August days (2016)

In the last two months since I’ve written, my husband and I found, bought, and moved into a new house. (Well, actually an old house; it was built in the 1930s!) So I’d like to blame my lack of writing on all that craziness. But I also spent several days back in Washington renewing old ties and saying goodbye to some places I may never see again. Here are a few other ways I have been spending my time this summer.

What I’m Reading

  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I somewhat begrudgingly checked this out from the library on audiobook (excellently read by Reese Witherspoon). There was so much hype and controversy when this book came out, and I just didn’t want to get into it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, but I didn’t read it until I was adult and didn’t have strong feelings about the original characters. But much to my surprise, I really enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. Maybe it connects with the outsider-looking-in sense I sometimes have living in the South. Most powerful though was the de-throning of Scout/Jean-Louise’s father, Atticus, as her God.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Another classic I somehow missed and well-worth the read. Gives a whole new, eerie urgency to the idea of too much screen time.
  • Hunting the Divine Fox by Robert Farrar Capon. I cannot remember when I have last enjoyed reading theology this much. Several times last night I interrupted my husband to read aloud a passage that made me laugh, or think differently about a truth I’ve “understood” for so long. This was the one book of his I could find in our library system, so once I finish I’ll probably snag his other books from Amazon. I don’t understand why he is not better known; he is probably the only other theologian whose writing approaches the common-sense clarity of C. S. Lewis.

What I’m Watching

  • The Olympics, and that’s pretty much it. I remember watching the 1996 Atlanta games in our apartment in Hawaii. Ever since then, the Summer Olympics are something I’ve looked forward to every four years, despite the strange opening ceremonies. Do I follow swimming or gymnastics any other time? No, but for some reason I’m staying up till 11 almost every night to watch these athletes. I blame it on Bob Costas.

Everything Else

  • I’m unpacking, trying to organize, and all the while getting WAY too distracted with our local Homewood Facebook group for community trading. (Think of it like a constantly updating, city-wide garage sale.) I’ve purchased a couple things for our new house from there, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to check new listings multiple times a day.
  • Maybe I’ve been spending so much time on Homewood Trading because I got used to constantly checking when we were looking for a house. Addicting, but unnecessary now. Here’s to better habits starting today!


The Radcliffe Camera

Today is my 28th birthday, and as a treat, I sat in bed this morning rereading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. Specifically, the chapters about his arrival at Oxford and years as an undergraduate studying philology. I have a slight infatuation with academia, even though in most such settings I feel like an imposter.

Example number one: As an English major at Grove City College, I put my hours in at the Henry Buhl library writing essays on Keats and Edwards. An encouraging word from a professor sent me into academic orbit: in many ways I lived for that A on an exam paper. But the more profound joy came when I and my fellow students gathered in the home of one of the professors. I remember being deeply impressed by a reproduction of “The Unicorn in Captivity” displayed in the English department Chair’s home. In these small gatherings I caught a glimpse of what C. S. Lewis describes as “the inner ring,” and soon I realized this inner ring existed back on campus, too.

I wasn’t what you would call an idealistic student. The love of learning for its own sake was, for me, often eclipsed by stress over the next assignment. I felt that there was something wrong with this state of affairs but wasn’t sure how to combat it. One of the reasons to study (or as the British would have it, “read”) English literature is to allow yourself to be shaped by the great thinkers and writers of the past. Perhaps that happened occasionally, but to be honest I think I was using these texts as grist for the mill of good grades. Put poetry in, papers and exams come out.

For the inner ring, though, I sensed things were different. Here were people who wouldn’t hesitate to forgo studying to stay up late reading plays and discussing philosophy. It was all terribly erudite and appealing. But I never quite fit, and for reasons that still aren’t clear. Lewis says,

As long as you are governed by that desire [to achieve the inner ring] you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.1

So I graduated with a few glimpses of this inner ring, but still convinced of my outsider status. Ironically, within a year I began studying in Oxford, perhaps the mecca for academic inner circles. But I was most definitely on the outside, almost comically so, for in every conversation I had to qualify, “I’m at Oxford Brookes University” (a.k.a. not the REAL Oxford). That year not-at-the-real-Oxford was in many ways the best year of my life; my status at an inferior university mattered very little. I’ll always remember being awed at The Bodleian Library’s munificence in granting us Brookes students the famed “Bod card” and access to the libraries, including The Radcliffe Camera (pictured above).

Oxford is an embarrassment of riches. There were so many events to attend, from student-union sponsored lectures to an exhibition of Tolkien artwork to a memorable debate between Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane. Most of the friends I made at both universities were graduate students, and not inclined toward snobbishness. I felt only the tiniest bit sad to be studying a modern and businesslike digital publishing course rather than immersing myself in original research or classical languages or historical archives. It was enough simply to be surrounded by people who were.

I chose to study at Oxford Brookes in part because of their one-year Master’s program. While many friends stayed on to pursue their studies or to work in England, I went home at the end of a year to find a job and live in the same country as my newly minted boyfriend (a “real Oxford” man). Soon academia was very far away; I felt in many ways my studies had reached their end point. I had reached the goal I’d had since I was 15: to work as an editor for a Christian publisher.

Five and a half years later, I work for the same company, although in a different division doing something that would have been antithetical to my English-major self: marketing! I’m learning every day, and grateful for an incredible boss and colleagues. For almost the first time, I’ve had the opportunity to write and publish as part of my job. “Inner rings” don’t really exist (or at least I haven’t found them yet), and I have a feeling they wouldn’t appeal to me anyway.

Every so often, though, I wonder about which academic subject I would take up if I had the opportunity. Not for the love of good grades or to be part of the inner ring, but for the love of the craft. Almost ten years after starting college, I think I finally understand which is most important.

May days (2016)

This month has slipped by in a flash, partly because we were on vacation for a week and a half in Orlando. Nevertheless, here’s a snapshot of where and how I’ve been spending my time.

What I’m reading

  • The Brothers Karamazov. The 2016 Reading Challenge includes “a book that intimidates you.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard literary-minded friends gush over it, but maybe for that very reason I steered clear. I’m about a third of the way finished and enjoying it more than I expected. It would definitely benefit from discussion in a classroom or book club, and once I’m done I’ll probably read some commentary because I know I’m missing a lot.
  • The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. I ran across this book in Anita Diamant’s Living a Jewish Life and it is truly excellent. One of my favorite memories from our Orlando trip is savoring this book early in the morning looking out over a lake. I recognize many of the themes from one of my favorite books, The Sacred Year.
  • Several magazines. I have been combing through various subscriptions to Birmingham, The Atlantic, Britain, and World magazine. Also last month I bought an issue of The English Home as a treat and have been flagging some decorating ideas from there. Maybe, someday, I’ll post pictures …

About town

  • The Homewood Library. One of the downsides of not working in an office is that I rarely leave home during the workday unless to run a brief errands. Every once in awhile I’ll head to a coffee shop, but my favorite place to work is the Homewood library. It reminds me of being back in college and pounding out papers in the Henry Buhl library stacks.
  • Beth Hallel. I had the privilege of visiting this Messianic congregation during their a Holocaust film series. We watched The Jewish Cardinal, the story of Jean-Marie Lustiger.
  • Orlando. We spent one day each at Epcot, Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom. Aside from the theme parks, we relaxed at the resort, read a lot of books, and enjoyed a powerful service at First Baptist Orlando as well as meeting up with friends for a day at Animal Kingdom. My favorite rides were Dragon Challenge (Islands of Adventure, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade), Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Magic Kingdom), and Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom). Other highlights were the World Showcase at Epcot, wandering around Diagon Alley, and staying at Magic Kingdom late for the Wishes fireworks show. We also loved visiting The Grand Polynesian Resort for dinner and wandering around their pool area—I felt like I was back in Hawaii.

Everything else

  • Next month we’re running a 10k, by far the longest race I’ve ever participated in, so I’m spending a lot of time running trying to get ready. What makes it bearable? Listening to soundtracks on my faithful iPod shuffle (it’s about 10 years old) and the virtual run through Germany thanks to the Homewood community center’s high-tech treadmills.
  • House hunting. We’re looking to move into our own place sometime in the next year. This is scary and exciting, and means I spend probably too much time on Zillow house browsing.
  • Doing battle with ants. Many ant traps and a visit from the excellent Remedy Pest Control later, we seem to be getting the upper hand. It could have been worse, but seeing a bunch of little black ants in my kitchen was not my favorite thing this month.

Home (x 3)

I have been thinking a lot about home lately. More specifically, wondering where home is. As I am fond of sharing, in the last ten years I have lived in every time zone in the USA (except those covering Alaska and Hawaii).

Perhaps most of us have more than one place we call home. I think of three places.


Where I live now

In most senses of the term, the Birmingham suburb of Homewood is my home. (Over 1.25 million people live in the Birmingham metro area and about 25,000 live in Homewood. I include that here so maybe I’ll remember next time someone asks me.)

While I have lived in Birmingham for two years now, it’s still becoming home. Often you hear the phrase “putting down roots” describing the choice to live in a certain area. Well, my roots in Birmingham are young and relatively fragile. But it’s still home—the place I spend most of my time and where we have a growing community centered around friends, church, and the neighborhood.


Where I’m from

I was born in Washington State, and it’s still the place I’ve lived more than anywhere else. It’s where my parents lived until dad died last year, and my mom lives there still. (The picture above shows Lake Tapps, very near our house.) Most of my family on both sides live there. It’s where lifelong friendships grew and some of my most poignant memories live. It’s the place I came home to on college breaks, and it’s where my dad wanted his ashes scattered. If anyone asks me where I’m from, it’s what I say. And I think it’s what I’ll always say, even if I never live there again.

That’s what makes it home.


Where my heart lives

You know how Christians sometimes ask, “What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming back next week?” Or maybe, “What would you do if you had one month left to live?” The implication is that you would call up someone you’ve needed to forgive, remind your friends and family how much you love them, maybe share the Gospel with new boldness.

Well, yesterday I asked myself a different question. If I knew eternity was at hand, what place on earth would I most want to see again, before everything is changed? The answer came easily: Oxford.

I titled this section Where my heart lives, but that doesn’t quite capture it. My heart is in Washington and Birmingham, too. So why is Oxford the place I want to go “at the end of all things,” as Frodo would say? It’s because Oxford is more than a place to me, more than the sum of the memories I made there. For me, Oxford a window, a chink in the door, a thin place, “where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin.”1

It’s where my soul lives.

The 6 best books I read in 2015

Of the sixty-five books I read last year, only nine of them earned a five-star rating from me on Goodreads. Three of those were rereads (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien, plus That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. In this post, I’ll share the remaining six.


The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch

In many ways this book is not my type at all. It’s full of irresponsible, destructive behavior and relationships. I loved it so much because of its setting: the city of Oxford. Like me, the main character was an American student coming of age while studying in England. Charles Finch beautifully captures the magic of Oxford below:

“Venerable and serene, how its gardens spread themselves under the moonlight, home to forsaken beliefs and impossible loyalties, the city itself a mystery and a charm: whispering, from her towers, the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.”


Glittering Images by Susan Howatch

Reading this book marked a spiritual epiphany for me, the details of which are not right to share here. Profoundly moving, this story of an Episcopal priest who must face the truth of who he is rather than the “glittering image” he presents to the world, was very formative during the first year of my marriage.


Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend 

I wanted to dismiss this book as pop Christian psychology, but it won me over. The most helpful concept was that setting boundaries is a form of stewardship, defining who you can control (yourself) and who you can’t (everyone else). Boundaries define your realm of responsibility and enable you to release what falls outside.


Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

This book goes hand-in-hand with another favorite of mine, The Nesting Place by Myquillen Smith. (In fact, the two of them together would make a great wedding or bridal shower present.) While I’m no foodie, I’m deeply drawn to the kind of community and rich conversations that Shauna describes here. Don’t mistake Bread and Wine for a cookbook; while there are recipes, it’s much more about rediscovering the sacramental nature of the table.


The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle 

In some ways this is the hardest book to review here—it feels like sharing a secret. With such a title, you would think this is a Christian book about how to be a submissive, Proverbs 31 wife. Well, it’s not. It’s not even Christian. Was the effect of reading this book a more peaceful, relaxed marriage? Absolutely yes!


Planet Narnia by Michael Ward

I’ve heard the author, Michael Ward, speak several times (most memorably at C. S. Lewis’s home in Headington, near Oxford.) That was impressive enough, but Planet Narnia exceeded my expectations. This is a must-read for anyone who loves Narnia, though be forewarned: it may make you want to reread everything Lewis has written or run away to England to become an academic. Or both.

5 of my places in Birmingham

Next month I will have lived in Birmingham for two years. This weekend a dear friend is visiting from out of town, so I’ve been thinking about the places I want to share with her. It seemed like a good time to reflect on the parts of my new city that are beginning to feel like home.

My move to Birmingham in 2014 wasn’t the first time I’d been here; I visited frequently when my husband and I were still dating and his family lived here. We visited the zoo, had dinner at The Summit, and spent what seemed like hours on Highway 280. In fact, the 280 corridor was where I felt most comfortable, and when we got married we moved to an apartment there. After a year, we moved closer to downtown in a walkable area called Homewood. This location makes it easier to explore what the city has to offer.

I am hoping to keep this list updated, but here are the first five.

One of the first local coffee shops I visited. It’s almost always packed, but I like it primarily for its location in the middle of charming downtown Homewood. My husband and I have spent many hours there (separately and together)  writing, reading, and talking.

The Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Free to enter, the gardens are one of the most tranquil places you’ll find in the city. The gardens were one of the first places I explored on my own just shortly before my dad passed away. I feel a special link to them for that reason.

The Civil Rights Museum
I am not normally a museum person, but this one is truly powerful. I would put it at the top of a “must-see” list for anyone visiting or living in Birmingham.

My husband and I discovered this pub-like pizza place on our way back from a brief getaway to Chattanooga. Since then, it’s felt like our very own piece of Birmingham. (Nevermind that it’s one of the most popular restaurants in the area.)

I love Homewood’s ever-winding streets; I always seem to discover a new road or a lovely house I haven’t seen before. Walking through Rosedale, part of Homewood to the north of Central Park, it’s easy to think I’m back in England. Maybe it’s the cottages—or the church bells.

In Defense of Photo Albums

I don’t know of anyone actually attacking photo albums, so the title of this post may be a bit dramatic. But if Target’s tiny selection of physical photo albums is any indication, we’ve moved on to better and brighter things.

Like any newlywed, I waited eagerly to see our wedding photos, and then spent hours organizing them into the modern scrapbook of sorts: a Mixbook compiled from digital photos and then printed and bound, our very own coffee table book. These Mixbooks made great Christmas gifts for our parents, and we have our own that I pull out every few months. Shortly after finishing our wedding album, I resolved to create a Mixbook for each year of marriage. Did this happen? It did not.

Mixbooks simply take too long: choosing the perfect theme, tweaking photo positions and backgrounds, adding quotes and commentaries on each page … not something that slips very easily into my daily routines. And to be quite honest, not much in daily life seems to need “the Mixbook treatment.” Digital scrapbooks are great for telling a story; my husband made a beautiful Mixbook chronicling our honeymoon trip to the UK. Events like trips and weddings have a beginning and end, and they lend themselves to a highly-designed book format.

But what happens to all those other photos we snap throughout the year? I am not content for them to remain cloistered in my smartphone. As I child I enjoyed looking through my parents’ photo albums from before they even met each other. I loved seeing pictures of their early married life too—from a new townhouse to the new kitten I would meet years later. Sometimes there were Polaroid snapshots with a brief note on the bottom, but most of the time there were just prints slid into plastic sleeves. Occasionally I looked through these pictures with my parents, but most of the time I was on my own. I’d slide the albums back onto the shelf when I was finished and go back to the life that revolved around me. But those albums silently reminded me not only of my family history, but that my parents enjoyed life and each other even before I arrived.

I don’t want to hand our kids a smartphone one day and say, “Here, look through these pictures.” I want us to have albums on shelves. Most of them won’t be beautifully designed Mixbooks, though some will. Thanks to Target I now have two photo books with plastic sleeves to hold regular old 4×6 prints. I like these albums because they are forgiving: all I have to do is actually get some photos printed now and again. And that means I need to pay attention to what I want to remember.