Author: Lily

Why We Moved to Hong Kong

In my last post, I gave a brief answer to the very complicated question of why we picked up and moved to Hong Kong. Of course, there are some obvious reasons–we have wanderlust, and the timing was perfect for a new adventure since Jonathan was graduating. We found jobs in Hong Kong that match our interests and skill set. This is likely the last opportunity we will have to live abroad before we’re ready to settle down somewhere. We also have a great opportunity to save money and to travel more. But even as spontaneous and adventurous as I like to think of myself, I could never have made such a huge decision based solely on those things.

On some level, it isn’t anyone’s business but our own, and I don’t feel I owe anyone an explanation, but to my core I believe in the power of truth-telling, even when that truth is ugly.

Our three years in Columbia were unhealthy for us in many ways. We both struggled with our physical health and fitness as well as bigger issues like Jonathan’s knee surgery. I struggled off and on with disordered eating. I had several low points in my mental health (though now, after nearly a year of experimenting, we seem to have found a good treatment solution). We loved our church, but our hectic schedules made it hard to plug in outside of Sunday mornings. Most importantly, these years were not good for our marriage.

For three years, we existed largely in different worlds that overlapped only at the edges. We loved each other, and we lived peacefully together, but we were living separate lives. Jonathan learned and worked and grew and changed in his grad school community and through his hours and hours of dedicated writing. Meanwhile, I threw myself into my job, into nurturing and caring for children in my life and for friends whom I connected with deeply. Both in terms of our actual schedules and in terms of emotional energy, we gave very little to each other. And so we grew and we learned and we changed and we became in ways that we did not share with each other.

In the spring, it became clear that we had a problem that we couldn’t fix with a few date nights or meaningful conversations. We had rooted ourselves into a way of life that did not include one another, and this had taken a toll. We felt disconnected and frustrated, resentful and sad, and, in moments, a little bit hopeless. Something had to change, and in the end, we knew that it would be very difficult to make those changes if we stayed in the same place doing more or less exactly what we had been doing for the past three years.

We always speak of our time in Korea as being both the hardest and best time of our lives. The pictures and the CoT stories cast some glamour and humor over the memories, but there were moments when life there was very difficult. The thing that made it so worthwhile anyway, was how close we were to each other. We were all each other had, and we supported each other, explored together, and grew together in a sweet way.

In Columbia, I had a job that was meaningful and fulfilling and that I worked hard at. It was a job I loved and felt competent in. I had gained the respect of my peers and my superiors and the love of my students. I had a boss who became a dear, dear friend. I had amazing relationships with several families who let me into their homes and their lives to help care for their children. I had a beautiful 14-year-old girl who I loved with my whole heart and whom I took care of  like she was my daughter. I had (have) friends who I love like my own heart. And for once, my family was actually close enough to visit several times a year. I had built a home, and leaving it all behind was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

I did not do this casually. I did it because even though those things are important to me, my marriage is more important. My marriage will always be more important. And Jonathan and I had peace that moving away was the best thing for our marriage. We are not running away from our problems. We are taking them with us to a space where we can work on them without the temptation to slip back into the separate lives we had been living.

So here we are in Hong Kong, launching into a new adventure, hand in hand, faces turned toward the same horizon, waiting to see what we will discover next.

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Good Morning From Hong Kong…Some Life Updates

Well, friends, it’s been a while, and some things have changed. For starters, I’m writing this sitting in the window of my 6th floor apartment in Hong Kong. Where I live now. As of Wednesday night. (Check out the “sea view.” Really, it’s there! I swear!)

Jonathan graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing at the beginning of May after completing and defending a brilliant novel that served as his Master’s thesis. He started a job search that included local options as well as international ones. At the end of May, we both accepted jobs with the Hong Kong office of a company called I Can Read.

To get some of the FAQ’s out of the way…

When did all of this happen?

It has been a whirlwind, which is why I didn’t do any writing about the process. We applied to the jobs we’re now working at the end of April. We found out we had an official offer at the end of May. I resigned from my job (which only entailed not signing a new contract), and we took a previously scheduled vacation to Ireland and Amsterdam (amazing, btw, but not the point).

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Casual Cliffs of Moher Pic

We came back to Columbia for one day, then Jonathan flew to Kansas City to grade AP Literature exams for a week, and I flew to Phoenix to visit my sister.

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We did goat yoga in Arizona. Like you do.

My sister and I drove together to Los Angeles to see my youngest sister graduate from fashion school. Then Jonathan and I both flew home, and four days later, he moved to Hong Kong.

I stayed behind for five weeks, wrapping up our lives in Columbia and running a couple of ESL camps at my school. Meanwhile, Jonathan went through training, started working, found an apartment for us, and did a million other things all on his own. Being apart for five weeks was not fun, and it gave me such respect and sympathy for people who regularly have to be away from their spouses.

Last weekend my parents, my sister, and my nephew flew up to Columbia to help me finish up packing and moving my things to a storage unit in town.

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Best Family in World. End of Story.

On Tuesday morning, they dropped me off at the airport in Charlotte, NC, and on Wednesday night Jonathan (and some people from ICR) picked me up in Hong Kong. I start job training today.

What exactly are you doing there?

We’ve been hired by a company called I Can Read that runs literacy centers throughout Southern Asia. We are both working as literacy teachers. This is not a regular school – the best thing I can liken it to is something like a Sylvan Learning Center or other specialized tutoring center. The classes are held in the afternoon and evenings and on Saturdays. The entire focus is teaching kids to read in English using the phonemic awareness program I Can Read has created. We teach reading lessons to small groups of students ages 3-12, or sometimes just to individual students.

The company was started in Singapore by some Australians and has now expanded into Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. They have only been in Hong Kong for about two years, but they are growing rapidly. Jonathan and I work at two different centers in different locations in Hong Kong, but we are doing more or less the same thing.

Why did you move abroad again?

There is no simple answer to this question, and in fact, I think it warrants its own blog post. The short version is that Jonathan had finished his program, and it was a natural time of transition since he was looking for a job anyway. We have been interested in living abroad again ever since we returned from Korea, so when an opportunity came up for us in Hong Kong, we took a leap.

But what about your mental health?

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Need I say more?

Are you going to write about it?

Umm…heck yes. I am actually setting up a new website/instagram/twitter and possible youtube channel for all the living abroad and travel goodness. I will keep lilyellyn.com for writing about things like mental health, reading, and faith wrestling. I will post a big announcement here when the new site goes live, so be on the lookout!

For now, my goals are to get over jet lag, stay awake through training, and start devising a plan for how to make friends with the old ladies who do Tai Chi in the courtyard every morning. More to come!

 

What I’m Into: January 2018

January always feels like a long month to me. Maybe it’s because we’re over the excitement of Christmas, but it’s still winter. Or maybe it’s because so many of us are trying so hard to make some changes and start fresh, and getting started on a new habit is always the hardest part. Regardless of why, I’m glad to be finished with January and moving towards spring, which comes early in the south. Here’s what January looked like for me.

What I’m Reading:

I read 9 books in January and got 2/3 of the way through two others, so I’m feeling good about hitting my reading goal of 125 in 2018, though I know it’s still early days. Follow me on Goodreads for updates.

 

The Spy by Paulo Coelho was actually my first Coelho book. It’s fairly short and tells the story of  Mata Hari, a woman who made her debut as a dancer in Paris in the early 1900’s and charmed her way into the upper eschelons of society where she was privy to secrets. She formed relationships with many powerful men and was eventually arrested in 1917 and accused of being a spy. This is a fictional account of the actual historical person.

Coincidentally, I also read The Alice Network this month which tells the story of two women, one of whom is also a spy during WWI and is part of a network of female spies. They actually reference Mata Hari in the book as another famous female spy. I’m very into drawing connections between things I read, watch, and experience in real life, so I really enjoyed it.  I liked this book quite a bit more than I expected to and found it to be a quick read even though it’s on the long side.

I read some fantastic nonfiction this month including, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah which uses his characteristic humor to share compelling stories of growing up as a biracial child (and therefore a child conceived illegally) under apartheid in South Africa. I listened to the audio version of One Day We’ll All be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul which is a book of humorous and poignant essays about a lot of different topics dealing with race, gender, and identity. I think listening to it was the way to go because you really get to hear the author’s sense of humor. Plus the short parts at the ends of each chapter that are read by “her father” are hilarious. I also read Kelly Corrigan’s new book, Tell Me More. I really love Kelly Corrigan. Her writing reminds me of Cheryl Strayed in some ways and I thought this book was great. Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway has some great nuggets woven in, but overall I don’t think it was one of her best.

I read Sara Gruen’s newest book, At the Water’s Edge and didn’t think it was anything special. It was like Water for Elephants except substitute the circus for Scotland and and the elephant to searching for the Loch Ness Monster.

The Unseen World, however was really interesting. I’m still not entirely sure what I thought about it, but it was intriguing on several levels. It tells the story of Ada Sibelius who is raised unconventionally by her father who is a brilliant scientist who keeps Ada isolated from the experiences that most other children have growing up. When her father begins to experience the early stages of dementia, Ada is forced to join the rest of the world for the first time. Meanwhile she tries to uncover her father’s secrets before they are lost forever inside of his mind. I can’t decide if I feel like this book had one too many twists or not, but overall I really liked it.

I also read Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin for my book club. It’s roughly based on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but told entirely from the perspectives of females involved. It’s a multi-generational story of female voices that is meant to be an indictment of slut shame culture. I’m not sure if it succeeds in doing that, but it was a relatively fun and easy read.

What I’m Watching:

I finally starting watching The Crown after having it recommended to me over and over again. I’m halfway through Season 2 and I love it even though I pretty much hate Phillip. I am just one episode behind on This Is Us  and continue to think it is brilliant even though it always makes me cry. Jonathan and I have been watching The Good Place since it’s been back on. I am really impressed with the ways that show continues to be clever and creative and to take the story in new directions. I also binge-watched the first season of Riverdale which as scratched the itch I sometimes feel for Pretty Little Liars now that that’s over. The only problem is that I don’t have access to Season 2 yet so I have to wait for it to come to Netflix. Which I know is not a real problem, but still.

What I’m Writing:

I finally got back to my blog this month and posted a Favorite Books of 2017 post, my Year in Review post, my What I Plan to Read in 2018 post, and one of my favorite posts I’ve ever written, We Must Risk Delight: Or How to Combat the Devil One Tattoo at a Time.

What I’ve Been Doing:

My world is dominated by my many jobs (I run an international student program during the day, but also do a ton of after school tutoring and some freelance writing) Just after New Year’s, Jonathan left for 6 days to do some serious writing as he prepares to turn in his thesis. I have to admit, I didn’t mind having the house to myself for 6 days, though I was definitely glad to see him when he got back.

I got my new tattoo and we went to Charlotte to visit our dear friends and their (now 4 month old!) baby, Shepherd.  We also had a magical Snow Day off of school that week. It wasn’t magical because of the snow because we didn’t actually get any, even though places as close as an hour away got several inches. It was just magical because we got a surprise day off.

Shepherd

The following weekend, I took a group of 16 international students up to Asheville for the weekend. Most of them had never been and we enjoyed the artsy downtown area before heading up to a lodge on a lake that we had rented out. We went with my boss, my work wife (Rachel), and another teacher. It was such a great time. I wish I could share pictures of the kids, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing too much about my school or my students online. Just trust me when I say they are adorable.

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The other thing that dominated this month (and our lives in general) was conversations about what we will do when Jonathan graduates in May. There are a million questions with no good answers and this has frankly been a very stressful period of time. It sort of feels like hurtling towards a giant crater of unknown. My favorite.

What I’ve Been Loving:

Barre classes. Seriously. I never would have thought I would get into barre, because those classes are HARD and make me feel like I’m dying, but I keep going back. I started trying out barre back in September because my friend Meredith was getting certified to teach and have been going fairly consistently ever since. I try to get there 2-3 times a week. Every time, I don’t know why I put myself through the torture, but I also come out of it feeling like I worked really hard. This hasn’t necessarily translated into any great physical change since barre will do a lot more toning than it will overall fat burning, but I feel stronger and more graceful. I also mix it up by doing zumba about once a week, which I am terrible at, but really enjoy.

My bullet journal. Yes, it takes time to make it look like this. Time that could probably be better spent elsewhere. BUT it keeps me organized, helps me with the 3,000 things I have to do every day for different jobs and clients and friends and family members, and gives me a way to remember how I’ve spent my time. I also like that I can change up the layout every week if I want depending on what I have going on.

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My boots. If you know me in real life, you probably know that I am shoe girl. Like hardcore. I just love shoes. I’m not even going to try to defend it. This month I’ve particularly loved my boot collection. I think I wore a pair of boots every single day of January. I firmly believe there is a boot to fit every outfit and every occasion. Which is how I justify every new pair of boots I buy. And then there are boots like these, which are so extra, they are their own occasion.  But tell me, how can you have these on your feet and not feel happy?

Boots

My Letterfolk board. Jonathan surprised me with this as a birthday present. I admit, it can also be a bit of a time suck thinking of what to write and putting each of those little letters in place. But also…it’s fun! I usually post mine to Instagram. Like a cool kid.

If you want to read more posts like this, head over to Leigh Kramer’s blog and check out her link up. In the meantime, what have you loved this month? Anything recommendations for me?

 

We Must Risk Delight: Or How To Combat the Devil One Tattoo At a Time

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all bound by routine. Even the most spontaneous of humans cannot escape the cycles of time and nature. Repetition–of the sun each day, of the moon each month, of the seasons, of new years–creates a rhythm to our days. For me, these rhythms always include the ominous beats of depression and the frenzied syncopation of hypomania.

Sometimes depression is triggered by a specific event that I can point to, but most often it creeps over me slowly, the way the sun sinks slowly to the horizon at the end of the day until, seemingly all at once, it’s gone. For me, depression is caused by carrying an excessive amount of pain just as much as it is by synapses misfiring in my brain. When this happens, I am also consumed by guilt. I feel that it is wrong for me to be weighed down by pain and sadness when by most measures I live a safe and wonderful life. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to understand that the pain and the sadness I carry is often not my own.

I am a highly empathetic person and I am deeply affected by the feelings of those around me both in my daily life and in the world at large. I am particularly sensitive to their pain and suffering. This is not something I have the power to turn on and off; it is part of my nature. I cannot help absorbing the feelings of those around me the same way a sponge cannot help soaking up whatever moisture it touches. Often, I do not even consciously recognize that I am doing it until one morning I wake up feeling crushed by the weight of it all.

Last year I experienced relatively long periods of depression. In spite of many beautiful moments, the undercurrent of my days was heaviness and sadness. There was so much sorrow and injustice in the world in 2017, and I wrestled with the question, How do I dare experience joy when there is so much pain and so much grief in the world? One day as I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fantastic podcast Big Magic, I heard her quote the poet, Jack Gilbert in his poem “A Brief for the Defense.” It spoke beautifully to this exact question. I immediately found the whole poem and read it in tears at least a dozen times in a row.

A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
                         -Jack Gilbert

I still cannot express how much this moved me except to say that I knew immediately I wanted these words with me always. Without a way to burn them into my heart, I settled for inking them into my skin.

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Umm…so it is really hard to take a picture of something on your upper ribs without things going downhill really fast. It is actually straight in real life. Many thanks to my husband/photographer for making this look as appropriate as possible.

This poem gave me the answer I desperately needed, and the fog of depression slowly began to lift. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the real pain and suffering of others and to do what we can to alleviate it. One way that we fight despair is with delight. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” The question then becomes not, How dare I experience joy in this terrible world? but How dare I not?

More joy in the world is always a good thing. More hope in the world is always welcome. Experiencing peace does not dismiss the reality of suffering. Instead it points out that pain is not the only way, and it calls out injustice as evil. Perhaps the way to fight the devil is the way of the Who’s down in Whoville whose Christmas was stolen by the Grinch, but who sang in spite of it. Perhaps fighting the devil is having the courage to embrace joy instead of letting despair win.

When we see goodness for what it is and we dare to enjoy it, we give glory to the giver of every good and perfect gift. We bear the banner that says Hope still exists. Peace is not a fairytale. Joy is alive. This is a sacred calling. I do not know if this knowledge can ever save me from depression, but I believe that this is true: We must be brave. We must risk delight. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We must cling to Joy on behalf of those who cannot.

What I Plan to (Finally) Read in 2018

If you are a bibliophile like me, you’ll understand me when I say that no matter how much I read, the list of books I want to read only seems to grow longer. One of my problems with making it through that TBR (to be read) list is that I am constantly adding new books to it, and I often get so excited about the new books that I seek them out first. In other words, the longer a book has been on my TBR list, the less likelihood it has of being read, and books that I own tend to get read last since I am often reading what comes up on the hold list from the library before reading the books I already own. I’ve set my Goodreads reading goal for the year at 125 books (follow me there for updates on what I’m reading and mini-reviews!) after reading 124 this year. In addition to new releases, there are several books that have been on my TBR list for a long time that I want to make it a priority to read this year. Here are the books I hope to take off my TBR list in 2018.

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Oathbringer
by Brandon Sanderson. If you’ve read many of my book-related posts, you have without doubt read my rave reviews of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive which are some of my all-time favorite books (Way of Kings and Words of Radiance). The newest book in the series, Oathbringer, came out in November, and my lovely husband was kind enough to give it to me as a birthday present, but I have yet to crack it open, mostly because it is an overwhelming 1200+ pages in hardback. I also gave this to my dad for Christmas, so I have even more incentive to read it so I can discuss it with him. Also, my friends Josh (definitely) and Caleb (probably) have read it and I would like to talk to them about it. Basically, I need to suck it up and devote several weeks of my life to it.

IMG_0014Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I actually have gotten this book from the library before and had to return it before I could read it because there were so many waitlist requests for it. I have heard amazing reviews of this book and am especially drawn to it because it is the story of a Korean family living in exile in Japan. It is a multi-generational saga beginning in the early 1900s. Having lived in Korea for several years and knowing the tensions between Korea and Japan, I am especially interested to read this book and hopefully understand and appreciate even more a people and culture that are close to my heart.

IMG_0016A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. There are two reasons why I haven’t read this book yet. The first is because it is rather long (816 pages). The second is because I have been told (and believe) that it will absolutely wreck me emotionally. Because of that, I also assume I will completely love it since I tend to love sad books.  My understanding is that the book follows four friends in their post college, newly – adult life. It also deals with pretty serious mental illness and other related issues  which I think is part of what makes it so sad and also so meaningful to many people. I picked this book up at a library book sale after it had already been on my list for several months, so I really have no excuse not to have read it.

IMG_0017Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This is a nonfiction book written by a sociologist from Berkeley, California who moved to the Louisiana bayou (my homeland) to study the conservative right. She discovers a commonality with these people that she never expected to find as she explores the question of why the people who have the most to gain from a more liberal government are so ardently opposed to it. I am especially interested in reading this book since by all accounts it deals in a very compassionate and yet intelligent way with “my people” who I have struggled to understand for years.

IMG_0018Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I am  ashamed to recognize how long this book has been on my TBR list. I am even more ashamed to admit that my sister gave me her copy more than a year ago and I have had it on my bed stand ever since. It tells the story of a Nigerian couple desperately in love who hope for a better life in America. Ifemelu arrives in America only to find that it is not all she has dreamed it would be. Meanwhile, her lover Obinze is unable to join her thanks to post-9/11 immigration policies and immigrates to the UK instead. 13 years later they have the chance to meet again, but can they rekindle their love after so long apart? This is a story about immigration and about globalization and about love and I think it will be right up my alley which is why I am making it a priority for 2018.

IMG_0019Night Driving by Addie Zierman. I read Addie’s blog religiously and devoured her first book When We Were On Fire like it was my own story. I related to so much of what she said, and I was eager to read her second book, but by the time it came out I had gotten into a groove of reading much more fiction than nonfiction and was often at the mercy of what holds became available at the library. I bought this book in March of 2016, but never managed to read it. It’s the kind of book that I will probably read in 2 or 3 sittings once I get started, I just need to say no to the allure of the new shiny books and pick it up.

IMG_0021A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. This is another book I received Christmas of 2016 and have yet to read! I actually think owning books is detrimental to my reading at this stage because I am such a devotee of the public library. Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers and this book is a companion to her previous book, Life After Life.  Life After Life  is a brilliant, inventive novel in which the main character, Ursula Todd, is born, lives, and dies over and over again. In each life, she makes different choices that affect both her life and ultimately the whole world as much of the plot revolves around WWII.  A God in Ruins is about Teddy Todd who is Ursula’s brother. I can’t say much about the plot since I haven’t read it yet, but I believe it’s about the challenges he faces as a man with a sensitive soul who becomes an RAF bomber pilot during the war.

IMG_0023Moonglow by Michael Chabon.  Ditto for this one. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite authors (he won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2001), and Jonathan and I actually got to meet him when we lived in Raleigh at a book signing he did for his last book, Telegraph Avenue. I bought Moonglow for Jonathan last year but never ended up reading it myself. I’ll admit that I like some Chabon novels more than others, but I definitely want to give Moonglow  a fair shot. This novel is based on the conversations Chabon had with his grandfather on his deathbed in 1989. Given that Chabon is a fantastic storyteller and meticulous researcher, I have not doubt that this will be an extraordinary novel.

IMG_0025Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all time favorites, and I read another of her novels, Pigs in Heaven, on my honeymoon. I think Kingsolver is a master as a storyteller and as a naturalist. I have heard Flight Behavior called one of her most accessible books, and I have owned it for several years, but I have not read it. I know that it is (broadly speaking) a novel about an unhappily married woman who discovers a lake of fire on her way to a tryst with a younger lover. I know that it is set in Appalachia and that it is about climate change, denial and belief, but not much else. Kingsolver has never disappointed me in the past, and I am sure, given the chance, this will be no exception.

So there you have it–the books I vow to finally read in 2018. What’s on your TBR list?

 

2017 Year In Review (Or What I Was Doing While I Wasn’t Blogging)

It may be cliche, but I honestly love the New Year. Not the trappings of the holiday (I rarely leave my house and almost never make it til midnight on New Year’s Eve), but the sense of a fresh start, a clean slate, and new adventures around the corner. I know, I know, there is nothing actually magical about January 1st, and there is no guarantee that starting a new habit on the first day of the new year will make you more successful, but I still love it.

Moving into 2018, I am anticipating some potentially big changes (though I don’t know exactly what those will be). I often find it difficult to be fully present where I am because my brain is always racing ahead to future possibilities. It’s important for me to pause and reflect on the past year and to recognize the moments that stand out in my memory, especially the moments I may not have realized were important while I was living them.

We started 2017 in Costa Rica where we traveled for my brother-in-law’s wedding to a Costa Rican beauty. This was a new country for us and a new adventure, though we were a little limited in what we could do by the fact that my husband had just had major knee surgery and was in a straight-leg immobilizer the entire time. It was a very special time to spend together with my in-laws who are very dear to me.

At the end of January, I experienced several significant disappointments with my job that left me feeling undervalued and discouraged. This came at the end of a fall where I’d been working 60 hours a week at my various jobs, taking care of my husband through his surgery, and, like many people, dealing with layers of emotions about the very divisive 2016 election and its outcome. I spent the majority of the winter in a deep depression that spurred my visit to the psychiatrist at the end of February.

In mid-February, we drove to Washington D.C.  where my husband attended a conference and I got to hang out with a friend of mine from elementary – high school who lives in D.C. While Jonathan conferenced, I ate and drank my way around D.C. with Rachel. We even went to a Valentine’s ball at the Italian Embassy. I even got to re-wear my dress from the wedding. Randomly, my parents happened to be in DC at the same time so I also got to spend an afternoon with them.

It was such great fun that it marked a turning period in my mood. By the time we got back home, things were looking up. Unfortunately, they were a little too far up and I had a brief episode of hypomania where I believed I could do ALL THE THINGS!

It was at the very end of February that I had my first meeting with my psychiatrist and was formally diagnosed with several anxiety disorders and bipolar depression. Which I have written about here. And here. And also here.

In March my mom flew up to visit me during my spring break and we spent a lovely long weekend in Charleston together. One of the highlights was our dinner at 5 Church which is one of the aesthetically coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to. Having one-on-one time with my mom is a rare treat and we had such a great time we decided to make an effort to do this a few times a year.

In April, surprise! We got bedbugs. If you have had bedbugs before, you have my undying sympathy. After several weeks of being covered in massive, painful and itchy welts, but never being able to find a bug, I spotted one on the box spring and captured it. The exterminators confirmed that it was a bedbug, confirmed that they are exceptionally resilient and difficult to get rid of, and then we gave them $1000 for the privilege of moving everything fabric in our house (clothes, curtains, cushions, etc) into a trailer in our yard which was then heated to a temperature high enough to kill any bugs. In the meantime we had to take everything off of our walls and all the books off of our shelves and have the house chemically treated ceiling to floor. And then moved back in again. I do not wish this on my enemies.

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May is always a busy month for people living by a school calendar. Jonathan finished his second year of grad school and some of my students graduated from high school and moved away.

In the last few days of May I flew to Colorado and then drove several hours into the mountains to be at my brother’s wedding at the beginning of June. It was truly the most scenically beautiful wedding I’ve ever seen, and the bride looked stunning. And the next morning we all went whitewater rafting together!

At the end of June I threw Jonathan a surprise 30th birthday party that was a huge success as far as surprises go. All of the gold is because it was his golden birthday.

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Part of the reason I was able to pull of the surprise so well is because we were leaving the very next day to go to Germany to visit my brother and sister-in-law who had moved to Germany after their wedding. We had never been to Germany, so while we were there we tried to get around as much as possible. We stayed with our family in Tubingen for a while, but also traveled to Berlin (rainy and dismal) and Munich (beautiful) and spent a long weekend in Prague (like a magical fairytale kingdom). We also spent two days in Lucerne, Switzerland where I got to meet up with one of my students and her parents who are from a village nearby. It was such a cool and rewarding experience to get to know her family and see her hometown. Also, they took us up into the Alps, and we saw this guy playing his Alpine horn. Like you do. Life made.

We got back from Germany in early July and things started kicking into high gear for me at work as I worked on orientation materials and on finding placements for a brand new group of students. Unfortunately, after our return, I started a slow slide back into a depression that ate up most of the fall. The last weekend of July I squeezed in a long weekend with my college roommates up at my friend Anna’s family lake house in Wisconsin. This is a place with years of memories for us since we all started going there together during college. We’ve made it back almost every year since graduating even as we’ve moved and married and started having kids. It’s really pretty amazing.

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In August, school started back up just in time for the total solar eclipse. Our city was precisely in the path of the totality so it was an enormous event. It was one of the most moving and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever experienced and probably will ever experience. I ugly cried. I still cry every time I watch our video footage (I tried to upload the video, but my site won’t let me!)

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Over Labor Day weekend my mom came for another visit. This time we went to Asheville for a few days where we went apple picking and to a vineyard and stayed in a cozy cabin. At the end of the weekend we drove to Charlotte where we joined my sister-in-law to see Ed Sheeran in concert. I ugly cried. Perhaps you are seeing a theme here? I obviously adore Ed Sheeran, but also, he gives a fantastic concert. It is just him and his loop pedal and his adorable personality and it was so much fun.

At the end of September some of our best friends who live in Charlotte welcomed their first baby into the world. We spent several weekends in October kissing his sweet cheeks. (The baby’s, obviously). On one of those weekends, Nest Fest happened to be going on just outside of Charlotte. My friend Asharae (one of the dearest and most talented souls I know) was already there, so I felt destined to go. And I got to meet Anne Bogel (Modern Mrs. Darcy) and Tsh Oxenreider. And they signed their books for me. And took pictures with me. And I geeked out.

This fall I made a new friend at work who is one of those people I just clicked with immediately and it was like we’d known each other forever. She has been an unexpected blessing that has made many of my days brighter.

In November I came out of the depression I had been in since July. In celebration, I got a new tattoo. Daffodils are symbols of new life and Jonathan said I couldn’t get any more words. We also traveled to Ohio for Thanksgiving with my in-laws. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I did our traditional Black Friday shopping with gusto. Sure it was shameless consumerism, but we did it TOGETHER so that should count for something! When I returned from Thanksgiving break, my students surprised me with a little Christmas tree they got for my office complete with hand-decorated ornaments that each of them had made for me. I died of cuteness.

At the beginning of December I turned 30. This boggles my mind as I still routinely do things like fall to the floor in a limp pile and cry because I am “too hungry to eat,” but the official documents say it is true. One of my students even made me a cake! In celebration of this milestone, we had planned a trip to Disneyworld and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which we took as soon as school finished for the semester. It was, well, magical. We spent one day at Harry Potter, one day in the Magic Kingdom, and a final day at Epcot. The icing on the cake was that our final Disney experience was seeing the Christmas candlelight procession where they read the Christmas story from the Bible and sing all the great songs. The day that we were there, the celebrity host who was doing all of the narration was Neil Patrick Harris. It was Leg -en – wait for it – dary! (That’s a HIMYM reference.) (And THAT stands for How I Met Your Mother).

When we returned from Disney, we celebrated Christmas with my entire family who (amazingly) all came up to Columbia to spend the holiday with us. We were house sitting for some friends over Christmas so my family were all able to stay together at their house which was magical. I somehow neglected to get a group picture and just have this one with my sister Anni. Just imagine 3 more faces that look just like this plus my dad.

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This year was full of so many wonderful experiences and memories, but it was also a hard year in many ways, especially in regards to my mental health. When I look back on it though, I am filled with hope when I remember how much good there was in spite of everything, and I am encouraged that the things I remember most are not the days when I lay on my office floor doing deep breathing exercises. What I remember most were these beautiful moments with family and friends, the new experiences I had, the new students I came to love, and the new lives I welcomed into this world and into my life.

There are a lot of unknowns about 2018 and as much as I love adventure, I also love being in control. Reflecting on this past year has reminded me that even though there may be difficult days ahead, there will also be beautiful ones. There will be brokenness, and there will also be divine blessings. On to the next adventure.

Favorite Books I Read This Year

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I have some reflective posts in the works coming into the new year, but I thought it might be fun to finish up 2017 with a wrap-up of what I was doing in all the time I wasn’t writing – reading all the books.

In 2017 I read 124 books (though part of me is dying to spend the rest of today reading so that I can make it 125 which somehow seems more satisfying. We’ll see how it goes). Here’s a roundup of my favorite reads of the year. Favorite for me can mean a few different things – either that I really enjoyed it for it’s entertainment value, or that I thought it was an important book because of the subject matter, or that I thought the quality of the writing was exceptional, or in some cases, all three.

I did a decent amount of reading this year on audio. Not all books are good on audio, so recommending good audiobooks is somewhat separate from recommending good books in general. I can do a separate post on that at some point if any of you are interested. But for now…

Favorite Fiction

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This was the second book I read in 2017, which meant I set the bar for the year pretty high. The book begins in Ghana in the 18th century with two women who are half-sisters, although they do not know each other. One is captured and becomes a slave, the other is married off to a wealthy English slave trader. The book follows the two sisters’ families for the next 8 generations. This is a heartbreaking but incredibly important and well-crafted book that shows the ways that slavery and dehumanization impact generations far into the future. It’s not a happy book, but it is unforgettable. Trigger Warnings for violence and sexual assault
The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses  Louise Penny. These are the latest three in the (ongoing) Chief Inspector Gamache series. They just keep getting better and better. I love that these are set in Canada rather than New York or England. I love the richness of the characters and the world Penny has created. I love Armand Gamache and I want to be his best friend. That is all.
The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett. In a close-knit black community in Southern California, seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner is left grieving and confused after her mother’s suicide. She finds comfort in the arms of the pastor’s twenty-one year old son, Luke. But her unplanned pregnancy, and the measures the community takes to cover it up, will haunt Nadia for the rest of her life. One of the unique and compelling features of this story is the voice of “the mothers” who are the collective community of older black women from the church who sometimes step in to tell the story from their perspective.
Behold the Dreamers
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. You will probably be seeing a theme with my books by now – I tend to be most drawn in by books about how people deal with hardships, whether those are physical, emotional, economical, relational, or all of the above. This is an all of the above. Jende Jonga moves to New York City from Cameroon in search of a better life for his wife and son. He hits the jackpot when he is hired as a driver for an important Wall Street executive. Eventually, his wife Neni also finds employment with the Edwardses. But when the financial crisis hits and the Edwards family falls apart, Jende and Neni have to decide which dreams are worth fighting for.
This is How it Always IsThis is How It Always Is by Lisa Frankel. Every time I try to describe this book to people, especially more conservative people, they tend to wrinkle their noses in distaste. What is phenomenal about this book is the raw, honest way it delves into a family whose members are all trying to do the right thing, without there being any clear answer as to what the right thing is. The polarizing issue with this book is that it deals with a family whose youngest son, Claude, begins to proclaim at a very young age that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. While the central issue in this book is how Rosie and Penn (who are one of the most real and authentic couples I have seen on paper) and their three other sons, navigate how to make decisions for a child who is not old enough to make them for themselves and what happens when we keep secrets. It is a book I will think about for years to come.
Rich People ProblemsRich People Problems by Kevin Kwan. The third book in the Crazy Rich Asians series (soon to be a movie!), this is just pure voyeuristic, indulgent fun. This one happens a few years after China Rich Girlfriend when the impending death of the matriarch brings the Youngs and all of their assorted family members back to the ancestral home.
My Lady Jane
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I do not even know how to describe this book because all descriptions sound ridiculous to the point of stupidity…and yet…it is delightful. Absurd. Hilarious. Wonderful. Exceptionally good on audio. Think Princess Bride. This team of writers decided to take a classic piece of England’s history, the story of Lady Jane Gray who ruled for only 9 days during the Tudor period. Except also, half of the characters have the ability to turn into animals. Some at will, others not so much. I cannot even tell you how much fun this was and I am delighted that the authors intend to make this a series about different “Janes.” I believe the upcoming one is a retelling of Jane Eyre.
Bear TownBeartown by Fredrik Backman. Backman became a favorite author of mine this year. I had previously read A Man Called Ove and this year I read his three other major works in translation, Beartown, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, and  Britt-Marie Was Here. I highly recommend all of these, but thought Beartown was the standout for m this year. For being a book that revolves around the fate of a junior ice hockey team (a subject I could not care less about), I found this amazingly compelling. This was partly because the real story here is about a dying town with one thing to rally around – the hockey team – and what happens when the fate of the hockey team (and therefore the town) is put in peril by the accusations of a teenage girl of violence at the hands of the team’s star player. It is an exploration of community, of rape culture, of how we choose who and what we believe and what we are willing to ignore. It is gut-wrenching, but it is also a story of courage. Trigger Warning for sexual assault.

 

The Lightkeepers.jpgThe Lightkeepers by Abbi Geni. I honestly don’t understand why nobody is talking about this book. I heard about it from my dear friend and partner in all things book-related, Lorien, but she is the only person I know who has even heard of it. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. The writing is lyrical and haunting, but the thing that struck me most was the sense of place. Every time I picked up this book I had the sense of being transported. Miranda is a nature photographer who has come to the Farallon Islands off of the coast of California to do landscape photography. The only natural inhabitants of these stark and forbidding islands are the animals. She joins a group of biologists each of whom has come to the islands for their own purposes. The inciting incident is an assault that Miranda experiences at the hands of one of her companions. The plot thickens when her assailant’s body is found a few days later, possibly of mysterious causes. In some ways this is a mystery, but much more than a whodunit, this is a story about trust and suspicion, loss and recovery, and the power of natural beauty.
Little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng has quickly become one of my favorite up and coming authors. While not everyone would agree, my love of somewhat sad domestic dramas made her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You a favorite of mine last year. I do think Little Fires Everywhere is a little less sad, if that’s a thing for you, but hits all the same great notes of exploring the multi-dimensional relationship dynamics within a family. Mia and her teenaged daughter Pearl have moved around a lot. When they move into a rental property owned by the wealthy Richardson family, Pearl becomes friends (and maybe more than friends) with their four teenage children. Meanwhile Izzy, the youngest and most misunderstood Richardson child, apprentices herself to free-spirited artist Mia. An Asian baby is found abandoned in their affluent Cleveland suburb and a prominent white family who are friends of the Richardsons attempts to adopt her, but when the birth mother comes forward and wants to take her baby back, members of the Richardson family, and Mia and Pearl, take sides. For Pearl, the adoption brings up questions about her own origins that she has never dared to ask. For others, it is questions of heritage and culture – what part of her cultural identity will an Asian child lose by being raised by white parents? This book manages to be incredibly accessible, fast-paced and engaging while dealing with a slew of complicated issues.
 

Favorite Non-Fiction

Braving the WildernessBraving the Wilderness by Brene’ Brown. Brene’ Brown has a profound way of hitting the nail right on the head. This book is very similar in tone to her last two books, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. To be completely honest, the amount of brand new content in this book was not enough to really justify an entire stand-alone book, but everything in it is so good that I still count it as a favorite of the year. The part that hit me hardest (in a good way) was when she wrote about not dehumanizing people we don’t agree with and how this has to work both ways. “Here is what I believe: 1. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters calledbitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May. 2. If you felt belittled when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “
‘a basket of deplorables’ then you should have felt equally concerned when Eric Trump said ‘Democrats aren’t even human.’…We must never tolerate dehumanizations–the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.”
51piNDg89UL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Little Princes: One Man’s Promis to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal  by Conor Grennan. Connor Grennan was a regular Joe hoping to see the world and have fun doing it. As a way to seem like less of a selfish jerk to the people back home he decided to start his trip around the world by volunteering for a few months in Nepal, because who can argue with that? In the end, the children of Nepal captured his heart and upset his entire life. You may have qualms about whether or not Grennan went about his work in the best way. You can argue that he should have worked with existing NGO’s instead of creating yet another. You could argue that there’s a bit of a “white man coming in to save the poor Nepali” to this story. I don’t care. It’s still a story about a young man who allowed himself to be moved by the needs of others to the extent that it changed his entire life. May we all be so bold in pursuing with passion the causes that are most dear to our hearts.
EvictedEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. This book was an absolutely eye-opening (and somewhat horrifying) look at the way the housing and social service system is designed so that landlords in impoverished communities directly and intentionally profit from the misfortunes of others without every giving them a fair chance to improve their situation. There are people living in my own neighborhood who I believe are in these kinds of situations and understanding everything they are up against was both enlightening and disheartening. This is such an important book, especially for people who believe that homelessness is always the product of an individual’s bad choices.
A Mother's ReckoningA Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. I am not sure what it was that sparked a sudden interest in Columbine, but I first read Dave Cullen’s more journalistic account of exactly what happened in the Columbine shootings (which was also very interesting, especially seeing the way the media handled the situation and the blatant misinformation that has remained attached to the incident to this day) which led to this account written by shooter Dylan Klebold’s mother. This is heart-wrenching in many ways, but more than anything, it reads like a cry to other parents to recognize signs of adolescent depression which can be much different than depression in adults. At the end of the day Sue Klebold was left in one of the hardest positions of all. She lost her baby to suicide never having known the depth of pain he was in, but she also had to live with the knowledge that he had killed other children too. While she does not excuse this in any way, I think this account is truly valuable because, unlike Eric Harris, the other shooter and arguably the mastermind behind the shootings, Dylan Klebold was not a psychopath. While it is scarier to accept that “regular” people can come to such a point of pain and confusion that they could do something so horrific, it is important to understand. It is also important to remember that the loss of a life is a tragedy, no matter what the person’s sins were.
The Sound of GravelThe Sound of Gravel  by Ruth Wariner. This was my favorite nonfiction book of 2017. I admit that I have a fascination with polygamist cults. This book was riveting, not only because the situation is so bizarre and fascinating, but because the writing is exceptional. Ruth Wariner was born Ruth LeBaron, the 39th of her father’s 42 children from seven wives. This is the story of Ruth and her family trying to survive after the murder of her father, about Ruth’s growing into adulthood and awareness of all that is not right with her world and the values she has been taught to hold onto, and her eventual dramatic escape from the cult. It is mesmerizing, and heartbreaking, and hopeful. One of the most amazing things is how tenderly she writes about her mother and other adults in her life who were primarily responsible for her growing up in such an unhealthy environment. While she does not excuse their actions, she writes with an empathy that can only come from genuine forgiveness which is why I think her book is so powerful.
Hillbilly ElegyHillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. This book has received a lot of hype after making the New York Times bestseller list, partly because of its timeliness in our current political landscape. Though this is not a book about politics. It is a book about the salt of the earth people of rural Kentucky and Ohio. Vance grew up as one of these people and later went on to join the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. Returning to his childhood and the people and culture that raised him, he tenderly unpacks the beliefs and motivations of a people who believed themselves to be overlooked and unable to attain the American dream and how these feelings and ideas have played into some of the social and politcal opinions held by the vast majority of people in these communities. It is insightful and compassionate and worth the read.
You'll Grow Out of ItYou’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein. This book surprised me. With the exceptioin of the essay on porn (not my jam) I found this collection of essays, which I anticipated being mostly comic in nature, to be insightful and perceptive and to speak to the many facets of what it means to be a woman in the world today. It is fun and funny, but also full of moments that I could resonate with and it left me with a lot to think about.
Cork DorkCork Dork Bianca Bosker. This was my most recent nonfiction read and while I will admit that it took me while to work through, I still found it fascinating. If you watched and enjoyed the Netflix documentary, Somm then this is for you. Booker quit her job as a technology writer in order to delve into the world of sommeliers–the wine elitists who spend not only their careers, but nearly all of their waking hours studying, smelling, tasting, and breathing wine. She delves into their inner world until she actually joins in when she decides to dedicate herself to the task of passing the exam to become a certified sommelier.
So there you have it. Have you read any of these? What did you think? What were your favorite reads this year?