2017, in books

"What are you reading?"

It's one of my absolute favorite questions to be asked. It's an opportunity to share the experience of a little universe in which I have been taking part in solitude. It's a chance to bring someone into a world I am just discovering.

Lately, I find myself buying and reading books that fall into the following categories: classics, contemplative spirituality, poetry, motherhood/parenthood, historical novels and biographies particularly by women and people of color, and sociological issues of our time.

I continue to love my Audible subscription and whizz through books while I cook, drive, clean, or wile away a few moments.

Here is my list of the worlds I peeked into in 2017. This list does not include countless children's books, read over and over and over and...

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Operating Instructions - Anne Lammott
 A must for any mother with a baby. Lammott's journal of her son's first year is honest and hilarious and heart-rending. She makes you feel a little bit less crazy about fluctuating between wanting to leave your child forever and put them in a cage so you'll never be apart. When she described her postpartum tummy as a little dog curled up beside her when she flips on her side, I wanted to raise my glass to her. 

Letters to a Young Poet - Rainer Maria Rilke
Likely the most popular work of one of the world's most-loved poets, this slim book should be taken out and read regularly. I underlined half the book and had to pause frequently to let his words sink into my being. With Rilke, you see the world beyond what is visible. As he says, "If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches."

Between the World and Me - Ta-Nahisi Coates (as an audiobook)
Ta-Nahisi's unflinching letter to his own son on the realities of being a black man in America today is sharp and uncompromising. There is no effort to make his readers comfortable. There is no consolation at truths of racial injustice and for this reason, it was a hard read (or listen). And because it was a hard read, I knew I had to listen. I skipped backwards a few times to let his words come at me again, to make myself look into his reality. I think all Americans should read this book.

The Abundance - Annie Dillard
If anyone can call forth the riches of their everyday life, as Rilke urges us, Annie Dillard can do so. She is seemingly normal woman who lives a seemingly normal life, as far as I can tell, but they way she engages with and learns from and describes her very normal life makes you want to step into your own with a little more vigor. These collected essays describe everything from a solar eclipse to watching a giant water bug suck the life out of a frog. My very favorite was her essay on dirt. Yes, she even makes dirt into the most interesting subject. "Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them," she says. "The least we can do is try to be there."

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Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (as an audiobook)
As an American living in Africa, I greatly enjoyed this novel describing the experience of an African moving to America. Maybe of the very same things that tend to confuse me about Ugandan culture confused Adichie's character (a Nigerian) about America and it helped me to see my own country from a fresh perspective. It's an enjoyable novel interwoven with cross-cultural experiences and integrating identities that seem to be worlds apart.

Nurture the Wow - Danya Ruttenberg
I've been toying with the idea of writing a book about motherhood as a contemplative path, so I've read all I can get my hands on that approach the topic. Ruttenberg's book is the closest thing I have found and it was a great read. As a rabbi, Ruttenberg was immersed in spiritual practice until she had her children and struggled to find the time. But it didn't take long for her to realize that her spiritual life is not practices apart from her everyday life and her parenting journey in particular. She shows us how motherhood is a path to discovering the Great Mystery.

A Year with Rumi - Coleman Barks
I had this book on my bedside table and would read one short poem before bed every night. Rumi is said to be the world's most-loved poet and he has a way of opening your heart. I loved ending my day and falling asleep with his words dancing through my head.

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Other books I read this year:

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  • Gift from the Sea - Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke - Stephen Mitchell
  • Animal Dreams - Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Tao of Motherhood - Vimala McClure
  • New and Selected Poems, Volume One - Mary Oliver
  • My Antonia - Willa Cather
  • Radical Optimism - Beatrice Bruteau
  • What Really Matters - Tony Schwartz
  • You Are Your Child's First Teacher - Rahima Baldwin Dancy
  • Momma Zen - Karen Maezen Miller
  • Faithful Families - Traci Smith
  • Eager to Love - Richard Rohr
  • Women Who Run With the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estes
  • Tales from the Arabian Nights - Sir Francis Bacon
  • Three Daughters of Eve - Elif Shafak
  • Kleopatra - Karen Essex

Listened to as audio books:

  • Jayber Crow - Wendell Berry
  • Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
  • A Wrinkle in Time - Madaline L'Engle
  • Small Great Things - Jodi Picoult
  • The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander
  • Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
  • Dreaming the Eagle - Manda Scott
  • Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi
  • Wild - Cheryl Strayed
  • Hannah Coulter - Wendell Berry
  • Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - Arundati Roy
  • Sula - Toni Morrison
  • The Course of Love - Alain de Boton
  • Brida - Paulo Coelho
  • The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  • The Notorious RBG - Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon

Books or sections of these books read for The Living School:

  • Jesus and the Cosmos - Denis Edwards
  • A Brief History of Everything - Ken Wilber
  • The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching - Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Christ in Evolution - Ilia Delio
  • The Four Quartets - T.S. Eliot
  • The Roots of Christian Mysticism - Oliver Clement
  • The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three - Cynthia Bourgeault
  • Christophany - Raimon Panikkar
  • Integral Spirituality - Ken Wilber
  • The Wisdom Jesus - Cynthia Bourgeault
  • The Wisdom Way of Knowing - Cynthia Bourgeault
  • Discourse on Thinking - Martin Heidegger
  • Disputed Questions - Thomas Merton
  • Search for the Meaning of Life - Willigis Jager
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - Ursula King
  • The View from the Center of the Universe - Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams
  • God's Ecstasy - Beatrice Bruteau
  • The Sayings of the Desert Fathers - Benedicta Ward
  • Harlots of the Desert - Benedicta Ward
  • Julian of Norwich - Grace M. Jantzen
  • Revelations of Divine Love - Julian of Norwich
  • The Spiritual Espousals - Blessed John Ruusbroec
  • Jacob Boehme - Peter Erb
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Birds of Murchison Falls

I've become a shameless bird nerd since I moved to Uganda and if any place could convert you to be a bird lover, this is it. There are 1,061 species of birds recorded in Uganda (a country the size of Oregon state), compared to 914 found in all of North America.

When I take out my camera to look for birds, I find myself entirely drawn into the present moment, all my senses alert and at the mercy of whatever decides to come into my life. Bird watching has a profoundly spiritual nature to it, forcing me to be with what is rather than clinging or resisting what I do or do not want. A beautiful and rare bird may flit on a branch for only a second without allowing me to capture it, but I must accept the moment has passed, let it go, and see what else Is Now.

The other special thing about birds is they may show up and grace your life in any unexpected moment. As I type this, a red-breasted sunbird flits around outside my window, drinking with its mate from the flowers in my yard. Birds have often been my saving-grace for living in the city. Even among the concrete chaos and the car fumes, they surprise me with their presence. I've spotted several beauties along the telephone lines in Kampala as I drive through the horrendous traffic.

Last year, I took a couple of trips to Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda. Armed with a new 400mm lens, I loved capturing the great variety of birds the park offers. One morning, Eric let me take a boat ride to the delta while he stayed at the lodge with our grumpy toddler. These hours alone with wildlife and my camera were exactly how I wished to recover from a long, sleepless night. Somehow, these birds heal me.

Day in the Life family photo session

As we look forward into 2018, the marking of time makes me realize just how quickly life changes. In the day-to-day, life trudges on slowly, but as I look back over a year, I see how much happened in those days. Family has grown, history has been made, and it's all we can do to keep up with it. What seems incremental may have been monumental.

It is the small moments I believe we will cherish when we look back, which is why we invited Emily Ward to come and capture "A Day in the Life" of our family. I wanted her to capture our small family in mid-2017, mostly because my breastfeeding relationship with Leo was coming to and end and I wanted something to savor from those special years.

Below are some of my favorites that Emily captured of our family in July 2017. Already, I look back on them with fondness.

Murchison Falls National Park

This year I took two trips to Uganda's most popular national park - Murchison Falls National Park. We took a group of 30, who came for The Unity Initiative, on safari and I had to take an earlier trip to the park to hash out logistics for the group, so we made it into a family weekend.

This park remains one of the most popular game parks because the delta attracts animals, so you don't have to drive long to find good game sightings. We also managed to snag the best park ranger, who spotted a leopard hanging in a tree from an unimaginable distance.

I've been on safari more times than I can count now, but it never gets old and has become a favorite way for our family to get out of the city. There is always something about the wild that will beckon us. Here is a collection of some of my favorite photos of those two trips.

Talk to me about:

A couple of weeks ago, I led a soul/self-care workshop at an organization's annual staff retreat and upon arrival, I was handed a name tag with two categories I had to fill in:
Name:
Talk to me about:

Clearly, the first category was not a problem, but I took a long pause at the second one. I was in a group of mostly strangers and they wanted to know what they could talk to me about. What made me interesting or unique? What could I offer a conversation?  I found myself intimidated by the question and thought of the only two things my life is currently consumed by: my son, Leo, and the spiritual life I've been diving into with The Living School and my work in soul care.  I didn't know what else to talk about, so I wrote down those two things.

I don't think I'm a bad conversationalist, but after filling out the name tag, I felt embarrassed. I realized I'm better at tailoring the conversation to the other person's interests than I am at offering my own funny stories or quirks. The topics I enjoy talking about aren't usually light cocktail conversations; they are more suited to a cozy cafe, longer chunks of time, and knowing someone intimately. I'd love to get better at the fun and light conversations about myself, but until then, I've thought of a few of my favorite topics of conversation. Here are some things you can talk to me about, maybe over coffee sometime.

- Community and individuality: How to remain part of a community while maintaining your unique individuality, especially when you feel different from everyone else. What is the value of staying in a community of people who make you feel uncomfortable? What does staying look like and when should you leave?

- Motherhood as a spiritual path: Is it possible to maintain a contemplative practice while being a mother? What does this look like? What unique contributions can mothers make to the way of wisdom?

- Feminism, women in leadership, and women as peacemakers: Why it's so important and what prevents women from reaching our potential.

- Rituals, and why they matter: Making personal and communal rituals with meaning to acknowledge the passing of time, to mark an important transition, or to remember a deep truth.

- Simplicity: Why lightening the load in life is a key to happiness and a better world. What makes it so hard? Why "no" is a beautiful word and "enough" is a lovely concept.

-Wonder and mystery: Why allowing ourselves to be amazed and remain in not-knowing is so important to our spiritual lives. How wonder weaves itself into the smallest moments and yet manifests as all of Reality.

- Photography and bird watching: How they both keep me present, make me notice What Is, and keep me amazed.

-My son: The joy of my life and the one who pushes me to the limits the most often; my greatest teacher and bringer of laughter

- How little peace makes big peace: Why peace in the world can't happen until we find peace in ourselves. How the problems in ourselves manifest in the larger world and how it's easier to see the problem "over there" rather than "in here."

- My journey with the Christian faith: A wandering and continuing journey within, out of, around, and at the fringes of this religion. My scoffing at it, questions with it, trouble with the label of it, and finding beauty in its essence. How it has helped me find truth elsewhere and how other traditions have played a part in bringing me back to my own.