Christmas at Brede Abbey, Sussex, England, c. 1955

“On the night of Christmas Eve the abbey was so still it might have been thought to be empty, or the nuns asleep, but when the bell sounded at ten o’clock, from all corners, especially from the church, silent figures made their way to their station in the long cloister, and Abbess Catherine led them into choir for Christmas Matins. The first nocturne from the book of Isaiah was sung by the four chief chantresses: ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. A voice says ‘Cry!’ and I said ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. . . .’ Voice succeeded voice through two hours until the priests, vested in white and gold, with their servers, came in procession from the sacristy for the tenderness and triumph of the midnight Mass. Lauds of Christmas followed straight after, and at two o’clock the community went to the refectory for hot soup, always called ‘cock soup’ because it was the first taste of meat or chicken they had had since Advent began. The soup was served with rice–‘beautifully filling,’ said Hilary in content–and after it came two biscuits and four squares of chocolate. ‘Chocolate!’ ‘We need to keep our strength up,’ said Dame Ursula.

In the twenty-four hours of Christmas they would spend ten hours in choir, singing the Hours at their accustomed times, and the second ‘dawn’ or ‘aurora,’ Mass of the shepherds as well as the third Mass of Christmas, which came after terce. The wonder was that the nuns had time to eat their Christmas dinner, most of it contributed by friends.”

I picked up a beautiful paperback copy of In This House of Brede by Rumor Godden at Half-Price Books the other day. The blurb on the back calls the book “an extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life.” I have called it “an excellent story about the lives of women within a closed community of nuns. Not only does the reader get to satisfy his curiosity about how nuns live in a convent, but there’s also a a great plot related to contemporary issues such as abortion, the efficacy of prayer, and the morality of absolute obedience.”

I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the disciplines of the Christian life or the difficulties and possibilities inherent in attempting to live in Christian community.

Blog reviews for In This House of Brede:
Laura at Lines in Pleasant Places.
Heather at Lines from the Page.
Phyllis at Life on Windy Ridge.
Diane at A Circle of Quiet.
Julie at Happy Catholic.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

I didn’t care for Lynne Rae Perkins’ Newbery Award winning book, Criss Cross. As I remember it, the book was partly written in verse, and I don’t care for verse novels. It also was confusing, about teenagers, and I just didn’t “get it.”

Nuts to You is not Criss Cross. It’s not even similar to Criss Cross. If you liked last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt or even last year’s Newbery Award winner, Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures by Kate di Camillo, then Nuts to You should be just up your alley.

It’s a squirrel story. The squirrels talk to each other–in squirrel. One of them speaks English and tells the story to the author who writes it down for us. The moral of the story is, “Save the trees,” for the sake of the squirrels and for humans, too. All of that–the talking squirrels, the environmental message, the author inside the story—should be enough to annoy me, but instead I found the entire story a delight.

First the talking squirrels. I did wonder how the narrator squirrel managed to learn and speak English. But I was willing to suspend disbelief because the squirrels are well, squirrelly, and funny and fun to be with. They have a whole squirrel culture complete with a love for storytelling and for games, a tendency toward conservatism and staying put in one place, and a capacity for bravery and perseverance that is inspiring.

The environmental message is not so heavy-handed that it made me cringe or even disagree. Humans are not the villains of the story. In fact, the squirrels seem to understand that for some reason some of the trees must be cut down, and they just do their best to roll with the punches and get on with their lives when bad things happen to their habitat. THere’s a message of “let’s just all try to live together and share the planet” that was refreshing and welcome in contrast to other books that preach about how human beings are despoiling the planet. I always feel as if I ought to find a hole and curl up and hibernate forever after I read those other sorts of environmental sermon stories.

The author is not too intrusive either. I liked her interaction with the elderly, storytelling squirrel at the beginning and end of the book. And I loved the story in the middle. Nuts to You is a keeper, for sure.

“Nuts to you, my friend. Nuts to us all.”

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Circa Now by Amber McRee Turner

An eleven year old girl named Circa loses her beloved father in an accident and doesn’t know if she can depend on her sometimes-depressed mother to care for her and for her father’s memory.

I liked a lot of things about this book. Circa Monroe was a spunky protagonist; she reminded me of my youngest Z-baby. In fact, Circa’s father reminded me of Engineer Husband, a nurturing and very responsible presence for Circa and for her mom. I can imagine life around the Semicolon household being much like Circa’s life after dad if Engineer Husband were to exit this earth prematurely. I am not dealing with clinical depression, but Engineer Husband definitely helps me hold it together in so many ways.

I also liked that the only place that Circa’s mom feels safe and nurtured outside of her home is the church. If they don’t go anywhere else, Circa and her mom go to church, and there they feel loved and respected and supported. Church and churchiness aren’t at all the focus of the story; the church scenes are a very minor part of the novel. And I liked that aspect, too. The church is Circa’s family’s natural community, and it’s treated as a normal part of life.

Another insignificant (but significant to me) part of the novel was that Circa’s best friend, Nattie Boone, is black—or at least she has “braided hair” and “dark skin.” I liked that race was never mentioned and that the Boone family go to church with the Monroes and take care of them with sandwiches and hospitality and peanut butter pie. If the friendship between Circa and Nattie is at all unusual for small town south Georgia, there’s no indication of that barrier in the book. I really like that.

Then there’s Circa’s “disability” or abnormality: she was born without a pinkie finger on one hand. That, too, is a minor part of the plot, and it’s written very matter-of-fact, even though Circa does get teased by some boys, called “circus girl”. Circa is a competent, independent young lady who wouldn’t give a missing finger a second thought if a few bad apples didn’t bring it to her attention with their taunting.

The plot of Circa Now focuses on something else entirely, not Circa’s missing finger, not her mom’s depression, not church. The story is really about Circa’s attempts to work through her grief and loneliness after her father’s accident by continuing his work with photo restoration. Circa keeps making the “shopt” photo projects that her dad did just for fun, as a joke between the two of them. And she wants to continue working on the Wall of Memories that she and her dad were making for the nursing home of Alzheimer’s patients near their home. However, when Circa’s mom doesn’t want her to try to finish the nursing home photo restorations and when a strange boy who might be a magical result of the shopt photos shows up at their house, Circa doesn’t know what to do.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Thirteen year old Nina Ross is feeling at loose ends this summer. Her best friend, Jorie, is changing into a boy-crazy clothes horse. Her beloved grandmother, the only person who really got Nina, died last year. Nina’s parents, divorce lawyers, work all the time. And her brother Matt is consistently either holed up in his room or gone to work.

Even though Nina isn’t “the type of person who goes out of her way to help people,” she decides to start a project: one good anonymous deed, small but remarkable, each day for the sixty-five days of summer vacation. Will it make a difference? Will Nina’s project change the neighborhood? Change the world?

This middle grade novel told a really sweet story, maybe too sweet for some readers, but I enjoyed it. Nina surprises herself and is surprised by the new truths she discovers about her neighbors and about her own family. The pace of these revelations and of the story itself is just right–not thriller pace but just enough suspense and charm to keep me reading. (There is mention in the story of a possible kumiho (Korean fox spirit) and a supposed ghost, but you can take or leave those possibilities.) All in all, The Summer I Saved the World . . . is a pretty good and encouraging summer read, a remarkable good deed and inspiration in itself.

The author tells about her purpose in writing the story in the end note:

“I started this story with a question: does doing good really do any good? Random acts of kindness are everywhere, but I wondered, so they really have an effect on people? Can small acts of goodness change our world?
The answer to my question—does doing good really do any good—I will always hope, is a resounding and undeniable yes!”

Well, I would say, yes and no. Yes, doing good is good, and of course, even small deeds of kindness and encouragement change the atmosphere of any neighborhood or workplace or home. The Bible says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Also, there are all the “one anothers”:

Bear with each other and forgive one another. (Colossians 3:13)
Be kind and compassionate to one another. (Ephesians 4:32)
Love one another. (John 13:34)
Be devoted to one another in love. (Romans 12:10)
Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
Encourage one another and build each other up. (I Thessalonians 5:11)
Spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13:12)
Be at peace with one another. (Mark 9:50)
Serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
Receive one another. (Romans 15:7)
Rejoice or weep with one another. (Romans 12:15)
Admonish one another. (Romans 15:14)
Care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:25)
Pray for one another. (James 5:16)
Accept one another. (Romans 14:1; 15:7)
Be truthful with one another. (Colossians 3:9)
Confess your faults to one another. (James 5:16)

If even just Christians obeyed all of those commands, the world would definitely be a “saltier” and better place. However, the world is made up of sinful people (like me), some of whom are unrepentantly evil, and it’s not going to be redeemed and transformed by small acts of “random” kindness. Random kindness is good, but it isn’t enough to save the world. It’s going to take something BIG to change the world: a large act of perfect love and sacrifice.

I wonder what THAT could be?

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

51zSfrFm2DL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_I have a thing about books set in other countries, especially African countries. Africa fascinates me for some reason. A Girl Called Problem is set in Tanzania in the early 1970’s when President Julius Nyerere encouraged Tanzanians to participate in his program of ujamaa, a socialist strategy emphasizing family and collective farming, to improve the economy and the living conditions of Tanzania’s poor and rural tribal peoples.

Wikipedia is not complimentary about the implementation and results of ujamaa:

“Collectivization was accelerated in 1971. Because the population resisted collectivisation, Nyerere used his police and military forces to forcibly transfer much of the population into collective farms. Houses were set on fire or demolished, sometimes with the family’s pre-Ujamaa property inside. The regime denied food to those who resisted. A substantial amount of the country’s wealth in the form of built structures and improved land (fields, fruit trees, fences) was destroyed or forcibly abandoned. Livestock was stolen, lost, fell ill, or died.
In 1975, the Tanzanian government issued the “ujamaa program” to send the Sonjo in northern Tanzania from compact sites with less water to flatter lands with more fertility and water; new villages were created to reap crops and raise livestock easier.”

In A Girl Called Problem the picture of ujamaa is much rosier. In the book the people of the fictional village Litongo move to a new place to participate in President Nyerere’s utopian project. Thirteen year old Shida (whose name means “problem”) believes that she and her mother have been cursed because her father died when Shida was born, but she knows that in the new village she will have a chance to go to school and to learn from the district nurse the thing she wants most to learn, how to be a healer.

Shida’s grandfather, Babu the village elder, tells the people that they should move to the new village, Nija Panda, for the sake of all Tanzania, and most of them do, although some are reluctant and fearful of the ancestors’ curse. This book is largely about reconciling the old ways with the new, what to keep and what to throw out. and about the sources of fear and strategies for confronting that fear. Shida listens to her elders, especially her mother and Babu, but she also respects and wants to learn from her schoolteacher and from the village nurse.

The book tells a good story about a girl coming of age in a time of change and stress, but two things bothered me about the context and setting. First of all, the author strategically ends her story before the failure of the ujamaa villages, a failure which was stark and catastrophic: “Tanzania, which had been the largest exporter of food in Africa, and also had always been able to feed its people, became the largest importer of food in Africa. Many sectors of the economy collapsed. There was a virtual breakdown in transportation. . . . Nyerere left Tanzania as one of the poorest, least developed, and most foreign aid-dependent countries in the world.”

In addition to glossing over the political situation, the author indicates that Shida’s mother is suffering from what appears to be mental illness, and again, as in two other middle grade fiction books that I read within the last month, the mother makes a quick and sudden recovery as a result of no intervention or therapy or anything. She simply decides not to be depressed anymore? If it were that easy, then no one would ever suffer from what we call clinical depression. Maybe Shida’s mom was just being a stubborn, self-centered old lady when she spent two weeks in the darkness, lying on her cot and refusing to move to Nija Panda. However, whatever the issue, sin or mental illness or both, she certainly makes a brilliant turnaround when the story comes to its climax and Mother Shida (women are called by the name of their oldest child) is needed to tie the loose ends together and make the story turn out well.

I enjoyed reading A Girl Called Problem myself, but I wouldn’t recommend it for impressionable middle grade readers who might get the wrong idea about the glorious efficacy of socialism and about the cure and treatment for mental illness and fear and selfishness. Julius Nyerere, who retired from government in 1985 and died in 1999, is still quite popular and even idolized in Tanzania, by the way, and in 2005 a Catholic diocese in Tanzania recommended the beatification of Nyerere, who was said to be a devout Catholic.

KidLitCon: What There Was and What I Learned

KidLitCon in Austin was smaller than it has been in the past, but since it was my first time to be able to come, I didn’t really notice until it was called to my attention. It was also a great weekend for connections and friendships, old, new, and renewed.

At first, since I believe most bloggers are introverts at heart, we all did the slow, careful dance of introvert intersection: the one where you carefully introduce yourself, see if the other person has any idea who you are or even wants to know, talk about the weather and the setting, and then slowly but surely circle around to the real reason you’re there, blogging and reading. Well, ALL is a slight exaggeration. Not all bloggers are introverts, and Pam from Mother Reader and Melissa the BookNut both rushed up and gave me a big hug and made me (and everyone else) feel so at home that I didn’t want to leave on Sunday morning. Thank God for extroverts.

Thank Him for the rest of us, too. I had wonderful, thoughtful conversations with Jennifer of 5 Minutes for Books who was so kind to provide my transportation from Houston to Austin and share her hotel room with me and share her love of books and kids and matching books with kids. (And she told me something about pictures that I didn’t know. I tried it on this post, and it works!) Then there were all of the other kidlit bloggers, who may or may not be extroverts or introverts, who did all the planning and the talking and the presenting and the socializing and the questioning. Thanks, everybody. (If you didn’t get to come, I’m sorry. You missed out.)

What I Learned at KidLitCon 2013 in Austin, TX:

51YjXKZS+mL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_1. Cynthia Leitich Smith (Cynsations) reads 300 blogs a day! She’s also Native American, or part native Americand (although, side note, I’ve never understood how any of us can really be “part” some ethnic or racial group), and she’s a really, really good and engaging speaker. She also has a picture book that I want to read called Jingle Dancer.

2. Author Chris Barton (Bartography) is a real person and a really nice person, and his next book is going to be about the world of video gaming for outsiders to that world who want to get in, maybe, a little bit. Sounds cool.

3. Jen Robinson (Jen Robinson’s Book Page) and Sarah Stevenson (Finding Wonderland) are good at analyzing burnout and providing some possible solutions, and Jen gave me a great idea for responding to blog posts that I like when I don’t have time to comment. She tweets a link to stuff she likes. Simple, but I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m going to do that.

4. Author Molly Blaisdell (Seize the Day) is a delightful and inspirational person, and I want to read her (adult?) book, Plumb Crazy, when it comes out in May, 2014.

5. Molly also taught us the Japanese word “otaku”, which is sort of a fan club or a group of influential geeks in any area of interest who wield influence in that subculture.

6. If I take notes on the back of a piece of paper, and I don’t remember what the paper was, I willnot have the notes to refer to when I write this post.

7. Katy Manck (BooksYALove) knows about lots of stuff, and she says I should be tagging my posts. I sort of, kind of, thought so, but she assures me that I should and could.

8. Sheila Ruth (Wands and Worlds) and Charlotte (Charlotte’s Library) are NOT the same person in disguise, but they are both authorities on fantasy and science fiction, and we can all agree that fantasy fiction about albino animals and mutant tennis rackets is not going to make the bestseller list or the awards lists anytime soon. Not to mention picture books with crayon scribbled illustrations. Maybe you had to have been there.

9. Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) is not the same person as author Lena Roy. Embarrassment. Don’t ask. But Leila is a lovely blogger, and she and her fellow panelists (Jen Bigheart, Lee Wind, Sheila Ruth) gave me a lot to think about as they discussed the future of kidlit blogging. Suffice it to say that despite changes and evolutions, there is a future as long as we bloggers are committed to helping children and parents and others find books, and it looks good.

10. Camille (Book Moot) is as wonderful an advocate for books in person as she is on her blog. And she leads a book club for older adults at her church, and they read Wolf Hall over the summer, then Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt this fall. Now that’s a contrast. I didn’t make it through Wolf Hall—too much of a challenge for me. Camille says the key is to listen to it on audiobook. Then you can tell who’s who because they use different voices for the different characters.

I learned a lot more from and about a lot more people, but I was told that what happens at KidLitCon stays at KidLitCon. So, except for the few tidbits of tantalizing information I have already shared here, you’ll just have to read about the experiences of everyone else—and come next year to KidLitCon, place and date TBA. But I think it’s going to be in California. (And if I didn’t link to you, I’m sorry, and I probably will soon in another post. Or I’ll tweet your post or something. But this one is getting too long, and I have to go to bed.)

Lost in a Walker Percy Cosmos, Part 5

The conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century,” that I attended in New Orleans along with Eldest Daughter was a very Catholic conference. I would guess that most, not all, of the speakers at the conference were Catholic. The conference was held on the campus of Loyola University, a Catholic Jesuit university. I told one man at the reception on Friday evening that I had eight children. He immediately assumed that I was Catholic. I should have said, “No, I’m just a fertile Baptist.” I did tell him that I was Baptist whereupon he asked me what I was doing at a Walker Percy conference in the middle of all of the Catholics. Didn’t we (Baptists) think they (Catholics) were all a bunch of heathens?

I reassured him that I was OK with Catholics if he was OK with Baptists. Everyone else at the reception drank alcohol. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the food. We all enjoyed the keynote address, and then Eldest Daughter and I went back to our bed and breakfast and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

On Saturday morning Eldest Daughter and I decided to mirror the theme of the conference by getting lost in New Orleans. New Orleans, at least the part of New Orleans where we were lost, has lots of narrow, one-way streets, with potholes, and people park alongside the streets, making them even narrower. It’s picturesque, but confusing. We wandered the byways of NOLA for over an hour before we happened upon the Loyola campus and were returned to the bosom of the Walker Percy conference. It all felt predestined.

We did miss the first seminar sessions of the morning, but we were able to make the 10:15 session on Technology and Media in Lost in the Cosmos. The first panelist used the word “semiotics” more than once, but I did not walk out or make any rude noises. If one attends a conference about an author who is interested in something called “semiotics” one must put up with a certain amount of semiotics. Anyway, apparently the alphabet is to blame for modern man’s alienation. The post-alphabetic self gains the whole world (on paper) but loses itself? Actually this analysis of the plight of modern man bears thought. What were the negative results of the invention of the printing press? What did we lose when we put everything into print? The art of story-telling? Community? And what are we losing now as we put everything into pixels on a computer screen?

The next presenter spoke about “the liquid society”, a phrase coined by a sociologist named Baumann. The idea is that we live in a society of individuals and individualists with fragmented lives, no long-term career, no family ties, no sense of place or community, our identities in constant flux. This lack of fixed identity is a major theme of Lost in the Cosmos.

May 9, 2011. Venice. European society, said the Holy Father, is submerged in a liquid culture; in this regard, he pointed out “its ‘fluidity,’ its low level of stability or perhaps absence of stability, its mutability, the inconsistency that at times seems to characterize it.”
He noted that Bauman attributes the birth of the “liquid” society to the consumerist model. The philosopher stated that its most profound impact has been felt in social relations, and, more in particular, in relations between man and woman, which have become increasingly flexible and impalpable, as manifested by the present concept of love reduced to a mere passing sentiment.
Speaking to an audience in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, Benedict XVI opposed this model of a liquid society with a model of the society “of life and of beauty.”
“It is certainly an option, but in history it’s necessary to choose: man is free to interpret, to give meaning to reality, and it is precisely in this liberty that his great dignity lies,” said the Pope.

Again, the loss of community, and the resultant loss of self, is a theme. Belief in technology and progress alone is inadequate and dangerous. We need a community to “in”form our sense of self. Lost in the Cosmos involves the reader in the message through a repeated use of the second person: “You grow thoughtful” or “you feel like a castaway on an island”. Also, the reader is asked questions and enticed to participate in thought experiments and multiple choice quizzes.

Percy said that “words have a tendency to wear out.” Because of this loss of meaning, authors in particular keep trying to find new ways and new words to express old truths. Percy was always trying to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Tell All The Truth by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

I’m not sure how successful Mr. Percy is in communicating with me, but I’m also not sure I am his target audience. Percy was born in 1916, so he’s a twentieth century author to be sure. However, I’m something of an anachronism. I’ve never felt the twentieth century alienation and loss of faith in God that most twentieth century authors exhibit. I settled the God question when I was a teen with C.S. Lewis, a little Josh McDowell, G.K. Chesterton and two verses from the Bible:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Job 13:15

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68

Not saying I have all the answers or never feel depressed or never doubt God’s intentions or nearness. But who or what else is there to assuage the ache? (Listen to Ben Shive’s song, Nothing for the Ache, which I would embed here if I could.)

Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher L. Heuertz

This book was an unexpected gift. I was in the mood for something nonfiction, inspirational, and thought-provoking. And Mr. Heuertz delivered.

I know nothing at all about Word Made Flesh community, the community that Mr. Heuertz lived in and among and from which he takes his examples in the book. I know nothing of the jargon that Mr. Heuertz uses in his book: “contemplative activism”, “transitional awakening” and “prophetic community”. I am skeptical about the pantheon of heroes of whom the author has pictures pinned up in his office: Gandhi, Romero (who?), Che (?), Mother Teresa and Bob Marley(?). I got lost in the “progressive” new monasticism that Mr. Heuertz espouses and the sometimes dense, esoteric language he uses to describe his insights into community. I don’t think the author and I are on the same page, theologically speaking.

And yet . . . Mr. Heuertz has deep experiential understanding and wisdom about how Christians can and should live in community. I found a lot to think about and mull over, especially in relation to my church family, my immediate family and my homeschool co-op family, all of which make up the community where God has placed me. The chapters in the book talk about eleven “unexpected gifts” of living in community: failure, doubt, insulation, isolation, transition, the unknown self, betrayal, incompatibility, ingratitude, grief, and restlessness. All of these would seem to be issues and problems rather than gifts, but as we allow God to redeem our failures, doubts, griefs, and restlessness, we can receive these things as gifts to spur us on to greater growth and deeper relationship with Him and with others.

Failure: ” . . . let restoration become a journey toward brokenness. For in brokenness, our woundedness is best addressed, our fears are calmed, our shame is lifted, and love is extended.”

Doubt: ” . . . very real times of doubt lead both of us to places of lament—the grieving of the things that are fundamentally broken in the world—even as we simultaneously hope for more of God’s justice, presence and nearness. . . . in our community, when one of us has been down or experiencing doubt, we have found that the faith of those around us helps carry us.”

Insulation: “Our communities won’t always be able to offer us everything we need, nor will we be able to give back all that they need from us. . . That’s often when we need to step back, to refocus.”

Isolation: “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community, may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Transition (or change): “Avoiding blame, not picking sides, speaking honorably of the communities we leave or the people who transition from our communities are all parts of a bigger process–one that must also include space for grieving and room for celebrating.”

The Unknown Self: I must admit that this chapter about self-image and identity didn’t speak to me, and I didn’t understand what the author was trying to say. Self-discovery is found in self-denial which allows us to be free and whole people? Or something.

Betrayal A powerful meditation on betrayal and forgiveness. “Our response to betrayal can be a powerful force, setting our life trajectories toward grace or bitterness.”

Incompatibility: Subtitled “When Together Is Too Close,” this chapter explores the difficulties and blessings of incompatibility or the flip-side of too much “chemistry” between people who need to maintain some emotional and physical distance (members of the opposite sex, for instance). I’m not sure I agreed with Mr. Heuertz in his simplistic solution, that we all just act like mature people and get along but not misbehave. I think it is more complicated than that and that there is a place for drawing “artificial” boundaries, such as two people of the opposite sex not being alone together or avoiding intimate communication with people who are immature or abrasive. Heuertz seems to sy that we should just exercise common sense and grow up.

Ingratitude: More powerful stuff. “Many of us hadn’t considered the ways in which ingratitude had created subtle distances among us–forgetting to say thank you when someone stayed late, pitched in, or helped complete a big project, or merely thanking each other for common courtesies such as opening a door. Sometimes not saying thank you when a meal tab was covered by a community member or failing to express gratitude for well-prepared meetings caused some of us to judge each other as entitled or ungrateful.”

Grief: “Grief must be accepted. We can’t control it; we have to experience the depths of grief. In a contemplative posture, we are able to receive the pain as a gift filled with healing and lament.”

Restlessness: I think I liked this chapter best of all because it spoke to my temptation to devalue and become tired of the daily-ness of my life and my calling as a mother. “Most of real life consists of living in the ordinary, in-between times, the space and pauses filled with monotony. Most of real life is undramatic. The challenge is to be faithful and consistent, ‘praying the work’ when no one is looking or when there’s no recognition of our contributions.”

“Becoming the best versions of ourselves often requires that we stay. Stay when things get hard. Stay when we get bored. Stay when we experience periods of unhappiness. Stay when the excitement wears off.Stay when we don’t like those we’re in community with. Stay when we fail or are betrayed. Stay when we know who we can become if we have courage to be faithful in the undramatic.”

Unexpected Gifts was sent to me free of charge by the publisher, Howard Books, for the purpose of review. I am grateful to them and to the author for the opportunity to review and reflect on the ideas that Mr. Heuertz presents in this testimony of difficulties transformed into gifts.