I was at the hospital yesterday for a very minor medical procedure. My doctor was great and compassionate (after cycling through several not-so-great/helpful ones), and the nurses were too.
Even so, the procedure involved two very large needles and my lower back; not so fun, no matter how minor. It was relatively quick, thankfully, but did involve pain. About halfway through I regretted not taking the Xanax that was offered me, with all the anxiety stirred up!
Noticing my white knuckles gripped to my head rest, as I was laid out helplessly on the operating table, one of the nurses gently rubbed my shoulder and arm. It was soothing and calming; I swear I could hear the beeping of my heart rate monitor go down as her compassionate touch reassured me.
It was such a simple thing—probably even standard procedure for the nursing team there—yet it made such a difference in my experience during a stressful and painful moment. Compassionate concern. Empathetic human touch.
Compassionate concern. Empathetic human touch. These things make a difference.
There’s a lot going on these days—so much it can make your head spin. I worry about our country’s mental health as a whole and as individuals. I pray we can remember that we are all human. Every one is hurting, has burdens. The comfort from my nurse was a reminder to me to pay attention – sometimes (especially now) even a simple smile or kind word at the grocery store can be a counter-cultural act of love.
Even a simple smile or kind word at the grocery store can be a counter-cultural act of love.
We can also pay attention to ourselves and how to be kind and compassionate to our own body and mind (we forget that far too easily!). The little things we can do for ourselves to stay grounded make a difference too. (I wrote more on this in my review of Audi Kolber’s book Try Softer.)
Some of the little things that helped me through the stress and pain of my hospital visit:
• A pina colada slurpee (yes they exist). • A page-turning novel. • Snuggles from my pups. • A pink sky at sunset. • A favorite playlist.
May we pay attention to the needs of others and and ourselves. The little things that we do, with love and kindness, matter.
The little things that we do, with love and kindness, matter.
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!
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
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.
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
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.
How is it that a third of this year is already gone? 2020 has been one “for the books.” While its been very hard – for all of us – one thing I have enjoyed during this strange season is more time to read! My piles of books (and Kindle) are enjoying the extra attention, I think!
My goal is to make a monthly practice of sharing my three favorite books that I’ve read each month. Why? I enjoy writing about reading, I want to spread the joy of books with others, and I hope this will start a conversation and to get recommendations in return! Each month, I’ll choose a piece of fiction, a faith-based/theological work, and something from the category of psychology/sociology/history.
Without further ado, here are April’s picks!
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel lived up to all my expectations. It’s a hauntingly beautiful tale set in Europe during World War II that follows a young, blind, French girl named Marie-Laure who is evacuated with her father from Paris to Saint Malo along the French coast in June 1940. Her story is intertwined with a German orphan, Werner, who is sent to a special school because of his intellectual aptitude, and is ultimately drafted by the Nazi’s at age 16 for his electrical skills.
Doerr’s writing style is captivating and the reader can’t help but come to know and love the characters he has crafted. The vulnerable and sweet Marie-Laure. The eccentric, PTSD-suffering great-uncle Etienne. The maternal, precocious Jutta. And her brother, Werner, a sensitive, thoughtful boy, a dreamer, who “sees what other people don’t,” whose “soul glowed with some fundamental kindness,” caught up in a war he wants nothing to do with.
Of course this is a work of fiction, but one thing that struck me with this story, is thinking about all those caught up in World War II, or really any war, and the life-altering direction that ensues. Along with the death toll and the geopolitical consequences, there are the individual hopes and dreams dashed because of war. Once Marie-Laure and Werner meet in 1944 while Saint Malo is under siege, (sorry, no further spoilers beyond that!), Werner reflects on what life could be like were the war to go away:
“Could he, by some miracle, keep this going? Could they hide here until the war ends? … He would walk anywhere to make it happen, near anything; in a year or three years or ten, France and Germany would not mean what they meant now; they could leave the house and walk to a tourists’ restaurant and order a simple meal together and eat it in silence, the comfortable kind of silence lovers are supposed to share.”
But it’s not just the challenges of war that these characters face. Marie-Laure is born blind. During the siege and her rescue, Werner remarks on her bravery. She replies:
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
Whether it is war, a pandemic, or a personal trial, we are all thrust into circumstances that are beyond our control. Our lives take an irreversible direction, and all we can do is adapt; to choose to keep on fighting and living. It may not seem brave, as Marie-Laure demurs, but it is – moving forward in disappointment and suffering is a quiet courage. And we are all called to it one day, one way or another.
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
“What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us?”
This is the fundamental question posed by Tish Harrison Warren in her thought-provoking book, Liturgy of the Ordinary. She relates our every day practices, such as making the bed, losing our keys, answering email, drinking tea, and sleeping to the life-giving liturgical practices of the church. She challenges the reader to allow God to work in and redeem every moment, especially the ordinary ones.
I really liked her chapter on the Sabbath and the importance of rest, particularly sleeping. At a stressful time when good sleep practices are even more important, I was challenged by her reflections to give my sleep up to God as an act of obedience:
“We learn to rest by practice, by routine, over time. This is true of our bodies, our minds, and our souls, which are always intertwined. About one third of our lives are spent in sleep. Through these collective years of rest, God is at work in us and in the world, redeeming, healing, and giving grace. Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of our limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God.”
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
This was a well-researched and worthwhile read. Cain provides a wealth of research and social commentary, critiquing the way our society – particularly American culture – overvalues the “extrovert ideal” and how much of our educational and workplace settings are organized around extroversion; when 1/3 to 1/2 of the population are introverts.
I’ve long been aware of my own introversion, but Cain’s book gave new validity to my experience as a child, teenager, and adult. Furthermore, as an introvert, who can adapt into extroversion as needed, I found a lot of practical advice in this book – for both social life and work life. But her research was also very fascinating on the broader cultural implications for fostering flourishing for every person – no matter their temperament. I think it is a valuable read for extroverts as well, particularly if you are a leader, manager, teacher, or parent, to help understand the introverts you are shepherding.
My thoughts on Cain’s work in light of COVID and current events is the simple reflection that ALL humans NEED human connection. There are many broad brushstrokes that apply to the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, but each individual is also unique in what that looks like exactly. Understanding ourselves is key, and that can then help us reach a higher level of understanding of each other.
Her concluding chapter has some great insight, that’s geared towards introverts, but can apply to anyone:
“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers—of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity—to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply. Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it.”
Well, bravo if you made it here to the end! This went longer than anticipated but there was too much to say about these excellent books – hence them being my favorite reads in April!
If you have any feedback – or recommendations for May – drop a comment below! 👇🏽
As April begins, hard times loom ahead, after what has already been a difficult few weeks. I’m lamenting and grieving this reality with all of you.
The simple saying, “April showers bring May flowers,” has me longing for the storms to be over and for the fullness of life and spring to return!
The veneer of how much we thought we controlled our life is gone. It’s hard, I’m right there with you, friends.
And yet it’s an opportunity to open ourselves to something more. To release. To take one day at a time – after all, we are not promised tomorrow.
The Serenity Prayer came to mind this morning. May it be a peaceful and grounding meditation for all of us in this challenging month ahead.
The Serenity Prayer
God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world As it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right If I surrender to His Will; So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with Him Forever and ever in the next. Amen.
Today is my sister’s birthday! Since she lives thousands of miles away in the Netherlands, we will be doing a social distancing-style celebration over Zoom.
Two years ago, we traveled to Italy for her 30th birthday, hiking along the coast and towns of Cinque Terre. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been!
Being separated from a loved one during this COVID-19 global pandemic stirs a lot of emotions. I’m leaning in to both the grief and the gratitude.
I’m grateful for: • birthdays • family (especially my sister today!) • memories • technology to keep us connected • traveling
I’m grieving: • social distance and isolation • our global suffering – health crisis, economic devastation, cancelled hopes, plans, events, and travel
I’m also longing for restoration and beauty during this time. Hard times like these, I think, reveal that our hearts are hoping for something more – for light in the darkness.
I know I’m longing to hop on a plane, visit my sister, and travel somewhere beautiful! Until that’s a reality, I’ll sit with my feelings, think of the memories and enjoy the pictures – and I hope you enjoy these snapshots too!
A few weeks ago I wrote a reflection and poem on longing for spring – and since then the world has turned upside down!
While our reality and circumstances have changed – our hearts are the same. We all have a deep longing for hope and beauty.
Several years ago, in the midst of a personal trial, I wandered the famous tulip gardens in the Netherlands on a trip visiting my sister. The abundance of beauty grounded me, lifting my heart and spirit. It’s an experience that I still draw on for peace and inspiration. (And I hope the pictures bring my readers joy too!)
While flowers are gracious gifts, they only last a season. In 1 Peter 1:24, Scripture reminds that flowers are temporary – “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”
The beauty of nature, God’s creation, can provide hope, but our one true hope is the word of the Lord – God himself. His love and his presence are always with us. What a comfort that is during trying times!
Earlier in the first chapter of 1 Peter, Peter exhorts us to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” As spring begins during a national and global crisis, I pray that the beauty and regeneration of the season also ushers in a new season of love for our neighbor!
Enjoy these photos from the Keukenhoff, the Netherlands!
It’s not your typical St. Patrick’s Day. Life has changed practically overnight for all of us. It’s a strange and hard reality.
There is fear, uncertainty, disappointment. Along with resolve, hope, and determination.
When the entire world finds itself in a battle, we must do everything we can to be wise and support one another to fight the COVID-19 virus. (–> CDC Guidelines).
And yet, times like these reveal the uncertainty of life and our need for greater strength beyond ourselves, for a truth that transcends all understanding, and a hope that we are never alone.
Written in the 5th century, St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer is exactly what I need today in 2020, and I hope it speaks to your soul as well.
Praying this for all my fellow humans today! Be wise and look to the source of all Wisdom.
Excerpts from St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer
I arise today Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through belief in the Threeness, Through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation. I arise today Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism, Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial, Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension
• • •
I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me
I summon today All these powers between me and those evils, Against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and soul
• • •
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise.