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All Religion & Spirituality Coverage

Ten-year-old Tad Lincoln loved the theater, especially one animated performer he watched at a Washington, D.C., playhouse in 1863. “I'd like to meet that actor,” he said. “He makes you thrill.” Tad quickly got his wish: After the performance, the stage manager escorted him and his friend into the actor's dressing room, where John Wilkes Booth greeted them warmly. “The future murderer of Tad's father gave a rose to each child from a bouquet presented him over the footlights,” writes historian Terry Alford in his endlessly fascinating book In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.

Alford knows his subject inside and out, having written Fortune's Fool, a landmark biography of Booth that Karen Joy Fowler has praised as a major resource for her novel, Booth. In the Houses of Their Dead explores both the Lincolns' and the Booths' enthrallment with spiritualism, the belief that living people can communicate with deceased people's spirits. Members of both families were shattered time after time by a litany of heartbreaking, often torturous illnesses and deaths, which inspired a desire to communicate with their dead loved ones. The two families even sometimes turned to the same mediums, which is just one of many historical threads that tie these two tragedy-bound families together. And yes, there were numerous White House seances, one of which was said to have levitated Abraham Lincoln in the Red Room as he sat atop a grand piano!

Alford seamlessly tells the two families' stories, starting with the major players' childhoods and continuing until their deaths—and after. He's a fair-minded narrator of these complicated historical figures, never casting judgment but rather letting the historical record speak for itself through his riveting, elegant prose. He presents, for instance, Lincoln as a young man playing a prank on a friend by persuading two other friends to dress as ghosts as they walked home one dark night. “Never have I seen another who provoked so much mirth and who entered into rollicking fun with such glee. He could make a cat laugh,” wrote one admirer. That characterization certainly contrasts with the more common portrayal of a brooding, whip-smart but sometimes awkward Lincoln.

Alford sets the historical stage well, allowing readers to understand the emotional underpinnings of Lincoln's assassination, which he memorably describes. Particularly fascinating are the details of its aftermath—how, for instance, Mary Todd Lincoln was left with restricted funds, living in boarding houses and rented rooms as she tried to deal with the deaths of her husband and, ultimately, three of her beloved sons. In 1872, a noted “spirit photographer” produced an image of her that supposedly showed Lincoln standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, with one of their lost sons nearby.

The history of Abraham Lincoln and his enthrallment with spiritualism has never been more surprising than in Terry Alford’s In the Houses of Their Dead.

The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four authors offer hidden paths toward healing.

Bittersweet

Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy.

Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”

Grief Is Love

Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss. When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly.

Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.

The Other Side of Yet

Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness. Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.”

In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.

Take What You Need

Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant.

Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess what they need to persevere.

Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going.

Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling from loss.

Investigate the power of habit, make delicious Chicano food or ponder a new approach to your lawn with this month’s trio of lifestyle reads.

★ The Power of Ritual

The “sacred” may seem conceptually distant from our increasingly secular lives, but it shouldn’t, says Casper ter Kuile in The Power of Ritual. He argues that any habit or practice can become sacred through ritual, allowing us to develop our own modern versions of spiritual life. Here he explores how reframing habits as rituals can help us build connection on four interweaving levels: with ourselves, other people, the natural world and the transcendent. “What I propose is this: by composting old rituals to meet our real-world needs, we can regrow deeper relationships and speak to our hunger for meaning and depth,” he writes. In a world that can frequently feel upside-down and precarious, this well-researched book may provide vital ballast.

Chicano Eats

Esteban Castillo grew up near Los Angeles, making frequent trips to his parents’ homeland of Colima, Mexico. When he later moved to Northern California, he found Humboldt County seriously lacking in the cuisine of his family, so he started a blog to celebrate that food culture. Chicano Eats brings his work to print in festive color, highlighting the ingredients, kitchen tools and playful hybridity of Chicano cooking—Mexican cuisine shaped by immigrants to America over generations, reflecting a community “who’s neither from there or here.” The perfect pot of beans, arroz rojo and salsa molcajete will get you started, and then it’s off to botanas (snacks) such as carnitas poutine, lots of tacos, several versions of pozole (a stew made with hominy and pork) and much more.

Lawns Into Meadows

Americans love lush, green lawns. But the truth is, all those manicured yards are hard on the environment. They guzzle water, chemicals and fossil fuels and do nothing to encourage a biodiverse ecosystem of pollinators, wildlife and microbe-rich soil. In Lawns Into Meadows, Owen Wormser shows us how to forgo grass in favor of native plant meadows, a more climate-friendly option for your green space. Wormser suggests 21 hardy, easy-to-grow perennials that will fill out in no time, like black-eyed Susan, golden­rod and purple coneflower, along with meadow-­making designs to suit a variety of yard sizes. If this is a topic that interests you, there are many more guides in the nifty Citizen Gardening series from Stone Pier Press.

Investigate the power of habit, make delicious Chicano food or ponder a new approach to your lawn with this month’s trio of lifestyle reads. ★ The Power of Ritual The “sacred” may seem conceptually distant from our increasingly secular lives, but it shouldn’t, says Casper ter Kuile in The Power of Ritual. He argues that any […]

When our relationships falter under the pressure of political or religious demands, when ambiguity more than certainty guides our lives, we may be tempted to succumb to our malaise. However, there is another option: We can stumble through the shadows, searching for some thread of meaning that will guide us out of the darkness. The authors of these books have chosen the latter path, peeling away the detritus of life to discover meaning—personal and political—and plumbing the spiritual depths that accompany their searches.


★ Thin Places

With humor and razor-sharp insight, Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places: Essays From in Between captures the visceral, palpable feeling of loss. The ways we inhabit space occupy many of these evocative essays, such as in a piece on an art installation at New York City’s spacious Park Avenue Armory, in which Kisner encourages readers to find someplace “big and empty” when they are “stuck somewhere small . . . somewhere unhappy or afraid or paralyzed or heartbroken.” In her celebrated essay “Thin Places,” she discovers the age-old concept of the space between the spiritual and physical world. This “thin place” is porous, a space where distinctions between “you and not-you, real and unreal, worldly and otherworldly, fall away.” It’s in these thin places that we can find ourselves, absorb glimpses of new meaning from another world and live in the moment. Kisner weaves together reflections on Kierkegaard, her early Christian conversion (and later “unconversion”) and waiting for the subway to gracefully guide us through our own emptiness in search of fullness.

The Great Blue Hills of God

Kreis Beall’s The Great Blue Hills of God explores in lyrical prose what happens when her life falls apart. Beall, who helped create Blackberry Farm, one of the South’s most heavenly resorts, appears to have it all: a loving marriage, great wealth, a beautiful family and a satisfying career. But the demands of building up several properties slowly erode her marriage, and she finds that her and her husband’s financial bank is full but their “emotional bank” is being emptied. As her marriage fades away, Beall falls, and suddenly her health is compromised, and she temporarily loses her hearing. She experiences further devastation when her son, Sam, dies in a skiing accident. Despite the loss of her family, health and wealth, she discovers glimpses of grace in her reading of the Bible, discussions with her pastor and friends and meditations on the nature of home. Throughout the book, Beall sprinkles in fruitful bits of wisdom, embracing the conclusion that, “to me, home is God, family, friends, and legacy. . . . A home is a heart. It is love, people, relationships, and the life you live in it.”

Scandalous Witness

Lee C. Camp’s Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians offers a brilliant summary and exposition of the ways that Christianity is a politic, not a religion. Camp (Mere Discipleship) asks a series of questions that frames Christianity as not just a private spiritual practice but a guide for our life together: “How do we live together? Where is human history headed? What does it mean to be human? And what does it look like to live in a rightly ordered human community that engenders flourishing, justice, and the peace of God?” In the end, the Christian community embraces its mission when it “sets captives free, demolishes strongholds, and . . . [sows] the seeds of the peaceable reign of God.” Camp’s manifesto is a must-read in a world in which Christianity has become either a bedfellow of political parties or an isolated, private practice.

I Am Not Your Enemy

Michael T. McRay’s I Am Not Your Enemy takes Camp’s idea to the personal level. We create meaning in the stories we tell each other, and if we tell a good enough story, we can convince others that certain individuals are our enemies. But just as stories have the power to cultivate hate, they also have the power to reconcile and redeem. Throughout his travels across Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa, and through his work as a conflict and resolution counselor, McRay hears violence-filled narratives with shattered endings. Yet, as he illustrates, not every story needs to end this way. McRay shares stories of a mother who refuses to seek vengeance for her son’s death, a community theater director who helps people who are marginalized find their voices and discover beauty in their lives and a woman who forgives the man who murdered her father. With the verve of a great storyteller, McRay regales us with spellbinding narratives that illustrate the power of words to change our lives and bring meaning to the world.

When our relationships falter under the pressure of political or religious demands, when ambiguity more than certainty guides our lives, we may be tempted to succumb to our malaise. However, there is another option: We can stumble through the shadows, searching for some thread of meaning that will guide us out of the darkness. The […]

Spring is the perfect time to freshen up your outlook—to cultivate new habits and attitudes that can lead to a more satisfying life. These four inspiring books are designed to help you thrive. Here’s to new possibilities!


Fear: We all submit to its grip every now and again. But if the feeling is getting in the way of your goals, it’s time to take action. Carla Marie Manly shows readers how to turn this emotion into a tool for growth in her new book, Joy From Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend. In this warm, welcoming guide, Manly, a clinical psychologist, digs deep into the subject of fear, exploring its connections to anxiety and childhood trauma. She also offers tips on how to constructively cope with worry, self-doubt and chronic stress—the forces that so often hold us back from happiness.

Breaking out of fear-based patterns is a crucial move on the journey to joy, Manly says, and she outlines a range of strategies, including visualization exercises and breathing techniques, for doing just that. Perhaps most importantly, she helps readers be receptive to “transformational fear”—a source of productive energy that can be a motivator for positive change, whether it’s making that dreaded doctor’s appointment or discussing relationship issues with a significant other. Sure, fear can paralyze, but it can also galvanize. Pick up a copy of Manly’s book, and prepare to feel empowered.

It may be small in size, but Diana Winston’s The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness brims with big-hearted advice on achieving inner peace. Winston is the director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. She describes natural awareness as the mind “at rest,” a condition of “simply being—without agenda.” Once you know how to tap into it, Winston says, natural awareness can help you shut out the pressures and demands of daily activity and increase your sense of focus. 

In brief chapters, Winston probes the meaning of natural awareness and leads readers through “glimpse practices” that can be performed at any point during the day or folded into a meditation routine. These simple prompts—including evocative word phrases and body-focused exercises—will help awaken natural awareness. Winston writes for both the experienced awareness-seeker and the novice, and she supplements her advice with insights into her own life and mindfulness evolution. When “you feel a sense of contentment not connected to external conditions,” Winston writes, you’re experiencing natural awareness. Her gentle instruction can result in a more open, responsive and balanced way of being.

Another take-action guide designed to bring about fundamental change is Shunmyo Masuno’s The Art of Simple Living: 100 Daily Practices From a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy. This international bestseller has helped people around the world quiet the chaos of everyday life, stress less and appreciate more. In the book, Masuno—chief priest of the 450-year-old Kenko¯-ji Temple in Japan—offers forthright advice rooted in the teachings of Zen, which, he writes, is “about habits, ideas, and hints for living a happy life.” 

Divided into four parts, the book provides practical steps for becoming more present, as well as suggestions for building confidence and letting go of anxiety. Masuno’s tips are easy to execute. Simple changes—like waking up 15 minutes earlier than usual to savor the morning, or creating a pocket of quiet at work by doing a “chair zazen” (sitting up straight and breathing slowly)—will make a difference in your daily flow. Spare, evocative line drawings by artist Harriet Lee-Merrion accompany each lesson. Through this inspiring guide, Masuno shows that every step you take on the path of personal growth, no matter how small, can have a major impact.

Personal growth can be a faith-based process—one that often involves unexpected changes of heart, as bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor demonstrates in Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. Taylor, a professor of religion at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, is candid about the ways in which teaching has informed her faith. Over time, her own Christian views have shifted. 

“I found things to envy in all of the traditions I taught,” Taylor writes. In Holy Envy, she shares stories of spiritual discovery from campus and beyond, mixing accounts of classroom life into astute considerations of the world’s differing belief systems. She wants her students to recognize that “religion is more than a source of conflict or a calculated way to stay out of hell. Religions are treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia.” On field trips, Taylor and her students visit houses of worship in their many forms—synagogues and mosques, shrines and centers for meditation—and the excursions prove transformative. Heartfelt, thoughtful and beautifully written, Taylor’s book will give readers who are undertaking their own spiritual journeys a sense of purpose and perspective.

Spring is the perfect time to freshen up your outlook—to cultivate new habits and attitudes that can lead to a more satisfying life. These four inspiring books are designed to help you thrive. Here’s to new possibilities!

You've got goals, and we've got the books to help you achieve them. Tackle your resolutions with these 10 books.


The Formula: The Universal Laws of Succes
By Albert-László Barabási

RESOLUTION: Work better, not harder, to reach your goals.
FRESH TAKE: If life were a fair fight, talent plus work ethic is all you’d need to succeed—but we’ve all been passed over for opportunities we’re qualified for. With this data-driven book, Albert-László Barabási explores the universal forces that affect our likelihood of success or failure.
GOOD ADVICE: The differences among top contenders in any category are so tiny that they’re essentially immeasurable—which means wine connoisseurs only know so much, and a nice Pinot can come at any price.


Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection
By Haemin Sunim

RESOLUTION: Practice self-love (beyond just buying bath bombs).
FRESH TAKE: In this gentle, kindhearted guide to inner peace, the Zen Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim argues that if one begins with self-acceptance, one will have greater empathy for others and an easier time adapting to life’s trials.
GOOD AVICE: When beset with negative emotions, observe your own feelings and then try to trace them back to their roots. You might realize that a bad experience in your past or a subconscious insecurity is influencing your behavior.


How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment—the Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life
By Sophie Hannah

RESOLUTION: Embrace your negative side.
FRESH TAKE: Novelist Sophie Hannah believes that nursing one’s grudges can lead to greater self-knowledge, personal growth and healthier boundaries.
GOOD ADVICE: By using Hannah’s hilarious grudge-grading system, you can channel your angry feelings into a deeper understanding of your own values and set necessary boundaries.


No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work
By Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy

RESOLUTION: Feel great about your work.
FRESH TAKE: Two former tech workers offer a fresh, funny approach to handling workplace relationships. By leaning on emotional intelligence, you, too, can navigate the pitfalls of modern office life. 
GOOD ADVICE: Establish context and trust with colleagues by using “richer communication” channels like voice chat before relying on written, and often misinterpreted, methods like email and instant messages.


Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More
By Elizabeth Emens

RESOLUTION: Overcome invisible labor.
FRESH TAKE: From disputing bills to planning a vacation, Elizabeth Emens introduces readers to the concept of admin, our sometimes onerous daily to-do list. Through relatable anecdotes, she breaks down the types of admin in our lives and offers advice on balancing tasks and relationships.
GOOD ADVICE: Talk with your partner about how to divvy up household duties before moving in together or getting married.


Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age
By Mary Pipher

RESOLUTION: Chart the course for the next phase of your life.
FRESH TAKE: Women face many challenges as they age: misogyny, ageism and physical changes. Yet psychologist Mary Pipher shows that most older women are more content than their younger selves. Pipher offers warm, empathetic guidelines for navigating aging and for recognizing its unexpected gifts. 
GOOD ADVICE: Every life stage is filled with pain and difficulties. The challenges and changes presented by aging are different, but they also present new ways to learn about yourself and cultivate empathy. 


The Monkey Is the Messenger: Meditation and What Your Busy Mind Is Trying to Tell You
By Ralph De La Rosa

RESOLUTION: Finally get into mindfulness and meditation.
FRESH TAKE: Everyone knows we should be meditating, but what if your thoughts just won’t shut up? Ralph De La Rosa draws on Buddhism, neuroscience and psychology to posit that instead of growing increasingly frustrated with these intrusive thoughts, we should accept them as a part of ourselves and use them as a tool to understand ourselves better. 
GOOD ADVICE: Try not to allow circumstances to dictate your emotions. Instead, accept circumstances and view them as an opportunity for growth and learning. 


Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol
By Ruby Warrington

RESOLUTION: Be more mindful of your alcohol intake.
FRESH TAKE: Going without alcohol may sound like an extreme lifestyle change and, frankly, a really dull one. But Ruby Warrington is here to tell you, nonjudgmentally, that cutting out alcohol doesn’t mean you’ll become boring, and it can lead to a happier life, filled with better sleep, health and relationships. 
GOOD ADVICE: If you’re worried about all the fun you’ll miss out on while sober, remind yourself of the phenomenon known as “euphoric recall,” in which an experience is misremembered in a far more positive light than the reality. That epic bachelor party five years ago? It perhaps wasn’t as epic as you remember—but the hangover you’re forgetting no doubt was.


Craftfulness: Mend Yourself by Making Things
By Rosemary Davidson & Arzu Tahsin

RESULTION: Pick up a creative hobby.
FRESH TAKE: Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin have crafted (sorry) a well-researched guide to the meditative, restorative and mood-lifting effects of working with your hands on a craft or creative pursuit. Filled with advice on how to let go of the pressure of Pinterest perfection, how to make time for crafting in your busy schedule and even a couple of quick beginner projects to get you started, this book is as warm as the scarf you’ll be knitting.
GOOD ADVICE: For too long, we’ve all been focused on the finished product of our artistic pursuits, which can often lead us to abandon less than perfect-looking projects. But there’s joy to be found in the process of making and mending, regardless of our perceived abilities.


If You Ask Me: Essential Advice from Eleanor Roosevelt
Edited by Mary Jo Binker

RESOLUTION: Sail through life with presidential aplomb.
FRESH TAKE: In 1941, the outspoken first lady Eleanor Roosevelt started an advice column. For 20 years, she doled out clever, pithy advice on love, etiquette and issues like gender and race equality. These lovely columns, collected and annotated by Mary Jo Binker, provide sound advice as well as a look into the life and thinking of a legendary first lady.
GOOD ADVICE: Roosevelt was adamant about gender equality in her personal life, writing that she thinks “people are happier in marriage when neither is the boss” and that all relationships are best built on “unselfishness and flexibility.” 

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

You've got goals, and we've got the books to help you achieve them. Tackle your resolutions with these 10 books.

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