I’m taking a break from relentless self-promotion to rave about the new book by Bro. Mickey McGrath, OSFS, a fabulous artist, storyteller, and human being. Check out my review on CatholicPhilly.com.
Six months ago, I enjoyed a long book-marketing strategy session with the fabulous Ben Tanzer, who is–among many MANY other things–my publicist. Since then, Ben has been working behind the scenes: connecting me with several of the podcasts I’ve posted lately, submitting Finding God Abiding for reviews in various places, and doing all kinds of work on my behalf about which I am content to know almost nothing.
Fast forward to the book launch, when I got to have another delightful conversation with Ben for his very own podcast, in which we talk not only about my books, but about the process of writing (which sometimes requires a spreadsheet), our shared love of editing (and being edited), and the importance of building a life (rather than just a career). Ben is very clear, in this interview, that he was not raised religious or spiritual, so sometimes we have to do a little translating for one another (like when he referred to FGA as “a book of essays”–a term which had never occured to me).
This podcast may or may not change your life, but it should be clear how much Ben and I enjoy and appreciate each other. Click his photo below to listen in!
I absolutely loved my conversation with Eric Clayton. On the AMDG podcast, Jesuits and friends come together to look at the world through Ignatian eyes, always striving to live Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam: For the Greater Glory of God. I’m delighted to share it with you on the eve of the publication of Finding God Abiding.
The Deputy Director of Communications for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, Eric is the author of a wonderful new book called Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith. In addition to guest hosting the AMDG podcast, Eric sends weekly email with stories and reflections on finding God in everyday life. It is consistently good; consider subscribing!
We had such fun talking about our approach to Ignatian storytelling: how to identify the stories in our lives that point to the presence of God and then share those stories for others’ benefit. We also compared notes on our beloved grandmothers and explored the notion of service immersion experiences as “working pilgrimages.”
Click the image below to listen and enjoy!
Host Glen Binger’s motto is “Docendo discimus,” a Latin proverb that means “By teaching, we learn.” In this interview, we discuss the inner work behind writing/editing, the value of solitude, and how to embrace mindful moments in our day-to-day lives.
Click the image below to listen on Anchor, or search for Betterism wherever you get your podcats.
Many of you have heard the story of how this shy English major got involved in Campus Ministry. At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, my advisor introduced me to Jim Karustis, the editor of the literary magazine, who also happened to be on the SEARCH retreat team. Boom. Life changed.
I tell the story of that pivotal encounter in Chapter Nine of Finding God Abiding, entitled “Finding God for All the Wrong Reasons.” I’ll share the chapter below as a little sneak peek in advance of Tuesday’s publication, but first, an unexpected addendum and a very unusual request.
My favorite bit in the chapter is this: “No, if you’re wondering: girl met boy, but girl didn’t even come close to getting boy. Jim was already dating the love of his life and is married to her still.”
This week, I learned that Jim’s beloved wife is in kidney failure. Cindy (Lucinda)–a vibrant, cheerful soul, adored by her husband and their two daughters, Anjali and Simone–needs a kidney transplant if she is to live to become the feisty Italian grandmother she was born to be. The Karustis family is searching for a living donor to save Cindy’s life.
When Jim reached out to ask if I would consider being that living donor, my reluctance and slate of excuses saddened me, in a way I’ll probably be praying about for some time. But I know that there are many good and generous people out there who might have a different initial reaction. If you would consider this life-saving gift, visit Penn Medicine’s Living Donor Program to learn more. (For example, did you know that donating a kidney through the Penn transplant service guarantees a top-of-the-waiting-list slot if you OR one of the five people closest to you should need a kidney one day?) You can also go straight to their donor screening site to see if you might be a match. Key info: the woman in need is Lucinda Karustis, DOB 2/25/63, YES on dialysis and YES in the Penn Transplant system. Kindly share this info widely; you never know who will prove to be an angel in disguise.
Finding God for All the Wrong Reasons
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. — Jeremiah 29:11
Despite wondering about a religious vocation at the end of eighth grade, nothing about my teenage years suggested a career in ministry. In high school, I didn’t join the community service corps, sing in the choir, or serve as a chapel aide like some of my friends. All I ever wanted to do was read and write. I chose English as my college major, hoping that editing books by day and crafting them by night could leverage my two loves into one modest income—at least until I published my first bestselling novel.
Unfortunately, my freshman year was fairly miserable. I was an introverted commuter, working part-time at a bakery and driving my little brother to nursery school each day so I could have the car. I didn’t join any activities or make a single friend.
At the beginning of sophomore year, however, I was chatting with my advisor outside his office when the editor of the literary magazine walked by. “You two should know each other,” Dr. Gilman said, so I exchanged pleasantries with a dreamy-looking senior named Jim. A few days later, I spotted Jim outside the cafeteria, working the sign-up table for a weekend getaway in beautiful Cape May, New Jersey. He was dashing. I loved the shore. And oh, by the way, it was a religious retreat. Motivated by those three things—in that order—I registered on the spot.
No, if you’re wondering: girl met boy, but girl didn’t even come close to getting boy. Jim was already dating the love of his life and is married to her still. Cheesy as it sounds, however, that retreat changed my life. It introduced me to campus ministry, plunged me into a community of like-minded friends, and began to transform my understanding of faith. As a junior, I began double-majoring in theology. By senior year, I was researching graduate schools and re-imagining my career trajectory, eventually spending twenty-six years as a campus minister. Writing continued to be an essential component of my work, but in a context more satisfying than I’d ever envisioned.
In the movie Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character experiences two dramatically different futures based on the simple happenstance of catching or missing one train. What would my future have held, had a random hallway encounter not drawn me through the doorway to ministry? When I think of that passing crush now, I picture God delightedly plotting how to capture my attention. I’m not suggesting that I was tricked into pursuing a path I never would have chosen, like a striped bass chasing a nice minnow and winding up in a nice lemon garlic sauce instead. It’s just that I’d been following the only road I knew, until an attractive stranger (sent by God, I believe) turned my head and set me off in a in a new direction.
If we believe that God created us, it makes sense that God would know how best to lead us toward our true vocation—a full and fulfilling life. In order to get us to bite, however, God may have to lure us with a tasty morsel or two. This is not trickery and deceit, but simply a manifestation of love from the One who knows us far better than we know ourselves.
Did you get where you are today by any curious twists or turns? What first lured you in that direction? Smile at the loving cleverness of our God, whose handiwork is most often visible in retrospect.
I’m a big fan of a strong first sentence. Most people (or at least most English majors) can quote the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” From college, I still recall Dr. Gilman’s comparison of one of Henry James’ ponderous opening sentences with that of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, which reads simply: “Selden paused in surprise.” In this century, we have the incomparable Ann Patchett, whose Commonwealth begins: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Draws you right in, doesn’t it?
In my books, I try to start each chapter with something short and punchy. (With a word-count target of 600, I don’t have time to ease into the topic!) So, with one week to go until Finding God Abiding comes into the world, I thought we’d have a little fun. Here are the twenty-eight opening lines. Which is your favorite? What piques your interest? If you were to read a chapter on the basis of the first sentence alone, which would it be?
I’d love to hear your responses! Leave a reply below. (And, you know, get yourself a copy so you can see how it ends.)
May Love Abide,
- Reading was not Christopher’s thing.
- I’ve been a dogged journal-keeper for most of my adult life.
- “How can I feel so miserably poor and embarrassingly rich at the same time?”
- “There’s no reason for them to blow that siren anymore,” my neighbor insisted.
- I recall almost nothing about the conference.
- “It’s Teeny-Weeny String Beanie!”
- The summer I turned five, I went on my first extended-family vacation to Wildwood.
- “Oh, rats! I think I’m supposed to be a nun.”
- Despite wondering about a religious vocation at the end of eighth grade, nothing about my teenage years suggested a career in ministry.
- A graduate student with a wedding ring was hit by a car on the sidewalk, rushed to the emergency room, and whisked into surgery.
- The tantalizing aroma arrested our steps in front of a Greek restaurant on South Street.
- When I finally landed the job of my dreams in campus ministry, my joy was quickly tempered.
- When I was thirty, after several years of increasing strife between us, my husband took a job on the other side of the globe.
- The biggest problem with having unauthorized cats is that you can’t call the landlord.
- The dress caught my eye as it waved in the breeze of a summer garage sale.
- It was peach season at the Jersey shore.
- I had never cut class before.
- Liz had no idea how she was going to pay for college.
- I was in the car with my brother Stephen’s new boyfriend, John.
- The dog I love most in the world just turned seven.
- When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to eat a strawberry.
- Hannah could not stop crying.
- Mary Ellen had raised six children on her own.
- The present that had thrilled my little brother the day before was making him miserable already.
- After nearly ten years in my first campus ministry position, I reached a heart-wrenching insight during my summer retreat.
- I stood at the water’s edge with my back to the beach, tears streaming down my face.
- I flipped on the bathroom light in dismay.
- The text from our cousin caught my brother and me completely by surprise.
It’s podcast season! I’ve been interviewed for several, and will post them as they drop. Each one is different; click the image below to listen to Leah Jones’ “Finding Favorites” podcast, in which we learn why fire sirens are among my favorite things.
You’ll also get to hear two women of faith–one Catholic, one Jewish–discuss worship in pandemic, the importance of blessing the heck out of everything, and learning to speak Ignatian.
Bonus: an audio chapter from Finding God Abiding.
Finding God Abiding comes out three months from today. To celebrate, I’m sharing a chapter which one of my early reviewers told me she loved–despite initially having NO desire to read it, because of the sappy title. (Pun slightly intended.)
Enjoy . . . and kindly consider pre-ordering your signed, personalized copy, which helps me in a lot of behind-the-scenes ways.
Love never ends. — I Corinthians 13:8
When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to eat a strawberry: after removing the leaves, spear berry with fork, plunge directly into open sugar bowl, pop in mouth, repeat. (It took me years to realize I shouldn’t eat them that way in public.)
Even without the added sugar, my grandmother brought sweetness to so many of my early memories. As the oldest grandchild, I enjoyed the youngest version of her: the grandmother who zipped around town in a Chevy Vega (hot orange, no less), who was always game for a boardwalk roller coaster, and who kept her kitchen stocked with Pepperidge Farm cookies and strawberries ripe for the bowl.
It wasn’t that she’d never known sorrow. In fact, Gram had seen more than her share. Her baby brother perished in World War II and her only son died in his crib. In her fifties, she lost her mother to breast cancer and her husband to cardiac arrest within six weeks of each other. Yet, somehow, those losses didn’t leave a shadow—at least, not one her grandchildren could see. Even after a broken hip at age seventy rendered her fragile, she remained classy, funny, and generous. (“Now, get something you really want,” she always said when taking someone out to dinner; she didn’t want us ordering pizza instead of prime rib just to save her a few pennies.)
The shadow didn’t appear until she turned eighty, when Alzheimer’s began to wage its insidious campaign against her personality. She suffered its assault for seventeen years, dying at age ninety-seven in my aunt and uncle’s home, where she’d lived since it became clear she could no longer be alone.
Hers was a fate most of us dread, yet what strikes me now is how much good Gram continued to do. During those awful years, Gram’s illness became a hub around which many lives revolved, as relatives rallied to provide company and care. For her funeral service, we selected the First Corinthians reading about love because so many of us had become more patient and kind, less self-interested and record-of-wrong-keeping for having been part of the family during Gram’s final years. She lived those virtues until the Alzheimer’s took her volition, at which point she inspired them. The care that flowed back to her was a return of the tide, a response of love to one who had been so steadfast.
Gram’s impact in her decline was not limited to immediate family. One summer during our shore vacation, she was in a phase where she would read aloud anything put in front of her—from fine literature to toothpaste ads—so my mother had packed a book of daily meditations by one of Gram’s favorite saints, Francis de Sales. I spent many afternoons cross-stitching on the couch while she read those beautiful words (and page numbers, and running headers) in her oddly monotone voice. They sank in.
By the end of the two weeks, I had designed a plan for college students to use that book—and, subsequently, others in the series—in a month-long spirituality program that eventually won a national campus ministry award. Each time we ran the program, I made sure my students knew it had been inspired by my grandmother, Mary Florence Reilly: an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s whom God was still using to sweeten everyday life.
Many of us have a great fear of outliving our “usefulness,” but loving my grandmother taught me to measure life’s goodness differently. Whom do you cherish, just for who they are? Bask in imagining being so cherished yourself.
I spent last week with my nose buried in the manuscript of Finding God Abiding, going over corrections suggested by my copy editor. I read the whole thing every day–often twice a day–alternating between “track changes” in Word and the old-fashioned printed copy. As a writer friend commiserated, there is no such thing as being finished with editing; you just call time-of-death on the process, praying that no lingering, mortifying errors lurk in plain sight.
Today I thought I’d take a step back and look at the words differently, using a word cloud generator. Based on frequency of usage (and dropping proper names, articles, conjunctions, etc.), what were my go-to words for this book? Here are the results, which I invite you to ponder.
What catches your eye? What stirs your curiosity about the story behind the words? Do you find yourself combining any words, whimsically or meaningfully? What opens the door to a story or memory of your own? Which word might God invite you to sit with in prayer? (Or, simply pick one and pray with it; what comes to you?)
Although I look forward to the day when I can put this whole book in your hands, the publication date (June 7) is still almost nine months away. Until then, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed by the God who abides.
Saturday is the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola—two years from the day that I stepped down from a twenty-six-year campus ministry career to pursue a freelance existence. As the second anniversary of my “third act” approaches, I’m delighted to announce that my next book, Finding God Abiding, will be coming into the world on June 7, 2022, courtesy of Woodhall Press. Here’s the cover, designed by the very talented Asha Hossain.
So much thought and work go into cover design; that’s what the rest of this post is about. If you’re intrigued, read on!
Asha had an unenviable task: design a cover that would be “just like the first book, only different.” In other words, make it clear that this is a companion volume to Finding God in Ordinary Time, yet offering fresh bread. Here’s a peek at the thought process (to which many of you contributed via Facebook and Instagram this week):
Did you even notice the background? It’s not just white; it’s a woven texture, alluding to one of my overarching themes: life as a tapestry. In “A God Who Abides,” I wrote:
“The stories in this book are organized around four actions that run like threads through the tapestry of our lives: perceiving, becoming, embracing, and releasing. We awaken to the world around us, discover and rediscover our path, practice love in its many forms, and grieve the loss of much that we hold dear. These movements are neither sequential nor singular; we go back and forth like a weaver, creating a unique tapestry on the loom that is our life.”
The woven background is such a subtle detail; it may never register in the reader’s conscious mind, but it adds to the overall impression.
On the cover of Finding God in Ordinary Time, the hummingbird is what people really remember. For this book, we wanted something equally memorable. I shared with Asha a paragraph from my chapter “Finding God in a Fire Siren” and suggested she might find inspiration there. A few days later, I emailed her back to say, “Or poppies! I love poppies! If you find good image, I can always change the language.” And that’s what happened. Since then, I have given a lot of thought to the significance of poppies, and have a whole pastoral reflection to share, but that will keep for another day.
The red and the green were obvious, to match the poppy flowers and stems. But red + green = Christmas, and red + green + white = the Italian flag. Not that I don’t love Christmas and Italy, but neither is what I was going for. When Asha introduced purple for the way it balanced the other colors, my mind went straight to the liturgical year: green for Ordinary Time, purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, and red for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and all those martyrs’ feast days. My book traces God’s abiding presence through the joys and travails of our life; how appropriate to have a nod to the whole sweep of the liturgical year–birth, death, resurrection, and everything in between–right there on the cover.
Oh, my goodness. Most of it was easy; “Finding God” and “Daily Meditations” are in the same fonts as we used for Ordinary Time (Trajan Pro and Minion Pro, for the curious). To convey a sense of freshness, Asha presented a choice of fun script fonts for the word Abiding. I wasn’t crazy about either one, but they arrived as I was about to take a walk with my friend Rose—who can always be counted on for an opinion—so I printed out the samples and headed out the door. After much discussion (and a three-mile hoof, and some wine), Rose said “You have nice handwriting. Why don’t you write it yourself?” This was SUCH an Enneagram One thing to say, and to agree to—one of the many reasons Rose and I get along. Three sharpies and almost two hundred attempts later, we had a winner.
But still, I wasn’t sure. I asked Asha to show me what the cover would look like if the whole title was in the same typed font, and it looked BEAUTIFUL. Elegant. Dignified. What if I used my own handwriting, then regretted the decision? What if I put that little bit of myself out there, and it made me cringe every time I saw the book?
Can you see where this is headed?
If I’m worried about putting too much of myself out there . . . if I’m afraid of letting people see my messy edges and imperfections . . . well then, frankly, I should be writing some other sort of books. Science fiction, perhaps. A Brief History of Mathematics. Bicycle manuals.
The comment that gave me enough courage to move forward with the handwritten Abiding was from my friend Emilie, who wrote this beautiful observation: “The handwriting provides a suggestion of something personal within.” Indeed, it should. Finding God Abiding includes chapters on everything from body image to the clergy scandal, from feeling broke to not being able to stop crying. (Also nicer stuff.)
If I can be brave about all that, surely, I can write my own name on the cover.
Now, back to editing the manuscript . . . deadline, September 1st!