a poem for sunday.

“Little Girls in Church” by Kathleen Norris

1.

I’ve made friends
with a five-year-old
Presbyterian. She tugs at her lace collar,
I sympathize. We’re both bored.
I give her a pencil:
she draws the moon,
grass, stars
and I name them for her,
printing in large letters.
The church bulletin
begins to fill.
Carefully, she prints her name–KATHY–
and hands it back.

Just last week
in New York City, the Orthodox liturgy
was typically intimate,
casual. An old woman greeted the icons
one by one
and fell asleep
during the Great Litany
People went in and out,
to smoke cigarettes and chat on the steps.

A girl with long brown braids
was lead to the icons
by her mother. They kissed each one,
and the girl made a confession
to the youngest priest. I longed to hear it,
to know her name.

2.

I worry for the girls.
I once had braids
and wore lace that made me suffer.
I had not yet done the things that would need forgiving.
Church was for singing, and so I sang.
I received a Bible, stars
for all the verses;
I turned and ran.

The music brought me back
from time to time,
singing hymns
in the great breathing body
of a congregation.
And once in Paris, as
I stepped into Notre Dame
to get out of the rain,
the organist began to play:
I stood rooted to the spot,
I looked up, and believed.

It didn’t last.
Dear girls, my friends,
may you find great love
within you, starlike
and wild, as wide as grass,
solemn as the moon.
I will pray for you. if I can.

what I have been reading (back to school tired brain edition).

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Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (borrowed from a friend)

When some butterflies that usually winter in Mexico end up in a valley in the Appalachian mountains instead, what happens to the community? What happens in particular to the families closest to this miracle (that could, after all, be a tragedy caused by climate change)? Maybe not my favorite Kingsolver (I have a special place in my heart for Prodigal Summer), but I loved the setting and the ways that Kingsolver cared so deeply and respected the poor people she was writing about. What good is science when your family is just getting by, and how much can farmers care about butterflies when climate change is affecting their own work? I really enjoyed this one. Recommended for: the science-minded among us, those who can see themselves in tales from a small town, anyone who has ever felt their lives were small and they wanted more.

Undistorted God: Reclaiming Faith Despite the Cultural Noise by Ray Waddle (via NetGalley)

Two quotes from this book sum up what I liked about it. “That’s the secret about religion: it better be worldly. Don’t live it all in your head, doing the math of perfectionism. Don’t forget the shaggy, swarming world.” And, “That’s what a church with its beckoning art should inspire when you sit down inside a sanctuary or assembly hall or approach a labyrinth of stone altar–the long view, a consoling sanity, a renewed search for the undistorted God.” This is mostly a story of finding God in unexpected places and learning how to differentiate the things that point you to God from God. Recommended for people who have trouble seeing glimpses of the divine in their daily lives.

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (via NetGalley)

I have been hearing about this book for years, so when I saw I could request a copy with 100 additional pages, I was thrilled. It’s basically everything I love in an oral history, juicy behind-the-scenes gossip, scandal, and some people who are clearly very pissed about their experiences with the show and/or Lorne Michaels all these years later. SIGN ME UP. I flew through this and loved it (perfect airplane reading, by the way). My only complaint was that some of the new material seemed a little too current for the contributors to have really reflected upon what it meant culturally or even to themselves. I hope in 10-20 years there continue to be discussions with those actors and writers involved about their experiences on the show. My one suggestion for making this book better would be if the digital version had links to all the sketches that they are talking about. How great would that be, to read about a sketch and then just click to watch it yourself? Someone please make this happen. Recommended for: fans of SNL, people who kind of hate SNL, people who love oral histories and gossip.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life by Robert Benson (via Blogging for Books)

On my last day of summer vacation, I took this book with me as I got a pedicure, and I read almost the whole thing. It’s a quick and easy read about writing. Benson talks about what works for him as he writes and edits drafts, what does not work for him, and gives general tips from his years of experience. Rather than being dry or imperious, the tone is warm and friendly, and I took away several ideas for my own writing. Recommended for: writers and friends of writers.

Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible by Peter Enns (purchased myself)

This was recommended in the comments here one day and I finally got around to ordering it. Rather than reading the traditional Old Testament stories with your child, Enns recommends focusing on the parables with small children, then moving to some of the more complex/confusing stories in middle school, and bringing the Bible into more cultural and historical context in high school. I liked this plan because I don’t really want to read Atticus stories about Noah’s Ark or genocide at this point, and without some guidance it is easy to step back from the Bible and be afraid to read it altogether. We obviously are very new to this (and I didn’t buy the curriculum), but if you have a young child and are nervous about reading the bible with him or her, I recommend this book to you.

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonski (via NetGalley)

Grayson lives with his aunt and uncle and cousins after his parents died in a car crash, and he hides from them his darkest secret: he is really a girl stuck inside the wrong body. When he tries out for the female lead in the school play, a lot of feelings that have been tucked away in his family and his community come to the forefront. What I liked about this book was that it focused on middle grade concerns. Grayson most clearly articulates the idea that he is a girl by wanting to wear girls’ clothes. Obviously there is a lot more that goes into being a transgendered person than simply switching wardrobes, but Grayson’s expression also seemed appropriate for that age. You will root for Grayson to feel the support and love he needs and admire his(her) inner strength. Recommended for: middle schools.

Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani (via NetGalley)

If you have ever read a devotional and come away with more questions than answers, this is the book for you. After years of quiet times that left me unsettled, I enjoyed these thoughts on scripture that don’t depend on everything wrapping up neatly at the end. While of course some of the essays are stronger than others and some resonate more than others, they were consistently good and thought-provoking. My favorites were from Karen Walrond, Ian Cron, and Ellen Painter Dollar. Some other authors you might know are Brian McLaren, Eugene Peterson, Caryn Rivadeneira, Karen Swallow Prior, Susan Isaacs, Debbie Blue, Christian Piatt, Katherine Willis Pershey, Amy Julia Becker, Anna Broadway, and Gareth Higgins. This book is packed full! My only regret is that I was reading it during the first week of school, when I really did not have the mental energy for something so smart.

Nest by Esther Ehrlich (via NetGalley)

Nest is set in 1972 and is about Chirp, an eleven-year-old girl who loves dancing and the outdoors and wild birds. When Chirp’s mother gets sick, her world is turned upside down. Where can she find a safe place? As I was reading this, I felt as if it was a not-quite-as good version of Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt because of the bird themes and the neighbor Joey who is suffering from abuse. However, I can’t think of a student who would enjoy Okay for Now, but I do think this one would find a place on my shelves. It paints a realistic picture of depression and the stresses that many children face in their home lives. Recommended for middle schoolers.

I received some of these books for free but my opinions are my own.

two prayers for the first day of school.

School

Tomorrow is the first day of school here. I am entering this year with a mixture of determination, terror, and hope. Let’s pray together.

O Eternal God, bless all schools, colleges, and universities,
that they may be lively centers for
sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom;
and grant that those who teach and those who learn may find
you to be the source of all truth; through Jesus Christ our
Lord. Amen.
(from the BCP)

And this one is specifically for the public schools of North Carolina, not that I don’t care about other kinds of schools or schools in other places. Just that we are in some serious weeds here and need some special prayers of our own.

Great, loving God, on this day, we pray for the students and educators of every public school. As people of faith and as concerned citizens, we pray for the wisdom and courage to stand up for a just and equitable education for every single child in our state and in the world. May our feet keep marching, O God, until our elected leaders recognize and value our children and teachers. We pray this in the name of our great teacher, Jesus. Amen. (from Reverend Nancy E. Petty)

what Atticus Finch taught me about watching the news.

Before I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I read a book that has been lost to history that quoted Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” I have always thought of that as Atticus Finch’s most famous quote, but it is not my favorite. Good advice, but who wants to stand in Robert E. Lee Ewell’s shoes? Perhaps I am not yet ready for that level of compassion and empathy.

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As a parent, I see things more clearly from Atticus Finch’s side. The ways he tries to do right and the ways he fails and the messages he wants to teach his children through it all. He is a pragmatist, not a prophet. He sees things the way that they are and he points his family in the direction of change, change that looks like a young girl surprising a crowd on a tense night, change that looks like dignity in the face of defeat, change that looks like respecting the dignity of others no matter their situation. His benign neglect is not going to help win any parenting awards, but his values are helping him raise smart, brave, informed kids who are learning to think of others.

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I have thought a lot about Atticus Finch this past week. He is with me often enough on a regular week, but the news of the past week has been so terrible. The shock from Ferguson and the death of Robin Williams took over most of my feed last week as we as a country wrestled with injustice and loss in the physical sphere. (And in the case of Ferguson, we continue to do so.)

There were a lot of compassionate responses. But then there were the others, the ones who claim that Mike Brown was a thug who deserved to be shot, or that Robin Williams was a selfish sinner for killing himself. There’s not a lot of nuance in that kind of story. There’s only a list of what you must do to be in, and in both cases, the central figures are most definitely out.

This is human nature, to try to set up systems that help us understand the problems we see before us. This is understandable. And it is wrong. To jump to these conclusions is to deny that the person you are discussing was created in the image of God, carries that life and light inside.

No matter what happened with cigars or pot or jaywalking, there is no reason for Mike Brown to have ended up dead on the street, shot six times (twice in the head). If you think that he was a menace, you should ask yourself why. If you don’t understand why the community is upset, you should ask yourself why. And if you feel okay with trusting the police in this situation, you should ask yourself why. Why do you think the community is having such a different response? Is it possible that they have experienced things you haven’t that make it hard for them to trust the police? Wouldn’t that make their responses just as valid as yours? Try putting yourself in the shoes of a community member. Read some books and listen to some stories about race in that area and what it is like to be young and black in this country. That’s not walking around in someone else’s shoes, but it’s a good start. Maybe you should find out a little bit more before you speak about such a large and complicated problem.

As for Robin Williams, he was never my favorite comedian, despite the places I hold in my heart for Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting. But he taught me Whitman and he taught me not to be so afraid and I love him for it, even if he didn’t make me laugh as much as he did other people. All I can think about is how terrible he must have felt, the despair that must have been surrounding him as he chose to end his life. Anyone who would reduce such an experience to a judgment call about sin and selfishness, I have some questions for you. Have you ever suffered from depression that made it hard to get out of bed? Depression that made you feel so wholly unconnected to your body that you weren’t sure how to move or speak at a normal pace? Depression that stretched into nothingness? It’s not the same as being sad when your dog dies. Maybe you should find out a little bit more before you speak about such a large and complicated problem.

Listening to Atticus Finch is teaching me what I learned as a small child, the importance of a faith that prioritizes imagination. Holy imagination draws us closer to God by allowing ourselves to see God at work in places we might not expect. We see God’s presence around us, God’s image in the people we meet.

I think we could all use a little bit more Atticus Finch in our lives this week, a little more of taking off our own shoes and trying on someone else’s. As you watch the news, especially the news from Ferguson, give that holy imagination a try. Embrace compassion. Consider what you might not know. And listen to those who can offer you a different perspective.

Some resources:

-12 Things White People Can Do Now Because of Ferguson

-Black Bodies White Souls by Austin Channing Brown

-Robin Williams’s death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish

what I have been reading (end of summer womp womp).

I have to go back for training in the morning so my summer is pretty much over. I would ask you to feel sorry for me but I don’t really even feel sorry for myself. This summer was just the break I needed. More about going back to school later. But first, here are some books I read this summer that I haven’t told you about yet.

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince (via NetGalley)

I have been trying to read more graphic novels, not just for my students but also for myself. This one is Liz Prince’s story of growing up and being a tomboy, never knowing exactly where she fit in. I am not sure I am qualified to judge artwork in graphic novels, but I liked the drawings and I really enjoyed this story. I particularly liked how she is a tomboy who is straight because often this type of character would be gay and I like to see a diversity of experiences represented (I boycotted the color pink for about a decade, so I feel some camaraderie with Liz myself). In the end, Liz comes to see how she is also contributing to the marginalization of girls/women by refusing to be “girly” and I loved how that discovery brought her some peace in the end. Recommended for: fans of graphic memoirs, girls who are tomboys, people who struggle with gender conformity. Oh, and it would be great in high schools, I think.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (via NetGalley)

Here’s another graphic novel, but this one is a novel and not a memoir. It’s about David, a man who makes a deal with death to be able to sculpt anything he wants. He uses that power to make incredible street art, but when he falls in love with the woman of his dreams just before his time is up, everything changes for him. This is the kind of graphic novel that is not totally my jam – kind of like a superhero story (special powers) and kind of like magical realism, neither of which are my favorites. And yet! Despite all that, it was un-put-down-able. I raced through it because I had to know what was going to happen. I especially loved the art he would create throughout New York City in the middle of the night. I’m not totally sure who to recommend it to, but it was a really engaging story.

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Landline by Rainbow Rowell (via my husband, for my birthday because he is awesome)

I am on record as being a Rainbow Rowell stan so take all my opinions with a grain of salt. On one hand, there is a certain amount of ridiculousness to this story – Georgie can’t go on her family’s Christmas trip which seems to be the thing that has finally ruined her relationship with her husband Neal forever . . . until she finds a landline in her parents’ house that somehow allows her to call Neal in the past and help her work things out with him. That sounds kind of clunky, right? Plus there’s the fact that we don’t get quite enough of how and why Georgie and Neal like each other to begin with. And yet! I still really liked it. Rainbow Rowell writes characters who are so appealing and so real despite phones that can communicate with the past. Four out of five stars with the caveat that you are going to have to just accept some ridiculousness (but hopefully you won’t mind too much).

A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace by Brian Zahnd (Amazon was giving this one away for free a while back)

This is a book about pacifism. I basically agreed with everything Zahnd said but man was it boring. (Insert joke here about how books about peace can’t be very exciting.)

The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp (via the used bookstore)

This book is narrated by Sutter Keely, a senior in high school who is a drunk. Not just a guy who drinks too much at parties, but a guy who needs a drink first thing in the morning, who drinks all day, who is the life of the party and has beer in the trunk of his car and who can convince you to go along with his crazy plans. He’s incredibly charismatic, which makes for a great narration as you see the truth despite what he is telling you (and himself). It was a tough read because Sutter is so deluded and it doesn’t wrap up neatly at all. But definitely enjoyable. Great high school book, and I can’t wait to see the movie.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (via the public library)

I decided to go ahead and read this one because I know the movie is coming out. It’s about a girl, Mia, who is in a coma following a car accident that killed the rest of her family. Essentially she has to decide if she is going to stay on earth or pass on to the afterlife. Several of my friends have reviewed this one and none of them gave it more than three stars but it was an enjoyable page turner and I cried twice so I give it four stars. Recommended if you are prepared for the melodrama.

In Darkness by Nick Lake (lent to me by a fellow librarian)

This is a difficult book to explain – it’s about a young black man in Haiti who is trapped in the rubble of a hospital after the earthquake in 2010. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, we also hear the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who helped liberate Haiti from France in the late 1700s. I’m not going to lie – it was difficult to understand and get through at points. But I learned a lot about Haiti and it was masterfully told. I could see some bright high schoolers latching on to this book (and obviously the Printz committee could, too, because it won in 2013). I know that I will not be forgetting it any time soon.

Where She Went by Gayle Forman (via the public library)

When I finished If I Stay, I said that I wasn’t going to read the sequel. But I went to the library with Atticus and the sequel was right there on the shelf! So I checked it out. This one is narrated by the (ex) boyfriend of Mia and tells his story of what happened after the accident. It was okay but I liked the first one better.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith by Joanna Brooks (via the public library)

I have been on a little bit of a Mormon kick this summer. There are a lot of blogs written by Mormon women, did you know that? I didn’t really until recently. So I am kind of fascinated by the whole thing, especially how similar evangelical Christianity can be to Mormonism and yet there are some big differences, too. Several people recommended this book, which, oh my gosh. This book is amazing. It just shines, a beautiful jewel of a story. I sat next to the pool and read it and kept wiping away tears (of course I had forgotten my sunglasses, so I had nothing to hide behind). This is the book I wish I could write, where she has such affection and understanding for the way she used to be. I give it all the stars!

When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by Lillian Daniel (via the used bookstore)

From what I can tell, Lillian Daniel wrote an essay on Huffington Post about the perils of being “spiritual but not religious” and decided to write a book on the topic but didn’t really have a book’s worth of stuff to say so she just told stories instead. I liked the stories in this book but there didn’t seem to be any structure to it. Also, a few (not many) of the stories were anecdotes I have heard from other speakers/preachers. I feel like that can work in a sermon but it doesn’t work for me in a book. In the end, I didn’t feel like she made a convincing case that being in a church is important (which I think is what she was trying to do). With a different title, this book might have worked better for me. As it is, it felt like it needed more focus.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (via NetGalley)

This is essentially a transcription of her TEDx talk so if you can’t sit and watch the video, perhaps try this instead. If you have only heard the clips that Beyonce used in her song “Flawless,” you should definitely read or listen to the whole thing. A quick read, but a powerful one. These are the things we should all be teaching our children, boys and girls alike.

I received some of these books through NetGalley but my opinions are my own.

3.5 and 35

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When Atticus was turning three, several people sidled up to me and said, “I don’t know whether to tell you this, but the terrible twos are nothing compared to the threes.” Wait, what?! I went out of my way to insist that the twos weren’t as bad as advertised and this is how the universe repays me? Also, why is this not public information?! I needed more time to prepare.

I’m not going to lie, turning three was hard on Atticus (and therefore on the rest of us). He was more volatile and he couldn’t deal with difficulties like sharing, transitions, or anyone looking at him. You know, the usual stuff. Getting out the door in the morning was pretty frustrating, and his hair often went uncombed. A few times I had to strap his underwear-clothed body into his carseat and get him dressed at school because he would calm down there. Clothes, mama, why are you making me wear these terrible clothes? And stop looking at me!

So just imagine how I felt when I read this blog post about 3.5 year olds and how they are even more fearsome than three year olds just a few weeks after Atticus’s third birthday. He has a few friends who are about six months older, and their parents all confirmed for me that 3.5 was basically the worst thing that ever happened to their otherwise sweet and adorable children. Meanwhile, I was shaking in my boots since we were already having a hard time. All spring I pictured the summer as alternating between a screaming match and a grudge match. I knew everything would be terrible and I was kind of bummed that it was the part we would be home for.

But you know what? It’s been mostly great. A few bumps but not the horror show I was expecting. Maybe he worked that nonsense out of his system back in the winter/spring, or maybe we’re wearing him out at the pool, or maybe he decided to go through it when his friends did (syncing their cycles). Whatever it was, it’s been a summer of happy memories at the pool, time with friends and family, and ice cream sandwiches.

3.5 is full of contradictions, the things he says he can do on his own and the ways he suddenly cannot operate any of his limbs when we ask him to pick up his toys. He has trouble trying things that seem hard but there is wonder and discovery. He is desperate to see his friends but after a few hours he can’t really share with them anymore. He can’t stand for his shirt to get the tiniest bit wet but he spends hours playing at the pool. He is as stubborn and sweet as he has ever been. I’m sure that the transition back to school will be challenging but I feel so much more confident about who he is and what we can weather.

Atticus turned 3.5 just a few days before I turned 35, and besides enjoying the symmetry of the numbers, I have decided that we aren’t so different. I have been known to house some contradictions myself, to be a little stubborn and to need some alone time. Here’s to my bright and beautiful boy for defying the conventional wisdom and being not quite as cranky as everyone expects. Most of the time, anyway.

set me as a seal upon your arm.

No sense in burying the lede: Mike and I went on our anniversary to get tattoos. Neither modern nor traditional lists name ink as a fourteenth anniversary gift, but maybe they should. Maybe it’s even a little bit Song of Solomon: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death.

It was an act of love, both with the man I love and as a mark of love upon myself. I have long been an expert at hating my body, but after it started suffering signs of aging and post-pregnancy, I reached a new level of loathing. I could allow, yes, that carrying and nursing a baby made me see a new strength inside myself, that I shouldn’t look now like I did twenty years ago, but the outside doesn’t offer a view that I am happy about. Even things I did that were ostensibly for my health like taking medicine and training for a half marathon left me changed in ways that made me uncomfortable.

It has been hard to accept that the changes my life has made to my body will be carried with me, are part of me going forward. There is no going back to who I was. My mind knows that and sees it as a beautiful picture of growth, but my body looks in the mirror and does not find it good. I realized a couple of years ago that making a change of my own choosing might help.

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I started walking a local prayer labyrinth after Atticus was born, and it has become a powerful symbol in my life. As I walk those twists and turns, I breathe more deeply. The path is not straightforward, but neither is any step wasted. You must stay in the present, one step at a time, without looking too far ahead. Walking the labyrinth has given me a way to accept those aspects of life by helping me unwind the knot around my heart. I never thought I was a tattoo person until I considered getting a labyrinth tattoo, and then I knew immediately it was the right choice.

I doubt that tattoos are on any list that talks about aging gracefully, but for me, the ability to accept, even in a small way, that my body has been shaped by what has come before is a gift. It was empowering to mark myself with a symbol that is important to me as a wife and a mother, one that helps me pray and breathe and think. I will carry it with me just as I carry other scars and stretch marks and sags. Just as I carry all those younger versions of who I used to be, none of them wasted, each building on the ones who came before.

Mike and I went on our anniversary to get tattoos. I have to say that I love mine. It makes me feel strong and I think it is beautiful.

(Mike loves his, too. He got a sea turtle because of the time he spent working with sea turtles in Costa Rica.)

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on taking a break from church (a review of how to be a christian without going to church by kelly bean).

I haven’t been to church in a couple of months. I needed a break, not from God but from some of the dynamics that inevitably appear when you attend a church for over a decade.

It’s been nice in some ways, a relief. But in other ways, I feel a little bit unmoored. My Sundays have no particular shape, so I end up feeling even more disappointed on Sunday night when I have to go back to work on Monday. I have been a churchgoer all my life, so this much of a break is a big change, and I am not sure it is for me. I think I might be a church girl, and I have been glad to have the chance to figure that out for myself. Those uncomfortable dynamics aren’t going to be fixed when I decide to go back, but it’s nice to feel that I can choose them for myself rather than feeling stuck inside of them.

Soon after I decided to take a break, I requested a review copy of How to be a Christian Without Going to Church by Kelly Bean. I did it sort of as a joke, so I could read it and Mike could raise his eyebrows at me. (He’s been going to church a little bit.)

christianwithoutchurchThe book, as you might imagine, is about what it looks like for many people who are faithful believers but who no longer see traditional church as a priority. I should say that some of the most faithful Christians in my life are not regular churchgoers, so it was not difficult to convince me that there are other options than showing up in nice clothes at 11:00 on Sunday morning. Bean writes about other ways that practices and faith are possible even without Sunday morning services and Wednesday night Bible studies. These are not necessarily mind blowing things – home services, gathering for meals, and serving your community are not new ideas, but I appreciated how she framed them as opportunities for connection and spiritual growth. I was also challenged to consider how much I compartmentalize my church life because I can easily return to it every Sunday rather than letting it be a natural outpouring of my daily life.

One of my strongest objections to the book as I was reading it is that the author had experienced a certain amount of privilege in the ways that she experienced “church” even as a nongoer (her term). For example, they had a home large enough to house people who needed it and money and food enough to share as well as time to give. I was impressed with how she addressed this at the end of the book after experiencing some financial setbacks within her family.

I think How to be a Christian Without Going to Church addresses issues of vulnerability and authenticity (even though those are kind of cliches) that many people feel when it comes to living out their faith. It’s a good read even if you are comfortable with your church attendance because it offers so many practical suggestions for connecting with those around you. Even though it turns out that I am probably a church girl, I enjoyed reading this book and having the opportunity to figure that out for myself.

I haven’t been to church in a couple of months. I needed a break, but I think I will go back. Reading this book helped.

Does the title of the book still bug you? Kelly Bean addresses that well here.

I received a copy of this book through NetGalley but my opinions are my own.

what I have been reading (beach reads edition).

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) (via the public library)

I probably don’t need to say much about this book since it’s by J.K. Rowling, but I enjoy a good mystery novel and this one hit the spot. I could sort of see the pieces coming together but couldn’t quite guess how it was going to work out, so the reveal at the end was satisfying and enjoyable. It did drag a bit right in the middle, but I was reading it so quickly that that hardly mattered. Recommended for: mystery enthusiasts, people who like to discuss celebrity culture.

The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics by Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina (via NetGalley)

This book listed a different subtitle on Goodreads, but I think this one is slightly more accurate – the book is more specifically tailored for Catholic readers than Protestants or other faiths. I was hoping for some ideas about church year practices that we might include in our family celebrations, but it wasn’t structured quite like that. The first half was a discussion of the history of feasting in the church and the second half did get into more specifics about some holy days. I learned several things about the Catholic church that I had not known but didn’t pick up anything for our family. Recommended for: people wanting to learn more about celebrations within Catholicism.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (via the public library)

Americanah is about two kids growing up in Nigeria and it follows them as one, Ifemelu, travels to America for college. Obinze, her boyfriend, is not able to get a visa and instead spends time in London. I enjoyed Ifemelu’s story (and her blog posts on racial issues in America) more than Obinze’s, especially in the middle of the book when he was bogged down in legal/visa issues. Recommended for: basically everybody, because this is a great book about the modern-day immigrant experience.

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Spiritual Misfit by Michelle DeRusha (via Blogging for Books)

I read Michelle DeRusha’s blog a few times many years ago when it was called Nebraska Graceful. I remember enjoying her sense of humor and her way of looking at the world, so when I saw that I could request a copy of her book, I was excited to do so. Michelle grew up in the Catholic church but did not consider herself a person of faith. After some conversations and experiences at church with her family, she decided to be more open to spiritual ideas and began to see God moving in unexpected places. This is her story of faith and doubt and not fitting in. One of the things I liked about her blog bugged me a little bit while I was reading the book – she is great at finding the humor in situations and is careful to make herself the butt of the joke and to protect her family. After a few chapters, I began to wish we had had more information on the people around her to balance out her portrayal of herself as a bit of a grumpy goof. The book quotes a lot of authors I have read (especially Kathleen Norris) and there were times I felt that she was not adding a lot to those quotes. Still, I would recommend this for people who have struggled as outsiders in their faith, especially those who converted as adults.

The Misfits by James Howe (via my own shelf even though I had never read it)

I decided to read this one because I am thinking about doing a book club with it next year, focusing on students who are outsiders and possibly doing our own No Name-Calling Week. If you have read this and have ideas for me, let me know! If you haven’t, it’s a good middle grades book that helps students think about bullying.

A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness by Marlena Graves (via NetGalley)

Marlena Graves grew up with an alcoholic, mentally ill father which has helped her to see how God is present in the wilderness. She writes about different ways that God has spoken or moved in her life in the wilderness and testifies to the faithfulness of God using scripture and examples from her own life and others. I found the first half of the book to be slow and I couldn’t tell where she was going or understand what point she was making. The book picked up about halfway through, but even so, I wished there had been a stronger structure on which to hang the book, because the wilderness metaphor did not seem quite right for a lot of her stories. In the end, it didn’t feel a lot different than other books that I have read about trusting God in difficult times. I saw so many good things online about this one, but I have to say it didn’t work for me.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (via the used bookstore)

I’m probably the last person in the world to read this but in case you don’t know, it’s about Walls’s experiences growing up in neglect and poverty in Arizona and in West Virginia. I had put off reading it because I had heard people say it was as tough as it sounded like it would be. Agree, but it’s also a captivating story, and it’s made easier because you know she managed to pull through (since she did write the book and all).

Some of these books were provided to me by the publishers (as indicated above) but my opinions, as always, are my own.

the world cup at our house.

soccer

I never updated about how Atticus’s soccer season went, and that is because it was bad. He did okay, for the most part, but he is stubborn and a little bit nervous around crowds. I think that even if he had had a coach who was good with his age group and who had shown up to all the games and practices, he would have been shy about the part where everybody runs together to get the ball. But the problem was that he didn’t have a coach who showed up for all the games and practices, so he never really got a chance to get comfortable. It was a disappointing shame, and if you live in my town, I don’t recommend the YMCA soccer program.

I wanted him to play soccer because the idea of it was so cute with the little jerseys and the shin guards and the running. There is something more, too, and I can’t quite explain except to tell you that he was in my stomach kicking away four years ago and I watched those World Cup games and hoped he was taking them in. Those were my first ever soccer games, and loved watching them with my friends (and Twitter). I dreamed of watching the games with him in 2014, of cheering on the national team and showing him the countries on the map. Signing him up for soccer seemed like a good way to encourage that.

Before the 2010 World Cup, soccer was something that was sometimes on at other people’s houses. I have a hazy memory of being in a friend’s apartment for what must have been the 1999 women’s world cup, but I didn’t watch the game. All I could see and think was that the field seemed so big and that no one seemed to really have control of the ball. I am a basketball girl at heart, raised on Dean Smith and his four corners and a 45 second shot clock. I couldn’t get my mind around soccer and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

I have thought about that a lot over the past few weeks, that sense that the game was too big and wild. Soccer still seems like that to me when I turn it on, but after a while I get into the rhythm of it and I see the fluidity as a beautiful thing rather than a barrier.

There are many things in my life that seemed big and out of control until I was able to focus in and understand. In my teens and 20s, I think I made a lot of decisions based on fears of wild, untamed feelings and places I wasn’t sure how to handle. It was only when I saw the wildness as a welcoming place, a place where understanding could be found, that I was able to heal.

I have learned to enjoy soccer for the quick touches and the long game, maybe even as a metaphor for life, the ways that things might seem out of control until we look from a different perspective. I think learning about the World Cup in 2010, entering into that confusion, was good practice for me as a parent, because those are skills I have used many times since.

Atticus has not watched an entire game during this World Cup, but he has seen a lot of soccer over the past few weeks. We have talked about good guys and bad guys and goalie goals and believing that we will win. It has exceeded what I hoped for him four years ago when everything I knew about him came from his active kicks. I don’t know if we will sign him up for soccer again but watching the game with him has helped me get over the bad experience we had with the YMCA, reminding me that taking steps into things that you don’t understand can turn out to be pretty fun after all.

god and the gay christian by matthew vines.

god and the gay christianSince I bought Torn by Justin Lee, my copy has been passed around and my best guess is that it’s been read by eight or nine people. I think the combination of Justin’s story (I call him Justin because he lives in NC and therefore we are basically buds) and the seriousness with which he talks about his faith make that book a winning combination, but the analysis of scripture is only a part of the book rather than being the main focus. While our lived testimonies are an important part of Christianity, the gap between what people believe the Bible says about being LGBT and what they hear from their friends about their lives is confusing to many.

Enter God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, which takes a full chapter for each of the “clobber texts” that are often used to condemn LGBT relationships and discusses them in depth. He also takes on some of the ideas about gender that influence the ways that we talk about relationships and marriage. Vines considers the words that are used in scripture and also brings a lot of information about the context of the day and time that are helpful. If women are considered to be less than men (and, let’s not be coy, they were in Bible times and continue to be in many denominations despite linguistic trickery like “first among equals” and “equal worth, different roles”), then it is considered a degradation for men to take on a “women’s role” in a relationship. If you believe that men and women are actually equals, there is more room for relationships founded on love and mutual respect regardless of gender.

I was a little bit concerned about reading this book because I listened to an interview that Justin Lee did with Matthew Vines and I did not think that Vines came across very well. (To be fair, I think Justin Lee is possibly the nicest person on the planet, so maybe all of us would suffer in comparison with him.) In this book, though, Vines puts forth a view of scripture that appears to be even more explicitly conservative than Justin’s, and he seems kind and thorough.

Should you read God and the Gay Christian? I say yes, even if you are convinced that you will never change your mind about LGBT relationships and the church, because this is the most comprehensive take I have seen that is written for the layperson, and I believe it is better to read and understand for yourself. The scripture analysis will not be new for people who have already looked into this topic, although I did learn a few new things about the history of same-sex relationships, and I enjoyed the fresh appeal to the egalitarians among us. (Interestingly, I think that is the part that has his critics the most nervous as it undermines their theology in multiple ways.) I also recommend Torn, and these are great companion books to one another.

Other resources for you:

-This the study that I did at church a few years ago when Mike and I were first reconsidering this topic (it has been updated a little bit).

-Matthew Vines’s video (and transcript) that were the basis for this book.

I did receive this book for free from the publisher but I was not obligated to review it. As always, my opinions are my own.

the cross and the lynching tree by james h. cone

the cross and the lynching treeWe have been watching a lot of the World Cup here. Atticus, who is very into superheroes, wants to know about the good guys and the bad guys. That hasn’t been a big deal to me until the USA/Germany game when I noticed that there were some jokes about Germany being bad guys on Twitter. Nothing too extreme – nobody went so far as to actually reference Hitler, but it’s clear that those of us who grew up learning about WWII and the Holocaust have some conflicted feelings about how to talk about Germany.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on an enormous topic like WWII and the Holocaust, but I do think it’s interesting to see that we as a country are more comfortable referencing the difficult history of another country than we are with our own. In my education, the treatment of Native Americans and the history that Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed in his reparations article were covered and dismissed as quickly as possible. Let’s face it, when the majority gets to write the history books, the stories of the minority are going to continue to be marginalized. Those of us who grew up with these imperfect understandings of the relationships between different racial and ethnic groups in our own country should take it upon ourselves to seek out other perspectives.

One book that I recently read from a different perspective was The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. Once you consider the idea, it is not a stretch to see how the lynching tree, where innocent men and women hung after being tortured by angry mobs, could be connected in the minds of many black Americans to the cross on which Jesus died. The book explores the lynching tree in the black community and makes a powerful case that it should be a more prominent symbol in American Christianity as we wrestle with our sins as a nation and specifically as white Christians who did not act against this terror.

I came away from this book with a strong sense of how white my Christianity has been, and a desire to broaden my perspective. It is challenging and moving to read about other ways to view God, especially when you suddenly see through the eyes of the oppressed rather than that of the oppressor. This is a short book but not a light read. I hope you will consider reading it, and I would love any similar recommendations of books that have challenged you to see history or your own faith from a new perspective, especially from a minority perspective.

what I have been reading (falling into summer edition).

Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored by Marcus J. Borg (via the used bookstore)

The title basically says everything here. The book covers ideas like redemption and sin as well as words like mercy and belief and tries to put them in a biblical context rather than the cultural one we are most familiar with. Would make a good Sunday School or small group study for a progressive group that is interested in reclaiming and/or reevaluating Christian language.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier (via my school’s library)

I assigned myself some school summer reading, including a few graphic novels. This one is a delightful school story about drama – both relational drama and actual theater. Recommended for middle and high schoolers, especially the theater ones.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (via another school’s library)

This is another one I assigned myself because I want to know if I should purchase it for my middle school. A high school librarian kindly let me borrow it over the summer so I could see. As you can probably tell from the title, it is about bullying, but I thought it was more realistic about what it looks and feels like to be bullied than many of the books I read on The topic. I felt as I was reading it as if I was stuck in that same overwhelming situation with Piddy. I liked how it was resolved without everyone hugging and making up and that the consequences of what happened would continue. I think it would be a good fit for my school.

Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell (via Netgalley)

Early in this book, O’Donnell quotes Andre Dubus: “A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven. But no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.” A few paragraphs later, O’Donnell says, “Holy objects or ‘sacramentals’ hint at this presence of the divine in the ordinary, but an imaginative engagement of the world enlarges our ability to see that all objects are potentially holy–or ‘sacramentals’–as are all human activities and, most important, all human beings.” This book is the way that O’Donnell explores these thoughts about finding the sacred in the moments of caring for her ill mother. The topics vary from the serious to the somewhat silly, from the importance of speaking to and with her mother to the afternoon they spent watching Dirty Dancing. (Any book with a section entitled, “The Sacrament of Dirty Dancing” is going to be okay by me.) Mortal Blessings is a thoughtful book that I would recommend for anyone who is caring for an ill parent.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (via Netgalley)

I never finished Tom Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists. I checked it out from the library and had to return it before I was done and never felt compelled to get it again. I found the characters in this one, especially the main character, Tooly, to be more interesting but the book takes its time letting you know what is going on and how all of the story fits together. Recommended for: people who are willing to be a little bit lost during the story, people who admire well-structured books.

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig (via Blogging for Books)

Mike and I both read this one because we were intrigued by the idea of teaching Atticus Shakespeare. Ultimately I think this is probably a little bit more intense than we want to be about teaching him passages, but it has great tips on how to work on memorization that I can see us using for important texts – Shakespeare, yes, but also poems and speeches and the Bible. I feel like I have an adequate knowledge of Shakespeare, but there are some big plays that I have never read, and Ludwig explains the plots and the importance of some famous speeches with great enthusiasm and passion. I learned a lot from the book and am glad I read it. It would make a great textbook for a high school or college class on Shakespeare as it puts so many of the plays and lines into context. I could also see it being a big hit in homeschool groups. The resource list at the back is excellent.

I received copies of some of these books from Netgalley and Blogging for Books, but all opinions are my own.

what I have been reading (summertime is upon us edition).

El Deafo by Cece Bell (sample via NetGalley, whole book via publisher)

This is a charming graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing at the age of four. When she starts school, she has to wear a hearing aid. This is okay when she is in kindergarten with other kids just like her, but when she begins a mainstream class the next year, she faces difficulties and embarrassment. One way she deals with her feelings is by imagining what her alter ego, El Deafo, might do in these situations. This book would be really cute for middle grades. I thought the subject was explained well and in an engaging way. I loved the section on context clues – great thoughts for conversations as well as books, and a good way to remind kids how to be thoughtful and to pay attention. It would also be a great discussion starter for how to speak to and about people with disabilities, and a good way to explain to kids that a disability doesn’t keep people from having regular feelings like friendship and crushes. It’s also just a sweet and funny story and I liked the pictures. (I got a sample of this book from NetGalley but it didn’t say it was just a sample, so after I finished those 50 pages I asked the publisher where the rest was because I was enjoying it so much. Thanks to them for sending me a copy.)

Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life by Traci Smith (via NetGalley)

I loved these ideas for families to practice faith and follow the church calendar. The different activities are marked by age and offer variations. I will be picking up a physical copy to put on my shelf with To Dance With God by Gertrud Mueller Nelson and The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Conway Ireton. I love all three books, but this is the one that is the most activity-based. If you are familiar with the rhythms of the calendar year and are simply looking for ways to celebrate it, I highly recommend this as an option.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (via NetGalley)

I mean, if you have read a book about a curmudgeon who is saved by the quirky family who lives next door, then you are familiar with what happens in this story. But it’s sweet and funny and well-executed. And, dang it, I totally cried at the end. It really should be made into a movie.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (via the public library)

I don’t think my parents watched The Tonight Show, so the whole Leno and Letterman thing was not really on my radar. When I met Mike, he explained to me that I had to be a Letterman person to be married to him, and I happily agreed. In our younger and more vulnerable years, we did stay up late and watch Letterman (and we went to a taping once, which was very cool), but we are much too old for that now. I never watched Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, but I do feel very strongly that Conan got screwed over by Jay/NBC. This book is very insidery and I did have a hard time keeping all the lawyers and publicists straight but I enjoyed it a lot. I thought it was very fair to everyone involved (and includes coverage of people like Kimmel and Letterman and Stewart) and made it clear that Jay is not some kind of monster, just that he was kind of a workaholic. I wish Carter had gotten Jay to articulate why he didn’t want to leave – that was the one thing I think wasn’t explained well. In the end, it seemed like Conan cared more about The Tonight Show as an institution than Jay and NBC did, and I think that was his downfall. (I have to admit I cried when I read the account of Conan’s last show and his reminder to work hard and be kind and not to be cynical.) The only bad thing about this book for me is that it sent me down a rabbit hole of internet clips. Other than that, solid and fun read.

a poem for father’s day.

From “Listening” by David Ignatow

Standing beside you,
I took an oath
to make your life simpler
by complicating mine
and what I always thought
would happen did:
I was lifted up in joy.

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in defense of young adults and their literature.

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I try very hard to be a parent who respects her child and sees his intelligence as he figures out the world around him. It’s made easier by the students I have worked with over the years, the ones who make bright and funny observations all the time and who have taught me to give them more credit than we usually do in our culture. There are things that we lose as adults that children and teenagers can remind us: the immediacy of the world, the imagination that it takes to live in it. There are big questions about who we are and how we figure out our places in the world that we adults are supposed to have figured out.

This is part of what troubled me about Ruth Graham’s piece last week that stated that adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature. Graham made it clear that she’s not an expert on the topic. Well, I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I do work in the field, so I have to be more qualified to talk about it than she is. I took grad school classes on YA literature and I participate in discussions of it every year. I read it, both because I like it and because it’s my job. I defend it not simply because I enjoy it but because I believe it is worth defending as art and as literature.

I agree with many of the other critiques of her article, such as the ones that point out that books for children and young adults are often dismissed because they are written by women (see also every discussion about John Green that ignores all the great female authors writing YA) or the ones that point out that she didn’t even seem to understand the very smart books she was putting down or that there are YA books beyond the bestseller lists. She also seemed to dislike any happiness or resolution in a story while not noticing that some of the most popular series (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, HUNGER GAMES) don’t exactly have satisfying endings. I especially agree with the very nice people who have calmly pointed out that we who work with teenagers mention To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye not because they were published as YA books but because they would surely be marketed as YA now, as they are coming-of-age stories told by young people. But other people have gone over that stuff. There’s just one other thing I want to say.

To me, the YA debate is a question of respect. If you believe that children’s literature and young adult literature are so far beneath you that people should be ashamed to read from those categories, then you are saying that children and young adults are beneath you. You are saying that their concerns are no longer important in your life. You are saying that their literature is stupid because that is the only level they can comprehend. You aren’t giving kids enough credit—any credit—and I hope you don’t work with them or have any of your own. I don’t feel defensive about YA literature because I work with it. I feel defensive about it because to dismiss it out of hand is to be disrespectful to young people who deserve our respect. The teenagers in my life are smart people who are learning about the world and who are asking big questions. One of the ways they do that is through books. It is a privilege to be able to do that along with them.

I learned about that respect both when the adults in my life did not belittle my reading choices and when they handed me different things to read. I learned about it by being reminded (by John Green) to take teenagers’ feelings seriously. And I learned about it from Madeleine L’Engle, who always advocated for treating the children who read her books as smart.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.” -Madeleine L’Engle

“We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books . . .” -Madeleine L’Engle

I don’t know yet what kind of reader Atticus is going to be, but I hope he has teachers and librarians in his life who respect him as a reader as well as a person. I hope they encourage him to ask big questions rather than putting down his interests and tastes. I hope he knows that learning isn’t just an adult-to-child activity. And I hope he tries new things and rolls his eyes at the gatekeepers. I hope I do, too.

what I have been reading (almost summer edition).

Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson (purchased a copy)

I heard the author of this book interviewed on this episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest and I think I ordered the book before the interview was over. It sounded so fun and interesting and it did not disappoint. It’s about looking at taste and snobbery by examining Celine Dion, who you will probably see in a different (more sympathetic) light after reading more about her life and her fans. I love books that challenge expectations, and this one is marvelous. The new edition has essays by different authors who respond to the book, and those are hit or miss but I did enjoy some of them. Recommended for: music snobs, people who secretly sing along with that one Celine Dion song when it comes on the radio.

Why Do Buses Come in Threes: The Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life by Robert Eastaway (via NetGalley)

You have probably seen some of those math problems on Facebook where people are outraged at how their children are being taught through Common Core. Besides being totally out of context, those people are missing the fact that the problems are focusing on number sense, understanding how numbers work and how they fit together. This book is basically about number sense and how it applies in the real world, covering things like cooking and traffic and botany. It reminded me of The I Hate Mathematics Book by Marilyn Burns, which I loved as a kid. I could definitely see a teacher or a parent talking about these ideas with kids.

No One Needs to Know by Amanda Grace (via NetGalley)

Olivia and Liam are twins who fall for the same girl. The novel switches from Olivia’s perspective to Zoey (the aforementioned girl) but the transitions are not completely smooth because the characters aren’t fleshed out enough to remember which one is which (except that one girl is rich and one is poor). I was struck by the banality of it all – apparently we as a culture are ready for LGBT teen romances that are just as formulaic as the straight ones. Quirky younger sibling: Zoey’s younger sister is not so much quirky as fragile.

Of Scars and Stardust by Andrea Hannah (via NetGalley)

This book is about a family that was torn apart by wolf attacks even though wolves supposedly don’t live near their small town. My big problem with the story is that the description of it seemed at odds with what was happening in the first few chapters, so I spent a fair amount of time being confused. Once I finished it, I understood why some of that had happened, but it was still pretty frustrating as it was going on. I can see this being a big hit with high school students who enjoyed books like Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater or who enjoy thrillers or mysteries. Just make sure they know to hang in there even if they are not totally sure what is going on. Quirky younger sibling: makes crafts to protect them from the wolves, has gone missing and left clues as to where she might be.

Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett (via NetGalley)

Anna had an uncle who was raised as a brother to her, and she idolized him. In the year since his death, for which she blames herself, she has practiced “coffin yoga” by lying still every morning and by turning herself into Patti Smith. There is a mystery aspect to the story as she realizes that she didn’t know everything about her cousin, and there is a nice romance (that I did not totally buy even though the character was sweet). I enjoyed the story until the end, when something is revealed about her cousin’s actions that I found to be totally jarring and unbelievable. I also raised an eyebrow at the idea that Anna spent all this time on Patti Smith’s words but hadn’t read Just Kids, which turned out to be part of the resolution. There were a lot of vivid and interesting things about this book, but the end fell flat for me. Quirky younger sibling: a sister who likes to hide in small spaces, even the oven.

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Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity by Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook (purchased a copy)

I go to church with Saundra and taught her son in Sunday School. What a gift it is to know people who are so smart and who share their expertise. Saundra and her friend conducted interviews with people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death but then subsequently released. There is no automatic compensation for them, no assistance as they transition back into the outside world, and there are barely any apologies from the state. Exonerees, though they were wrongly convicted, have to go through a complicated legal process to get their records expunged (and if they don’t, their records will be flagged when potential employers run background checks). If they do receive compensation, it takes an average of four years for the money to get to them, but of course it’s needed much earlier as they are trying to find housing and start over. The parts of the book that I found most moving were when the exonerees discussed their conversations with the victims’ families and how much those apologies meant to them. I also really enjoyed the discussion of the ways that exonerees deal with the pain of their wrongful convictions. Some of them turn inward and believe that there were things that they needed to learn or that God used that time to teach them certain lessons. Others take that pain and use it to fight against the death penalty and for more assistance for other exonerees. This is a smart, well-organized discussion of the exonerees and their experiences, and I recommend it for a peek into the injustice of our justice system.

Some of these books came from NetGalley but my opinions are my own.

#weneeddiversebooks like the great greene heist by varian johnson.

weneeddiversebooks

Last month, I followed and participated in the #weneeddiversebooks discussion that was sparked (at least in part) by Walter Dean Myers’s article in the New York Times.

This is a topic close to my heart because I am constantly searching for books that reflect my students’ lives and their experiences. Like all middle school students, they love books that feature “drama.” And I’m sympathetic, because I don’t always enjoy reading books where nothing happens. When you are 12 years old and everything seems extreme, of course you want books where extreme things happen. But, to be honest, it bugs me that the books that feature characters who look like my students will often have plots that feature violence or teen pregnancy. Many of my students live in difficult situations and I want them to see that there are stories about people like them. But that is not all of who they are, and I wish for them to read about other, less charged drama, too. I thought about this a lot this winter when we read The Snowy Day to Atticus and I marveled at how it portrayed a young boy just being a kid. My students deserve to read books about kids being kids. They deserve funny books and science fiction and fantasy. They shouldn’t be relegated to the “urban” section.

great greene heistThat was one reason I enjoyed The Great Greene Heist so much – it was about a diverse group of kids dealing with a rigged election at school without having anything to do with darker kinds of drama. School drama is drama enough sometimes! Especially when you, like Jackson Greene, come from a family of con artists. Echoing Ocean’s 11, Jackson gets his team back together to pull the con to end all cons – re-rigging the election that the principal has already rigged, thanks to a generous donation from a parent.

I think that this is a book that will appeal to a lot of smart middle school students (especially the troublemakers). There were a few parts where it was a little bit challenging to follow until I read the passages with Oceans 11 in mind. It was obviously written with that tone: funny and sharp with great pop culture references. And it features a diverse cast of characters without feeling forced. I hope there are more books featuring Jackson Greene and his friends, because it was a pleasure to read. (And Mike enjoyed it, too!)

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley but I also purchased a copy of my own (from our local independent bookstore).

strength and honor (a review of the little boy in the tree by roland russoli).

image I do not know very much about the military or about military service. Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day have always just been days off from school. That’s why I thought Memorial Day weekend would be a good time to read my friend Roland Russoli’s book about the years in his life after his son Andrew, a marine, was killed in Iraq.

I did not know Andrew very well. I saw him at church a few times and shared a meal with him the summer before he died. My church community was proud of him and has grieved him, and I have borne witness to their grief because I see the hole that he has left in their lives even though I was not so personally affected.

Roland’s book is structured around the emails that he sent to his friends and family after Andrew died. These emails, sent early in the morning and late at night, were honest and witty and descriptive. At the time, Roland and his wife lived overseas, first in Mongolia and then in Mauritania, so his stories are peppered with those experiences. Although he does not specifically say this, I am sure it was hard to be so far away from friends back home, but the differences he faced seemed to help him grieve this terrible change in his own life.

Roland has been a great encouragement to me as a parent and a reminder to be patient with my own little boy who likes to climb trees (and pews and furniture). On a recent Sunday, when Atticus was a little more squirmy than I wanted him to be, I specifically thought about how Roland might want me to respond, which helped me take a breath and remember that Atticus has a place in the community, too. One day soon we will tell him about Andrew and his motto, Strength and Honor. I hope Atticus learns that he is beloved in the same way by our community.

I recommend Roland’s book for people who have experienced grief, especially the pain of losing a child, or who are walking through it now. It is a powerful reminder of the very real cost of war.

moral monday 2.0

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I went to Moral Monday this week. There were lots of television cameras, and the reporters kept asking the participants why they were there. I studiously avoided them all because the idea of me breaking into tears while trying to explain that I want a better world for my son was beyond embarrassing. But I do want a better world for my son. That is why I was there. And if I am crying about it right now at least none of you can see me.

It was a powerful rally that included a symbolic shared meal that echoed Jesus’ feeding of the 5000: when we share what we have, there is enough to go around. When we break bread together, we are more able to listen to one another and recognize our common humanity.

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The words of Dr. Barber on acknowledging our common humanity were on my mind last week I read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, Strangers at My Door, which I got for Christmas (but didn’t want to read because I didn’t want it to be over). He has been a powerful teacher to me in the past few years as I have begun thinking more deeply about poverty and race. His humble example has guided me through some difficult days and conversations. And the fact that he is a North Carolinian is an added bonus for me. Strangers at My Door is about welcoming the people around us who are in need and seeing their humanity rather than their statistics or their list of misdeeds. It’s about seeing that they too are created in the image of God. Wilson-Hartgrove lives these principles out by living with his family and other families in what is called an “intentional community” in one of Durham’s poorest neighborhoods. Not only do they share their house beyond their family unit, but also by opening their house to the people around them. In the book, he tells stories both good and bad about what he has seen and experienced. I loved it for his gentle, thoughtful style, but I loved it even more for the fact that he doesn’t say (or believe) that this is what God is asking of all of us. What he does challenge us all to do is to see the stranger before us in our own lives and consider how to welcome him or her like Christ. I thought about these words from the closing paragraphs on Monday as I sang and prayed and protested a little bit, hoping for a different sort of world for my son.

This strength to build a new world is itself a gift. It comes to us from beyond, from the spring that is the source of every living thing. And it comes to us through people who know down in their bones that the world is not as it was made to be.

Somehow the fire that stirs in them sets you and me aflame, and we are, together, like the bush that Moses saw in the wilderness–burning, but not consumed.

We are becoming an eternal flame. -Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Strangers at My Door

At the end of Moral Monday, we all danced. Well, not me, because I can’t really dance. But there were people around me who had moves and those who were pretty goofy, but they all welcomed me anyway. I stood and swayed awkwardly, accepting my limitations, but feeling accepted as part of the beloved community just the same. Building a new world together.