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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The (Christmas) Tree of Knowledge

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Me and my tree, Bishop Payne Library, 2015.

I built a Christmas tree out of books.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. I work (at least part of the time) in a library.

Deeply rooted in theological knowledge, I built my tree out of old National Union Catalogues, Anchor Bible Commentaries, and dusty volumes of Luther’s Works. A novel here, a dictionary there, a little liturgics, a little pastoral care, some lights, and voila – a veritable tree of wisdom!

It took about 300 books. Hardbacks work best. And literally every branch of the tree sprouted from someone else’s library: read, marked, inwardly digested, discarded from or donated to Bishop Payne Library.

When clergy retire, downsize, or go to their greater glory, their books often are bequeathed to the seminary. Sorting through boxes of old musty books might seem like a pain in the ass, but for me it is a rare privilege. It is a labor of love.

As I pull books out of boxes, it’s like pulling up a chair in the pastor’s study. Running my fingers across the spines, I inventory their interests and note their passions. Counting the volumes, I calculate the year of their graduation and the years of their career.  Dating the collection, I witness their ministry both rise and fall.

It is deeply personal.

Handling the books one by one, sometimes a little something will fall out: a letter, a photograph, a Christmas card — a little intimate window into the mind of another.

A library speaks volumes on the state of one’s soul.

So what does my library say about me?

My library occupies every room in my house – except the bathrooms! Even my hallways are lined with bookshelves. (I have a Kindle too, but that really doesn’t count.)

Just this past week, my daughter Colleen asked me to choose my seven favorite books. She said to take pictures of the spines and send them to her. It has something to do with my Christmas present, I think, but I am not allowed to ask.:)

How can I possibly choose just seven? And OMG how long is this going to take? Well, somehow the Spirit moved and within fifteen minutes, I had selected them all.

Seven books are listed below. Each one represents approximately a seventh of my brain: its moods, its appetites; its insatiable curiosities.

So here we go.

The Book of Common Prayer

You saw this one coming, right? Lex orendi, lex credendi. We pray what we believe. For 500 years, these prayers have been shared  across both time and space. Even when I believe in nothing, I continue to pray.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I read this childhood classic in college.  There I fell in love with John Tenniel’s inky drawings and Lewis Carroll’s marvelous play on words. It became something of an obsession, which became my “Alice collection”. Visit my house and you will see, it obsesses me still.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

A no brainer (pun intended!) This is Kay Redfield Jamison’s eloquent and elegiac story of her own bipolar life – both personal and professional. She is my manic-depressive hero.

Carmina Gadelica

Literally translated, it means Gaelic Songs. This is Alexander Carmichael’s 19th century compendium of Celtic charms, prayers, and invocations. A civil servant, he collected them in the Outer Hebrides while auditing books. Divine music to soothe my pagan soul.

Joan of Arc, a History

Helen Castor’s masterful book tells the tale of the Maid of Orleans – my saintly namesake, Joan. Like her, I do confess that I have heard voices from time to time.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

My nerdiest passion is reading books about books. There is nothing more delicious and decadent than reading a book about books – this one in particular. Be still my heart, Nicholas Basbanes!

 Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

In the beginning was the Big Bang. In the beginning was the Word. Science is this theology student’s final frontier. Thanks to great translators, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, reading science has become my Lectio Divina.

Seven is a very revelatory number. Seven little books to reveal my soul.  Possibly they say more than could be said in ten years of therapy – bibliographically speaking!

(Thank you, Colleen!)

This little spiritual exercise  has been healing, hopeful, fruitful and fun — all very good things at this time of the year.

So go ahead and choose your seven!

Select seven books that speak your mind and sing to your soul. Mix them and match them. Run your fingers along their spines, recall their pages, and hold them close. Take them and build a little tree of wisdom – a Christmas tree of knowledge.

Inhale their aroma as incense rising to the heavens.

And may The Word that resides in the words of your seven — bless you seventy-times-seven  this Holy Yuletide!

JoaniSign