Book Review: “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah

The first time I started this book, the beauty of Hannah’s writing took my breath away. I wanted to read it slowly, to give it the time it deserved and ended up having to return it to the library before I’d barely gotten a few chapters in. 

Then I waited for the audio book version. Once I started that, it still took me forever to finish it, not just because of how beautifully it was written, but because it made everything feel so real. 

And WWII was an ugly time. 

The story surrounds the lives of two sisters living in France during the Nazi occupation. Their upbringing was dysfunctional, broken by the loss of thier mother and their father’s inability to recover from his involvement in WWI. When war comes again to France, they both approach it differently, adding a dynamic of family tension to this story of bravery and survival.

Like many well done narratives about life during WWII, it is ripe with tragedy, truth, and hope. It was a hard read for me because the characters were all so real and lovely that I was constantly worried about thier wellbeing. I finally finished with tears in my eyes. While this story is fiction, I couldn’t help but be moved by the depiction of life during this time, the pain and struggle, and how so many people forgot their own wants and dreams to save the lives of strangers. 

Beautifully done and unforgettable, this novel was definitely worth the hype that drew me to it.

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Unconditional

Some people get cranky when they’re tired. Some when they’re stressed. Some when they’re hungry or sick or when they’ve been cooped up inside from a snowstorm.12605531_10153376992302963_4298170848787498067_o.jpg

Me? I get cranky for all of the above reasons, but this particular night was the second day in a row that I was cranky from studying for my French quiz. Jon saw me come in favoring my tender, twisted ankle after a literal run in with the six year old.12140878_10153214699457963_8518091886176476593_o

“Aww,” he said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I snarled a groan at him and waved him away, “Just leave it, okay?” And that was just the beginning. I took everything else he said completely out of context and chewed him up to the best of my ability before throwing myself on my bed and sobbing into my blankets like a Disney princess with PMS.

I felt like…well, a jerk I guess. I’d like to use stronger language, but I try to keep it clean around here as best I can. I fell asleep hating myself, thinking about how, even if he had meant his words the way I’d taken them, I was still being unfair. He’s tired too and working so hard. I should at least be giving him as much grace as I’d want for myself.

First thing I woke up, I sent him a text: “I’m sorry I’m a jerk sometimes.

I saw him around the house but couldn’t make eye contact with him. I was too afraid that he’d still be upset at me for being so horrible the night before. On my way out the door, he called my name and came up to me with his arms wide open.

“I got your text,” he said, as his arms closed around me.11081166_10152783748617963_5494858081283997201_n

“I love you Jonny.”

“I love you too.” He pulled back a little and looked at me with his head cocked slightly to the side. “But seriously, I don’t remember you being a jerk.”

Every. Single. Time.
This bizarre treatment isn’t just specific to my brother-in-law. No. It started with my husband. Even when I know he knows I’ve done something to hurt him, even at the times I’ve brought tears to his eyes, he just says, “It’s okay. I forgive you,” and it’s done. It never comes up again. There’s no wall, no hate, no slamming doors or days of silent treatment and shunning.

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His parents are the same. I can openly disagree with them. I can do something they don’t like. I can be a snarky, nasty, easily annoyed female dog for days and they still just…

love me.

12622269_10153376950777963_1368095368960911501_oThis version of love is new to me. When I first found it in my husband, I just assumed it was so wild and beautiful because this was the way true romantic love was when you’ve finally found THE ONE. I never dreamed that I would find it in others. Yet here I am, living in a home where everyone just loves me. Not the nice me that nobody would have trouble loving, but the real me, the one with all the dirty broken bits.

It’s beyond my understanding, this concept of a love that13391473_10153678715022963_2054460552765938291_o does not have to be earned; that’s reaffirmed daily by action and word. Growing up, love was something I had to fight to gain. When I didn’t keep my behavior, thoughts, and attitudes properly in order, I was tossed aside until I got it right. I spent so much time groveling, hoping that if I just said enough right things or did enough right things or buried enough of the parts of me people didn’t like or understand, that I would finally receive the love I wanted so desperately.

Over the past few years I’ve come to realize that people who put that many conditions on love, are not worth the time spent in trying to gain their affections. So, I stopped trying. I thought this decision would mean the end of family for me, that I’d only have one again when Timothy and I had children and a home of our own.

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12961212_10208680190820471_2361922664253489059_oBut here are these people, these beautiful people, that I have no blood relationship to, that have no reason to want me around, who live with me day after day after day and see what a hot mess I am and yet CHOOSE to love me. It’s as though they made a decision to love me the first time their son brought me through the door. They didn’t even know me then, and they loved me. They know me now and love me just as much. And they give and give and give and want nothing back. And I’m just wrecked by it, in a good way, because I can’t wrap my head around the idea that the love I’ve always wanted, my whole entire life, the love I begged and wept for my whole childhood, the home I need now more than ever, was waiting for me in the arms of a family that I didn’t even know existed until eight years ago.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever understand it. I know I’ll never deserve it. But please, you guys, please don’t ever stop. ❤

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Gumdrops and Skittles and Gummy Bears (Oh My!)

I don’t remember when it started, but for years now it is a family tradition for me and my two siblings to make a gingerbread house. It seems to me that my sister was already in college when this tradition began. We pull out the same metal tea-tray, cover it with aluminum foil, and glue the pre-made gingerbread house kit together with Betty Crocker vanilla icing. My mother buys far too much candy, giving us a ridiculous amount of options for decorating, and a subsequent sugar high that lasts until the end of January.

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I’ve seen some amazing gingerbread houses. Some people build replicas of famous buildings with scale model precision. My in-laws built their own house one year and bought stacks of gum to use as white siding. It was beautiful and insane.

I can’t remember when we decided to jump over beautiful and dive right into insane. I think we used to start with good intentions, lining the roof with skittle christmas lights and using peppermints to make a sidewalk, but after a little munching the sugar hits your bloodstream and you’re hardly responsible for your own behavior. It’s hard not to snack on the goodies in front of you, especially when you know there’s going to be a bowl full of extras at the end, and honestly, I’ve always been a sucker for icing.

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Usually the saga of the house centers around the gummy bears. The house is theirs and they are often protecting it from some sort of invasion. This year, we had both chocolate and vanilla icing. The chocolate side belonged to the Star Wars Angry Bird gummies, who were at war with the gummy bears. We built mini battle scenes with appropriate amounts of carnage.

Then we found the gummy worms.

They were the real problem. They answered to no one. They were wild, untamable, and loved to eat other gummy creatures. My brother molded a shoot of fondant for them to come curling up from under the earth. They are attacking the lines of marching bears and creating chaos within the chaos.

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That’s the story. Death and destruction every year. Violent? Perhaps. Blame it on the sugar high and the fact that none of us ever grew up. We crack ourselves up every year though, which makes it, for me at least, an essential holiday tradition.

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Notice the crazy face my husband made. Yeah…he fits right in. 😉

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Christmas Card Blues

Christmas cards, like so many other things around the holidays, seem to have an etiquette all their own.

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I’ve never understood the whole, card for card thing. People are thrown into an absolute panic if they get a card from someone who they didn’t send one too. You’d think they were wedding invitations and not once a year correspondence with people you don’t even call every decade.

And I’m never more conscious of how dysfunctional my family is, until I start trying to address my cards. Like, do I send one to my uncle’s current live in girlfriend? And do I send it to his home address and risk his ex spouse throwing it away in a fit of anger? Do I send one to my recently exed-aunt who hated almost everyone in the family or will that just look like I’m rubbing it in her face? I addressed one card, now already in the mail, to Mr. and Mrs. His-Last-Name, only to remember, after it had been mailed, that the Mrs. very specifically did NOT take his name when they married. Eventually I just throw up my hands and say “what the heck it’s just a card goshfriggindanggit” (or something to that effect) and put on the stamps.

All these land mines of potential family ire, often make me dread the summer family get togethers, where Aunt Myrtle will sniff resentfully at me because I sent one to Uncle Fred and Cousin Holly, but forgot her. But I’ll just do what I always do, smile and apologize. What else can I do? It’s just a card. It’s just a gesture. And I don’t know about you folks, but I’m human and prone to make the occasional mistake.

So here’s a picture of me and my crazy christmas smile for you lot who did not get a card from me, and even to the others who did.

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Happy Christmas Everyone!
With love from Me.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

What She Needs, Is What I’ll Miss

IMG_3229 From the moment I came to my in-law’s house that weekend, I’d been avoiding her room. Aunt Lori warned me that she’d been packing all week. It made sense, we were getting down to the wire. Now I stood on the threshold looking in. It was everything I expected to see, but that didn’t make the sight more palatable. The pictures were down off the walls. The bible verses tacked to her mirror were removed. All that remained of her worldly possessions were piled neatly on the floor of her room. She looked up and smiled at me, blinking her glittering blue eyes.

“Where should I sit?” I asked.

“I’ll make a place for you here.” She cleared off her desk and pulled up the chair. She pointed at a pile of clothes. “This is it. I’ve always wanted to be a minimalist.”

I chuckled and said, “You know when you get there you’re not going to come back.” I was only half joking. The expression that crossed her face made me think she half hoped I was right.

The Philippines. It already looks far on a map, long before you calculate miles or flight times or time changes. Two years. It already sounds long before you break it down to months or weeks or days. But it’s hard to hold onto my selfish desire to keep her here when she’s glowing like this.

“Rachel it’s been crazy lately,” she said. “I mean through this whole thing, God has just been changing me. Like, all these little things in my life. I feel God putting his finger on everything. ‘You need to give this to me’ and ‘You need to give this to me’. Even my desire to become a missionary. He said to me, ‘What if I don’t want you to be a missionary? What if I want you to stay in New Jersey forever?’ I’m like, ‘God, why can’t you just let me be a missionary?’ But he wanted me to give him everything, even my desire to be a missionary. And when I did, he gave it back to me. Now there’s no fear. I’m sad, I mean, I know I’ll miss a lot, like Ben and Chelsea’s baby, but if this becomes permanent there will be a lot more of that.”

I’m listening with all of me, while still acutely aware of how easily I could burst into tears and how much I wish I could stealthily record our conversation. I want to be able to remember what she said word for word. I want to be able to absorb it into me, along with her confidence in Christ’s plans and ways, the lessons she’s learned and learning, and her abiding peace.

I eyed the clothes she laid aside for her journey ahead. For some in this world it would still be a lot, but for the average American in our area, not so much. But she won’t need a lot of things where she is going. What she will need is the bit of her that I will miss the most. The part I most hate to lose.

The beauty of her gracious heart. The gentleness of her christlike spirit. Her compassion. Her wisdom. Her strength. Her passionate desire to answer God’s call. That is what drew her across the ocean, with a suitcase full of love for the newborn babies she will deliver. That is what she will bring to the poor and needy mothers at the clinic God has sent her to.

Those are the things that make her beautiful, and that is what I will miss the most.IMG_0918

The Ancient Willow

A while back, I wrote up a post entitled What Good is a Roll Without Butter? about my dear brother-in-law Jonathan and how we composed a poem over the course of two days via text message.

Another while back, my husband, brother-in-law, and I were out on a jaunt in the little ol’ white Honda, and composed the following moving sonnet. We alternated lines as we rolled down the highway.

My lines – will be in regular type
Timothy’s lines – will be in bold type
Jonathan’s lines – will be in blue italics

The willow tree lies barren in the glen.
Its leaves have fallen down to grow no more.
Its mournful beauty still forgot by men,
Who wander aimlessly toward beck’ning shore.
What memories it holds and tales could tell,
Of evil and courageous deeds of yore,
Of yonder church when peals its wedding bell,
And cries of men who lie upon death’s door.
Though endless ages used to pass him by,
His time on earth is growing rather short.
For all that carries life must one day die,
And age and time both ruthlessly contort.
So life, an endless circle, rolls along,
And still none heeds the ancient willow’s song.

In case you were wondering…yes my family is amazing!

© Rachel Svendsen 2014

When I Say, “I Love You”

You say you love me more than any man has ever loved a woman
That’s absurd
Cliche
But may I tell you something?
I believe you.

I too have run out of words for you
Already?
So soon?
You’re too wonderful
Too consuming
Too perfect

I could kiss you until my breath ceased
I could look into your eyes until your brilliance blinded me
I could…

I’ve given you my heart
My hand
My body
My life
Yet it does not seem enough

When I say, “I love you”
Can you fathom the truth contained in those words?
The layers and depth of meaning drop down to the atomic level of my being
Every cell of me cries out to give you more

Darling…
I love you.

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7 of the best years together
2 of them as man and wife
❤ Happy Anniversary Timothy ❤

© Rachel Svendsen 2014