What’s A Prayer Shawl? (And Do You Have to Literally Pray Over Each Stitch to Make One?)

One of my favorite spiritual practices is to knit prayer shawls.  I love to sit quietly and not think, letting my mind rest while I simply make loop after loop with my hands and two bamboo sticks.  When I donate my work to my local church, I feel something like a sense of relief.  The thoughts and concerns that worked themselves out during the knitting of a large project come to an end, given over to a higher purpose. 

I have been known to sit and knit during church services.  I knit in the early morning silence of my meditation and prayer time.  But I also knit while watching TV with my family, in the school pick-up line, and while waiting for doctor appointments.  So I’ve wondered, what exactly makes a knitting project a “prayer shawl”?

For me, it’s all about intent.  Some knitting projects are for specific people for specific purposes – a hat for my husband, a winter scarf for my son, a tote bag for my daughter, a sweater for myself.  But for me, prayer shawls are for someone I likely will never know or meet.

In donating a prayer shawl, I’m giving up to God an investment of my time – usually several weeks’ worth of knitting on a daily basis.  I use soft yarns I hope will provide comfort to someone going through a hard time.  Sometimes I choose peaceful, calming colors for my prayer shawls.  Other times, I choose cheerful, peppy colors I hope will provide a cheerful, upbeat presence in someone’s life.  Sometimes I have in mind a female recipient and knit in pinks and reds and pastels.  Other times, I have a male recipient in mind and knit a prayer shawl a guy wouldn’t mind draped over a favorite chair.  I’ve knitted prayer shawls large enough to serve as a blanket on a nursing home bed.  Others are triangular and meant to wrap around someone’s shoulders.

In any case, the purpose of the project is to share love, comfort, and peace with someone in need.  Occasionally, I know someone who has had surgery, has cancer, or is at the end of life.  When I knit these shawls, I very intentionally think about the person for whom I’m knitting and for their struggles.  But usually, I don’t know where my prayer shawl will end up.  And that’s part of the spirituality of the task – putting forth your best efforts, sharing a gift of love, and trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to get your work where it needs to go. 

So while knitting a prayer shawl is a form of meditation at many points in the making of it, it’s more about the general intention of the whole project.  It’s about a gift of my own peacefulness, sending the finished project out into the world to serve as a visible, tangible reminder of the peace, love, and comfort that can be found in Christian fellowship – even if I never meet the person I find myself connected to with my gift. 

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us.”  She is currently at work on a series of short stories about prayer shawls and those who knit or receive them. 

Recommended Reading:

Peggy Rosenthal, Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting (An excellent, succinct little book that covers lots of topics related to knitting-as-prayer)

Clara Parkes, The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting (Great light reading, a nice memoir that pleasantly meanders along at a calm pace)

 

The Continuing Relevance of Anne Frank’s Diary

The Continuing Relevance of Anne Frank and her Diary

Amsterdam, June 2017

A Muslim woman wearing a hijab and long, flowing black clothes stands with her bicycle at a busy intersection, waiting to enter the throng cycling through the city on a Saturday afternoon.  The city is hot, crowded, and filled with cars, motorbikes, and tourists from all over the globe.  Bakeries and small restaurants run by immigrants from Asia and the Middle East line the narrow side streets, while the scent of pot wafts outside the coffee houses.  A party boat carrying barely-clad women cruises a canal, advertising an establishment in the red light district.

And on one of the sleepier canal streets across town, tourists have formed a line snaking around and around an otherwise vacant lot near the bulky brown nave of the Westerkerk, waiting for hours upon hours to get inside the Anne Frank House.  Earlier in the day, tourists who’ve made reservations months in advance climb inside the upper floors of the house-behind-a-house, perhaps taking a moment to notice newspaper photo of the then Princess Elizabeth, still living.  An hour before closing on a late Saturday afternoon, hundreds more hope to get inside before closing time – despite the heat, despite having a plethora of museums, coffee houses, bike rides, and other attractions they could have chosen.

New generations have not only embraced but amplified Anne Frank’s life and work in the 21st century.

A Fresh, Young, Authentic Voice

“Keeping it real,” is a mantra I’ve heard from my young-adult aged children.  “Keeping it real” means telling the truth – being your authentic, God-honest self.  And this is what Anne Frank did as she wrote the diary entries that became the best-selling, beloved Diary of a Young Girl.  Anne by no means sugar-coated her situation, her family, her relationship with the other people hiding in the Annex, and especially herself.  Her diary is raw, brutally honest, and without agenda.  She writes of sexual feelings most of us would never, ever put down on paper.  She speaks ill of the other family who joins her own in the Annex.  She describes her frustration at having to suddenly share her room with a grown man and (bane of all writers) her inability to get the space and time to work on her own writing project.

It’s this kind of voice we rarely hear any more in this world of stage-crafted communications, talking points, and what may or may not be fake news.  Everybody has an agenda, and social media posts and every other communication usually seeks to serve someone’s cause, political views, or self-image.  Anne Frank, at age thirteen, just wanted to survive to live another day.

The Importance of Small Kindnesses (and Cruelties) in Everyday Life

Re-reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl as an adult while in Amsterdam, I was struck by how Anne’s family and co-habitants of the Annex were able to survive so long without having been found.  The story I really wanted to know about was that of Miep Gies, who brought food and other necessities to the family.  These daily, extraordinary acts of kindness – by Miep, by the green grocer who surely knew (or at least suspected) where the food went, by those who helped with ration cards, money, or even by their sheer silence in not letting on what they knew or suspected – kept the family alive.

Small kindnesses matter.  There are things each of us can do each and every day that could benefit someone we know – or even someone we don’t know very well or at all.

The group hiding in the attic is eventually discovered and send off to concentration camps, where everyone but Anne’s father will die.  Who ratted them out?  Walking around the block of houses on the Prinsengracht, I realized it could have been anyone.  Any of the neighbors looking out their windows onto the courtyard could have seen Anne as she looked out at the trees and sunshine from her attic window.  As hunger and even starvation loomed in 1944 Amsterdam, someone – anyone – must have caved to self-interest and sold the secret of the Jews in the Annex to the Nazis.  Giving this information was a small act, likely taking very little time and effort, but one that was deeply destructive to those in hiding.

There’s a lesson here, too.  Little acts of gossip, bad-mouthing, pettiness, and sheer meanness – even if it’s done for what you think is your own survival – can destroy other people.  In a new culture where we seldom even see our “friends” or neighbors, we might forget that words count.  Words can destroy.

Policies and Agendas Affect Real People

In our current cultural and political climate, the most relevant lesson we can learn from the fate of Anne Frank is that whatever political, corporate, or even personal agenda we might have, real people will be affected.  As I read Anne Frank’s diary and other books about her, I was struck by how utterly apolitical Anne was.  Though her persecution is most definitely an “us against them” agenda by the Nazis, Anne shines through as someone who simply wants to go back to school, have a boyfriend, write, and be able to go outdoors again.

This is what most human beings want – love, purpose, freedom to come and go, and a way forward, whatever that looks like for each individual.  This is what the “us versus them” mentality plows under in its relentless path to make everyone else look, think, and be like you.  This is what killed the fresh, young authentic voice of Anne Frank, now beloved but snuffed out as a teenager.

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony in the Everyday World Around Us.”

For Further Reading:

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Miep Gies, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Life Becomes Overwhelming: a DIY Resilience Toolkit

Between a hurricane hitting a major US city, North Korea firing off missiles, and widespread political turmoil, stress levels are up.  Sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about the numerous disasters, breaking news headlines, and personal problems that constantly bombard us.

We need resilience – the ability to suck it up and move on (or at least find a sense of peace among the turmoil), and like anything else worth having, finding resilience might take a little work.  But even those of us prone to anxiety can come up with a “toolkit” of go-to techniques and practices to find calm in the storm.

Here is my own Resilience Toolkit.  Even on relatively calm days, doing just one or two of these activities can help to clear your mind and be ready to deal with unexpected sources of stress.  On days when you know you’re about to run head-on to numerous sources of stress, you might do several of these activities (as time allows; even a few minutes helps).

·         Turn off the television and put down your phone.  It’s okay to take a break from the news, and chances are, you can’t do anything about most of the problems you see on TV.

·         Read something dealing with a lightweight subject that doesn’t push any of your buttons.  Personally, I prefer travel books – they take you out of your own messed up world and transport you to someplace interesting and new where you have no dog in the hunt.

·         Quiet crafting – knitting, woodworking, drawing, cooking, gardening, whatever floats your boat.  I find that even one or two rows of knitting calms me down (or at least gives me an excuse to take a break from the rest of the world).

·         Journaling.  Write whatever comes into your pretty little head, and feel free to vent.  You have permission to write illegibly so no one will ever be able to read your deepest vents, or you can tear up (or even burn) whatever you write afterwards.  It’s the process that makes you feel better.

·         Take a walk outside.  Being outdoors gives you an instant sense of peace and quiet.  A walk around the block or just a breath of fresh air does wonders.

·         Spend a few minutes in meditation or prayer, doing yoga, or reading a favorite inspirational book.  One of the purposes of spiritual practices is to help find a sense of peace.

Life is tough.  Some days it’s tougher than others.  Take care of yourself by spending a few minutes a day in your own little bubble of peacefulness, away from the madness of crowds and reality.

Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony in the Everyday World Around Us.”

Favorite Books Set in Amsterdam

Hello after a long break, faithful readers!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted on this blog.   I just got back from a much needed vacation to Europe, and I’m finally back in the saddle and ready to write again.

My family and I gleefully jetted off to Amsterdam as a first stop in our latest European adventure.  This was my youngest son’s first European vacation, so we wanted an easy entry point to the continent –  friendly people who spoke American English, lots of charm, and easy to navigate.

Part of a great vacation is vicariously living in your destination through books and travel guides before you get there.  Before we went to Amsterdam (and while I was there), I had the pleasure of reading several novels set in Amsterdam’s golden age of the 17th century, bringing the charming houses along the canals and their inhabitants to life.   Here are my favorites:

The Coffee Trader, by David Liss.  If you like intrigue and financial dealings, this is the book for you.  The scheming was like the Survivor show on steroids.  This novel starts out slowly, but stick with it.  I couldn’t put it down once I eventually got into it.  Set in 17th century Amsterdam, a trader tries to introduce a new drink, coffee, to the Dutch.  This novel also includes an interesting history of the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach.  This book is more about romance than tulips, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  A young girl is married off to an old Dutch merchant.  A young handsome painter comes to paint their portrait – the perfect set-up for a 17th century soap opera.  Good light reading.

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton.  This is a weird book.  I still don’t know quite what to make of it, but the writing was marvelous, and I couldn’t put it down.  Also set in 17th century Amsterdam, also involving a young woman married off to a guy she hardly knows.  The iconic centerpiece of this novel is a dollhouse modelled after the house where the main characters live.  Miniatures of real life people, pets, and objects mysteriously show up on the door step.  Fascinating…but weird.

All these books are about $10 in paperback and also available on Kindle.

Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of the novels Ginger’s Reckoning and Runaway Kitty, along with several books on spiritual formation. 

 

 

 

Good Friday in the Garden

This is an excerpt from my book, “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us,” now available in paperback and Kindle at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.   

The Garden is where Jesus was buried and resurrected to new life.  This is what happens in a garden.  The dry, seemingly lifeless seeds from the harvest of the past are buried in the earth.  We wait for something mysterious to happen under the earth, out of sight, and fueled by water and air.  Then we rejoice in the new life that springs up in front of us, growing into a beautiful flower or nutritious fruits or vegetables that will give us joy and sustain our very lives.

What happens in the Garden IS the story of the Christianity.  Death becomes new life, despite a seemingly hopeless state of affairs at the beginning of the process.  We proceed in faith that something will happen despite our inability to see anything hopeful happening at all.  How this all happens is mostly a mystery.  But eventually, a tiny sprout of new life pokes through the soil.  This new life is fragile and might wither.  But with careful tending and protection of this new life, the plant will grow tall and strong and give us the life-sustaining nutrition we need so much.

By resurrecting in a Garden, perhaps Jesus shared with us his best teachable moment.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to draw our attention to the garden, once and forever, urging us to look – really look – at what happens in the garden.  In his resurrected form, Jesus was first thought to be the gardener.  Perhaps the role of the gardener – the cultivator of God’s creation, an expert on the process of gardening, someone who pays attention to what is going on in the natural world – is a  role we might explore as we seek to cultivate and grow our own spiritual lives. 

We often feel most at peace in the garden. Perhaps it is this peace that Jesus sought in the Garden of Gethsemane before his death on the Cross.  Perhaps it was the awareness of all life – ending, beginning, and continuing on, through all our human births and deaths – that consoled Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or helped him confront worldly temptations in the wilderness, immediately after his Baptism and in preparation for his public ministry.

This peace in the garden and in the wilderness is something we can have in our own world today.  This peace is often right outside the door, a place of solace and quiet available at all times.  The natural world can also be a place of spiritual growth and development of wisdom, if we only step outdoors and pay attention in quiet and solitude, listening to God with our hearts. 

Easter Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of “Earth our Garden Home: Creation Care Lessons for Children” and “Wild Faith: A Creation Care Curriculum for Youth,” both available in paperback and Kindle editions. Considering Birds & Lilies is now available at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU. All of my books are included in Kindle Unlimited.

 

Considering Birds & Lilies – An Excerpt from my new book

My new book, Considering Birds & Lilies, is now available in paperback and Kindle editions at this link: http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.”

From “God’s Garden,” Dorothy Frances Gurney

How many of us have found peace, serenity, hope, and a sense of God’s presence in a garden or in a place of beauty in the wilderness?  This sense of spirituality while spending time in nature is nearly universal among humans, both in times past and in our own time.  We often hear friends and neighbors say that the mountains, a beautiful canyon, a vegetable garden, or a forest filled with trees and wildlife is their “church.”  Even those attending church regularly may express a need to go on a hike, work in the garden, or just relax in their backyard as a spiritual need which the walled-in church building cannot meet.

The spiritual need for time in nature is real. Humans feel better, think better, and are emotionally and physically healthier after spending time outdoors.  Time in nature is good for us.

As Christians, our stories are deeply intertwined with nature.  The Bible begins in a peaceful garden where all is right with the world (for a time), then follows Moses into the wilderness as he encounters a burning bush, then on to the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness and encountering God’s grace for survival.  They arrive in a fertile land of milk and honey and seek to establish a home.  After a time of exile, a time in a valley of dry bones, John the Baptist arrives out of the wilderness to announce a new era of good news.

Jesus quickly retreats to the wilderness of the desert as he begins his public ministry and often retreats to a quiet place in nature for reflection, prayer, and time with God.  His final evening as a free man is in a garden, and his resurrection takes place in a garden as well.

Despite these deep links with nature, modern churches have all but lost their connections with the natural world.  Look inside most churches, and the only greenery you will likely find are flowers placed near the altar.  There might be a little-used outdoor chapel on the property.  A couple of flower beds may be part of the typical mowed and artificially fertilized landscaping.  Otherwise, the church property may show no sign of connecting – much less embracing – the natural world that feeds us spiritually and physically.

Time in nature is for everyone.  No matter how athletic, outdoorsy, or comfortable with dirt and insects you may be, you can find a sense of peace while spending time in just a part of the natural world.  You might find this sense of peace while hiking the Appalachian Trial, but you can also find a sense of peace and spiritual comfort in your backyard garden or city park.   Nature speaks to everyone, wherever they are.

Copyright 2017 Cynthia Coe.  All Rights Reserved.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming new book, Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us.  Follow this blog or follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sycamorecove/  for news of promotions and upcoming releases. 

Blessings, Cindy

Short, Wonderful Novels: A List of Favorite Quick Reads

For a book lover, nothing beats a really good novel you can read and savor in the space of a weekend – or even in one long sitting.  I just finished reading Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.  I started the book the day before yesterday, found myself seriously engaged in it, and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.  It was a truly marvelous book.

Short novels tend to swiftly whisk us off to another world and keep us there, capturing our full attention, but just for a day or two.  Short novels typically have just one or two main characters, tight writing, and a plot that moves.  I love big fat novels that allow you to wallow in their complex worlds for weeks, but short novels are like perfect chocolate truffles: short-lived, delicious pleasures.

Here are some of my favorite short novels (of about 200 pages or less):

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (Set in post-Civil War Texas, an old man is charged with returning a young girl captured by the Kiowa tribe to her surviving relatives. Riveting.)

Dai Sijie and Ina Rilke, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (A gorgeous story of two Chinese boys living on their own, books, and love for a girl)

Jane Mendelsohn,  I was Amelia Earhart (A beautifully written novel of what might have happened to the famous aviator)

Tracy Chevalier, Girl With a Pearl Earring (A classic story of a young girl, based on the painting)

Rick Moody, Hotels of North America (Quirky)

And because it’s Lent and some of us are not giving up chocolate…

Joanne Harris, Chocolat  (A priest in France has a hissy fit when a new chocolate shop opens during Lent. A bit longer than 200 pages, but a quick read.)

Cynthia Coe is the author of the short novel Runaway Kitty, along with several other books. 

 

 

Big, Fat Novels for Snowy Days

It’s snowing in many parts of the country, and down here in the Smoky Mountains, most schools have closed due to illness.  For many of us, it’s time to stay inside and snuggle with a really good book. 

I don’t know about you, but there’s a time and a place for big, fat novels spanning hundreds of pages – summer vacations, blizzard conditions outside, school out and cooped up inside.  You need a lot of time for a novel of more than 500 or so pages, and you sure don’t want to have to lug such a thing on an airline flight with you. 

Most of my own writing tends towards the short and concise, but I dearly love a good, long novel with multiple plot lines, lots of interesting characters you really get to know well, and a story spanning several years.  Here are some of my favorites:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.  This was the “it” book of a couple of years ago.  I couldn’t put it down.  A young boy finds himself in an art museum during a terrorist attack and develops a certain attachment with one piece of art that mysteriously disappears before the first responders arrive.  Arguably too long, but it’s a lot of story for the money. 

Russka, Sarum, London, Paris, and New York by Edward Rutherfurd.  If you like historical fiction spanning generations, these books are for you.  As a history major, I was in hog heaven reading these books and learned oodles of history as well. 

War & Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky).  Okay, if we’re talking big, fat novels, we’ve got to include War & Peace.  Yes, I’ve read it, and I loved it.  (I confess, I skipped the military history stuff).  If you like Downton Abbey type stories, you’ll love this book, too.  This fairly recent translation has gotten great reviews. 

Stay safe, stay well, Cindy

 

 

 

  

Christian Nurture in the 21st Century – About this Book (And What has Changed – or Mostly NOT Changed – Since I Wrote this Book)

I wrote Christian Nurture in the 21st Century back in 2003, in response to lots of social changes I saw that the Church had not adjusted to  – working women who no longer had time to volunteer for church work, ever-increasing demands on children’s time, and parents who had never learned the basics of the Christian faith themselves.

In my book, I advocated for high quality, professional efforts in the ministry of Christian formation.  I suggested that we pay teachers, train them, and take this ministry seriously if the Church intends to survive.  I also strongly advocated that the Church focus on the basics and use modern teaching methods and knowledge to provide quality adult formation, meeting adults where they were in their lives with timely, relevant resources. 

What’s Happened in Children’s Christian Formation

At the time the book was written, I headed up a formation ministry that served 185 children between the ages of 3-12, almost all of whom attended regularly.  Within a couple of years of writing the book, most of the conservative church members had left my parish, and this number dropped to one child at one point. That number has gradually crept back up, but it will almost certainly never be the robust program it once was.  The aging population of Episcopal parishes has taken its toll as well.  With the average age of parishioners going up and up, the number of children attending parishes will, of course, decrease.  I think efforts to restore the old Sunday School model of formation are pretty much in vain.

On the brighter side, Episcopal schools and camps seem to have picked up steam.  In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen the local Episcopal school grow from a tiny start-up into a large elementary school, along with a middle school and pre-school – all with daily chapel services and a weekly religion class led by a seminary-trained chaplain. Clearly, there is a demand for quality educational programs led by paid professionals. 

Episcopal camps also seem to be popular and well attended.  I think their success addresses several social trend I discussed in my book – the lack of time during the week, increased homework, weekends filled with extracurricular activities, but too much free time during the summer.  Parish VBS programs also seem to retain their popularity, likely for the same reasons.  I’m glad to see these summer programs flourish.

As far as resources go, we’ve seen some new initiatives to provide high quality curriculum resources to Episcopal parishes for little or no cost.  I’ll give a lot of credit to Episcopal Relief & Development for providing the Abundant Life Garden Project and Act Out resources digitally and for free.  I think the success of these programs and others like them showed that if quality, flexible content is provided, teachers and formation leaders will enthusiastically use them. 

I’d love to see more new initiatives to provide resources to address issues people actually face on a daily basis.  It’s now possible to provide resources quickly and at very little production cost.  (You can now publish an e-book or a paperback book for free.  Believe me, I’ve done it.)  I’m aghast that development of resources by the mainstream Episcopal publishers continues at glacial speed.

Adult Christian Formation is Now DIY

One of the reasons I went into Christian formation was the huge transformative change the church’s adult programs had made in my own life.  The vehicles of this transformation were small group Bible studies I attended in my late twenties and early thirties.  I had an opportunity to ask questions, share my story and my journey with others, and get wise advice and guidance from others. 

But sadly, these groups at the end of the 1990’s were apparently the tail end of the small group adult Bible study movement in the Episcopal Church.  By the time I graduated from VTS in 2003, these groups had ended.  With the exception of an Alpha group here and there for newbies, there were no study groups for adults.  Did I offer to start or lead one (or several) myself?  Oh yes.  My offers have yet to be accepted.  The few adult study groups that exist are attended almost exclusively by seniors and retirees

So here in 2017, I really wish I had friends my own age in the Church (locally, not just on Facebook), but I don’t.  I truly wish I had some sort of support group or study group I could attend.  But there isn’t one.  No, I’m not going to hang out with women my mother’s age to attend the only programs that meet during the few times my schedule is free.  And I’m no longer willing to give up my family time in the evenings, either.  That leaves Sunday mornings, but I look at the few groups meeting on Sunday morning, and they look like either self-serving info-sessions (e.g. “stewardship”/ how to give more money to the Church) or topics that simply don’t interest me.

Yet my own formation continues.  All of us continue to change and grow through the years.  These days, my formation has taken on a much more quiet, meditative character.  I take walks in nature with my dog, do yoga, write in my journal, or knit as my daily spiritual time.  I’ve found myself using these old-fashioned things called “books” to help guide me through my continuing spiritual journey.  They cost very little and arrive on my doorstep with a couple of clicks on my laptop. Formation has become do-it-yourself for me – and likely for many people.

In this time of vast change, I look forward to what happens to the Church in the future.  In the meantime, I’m mostly content with DIY formation.  It is what it is.  What happens next will certainly be shaped by social changes which started decades ago – changes the Church simply hasn’t adjusted to yet. 

Christian Nurture in the 21st Century is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at this link.  The book is also available through many online book sellers and distributors, including Amazon’s worldwide affiliates.  This book is included in Kindle Unlimited.

***Important Note:  The Kindle edition of this book will be FREE on January 14-16 ONLY.****

 

 

Favorite Books About Russia

With all the talk about Russian intrigues in the news, along with the bitingly cold temperature outside, I’ve thought back on my favorite books about Russia that have come out in the last few years.  Once the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, a number of both novels and memoirs detailed the hardships of life in Russia behind the Iron Curtain – stories and history lessons we in America are just now hearing.

Like modern Russia itself, many of these stories are rich with drama – but filled with heartbreak as well.  When I first travelled to Russia several years ago, it was described to me as “the wild, wild East.”  Indeed, my travels to Russia were experiences of a lifetime.  Among the crumbling infrastructure and scarcities of many of the common conveniences we take for granted in America, we met many Russians who showed kindness, resilience, and friendliness to us as Americans.  In the Russian Arctic, we found ourselves driven around by a former Soviet fighter pilot who loved to make turns by hitting snow banks at top speed.  We visited a local “mall” that turned out to be not much more than a flea market.  Our eyes widened at the sight of a huge poster of Andrew Jackson on a twenty dollar bill at the one currency exchange outside the one western grocery store in town.  Finding ourselves snowed in at our hotel, we dined old school, with a gourmet meal served on a white linen tablecloth, accompanied by a string quartet so beautiful it made me weep.

We were also told that Moscow is “a country within a country,” and we found this to be true as well.  While Russians in the provinces welcomed us, in Moscow we found ourselves under surveillance at all times.  A hotel manager followed me into a bathroom to watch while I changed my child’s diaper.  The hotel maids felt free to come into our room at any time, without knocking, to check on us.  A restaurant across the street from the US Embassy refused us service.  When politics went really south, I had to get in our guide’s face and yell at him before he would take us to the Delta office to change our tickets.  After leaving our hotel at 4 in the morning, our cab was stopped on the way to the airport for the proverbial check of our “papers.”

We got only a taste of the bare bones existence and the ultra-paranoid police state experienced by most Russians after the Russian Revolution.  For full stories by those who lived or travelled extensively in Russia, here are some of my favorite books about contemporary Russia and its recent history:

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag, by Karl Tobien.  An American family moves from Detroit to Gorky in the early 1930’s to work in a new Ford factory.  This book shows, from an American standpoint, the ruthlessness of life under Stalin, told by Margaret Werner’s son.

The Bronze Horseman, Paullina Simons.  This novel details the life of a young woman enduring the siege of Leningrad by the Germans during World War II.  One million people died of starvation.  This book has it all – romance, sex, death, suffering.  It’s a little romance-novel-ish at times, but the story of the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) is one I’ve not read anywhere else (and especially this graphically).

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food & Longing, Anya von Bremzen.  This beautifully written memoir is the story of an average young girl growing up in the Soviet Union during the 1960’s era of post-Stalinist Russia.  It gives a superb picture of what daily life was like in the late 20th century, along with the author’s immigrant experience in the United States.  Highly recommended.

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia, David Greene.  Written by an NPR Morning Edition journalist, this wonderful travel book chronicles the author’s train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping to meet ordinary Russians along the way.  This is an insightful look into present day Russia.

I hope you enjoy these marvelous books on cold winter nights!

Happy New Year, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is a writer and author of two novels, based in Knoxville, Tennessee.