Lenten Literary Book Club

Do you buy Lenten devotionals but find the process of following them too dry, too big, too small, or too boring?

Do you want to enliven your Lent with holy and literary thoughts?

Do you look into your soul and find a whole bunch of fiction?

If you answered yes, then this is the book club for you!

Several years ago, an acquaintance nearby started a book club and some literature-loving friends invited me along for the ride. We’ve continued to meet monthly, excepting holiday months, and moved from long form novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Kristin Lavarnsdatter to short stories and novellas.

The format works, and I want to bring it into the Lenten sphere with a handful of works that can deepen our hearts and minds and help us reflect on the things that matter most.

Lent begins March 2 on Ash Wednesday.

It ends April 14 on Holy Thursday.

Here’s the plan.

  • You read along.
  • I’ll write some thoughts.
  • You comment on the post with your thoughts on the website or Facebook and we can all respond to each other.
  • If you want keep thoughts to yourself, that works!
  • If you want to discuss it with other friends in real life rather than online, that works!
  • The field is open, so let’s have some fun and think some thoughts.

To participate, read these works by these days:

March 9

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway


            Find it in print at your library or Bookshop or read the text online.

March 16

The Enduring Chill by Flannery O’Connor

Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories (FSG Classics): O'Connor,  Flannery, Fitzgerald, Robert: 9780374504649: Amazon.com: Books

            Find it in Everything that Rises Must Converge in print at your library or Bookshop or read the text online.

March 23

The Gifts of the Christ Child by George Macdonald

            Find it in print at Cluny Media or read the text online.

March 30

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich - (bantam Classics) By Leo Tolstoy (paperback) :  Target

            Find it in print at your library or Bookshop or read the text online.

April 6

Death be not Proud by John Donne

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Read the text online or find it in many poetry anthologies

April 13

The Last Supper Discourses

TintorettoLast Supper, 1592–94, showing the Communion of the Apostles

Gospel of John, Chapter 14-17, read it in your own bible or online.

Naturally, you can find all these works on Amazon as well, but if you are not already familiar with Book Shop, it’s a great website that work to support small, local bookshops.

Now, the questions for each reading

  • How does the main character or characters encounter the transcendent or divine?
  • What is their reaction to it?

Except for the April 13 reading

  • In Holy Week we are invited to encounter the Crucified Christ. In this encounter, he comes into our story.
  • On top of considering others’ reactions to Christ, what is your response to the Last Supper Discourses?
  • How does it move you?
  • The best stories show rather than tell. Does it move you to action beyond reflection?

Each week I’ll post a reflection here and on Facebook and we’ll take it from there! Comment below or send me a message if you plan to join in!

My January Must Watch List

What’s on Tonight?

I had grand reading plans this Christmas vacation but the COVID fatigue has made me sluggish. Many films were watched in the course of this vacation. I love a good theme and with Christmas behind us, in the spirit of Oscar season, I thought going for the greats in January was in order. I do not actually watch the Oscars, but it once was fun to follow who won and who should have won.

So I used the world wide web to look up winners from the 1930s and 1940s. I chose from the winners and losers, which are still pretty good. The 1930s represent an adventurous time in movie-making. They had the hang of the technology; many of the best movies have been restored; and movie-makers pushed the envelope on what was allowed both in terms of moral story-telling and special effects.

A Note about Censorship

In 1939, the Hayes Code began to be enforced with strict guidelines of what could or could not be shown, what could or could not be rewarded, what must be punished in film and who could be criticized. The Hayes Code was a form of self-censorship Hollywood imposed on itself and the creativity required for film makers to tell the story they wanted to tell, while still adhering to the Code led to the brilliant films of 1939. The Leave-it-to-Beaver stereotype of old films is more a product of imagination than fact.

What are we watching?

First, Casablanca (1942)

Cynical Humphrey Bogart turns out to be a standup guy and a loving sentimentalist. With Nazis and the most quotable lines ever. The 1942 love story comes second to bigger things which is a perspective anyone falling in love could benefit from.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Cary Grant divorces and wants the divorcee back. Katherine Hepburn revives her career and shows how much fun she has acting with Cary Grant. Jimmy Stewart plays an average Joe. There is no cheetah in this one. That movie is “Bringing Up Baby.”

All About Eve

“Body with a voice” Betty Davis gets her thunder stolen by young Anne Baxter. All about the theater and modern relationships, modern ala 1951.

Going My Way (1944)

Present day movie critics ask how this movie could have won. It isn’t an absolute best but we’ll rediscover its charm this month. Bing Crosby plays a priest…who sings.

Lady for a Day (1933)

A group help Apple Annie move from the slums to the penthouse long enough to meet her daughter for the first time since her daughter’s early childhood. People helping people and a happy ending. We need this.

Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman falls in love with a bad man. He makes her think she’s crazy. Where the term “gaslighting” comes from and I always believe in the value f learning the source of relatively-common cultural sayings. And any movie with Joseph Cotton is probably worth watching.

The Women

It’s all about men. Do not watch the remake. Watch the 1939 version staring Norma Shearer learning that pride is no reason to get divorced and divorce has consequences.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Back to falling in love. One spoiled brat learns street smarts from Clark Gable. A classic “road film”. This is a great movie if you like romantic comedies but are sick and tired of the bedroom-centric comedy.

The Princess Bride (1987)

In color! It’s just a perfect movie and so I include it. Exaggerated characters, saccharine sentiment, and it’s all satire. Andre the Giant asks Cary Elwes why he wears a mask and Elwes responds, “It’s just that masks are terribly comfortable — I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”

So we begin

You may prefer fantasy, sci-fi, horror, action or war films. These aren’t those. However, these are great character-driven movies with complex relationships, and actors who acted in roles that played to their strengths. Plots were simpler back then. Movies moved slower. Scenes were cut longer.

Give it a try. Most of these can be checked out from the library – once I return them, that is.

Discovering George MacDonald

Happy New Year! It’s Book List Time.

This is the time of year when many an avid reader begins collecting book lists for the new year. New editions of Well Read Mom come out, we republish our little book club’s schedule and list of readings. “What I read in 2021” posts hit the blogosphere. It’s a fun time or bibliophiles.

But book lists aren’t for me.

I hold in my mind a list of books. It is labeled the classics, books that stood the test of time and people still find worth reading. Then, not just the classics, but those classics that influenced other classics. And then within those classics, I find my other preferences. I like a bit of action, a bit of sadness, lots of personality and some weighty subjects.

Last year, I discovered Cluny Media. Browsing their website I purchased How to Read a Novel by Caroline Gordon, then on Black Friday, I fell down the rabbit hole in the discovery of their selected works by George MacDonald.


Who is George MacDonald?

MacDonald, best known for his novel The Princess and the Goblin, is hailed as a great influence of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. He was a pioneer in fantasy fiction. I do not actually read fantasy fiction, but my children do, and if the man could influence the greats, then I want to read him to know what the fuss is about.

Chesterton wrote in his introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville M. MacDonald (out of print), now reprinted in In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton,

“Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald.”

But what made it so real is not the obvious realness, but its skill in “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things,” Chesterton commented.

As G.K. Chesterton said, George MacDonald have the skill of “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.”
Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote,

“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

What does this mean?

The artist, poet, writer, or musician experiences the world, not so much in a different way than the non-artist, non-poet, non-writer or non-musician, but he sees it more deeply. He sees the tree as anyone sees the trees. But he may at the same moment see fairies flitting from branch to branch, or a troll hiding in the hollow of its trunk. Or even more accurately, he sees the possibility. The artist perceives that this world is not at all there is. The true artist is the most spiritual and in his art, brings out that quality in a way that makes it tangible for those who cannot see it. Thus the visual, written, or performative arts are modes of communication of this deeper world to the shallower one.

It is this quality that Lewis and Chesterton speak of. And I love it.

I purchased the three volumes of collected tales, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Thus far, I finished two of the three volumes of Collected Tales.

An Honest Review of George MacDonald

As a caveat. I cannot yet make a sweeping recommendation of MacDonald at this time. We should know that Lewis also wrote,

“Few of his novels are good and none is very good”.

MacDonald can be uneven, he can preach a little too often. To a modern reader, these works may be predictable, but it takes a greater knowledge of literary history for me to know if these are clichés that he used or that they became clichés because he used them so well.

As a reader and not a critic, I find comfort in the structure of the story, its predictable arc, that I knew it would turn out well. I appreciate his straight gaze at grief and loss and the way that through grief we have the opportunity to find more than we lost if we are willing to open our eyes.

The fantasies are magical indeed, but for this reader, the deeper magic lies in his ability to communicate the spiritual through the physical events of our lives, the births, the deaths, the events in between and how they have the power to change us. For that, I read on.

Gift Guide to Local Christmas Shopping

We probably all know, at least intellectually, that it’s better to shop local. Here in the heart of the Golden State, you can find so much in your own backyard. Behold, your local gift guide for Christmas shopping.

Let’s start with foodstuffs. In our consumer age, a lot of people have more than they need and a lot of people we love spent decades acquiring their collections of possessions and do not need one more teacup or tie from us. Consumable items to the rescue!

Jars of Delicious

Gift trio from http://www.jarsofdelicious.com

You cannot do better for canned preserves than buying from Jars of Delicious. Feeling feisty? Try her cactus pear jam. Feeling traditional? Strawberry Rhubarb. Want to pretend you are on a private island? Pineapple Mango. The list goes on and on. Basically, every flavor is delicious (a whole jar of delicious, really) and I particularly fancy her jar of cherry pie filling because when it comes to pitting that many cherries, as they say, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Her regular-size jars cost $7.

Nutty Gourmet

Maple Cinnamon Walnut Butter from http://www.nutty-gourmet.com

Jam is great for your scones, morning yogurt, or fancy latticework pie, but if you’re buying for a child, consider this, who doesn’t love peanut butter and jelly? That’s right, these core ingredients come at a premium for my children. Consider a loaf of bread, a jar of delicious and a $5 jar of nut butter from Nutty Gourmet. The sky’s the limit when it comes to flavors and, like Jars of Delicious, it’s a Hughson-born business and we like to support our own.

J.J. Ramos Farms

But maybe you need to be a little fancier than a PB&J gift basket (but why? I ask). Head over to J.J. Ramos Farms for a truly impressive selection of locally made items from olive oils, dried fruits, nuts, meat, eggs, milk— oh sorry, thought I was making my grocery list. You get the idea. And as I understand it, you might just get a little help putting together your fabulous gift box or basket from their staff. They’re located at the corner of Whitmore and Geer in Hughson.

M&J Farms

Still among the list of consumable items, as in, items you use up, are the adorable sheep milk soaps by M&J Farms. Milk-based soaps are basically the best. You can wash your hands over and over again without cracking your skin and make hand-washing less a chore than a healthy ritual and moment of silence away from the chaos of the world. $6.

Miss Potts Attic

May be an image of christmas tree and indoor
from http://www.facebook.com/MissPottsAttic

If your gift recipient is a collector and not a minimalist, visit Miss Potts Attic on Tully Rd for a wide variety of items from antique to relatively new pieces on consignment. I stopped by to buy a ring for my daughter’s birthday and left with four very well-priced vintage rings, a jewelry box to hold them, and a $4 chandelier. The staff was amazing at helping me shop and find the best item for her. Whether artwork, glassware, furniture, novelty items, there really is something for everyone. Help the environment by not buying new or shipping from Amazon; help a local business by giving them business, help yourself with a one-stop shop and the joy that comes with finding the perfect gift via serendipity rather than an algorithm. Win-win-win-win.

Lightly Used Books

Buying for a book bug? You could go to Yesterday’s Books in Modesto (new and used books), which is excellent, but I prefer to go to the slightly closer Lightly Used Books in Turlock. Used book stores can often special order new books from publishers so you can avoid Amazon altogether and thus support authors and local bookshops in one fell swoop.

Investment items

There really is so much more out there. For high-end items, see Shoebridge & Co. on Etsy for handmade furniture (made locally near Hughson)


or wind chimes by Casey Music Service for perfectly tuned custom chimes (full disclosure, this Casey is my husband). The Harry Potter chimes are a favorite but I am personally fond of my F9 chord set. 

Happy shopping and Happy Holidays!

Malls were meccas for Black Friday shoppers back when Valley View was new

Let’s bring the joy back to gift-giving by making the shopping experience itself a treat for ourselves and others because as you may have heard, every time you purchase from a small business, the owner of that business does a happy dance.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

P.S. I know not all readers here are from or near Hughson, CA. You can use these sellers’ websites or visit your local vendor events to see whose selling what in your area.

Home Making 101

A Review of Feels Like Home: Transforming Your Space from Uninspiring to Uniquely Yours

A Little Background

For years I read the Miss Mustard Seed blog. The author, Marian Parsons, gave me confidence to try to new sewing or home décor projects. Her honesty about the world of online blogging taught me that while the photos may be pristine, often a whole mess is just behind the camera. This knowledge helped curb the sense that my home does not measure up. Her photography was beautiful. I loved the way she shopped and styled antiques. Every sign I painted was in some way a reference to her tutorial.

Feels Like Home

So when she announced the release of her new book, Feels Like Home: Transforming Your Space from Uninspiring to Uniquely Yours (Worthy Books, October 12, 2021), getting my hands on a copy was the only natural response. I ordered it through ZIP books, a service for library customers to request books and audiobooks that are not in the Stanislaus County Library’s catalog (see stanislauslibrary.org to learn more about ZIP books).

Parsons, a pastor’s wife and mother of two boys, began blogging in 2009 to connect with other DIY/Home bloggers and advertise her business, Mustard Seed Interiors, and earn extra money for groceries. The book is 300 pages of beautiful photos, tips, tutorials and the wisdom of a woman who has been in the blogging/influencing industry for eleven years. It is the best of her blog in print without it feeling like she is recycling the writing she has already done.

She knows what it is like to rent, to move repeatedly, to be a beginner at things. As her online followers reacted to her 2017 move to a suburban cookie-cutter house in Rochester, MN, the material for this book began to build.

In “Feels like Home,” she aims to show readers that any space can be made to feel more like home and this is the proper goal of decorating.

She writes,

“The truth is, every home should feel like a custom home and not have to break the bank…I propose that a bespoke home, a house that feels more like home than any other place in the world, is a process, not a destination. It’s not all about aesthetics and architecture, but about the feeling the space evokes.”

Who is it for?

It is this principle that makes this the book I would give to a new wife, to the woman searching for decorating solutions, to the woman trying to make her home beautiful on a budget, to the woman who is trying to quiet the voices around her telling her that her style is “ahem, interesting” as if that were a bad thing.

I would recommend it to the decorating enthusiast, to the person who just likes to look at pretty pictures, to the friend who I know would love the blog but prefers print media to digital media.

Why this book matters

And all this because the message is that good design is not something prepackaged with rules that must be followed at all times. Good design is not following trends. Good design is listening to what speaks to you, inspires you, and even makes you feel a little giddy when you see it. The best-designed homes are very different from each other and are likely not at all neutral.

We live in a fast-paced world full of reality television that solves a home’s problems in an hour or less. In my home, we embarked on a kitchen renovation in early 2020 when was needed to replace the dishwasher. The tile countertops came out so the dishwasher could come out. Next, my husband removed the overhead cabinets. He installed wood paneling which I painted a lovely shade of green. I’m still waiting on three more shelves to replace the table leaves we’re using as shelves. 

Design takes time. It is a process. Allowing ourselves to take our time, observe how we live in a space, use what we have before shopping for something new (or vintage), will make the space work better for us in the long run. This is Parsons’ message and it’s one we need to hear.

Slow down. Make it beautiful. Make it yours. Make it feel like home.

for more info…

Parsons’ other books include Inspired You: Breathing New Life into Your Heart and Home (2012), Barn Quilts: Inspirational Adult Coloring Book (2017), The Home Design Doodle Book (2017) and the Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint Lookbooks.

You can read more of her work at www.missmustardseed.com.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Joy in all Forms: A Review of Better than OK: Finding Joy as a Special Needs Parent

In our own unique story, I have been there. It was during the twenty-week ultrasound, when after the images were taken and we rejoined the nurse practitioner hearing the strange words following the diagnosis, “if I had to pick a defect, I would pick this one, because it can be corrected by surgery.”

There ended up being more beneath the surface and we are, for all intents and purposes, the special needs parents Mantoan addresses, although I prefer to describe those needs as complex medical needs rather than the educational term “special needs.”

In a now-common format of memoir/self-help book, Kelly Mantoan, blogger and founder of the Accepting the Gift Conference, online resource and newsletter, shares her wisdom and experience as a special needs parent in Better than OK: Finding Joy as a Special Needs Parent, published by Our Sunday Visitor (October 8, 2021). The format, heavy on memoir, allows the reader to see himself or herself in the author’s story and feel less alone when facing a similar situation. Each chapter highlights a grace discovered by Mantoan in her journey as a mother of two sons with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) beginning with the grace of acceptance, reached via the familiar stages of grief.

As a mother of a son with unique medical needs, I appreciate the vivid pictures she paints of being in the room but mentally separate from the room, how the littlest things become part of the fabric of who we are when laced together with a traumatic diagnosis. It is comforting to hear another share those shared experiences, even if prognosis and the methods of coping were markedly different.

After sharing moments of her story, Mantoan offers a prescriptive take-a-way lesson and a prayer the reader can utilize when facing similar challenges.

With her candidness and buoyant extroverted personality, Mantoan dares to say the things many feel, but few feel comfortable verbalizing. Her words welcome the reader into the depths of another’s experience. The book is an excellent resource for those who never expected to face this and may not have experience in mental health. 

Mantoan seems to discuss peace or acceptance as something you can arrive at rather than an mental adaptation or adoption in new circumstances. Having worked both with clients facing depression and my own experience of depression following diagnoses and hospitalizations, I am uncomfortable with her phrase “depression lasts as long as you let it”. 

This might be a helpful approach for the “tell me straight” reader but could mislead one to think that depression is entirely under our control. If I just decide I will not feel this way, I won’t. Rather continuing symptoms are complex and not totally within our control. The blame lays with the casual style of writing rather than the author’s intent. More nuance is called for. The process of climbing out of depression begins with a decision. This is what Mantoan means and what she expresses earlier, but the simplification in the take-a-way lessons falls short.

As Mantoan leads the reader through the stages of her acceptance and growth to advocate for her children, she shows that being both parent and caregiver opens the door to that beautiful place where the mother sees the complete child and processes her grief enough to see the big picture, and the wholeness of her child, with all his uniqueness, as part of it.

The different sections focused on the graces of acceptance, hope, gratitude, fortitude and perseverance, humility, charity, understanding, and prudence offer the reader plenty of takeaways to focus on inside and outside of prayer. Mantoan is approachable and authentic, bringing about the best of memoir, which is what most readers will be looking for. 

While the memoir portions of the work outshine her self-help advice, the work itself is and will be a valuable resource for those families seeing support, love, and acceptance as they begin their journey as special needs parents.

Reflections on Marriage and Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl”

Can an outsider break this bond?

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

The Golden Bowl by Henry James is unlike anything I have ever read. It feels like an academic read, the kind you read in graduate school, challenging, brilliant, and long. It centers around four main characters whose lives are tangled together as they sort through their relationships to live the life meant for them. A daughter and father, beautifully close, must cope with her marriage. A wife and husband must separate from old relationships to see each other, first and foremost. A former lover reemerges in a man’s life intending to be with him regardless of his marital status. A girl and her friend reunite while the friend plays the part of the friend a little too perfectly.

Charlotte marries Maggie’s father but keeps her eyes on Maggie’s husband. Maggie keeps the familial bond with her father unchanged even as she delights in married life and motherhood. The husband, Amerigo, begins with good intentions, but his passivity steers him wrong in the face of a determined woman.

The author takes us deep inside the reflective thoughts of the characters who employ more thought than action on the pages of the book. I cannot recommend it to everyone, but I do believe it is a masterpiece.

In the end, I was surprised to realize this book is so much more about the transition to married life and the challenge of breaking old bonds than it was about the bad characters doing bad things, sinning against the innocent.

The Tasks of Marriage: Separating from the Family of Origin

“I think it will be good that you move to Virginia,” a mentor told me as I prepared for marriage and the aforementioned move for graduate school. She explained that it would be an opportunity to turn towards my new husband, and he to me, away from the family and friends we knew so well. Isolated in that way, we would learn the heart of married life, which is to travel together on this journey.

We are a people made for ties, made for connections and bonds. Whether our commitment to work, to friendship, to aging parents, to nieces and nephews, we are made for relationships.

When that one such relationship comes along with its public declaration of marriage, saying, “I will be for you and you will be first for me,” then everything must readjust. Judith Wallerstein, author of “The Good Marriage,” identifies nine tasks to a successful marriage. The first begins with separating from the family of origin as one of the foundational tasks in making a marriage successful.

Adjust then Readjust

The successful marriage readjusts again if children come along, and again and again, as the space of relationship makes more space for more children or contracts back as the children grow and leave home or when the curves of life put the entire balance of life into question. It is always adjusting, always changing, always asking the question, where do we fit? Do we fit together? How can we fit together with these new challenges?

Whether we realize it or not, an answer arises and we begin to shift our weight to adjust to the arrangement we have fallen into. This is risky, especially when the demands of life make it harder and harder to give primacy to those primary relationships.

Therefore, we must take the time to think about it, and after thinking, to talk, and after talking, to make plans on how to get it right, straighter and in better order. That is the thing I learned from 12 years of marriage, my reflection for this year’s anniversary, and it will likely be the lesson I have to learn again in six months or a year or ten years. We have to keep learning the most important lessons over and over again because each time we learn them, we lay those lessons deeper into the foundation of who we are.

And sometimes, it happens that we are in a worse place. Then, we learn them from our rock bottom, from our weakness, looking with forced humility at how fragile we are. The more painful part of growing happens. Wounds will have to be healed and bonded, restored, but each time, when we follow this path, when both parties aim to maintain that relationship, the successful marriage come back stronger and more bonded than ever, and that is how it lasts forever.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.


One more Flannery O’Connor column before my thoughts turn back to “The Golden Bowl” by Henry James. For book club, we carefully navigated the waters of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” Lacking the violence of other stories, the story works better for group reading.

The main character Mrs. Ruby Turpin spends the majority of the short story in a doctor’s waiting room, observing, chatting and then recovering from an altercation with other persons in the waiting room. O’Connor describes early on the way Mrs. Turpin thinks long and deeply about the various classifications of people and their relative worth in the eyes of God. She thanks the Lord she is not in group X, but considers would still be worse to be in group Y.

Thus, she immediately sizes up her waiting room companions. She engages pleasantly with those who agree with her idea of class and shuts out from conversation with those who don’t.

Across from Mrs. Turpin sits a young lady who defies classification. She appears to be educated, though unattractive. The reader learns she is the daughter of the well-dressed woman beside her and attends Wellesley. The girl seems to know her somehow, seems to see something deep into her. Eventually, at an unanticipated boiling point, the girl reacts, attacks, and uses words a nice, clean country woman like Mrs. Turpin would never expect to hear about herself.

The words strike a nerve. Mrs. Turpin has made it her life to consider how above the other classes she is, even though there are others above her. She has justified herself. She checked the boxes on what it means to be a good woman, but somehow this girl sees through her. Turpin shakes her first and questions God, “Who do you think you are!”

Who is this Being to challenge her classification, her perception of the world, her truth? She fits in with the good people. Who is this spiritual being to say that her quality does not somehow measure up? How can she be challenged?

There are two elements at play here worth considering. How easily we are like this lady. It is part of human nature to classify things. Social scripts help us navigate complicated relationships. While many of these scripts have been upended in modern society (for example how couples date or how married couples define their roles) our tendency still exists in full force.

Life is immensely complicated and getting even more so as our surrounding culture changes rapidly. Instead of old familiar categories, we are using left and right, liberal and conservative, for the mask or anti-masking, vaccinated or anti-vax, one of us or one of them. The judgmental divisions have hidden fault lines and while social media and politics present a world of this side of that, clearly divided, we are, in truth, more complex. Some characters agree with the categorizations, but some, as in O’Connor’s waiting room, defy description.

When we group people as Mrs. Turpin did, we rarely come out on the bad end in our estimation. What started as naturally organizing units now becomes a battle: how much are you like me and how are you different? We begin to judge everything against ourselves. In this way, Mrs. Turpin made a god of herself. When the challenge came that there is a reality beyond her own making, that people and even she were more complex than she had defined them, it shakes her mightily.

In the story, we do not see what happens next. But what about us? When we encounter someone who defies our stereotypes, do we ask open-ended questions to learn more, or are we so preoccupied with sharing our beliefs and our opinions that we lose the moment entirely?

These questions do not have to lead to an argument unless you begin with this premise: I know the right way and everything about it. Convince me otherwise.

In that case, questions are used as prompts to allow us to spout off our knowledge. Every interaction validates what I think.

How different that is from trying to understand the other’s point of view, history, and ideas. When we begin to approach others as persons, not just a side of an issue, not just a unit in a box, then maybe, just maybe we can experience our own Revelation.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

The Shock and Value of Flannery O’Connor

Works by Flannery O’Connor are not difficult to read in the way that works by Russian authors or Henry James are difficult to read. They are difficult to read in that O’Connor held that because midcentury men and women had seen incredible things, they were harder to impress and wake up out of the doldrums of modern life. How do you stir someone who seems to be asleep?

The same question could be applied to our technologically savvy, smart phone-using world. We are so sated with entertainment that it can be mind-numbing. The whirring of gadgets no longer registers as noise to us. To arrest our attention, screenwriters and directors aim faster, harder and louder to keep us engaged. Headlines are more salacious, brazen or teasing. Considering this approach, little has changed in the 60 years since O’Connor wrote for her audience.

What does Flannery get right?

O’Connor’s work is shocking and violent. I read her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, with relish after the dissatisfaction I felt with “Madame Bovary.”

In Madame Bovary, the novel fails because of the author’s inability to grasp and the possibility of change in the main characters. They are what they are and what they are will damn them.

The Violent Bear It Away deals very directly with our ability to make a choice, to pursue or run away from a transcendent call.

If you, like Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, believe that man is the only measure of himself, the only one who can call himself to anything, you will disagree with this assessment. But I think there is something beyond us, something bigger than ourselves working in and out of this world.


A belief or experience of transcendence is such a ubiquitous concept across time and cultures that psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman listed it in his list of Character Strengths and Virtues, a concept of positive psychology that examines not what makes a man ill, but well, happy, fulfilled and flourishing.

Internal Locus of Control

Psychology also proposes that successful and well-adapted individuals likely have an internal locus of control (among other things). It is a sense that in a given situation, we can make a choice and our choices matter. Our choices affects the outcomes.

O’Connor’s vision aligns with these concepts. In all her works, we meet broken characters. Most are generally broken by pride. Pride that they are superior in their righteousness, in their class, in their skin color, in their education. It is often the humbler character of her writing who can see the bigger picture, for pride blots out a multitude of good sense.

As these characters, limited by their background or the smallness of the world, interact with the more worldly ones puffed up by pride, something happens. There is an action, an encounter, to deflate the proud. In her short stories, the action is presented in a tightly woven series of events and comes to a quick and intense ending, often deadly.

Even modern man with his gadgets and medicine cannot escape this last end.

We saw our society shaken down with fear of death as the novel virus with unknown origin, risk factors and spread came onto the stage. Anxiety persists even up to now. It has rocked those who felt safe and secure in their modern world to their core.

This, O’Connor believes, is the moment of grace. It is the moment of invitation. It is the moment to ask ourselves, when faced with the universal reality of death, “So what?”

So what? What difference will it make?

Did this last year change you?

What did you do with the anxiety surrounding death?

Those with the stomach for it, who can overcome the shocking quality of her work, find themselves returning to her work again and again. With the shock worn down by repeat exposure, they find themselves drawn into the mystery of these questions. What is the moment of grace? What is the call to transcendence? What choice does the character make? His or her actions have consequences; they mean something; they matter.

And so do yours.

Madame Bovary – Modern Woman

This month I revisited Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary, written by Gustave Flaubert, made waves in its day as a scandalous piece of work in which a married woman pursues adulterous affairs. That tale is, alas, as old as time. What makes Madame Bovary a truly modern woman is her absolute existential boredom.

Decadent young woman. After the dance by Ramon Casas 1899

She was a devout child, but the author tells us time and again, sincerity is not the motivation. Strong emotion is. Bovary desires to be moved, transported, whether through music, poetry, romance or sex. First religion, then novels, then she tries her hand at marriage and homemaking only to find her husband a weak match for her flights of fancy. Motherhood comes next, then adultery.

Through each step the reader witnesses her first delights, then her acclimation to the new passion, then her desperate hope to keep the feeling going, then the abandonment. Either she abandons it or, out of boredom with her, it abandons her.

Her early dabbling into poetry, mythology and novel reading is akin to the excitement and entertainment the modern woman seeks through our endless array of media: cinema, television, the latest Oprah recommended novel, and social media. She wants to be the heroine of the story.

Social media allows the modern woman to believe she actually could be the heroine by seeing other women “like her” have it all in decor, fashion and good sense. Like a good Instagram follow, Bovary pours herself into her home, her marriage and her motherhood.

Bovary tried to follow the rules, but then chucks it all for the thing that feels good. What feels good must be right. She must follow her heart. “You do you” is the modern expression for the rule of unconditional non-judgmental acceptance that works fine for what wall color you want or method for getting your toddler to sleep, but most individuals will draw the line when it comes to vow breaking, murder or self-harm. Relativism can only go so far.

Nothing fills the existential void. She deteriorates further. Emma shops, surrounding herself with beautiful things to forget her misery. Debt accumulates. Credit was more personal in those days, but still just as dangerous.

Her personality faults, the weaknesses of her vision, are much like the modern traps of today. Bovary’s heart desires transports, which speaks to a deeper need for transcendence. She is the mystic who cannot find her vision.

For all her attempts at repentance, the author makes clear she is not seeking real meaning, but just a way to revive the passion she once felt. She is, so to speak, chasing the dragon, looking for transports but not transcendence.  

No one can see her for who she is.

The men in her life project their images onto her. She is a darling or angel, she is a fine body, and she is a kindred spirit, she is a monetary opportunity. To the women, she is a shameless piece of work who cannot keep properly house. Not one person sees her as a complete person, able to speak the truth to her of how she fails herself and those around her. The answer to her trouble cannot be found in the world around her.

The Introduction of this particular edition described the Flaubert’s personal views of women. It may be that Emma Bovary is never seen because the author himself was less than capable of seeing women as whole persons.

Writers, painters, musicians, playwrights, and the like, can see deeper into the world and articulate it through their medium. Yet there comes a point when the medium will be limited or exalted through their perception of the world.

Are moments of grace possible, or are we all doomed to follow the trajectory we set out on early in life, determined perhaps so primitively as by our personality? Are we just responsive to physical impulses, incapable of setting meaning to the emotions that move us or satiate us? Flaubert dabbles with deep things but ultimately cannot answer them.

It isn’t the adultery that makes the book a bad book, but the belief that Bovary and the man she married are ultimately doomed because they believed or hoped in something greater than themselves.

When you stop believing in that, what hope is there?