Catching up

I really want to come up with a catchy title for my catch-all posts. My friends call theirs such things as “friday faves,” “In the Pipeline,” “Friday Five Link Up” and so on.

One of these days it’ll come to me; I’ll have my own catchy title. Meantime, here’s where my head is right now:

Four days until #AWBU – Arkansas Women Bloggers University. I am beside myself with anticipation! Not only will I get to see some of my friends from North Little Rock who blog (and many of them are leading workshops), I’ll meet a bunch of the chicks whose blogs I’ve been reading the past few months but have never met. Yippee!

This will be my first year at AWBU, which began three years ago. I had never heard of it until two years ago, and by then it was too late to register. Last year I had some type of conflict (can’t even remember what). But this year, no excuses – I’m going! The fun starts Friday and ends at noon Sunday. Today I finalized (well, sort of) my picks for the workshops I want to attend.

Most of the sessions have three workshops to choose from, except for a couple that have just two. I’ve made my picks for all but two sessions. And, darn it, wouldn’t you know that some of my friends are leading workshops and I won’t get to participate. There are A, B and C tracks, and I’ve picked mostly from the A track, which is more about the business side of blogging. Track B seems to be mostly about the writing process, and Track C is more techy (side note: spellcheck prefers “techier” here). I’m fairly confident in the B and C areas but so want to beef up the business side of my blog. I’ll tell you more about that in a later post (it’s not as mercenary as it sounds).

I can’t wait to come back next week and tell you how much I’ve learned and been inspired by!

The fall semester of Perspectives started last week, and I’m so excited to be an alumnus this time (no homework pressure) and part of the Coordinating Team (the group that has worked to bring the class back to Batesville this fall).

In my role on the team, I won’t be needed in class after tomorrow night, but do you think I would dare miss a night of it? The speakers are too dynamic, the topics too challenging for me to sit home and miss out. And, as a graduate of the course (2012), I won’t feel pressured to take notes – except that I’m sort of compulsive about that; I think I retain things better when I write them out. I think every follower of Jesus should take Perspectives, and I’d love to tell you more about it. Let me know if you’re interested in knowing more.

Today was a holiday, and I didn’t work (I didn’t run, either, but we’ll skip that part). After two decades in the daily-newspaper business, I never knew which holiday Bruce or I might have off in any given year, and even though I haven’t worked full time for a newspaper in 10 years (and 7 for him), we’re still not used to having holidays off.

So he and I took the Spice Dogs to Mom’s to watch the Cardinals and the Pirates, and I ended up watching four hours of Food Network! There was some type of Pioneer Woman mini-marathon, and I’m just now realizing (as I write this) that I watched eight straight episodes! Two years without TV at home (no Food Network for Suzy) means I gorge on it when I have the chance. It’s like going without your favorite food for a long time and then stuffing yourself when you finally get a bowl of it. Or something like that.

Then Mom wanted an ice cream cone, so we piled into the car and drove to Sonic. She and Bruce had ice cream and, although I really, really wanted a Sonic Blast, I got a cherry limeade.

AllGirlFillingStationBookCover

I’m almost finished with the September book for my reading group (The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg) … and today I realized I won’t be able to go to group tomorrow! (Why? See Perspectives above.) The library’s only hard copy of the book was checked out, so I got the audio version and have been listening to it on my long runs. I normally don’t use my ear buds when I run, but I wanted to kill two birds with one stone. This month’s book was a good story – another book that has forced me to read fiction this year since joining the reading group. I haven’t read much fiction in the past 20 years, so fortunately the last couple of books I’ve had to read are good ones. Flagg is a good writer (remember Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café?), and this story was compelling and really sucked me in.

However, I’m ever so glad that I got to pick the October book. I chose Night by Elie Wiesel. I read it about 20 years ago (about the time I started really getting into non-fiction), and I can’t wait to start reading it again.

Both books deal with World War II but in vastly different ways. Part of Flagg’s story is based on actual events (the WASP program of female flyers), but Wiesel’s story is 100 percent true. It’s his account of surviving a Nazi concentration camp when he was a boy. He is still alive today, by the way.

My favorite book, as I’ve said many times before, is The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. Corrie was a Christian; Wiesel is a Jew. Both books are first-person accounts, and I like pondering the different perspectives of the Holocaust. Can’t wait to find out what the other ladies think of Night.

I also got to pick the reading group’s first book of 2015, and it was written by my friend who recommended Night to me so many years ago. I’ll save the details on that for later. (Sorry – you’ll just have to stay tuned.)

 

He's why I run
He’s why I run.

I’m running again for Team Challenge, the endurance and training program of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. I want to cure Crohn’s disease, which my husband (in photo above) suffers from, so I have to raise a bunch of money this fall. In January I’ll get to run the Walt Disney World Half Marathon, and it’s a pretty big deal. So big, in fact, that our fundraising minimum is higher, the perqs are a little less and our fundraising deadlines are a little tighter than for a typical Team Challenge event. I’ve been struggling with doing long runs in the heat and humidity. We haven’t started the official training plan for Disney yet, but I started a RunKeeper half-marathon training plan in early May, so I think I must not feel compelled to stay true to the program with the team training coming up. I totally blew off the scheduled 9-mile run this weekend, and of course I’ll have a 10-mile run coming up in a few days.

Typically I do the long runs on Saturday mornings (at daybreak, before it gets really stinkin’ hot), and next weekend I’m going to be out of town (see #AWBU above). So I feel like a total slacker, and the only thing that has saved me is the cheap treadmill we bought at a yard sale a few months ago. I’ve done a couple of hourlong runs on it, and last night I even considered doing the 9-miler but just could not bring myself to do it.

I didn’t bring this up to make a pitch for donations, but I have so much yet to raise (nearly $3,000 of the $4,500 total – note: I’ve set my goal a bit higher than $4,500 just for good measure), so I will shamelessly give you the link to donate to Team Challenge.

Also, if you’re a runner or a walker and use any of these apps – fitbit, Nike+, Jawbone, RunKeeper or Moves – please join my mission at FitCause, which is a NO-COST way you can help me reach my fundraising goal (and cure Crohn’s disease). The challenge is to “run a marathon in a month” – or 26.2 miles by Sept. 11 – and you still have more than a week to do it! You don’t even have to run/walk 26.2 miles; any number of miles will help. Thank you for any amount (miles or money) you’re willing to donate! 🙂

Tell me at least one neat thing you’ve done, read, planned or pondered lately.

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Top Ten Tuesday – classic books

A work in progress.
A work in progress.

I discovered a neat website this afternoon, just in time to participate in Top Ten Tuesday. Here are my Top 10 Favorite Classic Books:

  1. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. This nonfiction book, about a father and his two adult daughters sent to a concentration camp for hiding Jews in their home in Holland, haunts me. I’ve “loaned” out several copies and ended up telling the recipient, “Keep it or pass it along to someone else.” The book’s message – God is good, even (no, especially) in the midst of suffering – is one I want everyone to grab hold of, and one I continually need to remind myself of. My favorite quote: “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.”
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This one seems to make a lot of people’s top-10 lists. And the movie (starring Gregory Peck as the quietly heroic Atticus Finch) is just as good as the book. It’s a moving portrayal of the effects of racism in the Depression-era Deep South.
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. My first “favorite book,” before it got bumped from the top spot by “To Kill a Mockingbird” a few years ago. I guess I’m a sucker for a family story, and the March family – Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Father (who’s off fighting in the Civil War) – demonstrates what it’s like to be loyal, charitable and hopeful even in hard times. (I’ve also seen almost every movie version made. My favorite: the 1949 one with Janet Leigh as Meg, June Allyson as Jo, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Margaret O’Brien as Beth and Peter Lawford as Laurie.)
  4. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis’ writing causes me to think. He had a way of describing things in ways beyond my imagination (probably why his Narnia books are so popular). A former atheist, he wrestled with faith and made it OK for me to admit that I wrestle, too.
  5. My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. My Uncle Bill gave me my first copy as a college graduation present 25 years ago, when I visited him in Arizona on my way to California for my first full-time newspaper job. This was the “classic” version (archaic language), and now I also have an “Updated Edition.” This is another book I’ve given as a gift many times. I like it like I like C.S. Lewis’ writings: Chambers has a way of making me think hard about my faith, what it means in my own life, and what it means in the world.
  6. The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. He had a macabre writing style, but I’ve loved the tortured artist’s frightening tales since I was a kid. I think my dad was the one who turned me onto his stories and poetry.
  7. The Shining by Stephen King. This may not be a classic in the strictest sense, but I read it when I was in 10th grade (my first King novel), so to me it’s old enough to qualify. This book creeped me out! But it got me hooked on Stephen King novels, and I read them for the next decade. I believe I stopped with Misery in the late 1980s. I also got over my need for horror movies, although I still love a good mystery (Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew 🙂 ). REDRUM.
  8. A Dog for Susie by “Nordlie R”? OK, this one is a classic only in my own mind, but I really loved the book when I was a child. It speaks to Suzy the dog lover and Suzy the book lover. I got it at the used-book sale at school. In fact, I think it was free. (Even better!) I have it in one of our many bookcases, but I can’t find it at the moment or I’d grab it and tell you the correct name of the author.
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I re-read this a couple of years ago. There’s a reason it’s a classic. I think I like it for some of the same reasons I love “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It reminds me of the dangers of small-mindedness. Read it to find out the meaning of the title.
  10. The Holy Bible. The best classic book of all time, of course, is God’s inspired word, one of His primary ways of communicating to the world. The version I’ve been reading for the past six or seven years is the New Living Translation. I’ve read through the entire Bible maybe three times, and this year I began a chronological reading plan for the first time. It’s helping me see parallels I hadn’t noticed before.

What are your favorite books, and why?

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Gluten talk and beyond

“ ‘Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it.”

– Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Any time a bunch of women gets together who are passionate, interested or even just a bit curious about a topic I’m interested in, I get excited.

And just such a thing happened this morning.

During first service, a dozen or so women from my church met for an hour of gluten talk. At least that was the original topic when the class was announced, but by the time we had the meeting, it had become more of a “food group.” We talked about more than just gluten intolerance. Other food allergies and sensitivities were on the menu.

Those who led the group this morning (and, in case you’re interested, will again next Sunday – same time, same place) are:

  • Anita Swanson, who shared her story of wheat intolerance, breastfeeding, children with allergies and her journey to figuring out how to keep her family healthy. Anita is married to our pastor, Brent, and they have three precious little boys who are a big part of Anita’s “food story.”
  • Valerie Gunter, whose story is similar to Anita’s because of birthing babies, breastfeeding and having to figure out some food sensitivities and intolerances she didn’t realize she had – all because of her kiddos’ health problems. Valerie is married to Matt, a local veterinarian.
  • Sandee Steiner, local farmer, real estate mogul and mom. She and her husband, Max, host the church’s annual fall festival on their farm, where the kids get to run around until they’re silly, hang out with cows and other critters, have hayrides and generally get themselves giddy in the autumn sunshine (yeah, some of the adults do, too). Sandee, an engineer, is concerned with all the crap (sorry, Mom) that American cattle farmers and chicken producers feed to and inject into their animals. Sandee offers kefir starter to anyone who would like to make her own kefir (Anita made us delicious banana and blueberry smoothies with kefir, and the ladies also let us sample two other homemade, gluten-free foods). Sandee also offered to teach us how to make our own cottage cheese.

And then there’s me. No, I wasn’t a host of the meeting – I’m just a loudmouth who’s always interested in learning something and passing along the “insights” I’ve gained. Yeah, I can be obnoxious about it, especially if you’re not at all into what I’m talking about.

I’ve been on my own “journey to fitness” for the past three or four years, and it has taken me until recently to get serious about what goes into my mouth and that of my husband (a Crohn’s sufferer).

Sure, I’ve lost about 50 pounds (and gained a few back), but it hasn’t always been with the healthiest, wholest, least-processed foods you can buy. That, however, has been changing, ever so gradually.

I’ve been getting rid of processed sugars, artificial sweeteners, wheat and other grains in the past several weeks and increasing my consumption of “good fats” and eggs. But that’s a story I’ll tell you another day. Another story for a later day: I’m training to be a certified wellness coach (online classes, plus a trip to Colorado next month for on-site training). And … all this food and research talk has gotten me to thinking about becoming a registered dietician (I waver between the nutrition part of fitness and the physical-fitness part – I got certified as a running coach in August and definitely want to do some continuing education – maybe a second bachelor’s degree? – in some area of fitness).

But let’s talk about some of the resources discussed this morning. The ladies in charge handed us a packet of resources (including recipes, not included here), and the ladies listening wanted some of those put together online somewhere. One even requested a dedicated Facebook page for the group. Until they’re able to make that happen, I’ll collect the list of resources here, updating this particular post as I have time to add them (I’ll send updates to the church’s Facebook page). And if you’d like to suggest your own resources or tell your story, please click the comment link at the bottom of this post.

Also, I was taking notes furiously for a friend who couldn’t make the meeting because she was cheering on her daughter at the Little Rock Marathon (go, Mary!), so I didn’t get to look at all the books on the table. So, for now, I’m going to hit the high points with the promise to add to it later.

Disclaimer: Not everyone agrees with every word or claim made in each one of these resources. They are simply offered as a starting point for more information.

BOOKS

Wheat Belly and Wheat Belly Cookbook by cardiologist William Davis. I’m reading these books (with apologies to the county library, which sent me past-due notices on them last week. I promise I’ll return them tomorrow, because I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy my own copies). Some in the medical field have criticized Wheat Belly, calling Davis’ admonitions about wheat and carbs “scare tactics,” but I find it interesting that a lot of these critics DON’T EAT WHEAT. One reviewer, a psychiatrist, takes issue with his “sloppy” work in some of his medical stories and analogies. I understand her point, but at times she seems to be nitpicking.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. This one is on my to-be-read list. I read Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto a few years ago. He has good things to say. His catch phrase: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I suppose I need to move Omnivore up on my list.

The Virgin Diet by J.J. Virgin. Don’t let the word “diet” scare you away from some of the good things the author has to say – this, according to Valerie Gunter, who recommended the book. (She had to give it a catchy name, didn’t she?) Virgin guides the reader through an elimination diet to help determine whether there’s an intolerance to certain foods.

MOVIES AND VIDEOS

Food Inc., a documentary that takes “an unflattering look inside America’s corporate controlled food industry,” according to the Internet Movie Database. We didn’t have time to talk about this movie today – just a brief mention.

“Unblind My Mind,” a TEDxYouth Talk by Dr. Katherine Reid (16 minutes; also search for “unblind my mind” on YouTube). I mentioned the video at this morning’s meeting, and I had a request to post the link. Reid, a biochemist and mom of five, started researching food additives and eliminating particular foods from her autistic daughter’s diet. Within a few weeks, she noticed a marked improvement in the girl’s behavior. The culprits for Brooke: free glutamate (think MSG) – which goes by at least 50 names – and casein, a milk protein. In the video, Reid talks about the gluten/casein connection with excess glutamate. She started a nonprofit organization, Unblind My Mind, to more fully explore the topic of food’s effects on our health.

WEBSITES

Salad in a Jar. This is my own recommendation, although I didn’t have time to mention it at the meeting. On a Facebook group I’m a member of, I had complained about having to cut up one salad for work each evening (rather than a bunch of it days in advance) because of brown lettuce, and someone pointed me to Salad in a Jar. The site’s founder (who’s not selling anything) shows how to chop your salad greens ahead of time, vacuum seal them in mason jars and prolong the (refrigerator) shelf-life for several days. This not only saves time but money, as it helps cut down on food waste. (I bought a vacuum sealer, and I love it; if you’d like to borrow it, let me know.)

That’s it for now, folks. It’s past my bedtime, so I’m stopping. Later I’ll add info on some of the places, local and otherwise, where you can buy some of the natural, organic, gluten-free or other foods talked about this morning.

If you or a family member is experiencing health problems that can’t be explained, cured or eased with traditional remedies or modern medicine – or if you’re simply interested in exploring new ways to be healthy by changing your diet – talk to Anita, Valerie or Sandee at church, or post a comment here and I’ll put you in touch. I’ll also be happy to share what I’m learning as I research healthful eating and foods. And if you’d like to tell your story at Suzy & Spice, let me know – I’d love to have you as a guest writer. I’ve already recruited Anita to write a post!

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Book review: ‘Altar Ego’ by Craig Groeschel

As books tend to do, Altar Ego: Becoming Who God Says You Are by Craig Groeschel came at just the right time for me. When I received an email from the publisher describing the book, I had begun a time of seeking: God, what do you have in store for me? How are you looking to mold and shape me so that I can carry out Your mission? What is my part in Your plan to make Your name great among the nations?

In part, the publisher’s blurb said: “Discover how to trade in your broken ego and unleash your altar ego to become a living sacrifice. Once we know our true identity and are growing in our Christ-like character, then we can behave accordingly, with bold behavior, bold prayers, bold words, and bold obedience.”

My ego (pride, holier-than-thou attitude, judgmental spirit) tends to get in the way of a lot of things, but fortunately God has been working on it through the years. (He has a big job!) So this book was one more step toward my being molded in His image.

The book has three parts:

  • Part 1: Sacrificing Your False Self for Your Sacred Identity in Christ.
  • Part 2: Sacrificing Cultural Relativity for Eternal Values.
  • Part 3: Sacrificing Self-Justification for Passionate Obedience.

Part 1, while completely relevant, seemed like yet one more recitation of things I already knew: “You are God’s masterpiece,” “You are God’s ambassador,” etc. I appreciated the lessons but didn’t get as much out of it as I did the two other parts.

Even Part 2 was more or less a rehash of a lesson on proper living (things my ego tells me I already have a handle on!). So, again, relevant but not as compelling as Part 3.

I highlighted many passages in all three parts of the book, so it would be unfair to say that only the last section spoke to me.

But finally, in Part 3, the author gets to the meat I’m interested in chewing on: “Bold Behavior,” “Bold prayers,” “Bold words,” “Bold obedience.”

And, while I’ve heard over and over that we are to be bold for Christ (if you don’t believe me, read the Book of Acts – 28 chapters of boldness), it’s a lesson I can hear every day and not get enough of.

By nature, I’m an introvert, and I used to be excruciatingly, painfully, embarrassingly shy. I would beg God silently to send people to me – rather than me to them – to be my friends, to pay attention to me (even though I hated being in the spotlight!). I had a screwed-up idea of how human interaction is supposed to work, especially for one who claims Christ as Lord and Savior, someone who’s supposed to share the Good News with everyone.

At some point, I realized that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and do some work. I started allowing God to put me in situations where I was uncomfortable, where I would be forced to put myself out there, meeting people, talking to them, actually interacting. In other words, being vulnerable. To be honest, I still don’t like it, but I’ve gotten used to it and now seek out situations where my human-interaction muscle can stretch and grow stronger, little by little. It’s a circle: As I step out, my faith grows. As my faith grows, I’m more willing to step out.

So the section of Altar Ego on boldness really hit home with me. Like I said, nothing too new – although said in a new way with illustrations unique to the author – but a challenge to continue building on the foundation God has laid for my life.

My life is not my own. I want to lay it on God’s altar, and I must – every day, every hour, every minute. Only He knows the perfect plan for my life, and yours. Let’s allow Him to lay it out for us, and then grab His hand as He leads us on the great adventure.

Let us be bold.

“ ‘And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness” (Acts 3:29-31, NLT).

This review is part of my agreement with Thomas Nelson through its BookSneeze project. It allows me to get free books in exchange for my honest review, whether I like the books or not. To learn more, click here.

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Book review: ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’ by Mark Horne

I must have been tired, busy, distracted or just cranky when I started reading the biography J.R.R. Tolkien last year. I just couldn’t get into it. And when I picked it up a few weeks ago to try again, it still seemed dry and uninteresting.

But I had to finish it, because I had agreed to review it (more on that below). And I’m happy to say that, in the end, I liked this book.

Part of my interest in this fantasy writer and poet stems from the fact that my husband reads Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy about once a year; and my brother, who usually is too busy living life to read much, read The Hobbit once upon a time – one of the few books he has ever read – and loved it.

Also, when I heard that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (my favorite author) were friends (wow!), that sealed it for me. I had planned to read the Hobbit books for years (even before the movies of the early 2000s) but never had gotten around to it. And when I ordered the biography last year, I debated about whether to read it first or read the fantasy novels first. Will the biography help me enjoy the novels more, or will starting with the novels help me appreciate the bio more? The debate lasted so long, it took me months to get around to reading the bio (I finally decided to read it first, and I think I chose correctly).

So here we are at long last: I’m ready to share my thoughts on the biography.

The prosaically titled (and, at times, prosaically written) volume, written by Mark Horne as part of Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series, begins with a tale of a 3-year-old John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (or, simply, Ronald), a tarantula bite and a quick-thinking nanny to the rescue. Giant scary spiders would figure into stories he wrote for his children, and longtime Tolkien fans will recall their presence in the Hobbit stories. But not because he remembered the tarantula – this was not a case of art imitating life. He later said he didn’t recall the tarantula bite as part of the incident – he simply remembered the heat of the day and running in fear through the tall, dead grass.

In other ways, though, the difficulties of his life did inform his writing. While he was still a child, he endured the deaths of both parents, and several resulting moves because of financial necessity and educational needs. His mother’s family ostracized her because of her Catholic faith – a factor that contributed to her death, in her older son’s opinion, and which may have strengthened his resolve to remain true to the faith.

Tolkien was born in South Africa, where his parents had relocated from England for financial reasons. When he was 3, his mother took him and his younger brother to England for a visit. The plan was for the boys’ father to join them later, but it was not to be; he developed a brain hemorrhage and was buried before his wife even received word that he had died.

Ronald’s diabetic mother died when he was 12. She made arrangements in her will for her friend and spiritual helper, Father Francis Morgan, to be her two boys’ legal guardian. Tolkien’s faith played an important role in his writing, even though he at one time said he preferred not to write overtly Christian stories but “to let readers make their own choices.” Still, his faith in God was communicated throughout his works of fiction. “Having written an epic of good versus evil, Tolkien left readers free to make up their own minds how to apply his fiction,” Horne writes.

Although his works portray the battle of good vs. evil, they also portray a world in which there is much beauty “and where there was true courage to do what is right even at great cost.” Even though I haven’t delved into his books yet, I’ve seen the first two movies in the LOTR trilogy and can attest to that point. “Tolkien portrayed a fantasy world that could not only entertain us but could also challenge and inspire us.”

Entertaining and inspiring stories aside, the area where I most identified with Tolkien – besides his love of languages and linguistics – was his perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering” perfectionist, but, oh, how I understood his extreme difficulty in letting go of a manuscript. He kept revising, changing, modifying and tweaking his stories. He never thought one was good enough to be published and was surprised at his novels’ success. (Similarly, it takes me forever to write a blog post, and once I’ve published it, I’m still not finished with it!) One theory for his procrastination problem was that Tolkien avoided completing a project “because doing so would mean that he was no longer being creative.” Maybe. But as a fellow sufferer of the disease of perfectionism, I doubt that was the main reason.

And then there was his obsession with The Silmarillion, which gives background and history to some of the people, places and things in his Hobbit books. The Sil seemed to be his pet story – or, as his biographer put it, “his life’s work” – but it’s one I have been advised by fans of his to save until later because of its dense history and similarity to the Old Testament! And, even though I rather like the OT, I’m taking the advice of my husband and my friend’s Facebook friend, with whom I got into a conversation about Tolkien and his works. I’ll start with The Hobbit.

I am leaving out major pieces of Tolkien’s history in this already-long post: his friendship and, later, break with fellow Oxford professor and fantasy/sci-fi writer C.S. Lewis; his service in World War I; his marriage; his children; his death; and so much more.

But any good writer should know when it’s time to shut up, and that time is now. I’ll leave you with this:

     “Not all those who wander are lost.”
            – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Excuse me now – I have some Hobbits to get acquainted with.

I’ve been a part of Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze project for nearly three years. It allows me to get free books in exchange for giving my honest opinion, whether I like the books or not. If you’d like to get in on this sweet deal, click the link above.

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Books, books and more books

I’m ready to admit it.

I suffer from attention deficit disorder. If I wasn’t certain of it before, I am now. Technology has propelled me toward this official self-diagnosis.

Evidence?

My book collection not only clutters my house; it’s beginning to clutter my electronic bookshelf.

When we finally sold our house in North Little Rock a year ago, we made a small profit and indulged in some techy stuff. Two days before my birthday, I got a smart phone. A few weeks later we got an iPad, and a couple of months after that we got a new laptop. All Apple products (yes, we’re “Mac snobs” and have been for years).

All these electronic devices now “sync” with one another. That’s a good thing and a bad thing.

One good thing is apps.

Another good thing is the Cloud.

When you have three complementary electronic gadgets, all from the same brand, apps and clouds can be a lovely thing.

It means you can load up with BOOKS. And read them anywhere.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE BOOKS? Not lately, but, yes, I have mentioned it. Unfortunately a bunch of Suzy & Spice got wiped out a few months ago, so some of my book-loving references have gone away. Poor you. Because some of them were book reviews. About books I got FREE just for writing reviews about them. (One really cool thing about that is that a couple of these books’ authors posted thank-you comments at Suzy & Spice. And another one saw my previous reviews and wrote me a letter asking me to review her new book. So I did.)

But back to the book clutter.

Bruce Oakley and I (I’ve begun calling him “Bruce Oakley” since he got his own Facebook page; if you FB much, you’ll understand) … well, we love books.

This can be a dangerous thing.

Our house in North Little Rock, the one we sold because we moved to Batesville, had wall-to-wall built-in bookcases in three rooms. It’s basically what sold us on the house 13 years ago, especially for Bruce Oakley, who never met a book he wanted to give away.

That’s not entirely true; he has managed to part with several items from our vast collection before and since we moved from a 2,600-square-foot house to a 1,740-square-foot house.

But, golly, do we still have lots of books! We even have boxes of them that we still haven’t unpacked 2½ years after moving.

I’m working on that. Got it down to just a couple of boxes now. Cookbooks, classic books, running books, gardening books, financial stewardship books, you name it. Books, books, books.

If you’re a true book lover, you understand how hard it is to part with a book – or to pass up a free book on a give-away table. (Many of our books were acquired when we worked for “the state’s largest newspaper” – books from the food editor’s table, or the religion editor’s table, sometimes even the travel editor’s table [even though I don’t really enjoy reading “travel” books]. Heck, we even got some of the books from the book editor’s table! Imagine that.)

We’ve acquired a couple more bookcases in the past several months. We have one still in the box – we’re still trying to decide where to squeeze it in (we bought the bookcase for my mom, but she changed her mind and we decided to keep it). We recently hung shelves in the office/sewing room to store non-book items so we could be a little more organized. This has meant some of the boxes on the floor under the table in that room have been emptied onto the bookshelves and other things have taken their place. (Sounds contradictory and counterproductive, but organizing clutter is a process, people!)

A work in progress. Still working on unpacking, sorting … and reading.

Nevertheless, we have given away a few dozen books in the past couple of years. I’ve donated several to our “church library,” which doesn’t really exist except for a small collection of books that I donated in the hopes of someday having a real church library. Our church here Batesville is a lot smaller than our church in North Little Rock, and I realize that when and if I decide to push for a “real church library,” I no doubt will be elected its first librarian. (Be careful what you wish for.) And we sent a bunch to a friend’s son who’s in the Peace Corps in Rwanda. He lives in a house with no electricity and has to read books with a headlamp. Does that make you more fully appreciate your books, your good lighting and your ability to read? I hope so. It does me.

But back to the electronic techno-gadget-thingie stuff.

Paring down our collection of physical books has been a good thing, spacewise, but now … I have discovered ebook readers! (Discovered is not so much the word as now have access to, on all my cool electronic devices.)

And what’s even better (or worse, depending on your perspective) is that you can obtain books with “1-Click” ordering, and many of these ebooks are FREE!

Did I mention that I love FREE?

And here’s where the ADD admission comes in: Just like with my physical stack of books and magazines on the nightstand, and on the floor by the bed (and in the tote bag I carry to work every day), I have a virtual stack of books that is beginning to pile up in my electronic cloud. (A cloud means you can access the same stuff from different devices by being signed in using the same username and password. It even remembers where you are in your book, magazine or newspaper so that when you’re on a road trip with your iPad, say, you can pick up where you left off reading on your laptop back home in your cozy chair. A virtual bookmark.)

But here’s the really embarrassing part: The reason there’s such a pile is that I start a book and don’t necessarily finish it right away. Right away meaning within the next couple of years. And then I pick up a different kind of book and don’t finish it, either.

Here’s an example, and why it can be so embarrassing: A friend and former colleague of mine from 20 years ago wrote a novel that has been quite well received. It has gotten some really, really good reviews. Right after (or maybe right before) it hit bookstores two years ago, I mentioned it to Bruce, who emailed my author friend and said he’d like to buy an autographed copy for me for our anniversary.

Well … my friend wouldn’t let Bruce pay for the book, promptly shipping us a copy along with a note saying it was good to reconnect after losing touch.

I emailed him to say thanks, and that since he wouldn’t let Bruce pay for the book, we donated $25 to Heifer International in his honor. And then we got to talking about the past few years.

Some history: He and I worked together at a newspaper in California. He was my supervisor, and I was the first babysitter of his first child. I really liked his wife, and in fact I still have a photo on my wall of her standing next to me, both of us smiling as I proudly hold their new baby girl. I house-sat for him and his wife for a week (someday I’ll tell you about having to crawl through their doggie door when the garage-door key wouldn’t work). I swam in their pool, loved on their pets and ate dinner with them once or twice. That was pretty much the extent of our socializing. (It’s hard to socialize with someone you work with when you’re both on the evening shift and have different nights off.) We were friends but not BFF’s, you know what I mean?

So when I moved away, and then he moved back to Seattle, we gradually became the kind of friends who only exchange Christmas cards, except that I am terrible at sending Christmas cards. It was kind of one-sided. I enjoyed seeing the kids age as the years passed, but it wasn’t enough to prompt me to get off my duff and actually send them a card.

One year I noticed that the Christmas cards were signed with only his and the kids’ names. No wife’s name. And since it’s not the sort of thing you write back about and say, “What, did you get divorced or something?” I simply wondered what had happened.

A few years later the cards stopped coming. Can’t say I blame him, I thought. I never send them a card.

So it was one of those wish we hadn’t lost touch kinds of things. Someone you really like and admire but no longer know much about.

And when we started emailing two years ago, my friend shared some of what had happened in the intervening years. Yes, they had split up. She moved away, and later was killed. To honor his privacy, and since I haven’t read all the book-publicity interviews to know how much he has shared publicly, I won’t say more than that.

But he told me that’s where the book came from. This experience of losing this woman he had loved, the mother of his children.

The book’s main character is a teenage boy who has lost his twin brother, so the circumstances are different, but you can still feel the pain and grief as my friend fictionalizes this horrific and life-altering thing that happened to his family.

The book is really, really good (except for the occasional foul language, which offends me on one level but remains true to the teenage character).

And two years later, I still have not finished reading it.

Yes, embarrassing.

But let me defend myself just a little. For the past four years, I’ve been in school at night while working full time during the day. Because of Bruce’s disease, I’m now the main breadwinner. I was trying to get a second degree because of my midlife career change, which happened out of necessity (it allowed us to move to Batesville, where the job opportunities are far fewer).

I was crazy half the time, trying to keep up with it all. This past spring, I decided not to return to school in the fall. I regret that I couldn’t finish what I started, but it was the right decision for my family.

And I’m just now catching up with my life. And my books.

In the spirit of decluttering our house, I was overjoyed to be able to start obtaining virtual books. I have a couple of snob friends – or really just one snob friend who has several snob Facebook friends – who wouldn’t be caught dead with an electronic book reader. They are old-school when it comes to books. They prefer to read them the old-fashioned way – on paper.

Too bad for them. There are so many advantages to ebooks. (Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the list today.)

And then, a few weeks ago, while I was jogging with a couple of friends, one of them mentioned a book she got from Inspired Reads, a service that offers free (did I mention I love free?) and very inexpensive books for your Kindle. Well, I was all over that. I found the website, signed up for the daily emails and began amassing my collection of books for Kindle. (Did you know you can download a free Kindle app and not have to purchase the actual Kindle device? So then you can download free Kindle books! I also have iBooks, but the Inspired Reads selections are for the Kindle.)

And the books you can download (free!) aren’t just stupid, crappy books that no one wants to read. There are some good, thoughtful reads out there. They’re “the best Christian Kindle Books on a Budget.”

In the Inspired Reads daily email, you first have to wade through the list of Christian fiction, most of which doesn’t really light my fire, but then you get to the non-fiction, which has some good titles. You should check it out. Most days I just skim the list and delete the email because, even though they’re free, I simply don’t need to download every single free book out there. When I said I had begun “amassing my collection,” I didn’t mean that quite as literally as it sounds. I’m building my electronic library slowly, trying to be selective while also taking advantage of some of the books I otherwise would pass up. Because they’re FREE.

And I know of another great way to get free books.

If you’re a blogger, check out BookSneeze, another site with Christian books. BookSneeze will send you a book (physical or electronic) just for agreeing to review it on your blog and post the review on a book-related website (such as Christianbook.com or Amazon.com). I’ve obtained several free books from BookSneeze, and most of them are really good. Book Sneeze doesn’t require you to write a positive review – just your honest opinion.

So … back to the ADD thing again. (See what I mean?) I start reading a book, life gets busy, I stop reading the book, and I pick up a different book and start reading that one. Then life gets busy and the cycle starts all over. I have several unread books, just waiting to be loved.

But I’m turning over a new leaf, so to speak. I’m not going to start reading any new ones until the previous pile is finished.

Notice I didn’t say I would stop obtaining new books, just reading new ones. After all, who can pass up a free ebook?

I should be finished with Adios Nirvana within the next week.

Or so.

What books are on your nightstand and piled next to the bed? What books do you need to finish before adding more to your stash? Tell me, tell me!

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Book review: ‘How Shall We Feed Them?’

I have been told by more than one person that I’m “very practical.” I take it as a compliment (although sometimes it’s not intended as such).

Being so practical, I was pleased to spend 90 minutes this evening reading Marty Girardier’s How Shall We Feed Them? A Practical Guide for Organizing a Food Pantry.

Not only did it touch the practical side of my brain, it spoke to my spirit.

Girardier, who reorganized her church’s food pantry before moving to a smaller church and partnering with the larger church’s pantry, has learned by experience and dedication what it takes to make a success out of feeding the hungry, the poor, the disabled, the unemployed and the down-and-out – one bag of groceries at a time.

She knows it takes a hands-on approach to the practical matters of stocking the pantry, distributing bags of food, organizing volunteers and the 101 other things involved in such an undertaking. But there’s another hands-on task we’re called to. It starts by realizing that we, the church body, are the hands and arms of Jesus in the world. We have been called to take a very hands-on approach to ministering to a person’s spirit as well as his stomach.

An effective and spirit-filled food pantry volunteer is not merely someone who fills a bag with canned goods and ramen noodles; it is someone who isn’t afraid to stop what he’s doing and ask the unemployed dad or the woman with crying babies if she can pray with them. It’s someone who not only prays with that desperate person on the spot but remembers to pray for him long after the brief encounter is over. We are Jesus to a hurting world. Jesus didn’t just fill stomachs with food – he served as the Bread of Life so that we would never hunger again, and Living Water so that we would never thirst. In fact, He’s still doing that – to us and through us.

But back to the “practical” stuff (as if Bread and Water aren’t the most practical things in the world!).

Girardier offers all kinds of tips on organizing and maintaining a food pantry. I was minimally involved years ago with the food pantry at my previous church, and I hadn’t heard of some of these great ideas – ones that take the ministry to another level of caring. They even caused me to come up with a few of my own ideas.

  • The ministry included encouraging cards in the bags of food that were prepared ahead of time. Sometimes the bags also included Christian magazines or other materials.
  • At holiday time, the Sunday school children made Christmas, Easter or Valentine’s cards to include in the bags.

Each chapter ends with a “Stop and Pray!” section, followed by a segment called “A Storehouse Blessing” – a story shared by someone who was blessed by receiving from and/or giving to the food pantry.

The back of the book includes checklists, forms, a sample reminder postcard and other aids to getting and staying organized.

Scripture and biblical principals are abundant in this book, thus the part that “spoke to my spirit.” My two main spiritual gifts are giving and serving, and it seems that Girardier may share those God-bestowed gifts. This book blesses the giving and serving parts of my brain, not to mention my heart.

“Organizing the food pantry, distributing food, collecting food, writing encouraging cards, and stocking the shelves are pieces of a bigger plan God will use to show His love to those in need. Meeting a food recipient’s physical need is just the first step to showing God’s love.”

It’s not the government’s job to feed the needy. That job belongs to the body of Christ. He calls us to feed His sheep. Let’s do it.

If your church is thinking about starting or revitalizing a food pantry, please get a copy of How Shall We Feed Them? You might even want to buy a copy for every member of your team. It is available from the publisher, Pleasant Word (a division of WinePress), for $8.75.

Girardier also has a blog called Pantry of Praise. Check it out. You’ll be blessed.

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Book review: ‘Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me’

I don’t know where to start.

I just finished reading Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir … of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron.

Maybe the jacket blurb from the archbishop of Canterbury (!) will help: “This is neither a simple memoir of hurt endured, nor a tidy story of reconciliation and resolution. It is – rather like Augustine’s Confessions – a testimony to the unfinished business of grace.”

Ian Cron grew up with an alcoholic father, a reality that shapes his life to this day. At age 16, he discovered the surreal truth that his father was a member of the CIA. When he wasn’t unemployed.

This is not a typical memoir.

Having grown up in a family of teetotalers, I can’t exactly relate to Cron’s harrowing, sometimes bizarre tales, but he has a way of telling the story that puts the reader in his shoes. Each sentence puts us closer to understanding – and feeling – his pain.

Ever since I began reading the book, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe his writing style. Understated hilarity. Reverently irreverent. Dry witted. Brutally honest, no doubt, but in a gentle way. (Can you be brutal and gentle in the same breath?)

Cron is Anne Lamott for the clean-mouthed crowd. No F-bombs, no I-hate-Republicans rants. Just honest – and real.

Cron finds grace in the simple yet profound truths of life and makes them, yes, hilarious in an understated way (maybe that’s the definition of a dry wit). At times I laughed out loud, many times I chuckled, sometimes I merely smiled.

“The music at St. Paul’s [Episcopal Church] won me over as well. I’d never been in a church where people sang with so much enthusiasm. Catholics don’t sing – we murmur, then look surprised if a melody emerges.”

The simple. And the profound:

“I can see the couch from the kitchen. I stop cutting parsley and remember that [my mother] taught me how to ride the Dragon Coaster and what to do when you’re flung into the mouth of whatever it is you think will kill you. Throw up your arms and laugh until you come out the other side. That lesson has saved my life once or twice.”

I’m no good at writing book reviews. I just know when I like a book, or when I love a book – this one, for example – and I enthusiastically tell my friends they should read it. Some books fit into a niche, useful for a particular segment of the population; this one doesn’t fit into a neat category. It is for everyone looking for grace.

Aren’t we all?

This review is part of my agreement with BookSneeze. The publisher sends me a free book, and I agree to post a review of it on my blog and one other online publication. No pressure is put on me to write a positive review – just an honest one. (Click here to learn how you can get in on this sweet deal.)

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Things I’m thankful for

These are things I’m thankful for this morning:

  • The glorious weather. I know it’s hot, but that’s why I like to do my workout (walk/jog) at sunrise; the weather is actually cool for about an hour, until the sun rises high over the houses. Today there were just enough wispy clouds to create a soft pastel scene just above the horizon for a few minutes. So peaceful. We’ve had no rain lately, either, meaning I have to remember to water my own tomatoes and herbs (small sacrifice), but that also means I don’t have to wear special gear to exercise outside. Another reason to be thankful.
  • City road crews. The dead ’possum I experienced yesterday morning on Hill Street was gone this morning. It was a fresh kill yesterday, so I’m really glad I won’t have to look at it every day for two weeks like we did the armadillo carcass. Not sure who picked it up, but I’m grateful to that person. For the record, any time the subject of “jobs I would never want to have” comes up, No. 1 on my list has always been “the person who cleans up road kill.”
  • New friends, Part 1. At the moment I’m thinking about my new running/walking friends. Since I joined the women’s running clinic in late February (and recruited Coach Bruce a few weeks into it), I have made some lifelong friends. The group is amazing in its enthusiasm and support of one another. Many of us had been couch potatoes for far too long, and we’re now spurring each other on in many ways. This particular group is a hybrid of the women’s clinic, the Run for God Bible study and the White River Road Runners group.
  • New friends, Part 2. Bruce and I have been Batesville residents for 13 months now, and we have felt so embraced by our community. We have friends at church, at work, through volunteering and because of family connections. There’s not enough space here to explain it all or to express our gratitude and sense of belonging.
  • Old friends. I’m thinking of Lynn in particular right now. It’s been so nice reconnecting with her over the past couple of years, and now we live closer to each other and are able to have face-to-face meetings every now and then. She has been an encouragement to me, as well as an encourager. We’re on similar journeys to physical fitness although our personal circumstances are quite different.
  • Family. We moved here because of family. I haven’t seen as much of my brother and his brood as much as I would like these past few months, but my mother and I talk nearly every day by phone or in person. We share rides to work sometimes (she lets us borrow her car when Bruce and I both need to drive somewhere), she feeds our dogs when we need to go out of town and she lets us come over and watch sports on her big-screen TV – very important things! We live less than a mile from my brother, J.T., and Mom’s house is a stone’s throw from his. We love being so close to them.
  • Good health. I have minor physical ailments, but they aren’t enough to keep me from continuing my fitness journey. I have finally embraced the idea of moving every day in a way that’s making my heart stronger, both physically and spiritually. I can’t say when I will breathe my last breath, and I try to remind myself to savor each day as it comes (some days that’s easier said than done, but I still try).
  • The little deck on the back of our house. Yesterday after my wog (our Run for God leader’s word for walk/jog), I took my Bible outside to the deck to read the first five Psalms (next in our through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan). It was perfect that Psalms fell on the day I was able to spend time outdoors, not worrying about the clock.
  • Trees and birds. You notice them more when you walk the streets early or sit on the deck in the morning. The birds’ songs are melodious and soothing.
  • Good books. I’m reading one right now that I’ll review for BookSneeze when I’m finished, but I would be telling you about it even if I didn’t have to. It’s called “Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me” by Ian Morgan Cron. More later.
  • Chocolate. No explanation needed.
  • The dogs. I’ve talked enough about them in the past, so I won’t bore you with that this morning, but I’m grateful for them every day. They make me laugh.
  • Bruce. He’s my sweetie pie. I love him for so many reasons – too many to express here and now. I’ll just tell him to his face.
  • My job.
  • Home. My favorite place.
  • God. He bestows so many blessings on my life. I will never find enough words to express my gratefulness.

Beautiful weather tends to make me sentimental, hence the spontaneous gratefulness post. I think it’s important to stop and count my blessings every now and then, though. It helps me slow down from the busyness of life and remember the Source of all that’s good.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

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Book review: ‘On This Day in Christian History’ by Robert J. Morgan

As some of you know, Bruce and I have been trying to sell our house in North Little Rock for nearly a year (May 8 is the anniversary of our “coming home” to Batesville). It has been a long wait, and we’re still waiting, hoping and praying.

If you knew me several years ago, you know I used to be pretty impatient. I like to think I have improved, with God’s help and a recognition of my problem. Still, when things like two mortgages, medical bills and a spouse living on disability income are a daily reality, I sometimes forget my “gift of the spirit” and get mighty impatient with God’s timing.

That’s why I’m thankful for the book On This Day in Christian History: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs, and Heroes by Robert J. Morgan.

Today I was reading this book at lunchtime in my car (my “quiet place”), and the entry about Paul – probably the greatest evangelist of all time – hit me hard. Paul talked a lot about patience and accepting and learning from the obstacles of life – and he certainly had his share of hardship. This particular story talks about his shipwreck on Malta on his way to Rome after a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea.

If anyone had cause to be impatient, it was Paul. His utmost goal was to proclaim “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). God blessed him for that, but man did everything in his power to stop him, delay him, discourage him, obstruct him and in all other ways try to keep him from proclaiming the Good News. Yet he persevered.

Paul has taught me a lot about patience. One of my favorite verses is Philippians 4:11: “… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” This line has stuck with me since I was in my 20s (or maybe even my teens), although I have not always acted accordingly.

Paul is an inspiration to me, and, as the book points out:

“It was not in due time – but in divine time – that Paul reached Rome. His nerves held steady in the storm. His spirit remained patient in delay.

“He knew how to wait on his God.”

On This Day in Christian History is full of such stories, although you may not have heard of many of the people featured, or at least know much about them. Most of them are not “Bible characters” but mere historical figures whose names were in many ways obscure. Some were martyrs, some not, but all were heroes of the faith.

If you need the courage to persevere amid trials, pick up this book and be inspired (or check the church library, where I plan to donate my copy).

This review is part of my agreement with BookSneeze. The publisher sends me a free book, and I agree to post a review of it on my blog and one other online publication. No pressure is put on me to write a positive review – just an honest one. (Click here to learn how you can get in on this sweet deal.)

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