Monday, October 16, 2017

How to Read More Books

People always say they're looking for more time to read. If that's the case for you, here are some small, practical steps to get you started.

  • Get up early
  • Stay up late
  • Quit work/school
  • Train your pets to read aloud
  • Send your kids outside
  • Send your kids to Grandma's
  • Send your kids to the moon
  • Fill your swimming pool with books; jump in and never come out
  • Prop a book against the counter while you wash dishes
  • Prop a book in front of the TV
  • Suspend a book from the ceiling on wires and hooks next to the shower
  • Mount a book on the ceiling above your bed; use a T-rex grabby arm to turn pages
  • Listen to audio books while you clean
  • Listen to audio books while you run
  • Listen to audio books while you sleep
  • Give up sleep completely
  • Glue a book to your face

If you're ready to read and looking for a good place to start, consider one of my books - or, honestly, any of the billion other awesome ones out there. There are tons of great books but only one you; you'll never get to them all, but do your best to make a dent.

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Photo credit:

By Deivison Amaral (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why You Haven't Heard of Bezalel and Oholiab

In Exodus 31, Yahweh calls two artists to take the lead in constructing the Tabernacle--the portable tent in which the Israelites would worship Him.
The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you (Exodus 31:1-6, emphasis mine).
Some principles from this passage:
  1. Art, beauty, and craftsmanship matter to God.
  2. Artistic gift as worship is an outwork of the Spirit.
  3. Such gifts are given for a purpose.
  4. Bezalel and Oholiab matter.
What do I mean, Bezalel and Oholiab matter? And if they matter so much, then why have most church-goers never heard of them?

Artists Matter

Bezalel and Oholiab were gifted and called by Yahweh for a specific purpose: to create a space in which He would be worshipped by all Israel. 
Bezalel and Oholiab were God's personal choice for this job. And their calling as artists was so sacred that their names were preserved for posterity (Ryken, 19).  
God thought these two men important enough to be named in Scripture, and yet most of us wouldn't recognize their names, despite the fact that they're mentioned repeatedly throughout this section. Why?

While there's certainly something to be said here about biblical illiteracy, even Christians with basic Bible knowledge still struggle to place these two. The sad fact is that they're named in connection with something that the vast majority of society finds boring and unimportant: the process of applying artistic gift to worship.

Art Matters

Notice I don't say that God finds their work boring and unimportant. Far from it! He not only goes out of his way to have their names recorded in Exodus, but he also allows the ensuing passages to go into specific detail regarding the intricate work they will do to erect the tabernacle: the plans, materials, the construction process, the methods.

The implications are clear: Artists and their art both matter to God.

I believe that if art as worship and artists as servants of God were valued by people who crafted children's Sunday school curriculum, more of us would recognize these two.

But we don't.

That says something.

And I'm not sure it's a good thing.

* * * * *


Ryken, Philip Graham. Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, 2006.

Image Attribution:

Monday, October 2, 2017

How to Tell If It's Fall in Florida

How to Tell If It's Fall in Florida
  • Homes sport seasonal decorations. No, wait--those are just storm shutters.
  • School is back in session. Unless there's a tropical weather event. Then it's pretty much Summer, Part 2.
  • Trees turn brown and leaves litter the walkways. Because Hurricane Irma killed them. 
  • Pumpkin Spice Lattes have returned. If you don't mind sipping hot drinks while sweating profusely, have at it.
  • It's getting dark earlier. Either that or you left your hurricane shutters up. 
  • It's raining less. Barring the arrival of a tropical system, you're seeing fewer towering thunderheads in the afternoons. Enjoy the fact that your street is no longer a wake zone! 
  • Traffic flow congeals. Whether it's snowbirds returning from up north or storm evacuees trying to make it home, suddenly everyone's on the roads at the same time. But that's fine: it just gives your car A/C time to cool down your pumpkin spice latte enough that you can sip it without suffering heat stroke. 
  • People have traded in their flip-flops for closed-toed shoes. Just kidding. This is Florida. That never happens.
Wherever you are today and whatever weather you're experiencing, I hope you enjoy it to the fullest. 

As for me, I'll just be over here cowering behind my still-up hurricane shutters, praying they're enough to protect me from the molten wrath of Florida's late-autumn sun.

* * * * *

In the mood for a good read? Check out my books on Amazon.

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Photo Credit:
By Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Opposite of a Whirlwind: Release Week Ramblings

This coming Friday, September 29, 2017, my novel Collapsible finally releases. 

To say that the whole experience has been a whirlwind would be the opposite of how it's felt so far.

Things So Far

I wrote the first draft in 2014, started sending queries in 2015, signed a three-book contract and completed the trilogy during 2016, wrote and rewrote the story about eighty gazillion times throughout, and now here we are, finally on the cusp publication in the fall of 2017.

So the word whirlwind doesn't quite work. I spent some time trying to come up with a good metaphor to express my publication experiences, but so far I've had trouble hitting on one that really fits the bill emotionally. 

Here are a few options:
  • being slowly compressed in a trash compactor with 1,000 helium balloons 
  • rolling drowsily down a hill to escape a volcanic eruption of maple syrup
  • trapped in refrigerated storage unit while being force-fed ice cream cake by leaders of the Spanish Inquisition
  • enduring a long, listless underwater bus crash set to polka music

This isn't my first publishing rodeo (I have a handful of plays and sacred scripts on the market); but somehow releasing a book feels different.

I think about my books all the time but have a hard time talking about them. (Talking about unpublished work feels impossible for a lot of reasons, but that topic requires its own post.)

I'm fiercely excited and ferociously nervous. 

Perhaps the best metaphor for my release week experience is this: I'm tap dancing in the corner on roller skates with a paper bag in each hand in case I hyperventilate or throw up. (Or both.) know.

Business as usual.

Some Helpful Information

Of all the questions people have asked me about my books, the most common is this: "Will they be on Amazon?" 

The answer is yes. As a matter of fact, Friday's release is up for pre-order:

Other Releases

In true over-the-top fashion, I have five books coming out in the next six months. The next two stand alone, and the following two will complete the Collapsible trilogy.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Singles: How Pastors, Marrieds, and Church Leaders Effectively Support Solo Members (November 7, 2017)

Murder on Birchardville Hill (December, 2017)

Flexible: A Novel of Mystery, Drama, Rehabilitation, Spiders, and the Occasional Head Wound (January, 2018)

Unbreakable: A Novel of Relationships, Getaways, Teep Kicks, Bacon, Nuptials, and the Occasional Stabbing (March, 2018)

And yes, they will also be on Amazon. Everything's on Amazon. So keep your beady little eyes peeled, and I'll see you over there.

I'll be the one tap dancing in the corner. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ruth's Rules for Hurricanes

  1. Charge all devices! You might blow away in the storm, but at least you'll have enough battery to call home from Oz.
  2. Give the house a manic cleaning. If you're going to be trapped inside for 36 hours, you might as well not be stuck in a sty. 
  3. Take final shower AFTER cleaning but BEFORE filling the tub with emergency water.
  4. Drill at least one peep hole in your hurricane shutters. How else will you witness your neighbor's palm tree uprooting itself and flying through the air like a javelin?
  5. Log into Overdrive and download every library book. (Your actual books might blow away if the roof comes off). 
  6. Realize you have no safe place to stash your car. Encase it in cling wrap and submerge in the canal behind your house.
  7. Panic-buy supplies because you never got around to stocking your hurricane kit at the beginning of the season. (Don't forget the dried fruit! You'll thank yourself later when everyone else has gone without roughage for a while.)
  8. Realize you never bought water and that it's too late because every store in the Eastern seaboard is sold out. Panic for a full ten seconds; then remember that your kitchen still works. (And still exists.) Fill Tupperware containers and Ziplock bags and mixing bowls and measuring cups from the tap and store them in the fridge like the rational problem-solver that you are. 
  9. Monitor rising water levels, trying not to dwell on the fact that the canal behind your house is full of alligators and that you could soon be facing a nightmare Captain Hook situation. Toss alarm clocks into the canal for gator-tracking purposes. (Just try not to hit your car.)
  10. Respond to panicked texts from out-of-town relatives right away. Assert that no matter what the over-the-top national weather services are reporting, Florida is not going to be wiped off the map. Though we might wake up when it's over and discover a sailboat in the lobby of city hall, the state of the Union will likely be preserved. 
* * * * * *

Photo Credit:
By Daniel Di Palma (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 4, 2017

If I Wrote the Poems, Part 1 - "The Riddle of Strider" by Ruth R.R. Tolkien

The Riddle of Strider 
by Ruth R.R. Tolkien

All that is cold is not bitter
Not all the condors are lost 
The old and confused often dither 
Teeth roots are not touched by the floss

The silence at last shall be broken
A tiny white rabbit shall sing 
Set fire to the bed you awoke in 
The soundless Big Ben shall then ring

* * * * *

Click Here to read the original poem,
which is supposedly "objectively better" or whatever,
and tune in next week for Part 2 in the series.

I have great plans.

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Photo Credit:

By Eagle_and_child_Oxford.JPG: Gunnar Bach Pedersenderivative work: Rondador (talk) - Eagle_and_child_Oxford.JPG, Public Domain, Link

Monday, August 28, 2017

A True Story by Bethany Buchanan

Guest Post by

I thought it was a sweet gig. And it was at first.

I had lived in the barn apartment for almost a year, and things were going well. It had always been a dream of mine to live in a barn and take care of the horses. High aspirations, I know. But I was finally living the dream. My landlords, John and Priscilla, lived in the main house, and couldn’t be nicer.

Every summer they went away for about two months to go sailing in and around Europe. As part of keeping things going at home while they were away, they asked me to drive their three vehicles to keep the batteries charged.

The truck was easy; but Priscilla’s car, a Mercedes, was much fancier a car than I am used to driving. For the past decade, I have driven a Ford F150 STX which is the most basic model of F150 available. It doesn’t even have power windows or power locks. So getting behind the wheel of Priscilla’s Mercedes felt like strapping into the space shuttle.

John’s car was an Audi A4 convertible. I have always had a soft spot for convertibles, so his was the car I was really looking forward to driving over the summer. Trips to the bank, post office, and grocery store would be a delight. But after only a few weeks, the car started having a harder time turning over when I turned the ignition switch. Thinking that perhaps once a week was not often enough to keep the battery well charged, I decided to drive it more often. But soon enough, one evening I found the battery completely dead. 

That weekend my sister Ruth came over for dinner and to hang out on Friday evening. We used her car to jump the Audi, and I drove it over to the mechanic’s which is only a mile away. The guys there said they would be happy to replace the battery, and I walked home. By Monday evening I got the call that the car was ready , and I could come pick it up. However, I waited until Friday evening to do so when I could get a ride over from Ruth instead of taking the time to hoof it over during the day. 

The next day, I was working as announcer at a local schooling Hunter/Jumper show. It was just a couple of miles up the road. I decided to take the Audi. After the show was over and I was leaving, I put the top down for the short drive home. I pressed the button, and the top unlatched, the trunk hatch opened to receive the soft top, and the soft top slowly started to fold itself back into the trunk.

And half-way there it stopped.

The trunk hatch was open, and the soft top was sticking straight up in the air. Nothing was moving. After a few seconds where nothing happened, I pressed the button the put the top back up. To my great relief the soft top started to close over me once again. But when it clunked down onto the top of the windshield, it stopped. It did not latch into place, and the trunk hatch remained open, blocking my view in the rear-view mirror. 

Once more I pressed the button to put the top up, but nothing happened. I pushed it the other was to see if the top would go down, but still no response. I turned off the engine and started the car again, but there was no sign of life from the convertible top. I was in a pickle.

I decided to drive the Audi straight back to the shop, which mercifully was only a few miles away. Since the trunk hatch was still open and sticking straight up in the air, I drove at a snail’s pace. Not daring to go over ten miles per hour, I hugged the right shoulder and crept along the fairly busy two-lane highway which connected the horse-show facility to the garage. 

When the mechanics finally checked the car out on Monday, they called to say the switch would need to be replaced. Finally I got the call that the car was ready, and I could come pick it up any time. Unfortunately, I was insanely busy. So it was a couple of weeks before I got a ride from a friend in the evening to go get it. 

The Sunday after I picked it up, I drove it to church on a beautiful clear morning. It wasn’t too hot yet, so I put the top down on my way to church. When I arrived, I put the top back up, because you can never trust Florida during the summer. A sudden shower can come out of nowhere and soak everything within moments.

After church, I went out to lunch with some friends as is my usual custom. It was quite cold in the restaurant, and I did not have a jacket. By the time we finished lunch I was glad to go out into the heat. Even though it was the hottest part of the day and the sun was shining brightly, I decided to put the top down for the quick jaunt home.

I sat in the parking lot of the restaurant and pressed the button to put the top down. The top unlatched, the trunk hatch opened to receive the soft top, and the soft top slowly started to fold itself back into the trunk. And half-way there it stopped. The trunk hatch was open, and the soft top was sticking straight up in the air, and nothing was moving.

I couldn’t believe it. I pressed the button the put the top back up, and the soft top started to close over me once again. But when it clunked down onto the top of the windshield, it stopped. It did not latch into place, and the trunk hatch remained open, blocking my view in the rear-view mirror. Just like last time. Only this time I was twelve miles from home instead of two or three.

I turned on the hazard lights and crept out of the parking lot. I believe it is an unarguable fact that there are a lot of idiot drivers in South Florida. As I drove slowly along the two-lane road I hugged the right shoulder to make it easier for overtaking cars to pass me when the lines on the road and oncoming traffic allowed it. However, at least one car decided that that meant there was plenty of room on the road for me, him, and the oncoming car to be in the two lanes all at the same time. 

At one point, a man on a motorcycle passed me going the other way; he then turned around, got behind me, and shouted that I should pull over. I pulled in to a fire department and asked if he was a mechanic. “Of sorts” was his response, which meant no. But he wanted to help. He opened the fuse box and checked to make sure it wasn’t a blown fuse. Which it wasn’t, but I told him I appreciated the effort all the same.

Once I was out of traffic on the long stretch of road between counties, things were less stressful, but no more enjoyable. The road has a wide shoulder as well as a bike lane, so I was able to get all the way out of the driving lane and putter down the shoulder. The song “Driving Slow on Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5 popped into my head, but I don’t think this was exactly what the singer had in mind.

What should have been a fifteen minute drive took an hour and twenty minutes. I had failed to charge my phone the night before, so my phone battery was only at 5%. I didn't even have my music or podcasts to help pass the time. And I don’t like listening to the radio. I tried not to think of all the things I needed to get done at home. I reminded myself that Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. I tried to enjoy the scenery. I tried to be thankful that I didn’t have to walk everywhere. 

Once home, I drove the car straight into the garage. As far as I am concerned, there it can sit until John gets home. John and Priscilla have an office manager who used to have the same car, and as I have been keeping her apprised via text of what’s been going on with the car, her response has been, “Thank you for reminding me why I don’t own that car anymore! Lol.”

Thanks, Linda.

Monday, August 21, 2017

How Not to Make Your Own Solar Eclipse Glasses

There seem to be a lot of crazy ideas floating around about how to view the solar eclipse without sizzling your retinas.

Perhaps this should go without saying, but no matter what you've read on the internet, it is absolutely NOT safe to view the eclipse through any of the following:
  • Fake nose-and-glasses sets
  • Rolled up federal tax forms
  • Two doughnuts
  • Light mist from a garden sprinkler
  • Clear plastic spoons
  • A coconut bikini top
  • Bladder of a Portuguese man o' war
  • Antique monocle and/or pince-nez
  • Two mason jars filled with honey
  • Cheesecloth Zorro mask with no eye slits
  • Half a ping-pong ball on a stick
  • Disposable contact lenses
  • A one-way mirror
  • Straw hat over face
  • Petroleum jelly smeared directly on eyeballs
No matter what, do NOT use any of the above to view the eclipse. If you haven't had time to track down real solar eclipse glasses, make note to figure it out before the next one.

As for me, I plan to spend the day indoors with a cardboard box over my head - just to be safe.

Photo Credit:

By NASA/SDO [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Fault in My Stars: My Problematic Book-Rating System

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Cassius, Julius Caesar, (I, ii, 140-141)
William Shakespeare

I've been reviewing books online since 2011. In the last six years, I've read and reviewed over 1,200 books on Goodreads, writing short assessments and assigning star ratings for most of them.

I do have a system for assigning stars - though, admittedly, a subjective one. Since writing is both art and science, there's simply no way to assess a book objectively. However, I try my best to be straightforward.

Below in bold, you'll see how the star ratings are explained in the Goodreads system. Beneath is my explanation for how I assign them.

1 star - "I didn't like it." 

I don't use this rating very often, mostly because if I don't like a book, I don't finish it. If I do give one star, though, I explain why; but my reviews aren't mean or vindictive. They're an honest assessment of my reaction to the book: the story, the development, the writing, the dialogue, or some combination of those elements.

2 stars - "It was ok." 

For the most part, the books that I assign two stars aren't horrible: they're just not for me. Though some authors might be insulted by a 2-star review, I don't think they should be. Two stars means I actually read your whole book even though nothing about it particularly gripped me. So even though I clearly wasn't in the book's target demographic, you must have done something right.

3 stars - "I liked it." 

Good news! A three-star review means I stayed fully engaged the whole time. More than that, I got into it. I stressed over the characters or laughed out loud or genuinely learned new things. A three-star book is one I'll recommended - both generally online and specifically to friends and fellow readers who I know will appreciate it.

4 stars - "I really liked it." 

A four-star book offers more than just an enjoyable reading experience. It also has something that sets it apart: at least one element that the author does extremely well. Either the plot's perfect, the development exquisite, or the dialogue just killer. Whatever the reason, these books are clearly a cut above. If the writer has any other books out, I will track them down and read them. And I'll do more than just recommend these books: I'll actually pick up extra copies at used book stores and keep them on hand to loan out.

5 stars - "It was amazing."
Five-star books are better than great. They're rock-my-world amazing. Five-star reads not only do everything right and have standout elements, but they go further. They transcended genre and set a new bar for future reading experiences. I believe that any reader, regardless of taste or usual reading choices, would enjoy these. They're the books I'll come back to again and again. And I will do more than just recommend these and keep extras on hand. I'll buy multiple copies and pass them out unsolicited to friends, family, and fellow readers.

No Stars

Occasionally I don't assign a star rating. In some cases, it's because I have a personal connection to the author (we either know each other, share an editor, or write for the same publisher). In such cases, anything less than a 5-star review might offend; and yet unless those stars are truly earned, I would feel dishonest giving them (since I know that quite a few followers base their book selections around my reviews). Sidestepping the pressure, I write some honest thoughts about the book (although not all my thoughts) and post the review with no stars.

In other cases, I don't assign stars because I recognize that my personal response to the book has been unreasonably negative. Whether I take issue with the plot or the writer's underlying worldview, I dislike the book -- yet I recognize that my reaction is disproportionate, so I refrain.

My Turn's Coming

With my first books set to release this fall, I'm curious to see how my reaction to my books' online reviews will temper how I write them. Because that's bound to happen.

To keep up with my reading, feel free to follow me on Goodreads

See you over there!

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Notes from the Back of the Pack

This past weekend, I ran a 5k with my favorite running partner, who is currently thirty-four weeks pregnant. Having decided ahead of time to let her race-day condition dictate the pace, we planned a quick 5-minute warm-up walk and then some tight little run/walk intervals for the duration of the race. We started at the very back of the pack so that we weren't immediately trampled.

As a solid middle-of-the-pack runner, I'm accustomed to a race start quickly giving way to the rhythm of slapping steps and measured breathing. At the back of the pack, however, we joined a cheery throng of good-hearted jokesters, who commenced the race calling encouragement to one another and exchanging friendly insults. Jostling and shuffling their way across the start line, they fell into no recognizable pattern or rhythm. 

These people knew themselves. They were under no illusions about what we were all doing at the back. These were the fast walkers, fast talkers, and don't-care-about-the-clock-ers. 

And let me tell you, we loved it back there.

We quickly learned the advantages of running from the back of the pack:
  1. Less overt competition! No one at the back is in it to win it.
  2. Leisurely pace! You don't feel pressure to stay out of anyone's way.
  3. Entertainment! Surrounding runners actually have wind to chat -- and so do you.
  4. Free ego boost! If you bump into people you know, it's generally because you're passing them.
Not that it's a competition. That's what this race reminded me.

While I've never been fiercely competitive with others, I sometimes feel that I'm engaged in one long war against myself. Running has been no exception, and since I picked up the habit a few years ago, I've been constantly pushing for longer runs at higher speeds. It's never just about the running for me. There's always another goal.

This race reminded me, however, that not every event needs to trigger an internal battle. 

Sometimes it's okay to lean back and enjoy the run.

* * * *

Photo Credit:

By Fit stezky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 31, 2017

10 Book Quotes Guaranteed to Make You Feel Feelings

10 Book Quotes Guaranteed to Make You Feel Feelings:

"It's not time to worry yet."
"The rain, it raineth every day."
"We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness."
"Kiss me, Hardy. Kiss me quick!"
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...Come further up, come further in!” 
"I have been loved," Edward told the stars.
“In this hour, I do not believe that any darkness will endure.” 
"Hey! Unto you a child is born!"
There was the sudden heart-stopping high-pitched whine of a siren, and the entire square fell silent, listening, and then--as they realized it was the all clear--erupted into cheers.
I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.

* * * * *

If these quotes don't make you feel feelings, perhaps you haven't read the books. Or maybe you're a monster. I'm not here to judge.

Do you have lines that always give your feelings a workout? Feel free to share. It's a rainy Monday morning, and I have a mug of hot coffee and a full box of tissues. 

Ruth's Feelings-Inducing Cheat Sheet:

Photo Credit

By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Well-Edited Life

This has been a summer of edits for me. This week is no exception. As soon as I finish this post, I plan to start working my way through a manuscript fresh an editor's metaphorical red pen.

No matter how good my editor is, I'm going come up against some edits that I don't like. What I see as perfectly good phrasings will be rejected. My seemingly-logical thought progressions will be questioned. Entire chapters might disappear. (It's happened before. It could happen again.)

But I'm not wholly dreading the process. For one thing, I've learned to appreciate good editing. While I may question some suggestions in the heat of the moment, I have seen that in the long run, each of my works has benefited greatly from a strong editorial hand.

I'm also aware that editorial pain is temporary. Between the time I revise the manuscript and the time the proofs come out, a funny thing happens. Those edit suggestions that initially incensed me? I can barely remember what they were. They now blend seamlessly into a smoothly-flowing manuscript. Those missing chapters? I can hardly remember what was in them or why I thought they were so important. It's like they never existed.

In that sense, the editing process parallels my life.

As I look back, I see how clearly God has rearranged timelines, re-directed plot threads, and cut chapters (and entire characters!) that I considered essential to my story. Just like any good editor, he's less concerned with temporarily hurting my feelings and more focused on strengthening the finished product.

That doesn't mean the editing process feels good.

But it helps to remember that the pain is temporary.

Weeping endures for a night. Joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

* * * * *

Photo Attribution:

By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 17, 2017

Great Read-Aloud Recommendations for Kids [Updated!]

[Note: This was originally posted on January 23, 2015, and has since been updated for content.]

Every day I read aloud to the five Podlings in my care. This group currently ranges in age from sixteen down to six. Since more than a few people have asked how I choose the books to read aloud (or have asked for lists/recommendations), I thought I'd share what we've read together so far and where I plan to take them in the future.

But first, some disclaimers.

How I Choose Read-Aloud Books 

Since I read a lot anyway, having access to an ever-expanding list of possibilities isn't really a problem.

When the time comes to start a new book with the kids, my decision process goes something like this:

1) Have I read it and enjoyed it? I can't over-stress the importance of this step. I don't care how lauded or "important" or "valuable" the book is. If you don't care for it, they won't either.
2) Will the kids understand it and like it? I balance toward the older ones. The littles get what they get -- which is a lot. 
3) What does the author do well? Humor, drama, storytelling, characterization, suspense, research, etc. I require at least one standout category, but don't expect perfection in all areas from each book. 
4) Does the book match the season? I'm all about reading the right book at the right time, which is why - as you'll see below - we sometimes take a break in the middle of a series to read something that matches the season.

How You Should Choose Books

1) Take advice of the readers in your life. Take recommendations under advisement, but don't take them blindly. Not every book is for every person. 
2) Read the book first. Don't skip this step. No matter how highly the book has come recommended or how much your friends or their kids may have liked it, that doesn't ensure that 1) you will like it (which is so important, since your enthusiasm can make or break the enterprise), or that 2) you will find it appropriate for your bunch. So be responsible about this. Nothing's worse than stopping halfway through a book and not finishing it. That breaks a child's trust. 
3) Don't worry too much about whether the book is important or educational or valuable. Just pick a good read and get cracking. Reading aloud to your kids has great value in itself.

Books I've Read Aloud to the Podlings

Bear in mind that we've been at this for a few years but that I didn't start keeping a master list until partway through the venture. I'm pretty sure I've forgotten a few along the way. [Also, this list doesn't account for the books I study with each child individually. This list is read-alouds only. If you want individual book report recommendations, you'll have to message me.]
  1. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck
  2. Derwood, Inc., Jeri Massi
  3. A Dangerous Game, Jeri Massi
  4. The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare 
  5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
  6. Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
  7. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis 
  8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
  9. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (unabridged)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
  13. A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein 
  14. Summer of the Monkeys, Wilson Rawls
  15. Summer of Light, Dennis M. Van Wey 
  16. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle 
  17. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck (again by request)
  18. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  19. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  20. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (take two)
  21. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  22. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien 
  23. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
  24. The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
  25. The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
  26. C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia, Sam Wellman
  27. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, William F. Russell
  28. Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park (pairs well with the documentary On the Way to School, still on Netflix at the time of this update)
  29. Long Way from Chicago, Richard Peck
  30. The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis
  31. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  32. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare 
  33. A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park
  34. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck 
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  36. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  37. Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo
  38. Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
  39. Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
  40. Peace Child, Don Richardson (Note: Get the updated anniversary edition. Trust me.)
  41. Legends in Sports: Babe Ruth, Matt Christopher
  42. The Velveteen Rabbit and Other Tales, Margery Williams
  43. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Timothy Keller
  44. The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, Book 1), T.H. White
  45. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
  46. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (yes, again)
  47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  48. The Sugar Creek Gang #1: The Swamp Robber, Paul Hutchens
  49. True Stories of the Second World War, Paul Dowswell 
  50. The Force Awakens: A Junior Novel, Michael Kogge 
  51. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness, Janet & Geoff Benge
  52. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  53. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing
  54. The Kite Fighters, Linda Sue Park
  55. Bound for Oregon, Jean Van Leeuwen
Still on the list:
  • Red Scarf Girl, Jiang Ji-li 
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
  • Hatchet, Gary Paulsen 
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry 
  • Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne
  • Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski 
  • Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
  • Once / Now / Then / After, Morris Gleitzman 
    * * * * *

    Have some great read-aloud suggestions of your own? 

    Please share in the comments here or on Facebook. 

    I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.

    Monday, July 10, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 5: Oh, Say, Can You See Me Pinwheeling Through the Air?

    Once, I took a trip that broke me.


    It's sort of a long story, but I used to spend a lot of time taking jump shots, mostly with my sister Bethany.

    Officially, however, it was our sister Lisa who started it all one summer day when we ran out of things to do in her town and amused ourselves by jumping off stumps.

    Because we liked to Jump Off Things in public, preferably with recognizable landmarks in the background, we did some of our best work while traveling.

    If you're thinking that this looks like fun, you're right. If you're thinking that it was just a matter of time before I hurt myself, you're also right.

    Ten years ago this week, I sustained my first (and worst) Jumping Off Things injury. (And if you've been hanging around long enough to remember this actually happening, congratulations. We've come full circle.)

    Here's the story.

    Bethany and I were visiting my friend Lucy in Baltimore, and we'd made our way to Fort McHenry National Monument in order to visit the spot where Francis Scott Key penned "The Star Spangled Banner."

    We were also excited at the possibility of some historic jumps.

    These possibilities quickly became apparent at the information center as, along with a good-sized teenage tour group from Spain, we sat through the inspirational video about Francis Scott Key. The excitable young tourists oooh'd and aaaaah'd over the dramatic moment when they roll back the heavy curtains to reveal Old Glory flying high over the fort.

    You couldn't blame them, really. If you've been there, you know it's a dramatic moment.

    And that's when I had my brain wave: We would take jumping photos with the iconic flag itself. Just the flag and the sky and nothing else.

    At least, that was the theory; however, given the set-up of the fort, the crowds of other tourists, and my general ineptitude, getting the right perspective for the shot proved tricky.

    Somehow, we thought it would be a fine idea for one of us to run through a former cell block of the fort, leap over a shallow set of stone steps, and launch ourselves over the camera person--who would lie flat on her back, camera up--thereby gaining enough lift so that we would appear against a backdrop of clear blue sky and billowing American flag.

    We'd have to be careful, though, because the perfect angle to frame this shot just happened to be perilously close to a small drop-off. If we overshot the landing at all, we'd tip over a shallow ledge and land on a rough cobble-stoned walkway five feet below.

    Bethany, of course, nailed it in one jump (despite the fact that back then, I was shooting with a basic point-and-click camera that operated on a 3-second delay).

    While the results weren't exactly what I'd envisioned, they were the best we could do under the circumstances.

    Then it was my turn.

    Bethany took the camera and lay on the ground while I skipped to the back of the cell block for my own run at glory.

    But I just couldn't get it.

    After four unsuccessful attempts, I was ready to give up, but I decided for one more try. Throwing caution (and reason) to the wind, I gave it my all.

    I took a long running start through the cell block and flung myself up and out over the stone steps. In my blissful nanosecond of pure flight, I shot a crazed grin down at Bethany as I soared over her.


    (Well, sort of. I mean....look.)

    You know what comes next.

    I came down awkwardly on my left foot and stumbled, body twisting. My right toe jammed hard against the stone ledge, acting as a pivot to propel me forward. Thus I wheeled over the ledge, arms windmilling for what felt like hours, and slammed heavily against the cobblestone walkway below.

    Lucy, who'd been standing to the side observing these shenanigans, reported that the teenage group from Spain rounded the corner just in time to witness me hurtling through the air.

    "That lady fell down!" one of them cried loudly in Spanish, while others took pictures.

    Meanwhile, I lay breathless on the cobbles, uncertain as to whether or not I was dead, but pretty sure I wanted to be.

    My immediate injuries included horrible bruises along the right side of my body, brush-burns along my palms, forearms, and shins, and a broken toe on my right foot--immediately swollen and gloriously purple. Eventually, I suspected that I'd likely fractured my ribs as well. Weeks later, I was still bracing myself to stand up and sit down; and months later, it still hurt to cough or sneeze.

    We'll never know for sure, however, because I never got myself checked out.

    No need to lecture me about any of this now, Internet Moms. It all happened a decade ago, and I can assure you that the next time I fell and broke a bone, I definitely went to the hospital.

    But that's another story.

    * * * *

    This concludes Lost in Any Language, my short series

    about traveling the world and embarrassing myself.

    I hope you enjoyed it!

    Be sure to click back through the blog and catch

    any posts you may have missed.

    * * * *

    Monday, July 3, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 4: Ruth's Highland Fling

    It happens to every traveler at least once.

    In September of 2012, I visited Scotland with my friend Jodee and my sister Bethany. Our primary objectives were to attend the wedding of some good friends and do some sightseeing. We were staying down near Glasgow, but toward the end of the trip, our friend K. graciously offered to drive us into the Highlands.

    The schedule for the day included Fort William, Glencoe, and a stop near Lock Shiel to see the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first raised his standard. We would also tour the 19th century chapel and climb the lookout to view the Glenfinnan Viaduct (which some of you would recognize as the "Harry Potter Bridge").

    Unbeknownst to my friends, I had a third objective while on this trip: to collect samples of different types of Scottish leaves. (I'm sure you're wondering why, but the explanation is long and boring and would detract from the current narrative. I had my reasons. That's all you need to know.) 

    My leaf collecting was unbeknownst to my friends when our journey started. By the time we climbed the hill to overlook the Glenfinnan Viaduct, they'd resigned themselves to traveling with someone who would routinely leap from the trail to pounce on unsuspecting Scottish shrubs. Which is exactly what I was doing as we climbed the hill to the overlook. 

    The view at the top was lovely, if cold, windy, and misty with rain. But that's Scotland for you.

    We snapped some pictures, chatted with some other tourists, and just generally enjoyed ourselves.

    Suddenly, I became uncomfortably aware that I was about to have a bathroom emergency. In fact, it was imminent.

    "Guys," I announced, "I HAVE TO GO."

    Based on my tone of voice (and perhaps the swirl of my eyes), they knew exactly what I meant. Doubtless, so did the rest of the tourists at the top of the hill. I didn't care. We were all travelers up there, and we all know that when faced with the rigors of international travel, digestive systems are not to be trusted. So I doubt anyone looked at me with anything other than sympathy.

    But if anyone did give me a funny look, I wouldn't have noticed.

    One problem and one problem alone occupied my full attention.

    Our friend K. mentioned that there were toilets in the visitor center near where we'd parked, which was all I needed to hear. Without checking to see if anyone was following, I bounded down the trail, heedless of the damp conditions and rocks slick with moss. 

    At the bottom of the hill, I skidded to a stop, suddenly aware that clutched in my fists like pom-poms were two bunches of Scottish leaves. 

    Not wanting to lose all the hard work I'd invested in gathering them, I turned and thrust them toward my sister, who was ambling along behind me, looking around as if this were just another ordinary tourist moment. 

    "Take the leaves," I panted, flapping the handfuls up and down.

    Jodee, who was standing nearby trying to be helpful, squinted toward the information center. "I think the toilets are just over--"

    "TAKE THE LEAVES!" I all but screamed, flapping my hands one last time and releasing my treasures to the breeze.

    Where they landed, I don't know. I had more pressing problems. Long before the leaves had fluttered to the ground, I'd sprinted up the steps of the information center and launched myself toward the hallway clearly marked TOILETS

    My trials, however, were not quite over. 

    These were paid toilets. In order to make it past the hall, I'd have to find 20p and insert it into a tiny slot.

    Hopping from foot to foot, I frantically scrabbled through the coins at the bottom of my travel bag, clawing through the mix of American and UK change and cursing the laziness that kept me from being more organized with my various monies. (A first-world problem if there ever was one.) All I knew was that if I had to detour to the gift shop to make change, I was doomed. 

    I'll spare you further details. Sufficed to say that I found the proper change in time, and all was well.

    When I emerged from the information center some time later (at a much more relaxed pace), I found Bethany, Jodee, and K. calmly chatting with yet more tourists.

    In Jodee's hands, carefully gathered and reorganized, was a neat cluster of Scottish leaves. Whether she caught them when I threw them or gathered them after they'd scattered, none of us can recall.

    "You did throw them," said Jodee when I asked her about this recently. "I can't remember much after that." 

    It says a lot that these two ladies both agreed to travel with me again after this incident.

    I'm very grateful, because more than anything else, what makes or breaks a trip is not the weather, the location, or the food. 

    It's not even the coffee.

    It's the people. 

    The people make or break the trip every time.

    Monday, June 26, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 3: City of Lights (and Late-Night Plights)

    Our long day in Paris was about to get longer.

    It was August of 2016, and I was traveling with my friends Jodee and Tim (or, as they suggested when I asked if I could use their names on my blog, "The Most Amazing Couple You Have Ever Met").

    They also brought their kids.

    We were quite a crew.

    We'd been warned against visiting France; but so far, everyone's worst fears had proven exaggerated. Despite international tensions, the city was still packed with tourists, and although the very obvious anti-terrorism security did nothing to decrease our travel stress, we'd actually been having a fairly smooth trip.

    Our time in Paris was brief, and we were trying to pack a lot in--too much, perhaps. On this particular day, we'd hit Eiffel Tower Park (a truly horrible experience) and canvassed two museums--Musee d'Orsey and Musee Rodin

    It had proven too much for the younger members of our group, who were clearly flagging. 

    They weren't the only ones.

    We'd walked too much, eaten too little, and not had nearly enough water (or coffee). Despite Jodee's daughter E. trying to talk us into staying out late enough to see the Eiffel Tower light show, the rest of us just wanted a quiet evening in.

    By the time we dragged back to our lodgings on Île Saint-Louis, we were ready to trudge up the winding stairs, break open the snacks we'd picked up at nearby mini mart, and fall into jet-lag-induced stupors.

    When we arrived at our building, however, all was dark--and I mean dark. The entire building had lost power. Which would have been a minor inconvenience, except that the glass door that opened to street was operated by electronic keypad.

    "It's fine," Tim said. He'd made the travel arrangements, and he would take care of it. Once he placed a call to the owner of the building, he told us, all would be sorted quickly. Never mind that he'd been using his cell phone for navigation all day and the battery was at 5%.  

    Of course, it wasn't just one call, and it wasn't sorted quickly.

    As Tim's phone battery rapidly depleted, however, a plan slowly developed. The building manager wasn't in the city for the weekend, but he agreed to send a workman--a workman who was currently off duty and would have to be contacted and dispatched to our location in central Paris. 

    Which meant a wait. 

    But no worries: we were in Paris. We were encouraged to enjoy the night life. Go, relax at a cafe along the Seine, have dinner and a bottle of wine--or six. Never mind that half our group was underage. Plus, we'd already eaten. 

    The children collapsed on the sidewalk.

    I joined them. 

    While Jodee and Tim conferred in low tones, I let the kids take turns telling me things--who knows what. They were just talking and talking. 

    Then I remembered the snacks. I pulled out a bag of fromage-flavored chips, flopped backward with my head resting against my bag, and stared up at the dark Parisian skies, mindlessly snacking. I offered to share my chips with the kids--half out of generosity, and half hoping that they'd talk less with their mouths full.

    So there we were, lying on the sidewalk like homeless people, sharing a bag of cheap chips while tourists and sophisticated Europeans in their on-the-town finery quick-stepped around us, heading off toward glamorous evenings while we huddled under the eaves, hard-core jet-lagging and praying for salvation.

    It was like something out Dickens, only with snacks. 

    At length, E. pointed out that if we walked to the Seine, we could catch the Eiffel Tower light show after all. While Tim stayed behind to wait for the workman, the rest of us ambled down to the river. Along the way, one member of our group was nearly run down by an irate cyclist while another had a shifty-eyed stranger try to sell her beer out of an oversized murse. 

    Marveling at these diversions, which seemed all in a night's work for Paris, we lined up along Pont Marie, watching the Eiffel Tower light up the sky.

    In a small piece of luck, we arrived back just as a workman showed up. 

    He pulled up to the curb and hopped out of his minivan, smiling and chatting in French. After the quickest assessment I've ever seen, he popped open the back of the van, and--with absolutely no warning--pulled out a buzz saw and started sawing directly through the door. 

    Photo Courtesy of Tim
    And so it was that we witnessed two light shows that night, neither part of the plan.

    I have other memories of Paris--the beauty, the grandeur, the history, the food, the lights, the architecture, the stained glass, the café au lait, the church bells, the art--and of course the Eiffel Tower, lighting up the night.

    All of that is Paris. 

    But that's everybody's Paris.

    It's not mine.

    My Paris will always be cheese-flavored chips, the sidewalk beneath me, the lights above, and the kids on either side, talking the night away.

    Monday, June 19, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 2: See Rome and Die (of Embarrassment)

    All I wanted was to see the Colosseum. 

    It was June of 2009, and I was in Italy primarily because I'd had a stressful school year and toward the end of May, I knew something drastic had to be done before I completely lost my will to live. So late one evening I came home from work, plopped in front of the laptop, googled "cheap airfare," and snapped up the first result. Knowing that I had a round-trip ticket to Europe in the offing helped me tunnel through the final weeks of the semester.

    Which is how I wound up in Rome.

    When I told my friend Lucy what I'd done, she decided to join me--thank God. Because clearly I was in no frame of mind to waltz around the world making independent decisions.

    Although I hadn't given this trip the sort of care and preparation I usually invest in overseas travel (generally there are charts, graphs, lists, timetables, and post-its), I still devised a loose plan for each day.

    As did Lucy.

    On this particular day, my plan was to see the Colosseum, while Lucy's plans involved taking photos with "Fabio," a third-rate Gladiator impersonator she'd spied the day before.

    Once she had him in her sights, there was no turning back.

    "He looks like a creep," I told her, but Lucy disagreed. She thought he was hilarious, and she gladly tipped him a couple of Euros to pose for some photos. He picked her up in his arms, nibbled her cheek, and soaked in her adulation. 

    Safely on the far side of the lens, I found the whole thing a little silly; however, given my track record in the areas of ridiculousness and public embarrassment, I was really in no position to judge.

    Then he came after me.

    Hair fluttering in the warm Italian sun, he strode over the cobbles, plucked the camera from my hands, passed it to Lucy, and wrist-dragged me across the street. Flapping my free hand and gobbling like a turkey, I found myself snapped into position and tugged forward.

    He leaned close.

    Only then did he sense how uncomfortable I was--not that it phased him.

    He leaned closer.

    "Don' worry," he murmured, "I no kees you!"

    Across the street, cackling away, Lucy snapped photos.

    Fabio eventually dropped his arms, stepped back, and studied me for a minute.

    "Ah," he said. "This."

    I'm sure he thought there was something wrong with me: this awkward, sleep-deprived female sporting the sallow skin and hollowed-out eye pits that only the tail end of a school year can produce.

    I can't say I'd blame him for worrying. I mean, look at me. I'd obviously let myself get into quite a state.

    Fortunately, there's no balm quite like ten days in Italy with Lucy. I flew home happy, tanned, well-fed, and well-rested.

    Best of all, I was ready to regale everyone with a string of mild disasters and embarrassing encounters experienced along the way.

    Because this was just the first of many.

    * * * *