The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore This book took the majority of my reading time for two months, and it is one of the best books I read all year. As I shared in another post, I am doing self-directed schooling with a friend. I have, historically, stuck rather closely to fiction. I am so driven by story that instructional nonfiction is difficult for me. But I want to get better, so I am bridging my way into nonfiction with books that still contain story, like biographies and memoirs. In several books I was reading, mentions of Theodore Roosevelt abounded. Knowing little about him, I began to feel that I would enjoy him very much. So for my passion assignment, I decided to read this book and practice some letter writing between Roosevelt and some of his closest companions, working at writing from different voices, both male and female, as well as from a different time period. When the book arrived at my house and I saw that it was nearly a thousand pages, I considered changing my assignment. I still carried memories of the Bonhoeffer biography and, though I am fascinated with WWII, it took everything in me to trudge through that giant book. This book, in contrast, took as much work as sailing on a breezy summer day- so enjoyable one hardly notices the effort. The wind simply carried me where I wanted to go.

One reason for this, no doubt, is Theodore himself. He is a difficult man to be neutral about. Then as now, one either loves him or hates him. And despite my being in the former category, some of his actions or ways affronted me. Edmund Morris did a wonderful job of describing both the strengths and weaknesses of his peculiar personality. He depicted Roosevelt enthusiastically but neutrally, with few exceptions. Roosevelt made this easy to do because of how public he made his life: befriending countless journalists, having written thousands upon thousands of letters, and consistently journaling from a very young age.

I especially enjoyed his youngest years: traveling with his family, the boundless energy, the early fascination with ecology, and more. I attended Harvard with him, where he began to stand out amongst his peers, grieved with him over the death of his parents, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law. I rode West with him through the Badlands becoming a cowboy, rallied with him for justice in the Civil Service Reform, prowled the streets of New York in the middle of the night as the Police Commissioner, prepared and potentially provoked war as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, only to head the Rough Riders and lead out in battle amidst the jungles of Cuba. I returned with him to take the Governorship of New York, quickly succeeded by the Vice-Presidency, and only months later, the day in which he became the youngest President of the United States, following the assassination of William McKinley. That is where this book ends. To read more (as I will) you can follow him through the Presidency and the after years of his life.

If you enjoy biographies, this is a fantastic one, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being selected by the Modern Library as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time. I enjoyed every hour of it.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

51+5EHbLWwL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_ I chose to go through this book with my Bible study group. I enjoy Tim Keller and this was a subject I needed to delve into.

I came to this book in some desperation. I believe a number of things that are not evidenced by my daily life. We all feel this to some extent. For me, prayer is the area of my life that least resembles what I believe. Insofar as I am able, I’ve had to ask myself Is it really belief? Part of me thinks and feels in black and white. We believe something, we act in accordance. If the action is not there it is because true belief hasn’t taken place- doubt is in the mix. The other part of me knows all too well that the spirit can be willing and the flesh still weak. This is the murky condition in which I opened this book to read and to work out these inconsistencies alongside some others. If you are one of those others, thank you for the patience, the honesty, and the safe place you have been each Tuesday night this past semester. I know some weeks I came ready to fight and at other times, clearly indifferent.

If I was hoping to get some clear answers, this was not the book. Luckily, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tend to find wanting the man or woman who has all the answers. I was looking for help- a space and a people and a guide to help me wrestle. This book was the guide, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you really want to dive deep, I would recommend reading this with at least another person to robustly discuss it with. Within some bounds, Keller is open to several different methods of prayer and gives the reader a multitude of different tools. This widened my natural understanding of prayer and gave me the freedom to pray differently than I have historically.

One of the early questions we discussed as a group was How did you learn to pray? Did your parents teach you, did you only hear prayer from the pulpit, or was it at school? We all had widely varying answers, coming from a multitude of different backgrounds religiously, but the bottom line was we weren’t taught. Prayer is not something usually taught. It is something you watch and try to copy, but not directly instructed. I can understand some reasons for this, but overall, it seemed to have negatively affected many of us in the room to have never had any instruction. In that way, this book was helpful without being too narrow on how one should pray.

If you enjoy Luther, Calvin, or Augustine, then you will particularly appreciate some of the history of thought surrounding Christian prayer. It was a bit long, and toward the end, I was just ready to be done with it. My biggest critique of the book was that it took 300 pages to give instructions for how to pray, how not to pray, and extensive examples of prayer that would take significant amounts of time (some of the referenced theologians had the habit of praying for three hours a day). This seemed in stark contrast to the Lord’s Prayer, which was Jesus’ answer to the plea teach us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer: a simple, short, direct, thoughtful, unsophisticated prayer. To Keller’s credit, not all of the methods required an hour or more, he encouraged the reader to start small, and raised up the Lord’s Prayer as the ultimate example. Even still, one could come away from such reading overwhelmed and a bit disheartened. This does not, for me anyway, override the amount of helpfulness the book contained. And based on our group’s reflection on never having been taught how to pray, its existence is absolutely necessary.

The Silent Years

I have always needed and loved to write. The process of a tiny thought ruminating, growing, and then hungering for expression. Taking up space in me until the floodgate opens and words gush like water. And then I had a baby. Some of the thoughts changed but they still underwent the process. And then I had another….and another. Over the course of five years, I stopped writing despite my best efforts. Whether the thoughts stopped or I no longer had the ability to process them, or I lacked the time to express them- likely some combination of the three- I’m not sure why it happened. But those years, my time of silence, was a season. And just as I had stopped writing despite my effort to keep at it, I also started writing again despite an effort to suppress.

We knew Eloise would be our last baby. She turned two, and I reflected that if our schedule had continued, I would be preparing to bring home another one- but I wasn’t. I was done. I had three beautiful girls. My oldest had just entered Kindergarten and my youngest was growing in independence- two going on 20. Third children…they grow up so much faster. My life began to ease, and I found myself with some time. Enough anyway to read- something, anything!- other than children’s books on repeat.

You readers, you know. You begin to read, your mind is being filled and yet there is always more space for response. And the better you read, the better the thoughts are that fill the space created. Once that happened, the thoughts did what they do: they grew, they hungered, they demanded to be released. Against every effort, against my defiance, they persisted. In December I succumbed. The need to write overpowered the need to rest, in fact it became a kind of rest. I created this blog, needing to break away in format and content from my old one. I needed it to be a place where I was a person- a whole person- and not just a mom. Where thought could exist outside my home.

Why did I resist? That thought is still soaking. It’s not ready to be wrung out. No doubt fear lurks in the water. Some thoughts you don’t want to grow; you are afraid to express. Some day, when I’m braver, when I understand it more myself, those thoughts can find their way out. Because after all, thoughts are just thoughts. They are not truth. But when you let them out into the light of day, you can see them for what they are. The truth or the lies they contain become discernible to you- and to everyone else.

In that, I’m learning to let go of needing to be right all the time. There is a journey in discovering what is true. We never start there. We are bent, all of us, to believe lies. And once discovered, Truth is no shallow pool. We wade in, slowly, pushing under, until we’re fathoms below, if we ever get that far. Maria Popova, on my favorite blog wrote this about Amiri Baraka, and it brought me so much freedom to speak- to speak even what I doubt, even what I fear, even what I struggle with:

Any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

While I probably don’t believe this in the same way Maria does, I do believe we are all moving in a direction. We are never stagnant; we are never still. We live in a current. For me to be able to write something not as Truth, but as Thought or Battle or Attempt, gives me the freedom to be wrong, and the courage to be humble.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor

31XnCDjYnqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A friend lent this to me. I have been interested in Flannery O’Connor. I have always journaled struggled with journaling and am trying to find a way to journal that is more doable, more profitable, and more satisfying both now and as I look back. So I have loaded my bookshelves with published journals by some of the greats. This was my first one to read. Like I said, I did’t know Flannery yet- this was our introduction. I had heard so much about this book, as well as her other stories, so truly they have had profound effects on people. But it did not leave a lasting impression with me. I wonder if this was not the place to begin with her. Who immediately jumps into your personal diary upon first meeting, anyway?? Had she been somewhat familiar, I may have read her words differently. I got stuck in the simplicity, and truthfully, the Catholicism. There was also an undercurrent of self-deprecation that didn’t seem helpful. (Compare to John Steinbeck’s use of, what I would call, productive modesty.) The last entry, though it spoke so truthfully, left me extremely disheartened. However, I am not done with her. I plan to read some of her short stories and see if that adds some perspective to her words. I’ll let you know if it does!

The Vanishing American Adult

51etAA6pA1L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_My husband and I listened to this at the urging of a good friend as we drove to Colorado this summer. I was really interested in the topic: the cultural development of unending adolescence. I was nervous it would be too political- I don’t have the patience for that. What I was not expecting was the history and philosophy that would be entwined throughout the book. Had I been reading it and not listening to the audiobook, had I not been listening to Ben’s own voice, I could have forgotten he was a senator. He wrote as a historian, as a Christian parent, as a former university president. Those were the perspectives he wrote from, and I found so much of what he had to say as valid and absolutely necessary. As we drove, this book was fuel for a lot of engaging- and sometimes robust- dialogue between me and Hubs in the car.

It’s greatest downfall (besides the hypothetical commencement speech by Theodore Roosevelt) was the practical application of his points. I loved hearing the stories of how his family was instilling work ethic and raising their kids to be full functioning citizens benefitting the world around them. But his situation is different from most, and a lot of what he said wasn’t transferable from his life to mine. My kids aren’t homeschooled. I can’t pull them from school for a few months to send them to a cattle ranch. My husband has a Monday – Friday job he has to be at. We don’t live it multiple locations nor do we have the opportunity to do most of the things his family has the opportunity to do.

So it was one of those books that sets you ablaze, winding you up so that you can spring into action, but once you close the back cover and start thinking about how you are going to shake things up…a bit of frustration and disappointment sets in. Ben, we are working on it. Already, we are doing things differently and our kids are responding, and we are thrilled. And we will keep working on it- you gave us the holistic picture we needed, both of the grim result if we don’t, and the thriving end if we do.

The Gifts of Imperfection

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No one wants to talk about shame, but it is universally experienced. This book surprised me. I have a tendency to hate self-help books. I went into it both curious and dreading what I would read. The women in my Bible study group read it during the summer break. For me, as for most of us, it took some semantic maneuvering. All in all, it gets at the heart of some really true things. I can’t get behind all of it, but what did resonate with me gave me a lot to think about. And God- with his sovereign humor- gave me some experiences to practically apply some of what I read, on the golf course no less, so thanks for that.

The Glass Castle

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Now here is a book! This memoir shocked the hell out of me, despite hearing from several people years ago that it needed to be read. I finally did it so I can go see the movie- currently in theaters. Two things shocked me: it should have been heartbreaking, and I should have hated her parents. What could have been agonizing to read simply wasn’t. Let me give you an example- sandwiched in between talk of scorpions and Gila monsters and cats is this:

A month after we moved to Midland, Juju got bitten by a rattlesnake and died. We buried him near the Joshua tree. It was practically the only time I ever saw Brian cry. But we had plenty of cats to keep us company.

Lest you think Juju is one of the cats, it is her little brother. And here’s the surprise- despite the matter-of-fact way she presents horrific things in this book, the reader still feels the full effect of what has happened. I got to the end of that sentence above, and though it was in the middle of a paragraph, I stopped dead in my tracks and wept with Brian. And I wept all the more for the lack of tears in the story. Maybe she had to do it this way- I’m not sure I could have endured if she had not. Maybe she couldn’t have either.

The same was the case with her parents. She was gracious. She shared the awful, but she shared the beautiful too. She had come to a point of accepting all that they were, neither good nor terrible only, but a mixture of both. Despite my vigorous efforts, I enjoyed her dad. I went back and forth between anger and wonder with him….just as she did.

It is an incredible story incredibly shared.

Booked: literature in the soul of me

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by [Prior, Karen Swallow]Dear Karen Swallow Prior,

I think, had we grown up together, we would have been friends. And I wish we had been, because then you could have let me ride your horse and introduced me to some of the great books you read, thereby pulling me away from John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks sooner. As a teen, the best literature I read was for English class, but as everyone else complained, I relished in my homework for once.

No, I didn’t enjoy them all. Grapes of Wrath, for instance, kept me napping like a champion. But when it was finally finished, I could appreciate it. You introduced me to another of this sort, because this is how I felt about Madame Bovary, though I don’t even have words for its impact on me, nor the timing of its message. I have never appreciated a story more, nor enjoyed reading it less. I bonded with you over a love for Charlotte and Jane- good, sweet, gentle Jane- a favorite heroine of mine. I was challenged by the characters of Tess and Pip, ruminating over the perplexities of their situations. You introduced me to Milton’s Aeropagitica and John Donne’s metaphysical poetry and I took a bath in them- my two greatest treasures from you.

But you shared more than books as you weaved them through the memoir of your life. You shared your own story, and I was equally pleased with that. It made me feel ordinary, in a good way- in the way of camaraderie.

Gratefully,

Kate

P.S. I’ll be reading your other book, Fierce Convictions, in October, and it can’t come fast enough.

 

Aeropagitica

I have been reading. Oh, I have been drinking deep in good literature. I have recently finished three books, all of them first-rate. This one is a historically important, thought provoking, and beautifully worded philosophical argument against the censorship of literature, written by John Milton in 1644.

The thought was that bad books would be saboteurs to the mind, the heart, even the very soul of a person. And for the protection of all people, it was proposed that any writings must be approved before being published. John Milton writes this speech in defense of the liberty of unlicensed printing against his own comrades- fellow believers.

As always, when you click on any images of books I discuss, you will be taken to amazon.com where you can purchase them. This one, for instance, is under a dollar on Kindle. I could post twenty of the best quotes on here- they are phenomenal- but I will stick to just three:

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian…I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness.

And again, if it be true that a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly. For if there should be so much exactness always used to keep that from him which is unfit for his reading, we should in the judgment of Aristotle not only, but of Solomon and of our Saviour, not vouchsafe him good precepts, and by consequence not willingly admit him to good books; as being certain that a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet, than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

You see? Read it….it’ll be the best spent dollar of your day.

Give Them Grace

This book was on my list for a while. I naturally gravitate toward fiction. And when I do get revved up for a non-fiction, it is usually one that still involves story: biographies, memoirs, etc. Reading instructive non-fiction takes intentionality and grit. But this book was a breath of fresh air for a mama needing some help and not any more dos and don’ts. I wish I had read it about 4 years ago….

There’s nothing new and earth-shattering here. But in a time when our basic beliefs about parenting have been indoctrinated by the present cultural climate of fear, and even within the church, the resounding war drum is that of control, the truth that we as parents have no power to save freed me of the impossible task of changing the hearts of my children. And as I kept reading, I began to wonder When did I start believing I ever could? 

Because I used to know that. And I used to trust it every day. I carried that truth around with me like a diamond ring. And then my little baby, whose heart was always sinful in a quiet way, became noisy in her sin. And I became noisy in return, giving birth to the struggle for power, both of us fighting for control of one another. It was little things at first: you will keep your shoes on, you will eat this dinner. But one thing led to another and before long, I was fighting for control of bigger things: you will say you’re sorry, you will love your sister, you will be kind to mama. And you will do it because you should. Because it’s good and right. Now do it.

At some point I forgot that she couldn’t. Should and could…..what a dark chasm that exists between those two! Should and could…those are my problems too. And I know as well as everyone else, more rules don’t make me want to do what I should. But grace does….

We read the promises of life for obedience and think that means that we can do it. The promises of life for obedience are not meant to build our self-confidence. They’re meant to make us long for obedience and then, when we fail again, they’re meant to crush us and drive us to Christ….The law won’t make [your children] good. It will make them despair of ever being good enough, and in that way it will make them open to the love, sacrifice, and welcome of their Savior, Jesus Christ.
pg. 35-36

Maybe you’re stuck in the tug-of-war with your own kids. Maybe somewhere along the line, you’ve forgotten some things too. Or maybe, after start over following start over following start over, you need some grace yourself.

Read it. Let that impossible task go, both the impossible task you ask of your kids- perfect obedience- and the impossible task you demand of yourself: perfect parenting.

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.
Martin Luther