Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way ~ A book review


Have you ever found a book that enraptured you? Grabbed your attention and wouldn’t let you go? How about an author? Have you ever been so into what the author had to say, and related so distinctly to a text that you’d swear you could have written parts of the book yourself?

That’s how I feel whenever I pick up a Shauna Niequist book. I don’t even have to review this book – I just so desperately want others to find it, that I’m going to anyway.

It could be that Niequist is a fellow Enneagram 7, and therefore the way I see the world is similar to the way she sees hers. Some of the struggles and the way she describes things feel like a breath of fresh air to me — it means I’m not alone. I don’t personally know any other 7s, or at least not any who know they’re 7s, and so to read from someone who’s aware of why she thinks how she thinks is so refreshing.

Bittersweet is a collection of essays, written in Shauna’s beautiful, lilty, almost lyrical style. She talks about change, leaning into pain, grace, living through hard (and she’s lived through lots of it), and embracing all of it. She never once uses a Scripture reference, and yet you can tell she’s doing her very best to walk life hand in hand with Jesus through it all.

“The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life. Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness. “It’s the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy. “This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all long, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be. “I’ve learned the hard way that change is one of God’s greatest gifts, and most useful tools. Change can push us, pull us, rebuke and remake us. It can show us who we’ve become, in the worst ways, and also in the best ways. I’ve learned that it’s not something to run away from, as though we could, and that in many cases, change is a function of God’s graciousness, not life’s cruelty.”

https://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/0310335280/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1, taken from the prologue of the book

I listened to this book using my Scribd subscription while I commuted this week. I started it on Tuesday morning, and finished it Friday on the way home. The timing of this book’s arrival in my life is kind of funny, though. I’m a firm believer that God can speak to us in all kinds of ways, but I’m pretty sure He uses books a lot of the time for me. I mean, why not, when my nose spends a good chunk of time buried in one or my ears are listening to one while I drive? It won’t surprise me at all if, when I get to Heaven, I ask if He’s been using books all this time and He smiles and says “I’m glad you caught it.”

Thursday, on my way into work, something profound caught me, and I paused the book to reflect on it for a few minutes. It directly related to something I was wrestling down and needed to dig into in my own life. And if that wasn’t enough, on my drive home, a line hit me so hard that I pulled over, put the car in park, rewound the book by 30 seconds, listened to the line again twice, and then scribbled it down quickly in a note in my phone. I nearly cried, it was such a relief to know that I was not the only one who thought this way.

It was such a profound moment that I bought the book in hard copy on Amazon when I got home. I needed to have it in my hands. I need to read it again. And again. And again. In fact, I think I’ll read it out loud myself, because while it was beautiful to have Shauna read it to me (she narrated the book herself and it was wonderful), I think I will need to find the places that it makes my voice hitch and my soul hurt, and lean into them myself. I need to soak it in. I need to write all over it, and underline and highlight and flag it with stickies, as I have with Cold Tangerines and Present Over Perfect. But most importantly I need to learn to live it. I need to learn to live in Bittersweet better, because I’m not awesome at it. I find it hard, but we have to do it. Because if we can’t experience sadness, grief, and pain — then we can’t really, truly, experience joy and delight.

“When life is sweet, say thank you, and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you, and grow.” ~ Shauna Niequist

*fair warning: This book contained a good chunk toward the back half about marriage, pregnancy, miscarriages, and babies. Knowing what the author has walked through, this didn’t surprise me. I just want to be sure that I let someone know for whom that might be really hard if you’re not expecting it to be there.

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Soul Winter and a dash of Summer


Friends, if you know me, it is no secret that winter and I are not friends.  Winter came hard this year, and it had a death grip.  It refused to let go.  I’ve been teaching for a decade, and while there was the odd freak ice storm April 1st here and there that gave us a snow day because the roads were just too slippery, I’ve never had one April 16th.  Two weeks ago, that’s all it was.  Two weeks ago winter got its final battle cry in before it finally started to let go, and even then, it didn’t immediately release its grip.  We hung on in the very low single digits for almost another week.

But today, all of a sudden, it was 26 degrees, and the sun shone brilliantly.  The birds are chirping, the trees are finally thinking it might be safe to try to grow some leaves.  Barbecues are firing up, lawns are growing, I’ve had my bike out twice, I read in the hammock until I get cold, and I drove all the way home from work this afternoon with my arm out the driver’s side window.  Spring is here.  Arguably we may have jumped it and gone right to summer, but in my corner of the earth it isn’t really summer without 90% humidity, so we aren’t there yet.

There are many things I love about summer — the barbecues, the fires, the fireworks, the hammocks, the HEAT, the seasonal fruit (I could live off of peaches, concord grapes, strawberries, pears, and watermelon — and I nearly do for the whole summer, because for ten months at a time these things are imported from either America or Mexico because it’s too frigid to grow them here, and they’re just. not. the. same.)…. the BEACH.  This girl’s feet were made to dig into sand, and while it’s not the nicest water, you’ll find me on the shores of Lake Erie at any given opportunity.  I am itching for it.  This winter felt so long in so many ways, and I am longing for beaches, long days, parties and barbecues and fires… all of it.  My bare feet won’t be in a real pair of shoes again until October at least, you have my word (except to play volleyball or ride my bike).

But I’ve been in a season that has perpetually felt like winter for a long time — it’s been gloomy and dark and grey.  I’ve heard it referred to as “Soul Winter,” and at this point I don’t think I have any other words for it.  This may have less intrinsic meaning for those who love snow and crisp, cold mornings.  For those who thrive on the chill of Arctic air coming into your lungs and who live to hit the slopes and play in powder.  I am not one of those people.

What I personally experience after a long winter, I feel like my soul has been experiencing for a little over a year now, and it’s been very hard to put words to it because I don’t like to be still.  I don’t like to reflect on my feelings, sit with my thoughts, or face my fears.  I don’t enjoy being alone, and seeing as I live alone, you can imagine the frenetic pace that this would create for my life.  Last Easter I came to a place where I think my soul had finally had enough.  I tell myself that the ordeal was precipitated by too much caffeine, and I’m sure that that didn’t help, but what I know that I learned about myself in the aftermath is that I can’t manage the pace I’ve been living at…. but I haven’t done anything about it.

Because to sit with my feelings and face them is scary.  And to be alone, and still, and silent…. it means I have to.  And I don’t like that.  I can’t honestly remember the last time I really sat in silence.  Sure, I tell myself there are times when I’m silent — if I clean the house with no music on, that’s pretty silent.  When I lay in the hammock reading, that’s pretty silent.  But I was out there about half an hour ago, and that’s what prompted me to come in here and write.  It was silent for about two minutes.  There was peace and stillness and calm, and I laid in the hammock and didn’t even open the book.  I just basked in the silence.  The people around me might be right — I might need it more than I know.  But it didn’t take long before a motorcycle ripped down the street, my dog barked at the neighbour’s cat for being in her line of vision, and my neighbours came out to their porch to grill their dinner, turning on their radio and cranking some cheesy 90s pop music.  There went my silence.  And then I remembered that the beach, though I love it so deeply, isn’t much better, unless you go when it isn’t busy at all (aka on a weekday morning before school has let out) — because kids run around and screech while they love every second, and teenagers show up with their music pumping, and people fill in all around my sanctuary of space.  None of this is inherently bad, but if it’s silence I’m looking for, a public beach at a Provincial Park is not likely going to be where I find it.  If I’m being honest, I think the last time I let myself be alone, and silent, and just sit — somewhere I didn’t have my phone and I couldn’t hear other people or commotion — it had to have been last summer.  My parents live at a retreat centre at the beginning of the Rocky Mountains.  I just can’t even.  So last July sometime, I parked myself in the gazebo and sat alone and thought….. and I honestly can’t remember letting myself do it since.

One day, by myself, I hiked my way down to the river and I let my feet sit in frigid glacier water while I listened to only birds.  That day, I got time to process my feelings and my thoughts.

But the scary thing is, I haven’t really done it since.  Sure, I’ve had thoughts pop into my head, but I’ve shoved them away.  I read The Best Yes last winter.  I’ve listened to Podcasts and Audio Books.  I heard all the things about learning to say no and carving out space for my soul to breathe.  But I’m learning something I already knew.  There’s a dramatic difference between hearing and listening, between being aware and letting something sink down in deep.

I don’t want to talk about things that aren’t fun, and I don’t want to process them.  At best, I may process them with my therapist, because she has a unique ability to stop me from catastrophizing, but if I process them on my own, there’s no one to stop me, and the what ifs and the but what abouts will all come in a rush.

I was hesitant to even sit down and write this.  It’s daunting.  But I haven’t even really written anything more than book reviews since last winter either, because I process when I write.  I often don’t know what I think about something until I’ve written it down.  So a healthier version of me would be blogging or journaling all. the. time… But I’m not.  I keep the free book train rolling by writing reviews, but otherwise I tend to shove post ideas to the depths of my soul too.

I don’t know what’s different about today.  I’m reading Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect, which, while so beautifully written as to make it a very easy read in theory, is impacting me so deeply that I can only take it in small chunks.  I’d borrowed the book from a friend, and two chapters in I wanted to write all over it SO BADLY because I just know this will be a book I read again.  I don’t have many of those, but I’ll come back to this.  And like it was meant to be, the next day, I found it in beautiful, pristine, hard-cover condition at a used book sale for 2.50.  I gave my friend back her copy and mine is now well loved and irreparably damaged, all at the same time.

I think it might finally be time to lean in.  I’m ready to pray and process, to think and grow.  I’m going to need to find some silence, because my pastor has said it, my therapist has said it, my home church has said it, and my current book choice (which I’ve wanted to read for a LONG time) is saying it…. and my soul is crying from somewhere way deep down saying “please!  yes!  yes to this but not yes to everything that’s thrown your way!”  In Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist talks about how we’re the only ones who get to control what our lives turns out like in this way.  So if it’s frantic and hurried, frenetic and stressed, too stretched to really be enjoyable…. that’s no one’s fault but mine.  My soul is ready for winter to end.  My soul is ready to bloom and thrive and flourish like it’s summer, but I suspect it can only do that if I give it space to.  I think I need to give it some silence.  I think it needs room to breathe.