I’m up!

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Hello,

A lot of time has passed, over a year in fact, since I last wrote. I wanted to come back sooner, but some days I didn’t want to, some days I physically couldn’t, and some days I felt too embarrassed and disappointed in myself to believe I should or could write.

But here I am. Again. Wiping the dust off my shoulder and my keyboard and trying.

I looked up a few of those inspiring quotes to add to this post. None of them really explained why I decided to pick up my long abandoned blog and book.

I started the year on a great reading kick. I was commuting for three hours every day and everything I read was great. If I started a book I didn’t like I dropped it. For nearly five months, I was in book reading bliss. But once my work shifted to back at home, my reading didn’t come with me and I felt like garbage. I binged watched television and movies, spent too much time scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, and got caught up on the youtube channels I follow. One day, I was scrolling through Twitter and read a post about self-comfort vs. self-care. I realized that I was comforting myself but not caring.

So I picked up my books again. Hilary Mantel. Kevin Kwan. I even attended an author event with Kwan for his newest book, Rich People Problems, which was delightful. Reading good books has turned into wanting to write a good book.

This summer, my brother asked me if I’d been working on my book. I didn’t try to hide my lack of progress behind the too busy response. I haven’t been working on it, but I know that I should. I still, after all this time, like the idea of my book. But blank pages don’t tell a story. Not even a bad one.

So I will write. I will write for this blog. I will write my book. I will read. I will keep trying because I want to and that’s enough reason for me.

 

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A sanctuary for doubt

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Doubt has an uncomfortable place in faith. We’re not supposed to doubt, not supposed to question the ideas and stories that make up the foundation of our faith. But doubt is one of those sensations that, even as we try to push it down or run away from it, bubbles up until we can’t avoid what is bothering us anymore.

Fortunately for us, writer Rachel Held Evans is comfortable discussing her discomfort. In her third book, Searching for Sunday, Evans writes about feeling out of place in her faith community. The book is not so much about a crisis of faith but a crisis of community. Not of believing you know everything but of wanting to find people you can feel comfortable not knowing everything with.

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As Evans’ faith evolved, from easy acceptance to conflicting doubt, she found that her home church no longer had a place in which she could question freely or live out her faith. She and her husband found themselves staying at home more often than not on Sunday mornings, trying to disengage quietly from the church community in which she had grown up. Using the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation) as guideposts, Evans tells the journey they took from the church home they outgrew, to an experience in church planting, to finding hope and welcome in a new Christian community.

Each section begins with a more prosaic rumination on the sacrament, focusing on something tangible (water, ash, hands, bread, breath, oil, crowns) as a way into the topic. The introductions serve as a reminder of the ways in which we try to comprehend the vastness of God, while the chapters share her personal experiences of those touchstones. Her writing is sprinkled with humour that both informs and disarms, bringing familiarity and reassurance to the lonely experience of doubt.

Reading Searching for Sunday made me feel less alone. Growing up and away from the bedrock community of faith I had been raised in made the whole world seem unsure, and the place I would usually turn to for comfort now felt restricting.

Thankfully, like Evans, I have the support of my husband. Our family is a blended family, by which I mean that my husband and I were raised in different Christian faith environments. I come from a long line of Christian Reformed believers: Dutch, Protestant, reserved. My husband was raised in a Polish Catholic community: ritualistic, traditional, nostalgic.

Growing up, I never really thought about how Christians could be different. I thought that except for a few minor theological divergences, like transubstantiation (the turning of bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ), the differences were more a matter of style than substance. Never mind that a difference of opinion about transubstantiation would get me burned at the stake during the Reformation, to me, all of that was behind us. You do you, Catholics, and I’ll do me. Christian is Christian.

It wasn’t until I actually had to interact with people of different backgrounds that I saw how profoundly my background impacted my faith. Building a faith life within our family is an ongoing project. When we first met in university, my husband referred to himself as a recovering Catholic and joked that I was a closeted Agnostic. I laughed but the idea that I was not committed to my faith, as I’d always believed in, made me uncomfortable, nervous. I began to notice the ways in which my church community no longer lined up with my thoughts, feelings, and experiences of faith. I began to doubt. And my doubt turned to searching.

We were married in a Christian Reformed church by my family minister, and every moment was perfect, but after the wedding we moved to a different city, and we began to look for a church. We finally settled on the Catholic cathedral downtown. The service started at noon, so we could sleep in, enjoy CBC News: Sunday, and still make it on time. The liturgy took a while for me to get used to, but the sermons always gave me something to think about. I also got to hear the Alleluia Chorus sung by a professional choir for the first time. A perk of having a Bishop preach in your church at Easter, I guess.

Music would play a huge role in choosing our next church home after we moved once again. We spent over a year looking, with many listless Sundays spent at home. We discovered our current church through a rock band we both enjoy (The Low Anthem, in case you were wondering). They were using our church as a venue. We didn’t end up going to the show, but after perusing the church’s website we decided to give it a chance. We haven’t looked back.

Splitting the difference on our religious backgrounds, we started attending an Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The choir is phenomenal, the clergy engaging and challenging, the community supportive. I feel at home in our church for a lot of reasons. In it, we get to live our faith by praising God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, writing to the imprisoned, and asking questions. There is room for doubt in the pews and chairs of the sanctuary. For confusion and anger and hurt. Without brushing away those emotions, but embracing them. Feeling comfortable being uncomfortable.

I may have doubts when I enter our church, but I always leave with a bit more hope. Perhaps that is what I search for each Sunday – hope.

Since the beginning of the year, our church has sent forth two priests to other ministry opportunities: one, a recently ordained minister; the other, the head priest for the last 15 years. As we wished them well, the whole congregation gathered around them and sang a beautiful song that I have a difficult time finishing without choking up. As anyone who has been part of a choir, or even just sang with the crowd at a concert, can attest, there is something special about joining a group of voices together. In these two lines, I feel unburdened from my fears and doubts and remember there is still hope.

Be not afraid, my love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear. Be not afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised to always be near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast Reader, Slow Writer

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Getting caught up in a good book is easy enough to do, especially in the winter. What’s not to love about curling up with a hot drink and a strong story and watch the cold nights pass by.

While work generally leaves me little time to read in the winter, this year I did a pretty good job of keeping up with my reading. I think being part of a 50 Book Challenge really helped, and, though I’m a little behind schedule, I’ve managed to not completely lose momentum.

Except when it comes to writing.

Reading is easy. Enjoyable. Cozy. Writing, however, is work. Most days it requires great effort to put words to page. The struggle is real. I would much rather sit and enjoy quietly turning the pages than curse-out a blank page or delete and retype a sentence that just won’t come together.

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So while I’ve read the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I haven’t been writing about them. I’m trying to get caught up now. Trying to remember the books I finished reading weeks ago and write something thoughtful about the stories and my experience of them. But if I thought it was difficult when the stories were fresh in my mind, putting off writing about them has not done me any favours.

I am a huge procrastinator when I have the chance. A habit only matched by my fiery determination once I set myself to a task.

I have three books to write blog posts for:

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

And three books to read:

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The challenge for me this month is to write as much as I read. I’m trying to take it one book at a time and remind myself that while I did organize the books by month, the point is to read them all not read them as a prescribed time, so I’d like to have all the posts caught up by April. I really enjoyed all the books I’ve read. This was the first time I’ve read Alice Munro and the series of stories—wait, I’m going to save it for the blog post.

Happy reading (and writing!)

BJL

Putting the Awe Back in Awesome

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Like a lot of great books I’ve read, I first encountered Pär Lagerkvist’s The Sibyl as part of an English course, in this case a second-year course on myth and symbol. As a young woman from a small, Christian community in a staid, mid-sized city, this course and this book started opening a lot discussion for me about faith, God, and religious experiences. I’ve read it two or three times before, but I reread it for my 50 Book Challenge because the characters’ encounters with god feel so unlike anything I’ve understood or experienced but, as the sibyl remarks, “I think I recognize that god.”

The Sibyl tells the story of two people: first, the story of a man who is cursed by Jesus for preventing him from resting against his house while carrying the cross to Golgotha, commonly known as the Wandering Jew; and second, the main arc of the novel, the story of the former oracle of Delphi, now living a disgraced and outcast life in the hills outside of the city.

Screenshot 2016-01-15 13.38.25My reading of this book then and now isn’t about good or bad. Reading this story is about taking part in something larger than yourself, something not completely understandable, something just meant to be experienced, incomprehensible, greater-than, awesome – in its truest meaning.

Awesome is not just the easy descriptor given to everything from that burger you had for lunch to the new Star Wars movie. Awesome means to inspire awe. It is means, if I may reference the OED, immediate and active fear, dread or terror.

Perhaps this is not the first way most Christians want to think of God, but throughout this past Christmas season, as I read the story of Christ’s birth to my children and attended church services from different denominations, fear was brought up a lot, though rarely honed in on.

The children’s Bible that my family reads pulls together in one Christmas story: the angel’s visit to Mary to tell her of God’s plan, Joseph’s doubts about their marriage and the subsequent dream of an angelic visit, as well as the traditional stable, shepherds with angel chorus, wise men and baby Jesus. Three times we read that the angels said, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. I mean beyond the startling experience of seeing an angel, commonly depicted as a glowing, floating figure that only Fox Mulder could believe in, why would meeting an angel be frightening? But three times we read do not be afraid. And this is a creature only next to God. Not God, but a servant of God. If an angel can inspire fear, how much more so could an encounter with God?

Which brings me back to The Sibyl. The man has come to ask the sibyl what his future holds now that he has been condemned to wander for eternity and to find no rest. Her response is her own life story: her childhood; her experience with god as the temple’s pythia; her great love of a neighbour, his death, and her pregnancy and resulting violent expulsion from the city. As they discuss their stories, the sibyl keeps coming back to the idea that an encounter with god is not simple experience.

He is not as we are and we can never understand him. He is incomprehensible, inscrutable. He is god. And so far as I comprehend it he is both evil and good, both light and darkness, both meaningless and full of a meaning which we can never perceive, yet never cease to puzzle over. A riddle which is intended not to be solved but to exist. To exist for us always. To trouble us always.

Her life, tied so closely to the experience of god, was lived in opposites. Life in the temple lifted her up but held her separate. She experienced ecstasy and terror by god’s hand. As a result, she does not deny that she hates god for the destruction in her life but also says she owes god her every happiness. The space created in this story to both doubt and believe, to feel anger and peace, to be part of and separate from God continues to fascinate me. The awe of encountering something incomprehensible, to be touched by God, bound up in him, has a certain pleasure that is irrationally appealing, as the pythia’s story reveals.

In the end, the man leaves her side believing the answer he is seeking may only be found in his endless wandering. The answer cannot be spoken but only lived.

I read and reread books like The Sybil to find more clues to the riddle that is God, to find the edges of my own understanding and belief. I accept that I will not find an answer to my questions or doubts, not for myself or for any others who come and question faith and the existence of God, but in reading and questioning and discussing, I live and search in hope of a truly awesome encounter with the incomprehensible I AM.

A Journey of 50 Books

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Happy New Year!

I hope everyone got in some good reading time over the Christmas holidays. Sneaking in some time for a few pages of a good book is how I de-stress in the midst of multiple big holiday gatherings.

Finding more time to read is one of my goals for 2016 and to that end I am I taking part in a 50 Book Challenge. I spent some of my December putting together a list.

I have already organized which books I will read in each month (though not in any particular order) so that could build in reading breaks between heavy subjects or longer reads and will be able to prepare for what is coming up. Also, I primarily use the library to get books and, as good as the Toronto Public Library is at having a lot of copies of in-demand books, I didn’t want to have to worry about my holds coming in on time, so I don’t have any new fiction coming out in 2016 on my list.

With so many great books from so many lists and recommendations I had to narrow my choices. Here are some of the deciding considerations I used to make my list of 50 books.

A lot of my choices came in groups of six to help get me going without overwhelming me if I didn’t take to any particular group.

  • David Adams Richards: I love his writing and want to get through more of his work but the stories are not easy reads in content or style so I wanted to space them out every other month.
  • Non-fiction: I am challenging myself to read more non-fiction since I so rarely pick any up
  • Young adult: To balance out the non-fiction, I found six interesting young adult books to read. I don’t really read YA, but so much great work is coming out of this group that I didn’t want keep missing out.
  • Canadian: Even with Richards on my list, I added six additional Canadian writers to bring my country home
  • TBR: I have books on my shelf that I have never read, so six of them got added for this challenge

The rest are all a mix of books I found just in looking for this list, rereads of old favourites, and recommendations from one friend or online list or another. I’m really looking forward to tackling this project and sharing all my reads with you.

Let me know what you think of my list, if there are any books you loved (or hated) on there, and if you’re taking part in any reading challenges this year.

Happy reading!

50 Book Challenge Sword in the Stone

Sword in the Stone

50 Book Challenge 2016

January

Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The Sibyl by Par Lagervist

Getting Things Done by David Allen

 

February

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

March

Nights Below Station St. by David Adams Richards

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

An Orange From Portugal Editor Anne Simpson

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

 

April

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundarsan

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

 

May

Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace by David Adams Richards

The Last Great Dance on Earth by Sandra Gulland

Cosmopolis by Don Delillo

The Hours Count by Jillian Canter

 

June

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Scary Close by Donald Miller

 

July

For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down by David Adams Richards

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

 

August

60 by Ian Brown

The Imperialist by Sarah Jeanette Duncan

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Artic Summer by Damon Galgut

 

September

Hope in the Desperate Hour by David Adams Richards

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald High by Gordon Korman

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

 

October

An Inconvenient Indian by Tom King

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

November

The Bay of Love & Sorrows by David Adams Richards

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

 

December

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

All I Need is Love by Klaus Kinski

2015 in review

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I’m looking back as I’m preparing for 2016, so here is the 2015 annual report for re: read pages as prepared by WordPress.com. Thanks for visiting, and I look forward to reading and writing with you more in the coming year!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 800 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 13 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Choose Life: Book vs. Movie

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I’ve always been fascinated by reinterpretations of books, whether through literary reimaginings, such as Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, or movie adaptations, such as Danny Boyle’s take on Trainspotting. Last month I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Trainspotting as part of TIFF’s Books on Film series. Irvine Welsh, author of said book (Trainspotting is his debut novel, which always blows my mind), was in attendance and did a Q&A afterward (as well as a book signing).

While the Q&A touched on the social and cultural influences that informed his writing, Welsh also talked about the differences in approach in writing for a film versus writing a novel. While Welsh didn’t write the screenplay for Trainspotting, that was John Hodge, who earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts, he has written for the screen and said the experience of working with Boyle was highly collaborative.

One point that stuck out to me addressed the narrative structure of a novel compared to a movie. Welsh put it in the context of pitching the story. For the novel you can get into the multiple perspectives and the personalities of the characters that make Trainspotting such a great read. As a movie, Trainspotting is one guy’s struggle with heroin addiction.

I read the novel and saw the movie for the first time when I was sixteen. I reread the novel before I went the screening, and, I must say, I missed a lot as a teenager. I mostly remember being completely taken by the use of Scots’ dialects (which I, of course, tried to read out loud – yet another reason I’m glad I grew up in a pre-selfie/Instagram/upload era) and by the lives so different from my own. I didn’t remember how the experience and fear of the HIV epidemic cut through the story or the context of economic and social structures in relation increased drug use in Edinburgh. I didn’t remember the horrifying rape and murder of six-year-old Kevin, which is revealed to be faked, but perhaps I just blocked that part out. The novel is harder and richer than I remembered; not so for the movie, though it does hold up 19 years later.

In rewatching the film, I was reminded of the amazing talent at work, names still around today – Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle – and I was reminded of how ’90s that film is too. Renton’s hallucinations while detoxing, with characters sliding in and out of frame and the baby crawling on the ceiling, is a great example of ’90s film style.

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Detox
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Don’t get me wrong, it is still a great movie. The soundtrack is killer, the story is full of energy, and the characters are engaging as much as they are repulsive. But the points I’m praising are also the reasons why, at the time of its release, the movie received backlash for potentially glamourizing an addict’s life. (A Washington Post article published just before Trainspotting’s North American release has an excellent discussion of this critique.)

I don’t know if it is my aging or the film’s but looking at it now, that cool factor, that edge, has dulled, and the bargain every junkie makes, the high for the lows, is revealed more clearly. The viewer cringes and laughs at Renton diving into the worst toilet in Scotland, but the treatment of the scene, as he slips down the toilet, is no longer (technologically) cool. Why Renton takes drugs is clearer, but so is the unbalance between the debt and payoff of being an addict. The humour is no longer just a joke but is used as a coping mechanism. In this way, time has brought the movie closer to the novel, which has the space to suss out the interior struggles and external pressures that contribute to an addict’s behaviour.

I am glad that TIFF gave me an excuse to revisit these two great narratives and for the chance to hear Welsh discuss the behind the scenes experiences of writing the novel and creating the movie. Trainspotting is a different story to me in my 30s than in my teens, which is one of the great pleasures of rereading, and the characters Welsh created are worth revisiting in either form.