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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

Fiction

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)

Non-Fiction

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

 

 

 

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Language of The Game

marshall-vols-stadium

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)

 

 

I Kid You Not, a Kangaroo?

On a lighter note–since a couple of readers commented that my last post was a bit dismal–picture me sitting at a stoplight in Manchester. Picture me bored with the usual scenery: McDonalds, Baskin-Robbins, Raceway, and glancing over at the trailer in the next lane. Picture me looking closer to see if there’s a horse inside.

Then picture this face sticking out, grass dripping from either side of a busily-chewing mouth.kangaThat, my friends, is a kangaroo. (Not my picture, sadly. I don’t take pictures while driving.)

Give me  a break, you’re saying. In Manchester? Sure it hosts Bonnaroo every June, and our quiet rural Tennessee is flooded with a lot of peculiar-(to us, anyway) looking people. But–a kangaroo?

Am I sure it wasn’t a llama? On first sight, no way. I’ve seen a number of llamas around farms in our area, and it didn’t look like that.

i.e. This:llamaExcept, yes, on further investigation, I have to admit they do look an awful lot alike.

So maybe it was just a llama, on its way to a new farm to do whatever llamas do best. Guard other livestock, apparently, or provide pricey fleece.

But I’ll stick with my original belief. Because it’s a time when I could use a moment of pure nonsense dropped my way (see last post). Perhaps you, too. And, apologies to any Australians, there are not a lot of animals more amusing-looking than a kangaroo.

kanga mother

So, a poll here, folks. Llama, or kangaroo?

And I won’t hold it against you if you vote against the latter.

Like a Stone

poolWhen my youngest brother was a toddler, he managed to fall into a swimming pool, diapers and all, and sink straight to the bottom where he sat (he claims today) eyes open wide, gazing around while he waited for our oldest brother to jump in and pull him out. (Which he did.)

Possibly, knowing Paul, while he was waiting he continued calmly pondering on with whatever deep philosophical problem he’d been preoccupied with when he tumbled in.

Leaving aside for now the question of why the grown-ups–our parents and the friend who owned the pool–didn’t notice, it’s the image of Paul at the bottom of the pool I want to talk about.

Because that’s me and always has been. Sitting at the bottom of the pool, in over my head, at times waiting not-so-patiently to be pulled out because I don’t have the life skills to rescue myself.

(The grownups–yes, those two–were too preoccupied with their own insanities to have taught those.)

Yet time after time, I did figure out a way to get myself afloat again. No matter which deep pool clueless-me got tossed into. And I was usually fairly clueless, indeed.  I learned I was leaving Tennessee at fifteen to go north to Exeter, for instance, when I came home from swimming (seems to be a theme here) and found an admissions rep in our living room. I sat on the piano bench, still in my wet swimsuit, and answered his questions without a clue what it was I was getting into. It’s a boarding school, I told my friends, like where girls go to learn to ride and dance. Which is what I’d gleaned from reading various British girls’ books.

Not.

But I figured out how to survive there, even to thrive.

A scenario repeated again and again.

lake

So why so hard this time around to figure out how to navigate the deep waters of empty nest (to wildly mix metaphors) and ended (homeschooling) career?

Maybe because we’re less resilient with age? Maybe something to do with the peculiar situation of living in such isolation in our remote mountain cove? Or maybe I just haven’t been trying hard enough?

It doesn’t actually matter why. The point is I’ve got to figure out how better to push off the bottom.

Because big brothers aren’t usually around to pull us out.

 

 

 

 

Made to Measure

Wooden_ruler_used_for_measuring_cloth_in_a_Bangalore_tailor_shop

Some people are good with rulers. I’m not one of them. My best relationship with a ruler occurred decades ago when we lived in England for a year. Every new entry in every essay book we kept for every subject had to have a perfect line drawn separating it from the entry above, a little the way you use those long black thingies in a check-out line to separate your groceries from those of the person ahead of you. I was good at drawing those lines, once I learned how not to leave long smears of ink from the fountain pens we were required to use.

So the task of creating an arrangement of family photos on our living room wall continues to daunt. Aka frustrate. (Aka madden.)

pics on floor

Because I have to measure. (Not to mention use a level.) I know that in this, the continuation of my second freshman year, I’m supposedly reveling in learning new skills. But precision work like that makes me want to throw things.

You might ask, why, then, am I so interested in learning to quilt? A craft that requires precision at every infinitesimal step? Answer: I’m still in the delusional, what-pretty-fabric stage.

It hasn’t helped my photo project that some of the frames I’m using come from my grandparents’ house and are some sixty fragile years old. Nothing worse than finally getting to the hanging-picture-on-accurately-placed nail moment and having the frame fall apart. (Glass breaks when it hits a wood floor.)

My point (I do have one) is that I’m just not a precision person. The art of eye liner, for instance, continues to elude. One of my uncles (now deceased) a physics teacher at Exeter was probably a precision person. One, at least, of my sons has inherited the gene. And while it’s true we can learn new skills, and especially as we age probably should to stimulate our brains, we can’t become what we’re not. Which I’m always wanting to do. Become the person who’s the life of the party instead of the empress of all introverts. Become the person whose phone vibrates every few minutes because so many friends are texting in (see above). Become, for the moment, anyway, the person to whom marketing oneself comes so naturally that it won’t take longer to write the query letter to prospective literary agents than it did to write the 60,000 word novel.

But–I’m stuck with me. Like it or not. And maybe that’s one of the most basic skills I need to be learning: how to live with what I’ve got.

 

Lent, Lengthening, Lightening

Lent looms.

Actually, if you’re reading this anytime after its moment of writing, it may already have started. Better polish off those chocolates. (I’m working on it.)chocolate

OK. You already know I’m talking about the forty days before Easter that Catholics and others observe as a season of fasting, penitence, prayer and almsgiving to prepare for Easter. (The purple season.)Liturgical_year.svg

What I keep forgetting, is that despite all dire predictions of having to give up this or that and the darker hangings in the church, it’s really a joyful time. The word itself means “spring”, from the anglo-saxon word, “lencten,” from a word meaning “lengthening.” Which the days are doing, have you noticed? I mean, I know it’s snowing outside and we’re shivering in the teens and twenties again, but we’ve had our whiffs of spring, and the real thing is only weeks away. Really.

daffs

My other thought about Lent I’m stealing from our deacon, who stole it from the late scripture scholar Fr. John McKenzie. You know how Lent is associated with the forty days Jesus spends fasting and praying in the desert. You know how many significant events happened to the Israelites there (think Moses and his forty years of wandering). Fr. McKenzie pointed out that one thing about the desert–or really, any wilderness–is that if you don’t focus, you die. Take your mind off where you’re stepping, where you’re headed and how you’re going to get there, and you–get lost, starve to death, freeze to death, you name it. Focus, or die.

(Not to be confused, this day of New Hampshire’s primary, with their state motto.)

NH

All Lent really is, when you come down to it, is a time when we’re invited to keep our focus on what matters. Invited to strip ourselves of everything else, all the things that aren’t essential (you don’t want to be toting a lot of luggage in the desert): Others’ opinions of us. The chase after more money and more fun. These lovely comfortable habits, whatever they may be, that keep us from paying attention to God, that confuse us into believing that because we’re so safe and comfortable, we don’t need anyone else.

Actually, back to New Hampshire. “Live free or die” is all very well on a political level. On a spiritual level, it’s fatal.

Lent helps us realize this. For forty days we’re invited to leave behind safe and secure–where we think we’re free and independent– and step into a wilderness where it’s all-too-obvious that we’re dependent beings. (Ever been lost in the woods at night? Ever notice where your thoughts go when you are?)

We’re invited to recall that no matter how many creature comforts we possess and crave, they’re not, in the end, what keep us safe.

We’re invited, in this season of light-returning, to lighten ourselves of what blocks us from seeing that.

ash wednesday

Happy Lent!