D.L. Recommends Vol. 3: The Summer In Retrospect Edition

First, a few things I don’t recommend:

Cheap sparklers for four year olds. Getting the flu whilst being in Mexico. Flying with a toddler who has the flu. Reality television, of any kind. Going on Pinterest when your self-esteem is already a bit low. Underestimating the urban squirrels and how much they enjoy plums/corn on the cob. 

 

 

and here are some things I do:

 

 

Re-watching seasons 1-4 of the Office

Because re-watching Jim and Pam fall in love is so worth it. Anything past those seasons is quite meh. 

 

Robert Coles

Do you guys know Robert Coles? I learned about him first from Philip Yancey. This guy is a psychologist with the heart of a literary giant. I have been re-visiting his massive Children of Crisis series and it cemented in my all-time favorite books category (an excellent Christmas present for the voracious reader). His interviews with children in various degrees of poverty/marginalization in America will stun you. And even though it was written over 50 years ago, not much has changed. I don’t know how someone can be so smart and write so beautifully about such sad things.

 

Dying Your Own Darn Hair

Ever since the ombre look came back into style, the frugal madam inside me has rejoiced. I go and buy a $2 box of bleach, slather it on the lower half of my hair and presto: I look OK. #cheapskateftw. 

 

What Alice Forgot

This book would be classified as my “summer romp”. Quick, fast, interesting–not brain science here, great for summer–and some excellent reflections on relationships and how people change. 

 

Making a Dirt N’ Worms Cake for your Daughter’s 4th Birthday Party

All the kids will freak out in excitement.

 

Works of Love are Works of Peace

This book has beautiful images/words from Mother Theresa at her home with the sisters of Charity in Calcutta. It is the perfect (IMO) coffee table book: beautiful, disturbing, heartbreaking, hopeful. Pictures of people dying, and other people holding them while they do. Reminders that the world is ugly and terrible and we are just to do that one thing in front of us that we need to do. And if we aren’t connected to people who are suffering, then that might be the place to start.

 

Meeting Writers You Admire IRL and Having Them Be Better Than You Imagined

I was at Collegeville for a week of hanging out with amazing writer/activist/practitioners and it was led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. The first few days I was all like is this guy for real? And by the end of the week he was probably one of the best people I had ever met. His genuine listening ear and championing spirit will stay with me for a long, long time–and it makes me like his writing even more than I did. Do you know how rare this is? I am telling you: humility is a lost-art form, and one I dearly need to learn. JWH has it in spades. I am a huge fan. (If you are new to his work may I suggest starting here or here).  

 

Philomena

Favorite movie of the summer, hands down. I was not quite prepared emotionally and sobbed my ever-loving guts out. As I go through my own issues with growing my family this film spoke to me so much through the perspective of the birth parent. Also, the forgiveness scene is fantastic. Watch with tissues clutched tightly in hand (but be prepared to laugh at all the naughty words as well).

 

Whoopie Pies

They are so delicious. 

 

The Aeropress

My friend (and InnerCHANGE General Director) Darren Prince sent this to our family and boy howdy, is it amazing. Relatively inexpensive, this is the way to make coffee when you travel! Darren would be horrified to know that I add milk and home-made vanilla syrup to make the best iced lattes you can get in my neighborhood (srsly), but I ain’t too proud to say it here. Also, you can check out this awesome instructional video by my favorite Irish theologian/internet friend Kevin (I won’t even try to type his last name). 

 

The Chapter Book Stage of Life

We bought our daughter a few chapter books and it is so exciting I just want to squeal: Little House in the Big Woods, Paddington, The Ramona series . . . it is all still a bit over her head but my enthusiasm keeps her going. The costs are steep but my goodness the rewards of parenting.

 

Pickling Things You Grew in the Dirt

Stereotypical white girl urban gardner newbie recommendation alert. I grew a bunch of cucumbers and used my amazing sister’s recipe to pickle them. I can’t stop eating them. 

 

Reading Woody Guthrie Quotes

“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”

 

Watching the New Season of Doctor Who

Somehow my husband figured out how to get it to stream for us and now I am rising up and calling him blessed. I am totes into Peter Capaldi and his eyebrows being the new doctor. Begone, silly-scarfed one! Bring on the dramatic Scot with no ridiculous love situations!

 

Being Quiet

This has been a summer for being quiet in the midst of a loud world. We actually got this quiet book for my daughter and my husband was inspired to photoshop make some images just for me:

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(all original illustrations by Renata Liwska and for heaven’s sake don’t steal them or anything)

 

I recommend taking the time to do the inner work of thinking and working through what it is we all need to sort out. Doing the hard inner work of cleaning our houses, of ensuring that we aren’t all just white-washed tombs bumbling about our world. I recommend going into this fall as people who know we are quietly beloved, and there isn’t a thing we can do to change that.

 

 

 

So, what are some things from the summer that you would like to recommend? Hit me up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Kelsey’s Life

I just recently made the pleasure of Kelsey’s acquaintance, and now we are in an IRL writing group. Her presence is a joy, as are her thoughtful comments, fantastical sermons, and her general air of practical whimsy. Kelsey is new to this whole writing-on-the-internet thing, and I am so glad she is starting. Also, I read this book when I was a teenager as well, and it completely went over my head (not surprising, but still rather depressing). I do believe it is time to crack it open again. Heaven knows I love a good underdog story. 

 

 

 

 

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The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

by Kelsey Maddox

 

 

I don’t remember where I acquired the book or when. Nor do I recall what age I was—a teenager, I know that much. I do remember that it was a stiff, musty, cheap paperback, and that it was hard to keep it propped open. The print was small, type-writer looking, and there were no illustrations. It is a substantial read, and the print felt especially minuscule for all the movement that happened on one page.

I also recall thinking that with a title like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that the content was perhaps too “mature” for me, and that maybe I should wait to read it. But I had a habit of woofing down entire voluminous novels, even if I couldn’t fully fathom them. The summer that I was seventeen I read three of Shakespeare’s plays and four other classic pieces of lit. That is what my teenage self did on vacation. I couldn’t help it. Books were a kinship that no human offered. They were my friends. Books were the very thing that cured and caused my isolation. I didn’t lack friends entirely, but I would sometimes choose a book over a social gathering. How strange! It was easier for me to identify with the book characters than my own friends.

It was an escape.         

And I had found the ultimate one. This book, this one in particular, epitomized my isolation. It embraced why I could be unique and exploited it, all at once. There were so many characters to escape into, each of them a different part of me. So easy it was for me to identify with them, yet each of them radically different from me to a degree of deep intrigue. I couldn’t put it down, this stiff, musty paperback, even though it persisted in closing on me. I would read until my eyes grew wide or would slowly begin to ache, becoming big pools of tired.

This, this novel is the great anthem of underdogs and isolation. The ensemble of main characters, 5 of them at least, each a different offering: the deaf-mute, the diner owner, the Greek who smelled bad. The 12 year old girl I wanted to emulate—her name was Mick. I wanted to live in her house, see the world from her gritty perspective, and be as transformed by a Jewish boy and a deaf-mute and she was. I wanted her short hair and audacity to smoke cigarettes. I wanted to eat at that diner with her and have the same hopes and dreams and sadness. I was curious about the deaf-mute, just like her. I wanted to be his friend—he was so intelligent for his lack of sound. How could you forget him, John Singer? I wanted to sleep on the other half of his bunk bed and write down what he had to say to the world. In this unusual spree of characters and their interwoven stories, I had, for once found people I could identify with—a much more difficult feat in reality.

SO GOES THE TALE OF THE UNDERDOG.

Underdogs.

Underdogs:

Winsome, yet mysterious.

Exposed, yet withdrawn.

In view, but you turn your gaze away so as not to gawk.

    Pridefully different, embarrassedly alone.

    Naively divergent, happily oppressed.

   Wanting belonging, peacefully singular.

              Lacking self-propriety, careless of what others think.

              Economically poor, focused on ailments of self.

              Navigating self worth by both flaunting and hiding ailments.

              Internally stormy, yet full of surprise victory.

Underdogdom was my destiny. Entering the world at two pounds, runt-like in my qualities, I was set for certain meekness. Surely I was destined, with my parent’s broken marriage, my dad’s mental illness, my mom’s intestinal disorder. Was I humble in my isolation? Or just lacking self confidence? Naive? Or just hadn’t asked the questions yet? By high school, I had figured out how to caged-bird sing (thank you, dearest Maya Angelou), beat-of-my-own-drum marching, flaunting outright how I am not like you. Was it circumstantial? Or was it just…me? Regardless of circumstance or simply personal development, there was one thing that differentiates an underdog from a down and out mope: the underdog never loses HOPE.

With the underdog, there is an element of surprise. This capacity to shock society, or even just whoever is around, is the most gratifying thing the created underdog could feel! Even if it is only momentary, it is proof that the underdog can rise above, can excel, or in the very least, is an adequate human being.

In the novel, this is the most vivid through John Singer–the deaf mute–the man I so badly wanted to become friends with in real life. I was so very sad for him when he lost his one true friend, the Greek—such an irrevocable plot twist. Now what would he do? No one else seemed to miss the Greek for what good is a deaf-mute to the general populace? This, this is the song of the underdog—set in a time when people seemed to have less education concerning underdogs. They are all underdogs in this story and they are all champions in their isolation because for once their story is told. We all have stories to tell and the tale of the underdog is no less valuable, though it may seem so because that is the very essence of the underdog—to be less valuable. I think most people want to see the underdog on top for one glistening moment, but would they want to remain an underdog after that? Would you want to remain isolated and ailing?

HOW DARE YOU UNDERESTIMATE THE ISOLATED CREATURES!

And is this not the message of Christ?

(Christ: The paraclete society shocker. The turn-normal-upside-down bringer. The “isolation [read: solitude] is where you’ll find me” lover. Is this not his message?)

And this is why I have read this book over and over: it is where I began to see Christ in the underdog. It is where I began to see Christ in myself. It is where I began to see Christ in those who were like me, underdogs, and for the first time in my teenage life, I made friends that were not books.

 

 

 

 

 

Kelsey Maddox is a lover of words and far too many other things, but most especially: people, the outdoors, gardening, biking and rock climbing, and the monastic life. When she is not attempting the craft of words, figuring out the perfect from-scratch ice cream recipe or problem solving scaling a rock, she works for Grace Trinity Community Church (www.gracetrinitychurch.org/) and hangs out with the two most swell dudes she knows: her husband Phil and son Oliver—well, three dudes if you count the dog!

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

The Giving Tree

The Irresistible Revolution

Winter’s Tale

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Ben’s Life

Well, this is officially the first book in this series that I haven’t read–so I best be getting on that (seriously, now I really really want to). Ben is an IRL friend of mine from lovely Portland. I love the way his literary mind is in constant conflict with the beautiful and terrible world that he finds himself in. Do yourself a favor, read this essay, and then get on over to his website where you can find more of his writing. 

 

 

 

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Winter’s Tale

by Ben Bishop

 

“A lot of people hate heroes. I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.”

- Mark Helprin

^  ^  ^

I’m infatuated with New York City. My fascination is of a particular variety, the kind that comes from visiting a place, immediately becoming enamored, and then returning numerous times without ever actually moving there and having to suffer its more dismal aspects. It’s an infatuation rooted in the aromas of history and raw ambition I get a whiff of every time I walk through Manhattan’s cobblestoned alleys, or drift over the timeless span of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York is a romantic city in the fullest sense of the term, at once exhilarating and unpredictable, a grand old place, occasionally desolate, seeming to have a thousand faces. 

Set near the turn of the 20th century, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” takes place in an alternate version of New York. Recognizable as the real thing, the city’s subtle deviations from reality are revealed only gradually, as the novel unfolds. “Winter’s Tale” traces the life of Peter Lake, master burglar, including his exploits as a thief, his encounters with an enchanted white horse, his pursuit of a beautiful woman dying of consumption, and his running conflict with a brutal gangster. It is fundamentally a fantasy and a work of magical realism, although it operates within (and, just as importantly, was acknowledged and received by the powers that rule) the world of literary fiction. Verbose to the point of intoxication, the book includes some of the best names I’ve ever encountered (a street gang named the Dead Rabbits? come on), and is both a paean to New York City and a document chronicling the author’s love affair with the English language. 

When I first encountered “Winter’s Tale” two years ago, I was deep in the throes of trying to sell my first novel, a process that involved trying to understand my place within the world of fiction. Who was I writing for? What was I trying say? Who was going to read my book? I furrowed my brow and reflected with great sobriety on the Good Books I’d read or had recommended to me over the past decade. Meanwhile, there was a moment during my devouring of “Winter’s Tale” when I began to realize what the distinct-yet-not-unpleasant twinge I’d been feeling since the first page was. It dawned on me that the sliver of undefined matter lodged way back in the molars of my brain had as much to do with what I was not encountering in the book as what I was. Several hundred pages into the story I was surprised to find that I was not ankle deep in existential despair. Try as I might, I simply could not find any artful ennui, nor any of the other neuroses I’d come to associate with much of the literary fiction I’d read. The lead characters were not grappling with suburban desolation, the disintegration of the nuclear family, or that postmodern ambivalence which, while sometimes useful, is all too often symptomatic of a corrosive, humanistic resignation. 

Yes, you say, but did the book change your life? It did. From nearly the first page, I was captivated by its earnestness. Here were characters who believed in the eternal power of love and the ultimate weight of justice. Here were clear depictions of good and evil and the struggle to choose one and not the other. Here was the promise of immortality, and a clear-eyed embrace of the spiritual reality that underpins the material world. And yet it was not a naive work. Neither, miraculously, was it sentimental. You can’t elide the realities of depravity and despair and also tell a human story of any consequence. Not if you want people to believe you. Yet the overall tone of the book—the exuberance of the language, the almost obsessive preoccupation with light and color, and the simple yet powerful claim that things like faithfulness and selflessness are not only possible but vital—was so fundamentally and unapologetically optimistic, that upon my exposure to it I felt something inside of me resonate like a sounding bell. 

Of course, not all of what we would call literary fiction is depraved or morally relativistic. Not by a long shot. Still, I cannot deny how clearly I was struck by the difference between the story of Peter Lake and many of the novels featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Indeed, I wonder if there has ever been as tantalizing a description of a book as the one that ran in the September 4, 1983 Times review of “Winter’s Tale”: 

“There’s far more that I would wish to say about the book – so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.” 

As someone who has grown up reading and studying modern American novels, I’ve absorbed numerous unspoken rules, including the one that states that it’s simply not cool to hold up people who are gentle, hopeful, generous, or altruistic as heroes. Novels that celebrate virtue wholeheartedly, without irony or shame, are exceedingly rare. Those that are canonized are even rarer. That a reviewer for The New York Times would say of any book, let alone this book, that he is nervous about failing to adequately display its brilliance surprised me, to say the least. 

You will note that I have not told you much about the plot or characters, save a cursory overview. I haven’t talked about the moment when I roared with laughter while alone in my bedroom while reading. I haven’t told you about coming to the final scenes of the book, and how I mourned finishing it. I haven’t done any of these things because I want you to have an unadulterated experience of the novel for yourself, to discover its joys on your own and thereby forge your own memories. Before I ever thought about “Winter’s Tale” on an intellectual or critical level, I simply drank it in as a story, and in drinking it in I was powerfully moved. By the end, I found myself agreeing with another reviewer who once wrote that Helprin’s work “exists to remind us that… it is sometimes wiser and more fulfilling to cherish our deepest ideals than to mock them.” 

Last Christmas, I unwrapped a gift from my sister; a copy of “Winter’s Tale.” She didn’t realize I’d already read it. When she did, she was crestfallen. She offered to take it back, get me something else. 

“No,” I said, waving my hand. “No, no. Absolutely not. I’m going to read it again.”

 

 

 

Ben Bishop lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

The Giving Tree

The Irresistible Revolution

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Stina’s Life

I read The Irresistible Revolution late in the game, only a few years ago. But I was already smitten with the ideas and gentle humor and radical hope that Shane Claiborne and his friends possessed. In recent years I have been fascinated by our culture’s reactions to authors who ask us to look at issues of poverty, in-equality, and privilege. In interviews with Claiborne, the most common question I hear being asked is this: “yes, but what about us–the people living normal American lives–is there any hope for us?” There are no easy answers, and–as I think this essay makes clear–there is no way to tell when a book stops changing your life–or what it changes it toward. 

 

 

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The Irresistible Revolution

 

By Stina KC

 

 

What was it about that book?

It was the gee whiz let’s do something. It was the stories of hope. It was the promise of a glittery but gritty revolution where the kingdom breaks through cracked concrete, mustard plant by mustard plant.

It was the acknowledgment that not all is well with the world, stop pretending. Instead, let’s move into the neighborhood and tithe our money relationally; let’s reject the investment in sprawling suburban church campuses when so many are scrounging for grocery money. Be a new kind of believer, a prophetic witness who takes Jesus at his word.

Shane Claiborne came to speak in chapel at my evangelical college in 2004, two years before The Irresistible Revolution was published. It was the week before finals and I skipped his talk to write a paper; I had never heard of him. But I saw the impact he had on my friends, how they came back from chapel pumped up by his words about authentic faith, by his dreadlocks and patched jeans. Some of my crowd looked a lot like Shane that way, and I have a faint recollection of a drum circle that he performed with students on campus.

Shane, it was decided, was very cool. The New Monasticism movement that he headlined buzzed with words like “intentional community” and “downward mobility,” setting my idealist heart ringing. It dovetailed with the “you can change the world” message I had long heard growing up. And I believed in my heart of hearts that I, too, would never settle for a stale and materialistic Christianity.

But, if you’re like me, the sounding gong of radicalism eventually faded into disillusionment. Your life never looked like the dramatic stories in Shane’s book. You forgot to have grace for yourself when your experiments with countercultural living in the city fell flat. You flamed out, young radical. Maybe you never invited your neighbors over for that BBQ you were meaning to throw. Maybe you volunteered at the neighborhood community center until your schedule changed and you had to drop it. Or maybe you got depressed or broke up with your boyfriend or spent a year listening to indie rock in coffee shops while you hung onto cynicism like a scar.

I’m here to tell you – I see you. I am you.

Let’s walk together and sit down here, at the feet of Jesus. Put down the radical rule books and “shoulds” about how we must live or relate to the poor. Instead, look upon your disappointment with kindness. Perhaps you needed a few years to grow up, to be jaded and confused and cynical. Sit here beside me, see his robe hems? Maybe those years were leading you right here, onto the ground like a child at library story time. Lean forward and listen. He is looking at you in love, dear child of God; he is speaking words of grace.

While you sit, remember what Mother Teresa said about great things. Not all of us can spark a movement like Claiborne, not everyone can start a community house in a struggling neighborhood.  But we can all rest here awhile and listen. And when you finally stand up to go about your day, be amazed at how God interrupts your mundane life like the wiliest of mustard plants. Watch dirty things become clean with every dish you wash. Witness tears turning to laughter when you comfort your child. Observe prisoners going free as you extend a meal to a lonely friend. All of them are such small things, such un-sexy things. But, as Mother Teresa would remind us, they are great when done with love.

Actually, this was Claiborne’s message all along – his book tagline is, after all, “living as an ordinary radical.” He even cites Mother Teresa’s words about small things with great love at the end of the book, striving hard to make the revolution legalism-proof. Yet somehow I walked away from that book and the radical Christian sub-culture with a different message, one that elevated inner-city ministry and intentional poverty above all else. It made anything less feel like failure.

Still, The Irresistible Revolution changed my life; it stirred me to reimagine my faith in a terrible, beautiful world. It led me to volunteer with refugees and torture survivors, to live below the poverty level in an intentional community for a season. And, though my life looks different now, I continue to struggle with the questions that Claiborne raised about poverty, about injustice, about taking Jesus at his word. I keep returning to the humble floor, laying the discord and tensions I feel at his feet. I keep reminding myself: the smallest of things, the greatest of love.

Maybe God isn’t done with us yet, my fellow failed radicals. As for the “what now” – well, maybe our lives of doing dishes, childcare and cooking will never inspire quite like Claiborne’s. Let’s content ourselves by watching mustard sprouts wherever we can find them. And, when you start paying attention, you just might realize they are springing up everywhere.

 

 

unnamed-2Stina KC is a fledgling writer who blogs occasionally at
http://stinakc.wordpress.com/. After turning 30, she decided it was
finally okay to write for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty
Anabaptist/Anglican hybrid who likes to write about faith, motherhood,
and being all grown up. Stina lives in Minneapolis with her husband
and daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

The Giving Tree

the crucified God

“There is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith. It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with their alienation” –Jurgen Moltmann, the Crucified God

“For in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves” Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

 

The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and I pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned in our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand. There was a black boy who died and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: you have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is. In his astounding kindness, my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing to my soul than I could begin to understand. 

It has taken many years, many relationships, cringe-worthy questions and blustering self-righteousness to get to the place that I am today, a place which is still far from where I want to be. My choice of neighborhoods is just the tip of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel far from the people in Ferguson, but not as far as I was a few years ago; I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.

That people prefer themselves and all others like them is no surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refute that our systems might have the exact same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems (political and religious) are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me before, until I realized what the converse of that equation is.

Those systems are against others.

That sentence alone is enough to stop me. The words sin and repentance and judgement swim before my eyes. But this time, the meaning is different. Turning away from myself, and turning towards God: for me it has looked almost unbearably practical. It has meant turning towards the ones who are being shut out.

It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgement, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep but it has turned out the opposite. The struggle to convince myself and others around that we were not, in fact, prejudiced people living in a very un-equal country–this is what has caused my soul enormous pain and distance from Christ himself.

Because Christ came to suffer with us, and he has no use for people who brightly and loudly exclaim that they indeed are well, that there is no need for radical transformation, no need for someone to save us from the seeds of white supremacy that have been sowed in us from the beginning. So in order to edge nearer to a God who is present in suffering, I had to lay down my mantel of being well. I had to, in the words of a beautiful poet, “start cleaning my house.” 

Make no mistake, I am scrubbed raw and bare and feel the impending panic of how often this process will need to be repeated. But the freedom–the absolute and utter bounty of staring our alienation in the face and telling it to go to hell–is something I will never give up again.

What has and is happening in Ferguson (which is a picture of what is happening all throughout our country) is an invitation to us all. The more we declare that we are well, the farther we will drift from Christ. And he is the only one with the words of life. He is the one offering us his own scars, pleading with us to look at our own. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Claire’s Life

I woke up to a world in disarray (to be honest, it has been all this time). I think this is as good as time as any to read a beautiful piece on The Giving Tree, a book that I to this day cannot read to my own small daughter without sobbing. I remember the first time I read it, at my grandparents house. Setting it back down on the shelf, 8 years old, I remember feeling immense sadness and gratitude, as well as thinking “well, that certainly wasn’t a KIDS book”. Claire (an amazing writer/editor who I have the pleasure of being in a IRL writing group with) brought me back with this piece. Feel free to leave a comment on your own Giving Tree story–I know there must be others out there!

 

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Claire DeBerg

 

This book did not change my life. This book transformed my life. The youngest of three, I would sit enrapt with my siblings as our father recited long passages of poetry to us each evening. I can’t remember if I was mesmerized by his remarkable ability to recite verse after verse after verse of poems he’d kept sealed in his heart his whole life or if I was caught up in the adventures of different poetry he shared, but having a father who was a writer and poet and pastor meant the mellow, oaky boom of his deep bass voice was calming and comforting and home.

My father loves language and wit, which is why the books of poetry by Shel Silverstein were such a critical part of our literary repertoire growing up. We three siblings would page through Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic giggling at the wild images enjoying how funny phrases would somersault in our heads plastering us to our beds imagining the wonders of the small worlds Shel created in perfect rhyme.

So when my father first settled me into bed to read me The Giving Tree for the first time I was confused by the lack of a rhyme in the first several pages. I interrupted the story to check out the cover—yes, there was the odd wonderful name “Shel Silverstein” scrawled on the cover as though he signed the book himself. Yes, there was the simple line drawing on the book cover—the comforting signature of his art. So convinced this was indeed a Shel Silverstein book, I let my father start from the beginning again with his deep, sweet voice touched with echoes of the southern drawl his grandparents had gifted him, “Once there was a tree…”

And I loved the beginning because I immediately identified with that little boy as most of my childhood was spent in the trees and woods on our property. Despite the lack of rhyme, I thought I knew why my dad had chosen this book…he was seeing how my tomboy shenanigans were aligned with this little boy. He knew how much I loved sitting in the deep sand pit next to our garden carving out tunnels, he knew how I protected the pussy willow from being stripped of her buds by the hands of the legions of boys traipsing around our neighborhood. I knew my father read me The Giving Tree because he saw me climb Jennifer’s Tree scaling it with grace and care and hugging Jennifer’s Tree before bed each night in the summer.

And then he read, “…the tree was often alone.” The “alone” was a balloon just slipping from my grip and there was a pause where my father let me watch it float away. And my tiny little eight-year-old heart splintered, deflating. I could never leave my tree unattended. But the story continued and became for me a warning tale because in the story, the years tumble forward and the tree remains a steadfast giver each time the boy returns as the unapologetic taker.

The Giving Tree can be read in about nine minutes or less and when my father first read it to me I was exhausted at the close having surged through all the emotions my childhood heart could manage: love, grief, hurt, anger, mania, hurt, love again, longing.

I cried by myself after my father left the room and switched off the light. I distinctly remember feeling as though I needed to choose which I would be: the boy or the tree. Would I give with utter abandon until I was used up? Would I always look forward to someone even if they used me? Would I be the boy—always clear about what I needed? Always wanting bigger and better?

I was afraid to page through it again and instead let it sit on my bedside table for a week. Only after that time could I manage to let the story break loose inside me once more until I was withered and teary all over again. The heartbreak of the story and the gruff author’s image on the back cover frightened me for years until eventually I moved out of my parents house at 16 to board at my art’s high school. As I considered the stack of books to bring with me to high school I held The Giving Tree in my hands but didn’t crack it open because just holding it transferred the simple power of the story so I tossed it away from me and it stayed shelved at my childhood home until I myself became the home to a child.

I was pregnant and so was the dog when I returned to my parent’s house as a 22 year-old. I’d gotten pregnant in a scary way and was entering a dark night of the soul trying to decide if I should keep the baby or place it for adoption. I considered the dog at my feet in the kitchen her belly full of seven puppies she’d nurse for several weeks and never see again and I tried to see this pregnancy as simple as that—just birth and give your puppy to someone else to raise.

There were lots of late nights that winter where my family and I sat around the kitchen table discussing the plight of my life: single, poor, pregnant, minority, jobless. Finding hope in the folds of a Minnesota winter with taglines like those trailing my every move was very bleak to say the least. And being newly pregnant I discovered insomnia so I dove headfirst into my parents’ library reading everything by Wendell Berry and working my way through Barbara Kingsolver and eventually Walt Whitman.

And then one night I found and read The Giving Tree and I cried and cried and cried for the boy and for my baby. I cried for myself and for the tree. Her ideas about life were subverted as the boy grew. Each of her welcomes were ignored.

I wanted my life and body back. I wanted to be happy like the tree and the little boy at the beginning, to keep life as it was where everyone in my family had a place and nothing was changing—each day there would be apple-picking and branch-swinging and hide-and-go-seek and then we’d do all over again the next day and be happy.

But my body was changing, that baby was growing and demanding I make choices and face truths and be honest. The boy was echoing what this baby was already saying into the core of my body—that they would love me and leave me, “And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.” I just remember reading that and weeping softly in the room where I’d slept during my childhood. I considered my unsettled life and the reality of birthing a being that would cut down my trunk and sail away from me. I asked myself if I could allow such a thing, if I could permit the possibility of growing the heartless little boy and not the beautiful loving tree…I asked myself if I could manage the burden of choosing a person who might possibly be the taker of all of me.

I didn’t decide that night whether to keep the baby or not. But eight months later when I was sitting on my hospital bed with the beautiful little brown girl I had just met by pushing her into the light of the world…when I was sobbing and whispering to her my apologies and asking that little person for an ocean of forgiveness—I was reminded of The Giving Tree: the truth that it is quite possible to have a beautiful life and to choose to give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give away…

…and still be happy.

 

And I am happy. I am happy to live into a life where someday I can invite my sweet daughter to, “Come…sit down. Sit down and rest.”

 

 

 

Claire DeBerg headshotIf Claire DeBerg isn’t writing snappy copy for her commercial writing biz or managing content and timelines as editor of the magazine, Timbrel, for Mennonite Women USA, she is eating an ungodly amount of peanut butter right off the spoon, prepping for a modeling shoot, biking on a 1950s Schwinn Suburban with her pre-teen, playing a Chopin piano prelude, discussing the merits of the uncooperative chair with her toddler or trying to behave as much like Elaine Benes as is socially appropriate. She’s put over 3,500 miles on her legs after training for and running 7 marathons (including Boston!) but now she needs to put some miles on her fingers and finish writing her novel (for the love). She forever adores her sweet littles, Gloria and Harold and always her beautiful husband, Darren, and occasionally her hairy airedale, Velvet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

 

 

 

 

 

The Book that Changed Kurt’s Life

I met Kurt a few weeks ago at my amazing Collegeville writing workshop. Kurt has the spiritual gift of editing (having both a keen eye and an enthusiasm for beauty) and it was such a pleasure to meet him. He encourages me to read well, to write “tight and bright” and I really resonated with his thoughts on Steinbeck here (about time for me to re-read ol’ East of Eden). 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

Kurt Armstrong

 

When I was 23, I moved back to the family farm in southern Alberta to help my mom and dad with the harvest. I was broke and depressed and the two-year MCC program I’d been counting on was cancelled because funding had been dropped. That summer someone had stolen my bike from outside my apartment and someone at work swiped my camera. Someone else dumped me because she recognized me as a half-hearted boyfriend and knew she deserved better. (Correct on both counts.) So I moved home for a couple months, and in the evenings I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Steinbeck sets out to tell his own family’s history, but about eight pages in he gets sidetracked for about 535 tumbling pages and then, oops, he never gets back to what he supposedly set out to do. It’s moody, brooding, and dramatic, overwhelmingly masculine – very few women other than the nearly-silent Eliza and the shape-shifting, nearly-demonic Kate – and some of the characters seem more like caricatures than the more complex, layered flesh-and-blood humans you or I might be related to. It is not a perfect novel.

But East of Eden is a bold, ambitious modern midrash on Cain vs. Abel, touching on the timeless, perennial struggle of sons to honour their fathers without being damned to echo all of their shortcomings. The sins of the father run thick through the book, as in human history, and Steinbeck’s flawed novel proclaims a hard-won hope that even though inherited sin may be an unbearable yoke, even heavy yokes can be broken.

It’s nowhere near as iconic as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath: too subjective, too narrow, too intimate of a story. But where Grapes of Wrath weaves politics and parable into the tale of a family, thus narrating the experience of an entire generation, East of Eden reaches back to ancient, primordial myths and touches on a more universal, and much more personal story. James Joyce said that “In the particular is contained the universal,” and it is precisely because East of Eden is such an intimate, particular story that it rings true on such a fundamental level. “Here’s your box,” Steinbeck writes in the dedication, a note to Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking Press. “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.” How true. It is a sprawling book, full of sin and redemption, loss and hope, suffering and love, and soaring above it all, the great, terrifying gift of human responsibility – and yet there remains ample room for readers to find themselves. Forty-seven years after it was published, it was obvious to me as I read it: a story this personal is much, much bigger than the little box contained between its covers.

East of Eden touched me more deeply than I knew a novel was capable of. Broke, depressed, and heartbroken, I was highly sensitive to it’s high drama. And being home on the farm, practicing the simpler pace of farming – more demanding and more direct than any of my city jobs had been – clarified my own thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck’s book got into my bones; the mood and images stuck in my everyday imagination for months afterwards.

It’s rare that I re-read any books, especially novels. Having wasted too much of my youth in front of the television I spend a lot of time reading because I’m already so far behind. But I’ve read East of Eden three times now, and each time I’ve found it more surprising, refreshing, and moving than the last. I know I’m in the minority, but I consider it by far the better of Steinbeck’s two “big books.”

 

 

 

kurt

Kurt Armstrong is the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock) and has written for The Globe and Mail, Paste, Image, and Geez, among others. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and works at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Amy’s Life

Well, I will be straight with you: this one is a doozy. I SO identify with everything my good friend Amy writes here– missionary biographies were my JAM growing up. However, Amy highlights some pervasive lies we swallow in regards to vocation that have serious consequences for us all. As someone who devoured these types of books with fervor (and realizing how they have shaped me) I am so glad that Amy is working on a book-length project (!) that deals with all of these sorts of issues. I cannot wait to read it.

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Amy Peterson

 

 

 

 

This summer I’ve been re-reading the missionary biographies I devoured in childhood. Amy Carmichael was my favorite missionary, not only because we shared a name, but because she was as imaginative, daring, and heroic as Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew combined.  Amy Carmichael started a Bible study for “mill girls” on the margins of Irish society, traveling through neighborhoods considered unsuitable for proper young ladies. Eventually 500 girls attended her Bible studies.  In India, she snuck disguised into temples to rescue girl-children destined to be temple prostitutes.  She adopted the Indian way of dressing, assimilating at a time when few missionaries understood the importance of entering a new culture as a learner.  She wrote poetry. I loved her- her rebellion, her zeal, her heroism, her red hair, all of it.

But when I opened With Daring Faith: A Biography of Amy Carmichael this summer, to re-read it, my breath caught in my throat at the author’s dedication. It was to her daughter:

To Katherine Joy Davis

with the prayer that she will hear and

answer a call from the Lord

to a foreign mission field.

I tried to imagine praying that for my daughter, Rosie, when I put her to bed at night.  Wouldn’t hearing that prayer send a seed into the soil of her heart, implanting the idea that I believe (or even that God believes) that overseas missions work is the best thing you can do with your life? What kind of pressure might that put on a child?

 

 

I wondered if Katherine went.

***

Before I continue, there are some things you need to know.  Chief among them is that when I was twenty-two, I moved to Southeast Asia to “teach English.”  When I say that books like With Daring Faith changed my life, what I mean is this: when it came time for me to decide how to live an adult life, I could envision no more interesting, meaningful, or heroic work than missionary work overseas, and I blame that mostly on the books.

Sure, if you had asked me, I would have said that there was no division between “sacred” work and “secular” work — that working as a copyeditor at a publishing house could be just as meaningful and worthwhile as moving to a foreign land for God — but I didn’t really believe it.  How could I?  No one wrote biographies of copyeditors.  Accountants never snuck into temples. Housewives never changed the world.

Sermons that talked about living lives fully dedicated to God rarely held up sweeping the floor daily as an example of dedication.  They seldom lauded people who responded to emails punctually and thoughtfully.  They didn’t praise those who regularly attended conferences for professional development so that they could be up-to-date in their fields.

I wanted an extraordinary life, flush with spiritual vitality and adventure, fully committed to God.  I wanted to be the greatest.  And the only way I could see to find that life was by going overseas.

***

How does a child begin to believe that one way of life is more spiritual than another?

***

I read the dedication to the book, and I wondered about that daughter – Katherine. How old was she when she found those words?  What did they mean to her then? What do they mean to her now?

My daughter is five, and I’m not sure she knows what the word missionary means.  I ask her.

-Have you ever heard the word missionary?

-I think, maybe, once.

-Do you know what it means?

-No.

-A missionary is a person who goes to another country to tell people – people who have never heard about Jesus – to tell them about Jesus.

-Oh. {pause}.  Like, if Mae Mae and Papa didn’t know about Jesus, and we went to visit them and told them about Jesus?

 

 

 

 

Yeah, like that.

***

I confess: then I googled her.  I googled the author, and found her on Facebook.  Her daughter Katherine is married now, maybe a few years younger than I am.  She has an art degree and lives in Michigan with a husband and a baby.  There’s no sign that Katherine ever heard a call to foreign missions.

***

I’ve been wondering if I should put missionary biographies on the shelf for my daughter.  She’ll be old enough to read them in just a few years. Do I stack them next to Nancy Drew and Half Magic and A Wrinkle In Time, or keep them in my office?

***

I went overseas, running face-first towards what I thought was the will of God. I hit a wall of thorns, landing flat on my back, the God I thought I knew quite well wilting like a punctured balloon animal next to me. I went overseas looking for adventure and found tragedy. God was silent, and I spun into a dark night of the soul.

That’s why I’ve been re-reading these books from my childhood.  I had to know: did they leave the tragedy out when they wrote the stories for children?  Why had I expected adventure but not opposition, spiritual success but not sorrow?

Here’s what I found: the hardships are there, right there in the stories I read as a child.  Gladys Aylward leading a group of starving children through mountain passes. Elizabeth Elliot losing Jim. Eric Liddell dying in an internment camp, hardly having spent any of his adult life with his wife and children. The heartache was there, plain as day.  Why hadn’t I remembered it?

I hadn’t remembered it because missionary biographies shaped my imagination in my formative years, when I could understand heroism but had no framework for tragedy.  The intrigue and daring had stuck with me, but the losses and struggles had gone in one ear and out the other.  I had no way of comprehending them.

It’s like this: you read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth before you have your first baby, and you feel confident in your ability to give birth: you hear these stories about women strong and in touch with their bodies and their babies, and you think, I can do that, too.

Then you go into labor.

And when you read Ina May again after having given birth, you notice things that slipped right past you the first time.  Oh, in this story her labor lasted for thirty-six hours.  Oh, one woman said the pain was orgasmic, but another described it as the worst feeling of her life.

Before, your mind had attached to the successes, but now, when you read about the thirty-six hour labor, that detail doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.  Now, you know exactly what that feels like.

So should we encourage women to read Ina May before they give birth, knowing that they won’t really have the framework to understand the stories?  Should we encourage children to read missionary biographies?

I haven’t decided whether to put the books on the shelf for Rosie yet.  I still have time.

***

 

If I ever dedicate a book to my daughter, I’ll say this:

 

To Rosemary,

the beloved of God,

with the prayer that she will grasp how wide

and long

and high

and deep

is the love of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Ockenga Honors Scholars at Taylor University. Read more at her blog, or follow her on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Our Life

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I graduated with a degree in Bible/Theology in December of 2007, and a few short days later, we were married. We moved into the old farm house next to the mega-church where you were the care-taker/maintenance man. The price was right (free) and the rolling hills and llamas-for-neighbors allowed us to buy a beat-up old drum set and start a 2-person family band (sample lyrics: We’re just two pork chops marinating love/we’ve got each other and that’s enough).

You were still in school, I was working depressing retail jobs, we were young and in love and materially poor. We ate candy for dinner and never worried about anything that happened outside of our cozy house, safe and secure with each other.

At the independent bookstore on campus, that oasis within the storm, I saw a book that would not escape me. Jesus for President. Faux-battered, a precious little lamb on the cover, an intriguing political title. Although we never, ever did this, I bought the book at full price, fresh off the press, and took it home to read.

We took turns, devouring entire chapters, me impatient with your slow and careful reading. Maybe this was our first married fight. We sat together in the over-sized recliner that was there when we moved in, too large to fit through the doors. Squished next to each other, we would talk long into the night: serious conversations about what we were reading. Words like “Empire” entered our vocabulary for the very first time. You were converted intellectually and theologically to the idea of pacifism right away, chasing down the rabbit trails in your mind, finding for you a belief that mirrored your own sacrificial love, your unshakeable forgiving spirit, your sense of God as a very good father. I was captured by the immediate practicalities, casting off the cloak of the kingdoms of capitalism and consumerism. We changed all of our shopping habits, committing to second-hand and doing without, tuned out of all the political discussions swirling around us.

We were being converted, together. This doesn’t always happen, and I know what a precious gift this time was. We were changed, both of us, and we decided to obey together.

The book spoke to us in a time where we could recite the Bible out of both ears yet hungered to know how it could penetrate our spirits and our wallets and our relationships with everyone we knew. The subversive nature of it was exciting, the practicalities beyond challenging. We spent a night or two hopeless at our own complicity. And we repented to one another, and held hands as we tried to move forward.

A few short months after we read that book, we made some changes. I went to graduate school, getting a degree that was slightly less theoretical in nature. You pursued your calling as a notice-er and a peacemaker. We moved into the low-income apartment complex where so many of our refugee friends lived. We said goodbye to the rolling hills and llama’s and our last chance to play the drums as loudly as we wanted to, to live just exactly as we pleased.

And it has never been the same. With Jesus as our President, the world has become so much more complicated. We have been shocked at the amount of confrontation we have run into, the amount of forgiveness we have had to ask our Father for. Nothing is easier, but it has all been so much brighter.

Sometimes, if I am being honest, I still feel a little afraid of what will happen next, now that we have no Empire guidelines to fall back on. All I have is this little piece of Jesus I hold onto, believing that he can heal us from ourselves. And you are here with me, sitting right beside me as I type this out. It helps me to no end that I know we will continue to turn again, to be converted towards the Christ that brought us together, and I pray that it never stops.

And maybe someday we will buy another old drum-set, and start a band where everyone we know will be invited to sing along.

That certainly sounds like something you would do.

 

 

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//

Other posts in the Book That Changed Your Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

 

 

 

 

 

Look out for a killer guest post coming on Thursday!

 

 

The Book That Changed My Life: Walking on Water

The first of my writer friends up is the great Christiana. I love her for her whimsy, spiritual insight, and her story that spans great swaths of American life. I really resonated with this portrayal of how books shape us when we are in college–how some pieces fall away while others (somewhat inexplicably) remain. Also, St. Madeline, right????

 

 

 

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Walking on Water
Guest post by Christiana Peterson

 

 

C.S. Lewis said that those of us who are life-long readers don’t often grasp how indebted we are to authors for their part in the “enormous extension of our being.” Our worlds have been so expanded by reading that without it we would feel stifled. Through reading, our capacity for compassion and understanding of others is magnified along with our knowledge of self. Lewis says, “My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through the eyes of others…in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.”

That is how I see so many of the wonderful books that I’ve read. Not every good piece of writing has changed my life but many of them have flowed into the sea of my life that was changing not wave by wave but drop by drop.

But there are some books that fit just so into that sea of change that they cause a storm, setting me on a course for uncharted waters.

When I was studying theology in grad school, I would huddle against the cold, stone, walls of my Scottish dorm room (I know, feel sorry for me), clutching my hot water bottle, and wondering what I believed anymore. I grew up in a close Christian family, went to a small Christian school on the same property as our church, and had never met an atheist until my lovely South American roommate in Scotland.

I never knew that people studied religion from a non-religious perspective. Therefore, I was unprepared to have post-Christian, agnostic, and multi-religious classmates studying Christian philosophy with me. After graduating from a Christian college in Texas, I was also unprepared for my grad school professor (who was himself an Anglican priest) to shut down my naive talk of faith in the classroom.

Many times during those years, I could picture all my old beliefs as thousands of marbles that had been tossed up into the air. I scrambled to catch those old beliefs as they fell and often wondered if I even wanted to catch them at all.

And then came St. Madeleine.

When I read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water for the first time, I felt a lifeline had been extended to me. I didn’t have to catch all the marbles that fell but then, I didn’t have to let them all go. And sometimes, there were new beliefs and thoughts that collected, ideas the hues of the Scottish sea, grey like the stone path out to the raging waters, and white like the huge dipping moon.

Madeleine gave me permission to rest in faith and doubt, to see those new colored marbles as part of the beautiful nuance of Christian faith.

In one of my undergraduate writing classes in my Christian university in Texas, I was essentially told that we weren’t going to write YA fiction because it was not real literature. I had always wondered a bit if the sense of longing I felt while reading a quality piece of fiction or a wonderful YA book was just my way of escaping the real world into my own imagination. This writing teacher’s words confirmed that for me: that there was somehow something bad in me that wanted to delve into fiction, fantasy, and literature for children.

But a year after reading Walking on Water, I enrolled in a creative writing program in Scotland to begin a YA novel that had been rolling around in my imagination for years. L’Engle’s words about faith and doubt, about the beauty of writing for children, and the importance of this longing that fantasy and myth stirred inside me, legitimized my own longing to write YA.

I can’t say that I’ve had a long career in YA fiction (not yet anyway), but I learned so much about myself and my place in creation during those subsequent years in Scotland, that I truly believe L’Engle’s book changed my life.

 

 

 

unnamed-2Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, Curator, and Literary Mama as well as articles on farm life at her.meneutics and Flourish.
She lives with her family rural Illinois where she feels the daily call of farm life, folly, food, and occasionally fairies. You can find her blog and links to her other writing at thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com or you can follow her on twitter @renewsustain.

 

 

 

 

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