Book Review: The Music Shop

The Music ShopThe Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a theory that the only way to learn how to love art is to undergo an apprenticeship of appreciation. Almost all of the art I love–poetry, literature, music, film–I love because someone else introduced me to it and showed me how to love it well. I’ve tried on a variety of different tastes through the years, usually because of someone I was hanging out with at the time or someone I wanted to impress. I learned to enjoy (briefly) R&B because of my best friend in 8th grade. I was on a serious emo kick for awhile in college because of the guys I was hanging out with (but didn’t we all listen to Dashboard Confessionals sing Your Hair is Everywhere in 2000?)

Some of my appreciations lasted longer than others, usually because I pursued them more earnestly or because I began to really appreciate the art form itself, going beyond the initial introduction. I wonder sometimes if there is any other way to learn to love a thing? At least for me, there is always a who behind every what. Sometimes that who is a friend or teacher; sometimes it is a “celebrity” or someone I don’t know in real life, but who nonetheless represents how I want to live or think or become.

All that to say, to me this book was about an apprenticeship of appreciation. Frank knows music because his mom knew music. She showed him the possibilities of music, especially when you put your favorite songs in conversation with one another. But Frank carried on his mother’s appreciation of music, using music to address his customer’s needs with surprising results. And Frank, too, passes on his knack for finding the right song for the situation to another character who puts this talent to use as a career (no spoilers!) Because of his knowledge of and enthusiasm for music, Frank shows everyone around him how to love music, too.

When Ilsa meets Frank, she seems to be captivated, first and foremost, by his taste. She wants to listen to him appreciate music so that she can apprentice herself to his loves. Of course, she turns out to have a story of her own before the end of the story, but the point is this: we learn to love art by learning about it from those we love or admire or are drawn to. And that is the most beautiful thing about art: it forms community. When we are drawn to a song or a poet or a painting, we’re drawn into a community of others who love the same thing. The internet is rife with “fandoms”–online communities of people who find their truest companions among those who love what they love. I understand this impulse to love things with others and so I understand the characters in this book.

I will say that I liked Rachel Joyce’s bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry better than this one, for reasons that I won’t divulge. But I loved that both books celebrate community and the need to be physically present for those we love, and both celebrate the way that love can grow even into middle age and beyond. A fun read.

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The Right Way to Pray

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Part 3 in a series of 2 paragraph posts on prayer:

I’d like to believe there is a right way to pray. I want to be able to ask earnestly enough or pray for long enough so that my prayers will be effective enough to move the hand of God to do what I want. I know we have to pray to get what we want. I have to ask in order to receive. We are instructed to ask God for the things we want rather than to envy or grow bitter towards those who have what we want. Our prayers may not be very powerful in themselves, but if we don’t ask, we won’t receive. Just like if we don’t plant the seed, we’ll never get to eat the fruit.

But, alas, there isn’t a sure-fire method. I will never leave my prayer time satisfied that I’ve said enough or said it right. When I’m feeling desperate, I have a temptation to heap up empty words and phrases, thinking that I can persuade once and for all with my words. But Jesus tells us not to bother: God already knows what we need so we don’t have to explain it to him. He just wants us to ask and keep asking. The asking reminds us of his power and our dependence. The things we long for most in the world are not things we can purchase on Amazon or make with our hands. If we want a peaceful family, satisfaction in our work, contentment in our souls, we have to ask God. The clearest advice we get about prayer is that persistence is more effective than elegance. We keep asking. We mention it again. We don’t let God forget. Prayer is often pictured as a kind of scented incense that rises from our place on earth up to heaven. Our prayers are a scent that fills heaven. So we persist in prayer to make sure that the incense of our requests is continually before God. When I lose heart, I remember the image of Cornelius in Acts. He received a heavenly visitor who announced to him, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” Cornelius persisted in praying and giving to the poor in the hope that someday God would acknowledge and respond. And God did. And so I, too, persist.

 

 

What do I tell my daughters?

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My daughters’ lives are still blank pages. Every day they have new dreams for the future. Art teacher. Missionary. Mom with 10 kids (5 boys and 5 girls, to be precise). Librarian. Store clerk. Wildlife photographer. The girl who cleans teeth at the dentist’s office.

I don’t know what to tell my daughters. I know that they probably can’t do all these things, and certainly not all at once. But I don’t want to tell them that yet.

Though I write often about being a stay-at-home mother (a choice I made after being a working mom for several years), I in no way want them to feel that this is a choice they must repeat. I would hate for them to think that godly femininity is a one-size-fits-all shape.

There are foolish choices I hope they don’t make, disappointments I hope they don’t have to face, and tragedies that I hope never befall them. But outside of that, I don’t have a strong opinion about what they choose to do with their lives.

I don’t want them to think they have to choose between career and children, but I also don’t want them to think they can “have it all.” I don’t want them to think marriage and family life are necessary steps on the road to fulfillment, but neither do I want them to think the pursuit of a career will fulfill them. Some day I will have to tell my daughters that they are going to have to make some tough choices and some of their dreams are going to have to be sacrificed so that they can pursue other dreams.

I want to teach them that there is something beautiful in learning to respond to each opportunity with openness, looking for the beauty and potential in the life you’re living. I want to surround my girls with examples of godly women: women who are single and women who are married, women with biological children and adopted children and women with no children. Women who have successful careers and women who pour all their energy and talent into taking care of their families. Women who express their creativity as a profession and as a hobby. Women who find ways to create beauty and order in the world through good food or flower gardens or volunteer organ playing or well-kept homes or meticulous spreadsheets or advocacy or foster parenting or art or poetry, whether or not they are getting paid to do so. Women who love the Lord and receive from His hand both good and disappointing events. Women who can “laugh at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25).

I probably write about being a stay at home mom too much, but it is one of the ways in which God has been teaching me about myself.  When I was worshipping in church a few Sundays ago, it suddenly struck me that my role as a stay at home mom was a lot like learning to sing the alto line in choir. Here is an essay that Morning by Morning published a few weeks ago that explains my thoughts on learning to enjoy singing background vocals instead of the solo. I don’t intend to glorify stay-at-home motherhood. It’s one role for a godly woman to play, and I want to do it well. I want my daughters to see past the work I do to the heart behind it, a heart that is willing and capable of finding joy in any circumstance.

I won’t tell my daughters what to write on the blank pages of their lives. I prefer to fill their imaginations with big ideas and wait to see what they’ll sketch for themselves.

The working and waiting of prayer

Second in a series of 2 paragraph posts on prayer. Find part 1 here.

StockSnap_DMRVR1I2J6.jpgMy family loves to watch America’s Funniest Videos as part of our weekly wind-down ritual after church on Sundays. Recently, a winning video showed a girl and her brother breaking a wish bone. Each of them closed their eyes and made a wish then tugged. The girl won the larger half…then immediately burst into tears when she realized all she was holding was a turkey bone, and not the lollipop she’d wished for. Her disappointed tears (and her mom’s amused attempts to offer comfort) won her family the $10,000 prize. Anyone who has ever prayed understands this girl’s disappointment. Rarely do you close your eyes in prayer and open them to find the thing you asked for has already happened.  It can be hard to keep praying with hope when your requests remain unresolved.

Prayer is less like making a wish and more like planting a garden. We take our cues from the farmer:See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient.” When I pray, I take all the things I hope will happen and give them to God. I plant them and entrust their growth to God. He can decide which things ought to thrive. I watch and wait to see which things will grow with great anticipation, rejoicing with every hint that the thing I’m hoping for is actually starting to grow. Praying with patience means watering those seeds day after day, weeding around them, watching with expectation for them to grow. We are called to be “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” So we keep asking, keep waiting, keep hoping. Spring always turns my eyes back out to my garden. Good things can and will grow if I plant them, but I also have a lot of work to do to make my garden a place where good things can grow. I have to be out there on my knees removing the weeds, faithfully working to do everything I can to give my good seeds space to grow. Prayer is a labor of faithful attention–it begins with asking for the things I want to see happen, but it leads me back to notice all the ways I can work while I’m waiting. So I fold my hands to ask, then unfold them again and ask “What can I do while I wait?”

Prayer isn’t Powerful.

First in a short series of 2 paragraph essays on prayer:

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I do not believe that my words or the forcefulness of my convictions are actually going to change anything. When I pray, I don’t feel powerful. I take a posture of helplessness and articulate my weakness. When I pray, I’m admitting what I can’t accomplish. I’m asking for help. Yes, I know that James tells us that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” but the power comes not from the words I speak but from the One who listens. I take God at his word when He says He can and will do great things on our behalf when we pray. I love the example of Elijah who was a man just like us–no better, no worse–and he prayed that it wouldn’t rain and it DIDN’T rain for three and a half years! He asked; God answered. I prayed that it would not rain on my wedding day. It did not rain. It was a crazy-hot day for the end of May in Wisconsin. Without the asking, the rain would not have stopped for Elijah and it may not have stopped for my wedding, but the power to stop the rain is God’s power alone. I can’t take credit, even if I did pray for it every day for a year. My prayers aren’t magic, it’s just that God is powerful.

Maybe I’m the only person who needed their thinking corrected, but I have a tendency to believe that the power of prayer depends on the power of my persuasion. I sometimes question whether my prayers have been “good” enough to be powerful and effective. I wonder if I’ve crafted the right words or asked for the right things. I wonder if I ought to try again with better phrasing. I often don’t feel I’ve spoken with enough conviction and I fear that those prayers won’t be as effective. But if the power of prayer lies not in my words but in the One who hears my words, that means that weak prayers, short prayers, uncertain prayers, prayers that are more questions than declarations, and even unarticulated longings are all equally powerful and effective because they are heard by our ever powerful God. Prayer isn’t powerful. God is.

 

Find part 2 here.

What is it like to wear The Crown?

The-Crown

Before my first child was born, someone told me that becoming a mother was instantaneous, like having a switch turned on that was in you all along. And that is more or less what it felt like. One moment I was not a mother; the next moment, I was. Ready or not.

To take on a title like mother is to undergo a change that is instantaneous but ongoing. Titles like mother or wife or sister or friend have a long history and are loaded with expectations and assumptions. I quickly realized that I would never be able to live up to all of these expectations as a mother, so I was going to have to chart a path that was all my own. A series of choices presented themselves–do I sleep train or rock to sleep? nurse or bottle feed? diaper in cloth or disposable?–and I started to choose, thereby defining how I would play out my role. I couldn’t do both and be one mother. The role was simply much larger than I was, so I had to narrow in on how I was going to play this role.

But as enormous as this role was, it was also somehow smaller than me. When I tried to reduce myself into “just” a mother, I realized that being a mother was only a part of me, it was less than the sum total of who I was. I would always be other things, too, and would always have other interests that didn’t fit neatly under my new title.

All of this reflection came to the surface when I watched Claire Foy play the queen. Here was a woman trying to chart a course where she could uphold her various roles simultaneously. She is constantly making decisions about how to fulfill her obligations to the crown, to her husband, and to her children. I don’t know what it is like to wear a crown, but I do not what it is like to take on a role that is larger than I am and yet, somehow, smaller than I am. I know what it is to disappear into a new role, losing sense of where I end and my job begins. I recognized myself in Queen Elizabeth, found myself processing my own experiences as I watched how conflicted she was in season two of The Crown.

With the gentle nudging of a writing friend, I took a chance and tried a new form of writing: a review with a personal Christian slant. After all, the highest compliment I know how to pay a thing is to write an essay about it.

And so, I present my recently published essay on The Crown! Enjoy.

 

 

 

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On Reading (too much)

I read because I feel like I’m behind on some cosmic reading list. When you graduated with a degree in English and taught high school English, everyone looks at you with astonishment any time they realize you haven’t read Moby Dick or most of Dickens.

I read because I am curious. I hear about a fascinating new book on NPR or Facebook, and I immediately click over to the library to get on the Holds list.

I read because I get excited about following ideas and I read the footnotes of a book I loved and check out all the books that look interesting on that topic. I’ve genuinely found some of my favorite books that way, and enjoyed tracing lines of thought through several authors.

I read because I like getting lost in time, forgetting where or when I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. I enjoy letting a book do my thinking for me for awhile. I like experiencing other lives. I want to look up and find the present world is different because of where I’ve just been.

But I’ve been recognizing lately that I’ve become a bit compulsive about books. I routinely go to the library to discover I’ve reserved three or four times the amount of books I can reasonably expect to read in 3 weeks, especially considering I get new books coming in every few days. I have specific pencils for underlining and specific tabs for saving passages. I have to type favorite quotes from every book I read AND review it on Goodreads. Frankly, I am starting to feel like an addict.

My competitive nature has maybe gotten the best of me this year. I set my Goodreads Challenge at a book a week, but ended up reading 20 more books than that. I didn’t choose shorter books just to fit in more reads, but I did start to notice that I wasn’t savoring my books. I would start a book with enthusiasm and about half way through start to get kind of jittery. How many more pages? How many nights of reading until I can start the next one?

And still, after all the reading and reviewing and returning to the library, I felt this gnawing self-doubt. I can’t keep up. I’ll never read it all.

I have to get back to basics this year. I’ve been reading lots of really. great. books. but I haven’t been savoring them, taking the time to read and re-read passages that please me. I haven’t had time to pick up old favorites and enjoy them again. I’ve been busily flitting from new book to new book, racing against the wind. And do you care? No, you do not.

If I’m not reading for myself, then who on earth am I reading for?

This year I’m dialing back the reading goals back to a book a week. I might actually reward myself if I DON’T make it. I’m going to re-read my favorites–even the long ones–and take my time admiring the inner workings. I want to celebrate what makes a novel work on me.

One of the images that most fascinated me from last year’s reading was in Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry. He described how powerful language is like a machine–it is designed with the intent to do something to us. He quotes Paul Valery who says “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words…If the term machine shocks you, if my mechanical comparison seems crude, please notice that while the composition of even a very short poem may absorb years, the action of the poem on the reader will take only a few minutes. In a few minutes, the reader will receive his shock from discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression that have been accumulating during months of research, waiting, patience, and impatience.” 

All of the reading, thinking, and organizing of thoughts may take a great deal of time, but when the writer finds the perfect way to describe a thing so that it shocks the reader with new “discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression,” it will have been worth the effort. It means the language-machine is working. You send your mind into the language-machine and it comes out remolded, perhaps temporarily like playdoh extruded through a plastic filter, or more permanently like fabric stitched through a machine or metal heated and molded into new shapes.

I want to admire the machinery of my favorite books. I want to see if the machine still has the same effect on me that I remember, especially the oldest reads like The Bronze Bow and A Wrinkle in Time (and the other Madeline L’Engle books I devoured as a teenager.)

I want to see if I can reverse engineer the machines and figure out how to write a book that would have the same impact on the minds of other people. I’m not sure I’ll succeed. I’m not even sure at this point that I’ll ever actually feel ready to try. But I will enjoy figuring it out. And I won’t be doing it for anyone but me.

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s my tentative Re-Read list for 2018:

FAVORITE FICTION

Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

(I’ve always wanted to compare the two books. I occasionally will tell people that one or the other is my favorite novel, depending on the day, and I want to go back and see if that still stands.)

OTHER FICTION

Madeline L’Engle’s Time Trilogy

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Little Bee/The Other Hand

Atonement

Jane Eyre

Little Women

The Great Gatsby

The Heart of Darkness

The Bronze Bow

 

NON-FICTION

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson.

(I’m almost finished and so far loving it even more the 2nd time around.)

Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

(A book which profoundly impacted me a few years ago when I was feeling insecure about not having read enough. Might be time for a refresher.)

 

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

(I’ve already read it several times and it keeps getting better.)

 

My most challenging goal is going to be ignoring all the great new books I discover this year. Keep a good best-of-2018 list for me. I’ll be back for those later.