Evicting the Tarantulas

My memory of the past is spotty. I journal every day – just three to four lines, nothing too remarkable. Some days, I go back and look at what I wrote last week, last month, two months ago and marvel at how distant a memory those times become in my mind. Like ancient history. I can barely remember doing those things, feeling that way, saying those things. Is everyone like that or is it just me?

My childhood memories almost feel like memories of what I’ve been told, not exactly real experiences. I’m always left questioning if something is a genuine memory or just the memory of a memory.

I do, however, remember playing alone most of the time. I lived in my own world and was sometimes shocked that people could see me when I felt so totally occupied by the narrator casting stories in my mind. I was an early reader and loved writing from the moment I could pick up a pencil. I wanted to have control of the story – leave my mark on it.

I don’t remember this but, when I was around four, my dad said he came home from work one day and found me at the kitchen table writing. My handwriting was so big and ungainly that just a few words filled the whole page. I was in a fury of frustration. I recognized my own ineptness but could do nothing to correct it. I hated misspelling words but I needed help almost constantly to get it right.

My dad said I was asking him word after word to spell. Finally I came to tarantula.

“Tarantula?” my dad questioned, surprised.

“Yes, how do I spell tarantula?”

I could tell when I wasn’t being taken seriously. I think all children can. And, I was forever being laughed at, marveled over.

Tears began coursing down my cheeks.

“Daddy, I have so many stories inside me, but I just can’t get them out.”

My dad tells this story with consummate laughter and maybe a sense of pride. He always knew I’d be a writer. And, it was true. I’ve never stopped with the stories – consuming or exhuming them.

What he doesn’t know is that I have never lost that feeling – the resentment of the help I need, the disgust of seeing my imperfections glaring up from the page, the shame of being unintentionally amusing, and the haunted suspicion that there is so much stored up in me, so many stories, but never any way to get them out.

I haven’t written consistently for about six months. My creativity felt like a well run dry. My confidence sunk lower in the ground. But, I’m beginning to see that writing may be the way back to me.

But, now I’m ready.

Let all the tarantulas out.

Mirrored Windows

Sometimes when I read, I go looking for a window. I need a book to help me see what is happening in the world. I want to stand in someone else’s skin, look through their eyes, challenge my own beliefs. During the Black Lives Matters movement, I’ve wanted more and more windows. I want to understand. I want to see. I want to feel. So, I’ve sought out Black authors who are willing to put a little bit of their heart on the page. Jacqueline Woodson does that well – she leaves heart, blood, bone, bile — everything on the page. So, her latest novel, Red at the Bone was an easy choice.

But, Red at the Bone wasn’t an easy book. The timeline dashes like sprints in gym glass.

Run to this point, run back, run to a further point, run back, run just a few paces ahead, run back.

Yet it was easy to keep pace. The book is lean with all the exercise and the pages beg to turn. Woodson can make three-dimensional characters with the tiniest bits of clay.

And, her characters are real and messy, which also isn’t easy. This book is filled with hard themes and triggers: teen pregnancy, abortion, cancer, homosexuality, RACISM, drugs, murder, colorism, class, abandonment, terrorism… it’s all there. And, it’s sometimes hard to read. This is a hard window to look through. It’s okay if you can’t read it right now. THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.

But it’s interesting, isn’t it, how even a window has a reflection? Sometimes you can get distracted by glimmers of your own shape and features bouncing off the glass. I found myself on some of those pages – found myself in ways it was painful to acknowledge and in ways I didn’t want to be seen. I also found myself in the sturdiness of the women, the desire to persist even when life is less than perfect. And, it reminded me… ain’t I a woman, too?

This book is a powerful reminder that there are lives, upon lives, upon lives in our country – all of them different, all of them worthy, all of them with a story and reasons and history… most of them doing the best they can. This book is a testament of all the ways women are strong, all the reasons why women have to be strong. This book shows the resiliency of Black Americans and their resolve to continue rising.

This book was both a window and a mirror. And, I think maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should read to understand others, but pick up any pebbles of ourselves we find along the way.

Maybe I’m a Cheetah After All

Last night I made the mistake of reading a Facebook comment thread on a controversial political post.

It infuriated me.

And, then it infuriated me that I fell in the trap once again. I hate political posts and largely hate the people who comment on them. I don’t understand the screaming, the finger-pointing, the self-righteous surety that you are right and everyone else is wrong. So, why, oh why, do I read them? Why do I give it energy?

My fury required a long talk with my husband who is generally more level-headed about things. He asked me why I care. I didn’t have an answer except that these days, I feel like a big, shapeless dough of raw emotion. I care about everything. My emotions are intense. My thoughts are wild. My reactions are extreme. This is who I am right now.

My husband encouraged me to reduce the energy I’m giving to social media and he’s right. It’s too much effort for a not-so-great product. There’s no return on investment. So I deleted my Facebook app to make it just a smidge more difficult to take a hit on the divisive drug of negativity.

But, I was still angry. And out of sorts. And, out of the medication that turns off my mental anxiety treadmill so I can sleep. So, hello, insomnia!

Instead of sleeping, I stayed up all night and read this book.

Glennon Doyle is a masterful writer. She has a way of reducing big thoughts and feelings down to very simple analogies. The thoughts/feelings don’t lose their grandeur, they just become digestible and easier to take in — like a small, buttery bite of a thick, sumptuous steak. I felt heard and understood. I felt like I wanted to paper my walls with the pages of this book to reference them always. Most of all, I felt like I wasn’t a lump of raw emotion so much as I was a cheetah. (And, if you read the book you’ll understand why.) Cheetahs are meant to be cheetahs, you know.

Women need more of Glennon Doyle and women like her who are fearless, who can make sense of the world and who can point the way to wholeness.

I want to give myself over to being a cheetah, give myself over to being exactly who I am and no other version, give myself over to building an island of safety and love for my family, give myself over to truth and understanding, give myself over to equality and compassion.

I thought about deleting yesterday’s post if only because I don’t know that you can have a clear perspective when you’re in the midst of the crisis. I think I need space from the problem to figure out how I really feel and what that means for myself and my family.

But, ultimately I decided against deleting it… I want to remember exactly how it felt to be me in this moment. I want to remember these torrents of emotions – even the furious, imperfect, complicated, untamed ones.

Right now, I am fully alive. And, that’s something to be proud of.

On Getting It Wrong

I can’t seem to write anymore. Each day, I wake up thinking that today will be the day I document what is going on in the world. And, each day, I wake up to a new world that chokes the words from my heart. I am speechless and my writing is rusty. But, the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted me so profoundly that I’m willing to risk sounding ignorant in order to unburden some of this grief.

I know white privilege is real. So, I can’t pretend to understand the pain of Black Americans who have suffered unspeakable acts of racism. I also know that my voice is a privilege and I should use it to speak what is true. If I am a Christian and Christ is the way, the truth, and the light, then I must try to follow His way, share the truth, and spread the light.

The truth is… I have experienced prejudice in my life. I understand the hot, burning shame of being different when you want so desperately to fit in. I grew up (and still practice) an unpopular religion in the heart of the Bible belt. I was told many, many times by my “friends” that I would burn in hell, that I needed to be saved, that I wasn’t a Christian, that my dad had multiple wives, that other kids couldn’t play with me or have me over because of my religion. But, religion is something you can conceal so long as you don’t have to wear something that outwardly identifies you, like a hijab or yarmulke. So, I considered myself lucky and learned how to hide for as long as possible. I learned to minimize my beliefs so I didn’t make others uncomfortable. (“It’s not that I can’t drink sweet tea, it’s just that I don’t like it.” Try saying that in the South.) I learned to laugh in harmony with the crowd when others were targeted — never too loudly, never too quietly — so that no one would notice that I, too, was different. I learned how to blend in. It was never right, never something I was proud of, but I did it to avoid the shame of being different. But, even with this little bit of empathy, I cannot and will never know what it’s like to be a person of color in America and know that no matter what you do, no matter how you try, no matter what you accomplish you will always be reduced to a skin color and nothing more. I hate that. I really do. IT IS NOT FAIR.

I also hate that I have also been prejudiced. I hate that I have passed crowds of young, Black men and felt afraid. I hate that I have heard cars roar down my street blaring the deep bass of rap music and made an assumption about what the driver looks like or how he behaves. (When I also roll the windows down and blare my music on a pretty day.) I hate that I sometimes have to check my thoughts, check my beliefs, check my spirit when a news story pops up about a local crime. I hate that I have done something generous for a person of color and privately, smugly thought “look at me being so kind and clearly not racist,” as if I get a special scouting badge for treating a human like another human. (When I have also been in need of and a recipient of mercy and grace.) It is shameful to me because I never want to make someone feel how I felt at times growing up – judged, misunderstood, condemned, stereotyped, awkward, exposed, terribly, terribly bad. It is shameful to me because racism is the antithesis of what I believe about people and how they should be treated.

Does it make it better that I’m less prejudiced than my parents, who are less prejudiced than their parents, who were probably less prejudiced than their parents and so on? Probably not, no. Probably not because it must, it can’t feel any different to the victims. At least, the shame always felt the same to me whether the person said “you’re going to hell” or the person said “I only want you to be saved because I love you so much.” Both statements meant the same thing. I was wrong. I needed fixing.

I also hate all the things I’ve seen on social media denying that racism exists. It has enraged me — sent me on a blocking, unfollowing, unfriending spree. I have lost respect for people I’ve known my whole life. If you’ve grown up in America — particularly if you’ve grown up in the South — you have SEEN racism. And, if you haven’t, then you are working extra hard to not see it. And, my question is — why? Why not admit it? Why not try to unearth the ugly, rotten parts of ourselves and extract them once and for all? Why do some people feel no responsibility at all and I can’t sleep for all the times I get it wrong – all the times I KNOW I got it wrong?

I’m still getting it wrong. God help me, I got it wrong today. I was walking my dog this morning. If I’m honest, I always walk my dog in a state of fear. There are many days I talk myself out of walking because I’m certain that I’ll be robbed, kidnapped, raped, hit by a car, attacked by another dog, lose control of the leash in traffic, trip and fall into traffic, have a heart attack in the street, etc…. This is not logical. This is what medicated anxiety looks like. But, today, I walked my dog anyhow.

Towards the end of our walk, I saw a home up ahead with two, young Black men in the front yard holding the leash of a pit bull. They hadn’t seen me yet and I thought seriously about turning on another street and taking the long way home. I thought it was possible, maybe even likely, that the pit bull could attack us. I envisioned what I would do if the pit bull came after us. I thought how I might scream, how I might want to murder their dog if it risked the life of my dog, how it might make me unable to walk ever again. I thought how I might be injured, how my dog might be injured. I thought all those things in a split second and thought it would be wise to turn down another road.

And, then I thought how those young men might feel if they looked up to see me — a white woman with a spaniel — turning around to avoid them. And, thought that they might think I was racist, that it might hurt them, that it might confirm what they already think of white women (the “Karens” of the world), that it might, in some small way, move the needle of race relations — at least in my corner of the world, my neighborhood – a little further in the wrong direction. I promise you, I did not know what to do.

In the absence of knowing, I stuck to my original decision and kept walking. I passed those men and their dog and waved and tried to smile. It was fake. I was scared. They could probably tell I was scared. Their dog barked ferociously and strained at the leash. But, they remained in control and we kept walking. The rest of the way home, I felt guilty and foolish and not at all sure if I’d done the right thing or if it mattered at all. Not everyone lives their lives in their heads and questions, analyzes, dissects every decision. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe it was just a big deal to me.

Maybe writing isn’t a big deal either. I don’t have anything profound to say. I don’t have any solutions. If anything, I’m only just confessing that I’m often wrong, that I’m not sure what to do, that I’m so sorry, that I earnestly, wholeheartedly want to get it right. I want America to get it right. And, I pray God will help us.

Oh, and one more thing… I hope you know that Black lives matter to me.

In Which the World is Upside Down

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Covid-19: Cute but Deadly

It’s been two years since I last wrote a blog entry. And, I can’t say I know why I stopped.

  • The kids have gotten a bit bigger… and a lot busier.
  • Emme has matured and somehow by the grace of God managed to earn her Canine Good Citizen certification.
  • Work has become more demanding, but maybe more rewarding, too.
  • My reading has actually picked up as I’ve needed – more than ever before – a reliable place to escape.
  • My parents have gotten older. Which is more heartbreaking than people tell you.
  • The church has changed in small and not-so-small ways. And, for no reason in particular, I’ve struggled to find my faith footing.
  • I met Anne Bogel… and then actually ended up on her podcast – which was wild!
  • I started a book club with my sisters and it’s become this huge, important part of my life! God bless sisters everywhere.
  • I joined #bookstagram. (Weird.)
  • I found little bits of myself and lost other bits and had big feelings about both.

At certain points, I thought about blogging. But, I could never commit. In my mind, it felt like such a hard thing to do, growing more difficult as time passed. My brain is really adept at making things harder than they need to be.

But, now the world is upside down and I’ve just had this nagging regret that I’ve done nothing to document it. (I don’t even write columns for my little local magazine anymore.) It just feels so weird that I just have a few journal entries to say… hey, hello, we were here during the COVID-19 crisis.

So, here I am saying – we are here. We are living this.

We’re on week two of the kids being home from school. Granted, the first week was technically Spring Break but we didn’t get to go anywhere or do anything. We are on day… I don’t even know… of being quarantined. Other than making little trips to the store and the library for as long as it stays open (I mean, I’m not a barbarian!), we stay indoors. The kids haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve kept them completely indoors.

My office is closed and I had my first video chat meeting today. So progressive! I’m scared about the future of my job. Both our jobs, actually. I don’t know how anyone in the world has job security with the world as it is… unless they work in a grocery store, hospital or manufacture hand sanitizer, toilet paper or N95 respirator masks. The stock market has tanked. I’m not financially sophisticated enough to know what that means except it’s bad.

What a time to have a faith crisis – AM I RIGHT?!

But, here we are. Real and raw.

I do my fair share of complaining about the kids. It is not easy being a full-time mom and a part-time employee and a wife and just a regular person with moods and hormones and anxiety and burdens right now. But, the kids honestly haven’t been too awful. We’re managing under the circumstances. And, at least I’m not lonely or bored. I’m never bored in this house.

I don’t know what the world will look like tomorrow. I hope it’s a little bit better than it is today. I don’t think this can last forever. But, the real question is what our new normal will be when this is over.

 

Book Review: Love Walked In

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I love when a book moves from your TBR list to your TBLF (to be loved forever) list.

Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos just became one of my favorite books.

The story is told from two female characters – Cornelia and Clare.

Cornelia is a messy, complicated woman who’s trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and who (if anyone) she’ll spend her life with. She’s looking for BIG romance and someone who will understand her passions and quirks. But, thus far, she’s been unlucky in relationships.

Clare is a precocious, 11-year-old girl who lives alone with her mom. Her life becomes precarious when her mother begins displaying very erratic behavior that gets worse over time. Without another parent to depend on, Clare desperately tries to keep their lives together amid the terror of her mother’s spiraling choices.

Then a man walks into a coffee shop and everything changes for both of them. Forever.

What I loved about this book is that it offers so many samplings of love. There’s:

  • Unrequited love
  • Forbidden love
  • Passionate love
  • Familial love
  • Friendship
  • Sacrificial love
  • Love for community
  • Love between neighbors
  • Love between generations
  • Love in the midst of death

Truly – every version of love plays a role in this evolving, touching story.

De Los Santos masterfully addresses important topics without getting bogged down in seriousness or misery. Somehow the narrative remains light and the characters shine as complicated, imperfect, but totally lovable people.

I also appreciated that, while the ending was tidy, it wasn’t squeaky-clean. There was room for imagination.

This will not be my last book from this author or this series.

I’m a fan.

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!

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.