week.

On a few previous occasions we had built the essential parts of her ‘Craft’ homework ourselves (“My daddy made it” she said, holding up her boat in p1) so I set my determination to find something she  could make completely on her own.  And I was successful.  I found a brightly coloured fire engine online made out of egg cartons and milk lids and straws.  The necessary paint colours were already in the art cupboard.

Every afternoon I set out her materials and told her which bit to paint, or stick.

She did it, but there was a quiet, persistent mutter about how she was making an ambulance, how she wasn’t taking the fire engine into school.  I ignored her.  The fire engine was going to look great, she would love it.  I didn’t know how to make an ambulance, we didn’t have the stuff.

I ignored her until Thursday afternoon when we had a fabulous, bright fire engine that she had made herself, but that she did not want.

“Can I make my ambulance now?”

She asked for an empty Tropicana cartoon and some yellow and green paint.  I asked if she wanted me to get a photo up on my iPad?  Nope.

“I know what it looks like.”

Of course there wasn’t enough paint and there wasn’t enough time but I had learnt my lesson, I knew – the orange juice carton with splodges of running paint – was Art.

*

There are more stories. The same story, repeated.

As someone who is drawn to the quirky and unconventional,  it’s a strange thing when I find myself inexplicably trying to iron out these traits in my daughter.

It usually means I need to watch Sir Ken Robinson again. ‘If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,’ he says.

The girl is original, let her be original, I remind myself.

‘All children are born artists,’ Picasso said, ‘the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.’

I don’t want to be part of the problem.  Let’s not be part of the problem.

 


Photo by Marian Trinidad on CreationSwap

 

 

 

 

Legitimate Reasons

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It’s a particular kind of cold – morning hailstones on a blustery beach on the north coast of Ireland – and it occurs to you that you have watched too much Marple, read far too much Maisie Dobbs and Inspector Gamache, to be truly at ease in a beautiful and isolated place.

You could write the setting for your murder, here between the crashing waves and the rushing river, an 18th century temple dramatically perched on the cliff edge above…

Maybe someone would see something glancing out the window of the coastal train before it disappeared into the tunnel.

You are relieved to see a dog-walker.  You trust dog-walkers.  They have a legitimate reason to walk.  (And you never hear of dogs being accomplices to murder.  Do you?).

*

There’s a lone seagull ‘winter paddling’ in the water’s edge, just like you are.  He’s braver than you, not scampering off when the tide comes in, or maybe he’s just more free?  You feel a bit silly letting the water wash over your colourful wellies.  The seagull looks just right though, he has a legitimate place in the sea, written into his name.

*

What the hailstones add to the texture of the beach is incredible. Someone should write about it, you think.  A legitimate writer.  A poet.

*

“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute”, Wendell Berry says.

Take a solitary walk.  Winter paddle.  Write.

Fill in your blank.

 

 

Nourishment

I know, now, not to try to write as soon as I arrive at the writers’ retreat.

I know, now, to put my welly boots on and wrap up warm and head to the water before it gets dark.  I do not need to see words gather on a screen or in my yellow writing pad, just yet.  I need to see the sea, and the rocks and my own footprints in the sand.

I do not need to open the laptop in a hurry.  I need to open Jayber Crow with dinner and Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings with breakfast.

I need to walk and I need to read.  This is what I’m here for, too.

*

Nourishment can seem like a waste of time to me.  The amount of nourishment I require can be a source of frustration, and sometimes embarrassment, to me.  Why do I need to eat so often and with such intentionality?  Why can I not run on less?  Why can I not start my day with a quick cuppa like other people do?  Why can I not sleep without a good supper?  Why is what is enough for other people not enough for me?  I try to start and end and punctuate my day with steady fuel, with good(ish) food, because I know the cost if I don’t.  I need to eat well to function well every single day, multiple times a day.  I haven’t found a quicker fix.

As I walk along the cold beach after breakfast, I realise how closely my physical needs and my particular metabolism, mirror my soul needs and my particular introversion.  The amount of soul-nourishment I require can also be a source of frustration, and sometimes embarrassment, to me.  Why do I need space so often and with such intentionality?  Why can I not run on less?  Why can I not jam-pack my day like other people do?  Why can I not sleep without a good novel?  Why is what is enough for other people not enough for me?

Nourishment can seem like a waste of time.  Open the laptop and get writing already.

*

This is my third year at the writers’ retreat and I know, now, there will be regular trips to the kitchen, and to the shore and to Port William with Jayber Crow.  I haven’t found a quicker fix.

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Winter Days

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These are the days when Liv tries out her recently learnt skill of sarcasm at every opportunity.  So this morning, loudly: “What a surprise! Imogen being cross at breakfast!”.  (Mouths exaggeratedly across the table at me “Being Sarcastic”).

These are the days of “wintery showers”.  Last night’s snow lay crisp and firm this morning and the whole world feels quiet and cold.  It’s my favourite kind of morning.  We wear our welly boots and inspect the other footprints on the way to school, the paw prints, the tiny (dancing) bird feet.

These are the days when it’s hard to sleep, the days of winter bugs and sniffles that won’t go away, the days when someone in the house is sick.  These are the days of reading past your bedtime, tucked up with a hot water bottle and Inspector Gamache.  These are the days when Imogen likes to sneak in like a ninja in the early hours and nestle her curly head beside mine.

These are the days of listening to Kate Winslet narrate audio books.  The Far Away Tree.  Matilda.  These are the days Kate has upped the expectations from our children at bedtime –  “Do the voices!”.  These are the days my daughter notices that my Highway Rat voice is the same as my Pharaoh voice (which is the same as my Mr Wormwood voice, of course).

These are the days of Deep Questions about Life.  Liv is talking about apples and death as we wait at the traffic lights for the green man.  The Garden.  The Serpent.  Eve. “Is it true?” she asks me. I pause. “It seems true to me,” I answer slowly,  “because we want the wrong thing sometimes, we take what isn’t good for us.”  These are the days of questions that cannot be answered at traffic lights.

These are the days of porridge, every morning, to warm the cockles of our heart.  (“I have 21 hearts,” Imogen declared this morning.  “I actually do.  Stop laughing.”)  These are the days of comfort food.  A big pot of curry for dinner, or a chippy.  These are the days when the hardest thing about reading Inspector Gamache is not the suspense of who the killer is, or how worried I am about the Inspector (a lot), but how hungry it makes me.  I want to be at Oliver’s Bistro by the fire with a café au lait and a roast beef and horseradish croissant.  It is a kind of torture to read these words on a winter night: croquet-monsieur, crisp baguette with paté, coq au vin, mound of frites, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse.

These are the days of snow and sarcasm and sniffles and snuggles and stories.  These are the days of hibernation and craving comfort.  These are days when it can be hard not to take the apple.  These are the days when we need to be nourished instead, to look at bird tracks in the snow and to try out our sarcasm at breakfast.

What’s filling your days this winter?

Room For It All

‘It is critical that we catch ourselves doing things well.’

[Brené Brown]

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The daffodils I bought on Friday have wilted, most of them before they even opened.  I wonder if the window cleaner can see them and would it be too obvious if I snatched them away from the kitchen window sill?  I don’t want to be reflected in the dead flowers, that’s the thing.  I don’t want his glimpse into our home to be of brown wilted daffodils.

The daffodils have wilted and I wonder what I did wrong or what I didn’t do?  What if they are a reflection of this home, I suddenly think, in panic.  What if this is not a thriving environment?  What if it’s toxic?  Even daffodils die.

They are just daffodils, of course, don’t be silly.  I empty out the water and put them in the brown bin, where they should have been already.  They are just daffodils, of course, but they looked like a picture of neglect, a vintage vase of failure.

I could say some negative things about our house, I could self-deprecate our home.  Such comments can trip off my tongue.  Yet I have glanced into our kitchen window, the way the window cleaner might, and I have seen colour and warmth.  Imogen’s tricky words stuck on the kitchen cupboards, art work strung across the wall, spotty mugs, a pot of dinner.  This picture tells another story.

It’s important to catch these glimpses.

It is hard to catch these glimpses.  We have a radar for the wilted flowers, the crumbs, the clutter.

It takes imagination, and gratitude.  It often takes the voice of someone else.

When someone compliments my home – I try to see what they see.  When someone sits in our living room and makes generous assumptions about our family life – I try to see what they see.

Sometimes it seems like it’s the most important thing we can do – to see the beauty around us, in what we are creating, to toss those daffodils in the compost bin, along with our measuring sticks, to catch ourselves doing things well.

Yet, the truth is, what I am creating is inconsistent.  The daffodil situation is real, there are things I fail at.  The beauty is real, there are things I do well.  The most important thing I can do, perhaps, is make room for it all.

Erin Loechner says that social media has encouraged us to crop out the contradictions in ourselves, and I realise that this is what I am always doing – with the flowers, with the crumbs, with the compliments – I am trying to crop out the contradictions.  I am hiding a vase of dead daffodils so that my window cleaner (if he cares) will see a consistent picture if he glances in the kitchen.  (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care).

There is no consistent picture, of course.  There is an ongoing story, and no glimpse or glance or snapshot can capture it.  There are contradictions – in my nature, in my parenting, in the keeping of my home – and if I stop trying to crop them out, I am freer to catch myself doing things well.

My friends are coming for dinner on Friday and I’m going to buy daffodils for the kitchen and there will be room for us all.

Light Your Lamps

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I have some words written in my journal from an Advent Retreat I attended at the start of December.

Awake.

Ready for action.

Lamps Lit.

Watchful.

Work clothes.

They are not the words I was expecting.

Even my purple pen and black inky hearts can’t really make them look beautiful, although I try my best.

Wasn’t I here for a deep breath, for rest for my soul?  What am I doing in this beautiful space scribbling down words like action and work? Why do I feel excited, like I’m hearing something new?

*

I am the girl who got so tired of rally-cries, altar-calls and persuasive sermons  that she got ‘Be Still’ tattooed on her foot.

I am the girl who ended up very sensitive to many words, many phrases, many hymns and many, many parts of the Bible.

I took refuge away from them.  I took refuge for a time far away from church and I took refuge, sometimes, in the loo at church.

I still do, to be honest, but not so much.  I found a practice that helped me.

Addie Zierman calls it ‘Sermon Notes for Cynics’.  She writes:

I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.
In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this … and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

I have found this to be true.  I have gathered my own trigger-words, noted them, sat with them, wondered about them.  They sound different to me now.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of that preacher.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of the girl I once was.

Some words I picked up wrong, that’s all.  I made them try-hard and anxious and then simmered in anger at them later.

*

My husband is the type of man who, when his wife gets a tattoo that says ‘Be Still’, will get a black sharpie and script ‘Keep Going’ on his own foot in his best cursive, waiting nonchalantly beside her to be noticed.

It was funny.

It was also wiser, perhaps, than intended.

You can’t make a phrase like ‘Keep Going’  beautiful, I thought.  Not as a tattoo, not with a black sharpie or a purple pen or inky hearts.  It’s a word about strain and striving, isn’t it?

But we need both, of course – to be still, to keep going – I picked it up wrong, that’s all.

*

And so back to my chair in Pilgrim Cottage, to the Advent essay I am reading from Luke 12.

We are to have our work clothes on and our lamps lit.  We are to be awake and ready and watchful.

I am surprised that there is space inside me for these words, that I can’t wait to write them down and mull them over.  I do not imagine that I will carry them with me into January, that they will shape my phrase for the year.

I had heard this story all my life with panic.  I heard the rousing preacher.  I heard the over-zealous teenage girl.  The heading in the NIV for this passage is ‘Watchfulness’ but the heading in my mind was ‘Watch out!’.

But what about being watchful as an act of faithfulness, instead of panic? I am drawn to that.

I think about how I wake up every night in a sweat about half an hour after I first fall asleep.  There is something I have not done and someone is dead, or sick or missing or something is very wrong.  Until I realise it is not.  I was dreaming, that’s all.

Sometimes it feels like our high-alert switch is stuck and it is such a stressful way to parent or live but we cannot seem to help it.  I’d like to be watchful instead.  Ready.  Available.  Present.  Not waking up in a sweat.

*

‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ it says in Luke 9:26.

I heard this last April in church.  Addie hadn’t yet suggested her Sermon Notes for Cynics, and I still had few tools to deal with these words.  Words that made me feel tired and judged and boxed in and angry and ashamed.  My instinct, as always: to take refuge away from them.  But I didn’t.  I wrote them in my Bullet Journal (see, now, the particularly jagged handwriting? I was a little cross).  I hid in a corner at coffee time (which is progress from the loo) and when my friend Joan asked me how I was I said that my field was all wobbly and she said hers was too and we sat with it.

I am still sitting with those words, I realise now, as I am thinking about what it means to light your lamps and put your work clothes on.

Whose field did I think I was ploughing in? The field of the scaremonger preacher?

When I think of that field as the one that is mine to tend, doesn’t it become a beautiful thing?  The field of my calling and my gifting and my place in the world.  The plough that needs my temperament, my creativity, my good work, my effort.  And, honestly, when it comes to those things isn’t it hard to keep going?  Isn’t it a challenge? Don’t we need a warning that it’s going to be tough?

*

It’s 2018 and my phrase for the year is Light your Lamps.

You can strike a match and stay in your post out of fear, I know (I’m not sleeping, Lord.  I’ll never sleep!).  It can be a performance.  It can be a thing that will not last.

But I want to light mine with intention and expectation.

I find it hard to keep burning.

‘I have edited my own soul many times,’ Erin Loechner says, ‘and each time I’ve done so in the name of kindness.  Good intentions.  Passivity.’

I find it hard not to edit, not to diminish what I thought mattered, not to downplay the words I was starting to say.  I find it hard to keep burning.

Light your Lamps is a reminder.  Maybe it’s a quiet rebellion, too.

Can you be a slow, meandering kind of girl and also be ready, lamps lit, work clothes on, hand to the plough?  I am hoping you can.

I am not fit for the Kingdom of God, I think, but I am being made fit.  I need to be still.  I need to keep going.