Book Break: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

LadiesGraceAdieuMany years ago—based upon a radio interview, I think—I read Susanna Clark’s massive debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. As I recall, the book combines historical fiction and fantasy to tell the tale of two somewhat friendly, rival magicians rediscovering actual, practical magic in 19th-century England. The book calls to mind the Harry Potter series in the sense that this is our world as we know it, but with wizarding world just beneath the surface that breaks through into the open. It recalls Tolkien in the depth and detail of its footnoted backstories.

More than a decade later, I see I did not blog about it, and today I remember little about the plot, other than it involved a young woman tormented by a fairy who drew her, night after night, into his realm to do his bidding. What I recall most was the atmosphere of the book: Clarke’s descriptions of “the man with the thistledown hair” and the world of Faery are terrible and otherworldly—you feel every bit as transported and disoriented as the characters; their thoughts and fears become your own.

I remember thinking highly enough of the book that when I ran across Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, I snapped it up despite the pink flowers on the front. And now, a decade later, I’ve finally read them. Continue reading

All Is Gift

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I wanted to tell you yesterday all the things I’m grateful for this year. I rose at 4 a.m. to stretch, pray, and write—but the Bearded Wonder (my eldest son Brendan) is home from college and rose at 4:30. We sat in flickering candlelight and visited for a couple hours, until Jodi got up to start the turkey. Then I left her and her boy alone and greeted the dawn with Bruno. Our walk was unusually peaceful: silent except for the whine of the distant freeway; we saw a total of four cars, a jogger, and a neighbor with the same idea: walking his dog in the quiet of the new day.

The rest of the household was stirring when we returned home, and the rest of the morning was spent going to Mass (the Feast before the feast) and preparing for dinner. We cooked, we ate, we watched the Lions get trounced by the Vikings. (Sorry, fellow Lions fans: to me, the game didn’t feel close.) My folks were supposed to be here, but Mom got sick and they returned home—we arranged for a friend to bring them Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful, grateful phone call with them in the early afternoon.  We laughed and listened to music; we napped, walked Bruno again, and ate pie.

And yet, when evening fell, I felt unsettled. The one thing I hadn’t done was write. So while the family played games in the dining room, I attempted to journal. Instead I listened to Jodi and the kids joking, arguing, and laughing together. After a while, Brendan stepped away from the games and took up the mandolin, picking and strumming snippets of songs we knew. I closed my journal and vowed to write this morning.

* * * * *

Today Brendan turns twenty. I rose again at four, acutely aware that I have now been a father for two decades—nearly half my life to date!—and unsure about what that means for me. I went downstairs to let Bruno out; stepped into the cold, black morning, and breathed in the clean air. I need to write, I thought.

About what? About all of this.

I brought Bruno back in and shuffled into the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror to see myself. At 4 a.m., I look lived in: a little worn and disheveled, sagging here and there, but comfortable and still functional. I leaned in closer to peer into my own eyes—windows to the soul, they say—and in an instant, they filled with unexpected tears.

Gifts. All of it—my bride in our bed, our beautiful offspring, the pup downstairs. Our aging suburban split-level. The still unfinished tree house out back. All gifts.

I am working harder these days for less money, and yet I feel better—freer—than I have in years. Gift. We have friends who never get sick of our company, family who love us, and a great God in Heaven who keeps the very rhythm of our hearts in time with His own. All gifts.

The tears brimmed but didn’t fall; my chest swelled but didn’t burst. Sure signs that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of my situation: the all-powerful and ever-present Creator of the universe is making room enough in me so He can dwell there. The One who is Love is carving a God-size hole in me, chipping away, flake by flake, at my stony heart.

* * * * *

With all the many gifts I enjoy in this life, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for this year is perspective. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Look around you. Have you seen this place?

Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:4-7

We are so very blessed and have done nothing to deserve it. Sure, we’re good people, as far as that goes. But lots of good people suffer, and a fair number of not-so-good people seem to thrive. I cannot earn these blessings or somehow make them happen—I cannot avoid illness, accident, or tragedy—any more than I can make Brendan’s beard grow. I can only look on with wonder and thanksgiving, and join my song to Mary’s: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!

 

He Thinks, Therefore I Am

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? — 1 Corinthians 3:16

Yesterday morning I read St. Matthew’s account of the baptism of the Lord. Two things struck me. The first was that, in the Ignatius (Revised Standard Version) Bible I was reading, the translation is somewhat different from the New American version we hear at Mass (linked to above). The New American translation says, “[H]e saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him.” The Revised Standard translation says, “[H]e saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him.”

The difference is small, but struck me as important, because alighting suggests the Holy Spirit came to rest on Jesus and remained with Him. This is reinforced by the first line of the next chapter, which begins just one verse later: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

See that? The Spirit is still with Him, leading Him.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t leave us, either. We talk sometimes about the indelible mark left on our souls by certain of the sacraments, which might leave us with the mistaken notion that God makes an impression on us but doesn’t stick around. But clearly the Spirit did not leave Jesus—in fact, in paragraph 695 of the Catechism, we learn that the Holy Spirit represents the very anointing that signifies Jesus as the Christ, or messiah: the anointed one of God. And He is covered completely by this anointing, as close as oil on skin: “The humanity the Son assumed was entirely anointed by the Holy Spirit” (CCC 695). Continue reading

Airedale Chronicles: Little Big Dog

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Bruno at 15 weeks, with size 14 boots for scale

I took Bruno to the vet today for the last of his vaccinations. He will be 15 weeks old on Thursday, and in the past month, has gained exactly 11 pounds and (I’m guessing on this) about three or four inches in height. When he first came to us, he could scoot under the lowest cross-brace on our kitchen chairs or plunge beneath the futon almost without breaking stride. Now he belly-crawls beneath the futon and pushes between the chairs. At more than 27 wriggling pounds, he’s a lot to scoop up these days—like when he doesn’t want to get in the van or walk into the veterinary office. And he’s still got that puppy awkwardness, only magnified by his adolescent frame. He trips, stumbles, rolls, and keeps going.

The doc remembered him—she doesn’t see many Airedales—and voiced her approval of his growth. She checked him over and commented on how muscular he is for a puppy. On my way out, the lady with the mini (toy?) schnauzer said, “Look at those paws! He’s gonna be HUGE!”

I don’t know whether to be proud or scared.

Continue reading

Forty-Third Birthday, Extended and Remixed

I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.

At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.

Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.

So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.

Continue reading