Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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“The Novel Cure” : We Are What We Read

Read books more. Read the news less.

This is my new mental health mantra.

Because of the number nine.

Nine. I have nine news apps on my phone. The Washington Post. The New York Times. The Guardian. NPR. Politico. Buzz Feed. HuffPost. The New Yorker. The Wall Street Journal.

Ten. If you count National Geographic.

Never has it been more important to keep up with the world. It’s head spinning the headlines a single week brings. And it’s an essential part of my work to keep up — or at least endeavor to keep up.

Each week I edit our Sunday prayers so that they speak to this hurting world we share. This past week alone I added intercessions for the Group of Seven talks in Quebec, the Korean summit in Singapore, volcano victims in Hawaii and Guatemala, the LGBTQ community for Pride Month, refugees and asylum seekers.

It’s a moving target.  It matters deeply. But I know as soon as they are printed they are also incomplete and possibly obsolete.

And that’s okay. Even in the best of times it’s not humanly possible to digest it all. Habitually surfing the headlines is not good for your mental health. Not good for my mental health, for sure!

So I have resolved to read books more and to read the news less.

To retreat, to refresh, to restore the soul, to recover perspective.

And yes, simply to escape into the world of a good book.

Call it biblio-therapy. Not a word I made up but a real thing. Biblio-therapy was pioneered by the authors of The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You.

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So, here I present my own little version, a diversionary reading list of my own making. Fifteen books that I have recently read, am currently reading, and are in my reading pipeline — the stack of books beside my bed.

Fiction. Memoir. History. Science. Spirituality. Cats. Dogs. Here I list them all in no particular bibliographic order. Reviewers’ quotes shamelessly lifted from dust jackets.

IMG_4860Jamaica Inn, Daphne Du Mauier: The 1930’s classic tale of romantic suspense by the acclaimed author of Rebecca. This is the perfect book to read on a dark and stormy night.

IMG_4871Vinegar Girl: A Novel, Anne Tyler. William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew Retold. “… a knockabout comedy at its best, genuinely laugh out loud funny, and indeed, Tyler’s funniest book to date.” One of my favorite authors, she’s written a lot!

IMG_4872The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr. I read this because I want to write a book — a book still in my head. This one is “full of Karr’s usual wit, compassion, and perhaps most reassuringly self-doubt.”

IMG_4861Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed. “As loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got punk and spirit and makes an earthy and American sound,” A remarkable debut for a first time author.

IMG_4863When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi is the author who died in 2015:  “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality had changed nothing and everything.” “This is an unforgettable, life affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death, and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.”

IMG_4873The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen, Elizabeth Norton. The title pretty much explains this one! “A power hungry and charming courtier. An impressionable and trusting princess. The Tudor court in the wake of Henry VIII’s death… where rumors had the power to determine fate.”

IMG_4862Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, Christopher De Hamel. A big fat, nerdy book about about books that changed the world with lots of fabulous pictures. “Reading is my life, but only about once a decade do I find a book that seems to tilt the world, so afterwards it appears different.”  My world was tilted!

IMG_4874The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, Kathryn Joyce. An investigative journalist’s deep dive into the world of the for-profit adoption business, misguided evangelical theology, and the lost voices of adoptees and first families. Being in reunion with my daughter Rebecca, this is a powerful and eye opening read.

IMG_4865Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman. Even though my summer trip to Great Cranberry Isle got cancelled, I am still reading this astrophysicist’s beautiful book. “Deeply brilliant. Alan Lightman’s prose is so simple and graceful that it can be easy to miss the quiet, deep sophistication of his approach to the topic of science and religion.”

IMG_4869Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander. Okay, yes, very nerdy I know. But fascinating. This brief history takes us into the lives of “Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Hobbes, and from the Papal Palace in to Rome to the halls of the Royal Society of London to show how a disagreement over a mathematical concept became a contest over the heavens and the earth.”

IMG_4870After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, Jack Kornfield. This one I love for the title alone. It draws on the “experiences and insights within the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Sufi traditions… Filled with ‘the laughter of the wise,’ alive with compassion.”

IMG_4868Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, C.S. Lewis. The great Christian apologist of the 20th century, this is his last book. An engaging retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from antiquity written “with new meaning, new depths, new terrors.” Lewis reminds us of “our own fallibility and the role of a higher power in our lives.”

IMG_4866Cats Behaving Badly: Why Cats Do the Naughty Things They Do, Celia Haddon. Having become a crazy cat lady not quite a year ago, this was a must read. I refer to it often.

IMG_4867Dog Crazy, Meg Donohue. A gift from my canine loving friend Chuck, this little novel is “a big-hearted and entertaining story that skillfully captures the bonds of love, the pain of separation, and the power of dogs to heal us.” A great beach or backyard read.

IMG_4876French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, Mireille Guiliano. Self- explanatory!

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Reading has the power to enlarge us and inspire us and entertain us and enlighten us. And dare I say, even heal us.

Reading, Lectio Divina, is a spiritual discipline, no matter what kind of books you read!

So dear readers, tell me. What books do you have stacked up in that pile on your bedside table?

JoaniSign

And check out my favorite book store in D.C! East City Bookshop on Pennsylvania Avenue SE!


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Creator of the Stars of Night

Once upon a time, a generation or two ago, before we landed on the moon, Cape Kennedy was Cape Canaveral – home to NASA – the National Air and Space Administration  (if you need me to spell it out:-)).

When I was a kid, periodically we got to swap out our spelling books for something far more exciting. Sister Inez Patricia would wheel a little black and white TV into the classroom — 1960’s technology at its finest. Sister would fiddle with the horizontal and vertical controls – and the rabbit ears (remember those!) to get the picture just right.

Our little third grade eyes would be glued to screen as we listened to the countdown on the launch pad. 10, 9, 8, 7,6,5,4,3,2,1,0. BLASTOFF!

Off blasted John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. Off blasted Apollo mission after Apollo mission until that incredible day when Neil Armstrong set his boots down on the surface of the moon.

One small step for man. One giant step for mankind.

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 And on those same little TV screens in 1966, Star Trek premiered. Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock and crew set out on their five-year mission to “go boldly (and in technicolor) where no man had gone before.” The Star Trek crew blew our collective imaginations as they traveled through interstellar space. Galactically romping around the Milky Way of the millions and billions of stars.

The stars declare his glory, the vault of heaven springs

Mute witness of the Master’s hand in all created things.

And through the silence of space, their soundless music rings.

(para. Psalm 19, T. Dudley Smith)

When was the last time you gazed up at the stars?

Sadly, stargazing is nearly impossible under the artificial light pollution of our urban skies. But maybe you have gotten a chance to steal a glance on a starry-starry night. Maybe out in the country or up in the mountains. Maybe at Shrine Mont.

On this Feast of the Trinity, I invite you to turn your eyes to the skies  – heavenward. And behold the handiwork of the Holy One, the Creator of the stars of night. That we may discover – or possibly even recover – the experience of what it feels like “to be born from above.”

Alan Lightman, an astrophysicist, in his book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine tells the story of how he took out his little skiff onto the water in the dead of night. He writes:

 I turned off my running lights…I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world dissolved into the star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity…I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time….from the time before I was born and into the far distant future after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot…I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a great and eternal unity,  a hint of something absolute.

 Something, someone we Christians call God, Creator of all that is seen and unseen – the divine first person of the Three Person  and singular God. The God we confess week after week in the Nicene Creed.

In Lent of 2014, I took up a rather unorthodox spiritual discipline. Rather than walking the Way of the Cross, I went in search of my Creator, the ground of my being.  I am not much of a contemplative. I don’t have the discipline to read the Daily Office. And being an extrovert, I am allergic to silent retreats. But as a bibliophile, I am all about living into the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God, with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength….but especially with all my MIND.

So instead of cracking open a Bible, I cracked open the Book of Creation – with more than a little help from a little trinity of astro-evangelists: Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, and Neil de Grasse Tyson.

I read Kaku’s Einstein’s Cosmos: How Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time. Along with my daily prayers, I made daily online visits to Brian Greene’s World Science U – and got sixty-second -plain-English answers to my questions about the mysteries of the universe. And on the Lord’s Day, I would tune into PBS for a liturgical hour — to watch an episode of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey.

I am not sure how much I actually learned science wise. I would ceratinly need to study up if I had to take an exam. But this little discipline definitely deepened my awe and expanded my sense of wonder in God’s universe (or it multiverse?)

Much like my awe and wonder were expanded all those years ago by John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong and Captain Kirk.

And this Trinity Sunday precedes Memorial Day Monday.

So, it seems to me to be both a right and a good thing to remember with gratitude those cosmic pioneers – who risked their lives to explore our solar system and the mysteries of space. For all the astronauts whose rigor and training, intelligence and dedication were given for a higher purpose.  And especially for the fallen heroes of American space flight: the 1967 crew of Apollo I, the astronauts of the  Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, the 2003 explorers on the  Space Shuttle Columbia.

 Let’s give thanks to God for all brave and bold enough to shoot for the stars, fly to the moon, and maybe even travel to Mars. Let’s give thanks to God for the gift of wonder and awe and joy in all the Creator’s works. And most especially let us praise the beloved Name  of the First and Foremost Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

The stars declare his glory.

JoaniSign