Book Love


I have this great friend named Trevor. I haven't seen him in years, but he's one of those people who seems like a spiritual twin. Yesterday, he tagged me in an email conversation about favorite books. Here's what I wrote back to the group.

Trevor, I don't know that I've ever received a better compliment than being included in a group of "people whose lists [you] would almost kill to see."

I have lots of favorite books for lots of different reasons. Out of courtesy to you all, I had to make rules for myself: no more than five books per category; no mentioning a writer more than once.

Books that rescued me from Very Bad Places:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Eight Cousins, by Louisa May Alcott
The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton

Books I've re-read the most times:
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell 
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis

Cookbook upon which I rely most heavily:
The Way to Cook, by Julia Child 
(Though, YOU GUYS, I just got Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab for my birthday yesterday. I've read 40 pages so far this morning, and I am deeply infatuated.)

Books in which I see myself mirrored most clearly:
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
Kaaterskill Falls, by Allegra Goodman
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Here Be Dragons, by Sharon Kay Penman

If at gunpoint I could choose only one book by my favorite British writers not otherwise mentioned:
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins
Possession, by A.S. Byatt

Same thing, gunpoint, favorite Americans:
The Children, by Edith Wharton
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Shining, by Stephen King
Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Books that made me laugh the hardest:
Make Way for Lucia, by E.F. Benson
The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Books that made me sob the hardest: 
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

Books in the sweet spot on the Evocation-Aesthetic Venn Diagram in my brain:
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Picture books I most love reading aloud to my kids:
Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak
Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik
The Piggy in the Puddle, by Charlotte Pomerantz
The Zoom Trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones
Busy, Busy World, by Richard Scarry

Books that most terrified me:
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Speculative fiction most influential on my own writing:
Was, by Geoff Ryman
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau Wilce
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link

Books I've discovered and most loved since starting my MFA:
The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, by K.G. Campbell
There you have it. I wish people still blogged, so I could tag all of my friends and ask you to make your list of favorites. But you can tell me in a comment. :) 

All Things Dark and Beautiful--2016 Edition

Hope and Tess as the Grady twins from The Shining--a mothering pay-off moment for me. 

In years past, I've made lists of books, movies, music, and places that evoke the Octoberish feeling. All this month, I've been too busy with my wonderful graduate program (and, um, a trip to Paris), and haven't had enough leisure time in which to sink into a pleasurable melancholy. But I turned in a school packet Saturday night, so today's the day. Fittingly, it's Halloween. And November, my favorite month of the year, is a wonderful time to indulge in all things Octoberish. With that in mind, here are all the latest things I've found that bring me to that elusive, borderless place that Ray Bradbury called The October Country


The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

A haunted house story in high Southern Gothic style. You feel like your family is dysfunctional? Read this book, and you'll feel like you're part of the Brady Bunch. Images of Beldame, sitting on a desolate beach in Alabama, will stay with you.

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

The dream Long Island summer rental turns deadly for a couple from Queens. This book and The Elementals were re-released relatively recently by Valancourt Books, which looks like a treasure trove of forgotten horror classics that I'll be mining for quite a while. 

Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

Forget Neil Gaiman and John Bellairs (well, not really): this is THE scariest book intended for children that I've ever read. Barraclough expertly sustains dread and atmosphere to the very last page. The companion book, The Mark of Cain, isn't quite as well done, but it's still worth your time. 

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

An English village is plagued first by an epic flood and then by contagious, suicidal madness. The bizarre Willoweed family is at the center of all the action. This book was banned in Ireland for decades; it's definitely an unsettling little book.

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

A book doesn't have to be scary to be Octoberish. Lyrical magical realism also fits the bill. Finn goes in search of his missing friend Roza, who has been kidnapped by someone who doesn't appear to be of this world. Both lovely and suspenseful; I bought it in hardcover, because it's a keeper.

All Things Cease to Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage

Murder mystery? Ghost story? Hudson Valley idyll? In this compelling novel, Brundage does what Gillian Flynn tried (and failed) to do with Gone Girl.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Here's a nod to the younger kids. This lovely, only slightly creepy book featuring the most British of monsters is about dealing with grief. I read it on an airplane: big mistake. Sobbing in public is not my favorite thing. 

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racciula

The students and chaperones of an all-state music festival get snowed in at an upstate New York resort--where a grisly murder-suicide occurred years before. With many nods to The Shining (but working far more in the mystery genre than in horror), Racciula manages a quirky and complex ensemble cast with dexterity, wit, and compassion. 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

I approach retellings with strong caution--especially retellings of English classics I have cherished since childhood. This expert retelling of Jane Eyre met and exceeded my very high expectations. It is its own story. Set in 1960s Scotland and Iceland--two very Octoberish spots

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

Tartt, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, started out with this book. It's not perfect, but it's good. The best approximation I can give you is that this is what would have happened if Shirley Jackson had written To Kill a Mockingbird. Now: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and Jackson is one of my favorite writers, and The Little Friend is not as good as all that--but that description should give a sense of its atmosphere. 


I could write pages of posts about melancholy music in all genres, especially classical--but that's beyond the scope of today's exercise. Instead, I'll give you a few songs that I've played over and over this year to assuage my need for October. 

Sarah Calderwood "Through Bushes and Through Briars"

My favorite (and most Octoberish) composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, collected this folk song at the close of the 19th century. Calderwood does it justice in this simple but haunting version.

Mandolin Orange "One More Down"

Life in the South can be depressing, you know? This very talented duo sing their hearts out on dozens of plaintive, original songs. This is one of their best. I love the simplicity and pathos.

François Couperin "Les Barricades Mysterieuses"

This piece puts me into a trance of otherness. I love it deeply. At this summer's residency, I was reading in the chapel, one of Vermont College's only air-conditioned rooms, during some free time. A woman I knew only slightly came in with some music and sat down at the Steinway. After she played a Bach Chaconne, I asked her if she had this piece with her. Startled, she said yes, and she played it for me. Magical. But it was only afterward that I realized what an odd coincidence this was; she'd only brought a few pieces of music with her from home, and this, a relatively obscure piece, was one of them. (At this point, my kids would say, "Connect the dots.")

John Rutter "Blow, Thou Winter Wind"

This chilling secular carol will carry your Octoberishness straight through to March. Words by Shakespeare; music by Rutter: it does not get better than that. I heard it once and immediately ordered the sheet music so that we could sing it at home. Gorgeous.

Led Zeppelin "When the Levee Breaks"

This is hands down my favorite LZ song of all time (and there are so very many to love). The echoing harmonica, John Bonham's driving, monstrous drums, Jimmy Page's otherworldly guitar, Robert Plant's mournful delivery of classic blues lyrics--perfection. This semester, I'm writing a ghost story set in California's Central Valley, and this song always gets me in the mood to work on it. 


Goodnight Mommy (R)

Holy crud, this movie is creepy. Twin boys become increasingly sure that the woman who came home from surgery at the hospital is not their mother. It's so immersive that you'll forget it's in German. Clever script, great camera work.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PG-13)

The girls and I loved this one, based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith (and borrowing more than heavily from Jane Austen). It didn't do well in theaters, but I think it's a gem. My friend Danae would call it "kick-donkey."

Cold in July (R)

A movie doesn't have to be set in the fall to be Octoberish. A man shoots a burglar, whose newly-paroled father then seeks revenge. Heart-stopping, twisty, but a little more grisly than I'd prefer. That flaw aside, this is a story with staying power. 

Midnight Special (PG-13)

Things aren't always what they look like at first glance. A father must evade both the government and an apocalyptic cult in order to protect his son, who has otherworldly powers. Hypnotic. 

The Keeping Room (R)

This may be my favorite film of this year. Two sisters and a freed slave fight off a seige by two renegade Union soldiers. You feel the suffocating heat and humidity of the desolate plantation; you feel the paralyzing dread of the women in their vulnerability. Melancholy in the extreme. 

Lost River (R)

Okay, this movie is FAR from perfect, bless director Ryan Gosling's little heart. BUT there is real emotional power and atmosphere here. It's set in Octoberish Detroit, and is post-apocalyptic without the actual apocalypse. Will this family escape the crushing despair of its circumstances? The curse of Lost River indicates no, but watch until the end to see. 

Ex Machina (R)

A programmer wins a week at the estate of his company's reclusive CEO and must pass a Turing test with a beautiful, intelligent android. Love triangle becomes love square....Claustrophobic and dread-filled. 


The Returned (Les Revenants) (R)

You want the French series, not the failed American series that was based on it. Several inhabitants of a town in France's Haute-Savoie come back to life, with no memory of what happened to them while they were dead. Their attempts at reintegrating into society are heart-breaking and riveting. As with Lost River, a reservoir created by damming a valley (and flooding several towns) figures prominently. if I'd had the time, I would have binge watched the first season. I still haven't watched Season 2; I'm kind of hoarding it. 

True Detective, Season 1 (R)

Southern Gothic at its best and most modern. I don't know if I'll ever bring myself to watch further seasons of this show, because Woody Harrelson + Matthew McConaughey + a freaky serial killer + the Louisiana bayou = black magic. This series kept me guessing, and that is hard to do. More smexy (that's my portmanteau of "smut" and "sexy") than I'd prefer, but that's what the fast forward button is for.

The Leftovers, Season 1 (R)

What happens to the people who don't get caught up in the Rapture? This show explores that question. I liked the series much more than the Tom Perrotta novel on which it's based. Again, too much smex for my taste, so consider yourself forewarned. 

The Magicians (R)

I loved Lev Grossman's trilogy about college-age magicians who discover a Narnia-like otherland, and I was cautiously delighted when I heard that Syfy was going to make the books into a series. Patrick and I LOVED Season 1 and can't wait for Season 2. 

Stranger Things (PG-13)

We've only watched two episodes so far, but I'm hooked. It feels a little Twin Peaks-y, a little X-Files-ish--which means it's right in my wheelhouse. Hoping to watch episode 3 tonight after trick-or-treating.

What would you add to this year's Octoberish edition?


What I Remember

In late June of 2001, we moved out of Manhattan and up to the Hudson Highlands. I had a three-month-old baby, Tess. She was a little more fragile than other newborns; she was born five weeks early and had spent ten days in the NICU before coming home to us. She needed lots of extra holding; it seems like I spent most of that summer nursing her while reading the entire Inspector Lynley series, which I checked out in bulk from our new library.

With Tess's arrival, we had four children aged 8 and under. Our two oldest had just started at their new school the week before--Christian in third grade and James in kindergarten. Two-year-old Hope followed me around our new house every day and asked me when we were going to go "home." I hadn't had much time to get to know people, what with unpacking and post-partum sleep deprivation, but we had met three houses' worth of very kind neighbors. 

The morning of September 11th, Patrick took the train into Manhattan for work, like he did every day. I put the boys on the school bus, cleaned up breakfast, and was reading to Hope and nursing Tess. A knock on the door interrupted us; I went to answer it while trying to comfort indignant Tess. It was darling, newly wed Mary, my neighbor from across the street.

"Is Patrick all right?" she asked. 

I told her that as far as I knew, he was fine, and asked why. 

"Does he work in the World Trade Center?"

"No, he's not downtown; he's on the east side," I said. "His office is across the street from the United Nations." 

"Oh, good." Her relief was obvious.

I asked her what was going on, and she told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I pictured one of the small private planes that I'd often seen flying along the Hudson River. I asked her in, and we made our way around all the unpacked boxes to the master bedroom. We sat down on the edge of my unmade bed and turned on the TV while I bounced fussy Tess until my thighs ached. I still didn't know the new channel lineup, but I eventually found CNN, and Mary and I watched the coverage of the crash together.

Just after the first plane hit the North Tower, it seemed like a bizarre accident; no one at that point thought the plane had crashed deliberately. But as we watched the live coverage, listening to reporters trying to figure out what was going on, the second plane hit the South Tower--right in front of our eyes. 

That was when everything changed. For me, the event instantly transformed from a tragic but random event to an apocalyptic attack of unknown proportions. Looking back, that is what I remember most clearly: that we had no idea what the next target would be, or how many targets there would be. Once the Pentagon was hit, my terrified mind told me that an attack on the UN was a logical possibility--and my husband was far too close to it for comfort. I frantically tried to reach Patrick in every way I knew how. 

He had a cell phone, but at that point, all cell phones were useless; the city's cell towers had all been on top of the WTC. And no one at Patrick's law firm was picking up the phone. Social media and smart phones didn't exist, and email was a rudimentary thing in those days. Sometimes it's difficult to remember how different the world was before texting and tweeting and instant messaging. But I remember how isolated and desperate I felt that day. 

But our phone started to ring. Members of our new church congregation knew Patrick worked in the city, but they didn't know where. I told people over and over again that I was positive he was safe, but that was a lie. 

And then the school called; all the children were being sent home. I met the boys at the bus stop, gave the three older kids a snack, and let them watch VHS tape after VHS tape on the little TV upstairs. I couldn't tear myself away from the news coverage, but I didn't want the kids to see any of it. I'd witnessed people jumping or falling out of the upper floors of the towers. CNN only showed that footage once, when it was live; mercifully, I never saw it again, but I'll never forget it. 

That morning, Patrick got off the train at Grand Central Station and walked a few blocks uptown, as he always did. He passed several people who were standing on the street and looking south. In New York, you don't generally pay attention to strangers doing odd things, but he finally asked a construction worker what was going on. The guy said he'd been working at the top of one of the Trump buildings and had seen a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Patrick's initial reaction was the same as mine--it had to have been an accident. 

By the time he got to his office, the second tower had been hit, and the law firm immediately shut down and sent everyone home. Patrick went back to Grand Central and got on a Hudson Line train--but he and all the other anxious passengers sat waiting in the station for a long time. Finally armed men came down the platform and asked everyone to exit the train and the building as quickly as possible. The historic station was thought to be a potential target and had been closed. People started stampeding off the train and through the halls; Patrick says that's the only time he was truly frightened. 

Once outside, he waited in a block-long line for a pay phone so he could call me. We talked briefly, and I can't describe the relief I felt when I heard his voice. Once we hung up, I burst out sobbing and couldn't stop for a long time. I knew he was safe for the moment, but no one knew what would happen next. 

Patrick went over to Times Square, where the Jumbotron showed live footage of what was going on downtown. He stood with thousands of other people in the streets and watched the second tower collapse. 

In ever increasing shock, he decided to see if he could take a ferry across the Hudson to Hoboken; he figured that his parents or I could then drive down and pick him up. He walked west to Eleventh Avenue. There he saw two alarming things. First, the line for the ferry was literally a mile long. He realized getting across the river was not an option.

But far worse, for the first time he saw people walking up the avenue from downtown. They were grey with dust, hollow-eyed, and numb. They looked like zombies. 

He turned and also walked uptown--all the way to his best friend from college David's apartment at 106th and Broadway. He and David and Catherine (David's wife) sat on their couch for hours, glued to CNN. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania. Footage of the towers on endless repeat. It was sickening, but it was almost impossible to look away.

A while later, it was announced that trains were running on the Hudson Line again, so Patrick walked up and over to the Harlem station and waited for a train. He says that when one finally arrived, it was packed to the gills, like a Tokyo subway train at rush hour. He elbowed his way on and got home to us a little more than an hour later. Holding him in my arms late that afternoon was the best feeling in the world--except that I knew that thousands of families weren't so lucky. 

The days that followed are a blur. I know there was no school the following day--maybe not for the rest of the week. Patrick eventually went back to work, and life slowly assumed a more normal routine. But it was a new normal, far different than the one we'd had until that morning. And the world hasn't been the same since.

I experienced intense survivor's guilt for months. We'd abandoned our beloved city just weeks before, and now it struggled to rebuild without us there to help. We still visited Manhattan often, but we could no longer claim it as our own. 

One night the next spring, I was driving along the river in New Jersey for some reason, and I saw the Tribute in Light for the first time. I hadn't known about it beforehand; remember, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, and I didn't watch the news very often. At first, I thought it was some sort of hallucination. The sight of those two beams of light reaching up from the ground and into the infinite sky--it was astonishing. I had to pull over and stare, my grief renewed. 

Three and a half years later, Patrick and new baby Daniel and I were on our way to London for a quick trip. Due to a passport mixup, we couldn't take our original plane. We already had a babysitter for the other four chlidren, so we stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Manhattan. Our window directly overlooked the Ground Zero site, which was brightly lit, with heavy equipment driving around and people working. I couldn't bear to look at it for more than a minute, and quickly drew the blackout shades. 

Fifteen years later, I still get emotional when I talk about the events of that day. Probably everyone old enough to remember does. And I can't help thinking of another day four years before 9/11.

On a rare day off, Patrick and I took Christian and James downtown. We walked along Battery Park and ate street hot dogs. Christian chased seagulls while James watched from the stroller, laughing glorious toddler belly laughs. It was a gorgeous, clear day, so we decided to go up to the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Center. I'd been up to the top of the Empire State Building, but had never seen the view from the Twin Towers. We stood in line for quite a while, but it was James's nap time by this time. Normally, he happily fell asleep in his stroller, but this day, he was fidgety and cranky. 

Finally, when it was apparent that James would not be distracted or lulled in any way, I turned to Patrick. "Let's go up another day," I said. "After all, it'll always be here." 

But we never did make it back.


Slow Cooker Breakfast Cobbler

Chopped nectarines and plums form the base of my latest cobbler. I don't know why this photo loaded sideways, and I can't seem to fix it.

Bonne rentrée! Happy Back to School!

School day mornings are pretty busy, so I make breakfast the night before. This is one of our favorites. These days, with only four kids at home, I serve half of it one day and put the rest in a covered stoneware dish in the fridge. The next morning, I gently warm up the second half in the oven before serving.

This recipe is filling, but not terribly sweet (making it ideal for breakfast, in my opinion). I'm sure you could add more sugar, if you wanted. But try it this way first.

My slow cooker is a 6-quart Cuisinart with a "keep warm" feature--nice, but not necessary for this recipe.

Slow Cooker Breakfast Cobbler

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 cups fruit, fresh or frozen*

1/3 cup white sugar

Another 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream (best), sour cream, or buttermilk

2 eggs

Melt the first stick of butter directly in the slow cooker; mine has a "Sauté" feature that I turn on briefly. Pour the fruit in; there should be enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle the white sugar over and stir to combine. 

Melt the second stick of butter in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream and eggs to the melted butter and stir well. Pour the butter/cream/egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir only until combined. (If you overstir, your cobbler will be tough.) The batter will be sticky and very thick.

Spoon batter over the fruit to cover it. Put the lid on the cooker and set it for six hours. Go to sleep and have yummy dreams.

The next morning, serve warm, with some cream on top, if desired. Serves eight.

* I buy frozen fruit in bulk from Bithell Farms. (They are not paying me to say so.) Yesterday, I had some stone fruit that was getting too ripe, so I used what I had. Use any fruit or combination you like; we love sour cherries and blueberries and/or chopped apricots, nectarines plums, peaches, and apples. 


Svithe: Christ's Gifts

Painting from the book This is Jesus, by J. Kirk Richards

A svithe is seventh-day tithe, invented by Th. This is the talk I gave today in church as part of our Easter Sunday worship service.

I remember well my first experience with repentance. When I was about five years old, I was at the supermarket with my mother, and I asked her if she would buy me some chewing gum. She said no, and I was very disappointed. I wanted that gum. And then, at the checkout line, while my mother was busy with my two younger sisters, I noticed that the carton holding the chewing gum had the words “Free Gift” printed on it—doubtless some kind of mail-away offer requiring proof of purchase. However, even though I knew it was wrong, I decided that the words “Free Gift” meant I could take the gum while no one was looking and put it in my pocket. 

Once we got home, my mother noticed me chewing something and demanded to know what it was. I showed her the empty pack of gum and tried to employ my “Free Gift” defense strategy. My mother would have none of it. She bundled up my sisters again, marched me back to the store, and summoned the manager out of his office. I then had to confess what I had done and apologize. I felt alone, exposed, and utterly friendless. My mother gave the manager a nickel—that’s how much gum cost in 1971—and we left. Mortified by the experience, I vowed never to sin again, because I didn’t think I could ever live through another instance of such embarrassment and shame. Unfortunately, that was a promise I could not keep, though I can say with confidence that I have not stolen anything since. 

As a footnote, I must admit that when I found out that children younger than eight years old were not accountable for their misdeeds, I felt a little ripped off. But I acknowledge that my mother taught me a powerful lesson that day.

Here’s a more tragic story of restitution: In the thirteenth century, Jacopone da Todi, a successful young lawyer, married a devout young woman named Vanna. Though he loved his wife, da Todi was a greedy, worldly man who frequently gave himself over to temptations. Not long after they were married, the couple attended a tournament, and Vanna was killed when the stands in which they were sitting collapsed. After her death, da Todi found that Vanna had been wearing a garment of sackcloth under her gown. He was stricken to his core to realize that she had been secretly doing so for months in an effort to perform penance for his many sins. 

Da Todi, in his shock and guilt, gave up his legal practice, gave away all his money and possessions, and lived a long life of poverty and repentance: preaching, serving others, and seeking to live as the Savior did. He was a gifted poet, and wrote many laudi, or poems of praise, to express his devotion to God. 

His most famous poem is “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” which means “the sorrowful mother stood.” In it, da Todi imagines Mary’s grief at witnessing the sufferings of Jesus. The Stabat Mater has been set to music dozens of times by composers like Palestrina, Haydn, Schubert, and Dvorak, and has been sung as part of Easter worship services for centuries. Here is part of a nineteenth-century translation. 

At the Cross her station keeping,

stood the mournful Mother weeping,

close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,

and His bitter anguish bearing,

now at length the sword has passed.


O how sad and sore distressed

was that Mother, highly blest,

of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,

she beneath beholds the pangs

of her dying glorious Son.


Is there one who would not weep,

whelmed in miseries so deep,

Christ's dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain

from partaking in her pain,

in that Mother's pain untold?


For the sins of His own nation,

She saw Jesus wracked with torment,

All with scourges rent:

She beheld her tender Child,

Saw Him hang in desolation,

Till His spirit forth He sent. Edward Caswall, Lyrica Catholica, 1849

Though I am a mother, and know firsthand how parents suffer when their children are in pain, I, like da Todi, can barely imagine Mary’s grief. I am sure, though, that Mary would have taken on some of her son’s pain, shouldered part of his load, if she could have. We have this urge when we see that those we love are hurting. 

But, though we are commanded to mourn with those who mourn (Mosiah 18:9), our sorrow does not pay the price for the mistakes of others—or for our own. And though we covenant to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, any relief we provide is only temporary. Vanna da Todi, though moved to an act of vicarious penitence by love, could not redeem her husband. Mary, though she stood by her Son “to the last,” could not lessen his burden. And Jacopone da Todi, though he spent decades praising God through his virtuous acts and beautiful poetry, could not atone for the mistakes of his youth.

Only Jesus Christ can reconcile us to our Father by offering flawless, complete, unlimited atonement for our sins. That Atonement has four parts: 

Christ’s condescension to live a sinless, perfectly obedient life in humble circumstances; 

his infinite suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane

his willing death on the cross of Calvary

and his triumphant resurrection from the borrowed tomb of a friend

Gethsemane: In Gethsemane, Jesus not only paid the price for every one of our sins, great and small, but he also suffered each of our pains, sorrows, and infirmities. How could he do so in a matter of mere hours? And how could he suffer beforehand for everything that has happened in the almost 2,000 years since that night—and beyond? 

This crucial piece of the Atonement must somehow have been wrought outside of the restrictions of time itself. In fact, as the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father, the mortal Christ had power over both death and time. Because of this, he was free to experience every second of every life of the billions of his brothers and sisters—and he chose to, so that he would know through his own experience how to succor us. (Alma 7:11-12) He did not do so from afar, through some kind of spiritual movie screen. There is no distance between him and our iniquities and afflictions. 

This means that each one of us, immersed in time, literally have Jesus with us right here, right now. Our bad behavior may chase away the Holy Spirit, but Christ chooses to stay through it all. Our currently finite minds have a hard time comprehending this. But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ last recorded words are “lo, I am with you alway, even until the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) These are not the kind words of a well-intentioned friend. This is a statement of fact, an echo of his own words to Isaiah: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Likewise, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, when Jesus tells us “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” (Matthew 25:40) he is not speaking figuratively. He is declaring a literal truth. Whether to lift up or to beat down, whether to serve or to hurt—because the Savior is with others each moment, we are doing whatever we do unto him as well. None of us is ever alone—which can be both a comfort and a condemnation.

The Cross: Throughout his earthly life, Jesus did not experience spiritual death, or in other words, the separation from God that befalls us through sin. He had the constant companionship of his Father. To the Jews in the temple, he declared, “he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” (John 8:29) Later, he testified to his apostles at the Last Supper, “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32

But there was a moment on the cross when Christ realized that he was suddenly and utterly alone. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” he cried in agony. (Matthew 27:46) Elder Holland has said that “For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, Christ had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were With Him,” April 2009) It was only after that his suffering was finished, and he could lay down his life. His family and friends then hurried to lay his body to rest before the Sabbath began that evening. 

All the next day, while his people rested from their labors in observance of the fourth commandment (Luke 23:56), Christ was at work. In the spirit world, he proclaimed “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that [were] bound…to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1, 3) He offered himself to all, both living and dead, both those who knew who he was and those who had never heard of him. 

The Resurrection: And then, on Sunday morning, he took up his body, never to die again. Mary Magdalene, hurrying to the garden to finish the traditional anointing process of Christ’s body, was shocked to find the tomb empty. Later, Christ appeared to her, and she recognized him once he called her by name. She then ran to announce the joyful news to the other disciples. Jesus had risen, and become “the firstfruits of them that slept.” (1 Corinthians 15:20) In doing so, he opened the way for us all.

Near the end of his first letter to the saints in Corinth, Paul expounds on this mystery: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye..for the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” Paul tells us that this is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (Isaiah 25:8) He goes on to marvel, “O death, where is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory?…thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57, ed.)

Though he promises us perfect bodies in the next life, Christ chose to keep several physical imperfections as part of his glorified immortality. The scars of the wounds inflicted upon him remain still, and have become a sign to the world that he is who he says he is. “Arise and come forth unto me,” the resurrected Lord commanded the Nephites when he first appeared to them, “that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.” (3 Nephi 11:14) And the multitudes did so, one by one, that they might each have their own personal witness of the reality of the Savior. Those present at his Second Coming will have that same individual opportunity. (D&C 45:51)

I am overcome when I consider the Savior’s gifts to me. The beauty of this marvelous earth. Countless opportunities to repent and forgive. The temple and its covenants; the scriptures and the way I hear God’s voice whisper to me through them. His teachings; his example; my sure knowledge that he is the Christ. His offering to share his yoke with me, even though I will never be able to pull my own weight. His willingness to spend an untold amount of time experiencing all of my moments, good and bad. And finally, gloriously, reconciliation to my Heavenly Parents through his victory over sin and death. 

And there is more. To quote Elder Holland again: “Because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the [Christ’s] Atonement.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, ibid.)

I say these things humbly in the name of my Savior and yours, even Jesus Christ, Amen.