Friday, February 27, 2015

William Henry Harrison – President #9 – A Recap

Poor William Henry Harrison. I'm not really a fan. His biography by Gail Collins notes in multiple references that he was very well liked by his contemporaries, which makes me feel worse about not really enjoying his story.

Here are some facts:

He was born in Virginia to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

He and his wife had A LOT of children (ten) who with the exception of one lived to adulthood. (This is quite remarkable for that time period.)

He was a general in the military.

He caught pneumonia after his long-winded inauguration address and died 31 days into his presidency.

His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, would also one day become President.

Here's why his story got tiresome for me: He had a lot of mouths to feed, so he was in debt a lot. He would seek a better-paying government job to keep his family fed and to get himself out of debt. This was a cycle that repeated over and over again.

I was amused to read what President John Quincy Adams wrote about Mr. Harrison. “This person's thirst for lucrative office is absolutely rabid.” “The president judged the applicant 'a political adventurer' with a lively and active, but shallow mind.”

“Politically, Harrison's greatest achievement was to star in what is still celebrated as one of the most ridiculous presidential campaigns in history.” Harrison was the first candidate to campaign. Before that, candidates campaigning on their own behalf had been considered bad form.

“The story of how the Democrats sneered at Harrison as a pensioned-off nobody and how the Whigs, in response, created the Log Cabin Candidate is one of the most famous sagas in the history of ridiculous presidential campaigns...They quickly turned the log cabin and hard cider into a metaphor for Harrison's sturdy frontier virtues.”

This biography was also more difficult to read because by this point in the presidential time line the civil unrest and tensions that eventually caused the Civil War were coming into sharper focus. The issues of slavery and Indian mistreatment were discussed in more vivid detail than previous biographies, and I had a difficult time reading about these parts of life and politics in the United States. “And when it came to slavery he had been fairly consistent throughout his public life—decrying the institution while insisting that the slave owners had the right to continue the regrettable practice.”

I softened a bit when I read these sentences: “Championing America's veterans had always been, and would always be, his passion.” and “While Harrison became controversial in his various political activities, he was always personally popular in any society in which he traveled.”

The poor fellow's financial worries were made heavier by the poor choices of his adult children for whom he had to help on a nearly constant basis. When crushing debt or death overcame one of his children, he then had their children to take care of. Ugh.

I was grateful that this biography was short. I was ready to move on to President John Tyler. Spoiler Alert: Tyler is a far more interesting character. I'll be more enthusiastic about recapping his biography.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How my celebration of 40 is changing me

In January, I made a really fancy version of bread pudding. It was really fun, super delicious, and raised my confidence in the kitchen.

This past Sunday, Cadence brought home a friend after church. They played while I made lunch. Suddenly I had a burst of energy. An unused loaf of Texas toast was headed for the trash, but I remembered that bread pudding calls for past-due bread, so I rescued the loaf. Without time to change my mind (which often happens when it comes to my interest in the kitchen) I set out to make a bread pudding from my Betty Crocker cookbook. I whipped it up like a pro and once it was baking in the oven, I started making chicken salad for the next evening's dinner.

Readers, this is what moms do effortlessly every day - three times a day. I know this. But this mama HAS NOT historically done this effortlessly.

Until now.

I found a letter in Cadence's backpack the other day. It was a love letter to me. In addition to being the best mom in "the world of history," she also called out my cooking. As an asset. I'm a good cooker in her estimation.

When I created my 4040 list, I set out to challenge myself. To do things I'd never done before and to do things that would make me better. To do some things that scare me. Being on the trapeze scares me. Running a 5k scares me. But so does failure in my culinary pursuits. The 4040 list created accountability and the context for not worrying about failing only doing.

And it's working as Sunday's flurry of successful activity in the kitchen demonstrates.

I love being 40.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rambling about a full week, presidents, new goals, and the 4040 list

My hair is wet. My make-up is half done. I have four sun salutations to do – all in the next 20 minutes, but I feel a need to blog, so the other stuff can wait.

I have had a busy past week: three-day migraine, follow-up appointment after a health scare last summer, Oscar party to attend, more than a dozen Girl Scout patches to sew on, the start of gymnastics for my daughter, Downton Abbey to catch up on, John Tyler (President #10) to read, a page a day to write of my ever-emerging novel-in-progress.

My head has been full lately! I cope best when I remember that life is cyclical. Some days will be hectic. Others will be blissful.

I've decided to keep reading the American President series –even for the big presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, etc. I am a slow reader and this project could happily drag on until I'm 50, but I have so many other things I want to do and experience that this seems like a good turn in my project. Then once I've read a good overview of them all, I can go back and read the David McColloughs and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the commanders-in-chief I'm interested in delving into deeper. This feels like a breakthrough.

It also means that I can likely make it through at least Lincoln this year. [Read: New Goal] Damn, me and goal-setting this year might be getting a little ridiculous! So NOW, if I read through Lincoln, THEN I can take a train trip [# 31 on the 4040 list] to Springfield, Illinois, and take in the Lincoln experience there. I love weaving this list into my daily life.

I have at least four blog entries in the queue. They are vying for my attention and time to sit down and contemplate them each. They are kind of weighty topics, so pardon my delay in getting them published. Just know that I love this writing pursuit and that there are dear people like you willing to wait and read!

It's time to head to my day job. Have a great day!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Final Installment of Top 40 Books: The Mostly Non-Fiction Edition

31. This is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness by Laura Munson. This is another book and author that has mentored me toward taking my writing life seriously. This author wrote more than a dozen unpublished books before this memoir book her on the map. She now conducts writing workshops in Montana, and I'm determined to attend one. This is a great read if you find yourself in difficult times and want a healthy way to walk through them.

32. Take this bread by Sara Miles. This woman's story is awesome. She tells about how she found God when she wasn't really even looking and then tells the story of how she became a vital member of her faith community and the people they serve.

33. The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons. After To Kill a Mockingbird and Love Walked In, this book and #34 are my favorite books. I will reread and relisten to them over and over. This story follows a young Viennese woman who leaves her family and her privilege to escape the tightening grip of the Nazis before World War II. It is gripping, deeply sad, and oh so beautifully written. Natasha Solomons is a writer to follow.

34. Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons. There is not another novel like this one. It's creativity, poignancy, and heartbreak are palpable. I cried and laughed out loud. There are no words for how brilliant Natasha Solomons' story telling is.

35. The Notebook Series by Laura Resau. I read this series two summers ago and still think of the characters, the places they lived, and wish there were more stories! They are a great demonstration of just how excellent young adult fiction is. A teenager and her free-spirited mother move from country to country and with every move the young girl chooses a different colored journal to record their experiences. A traveler's dream life.

36. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I stumbled on this book two-and-a-half years ago and it is an understatement to say that it changed my parenting life. I was exhausted by my five-year-old in a way I couldn't understand and this book explained it. It turns out my daughter AND her mother are spirited, but in different ways. Reading this book helped me understand my daughter's high energy, intensity, and sensitivity in new ways. I'm so grateful to be able to understand myself better too. I recommend this book so often, I should probably get some sort of commission.

37. Parenting without borders by Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D. My life has been enriched by the multicultural friendships and experiences I have had. This book was a fascinating read about how different cultures parent their children and suggested that well-meaning American parents have a few things out of whack. It was extremely enlightening.

38. A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz. For the LIFE OF ME, I cannot enjoy the reading of Jane Austen's works. I appreciate where Jane fits into literature, and I dearly love Emma Thompson's screenplay and acts in Sense and Sensibility. It is one of my favorite movies. I just cannot manage to summarize what I've spent hours reading. This memoir is a wonderful recap of her books and what the author learned. He tells his story in a really interesting way whilst also summarizing the stories and their characters in a way I can understand. Whew! Saves me from having to read anymore of her novels.

39. I have Iraq in my shoes Misadventures of a Soldier of Fashion by Gretchen Berg. Oh my gosh, this book was so fun to read. An ESL teacher finds herself without a job and a lot of debt, so she's offered a high paying job to teach English in Iraq. She decides to take the job as a way to pay down her debt and awards herself with couture shoes along the way. It is a terrific read and gives a really interesting perspective on the country of Iraq. I love travelogues and this is an outstanding one.

40. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I listened to this book two summers ago and I still miss the characters. A young woman is hired to be a caregiver for an affluent, angry, young, and previously accomplished quadriplegic and a most unlikely friendship develops. It is stunning. The listening is particularly awesome if you like accents.

Well, there they are: my top 40 books. I have enjoyed compiling this list and revisiting each of these books/series through the brief summaries I wrote. I know that I will reread some of the books again and again through the next decade. I'm also excited to discover the books that move me and shape my thinking going forward.

If you decide to read one (or more of these books), comment on the blog about what you thought of the book, and you will be entered in a drawing for something exciting...prize to be announced later. Ready, Set, Read!

Consider # 28 on my list officially complete!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Halfway to checking #8 off the 4040 list

I suspect that most of my readers are fairly unfamiliar with what a labyrinth is, so I'm going to start there. It looks like a maze, but is not one. A labyrinth, which can be made with various materials- paving stones, paint on canvas, small shrubbery, gravel- is a walking path with one opening. The idea is that you simply follow the winding path before you. As you twist and turn through the path, you can let go and clear your mind and commune with the divine. Eventually the path ends in the center and this is the place you can spend as much time as you like praying, breathing, resting in the peace of your walk and the space where you can sense the divine, creator, universe, fill in whatever name resonates for you. When you are ready to exit, you walk out the same way you came in. Again, there's no worry about getting lost or having to think about the route out, and so you can fill your time feeling energized, renewed, and ready to take on the world again.

The last time I walked a labyrinth my daughter was with me and she was four or five. I decided that visiting four labyrinths would be a good item on the 4040 list since there's so much contemplation infused in a birthday milestone like turning 40.

There's a labyrinth directory that lists the locations of labyrinths across the world. I made a list of labyrinths in Missouri and Kansas to help me plan to visit the four. I remembered that there were two labyrinths listed on the route we take to visit my grandparents. So last Friday, my daughter and I became tourists in our own state and made two stops: one in Lebannon and the other in Carthage.

Visiting a labyrinth with a question-rich seven-year-old is NOT the same experience as having a solo walk where contemplation fuels your walk. I knew this going into these two labyrinths and so I reveled in the questions she asked.

She didn't remember having been to the other one, so this was a brand-new experience for her.

“Are we allowed to come here?”

“What are we doing?”

“Did Jesus have brown skin?”

I'm so glad that the first labyrinth was the disappointing one of the two. It left a lot of maintenance to be desired, but then in fairness, it's also February. I would guess not too many parishioners at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Lebanon, Missouri, are doing a lot of labyrinth walking right now.

The labyrinth's path, as pictured below, was made of gravel with plant life surrounding it. It needed some raking to help determine where the opening of the labyrinth is. So I just started out making the best of it, answering Cadence's questions, and thinking about the labyrinth I want to create on our church's property. Once the initial disappointment wore off, I was grateful to have this space to consider the fact that gravel is not the optimum material for a labyrinth even though it's likely more affordable.

The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and it was chilly. We made it to the center and I told Cadence I wanted us to say a prayer before we walked out of the labyrinth and back to the warmth of our car. We took a selfie seated at one of the benches in the center, said our prayer, and then walked back out of the path and to our car. One labyrinth down, three to go.

I was hoping that the next one we visited would be in better shape or Cadence might never want to see another labyrinth. We were not disappointed! Grace Episcopal Church is host to a beautiful stone labyrinth and garden space.

The sun was hiding behind cloud cover and the wind had picked up, so I wore my coat and hat. You'll see Cadence pictured without a coat! Brrr.

We walked the labyrinth. This time with a little less chatter. She's getting accustomed to me shush-shing her during my daily sun salutations, so I just kept doing that quietly and patiently as I walked the labyrinth. I imagined creating this kind of labyrinth for my church and the surrounding community. The dreaming of a labyrinth and making it a reality may very well become what replaces my time, thought, and energy when the 4040 list is complete.

Cadence agreed to say the prayer in the center of the labyrinth. Then we wound our way out and headed to the car.

The brochure I picked up at the site offered these suggestions for “Why do people walk a Labyrinth?”

To relax and feel at peace
To let go of worries and concerns
To cope with grief and loss
To clear the mind and gain insight on problems
For healing of relationships
To open the flow of creativity and discernment
As a sign of penitence when we seek forgiveness
To thank God for birth, recovery, new beginnings, friendships, and the beauty of the earth
To ask God's grace for those facing a surgery, marriage, ordination, or death
To pray with one's whole being, not just “the head”
To give structure to regular daily prayer
Let go of you worries as you walk in
Experience God's presence in the center
Give thanks for all the blessings of life as you walk out.

I'm so glad to have crossed off two of the four from my list, but I think I'm going to wait for warmer weather and maybe seek out somewhere for Cadence to go, so that I can have at least one “proper” peaceful labyrinth walk. If you're interested in joining me, please let me know.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Presidents Day 2015

As I type this I am 13 pages from the end of William Henry Harrison's biography. I spent Presidents Day Eve leaving my visit with my 92-year-old grandfather prematurely and getting a head start on the drive home before an impending snowstorm threatened to strand my daughter and me in Southeast Kansas. Because of this last-minute change in plans, I still haven't finished the book.

I'll go into greater depth in a separate post about President Harrison once the 13 pages are complete and I've gathered my thoughts on his life. I'm grateful it's under 130 pages because I don't think I could read 300 plus pages about this man.

I also made a trip to the public library this evening to pick up the John Tyler biography on reserve. There's something very motivating about having the next president's biography waiting in the wings. I bet I'm one of a handful of Americans who actually THOUGHT about the presidents ON Presidents Day.

This particular post seems a must-do for a blogger who is reading her way through the presidential biographies. I spent a good amount of time considering what I would write as I drove in the blinding white glare of snow down the interstate.

How different life was for the first nine presidents. Consider how QUIET their lives were: no radio, no television, no automobiles, no electricity. That quiet seems especially appealing as I watched my daughter play basketball tonight and fought the pain of a migraine made worse by 15 bouncing basketballs and the obnoxious noise of a little sister's electronic device bing-binging awful game noises while she waited out her sibling's practice.

The biggest lesson this project has taught me nine times over is that THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A PERIOD OF TIME that could truly be called the GOOD OLD DAYS. This has been a source of comfort to me. Given the divisive, gridlocked political environment of today, it's nice to be reminded that this is not the first time the humans in charge of government have been small-minded, petty, and short-sighted. These complaints and so many more have been repeated over and over and over again. What makes it feel new and scary and THE WORST IT'S EVER BEEN is that this is the only time period we've lived through, so we don't have the benefit of historical continuum. Unless, you choose to read historical accounts of days gone by and then you are able to see the cyclical nature of humans and the government they endeavor to run.

Consider this passage by Gail Collins, Harrison's biographer:

“The urban world of 1840 America was a violent one and the excitement of a
political campaign tended to cause endless brawls; each side accused the other of
attacks. (It's possible that women did not mobilize to demand the vote earlier
because they connected elections less with the patient march of democracy than with
drunken fistfights.)”

Some things never change. They may take another shape or form, but change, no.

Reading these biographies has reinforced that every age is bestowed with nimrods and the wise, the insane and the balanced, the self-absorbed and the civic-minded. People have always thought theirs was the generation that was going to hell in a hand basket. And looky there, we Americans are still bumbling along doing the best we can for better or worse generations later. It's comforting and comical. It's inescapable and frustrating. It's also a relief. Other bad times have been lived through. If Americans of the past can persevere and muck their way through political tomfoolery, so can we. So can we.

Happy Presidents Day.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Martin Van Buren President #8 - Recap

The Martin Van Buren biography I chose was written by an author I'd never heard of. It is part of The American Presidents series. I am such a fan of biography giants David McCollough and Jon Meacham that I had the sense that reading biographies from this series was a bit of a step down. [Snob Alert!]

I could not have been more wrong. Aside from the fact that this book by Ted Widmer was under 200 pages, I sincerely enjoyed reading his take on the eighth president. I had braced myself for what my Brad-Dad called “the boring reading” of this project, but it never happened.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., another giant in the world of history, is the general editor of this series and I really appreciated this excerpt from his Editor's note:

“Biography offers an easy education in American history, rendering the past more human, more vivid, more intimate, more accessible, more connected to ourselves. Biography reminds us that presidents are not supermen. They are human beings too,worrying about decisions, attending to wives and children, juggling balls in the air, and putting their pants on one leg at a time. Indeed, as Emerson contended, 'There is properly no history; only biography'”

I really love that. It helps frame for me precisely why I'm reading my way through the presidents. I am not out to become a presidential scholar. I just want to understand U.S. history better and exploring it from the perspective of the men who have led it seems one way to do it. I really had no way of predicting how enjoyable this project would be. Widmer's approach to Martin Van Buren will be a highlight of the entire project.

Between pages two and 41, Widmer had this reader on speed dial with her phone's dictionary. He used GOOD words like:

Velleity – a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.

Quixotic – romantic behavior or following beliefs even though they are foolish or unreachable goals (I swear I have to look up this word every time I run across it. Maybe the definition with stick with me this time.)

Rodomontade – arrogant boasting or blustering, ranting talk.

Internecine – something that is harmful or destructive to both sides involved.

Perfervid – intense and impassioned.

Jingoistic – overly patriotic or nationalistic.

Bellicosity – warlike or hostile attitude or nature.

The word Calumny (slander) happened to appear in every biography from Washington to Jackson. Van Buren is the first time I did not read it.

Martin Van Buren was the first president from the state of New York and was the first ethnic president. His family was Dutch. He overcame incredible odds (he did not come from money, he was not a descendent of the English, he was not well educated) to make his way to the highest post in the country.

When a friend texted me that Van Buren didn't do a lot, so the biography would be a quick one, I texted back, “The author would argue VB deserves more attention than he's received.”

Van Buren “was a gifted legislator” and was easy to get along with “even his enemies admitted.” He created the Democratic Party. Widmer writes, this “was the achievement of a lifetime, and too many biographers pass over these years to get to his presidency. If he had never been elected, he still would have been important for his guerilla activity in the middle of the 1820s. He defeated more than an administration; he destroyed an entire system that had ossified and installed in its place something far more modern.”

Van Buren's presidency was the low light of his career. Soon after he took office, a great depression hit. “The Panic of 1837 was simply the worst financial catastrophe in American history until the crash of 1929.”

Of slavery, another difficulty Van Buren's presidency couldn't overcome, Widmer writes, “It was the most glaringly undemocratic idea in our history, so powerful that we are still wrestling with its legacy in the 21st century. But until Van Buren's administration, it was largely invisible as a matter of public discourse.”

The experience of reading Van Buren's biography was so enjoyable because of Widmer's ability to connect historical dots and highlight contrasts and comparisons with other presidents through U.S history. This is one of my favorite passages of the entire book: “It goes without saying we need our Lincolns and Washingtons – the United States would not exist without them. But we need our Van Burens, too – the schemers and sharps working to defend people from all backgrounds against their natural predators. For democracy to stay realistic, we need to remain realistic about our leaders and what they can and cannot do.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Status update on the 4040 list

I've had a few more items on my list make their way to my calendar, which is super exciting, and a little overwhelming. There's never a dull moment accomplishing this list! I thought it was time to provide a status update, so here goes:

5. Take a trapeze class. These take place outdoors at Union Station in downtown St. Louis. So it's not quite time to check this off the list, but I am starting to peruse Groupon to find the coupon for the group pricing.

8. Visit four new labyrinths. Cadence and I are headed to Kansas for a long weekend to visit my grandparents and there is a labyrinth in Carthage, Missouri, which is on the way. We'll stop by there on Friday! I can't wait to check it out.

10. Reread the Anne of Green Gables series. Cadence and I are making our way through the first book. I don't know that I'll read them all out loud to her, but I am really enjoying the experience with her.

11. Read four more presidential biographies. I have 28 pages remaining of Marty VB's biography and I picked up William Henry Harrison's biography from the library last night. I am giddy about his because it is a mere 153 pages short. A far cry from G Dub the first's 800+ pages.

28. Create a list of 40 books I have loved. One installment left and I can check that baby off!

29. Learn to fish tail braid Cadence's hair. We're going to work on this one while we're at Papa's house this weekend while we listen to the too-loud TV.

34. Take Cadence to the Symphony. There's a children's concert on February 22. I've got to buy the tickets ASAP.

38. Take a Home Depot Workshop. This is scheduled! February 28 10-11:30. My Brownie Moms and Friends and I are going to learn Basic Electrical Skills. Wahoo!

40. Blog about each item on the list. This is where I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who is following this year-long celebration. My pageviews were at just under 1,900 on January 3. A month-and-a-half later my pageviews are now 3,117! Thank you for making that possible.

I have decided to make a new unbelievable goal for my blog in 2015. In honor of my 40th birthday, I want to reach 40,000 pageviews. Paulo Coehlo says, “Impossible is just an opinion.” I'm going to trust him on this and dream big.

If you read something that you think your friends would appreciate or enjoy, would you share my blog with them? I'd be so grateful! Thank you! Just 36,883 pageviews to go!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Few Words about Fears

I am a recovering people pleaser.

I've never written those words. I know I've thought them, but I haven't been bold enough to own them like I do right now.

My people pleasing began innocently enough. I was polite, kind, and thought about the feelings of others – all perfectly lovely human qualities. But anything in extremes can become a problem. And so over time these manners and thoughtfulness morphed into something awful and limiting and frightening for me. A few bad experiences of disappointing people or not behaving how THEY thought I should created a template for future behavior. “Their disapproval feels terrible. I don't want to feel THAT again. I better figure out a way to AVOID that.”

And so one interaction after another formed the habit of fearing people's reactions, anticipating reactions or opinions, and doing whatever I could to not experience these things. Long before I was aware of what I was doing, I was making decisions based on my fear of what might happen rather than actual events. What started as avoiding bad interactions and bad feelings morphed into teaching people how to treat me. I became jumpy and overly worried. This led to me not standing up for myself and allowing people to make decisions for me that were not theirs to make. All of this unwittingly spiraled into my being fearful of well...seemingly everything.

The “I've taught people how to treat me” thing has been a bitter, truthful pill to swallow. I convinced myself that these people's opinions of me were The. Only. Things. That. Mattered. Even when my gut told me differently. And so I behaved according to what I thought would keep their good opinion of me. Ugh. I feel foolish typing these words, but it is the truth. My Truth. And in my fortieth year, I am breaking this habit. I am making choices that are good for me. I am standing up for myself. I am creating boundaries where there have not been any. I am doing things that scare me so that I can reinforce for myself that habitual fearful behavior is different from actual danger or harm. In my mind, I'd taught myself that they were one in the same.

This was an epiphany waiting for me in a recent session with my counselor. She helped me dissect a recent event. “What about this scared you?” I didn't have a good answer. Being scared was the first reaction I had.

A friend heard me rambling about all of this over a few days and finally distilled the epiphany into this new mantra: I no longer have to fear the fear that I have fear. I put this in my journal and hung a copy of it on my monitor at work. It was a big idea that I needed some time to absorb.

Just yesterday, I'd forgotten to do something that was important and worried about what would happen next. I made a call and learned that the forgotten thing could be scheduled for next week. Problem solved, right? Yes, but I still felt residual anxiety, and I couldn't work my way through it. I asked mantra friend why I couldn't shake the feeling. “Habit. This has been your response in the past.” As soon as that explanation was given, I felt a flash of recognition.

So, I'm breaking this damn habit. One anxious instance at a time. This fear took on a phantom life of its own in my head. I can't blame anyone but myself for letting it get so big and onerous.

But then I also remind myself of my word of the year: Gentle. Stop worrying about how you got here, sister, and course correct in the moment.

I read this quote that seems an excellent way to move through my anxious moments. And it is gentle.

“Don't fight fearful thoughts. Just match each one with an alternative thought that brings you more peace.” - Martha Beck

Monday, February 9, 2015

Installment Three Favorite Books 21-30

Making these selections has been a bit like choosing one's favorite child over the others. It goes without saying that I've read more than 40 tremendous books, but since I originated this dang idea, I need to stick to my own rules. Here is installment three.

21. Indispensable Guide to Smaller Churches by David R. Ray. I belong to a small, loving congregation and am a lay ordained minister. This book gave me perspective on how to not feel inferior as a small congregation in the midst of the mega church landscape. It reminded me and gave me examples of the good things that can happen in small churches and I have been unapologetic about the size of our membership ever since.

22. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow. I wish so much that my grandmother could have read this book. She would have loved it and we would have had so much to discuss. This is an epistolary novel (written entirely in the form of letters). Of course, readers who know me well will know how much I LOVE that! It is stunning how such a beautiful and painful story can unfold simply by the letters the cast of characters send to one another. It is gobsmacking (utterly astonishing) in its literary beauty. You will not regret picking up this one or downloading it.

23. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell needs to be cloned. If she taught history classes or at least wrote the textbooks for high school history classes, it would be every student's favorite subject in school. This is my favorite of all of her books. She's wicked smart, wicked funny, and her research is exhaustive. It's especially fun to listen to because she has a very high, nasal voice that can mask her brilliant mind. It was this book that planted the seed to begin my presidential biography reading project. (She's also Violet from The Incredibles.) If you like history, run do not walk to this book.

24. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This book is on the list because in the nine years since I read it, the imagery and strange community of people she assembles is still very vivid to me. Super smart writing, this one.

25. Why is it Always About You? 7 Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss. This book helped me understand some strong personalities that I seem to attract repeatedly and how to better cope. It's a fascinating read.

26. Raising Kids with Character by Elizabeth Berger. I read this when my daughter was 18 months old – a pretty stressful time in my parenting journey. This book really helped me get perspective on what I was trying to achieve in my parenting. I wrote this author a thank-you e-mail and she replied! This was the start of my writing to authors whose work moved me.

27. The Gift of Rest by Joseph Lieberman. I read this book three years ago. I love reading books from other faith traditions, and this one was really good. The author reflects on how his Jewish faith and its Sabbath keeping has enriched his life. It inspired me to begin choosing to rest as an important part of my week. Right now, rest looks like a commitment to my Sunday afternoon yoga class. This book has made a difference in the way I spend my weekends recuperating from the frenzy of my work week.

28. Broken Open How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. This is another book that brought comfort and context during a time of great stress and confusion. If you are encountering a difficult time, definitely seek out this book.

29. Literary Mama by Andrea J. Buchanan and Amy Hudock. This was a birthday gift from a dear writer-friend and another book that was pointing me in the direction of taking my writing life seriously. The writing is really, really good.

30. Angelina Ballerina series by author Katharine Holabird and illustrator Helen Craig. This book series will always conjure some of the sweetest mother-daughter moments I have shared with Cadence. When she was smaller, she'd choose an Angelina book from her collection because “ I know you love these books.” The illustrations melt me every time.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Installment Two of Julie's Top 40 Books

This second installment of my top 40 books has proved to be a more difficult one to complete. I have no hesitation about the books I've chosen, but I have had trouble coming up with what to say about the books and how to best explain why they landed on the top 40 list. I suspect part of the struggle is that in some cases I haven't picked up some of these novels in more than 15 years. Their stories aren't fresh to me, but I know they left a lasting impact. Without further qualification, here's 11 through 20.

11. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This book is on the list because of the memories it evokes about reading it. I can remember virtually nothing of the plot—eek! What an admission. I was a sophomore in college and had gone home to Kansas to spend my spring break with my grandmother and visit other friends. We read it in tandem. I think I might have bought her a copy though I can't remember. She'd read while I was away with friends and then we'd discuss it when I came home. Even though I have total amnesia about the plot, I know I enjoyed the book as we were reading it together. Like smells and songs, books often capture and retain bits and pieces of where I was and what was happening around me when I was reading them. I will definitely re-read Jane Eyre.

12. Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. As old souls are wont to do, I read this book long before I was it's target audience. I read it in college when most women my mother's age were gobbling it up. I'm so glad I read it when I did. It described leading a life full of experiences and simple pleasures rather than filling it with stuff and chasing after unimportant things to keep up with the neighbors. This resonated with me and guided me into my young adulthood. It's written in a entry-a-day format for an entire year, and every few years I pull it off the shelf and feast on its simplicity for the year.

13. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This book was recommended to me when I was a nanny immediately after college graduation. I read some amazing fiction during that period and this story was among my favorites. I remember being taken with the fact that the first sentence tells the entire plot, and the rest of it is spent telling how it happened. I was duly impressed.

14. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Another example of sweeping fiction that took my breath away, opened my eyes to a medical condition that is rife with ethical dilemmas, societal pressures, and general angst for all involved. It is a masterpiece.

15. At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon. I had the opportunity to meet this author in person this past fall, which was an extraordinary experience, but this series also fits into the “old soul” category because I was among the youngest readers at the library-hosted author event. This series is about a loving, unassuming Episcopal priest and the cast of characters in his parish and the small community of Mitford. It is so endearing and comforting. I devoured the books in the midst of a lot of life transitions and in the days and months after the September 11 attacks. It was a balm during that time, and I have revisited Mitford repeatedly through the years.

16. Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. This book and To Kill a Mockingbird are my favorite books of all time. This writer is a poet first and her word choice is stunning. I am not a great connoisseur of poetry, but I have a deeper appreciation for poets who write prose after this book. These characters became friends and every few years I start to miss them and re-read it. Our introduction to a new character on page 124 is one of my all-time favorite reading moments.

17. Intimate Moments with the Savior by Ken Gire. I love the way the author takes a scene from the New Testament and makes it come alive with everyday details that add color and texture to the biblical moment. He also writes beautiful meditations and prayers that I refer to when I need a fresh perspective on one of those old stories.

18. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. One of my quirks is that I do not like doing what the crowd is doing. So if millions are reading a certain book, wearing a certain style, etc. I will wait until the fervor dies down before I dive in. This was true for the Harry Potter Series. As is typical, once I began reading, I thought it was the greatest. thing. ever. I was especially struck by J.K. Rowling's story. Writing it in a coffee shop with a young child, and having the manuscript rejected, repeatedly. This lady was persistent! This was one of the first author stories that buried itself deep in my psyche, “hmm...MAYBE I COULD BE A WRITER..” What always impressed me with each book was the complete world she created purely from imagination and the level of detail. I also loved the values that were woven into the narrative: the power of friendship, trust, integrity, doing the right thing. I can't wait until Cadence and I read these together.

19. Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. During the year I had a subscription to The New Yorker I became a huge fan of Adam Gopnik's writing, which led me to this amazing story of his time in Paris. I gobbled it up because 1. his writing is glorious and 2. it was Paris. I can't wait to re-read it when I've finished my quota of presidential bios and the Anne series.

20. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. This was a book recommendation from one of my wicked smaat friends. As it was described to me, I wasn't sure if I had the fortitude for it. Crime. Gore. Whatnot. But dang, am I glad that I took the leap. It is an AMAZING novel. The story and characters suck you in. The author created such pictures in my head - I actually imagined the story in sepia tones! There IS depravity and violence, but it is always within the context of the historical period and never gratuitous. I highly recommend it and its sequel.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Trip to Target

The shopping and acquiring gene didn't get expressed in my DNA, but it has come surging through in Cadence's. Her grandparents regularly give her Target gift cards for special occasions. These have become opportunities for my young child to learn about the value of money, wants vs. needs, delayed gratification, and gift giving.

Most trips begin in the art aisles. We talk about how much items cost and how much money she'll have left if she chooses to buy it. Many times she puts an item back deciding that it isn't worth the cost. She's still in a "more is more" mentality, so she generally chooses smaller, less expensive items. The shopping experience is heightened when there is more in her cart.

Cadence is also a gift giver. She really loves to share what she has with others. On this particular trip, Cadence eyed the mug in the photo below. She liked it immediately and declared that she wanted to buy it for me. I saw a clearance sticker affixed to the side and agreed that since it was on sale she could buy it. I was touched that she wanted to spend her money on something for someone else.

She finished making her day's selections and took them to the check out. She handed over her gift card with the balance burning in her hand. With the transaction complete, we headed to the car.

She pulled the mug out of the plastic bag and chattered as five-year-olds do about being glad she bought it for me. She paused. “Mama, what does it say on the side?” She was an early reader, so she still needed help reading. I told her that it read “Hello!”

There was another pause. “Oh. I thought it said heart. That's why I bought it for you. I thought it said heart...” Disappointment tinged her words and the realization of her mistake. My heart melted. I assured her that I loved the mug now even more.

Every time I use the mug (which is nearly daily), I see hello, but my brain always changes it to heart, and I melt over and over again. This mug is a keeper because of its reminder of my little shopper's intended and accidental gifts in one little purchase.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Few Things to Say About Fatigue

To say that this 4040 list has awakened me in a mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual sense would be a vast understatement. I am energized in a way I haven't been in a long time - if ever. I am busy. My days are full of good stuff. I process life in pictures and words, and when I consider the effect the list and its prescribed activities is having on me, I imagine a big plate of colorful fruits and vegetables. I am feasting on good stuff: yoga, running, reading, writing of letters, blog, and novel-in-progress. The junk food of life - excessive television viewing - is virtually non-existent in 2015. It really can't be a part of my diet if I want to accomplish everything I've set before me.

And yet.

I'm fatigued. I feel a little breathless by all of this activity. Just like the day at the track when I started struggling for breath as I ran, I'm reminding myself that pacing is really important. On the track, I identified that I was struggling because I'd picked a pace I couldn't reasonably maintain. I didn't stop running, but I slowed down, and it helped.

I'm pondering this morning what slowing down looks like as I celebrate my 40th year on a daily basis. Maybe today it's simply acknowledging that I am feeling winded. The great thing is I don't have to have an answer or a quick fix. Just recognizing what I'm feeling and observing is enough. And this good activity mixed in with living in the moment is also teaching me that the moment will pass. The fatigue will lift. The breathless feeling when I run won't last forever. Especially when I pay attention. And course correct as I go. There. I feel better already.

How do you cope when life's pace leaves you breathless?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Sun Salutation Tally: Month One

As of today, I have been saluting the sun for one month. I haven't missed a day, and in some cases, I've done more than my daily four.

This practice has quickly become a joy. One weekend day, I sat down to write and was antsy. I couldn't settle into writing. It occurred to me that I hadn't done my yoga for the day, so I rolled out my mat, did my four salutations, and sat back down. I was immediately calmer and better able to focus.

Talk about instant results.

So far I have done 146 sun salutations. 18 of those are extras. There are days that I have done four in the morning and four in the evening. Those are the ideal days. I am keeping track of how my body feels each day. I'm so glad to have this tracker. The last few days I was noticing significant improvement. Heels closer to the floor, legs nearly straight. This morning, not so much. That's the beauty of yoga. You aren't going to be able to do the same thing every day, so yoga teaches you to accept where you are today, breathe, and move on.

I can already see my body changing. There are triceps reappearing. My biceps are more defined, and my abs are starting to show some definition. My butt seems ever so slightly less flat. (The running may be a contributor in that area.) 40.1 Buy a bikini won't feel like such a painful experience with just a few hundred more sun salutations completed.

I have eleven more months until I can cross this item off my 4040 list. What I know one month in is that this is a permanent fixture in my life moving forward.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

My First Favorite Books 1-10

In the fifth grade, part of the curriculum for the reading group I was in was to read a book a week and then complete a book report on 5 x 7 inch index cards. I was a strong reader, but not a fast one. I marvel at how easy it would have been for that year to have squashed my love of reading, but fortunately I persevered and moved on to the sixth grade with my love of words and books intact.

That year's demands created a habit that has persisted until just recently. Each week when I chose the new book, I would go home and my mom and I would figure out how many pages I needed to read each day in order to finish reading in time for each week's book report.

I read those books everywhere: in the bathtub, in my bedroom, on the front porch. I remember roller skating and reading once...that's slightly embarrassing to admit, but alas, it happened! I was breathless from the volume of pages I was reading. I wish I still had the list of books we chose from that year, because I remember really loving some of those stories. My imagination was captured week after week. No matter how fatigued I was by the work of reading.

Number twenty-eight on my 4040 list was added to pay homage to the longest pastime I have enjoyed in my forty years. I have set out to choose the forty books that have moved me, challenged me, inspired me, or changed my life in some way. I'm unveiling the list in four installments because I want to write a brief explanation about each book, and honestly, I'd like my readers to get to the end. This could get a little lengthy. So without further introduction, here's the first 10 books. I am presenting them semi-chronologically. Otherwise there's no particular preferential order.

1. Cranberry Thanksgiving by Harry and Wende Devlin. This is one in a series of books. I have always been drawn to the illustrations and love the cozy feel of the characters and story. After all these years, I'll pull it off my bookshelf and read it solo even if my daughter doesn't join me. I have no qualms about reading children's books as an adult.

2. Debbie's Visit to the Countryside – by Gilbert Delahaye. Marcel Marlier's illustrations “drew” me in as a child. They were like comfort food for the heart and mind. He had such a way of making the story seem dreamy and real at once.

3. The Little Old Man Who Couldn't Read by Irma Simonton Black. I was very young when I read this. The pastel colors are what I first think of when I think of this book. I also love the dear, sweet little man and I always was baffled by how he'd made it all his life without being able to read! It was inconceivable to this book lover! I stumbled on a lovely little fact as I was putting together this list: Amazon was selling the hardcover for no less than $149.80 and I've since seen other sites selling it for even more!

4. Crystal's Perilous Ride by Steven and Janet Bly. My Grandma Steele started me on this series the summer I had my wisdom teeth pulled and was out of commission for my recovery. I loved Crystal's smarts with horses and lived vicariously through her ranch adventures.

5. Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I was first introduced to this beloved character in sixth grade. I've already written about Anne here.
Re-reading the series is # 10 on the list. For brevity, let's just say I saw myself in Anne in many ways, and in so doing, I grew confident in the attributes that made me different from most girls my age.

6. Nancy Drew series – by Carolyn Keene. I loved Nancy Drew and her friends particularly in middle school. I loved how smart and sophisticated Nancy was. She was brave and always figuring things out. The stories always captured my imagination.

7. Janette Oke's Canadian West Series – My best friend, Melissa, a much faster reader, introduced these books to me in middle school. I loved reading about the pioneer life and loved the romance. The book covers have changed in the 25+ years since I read them...

8. To Kill a Mockingbird – by Harper Lee. I first read this book in tenth grade English class with Mrs. Deeg's student teacher, Miss Collard. I loved it then, but age, life experience, and multiple readings and listenings have brought a greater appreciation for this American classic. Listening to it is an especially wonderful treat, which I do roughly once a year. Now when I listen or re-read it, I aspire to parent my daughter more like Atticus Finch parented his.

9. A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson. I read this book the summer after my freshman year of college. It's one of the first “life-changing” books of my life. Love and Fear – all our decisions come from one of two thought forms. All these years later, I'm still working to set aside my fears and approach everything with love.

10. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. I was an enormous Francophile and reading this book was sheer delight. Peter's voice and storytelling made me laugh out loud before it was called LOL. Oh to have moved to France! That was my dream then.

Have you read any of these books? What were your favorites in your childhood and youth?

What I learned about Andrew Jackson and American History

Mercifully, I was able to finish American Lion Jon Meacham's beautiful biography of Andrew Jackson in two months' time. It really is a great biography. Very well researched and tells a story rather than dryly laying out a bunch of dates and facts. But it was dense reading and so it felt like I'd read 40 pages in the span of the four I'd actually read. That is slow going.

My favorite and most-unexpected feature of this vast project is the way I get to see each of these commanders-in-chief from various perspectives and viewpoints. I felt like I was visiting an old friend each time John Q A appeared in Jackson's bio. And now that I've started Martin Van Buren's, I'll get to see Andy from a different vantage point. This is particularly fascinating and helpful when complicated or involved historical events take place. If I don't quite get the significance or the meaning of something I know that in the next biography (or two or three) the topic will be explained from a different writer's perspective, and I'll understand it better down the road.

That was the case with the Bank issue in Jackson's presidency. He was so afraid that the Bank and the men that controlled it would overstep their bounds and cause problems for the common man, so he eventually dismantled the bank and had all the money deposited in state-run banks. This was MAJOR political drama for the time and the Senate even voted to censure Jackson. I know I am oversimplifying the issue as I write, so I'll pay close attention to how the issue is positioned in the next biography.

Here are some other things I learned about Jackson and American History (in bullet form):

*Jackson was absolutely devoted to his family and he considered the country his family too.
*He was a man of contradictions, which is why people could consider him barbaric and others consider him loyal and endearing. He was all of those things and much more.
*The build up to the Civil War was DECADES in the making.
*Jackson was pro-slavery and actually thought the abolitionists were a threat to the “peace and harmony” of the country. Editorial comment #1: Whoa.
*South Carolina wanted to pick and choose which federal laws the state would abide by. Nullification became another huge issue for Jackson during his presidency. He was able to preserve unity in the country – for his time. This threw the United States into the brink of Civil War long years before it broke out in 1861. Editorial comment #2: South Carolina's take on things seems like bizarro-world to read. I'm now going to keep an eye out for how all of this spirals into civil war in the following biographies. My interest has definitely been piqued.

The author spent the final chapter discussing how Jackson and his presidency had inspired and influenced presidents that came after him. This quote from Theodore Roosevelt beautifully and fairly defines Jackson and his role in American history:

“Jackson had many faults, but he was devotedly attached to the Union, and he had no thought of fear when it came to defending his country...With the exception of Washington and Lincoln, no man has left a deeper mark on American history; and though there is much in his career to condemn, yet all true lovers of American can unite in paying hearty respect to the memory of a man who was emphatically a true American, who served his country valiantly on the field of battle against a foreign foe, and who upheld with the most staunch devotion the cause of the great Federal Union.”