The Church of Watching the River Flow By

2018Jul29

Warm peppermint tea,

Cool breeze, expanding sunbeams

Expel dream’s stupor.

Haiku by Jennifer Kay

We went on vacation a few weeks ago. By the end of the week, we had quite the tally of fun activities: visiting with friends we hadn’t seen in a while; dancing Irish Set Dances at a pub; shopping at various bookstores; eating at delicious restaurants; and sampling drafts at a local brewery. But I have to say that the highlight for me was getting up every morning whenever I felt like it (not at the insistence of an alarm clock or a hungry dog), claiming a chair in front of the huge picture window in the living room, and listening to the choir of birds in The Church of Watching the River Flow By. My morning liturgy included eating breakfast and drinking hot tea, followed by some combination of praying, reading, journalling, or drawing. Time ceased, or rather ceased to be relevant, in that space. I never looked at the clock until the service came to a close of it’s own accord and I went to get dressed for whatever excursions lay ahead that day. I began every day of vacation by just being, experiencing nature, and participating in rituals that nourish my body and soul.

I cried on the drive home, not because I had parted from loved ones, but because I had fallen in love with the freedom to simply be for a period of time each day when I was not expected to be doing something or exhausted after doing something. It was quite the surprising revelation that this was so desperately needed and completely lacking from my everyday life.

Of course the week after vacation was crammed with catching up on work, on laundry, on social engagements. The following Saturday morning, my hungry dog pulled me out of a dream to demand breakfast. In a daze, I gave him his kibble and followed him to the back door when he was finished eating. As I opened the door to let him out, a cool breeze greeted me and a choir of birds beckoned me to step into a chapel that I rarely noticed. There is no river running through my back yard, so the chapel’s esthetic is less grand than The Church of Watching the River Flow By. Nevertheless, the peppermint tea was tantalizing on my tongue, the breeze was refreshing on my face, and the sunbeams that crept under the roof of my patio were warm on my feet. I heard the birds sing and watched the trees sway and felt my dog curl up next to me. My mind cleared and I recognized that the freedom I love can also be found at home.

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Annuals and Perennials

My flower bed (if you can call the weedy strip of earth along the sidewalk by that name) is planted with over two dozen daffodil bulbs. These have never failed to bloom for me. Even after being tricked into sprouting during a January thaw this year and consequently shocked by the freezing rain in February, these heralds valiantly unfurled some wrinkled, yellow flags at Spring’s eventual arrival. I look forward to these familiar blooms every spring.

The flower pot on my front step features a rotating cast of annuals. Previous players include begonias, dianthus, and calibrachoa. This year I was feeling sentimental after visiting my grandparents’ grave on Memorial Day weekend, so I filled my pot with petunias. I remember Grandmothers’s flower beds planted with petunias and dusty miller. While I never saw the appeal of those ghost-like dusty millers that haunted the spaces between the flowers, the bright velvet trumpets of the petunias always commanded my attention.

*          *           *

I recently withdrew from a networking group that I’d been active in for the last four years. I started going to counseling sessions earlier this year, and I discovered that the time and energy I was dedicating to the networking group urgently needed to be redirected to my pursuit of better mental and emotional wellness. But it wasn’t an easy decision to leave the group because I valued the relationships I’d invested in. It was sad to think that some of these friendships might wither away without that weekly connection point. If I lost touch with those people, did it mean that my investment in the relationships was wasted? Like Taylor Joy Murray, I wasn’t sure what to do with short-term relationships.

2018Jun12

A green pot of fuchsia petunias with thin white stripes bursting out from their centers.

Somehow it all clicked into place for me as I watered the petunias this week. Some relationships are perennials and some are annuals. I truly cherish my perennial bed of daffodils, in part because they are such gorgeously cheerful flowers, but also because of the comfort in getting to enjoy them year after year. But the fact that these petunias will only bloom for me this one summer doesn’t make me any less thrilled to see them when I come home from work. I certainly don’t think the gallons of water I pour over them are a waste since it makes them bloom so beautifully. And when I pull their withered stems out of the pot at the end of the winter, I won’t obsess over what I could have done differently to make them bloom through another season. (Something that I confess I have done at the end of certain friendships.) Yes, it’s a sad truth that I won’t have these striped petunias on my porch next year. But I may have solid red ones. Or I may try orange zinnias. Maybe I’ll go back to pink dianthus.

I understand that people are not as easily interchanged as flowers. A friend’s absence is more keenly felt than an empty flower pot. But the burden of saying good-bye feels lighter when I accept them for the annuals that they are. And with that comes the awareness of the opportunity to plant new companions that are just as enriching to my life, even if they are different. And who knows? Someone that I thought was an annual may turn out to be a perennial after all.

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A Year of Creativity

It may seem odd to be doing a “year in review” essay in April, but it took me most of the first quarter of this year to tie up the loose ends of last year, so I decided to make April 1 my own personal New Year’s Day. Thus the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing last year and planning for this year, and I wanted to share a bit of that with you.

As I reflect back on 2017, I am most proud of two things: (1) at long last I finally built a consistent exercise habit, and (2) I engaged in creative pursuits far more than I have in previous years. I didn’t realize how vital exercising my creativity is to my personal happiness and well-being until last year when I made it a goal to write a blog post once a month and finish six craft projects. From one perspective, I failed in these goals because I only posted nine blog entries and finished three craft projects. But from another perspective I succeeded wildly because in pursuing these goals I rediscovered an important part of myself that had been neglected while trying to meet the more urgent demands of life (you know, things like going to work, paying bills, getting groceries, and keeping commitments to other people). And just because they were fewer in number than the original goals does not make the blogs that I did write and the craft projects that I did complete any less valuable. The blogs of 2017 you’ve already seen, so let me show you my completed craft projects.

DSCN0740

A framed cross stitch picture with the words from Psalm 18:31-33 surrounded by trees and a waterfall.

This first one was a huge accomplishment. I had started this cross-stitch project as a gift for one of my sisters over 10 years ago. Every so often–usually a month or two before her birthday–I’d start working on it again and then lose my motivation when her birthday came before I finished it. She was understandably skeptical when I told her it would finished in 2017. And as with previous attempts, it was not finished by her birthday, but this time I persisted in working on it after her birthday and presented it her three months later. It felt surreal to have it completed, to see my cross-stitch bag and not have that project waiting in it. It’s the one present I’ve given with strings attached: if she ever decides she doesn’t want it anymore for any reason, she has to give it back to me or to another family member.

2018Apr8c

A photo album lying open to a spread of pictures from a flower garden.

My second project was organizing pictures from our last vacation in a Shutterfly album. Since there were well over 100 photos, this was not just a weekend project for me, especially since I am not content to just drop pictures randomly into pregenerated templates. No, for me it’s like putting together a puzzle, trying to determine which pictures look best in what layout. It was tedious at times, but immensely gratifying when it all came together.

2018Apr8b

A crocheted Christmas stocking.

My third project was another crocheted Christmas stocking. Originally, it was for my niece AK who was born in 2016, but when her little sister arrived in December 2017, her mom asked if the stocking could be given to my newest niece for her baby pictures. Thus, I will be working on yet another stocking for AK this year.

There were two other streams that I poured my creative juices into last year – not projects so much as artistic practices. After a 12 year (or more) hiatus, I started playing the autoharp again. It was later in the year when I returned to making music, so my current repertoire is Christmas carols, but I’m looking forward to learning other songs this year.

Whereas all my other creative endeavors last year were hobbies I’ve done before, this last one was completely new: Zentangling. I’d been intrigued by Zentangle designs on Pinterest, so when I came across a beginner’s book on the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble, I decided to give it a try.

2018Apr8d

Original Zentangle art by Jennifer Kay featuring Emingle, Jonquil, and Florz patterns.

I’m totally hooked! It’s perfect for evenings when I’m too tired to read or write; family gatherings when everyone’s watching a sports game I’m not really into; and mornings when I don’t have enough time to complete a task but it’s not time to leave yet.

So how about you? Was there anything last year (or in the first months of this year) that ignited new passions or rekindled old ones?

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Captain’s Honors for 2016

For those of you who are more interested in award categories like Best Memoir/Biography and Best Young Adult Novel than Best Documentary and Best Animated Film, I offer my Captain’s Honors for 2016.

2018Mar4a

A picture of some of the books read in 2016 sitting on top of a cabinet.

I must say I am delighted to have read almost twice as many books in 2016 as I did in 2015. Not only does this mean I got to go on more literary voyages, but also that there are more categories in this series of Honors. However, even though this will be one of my longer posts, I promise it will not take you three hours to find out what my favorite book of 2016 was. (Good luck to all of you staying awake to find out what 2017 film won the Oscar for Best Picture tonight!)

The Captain’s Honors for 2016

Category

Favorite Non-fiction Book

Nominees

■   The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demands by Lysa TerKeurst
■   When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

The Honor goes to When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins.

The Best Yes was one the first books I read 2016 as I was wanting to be more intentional about commitments I made and thus the things I spent my time on. This is definitely a book I will revisit, but the Honor goes to When Everything Changed because it was so fascinating and I learned so much! If you are interested in seeing the progression of women’s rights along with the cultural shifts in what women can (or should) be and do in the United States in the last 60 years or so, I highly recommend this book.

 

2018Mar4c

Category

Favorite Memoir/Biography

Nominees

■   American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague by John Oller
■   The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew–Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, Priscilla Warner
■   Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

The Honor goes to American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague by John Oller.

You can thank my friend Marlene that this category exists because she loaned me two of the three books in it. I recommend all of these books. American Queen wins the honor because it is a masterful and compelling portrait of one of the most interesting people you’ve probably never heard of. I am grateful to Marlene because without her bringing this book to my attention, I doubt I ever would have read it. If you like biographies, you should check it out as well!

2018Mar4b

Category

Favorite Historical Fiction Book

Nominees

■   Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
■   Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Honor goes to Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is the easy winner for me in this category, but I can’t be sure that it wins on it’s own merits or due the shade I cast on Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. After reading American Queen, I found Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival on Audible and eagerly listened to it. Unfortunately, my experience listening to this audiobook was similar to watching a movie based on a book you liked in which the casting is all wrong and the narrative choices are a bit questionable. The novelized version of Kate Chase Sprague’s life was a disappointment to say the least, but I can’t tell if that’s because it was poorly done or because I found the biography so intriguing. Regardless of why I disliked Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, I honestly enjoyed Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. It was interesting to see some of the same events and characters from different perspective, so in the end I’m glad I read both of Ms. Chiarverini’s books, even if one was unsatisfying.

Category

Favorite Romance Book

Nominees

■   The Red Door Inn by Liz Johnson
■   Where the Wind Blows by Caroline Fyffe

The Honor goes to The Red Door Inn by Liz Johnson.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ve probably guessed that I don’t read a lot romance novels. I don’t know how often this category will appear, so if you’re a fan of the genre, this is your lucky day! These novels have lovely settings: modern day Prince Edward Island for The Red Door Inn and the Wild West of the 1800s for Where the Wind Blows. Both of these stories have lead characters whose characterization was consistent and whose personalities don’t annoy me. Neither book has graphic bedroom scenes. But a plot development in the final act of Where the Wind Blows merely serves to create unnecessary melodrama (ugh!), and that puts it in second place for these rankings.

Category

Favorite Young Adult Book

Nominees

■   101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
■   The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley
■   Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
■   The Giver by Lois Lowry
■   My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen

The Honor goes to My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen.

This category, more than any other this year, is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. All the other categories had a clear winner, even if it was a close race. But all five of these books are favorites. I would give a 5-Star rating to all them except 101 Dalmatians; I would give the book 4 stars, but listening Martin Jarvis’ brilliant performance of it is a 5-Star experience. How can I even choose?! My Life in Dog Years wins solely because I would recommend it to anyone regardless of their genre preferences. This book is beyond such borders and everyone should read it.

Category

Favorite Fiction Book

Nominees

■   The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
■   The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
■   The Yard by Alex Grecian

The Honor goes to The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

All of these novels are solid reads. The Yard is a fascinating mystery set in the early days of Scotland Yard after the last of Jack the Ripper’s murders. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a dark, beautiful, modern-day fantasy like nothing else you will read (as so many of Neil Gaiman’s stories are). But The Golem and the Jinni was my favorite book of 2016. Set in turn-of-the-century New York with flashbacks to ancient Sryia, I loved losing myself in this world and never grew tired of it–even after 19 hours!

Category

Favorite Audiobook

Nominees

■   101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
■   The B-Team: The Human Division by John Scalzi
■   The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
■   Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini
■   The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Honor goes to The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

I suppose it goes without saying that my favorite book of the year would also win the Honor for Favorite Audiobook. Nevertheless, I highlight it here because George Guidall’s performance made my experience of the story much richer. I’m confident that I still would have loved The Golem and the Jinni if I’d read it in print, but I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to this audiobook.

Category

Recommended from the Rest

Nominees

■   The Applause of Heaven by Max Lucado
■   The B-Team: The Human Division by John Scalzi
■   The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
■   The Quick and the Dead by Louis L’Amour

The Honor goes to The B-Team: The Human Division by John Scalzi.

If you are a science fiction fan, I recommend The B-Team: The Human Division (only available at Audible.com). The characters, both human and alien, were well drawn and the background for the conflict was interesting. Overall, a short, fun bit of intergalactic and diplomatic intrigue with a space battle thrown in for good measure.

As promised, I’ve finished announcing these awards in less than three hours. What’s also good news is that I didn’t pick up any Barnacles in 2016!

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A Perfect Start

A new journal is like new fallen snow–tantalizing with the pristine magic of unblemished potential. So of course I wanted my first drawing in my new journal to be perfect–a good first impression for my future self and any other readers as well as a worthy use of the first page’s potential. I even chose to do a less ambitious design so I was sure to get it “right”. But somehow I got off track with the alternating pattern of the fourth tangle and suddenly my perfect design wasn’t perfect, nor could I ever make it so.

And thus it became the perfect first entry for my spotless journal–a humorous reminder of the vanity of perfectionism. Since perfection is never guaranteed–even with an easy project, route, or goal–why not pursue something more ambitious if that’s what your truly want? No sense declining the opportunity solely out of fear of failure. If you can fail at something less inspiring, you might as well fail at something that ignites your enthusiasm!

2018Feb23

A journal page with a black and white Zentangle design and the following quote: I am not perfect; I am much stronger than that. –Rune Lazuli

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Captain’s Honors for 2015

2017Nov12November often finds me reviewing my “Things I Want to Do This Year” list to see what has been done and what hasn’t been done, what could still be accomplished and what needs to be moved to the “Next Year” list. This post is on the TIWtDTY list and today I’m going to get it crossed off the list!

In light of viewing my reading experiences as voyages though “seas that swell with waves of words and are bounded by paper”, I’ve decided to inaugurate the Annual Captain’s Honor Awards as a way to highlight my favorite voyages in a given year. By way of introduction, here are some explanations about these awards. First, I’m starting with my booklist from 2015 because there are books on that list I really want to write about but don’t have time analyze individually in a detailed way. Second, these are books that I read in 2015, not books that were published in 2015. Just to be clear, this means there may be classics competing with newer releases in some categories. It also means there may be some different categories in subsequent annual awards depending on what I read that year. Third, the Honors are awarded based entirely on my subjective experience with book. I’m not grading these books on some academic or literary rubric, so sometimes the Honor will go to a book that wasn’t as well written as it’s competitor simply because the former resonated with me more than the latter. So without further ado, I present

The Captain’s Honor Awards for 2015

Category

Favorite Fiction Book

Nominees

  • Shane by Jack Schaefer
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Honor goes to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

The winner for Favorite Fiction Book was a difficult choice because I rate both books at 5 out of 5 stars. Both books have a rich cast of characters and in depth themes that are ripe for discussion. Both books could be classified as genre fiction, yet appeal to readers outside of those genres. I appreciate that Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic story showed how even after a cataclysmic event, life goes on and it’s not all horrible. I also loved the exploration of the theme “Survival is insufficient.” I believe that while art isn’t essential to survival per se, art is one of the things that makes the struggle to survive worth it. And when survival is a struggle, if you don’t have a reason to persevere, you ultimately won’t survive.

Category

Favorite Non-Fiction Book

Nominees

  • Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey
  • Love Worth Giving by Max Lucado
  • Start With Why by Simon Sinek

The Honor goes to Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey.

While all of these books have merit, Girl in the Dark is the favorite by a mile. I listened to this memoir read by Hannah Curtis on Audible and promptly bought two copies on CD as gifts for friends. Anna Lyndsey’s story about living with extreme sensitivity to light is best experienced with your own eyes closed in my opinion, but whether you read or listen, I highly recommend this honest and inspiring journey of making a life within unexpected restrictions.

Category
Favorite Young Adult Book

Nominees

  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson
  • The Wonderful Wizard of OZ by L. Frank Baum

The Honor goes to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson.

I had never read Baum’s original classic before and I must say that he did a masterful job; I can see why The Wonderful Wizard of OZ is so beloved and inspired numerous sequels, spin-offs, and re-imaginings. Andrew Peterson’s first YA novel is not so masterful, due in large part to his choice to use footnotes for humor (just because David Foster Wallace does something doesn’t mean everyone should do it). Yet, the beauty and poetry in some of Peterson’s scenes moved me so deeply that it made reading The Wonderful Wizard of OZ seem like nothing more than an example of literary craft in a college class. Thus, for all it’s flaws, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is my favorite of the two.

Category
Recommended from the Rest

Nominees

  • After the Wall by Jana Hensel
  • C Is for Corpse by Sue Grafton

The Honor goes to After the Wall by Jana Hensel.

These are books didn’t make it into the running for favorites, but were good reads nevertheless. Choosing between a memoir and a murder mystery is even less “apples to apples” than the Favorite Non-Fiction Book choices were, but thanks to my random reading tastes, that’s what it comes down to. I recommend After the Wall as a valuable perspective on the experience of growing up in a country that no longer exists (East Germany) and the challenge that presents in navigating identity as an adult.

Barnacles for 2015

There were a couple of books that I read in 2015 that were not favorites, nor would I recommend them. These are the Barnacles that I picked up in my literary voyages that year.

Category
Worst Waste of Potential

The Barnacle goes to Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I thought the premise was brilliant and the world-building was fascinating. Unfortunately I found the main character to be annoying and unsympathetic (possibly even idiotic and pathetic, but that might be a bit too harsh). I tolerated his antics until his victory lap at the end of the book and decided to save myself the aggravation of having him as my guide for the next 15 books in the series. This was a big disappointment because I was totally hooked on the world. (I also recognize that I am in the minority in my experience of this book if the ratings on Amazon have any validity.)

Category
Worst Waste of Time

The Barnacle goes to Separate Beds by LaVyrle Spencer.

If romance is your genre, I’d be happy to recommend several other titles, but don’t bother with this one. Just don’t. Life is too short for you read it or for me to write more about it.

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Book Review: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

2017Sep2

My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  As the daughter of a Scottish duke, Georgie is genuine British royalty with a title (Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie) and no money (her brother cut off her allowance). Rather than being saddled with an arranged marriage to a miserable Romanian prince, Georgie strikes out on her own in London, searching for a suitable way to support herself. She hadn’t planned on becoming a private investigator, but when the body of an unsavory Frenchman with a claim on her family’s estate is discovered in her London townhouse, she doesn’t have much of a choice if she wants to keep her brother out of jail and her name out of the tabloids.

The first morsel of prose:  There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal. First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the ruling family without being given the means to do so. One is expected to kiss babies, open fetes, put in an appearance at Balmoral (suitably kilted), and carry trains at weddings. One is not, for example, allowed to work at the cosmetics counter at Harrods, as I was about to find out.

The reason I chose this book:  We were going to spend the weekend visiting relatives and I wanted a book that was interesting without being too demanding so that I could easily pop in and out of the story between conversations and other activities with family members. Her Royal Spyness fit that criteria perfectly!

My experience with this book: In a word–fun! The mystery was well plotted. The clues were all there and you got them at the same time our heroine did so you could figure it out for yourself. (No waiting for a final assembly of the suspects so that a super-sleuth can enlighten everyone–including you, the reader–about some obscure detail on which the whole case hinges.) Georgie was a resourceful heroine and I loved rooting for her. To top it all off, the humor was spot on for me.

What this book is about:  Navigating family expectations and obligations while building a life for yourself; pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and discovering what you value most.

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