Friday, May 17, 2019

Review of "Spyridon's Shoes"...

Several weeks back, I received a review copy of Spyridon’s Shoes by Khouria Christine Rodgers and I have been meaning to get that review actually written and not just outlined. Every time I sit down to work on it, another of my kids picks up this book and starts it so I wait for them to finish. Today, I had a teen get the book for me and one of the middle schoolers called out, “I put it there to wait for me! I was going to start it today!”

“Haven’t you read it once already?”

“No! I read it to the little girls, this time it is for me!

This is the kind of book it is. It's a quick read, taking only about an hour, and is well suited to kids in the middle school years but was easily read by my ten-year-old. It is engaging enough that my sixteen-year-old read it as soon as the mail was delivered, in a single sitting.

It opens on the main character, a boy, which is well noticed by my children who feel like most main characters these days are girls. I think this an important point because even though I have six daughters, I also have five sons and I know that often boys like to read about other boys. The cover shows a scene in the second chapter in which Spyros is helped by an elderly monk who washes and bandages his foot and gives him his own shoe to keep those wraps in place. The story grows from this very tender and compassionate beginning.

This story is about St. Spyridon but rather than an account of his life, it is rather a story about this boy’s encounter with him. I like this perspective. While it might be in my daily life that I come across people who are living saints, I won’t be able to appreciate them. It’s a sad truth. I think that this is something that kids can agree with because their lives are often full of not truly appreciating what they have. This is okay, it's a learned skill, one I am still not very good at yet. I can be patient with them on this.

There is another reason I really like this approach. As a child, I liked reading about saints but I always wondered about the people they interceded for and what happened in their lives. Growing up, I was surrounded by images of saints. My Mexican grandmother had a print of the Christ Child, the Santo NiƱo, surrounded by smaller little images of people being saved by Christ. Around the frame of the print, she tucked in photos of people she had prayed for or was currently prayed for so that they could be another widening circle of grateful recipients. Sometimes I would ask about this person or that one and she would happily tell me. Only one little image on the print was unknown to her. It featured two women with their hands held up in the air as a bandit wielding a gun approached them. They had been saved and I always wanted to know more but she didn’t have more to offer.

As an adult, I carry this wonder with me. I think about St Spyridon and his worn-out shoes and wonder about all those people he has walked out to help. I can wonder how it would feel to approach him and offer a small measure of gratitude. In this book, the boy has this very opportunity. Khouria Christine gives us an opportunity to think about this saint and his very real work in the world and what it would be like to approach him. I think this is why my children keep returning to this book again and again. They want to know what it would be like to step into his shoe and walk with Spyros, touching holiness and being healed by it.

I won’t spoil this book for you but I will tell you that I, with my tender little heart, cried at the ending. I think I will also have to pick this book up again and again. You will, too.

I was not compensated for my review and was not required to provide a positive review. I did receive a free copy which is super cool because we really, really liked it. The book is available from major online retailers but also through the publisher HERE. Ask your church bookstore to carry it.

The hard things...

Every day, I pull out my big three-ring notebook and help my children memorize poetry. Eli is memorizing a new translation of Psalm 50 and it is killing him. I don’t know this translation myself and I have to stare at the words otherwise they morph into one or another version or maybe just one that I am making up as I go. This is really hard. This translation is so similar but also so different and he keeps sliding into his old one, that one that he hears every day when his father reads the morning prayers which just happens to be the same as the one that lives in my head. So we work on it, just a few words at a time, every single day.

He really has to focus and so do I because I don’t know it and I just keep sliding into the one I actually can say. I kick everyone out of the room and I stare at these words as he sips his coffee and I can see the wheels turning in his head while the ones in my own head struggle to stay on track. He does not have to do this, he is not obligated, but he is doing it anyway. He whispers under his breath, “This is the hardest thing that I will ever do.” He is on to something here.

Just doing hard things is hard. This is something that is a such a mental workout that it feels like an exercise in futility, like watching Sysophis rolling his rock back up the hill every morning. Just like that but, only not, it is just a mental workout. It is not like Eli is climbing Mt Everest or anything, I am not his sherpa dragging myself up a mountain with him; it is just memory work. That is what makes it harder. We have a hard time doing the little hard things, the ones that are actually possible, the ones that show up in our daily lives, the ones that feel both so insurmountable that we cannot muster the strength to even consider doing it but also ones that feel so small that they aren’t worth doing. So, we don’t learn to do hard things. We learn to stop before we even start. I think that we should learn to the little hard things, and do lots of them, and to celebrate them. I am never going to climb Mt Everest but I just might memorize this prayer.

Why is he even doing this? Well, our religion has very scripted services and over thousands of years has developed a number of books that help us to say the right things and do the right things as we stand in the right places. Sometimes, it is easier to memorize pieces of these services to make it easier to do the other things, like hold lots of lit candles and gold plated pots of burning incense that we swing around. One of the publishers of these books is making some changes because of some weird modern day, first world problems, like copyright law. It’s easier for them to publish books if they own all the pieces inside so some of the translations are changing. My husband is adamantly opposed to this. He gets so upset and anxious and downright irritable at the thought of memorizing these little pieces over again using this new translation. He thinks it’s impossible. To him, he might as well be climbing Mt Everest and he is not alone. There is a large contingent of clergy like himself who also think they will never memorize these prayers. They don’t even try because it is just impossible.

Eli has his eyes on the future and he knows that if he does become clergy, like his father, then he will have a leg up if he already knows these translations. That is why, every day, he chips away at Mt Everest. He is starting with one prayer, just one, and only a few words at a time. One of these days, he will look down from the top with this prayer safely tucked into his pocket, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice, and then steel himself for the next mountain.

“This is the hardest thing I will ever do,” Eli tells me.

He might be right. I think the next one will be easier because he did this one first. That is why I sit at the table with him and sip my own coffee. Mt Everest, here we come.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Feeding as Prayer

Most of you won't have been to the retreat I spoke at last fall so I wanted to share this with you. Great Lent, like all fasting periods. is often a time of vulnerability for us. It is easy to feel small and weak and what we need to remember is that this is really what Christ asks us.

Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat
Antiochian Village, November 2018


Ora et Labora.

This is a Latin phrase which means, “Pray and Work”, as in a command to pray and to work. This phrase is meant to remind us that while we must live and move in the world, our home is actually Heaven and we should always direct our material work in that direction. It tends to conjure up images of monastics busy in sunlit fields and engaging God with the corners of their minds while their hands work.


Monks keeping bees.
Nuns hoeing gardens.
Birds, and sun, and wind, and rain.

It is a way to clothe our manual work for our material needs with the flesh of deeper spiritual wisdom thus connecting our physical selves with our spiritual selves. All too often though, we forget that all the tiny movements of our lives also qualify, especially those not found in sunlit corners. Things like cooking meals for our families become in our fantasies something like Babette’s Feast, we in the kitchen sampling the wine for the meal as the doves are delivered by a rosy-cheeked boy. Reality is rougher around the edges and, in my own life, finds me in the kitchen sampling the lentils on the stove while a recalcitrant preschooler cries over the color of her cup. Finding the manner in which I can pray without ceasing is a mental exercise of turning over those lentils and cups to God in a way that is fundamentally material and perhaps not obviously spiritual. It is not surprising that the way I consider this activity is through the lens of food.

Food is the center of my life. I buy it and cook it and serve it and write about it and talk about it with others. Without meaning to, I often end up reading books and watching movies with food as a major theme. It is how I engage the material world with my hands. It is often how I engage people since I end up offering to cook for people as a way of sharing myself with them. If I meet you someplace, I will invite you and your mother and her neighbor for dinner. I suppose this is why I have never been fond of the lesson of Mary and Martha in the Bible. Modern women, myself included, spend a great deal of time breaking down and unpacking the relationships between these sisters, to their brother Lazarus, theirs to Christ, and then even to ourselves individually and collectively. As much as we try,  in the end, we tend to learn nothing about anything, especially ourselves. Ultimately who these women were and are and what they mean for other women is complicated. Christianity often is.

Christ Himself sanctified our human experience and made it holy, or at least gave it the opportunity—the possibility of holiness, by living in the Flesh. He ate and drank and gave others food and drink, and even directed us to do the same. When we feed the least of His children, we feed Him. To purposefully engage the people of God with bread, stew, and wine seems to be the proper way of putting ora et labora in action since it is a literal fulfillment of the commandment of Christ to feed others. I think this is why there is some sting to the analysis of  Mary and Martha, at least for me. We still have the physical need for food and in following His command, she fed not just ordinary people but God in the flesh. Who greater to serve? I am a lesser Martha, busy shuffling in the kitchen and covering over my bare, uncomfortable humanness; looking for that blanket of spirituality. I want to find sanctity and holiness and I want to find it in the comfort I feel in cooking, to find hope poured over like chocolate ganache. I do not understand what God calls me to do let alone how. Like Martha, I cannot bring myself to not work, to not think, to not cook. My ill-used hands are clumsy and forget their wisdom until I put them to work doing the things that they know so well.


Chopping onions.
Slicing garlic.
Kneading dough.

I realize that I do not know how to serve God, all I know how to do is to make dinner. I can measure out my joy, my pain, and my grief and turn these into something that I can feed others, that I can nourish others with because I don’t want to keep these emotions inside myself. I can instead release them out into the world and cover other people’s material needs with my spiritual ones. The emptiness is at times palpable, the loss I feel when I don’t know the things to say or do or my fear that I won’t hear the voice of God, and so I feed others from the only well that I have. I make dinner.

Still lost, I am comforted when I think of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. Martha may not have understood how to stop and be still in the presence of the Son of the Living God but she knew who He was and was not afraid to speak to Him, to tell Him what she needed. When Lazarus died, she left Mary at home and went out to meet Christ and to expose her broken humanness to Him. In that moment, she chose the greater thing.  Perhaps this is all I need to remember, that all He asks is that I give to Him my own brokenness. I fail to choose the greater thing in many small moments, I cannot count them out with each lentil and each cup and each night that passes and I let them slip through my fingers. Perhaps all I can do is show myself to God to allow Him to cover over both my material and spiritual weaknesses with the strength of His love. Today I make dinner. Today I work so that one day I may learn to pray.


Friday, March 22, 2019

Why do we tell stories?

I use the word “Lieutenant” as the device password in my house. I figure that once you are old enough to spell it, you are old enough to be trusted to not turn on a device without permission. Until my children can understand the reasoning behind this, they just need to cooperate, even unwillingly. This is like other things in life, like the way that we can unpack the stories of our childhood better as adults while as children, we simply must accept them.

When I was growing up, I was surrounded by the stories that my grandparents told me. My father’s Mexican family told me stories about La Llorona, the weeping woman. She had killed her sons and tossed their broken bodies into the water. God punished her by not giving her rest until she finds all the pieces. My mother’s Cherokee family had different stories. They were not afraid of the water, they were afraid of fire. I never played with fire as a child because I knew that fire sleeps and is angry when he is woken. That is why a proper fire sometimes feels hard to start; he can be difficult to wake. When he does, he is so angry that he becomes violently destructive. Wake the fire but trap the fire and never let him get out. Don’t turn your back on him, fire burns.

My teens were filled with more stories because literacy mattered to my mother. We had a house filled with books, good ones. She bought all the classics and then some. Even if they were books that she had never read, if they were part of the great canon of literature, she filled the shelves with them. She signed us up for Great Books classes through school and bought piles of notebooks and pens and encouraged us to write so that we could make stories of our own.

I married young and my husband and I decided to be modern parents. We decided to do more of the latter and less of the former. I never felt that my childhood was frightening because of the stories but we were young and brilliant intellectuals and would do things the proper way, the correct way. Stories should be read and told and enjoyed but never used to control behavior. There would be no stories of La Llorona wandering in the dark, ready to attack children who are out alone when they should be home. We were different. We still had stories but we were less honest about what they were and how they were different. We still told the parables of Jesus but somehow failed to see how it was that He was teaching us.

I find myself rethinking some of this in light of the popular NPR story about the Inuits and their gentle method of parenting that is story based. I did not grow up Inuit and my family of origin did its fair share of yelling, as do I, but the storytelling intrigued me. If you have not read or listened to the story, you can find it HERE.

The older ladies who teach the Inuit parenting classes acknowledge that they were frightened by the stories as children but tell them anyway. A young child sometimes needs to trust the wisdom of those who care for him and admonishments to stay away from the ocean are less effective than scary stories. They have some pretty substantial evidence to support this belief. When we tell stories to our children, we are in good company. Greek Mythology and Biblical Parables are keen examples of abiding stories that shape us today.

Sometimes there is a concern that lying to children creates a sense of mistrust but I don’t think so. Children are more sophisticated than that. I also think that there is much to be said for organic and broad culturally derived stories. It is more like lying to invent cleaning monsters (as in the NPR story) than it is to tell the stories of your culture and your people but this gets tricky. A lot of Americans don’t have that history and that is a challenge. So what do you do? You can look to the stories that you do have. Recently I talked about stories with some of my teenaged children.

“What lessons does the story teach?” I asked my son when he asked if he could be allowed to watch a certain movie. He seemed confused because he did not think that this was a teaching sort of story but one that was purely for entertainment. I prompted him to think further.

“Every time we read a book or sing a song or watch a movie, the stories that they tell go on to live in our heads. They help us to understand the situations that we come across in our lives and even make decisions about how to react to those situations. We have to be careful about what stories we put in our heads because they create the framework on which we hang our thoughts. Is this a good story to put in your head? How will it help or hurt you?”

He was quiet for a minute before he told me that he did not think I would let him watch it. He was right, it was not going to be allowed. But rather than just forbidding the movie, I Iet him follow the logic of our analysis as parents. He saw where it would end, this would give him the wrong sort of framework. Starting this conversation gave us the chance to break down some of the movies that I have let them watch, ones which were popular but had good motives despite their entertainment value.

Stories do not need to be beautiful to be good. They can be full of the ugliest moments of the human experience but if they resolve properly, then they can be made beautiful. It is the triumph of the people in the darkest of stories that can help us to become stronger and better people. This is why we should not shy away from those stories.

Recently I watched the movie Signs with my teens, down the one barely thirteen. Why? Because God is real and life has meaning. It is okay to suffer and stumble but it is the getting up that counts. When they have those moments of doubt in their lives, and they will, they can recall a similar situation in a story they know. Perhaps this one? Maybe it will help them to see what they need to see when the things that matter are invisible.

Some of the saints’ stories fall into this category. The life of Saint Mary of Egypt is fraught with sin and misery and crippling mistakes. We go every year and listen to the whole story and there are moments when I cringe but the truth is that my kids will hear it and know that there is hope, there is a place to rebuild once we have faced our inner darkness. I want them to hear this story over and over and over again because when they face their own mistakes, I want them to run towards God like Mary and not towards death like Judas.

There is a reason that we tell stories and there is a reason that we listen to them. Piece by piece, story by story we build the framework where we hang our thoughts. Build the thoughts that we want to have and teach your children to do the same. Tell the stories.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of Piggy in Heaven...

My children had the chance to review the newest book from Melinda Johnson, Piggy in Heaven. This is a small little board book filled with bright, colorful images and simple, gentle language that belie its true depth. It is just a little board book but it also a very handy tool designed to help very small people deal with very big losses. This is a book about the death of a beloved pet guinea pig named Piggy, one that the author’s family once owned.

I believe that it is critical to teach children both to love and to grieve. If we are unable to one we will never be able to do the other and there are people, dreams, hopes, and even animals which deserve both. For many children, their formative years will be punctuated by death and learning how to live with it and through it is an important skill because all life is temporary. Nothing lives forever. Like all things that children must learn, grief is a part of the landscape of living.

In the story, Piggy finds perfect natural happiness with health and vigor and grass and daisies and even friends. Piggy is not alone. This is critical. Children see their pets needing themselves as much as they need their pets and the fear that the pet will miss the child can be upsetting. Piggy is happy which is as much as any child can ask.

Last night, I read this book to my children, all of them heaped around on the sofas, the two youngest in my lap. My eight-year-old, Sophia, liked the story so much that she immediately read it again to herself. She told me that she thinks this is an important book because kids will lose their pets at some point. They need to have this book so that they already have it when they lose their pet. She is not wrong.

My youngest, Claudia, is not yet six. For her this book was evocative. It reminded her of her cat’s death two Christmases ago. Sadly, it is pretty much her earliest memory. She struggles occasionally with remembering his death. We have a new young cat but it is not her elderly cat whose only goal in life was to lay close to Claudia and be stroked. I think it is worth mentioning that some children might find this a difficult book to read; not a bad read, just hard. That’s okay. It is important to work through these feelings so that we are prepared to work through even bigger ones down the road. Thinking about this book today, she is glad that she read it and still thinks it is a good book to read but wants other children to know that it is okay if it makes them cry. She is also not wrong. Sometimes kids need an opportunity to cry and if this book helps with that, then it is still helping.

The book is published by Paraclete Press and is available from their website HERE as well as other major retailers. I received a free advance copy of the book with no obligation to review or give a positive review. The thoughts expressed here are my own or those of my two youngest children. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to read this with my children.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review of Lights on the Mountain...

My family's cows in the barn in the thick of winter.
When Cheryl Anne Tuggle approached me to review her book, it seemed like an obvious good match. I milk cows, am writing a book on farming, my husband is a deacon attached to a monastery, and I like to read books. She wrote a book about a small homestead, one that produces dairy, and with a monastery nearby which figures prominently in the lives of the characters. The book also has cows which I like as much as I like books.

Fiction is hard, good fiction is ridiculous. To create characters with believable dialogue and narration
that flows with the characters without distracting from their development or that of the plot is a high
challenge. Most people struggle to manage it well but Cheryl Anne does so seamlessly. Her writing
reminds of the classic works of Willa Cather, my favorite author of all time.  I do not say this lightly;
I sincerely would place this book right next to My Antonia. Cheryl Anne’s narration uses complicated,
unfussy language that belies its depth and cooperates with the particular voice of the main character.
It sets the tone and background for the scene and enriches the character development. In a sense, the
personality of the main character, Jess, envelops the world in which he lives. He becomes the center
of everything and is not just at the mercy of nature and destiny but actively evolving the world as he
himself evolves and becomes more of himself.

The story is gently told if not gentle in itself. It revolves around a small family living simply on a little homestead intending to meet their own needs which do not include excess and modernity. There are many losses in the early part of the book, ones I will not deprive you of engaging, and one of them comes full circle in a beautiful way but these are only the beginning of losses to come. Jess believes he will find himself in the barn and the life his father has laid out for him but when he is an adult, he realizes that he must actually find who he is meant to be and it is not the man he thought he would become. This sets up his entire life, a continual process of peeling away the layers of pretended identity to find what lies beneath, what was always there but was hidden. This is very much a character-driven work and the character driving everything, and being steered through his metamorphosis, is Jess.

What drives Jess are the losses he endures and learning to keep getting up in the morning despite them, to feed and water and milk cows that depend on him entirely. Cheryl Anne’s way of narrating Jess’ profoundly deep pain isn’t overly flowery and cheaply piled on but is restrained and allows the reader to fill in the gaps. She uses a steady handle to pour out her words in a measured way that gives greater gravity to the moments. The result is an evocative story that cannot help but be a classic. Her book is one to return to again and again to be reacquainted with Jess as he is and who we are in that in that particular moment we seek him.

The seminal event is that which is referred to in the title, the lights on the mountain. In Orthodoxy, we remember the “uncreated” light on Mount Tabor which is the human perception of the radiant Glory of God. It was a blazing light, blinding to look at, but one could not look away. This is like the lights on the mountain in the titular event. What came after for Jess, and for the followers of Jesus, was seasons of pain and suffering and a messy sort of beautiful glory. When you come to the end of the story, I want you to remember that Galina, a very significant name in this story, means light. Grace comes in with light. The book opens and closes with light and what comes after is a messy sort of glory but it is glorious nonetheless. If you look for the light, you will find grace.

This book is available from Paraclete Press (HERE) and from your regular books sources and you should definitely buy it. I was given a free review copy of the book but was not otherwise compensated in any way for my review nor did I promise to give a positive review. The thoughts expressed are my own.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ignoring what the empty chair says...

Sometimes we are so unkind and think such terrible things about ourselves that we allow the conversation to spill over to the piles of inanimate objects in our lives. We create entire monologues where we imagine that they speak about us and for us and it is soul killing. In the past couple of weeks, I watched as women who are articulate and intelligent and capable worry that the objects in their lives are speaking for them and saying truly awful things.

They believe that someone will judge them based on what their jean size says about them, or what their brand of shoes says, or what their well-worn sofas say. In the end, they don't believe that they can speak for themselves with the way that they carry themselves, or the way that they love deeply, or the way that they keep showing up every day. Showing up is a big deal, guys. It is a huge deal to keep showing up.

I hate to think that these women think that they are unworthy of being loved and respected and how often they just want to slink away because they think that the things speak louder than they do. I don't know who listens to those things but they are probably not worth worrying about if they spend that much time listening to things that don't actually speak.

For the record, I don't care what size jeans you wear. I don't care if you wear cheap shoes. I don't care if your couch looks like it was dropped off a cliff and scraped up and dumped into your living room. I have eleven children and I cannot even tell you what my children have done to my sofas over the years. Oh, actually I can.

My youngest daughters jumped on the sofa until the front legs came off and then kept jumping until the front edge collapsed days before the oldest boy was coming home for Christmas. I ran to Walmart and bought the cheapest little metal futon designed for skinny college kids who probably aren't home much. It ended up lasting a year but only when it was carried along with electric fence wire and duck tape and I am totally serious. We were sitting on a cage of electric fence wire because we are classy like that.


This is my sofa. Was. It has since been replaced but we are still us and I am still me. We are basically animals. I am the mother of children who jump on sofas until they are practically ground into dust. I will still invite you over and make you tea and coffee and visit and I won't worry about what your possessions say. I don't listen to things, I listen to you. I just want you guys to know that.

So, if you are the kind of person who cares more about people than things, come sit by me. We are going to get along just fine. If you care more about things, well, enjoy your things. I hope they are good company. If you get lonely, come sit with us. You are always welcome.