Monday, January 16, 2017

Two books and a movie

It was a good weekend for stories at my house. First, I finished The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer A. Nielsen (third book in The Ascendance trilogy) and was a solid, satisfying ending to this fantasy trilogy. I'm not going to say much about the plot so as not to give away any spoilers, but I can tell you that this trilogy's strength lies in its tight pacing, great characters, and the various relationship dynamics. There may be a little romance in the books, but the story doesn't hinge on that, which was refreshing. And while the story itself isn't groundbreaking, it told a familiar story in a fresh voice and felt like the best kind of comfort food.

I also devoured A Tangle of Gold, by Jaclyn Moriarty, another trilogy conclusion (The Colours of Madeleine -- apparently this was also the weekend of trilogies). I can't say enough how much I enjoyed these books. For one thing, worldbuilding is unique and magical, grounded in reality, but a slightly bent and colored reality. Second, it's just a good story, and as the story unfolds, I kept telling myself "this isn't what it seems" or "this has to mean something" and "wait a second..."  The author does a good job of gradually pulling all these teasers and hints and glimpses into focus throughout the trilogy, and in this book in particular. It's also a book with characters that started feeling like friends. I appreciated how the characters grew and developed and learned and weren't stagnant. The books are fun, but with depth and substance, and basically, these books are delightful. I didn't want it to end and I wanted to hang out with everyone in it forever.

And finally, Sing Street. Y'all. This movie. I seriously wanted to watch it again as soon as I finished it, although preferably with a friend to share the experience. Sing Street has been on my radar for a while, and I'm so glad I finally pressed play. It's set in 1980s Dublin, where we meet Conor, a 15 year old boy who loves music. When the movie starts out he's been sent to a new school. It's rougher than his old school, and he runs into bullies both in his peers and in the school administration. He meets Raphina -- older, mysterious, edgy, and gorgeous. He tells her he's in a band and wants to use her in a music video so he can get her number. When she says okay...well, then he's got to start a band. The movie is about music, friendship, growing up, finding your voice, falling in love, heartbreak, hope, family, and taking chances. It's a coming of age movie, a brother move, a friend movie, a romance. (And for real: the number one relationship of this movie is not Conor and Raphina, it's Conor and his older brother Brendan. Such a great and unexpected part of the movie (on a side note: I kept thinking the actor looked like a cross between Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt). In addition to the brother story, I think all the supporting characters just really elevated the whole film. No matter how seemingly small a part, each character was exactly pitch perfect. Eamon, Barry, Ngig, Penny and Robert and Ann, Brother Baxter....all of them, just super solid. Anyway, I loved this movie. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Monday list

1. My first list of 2017! Umm...ok first blog list. I have already made at least two to-do lists. Three. Three to-do list. One for the day on Friday, one for the month, and one for our upcoming vacation in March. I really like lists. The other day, my two year old -- who loves paper and pens and pencils -- had a piece of paper and a pencil and said "I need to make my list." Where does she come up with this stuff? (she says sarcastically)

2. First run of 2017 -- Saturday, home in Houston, podcast on, and was actually cold. Not as cold as it is where my running friends live in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Michigan...but I had to bust out my hat and gloves, for sure. Not my best run, to be honest, but the sun was shining and I moved for 3 miles (40 minutes. Yes, I'm slow) and it was great!

3. My word of the year this year is "present." I want to embrace my present, the things I like and the things I don't. I still want to set goals and go after them, but with an attitude of contentment grounding me. I want to be present in ever day -- with my family, my friends, my neighbors. Now, my children are already reminding me that in this season of life, "present" also includes "flexible." My little people like to play havoc with my sleep, so I'm trying to remember to roll with it. Would I like to set the goal of getting up 30 minutes early each day to write or run? Sure! But when the kiddos spend the hours of 3:30 and 7 a.m. taking turns waking up, that's not going to happen. I make the time when I can. Does this mean that for this (tired) routine-loving girl those "me" things or projects may not happen as often as I'd like? Maybe so. But I guess it gives me something to work on.

4. Brought some Port City Java coffee home from Wilmington. Ahhh. In addition to adding a bit of deliciousness to my coffee cup, it makes me feel a little more connected to the dear friends we got to see while we were out there visiting over New Year's.

5. I'm reading The Shadow Kingdom by Jennifer A. Nielsen right now, and have a library copy of A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty waiting in the wings. Also trying to catch up on my favorite podcasts and still leisurely reading Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequest. I've been reading that one for a while, but it's not one I feel the need to rush through.

Happy Monday!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A milestone reached

Six years ago, Jeremy and I signed up for a money class at church mostly because a bunch of our friends were doing it too. We were pretty broke, and had quite a bit of debt, so we figured it didn't hurt to get a few ideas. Well, that particular class -- Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University -- hit us right where we needed it. It was the right information, at the right time, with the right people, and in a way that really connected with us. Taking that class put us on a more firm trajectory toward...well, financial peace. We gained a new vocabulary, new tools, and a fire in our belly to change our lives. We sat in that class living paycheck to paycheck with balances on six credit cards (a few overdue, if we're getting real honest), a vehicle payment, and a chunk of student loan debt. Today, we made the final payment on the final student loan and can greet 2017 debt free.

It's been a long and in some ways a circuitous journey. These six years have contained career changes, two major moves (one halfway across the country), and two kids. We've had our moments of focus and some times where we've chosen to be a bit more lax. We've learned to communicate better over money, and can honestly say that it's gotten to be less and less of a relationship stressor. We're on the same team, have the same goals, and that is such a good thing for us.

Paying our debt off wasn't an easy thing. We had to make sacrifices, cut corners, work long hours, and make tough choices. We've become more aquainted with delayed gratification. I'm not saying that to pat ourselves on the back, just to acknowledge that it wasn't something that just "happened." Sometimes we made choices that looked different than everyone around us. Fortunately, we also had friends walking the same road. Having support in our community was crucial to helping us stay the course and not get discouraged. They understood when we chose not to go out to eat, or go on vacation with them, or hire a babysitter to go out to the movies. They cheered us on, shared their own tips and advice, and gave us hope as we watched them experience their own debt-free journey.

I say all this for a couple of reasons: first, I'm just excited. Being debt free is an amazing feeling. A little surreal still, but amazing. Second, I know that lifestyle changes particularly with money are not as simple as "just". There's rarely an easy fix, no cut and dried solution. If you are struggling, I get it, and I hope 2017 brings a light, some clarity, and a little hope. Third, I know this journey is not over. I'm looking at a lifetime of being intentional with my money. A lifetime of deliberate choices to stay out of debt and to model good financial behavior for my kids. Most importantly, a lifetime of honoring God with the way I handle money. Being generous, ethical, and wise. Of approaching money with an open hand, knowing that what I have could be gone any second, and that when I have a penny to share, I should.

So I end this year grateful, hopeful, and a whole lot lighter.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Monday list...wait....a Wednesday list

1. I thought I'd give everyone a laugh and leave the mistake in my title. Doing my part to be transparent and make you all feel better about not being perfect. Just keeping it real.

2. The kiddos did remarkably well during the weekend of non-stop travel/driving/shuffling/big family gatherings. May have a couple of little travelers on my hands, which would be the best. But, traveling can be weary for the best of us (and M isn't the best sleeper at home so...he's not any better in unfamiliar places), so now we're camped out at Oma and Papa's house in Missouri until after Christmas, and it's nice to have a little consistency again.

3. I've almost got my Christmas shopping done. I feel like I'm forgetting something.

4. I need to run. It's been a week now. But between rain at home and  travel and cold, I'm cutting myself a little slack. Thankfully, my Dad has a treadmill (because, did I mention it's cold up here in the Midwest, y'all?)

5. Reading...I've got The Runaway King on my Kindle. I'm not moving through it very fast at the moment, but I'm also trying to finish up a Christmas stocking so I've been working on that in my down time.

Grab a blanket, hot beverage, and stay warm! (unless you're in the South, in which case....well, stay warm or cool or whatever the comfortable temperature is!)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Jeanette Blair

In my first memories of my aunt Jeanette, she was one of the coolest people I knew. Feisty, independent, and always ready with cool stories of college and Italy and family history. When my brother and I would go stay with her and my grandparents in Southern Missouri, she (and my grandparents) would take us on trips the the swimming hole, or into town for ice cream, or for visits with various extended family members. I also vividly remember spending hours telling Jeanette stories. Stories I'd read, stories I made up, or stories about things I read that I thought should have gone differently. She always listened and commented like it was the most interesting thing she'd ever heard, and was one of several people who made me believe I could be a writer and storyteller.

God and faith were number one in Jeanette's life, but family came in at a close second. Jeanette knew all the stories and was an expert on the family tree. She loved visiting and listening and talking with aunts and uncles and cousins -- no matter how distant the connection. Her roots are sunk deep in the rocky soil of the Ozarks, and the place where she grew up was part of her soul.

Jeanette was the best letter writer. She always sent cards for birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries, and they were covered with great conversation. If I wrote a letter, she'd write back. In another era, I am confident Jeanette would have been known as a person of letters. She loved watching the news and news shows, always arguing with the presenters and newscasters. In fact, she was never shy about stating her opinions about anything. This may or may not have lead to her fair share of lively "discussions".  She loved country music, reading, and singing -- she had a beautiful alto -- and crocheting. Jeanette was a caretaker. Whether it be of her nieces and nephews, her parents, or her grand-nieces and nephews, she spent her life caring for, loving on, and watching out for others.

This week, my Aunt Jeanette went home to be with Jesus. I find comfort knowing she singing old hymns, listening to stories, meeting relatives who went long before, and worshiping at the feet of Jesus. I find comfort knowing her illness was not long and painful. But still our hearts are sad and she will be very, very missed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Matthew Quick, Jojo Moyes, and Melina Marchetta have in common

I just finished reading The Good Luck of Right Now by Mathew Quick, and have to say first off that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I think Matthew Quick is best known for The Silver Linings Playbook, which I absolutely adored, and which was made into a really good film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (not as good as the book, of course, but as far as adaptations go, it was solid). He's written several other books, although I've only read one other so far (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock). When I finished The Good Luck of Right Now last night, I started thinking about some of the things I like so much about Matthew Quick's stories, and it didn't take long to draw a connection between Quick and a couple of other authors whose work I love: Jojo Moyes and Melina Marchetta.

On the surface, these authors' books have little in common aside from the fact that they are mostly contemporary fiction (Marchetta also wrote a phenomenal fantasy trilogy). Quick has written for both adult and young adult audiences. Marchetta writes young adult fiction, and Jojo Moyes writes adult fiction. Moyes is British, Marchetta is Australian, and Quick is American. Moyes books are love stories. Marchetta and Quick have some romantic elements, but that's never the center of the story.

But if you dive a little deeper, there are a couple of things about these authors' work that really resonates with me, and ties them together (if I were writing this for library use, I'd call them readalikes). First, all three have a way of setting the stage that puts you right in the middle of the story. The place of the book is as much a character as the people living there. It's little details, and a way of writing that is vivid without too much unnecessary exposition or flat, two dimensional description. Second, the characters -- both the main characters and secondary characters -- are alive. They feel like people you might meet in real life, or maybe like someone you already know. Finally, all three of these authors are masters at punching you in the gut in the best way possible. By that I mean that their stories are not all sunshine and rainbows. The characters often deal with some pretty intense, sad, hurtful, broken stuff. Life isn't always great or enjoyable, people have baggage, and things don't always go your way. the end, there is hope. People survive, and thrive, and build relationships that are good and supportive. People hope for a better future or a better right now, and they see light at the end of the darkest tunnels (Me Before You is a slight exception to this rule, but not entirely).

I think this mix of good and bad, sad and happy, life sucks and people are jerks but sometimes it doesn't and sometimes they aren't kind of storytelling feels so genuine and authentic because it most mimics real life (at least, my view of real life). Combine this aesthetic with exceptional writing, and you can understand why these three authors have become some of my go-tos.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Home and community

This past weekend we visited family in Austin for Thanksgiving. It was a great weekend -- lots of family time, football watching, book reading, outside playing, a really great run, and some Christmas thrown in (we'll be spending Christmas with a different side of the family, so we did double duty this weekend). As a bonus, we got to go to church on Sunday where we used to attend during our brief time in Austin, and we got to worship with and have lunch with a few of our dear friends that we made.

It got me to thinking about community, and about how we built such a solid little community in a city in which we lived only a year, something I'll always be grateful for. I think God new we needed these people in our life, even in a way that turned out differently than it started out (which could be and possibly one day will be a whole other blog post). It got me thinking about community, and some of the things that it takes to build the kind of community God set up for us to have. The every day, walking along side each other, in the trenches, doing life together kind of community. I think there are a lot of components to building that kind of community. Shared faith, commitment, desire. And the factor that was really on my mind this weekend was that of sharing our homes.

In some ways it's a small thing, and in others it's huge. Inviting people into your home requires a lot of vulnerability, but because of that it breaks down relationship barriers quickly. And I'm not talking about clean-for-days-and-pull-out-the-fancy-decorations. I'm talking about the I made a big pot of chili come over and share it, or come play games after dinner and don't mind the pile of laundry on the couch, or bring your kids over to play and by the way I haven't vacuumed in a week. Being real and open with people in your personal space builds trust, helps us relax with each other, and just really opens the door to doing real life together.

It's not something I always remember to do, because there have been times in my life that that kind of openness and home-sharing has just come naturally, and without thought. But sometimes you have to be deliberate. Ask, try, and make space for other people in your home. Because it's worth it.