The Ring

This whole “how did you get engaged” thing feels like a lot, in part because I’ve told the story multiple times and it seems to take longer every time, despite my attempts to shorten. It also feels like a lot because I am keenly aware that I don’t want to be That Person. That Person talks about her wedding nonstop and forgets to ask about other people’s lives, which is annoying and hurtful. So I’m going to tell our proposal story in stages and hope you won’t get bored.

A couple of days after Christmas (2017), Tyler and I watched a movie (I can’t remember which one) at his apartment in the glow of Christmas lights. When the movie ended, he got up to play with the Lego’s he’d given me for Christmas and I stayed where I was. He covered me in several blankets and a small mountain of pillows, just to be cute, and I happily dozed off.

Tyler woke me to show me the tiny car he built for the tiny street with tiny road cones redirecting traffic around the tiny garbage truck that had toppled over. I oooh’d over it and fell asleep again. Later, he woke me to show me the tiny garage he built for the tiny car that had finally navigated the accident and made it home. By this time, it was around 1am, and he sat on the floor beside me to tell me that it was late and I should probably go home. I agreed and began unburying myself.

“Before you go, though,” he said, his back to me as I tossed pillows into the far corner of the sectional, “I want your opinion on something.”

Interesting, I thought. “Okay. What is it?” I balled up one blanket and pulled the remaining one more closely around me as I sat up. Tyler stood and slid open the end table—which he almost never keeps things in—and pulled out a Reed’s jewelry catalog, cover tinged with the blue and red of the pulsing Christmas lights.

“I want to know what kind of engagement ring you’d like.”

I wasn’t very sleepy anymore.

I looked through the catalog, which didn’t much impress me, to be honest, while he opened his laptop and pulled up a few sites. For the next hour and a half, I declared judgement on the rings we saw, and we found a site that let us build a custom ring. We knew we wanted to see an investment like this in person before we bought it, but it was fun to customize and wonder. The only thing I knew going in was I wanted a diamond and I wanted white gold, as I mostly wore silver jewelry.

Tyler asked me, “Do you like princess cut or round better?” as he clicked on the various toggles.

“Round,” I’d answer, not knowing the answer until I saw them both, like choosing “one or two” at the optometrist’s office.

“Do you want a colored diamond?”


“Not even a chocolate one?”

“Not even a little bit. Those things are hideous.”

“I’m so shocked.”

(He wasn’t shocked.)

“What about this one?” he asked of an x-shaped monstrosity that I thought looked like an alien space ship and he thought looked like a shrunken chandelier.

At some point, when we had a design I basically liked, he said something like, “You like color. What about sapphires?” And clicked on a button that sent alternating cascades of sapphires and diamonds down the band of the virtual ring.

“It’s too much,” I told him.

“The sapphires?”

“No. The band like that.” He clicked around for other options.

I had heard of sapphires on a wedding ring, because of Princess Diana. I used to watch made-for-TV documentaries and biographies about her. After one show pointed out the details of her large sapphire ring, the central gem surrounded by diamonds, which is now Princess Katherine’s engagement ring, I asked my Mom why Prince Charles had picked a sapphire. “Engagement rings are supposed to have diamonds, aren’t they?”

My mom, whose gorgeous yellow gold set with round solitaire was my baseline for that statement, answered that sapphires are a traditional stone to use, but diamonds are more common.

I might have been eight at this time, so I’ve had a couple of decades to get use to the idea of sapphires in an engagement ring. But I had never thought about them being on mine.

Tyler adjusted the virtual ring so a diamond sat in the center, flanked by two decently sized sapphires. I liked it, but I wasn’t convinced. The idea was new to me and I definitely wanted to try something like this on. I went home, went to bed, and met him for lunch at Zoe’s Kitchen. I remember nothing about that meal, but I remember walking out of the restaurant toward the center of the outdoor mall where three large, name-brand jewelry stores dominated three of the four corners, including Reed’s, provider of the catalog in Tyler’s apartment.

As we walked, though, we passed Forever Diamonds, a smaller jewelry store we’d both forgotten about. Tyler hadn’t visited them during his research trip earlier that week, but we were there, so we went inside.

Debra and Ryan were amazing. Debra helped us primarily, listening very carefully to what I wanted, pulling ring after ring for me to try on. We talked stone cut, size, setting style. I was horrified by anything 1.25 carets or higher. Tyler, of course, was devastated that I wanted something smaller.

The night before, I’d asked him about budget. “Just pick a band you like and I’ll get a stone I can afford. Okay?”

He’s so very reasonable.

I found a gorgeous ring that was the sort of thing I would have imagined as a child, if I’d ever let myself do so. It was a white gold band with a round solitaire setting and three tiny diamonds, in descending size, set on in the midst of mill grain tear drop. I loved it. It’s the ring I would have chosen ten or five or even two years ago, before Tyler and I started dating. Which is why I ultimately didn’t pick it.

We still hadn’t seen a ring with a setting like the one we’d built online, and when we explained this, Ryan suggested that they could order a band to our specifications and build us a custom ring. This idea made me, at least, nervous, so he took a round .9 caret diamond from the safe along with two triangular sapphires, carefully arranging them between my fingers so I could get an idea of what it would look like. And it was gorgeous. But I couldn’t think straight any more and I wanted to be sure it wouldn’t sit up too high (the other ring did, though I was willing to ignore it because it was that gorgeous), so we thanked them profusely, took up our coats, and walked to the next jewelry store, where we were half ignored. In the next store, the sales associate didn’t know her stock well and complained to us about her coworker, who could hear her doing so. In the third store, the associate was experiencing severe back pain and had to lean heavily on the display cases to stay upright. I nearly ran out of the store just so she could sit back down and take a little relief.

We went back to Forever Diamonds. As Tyler talked with Ryan about what ordering a custom ring would entail, I asked Debra to let me see that other ring again. I wore it, and stared at it, and then gave it back.

It took me less than 24 hours to decide that I wanted a ring that reflected Tyler and I, not just me. We love Lego’s and cooking together. We like to make things together. The night after we went shopping, New Year’s Eve, I sat Tyler down during the party at my house and told him I’d decided. I think he was really surprised that I had already decided and didn’t need more time. He’d taken 2 months to buy a new truck and 8 months and counting to pick a new mattress. He suggested, wisely but unnecessarily, that we wait until the end of the week before going back to Forever Diamonds so that I would have plenty of time to change my mind, with assurances that it would be fine if I did.

The following Monday, we made an appointment with Debra and Ryan and went in to order my ring. Once again, they were incredibly patient and kind as we asked questions and pondered all the options. Tyler had been told that day that he would be put on leave without pay at his new job for an indefinite period of time. I suggested we wait until things grew more steady at work, but he wanted to go ahead and order it. He’d been saving and had good credit for financing options. Brenda sized my ring finger and, afterwards, I ran a couple more errands while Tyler went to Publix and cooked for us. I arrived at his apartment just in time to eat.

I didn’t see the ring completed until Tyler pulled it from his pocket on the beach in my hometown eleven days ago. I don’t remember this, but I took it out of his hand. I held it on the tip of my thumb while I said “Yes” and through our hug afterwards.

In the intervening weeks, I had noticed that I’d been wearing a lot more yellow gold and had begun to question whether I’d chosen well to want white gold. When I saw it, though, I knew I’d chosen right to have asked for white gold. And I am endlessly thrilled with it, even if I do sometimes forget and slide it onto my right hand instead of my left.


I know many of you are expecting a blog post about Tyler’s and my engagement, but I need a little more distance (and time) to put that together. Instead, I want to talk about 2018. People usually post New Year’s Resolutions and the like in January, but I’m a rebel and not going to do it that way.

I did make a resolution for 2018, but I’m not going to talk about that. It’s not that interesting. (Okay, fine. I resolved not to buy as many new hardcover books. Yay Gottwals and county library and eBooks.)

However, I also chose a word for the year: believe.

Believe I can be a novelist.

Believe I can change my habits.

Believe my relationship will get stronger.

Believe in God’s sovereignty.

Believe the best of the person I’m in conflict with.

Believe that I can be adventurous again.

Believe that wedding planning can be more fun than stressful.

Believe that I can like my body more than I do now.

Believe that I can be a good friend while being a spouse and full-time employee.

Believe that I can be a good spouse while being a full-time employee and friend.

Believe that I can be a good employee while… you get the idea.

I’ve been shaking the branches of the internet (mostly on Etsy, if I’m honest) looking for a small sign with my word on it, which I can put on my desk at work and on my wall at home.

I want a reminder. It doesn’t do me any good to have a word for the year if I don’t remember it and don’t try to act on it.

While cleaning one night in February, I came across a printed photo of myself in Egypt my senior year of college. I’m standing in front of an ancient volcano in the Black Desert (so called because the soil of the volcanos has eroded and now the desert is covered in the black, broken up pieces of the cooled magma). I’m wearing my favorite shirt. My hair is golden from time in the sun. I can see my shape. It was an incredible trip, full of struggles but also rich in joy and knowledge and confidence and good health and adventure.

I slipped the photo into a cheap plastic frame and took it to work. Now it sits beside my monitor, in front of the hand sanitizer bottle, and I look at it multiple times a day.

It doesn’t make me feel badly. In the weeks the photo’s been there, I haven’t once bemoaned what I’ve lost since then. I feel inspired by my past self and I feel encouraged because she is me. She became me. My life is one of the ones she dreamed for herself, and in many ways is even better than she’d hoped. In ways, I can be her again.

I can take a painting class because I used to enjoy it.

I can reconcile with people who have hurt me.

I can resist the candy bowl on the corner of my desk.

I can drink more water.

I can learn the names of more countries.

I can start a new story.

I can slay the Jabberwocky.

She believed she could so she did.
—R. S. Grey

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
—Hebrews 1:11

Sacred Imagination

A few months ago I finally listened to several coworkers who know me well and tried the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”. Although I have since stopped for a variety of reasons, my favorite part of the podcast was the sacred practice portion.
The hosts would, for several podcasts in a row, engage in a sacred practice for a major world religion. Many of the first season’s episodes use Lectio Divina, a Christian practice I was intellectually familiar with before the podcast, but had never engaged in. Another Christian practice they use is Sacred Imagination, in which a person imagines what it would be like to be in a biblical scene with the goal of better knowing and loving God. St. Ignatius wrote the first instructions for this practice after imagining himself in the manger scene at Christ’s birth and becoming deeply moved by this experience.

I wasn’t familiar with this practice, and looked forward to its use in the podcast because I enjoyed employing my imagination to try to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and other senses as I’m placing myself in the position of a character. And, I learned a lot from the podcast’s hosts using this method, then talking through what they imagined and how it shaped their reading and understanding of the chosen passage of Harry Potter.

Last week, I took out an old Bible to read Psalm 118, the psalm being studied in the Chapter-A-Day project undertaken by my church. This Bible is an NIV Women of Faith Study Bible, meaning it includes profiles of women in the Bible and features short commentary excerpts on every page based on a passage or verse on that page. It’s also an easily understood translation and was given to me by my uncle upon my graduation from high school. It’s the only Bible I really used during college and is full of my underlining, notes, questions, and occasionally a date if a passage particularly resonated with my life or feelings that day.
Now I use an ESV Bible that I don’t write in, so even though I keep my beloved college Bible close, it’s not the one I usually read from. But I was curious what I might have written in college about the middle chapter in the Bible, so I fished it out of the stack of books on my bedside table.
I read the psalm through once, noting how my past self had divided the psalm into chunks of 3-5 verses (often with the help of the typesetter, who left a little space between stanzas).
When I got to the end, I found a note in pen that said “Sung at the Last Supper” and, at the very top of that page, “Remember the power in these pages.”

I knew my past self might be wrong (it’s impossible to know exactly which psalm Christ sang that night, though Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 both record the singing, and Jewish tradition tells us that Psalms 113-118 were sung during the Passover week), but I decided to assume my college self was right.

Rereading the passage again one stanza at a time, I used the Sacred Imagination practice. I imagined myself in the upper room of the Last Supper. The Passover meal is eaten, the plates and scraps still on the table. Judas has left to betray Christ. The eleven apostles are pleasantly full and sleepy but excited, anticipating that Jesus will soon overthrow the Romans and rule as the reinstated king in David’s line. For each stanza, I imagined myself as Christ, keeping in mind what Jesus knew was coming, how he must have felt about the disciples around him. Next, I imagined myself as the disciples, recalling their heritage and hopes. I let the lessons I uncovered sit with me, then I read the next stanza.

I’ve picked two stanzas from the psalm to do this with so you can get an idea of what I mean and why the experience was so important to me. If you want to participate in sacred imagination along with me, read the passage several times, out loud of possible, and try to imagine yourself as one of the disciples around the table. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling as you sit in this room? What do you know? What do you think is about to happen? What do you want? What do these verses remind you of?

When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; he brought me into a spacious place.
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies.
(vv. 5-7)

Let’s consider Christ’s perspective first.

I thought of Christ being tempted in the desert and cared for by angels sent by God at the end of the 40 days, a “spacious place” after being “hard pressed.” I thought of the torture and crucifixion to come. Though “mere mortals” can kill Jesus, he has power over the grave and will be resurrected by God. This is all part of God’s plans to redeem mankind, as well. The mortals may kill him, but it’s all part of God’s plan. And the LORD will be with Christ. The Spirit will help him. He will, Easter morning, triumph over God’s enemies. Right now, he’s full. He’s been laughing with his friends and leading them in a ritual dinner to remember events that only he still has personal knowledge of. Of those alive on earth, only he was there when the angel of death passed over the Hebrews’ homes in Egypt. Only he is aware of every single household that participated in this feast from that evening to this one.

Now let’s consider what this stanza might mean to the disciples.

They are the chosen handful of disciples. They have learned to preach and cast out demons and heal and do other miracles at Christ’s instructions and by God’s power. They have been saved from storms; Peter’s been saved from drowning. They’ve helped baptize and feed and restore. All because of Jesus. Jesus is God incarnate, and he is with them. In the flesh. He picked them to be here with him. They have nothing to be afraid of! What can “mere mortals” do to them? They are going to be part of the new regime. They went from fishing and tax collecting and farming and normal, boring lives to leaders in God’s service and soon they will be rulers. Everyone who was ever mean to them will be “pea green with envy” (as said by Scarlett O’Hara).

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
(vv. 22-24)

Christ knows this is referring to himself. The disciples around him don’t know it yet. They don’t realize, even if they should. He’ll be dead and resurrected before they realize all the ways that he is the cornerstone. All these plates full of broken bread must remind him of the breaking his body will soon endure. The lamb they ate is totally gone, but the smell lingers. It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, he may think, looking around at these eleven men he loves so thoroughly. God will redeem you all, this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

The disciples are singing of the promised Messiah, just as their parents did and their grandparents—all their ancestors—but they are the only ones that have been with the Messiah. Maybe they look at Jesus, tears in his eyes, looking around at them. Maybe they are wondering if there’s any wine left in their neighbor’s cup. (Minds can wander in worship, even if the Messiah is with them.) God has done a lot of marvelous things, and they must feel proud that they’ll get to be there for all the marvelous things to comes. Jesus has done amazing things today, even. They can be glad about that. And maybe next year they’ll sing this hymn in the palace.

What stood out to you? What did you imagine differently from me? I hope sacred imagination can be a meaningful practice for you in the future.

Books by Black Women

To honor Black History Month, I decided to intentionally support black women writers. Some of the below books were borrowed, some bought within the past year but only read this month, some preordered or bought but not yet read. I hope you find a book or two that you’ll love in this list. Ask me any questions you want!

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Contemporary young adult)
The Big Bed – Bunmi Laditan (Picture book)
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor (Adult Sci-Fi)
Home – Nnedi Okorafor (Adult Sci-Fi)
The Night Masquerade – Nnedi Okorafor (Adult Sci-Fi)
The Wedding Date – Jasmine Guillory (Contemporary adult)
The Last Black Unicorn – Tiffany Haddish (Memoir)

The Belles – Dhonielle Clayton (Fantasy young adult)
A Princess in Theory – Alyssa Cole (Contemporary adult romance)
Swing Time – Zadie Smith (Contemporary adult)

Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi (Contemporary young adult)
The Weaver’s Daughter – Sarah E. Ladd (Historical adult romance)
The Proposal – Jasmine Guillory (Contemporary adult)
Dread Nation – Justina Ireland (Historical adult fantasy)
Pride – Ibi Zoboi (Contemporary young adult)

Let’s Talk Socks

I wear socks almost constantly. I’m cold natured and I feel much colder if my feet are cold, so I have amassed a small army of pairs to help keep me warm. Although I grew up only wearing white socks, in college at added black to my repertoire. Now I have tons of colorful, patterned socks, mostly ankle socks.

I might choose to wear a certain pair for the padding or arch support, to go with boots or tennis shoes or dress pants. But when all else is even, I choose based on the traits or feelings I want to have while wearing them.

I don’t really think that my socks embue me with Gryffindor-eque courage or anything. But knowing I’m wearing them, that I chose them for this purpose, is helpful. It stays in the back of my mind.

Let’s take my superhero socks, as examples. Last week, I got home from a Bible study hangout downtown. I was so tired, but I had a lot to do when I got home to prepare for the next day and the coming weekend. After I took a shower, I opened my sock drawer and surveyed the kingdom of clean pairs. I have a lot of black socks, a few white athletic socks, my narwhals socks, Gryffindor socks, Hufflepuff socks, Doctor Who socks, and superhero socks. I had a lot to do and wanted to get it all done efficiently and get to bed quickly, so I focused on my superhero socks. Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl were all clean. Supergirl gives me a general boost, and reminds me to remain optimistic. Wonder Woman helps me feel empowered to accomplish something difficult without becoming disheartened. Batgirl is tough and funny and smart and kind of crafty. I chose the Batgirl socks because she thrives in the night, and I needed to, too.

I’ve noticed that I wear my Slytherin socks more often than those of the other houses. I find myself wanting the cunning or confidence of a Slytherin far more often than I want the reminder to be loyal or intelligent or brave. My fox socks remind me of a specific friend, so when I wear those it’s a bit like having him with me during the day because I’m thinking about him more often that day. My Doctor Who socks, though beloved, are old and I haven’t watching the show in years. Still, I find myself drawn to the striped TARDIS pair and the yellow Daleks. At St. Patrick’s Day, I wear the pair I bought in Ireland. My mom gave my pandas with blue hearts for Valentine’s Day. I keep a whole armful of Christmas socks tucked into my sweater drawer until December.

I didn’t notice this phenomenon until last November, when I recorded on Twitter how much I had written that day, what project I’d worked on, and other details, including a photo of the day’s socks. I thought it’d just be a quirky excuse to add a colorful photo to the tweets, but it became a profound part of my ritual. I wore a different pair of socks every day that month and was more aware of what I wanted or needed when I chose a pair.

I think most people have a shirt or tie or dress that they really like and feel good wearing. I remember exactly what I wore on my first first date with Tyler because I intentionally chose to wear all my favorite things, wanting to feel as confident as possible (black turtleneck with heart-shaped buttons down the sleeves, darkest skinny jeans, black flats, peacock button earrings).

A friend and I recently discussed this accessorize-for-a-boost phenomenon. She had a favorite blouse, of course, but when I described my sock choices, she shared that she has pieces of jewelry decorated with symbols for strength and endurance. Based on what she feels like she needs that day, she’ll wear one symbol or the other, or perhaps both.

Is there anything you like to wear when you want a boost? What is it, and how specific is the boost?

Why Lent?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this. I didn’t grow up in a church that observed Lent and I don’t have a degree in Biblical studies or Old Testament or New Testament or divinity or anything similar. As a kid, the most notice I generally had to Easter’s arrival was Palm Sunday. I heard reference to Lent but was under the impression that Catholic people observed it, and no others. Ash Wednesday was a Catholic observance; Mardi Gras was for New Orleans and a few predominantly Catholic countries.

As a high schooler, I had tried to observe Holy Week, in that I reminded myself it was Holy Week, read Scripture passages set during the week before Christ’s crucifixion, and wore black on Good Friday. This limited but well-meaning personal observance sparked during the spring break of my junior year. I was on a school trip to Madrid when I, two friends, and a chaperone observed a parade for “Holy Thursday”. Candles, marchers in hoods resembling KKK hoods, rugby-built men carrying a platform on their shoulders strewn with red roses, depicting Christ in a crimson robe and wearing a crown of thorns. The platform which followed carried a much larger, more elaborate representation of Christ’s mother, with painted tears, gold filigree crown, a green veil, and white roses placed around her robe. People rushed to this one to try to touch a petal, her robe, the platform itself.

Although I disagreed with the elaborate recognition of Mary in contrast to the stern, strained reaction to Jesus (although, it might have been appropriate considering that the procession mimicked Christ’s walk from Gethsemane to his trial), the observance and event made a deep impression on me. I recognized that Holy Week is honored and kept by Christians worldwide, and I wished to better observe it as well. I didn’t hear “Maundy Thursday” until I started working at the Christian publishing company where I work now.

So what is Lent? As best I understand, Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Good Friday. It mimics Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and begins with Ash Wednesday, on which we remember that we are sinful people with no hope of redemption outside of Christ. That’s why people (not just Catholic people) get ashes put on their forehead in the shape of a cross, to remind us that we are dust, that we came from ashes and will likewise return to them. That’s what Lent is designed for, to remind us how miraculous and needed and holy and generous Easter is. Lent also helps us consider what it must have been like to be Jesus, every step on his journey to Jerusalem taking him closer to false accusation, torture, abandonment, and death. We know Easter will come, just as Jesus knew it, but that doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t incredibly hard.

Traditionally, people give up something—like sweets or social media—during Lent for a similar reason. To make the journey harder. To simplify your life so you can appreciate what you have year round. To remind us of Christ’s struggle to remain sinless in the wilderness, when he fasted and prayed. You’re supposed to make a change that costs something, and most people fast from something (obstain from something), but others add something. I’ve done both.

In the four years since I started working here, I have observed this aspect of Lent 3 times. One year I fasted from food every Wednesday. One year I got up early and watched a new video in a devotional series every morning. One year I gave up sweets except on Sundays. (Traditionally, Christians do not fast on Sundays because Sundays are the days set apart to remember Christ’s resurrection, which freed Christians from the hopelessness of sinful life.)

I noticed that the Lent I got up early to watch the devotional videos, my life didn’t become simpler as it was meant to. I enjoyed the practice, the discipline, and the videos themselves. But I was mostly lying in bed listening to other people worship and pray, trying not to doze off again. The videos become something else on my to-do list, and the mental weight of that left my insides more jangled than before. And jangled is not the point of Lent. Not as I understand it.

Why Lent? Because my heart needs to get quiet. I need to reach out for God, lean on God, rest in God, in an organized way. I used to be incredibly disciplined and focused in more-or-less every area of my life. Now, not so much. I was also very pharisaic in those days, exerting control over everything possible to help me cope with my many anxieties. So I want to recapture the good of my once prayer life—the devotion, the discipline—without also lashing in the bad—lack of understanding, inability to let go of control. But adding a new item to the list is the last thing I need.

This year, Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day. It’s weird in the sense that a lot of people will be fasting from sweets or carbonated beverages on Valentine’s Day, a day hyper focused on both. Also, it’s a day hyper focused on romantic love. But in the sense of this being a day devoted to celebrating love more broadly, Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to celebrate Ash Wednesday and to begin simplifying and resetting our lives. I’m picturing couples at quiet dinners, dressed up, leaning toward one another with ashes on their foreheads. I’m imagining people with roses in vases, dancing to music and cleaning out their closets. I’m picturing people nibbling on chocolate as they clean off their desks and lay their Bibles in the center. I see people circling April Fool’s Day on the calendar and writing “Easter” inside.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, only Christ’s love for us can offer us forgiveness and hope. But for those of us who want to be in God’s community, who believe Jesus is both human and God, who have promised Jesus they will try to follow his example, Lent is a great time to reset our perspectives and lifestyles and motivations. It’s 40 days to make a change, to build your life differently, to learn to pray constantly. I hope the Lent can be that for you.

Here are a few ideas if you want to observe Lent this year but are nervous because it literally starts tomorrow:
-Do something creative every day while praying. Color, knit, fold paper swans, write new a poem one stanza at a time.
-Make Saturdays and Sundays social media free.
-Plan a special trip to help you get away, rest, and reconnect with God.
-Commit to studying a new psalm every day.
-Sit in a different place at church every week.
-Meet with friends every Tuesday to journal about Bible passages and write prayers.
-Fast from food once a week to remind you to rely on God for sustenance.
-Memorize one new Bible verse every week.
-Turn off your radio during your commute. Pray for strangers you see nearby or worship with just your own voice.
-Attend a different worship service during Lent than your usual.
-Pick a local organization to bless in a different way each week. (If you aren’t sure how, call their offices to ask for suggestions.)
-Fast from complaining, gossip, or another language-oriented sin.
-Bless each of your neighbors with a meal, yard work, or good conversation.
-Only read books by authors of a gender, race, or other identity not like your own.
-Send one encouraging message every day to someone who won’t expect it.

4 Years After Loss

I have a theory that you don’t really know people are gone until they’ve been dead for about 4 years. That’s the recommended length of college and of high school. It’s two Martian years and a quarter of a year on Jupiter. Not a long time, but still plenty of time. Plenty of time for the not-right-ness to settle into your bones, for you to get used to this new normal, an alternative universe where the one you love isn’t dead, just away. Right up until the illusion can’t hold anymore. Not when I didn’t see them daily anyway. Not when I stay so busy, even when I’m home, to avoid visiting their empty house.

One autumn day, 4 years and a couple months after my grandfather passed away, I was sitting at my desk at work watching the red and gold leaves fall and twirl in the wind. I suddenly missed my grandfather so deeply, with such a long-suffered ache, that I stood up to walk into an empty office so I could call him. I couldn’t, of course. And that was the moment I knew he was gone forever. And I grieved, silently, viscerally, until I had to get up and walk into an empty office to ensure privacy for my tears.

My grandmother passed away 4 years ago last month. I thought of her often in the snowy day we had recently. A few days ago, her last sister passed away as well. Yesterday, a friend texted to ask when we could get together, as she had a present for me. It would be another week before we were able, and she confessed that she’s always impatient to give people their gifts. “I’m terrible at it,” I told her. And thought, I get that from Grandmother. And just like that, I realized anew that she is gone. I will never hear her voice, hold her hand, feel her love, receive her gifts or smiles again.

It’s been building. Someone asked about the small tablecloth my grandmother’s sister crocheted for me in the 11 months between her sister’s passing and her own; blue because it was my grandmother’s favorite color. The pendant my grandmother gave me when I was in middle school, which my mom bought a chain for and gave to me this Christmas; the pendant I wore this week after my last great-aunt passed away.

I’ve been calling the dog “Babe,” my grandmother’s nickname for me, even though I didn’t like it at the time. (To be fair, my mom was “Babe,” I was “Little Babe”.) I dream, sometimes, that I’m back at her house. She and my grandfather are in their armchairs. I’m sitting on the floor listening to a conversation I don’t grasp any of. Or I’m racing around the pool table with my cousins, a small metal grocery cart full of our toys. I picture the house the way it was before the remodel. Dark wood panels and old brown carpet. My grandparents in their places. Me in mine. Our family around us. When last this happened, I woke up knowing my grandfather is gone, but had forgotten my grandmother isn’t. After this week, I suspect that will change.

For my cousins, I am so sorry. Your loss is fresh and deep. Many of you see your grandmother and aunt and mother much more often than I saw my grandparents in those last few years of college and travels and work. Maybe you’ll experience the knowing just once, and soon.

I love you. I’m so sorry. She worked so hard, loved so well. I know you will miss her. And I am sorry.

Memories of Being Read To

My mother’s reading voice is still one of my favorites on the planet—yes, including Morgan Freeman’s and Idris Elba’s. She was a stay-at-home mom for 22 years and always emphasized reading to my brother and I. For many years she thought that she read to my brother too much because he didn’t like reading as he grew older, though he’s come back around. But I always recognized the importance of books and her love of them.

I wanted to read long before I could. I remember the process of learning to read and was just precocious enough that I wondered how my reading relationship with my mother was going to change when I didn’t need her to read to me anymore. I love being read to, and was at times frustrated that I couldn’t read myself, but I did so love being read to.

However, my mother still emphasized reading with us by paying a lot of attention to our summer reading and what we were reading at school. She continued to read to us at times, too. The one I remember the best is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a summer reading requirement that was one of the first really visceral reading experiences I’d had. And mom made it clear that it was that way for her, too, wrapped up together under the afghan. Her example showed me that reading could just as immersive to adults, defying my previous idea that reading is only fun when you’re a kid. 

My 4th grade teacher, Ms. Harris, was one of the rockstar teachers at my school. At least to the kids. Everybody loved her and everybody looked forward to her class because she made a point to read to her classes every single day. And she was very good at it. Presumably, she still is. Some books were staples of every year’s class, like The BFG by Ronald Dahl and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, but she also read The Secret Garden to us and poem after poem in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.

Ms. Harris and librarian teamed up to get us excited about the brand new book that was making a lot of waves in the librarian and literary world: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember the librarian’s pitch to us during Library Time, as we were all trying to pick out our books for the week. And it didn’t sound all that good to me. I wasn’t really interested in reading about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard. I was much more interested in reading about Dorothy or a young woman named Kate who helped save a train full of people or more Little House books. Only one person in the class took that first available copy of Sorcerer’s Stone home with him. His name is Adam and I have no idea where he is but I cannot think about that book without also thinking of him. Ms. Harris and the librarian chose to counter our overwhelming lack of enthusiasm by making it the next book Ms. Harris read to us. By chapter 3, Sorcerer’s Stone had become our all-time favorite listen, even as we mispronounced most of the names. We would riddle Adam with questions, begging him to tell us what was going to happen next. Blessed soul, he never gave in. He preserved that reading experience for us.

I also can’t think about the early Harry Potter books without thinking about Alex. I’ve written about him before. He had relatives in England who sent him a brand new copy of The Chamber of Secrets when it came out. And we got to start it right after we finished The Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember seeing that colorful paperback cover for the first time in Alex’s hands. And when I think about that book, I don’t picture the cover of the hardcover copy I own and have reread many times; I picture that paperback book in his hands, blue car flying above the Hogwarts Express in the English countryside. I forgot, though, that Ms. Harris read it to us until years later when I was rereading the series ahead of the release of the 4th or 5th book. Professor Sprout house was teaching second years to repot mandrakes. As she instructed them, she indicated that she would give a thumbs-up when it was okay to take their earmuffs off. Ms. Harris’s thumbs would bent back extremely far in an almost double-jointed arc. And as she read that sentence to us, she had turned up her thumb. I read the sentence years later, I could see it in my mind. Her red jumper dress, her red nail polish, her tanned skin, sitting in her butter-colored wooden rocking chair, the arc of her finger under the projection of her voice.

Honestly, I think one of the reasons I love this series so much is because the first two books were read to me. However, I also find it important that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter book, and one of my favorite books, and it was the first one I read by myself. It was my first step alone down the path of this series.

The last time I was read to corporately, shall we say, was in 8th grade. My 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Walker had also been my 6th grade teacher. I was at a relatively small Arts and Humanities magnet school, so the class hadn’t changed much in the year between. In 6th grade, our favorite book we read and studying that year was Holes by Louis Sachar. By the time we were in 8th grade, the movie was coming out. We talked about how much we loved that book, and somehow we came up with the idea of reading it again. But rather than trying to get copies and add assignments on to our existing load, she offered to read it to us during class. It was glorious. We loved to hear her reading anyway, and we loved her, and we didn’t care that we were supposed to be way too old to be read to.

I’m very grateful to report that I’m still be read to. I’m a regular subscribed to Audible, which has helped me read books I may never have gotten to otherwise, including A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. I’ve listened to The Martian by Andy Weir three times because I love the narrator so much (I own a paperback copy, too) and my next re-listen will probably be the exceptionally well performed and well written The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater or the Grammy-winning The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher.

My best friend Kayla and I also like to read new children’s books, and occasionally the beloved books of our childhood, to each other. And we have no shame in that. Children’s books are good literature and a really good picture books are enjoyed by adults, too. That’s part of the point.

Kayla and I are further unique in that we also like to read longer works to each other. Kayla’s mind tends to wander with audiobooks, but she can listen to at least short bursts of me reading a novel to her. The first time this happened, I had just finished Kiera Cass’s The Selection. I called her and said something like, “Oh my gosh this is the most amazing book and you’re going to love it! When can you get it?” The answer was, “Not really any time soon,” and I said, “Okay, what if I just read you the first page though?” And that quickly became read the first chapter, one more, then the entire book. I did most of it by Skype, and we proceeded to read a few books to each other that way, including Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Just this past year, Kayla read the opening chapters of Maureen Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love to me at Starbucks one Sunday morning. She then gave the book to me so I could take it home and inhale the rest myself. But I “heard” the words in her voice. And she was right, it is the cutest book ever.

We don’t always have time to do that anymore, and it’s all so much faster just to read a book yourself most of the time, but we still love it. It’s easy to feel loved when someone is reading a book they love to you. 

My current audiobook is A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab.
My next audiobook is The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish.

Buying (and Giving) Picture Books

The last few months have been spent buying and fretting over and giving gifts, and receiving gifts, via a variety of holidays. For me, this is especially so because my mother, my boyfriend, and two very close friends all have early January birthdays.

One of my favorite gifts to give is books. (Few of you are surprised.) But although I don’t always have occasion for this, children’s books are my favorite to give. And I have a lot of thoughts on what goes into a good picture book gift for a child.

I have five main criteria.

1. Is the book performative in some way? Is it fun for parents or other adults to read? (If so, they’ll read it more often.) Fun for the kids to get to learn to read themselves? Press Here, The Book with No Pictures, and the Pete the Cat series are good examples of this.

2. Is it relatively easy to read and to follow along? How many words are on a page? These books are relatively easy to transition children into reading themselves, are Mother Bruce, recommended to me by Judy Blume (no really), I Want My Hat Back, The Day the Crayons Quit, and the Llama Llama series.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is a staple of my gift-giving repertoire. Many people have discovered it in the past few years, which I am all about, but I still find that it’s a book I can give to new parents. Parents didn’t grow up reading it, so even though kids have adored it for almost a decade, new parents are delighted by it and not all have even herd of it. (If this is a second or third child, I assume they know the pigeon.)

3. Is the book diverse in some way? The Last Stop on Market Street teaches empathy in a city setting with diverse characters and is written by a person of color. I like to make sure white families have books with characters who don’t look like their child, as reading diversity teaches empathy. It’s vitally important that children of color see themselves in the stories around them and in their heroes. Furthermore, little boys need to learn that girls’s stories are important by being allowed to read books starring girls. (There’s no such thing as a “girl book” or a “boy book”. They’re just books. Fight me!) And I like to support diverse writers. Other good pictures books meeting this criteria include Jingle Dancer, What to Do with an Idea, and Ada Twist, Scientist.

4. Is it visually beautiful? Journey, Interstellar Cinderella, and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich all make this list. Some have no words, some have lots of words, but all are striking. They encourage children to enjoy art, and provide access to the story even before kids can read for themselves.

5. Is it a stretch book? This is especially true for kids who can read. “Stretch books” are a little more difficult than the child’s ability, and can be a great motivator! I remember a copy of Twas the Night Before Christmas being that way for me growing up. However, because my brother is 3 years older, whatever books he was reading became my stretch books. The more beautiful or fun the book looks, the more enticing!

I’m happy to make book recommendations from babies to teens, so feel free to ask! I have no shame about learning from the Book community of Twitter and reading children’s and young adult books for myself.

Snowy Days

In my day, [grumble grumble] we didn’t have snow days. We didn’t have snow! I remember exactly 4 times in my childhood when I saw snow at my home on the southern coast of South Carolina.

We did have hurricane days. We built them into the school schedule because the Atlantic was pretty active in those years. One season, we evacuated five separate times. We could not wait for October! And we barely unpacked in between. Still, we didn’t suffer a direct hit. And we had minimal damage. Not so in the past two years. But I’m not here to talk about hurricanes.

I’m here talk about snow.

The first time I saw snow fall and stick, I was in college. It was also the first time I saw accumulation. I don’t even know that we got a full inch, but it felt like two or three. Statesboro hadn’t had snow since the last time my hometown had snow, which had been the year I was born: a 21 year gap. I made my first snow angel and built my first snow person. I got to witness my Bajan friend experience snow for the first time in the coat that I helped him buy.

I had seen more snow than that before, but it was at Snowshoe, West Virginia on a church youth group trip, and there was no beautiful powder to learn to ski on. Snowshoe’s fresh snow had iced over several days earlier, and only the snow machines were keeping a semblance of dust on the trails. Which dropped off into mud and trees. I know, because I careened off of one. But I’m not here to talk about that either.

The last time it snowed in Macon, my grandmother died. Not exactly at the same time.

Four years ago, it snowed. During every cold snap that winter, a friend stayed with my roommate and I because the house she was renting was crowded and poorly insulated and notoriously frigid. We refused to let her sleep at home in four layers and hat, so our spare bedroom became hers for much of the winter. The night it snowed, we three went out front with the dog, throwing snowballs and laughing in the driveway and stomping designs in the snow. Then we all came in for hot chocolate and warm, dry clothes.

The next day, the office was closed so I stayed in with my friend, crocheting and knitting and watching a little TV curled up on the couch with the dog. Morgan had to go to work, but when she came home we watched movies and ate chili in the coziness, after playing in the snow a bit more.

It took something like an hour to clean enough snow and ice off my car the next day that I could go to work. I was an hour or two late, and by that afternoon my grandmother was dead. She’d been in and out of the hospital for a while, so I didn’t realize this one was different. I didn’t know she was in ICU until we were under several inches of snow. There was no opportunity to get to her.

Her sister has been in the hospital for over a week now. This is my grandmother’s last sister.

I’ve been looking forward to the snow all winter. I was thrilled to wake up early to see it fall. My roommate’s dog from the previous snow has passed away, so this dog experienced snow for the first time. Watching her joy and confusion were my greatest joys of the day.

The roads are dry now, I’m back at work, and I’m trying not to be superstitious about things, but I’m also wondering if I’m going to get a call from my aunt or my mom. I’m wondering if I’m going to know even before I answer. I wonder if I’m going to rush out of the office and into a spare room, surrounded by discarded and antiquated computer parts to sit and listen to what I already know.

I hope not. But I don’t begrudge her rest and healing, whatever that looks like. She’s had a very hard life, and her sisters are gone.

I pray for her children. I pray for our family. I pray for everyone who suffers in the cold like this: those without heat, those without enough insulation, those with no home, those with disabilities that make cold especially difficult, those who are lonely. I pray for those who are more prone to slipping and breaking in this snow and ice. I pray for the families, friends, and coworkers of those who have died since the storm began.