“. . . there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out . . . in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby . . . of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.” (from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

When our younger son, Keegan, turned 16 he developed a love for reading complex books that bordered on an obsession. A passionate reader since early boyhood, as soon as Keegan shifted from The Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time series to the traditional classics, it was as if a spell had been cast. He read so many great authors (Shakespeare, the Brontës, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy, Murakami, Flaubert . . .) in such a short amount of time, that he humbled and inspired his book-loving parents. Suddenly we wanted to revisit the classics, too.

I earned two degrees in English Literature and have taught middle and high school English for several decades. Reading, for me, feels as necessary as oxygen and time spent outside. But I realized at age 49, that the day-to-day crunch of mid-life responsibilities had crowded out the time and attention required for truly complex reading. I needed Keegan’s dazzling example to nudge me back to books that have truly endured.

Black Beauty, King Lear, Middlemarch, David Copperfield, The Odyssey, Wind in the Willows, To the Lighthouse, Portrait of a Lady, The Red Badge of Courage, Cannery Row, Travels with Charley, the Narnia Chronicles, A Separate Peace, The Nick Adams Stories, River of Earth, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, Old Yeller, Jane Eyre, Angela’s Ashes, Little Women, Fidelity, Pollyanna, A Christmas Carol, Gilead, My Antonia, Gift from the Sea, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Sons and Lovers, The Power and the Glory, Of Mice and Men, Franny and Zooey, Great Expectations, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Little Prince, The Sound of Waves, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The House of Mirth, All Quiet on the Western Front, the Psalms, the gospels, the prophets, the letters of St. Paul . . . . I could write pages about lessons learned from these works, but the best lesson has been a heightened awareness of three things that truly endure: beauty, kindness, and faith.


“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things . . .” (from “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Blossoms in San Antonio. Photo by Ric Donovan.

In love with the natural world from earliest childhood, my favorite southwest Michigan memories all occurred outside: in alfalfa fields, on sand dunes, in apple orchards, at the playground, in the lake, and at the beach. Grass stained, barefoot, mosquito bitten, wearing play clothes with holes in the knees, I was happiest among trees and under an open sky. This is still largely the case. When I sit on our back deck here in Kirkwood, Missouri and listen to the sycamores sway in the mid-morning breeze or walk with our grown sons and watch the summer moon rise, enormous and clear, against an inky black Iowa sky, I am certain that despite the direst climate predictions, nature’s beauty will endure.

I discovered Thomas Hardy’s poetry while in graduate school in Miami, Florida. Hardy loved liminal moments (dusk, dawn, sunrise, sunset) and my photographer husband and I do as well. Golden hour, first light, twilight: the hush and awe embedded in such threshold moments feels sacred. Camping at Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks last summer, we woke early to walk along the seashore and take pictures of sunrise. A steady wind, the chopping waves, the damp sand, the alpenglow — and then — the giant pink orb of the sun ascending nobly on the horizon: one of Hardy and Woolf’s ruby moments to be sure.

“The moon’s the same old moon,

The flowers exactly as they were,

Yet I’ve become the thingness

of all the things I see!

(Shido Bunan, translated from Japanese by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto)

Like the 17th-century Japanese poet Bunan, I truly believe that soaking up beauty in the natural world does more than just restore us physically, emotionally, and spiritually, it shapes and defines us. In some mysterious way we truly absorb the beauty. Ric and I have spent time in 22 national parks, hundreds of state and metro parks, and dozens of national lakeshores, forests, and seashores. We love great cities and find small towns charming, but these outdoor locations have rearranged our souls.

Listening to Bach and Corelli, watching the pear tree leaves dance in shadow on our driveway or the light flood our living room from our two new skylights, visiting the Impressionist galleries at the St. Louis Art Museum, spotting our neighbor’s young children cartwheeling on the cul de sac: There is more beauty in the world than I or anyone else can possibly capture in words, and all of it endures.


“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.” (Thomas Merton)

Note from Keegan’s students. Photo by Keegan Donovan.

Keegan (now 23) has been teaching English to middle school students in Taichung City, Taiwan since August of last year. From the very beginning of this global adventure, he has been the recipient of kindness from strangers. Amidst his jet-lagged confusion in the Vietnam airport on the way to Taipei, a young woman stepped forward and helped him navigate an issue with his visa; while getting his bearings at a local 7-Eleven in Taichung, an older couple greeted him, invited him over for tea, and have essentially become his Taiwanese parents; several of his young students came to his office on Christmas Day to sing him “Jingle Bells,” holding sheets of lyrics they had printed off the Internet; a neighbor helped him when he accidentally locked himself out of his apartment; his colleagues and supervisors have constantly encouraged him. Ric and I never doubted that Keegan would find a way to navigate all the complexities involved in teaching abroad; what we hadn’t anticipated is the outpouring of kindness he has experienced.

With their acts of kindness, large and small, my own students similarly lift me every day. When Lena and Jun pop into my classroom for a visit, when Coco waves to me from the balcony or Noah calls my name across the Quad, when Nura and Eva drop by for tea or Earth sends me an unexpected thank-you note, the complex world seems lovely once again.

Our older son, Liam, is a wonderfully kind soul. He is so open and genuine that he maintains an impressive circle of close friends and delights strangers everywhere. This disposition is nothing we as parents take credit for because he has been this way since toddlerhood. The lessons I learn constantly from Liam are the same lessons in kindness that the classics instill: listen to people and believe the best of them, don’t gossip or judge or denigrate, appreciate good food and music in community, marvel at the small wonders all around us, and find a way to encourage everyone you meet. Prepping to teach English next year to youngsters in Spain, I have no doubt that Liam will inspire the same kindness-butterfly-effect in Ourense, Galicia that he has launched the past three years in Cincinnati: a rippling kindness that goes on and on.


“The feeling remains, that God is on the journey too.” (St. Teresa of Ávila)

Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Ric Donovan.

Faith as a search, faith as an ongoing conversation with God, faith as a lifeline and taproot, faith as an organizing principle, faith as a cousin to delight and belonging: No matter the inevitable pendulum swing in my own heart and mind from doubt, despair, and anxiety to trust, hope, and certainty, I know that faith is enduring. My own faith involves a reverence for the gospels and Jesus, a belief that stories of grace and goodness will ultimately prevail, and a deep-down knowledge that in a world filled with chaos and sorrow, order and joy are the major keys. When I pray, I know that God hears and responds. When I pray, I know that I’m orienting, sunflower-fashion, toward beauty and grace. When I pray, I know that I’m joining a multi-millennia-long chorus of voices reaching out in praise and entreaty. And then I can see more clearly, like the great authors I’ve been reading these past seven years, the brilliant rubies shimmering here, there, and everywhere — rubies that I know will endure.