If you love the photography series Humans in New York then check out God in New York, a collection of a hundred spiritual interviews, by Rikki Tahta. This is a great read for Lent and the Year of Mercy. I picked up this book to gain insight into the inner world of atheists. By the 20th interview, I found the insights of atheists to be slightly flat and repetitive. Meanwhile, the interviews of New Yorkers of faith were multi-layered and deep. I found myself easily relating to New Yorkers who were Hindi, Jewish, and Muslim, as well as New Yorkers who share my own Christian faith. There is an entire chapter for people who access their High Power through a 12 step recovery program. God in New York encouraged me to be more brave and more humble in my faith journey. Those are two important virtues to strengthen in my daily life.
It's Lent! It's a great time to introduce your kids to the Japanese Paper Art of Origami as they fast from electronics. Thunder Press has created an all-inclusive kit called "Noah's Art Origami" by Seth Friedman for $24.95. This is a family friendly activity with 100 sheets of printed origami paper to craft Noah, his wife, an ark and a giant cast of animal characters. A 112 page booklet of maps and historical information on Noah's Ark has enough detail for the geekiest of Bibilical Scholars. I loved the laminated paper Ark which could store all the origami creations once they were finished.
I put my 10 year old son to work on making the origami creations. He rated it at an intermediate level of ability and he liked the nice, clear directions. In addition to the popular giraffe and elephant, I loved the look of the more creative origami creations such as a white spotted deer and a ram with a curly horn. My son's favorite origami creation was two sheet turtle which had green legs and a textured shell. My five year old melted over the origami rabbit. The origami directions come printed in a handy book, so I can easily save it and fold more paper bunnies for our mantle this Spring.
Paper folding is such a gentle family activity. I find my pre-teens really benefit from the focus origami requires. My younger kids are amazed whenever they see flat paper turned into 3 D creations. If you are looking at more ways to avoid time on Netflix this Lent and keep your family more focused on Christ, a $25 investment in "Noah's Art Origami" might be a great gateway into this beautiful art form.
Writing a first book is such an intimidating project for me, that it's helpful to have Benson's friendly advice book "Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life" on the desk next to my computer. What I love most about this book is its gentle tone. Benson gives ideas for structure and discipline, but he doesn't demand that his way is the only way for me to create books.
Benson encouraged me to think of my "writing" as "my life" and not strictly the hours I spend searching for words put on an blank Google Document. His delicate sentences contain a lot of depth. "Books are meant to be written and then discussed. The other way round can be deadly." (pg. 151). "Write for those you love... They may not be the most critical readers, but they will be the most important, because they will be the ones who keep you writing. They are the ones who always grin when they see your words coming." (pg. 65).
The world is not always a kind one to new writers. Thank goodness Benson lends a little of his cheerful confidence to us in "Dancing on the Head of a Pen!"
Lift Ev'ry Voice is a treasury of 75 well-written short biographies about famous African-Americans by retired school teacher, Lillian M. Whitlow. The choice of role models included in Lift Ev-ry Voice is wide and deep. This collection contains well known favorites such as Malcom X, Louis Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Whitlow also includes Augustine Tolton, the first black Roman Catholic priest in America, the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Jacob Lawrence, a famous painter, and Queen Bess, a daredevil aviator.
As a homeschool teacher, I loved having instant access to so many heroes from different fields of influence. For example, I love Ethel Waters' recording of "His Eye is On the Sparrow." Reading Whitlow's inspiring biography outloud plus showing a Youtube video of Waters' deeply felt hymn could create an instant history lesson. Lift Ev'ry Voice is an inspiring reference book that makes teaching history fun and easy.
Whitlow writes honestly about the sexual abuse that many African-American Artists overcame in their childhood. While not the usual fare for Elementary School and Middle School Students, I found myself respecting Whitlow's decision to include the more "unpretty" parts of history. The most important thing we can do for students is to let them know that heroes overcome great odds. I think the benefit of having one hurting child feel more hopeful about her future is worth the risk of selling less books to concerned teachers. I'd encourage any Catholic Mom who might be squeasmish about Whitlow's approach to still buy this book and read the parts they are comfortable with outloud to their children. Whitlow is a true historian and the depth of her scholarship isn't easily replicated by picture books from the public library.
In honor of Black History month, treat your home library to a copy of Lift Ev'ry Voice!
Shonda Rhimes is sort of persona non grata in the pro-life moment. She's a Catholic mom of 3 who writes about characters getting abortions on prime time TV. I'm not a Scandal or Grey's Anatomy fan, but I still found Rhimes' advice about her writing process in Year of Yes to be phenomenal. Here's a brilliant little clip since no one else I know will ever read this book but me.
"I was in that basement; I was dreaming of being Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Guess what? I couldn't be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Because Toni Morrison already had that job and she wasn't interested in giving it up...I could dream about being Toni Morrison. Or I could do.... Years later, I had dinner with Toni Morrison. All she wanted to talk about was Grey's Anatomy." (Year of Yes, pg. 80).
Isn't that the best story? It's great to have literary ideals, but at the end of the day, we need to be ourselves as artists. I hope that 2016 will bring us all lots of creativity and hard work!
Brant Pitre’s new book, “The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ,” is a must read for all Christian parents. Pitre is a professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. His accessible prose in “The Case for Jesus” is gumbo for the soul! With clear diagrams, C.S. Lewis quotes, and bits of memoir, Pitre book turns tired secular complaints about our belief in Christ’s divinity into a launching pad for advanced theological study.
Pitre is a curious guy who learned both Ancient Greek and Ancient Hebrew in order to better understand the historical accuracy of Holy Scripture. I loved his deep, almost Socratic, trust that questions about our common belief in the Resurrection can be useful. For 198 pages, Pitre keeps reminding us that real Christian faith is a constant search for truth.
“The Case for Jesus” contains a fresh summary of scholarship on the divinity of Christ. We reexamine the historical background of the Four Gospel writers, as well as St. Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, and St. Paul. Most surprising is his description of the book of the Prophet Jonah. Here’s a quote to get a taste of Pitre’s reassuring style:
“True confession: For years, when I read [the mysterious “sign of Jonah”], I went away somewhat underwhelmed. With all due respect to Jesus, I always felt like the comparison between Jonah being in the belly of the whale for three days and the Son of Man being in the ‘heart of the earth’ for three days was, well, somewhat forced. Don’t get me wrong- I got the parallel: three days and three nights. But this didn’t seem to me to be the most impressive prophecy of the resurrection you could come up with.” (pg. 186).
Rather than limp along in doubt, Pitre decides to reread the book of Jonah, “carefully, and in its original Hebrew.” He discovers that the book of Jonah is far deeper than traditional sermons recount. Evidence suggests that Jonah died inside the belly of the great fish, and his corpse was vomited out on the shore of Nineveh. Pitre makes us a chart, like notes on a blackboard, to highlight the similarity between the Sign of Jonah and the Resurrection of Jesus. Pitre delights in the synchronicity of our Christian faith. His joy in deep theological scholarship is easily shared with his readers.
Pitre's book idea came from an inspired conversation between Bishop Robert Barron, the Word on Fire Ministry, and Pitre during a car ride from the Pittsburgh Airport ten years ago. Pitre complained how often the “transmission of the story of Jesus” is compared to “the Telephone Game.” Bishop Barron turned around and said “Yes! Someone needs to write a book dedicated to refuting that stupid comparison.”
In “The Case for Jesus,” Pitre reminds us that the belief in Christ’s divinity isn’t a garbled myth repeated to us like some game at a child’s birthday party. In the First Century, a variety of witnesses became convinced that something unique happened in an empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Their united belief in the Divinity of Christ changed the entire pagan culture around them.
I left my reading of “The Case for Jesus,” with a renewed sense in of trust and wonder in the doctrine of the Resurrection. I will never teach myself Ancient Hebrew like Pitre and St. Jerome. However, Pitre reminds me that a good self-study in deep theology is the responsibility of every parent and every Religious Education teacher.
Today, Pope Francis became the fifth Pope to Address the United Nations in celebration of the UN's 70th Year. I want to highlight one small section that meant a lot to my heart.
"Government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights."
Pope Francis, UN Address, Sept 25, 2015.
I'm not a Government Leader, but I am leader. I'm encouraged to use the Pope's intellectual clarity to better prioritize the work that I need to do inside my family, inside my parish and inside my local community. I live in West Virginia. I go to church in Western Maryland. I live in a place where the poverty is long standing and chronic. I'm actually living, inside the poor state where I went to High School, because the housing situation inside the Washington D.C. Metro area is insane.
When I heard the Pope talk about the basic need for the human family to have housing, I felt hope. I felt a sense of purpose. A family with young children needs privacy and stability. I realized that all the intense home improvement work we are doing to fix up a 850 square foot house built in 1950 and make it an elegant, and useful home for a family of 8 it part of the Pope's blueprint for a healthy society.
If I had my choice, I would have bought a $650,000 Town House that was minutes from my husband's work in Rockville, Maryland (a Northern DC suburb) that was turn key ready and did not involve my husband watching You Tube Vidoes on cement floor tile installation while our 1 year is teething.
When I hear the Pope talk, its like he's reminding that my life is part of a bigger struggle. The vast majority of Americans can't afford a mortgage on a $650,000 house. There has to be a different option. Our journey is to reclaim old housing in a location that is not very hip. I look around and I celebrate different solutions to the "lodging" crisis, for example, the Tiny House movement.
Moving forward after this speech, I'm going to celebrate our home with more passion. I know that this tiny place is a minimum requirement for my family's ability to function. I want to celebrate our small victories at making our house feel like home, the rosemary growing in a pot ready for use on chicken and my husband's new skill at hanging dry wall. I'm happy that our house is really hard won, because it makes it easier to see and help our neighbors.
After the Pope's UN Speech, I'm not going to join another Social Justice Committee Meeting at church. I am making myself a small sign (I'm married to a graphic artists, that what we do in our house) that says "Lodging, Labor, Land" and I'm keeping my eye on the ball that the Pope has set. I need to be concerned about Housing, Jobs, and Land. I need to make sure that all of us have access to decent housing in my area. I need to keep praying for jobs and encouraging the people that I know and love to find meaningful work. I live in an area surrounded by farmers. I love farmers, but I never talk to them. I ususally feel to shy as a former City Kid because I don't know the "lingo." I feel like our Pope told me personally, "land" is really important, protecting the land, having safe agricultural practices, and protecting the health of our National Park and Forests.
I'm still volunteering at the Food Pantry. I'm still donating money to build wells in Africa. The call that I hear from my Pope is to go deeper into my own local community, and work in prayerful solidarity with the families in Africa and the fishermen in India, to make this World just. I want to help create a world that is easier for family life. It's beautiful to be reminded that my tiny, individual work in my town is connected to the urgent needs of the entire planet.
Thank you, Papa!
To read the Pope's entire speech and hear your own individual action plan in his words, read here.
For more reflections during the Papal Visit from the Catholic Women Blogger Network series, "A Walk In Words With Pope Francis," please visit here.
Book Review: "The Choice of the Family, A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness" By Bishop Jean Laffitte
Our Pope is coming in a few weeks to join the World Meeting of Families from September 22- 25, 2015 in Philadephia. I don't have hotel reservations, or a press pass. Instead, I'm preparing to meet Papa in an intimate audience, inside my own heart!
The current secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, French Bishop Jean Laffitte, has released a new book which is a fantastic read for all married Catholics. The book's meaty title demonstrates Bishop Laffitte's rich theology, "The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness."
Bishop Laffitte is the youngest of 12 children. His viewpoint on family life in the 21st Century is both diverse and practical. "The Choice of the Family" is a book is based on an interview the Bishop had with a married couple, Pierre and Veronique Sanchez. I usually read books by celibate priests and religious saints. This theology book is unique because it is specifically geared towards finding holiness inside a marriage. I felt grateful to find the theological dimensions of my everyday actions as a wife and mother explained with depth and dignity.
Bishop Laffitte describes the spiritual importance of family life. He is also realistic about the many problems faced by marriages around the world. Bishop Laffitte addresses the problems of cohabitation, adultery, and even seemingly more mundane stresses, such as the cost that excess commuting can take on a marriage. Bishop Laffitte also describes the suffering that parents feel when they have taught their Christian faith to their children who later abandon it as adults. Bishop Laffitte says "these parents live out a particular trial where they no longer perceive that they have sown anything." (pg. 167).
Bishop Laffitte presses all of us to think deeply about this issue of education. He says "To educate means to give to a child or to an adolescent the means for his freedom and his future autonomy. . . The gift of an education does not have to return to its source in the form of a copy conforming to what the parents were able to do." (pg. 168). As a Mom who homeschools, I'm going to mediate on that concept this year. My prayer is to make my teaching more of a gift of pure love to God alone, rather than expecting my child's growth or future accomplishments to make me "look good".
"The Choice of the Family" is a dense read. I liked reading this book in small sections and then mentally chewing it over its ideas inside my mind. I'm so happy to have found a "stretch read" to help me prepare my heart for the World Meeting of Families.
For more book reviews on "The Choice of the Family" please check out the blog tour from Image Books from August 26 to September 2, 2015.
"The Outsiders" is a coming of age novel from 1967 that impacted my prayer life in a beautiful way this summer. It's amazing for me to hold a novel that author S. E. Hinton wrote as a 15 year old in High School. The plot is similar to West Side Story. The "Greasers" are the poor kids in Oklahoma who face gang-like conflict with the "Socials", troubled rich kids who drive around in their flashy cars and beat up the weak.
"The Outsiders" is a book about class. It's a book about the Artist try to find his own identity. What surprised me the most was that this book about troubled kids was also extremely pro-family. The main character, Pony, is the youngest of a family of three brothers. Their parents have died. The brothers are holding onto the gift of family life even in the middle of harsh circumstances. They extend their hospitality to a group of male teenagers that don't have a safe space at home. It amazed me that in the middle of a book about knife fights, the author is talking about the importance of "cleaning the house" and of leaving the door open at night so other teenagers have the option of a safe place to go whenever their abusive parents start to drink and fight. "The Outsiders" isn't a book about family life. Yet it echoed to me the importance that one loving couple can make on a whole town, even if they are no longer around and their kids aren't calmly dealing with emotional pain by going to Mass every Sunday.
There is a central moment in the novel where a character tells his friend to "Stay Gold" and watch the sunset everynight. I don't want to ruin your delight in a new story, so forgive me for being vague about the context of this quote. My takeaway message from this author was to appreciate God's Beauty more in my life.
For about 2 months, I've remembered to watch every sunrise that I can see and every sunset. I pray almost every morning because I'm a Caremelite. Yet its really amazing to pray outside while I watch the sunrise. I don't have a gorgeous view from my backyard. I've got of bunch of messy telephone wires blocking my view to the East. After reading this book, I'm more affectionate about my "messy, poor view" that's more similar to the book's main character than some glossy Southern Living photo shoot. My imperfect view of the sunrise doesn't matter, because God's color choices are amazing. There is something so peaceful and uplifting about trying to catch every sunrise and sunset that I can in my life. God's free art show is the perfect set of bookends to my daily life.
I'm so grateful to S. E. Hinton for taking a risk and publishing her first novel at age 15. She reminds me that you don't have to have the spit and polish of Shakespeare to have a message that is worthwhile to share with the world. This would be a great choice for a book on tape on your iPod for your daily commute to the City. If movies are your thing, a 1983 Outsiders movie is free on You Tube. The best part of that movie is watching young Tom Cruise preform in his first acting job, along with Patrick Swayze and Ralph Macchio. Enjoy "The Outsiders" and our last few weeks of sunsets in the summer!
If you buy one book this summer, please make it Harper Lee's first novel "Go Tell A Watchman." This book is Harper Lee's first attempt to describe her pain at the legacy of Deep Southern Racism which would eventually fuel her American Classic, "To Kill A Mockingbird." Fifty years later, Lee's unpublished "first novel" was found inside a safe deposit box by Lee's lawyer.
"Go Tell a Watchman" is both brilliant and uneven. I'd call it "rough-hewn." Some of Lee's sentences are so striking that it felt like I spent $18 to buy a book of poetry, instead of a good pool read. Some of my favorite early 'poetry' lines are: "When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say," and "Although Maycomb's appreance had changed, the same hearts beat in new houses, over Mixmasters, in front of television sets."
There is a lot of friendly talk about religion inside of Lee's novel. I don't know how Ms. Lee would describe her faith background but with funny Jesus jokes like these, she'd be welcome to visit on my backporch and or inside my Facebook feed. For example, check out this passage: "Reverend Moorehead was a tall sad man with a stooop and a tendency to give his sermons startling titles. (Would You Speak To Jesus If You Met Him on the Street? Reverend Moorehead doubted that you could even if you wanted to, because Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.)" pg. 61.
I liked Lee's novel because it describes a certain type of small town mindest that happens inside the Deep South. Insularity and a World of Oppressive Opinions can happen in the South or in the Midwest or in Portlandia. Underneath the deep tie to the South, however, is the universal story of the Artist, someone who is lonely and longing for community at the same time she is afraid of disappearing inside of marriage and motherhood.
There are some complaints that in this book, Mr. Atticus Finch falls from his pedestal of perfect anti-racism. Personally, I like complex fictional characters. In the age of the Baltimore Riots and the Charleston church shooting, I think its better for me as a white reader to struggle with Lee's proposed question "How much racism have I unconsciously inhaled simply as a matter of being inside a flawed American culture?" In this book written from the perspective of an adult daughter, Atticus is not a saint. The shift in his daughter's perspective of her Father as she matures, and her unlikely resolution of their relationship, has great value.
"Go Tell A Watchman" proves to us that great books don't simply fall from the sky. Writing is a process. A strong writing community can encourage a new writer to take a decent story idea and work it into a great nvoel. As a new writer, I felt inspired, instead of intimidated by this work. I told my husband it felt like looking at the sketchbook of Michagenglo's notes for the Sistine Chapel instead of looking at the perfect finished ceiling itself
Some critics call "Go Tell A Watchman" a second rate book. Who cares? As an author, Harper Lee holds her own against Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert. Have I ever regreted my time spent reading a "second-rate" Austen novel? Moreover, what places Lee along with the great authors is her unique and nuanced character development. After meeting the irrepressible Scout at age 26, in "Go Tell A Watchman," I long to meet Scout again at age 46 and 86!
I'm the cheap girl who always borrows my book at the library. I used my leftover Mother's Day gift card to buy "Go Tell A Watchman" at the only bookstore inside my small Southern City.
Book Review: "American Wife: Love, War, Faith & Renewal" by Taya Kyle & "American Sniper" by Chris Kyle
Here is a 4th of July Hat Trick. Watch "American Sniper," the movie by director Clint Eastwood. Then read two autobiographies, one by Navy Seal Chris Kyle and a new book released by his widow, Taya Kyle.
"American Sniper," the book, had a lot of inspiring passages about the value of perseverance. I felt encouraged by Kyle description that the best recruits for the Navy Seals were not the strongest guys or the toughest guys. But the guys who had mental toughness and muscular flexibility. Kyle's description of the training process for becoming a Navy Seal was also the clearest metaphor I've ever heard to describe the stress of Stay At Home Motherhood.
"I don't know how many hundreds of push-up or other exercises we did. I do know that I felt like I was going to fail. That drove me- I did not want to fail. I kept facing that fear, and coming to the same conclusion, every day, sometimes several times.
People ask about how tough the exercises were, how many push-ups we had to do, how many sit-ups. The numbers themselves were almost beside the point.... It was the repetition and constant stress, the abuse that came with the exercises, that made BUD/S so tough...
Getting through BUD/S and being a SEAL is more about mental toughness than anything else. Being stubborn and refusing to give in is the key to success. Somehow I stumbled onto the winning formula." (A. Sniper, pg 28-29)
My favorite quote from the boat is Kyle's memory of being trained in ocean swimming. "You swim all the time. Two-mile swims were routine. And then there was the time where we were taken out in boats and dropped off seven nautical miles from the beach.
"There's one way home, boys," said the instructors. "Start swimming." (pg 30).
There are a lot of really hard things that I do in my daily life. Somehow that image of Jesus being my Drill Sergeant who drops me off from shore in a cold, dark ocean and says "There's one way home, girl! Start swimming!" really resonates with me.
Inside of "American Sniper" there is violence and bad language. The narrative was so strong in this autobiography I found myself with a much stronger stamina than I usually have for the War Genre. I think "American Sniper" is an important book for Christian women to read because its written from the perspective of a confident Texas man. Reading the thoughts of a self-assured, Southern man, whose inner life is not highly representative of the inner dialogue of the New Yorker/Washington Post male writers that I usually read, was a good mental stretch for me.
I'm more confused about my review of "American Wife" by Taya Kyle. This was a weird paradox where I felt like I liked someone less after I read their first hand account of their marriage, after reading the carefully tailored first person accounts placed inside her husband's autobiography. I'd be interested in hosting an online book club comparing the events outlined in these two books side by side. Some of the important events in the marriage are described in a radically different way between the husband and the wife. I wasn't clear if their gender caused them to experience the same events in such different way? Or if Christ Kyle's tragic murder caused a revision of central events in their 10 year marriage? I think further thought and discussion about this topic is fruitful for those of us who are living out the vocation of marriage.
I was not a huge fan of the movie "American Sniper." I felt like I was watching a dreary, wandering Western. I spoke about the movie with a Social Worker at my local Veteran Affairs who has treated a lot of PTSD suffers. She thought the movie was extremely accurate in its depiction of what many soldiers face when they come home from war.
We can not give enough love to our military families. If you have a military base or a VA hospital close by, please visit. The next best thing is to read memoirs and non-fiction by veterans themselves. My favorite war memoir is "The Things They Carried" by Marine Sniper, Anthony Swofford. Swofford describes shaking the desert sand out of his Marine Combat Uniform in the middle of Iowa, while attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Somehow that mental image has impressed me for years. "American Sniper," the book isn't a glittery book of prose. Yet the writing is really solid and the story arch is well done. I felt like I met the real Chris Kyle, when I finished the book. I'm grateful for the help to connect with a Veteran and the reminder to pray more urgently for world peace.
New Catholic author Leah Libresco's book, "Arriving at Amen," is an unusual and lively read. Libresco's talent is to see the handiwork of God within Math, Science, Literature, and Modern Day Musicals. I find her book an especially useful tool for those of us with an established Catholic Identity and a routine prayer life.
Libresco's short, clear, and creative metaphors about prayer and the spiritual life really stuck with me throughout the day. I don't think I'll forget the her image of Morning and Evening Prayer being similar to an open and closed parenthesis inside a computer program. God designed me to need both parts to run my day well!
Rather than continue to talk about her unusual book, I'd rather show you her talented writing in person. Here is a quote regarding the universal sacrifice of the Mass.
"Imagine that wherever you walked, you traced out your path behind you, maybe with ink, maybe with string. There would be some places where the only evidence of your passing was a single, lonely line, but other locations (the threshold of your front door, perhaps) would show a thick mass of overlaid lines. Every point where lines cross would be a location that you occupied more than once. The times at which you stood there may have varied, but the position would remain the same..."
"I thought of the sacrifice of the Mass as being an example of the same kind of singularity. Throughout history, wherever they were in space and time, Catholics have continually doubled back to intersect in this one space. . . I might turn up for a different Mass ... but in the long chain of coordinates that describe me, there's one variable that remains absolutely the same at every Mass. ... I'm always in the exact same position with respect to Christ's sacrifice regardless of whether I'm in the same location in space and time (x,y,t) as his Crucifixion." (pg. 118-120).
Libresco has a rare gift to write about the deep mysteries of prayer with clarity and humor. I hope we can enjoy many more religious books from her in the future!