No Time to Spare: Thinking About What MattersNo Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

Between 2010 and 2017 Ursula Le Guin wrote a blog. No Time to Spare collects forty posts from that blog written between 2010 and 2015. These posts discuss aging, vulgar language, letters from adult readers, letters from readers who are children, literary awards, war and the journey home from war, The Great American Novel (it’s The Grapes of Wrath, by the way), the place and value of fantasy in literature, feminism, soft-boiled eggs, sacrifice on behalf of others, a food bank, a child’s quest for knowledge, and many other things that were on her mind at various times. Le Guin also tells the reader about her cat, named Pard, an abbreviated form of Gattopardo or Pardo.

If you have finished your summer reading and are not yet ready to turn to the more serious literary pursuits you have planned for autumn, No Time to Spare will provide you with a couple of hours of enlightening, funny, and thought-provoking reading.

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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

I don’t recall how I first learned about Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, but I know that the reference included this quote:

As soon as an infant can sit on a caregiver’s lap, the child learns to associate the act of reading with a sense of being loved. (p. 82)

Any adult, whether a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or unrelated friend who has ever read to a small child understands that sentiment. So it was sentiment that first got me to start reading this book. Sentiment only took me so far; the details of the development of writing and the neuroscience of reading that fill most of the book soon proved too intimidating. I returned the book, unfinished, to the library.

The quote stuck in my head, however, as did the sense of disappointment at not finishing. So it was back to the library for an interlibrary loan of the only copy in our consortium. In the meantime I’d also become involved with an organization that advocates for evidence-based approaches to dyslexia, a form of neurodiversity in which the brain must learn to use different circuits to decode the letters on a printed page and make sense of them. Coincidentally, as I was finishing Proust and the Squid, I started reading Ordinary Grace, which features two characters who, in the time period in which the novel is set, were considered retarded or mentally defective because of the differences in the ways their brains worked.

Having finished reading on the second attempt, I can affirm that Proust and the Squid is a great read. Beginning with technologies that are tens of thousands of years old—knotted bits of rope, scratches in clay or stones or turtle shells—Wolf traces the history of written communication in the first section of the book through the development of alphabets. As humans moved from one technology to another, the human brain adapted to the changes and contrived new changes to make the process of passing on knowledge both easier and more robust. Alphabets in particular had the biggest impact on the brain’s ability to acquire and process information through written records.

The second section discusses the development of an individual’s ability to read. Here’s where the neuroscience can seem a bit dense, but a complete apprehension of the details is not required to follow the narrative arc. When a person reads, certain circuits in the brain are activated. With practice, the brain needs less energy and time to process, or decode, the information that the eyes encounter on the printed page or digital device. Wolf describes in enlightening detail that is timed in milliseconds what happens when a fluent reader sees a word, applies past experience and existing knowledge to it, and grasps the information that is being communicated in the current encounter.

This is where Proust comes in. According to Wolf, Proust saw reading as “a kind of intellectual ‘sanctuary’ where human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise. Each of these new realities is capable of transforming readers’ intellectual lives without ever requiring them to leave the comfort of their armchairs.” (p. 6) What a gift the ability to read fluently is.

Where does the squid come in? In the third section Wolf likens dyslexia to a young squid’s inability to swim fast. The squid is both predator and prey. In order to survive, a squid must be able to swim fast. “Scientists in the 1950s used the long central axon of the shy but cunning squid to understand how neurons fire and transmit to each other, and in some cases to see how neurons repair and compensate when something goes awry.” (p. 6) The young squid that can’t swim fast must compensate and develop different survival strategies and tactics, and those strategies and tactics must function automatically. This requires that the squid brain be reconfigured to compensate for the lack of ability to swim fast. (Wolf does not state this explicitly; I infer this.) The child with dyslexia must also compensate when the brain circuits that usually enable reading fail to function properly.

Wolf concludes the section on dyslexia by identifying numerous famous individuals who are said to have, or have had, dyslexia and who have accomplished much in spite of it. Children and adults who have dyslexia or any one of a number of differences are not defective or inferior, as was once thought. Like any science worthy of the name, neuroscience is constantly learning and adjusting its understanding of how to help people with dyslexia and other examples of neurodiversity thrive.

If, as I do, you have a family member or friend who has a form of neurodiversity like dyslexia, reading Proust and the Squid can help you understand that person’s strengths and challenges. It’s not a beach read; maybe wait until the evenings get a little cooler and start a little earlier and give yourself a few undistracted hours to learn how it is that you can process such marvelous writing.

Thank you for stopping by.



Semiosis (Semiosis Duology, #1)Semiosis by Sue Burke

Some time deep into the twenty-first century, a spacecraft leaves Earth on a voyage that will take 158 years. The fifty occupants are fleeing a planet damaged by climate change and roiled by the conflicts that the change has set in motion. When they arrive at a planet that is likely to support human life, only thirty-four make it alive to the planet’s surface. They bring with them technology they will need to survive, but some of the technology also fails to arrive safely. The colonists on Pax, as they name the planet, need to quickly learn which features of their new environment will enable their survival, and which will threaten it.

We learn within the first few pages of Sue Burke’s Semiosis that features of the environment can quickly change from enabling to threatening. Three of the colonists are poisoned by fruit they could previously eat safely. Thus we are introduced to the central premise of the story: the highest intelligence on this planet belongs to the plant life.

Plants on Earth communicate with one another through their root systems. The plants on Pax do that as well. They also reason, defend themselves, resist the influence of other plant species, and betray one another. One species, the bamboo, is able to learn human language, including written language, and communicate with the colonists. The bamboo, which is referred to by male pronouns, becomes a character in the story and is named for one of the original fifty travelers who did not survive the voyage. At times it seems that the bamboo even evolves during the just-over-one-hundred years that elapse in the course of the story.

In her opening sentence, Sue Burke refers to war as a way of life for the plants. I’m not sure that’s accurate. There is conflict, and the plants can do harmful things to control the animals, including humans, and harass the animals that they don’t like. The plants can also be beneficent. Details of these assertions might include a spoiler, so I will let readers discover those details for themselves.

There is much human conflict. It takes place between individuals, between political factions, between generations. One of the Pacifists, as the colonists are known, is raped as an act of political intimidation. Others are murdered. An assassination sets a rebellion in motion.

In case any eleven-year-old boys are reading this review, here’s a detail that should excite them: The colonists refer to their latrines as “gift centers.” They collect their poop as gifts for the plant life. Older readers looking for more titillating content might be interested to know that sex plays a significant role in the story. With so few colonists present at the start of the endeavor, fertility and procreation are essential. Frozen sperm and ova are part of the original supplies the colonists bring, but the colonists also employ more traditional means of growing the population. Some of the males are infertile, so their spouses are impregnated by other unattached men. Burke never describes lovemaking in detail, however. There is also no profanity, and I am grateful for that.

The plant science and chemistry lessons may be worth the price of admission for some readers. In the early going the colonists analyze plant chemicals to determine if a plant is poisonous, or how it suddenly became poisonous, or why a crop suddenly begins to fail. In a later chapter the plant chemistry references are delivered rapid fire. Oddly, plant species are similar to those found on earth: bamboo, onions, tulips, locust trees, even oranges. Animal species are very different: cats and lions seem to be built more like kangaroos than the cats we know on earth. Eagles have feathers but are earthbound. Some crab species have nine legs, slugs eat human flesh, and corals are venomous.

I learned about Semiosis from the “Science Corner” blog, which is written by Andy Walsh, my son. I’m glad that I followed that lead and added it to my reading schedule. Semiosis is an imaginative, thought-provoking novel. A sequel, Interference, is due out this October. I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks for stopping by.



The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on ItThe Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It by Os Guinness

It would be easy to believe that The Case for Civility was written in 2017 and published in 2018, rather than being published in 2008. Os Guinness’s discussions of civility, the public square, the behavior of political figures, and the separation of church and state are as much about the current era as they are about the early 2000s. This is a book that thoughtful people would do well to read now.

The public square is the focus of much of this book. Guinness devotes three chapters to the “sacred public square” where the wall separating church and state has been completely breached, the “naked public square,” where the wall is intact, well fortified, and heavily guarded, and the “cosmopolitan and civil public square.” In the cosmopolitan and civil public square the worldviews and ways of life of all people are respected and allowed to inform our participation in that square.

In arguing for a cosmopolitan public square in particular Guinness does not suggest that we abandon the systems of belief and practice that make us who we are. He acknowledges, in fact, that such abandoning is impossible.

To be blunt, there is no universal human language. There is no reason common to all humans. There is no agreed rational consensus of values. There is no scientific and universally valid philosophy. There is no humanity without borders. There is no Parliament of Man or Federation of the World. There is no all-inclusive form of identity that will embrace everyone without exception. There is no final form of universal civilization toward which history will progress. There is no pure humanity beyond complexity, and no unity below all human diversity. All these ideas are utopian longings that die hard. (p. 147)

Those words are hard to read. To all we meet we must say, if only in an imagined dialog, that we acknowledge the freedom of conscience that they must be allowed to exercise even as we exercise our own freedom. We must also acknowledge that there are rights and wrongs in all worldviews and ways of life, including our own. Can we learn from others’ worldviews and practices in a way that affirms the freedom to hold worldviews that differ, sometimes radically? Can we move toward a public square that is part of a “world safe for diversity.” According to Guinness, and as the subtitle of the book states, “our future depends on it.”

Os Guinness is a Christian apologist and social critic. He is a direct descendant of Arthur Guinness, the founder of the Dublin brewery. You can read more about him here.

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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

The April 2019 issue of Christianity Today includes a list of “five books that provide comfort amid terminal illness.” The list was compiled by Kathryn Butler, a trauma surgeon and also the author of a book on end-of-life medical care. Dr. Butler has this to say about Being Mortal:

“Although he does not write from a Christian perspective, Gawande’s best-selling book offers invaluable insight on aging, nursing home care, hospice, and care goals. He provides key advice to help us interpret the intricacies of a foreboding medical system. Gawande emphasizes reflection upon what makes life meaningful.”

That’s an accurate representation of the book’s message as I understand it. The writers who contributed endorsements for the back of the book jacket used the words “affecting” and “moving” to describe it. That reflects my response to it as well.

Atul Gawande is a brilliant writer and a brilliant individual. His writing, and the stories he tells in this book, display humility and self-reflection that seem out of place in the life of such an accomplished and esteemed physician and author. That is part of what makes this book so moving. He tells stories of people who could easily be the reader’s aunts, siblings, parents, or next-door neighbors. They all faced serious medical issues at the end of life, and Gawande discusses how the American medical and elder-care systems, the subjects’ families, and the subjects themselves dealt with those issues. He is not shy about pointing out the errors that he and his colleagues have made in dealing with them.

In telling these stories, the author provides readers with lessons on the history of elder care and the care of individuals with life-threatening illnesses. Where did the concepts of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities come from? Who cared for the aged and the terminally ill before these institutions came into being? What effect have these institutions had on our attitudes and behavior toward aging and terminal illness? Who is innovating in these fields? Who is turning their own lives upside-down to provide more thoughtful, compassionate care to their elders or those whose remaining time in this life is short.

This book is personally affecting. I was the last family member to visit my father in the hospital before he died of lung cancer and emphysema. A little over two years later my brothers and I stood by our mother’s bed, in the house that had been her home for over seventy-five years, when she succumbed to ovarian cancer. My older brother and I visited our mother’s last surviving sibling, an older sister, in her nursing home, and he fed her a last meal of ice cream just hours before she died. More recently my younger brother died of leukemia. He had come to believe the doctors considered him little more than a data point and a test subject as they discussed and planned the treatments that he eventually stopped. Even more recently I watched from a greater remove as several acquaintances and friends passed through illnesses that ended their lives. I see all of their faces in the pages of this book.

I am eligible for Medicare now myself, and I can’t help but wonder—even without reading Being Mortal—what lump or mole or ache or weakness will signal the start of something that will take me through my last days. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I have regular checkups. I also know that I am much closer to the end of my earthly life than to the beginning. I think I may be a bit better prepared to think about what that end might look like having read Being Mortal.

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Katherine Johnson is one hundred years old as of this writing. Hidden Figures tells her story, as well as that of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three of the African-American women who were known as computers in the organization that is known today as the National Aerospace Administration (NASA). Their skills as mathematicians were needed to help design and build the airplanes that the U.S. needed to fight in World War II and the Korean conflict. Later the aircraft and rockets they helped design enabled the U.S. to enter and compete successfully in the space race, from the flight of the first Mercury capsule to the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon and returned them safely to earth.

A movie with the same title was released in 2016. The movie dramatizes the events of several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the climax coming as Katherine Johnson is asked to check once more the calculations for the trajectory that would put John Glenn into orbit. I saw the movie during its original run in the theaters. It’s a great movie to watch with children or grandchildren.

Margot Lee Shetterly tells Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s stories, and many others, with admiration that approaches but doesn’t cross over into hagiography. Her writing is clean, polished, and unpretentious. I must admit that, having seen the movie first, I was expecting a bit more drama, and it took me a few pages to adjust to the the author’s pace. By the end, though, I was sorry not to have any more of the story to read (so I read the acknowledgments).

In telling the stories of these women, Margot Lee Shetterly also tells the story of segregation and the mistreatment of blacks in the U.S. in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I can’t help wondering how many more Katherine Johnsons, Dorothy Vaughans, and Mary Jacksons there were in Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere who would have made equal or greater contributions to many fields of knowledge were it not for the lack of opportunity, resources, and respect they encountered.

The contribution of these women has been acknowledged as the U.S. has moved through the Civil Rights era. In September 2017 NASA named a new facility the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Unfortunately, opportunities and rewards for women and people of color still lag behind those available for white men. I hope that Hidden Figures—a thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding, and thought-provoking book—has started some conversations and actions that will help to close the remaining gaps.

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Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the ChurchSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

When I tweeted that I had started reading Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, my son asked if a review would be forthcoming. A friend of his, another scientist, liked that tweet. I said that I would try, but that I was not sure I could do it justice. I don’t have any credentials to write a legitimate review. If I enjoy reading a book, or if I find it helpful or instructive, I will write a brief piece describing what I found enjoyable or helpful about the book and post it to Goodreads and to my blog. To borrow a metaphor that is sometimes used to describe evangelism, it’s more like one beggar telling another where to find bread. With that said, here are some observations about Searching for Sunday.

Rachel Held Evans is a gifted writer. Searching for Sunday is written in such a way that it could be read aloud and understood by many, if not most English speakers. She is smart. She is honest about her fallibility and vulnerability. A reader who is looking to engage with her and not pick apart her arguments—and there are many who delight in picking apart her arguments—will appreciate her telling of her story. Unlike other progressive Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans does not infuse her writing with profanity. She may cuss up a storm in her private communication. In her writing for publication she refrains. May her tribe increase in that respect.

The structure of Searching for Sunday is “part-memoir, part-meditation on the seven sacraments of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.” (…) Those sacraments are baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Rachel Held Evans uses the sacraments as a framework for the story of her early devotion to Evangelical Christianity, her disillusionment with it, her search for a new home for her faith, and her finding or building several homes in online communities and a physical congregation. As she says in a chapter entitled “Epic Fail,” church “is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” (p. 113)

Readers with limited time (although a serious reader could finish Searching for Sunday in one sitting) would do well to spend that time in the section on communion. That is where we see the author’s passion for the Church, the body of Christ, most clearly.

Anyone who reads the news or listens to NPR knows that American Christianity, maybe all of Western Christianity, is struggling with questions of identity. Searching for Sunday gives a view into that struggle through the eyes of one who is living it every day. Someone reading this might think the struggle has been lost, that Western Christianity is the dying relic of ancient superstitions. Someone reading this might also be struggling with their own faith or might be curious about how people of faith can still cling to theirs. One of the important messages of Searching for Sunday is that God cares for us and meets us in our struggles, in our brokenness, and in our need. We can’t and won’t know the answers to all of the questions and objections that we and others might raise, but we can know that God won’t turn us away for having raised them, and we can know that we do well to raise them in community.

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Annie Dillard, THE ABUNDANCE

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and NewThe Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard

A photograph of Annie Dillard appears on the back flap of the dust jacket for The Abundance. Annie Dillard has a Pulitzer Prize. The photograph should show her with a contemplative expression on her face as she stares off into the distance. Instead, the photograph shows a woman with a broad, toothy smile and twinkling eyes that are looking directly into the camera lens.

If you met that woman at a social gathering or at coffee hour after a church service you might think even before she speaks that she has something wonderful that she wants to share with you. We meet that woman in The Abundance. She has many wonderful things to share, an abundance of wonderful things, if you will.

The Abundance is a collection of previously published essays. They display the gift that Annie Dillard has for being present and observant in the midst of the most mundane and the most stimulating events, then relating those events in language that makes us want to experience them for ourselves. Well, maybe we don’t want to experience all of them; some are harsh and tragic. But some are laugh-out-loud funny. Some are described as if they were hallucinations. Some indeed may be hallucinations.

Two essays in particular are worth the price of admission. “Total Eclipse” from Teaching a Stone to Talk is the first essay in this collection. It was reprinted in Summer 2017 in The Atlantic Monthly as the United States awaited an eclipse whose totality traversed much of the country. “Being Chased” from An American Childhood is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

The foreword by Goeff Dyer is also worth reading even if you never read forewords. Dyer mentions Eudora Welty, who reviewed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Welty admitted occasionally not knowing what Annie Dillard was talking about. (p. xix) Dyer writes “On the humor front it helps, also, that Dillard’s pretty much a fruitcake.” (p. xviii) This comes after he quotes “Total Eclipse”: “The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.” (p. xviii)

Finally, from “A Writer in the World,” which originally appeared in The Writer’s Life, we get this glimpse into the generous, brilliant, eccentric mind of the smiling woman on the back dust jacket flap.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems to be good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” (p. 115)

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Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great BooksOn Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior

This post might amount to virtue signaling. It is not intended to be, but Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well is too good to keep to one’s self. And the word virtue is hard to escape in any discussion of this book, which applies literary criticism to ten books and three short stories as it pursues its goal.

As the subtitle indicates, On Reading Well is about “finding the good life through great books.” By good life, the author means a virtuous life, but not a holy, pious, or sanctified life. While each chapter opens with a brief Bible passage, and Karen Swallow Prior is a practicing Christian (see below), On Reading Well does not attempt to set a standard for virtuous living. Its goal is to encouraging a habit of reading that will enable the reader to see virtues being modeled by the characters in classic literature. In a few of the selections the virtue being discussed is not modeled by the central character, but it is dismissed or trampled upon by that person. Even that behavior is instructive, though.

The brief biography on the publisher’s website will tell you about Karen Swallow Prior’s credentials and career. If you want to know where she stands in relation to the Evangelical Christianity that you read or hear about in the news, an article about her in The New Yorker should satisfy that desire.

Before reading this book I had little hope of getting to all of the books on my to-read list in my lifetime. Between the six books and stories that On Reading Well discusses that I haven’t already read on my own and the books mentioned in the 600+ endnotes, that hope is now completely gone. Here, in the order in which they are discussed, are the books and stories that Karen Swallow Prior chose to discuss in this volume. The virtue associated with each is in parentheses after the title.

In the summer of 2018 I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Karen Swallow Prior cites Jacobs’ book in her introduction: “Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.” (pp. 16–17) Alan Jacob’s book and Karen Swallow Prior’s book together make a great contribution at a time when reading is popular but it is often challenging to decide what to read.

Finally, On Reading Well includes several discussion questions for each chapter. Book clubs and teachers of literature will appreciate this feature. For that reason I also want to mention C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish as a third book to consider if you are looking for your next read.

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Book Read: The Making of an Ordinary Saint

The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual DisciplinesThe Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines by Nathan Foster

What at first seems to be a recasting of Richard J. Foster’s twelve spiritual disciplines for late Gen-Xers and Millennials is actually a memoir. In The Making of an Ordinary Saint Nathan Foster traces his attempts through the course of year not only to put the spiritual disciplines into practice but to confront the struggles and failures of his past, which have included substance abuse among other destructive practices. Having read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth recently, I was surprised to learn that the elder Foster has a son who has struggled so greatly with human frailty.

Having also read Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative recently, I was encouraged to read Nathan Foster’s discussion of the therapeutic value of spending time in nature in his chapter on meditation. The Making of an Ordinary Saint is filled with connections like that, simple everyday connections that can help us frail humans find the spiritual resources we need to overcome some of that frailty.

When I read Celebration of Discipline I thought of an acquaintance who attended a private Christian elementary and high school, then went on to an elite Christian college, graduate school, and a career that reflects his own discipline and intelligence. He is comfortable worshiping in churches that draw their members from Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Reading The Making of an Ordinary Saint, I can’t help but think of the people who might feel comfortable in Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints.

If you’re like me, your reading list has gotten filled recently with books and articles analyzing America’s polarized religious and political cultures. If, like me, you’re also looking for some reading that will help you put all of that aside for a moment and figure out how to deal with your own personal baggage and get back in touch with the God who made you, then consider The Making of an Ordinary Saint.

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