What i read in 2017

i read a ton of books this year, thank goodness.

See that big pile of green books to the left of November? Those are all the Jubilations i bound to fulfill orders this year. 🙂 (The streaks are where the colored pencil and white-out misbehaved together.) Also, i had extra space on the July shelf, a mischievous cat, and two readings of Buckdancer’s Choice to explain. Thus the cat is behaving according to her nature.

i say “thank goodness” because i’ve come to realize that i need to be reading, and the busier i am the more i need it. i hit on this sort of accidentally, although it should’ve been obvious from day one. But at the beginning of my worst ever semester, something inside me said “you need fiction to make it through this.” i was right, and had no idea how right i was. Even suspecting that and making provision for it didn’t prevent me from learning it the hard way. i am a fictional character and i need fiction the way i need oxygen.

Ironically, perhaps, i learned this in part from the author who gave me my fictional name. i have always been fictional, but being named by a fiction-author and given a place in his world grounded me to one particular fictional identity in which all my fictionality can rest and from which i can reach out into the world (both primary and secondary). That author is, of course, Andrew Peterson. Andrew is far busier and more productive than me. i have no clue when he sleeps, or if he’s slept this year. But through him i’ve heard (mostly second-hand) the phrase focal practices. (Caveat: i suspect this concept was from a Hutchmoot session i missed, and i don’t know whether i’m even doing this right, but the phrase was a catalyst for me as i began to think this stuff out.) What i’ve observed from watching Andrew over the last couple of years is that his focal practices are a good indicator of his health and restedness. He needs to be outside. i suspect going outside would benefit me also, but i’m not quite there yet (i know this is stupid). i asked myself, if there is a practice i need to maintain, one which is a canary for my health the way Andrew’s beekeeping and outdoor-wandering are for him, what would that be? And the immediate answer was fiction. (Andrew is also a reader. Again, i don’t know when he sleeps.)

That one bad semester, the one where i knew i’d need fiction to survive? That was the semester that Andrew bought me Calvin & Hobbes. i was overwhelmed before classes even started and wasn’t sure how i’d manage a full novel, but i knew i needed something, and so Andrew generously and unexpectedly sent me the entire boxed set. i read a little every night before bed. By the end of that semester i was counting how many strips were left and how many days, rationing it so i didn’t finish before finals; i was sure i wouldn’t make it if i did. And i did make it, but just barely. i’m convinced that Andrew saved my life. Fiction is oxygen.

The last few years i’ve been tracking my reading on Goodreads (see the widget on the right), and the uptick this year is astounding. i read 28 books in 2015 and 23 in 2016, but this year i am thunderstruck to say that i’ve read 76 books. i attribute this to mixing in a lot of poetry and picture books and a few textbooks my professors were kind enough to assign cover-to-cover, but even so, that number includes a good dozen which were 400+ pages (one was over 600, two over 700, and one just a few pages shy of a thousand). So the picture books and legit tomes balanced each other out pretty well.

HOW, of course, is the obvious question. i am still working this out, and the how will probably change semester to semester, but here’s what worked this year.

Picture books.

This works according to the same principle as Calvin & Hobbes. A long book not only is long but feels long, and sometimes when you’re busy you just have enough time for a little infusion. (This is also why Andrew intentionally made the chapters so short in his Wingfeather Saga.) What’s easier—reading for 45 minutes or reading three 15-minute books or chapters? It’s almost a trick question, but it isn’t. If all you’ve got is 15 minutes, you’ll never read that third of a chapter. Find something short. And if you’ve got a few more minutes, read a bit more.

Poetry.

This often works the same way as picture books, and because poetry is so rich i find i don’t want nearly as much of it in one sitting anyway. i can read one or two poems before bed or in between things, and feel nourished. One downside, however, is that in a collection of poems there might be a lot of one-page poems broken up by the odd ten- or twenty-page poem, and when i hit one of those i’m not always ready for it and then the book sits there for a week. (Dickey has definitely done this to me more than once.) But i am really learning to appreciate this art form. Even when i don’t fully grasp what the poet is doing, it’s helpful.

Assignments.

This isn’t so much a how do you read this much? as a how do you find these things?, but if you have a wise and kind person who will let you climb up on their shoulders and train your eyes to know good literature, hallelujah. i was a little nervous the first time i asked Pete for a Patronus assignment, but i’m so grateful i did and grateful he keeps saying yes. And a lot (although not all) of the picture books on this list were recommended by my friend Ken, a stop-motion animator who’s well-versed in this field. i’d never have found all those on my own. i find that i can accomplish nearly anything if i have an assignment (or a deadline), so getting these assignments is motivating. (Plus: Patronus.)

i do think it is crucial that a book-assigner be someone chosen and trusted. A lot of people would like to add to my TBR list. i can’t read all of it and i don’t necessarily want to. But i’ll read anything Pete or Ken give me because i know what they give me is good for me. (And if you do have academic assignments, count them. Even if they aren’t fiction or poetry or anything particularly soul-strengthening, acknowledge that time and work. It feels good to look back on it later and see in full color what you managed to do.)

Priority.

Over the summer, since i had a lot more flexibility, i decided i’d spend one entire day every week at a coffee shop, reading. That meant as early as i could manage in the morning (although often that wasn’t really until 10 or 11), and as late as i could stay in the afternoon (right up until dinner). i found that when the semester started up again in August i couldn’t bear to lose that incredibly healing practice, and while i couldn’t continue a once-a-week fiction day during the semester it did propel me toward more reading while in school than i would probably have done otherwise. Lay the groundwork while you can and then you have a habit to lean on.

This wisdom is offered for free, as it has not been peer-reviewed. Ha. (And if you got to the end of this post, you can probably count it toward your reading goal.)

Here’s the full list of what i read this year. i’m hoping to come back and annotate this list in a few posts to come—just a line or two about where i found each book and what i thought of it.

The Last Archer: A Green Ember Story
Idiot Psalms: New Poems
Muffin Mouse's New House
What Is a Princess?
Where Are Custard and Pupcake?
The Three Snow Bears
Cat Nights
The Fairy Dog
On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea
Yesh Lanu Llama
The Flight of Dragons
Every Moment Holy
Buckdancer's Choice: Poems
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day
The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
In the Year of Jubilation
Ready Player One
Synopsis of the Four Gospels
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Death, and the Day's Light: Poems
Wildwood
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
War in Heaven
Confronting the Legacy of Racism: The Challenge to Christian Faith
Du Iz Tak?
Home
The High King
The Liszts
Taran Wanderer
The Strength of Fields
The Way Home in the Night
The Castle of Llyr
The Black Cauldron
The Book of Three
Billy's Booger
Tuck Everlasting
Notre-Dame de Paris
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Hopkins: Poems
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Nightlights
Pawn of Prophecy
James Dickey: The Selected Poems
Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies
The Trespasser
Fruits Basket, Vol. 1
Buckdancer's Choice: Poems
Les Misérables
The Twin Arrows
Rabbit's Search for a Little House
The Emperor's Soul
Pandora
Pug Man's 3 Wishes
Three Men in a Boat
Chicken Story Time
Redeeming Love
Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats
Winter's Tale
The Wishes of the Fish King
A Circle of Quiet
The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog
The Storyteller
A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology
The Library
A Grammar of Akkadian
The Jubilee: Poems
Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship
Henry and the Chalk Dragon
Watership Down
The Bronze Bow
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Henry and the Chalk Dragon (a review)

Henry and the Chalk Dragon cover large
Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton (Rabbit Room Press, 2017).
TIE YOUR SHOELACES.

i am not an impartial reviewer of this book. i’ve been agonizing over this, because i want to write a review worthy of the book itself, but the truth is that i adore Jennifer Trafton. She makes me want to be brave, and sometimes, with her whispered kindnesses in my heart, i can be.

Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, says Henry’s chivalry. It’s hard for him to be brave, too. He is a knight, but he is also an Artist, you see, and his wild imagination is hard to contain, and just as hard to let out. When he tries to draw nice brown bunnies calmly eating lettuce, the Work of Art inside him aches to draw bunnies that jump so high they tear holes in the clouds and land on Mars, or a rocket-powered bunny with laser eyes. His teacher and principal don’t know what to do with him. He has one best friend, but is afraid the other kids won’t understand—even his best friend doesn’t always. So when one day he draws a magnificent jungle-green dragon on the back of his blackboard-painted door and it runs away, Henry is more worried than anything, even though his dragon thrills him. Suddenly, the Work of Art he has been hiding is out in the world for everyone to see.

i don’t know what i love best about this book—the chivalry, which is often funny (“Don’t feed girls to dragons”) and often cuts right to my own fears as an Artist; the golden trumpets of Jade’s bardic songs; the way Henry’s conflict with his best friend, and his dragon, and his Art, and his principal, all collide and swirl toward and past and around each other to resolve into beauty (the one moment with his dragon—oh! i might cry right now); Oscar and his pet octagon; their wonderful teacher Miss Pimpernel with her beaver-teeth hair (she was a superhero, you know)… i could go on for days.

My copy of this book has already been colored in. i couldn’t help it. After reading Henry, the colors won’t hold still. i am going to stop writing and go back to coloring—and then later today, i am going to go back to my own writing. Because when i am tempted to think i can’t, Henry’s chivalry tells me Tie your shoelaces.

Illustration by Benjamin Schipper. Coloring by me and Henry.
Henry and the Chalk Dragon releases April 4. You can preorder at the Rabbit Room—preorders come signed, and with two free coloring pages (but i do definitely recommend coloring in your book!).

Jennifer is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic. At last count i had bought twenty copies of this book so far. i love it with my whole heart. You should read that one, too.

A new writing class and an old ache

Three things happened today, all about writing. The first is that Jonathan Rogers’ Writing With Flannery O’Connor class started. The second was a Rabbit Room post which pierced me through.

That writing class has already given me a lot to think about and anticipate, even though so far i’ve only read one essay and listened to a related short lecture. But the Rabbit Room post woke up my old fears about being behind and leaving stories unwritten.

The third thing that happened was that in response to the Rabbit Room post i finally began the practice of writing morning pages. It was well past morning by the time i did this, but i am glad i didn’t wait until the “proper” time. i also filled out a Hebrew paradigm, for the first time since finals week ended. i am not quite as rusty as i feared.

“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it”1—and the hardest thing about writing is writing. i am fighting a constant battle against desire and futility and the need to create. i know i am not alone in this. It is easy to look around and see that others are succeeding where i am afraid of trying, and to despair of even beginning. But i have begun. i forget this over and over again.

So fall or fly,
i’ll try.
i’ll open my eyes
and dive.

And maybe, just maybe, one day at a time, i’ll learn to trust the coming resurrection.


1Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 5×22, “The Gift.”

When melts the sun

When melts the sun into glory
and all earth is suffused by its rays
When the clouds dissolve and the trumpet resounds
at the sight of the Ancient of Days
One kiss from His mouth will shatter our shame
One touch will wake up the dead
And we, with our faces alight with His love,
will trample our glories for His glories instead.

End-of-semester gratitude

My first semester’s finals were yesterday. Oh, i am tired—and so, so grateful.

All last week i had reminders written all over my hands. Not reminders of things i’d need for the tests, but reminders that i would survive the process. Around my thumb and forefinger i wrote, “i have turned my back on my turning back.” Last night after my Hebrew final i collapsed into a chair and curled my fingers and saw how the words made a circle, turning back, then turning back again. And i had been telling myself over and over that i must not turn back, that as weary as i was i would reap a harvest if i did not give up. At that moment the words became true. i had turned my back on my turning back. It was accomplished. i knew that i had come far and could begin to gloan upon it. As we drove home afterwards, i could feel the semester receding behind me as if time was a place.

IMG_3930

i am grateful for:

  • Jonathan. Oh, Jonathan. He was on call all last week, and had finals and papers of his own (he has one final yet), but he took care of all our dinners (and the dishes) all week long so that i could study. He planned our Geek family night, too. Every time i cried that i could not, could not, could not, he told me i could. He prayed for me and pastored me and served me, my priest. Every day, he preaches to me the way of Christ to the church.
  • My beautiful Hebrew family, my classroom table-mates. Asher and i had an uproarious time studying together yesterday afternoon (we were both sleep-deprived and deliriously hilarious). Atarah brought us chocolate and little hand-written cards of appreciation last night. Gadi lets me mother him. i could not have asked for a better group of people. i never expected them. They are a gift of grace.
  • Dr. Dallaire, my Hebrew professor, has been an endless source of encouragement all semester long. Last night she gave me a hug i could live in and told me i’d better write to her in Hebrew while she’s on sabbatical. 🙂 She graded our finals before leaving last night and i had an email waiting for me when i got home. For the midterm and the final both she brought us food. And one of the questions was, “True or False? Dr. Dallaire loves chocolate!” 🙂 Again, i could never have expected her. i’m so grateful for her. Just knowing her (not to mention learning from her!) this semester was the best way to begin seminary i could imagine. She taught me that seminary is not scary, but an exhilarating, encouraging, enlarging adventure. i am keeping her forever.
  • Dr. Hess, my Pentateuch and Wisdom Lit professor. i learned so much in his class, and much of it was about myself. His style of teaching and grading stretched me, and is stretching me, and i am better for it, and i will be better yet. He was an instrument of sanctification in G-d’s hands. Again, it was grace that placed me in his class this first semester.
  • My darling amanuensis Rachel. i texted her crying so many times this last week. She prayed for me and brought me ice cream and ginger soda and hugs the night before finals. She wrote me haikus to keep me going. She shares my heart.
  • Andrew Peterson‘s song “Day By Day,” and Josh Garrels‘ “White Owl,” both of which tethered my heart and my mind as i studied. i played them for hours. Hours.
  • Pete Peterson and the Budge-Nuzzard. Pete’s witness that faith does not always end in despair gave me the courage to begin seminary. The Budge-Nuzzard, in ways known only to Divine Grace, became my own story as i struggled to finish my first semester well. The fact that the story is yet unfinished may itself have been a grace, as i was able to see myself in it without the distraction of pressure or fear regarding where the story was going. The first time i read Hind’s Feet on High Places, i was too afraid of resolution to finish. In the Budge-Nuzzard, uncertainty came alongside my uncertainty and helped me along. i know that a story this weird (but i am so weird!) is an unlikely candidate for spiritual direction and courage. But—
  • My merciful Abba loves me so well. He’s close to me when i struggle. He hides me in His heart. He rejoices over me with singing. He stoops down to make me great. i so often seek life everywhere but in Him. He is gracious, and He grows me in grace. He’s teaching me to rest in Him. And He knows that i am made to respond to stories; He made me that way. So when i cry out for stories to help me along, He never shames me for needing them but instead He provides grace upon grace, and gives me stories to enlarge my heart.

This sounds like an Oscars speech. But seriously—i am so deeply grateful.

My list of things to do today includes “read a poem,” “take a walk,” and “blat at someone.” i am eager to dive back into fiction-reading (and writing). i might take a nap. i need to buy groceries. Facebook will wait until tomorrow. Short-story-writing will wait until Friday or even next week (yeah, i never did any writing in November, and i am not really sorry). For today, the theme is gratitude and peace.

The term is over. The holidays have begun. (Yes, that’s a Lewis reference, although this semester break is only a foretaste.)

Baruch atah, Adonai.

The Budge-Nuzzard and the coming resurrection

It hurts to die but each time I’m raised again and I’m something new, something I don’t recognize, something I never expected. I’ve gotten no better at avoiding the pain, but maybe, just maybe I’m getting better at trusting in the coming resurrection.”

I have indeed gone to action. That sweet abode of my arrival is now but a dollop of memory within my upper head. I must confess that in my weaker moments, I have longed for it and three times now have turned back to seek my solace within. But at length I have turned my back on my turning back and hence have come far and now gloan upon it.”

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on You,
because he trusts in You.
Trust in the L-RD forever,
for the L-RD GOD is an everlasting rock.”

Finals are on Tuesday. i am tired. i am struggling to focus. i can’t remember why i began this journey, one which terrified me and thrilled me only three months ago and now just makes me bone-weary. How did the first half of the semester, full of excitement and voorish glee, turn into this slog? i wonder: Can i make it? i wonder: Do i want to?

“i hope it’s good for your soul.”

Well, you weren’t kidding. i wasn’t thinking at all of my soul when i started; that exhortation took me by surprise. i didn’t even burn everything i own, but it is hard anyway. And one of the most remarvelant surprises of this journey has been discovering what a source of strength and spiritual formation lurks in the ludicrous lobidiousness of The Budge-Nuzzard.

i do want to turn back. That sweet abode of my arrival seems so homely and comforting. But i will keep turning my back on my turning back. If there is a resurrection at the end of this, i want it. G-d is an everlasting rock and i can trust Him to help calm my mind and tempt it not to wander. And maybe, just maybe, one death at a time, i’ll learn to trust the coming resurrection.

Next week, i will have come far enough to begin the gloaning.

Shielot

i’m two weeks into Hebrew. Last week, vowel markings kicked my butt. This week, i am too busy forgetting plural pronouns to worry about vowels, which mostly work now anyway. (Maybe the key to learning is to just keep moving forward, whether things make sense or not.)

At Denver Seminary, Hebrew is taught as a second language. Classes are partially immersive. A friend told me before i started that the thing about immersive language acquisition is that i’ll feel like i’m failing. Every day, i’ll feel like i’m failing. And every day, i’ll fail a little less.

Practice resurrection.

But it is coming. i can feel it taking root, even if the shoots are slow to appear. The sounds wind their way around my mind, making new places to grow.

Yesh li shielah.

“i have a question.” That phrase is printed on the back of my name plaque, so that i can find answers when i am puzzled in class. But that phrase is insufficient. i had to teach myself some new ones.

Yesh li shielot.

i have questions.

Yesh li shielot ravot.

i have many questions.

Yesh li kol-shielot.

i have every question, all the questions.

But look—i know how to make a sentence, to ask for help, to laugh at my own ignorance.

Practice resurrection.

i’m getting there.

Practice resurrection.

Essaying

For some months now, i have been grieving Peet the Sock Man. His brokenness. His need. His glory. His inability to hold onto his glory when his failures rise up and name him again and again. His desperation. His aloneness. His unwillingness to let his sin define him, even as he has lost all sense of himself.

Peet says to me things i have not yet begun to understand. Glorious, broken, beautiful Peet.

Themes of brokenness and redemption crack my heart open and hollow me out.

Because my heart is so raw when i read his story, because i know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his story is my own, i have been struggling to put into words what Peet means to me. But i want to know what he means. i need to, because i have a deep sense that what he says, in his sweet gibbering way, is about hope. Hope amidst despair. Hope that shines like the dawn.

The last two weeks i have been reading and rereading things that speak Peetness to me in the hopes that they will help me wrap my brain around my heart and give it words. Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, was recommended to me as a starting place for thinking about redemption in a pre-Christian world, and i ought not to have been surprised to find Peet there. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah paralleled some of Agamben’s imagery. Hutchmoot addresses by Jennifer Trafton and Travis Prinzi spoke volumes to me; Jennifer’s in particular set my heart ablaze and made new thoughts come out of my ears—thoughts about what Peet, and we, are perhaps becoming. What if the stories are true? In studying Scripture, i was suddenly thrust back into memories of George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, and found such a parallel between Peet and Lina that i wondered how i had not seen it before.

i still don’t know how to say what Peet says to me. But my heart is leaping in holy breathlessness as these thoughts and hopes pour through me.

The fourth and final Wingfeather book is on its way. The public release date is July 22, but Kickstarter supporters—over 2100 of us—will be receiving our copies in early May. My hope was, and is, to make a stumbling attempt to express the hope that Peet gives me before i find out how Andrew would answer the question of what he (and we?) are becoming. But my heart is tangly, and my words so inadequate. i must write; i must—but can i?

i know that Peet must die. But that is not why i grieve him.

On and on and on

Andrew Peterson and his wonderful little family sang this song in an online concert last night, and partway through the song something hit me that has never occurred to me before, despite my knowledge that the new earth that we’ll live in forever isn’t just limbo but life, not some ethereal harp-playing noplace, but a real, REAL, fully-redeemed physical place.

Jonathan and i were talking earlier yesterday about getting older and i said, “i’m so behind.” He nodded and said he feels that way himself sometimes. We’re in our mid-thirties, and he’s in school, and i’m looking to start school, and we’re only just sort of getting an idea of what we’re for, and meanwhile guys like AP are manhandling multiple careers with aplomb, having known who they were from the time they were 20 or younger.

But halfway through this song, these lines (which they’d already sung several times) spoke to me:

And it hurts so bad
but it’s so good to be young
And i don’t want to go back
i just want to go on and on and on
So don’t lose heart
Though your body’s wasting away
Your soul is not
It’s being remade
So don’t lose heart
Don’t lose heart
Your body will rise and never decay
Day by day by day

And it hit me: i WILL go on and on and on.

i think what we do in this life matters immensely, but:

All the stories i don’t get around to telling while in this old body will still be written. The difference is only in who gets a chance to read them (and what measure of grace and what manner of mystery inform my storytelling).

And that does matter—immensely—but there is still hope that who i am will remain; what He’s calling me to do does not end in my death; and i will have eternity to tell His stories. On and on and on.

That gives me a very different motivation to get on with it, and freedom to face the next two thirds of my life with eagerness to write, and without anxiety over whether i’ve done enough.