With a pause and breeze out of the west, a sabbatical ends.
The long Sabbath sighs with a pleasure-filled breath and takes her exit.
The final weeks of this break have been filled with adventures with our favorite canine companions, moments with family that stretched like taffy, and closets that never looked so good, so scandalously low entropy and fresh. The optimistic to-do list is not fully checked off, but to be fair, it never has been.
True Sabbath sates and leaves us wanting to see her again, like a lover who travels for work or a medium-distance relationship. She leaves us ready for the work of justice, love, and hope that is the every day–and always looking for the next chance to shut the blinds and sneak away for a lingering moment.
I’ve enjoyed the spaciousness of my sabbatical schedule to read often and across a wide range of topics. To date, here are the books I’ve read and a brief review. Links are included for reference; they are not sponsored/I get no financial kickback if you click/buy.
Translating Your Past by Michelle Van Loon — I was hopeful that this book would spur continued thought about family history and offer me additional tools for the work of researching family history. It didn’t. Rather, it felt simplistic, overly evangelical, and void of any real depth. One commendable area addressed, however, was the impact of adoption in family stories/histories.
More Than A Womb by Lisa Wilson Davison — As one who has chosen to not create biological offspring or to raise human children in a Western, individualistic way, Davison’s theological observations on “childfree” women of the Hebrew Bible were captivating, thought-provoking, and affirming of many different (biblical) expressions of gender identity, primarily, of course, of what constitutes “feminine.”
The Green Burial Guidebook by Elizabeth Fournier — An easy, quick read for those who are thinking both long-term about their own final wishes, or for those who are needing to address the ins and outs of green burials for others who are currently dying (or even those who have just died). It is broadly practical and helpfully basic–a good starting point for anyone who doesn’t know where to start on the topic.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande — (You might start to see a theme on death and dying here…) This book came highly recommended from some folx at Madison Mennonite, including a couple who worked for many years in hospice/palliative care. Of the many takeaways from this gem of a book, I appreciated the five questions Gewande introduces the reader to that help clarify wishes for any of us as we face illness and/or death: What is your understanding of where you are and of your illness? Your fears or worries for the future? Your goals and priorities? What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not? And later, what would a good day look like? (Note: This is the only book I’ve read written by a man. :))
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt — A required text for my Doctor of Ministry session this summer, Biased includes data and reflections on years of social-psychological research on how our mind-bodies react and engage with those we have been conditioned to see as “other.” A fair amount of the book includes Eberhardt’s work with police forces and how bias awareness training ideally helps police in their response to (perceived) crime. Having read a fair amount on the topic of race-related bias, much of the book was a repeat of other material; it is highly readable, though, and would be a good resource for the average reader still exploring the topic.
The Art of Dying Well by Katy Butler — Another practical guide related to death and dying, only this one covers a longer stretch of time, and the chapters progress through later life in stages. I appreciated the “checklist” at the start of each chapter, helping the reader gauge their stage and what the pertinent questions were to help them live fully in that particular time.
Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit by Lyanda Lynn Haupt — Beautiful philosophical prose on our relationship with Mother Earth and all her inhabitants. I enjoyed this book for the ongoing invitation to discover what it means to be spiritual beings in a complex web of interdependence.
Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty McCormack — We encounter death in many ways, and the death of beloved pets is both an area of personal tenderness and grief and a significant experience for those in our communities. This book affirms the real experience of grief that humans are often left with at the death of a non-human companion and encourages self-compassion in the aftermath of loss. I only wish I had read this sooner.
Sacred Decisions: Consensus in Faith Communities by Marcia Patton and Nora Percival — Another DMin book for this summer’s session. I read it as Congress and the President argued over the debt ceiling, and I was again reminded that the Church has a prophetic role in showing another way to make decisions that are for the good of the many. The book is a good primer for those who want to learn more about consensus decision-making and why it’s what all communities of faith should be practicing.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet — An assigned text at the Oregon Extension, this historical fiction raised interesting issues related to race, family, and society. While I read it for pleasure, it makes me glad to know that this is the kind of stuff that (some) university students are reading and wrestling with.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley — The first of several “young adult” novels I read (wherein the protagonist is a young adult; the topics are relatable for adults as well). Thoughtfully written with a window into Ojibwe culture, describing through the story some of the impacts of imperialism on one Native American tribe of the midwestern U.S., and the beauty of what cannot be conquered.
Shutter by Ramona Emerson — This, along with most of my fiction choices, was a random pick while perusing the shelves at George R.R. Martin’s Beastly Books in Santa Fe. Part mystery, part ghost story, Shutter is Emerson’s first novel, and while I read it and enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be at the top of my recommendation list. It feels like too easy a mystery to solve when you have ghosts on your side…
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel — In driving through Albuquerque with an old friend, she suggested, after hearing the kinds of fiction I typically read, that I check out St. John Mandel and recommended I start with Station 11. At a bookstore later that afternoon, Sea of Tranquility was the only book they had from ESJM, and trusting this friend, I snapped it up. Between a global pandemic situation (which seemed awfully familiar) and time travel, this was a page-turner and left me wanting to read more of St. John Mandel. Suffice it to say, I will trust my friend to give me recommendations again.
Shadow and Bone + Siege and Storm + Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo — A young adult fantasy trilogy that both Justin and I got into. Very easy reading and the kind that will keep you turning pages well past your typical bedtime (just one more chapter!). It’s entertaining while also not terribly thought-provoking or original. That’s not to say that I could write these books–just that they probably won’t produce much personal growth. 🙂 (The Netflix version of the books, though, is pretty awful in my opinion, mostly due to the writing and cheap CGI work.)
In the hills above the Ojo hot springs, we wove through the ruins of Posi Pueblo. Pottery shards dotted the trail’s edges, the silent remnants of a vanished village. Passersby had gathered the shards every few feet, installations of creativity, craft, and impermanence. These small, biodegrading pieces of clay were the only visible evidence that humans had once lived here; the rest of the landscape appeared timeless.
A short drive from Alamagordo, we turned into the drive at White Sands National Monument. We stepped out under the blazing, blinding sun, our feet slipping through the grains of grayish-white gypsum. Gorgeous, pristine, and striking, we walked with the knowledge of this land being deemed worthy—ideal—for testing atomic weapons in the 1940s.
Days later, we descended the equivalent of 60+ stories into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. (Oh, how my calves were tight the next day!) Swallows swooped and dived at the mouth of the cave. We slowly made our way through the winding paths, breathless with wonder at the gently lit formations. The caverns were discovered in the late 19th century, and within just a few years, the environment of the subterranean space was impacted by human presence due to changes in humidity, temperature, and natural excretions. Though seemingly minor, these new additions shift delicate ecological processes that have been unfolding since time immemorial.
In Albuquerque, we met a friend from my days as a Service Adventure participant, and we drove to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Hiking on the quiet, orange-sand paths, we enjoyed the sight of poppies and blooming cacti. Scrambling up a modest jumble of boulders, we perched atop an outcropping to eat our red chili, egg, and potato breakfast burritos. We looked out over the city: planes ascending and descending, a ridge of spent volcanoes in the distance, the modest downtown cityscape…The air was still—and quiet.
Walking back to the hot springs, walking along the boardwalk above the white sand, standing in an elevator speeding 700 feet to the earth’s surface, walking back into the noise and bustle of Albuquerque, our steps told a story of change and evolution, of human impact and hubris, of resilience and subjugation.
We walked; now, we weep for the beauty and destruction in which we keep wandering.
From the LA Metropolitan Lounge: Another Liminal Space
—Graffiti on a Metro underpass, “where attention goes, energy flows.”
—On the back of a T-shirt, “Don’t trip over what’s behind you.”
—On the Santa Monica Pier, a couple pauses in front of us to take a picture, “Sorry to get in the way—it’s his first time to see the ocean. We came all the way from Oklahoma for him to see this.” His smile is ear-to-ear.
—Me, thinking to myself on the beach as we neared the water, “Ha! that guy walking around in the waves in his tennis shoes and socks is so dumb.” Me, in my shoes and socks, a minute later, “Crap. I misjudged the size and speed of that wave.”
—Most expensive fuel prices seen: >$6 per gallon.
—A tour guide outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, “The magnificent cathedral you see before you was made with 151 million pounds of stone…” (…as if this is what makes a church.)
When talking with engaged couples about their wedding day plans, I always say, “Something will go wrong. It always does. But because we know something will go wrong, we’re ready for it when it happens.”
The same can be said for sabbaticals, it seems.
We’ve been planning this trip for over a year, starting when I got affirmation from the church board to begin a grant writing process to cover sabbatical expenses. In the spring of 2022, when much still seemed uncertain and the pandemic was more than lingering, though seemingly past its ‘worst-by’ date, I sat in my office with a purple legal pad and started to brainstorm ideas for three months off.
What would make my heart sing? This question served as the basic prompt from the grant-giving organization. Travel, certainly, was an obvious answer. Rest seemed wise, though secondary to travel. I finally settled on a long train journey, a nod to my love of trains, stopping in locations that spoke to what shaped me as a younger person. Plus, we had to include Justin’s formational journey as well, assuming he would be along for the ride.
Leaving Madison, we boarded our first train, the (unfortunately-named) “Empire Builder,” and after a short layover in Portland, we headed south on the “Coast Starlight” to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where we arrived (early!) after 54 hours of travel. Our first destination: the Oregon Extension, where Justin had spent a semester of college, studying philosophy and religion while living in an old logging camp with 20-odd other students from various universities and a handful of live-in professors. We arrived at midday and after unpacking, we took a tour of the grounds and buildings. We sat on the banks of the mill pond, visited the new chapel, and perused the gardens, meeting Cuma, a resident dog who would have played fetch all day, and Seton, one of the professors who joined the staff in the intervening years between Justin’s time and our return. The sun shone warmly in the moments it appeared from behind the clouds, and the occasional stray rain shower fell gently across our path.
We felt ourselves at home in our wood-fired cabin amongst the pines.
When Justin awoke the next morning, with brain fog and a fever, the magic seemed to pause. Here it was, the first thing to go wrong in our perfectly planned-out trip: a mystery illness. Justin rested on the couch, while I sat in the kitchen, waiting to see if the symptoms persisted. We tossed out some different ideas for what could be plaguing him: elevation sickness? brain-eating amoebas? covid? something else? …I had brought a box of covid tests along, so pulled a test kit out, gave Justin the cotton swab, and set the timer for 15 minutes. Less than 12 minutes later, I looked down at the test to see that damned second line.
Three years. We had avoided this for three years, and now, in the first week of our epic adventure that we’d been planning—dreaming about—for over a year, we stalled. As Justin took to the couch over the next few days, thankfully just nursing a mild case, I was surprisingly delivered into a forced solitude. I had wanted this first chapter to be restful, but this was extreme. To add insult to injury, our dogs (at home) were exhibiting separation anxiety and getting into a multitude of trouble in our absence. Our first time leaving them alone, together, was proving to be a challenge, and my forced solitude was punctuated by embarrassment and sadness at the impact on our dogsitter’s life.
And then I burnt popcorn, polluting the house’s air with one of the worst smells on the planet.
I was ready for something to go wrong at some point on our journey, but this seemed a bit excessive, in my humble opinion.
And, at the same time, it all felt manageable (in most moments; I did lose my shit at one point). Each morning, I woke with optimism, setting out to walk the labyrinth down the hill. I read four books in less than a week, something I haven’t done since who knows when. We ate well (minus some popcorn), enjoyed a cozy abode, took some gentle hikes, and laughed together. We cuddled the resident dogs of the OE and marveled at the migrating geese flying far above.
Sitting below the pines, our hearts were beginning to sing of the magic and the mayhem that comes with beauty and with life. We knew other things might yet go wrong, and we were here for it.