my favorite books of 2015

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2015 was a decent year for reading. According to my GoodReads I read 62 books, which is down 10 books from last year. I mostly blame this on a big drop in summer reading thanks to working Institute. I felt like it was easier to pick favorites this year–last year a lot of books were in the middle for me, this year most books were wonderful or just not my favorite. My list is based on what I read in the calendar year, not what was published. This is what I loved in 2015:

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty | Liane Moriarty sucks me in every time. Her writing is sharp, funny, sarcastic. Big Little Lies had more of a “message” than any other book I’ve read of hers, but it was nonetheless engrossing.
Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson | Amazon calls this a “novel, told in verse” and that’s a great description. Woodson’s depiction of life as a brown girl in the 60s and 70s (in both South Carolina & New York) is challenging and beautiful.
Scary Close – Donald Miller | David and I listened to this one on audio last winter and listening to it together made for fantastic conversation. Great book about relationships and vulnerability–I’d love to reread a paper copy.
Bomb – Steve Sheinkin | I haven’t been this engrossed in a historical book since Killing Kennedy last year–and this was better written in my opinion. It’s technically written for middle/high school, but absolutely fascinating and I learned so much about the arms race. I added several more of Sheinkin’s books to my TBR list.
Made to Stick – Chip & Dan Heath | I referenced this book in conversation more than anything else I read this year… “the curse of knowledge” is probably a phrase I’ll use forever now. Must read for anyone who has a message to communicate, whether you’re a teacher, a salesman, a pastor, or you just want people to remember what you said.
Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng | A haunting look into a family–this one was well written and compelling. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ng.
Better Than Before – Gretchen Rubin | Fascinating book about habits and motivation. I think my big takeaway was that a lot of successful habit forming has to do with simply knowing yourself and not pretending to be motivated by things you aren’t actually motivated by.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker | This definitely wins an award for Book I Was Most Glued to This Year. I read all 500ish pages in a weekend, including long reading spurts in parking lots because I wanted to find out what happened so bad. To me it was a great example of a suspenseful book that had so many different levels of twists, not just a big one at the end. Mature themes.
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! – Jonathan Evision| I love stories told through atypical means (different narrators, correspondence, non linear timeline). This one nailed the non linear timeline thing–I loved getting to peek inside Harriet’s head at so many different points in her life.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J. Ryan Stradal | If I had to pick a favorite novel, it would be this one. It was all about food and love, so of course I was all in. It’s kind of like a collection of short stories with a common thread and it pulls together so beautifully at the end.
Blackout – Sarah Hepola | This book (about the author’s life before, during, and after alcoholism) was sad & good & really hopeful in a way I didn’t see coming.
El Deafo – Cece Bell | A kids graphic novel is not my usual reading material, but this one was so great that I both started and finished it in a Barnes & Noble and promptly purchased it for my class. The main character is girl who’s deaf and the book focuses on her elementary school experience. It’s funny and even silly in spots, but still teaches good lessons on friendship and differences.
The Thing About Jellyfish – Ali Benjamin | This was a dark horse– I picked it out of my bag on a whim while we drove back to Birmingham after Christmas… and finished it a few hours later. It was everything that makes a great young adult book. I loved the main character and, as always, I’m a sucker for any book where a teacher comes through for a child.

Honorable mentions: For the Love (listened to this on audio, Jen Hatmaker’s sassy Texas voice made it way better) and Auggie & Me (the companion to Wonder, one of my favorite middle grade books of all time).

On my nightstand right now: Fates & Furies, We Are Called to Rise, Uprooted, Ghettoland, and Rising Strong.

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15 things I liked in 2015

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At the end of every year (or in this case, a month into the new year) I like to make a list of the things I liked that year–some big, some small, some total game changers, some things that just make life a touch more pleasant. Here’s what made the cut in 2015.

Trader Joe’s | This is probably the biggest one on the list. We got a TJ’s in Birmingham earlier this year and oh, it’s made me so happy. Easy (decently healthy) frozen meals, cheap staples, pretty and affordable flowers… it makes grocery shopping a lot more tolerable.

EbatesI cannot sing the praises of Ebates highly enough. It’s a website that gives you cash back on online purchases… I have no idea how this is a profitable venture for them, but I know they actually send you a check (or deposit into your PayPal) and it’s in no way a scam. As someone who likes to both shop online and save money, this was a game changer for me. If you install the tool bar button it works without you even having to think about it–ideal. Sign up here and get $10 cash back automatically… this is not a commercial, I promise. I just really like Ebates.

Dansko shoes | I had a crisis of shoes earlier this year. My black Merrells that I’d been teaching in since day one bit the dust. It might have had something to do with four years of almost daily wear. I promptly ordered nine pairs of shoes off the Internet, stacked them behind our couch, wore a different pair each time I cleaned the kitchen, and sent 8/9 pairs back. These Danskos got the rose. Cute enough that I don’t feel awkward if I have to go somewhere straight from work, comfortable enough that I can stand for ten hours with zero problems. Thanks, Dankso!

Walks on the urban farm by our house | We live about three blocks from the prettiest urban farm. Whenever the weather was nice this fall we’d go on walks there… a little piece of green in the city. I love it there.

Kind sea salt caramel almond bars | I took a two year hiatus from granola bars, but got back into them this fall. These were the ones that brought me back. Shout out to David for picking them out for me at the store.

Parks and Rec | We finished Parks and Rec last spring (it made last year’s honorable mention list) and the last couple of seasons of the show were my favorite. There were themes of moving and starting new adventures that probably made it a lot more meaningful for us… but I think it’s a sweet & funny show for anyone. We still sing the Lil Sebastian song often.

Brush tip pens | I’ve had fun playing with writing and it’s amazed me what you can do with different kinds of pens. This one is great for anyone starting out.

Shellac at home | I had my first ever shellac manicure for my birthday this year. I absolutely loved it… but $45 every two weeks for nails was not in our budget. Turns out you can get a UV light for less than the cost of one shellac manicure and do your own at home. I like the CND polish best. It definitely takes longer to do at home than in a salon, but it’s relaxing to me so I don’t mind.

Pepper Place Market | The best mix of running errands and going on a date. This was the first place we went as Birmingham residents and really helped us fall in love with the city. When it was still warm outside we went pretty much weekly to buy breakfast, stock up on produce, and people watch. It’s also where we bought the best bacon we’ve had in our lives.

Sateen colored jeans | I discovered sateen colored jeans this year–they’re nicer than regular colored jeans, but casual enough to wear outside of work. These from Gap and these from Madewell are both divine.

Eucalyptus bouquets | These pretty bunches of green last for like threes weeks and look (& smell) so pretty. There’s currently one on both our table and my dresser.

The Birmingham Public Library System | The first time I went to the Birmingham Public Library they wouldn’t let me have a library card. They reassured me that I could get a temporary card to use the computer, not seeming to understand that I actually just wanted to read the books. Needless to say, we got off to a rocky start. But thanks to their impressive selection, kind librarians (who process an average of 30 holds a week for me with nothing but smiles), and user friendly inter-library loan system, they have more than made it up to me.

Everlane tshirts | I got tired of buying tshirts for $8 from Old Navy that pilled after I wore them twice. I finally ordered a black tshirt last winter from Everlane… at $15 (the cotton v neck) it was still affordable and it’s washed, dried, and worn like a champ. As a mostly grown up I’m trying to get better at buying things that last even if they cost a little more. This was a worthwhile investment.

Breakfast parties | Thanks to our opposite schedules, the only steady chunks of time we’ve found for having people over for a meal is Saturday morning. Thankfully that makes the menu easy (bacon, eggs, fruit, goat cheese biscuits, coffee)… and thankfully people love breakfast food. Or maybe it’s just us. Either way.

Engineer prints of iPhone photo | I followed this tutorial to print a huge copy of my favorite iPhone photo at Staples (as seen above). It was affordable, easy, and makes me smile every time I see it on the wall.

Honorable mentions: this big water bottle, the Wal Mart foam topper that got me through six weeks on a dorm bed (#toooldforthat), Taylor Swift’s 1989, Ryan Adams’ 1989, Olly vitamins, an electric toothbrush (#oldenoughforthat), FINALLY OWNING A PRINTER, and living in a small place (it forces you to get rid of stuff).

p.s. Things I liked in 2014 & 2013.

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what we like to do in Birmingham (so far)

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We’ve been in Birmingham, Alabama for almost four months now. We spend almost all of our time working (me) and going to school/doing school work (David). After that, we do the Things You Have To Do When You’re Not Beyonce (ie, laundry, general house cleaning, making appointments, and running errands). When that’s done, we usually have just enough time to eat something and fall into bed. Needless to say, we haven’t explored nearly as much of our new city as we would like. This is not a list of “best places to go in Birmingham”–we haven’t been to nearly enough places yet to make that list. This is just a little sampling of what we’ve enjoyed so far in the city.

Pork and greens at Saw’s Soul Kitchen | This was our first meal as Birmingham residents, eaten with my parents and sister a half hour after we finished moving into our new house. Saw’s is a hole in the wall in the Avondale neighborhood. The pork and greens is essentially a Styrofoam cafeteria tray covered in cheese grits, topped with collared greens, pulled pork, and onion rings (in that order). David swears by it.

Walking or riding bikes in Railroad Park | David took me to Railroad after we had been here a couple of weeks and I promptly fell in love. It reminds me of the Highline in NYC, that same kind of slightly other-worldly feeling. It’s always full of people running, biking, skate boarding, and hanging out. If you come during the golden hour you can count on stumbling into at least one photo shoot–some are significantly more awkward than others.

Chicken Panino at Urban Standard | Such a wonderful sandwich–chicken & bacon & herbs, but the crispy grilled bread is the hero here. They also have excellent granola and a good breakfast.

Break up cookie at Church Street Books & Coffee | We had one of these at an event that Church Street was catering and David immediately found out the source of said dessert. It’s basically a sea salt chocolate chip cookie… but it’s the best sea salt chocolate chip cookie you’ve ever had. We’ve since visited them at their Crestline location, where they also have a tiny but impeccably curated book selection.

Browsing the shelves at the Little Professor | I don’t think I’ve ever met an independent bookstore I didn’t like–and the Little Professor is no exception. They have a great selection (especially for such a small space) and a sweet small town feel (love the book club display).

Seeing a show at the Alabama Theatre | We went to see Sufjan Stevens here this fall (and have since been back for a Christmas movie). The show was great, but the building almost overshadowed it. Built in the 20s, the restoration is incredible–everything from the flashing sign in the front to the gold leaf paint makes it such a special place. Pretty sure someone could read Google’s Terms & Conditions from the stage and it would feel magical.

Coffee at Octane or Revelator | I’m not a participant in coffee-related things, but David loves Octane and Revelator, both for studying and drinking coffee. He says “get the nitro cold brew at Octane and a Chemex at Relevator.” For what it’s worth from a non coffee person I like Octane’s baked goods and Revelator sells yummy caramels by the register.

Laughing at ArcStories | As I explained to David, “It’s kind of like a LIVE EPISODE of This American Life.” We’ve been to this local story-telling event twice and loved every minute of it. Entertaining, inspiring, a great community organization. Probably my favorite thing we’ve done here in Birmingham

Buttermilk pops at Steel City | Thanks to David’s employment there, we regularly have Steel City pops at home… and we’re still not tired of them. Buttermilk (tastes like cheesecake), Chocolate, Lime, and Maple Bacon Bourbon are favorites in our house.

Walking around Jones Valley Farm | We live two blocks from Jones Valley’s flagship site. One of my favorite weekend morning things to do here is to take a walk to the farm and just wander. It’s obviously a functional farm, but the way everything is laid out is so beautiful to me… plus there’s just something kind of fun about seeing chickens run around on a farm located smack in the middle of a bunch of tall buildings.

Dinner at El Barrio | We tried this place out a couple of weeks ago after hearing rave reviews. It lived up to the hype. Everything was fresh, interesting, and delicious. Plus it just looks really cool inside. No reservations, go early on the weekend if you want to beat the crowd.

That’s just a little bit of what we’ve been up to in the magic city. Would love to hear recommendations from others–we have a lot of time off this month (thanks to careers with generous holiday breaks) and we’re excited to explore more!

photo compliments of brother’s iPhone and a pile of rusty metal
upon which said iPhone was propped.

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3 things I learned in our second year of marriage

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David and I celebrated our second anniversary back in May, with dinner at Walker’s dessert at Caet, and dancing in the living room. Then we promptly dove deep into the Crazy that has been this last bit of our life. So here I am, thinking and writing about three things I learned in our second year of marriage, three months late.

1. I’m learning to relax. Part of this is because I’m married to the most laid back man on the planet. But a lot of this is because, even just two years later, our marriage feels a lot more solid, more real, more steady. At the beginning of a marriage, everything is brand new and one little injustice feels like a betrayal of enormous proportions. As time goes on, there’s more history. Now, instead of reacting intensely when something goes wrong, I try to ask myself, “Is this a one time thing or part of a bigger story?” I might snap at David sometimes, but the bigger story of our marriage (I hope) is that I’m kind and encouraging. David might show up to things late once and awhile but the bigger story of our marriage is that he is respectful of me and my time. Sometimes we get caught in patterns that we need to talk about, to break. And sometimes even a one-off thing can be so hurtful it needs to be discussed. But I’ve found us dealing with a lot less conflict when we take a breath and look at the big picture.

2. I’m learning that first and foremost, we’re both just people. When you’re married it’s easy to start thinking of your spouse in narrow frames of gender and role (he’s a man, he’s my husband, etc.). That’s how we’ve been cultured to think, through articles like “What Men Really Want You To Know” and “The Seven Things a Woman Needs.” (I made those titles up, but I bet they exist somewhere.) But underneath all those social trappings, David and I are both just people, with our own set of quirks and strengths and insecurities. When I think of David first as a human, as a child of God, as a friend, I tend to be more generous, more understanding, more loving, more forgiving.

3. I’m learning that small choices make a big impact. Playing Taylor Swift in the morning instead of moaning about getting up. Asking an intentional question about your spouse’s day instead of hurrying in and out. Calling just to say hello. Picking up the food you know the other one likes when you’re getting groceries. Sharing funny Facebook videos. Giving compliments. Our days, our marriages, our lives… they’re just one big string of choices, really. I’m learning that a bunch of tiny good choices can make for a really happy marriage.

I said this in last year’s post and I’ll say it again: this is a post about marriage, but really it’s about a lot more. I’m learning to relax in friendships, learning that my coworkers are ultimately just people, and learning to make intentional tiny choices in all areas of my life. Marriage is just one of many things that are deeply good in life… and all good things will be hard and beautiful and messy and joy-filled. (Usually all at the same time.)

p.s. Some good articles on marriage I’ve read lately: Lasting Relationships Come Down to Two Things, The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give, and Why Marriage Is Impossible.

p.p.s. Top photo by Chase Richardson, who didn’t think I was crazy when I said “hey! what if we get a school bus??” and is now a big deal over at followell|fotography.

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on hurricanes and hindsight

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Katrina swept into the Gulf. Maybe that’s because a lot tends to happen between 15 (the age I was when Katrina flooded my childhood home) and 25. I have so many weird memories of that time… the fog we lived in for a few days before we were reunited with my dad and other siblings. Buying things strategically (granola bars, gas cans) at a Wal Mart in Tallahassee, Florida because we knew there would be nothing back at home. Gutting our basement. Sleeping on the floor because it was coolest there. The burglar alarm that my dad rigged out of a variety of kitchen items. The joy that spread throughout town when Sonic opened back up. Finding my baby book, soaked with water. My parents celebrating their anniversary with a plywood card. Driving through neighborhoods and talking to friends, seeing and hearing stories of people who had lost everything, over and over and over again.

After the storm the only article I remember reading that made any sense was John Grisham’s piece in The New York Times, called “The Gulf Will Rise Again.”  In it, he says:

The task of rebuilding is monumental and disheartening to the outsider. But to the battle-scarred survivors of the Gulf Coast, today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow something good will happen.

When William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950, he said, in part: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion, sacrifice and endurance.”

Today, Faulkner would find in his native state a resilient spirit that is amazing to behold. The people here will sacrifice and give and give until one day this storm will be behind them, and they will look back, like their parents and grandparents, and quietly say, “We prevailed.”

Ten years later, I’m still so sorry for all the things that were lost in the storm–lives, homes, history, memories–but I’m thankful for the gains, too. The things that a storm taught so many of us about digging in our heels, working hard, being resilient. Lessons about hope, about community, about belief that broken things can become beautiful.

Because I don’t know if I could walk into a classroom everyday ready to sacrifice and endure if it weren’t for a storm ten years ago. I don’t know if I could wake up in a marriage ready to give and give if it weren’t for a storm ten years ago. I don’t know if I could look at desperate situations and see possibility if it weren’t for a storm ten years ago.

So when there are storms in my life today (hopefully more metaphorical and less muddy), I want to remember all this. I want to remember that storms can refine us. I want to remember the beauty of hard work. I want to remember that “today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow something good will happen.” I want to remember that, by the grace of God, we will prevail… over and over and over again.

Happy Anniversary, Katrina. Thanks.

photo by my cookie-sheet-burglar alarm creating dad, Reggie Broom.

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currently

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working 16-18 hour days training teachers. I expected to work this hard, but I didn’t expect to have this much fun.

looking for a new home in Birmingham! The Avondale neighborhood is our current favorite option, but we’ll see.

celebrating the 4th with friends and watermelon and rain.

watching the sweetest dog for some friends. I’m not a dog person in the slightest, but this might make me change my mind.

cooking this delicious pasta. Tastes like summer.

drinking the cherry lime La Croix. We’ve been faithful drinkers of the lime flavor for quite some time, but this is good too.

reading novels novels novels.

taking a day trip to Oxford, where we enjoyed Big Bad Breakfast and lots of bookstores.

enjoying the beauty of the Delta. Being here is making me feel lots of feelings about humanity, strength, and struggle. Thankful for the opportunity to spend the last little bit of our time in Mississippi in this place.

 

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on packing boxes & building a good life

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David and I have been talking about moving since before we got married. At first the mere idea made me feel like kicking and screaming. I have incredible job opportunities here, (some of) my family is here, our friends are here, we love our neighborhood. I couldn’t imagine leaving it all. But as the weeks turned into months, my heart got softer to the idea. I’ve always wanted David to have the opportunity to learn in a classroom at a school he really wanted to attend. Finally, one day in January we were eating breakfast, and I said, “David, do you think we’re going to move this summer?” & he said “yes” and I said “me too.” Even though it decided nothing, it felt really final.

Eight hours after that breakfast conversation, we were driving home from our favorite sushi place. As we pulled onto Duling we spotted my little brother standing in the middle of the street. We yelled hey and rolled down the window and he told us that tonight was a concert we had completely forgotten about. We went home and changed and came back up to Duling to see friends and hear Seryn.

That night the room felt so full… and not just because lots of people were packed in to hear a great band. The room was overflowing with beautiful music, with precious friends, with love and joy. I sat in the middle of two chairs, squeezed tight between my husband and my sister. Our little brother was at the front of the crowd with friends from the college we all went to. Our friends from small group were spread all around the room, listening and laughing.

I watched the band play, letting the music wash over me, and my mind drifted back to our moving conversation. I thought we would be so crazy to leave this love, this community. We walk to the same coffee shop for breakfast every Saturday. The woman who brings us Gouda grits also cuts our hair (not at the same time). We have a huge network here, both personal and professional. We go to Fondren After Five every month and see dear friends all over the place. Students yell HEY MIZ MOSS from the other side of the street/grocery store on at least a weekly basis.

But then I remembered something that’s easy to forget: it hasn’t always been this way. I first experienced the Jackson area as a scared 18 year old whose parents had just dropped her off in her dorm room. No family, no friends–and no idea how to get anywhere because this was before iPhones. And then fast forward seven years, and I’m sitting in that big beautiful room, full of love and loud music.

We will miss this city we’ve come to love so much. We’ll miss it deeply. We’ll be the scared kids in the dorm room for awhile–no friends, no family, no idea which pizza places are good and which ones suck. (At least we have iPhones now; we can check Yelp.)

But in this season of uncertainty, I keep coming back to the idea that this city, this life… it didn’t drop down from the sky like magic. It started in that lonely dorm room. And what we’ve had these past seven years, well, it’s proof that with the grace of God, a meaningful life can be built, one step at a time. Friends can be made, one meal at a time. Neighbors can become family, one front yard picnic table at a time. Community can be built, one moment of vulnerability at a time. A beautiful, connected, deeply good life can grow anywhere.

I’m preaching this to myself, praying it for myself. I know there will be hard days. But I want to remember, I have to remember that if we want a good life, we’ve gotta dig in our heels and start praying for it, creating it, asking for it, building it. It’s time to start building. We can’t wait. Birmingham, here we come!

David will start at Beeson (Samford’s divinity school) in the fall… and I’m still on the job hunt! If anyone has connections in the Birmingham education world (nonprofits, faith-based organizations, public schools, etc) I’d be so thrilled to chat.

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