Spring Reading Recap

Hello dear readers,

Work is really busy, personal life is really busy, and I’m physically tired and emotionally drained. So this week, I’m going to tell you about some of the best books I’ve read this spring.

I’m trying to stress read instead of stress eat, which has significantly contributed to my reading 19 books so far this year. I’ve found that mysteries are most effective at giving my brain a break from wedding details, interpersonal concerns, work problems, and everything else I’m stressed about these days. I keep a book in progress on my phone, on audiobook for my various commutes, and a paperback in my purse. If I get to Tyler’s ten minutes before he does: paperback. If I have to drive downtown for another vendor meeting: audiobook. If Word crashes my work computer for the third time in an hour and has to be rebooted again: eBook.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
The Sound of Glass by Karen White

Perveen Mistry of The Widows of Malabar Hill, set in 19020s Bombay, is my favorite new heroine. I’d preorder the sequel right now if possible. The Sound of Glass was actually a gift to my mom for her birthday, since she’s long preferred mysteries and this one is set in our hometown. She loved it so much, she sent it back with me to read, too, and now I have two more White mysteries waiting on my shelf.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Prior to a failed attempt last November to draft a mystery, I hadn’t read much in this genre. I’d only read two Christie novels before, both in the past two years, and have been wanting to work through her best known and best loved books. I haven’t even seen the TV shows or movie adaptations, so it’s all gloriously new territory for me. In particular, I like to listen to Christie’s works on audiobook so I get to hear the great accents. Murder at the Vicarage is my first with Miss Marple. Death on the Nile is my second with Poirot.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman

One of my favorite genres has long been romance. The structure of romance books are familiar and predictable (which is not to say that the stories are). I like seeing how characters are transformed for the better by loving someone else. Alyssa Cole is hardly a new author, but she is to me. I’ve had this book, about a Union spy during the Civil War, since it came out last year and am kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. I bought If the Dress Fits on eBook after I saw that I’d missed a big read-along and discussion of it through WOC in Romance. I could tell from everyone’s reactions that I would adore its sweetness and its heroine, and boy-howdy have I.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins
The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace

When I can’t write prose, I write poetry. When I can’t read novels, I read poetry. When prose weighs me down, poetry is also a good palate cleanser. I’ve had Lovelace’s first collection for ages, widely touted on the bookish circles I run in on Twitter. I bought The Rain in Portugal on a whim during a recent Barnes & Noble trip. Billy Collins is critically touted and widely published, but I discovered him when I noticed the cover and opened to a poem that spoke to me in a familiar way. Lovelace’s follow-up collection, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One, is already on my shelf.

Into the Woods

Last weekend my parents visited and Mom and I talked about my recent blog post “Wilderness.” She found my take on wilderness surprising because (1) as a little girl she would rather be alone in the woods than anywhere else, and frequently was, and (2) I’ve done a ton of things that would terrify her to do, like flying alone to other countries and driving long distances by myself.

I asked her if I’d ever shown her the musical Into the Woods. (I haven’t. We’re going to change that very soon.)

In the musical, I explained, The Woods are scary, but all the characters have to enter the woods in order to obtain what they most want. There’s no other way for Red Hiding Hood to reach her ill grandmother. Cinderella’s stepmother won’t allow her to attend the kind’s festival, so she must visit her mother’s grave in the woods, hoping her mother will provide the means for her to attend the ball in secret. Jack must sell the dry milk cow at the next village, through the woods, so he and his mother won’t starve. The baker and his wife want to have a child more than anything, but the witch next door cursed the family a generation ago, so they must go to the woods and procure the items they need to break the curse. (Interestingly, the only person who doesn’t go into the woods for what they want is the Baker’s father, who went into the witch’s garden instead and was cursed for it. Even the lady giant descends the beanstalk and goes into the woods to seek revenge.)

Moreover, each character views the woods differently. To Cinderella, it’s a place of hidden safety, where she can escape her stepmother and sisters, mourn her mother, and later escape to and from the palace unseen. Red Riding Hood takes a familiar route and isn’t afraid, but the woods are not to be explored. To the Bakers, it’s unfamiliar and frightening, but holds possibilities for familial and personal growth. For Jack, it’s just a long path he doesn’t want to travel; if he’s aware of the dangers, he doesn’t heed them.

At times, particularly in the second act, we see that choices made in the woods can be drastically different from what the characters would do in other circumstances. The woods can make us desperate, daring, compassionate, petty, or wise.

“It’s like that,” I explained to my mom. “I have to go into the woods to do the things that I want and that I know will be good for me.” Like those trips I took. Like the new Bible study Tyler and I are attending. Like marriage.

Uncertainty and anxiety is necessary. I can lessen but not escape it. In order for me to live the life I want, I have to go through the woods.

Airports have become a sort of metaphor for the woods for me. They can be confusing, frustrating, labyrinthine, but I’ve traveled enough that I have a strong sense of how airports and flying work. Even if I’ve never been to a certain airport before, I basically know what needs to happen, how to get where I need to go, and how to gain information and supplies (bottles of water and Pringles, mostly). I’ve even earned some hacks/tips/tricks to make the experience of flying better (buy nothing until you’re through security; check the boards before you start walking down your terminal, there might not be another one and the gate might have changed).

I was once on a mission trip to a snowy cabin in the woods outside Pittsburgh and it was a personal emotional disaster.

A small sister church in Pittsburgh was holding a women’s retreat; our team’s purpose was to supply everything they needed, from food to teaching to fresh linens, so they could all rest, feel renewed, and build relationships with one another. We were to work in the background, unobtrusive but helpful, caring for their needs. I believed in the purpose of what we were doing and I was excited to be a part of it.

I was the only unmarried woman on the all-woman team, and also the only one without at least one child. Almost all my team members knew each other from before the trip through their children. And, they almost exclusively talked about motherhood-related subjects. For the entire weekend.

Like, the first night, they talked about breast feeding around the kitchen island while we were preparing dessert and for the next morning’s breakfast. For two hours. An hour and a half into it, the leader of the group, who is the only person I had a relationship with prior to that weekend, realized the conversation was isolating me. She exclaimed, “Oh, Katie! I’m sorry. This isn’t something you can really contribute to, is it?” There were exclamations of “Oh, Katie!” and “Oh no!” from around the island. Like they’d forgotten I existed. Or that silence isn’t my natural state.

I admitted, almost crying but smiling, that no. It wasn’t something I could contribute to. And then they continued to talk about breast feeding for another half hour. Someone had noticed, as I’d desperately wished, but the group hadn’t cared enough to stop isolating me and the leader didn’t do anything further to correct the problem. I finally fled the kitchen so I could sob in the basement bathroom, alone, while cleaning it.

The whole weekend was like that, in that big cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. I felt just as miserable, isolated, and unwanted as when I was a very young child in school. I prayed fervently for strength and humility and a good perspective. I went to retreat attendees and offered to hold their babies during sessions and while they ate, offered to clean rooms and wash dishes, whatever could think of to stay busy.

I tried to have discussions with my group members about the Bible (we were all Christians after all), travel, health, siblings, anything I could think of. And I did manage to draw a few of them into those discussions. They were nice people. But they were thoughtless and self-centered and hurtful. I even learned all the names of all their children, wrote them down, and prayed for each child every night. But I was still miserable and, emotionally and spiritually, felt my threads unspooling as the weekend went on. A few hours before we left town, while out souvenir shopping, the entire group was ooo-ing and aww-ing in a kitchen store. I walked up and down every aisle, feigned interested for about thirty seconds in the mixer 6 of the 8 women were drooling over, and finally stood in the back of the shop watching the kitten bowl until they were ready to leave.

I’d given up watching the Super Bowl with my friends, a long weekend, plus taken an additional day off work, for this. Our service was over, my hands were raw from washing dishes, I was cold. I wasn’t enjoying the snow anymore, even. I didn’t want a single souvenir. And I wasn’t interested in being around these women one more moment. I wanted to be home.

Finally, finally, we reached the airport.

As we walked through the sliding glass doors, I felt myself relax. I scanned the terminal, located the sign we needed, and headed in that direction. The others were still standing in a knot behind me, trying to get their bearings. I turned and called to them, pointing at the sign to the Delta counter, but I didn’t wait for them. Up the escalator, across the terminal, to the kiosks. I was done catering to them and didn’t call them again. But they followed, and after checking in and sending my bag up the conveyor belt, I few breaths, smiled, and helped the others check in.

I was still fighting bitterness at their thoughtlessness, but I no longer needed to be part of this group. I knew where I was and where I was going. Despite never having flown out of that airport before, I was back in the woods. Scary and disorienting for them, familiar and empowering for me. I felt like myself again: confident, capable, kind.

Going into the woods is the means to gaining what you most want. In bad experiences, the woods can provide safe passage home. You don’t have to go through the woods in life, but To get the thing / That makes it worth / The journeying, the woods really are the only option. And the more you enter the woods, the more familiar they are.

Into the wood, you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know.…
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—
And happy ever after!
(I wish!)

The Beach

I grew up 45 minutes from the beach on the marsh of the Broad River. Every Saturday from March-October for most of my childhood, Mom would pack sandwiches and Cokes and Little Debbies into a cooler and Dad would take my brother and I out in his 12’ aluminum johnboat for the day. We’d come back in time for dinner, giving my stay-at-home mom some much needed hours of quiet and the three of us some much needed time together. Once or twice a summer, we’d stand in the dining room while Mom slathered us with sun screen, fish out our sandals and plastic pales, load up another packed cooler, and head to the beach.

I was my mom’s sun baby. I could tan sitting by a sunny window and my hair was always bleached blonde by the sun. I loved being outdoors, loved the boat, and loved the beach and ocean. Although not a very strong swimmer, I knew my limits and important coastal skills like how to escape rip currents (swim parallel to the shore until you swim outside the current’s grasp, then swim back in; otherwise, you’ll tire yourself out trying to swim toward shore against the rip current and you’ll drown), and what to do about jellyfish stings (sprinkle meat tenderizer directly on the wound; DO NOT RINSE WITH WATER).

We usually parked on the north end of Hunting Island, a SC state park, and visited the light house before finding a good spot on the beach away from most of the crowds. As a state park, Hunting Island has no restaurants and only two stores on the island, one selling t-shirts and ice cream bars by the light house, the other selling a wider variety of those things, plus basic gas station fare, by the campground on the island’s far northern end. We took school trips to the island, looked for the alligator in the pond covered with algae by the welcome center, took photography exhibitions, and sometimes found really interesting birds or sand dollars or horseshoe crabs on the sand.

The last time I went to Hunting Island’s beach for the day—which is to say for the sake of the beach, not to show it to a friend or my brother’s girlfriend—I was in high school. Three friends and I packed up our towels and water bottles and books and sunglasses. We found a fairly barren stretch of sand on the southern end of the island near the old fishing pier. We took long walks and read and hung out and baked in the sun because, as we learned the painful way, the surf was full of jellyfish.

My best friend screamed, standing where the waves break, then screamed again, more insistent and shrilled, falling forward. We couldn’t see any danger—the water was too shallow for her to be struggling to swim or to have been attacked by a shark. Was it a horseshoe crab? Had she stepped on a conk shell? Got snipped by a crab or sting ray? We ran to her, finding big blisters on the back of her calf and right hand, which she’d used to pull the jellyfish off when, after jumping away and screaming, the waves had pushed it back into her.

“Pee on it!” She ordered as we helped her back to our towels. A friend grabbed her water bottle, twisted off the cap, and had begun to pour it on the stings before I could stop her. After another short scream and my pulling the bottle away from our friend, she pleaded, “I’m serious. It hurts so bad! I need one of you to pee on it! Please! Please!”

We hadn’t had trouble with jellyfish in so long that I’d taken my mom’s meat tenderizer out of my beach bag.

A man at the nearest catch of towels had seen the whole thing and dug out his family’s bottle, saving us all from the inevitable urination. I’d already ordered it in my mind. I was the only one who would be willing to do the deed, so the other two would have to hold towels up into a blind in the woods and my best friend would have to kneel or lay down in the brush. It would have been terrible, but stings are agonizing and this one was bad.

The rest of the afternoon, we stayed out of the water, and the man with the tenderizer went up and down our stretch of beach tending to the blistering pain of those who had been stung. Finally, no one was in the water. We roasted instead, knowing the relief of the water would bring more stings.

I told Tyler this story several weekends ago when I brought him to Hunting Island for the first time. We’d had lunch with my parents that morning, had done a little shopping downtown, then my parents had some errands to run and I’d really wanted to take Tyler out to the beach. It was March and windy and growing cloudy, so we packed bottles of water and sunglasses and windbreakers. We stopped by the welcome center to see the gator in her algae-covered pond. I gave Tyler the wrong directions, taking us to the southern end of the island instead of the northern end by the light house. But the island isn’t all that big, so we got to the sand and started walking north.

The ocean is trying to split the island. That’s one of the reasons why the rip currents can be so bad. It’s also why, north of the lighthouse, trees are lying in the waves and on the beach, dying, the bark stripped away by the salt, leaving white trunks and black branches. It looks like an art exhibit. On high tide, beachgoers in that area have to lay their blankets in the tree line and wade amongst the branches, being careful not to trip or let the waves push them into wood that will break skin. The rest of the island has been expanded with thousands of tons of sand over the years, and hurricanes several years in a row have washed much of it away.

So as we walked north and I told my story of the last time I’d been to the southern end of the island, Tyler asked if any of it looked familiar. “No,” I told him. “Not really. The shore was at least a hundred yards that way the last time I spent any time here,” I said, pointing into the ocean. But we kept walking, passed the lighthouse that had been erected in the mid-1800s after the ocean took the original brick lighthouse, the remains of which are more than a mile off shore.

When we reached the creek, I explained to Tyler how, on warm, sunny days, hundreds of fiddler crabs flee your feet as you walk. Because it was cool and overcast, I pointed to their holes in the pluff mud. Tyler asked if I wanted to walk up the creek, but I explained that it’s brackish and swampy and mostly just a mosquito hole. We walked on until we reached the campground store. The nearest bathrooms had been badly damaged in Matthew, last October’s hurricane, and hadn’t yet been restored or torn down, so we trekked inland until we found one. Then we headed south again, walking into the wind, making my ears cold and my nose run.

The lighthouse was closed by this point, so we walked around its base, looking at the brick foundation of the destroyed innkeepers’ house with some fellow tourists. We continued, talking and tell stories. I found a plant unique to the sea islands that we had a lot of at my house growing up, but that I hadn’t seen in years. It looks like a green lilypad on a stem and gross in slightly sandy soil near the water. I picked one, intending to weave it into my braid as we walked, but was distracted by the big, unbroken shells and the dogs walking with their owners, and Tyler’s hand in mine.

At one point, Tyler suggested that we head up to the treeline to look in the woods. It seemed kind of weird, but I thought he just wanted to be adventurous. When we got to the top of the rise, we found dead trees laying side by side for hundreds of feet before us and to either side. Some had been blown down from the roots in Hurricane Matthew. The ones that remained had been snapped off 20-30 feet up and the tops lay beside the fallen. They were utterly dead, many stripped of bark and white. It looked like a dead tree cemetery.

“Well, this is kind of depressing,” Tyler said.

“Yeah,” I answered, “But it’s kind of cool, too,” and tromped off into the trees, reminding Tyler to be careful of snakes, especially poisonous copperheads. “They should still be hibernating,” I told him, “but just in case.”

After a few minutes, after Tyler wiped the snot from beneath my nose and kissed me (evidence of love if there ever was any), we headed back to the beach and continued walking.

The next time Tyler wanted to look at an area with downed trees, I didn’t think anything about it. I jumped onto the smooth white trunk of an artful tree and walked along its base. I felt Tyler come up beside me and I turned to him, thinking he wanted a kiss (he didn’t) or a hug. While my arms were around his shoulders, he held onto my sides and pulled me off the tree. I am fleet of foot (ish) and didn’t lose my balance, but I was confused, and was still orienting myself when I realized that Tyler was moving away. He lowered to one knee, and he was holding the ring we’d designed.

The first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Really?!”

I feel rather badly about that. But, as Tyler points out when I tell this bit in person, “It was a happy, excited, ‘Really.’”

I really thought it’d be a couple more weeks. I knew Tyler had, as planned, talked to my parents the night before about his intention to ask me to marry him. They had, as I knew they would, given their blessings. But for some reason it didn’t occur to me that he’d propose the same weekend. And to him, it was obvious that he would. After all, he he wanted me to be able to see my family right away. And, as my roommate pointed out, he was tired of waiting.

He told me that he loved me and wanted to marry me and hadn’t planned out a lot of things to say because he’d known he would forget them all.

Meanwhile my brain was in overdrive. I was still holding the lilypad thing in my left hand, and I wanted to drop it because I needed my left hand, but by that point it was part of the moment and I wanted to keep it, so I switched it to my right hand and forgot about it. And apparently I took the ring out of Tyler’s hand, though I don’t remember this. I do remember feeling relieved that it was so gorgeous. Part of my brain was chanting, “THIS IS IT. PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. PAY ATTENTION, PAY ATTENTION.” Another part was going, “These are the clothes I’m getting engaged in….I wouldn’t have picked these. BUT OH WELL.”

And somewhere in here Tyler asked me to marry him, and I said yes. I kind of remember the question. I don’t remember saying yes, but he assures me that I did.

He stood up and we hugged and I was holding that ring so tightly on my left thumb. The part of my brain that had been going “PAY ATTENTION, PAY ATTENTION” was now going “DO NOT DROP IT. DO NOT DROP IT.”

Tyler pulled back and I didn’t know how to get him to put the ring onto my finger in a smooth way, so I did it. He asked if it fit, and it did. “It isn’t too loose is it?” he asked. I turned my hand and shook it so he’d see that it wouldn’t, even though my hands were cold and it was a little loose and my brain was still going, “DO NOT DROP IT.”

“Oh crap,” I thought. “Now we have to plan this thing.” But I didn’t say that out loud because we were literally still in the moment and I didn’t want to put a damper on things.

I asked that we take some selfies. We took 3 or 4, most with the trees behind us, one with the ocean. The one we like the most is the one where I remembered to put my hand on his shoulder so the ring was visible. We have the best expressions in that one, and it was right before the picture where he wasn’t smiling and I was kissing him on the cheek, squishing my nose against his cheek in a decidedly unattractive fashion.

I realized then that I had a text from Rachel, Tyler’s sister, and laughed at the timing of it. Then I remembered that, that morning, I’d scheduled a text to her about Tyler’s mom’s birthday for 5pm, and she was merely texting me back. And not letting on that she knew Tyler was going to be proposing that afternoon, and was waiting by the phone for the news. We called her first, then Tyler’s parents, then my brother, and I texted the women who would become my bridesmaids.

But while we were still on the beach, after texting Rachel back, Tyler suggested we wait until we got back to the truck to start calling people. We held hands the remainder of the walk, passing the remains of the old fishing pier. When we started to get into the truck, we heaps of sand shrugged off our shoes, so we got back out to stamp our feet and shake sand off of the floor mats, which was a very mundane thing to be doing in my brand new ring, four or five minutes after we got engaged.

We drove back to my parents’ house and I got to hug my mom immediately. They’d known the plan, of course, and hadn’t let on at all. As is the nature of mothers, I didn’t start crying until I saw her. We cried happy tears for a minute or two in the front yard, then went inside so I could hug my dad, and Tyler could hug them both.

That night, we went to a local seafood restaurant with an hour-long wait, telling my parents stories about dating and knowing each other in college, tons of funny and sweet stories they hadn’t heard before. I refused to get my normal fried shrimp because I didn’t want grease on my ring and left it with Tyler on the table when I went to the bathroom, not trusting myself with it in a public restroom just yet.

I can not imagine a better day.

Wilderness

I need another week on the proposal story (the second part to last week’s “The Ring”), so I hope you don’t mind a story from this week.

A month or so ago, I was privileged to discover Rev. on the Edge’s daily Lenten ruminations. Every day, she chose a word to explore, and one of them that I immediately responded to was “Wilderness”. The photo on her blog depicts C-3PO and R2-D2 in the red sand dunes of Tatooine, a deeply familiar image.

Even without the droids to put me at ease, desert isn’t wilderness to me. Wilderness is the woods. Wilderness is a place that, theoretically, I could, as a child, wander into and never return from. Areas I could enter, feeling confident of my way, and then become lost in. Wilderness is the big woods where Laura Ingalls lived, where Brian crashed in Hatchet, where Sam runs away to in My Side of the Mountain.

I grew up on an island on the coast of South Carolina. Family vacations were either to my grandparents’ home in rural GA near the fall line or Cherokee, NC. I remember trembling with fear when I watched a TV show’s dramatization about a Bigfoot sighting (and chase) in the Appalachian mountains. After that, I looked for hulking, hairy bodies stalking me from the woods as we drove those routes. I shivered, looking into the dark trees that edged the playground at school, behind the Holiday Inn parking lot, and my grandparents’ backyard. Wilderness was a place I could access and a place I couldn’t understand. Wilderness contained danger (poisonous snakes and poorly marked trails and kidnappers and cold and bears, and maybe Bigfoots). Wilderness could confuse and injure and trap and terrify me. Wilderness made me feel anxious, even if we were just passing through, and no amount of reading or hiking has broken me of the association.

Wilderness can also be a new social situation like the first day of school (oh, how I dreaded the first day of school) or the first day of a new camp or choir rehearsal or club meeting or doctor’s office. Even now, I equate wilderness with a new place and people I don’t know and no clear understanding of what will happen there. I faced this sort of wilderness Monday when Tyler and I went for the first time to a Bible study aimed toward engaged and newly married couples.

My social anxiety and shyness and introverted nature combine in the worst ways in social wilderness situations. I know going the first time is the hardest part. I know I’ll be nervous no matter what. I know it isn’t normal to ask a dozen questions about the format and set up and precise timeline of events and a list of likely attendees, so I don’t ask. Instead, to make the wilderness less formidable, I look up the exact directions, using Google street view to see the outside of the house, how it’ll look from the road as we approach, what the turn onto that street looks like, and back and back until I have a good sense of location and directions beforehand, as well as when we should leave to make it on time. I did this Monday afternoon, though Google Street View hasn’t traveled up that particular road before, and the satellite images were several years old.

I also fight the wilderness by planning details of my appearance so I feel more comfortable and confident. Unfortunately, on Monday I was completely out of clean jeans and my favorite work pants were dirty. I’d been out of town the weekend before, so I’d had no time to do laundry to prepare. It was also a cold day for this time of year, so I had to dig out a sweater and a scratchy coat that would match a pair of work pants that are lose in weird places.

That day, Tyler’s grandmother was admitted to the hospital (she’s doing much better now), and for a while we weren’t certain if it’d be best to visit her or go to Bible study. I found myself hoping we’d visit. You know your social anxiety is bad when the slight wilderness of an hour in a hospital you haven’t been to before to visit your fiance’s ailing relative is preferable to attending a Bible study out in the woods for the first time.

Tyler was nervous too. For days, he’d asked me a lot of questions about what the group studies and who leads and their style and what dinner would consist of. I didn’t know the answers, and with every “I don’t know,” my nerves ratcheted up another level.

On the phone with Tyler after work, as we both drove to his apartment, he told me what he’d learned about his grandmother’s health and that his dad didn’t think it’d be a good idea to visit that night. Tyler said we should just go on to Bible study. My nerves instantly spiked, my voice dropped half an octave, my answers became clipped. Tyler could hear the change.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous.”

“About going tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Try not to be nervous.”

I didn’t answer.

“It’ll be okay,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’ll be with you.”

“I know.”

When we got to his apartment, taking my hand after we hugged, he asked, “Do you still want to go?”

“No,” I said immediately, “But it’ll be just as bad next week.” The last time he’d seen me this nervous and withdrawn about an event had been before his family’s big Christmas party.

“It’s just one night,” he tried to assure me. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t like it.”

“I want to like it.”

And I did. I think it’ll be really good for us to be in a study together and with other couples in a similar life stage. But I did, desperately, wish not to go. I would have rather done most anything else.

Tyler held my hand on the drive.

I navigated, relying on the directions from my Maps app as well as my research earlier in the day. As we got further and further outside Macon, the road looked increasingly like my mental image of wilderness: thick trees and long shadows and underbrush, places to get lost in the worst ways.

Then we turned off the main road. At the top of a small rise, the road turned to dirt. I searched through the trees for any sign of the house, but it was too far away or the trees were too close together. Even though I knew from others’ stories that it was hulking, a mix of stone and wood.

We found the right gate and wove through still more trees until we arrived at the house. We backed into a space in a line of cars, right on time, but no one else was outside. We weren’t sure which door to go to. We followed a brick path to the nearest one as twilight fell in earnest, knocked, and received no answer. Tyler turned the knob and it gave. Upstairs, we could hear soft voices, so we let ourselves upstairs, me leading the way, smiling my shield, telling myself it’s going to get better. In just a moment, as soon as the leaders see us, it’s going to be better.

It was 20 minutes later before a face I recognized arrived. By then, we were learning names and wondering how the food situation would work (everything was laid out but no one was touching it) and where in the woods we were exactly. The rest of the night was like that, with no concept of what was coming next until the transition began. It’s a disconcerting way to spend an evening.

Once we were there and found the right room and were greeted by the hosts, most of my nerves calmed. The night was still difficult, and I felt caught in the unknown, but I know it won’t be so hard next time. And it did help, so much, to be there with Tyler. I tried not to lean on him too much.

Just because I’m going to have a husband and we’re going to be a team doesn’t mean I won’t have to go new places and meet new people without him. I need to continue to be able to do that. Resigning myself to the experience and the anxiety helps. So, near the end, I purposefully left a conversation Tyler was participating in to join one with strangers.

The drive back to Tyler’s apartment was much easier because we were more certain of the way. The dark had closed in, but we had things to talk about and the wilderness was slipping away with every minute.

In six months or a year, I’m sure I’ll feel familiar with every hill and turn, most of the signs and minor landmarks. I’m sure I’ll understand the pace and flow of the evening, and will probably forget to tell new people what’s going to happen before it does. But the first time in a place is always wilderness.

And unfortunately, in my limited experience so far, entering a marriage is a lot of wilderness.

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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Believe”

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!

Read:
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)

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

Preordered:
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.