Hello dear friends,
This isn’t a typical blog post but rather, an announcement of sorts. I’ve decided to take a six-month hiatus from blogging to pursue the possibility of what I am calling a “longer-form writing project.” I know, could I be more vague? It’s not intentional, I promise.
The thing is, I’ve been feeling an increasing pull over the last couple of months to go deeper with my writing. I’m not yet sure what this will look like, but I do know that because of my work schedule at The Salvation Army, my bandwidth for creativity is much more limited. I realized that I can’t keep up the weekly blog and the monthly The Back Patio (my newsletter) and still have the time and space to pursue a longer-form project. So I figured, why not take a break from blogging/newsletter writing, and use that time to dig into whatever it is that seems to be tugging at my soul.
Will it be a book? Your guess is as good as mine!
What I do know is that I am going to try to write where my heart and the Spirit lead, and if they lead to a book, then we’ll figure out what to do with that when the time comes.
I don’t know if I will write about this new vague writing project over on Instagram, but regardless, I would be delighted if you would like to stay connected over there. I don’t spend much time on social media anymore, but I do still enjoy posting on IG a couple of times a week — mostly nature photos, quotes and random thoughts — so if that strikes your fancy, let’s stay in touch there.
Before I sign off, I want to express my deepest gratitude to you for continuing to walk alongside me this past year. Your comments and emails have given me much joy and peace, and it has been a great consolation to know that I have not walked alone through this wilderness. Thank you for your friendship.
The year is not quite over yet, but I wanted to share my annual Favorite Books of the Year post with you, in case you need some good bookish gift ideas for the readers in your life (here are my 2017 and 2016 favorites lists for more ideas; I deleted my 2018 list by accident – oops!).
In 2019 I read 67 books, compared to 58 in 2018. Because I commute an hour back and forth from Lincoln to Omaha three times a week now, my audio book tally has increased quite a bit — 13 audio books this year compared to just two last year.
Some of my favorites this year have been around for a while — just because I read them in 2019 doesn’t necessarily mean they were published in 2019. And one of my favorites this year, Peace Like a River, was a re-read.
Here are my 10 favorite reads from 2019, followed by a complete list of all the books I read (the lists are not in any particular order).
About the Book: “Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. As Roy’s time in prison passes, Celestial, bereft and unmoored, is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center.” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: Beautiful writing, complex characters and a deeply moving, compelling story, An American Marriage ticked all the boxes for me. I listened on audio, and the two actors who read the parts of Celeste and Roy were brilliant, which added to the overall appeal of the book.
Genre: Christian Non-Fiction
About the Book: “What happens when life begins to trip us up and failure starts creeping in? Many of us just keep on doing the same thing, hoping for different results. Some of us look for escape, to find a way out of the mess we feel that we’ve created. But neither enduring nor escaping is ultimately what we need. The answer is to allow ourselves to begin again, every day, in every part of our lives.” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: This was one of the first books I read after making the big decision to step out of the publishing arena last winter, and it was exactly what I needed. Begin Again gave me permission to reevaluate my life and my choices and acknowledge what wasn’t working anymore. If you are in a season of transition, this book would be an excellent choice to help you navigate tumultuous seas.
About the Book: “Enger brings us eleven-year-old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in the Midwest who has reason to believe in miracles. Along with his sister and father, Reuben finds himself on a cross-country search for his outlaw older brother who has been charged with murder. Their journey unfolds like a revelation, and its conclusion shows how family, love, and faith can stand up to the most terrifying of enemies, and the most tragic of fates.” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: This one was a re-read for me, and I am SO glad I picked it up again, this time in audio form. Enger’s lyrical descriptions took my breath away, and his lively, deeply likable and wholesome characters warmed my heart and soul. I can’t imagine how this book could become anything other than an American classic alongside the likes of Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather (even if you don’t like Stegner and Cather, read this book!).
About the Book: “Happiness begins with a charming courtship between hopelessly attracted opposites: Heather, a world-roaming California girl, and Brian, an intellectual, homebody writer, kind and slyly funny, but loath to leave his Upper West Side studio. Their magical interlude ends, full stop, when Heather becomes pregnant―Brian is sure he loves her, only he doesn’t want kids. Heather returns to California to deliver their daughter alone, but mere hours after Gracie’s arrival, Heather’s bliss is interrupted when a nurse wakes her, ‘Get dressed, your baby is in trouble.'” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: I love memoir, and this one is impeccable — beautifully written, riveting storytelling, likable characters. I loved it so much I stalked, friended and followed the author on all of her social media channels. A story about love, parenting, human connection and impossible choices, this was one I could not put down.
About the Book: “One night in an isolated college town, a first-year student stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. When a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, Mei finds herself thrust together with an eccentric classmate as panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. Those affected by the illness, doctors discover, are displaying unusual levels of brain activity. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: The Dreamers has a bit of a post-apocalyptic feel to it, which isn’t something I normally jibe with…and yet, I was captivated by this book. Simultaneously creepy, mysterious and evocative, this gripping novel was a page-turner.
About the Book: “As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise.'” – from Amazon
What It’s a Fave: This book ticked all my science/plant nerd boxes AND is beautifully written too — lyrical, personable and accessible. I read each chapter slowly, savoring Kimmerer’s descriptions and observations, grateful for her poignant stories that illustrate how people and plants, earth and humanity need each other, are made for each other and are better together.
Genre: YA Fiction
About the Book: “Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love-and just how hard it pulled you under.” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: I absolutely adored this YA romance about two high school sweetheart misfits and believe me, YA romance is not typically my genre of choice. Not only is this story sweet, Rowell does an astonishing job of getting inside the heads of adolescents — I honestly don’t know how she does it. As an added bonus, the book is set in 1986, and I graduated from high school in 1988, so all the 80s references were spot. on. (also I listened to this one on audio and the actor did a brilliant job).
About the Book: “With startling wisdom and humor, Gottlieb invites us into her world as both clinician and patient, examining the truths and fictions we tell ourselves and others as we teeter on the tightrope between love and desire, meaning and mortality, guilt and redemption, terror and courage, hope and change.” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: Part memoir, part brilliant self-help, this book made me laugh out loud one minute (Gottlieb, a therapist who winds up going to counseling herself, is wry, self-deprecating and sardonic – the kind of smart humor I love most) and had me jotting notes into my journal the next. My own therapist recommended this book to me, in part because Gottlieb wrestles with the decision of whether or not to break a book contract (now THAT sounds familiar!), but also, I think, because she knew it would resonate with me as an insightful, thoughtful, entertaining memoir.
About the Book: “‘Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is ‘a compelling life force.’ Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire us—in Strout’s words—’to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.'” – from Amazon
Why It’s a Fave: Olive Kitteridge is one of my favorite books of all time, and the sequel, Olive Again, did not disappoint. The format is the same, with loosely connected short-storyish chapters, all set in the small seaside Maine town — some of them featuring Olive as the main focus, others merely mentioning her in passing or even not at all. The stories can feel bleak at times, but Olive’s candor brings a levity that helps even out some of the more somber chapters.
About the Book: “In Anam Cara, Gaelic for ‘soul friend,’ the ancient teachings, stories, and blessings of Celtic wisdom provide such profound insights on the universal themes of friendship, solitude, love, and death.
Why It’s a Fave: The late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue is such a gentle soul, and his wisdom runs deep. Anam Cara is a profound exploration of the heart, mind and soul’s journey through the stages of life. I dog-eared dozens of pages and copied numerous passages into my journal so I can come back to them again. This book has been deeply illuminating for me as I walk through my own season of growth.
Here are the other books I read in 2019 (Note: the letter “A” denotes audio version; “RR” denotes a re-read.) These are Amazon affiliate links.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
You Think It I’ll Say It: Stories – Curtis Sittenfeld
Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day – Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky
The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin (RR)
Walking – Henry David Thoreau
Come as You Are – Emily Nagoski
Better Than Before – Gretchen Rubin (A) (RR)
Atomic Habits – James Clear
The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life – Vanita Wright
Nine Perfect Strangers – Liane Moriarty (A)
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love – Dani Shapiro
Less – Andrew Sean Greer (A)
Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Beauty, Comfort and Peace – Christie Purifoy
The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom – Christine Valters Paintner
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid
Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack – Alia Joy
The Next Right Thing – Emily Freeman
How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency – Akiko Busch
Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn
The Universal Christ – Richard Rohr
Overstory – Richard Powers
Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding – Leanna Tankersley (A)
Zoo Nebraska – Carson Vaughn
Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris (A)
Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
The Light We Lost – Jill Santopolo
Housekeeping — Marilynne Robinson
The River – Peter Heller
Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More – Courtney Carver
The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton
Bear Town – Frederik Backman
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Light from Distant Stars – Shawn Smucker
Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
The Middle Matters – Lisa-Jo Baker
City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverwalking – Kathleen Deane Moore
Making Marriage Beautiful – Dorothy Greco
The Dearly Beloved – Cara Wall
The Good House – Ann Leary
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy – Jenny Odell
Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (A)
Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves and Our Society Thrive – Marc Brackett
Turtles All the Way Down – John Green (A)
Alphabet of Grace – Frederick Buechner
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul – Stuart Brown
Bossy Pants – Tina Fey (A) (RR)
Glitter and Glue – Kelly Corrigan
The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention – Meredith Maran
Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant – Daniel Tammet
Searching for Mom: A Memoir – Sara Easterly
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell (A)
Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison – Richella Parham
The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (A)
Tell me, what’s the best book you read in 2019?
The truth is, I didn’t even want to go.
Last fall a courageous young woman named Haley came to my church to talk about the children’s home she directs in Honduras. Instantly convicted by her story, I turned to Brad in the middle of worship. “I’m going to Honduras,” I whispered, leaning close to his ear. “And I’m taking Rowan with me.”
My church has an ongoing partnership with the church and community of La Ceibita, a rural village of about 250 people in north central Honduras. We send dental, medical and house-building teams there three or four times a year. After I heard Haley speak at church, full of the fire of the Holy Spirit, I signed Rowan and me up for the July trip.
Just days later, though, second thoughts began to invade my mind like Creeping Charlie in a summer lawn.
What if I get sick? What if I can’t eat the food? What if it’s dangerous? What if I can’t handle the work, or the smells, or the heat or the language barrier? What if something happens to Rowan? What if the other people in my group annoy me? What if I annoy them?
Suddenly I could think of a hundred reasons why it would simply be better for everyone if I stayed in my own backyard.
Rowan was also less than enthusiastic. “Next time the Holy Spirit speaks to you, leave me out of it,” he huffed on the drive home from one of our trip meetings. Don’t worry, I thought. The next time the Holy Spirit speaks to me I’m running in the opposite direction.
We left our house at 2 a.m. By noon the same day, ten minutes outside the San Pedro Sula airport, I’d glimpsed more dire poverty through the van’s dusty windows than I’d seen in the previous 49 years of my life.
Barefoot children, barely dressed. Tin-and-tarp shacks. Trash in towering heaps. Dirt and mud everywhere. Dogs running loose, their matted fur stretched tight over protruding ribs. Men perched on crates at the edge of the road, staring as we drove past, and I couldn’t tell if their eyes held curiosity or disdain. I held on tight as the van shuddered over the uneven road, dread and fear simmering in the pit of my stomach.
Twenty-four hours later, I was at home in Honduras in a way I never imagined possible.
The poverty had not vanished. The heat was still more oppressive than anything I had ever experienced. The food was still largely unfamiliar. There was still the threat of illness (Honduras was in the midst of a dengue fever epidemic). There was still dirt and mud, undrinkable water and a tarantula the size of a salad plate in the boys’ cabin.
The circumstances had not changed. And yet, everything had changed. Honduras had come to feel like home for one reason: the people of La Ceibita made it feel that way.
Maria, Teresa, Mary, Ulysses, Angel, Daniel, Karen, Myrna, Marcos, Yoni, Lucy, Nora, Pastor Manolo and the entire La Ceibita community opened themselves wholeheartedly to us without pretense, without reservation, without expectations. They invited us into their homes, served us food made with their own hands, laughed with us, prayed for us and with us, shared their hearts, hopes and dreams and loved us with unabashed affection.
Truly, I have never received hospitality and generosity like I experienced in Honduras. The people who outwardly seem like they have nothing to give gave us everything that has ever mattered. They gave us their whole selves.
Everyone always seems to say the same thing when they return to the United States from visiting a developing country: “The people gave me more than I gave them.” Truth be told, I’ve always found that sentiment irritating. Inwardly I’d roll my eyes and think, How precious. How totally cliché.
I’m here to tell you, it may be cliché, it may be “precious” and worthy of the eye-rolliest eye-roll, but in my experience, it’s the honest-to-God truth. I went to Honduras assuming I was going to serve the people there. Turns out, the people served me far more and with greater graciousness, patience and self-sacrifice than I could ever have hoped to serve them. I am now rolling my own eyes at my own self.
Maria and Teresa cooked three delicious hot meals a day from scratch for our ten-person team (plus two translators and the pastor) on a wood-fired stove in a kitchen the size of my bathroom with no indoor plumbing. And then they did all the dishes by hand in the outdoor sink, swept and mopped the floors and began the process all over again to prepare the next meal for us.
Maria had a stern countenance and rarely cracked a smile. When I first met her I was intimidated and assumed she was angry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One afternoon when I told Maria, through a translator, that the food she cooked for us was delicious, she replied, “It’s because I make it with love.”
Ulysses and Angel translated prescriptions and medical jargon for hours in a makeshift clinic that served more than 100 patients, never once expressing impatience or frustration at my complete and utter inability to master even the most basic Spanish phrases and spellings.
Nora invited Rowan and me into her tiny outdoor kitchen with its blue-tarped walls and dirt floor and demonstrated how to make flour tortillas. One hand clamped over her mouth, she giggled shyly at our fumbling attempts. Nora was remarkably patient and gracious — especially considering the fact that Rowan burned his tortilla to a smoldering crisp, and I accidentally dropped a piece of Saran Wrap on her stove.
The entire church community sang a spirited welcome to us during evening worship on our first night, and even though we couldn’t understand most of their greetings, their open smiles put us immediately at ease.
Truly, I could write two dozen stories about my eight days in Honduras.
I could tell you about Lucy and Carlos, who live in a one-room tin-and-wood shack with a dirt floor and bedsheets for walls. They share one bed with their three children.
I could tell you how Lucy leaned against the door frame of her new cinder-block house – a house smaller than my living room – and wiped away tears, praising God as she watched the crew hang wood shutters over her windows.
I could tell you how Carlos recently lost his job at the local chicken processing plant because he spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from dengue fever. The day we visited his home he was volunteering at the elementary school.
I could tell you that Lucy has recently gone back to school. She’s in ninth grade now, and when she finishes high school she hopes to pursue a nursing degree because she wants to set a good example for her kids.
I could tell you that every single one of the Honduran people I met works harder just to survive (for an average salary of $6-$7 a day) than I have ever worked a single day in my life. On the day we visited the zoo (yes, we went to a zoo in Honduras…that’s a whole other story!), we passed a man repairing the road, heaving fresh dirt into deep trenches carved by rushing rainwater as his tiny son played in the ditch. Hours later on the drive home I spotted the same man, still bent over his shovel, still heaving dirt in the blazing sun. His son stood from his spot in the ditch and watched our van as we drove by.
I could tell you that the Honduran people love their country and cherish their culture and traditions. Their communities are tight-knit, vibrant and full of life. They are deeply connected to their extended families. The Honduran people don’t leave Honduras because they want to, but because they feel they have to: to escape gang violence in the cities; to find viable, sustainable work; to provide better opportunities, education, safety and security for their children (most of whom are forced to leave school by age 10 to find work).
I could tell you a dozen more stories about my time in Honduras, about the people I met and what I learned and experienced there. Instead, I will simply say this: God ignited a profound love in me in Honduras that will not be extinguished. I do not yet know how this love will manifest itself, but I know this for sure: the people of La Ceibita captured my heart. Honduras changed me forever, and I am grateful.
Bestselling author and speaker Rachel Held Evans died on May 4 after a short illness. She was only 37. I didn’t know Rachel well; I never met her in person. Nonetheless, she had a profound impact on my life, not only because she helped change the trajectory of my writing career, but also because as a questioner and a spiritual wrestler, Rachel was a kindred spirit. Though our spiritual journeys were very different, her story touched me deeply and resonated with me as someone who has struggled with doubt – a topic she wrote about in two of her books (Searching for Sunday and Faith Unraveled) as well as on her blog.
I wrote this essay the day after Rachel died. It ran this past weekend in my local newspaper, but I wanted to share it with you here, too.
Bestselling author and speaker Rachel Held Evans died unexpectedly a little more than a week ago. She was 37 years old — a wife, a mother to two young children, an influencer, an advocate and a generous supporter and encourager of many, myself included.
I first connected with Rachel in 2011, shortly after I’d started blogging. I don’t recall exactly how our paths crossed online, but at some point, after we had exchanged a few emails, I summoned the courage to ask if she would be willing to read a couple chapters of my memoir manuscript. Despite her own full schedule of speaking and writing, Rachel didn’t hesitate to say yes to my request. A few weeks after I emailed her the rough draft of my book, she asked if she could send it to her literary agent.
This was no small gesture. By that point I had been pitching literary agents for two years and had had zero success. I’d already received nearly a dozen rejections, including one from Rachel’s agent. It seemed every door on the path to publishing had closed. Until, that is, a woman I’d never met in person offered to help.
Rachel’s agent eventually signed me as a client. Seven years and four published books later, I have Rachel Held Evans to thank. Without her generous offer to use her influence and connections to benefit me, a virtual stranger, I truly believe I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to publish a single word.
In the days following Rachel’s death, my social media feeds were filled with a near-constant stream of similar testimonials, a telling memorial of her generosity and kindness. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one Rachel had helped along the way.
Countless authors shared stories of how Rachel had encouraged them, used her influence to give their careers a much-needed boost and championed their work. Others shared how Rachel’s own writing had shaped their faith and renewed their hope in God. Still others testified how Rachel had used her platform to advocate for the marginalized, particularly members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and women in the church.
Rachel Held Evans stewarded her influence well, but the truth is (and I learned this from her), regardless of whether we are famous or not, or whether we have a substantial platform or not, each of us has the opportunity to do the same. We may not have the reach to impact thousands like Rachel did, but we can offer encouragement, extend kindness, love extravagantly, champion others and give generously in our own small ways and within our own individual spheres of influence, just as she did in hers.
Maybe this looks like writing a letter of recommendation for the high school student who aspires to attend college, or providing a stellar reference for the friend in the midst of a job search.
Maybe this looks like advocating for a marginalized person in your community or validating someone who feels unseen.
Maybe this looks like emailing your boss to praise a colleague’s efforts that otherwise would have gone unnoticed or offering a word of encouragement to a struggling neighbor.
No matter how small our sphere, there is always someone we can lift up.
I didn’t know Rachel Held Evans well, but I am grateful for her, not only because her generosity made a difference in my own career, but also because she left a beautiful and powerful legacy, reminding me that I can and should use my own bit of influence to benefit others. I want to be more like Rachel: an “influencer” in the very best sense of the word.
Rachel leaves behind her husband Dan and two children under age three. If you would like to support her family, you can make a donation in her memory here.