May Reading 📖 Recommendations

May was a month of hits and misses with the books I read. Several of the novels I read disappointed, and the length of my historical nonfiction pick, didn’t leave time for many other options. Yet, the three I wrote about below were all fantastic reads in the month of May!

Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode by Aundi Kolber
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy

Aundi Kolber’s Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy is a breath of fresh of air, especially during a collective season of stress and uncertainty.

Kolber posits that a life of connection and joy can be found when we “approach life with more self-compassion,” just as Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that we may see ourselves as God does: “as someone with infinite value who was created to be loved.” When we live with that truth as our center, we are able to face challenges and own our own story, which in turn enables us to have more compassion and empathy for others.

Along with this theological backdrop, the foundation of the “try softer” approach is found in the science of neurobiology – exactly how God created humans: “when we understand the physiology of our bodies, we can be empowered to try softer with ourselves.” Kolber explains brain and body physiology in a way that brings a great deal of light to how our body handles, processes, and stores anxiety and trauma. She also explains attachment theory, boundaries, and emotional tolerances, all with helpful practices to move through the challenges we face in these areas.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in a more compassionate approach to life and our human bodies, rooted in Scripture and brain science. It is a gentle reminder that the way God created the human person and intended for us to be in relationships with one another, is a beautiful thing.

That’s not often the reality, as trauma and brokenness mar us, but there is a way of living that can lead us back into the place of belovedness.

“During our hardest, scariest times—whether our bodies feel stressed and jumpy or sluggish and slow—God is there to reassure us that we are not defined by our best days of our worst days. We are his beloved.”


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

I’ve enjoyed several of Eri kLarson’s books and this highly anticipated January release was no different. Larson brilliantly blends journal entries and letter correspondence with his historical account of the first year of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister of England during World War II, May 1940 – May 1941. This approach personalizes the central characters—historical figures who quite literally impacted world history, or orbited around those who did—which has the effect of making them more extraordinary and yet more accessible.

I came away from The Splendid and the Vile with a profound sense of admiration for Churchill and his leadership and courage during a dark time in Europe, and yet with a healthy sense of his humanity, such as his irritableness, penchant for fine cigars, and his quirk of wandering 10 Downing Street in just a dressing robe (or less, as told in a humorous anecdote of an encounter with President Roosevelt later in 1941!).

The book recounts the battles in the air between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, and the death and destruction that ensued. I’d been familiar with some of the stories of the London bombings, through literature and history lessons, but this book provided a stark look at the devastation the Nazis inflicted on London from the air, and the pervasive sense of fear they wrought.

“The persistence of the roads and the increasing destruction also had a darker effect. Wrote novelist Rose Macaulay, on Monday September 23: ‘I am getting a burying phobia, result of having seen so many houses and blocks of flats reduced to piles of ruins from which people can’t be extracted in time to live…Harold Nicolson had a similar fear, which he confided to his diary the next day. ‘What I dread,’ he wrote, is being buried under huge piles of masonry and hearing the water drip slowly, smelling the gas creeping towards me and hearing the faint cries of colleagues condemned to a slow and ungainly death.’ Many Londoners began complaining of gastrointestinal distress, a condition called ‘Siren Stomach.’”

The Splendid and the Vile helps one to understand what the constant threat of bombing, along with the imminent fear of invasion, did to the British psyche during World War II. It was a fearful time, and part of Churchill’s genius was his ability to empathize with the suffering—he himself was often at danger during the bombings—along with his oratorical gift to bolster the courage and perseverance through. Just one example of many is a February 1941 address: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither this sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.”

Of course the history of World War II is vast. The Splendid and the Vile provides a singular look at the Battle of Britain, the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air and a critical front in the war, as well as a personal portrait of one of the 20th century’s great leaders.

“In the end, London endured, albeit with grave injuries. Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured.”


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I was expecting more of a lighthearted read in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but what I found was a novel of much depth and insight into human relationships.

Eleanor, at first a seemingly typical albeit a bit eccentric millennial, lives alone and has little social interaction beyond her 9-5 job. Her friendship with Raymond, a “slovenly” colleague from IT, drives the story, as Eleanor slowly opens up to a world of social connection, and with that, the ability to face the past that haunts her and holds her back.

This ended up being a very timely book to read during the pandemic and quarantine, as we have all been suffering from social isolation. It illustrated how checking in on people we care about can quite literally be life-saving. This time has also revealed the plague of loneliness and the dreadful effects of trauma and lack of social connections. As Eleanor describes it:

These days, loneliness is the new cancer–-a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Yet Eleanor Oliphant provides hope, as Eleanor allows friendship to seep into her. “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”

I actually listened to this through Audible, which I found highly enjoyable. The reader was very talented in bringing life to Eleanor and all of the characters, and since the setting is Scotland, the accents were very entertaining! Overall, I’d throughly recommend this book!


Hold on to Hope

The weather is finally getting warmer in Maryland. That means I’m looking forward to getting back on the water with my dogs! The thought of more memories along the bay, fills me with great hope as we head towards summer.

Hope—with a capital H and with a lowercase h—is so important for the human soul; it gives us meaning, purpose, and the ability to press on. It’s something I’ve simultaneously wrestled with a great deal, and clung to as my life preserver during impossible days and seasons.

Hope gives us meaning, purpose, and the ability to press on.

I think it’s safe to say everyone has experienced some type of crushed hope or disappointment during COVID-19. How do we cope when hope is lost?

One important step is to realize that our hope can get so intertwined with our expectations for life, especially in the postmodern word where we’ve been conditioned to believe that we can control every aspect of our life.

When we release our expectations (albeit a very difficult process), we can have a more grounded experience of hope. I love how Victor Frankl puts this in his must-read first-hand account of his experience as a concentration-camp survivor, “Man’s Search for Meaning”:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.”

COVID has upended so much that we all are being forced to recalibrate our hopes for the summer and fall. I have personal challenges—as I am sure you do—that are also allowing me to refocus on how to change myself since I cannot change the circumstance. It means I just need to loosely hold on to the hopes that I have: my time on the water this summer may not look exactly the same as last year because of an injury, but I will be okay (not sure about the dogs though!).

Ultimately, as a follower of Christ, I always have my capital-H hope to cling to—promises from his Word that I believe and know to be true. Even if every earthly hope is dashed, God is with me, loves me, and will not abandon me.

Even if every earthly hope is dashed, God is with me, loves me, and will not abandon me.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;”
‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭4:7-9‬ ‭ESV‬‬


Back to Normal or Not?

Spring brings reminders that life continually moves along.

And while COVID is still a threat, society is s l o w l y beginning to reopen and move along.

There is much “talk” [sadly, often in the form of angry shouting matches on social media] of getting “back to normal.” When we mean mitigating the virus, and recovering from the disastrous economic and social consequences of the near-shutdown of society for two months, this is a noble and necessary goal.

In reality, this crisis has revealed a great deal of challenges that have been lurking beneath the surface—or have just been ignored in plain sight—for a long time.

—> From Time Magazine: COVID-19 Is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse

This has me thinking about a lot of things on both a personal, community, and public policy level. Of course, a balance for the practical and the idealistic is important! I’ve needed this reminder for myself – it’s okay to wish for the simple things in life pre-quarantine and at the same time desire social and economic change and justice. Both are valid!

Since coffee shops are where I do a lot of my work, and I love the simple pleasure of a latte, getting back to my favorite places is definitely at the top of the list for me!


Here are some of my reflections, hopes, and prayers for this strange season of life >>>

There are rumblings…things are changing
People are grumbling…society rearranging
I don’t want to get “back to normal”
What is normal?
What do we really want?

What have we learned?
What have I learned?
Will we waste the suffering
Or let it change us—change me?
Allow some good to come of the trials?

Will we let the busy life
Be the band aid to our pain underneath?
Or
Will we tend to the wounds
This time has revealed?

Will we tend to the wounds this time has revealed?

For me,
I say goodbye to stress
I want life without the hustle
I say yes to work with purpose
To life with boundaries and blessings

I want connection without the screen
I want community without the discord
I want purpose without the performance
I want a future, released of my grip of expectations,

Filled with God’s presence and plan

I want a future, released of my grip of expectations, filled with God’s presence and plan

Perhaps these desires—my own and to fill the holes in society—
Are a yearning for something more
A longing for a better life
The life we will one day live in glory
When all is made right

So let the longings flicker
May this trial fan the flame of change
I choose a new normal
I will walk—God willing—towards wholeness and health
For my soul—For my neighbors—For my world

I will walk—God willing—towards wholeness and health

I’m praying for all my friends, readers, neighbors, and well, all of us, in this together!


Happy Birthday, to my Favorite Botanical Garden

Today is the 200th “birthday” of the U.S. Botanical Garden!

As this blog can attest, nature and flowers are one of my favorite things in life. Whenever I’m traveling, I love to seek out beauty in the local botanical garden. I’ve visited some stunning ones—including two of the oldest in the world! (Pisa, Italy, #1 and Leiden, Netherlands, #7.)

The dream of a national botanic garden in America was shared and pursued by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. On May 8, 1820, James Madison signed into law a bill designating land adjacent to the U.S. Capitol to be developed into the United States Botanical Garden.

The U.S Botanic Garden has always been special to me. Living on Capitol Hill for seven years, this national treasure was quite literally my backyard. I could always seek out a few moments of inspiration and solitude here.

In celebration of this bicentennial birthday—during which the U.S Botanic Garden is sadly closed due to COVID—here are some of my favorite pictures over the years and seasons. Here’s hoping it reopens soon and many more Americans can enjoy its botanical wonders for another one hundred years.

Happy 200th birthday to the U.S. Botanic Garden!