accelerated reader: summer edition

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I read a  lot in June (not quite as much in July) thanks to travel and a brand new Kindle! I’ll write more soon about my Kindle experience–but for now, the short of it is: still prefer paper, but I liked it better than I thought I would. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the books that I read in June and July–unfortunately some of them weren’t worth writing about–but it’s a good cross section.

The Crossover – Kwame Alexander | I adored this middle grade verse novel so much. I laughed, I cried, and I wanted to give a copy to every kid I’ve ever taught. Highly reccomended for kids and adults who aren’t snobby about reading things technically “written for children.”

Ghettoside – Jill Leovy | This book has changed the way I view the criminal justice system (other books that did this same thing: Just Mercy, The New Jim Crow). Fascinating and convicting… equal parts reflection on a system, journalistic facts, and compelling, tragic personal accounts. Highly reccomend.

If You Find This Letter – Hannah Brencher | I enjoyed a lot of parts of this book, but I generally feel like anyone under 30 who writes a memoir (unless they’ve like survived cancer or won Olympic gold) has to stretch the material pretty thin. I still identified with lots of parts of this story. I wouldn’t reccomend it blanketly to memoir lovers, but if you’re really interested in finding yourself stories, snail mail, or New York, give it a try.

Keep Me Posted – Lisa Beazley | This was just a really fun novel. I love snail mail and I adore my sisters, so one look at the book jacket told me I wanted to read this. The plot was a touch far fetched, but the character development was good enough to make me forgive the rest. If you look at the jacket and this looks interesting to you, you’ll probably love it. If it looks meh to you, skip it.

The Nest – Cynthia Sweeney | I wanted to love this book, but it kind of just made me sad. A bunch of siblings arguing over money. Parts were clever, but it wasn’t nearly as clever as Liane Moriarty, etc. and it was way more depressing to me. Entertaining, but wasn’t happy I read it when it was over.

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld | I don’t normally love Sittenfeld’s work (I think she’s a great writer, but something about her stuff just leaves me feeling bummed out), but I liked this better than anything else I’d read by her. I would definitely not reccomend it based on a love for Jane Austen–if you’re a purist, the book will probably horrify you. Much like the original, many of the characters are truely annoying, so keep that in mind.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen | Slower than other Anna Quindlen books I’ve read, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve found recently that I’ve loved reading some books with older (late middle aged and up) protagonists–it’s interesting to think about a part of life that I’m still a ways from experiencing. Reccomend.

All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven | A bit darker than the YA I usually read, but I really appreciated the way it handled mental health issues, without glossing over them and/or romanticizing them. Good read for high schoolers, a little disturbing for some middle schoolers.

The Book of Unknown Americans – Christina Henriquez | This book broke my heart. I loved the way the story was told–centering around a family of immigrants, but touching on the lives of other immigrants they came in contact with. It was sad and hard and really human–highly reccomend.

One in a Million Boy – Monica Wood | This book reminded me a bit of A Man Called Ove (still sitting pretty as my favorite novel of 2016)… it was sad and good, celebrating, above all else, the incredible beauty of human connection, even (maybe especially?) in the face of tragedy. Reccomend.

On my nightstand right now: Present Over Perfect (loving it) and Truly Madly Guilty (excited to start it).

…and last but not least, check out this lovely beach library.

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on traveling & staying put

We didn’t mean for this to be the summer of travel–it’s just kind of how it happened. In the months of June and July I slept in my own bed approximately ten times. We went on our honeymoon (three years late) to Europe. We had a picnic on top of a hill in Nice, climbed a mountain in the French Alps, went to a gorgeous open-air market in Barcelona, biked along the river in Lyon, and ate amazing food in Paris. When we got back to the states, David left for Chicago and I went to Austin, where I had so much fun with my sister Hannah, trying new restaurants, kayaking the Colorado River, and swimming in Barton Springs. Then I met David in Chicago, where we saw the Robie House, played in Millennium Park, and went to 10 bookstores in 6 days.

We had an early morning flight from Chicago to Birmingham and as we rode the L to the airport, we could see the sun rising over the city. It was so pretty. I kept thinking about a story that one of my favorite authors, Shauna Niequist, tells about her brother. He took a year and sailed all the way around the world with a friend. People would often tell him how brave that was… and he would respond, “you know what’s brave? Staying put and making a meaningful life.”

Traveling is fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating (like when you have to wait 30 minutes for a bus late at night, the AC doesn’t work in your AirBnB, or someone steals your cell phone in Paris), but mostly it’s really fun. I’m thankful for this beautiful world and the privilege to see bits and pieces of it. But so much more than that, I’m thankful for the life we’re making here in Birmingham, in our tiny townhouse with the old brown carpet smack in the middle of a big public housing development. I’m thankful for home, for community… a place to come back to, dig into, and work hard for.

Staying put and making a meaningful life is not usually sexy or photogenic. It looks a lot like doing dishes, taking people to the airport, having hard conversations, and doing one more thing, even when you feel real tired. But when I think about the best, deepest experiences of my life, that’s right where they happened… in the glorious mundanity of everyday life. So whether you went halfway around the world this summer or spent it at home, know this: the bravest thing you can do is dig your heels in and make a meaningful life, wherever you are.

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on hard years & no matter what love

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On our wedding day I stood there in that lacy white dress, so excited to be married to this man for forever, clutching the letter that I had written to him, admiring the glint of my ring–but also having some kind of vague feeling that, as time wore on, our love would be less meaningful, more worn in and routine.

***

This week marks the end of our third year of marriage–and oh, what a year it has been. 365 days ago we were packing up a house into storage, leaving the city where we met, where we learned to love each other. Since then we’ve lived in a dorm room, in my parents house, in our own little town house. We’ve said goodbye to friends, trained teachers, renovated a kitchen, preached at small town churches, slept in two twin beds pushed together, sold popsicles, started divinity school, and taught fourth grade science. We’ve laughed, cried, fought, danced, cooked, snuggled, and eaten lots of ice cream.

***

I love the TV show Parenthood. One of my favorite story arcs on the show involves the family’s aging patriarch trying to save his 40 year marriage. He starts the process with a simple, quiet gesture: he looks at his wife and says, “Millie… I see you and I hear you.”

It sounds easy. It’s not. Seeing and hearing requires humility, selflessness, & intentionality. It is a great act of love. Seeing and hearing another human being. Not turning away, no matter what.

***

This year has been hard in ways that I never could have dreamed. It’s been the opposite of so many things I expected. It’s been full of learning & growth, but none of that has been easily won.  I’ve worked harder and cried more than ever in my life. I’ll always remember this as a year my heart was broken and my faith was all but gone, over & over again.

***

As a kid, my favorite book was this tattered trade paperback copy of The Little Gymnast. (I have no idea why, I think I just really wished I could do a cartwheel.) But you don’t need to read that great literary classic to know that gymnasts need spotters. Everyone looks at the Olympic gymnast up on the high beam, no one notices the spotter.

If you watch gymnastics on TV, you’ll know that the spotter doesn’t seem to care one bit about accolades. The spotter never takes his eyes off the gymnast. He sees her and he hears her.

***

When I was little, my dad said the same thing to me every night when he tucked me in. “I’ll always love you…” to which, in my little high pitched voice (complete with a cloying southern accent), I would reply “…no matter what.”

***

This year, over and over and over David has seen me & he’s heard me. Through the balancing act of this hard, confusing year–he’s never once taken his eyes off of me. He’s seen the pain, heard the hard questions. He hasn’t turned his face away. Maybe that’s one of the greatest gifts we can give one another in our marriages, in our friendships, in our families–permission to hurt, doubt, and be human without judgement or superfluous advice. This year David has encouraged me, he’s prayed for me, he has pointed me to Christ… but he has also let me grieve, ask, and be angry. The space to do that has been such a gift.

***

During our first year of marriage David & I fought a lot. In hindsight, I see that underneath most of the conflict I stirred up, I was really just silently asking the same questions over and over: “Is this really it? Will you really love me forever, stay forever? Is this no matter what?” (Yes, I’m sure this was a Total Joy for David.)

Today, I don’t feel the need to ask those questions anymore. I know there will be things to come that we can’t imagine. But I didn’t imagine this year either–and here we are. Tired and spent, yet holding hands. Dancing in the kitchen.

This is what I know to be true: the kind of love that sees and hears you when you’re at your most desperately unlovable is a no matter what love. And no matter what love is worth more than any butterflies, any first date feeling, any mystery or romance.

Things do become worn in and routine. But what I didn’t know three years ago is that worn in love and routine giving of yourself is the most meaningful thing of all.

***

Happy anniversary, David. Thank you for seeing, for hearing, for cheering for me & keeping me safe during every flip & stumble on the beam that has been this year. I’m grateful for every minute of this worn in, routine life we are making together… and I don’t care how hard life is (knock on wood) as long as it’s with you.

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accelerated reader: spring 2016

Spring hasn’t been the best season for reading–I’ve been reading three books a month, which is a lot lower than usual. We did have a delightful trip to Parnassus Books while we were in Nashville where I bought two brand new books, something I so rarely do. It was a lovely experience and I would do it so much more often if we weren’t running out of space at home.

This is what I’ve been reading over the past three months:

Life & Other Near Death Experiences – Camille Pagan | It’s interesting writing these posts awhile after I’ve read the books… sometimes a book that you didn’t just adore reading really sticks with you. Other times a book you enjoyed is pretty forgettable. This is one of the latter. I didn’t know it was a “cancer novel” (or I wouldn’t have put it on hold) but it came in and it was and I read it anyway. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. The end.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman| Is it too early to pick my favorite novel of the year? Probably. But oh, this book was everything good. It was funny and sad, heartwarming and dry. I loved reading about the old man Ove and seeing his life unfold throughout the book. I don’t read a lot of books with significantly older protagonists and this made me want to read more.

My Kitchen Year – Ruth Reichl | I love cook books that are also books (see Bread & Wine and Dinner: A Love Story). This one didn’t disappoint. I was encouraged by hearing about Riechl’s journey through a hard year… and bookmarked several recipes to try.

We Are Called to Rise – Laura McBride | Another really good novel. I like the “lots of different stories converging” genre (along with the “kid gets through hard stuff with the help of a teacher” genre and “stories told through letters and/or emails” genre). This was set in Las Vegas and somehow addressed issues like PTSD, police brutality, immigration, and foster care while feeling incredibly human the whole way through. Highly recommend.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me – Ian Morgan Cron | This was a reread. I read this book a long time ago (college?) and loved it. Lots of things have reminded me of it lately and I decided to read it again (something I very rarely do). It was even better the second time. It’s a pretty dark memoir about faith & growing up as an alcoholic’s kid. The end of the book tells a really beautiful story about the author’s children swimming in a rock quarry… I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that it sums up everything I want for every kid I’ve taught, for my own kids one day — “to jump and not fall.” Read this one as soon as you can.

Night Driving – Addie Zierman | A raw look at doubt, burn out, and what to do when you don’t feel things anymore. I loved When We Were on Fire last year and was excited to hear Zierman was writing a new book. At times it felt like it drew a little bit too much from her first book, but it was overall real, honest, and compelling, so the repetition wasn’t too distracting. I would definitely start with her first book–if you enjoy it, read this one.

The Residence – Kate Anderson Brower | I’m really into the White House. I blame The West Wing (possibly my favorite show of all time). A couple of years ago I got really into JFK books (Killing Kennedy was my favorite). This book was (very accurately) branded as “Downton Abbey for the White House”–a story of life inside the most famous residence, as told by people who have worked on the domestic side for years. Their loyalty, professionalism, and love was compelling.

Everyone Is Beautiful -Katherine Center | I don’t read chick lit as a rule–but I make an exception for Katherine Center. Each time I read one of her books I’m reminded of why I don’t read chick lit (predictable, cheesy, etc), yet she manages to make characters so vulnerable and real that I’m always happy I read the book when I finish. Someone said it’s like “if Brene Brown wrote fiction” and I couldn’t agree more. Happiness for Beginners is my favorite of hers, but this one was good too.

My Grandmother Said to Tell You She’s Sorry – Fredrik Backman | Full circle with this post–after I read A Man Called Ove in February, I immediately put Backman’s other novel on hold at the library. This one was a little bit more magical realism-y than Ove, but I really did love it. The companion novel Britt Marie Was Here came out this month and I’m patiently waiting on it from the library.

p.s. My all time favorite bookshelf (we have two and I want a third),
Parnassus is hitting the road (we got to see inside; it was lovely),
and books on Instagram vs. reality.

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on good things & wide circles

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It’s been almost eight months since we left Jackson, Mississippi. I lived there for seven years, in dorm rooms, in a tiny apartment with my sweet friends from college, in a house on the corner with Jenna that first year of teaching, in houses with David up & down Oxford Avenue. David & I both put roots down in Jackson long before we became a family. Our siblings lived there, our college friends lived there. On any given Saturday we were guaranteed to run into five people we knew–before we finished breakfast.

Some things about Jackson were frustrating… the roads and the water, to name two Big Ones. But the relationships were what we loved & cherished. They were why we were so happy to be there & so sad to leave. When we got ready to move here, we were nervous. We made a list of all the people we even vaguely knew that lived here (six). We talked a lot about how you have to work at creating community, how it was going to be hard, how it would take lots of initiative on our part, how we were willing to buckle down and make it happen.

Eight months later, we tell anyone that we can get to sit still long enough to listen the exact same thing: we adore Birmingham, largely because of the friends we’ve made, the people we’ve worked alongside, the community we’ve found. We have story after story of people opening their hearts & their homes, drawing us in, making room.

And you know what? Contrary to all the pep talks we gave ourselves before we moved… we didn’t have to work for it. I’m a “good things don’t come easy, you’ve got to buckle down & make it happen” kind of person. I’m an inviter, a planner, a doer, a list maker. (Translation: employers love me; I’m pretty exhausting to live with.) But I didn’t do one single thing to create our community here. In fact, due to external circumstances, we’ve been in a place where we haven’t been able to go & host & plan & do like normal.

And yet we have a community that is overflowing with love & joy, coworkers/costudents that have born our burdens & shared their own, friends that bring so much light to our lives.

Through all of this I’ve learned two things (told you I was a list maker). First, sometimes God just gives you good things. You don’t have to work for them. You don’t have to deserve them. Sometimes He just gives you good gifts that he knows your soul longs for. Unexpected, unmerited gifts. For someone like me who is always trying to work for it, pay for it, hustle for it? This is such good news.

Second, draw your circles wide. We have been so blessed by people who have drawn their circles wide enough to let us in. Groups of girls who had space for one more. Sunday brunch when our precious friends pull chairs from outside in to make room at the table. Teachers who have worked at a school for thirty years and yet make time for someone who is brand new. People here haven’t just showed us obligatory you’re-the-new-kid-and-my-teacher-said-to-be-nice kind of hospitality, but have truly sewn us into the fabric of their lives. It’s been such a convicting reminder that there is always room for someone else, always space for another chair at the table. When circles are wide, the kingdom grows & everyone wins.

As we enter the home stretch of this first year in our new city, I’m thankful for grace & good things… and I’m committing to drawing the biggest circles I possibly can.

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accelerated reader: january

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January is usually a good month for reading, due to Christmas books & time off from work. This one was no exception. Here’s what I read in January 2015.

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy | I adored this YA book. The main character was sassy, insecure, and so darn likable. I probably wouldn’t recommend for kids younger than high school due to some mature content, but I loved the story of family, friendship, and finding yourself. And all the Dolly Parton stuff was just plain fun.

Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson | Is it too early to pick my favorite non fiction read of 2016? Just Mercy was compelling, convicting, heart breaking, encouraging. A must read for anyone who cares about our country’s justice system being truly just. It was thought provoking while remaining intensely human, emotional without being heavy handed. Cannot recommend highly enough.

Coming Clean – Seth Haines | Haines’s memoir of sobriety was well-written and so thoughtful. It got a bit repetitive in places for me, but is definitely worth reading–it’s not an addiction story, it’s a human story. Challenging.

Uprooted – Naomi Novak | I hadn’t read a fantasy book since Wildwood last year and this was a good reentry into that world. The book was well-written and deeper than your typical fairy/fantasy story. The end was a little confusing to me, but I enjoyed the book over all.

Everybody Rise – Stephanie Clifford | This book stressed me out. The main character is a social climbing wanna-be that goes to great lengths to be accepted into the world of Manhattan’s elite. You know when you’re watching a TV show and the main character does something that you KNOW is going to backfire and you’re just sitting there, feeling uncomfortable for them and waiting for the inevitable fallout? That’s how I felt for most of this book. The ending was somewhat redeeming. Other than that, it reminded me a little bit of Curtis Sittenfeld’s stuff, which I’m not crazy about.

Happiness for Beginners – Katherine Center | Someone said this was like if Brene Brown wrote fiction and I think that’s spot on. It was a lot “lighter” than my typical read, but the themes of thankfulness, vulnerability, and self-discovery were handled well. I didn’t think I was going to be able to buy into the central relationship, but I did. And, as always, I love a good sibling story. Good beach book / read when you have a lot of other things going on book.

p.s. Yes, I am all aboard the adult coloring book train. My favorites
are this one and this one… and these pencils are the absolute best.

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saving my life

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Winter is always hard for me. I hate the wind, the cold, the grey. I get all excited about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but then that’s over and I’m ready for summer–but there’s still 2.5 months of winter to deal with. Southern winters are generally mild and southern summers get a lot of hate, what with ninety six degree heat, sweat, 80 percent humidity, etc. I say BRING IT ON. So today, almost halfway through The Worst Season, I’m joining in with some readers of a blog I enjoy to share some of the things that are saving my life in the thick of winter.

Coconut oil face wash | For the past three years, the only thing I’ve done with my skin is wash it with water and a washcloth. This has worked far better for my skin than any of the dozens of cleansers/exfoliators/creams I’ve tried. But winter stills tends to make my skin sad and dry. Last year a friend mentioned that she’d been washing her face with coconut oil and loved the results. She pointed me to this blog post and I’ve been using that method 3-4 times a week since… and all dry skin problems have subsided.  I’m a fan. (For what it’s worth, I also tried the apple cider vinegar toner and did not love it… smelly and made my skin dry.)

Homemade bread | Last winter I did a lot of baking bread and prepping lunches on Sunday afternoons. I love the way homemade bread smells… really, the whole process is kind of magic. This recipe is the one I use the most (I usually throw in some extra herbs). This year time is scarcer, but in a pinch I’ve been buying the multi grain sourdough from Birmingham Breadworks and it’s delicious.

Indoor plants | I have tried three times to be a plant person–and it’s looking like the third time is indeed the proverbial charm. I’ve kept four or five plants alive for several months now and just got some new friends (see photo above) last week. Having green things inside while outside is grey and dead has been so nice. (For what it’s worth, this trick is the only reason they’re all still alive.)

Vitamin D supplement | This has been the year of vitamins–I’ve finally gotten into the routine of taking them daily (the trick: water bottle by bed & buying in bulk) and I started taking Vitamin D back in November in preparation for winter. It seems to be working.

My fleece pullover | My parents gave me a dark green Patagonia pullover last Christmas and I then proceeded to wear it for about forty days straight. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) It’s like a more grown up version of a hoodie. Last winter I pretty much picked my work clothes out based on what matched this jacket. The heat in my new school building actually works, but the magical pullover still keeps me warm while I wait for my car to warm up every morning.

Washing my hands with warm water | I absolutely dread washing my hands with cold water in the winter, but I’m usually in too much of a hurry to wait for it to warm up. It sounds silly, but this winter I’m trying to take a minute to breathe and wait for the water to warm up. I’m always glad I did.

Vasaline Lip Therapy | I’ve had tons of different lip products–Burts Bees, Baby Lips, EOS, etc. When it comes to winter, this stuff is the only thing that does the trick. I only apply it at night, but even that keeps chapped lips away.

Recess | We go outside for the last 15 minutes of every day–rain or shine, freezing cold or blazing hot. If I’ve learned anything in my teaching career it’s that kids absolutely do not care about weather when outside playtime is at stake. If it’s a long work day then recess is my only outside daylight of the day. I usually find a student who’s willing to walk loops around the little gravel track–we talk and watch the other kids dance & play football. It’s a good way to end a long, busy day… even if it’s cold.

Does anyone else hate winter as much as I do? What are your survival tips? (I’m really interested in trying a happy light…)

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