2019 Word of the Year

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For the past few years, I have joined the movement to forgo a long list of New Year’s resolutions in favor of a single word that’s my theme for the year. I pray about what to choose and I consider what I need to learn, where I need to grow. God was my word one year. Love was my focus for another. Treasure was my 2018 word.

I’ve found this practice to be more deep than my old list of goals that I never met. There really is no goal except for exploration, diving deeply into how the ideas and emotions behind a particular important word can change my life even slightly and draw me more closely into the life of Christ. Even though I choose a new word in January, I don’t throw the old word aside. I try to carry what I’ve learned into the new year as my focus shifts. In the front of each new journal, I list the words from the previous years to remind me of what is important and what I’ve learned.

I say that my focus has been on whatever word I’ve chosen for the year, but focus may actually be the wrong way to phrase it. I don’t think of the word every day. I may go weeks without consciously considering the implication of the word in my life. But I pray about the word, and I think that God is working with me on this even when I am not always aware. Even the act of choosing the word frames my mind and my attitude in a different way than if I’d just made a list of things I’d like to change. Choosing a word allows me to give myself grace without a sense of failure, because this goal isn’t just a box to check. Even when my life doesn’t exemplify whatever word I’m reaching for, I understand that this is a process. I’m more likely to reflect on if or how my life is changing, and to pray about what I’m learning.

My word for 2019 is hope. When I started thinking and praying about this year’s word, hope came to mind immediately, but I was a little skeptical. I glanced through the long lists of words other people were compiling, and I felt a little silly. Their words seemed to provide clear direction, words like resolve, magnify, humility, imagine. I could see a plan for that kind of word, all action verbs, but hope didn’t feel like an action verb. It felt like something you might do sitting near a window, staring into the clouds.

Besides, I feel like I am actually a pretty hopeful person. I’m optimistic, and I try to turn frowns upside down. I look for the good in most situations, and I can redirect sad thoughts to great future possibilities like a champ. So do I actually have anything to learn about hope? Why do I want to choose a word that I already pretty much have down?

My answer, like many answers do, came in a conversation with Joe. First Corinthians 13 says that three things remain: faith, hope, and love. Joe suggested that if Jesus is the embodiment of love, and God is faith, then the Holy Spirit is hope.

Faith grounds me in the now. It reminds me of the goodness of God, of the promises he is faithful to keep, and Jesus is the embodiment of those promises in love. But hope, as Joe pointed out, is for the future. Hope in Christ helps you keep your head up and reminds me to look forward, that this life is not all there is. The hope I have is for me, but also for everyone in the world.

I am eager to learn about hope this year, eager to learn more about the mysteries of faith, and eager to find ways to share it with others. Every person needs to feel seen and to feel hope. Sometimes those two may be the very same thing.

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Book List 2018

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This year, I have read 86 books. It’s been a really fun reading year, ranging from hilarious to challenging to romantic to uncomfortable, and there are quite a few that are probable re-reads for 2019. In reviewing this list, it seems like books that were funny, light, and entertaining were my main go-tos this year, with guidance on faith to keep me grounded along the way. Here are my faves, in the order (sort of) in which I read them.

  1. Simply Tuesday and A Million Little Ways by Emily P. Freeman. Emily is a faith-based writer whose books look at ways to live the kind of lives we were designed to live. Simply Tuesday displays the beauty of our own ordinary lives, and A Million Little Ways is an examination of how we create art. Both books are a little heavy; they’re not fast reads at all, but they were really profound. Emily also hosts a weekly podcast, The Next Right Thing, which I love because she has a particularly soothing voice. Her writing is just as soothing
  2. I’ll Have What She’s Having by Erin Carlson and I’ll Be There for You by Kelsey Miller. Joe gave me the first one for Christmas last year. It’s a  deep dive into Nora Ephron movies, some of which are favorites of mine. I enjoyed this so much that he went to Half-Price Books to pick up a cheap copy of You’ve Got Mail, because I’d forgotten how much I loved it. I’ll Be There For You came out in November, and it’s about the Friends series, which is probably my all-time favorite show. Neither of these books were especially world-changing, but if you like the topics, they are really fun reads.
  3. Still Me by JoJo Moyes. I’m a huge JoJo Moyes fan, and I love the characters in this series. The second one was frustrating, but this third book reminded me why I loved them.
  4. Everybody Always by Bob Goff. I wrote much more here about this book. It’s absolutely amazing.
  5. Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist. This book was on my list last year too, probably. I can’t get enough of her. This one has recipes, which I can’t seem to stop making.
  6. Inspired by Rachel Held Evans. I know Rachel Held Evans was on my list last year, and this book was even better than her earlier ones. It’s an attempt to better understand the Bible and what people mean when they say it’s inspired. It has essays, poetry, and at least one short story, and it was really interesting, thoughtful, and powerful.
  7. The Destiny Thief by Richard Russo. Russo is one of my favorite writers, but I have never been a fan of his short stories. This collection changed all that. Maybe it’s because I’m older than when I read his earlier collection, and, well, I actually like short stories now. Anyway, it’s brilliant.
  8. My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy by Katherine Clark. I still can’t quite get over the fact that Pat Conroy is gone. This unusual biography, written from recorded conversations with him, felt like a special gift and brought that inimitable voice back to life again.
  9. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I’m so behind on this one, but it was one of the best things I read this year. I laughed and cried and then gave it to Joe, and he did the same thing. If you haven’t gotten to this one yet, bump it to the top of the list. So good.
  10. The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. My daughter doesn’t want to read with me anymore, and she rarely wants my recommendations, but she finally tried Ivan when I found a copy of it at McKay’s, and she fell in love. She gave it to me when she was finished, and it is so absolutely beautiful. It started a need to read all of Katherine Applegate’s books, and Crenshaw didn’t let us down either. I cried so much reading it, and Joe read this one too. My daughter got Endling for Christmas, and binged the whole giant thing in 24 hours. She hasn’t handed that one over to me yet–I love the way she pieces back through a book for her favorite parts.
  11. The Eternal Current by Aaron Niequist. Husband of Shauna, above, Aaron wrote his first book this year, about the ways God’s kingdom can be found among us. His faith tradition is more liturgical than mine, and I wasn’t familiar with some of the ways of praying that he described, but I really enjoyed learning from him.
  12. The Key to Extraordinary and A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd. These are more recommendations from my daughter–she said that The Key to Extraordinary (I wrote about this book hereis her favorite book ever. I loved both of these almost too much for words. Natalie Lloyd is one of my favorite authors now too. I had forgotten how very special middle grade books are, how they can hold suffering and hope in each hand and make  you feel like there is still magic to believe in. Her new book comes out in the spring, and we will definitely have it on pre-order.
  13. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith. J.K. Rowling could write her grocery list and sign it with whatever pen name she wanted and I would be all about it. This was maybe my favorite Cormoran Strike mystery. It didn’t have the gore of the previous two and was impossible to put down.
  14. Falling Free and The Ministry of Ordinary Places by Shannan Martin. I heard about these books because the author is a friend of Emily P. Freeman’s. Shannan Martin writes about loving the people around you, the ones in your own neighborhoods. As a hard-core introvert, I’m not great at this, but I want to be better. I hope to return to these books this year.
  15. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. I probably loved this series as a kid more than Anne of Green Gables. It’s just as good on a re-read now.
  16. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling. It took forever, but Ryan and I read this, and now he’s so excited to watch the movie.
  17. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. This was hilarious and crazy and touching. It covered just about every cliche in an entertaining way and seemed to be LIane Moriarty writing feely about her critics, which was just really fun. I was so happy Book of the Month got this one!
  18. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver–Book of the Month also got this one. I’ve been a huge fan of her fiction since I read The Bean Trees It’s probably time to give her nonfiction a shot again, since it has never hooked me the way her fiction does. I read this over Thanksgiving and couldn’t put it down. It was a truly satisfying book all the way through.
  19. The Wondering Years by Knox McCoy–Pop culture meets faith in really funny ways in Knox McCoy’s memoir. This is a light read with some sparks of insight, but I laughed all the way through and then gave it to Joe. It was actually Joe’s book, but I stole it first.
  20. Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key–I finished this one last night  and enjoyed every page. Harrison Scott Key wrote a memoir, and this is the story of how it changed his life…and didn’t change his life. If you’ve ever written anything or wanted to be a writer, you’d probably think this is as funny as I did.

Cooking for My Family

Today was a stressful day. It’s been a wild week, and I think we have all been looking forward to the weekend. But my kids had a program at the local university, and then we lost time in the cell phone store finding out that the new phone we bought doesn’t work. Then home to watch UK lose to UT in a game that shouldn’t even have been close. And at the end of it all, we didn’t have time to finish our shoeboxes for Operation Shoebox.

We are tired, and we feel dumb, and we don’t know what the next best step is about this silly phone.

And then I cooked some dinner.

It was a simple dinner, but it was a delicious one for us–homemade sloppy joes. I make them from an old Blue Apron recipe, and they beat Manwich hands down. I never feel sick while eating them. The barbecue sauce, carefully selected by Joe, seals the dish, but I love leaning over my cooking skillet of beef to sniff the garlic mixed in, rising fragrant as I stir. I love the way the scent of garlic lingers on my fingers. I don’t care if that makes me weird.

I kept the sides simple–fresh grapes and frozen broccoli, steamed in the microwave–but I felt like I had done something major when we all sat down with sloppy joes piled on my favorite sesame seed buns. Because this week has been busy, we have eaten out a lot, and the kids have had more than their share of instant meals. It’s not the way I want to raise them, but it happens for convenience far too often.

I am not a person who loves cooking, although I’m mostly fine with it. I think I’m like my grandma in this, in that I do it because it must be done, but I haven’t learned to love it yet, at least not all the time. But there is something wonderful, almost magical, about cutting and chopping and stirring over the heat until all these random things pull together into one fabulous dish. I love the fragrance of cooking, the subtle shifts as I add ingredients. I love watching my family eating something I made, and I love the taste of it myself, even if I’m criticizing the job I did.

Today lunch was late, and it was greasy and not at all what I thought we needed. It came from a local restaurant after a week of half-done meals, and way too many bought out, and I felt frazzled and defeated. But tonight, even when it was only sloppy joes, fixed that feeling for me. I loaded the dishwasher and cleared the counters of the day’s accumulated snacks, and I minced garlic and stirred, stirred, stirred.

When it was all ready and we sat around the oval table, it didn’t really look that much different from our greasy lunch. We sat in the same seats, with my ordinary white dishes in front of us, plates loaded with food. We reminded our kids to use manners for the five millionth time. They made goofy jokes.

But it was different this time, because we weren’t sitting down to styrofoam cartons shoved to the side and arguments over who gets the last fries. It wasn’t a fancy dinner or an especially healthy one, but this one felt better to me because of the attitude with which I made it, and the people for whom it was made. Cooking is a way I can take care of my family, even in the midst of busy, messy days. And even when I am not always thrilled by it, I’m still grateful that I get to do it.

Snow Days

We had a snow day today, in November.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to be the kind of person who sneers at a snow day, even one like today, which was a snow day in the most technical sense of the word, as only the tiniest dusting of pretty snow fell this afternoon and the ice wasn’t even a big deal in my neighborhood. My kids and I spent the middle of the day shopping.

But even though I’m the kind of person who loves snow and is filled with gratitude for its beauty, its softness, and its ability to give me the delightful surprise of  unexpected days off, a snow day in November is something even more special. Its earliness, especially in the middle of a week that seemed to be wearing everybody straight out, was like a favorite sweater you thought you’d lost, but then rediscovered in a dark corner of your closet. It was such a relief and a complete joy.

On snow days, I give myself permission to relax completely. Sometimes, my kids and I never do put on clothes; we just keep pajamas all day. We watch lots of TV and read books and play board games. We spend time on electronics. We (I) nap gloriously, right in the middle of the house.

It’s always a little hard to go back after a snowy weekday. A snow day resets your system and lets you forget, however briefly, about the huge stack of papers you have to grade in your bag. It lets you sink into the couch with your feet in your husband’s lap and rest after the day. It lets you get up before 5 a.m., as you often do, and then just chill on the couch for the next three hours.

It’s not the kind of life I can live every day. It’s not even the kind of life I want to live every day. I like my job, and I like being able to go where I want to go. I like being busy. But snow days teach me the sweet surrender of a quieted world, a quieted mind, a quieted body. As a person who lives in a flurry of movement, these are lessons I need.  

This particular snow didn’t leave us with much to work with outside, but we love playing in deep snow. My daughter finds a spot with no footprints and plops down, gathering snow with both hands to make a fort. My son, stuffed with awkward puffy layers of warm clothing, bends to smash snow in his palm and then throw it at me, a flutter of white glitter flashing through the air. I lie on my back in the snow, moving my arms up and down, and when I hoist myself up and look back at the impression my body left, there is a pile of rumpled snow. In it, if I’m looking, I can see an angel.

I Believe in Ordinary

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It’s not actually late at night, although it feels that way. My contacts are dry behind my eyelids, and I have been in pajama pants ever since I got home. I’m stretched out on the couch in front of the fire, my feet in my husband’s lap, while he listens to some British dudes on a video on his iPad, laughing at their cryptically dry British humor.

Tonight we have been at the local pumpkin patch, watching our kids race and shriek and eat hot dogs with the other kids who go to our church. They played hide and seek in a huge pile of hay bales bisected by tunnels while my feet froze in my thin Toms, and they jumped off impossibly high stacks of hay, shouting with laughter when they landed unhurt. When I was too cold to stand around any longer, I watched them say good-bye to their friends, and I was transported thirty years back in time to a tiny white church built a hair too close to the road, wiping wild strands of brown hair off my face while I shouted my good-byes to Edwin, Jennifer, Cory. I am so grateful that my kids get to grow up with precious nights like these with their own church family.

But there is really nothing exceptional about this night. We almost always go to church on a Wednesday night, and my son did his homework before we left. We came home to baths and extra towels for wet hair and bedtime stories, songs, and kisses. This night is quiet and simple and perfectly lovely. As I survey the living room tonight, I see my son’s dementor costume on the ottoman, where we abandoned it after practicing parts for a play we were making up. The coffee table is covered in papers pulled from my children’s school folders. A stack of baseball cards my son and husband were sorting tower in a corner. It’s the clutter and the routine and the delight of ordinary, everyday life–and that is what makes this night so special.

Ordinary is where we live our lives, in the quiet, seemingly unimportant details of our days. And yet I constantly resist this realization. Deep in my heart, I want to be anything except ordinary. I always thought I would end up being something bigger, more special, extraordinary, well-known and respected. But I’m learning–God is teaching me–to find joy in the humble moments.

Some of those humble, ordinary moments are hard. Someone is hurt, or scared, or things at work don’t go as I’d planned. I have to make a deliberate effort to hang on in those times, to seek the beauty and the very face of God in the middle of the mess, to consciously remind myself that if God gave this ordinary moment to me, then this ordinary moment is enough, and I am enough in it. It is in these moments that I can see God is hand at work, refining me like silver.

Slowly, as he works in my heart, I can feel and see the changes he has made, and this walk of ordinary in the journey has been a long time coming. I’m not perfect at it now, but I am much better at reminding myself that this, too, will pass…and it’s entirely possible that I will miss the beauty in it because I thought it didn’t matter.

Why I Love Joshilyn Jackson

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Yes, there are two copies of Someone Else’s Love Story. Who wouldn’t want two?

The first book by Joshilyn Jackson that I read was her first book too–Gods in Alabama. I bought the book because I had a gift card to Barnes and Noble, and I needed something to read for my upcoming trip to Florida. This was in the days when I rarely bought new books, and I had been burned enough times by books that sounded so much better than they actually were that I didn’t even know what to look for. I wandered the new fiction section in the bookstore, picking things up and putting them down.

Then Joe said, “This sounds like something you might like.”

He was holding a paperback copy of Gods, and he pointed out that it was recommended by Glamour, which I did read pretty much cover to cover every month. I skimmed the description and agreed that it sounded good. Besides, I was using a gift card, and we were going on vacation. If it was horrible, I hadn’t spent my own money, and how much time would I really have to read anyway? I didn’t have any better ideas.

This was how I selected what became one of my favorite books in my reading life. It was my first experience relying on reviews to select a book, and it is an obvious strategy that has of course worked well for me over the ensuing years. It did not let me down in this instance.

I started the story in the car on the way down to Florida, and I barely looked up for two days. The beach is one of my favorite places in the world, but I just wanted to read. The book was so hilarious, smart, and delicious that I read it to Joe in the car on the way home.

Gods in Alabama is the story of Arlene, a self-exile to Chicago from her home in Possett, Alabama. Arlene feels that the deal she made with God–she’d stay away from Possett and he’d keep her away from her past–has been broken when a girl from high school shows up at her door, and she is forced to face all the secrets she has been hiding, as well as the secrets that were kept from her, in order to finally find a chance at peace.

It is so much better than I make it sound.

Joshilyn Jackson has been my go-to author ever since. She is a southern writer who lives in Georgia and richly mines the region’s peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses in a manner reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. She brings small-town southern charm and prejudice to life, creating the paradoxical personalities who live and breathe in our towns, and she imbues them with humor and grace and love.

Plus, her books are just so stinking funny. I love to laugh while I’m reading.  There aren’t enough books that are funny and genuine at the same time and also actually smart. Joshilyn Jackson’s books, infused with literary references and well-arranged action and plot, fit every one of these descriptions.

Her latest book, The Almost Sisters, is absolutely as wonderful as the early ones that quickly became favorites. Leia, a comics writer who is unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand with an African American Batman at a comic-con, has to figure out how to tell her southern family the news, while simultaneously trying to save her beloved grandmother from long-buried secrets that have just been unearthed in her attic. This book has perhaps the most symmetry of any of her books, which gives it a special power. Plus, like many of her books, the cover is just gorgeous. I’m still envious of those low side buns.

Joe gave me The Almost Sisters for Christmas right after it came out, and he was delighted to see a paperback option on Amazon right beside the hardback one. Knowing my love of paperbacks because it’s easier to throw them in my bag and carry them everywhere, he bought me the paperback, realizing only after it arrived that the paperback was only available because it was large print. It worked; my middle-aged eyes appreciated the extra size, and I loved how well that man knows me. I read it twice right away, and when my sister borrowed the book, she gulped it down, staying up until midnight to finish.

Joshilyn Jackson is exactly the kind of author you’ll stay up until midnight to finish, work be darned. These characters are real; they speak and think like me, and they are working to shake off the ways that makes them backward. They love hard and live in the vulnerability of that love.

One of the most special things is that her books always end in hope. Bad things may have happened to the characters, and they may not be leaving us in a place they like. But they can see where they could go, where they will go, and you feel confident that they can get where they need to be. Her stories and characters seem real, embracing the hardship and the beauty of life.

Hope is something that is missing not only from too many books, but from too many of our real lives. Politics, snarkiness, the constant barrage of opinions–all of these things can leave us without the confidence that good things still exist in the world. Books like Joshilyn Jackson’s bring that back in a powerful way. I don’t think I’d ever want to be a character in one of her books; she puts them through such difficult things, but at the end of her books, I rarely fail to relate to the faith that things are getting better.

That’s the kind of writing we need to sustain us in our own difficult things. And I can always count on Joshilyn Jackson to get me there.

Just Open the Door by Jen Schmidt

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Tonight I finished reading Jen Schmidt’s wonderful book Just Open the Door: How One Invitation Can Change a Generation. It would be inaccurate to say I was blown away by it. I didn’t read this book and immediately feel myself knocked over, all my ideals changed. Instead, I would describe this book as a gentle, persistent wind on a hot day: refreshing, clear, and attitude-shifting.

Probably because of the tumultuous political and social climate, there has been a recent surge in books and discussion centering on hospitality and the role it plays in a Christian’s life. Many lines have been written about how the Bible exhorts us to love our neighbors, and about how Jesus didn’t just talk about love; he demonstrated it through living with and eating with people. They’re not wrong. Being isolated from one another is clearly not what the writers of Scripture had in mind. But for a fairly awkward introvert like me, hospitality is one thing I have tried hard to pretend doesn’t apply to me.

It’s not just my introverted nature, which needs lots of time to recharge, and has never been a fan of big parties. I’m also fairly slobby. I’m a proponent of stacks–stacks of books on the coffee table, the ottoman, the bathtub, the bookshelves; stacks of papers on the counter beside the stacks of mail; stacks of dishes in the drainer; stacks of folded clothes waiting to be put away. If things are organized neatly into piles, I don’t really feel like my house is a mess…until someone comes over.

My house is generally clean. We sweep and vacuum and dust and do laundry regularly, and in my middle age, I have developed a strong affinity for mopping. But when I know people are coming, I feel like I have to shift into turbo drive on my cleaning. Every speck of dust has to be rooted out of corners. I am suddenly embarrassed by my baseboards. My husband’s pile of CDs by the stereo enrages me. Everything has to get perfect, NOW.

The last time we had anyone over, even though it was just family, my husband told me that he hates having people over, because of the level of preparation I put everyone through.

That stopped me hard. Honestly, I love having company. I love cooking something for them–probably not a whole meal; I also love takeout, but I love making a special dessert, or breakfast, or appetizers. I like sitting with people I love in the middle of my clean house and talking for hours. I like lingering over the table, scraping the last bits of dessert off a plate with a fork while a couple of us continue a conversation after everyone else has moved on to more comfortable chairs. I love a small party, where I can talk to everyone, where I can hear and be heard.

But having company happens rarely at my house, and if, when it does happen, I make everyone else in my family miserable in the preparation, then I’m definitely missing the point.

Jen Schmidt’s book was so powerful to me for several reasons. One of them is that, obviously, I’m not great at hospitality. But she makes it sound so simple, as evidenced by her title: we should just open the door, whether that means literally opening the door to the house and welcoming anyone, anytime (which seems to be a strategy that works for her), or that means to open ourselves to the needs of others and trying to meet those needs.

The backbone to her idea of hospitality as a lifestyle is the idea of giving our best to God, which shifts the focus from me to them. As a follower of God, I love him and then love others, which puts others ahead of me and guides me to a place of humility. Jen writes, “Shifting our focus from us to them removes all unnecessary expectation. No need to worry about what to say or how to act. Just come as you are.”

She reminds us of the difference between entertaining and hospitality, saying, “When we use our lives exactly as they are, desiring only to create a sacred space for our guests, mixing it with the countercultural truth of loving Jesus and loving others, we turn entertaining upside down, and it becomes radical hospitality.

My problem with hospitality is probably not actually with hospitality, but with trying to be an entertainer. But hospitality is just being open to my people and to everyone who should be my people, and offering what I have. Sometimes what I have will be a pile of mail moved off the table to make room for a bag of Cheetos and some Diet Coke. But if I combine that with honest listening and love, and I let someone know that she isn’t alone in the world, then I am sharing my Jesus, and that is the most important thing.

I am so guilty of rushing by people with a quick, “How are you?” while not even waiting for the reply, of smiling and saying hello but never slowing my fast pace to check on a person if she doesn’t smile back. I am guilty of praying for people without opening my eyes, my pantry, my home, my heart to the needs I could be meeting for them right now. I am guilty of ignoring the fact that sometimes, I might be their answer to prayer.

But as I’ve thought through this book, I’ve started to see ways that even an awkward introvert like me can reach out and offer genuine hospitality to others. I’ve started to understand that hospitality isn’t always starched tablecloths and candlelight, although Jen Schmidt is definitely a fan of the candles. I’ve started to understand that hospitality is something I can do, and I should do, with God’s help, for the sake of others and for the sake of myself. I’ve started to wonder if hospitality isn’t one of the ways I have to open myself to God, to be his hands and feet in this world. I’ve started to wonder that if I don’t offer what I have, both in my heart and in my home, I may be crippling the work of God in this world.

Let it not be found to be so with me.