Thankful Thursday – Road Trippin’ the American West

The longest road trip I remember from childhood took me to Disneyland, which seemed So Far Away, though now I have to admit that the hour-and-a-half drive from San Diego to Anaheim doesn’t truly count.

Guy’s family did real road trips: six weeks coast-to-coast in a Volkswagen Vanagon, a different route each way, every summer.

Our family has been road trippin’ since Guy and I honeymooned, driving from the Washington-Canada border to California’s central coast. We set a precedent on that trip, and most every vacation since has involved a drive (or many) of some length.

So. The Big Kid needed to get to college. With All the Stuff. And we wanted every member of our family of four to participate. Of course we drove.

We made a quick trip out, two days, because Kid needed to just get there. On the way back, we made it a vacation for Lil Bro. We made at least one fun/view stop each day, arriving home with barely enough time to pick up our farmed-out pets, do laundry, and regroup for the start of school.

The first few hours of our trip were beautiful, familiar NorCal roads. Guy and I talked. Kids wore headphones and stared at screens. Once we pulled out of Tahoe/Truckee, I realized we were in unfamiliar territory.

Before we left home, I’d done some reading. Years ago we visited Donner Memorial State Park so our kids knew that story. Our route east took us through historic landscapes, like the 40 Mile Desert, a portion of the Emigrant Trail which saw heavy traffic from 1848-1869. I read the linked article aloud as we drove, a humbling reality as we looked out our windows to the parched landscape.

What surprised me was the beauty. I hear the smack of “boring,” “desolate,” “lonely,” “bleak,” but I appreciated the changes in color and texture. I am so intrigued by the unheard stories of those who live here and there, by circumstance or choice.

Spontaneously, I began taking pictures. Hightailing it down the highway, through my spotty passenger window, click click click. The view, to me, seemed continually remarkable.

The view mesmerized me.

I know, taken via iPhone at speed through a dirty window, that these won’t be great pictures. But they help me remember how much I like road trips, and our country.

The Good Ol’ US of A may be a friggin’ hot mess. But I saw beauty as we drove, and kindness in the smiles and small talk of strangers. Beauty inspires hope. As a people, we are as diverse as our landscape. Others may see us–ahem, we may see each other–as “boring,” “desolate,” “lonely,” “bleak,” [insert your adjective here…]. But we are so much more than labels.

Fallon, NV

Lovelock, NV

Coalville, UT

Fort Bridger, WY

Hannah, WY

Idaho Springs, CO

Rangely, UT – and yes, the “highway” became a dirt road!

Talmadge, UT

Wendover, UT – The Bonneville Salt Flats/Speedway. Snapped as the minivan hit 100mph!

Truckee, CA

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Not Alone

I have been to the post office three times in eight days. Four, if you count the trip I made to pick up boxes, which made for two trips in one day. I set a personal record.

So what? you ask.

What seems a normal act of adulting is An Event for me. You have no idea how bad I am at mailing things! We‘ve lived in our small NorCal town for eleven years and I’ve been to the PO, hmm, three times? (Yes, Guy is a rock star, actually, for putting up with me and handling All the Details). Unless we pay a fortune in postage–which we do, annually–only our hand-delivered Christmas gifts arrive on time. I’m bad at erranding in general, and mailing in particular.

So why this sudden run on the USPS? I sent a kid to college!

And he’s sososo homesick! He called after his first class ready to come home. Not that the class was hard (it wasn’t) but, after a weekend of trying to get to know as many people as humanly possible, he realized that the one person he wanted to spend time with–his roommate–had no time for him.

Roommate’s girlfriend also came to college (that would have been nice to know in advance), and they only have time for each other.

I bet my kid could overlook the sloppy mess invading his space if Roommate’s kindness also overflowed boundaries. But no. And he’s not sleeping because he doesn’t want to make things worse by asking that Girlfriend leave their room after midnight.

Easy enough to say, “He’ll get through it,” or “Transitions are so hard,” or “Everyone feels like that at first.” Yes, he can do hard things and we believe he can get through it. This is the biggest transition of his life and my drama boy takes it so hard. And no, not everyone feels this but yes, most will at some point.

The adults in his life have endured transitions. We all know he can do it. But he’s in it, and that makes his experience real-er than ours for the moment. Don’t you remember? The drive-thru car wash (mundane adulting) = dark, loud, and scary!

And the stakes are higher than ever. This was his #1 college choice. We believe this school is a perfect fit for him–in The Wizard of Oz “…if ever there was there was there was [because the college because because] sort of fit–overflowing with Emerald City potential for great opportunities! And he is not sure he’s going to make it. Because of a stupid roommate.

We sleep-trained Teen as an infant. Guy would throw his arm across me to prevent me from running to my crying baby, until the baby sobs tore through his own resolve, at which point he’d strap Baby-Teen into his car seat and drive around until the kiddo fell asleep. This made no sense to me (although I trusted him entirely and sank deeply into quiet/sleep!) because as soon as he took Baby out of Car Seat, Baby woke up and resumed crying.

Parents are crazy that way.

I feel like we’re at it again. Teen needs to learn to do this for himself, to self-soothe in whole new (and hopefully, healthy!) ways. And we’re learning new crazy.

Throughout his adolescence, we fought about Snapchat. He downloaded it–and I demanded deletion–every few months. During drop-off weekend, Teen asked his brother to create a Snapchat account for the cat, and to Snapchat him every day (he *loves* his cat). Since my phone is better, Snapchat resides on my phone…and I find myself Snapchatting my kid. Often. When I asked for a “1st day of school picture” he replied: “Absolutely not!” But he snaps pictures to “his cat” every day…

To add to the crazy parenting moves, I commented in the college-specific parents’ Facebook group that my kiddo is lonely. Other moms with freshman sons in the same major sent me pictures of their kids so I could send them to my kid; I did the same. OMG: I am setting up ‘play dates’ for my college kid (DS, Darling Son, to use the lingo)! He hasn’t mentioned if it’s helped. [I hope it is helping… Life is all about connections, right?]

I’m happy for these parents that their kids are getting to know one another, hanging out and making plans for Labor Day Weekend. Meanwhile, Teen will be alone in his dorm since Roommate and Girlfriend are going on a couples-only camping trip.

He will be fine. He will be fine. He will be fine…

So I send care packages. I didn’t take my own college transition nearly so hard (freshman roommates as they are, I investigated leaving, but couldn’t stomach another round of college apps), but I still remember my mom’s signature care package ingredients.

And I encourage my kid: what he knows (he chose this school for so many good reasons) and what he feels (I can’t do this) are in competition. He lets his heart lead most of the time; he needs to keep his head this time.

I encourage myself: he is strong, and he can do this. He feels alone, but he is not. I feel alone, but I am not. I rejoice with others, and they hang in there with us.

We are not alone, even when we feel it.

[P.S. As I wrote this, he texted: “Going to dinner with the boys.” No idea who “the boys” are, but hope. Always hope!]

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Sunday Sweets – Debbie’s Ginger Snaps

I don’t anticipate that Sunday Sweets will become a regular thing. However, I thought–could not believe it wasn’t–that our family’s all-time favorite cookie recipe was on the blog… And I was Wrong!

Many years ago, a church friend discovered that Teen enjoyed Kitchen Time. Mostly because he was food-motivated, which propelled him to find his way around to satisfy his occasionally odd teenage cravings. I think what happened (so long ago I don’t accurately remember the sequence of events…) is that she made the kiddo some cookies. He loved them, raved about them, ate most of them without sharing. So she shared the recipe, and they became his signature cookie.

They’re hers through and through, but I’m not sure we’ve made another cookie in this house since. Tween loves most things his brother likes, so brought these as his class birthday treat all through elementary school. Both kids have made them every year for their Scout summer camp (and most years the kids don’t get them because the adults eat them first!). And now Teen and Nephew will receive them in college care packages.

Nephew’s box prompted this post, actually. We didn’t have just the right box to mail the water bottle he left at our house and the cookies, so we went to the post office with both in hand. Business was slow and two friendly postal workers offered to help find the best box for the best rate. The cookies were in a Ziplock bag and one of the gals commented that they looked so good they were making her hungry.

So here you go, kind postal worker, and all who enjoy a hearty, spicy, crunch of a cookie.

Debbie’s Ginger Snaps
Makes 3-4 dozen

3/4 c butter-flavored shortening
1 c sugar
1/4 c molasses (unsulphured–I use Grandma’s brand–not blackstrap)
1 beaten egg
2 c flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 t each cinnamon, cloves, and ginger
1/4 t salt
granulated sugar for rolling

In a stand mixer, cream shortening and sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Roll into walnut-sized balls and coat lightly with sugar. Please on ungreased cookie sheet space 3-inches apart. Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes. Cool on pan 2-3 minutes, then remove and cool on paper bags.

P.S. At church this morning, I introduced myself to someone who already knew me. She reminded me that, one morning this last year, she had been sitting in front of me at a women’s program; she struggled to get her sweater on, and I gently reached forward to help her with it. She had said to herself, “Who is this kind woman?” and I suppose asked around to find out.

Such a quick moment, such an easy act, but apparently it was meaningful to her then and meaningful to me today.

Kindness is easy, friends. Let’s all spread a little more Sunday sweetness, through cookies or other simple and generous acts.

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Create in Me

When I chose the word “recreate” to guide this year, I anticipated it would lead to play, fun, and new expressions of creativity. Instead, I have (re)discovered that to recreate often means ripping things apart, hacking pieces off, grafting in something else, and making a mess, in order to make something new. It can feel more painful than playful. No surprise that my like-minded friend Kelly has been ruminating on that same truth…

re:create recess #16: Kelly Bermudez-Deutsch

I’ve thought a lot about the word re-create as we moved into our new home this summer. I’m still shocked that we were able to buy a home in Northern California. If you’re from this neck of the woods, you know what I mean. And I am beyond thankful. It feels like a miracle, and I am inclined to think that it is. It’s an answered prayer. What felt impossible—like God making a way through parted waters—has happened.

That said, moving into our new home has reminded me that the process of recreating creates other things, too. Things I don’t automatically welcome into my life without some degree of hesitation or outright opposition.

Recreating invites change. It creates disorganization in some spaces and more organization in others. It allows you to re-envision your possessions. Sometimes it makes old things new. Often it means letting go. Recreation creates a mess. Recreating my home helped me recognize that the process of re-creation in any area of life doesn’t come without some measure of loss, chaos, frustration and stress. Negative emotions may be part of the process.

When I first gave my life to Jesus, I was seventeen years old. Full of youthful optimism and ready to help God “change the world,” I went on the mission field to know God more and tell others about Him. During that season, God did amazing things. I experienced euphoric moments when my heart felt so full that Christ’s love oozed onto others. There were also unexpected, confusing, and hard moments.

As a new Christian, I honestly felt like I wanted to scratch out parts of the Bible. I don’t mean that to sound sacrilegious. It’s just that the Bible has some hard things to say about “forgiving others,” “not seeking vengeance,” and going through difficult situations with “pure joy and a thankful heart.” These Scriptures befuddled me. I couldn’t grasp this idea that joy could be found in something I experienced as disappointing, or worse, heartbreaking.

I figured some parts must have been inaccurately translated from Hebrew to Greek. God couldn’t really want us to “rejoice when others persecute us” or “turn the other cheek,” to take more abuse from someone unkind. What God asked me to do in hurtful and difficult situations seemed counterintuitive. There had to be a mistake.

But the more I studied the Scriptures—exploring the cultural context in which they were written and what Greek and Hebrew words originally meant—I realized there was no misprint or misinterpretation of language. God didn’t only tell us what to do; through Christ He showed us how to live in our messy world, too.

I know many Christians feel overjoyed by understanding how God demonstrated His incredible love. That they have a tangible example of what God looks like in human flesh. And truly, it is extraordinary. But honestly, I didn’t share their excitement. Deep down, I knew what that meant…

I’m a pretty self-aware person. I know my heart and the depth of self-centeredness that lives there. Some people seem to be naturally less selfish and more servant-hearted than I am. But if I’m behaving sacrificially in any way, I definitely want something. If I don’t get enough attention or praise for what I deem to be a sacrificial act on my part, I get upset that others didn’t notice or appreciate it. I may not even be aware of what I’m after, but I know myself.

That’s why the way of Christ seemed so disheartening to me: I knew I couldn’t live it. Maybe for a little while every day, maybe on Sunday mornings or in Bible study, but not in the nitty gritty of everyday life. Not when people are downright mean. Not when I perceive injustice. Not when I feel like family, friends, or co-workers are pooping all over me. No way. It’s just not the way I’m made.

That’s how I knew God was going to have to remake me. Recreate my heart. Change the fiber of my being from the inside out. I didn’t need a make-over. I needed to become a new creation.

It’s a humbling and liberating thing to know that you cannot please God in your own strength. His power in you transforms you and makes you new. I’m so grateful that “He died for all so that all who live—having received eternal life from him—might live no longer for themselves, to please themselves, but to spend their lives pleasing Christ who died and rose again for them. When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:15,17)

I write this to encourage you. Until this summer, I had forgotten that re-creation creates other things as well. Frustration. Upheaval. Unintended messes. Unanticipated change. As much as you can, try to give thanks when something in your life feels upside-down, sideways, or discombobulated. Remember that God has made you into a new creation and that creation invites change.

If you’re anything like me, part of you will be deeply uncomfortable with that. Take comfort from Romans 8:27-28: “He knows us far better than we know ourselves… That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good” (Romans 8:27-28, MSG). If we keep that in mind, we actually can do what God says and it won’t seem crazy. “Is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. So let it grow, and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete” (James 1:2-4, TLB).

Kelly Bermudez-Deutsch lives in Northern California with her sexy husband, three beautifully quirky kids, a dog named Lucy and a cat named Jack. She loves spending time with her family, good friends and good books. She hopes that one day her home will be organized and tidy, but until then finds joy in the messiness of life and love.

Thankful Thursday – Gentleness

I slapped off my alarm Monday morning, the one I set so I could have coffee before yoga. Eh, maybe the later class.

I missed the later class. Eh, I’ll go to the gym.

I had no energy for the gym. Not even for a run around the neighborhood.

So I used the dog as an excuse and took her for a slow and ambling walk around the block.

Thoughts spinning in no discernible direction, I felt crazy. One week, exactly one week, and I will not have time to slap off the alarm. I’ll hop out of bed, wake the kids, take a quick shower, and rush everyone out the door into a fully loaded out-of-state-college-bound car.

Walking helped. Just some gentle movement and I felt my mind and body reconnecting in synch. As if body and mind had had an argument, followed by a long wrestling match, and an eventual compromising decision—without bothering to tell me—that this week I need to go slow, to be gentle with myself.

This week, I’m rejecting all the shoulds. I’m eating healthy when it also sounds good, and what sounds good even if it’s not the healthiest choice. I’m sleeping when I want to sleep, reading what entertains, saying no as necessary.

I’d like to be more productive than I have been, but bare minimum feels like what I’m capable of for now. I’m sure I have more and other things to do; I can’t for my life think what they are. [I’ve been waking regularly from stress dreams: former employers have left me binders of task lists that I should have memorized (but don’t), scattered over a large and crowded room. I have to find and integrate the lists in some comprehensible form to know how to proceed…]

I turn on the computer and get lost down the social media rabbit holes because I can’t recall why I turned on the computer. Maybe habit. Or that most of my work lives on my computer. Either way.

Teen seems to have settled into acceptance that he is leaving, and soon. He is slowly finishing up his details, slow being better than the complete denial he devoted himself to so far this summer. Mainly, he’s spending every minute with friends. That’s good, too.

Tween must be growing for the number of hours he spends in bed. I could wake him, but considering next week we will drive states away to drop off his brother and return the night before he starts school, why? He should rest, and when he wakes, he should play—the point of summer when you’re thirteen years old.

A college professor once told me that her creative husband could only tackle one creative activity at a time. When he wrote or edited, he couldn’t paint. When he painted, he traded dabbling in words for dabbling in color. His creativity faucet could only handle one temperature at a time. His total being became engaged in one form of creation.

And I think that’s the key: this week is a creative transition in our lives. Teen is on to a new and exciting phase of life. We are so over-the-top excited for him. But it means a transition for all of us. We are recreating the reality of our family: who we are together and separately.

I need to stop fighting, trying to force myself to do something else, and instead gently go with the flow of this new creation. Like transition in childbirth: for now, it is all about this baby…

The rest—productivity in working and writing, yoga, healthy eating, the (for me) ever-illusive organized home, all the things—will be waiting on the other side.

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All of the Above

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say “I’m not creative” just in the last eighteen months. I disagree. We are all creative, as humans created in the image of a creative God. We’ve misunderstood creativity. We’ve unlearned the creativity so natural to children. We’ve allowed the critical voices to occupy space in our heads and censor us. Honest: I often feel like I’m not creative, or not creative enough, especially when I look at others who engage in creativity different from my own. So I need, as we all do, regular bursts of encouragement from creatives like my friend Nancy.

re:create recess #15: Nancy Ingersoll

reCREATE. Creating over and over again, or having fun (as in recreational). Why not both? Yeah, I choose all of the above.

After all, I choose more than one discipline for my job. I have so many job titles that a friend helped me narrow it down to a single overarching title. So, I am a full-service creative resource. That title covers all of it. Part-time graphic designer for marketing collateral, part-time high school teacher (photography & yearbook), and part-time artist (even that is diverse since artist includes photography, hand lettering, and graphic design). Notice the common thread there? All of them have me creating or fostering creativity in others.

Additionally, I consider myself a life-long learner. I occasionally attend workshops, periodically enroll in online classes, and dabble in a constant battle of self-taught topics. In each, I’m almost always creating something, but rarely duplicating my efforts. Cooking, painting, hand lettering, a myriad of computer/digital based topics, and a few randoms that still fit into the creating category (like the time I attended a tiling workshop and had the carpet ripped out and a tile entry in our house laid before my husband was home from work).

I was hired to teach photography at a a three-day workshop this summer, which makes sense since I teach Advanced Placement Photography at the high school level. As part of the gig, each of the five instructors were asked to come up with a secondary topic for a mini-session on the last day of the workshop to provide a breadth of instruction for each of the attendees. My pick was typography. You see, I know from preparing to teach other things (from the second grade Bible class to each of the ten subjects I have taught in high schools), that the teacher gains just as much from the research and lesson plans.

I have adored typography for ages. It was one of the few college textbooks I did not sell back when the class was over. In addition to creating graphic designs for marketing purposes, my role as Yearbook Advisor has had me examining fonts annually to pick a new mix that works well together, provides personality, and maintains content readability. Creating does not have to be the act of inventing. Creating includes curating and arranging.

While most of my creating involves some visual product, there are a gazillion forms of creating: from writing to playing an instrument, from gardening to cooking, from flower arranging to fashion stylist, and so on. All of which need ideas to feed them.

I am not a real writer, like a few of my friends who have top-selling books or regularly published blogs, I am an idea girl. I tend to give away half of these ideas to students who are stumped or to marketing clients who want to execute something new. Okay, not all of my ideas are given away for free, these are parts of my job. But I also occasionally share some of my ideas, on my totally irregular, sporadic and un-calendared blog.  And of course, I keep a few ideas for myself to create artwork that ends up in my online shop (which has shipped to thirteen different countries, last count).

For a long time, I have integrated my faith into some of my art. But, for fear of what others thought, I kept those pieces to myself. In March 2015, I gained the courage to post some of it on social media. I kept those to small doses, buried between other ‘regular’ posts. Exactly two years later, I participated in a faith-based hand lettering challenge which had me posting a verse everyday for a month. I realized that my faith-based art received a favorable response and I was able to let go of the fear and embrace the fact that my hand lettered Bible verses can inspire others and serve as a means of conversation starters. By conversation starter, I mean that it can open the door to share the Gospel because it is a sign for those with questions that you are a believer, or it can be a reminder to stop and reflect on the message and pray about it. Prayer is also a conversation—a conversation with God.

So the point of me sharing all of this is that everyone can create because creating comes in many forms, and you should never hold back.

 

Photo credit: Christy McCarter Photography, http://christymccarter.com/

Nancy is a California native with an affinity for typography. Professionally, she is both a teacher and a practicing artist. She teaches a high school Advanced Placement Photography class, hence the instagram name, and does freelance design work in addition to creating her own artwork, most of which recently have been hand lettered faith-based pieces. She and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area; they have launched two kids through the UC system, one recent graduate and one still in school.

 

 

 

 

instagram | @thephotocottage https://www.instagram.com/thephotocottage/
website | nancyingersoll.com
hand-lettered fonts | https://creativemarket.com/thephotocottage?u=thephotocottage
print on demand art | https://nancy-ingersoll.pixels.com/index.html?tab=galleries

 

Books: June-July 2017

Eight books in two months. Six fiction (including one YA), one creative/motivational, and one feminist manifesto. Seven female authors, one male; one Nigerian and one Swede.

What are you reading?

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Backman’s fans will come to Beartown expecting Ove and Britt-Marie, but they will not be found here. Beartown itself will remind readers of Borg, the town in which Britt-Marie discovered a love for soccer through her unexpected affection for those who played it, but in Beartown Backman has diverged from his old, odd characters to focus on a youth hockey team coming of age under pressure of a town that has all its hopes pinned to them.

Despite Backman’s clever writing and insight into human nature at its worst (and occasionally, best) I almost put this one down. Be warned: for those sensitive to the politics that rage around the issue of rape, this is not the book for you. The story is nuanced but for me the end didn’t justify the means.

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
“So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe–comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her” (273).

The Pull of The MoonThe Pull of The Moon by Elizabeth Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 50-year-old woman leaves husband and grown daughter behind as she drives away from her life. Except, she doesn’t. Oh, she drives. But she keeps her loved ones with her as she writes letters to him and journals for herself. She calls her daughter once, and writes about that, too. As she moves forward in the present, she reflects on the past, another way of moving into the future. And while it may outwardly look like she’s running (driving) away from her life, she’s truly reconnecting with herself in order to return to it, renewed, more fully whole than ever before.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed hiked herself into the woman her mother raised her to be. In Moon, Nan drives herself into the woman she wants to be. I wonder if any woman of a certain age could read this book and not recognize something of herself.

It’s so humiliating, she told me. It’s like you’re being punished for something and you’ve no idea what you’ve done wrong except age. She didn’t really hear what she said, she didn’t hear the natural acceptance in her voice of the idea that aging is a crime. But I did. And when I heard it in her, I saw it in me” (104-105).

“And now, in my own stillness, I hear something. ‘Where have you been?’ my inside body whispers to my outside one. Its sense of outrage is present, but dulled by the grief of abandonment. ‘I had ideas. There were things to do. Where did you go?’
“What can I answer? Oh, I had some errands to run. I had a few things to do. I needed to get married and have a child and go underground for twenty-five years, be pleasantly suffocated. I meant to come back. But the bread crumbs got blown away.” (125)

The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“I hate careless people,” declares Jordan in The Great Gatsby, quoted by Calista in her first paper for Miss Nicoll’s Mill Valley High School junior English class.

Every character in this novel is careless. All of them: students, parents, teachers, administrators. Even the ones who begin with a care deal with them carelessly: drugs, alcohol, parties, escapism, suicide.

Johnson’s writing style is crisp, with clearly-developed characters. Set in an affluent San Francisco Bay neighborhood, anyone who lives in an affluent neighborhood knows people just like these: the sporty pretty boy; the beautiful and introverted loner; the too-smart-for-school kid who takes his smarts to the street; the too-sensitive special needs kid; the popular A-student who can’t scratch the surface; the parents (all of them), abusive in their attention and neglect; the idealistic young teacher; the jaded administrator.

The problem is, her characters are all stereotypes, and Johnson puts each into worst-case scenarios. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, because they are recognizable. I so wanted this book to take a new look, a different angle, provide new insight. Sadly, no. And here’s the real catch: in any one class, in one mesh of overlapping friend-groups in one high school graduating class, you won’t have this many significant tragedies.

By the last few chapters, I just felt depressed. Who wants to spend novel-length time with careless, contemptible people? I’m certain that was to Johnson’s point, that money has the power to hide the warts and sins, but she took it too far. Her writing style commends her (hence the two stars), but this story doesn’t.

The MuseThe Muse by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A unique take on the “Haves and Have Nots: Wealth, Power, Talent” theme, set alternately in London in the late-60’s and Spain in the late-30’s. Odelle, a young woman from the Caribbean, moves with her best friend to London. She has no wealth or power, but she has talent, makes some good decisions, and in the process makes life-changing connections. Her friend shows her a spectacular painting which belonged to his late mother that he might want to sell at auction, and this moment connects them to the story set in Spain in the 30’s. Teresa has nothing but her wits; her brother Isaac wields some power but lacks talent; the daughter of their new employer, Olive, has wealth and talent but no power beyond the relationship she dangerously winds around the siblings.

Initially this book felt a little slow, but then I read the entire second half in a day. I just wish I could also have seen the paintings, because Burton did such a beautiful job describing them that I know they would be breathtaking.

“This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play” (p5).

Writers may relate: “I knew it was true that I had stalled again on my writing. For once, I was too caught up with actually living my life to stop and turn it into words. People like Lawrie–who never wrote a single line of prose, as far as I knew–seemed to want those who did to walk around with a pad and pencil hanging round their neck, jotting down the whole thing, turning it into a book for their own pleasure” (364-365).

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over the last year, The Nest kept popping into view. I’d pick it up, reread the book jacket, and put it back down. Dysfunctional family? I have my own, which is more than enough. Thanks, but no thanks. But when my neighbor shoved it in my hands, saying she’d just finished and really enjoyed it, and I had to read it before returning it to the library, I gave in.

So glad I did! This is not my family. Thankfully. But I totally relate to each one in all their mess and love them the more for it. Start to finish, I found this a completely satisfying–and entirely too quick–read. One of my favorite things about it was its structure, batting back and forth between the four siblings, but then also between everyone who over the period of this year intersects with them: spouses and children, of course, but also coworkers and friends and neighbors and enemies. What seemed at first like diversions actually intensified my desire to keep reading, because who knew what would happen next?

The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your PassionThe Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my new favorite book for anyone creative, anyone who longs to tap into their creativity, or anyone feeling at a crossroad in life. Through words written and painted, through paintings and photographs, through quotes from some of history’s greats, Luna nudges us to find our unique Must, to dialogue with the Shoulds holding us back, face our fears, and take one new action to honor our calling TODAY.

“All too often, we feel that we are not living the fullness of our lives because we are not expressing the fullness of our gifts” (ix).

Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What could go wrong?” the characters ask each other, repeatedly.

When careless people rush in, without honest and caring communication, a lot can go terribly wrong. Several lives filled to the brim with heartache can be the consequences.

Fuller’s writing is precise and beautiful. She gives us a story in which not a lot happens while emotions seethe beneath the surface as each character moves forward through the mistakes they and those before them have made.

So much can go wrong. And yet, life does goes on.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen SuggestionsDear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick, thought-provoking read. To me, most of it seems common sense, except I know her fifteen suggestions are not ‘common’ enough. I wish all new parents, all middle schoolers, and all high school seniors (three critically life-changing junctures) could read and discuss this book–how society could be different!

Suggestion #1: Be a full person. How many women lose themselves in motherhood, signing their kids up and carting them from one activity to another while forgetting that their own life is worth something, too.
Suggestion #5: Teach her to read. Parents, teach all your kids to read, and help them read widely. If you don’t like to read, find something you will like to read. Reading is essential!

And so many of the other suggestions stem from here: reading gives one words, language, and ability to question, to consider the significance of assumptions that show up in our language, to communicate with ourselves, others, the world.

Words matter. They help shape our worldview. We need to talk with our children, to help them understand their lives and their place in the world. This book can help to lead the discussion.

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