The Wilbert Household's Favorite Fiction/Poetry of 2017

Our friend Barnabas Piper relinked to one of his old posts this morning on why men should read stories. Since I'd asked Nate last week to compile a list and a few sentences on his favorite five (he picked six) fiction/poetry reads of the year, I thought today would be a good day to post them. I've also given you my favorite five fiction/poetry books I read this year. 

Before we begin though, I'd like to add a few words to Barnabas's, namely that reading stories is important for all of us, not just men. We are becoming more and more of a sound-byte culture, basing our opinions, facts, and even fiction, on quick hits of beauty, truth, or goodness—or not. Stories help us listen again.

A friend of mine told me yesterday she reads fiction faster than non-fiction and I think most of us might find that true of us too. Once we are engrossed in a story—especially a well-told one—it is difficult to stop. And I think this is actually what more of us need, to listen and to keep listening until the story is finished, and then to think, for days or weeks afterward if we can. Yesterday I wrote about listening with the intent to listen on my Facebook page and I think some of what I wrote there might apply to how we approach fiction and poetry (Don't forget poetry!).

Now, below, are Nate and Lore Wilbert's favorite fiction/poetry reads of 2017. 

Nate

The Buried Giant. Kazou Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day and Nobel Winner) wrote a story that left me incredibly satisfied. Many of his themes such as aging, bitter memories, forgiveness, and family hit me close to home, and I appreciate how he dealt with them. 

My Name is Asher Lev. Chaim Potok gets into the intersection of faith, family and a calling that did not fit the norm of a conservative religious community in mid 20th century New York City. It's a coming of age story I found moving, challenging me both cognitively and emotionally. 

Peace Like a River. Leif Enger writes with a rhythm about miracles and tragedies, faith and its leadings, childhood and maturity. His characters form a family from the Dakotas and the story is driven by one act of the oldest son which changes everything for them. 

Underground Railroad. Colson Whitehead mingles truth and fantasy to show us a life under the severe affliction of American slavery. He describes many aspects of this terrible sin of our history weaving them all into a haunting story. 

The Day the Angels Fell. Shawn Smucker brings us a young boy who has tragically lost his mother and would do anything to get her back. The story darkens even more when a fantastic, spiritual battle is revealed. 

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, was something Lore and I listened to on our trip to the East Coast this fall. I love post apocalyptic stories but finding one with good writing can be challenging. This one has it all, including a recognition that survival alone is insufficient. 

Lore

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Friends told me for years to read this one and this year I finally did. It was more than I could have imagined and left me marked. It was the kind of book one holds their breath reading, not because it is edge of your seat action (the contrary), but because time slows in a deep south crawl. 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I honestly haven't known where to put this book in my mind. I cannot tell if it normalizes the Nazis or not. I think what it does most is show us the conflicted nature of every human to do right and good and wrong and evil, regardless of nationality or party. We are complex individuals and this book is nothing if not complex. 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. I have just finished Lila and I have found it to be the most perfect of Robinson's Gilead stories. I choked up several times while reading because it is just a story but it is also the story of the gospel, and therefore the story of all of us if we will let it be. 

New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. Never forget poetry when you veer from academic and informative reading, and into creative writing. Oliver, in particular, will always be a favorite of mine and this collection is brimming over with reasons why. 

New and Collected Poems by Richard Wilbur. Richard Wilbur has died. It pains me to write those words because he has always been my favorite poet and I am sad the world has only what marks he left with it and no more. I supposed none of us could ask for more, though, so I recommend you start with this volume and move around within it until you find a poem that reads you thoroughly, as poems are wont to do. 

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The Hidden Grief of Singleness

I caught myself staring at my husband the other day. Gray is creeping into his full head of hair, small wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes, a tiny patch of white in his beard. There is a dignity in aging for men, I think to myself, as I think ahead to my next cut and color, dabbing vitamin E oil onto the darkening age spots of my face. Men grow more attractive the older they get and I think women do too, but the world is telling us our bloom came and went, it is time to droop and drop and become the ground from which the next crop will come. 

The name Eve means "the mother of all living," but it does not mean "always mothering all that is living." There is not a woman among us who does not feel the age of fertility closing, the gap between fully alive and to dust we shall return ending. Most of us have a monthly reminder of one more opportunity lost. We are all coming to the last chapter of motherhood, whether we bear children or not. 

I am leaving in a few hours to pick up my oldest friend from the airport. There is no one in the world who knows me as well, as deep, as long, and as wholly as she does. How could anyone, even my husband? She held me through fitful nights after my brother was killed. I have listened to her for years mourn things she cannot control. She was equal parts older sister to my youngest siblings and I to hers. There is no scent in the world as familiar to me as hers. I have always assumed she would marry first. She is cute, vivacious, tiny, adventurous, nurturing, full of life, bringing joy wherever she goes. She gives of herself in every possible manner, always pouring out, never lacking in love to give. I have learned more about motherhood from her than anyone in my life. And yet, she is not married, and I am and it pains me. I physically ache for her in this sometimes. She was made to mother, to be a wife. I don't know anyone made for it more. 

. . .

It occurs to me more and more recently that the barrenness of singleness is a silent pain. In our singleness we feel the lack of a partner often and others' suppose it is our deepest ache. It can be tempting to see it as the only barrier between today and joy. Yet there is another, sometimes more difficult, pain unmarried women face and this is the pain of barrenness. Some find ways around this ache, adopting or fostering children. But for most unmarried women that monthly reminder of aging reminds them again and again that time is running out. Men can prolong marriage as long as they like, but women know there is a deadline and it is half of a man's life-span. Men wonder why, sometimes, some women are anxious to be united? It is no mystery to me: we are dealing with only half the time and must move doubly fast if we are to become mothers of what is living. 

The older I grow, and the more familiar I grow with my own body's failure to make and hold a child, the more I talk to my unmarried friends, the more I hear it is not the lack of a partner that pains or has pained us all most, it is the lack of motherhood. 

There is a very real ache for children that cannot be replaced by mentoring, discipleship, practicing hospitality. Nothing can be substituted for hearing the words "Mama" or "Daddy" from the lips of a child. Yet, I think, we cannot look at the substance of our being mothers as only within the gift of children. Nurturing others is not some consolation prize for the barren, it is the call for every Christian. Our problem is not that we are being withheld from, it is that we view the gift of nurturing too narrowly. We think it is only—and best—done with children we bear, but that is not the call to the New Testament family. In the Old Testament the family of God was nuclear and extended, but limited to one lineage. In the New Testament, the family of God is corporate and available to all, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters—this is the language of the New Testament Christian. We are all family now. 

Eve was created to be a helpmeet, but she was named to be a mother. She was called to a man, but called mother. Her very identity, the way she specifically imaged God, was to conceive, birth, mother, nurture, grow, care for, and gather her offspring to herself. We may feel called to marriage (even if we have not been given the gift of it yet), but our identity, our substance, who we are is not some future event: it is now. Mother. Now. 

If you are unmarried today and the secret pain of barrenness haunts you, I want to encourage you to face that pain. It is a very real and legitimate ache. You were made to ache for this. A friend of mine talked recently about how the pain of singleness/barrenness doesn't haunt her, but sometimes it hits her and I loved that. I think God wants all of us, regardless of our season in life, to be hit by true, real, and good longings, but not be haunted by them. This friend went on to talk about a situation in which I've found myself too: buying a baby gift for a friend and going out to her car in tears. 

John Piper said, "Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that he’s given you."

The Bible gives us permission to weep deeply over the life we hoped we would have, and to not feel ashamed of that hope or disappointment. It is okay to grieve those losses and feel that pain. Go out to your car armed with tiny onesies you just bought for your friend, the scent of powder and sweet baby things still on you, and weep, cry hard aching sobs. You were made to mother. You are built for it. And it is not happening for you right now. And that is sad. Deeply sad. And that is okay. Really okay. 

. . .

I'll pick up my friend today, my oldest and dearest friend, and for the next ten days we will do all the things we love to do together, make, create, laugh, cry, be, dream, cook, talk, or not. She will nurture me and I will hopefully nurture her. It is our identity to do so. We are daughters of the post-fall Eve, bodies broken, dreams unrealized, fears alive, but we are also the daughters of pre-fall Eve, imaging God, tending to life, nurturing growth, mothers of what is living. 

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BECAUSE WE COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH: MISCARRIAGE AND THE BELIEVER

It happened during a painful meeting after a week of painful meetings at the end of months of painful meetings. I ran downstairs to the women’s bathroom and it was full. I hobbled over to the men’s, praying no one would come in. This wasn’t my first and I knew there was nothing I could do at this point. Nothing.  

. . .

My husband and I had moved immediately following our late spring wedding to a new city where I was coming on staff at a new church in a new community. Everything was new and we felt ripe for it. We bought a house from which you could see the majestic Rocky Mountains. We walked every night around the lake by our house. We threw ourselves into life in this new place, life in a new marriage, breathing it in. Within two months of being there, though, the crumbling began. We, unbeknownst, had come into a church about to undergo a leadership crisis. My husband’s stable work contract let him know they were cutting back and, because he was working remotely, he was the first to go, effective almost immediately. We encountered gun violence up close and personal in a way my counselor said months later, “Just wasn’t normal.” It felt like from every direction we were being crushed into nothingness.

Around Christmas, though, when all else felt too much to bear, we began to suspect the new life within, talk about names, parenting, the world we’d be bringing this baby into. We were tender with it, we’d already had one miscarriage, but we were surer and surer of it. This one little space we could protect and care for. A few weeks later, though, after a week of difficult meetings at work for me, in the middle of a meeting where we were delivering painful news to our local church, and still no job on the horizon for my husband, the second miscarriage began.

I left the meeting as early as I could excuse myself and came home, hobbling in our back door, running to the bathroom. I knew what to expect but nothing prepares you for the emotional and physical toll of blood loss, hormone loss, and the tiny baby loss in the moment. 

Continue reading at Risen Motherhood. 

Sufficient for Its Day

A friend wrote of having a "winter soul" yesterday and I commented there are some who struggle with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) up north from the spate of gray and shortened days, while I struggle with it down south in the minute variation between seasons. But today it was cold enough for me to see my breath when I let the dog outside in the still dark morning. I breathed it in and breathed it out, watching the fog escape my lungs in the light from the neighbor's garage. I have always been happier in crisp, chilly days. 

I had a few hours with another friend this past week. We've known one another since we were late teenagers, experienced a lot of life with one another and a lot more apart from one another, but we have always been friends. She was here so quick and gone so fast, but I sat across from her and breathed too. We have traded places with one another, New York to Texas, Texas to New York. She lives on a little plot of land, hanging her laundry out to dry now, like we used to dream of when we were younger and still mostly unaffected by the world and all the pains life brings with it. We know better now, but "Life is so good," she says and I believe her. The goodness of life is usually about our perspective and less about our circumstances. This is something we learn as we grow. I dropped her off after a few hours and I missed her as soon as we said goodbye. 

This is how I feel about the seasons too, I think. They rush in so quick, we drink them in, they are so good and so short and then they are gone. There are some places I've lived when the winter is long, long and cold and grey and you have to start your car an hour before you drive, not to warm its engine but to melt the inch of ice it is covered under. I am not a winter soul on those days. I am a fickle lover when the seasons bring discomfort and angst and inconvenience. I only want the special days, the crisp apple scent, the warm spices, the smell of woodsmoke that permeates the air where I'm from, and the rows of bare black trees with branches like wet cowlicks, sticking up for miles, like lines of freshly bathed schoolboys. I want the wool mittens and the early evenings, the dark mornings. I love the dark mornings. 

I have always heard that friendships are harder the older you get, sparer and more difficult to find. I know it is harder, too, because we are such a transient world. Everywhere can be home and therefore nowhere is. But I know folks who have always lived in the same state, the same county, and still find deep friendships difficult as they grow older. The older I grow the more I cling to those fewer friends, the ones I've had for ten or fifteen or twenty years. I want to hang onto the ones I love, the ones I know and who know me.

We are told to bloom where we're planted, but even blooms shrivel up and die someday. Nothing blooms forever on a single stem or trunk or branch. Blooms are for certain seasons and so are shrivels and so are voids. I always think it is some strange alchemy when a person perpetually blooms, some magic elixir that will fail them prematurely someday, a falsely inflated self. Death and breaking apart is a part of life too. In some ways, a more important part of life. Part of a scattering life. Seeds on a bloom are beautiful but scattered seeds from a shriveled blossom are sown for more beauty in another season. 

My friend shared words from Annie Dillard in his writing about being a "winter soul" yesterday and I wanted to share them with you today, "If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.” And then he went on to say, "I will not dismiss your summery faith, I will take you at your word that every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before. But in return I ask this—that you not cast off my sense of wintriness, my predestined affinity for Psalm 90, that our years die away like a murmur. If I do not stand and raise my hands it is not that I have betrayed the family of God, but rather that I am a darker optimist, an optimist of the evening. I crouch and rub my hands before faith’s embers, scanning the skies for revelatory constellations, for 'whom have I in heaven but thee.' Mine is a winter soul."

It is very tempting for Christians to assume that if one has the joy of the Lord they will be gregarious, full, sanguine, and abounding always. But I, like my friend, have found more of God in the autumns and winters than in the springs and summers of my faith. I have found more of friendship in the old ones than in the new ones. More of faith in its absence than in its presence. More of life in the discipline of God than in the gifts of men. 

Some of us are in real autumns—the beautiful kind, abounding with color and crisp, and some of us are in the minute variation kind, the nearly changeless days that eek on for weeks, but both of us are dying in some ways. Dying to self, dying to dreams, dying to friendships, dying to goals. We're losing to gain or, perhaps, we're just losing. Maybe we have bloomed where we were planted, in full faith that the adage would always be true, but now we are shriveling, now we are dying, now we are falling to the damp earth, and now our seeds are scattering. 

I don't know. I just wanted to say, today, to be patient with your season as I am trying to be patient with mine. It is not like another's season, same in name only, but not in circumstance. Maybe their autumn is stunning and yours is not. Maybe their winter is ice covered cars every morning and yours is hot cocoa and woodsmoke. Maybe their summer is now and yours was then. Maybe their spring is slow and yours is sudden. I don't know. But just be patient, I guess, with today. 

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." James 1:2-4

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Rotted Fruit of the Urgent

I'm not sure why, but it is always autumn and not spring, September and not January, Fridays and not Mondays that always feel like the start of something good. I think it's probably because I'm easily discouraged by Great Gains and Grand Plans. I've almost never completed anything I started on time, and if I did, I most likely did it at the last minute. I've been learning about the Enneagram lately and the nemesis of the 9 (the Peacemaker) is sloth. It is like reading all my worst fears about myself. And also realizing some areas the Spirit will always be at aggressive work in my life. 

The fall, though, is always a good time for me to reflect on what did not work last year, what might work this year, to recalibrate our menus, our schedules, and our goals. I've found if I do this on January 1, when everyone else is, my extreme aversion to competition kicks in and I run to the back of the line as quickly as possible so as not to win (and so secure a certain loss).  

I thought a lot this past summer about the various means of communication available to our modern western world. I do try, as much as possible, to push back modernization and technology in my own life, but try as I might, communication is one place that will not be stopped. There are seventy seven inboxes, one hundred apps wanting to notify me of everything, and if I'm not careful, I can feel pressured to succumb to the way one person uses a particular form of technology even if it's not my preferred way.

So this fall, in my ever-increasing desire to press away from the tyranny of the urgent, I wanted to revisit or remake some intentions regarding communication. If I don't set my own expectations, I cannot expect to either meet them or recalibrate them if need be, or communicate them either. These are my principles. Feel free to use them for yourself if you'd like. I would encourage all of us to not come at these things neutrally. They want to eat us alive, we must rule over them.

1. I do not reinforce the belief in my own life that I am the answer to anyone's problems, have the answers to everyone's problems, or that my input into anyone's situation will make or break them or their situation.

2. I let most things wait because the Spirit is a better counselor than I am. 

3. I am not anyone's best source for counsel, correction, insight, or direction. 

4. I do not respond to almost anything immediately. 

5. I do not have notifications enabled for any app. 

6. I keep my phone on silent except for Nate. 

7. Reading news and views does not help me worship or trust God more. 

8. I am responsible to be faithful first to my own life, home, marriage, local church, and community. 

9. I will never deal with personal conflict over any kind of written message (text, FB, email, etc.). 

. . .

Here's how I endeavor to use these tools in my life: 

Email. Email is work and I only use it during working hours, and only if it doesn't impede on other writing I'm supposed to be doing. Because my work is mostly writing, I don't write long emails. 

Blog Email. I think of email from readers more highly than a lot of email and I take your questions very seriously. I want to give more time to responses, either on Sayable itself or in personal responses. (I am enlisting the help of a sweet girl and burgeoning blogger this fall who will be helping me navigate a lot of blog related content/emails/ebooks.)

Phone Calling. Talking on the phone wears me out, therefore I reserve it for far away friends and family (of whom I have many). 

Text Messages. I exercise restraint by not answering most text messages immediately. I want to discipline my own inclinations of self-important, impatience, and need for speed, and also not give the impression of instant availability at all times. I also attempt to not have any serious conversations over text messages. This is the space I most feel pressured to answer immediately and so it is the space I have to be most disciplined in saying "No" or "Not yet." 

Facebook. I use Facebook primarily for sharing links to things I find interesting or things I've written. I do not find it helpful for me to spend much time reading or perusing there. I exercise disinterest in polarizing political statements, fake or overly left/right news, cat pictures, or videos YOU CAN'T EVEN BELIEVE. 

Facebook Messages. I do not check Facebook messages with any sort of regularity unless I know the sender personally, and even then, it's irregular that I check or respond. 

Twitter. I use Twitter primarily for reading news and blogs, and interacting with readers. I really like the word limitations enforced there because it keeps things short and our words meaningful.

Twitter DMs. I do try to check and respond to these often. 

Instagram. I use Instagram primarily to look at photos of babies, art, inspiration, and for sharing bits of my own aesthetic and life. I really care about beauty and would honestly most days rid my online footprint everywhere but here. Because I like it. I love it. 

Instagram inbox[es]. I check both often, reply rarely. 

Pinterest. I use it to gather inspiration for myself or bookmark links I want to remember, rarely to share with others. I'm selfish like that. 

I do not use Vox, Snapchat, and a myriad of other apps available to communicate. Call me a luddite, but I keep very few apps on my phone anyway and have no desire to be ranted at for ten minutes via Vox or try to figure out if those whiskers coming out of your face on that video are real or not. 

I don't know what forms of communication are in your life, but I encourage you to come at them purposefully, intentionally, and with awareness, and not just absorb, react, or rant with them. Whether you only use Facebook or never use it, whether you mainly communicate with the written word or the spoken one, whether you have every app open with notifications enabled constantly or you don't even own a smart phone, we're all being inundated with messages daily and we have to learn to navigate them as humans and not as gods.  We will give account for every idle word we've spoken and written, so let's put some checks and balances in place today.

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