Warming Winter Books



I lied.

The books I’m thinking of will only warm you up by contrast. No Caribbean cruises here.

Every winter, sometime after nearing the bottom of  Christmas stocking chocolate and before Lenten discipline begins to pall, I find myself craving the sparseness of black tea and its literary equivalent. In such moods I often turn to books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter,” her semi-autobiographical novel about the endless blizzards of 1880-1 in what was then Dakota Territory. Impassable snow lasted from October to May, and the townspeople nearly starved to death before the trains could run again.


Wilder’s book , with its description of long, grey, claustrophobic days spent huddled around the meager warmth of a stove fueled with twists of hay always makes me grateful for the light, color, and warmth of my life.

This year, I ran into Ruth Sapetys’ “Between Shades of Gray,” Weather again becomes a matter of life and death, this time because fifteen-year-old Lina, her younger brother and mother are dragged from their home in the middle of the night by the Soviet police and thrown into a packed boxcar bound for Siberia. Their crime? They’re in Stalin’s way.  They are Lithuanians, and in 1941, Stalin has taken the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia for his own. This strenuously-researched young adult novel depicts a time of history that few people are aware of and with good reason. The Soviets didn’t begin to withdrawn their troops until 1993, and for all that time, the few survivors of the deportations lived in terrified silence because to tell their story would result in re-arrest or death.

I had a college friend whose family was from Estonia. I told her I’d never heard of it. Now I know why.

The story of Lina and her fellow prisoners is such a compelling one that once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. The prisoners are worked to death, first in frigid Siberia, subsisting, if they can stay on their feet and work and don’t run afoul of the Soviet guards, on a daily piece of bread. Then Lina and her family are transported to even worse –believe it or not–conditions: taken by barge to a spot in the upper Arctic Circle where they are to build a fish camp for the Soviets.  When they have time, they’re allowed to gather driftwood, moss, and frozen mud to create flimsy makeshift huts in which they must somehow survive the Arctic cold. When Lina comments that the ground is already frozen when they arrive in August, you get a faint inkling of what the long, dark Arctic winter will bring to these scantily-clad, emaciated prisoners.

Yet this is also a story filled with hope, with heart, with the power of love to transfigure the grimmest of moments. Each character becomes someone you care about, someone whose survival you root for.  A gifted artist, Lina decides early on to get word to her father of their whereabouts by sketching snippets from their daily life on bits of paper or bark which she passes along whenever she gets a chance. You find yourself willing each scrap to reach its destination, to survive as testament to the lives they document, even as so many of those lives end. I reviewed it in my “Bookmarked” column in this week’s edition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger.

“Between Shades of Gray” reminded me of a paperback I bought for something like fifty cents decades ago through one of those Scholastic magazines we used to get in grade school. I still have it: “The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile.

IMG_1775 In it, author Esther Hautzig tells her own story of the years she spent in Siberia after she and her Polish family are arrested by the Soviet police in 1941 for the crime of being “capitalists.”   As in Sapetys’ novel, this is one of survival, but also hope and love.

These books are like Lina’s drawings, documentation of vibrant human life in the midst of death.  Somehow they suit winter, when all of nature sleeps, when I most need reminding of life.  They make me aware of the light and laughter that exist in spite of cruel weather or crueler man; they make me actively grateful for the ludicrous number of comforts that cushion our cold winter days.

Your winter reading?



Sewanee Readers Pick Favorite Titles Read in 2017

No, I didn’t quite fall off the planet, just the blogsphere.

But I’m back now to report the complete list of responses the question I posed to Sewanee readers: “What was the best book you read in 2017?”

Titles range from philosophic to comic, from classic to current.

Without further ado and in no particular order, here’s the list.

For the annotated version (some really great comments from readers!) you’ll have to look at my “Bookmarked!” column in the December 8 edition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger.

Sewanee Readers’ Picks for Favorite Books Read in 2017


T. Greenwood Bodies of Water

E.M. Forster Howard’s End

Thomas Mullen Darktown

Frederick Backman A Man Called Ove and Beartown

Gail Honeyman Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Kelly Grey Carlisle We are All Shipwrecks

Jesmyn Ward Sing, Unburied, Sing

Mark Edens Death Be Not Pwned

George Eliot Middlemarch

Dean Koontz Watchers

Dina Sachs The Secret of the Nightingale Palace

Jamie Ford Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Viet Thanh Nguyen The Sympathizer

Joseph Roth The Radetzky March

Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

George Saunders Lincoln at the Bardo: A Novel

John Kennedy Toole Confederacy of Dunces

Muriel Barbery Elegance of the Hedgehog

Neil Gaimon Norse Mythology

Jeff Jones Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in Their Last Days

Jan Karon, To Be Where You Are

Wendelin Van Draanen The Running Dream (YA)

John Green Turtles All The Way Down

Cynthia Voigt, Young Fredle (Children)


Masnobu Fukuoka The One-Straw Revolution

Andrea Wulf Invention of Nature

Ta Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me

Richard C. Francis Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World

Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Matthew Walker Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Jane Smiley 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and Horse Heaven

Rob Dunn Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys\and The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today

Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

William Bryant Logan Oak: The Frame of Civilization

Steven Vogel Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle

Jeffrey A. Lockwood Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again





Still Waiting for Post-Race Euphoria

The medal and post-race free pizza weren’t the real reward for finishing Sunday’s half-marathon. The best gift was what I learned about my son Marshall along the way.

This is not a post about endurance sports. I promise.

Remember, in my day, once we grew out of kickball and four-square, sports for girls weren’t all that common. Anyway, I did music. As an adult, thanks to the hours spent watching my kids’ swim team practice, I did learn to swim. So when I exercise, laps are what I do.

But Sunday I walked the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon . (The half, I hastily add.)

FullSizeRender (12)What on earth for? I wish I’d kept the answer in mind during the race, because when surrounded by thousands of serious and spandexed  marathoners (Knoxville is a qualifying race for Boston), it was easy to feel like a lowly slug in comparison.

YES, those are fatal words, those last two, and it continues to be my goal to eliminate them from my mental vocabulary. But that’s another post for another day.

So, why the walk? My motivation was clear back in December when I decided to train for it. First, the osteopenia (pre-osteoporis) had gotten much worse since my last bone density scan.  Swimming doesn’t help that; serious weight-bearing exercise does. Making myself walk before my pool laps seemed a safer idea than taking the meds my docs recommended.

Second, I dread winter. I have several chronic illnesses, and illness isolates. I needed something to look forward to, a forced focus on spring. My husband dreams of his garden; I needed something more tangible. Training for an April half-marathon wouldn’t cost anything except better shoes, and I could multi-task on the track by listening to podcasts to ramp up my French, another goal.

But the real clincher for mother-me: I wanted to challenge my very busy son Marshall to get more exercise. He shot a challenge right back: he’d sign up if my husband and I would go see a financial planner to discuss pre-retirement planning, something we were about as enthusiastic about doing as going to an endodontist.  But we did, and he did (OK, not necessarily in that order), along with his wife Shannon and my husband, and the rest is history.

We trained, we stopped training due to various injuries, we trained some more. The weekly long walks (9 miles around the track? are you kidding me?) seemed interminable. But we made it through the Hal Higdon half marathon program I found online. More or less. I made it through winter.

And Sunday at 4:30 AM (my time) we got up to go race. And despite my joint issues (psoriatic arthritis) and the reactive hypoglycemia I also live with which can bottom out my blood sugar if I don’t eat frequent careful snacks  (NOT the Powerade and energy GU the kindly volunteers gave out en route which in my case could be disastrous), we finished.

Well, I completely forgot that just-finishing was all I’d hoped to do. (Some days, more than I’d hoped to do.) When I saw all those runners sprint home, I felt like, ‘hey, all I did was walk.’ I forgot WHY I did it in the first place. So, this reminder to self. I walked for health. I walked to show myself that just because I have illnesses and am nearing 60 (both my parents died in their 60s), life isn’t over. I walked to fight back against the near-crippling anxiety (ok, and depression) that too often want to paralyze me.

And I did all that. Plus I got the t-shirt, the goody bag, the cheers in Neyland Stadium when we crossed the finish line. Oh, and that free pizza.

marathon medal

But I also received one unexpected and much more amazing gift.

During those 13.1 miles I discovered I have an eldest son who has a heart as tall as he is (six feet).  Through the entire walk I witnessed him put aside every one of his own race ambitions and become our family team’s spirit and cheerleader. He and his wife Shannon could have finished long (long!!) before my husband and I. But, no, he stayed with us, encouraging me on, urging (ok, insisting) that I eat, even and especially when I hit that “leave me alone, I’m not hungry, I hate eating, go AWAY!” growling stage of the hypoglycemia that hit hard around mile six. He swallowed his impatience when we old people took stretch or port-a-potty breaks. He stayed level-headed and upbeat throughout, insisting when I suggested he and Shannon go on ahead, “no, we trained as a team. We finish as a team!”

So we did. Walking four-abreast into his beloved Vols’ Neyland Stadium to the cheers and applause of the kindly spectators who still remained.

That’s a lot to get out of one walk. That’s kind of euphoric enough, if I think about it. Here he is, my race hero, Marshall, with his wife:

FullSizeRender (11)


Though now I am kind of wondering–how hard would it really be to run it next year?







Strangers in our Strange Land

wire-fenceI was stopped cold this morning at Mass in our recitation of today’s psalm. The words were almost too painful to say, given our president’s recent travel ban on refugees trying to enter our country.

“The Lord keeps faith forever,

secures justice for the oppressed….

The Lord sets captives free.”


“The Lord protects strangers.”

If I were sitting at an airport with the few possessions I had left after fleeing a place like war-ravaged Syria, I would wonder where that justice is. Where that God is, who promised to set me free. Where the people of faith are, for that matter, those who supposedly live by such words, the people who profess to believe that they are to follow the Gospel, which outright declares its support for the poor and wretched of the earth.

The Book of Deuteronomy puts it even more bluntly:
‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’


I used to wonder how a victim of one of Hitler’s concentration camps could possibly manage to retain faith in the face of such horror. Faith in humanity or faith in God.

Many of them, I suspect, couldn’t. I don’t know if I’d be able to. If I were crying out day after day for help, for sustenance, for some end to what I was enduring.

The fact is, God doesn’t usually swoop down and with some swish of the divine magic wand open gates and free the oppressed. God tends to leave that work up to his faithful, indeed, entrusts that work to the faithful. We are explicitly called to minister to the sick, the poor, the abandoned, the imprisoned, the stranger. In today’s second liturgical reading, we are reminded of that: “Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.”

Are we remembering our calling? Or are we preferring the much more comfortable state of blindness, to others’ needs, to our own responsibility?refugee-words

Not to mention to our own nation’s tradition from its inception of welcoming immigrants to our shores.

I don’t know what action each of us is called to in response to this latest ban on refugees. I understand that most of us don’t have the ability of a leader like the Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau to say–to America’s shame–Come on in! We’ll take you! We welcome you!

But each of us is called to do something.


Healing Our Land

In an effort to put a few positive moments into a recent week of mostly negative, James and I went for a woods walk on the Sewanee Domain.  It’s something we don’t usually do because there’s so much work to do on our acreage, but this was a psychological necessity.

James pointed out this one spot:


Do you see anything wrong with it? To me, it looks exactly like the rest of what we were walking in.  Quiet woods, leaf-coated earth. Trees and more trees.

But that’s the point. It used to be the site of the Sewanee dump. James, who roamed all over this mountain as a teen, remember several decades ago when it was piles of bottles and tin cans, rusted bedsprings, a discarded washer and dryer. And now it’s woodland.

It’s healed.

This made me think of what’s needed in order for healing of any kind to happen. Time, obviously, but not just that. Some active effort to deal with what was there.

Beginning with the decision to stop adding more junk.

There’s something in this that seems to offer a lesson to us in this tumultuous year, as we try to heal some of the wounds caused–and revealed– by the election.

We need time, obviously. A little distance. Already, several weeks post-election, the emotional intensity has lessened.

But not simply time. Because I’m not advocating that we pretend the wounds–and the issues– aren’t there.

So we need to take a couple of active steps as well. For instance, each of us might think of some way to reach across whatever division we believe exists between us and whoever we consider “the other.” We might think of some positive action that would contribute towards our nation’s well-being.

But first we need to stop the trash-talking.

Which means that at a fundamental level, we need to recognize that differences of color or race or political affiliation need to matter less than the reality that we’re all human beings worthy of respect and compassion. That we’re all, well, Americans.

This is the hardest part, I think. Accepting that it’s up to us to make the decision to change our attitude.

Or end up with a ruined land full of junk.










Finding Words When There Are None


I’m not a crier, but so far I’m three-for-three in terms of places visited and number of emotional breakdowns this morning.

Words fail.

But here’s my disjointed attempt to articulate a fraction of my reaction, here in this buckle-on-the-Bible-belt, reddest-of-red areas in a red state, after yesterday’s election.

I’m not going into the whys and wherefores. News and social media will continue to do all that. I just want to offer this sentence from the late Robert McAfee Brown, Presbyterian minister, activist and author:

“A moral society will be a society of participants rather than spectators,” he says in his book on the famous Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity:

There are many troubling parallels between the German election of Hitler and our own recent contribution to history. One of Hitler’s great appeals was that he gave a troubled and divided Germany a simple reason for their discomfort: the Jews. And a single solution: get rid of them. People then and now seem to prefer simple solutions. And self-proclaimed saviors to rally around.

A point made months ago by a national elected official reluctant to support Trump but doing so anyway was that any threat from the man at the top would be minimal because he could be controlled by his advisors.

They said the exact same thing about Hitler.

Chilling that today is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” the night when the hitherto-quieter actions against the Jews in Nazi Germany became public, with Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes smashed and burned and thousands of Jews arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

While the vast majority of German civilians stood by and watched and did nothing.

So this is what I want to say. Let’s not be bystanders. If we see injustice or prejudice in the coming months, let us speak up. If we’re troubled by whatever occurs, let us speak out. Whatever it is, let’s do our part to create a moral society. Let’s be participants, not bystanders.

In the middle of the nightmare that was last night’s electoral college counting, I finally was able to fall asleep by reciting the first lines from one of those songs we learned long ago in grade school: “God Bless America, Land that I love, Stand beside her, and guide her, Through the night with the light from above.”

It feels like we’re in that night. It feels like we need that light. But we can’t just sit passively and assume some higher power –or somebody else –will provide it. We need to light a few candles ourselves.




The Language of The Game


Caveat: my understanding of football came to an abrupt halt in my early teens when my brothers got a whole lot bigger and stronger than I was, and touch football in the front  yard became a thing of history.

But I have one observation after watching the Tennessee Vols lose to South Carolina last night in a game that should have been a shoo-in.

It’s easy to say ”they lost” and shake your head in dismay (or disgust, depending on how much of a Vols fan you are).

But those two words don’t even begin to explain all that went on.  Mistakes, yes, but also a lot of injuries and missing players who’ve been key to the team. “They lost” essentially erases all the effort and training that go into making up each individual moment of each separate play. “They lost” dismisses the reality of three hours in which a few dozen young men risk their bodies and their brains in a game they’ve spent years trying to perfect.

Isn’t this sadly so much like life? Especially life as we’re experiencing it right now in our divided nation?  It’s so easy–aka usual–to sum a person up in a few words and leave it at that. “He’s Republican,” we say, and immediately assume we know all about him. Or “she’s a liberal,” ditto. In our tiny college town, plagued by town/gown division from the beginning of time, it’s easy to say “he’s mountain–(ie a townie)–” or conversely, “she’s faculty,” and believe we’ve pigeon-holed a person’s educational status and political beliefs.  To think we’ve predicted how they’ll speak and act in every forthcoming situation.

Which also means we’ve dismissed all the struggle that have gone into making  that person the nuanced individual he is. We’ve ignored the entirety of the person in favor of a single easy label.

Which makes it very likely we’ve predetermined the way we’re going to view the person from then on.

Another word for “prejudice?”

So here’s to using just a few more words. Here’s to remembering that language is a tool that can metaphorically dig us into the ground (where we leave our metaphorical heads and also our brains) or expand our understanding, our vision, and– oh yes– our compassion.

Here’s to saying “they lost, but…..” And filling in a few of the circumstances. Here’s to saying “he’s a Republican AND…” (or a Democrat or a Catholic or a Floridian or whatever) and filling in some of the blanks.

Here’s to making ourselves work just a tad harder to see the whole complexity of the person, not just the tagline.

(And if you want to know more about the game last night, here’s Coach Butch Jones himself to fill in the details.)

(photo credit to Marshall Stephens)