Posted in beautiful things, books, faith, stuff, things

A few of my favorite things…

I begin every day in my office, even those mornings I need to rush to get to my workplace. I sit in my recliner, my book lamp on, a cup of coffee sitting on the end table where I keep my Bible, a devotional and writing materials.

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I can look in one direction and see my beautiful oak bookshelves filled with a few of my favorite things. Next to it, the St. Michael the Archangel wood carving I inherited from the man who bought it from my mother more than forty years ago. It sits on my grandmother’s trunk that is covered by a quilt my mother handmade for me. Each day, I gather strength from the visual reminder of God’s promise in Psalm 91:9-16
“For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go. They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone. You will trample upon lions and cobras; you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet! The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name.”

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In the other direction, on the wall near my desk, are decorative and inspirational wall plaques, reminding me to dream and explore.

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I’m never sure if it’s the surroundings, the gift of silence, or the coffee that jump-starts my day. It might be the combination of all three. But it is in this space, this haven, that I do my deepest thinking and my best writing.

For the majority of my adult life, my purchases were mostly utilitarian, and nearly always second-hand. Raising a large family meant operating on a tight budget. It wasn’t until I began conducting workshops that I needed to invest in some nicer clothing for myself. It was around that same time I developed a penchant for jewelry. Not high-priced diamonds or expensive gold, mind you, but dangly earrings and long chains with meaningful pendants and charms or steam-punk style; keys, gears, feathers, butterflies. I still enjoy that style of jewelry and since Christmas, thanks to my daughter Katie, I now have a way to display it.

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After my husband died, the purchases of “stuff” got out of control. Still not of the fur, diamond and gold variety, but everywhere I went I was picking up books, stationery, jewelry, inspirational wall plaques, and clothing; anything to fill the gaping hole in my heart. Of course, it didn’t work. Nothing would fill that gaping wound.

The binge-buying was financially unhealthy, but my urge to surround myself with beauty and inspirational messages was not. Many of those items from that period of buying still bring me joy; the jewelry, the stationery, a butterfly pillow, and those inspirational plaques and pictures on my walls.

Author Alexandra Stoddard is convinced our surroundings can nourish us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

“The home is the center of your soul; it’s a total reflection of your inner life. If you have a dreary home, it means you are dark inside,” she wrote.

Possessions aren’t all bad. Our desire to surround ourselves with beautiful things is natural. God decorated our skies with stars and rainbows, peppered our hills with budding flowers, and filled our pastures with bright green blades of grass. An artsy plaque with an inspirational message on our wall or the soft glow of a lamp in the corner of the room can be soothing to the soul. My home office is full of such things, and my favorites are hand-made; my mother’s wood carvings, my daughters’ paintings and drawings, the painted brick books one daughter made, or wooden letters that spell out the word “WRITE” that another daughter crafted with the cover designs of my books. My book lamp, a handmade quilt on a trunk, and solid oak bookcases filled with books; these things make me feel as though I am surrounded by warmth and beauty.

What about you? What are a few of your favorite things?

Posted in book review, faith

Book Review: Angel in Aisle 3

I picked up Angel in Aisle 3 by Kevin West because I needed a break from working on my grief journal manuscript. This is the first book manuscript I’ve worked on since beginning my job with the newspaper. One would think newspaper reporter is the ideal job for a writer, but I’ve discovered that by losing my mornings to an office, I’ve lost the morning writing sessions I counted on for nearly 30 years. That means working my own writing projects around Saturdays, evenings, and the occasional day off. It can be done, but the time flies. Yesterday, I was still in my pajamas at 2:00 p.m., struggling with a particular section of the journal where I attempt to explain how the experience of tremendous loss had changed me. I wrote and rewrote that section, without much success. I knew from experience that when that happens, I need to just get away from my writing for a while.

I keep a stack of “to-read” books by the recliner in my office just for this purpose. Reading is my escape. I needed something uplifting, something to pull me away from the task at hand, at least temporarily. I had no idea it would pull me away for three hours.

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One of the first things I noticed when I opened it up, was that my mentor, Cecil Murphey, had written a blurb endorsement for the book. Evidently, this true story had sucked him in, too.

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I immediately recognized the wise soul that walked into the author’s small grocery store in March 1997. I’ve met my own angels in disguise since I’ve opened myself up to heavenly encounters. The dirty, disheveled man who limped into the author’s messed-up life, would have been mocked or avoided by most people. He smelled. His clothes were filthy. He had missing teeth. But in his own brokeness,  Kevin West recognized something, a fellow human being who might have something to teach him. When the man named Don spotted the Bible in West’s hand, he said “Jesus is revealed from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation.”

This stranger knew his Bible, and Kevin West needed the promises of the Word of God. West, a prominent bank executive, was facing imprisonment for fraud. His marriage was in trouble.

What transpires is the unexpected and beautiful friendship of two broken men, and the lessons that Don shared. I kept thinking about my Dad as I read Don’s humble words.

To be totally honest, the fresher losses of mother, husband, and grandson tend to overshadow the more seasoned grief of losing my father in 1986. Yet something like my son Michael’s upcoming birthday brings that loss to the forefront. Just yesterday morning I was thinking about the advice Dad had given to me when I discovered I was pregnant with Michael in May 1986. It seemed like the timing couldn’t have been worse; David had just lost his job, and our relationship was suffering. I was embarrassed to tell my parents about the pregnancy during our visit that day, but I also craved my Dad’s commonsense advice. He didn’t disappoint.

“You might think this is the worst timing, but I promise you there is a reason for this pregnancy, that God has a purpose,” Dad said in his infinite wisdom. “You might not know his plan right now, but there is a reason for this baby.”  Within days of that pronouncement, my father was dead. When baby Michael was born the following January, I looked deep into his eyes, as if into his very soul.

“Dad? Are you in there?” I whispered, knowing full well that he wasn’t, but that he was somewhere, and he’d been right. That cheerful baby was one of eight wonderful gifts God blessed me and David with in our children. I’ve never regretted the results of any of those pregnancies, planned or unplanned.

Thoughts like this flitted through my mind as I read the wise advice Don gave Kevin.

Then I got to page 63, after Don had described the spiritual experience that changed his life; “The experience completely changed Don. In the days that followed, he realized that he now felt a deep appreciation and love for people, even strangers he’d see from a distance. He was also overtaken with the wonder and joys of the simplest things.”

Eureka! That’s what had happened to me. I’d already written this in the journal:

“Everything lovely and special in our world became more beautiful and precious. I began noticing the tender beauty in small things; a sunset, a bright rainbow in the sky after the rain, a smile on the face of a stranger, the wind in my hair when I rode the bike to the cemetery. I noticed something else, too; even my empathy for others had heightened. My heart had not just broken; it had broken wide open.”

I could hardly wait to get back to the manuscript, to describe the moment I knew something strange and wonderful was happening to me.

“Formerly reticent and distrustful of people, I noticed how I was beginning to feel more appreciation of others, how my heart had opened up, even to strangers. Three months after David’s death, I attended a writer’s conference I’d won a scholarship for. Normally shy, loss had given me a bravado I’d never before possessed. I found myself approaching instructors and other attendees to talk. On the morning of the last day, I forced myself to sit at a table full of women I didn’t know. I looked around as they laughed amongst themselves, surprised to find myself admiring their innate beauty, with the light of God shining through them. It was unlike me to see grace and beauty in strangers. When one woman asked for prayers for her roommate, the others stopped eating and took hold of each other’s hands while the woman across the table from me prayed out loud. My hand shook slightly as I gathered courage to speak.
‘Would you add me to that prayer?’ I could barely speak past the lump forming in my throat. ‘This would have been my 34th wedding anniversary. My husband died in March.’

Tears streamed down my face as a group of beautiful strangers lifted me in prayer. That would be the first of many instances I would either reach out to a stranger or have one reach out to me. This was not like the old me, who’d always remained somewhat aloof in her shyness and distrust of others. I’d been bullied so badly as a child, I’d never trusted the kindness of others, particularly females. Now, I was not only actively seeking human connections, I was experiencing a sort of compassion and love that would serve me well when I began doing grief presentations a year after David’s death.”

I returned to the recliner and picked up the book that had given me a breakthrough in my writing. When I turned the page, I gasped out loud, tears stinging my eyes. So, it wasn’t just that Kevin West’s gentle angel sounded like my dad, he looked enough like him to bring waves of fresh grief.

angel in aisle 3-1.jpgWhile I’d have to unearth a more recent photo of my Dad, who died at 61, the one of him on my wedding day, left, and a recent one of my Uncle Ray, who always looked like him, can attest to the uncanny resemblance.

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French writer, Colette wrote “It’s so curious; one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer…and everything collapses.”

I would add that one who’d lost sight of their old grief in the midst of their new,can be diligently working on a manuscript related to grief, when a well-timed look into a particularly good book brings that sweet sorrow of the past to the forefront again. Sorrow, and wonderful insight.