From the Shelf: A Deceased Author

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When I chose this title I expected the demure memoir of wartime service, perhaps written by an old lady in pink and white, smelling of peppermints. A few pages in, I realized that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Vera Brittain was a teenager when The Great War broke out, interrupting her first year at Oxford, a budding romance and idealism born of her Victorian upbringing. She soon left university and began nursing, a career that took her to London, Malta and eventually frontline duty in France.

This memoir details war time tragedy (her fiancé and brother were both killed in action) and more broadly, her growth from girl to self-possessed, independent woman. Her descriptions of wartime exhaustion are vivid and sobering. She doesn’t mince words to spare feelings, especially when it comes to her criticism of the powers that be – either God or government.

Brittain’s voice is tough and opinionated. With nothing good to say about her upbringing, she comes back again and again to how innocent and vulnerable her generation were to a ‘patriotic’ war, where heroic glory seemed a fair trade for sacrificed youth. Her story is undergirded with a tireless appeal for feminism, career, productivity, progress and peace – heartbreaking to think about in context of WWII, already on the horizon as she wrote.

She is not the women I imagined publishing a book in 1933 and this is not a simple little memoir. I read the last page feeling as if I’d known a whole and flawed person, however, something that doubtlessly took courage and care to write. For that, if nothing else, Vera Brittain has my respect.

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From the Shelf: Over 100 Years Old

the prince

Confession first. I read this book because it conveniently fit with my class curriculum this year. Students and I will be discussing it in a few weeks and I always like to re-read the material in preparation.

Otherwise I wouldn’t have looked at The Prince, twice. In so many ways, it is the stereotype for everyone’s negative feelings about the classics. Obscure, difficult to slog through, out of touch and complicated. Its positive attribute is the short length.

My brother-in-law was visiting while I courageously journeyed through this book to the library deadline. He loves The Prince so I picked his brain, and I do think from reading it I learned one important lesson.

Historical context will save any classic from becoming mind mush. Having just finished Metaxas’ biography on Martin Luther I had a much better understanding of the tumultuous time Nicholas Machiavelli lived. There was papal struggle, humanism, reformation and politics, politics, politics.

In fact, when you take a step back and see all the turmo

il that churn around the pages – it’s not so very boring after all.

I have to read The Scarlet Letter in a month or two. I could wait and review it in this same category if I was worried about word count on here. But I suspect my take away from it would be much the same.

Read the old books, because in understanding the big picture, they’re worth it.

From the Shelf: Current Events

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The first book I read this year was Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. A friend had sent it to me after Christmas, because the author lives and practices law in Alabama. In fact, one of his cases involved an accidental bombing in Dothan, 1977.

The main thread of this book explains the ultimate release of Walter McMillian, a man on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. As Bryan Stevenson works on this case, he uncovers many examples of a dysfunctional justice system. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and Alabama one of the highest in the country. This book outlines through many examples, some of the reasons why.

It was sobering to read the ways in which a zealous system misfires. Stevenson explains the role that politics play in election of judges, or even community pressure to lock someone, anybody, up for a crime. His stories talk about sloppy lawyers, unconcerned in defending the people who cannot pay and the resulting incarceration of innocent people. Stevenson tells stories of children prosecuted as adults receiving life sentences without parole, or those with severe mental disabilities who are imprisoned for life. He talks about all white juries in racially divided communities, perhaps not intentional but certainly unwise in the pursuit of justice. Prisons operating for profit, futile drug laws, the death penalty, the list goes on.

The question for me personally, is not so much if I should care, but how. I love my new home and state, but that doesn’t mean I have to blindly believe it’s the best at everything. Or that I can just assume every person on death row deserves to die. Loving is caring enough when things are terribly wrong and we should care when justice isn’t served. Or even when we should consider meeting justice with mercy.

I’m no opposer of the death penalty and those who pose a risk to society should certainly be restrained. Depravity is real and consequences of sin surround us. However, this book has made me think more deeply at least about my Christian response to the incarcerated, or those at risk to be. I want to be slower in talking about “those” people, the riff-raff, poor people, the ones who don’t look like me or make poor decisions. If I truly believe in the sanctity of life then there are no lines I can draw in the sand and I should certainly care about extending what Christ gives to me, ironically something like the title – just mercy.

*Bonus Read: Hillbilly Elegy*

Hillbilly_Elegy

I added this to my list on the basis of its title alone.  It’s the memoir and opinion of J.D. Vance. Now a successful lawyer and author, Vance tells his story of growing up in Appalachian dysfunction. He writes in a deeply personal voice that explores the ‘why’ of white, working class poverty. The attitudes, the cycle of abuse and many other factors that contribute to generations of disadvantage.

This was the perfect book to read as counter point to Just Mercy. No one group has the market cornered on sad stories. Together these books have broadened my horizons and compassion for the mission field at home. I think the best way to sum things up is found in Hillbilly Elegy (pg.255). In writing about a boy named Brian who Vance mentors, he says;

“Any chance he has lies with the people around him – his family, me, my kin, the people like us and the broad community of hillbillies. And if that chance is to materialize, we must wake the hell up…I believe we hillbillies are the toughest g*%@ people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hid of those who insult our mother…But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us…These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.”

If nothing else, food for thought.

 

 

 

 

Count to Kefir

Most of the projects I have under way are not ones I’ve exactly chosen. Curiosity or necessity takes me there – or in kefir’s case – someone’s kindness.

After being gifted some grains I have a new morning routine. Get up, drink water, drain kefir. I keep my jars on top of the fridge to avoid cross fermentation with kombucha – as per the instructions of some internet cautionaries.

Am I in charge of this place, or is the good bacteria in charge of me?

Wesley carefully asked me last night whether it was a little more consuming than I anticipated. Maybe.

But these pancakes are a good argument for keeping fermented milk around a little longer….

1 c. oatmeal + 2 c. kefir +1 c. flour + 1 tbsp. honey + 1 tbsp. baking powder+ 1/2 tsp. salt + 1 tbsp. chia seeds + 2 eggs + 1/4 c. oil and maple syrup

 

Things That Go Bump in the Night

I’ve been spending more time alone recently, thanks to night shift and grown up obligations like…work.

The struggle, after months of bedtime company, is quite real. I’ve reverted to the wolf-dreaming child who lay awake with nervous cramps – fearing, dreading, imagining the worse.

I haven’t been this way for years, but in His goodness, the Lord has brought sunset as a way to teach faith. To teach that reason is not always the antidote to fear.

My cynical mind can’t be convinced of innocence anymore and as result, I find worry can’t be swept into the back of my mind. The unknowns put on convincing masks that no strategy of mine can untie.

So when night comes, my wisest course, the strongest choice; is to challenge them into the open and introduce a Protector like no other. The one who knows the End, the Truth, the Reason.

To admit fear out loud and give it up, is the only way to grow an inch. The only way to step outside and breath the dark in deeply. The only way to close your eyes.

So goodnight – I’m taking the gifts of busy hands and brave heart – and just hunkering down in the wings of Providence.

 

 

 

Restart and Repeat

He knows where we are. He knows who sins against us, and who we sin toward.

He knows our thoughts and failings and the very things that keep us awake at night.

And there is nothing that can shock or shake Him from relentless, sovereign mercy.

Our sins are many. Our hearts break.

And new every morn, His mercy is more. A shelter to the brokenhearted.

Things I Learned: August Edition

  1. When you’re writing a card and a word doesn’t look right, it’s OK to scratch it out and fix it. Don’t rip up the whole card.
  2. Don’t worry if the music makes you homesick. It will be the most pleasant kind of sadness there is.
  3. Never wait until you’re thirsty to drink water.
  4. Never wait until you’re bored to read a book.
  5. Muscadines are the sweetest, best, plumiest grapes that I’ve ever tasted. They also make my lips tingle and burn.
  6. Keep more stamps around than you think you need.
  7. If you turn your back on a plant, it will be do much better than lots of careful attention.
  8. Changing sheets is the quickest path to getting your act together.

And.

9. A company makes personal essential oil diffusers. Oh my. Oh dear.