Easter Books with Surprising Themes

I’m all about reading books to my children that encourage them to open their eyes and see what’s around them, empower others and withhold judgement. And, my very favorite books are the ones that manage to do all those things subtly. They have great illustrations, fascinating stories, but they still manage to sneak in a positive message.

We’ve been reading Easter/Spring books these days and much to my surprise, we read two that had very empowering messages about women. What an interesting trend! I thought I’d share:

P. Zonka Lays an Egg by Julie Paschkis

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This book isn’t overtly about Easter and it isn’t overtly about women either… but I think it still does a good job of promoting both. My kids showed some interest in it at the library, likely because the cover illustration is so bold and eye-catching. I was happy that the story was pretty great too!

Basically, it’s about this chicken P. Zonka. All the other chickens in the coop take a lot of pride in the eggs they lay. But, P. Zonka doesn’t lay any eggs, so they make fun of her. Instead of paying attention to the snickering crowd, P. Zonka explores nature and revels in the beauty around her. When P. Zonka finally decides that she’s going to give all this egg-laying business a shot, she not only lays an egg, but she lays a pisanki, a polish-style Easter egg. P. Zonka’s pisanki is filled with all the things she loves and admires about nature.

The illustrations of this book are a quick study in Polish art. And, let me tell you — it’s gorgeous! My kids were drinking in the bright, intricate designs on each page. But, I love the message. You don’t have to be like everyone else. And, sometimes blooming in your own time is worth the wait. 

You do you, P. Zonka!

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward

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I love a vintage book. And, this one just put out a 75th anniversary edition, so that tells you something about its staying power! Vintage books typically have more text than my kids are used to in a picture book, so we used this book as a bedtime read-aloud in lieu of a chapter book.

This book explains that there are five Easter bunnies that deliver all the candy and eggs to the little children. These are the swiftest, wisest, kindest bunnies of the entire bunny kingdom. As they grow old, they’re replaced with new bunnies that are equally swift, wise and kind.

A common little girl bunny wants to grow up to be one of those Easter bunnies. But, everyone laughs at her. She’s not beautiful and white. She’s not particularly strong. She’s not rich. She’s just a simple, brown country bunny. This little girl grows up into a mom of 21 (gulp! gasp!) bunnies. Instead of giving up on her dream, she trains each of them to do a particular task around the house and they become very self sufficient.

When it’s time to select a new Easter bunny, this intrepid mama applies for the position. As it turns out, her experience as a mom and her spirited personality makes her the perfect candidate. Then, she goes on a bit of an Easter adventure, which reveals even more about her character and charm.

It really is such a sweet tale, with equally lovely illustrations.

This little country cottontail rabbit was persisting before persisting was cool. Don’t count out moms, y’all! 

Break that Easter bunny glass ceiling, little Cottontail!

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Thrilling, Simply Thrilling

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So, last night I went to the library with my hubby. On our way back home, I told him I HAD to tell him about the book I just finished. He indulged me… because he’s a gentleman. And, though I know he doesn’t really care, I described the plot of this book from the moment we left the library, all the way back home and for several minutes sitting in the dark in our garage. I just HAD to tell someone what happened. Even if that someone wasn’t totally interested and was just trying to be a good listener. 😉

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn has everything I love about thriller novels.

  • Great writing
  • Several unexpected plot twists
  • Unreliable, yet lovable narrator
  • Fast-paced prose
  • A sense that anything could happen
  • Climatic chapters that you.just.can’t.put.down.

The beginning of the book was a bit slow. The main character (not a spoiler) is an agoraphobic who sits in her house all day and watches the comings and goings of the people around her. It does get a bit tedious at the start and you might even begin to feel a little claustrophobic… or at least I did.

Like, please, Anna. Just go outside already! Go do something!

But, at the same time, the author keeps you in this microcosm where you’re forced to be interested in the same things that the main character is interested in.

I don’t want to give any details away, but there’s a definite moment in the book where things take a turn. From that point on, I really, really couldn’t put it down.

I stayed up way past my bedtime and then promptly had a terrible nightmare wherein I was somehow enmeshed in the happenings of this book. Seriously spooky!

But, I woke up the next morning feel energized and so very glad that I read something so thrilling. It gave me a little zip and something really interesting to think about. It will stay with me for awhile. And, I’ve already recommended it like crazy!

Morbid Curiosities and Other Itches that Hurt to Scratch

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In 24 hours, I inhaled (no pun intended) Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.

There are three reasons why I devoured this book so quickly.

  1. It is HIGHLY readable.
  2. There is never a dull moment.
  3. I needed it to be over. Quick.

Cringe-worthy would be putting it lightly.

The better description would be that my stomach was in a vice grip of fascination and disgust for every page of this book.

Then, why read it? And, better yet, why finish it?

So, this book falls in the category of books that come to my TBR list magically. I don’t know why or how I decide I want to read them. But, something about them strikes my fancy and I feel compelled to dive in. I still don’t know what sounded so interesting about a book about death and dying, except that I know virtually nothing about cremation — or any other death science — and it feels like something a well-rounded person should know at least a little bit about.

I appreciated Doughty’s humor, which helped the book along. At times, it felt crude, but I reminded myself that you’d have to have a sense of humor to survive in this line of work… This book also made me so grateful for the people who work in this field. It’s a dirty job (literally), but someone has to do it (literally). And, I’m grateful for the people who step up to the plate. If it means they have to disengage their emotions or crack a few jokes to get through their {horrendous} day, then so be it.

I’m also glad to have read this book because it made me think about death. It’s not a comfortable thought to linger on, but the reality is that we’re all dying. Anything we can do now to help us face that time with dignity and peace is a good thing… right?

If you have a bit of a morbid curiosity about an uncommon line of work and have a cast iron stomach, then this might be the book for you.

But, this is definitely heavy subject matter and it might sit like a dead weight (pun sorta intended) on your heart until you finish it.

10 Valentine Books for Young Readers

Image result for heart Valentine’s Day!

What’s not to love about celebrating the best emotion in the world with all your favorite people?

I particularly look forward to reading lovey dovey picture books with the kiddos before bed. It hypes up this special day and shares important messages about what really matters. Here are ten of our favorite Valentine day books.

51zcggddlsl-_sx362_bo1204203200_1. How Do You Hug a Porcupine? By: Laurie Isop 

In this book, a little boy is hugging all the animals. But, he can’t figure out how to hug a porcupine. This charming, rhythmic book uses clever text and inventive solutions to teach kids about showing love to everyone — even the prickly sort.

97816267228802. XO, OX: A Love Story By: Adam Rex 

Epistolary stories are my favorite! I mean, who doesn’t love a good letter? This is a cute tale told in love letters between a hopelessly romantic ox and a famous gazelle who is waaaay out of his league. Will he win her over? See for yourself!

41-op1mqcll-_sx364_bo1204203200_3. My Heart is Like a Zoo By: Michael Hall

The art in this picture book takes my breath away. It’s brilliant! Each illustration is created entirely from hearts in vibrant, spectacular graphics. The equally precious text is a metaphoric rhyme that compares animal characteristics to the feelings and expressions of love. This is one we were happy to read over and over!

97818473843624. The Biggest Kiss By: Joanna Walsh & Judi Abbot

I love a sweet book about kisses — especially one with stunning animal illustrations and lyrical text. (I’m noticing a theme, here…)

510tikcid7l-_sx375_bo1204203200_5. How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? By: Jane Yolen & Mark Teague

We love ALL these dinosaur books. The expressions on the dinosaurs are perfection. I particularly love this book because it perfectly captures the unconditional love parents feel for their children.

books-about-love6. Henry in Love By: Peter McCarty

This book has illustrations that would easily look like expensive children’s art if you mounted them on the wall. It has such spare, but striking pictures with thoughtful, expressive characters. McCarty manages to say so much with the mere tilt of an ear or twitch of a mouth. It’s also such a lovable story about a little bunny who makes a big sacrifice for love.

71dw1k1xnll7. Hug Machine By: Scott Campbell

I’m opposed to the idea that every book with a boy as the main character has to be about being rough and tough. So, this book is a win for me! A tender little guy spends his day giving – and receiving – hugs. The beautiful watercolor illustrations are captivating, but the story is funny and quirky enough to appeal to its intended audience.

61io9pevtxl8. Love Monster By: Rachel Bright

It’s an unfortunate truth that sometimes you don’t fit in. Love doesn’t come easily to everyone. Yet, this adorable monster refuses to give up in his quest for affection and acceptance. It’s a simple story with a big, heartwarming message.

516fkoeqell9. Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch By: Eileen Spinelli

My young readers didn’t have the patience for this long-ish story, but it’s still worth reading for yourself if you’d like a case of the Valentine feels. It’s about a reclusive, lonely man who comes to find the power of love in an unexpected way.

61xovmxapel-_sx258_bo1204203200_10. Queen of Hearts By: Mary Engelbreit

Confession: I love Mary Engelbreit. I could spend all day enjoying the intricate designs she creates in each image. This is book highlights the creativity of beloved Ann Estelle with a heartwarming ending, typical of this brilliant author/illustrator.

17 Books I Loved in 2017 (Plus a Few Honorable Mentions)

Phew! I read 73 books in 2017! Looking back on my Goodreads ratings, I really loved most of them. It was hard to choose from my favorites, but there were a few stories that I just had to gush about once more before officially putting a close on last year’s reading.

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1. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

I’ll begin with the last. I like even numbers (I’m weird!), so I planned to finish up my reading in December with 72 books for the year. I purposely picked up this historical fiction book at the end of December because I thought it would easily take me into January. Not so! I couldn’t put it down! Before We Were Yours features two strong women from two different generations. Each is faced with heartbreak — some worse than others. It also sheds light on terrible adoption crimes that took place in Memphis. I cried BIG tears, but the ending made it all worth it.

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2. No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith

This book is so unusual. The narrator’s voice is unique. The plot is clever. I absolutely fell in love with Precious Ramotswe and Botswana.

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3.  The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Did you know graphic memoirs were a thing? I didn’t until this year and – wow – so good! This story, in particular, was extremely moving. It follows the harrowing journey of Thi Bui’s parents as they struggle to survive the Vietnam War and eventually immigrate to America. The story is told with such incredible empathy that my heart opened to what it meant to live in Vietnam at that time and what it means to be a stranger in a new land.

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4. To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay

This may well be my favorite book of the year. It is a story – simply told – of an old man who  loses his wife unexpectedly. Around the same time, he sees a white dog on his property that won’t seem to leave him alone. He eventually warms to the dog and begins caring for it — but, the problem is that his children can’t see it. This book is beautiful and the ending made me CRY BIG TEARS!

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5. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

A skeleton is found on some family property during a renovation. Rowan Chase wants to know why. She begins to explore the history of her family and the history of her community. This is YA historical fiction that sheds light on a long buried Oklahoma race riot and massacre. You’ll want to read this one quick to find out what happens.

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6. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

This was the book I read during Hurricane Harvey and it was such a respite for me. Stradal presents a fresh voice in fiction and, though the author is male, he gives us a believable female character. Her story — from her humble, somewhat depressing beginnings, to her future as a famous, enigmatic chef — is told from all the significant and insignificant people that helped her achieve her destiny. (Also, the author liked my review on Goodreads… so I pretty much fangirled out!)

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7. Exit West  by Mohsin Hamid

What if there were no boundaries? You could walk through a door and be in another country, in someone else’s home, anywhere really… This is the premise of Exit West, which follows two characters desperate to flee a brutal civil war in their native country and their odd, somewhat sci-fi immigration to a new country. This book is unusual, but so thoughtful. It makes you think about immigrants and the boundaries – largely invisible – that we let divide us. This book stayed with me LONG after it was over.

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8. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

I didn’t know much about Trevor Noah and I didn’t know much about apartheid. But, after reading this book, I was a fan — of Trevor Noah, not apartheid. Noah gives a completely genuine, hilarious account of his childhood under extreme circumstances. Like a true comedian, he shares the most horrifying and senseless details of his life in a way that makes you laugh… and then marvel that you’re laughing when you really want to cry. I found this to be the most quotable book of the year. There were so many poignant thoughts that were worth revisiting!

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9. Beartown by Fredrick Backman

This book. Oh man. This book. I have no words. Just read it.

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10. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

I picked this book up on a whim and it turned out to be exactly what I needed. It’s hilarious, ironic and cleverly told. Even if you’re not a fan of the movie, you’ll find it charming and laugh-out-loud funny. There’s an Andre the Giant fart scene that made me cry with laughter.

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11. Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

I read this book on audio, while driving cross-county for our summer vacation. It was my first introduction to Sedaris and I just love, love, love his voice. His observations on life, the way he captures the magic and intrigue of an ordinary day… it’s truly an art. He’s not for everyone and there’s quite a bit of language and risky behavior, but I could listen to him craft a sentence any day.

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12. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

I vaguely remember the movie, but this year, I kept hearing Fannie Flagg, Fannie Flagg. I’m so glad I tried her out. This book is nostalgic, charming, funny and sad. It’s southern fiction done right.

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13. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

I fell in love with this YA series this year. It’s sweet, light, honest and you really, really want to see everything with Lara Jean work out. Oh, holy cow, she can be AWKWARD though!! (Cringe!!)

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

I love books that teach me things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Turns out mortality is more than just dying. This book is so important that I think it should be required reading for everyone. It makes you understand why our bodies break down over time, what that means to us, what that means to those we love and how we can face the end of our mortality with dignity.

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15. Mayday by Karen Harrington

My daughter read this and then handed it to me and said, “Read this now.” So, I did. This YA book is about a boy who survives a plane crash. He uses facts and statistics to view the world and tell his story — which is anything but cold and unemotional. I finished this book and just wanted to hug it. My kid had it pegged right. A must-read!

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16. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

I just love Maria Semple. She’s a genius. Seriously. This entire book takes place in one day. And, like any other day, Eleanor wants to live her best life. She wants to do what she should be doing and not do what she should not be doing. Sounds simple, but it gets complicated. REAL complicated. Semple has an uncanny way of just saying the darn thing – without all the unnecessary extras, which is MUCH harder than it seems.

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17. My Life in France by Julia Child

I had no idea what a sassy, clever, hilarious lady Mrs. Julia Child was. Her memoir about her time in France is almost perfect, as far as memoirs go. You feel like you know her after it’s all over. And, most importantly, her story is so inspiring. Julia Child became THE Julia Child late in life and with plenty of obstacles and hardships. She didn’t let anything get her down. Bon Appétit!

Honorable Mentions:

  1. The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett – Experimental, hard to follow at times, but so interesting and thought-provoking. I found it worth the effort.
  2. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy – A refreshing character in depressing times
  3. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh – A stunning, heartbreaking story about the foster care system and the ways to communicate. I give it five stems of ranunculus.

In Honor of President Monson I Give My Testimony, More or Less

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President Thomas S. Monson died today at the age of 90. He was an amazing prophet who strengthened my testimony through his inspiring words and good deeds.

All day, I’ve been thinking about President Monson and what he meant to me. This has also led me to consider why I believe in this religion and how it’s shaped my life.

Growing up Mormon isn’t easy — particularly in the “Bible Belt.”

I grew up being told that I would go to hell because I wasn’t “saved.” I grew up being told that I wasn’t a Christian, even though I believed in Jesus Christ. I grew up having the most uncomfortable American History classes where there was always a section on Mormons that portrayed them as bigamists, polygamists and greedy grifters — pushed out to Utah because they refused to follow the law. I could always tell the teachers that had strong views about Mormonism because they ad-libbed their lessons with plenty of anecdotal evidence about why Mormons were evil. I was often the lone Mormon in the room and I melted under the scrutiny.

When you have a green, fledgling testimony, it’s not easy to sit through that.

It’s also not easy to turn down alcohol time after time after time. It’s not easy to turn down sweet tea. (I mean, I live in the south for Pete’s sake! And, sweat tea is amazing!) It’s not easy to turn down coffee with the response always being… Really? Coffee? But… it’s coffee?! It’s not easy to be modest when all your friends are wearing short shorts and tank tops and it is SO hot in Texas. It’s not easy to clad your tight, slim teenage body in a full-piece swim suit when everyone else is wearing bikinis. Or to pick out your prom dress from a rack of bridesmaids dresses because your mom won’t approve anything remotely revealing.

It’s not easy to answer questions — endless, incessant questions — some innocent, some loaded with prejudice. It’s not easy to stay up at night and wonder those same questions for yourself and come to terms with the things that you just can’t know right now. It’s not easy to accept church policies that you don’t understand or immediately agree with.

In the grand scheme of easy, “socially acceptable” religions, Mormonism wouldn’t even rank on the list.

And, yet I’ve chosen this life. I’ve chosen it for myself and I’ve chosen to raise my children this way, knowing that they will face all of these challenges and more.

Why?

There was a time in my life where I didn’t consider myself a Mormon. In fact, it was an embarrassment to me.

During that time, I thought life would be easier and happier without the burden of religion. I lived the way I wanted to live. I did what I wanted to do. I based my choices on what felt right in the moment. I started to delve down intellectual pathways that justified my new ways of thinking. I got very deep into relativism and started to believe that there was no such thing as absolute truth.

Maybe something was true for you, but that didn’t make it true for me.

You can justify almost anything when you believe that way. And, believe me, I did a lot of justification!

Relativism was just a hop, skip and a jump away from atheism. And, I was willing to explore those beliefs – or non-beliefs – as well. It was possible to be a good person, make good choices and not believe that God was real. And, really… where was the scientific evidence of deity? If God wanted us to believe in Him, why did He allow science and technology to usurp and explain so many of His “mysteries?”

I had so many questions about God. In truth, I still do! But, I quickly came to realize that this way of life didn’t work for me.

Not because I felt pressure from those around me to change. I had plenty of love and acceptance. Not because I was too indoctrinated into my Mormon lifestyle, as I had dedicated most of my time to studying other belief systems and have many, many family members and friends who believe differently. Not because I didn’t try out any other religions. I explored many other faiths. Not because it was easier to be Mormon — because, as I already established, that certainly wasn’t the case.

I just wasn’t very happy.

I was living for me, but I wasn’t fulfilled.

In small, indistinguishable increments, I was becoming a person that I didn’t like.

I found that love became a challenge for me. It was hard to even say it.

I found that I was increasingly frustrated with life, increasingly annoyed by people. Maintaining relationships became burdensome. I wanted to withdraw constantly.

I found it hard to forgive, hard to find compassion, hard to feel my feelings.

I found that the exciting things I thought would be so fun, quickly lost their shine. Life felt more dull, more boring, more worthless.

I found it harder to quell my tendencies toward depression and anxiety, harder to cope with challenges.

I found that decisions were more agonizing – the choices between right and wrong became more blurred.

I found that all the other belief systems and philosophies I studied sounded okay, maybe even made sense… but, like an ill-fitting outfit, they just didn’t feel all that great once I tried them on.

I didn’t feel like me.

And, when I really thought about my life and what brought me joy and wholeness and love, what inspired me and uplifted me, what kept me steady and sane — I came back to this church, to this gospel, to this religion.

When I put that yoke on my shoulders, everything else that felt really difficult just didn’t compare with the peace I’d found.

I felt more like myself, more free to express every part of who I truly was. I felt like I had more direction, more purpose and more joy even in the simple, unremarkable parts of life.

I still don’t consider it easy to be a Mormon.

I still struggle to say — it’s true!! — when I’ve spent such a significant portion of my life coming to terms with truth.

I still worry that my choice of religion and my assertion of belief might offend or annoy someone else that believes differently. It’s hard for me to overcome that passivity because I honestly respect all religions and belief systems, so long as they don’t hurt, abuse or demean others.

I still grapple with the demands of time, tithes and dedication required to be a full-time member of this church. There’s times when it’s not fun to serve others. There’s times when I don’t particularly want to love my neighbor.

I still find it a challenge to withhold my desire to compare my life and choices with others in our church, who I consider to be more righteous or worthy than me. Similarly, I still battle the urge to criticize those who I don’t consider to be as righteous or worthy as me.

That’s an ugly thing to say and that’s an ugly way to be. And, I hate the parts of me that slip into judgment or gossip or grudges. But, it’s honest and real.

I can be bitter about the sacrifices that are required of me and I can rebel against the lessons God sends my way. I cling desperately to my vices and stubbornly resist change.

If you’re looking for a perfect Mormon, that’s not me and probably won’t ever be me.

But, if you’re looking for someone who loves this gospel with all her heart, someone who has read the Book of Mormon and found it to be true, someone who feels a brightness growing in her soul whenever she’s sitting at church and listening with her heart, someone who wants desperately to be good, someone who loves the Savior and believes in His atoning sacrifice, someone who tries over and over and over again to be better, someone who prays often and with fervency, someone who battles hard times with faith and hope, someone who’s familiar with failure, someone who’s experimented with this gospel (and others) and found the fruits of it to be sweet and delightful beyond description — then that is me.

I believe this church – this gospel – is true. I believe it is true because that truth means that, as imperfect and wretched as I am, I get a fair shot to be with my Heavenly Father forever. I believe it is true because that truth means that you — even if you don’t believe what I believe — also get the same fair shot. I believe it is true because it teaches me that I am a Child of God, that I matter, that I have something to contribute to the world. I believe it is true because it has taught me to love others, to serve others, to see their worth, as well as my own. I believe it is true because it makes me better, challenges me, stretches my soul, and smooths away the edges of my often willful spirit.

I believe it is true because I believe that God loves his people enough to send us a prophet. I believe this world needs a prophet. And, I believe that God communicates with prophets and apostles in order to lead his people home. I believe Thomas S. Monson was a prophet and that the angels are rejoicing for the honorable life he led. I believe another prophet will take on that mighty mantle and similarly serve in righteousness. And, I believe that when I listen to that prophet’s council, my life will improve in meaningful, measurable ways.

No, it is not easy to believe as I do, to choose what I do — but, it is so unbelievably worth it.

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I thank thee, oh God, for a prophet. For this prophet. And, for the beauty he’s added to my life.

Hurricane Harvey

I can’t relate to what’s happening in the world right now. I can’t understand people on Labor Day vacations. I can’t compute first day of school photos. I can’t abide opportunities to purchase long lasting lipstick or phenomenal acne treatments. I don’t care about your bad day or your good day.

Nothing matters but right here, right now.

I don’t know what day it is or when everything with Hurricane Harvey started.

I know I felt a sense of relief when it hit Corpus Christi. Sure, I felt bad, but it wasn’t here… so, honestly, there was relief. We’ve had our fair share of hurricanes, tropical storms and loss. But, what came for us… the incessant storms, the flash flooding, the mass destruction was far worse than anything I could have anticipated.

Everything around us is wiped away – entire homes, entire neighborhoods, entire communities. Cars lie haphazardly in ditches, abandoned – I hope – when the roads became impassable. Families are displaced everywhere. The whole region is mourning.

This is truly the most awful thing I’ve ever witnessed.

Our family is okay. By some fluke of luck, we are fine. But, so, so many others are not. My heart aches for them.

It’s all I can think about. All I can do.

Pray for Southeast Texas.