Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Place at the Table

Alister McGrath’s book If I Had Lunch with CS Lewis is an invitation to understand, converse and learn about one of history’s greatest apologists and children’s writers. The concept of the book is straightforward and simple: learned professor and Lewis biographer gets together with interested students to eat lunch and chat about Lewis’ ideas. McGrath adds plenty to the written conversation by filling out the story beyond Lewis’ books.

The book divided into 8 of Lewis’ ideas which are the luncheon topics. Well organized and accessible, the topics are deeply examined with great enthusiasm. Readers will most likely devour the chapters on Narnia as the insights into the “true country” is well critiqued and explained. The book doesn't rest on Narnia’s shores alone though: I was pleased to find that Lewis, upon a career turn to radio, had to practice and develop as a speaker, to train his keenly academic style to a more comfortable audience. There’s something wonderfully human about the idea of this accomplished teacher having to start again, to figure things out in a new dimension of communication. I’m glad he did and didn't give up and I’m glad McGrath brings it to our attention the way he does.

An early chapter covered Lewis’ atheism. It’s not McGrath’s writing, but the topic of Lewis’ atheism itself that bores me. I’m thrilled he had a re-conversion, but I don’t often find the history of that portion of his life to be stimulating. However, it is not dwelled upon for long and McGrath’s insights into Lewis’ re-conversion are a nicely laid out as an indicator of Lewis’ habit of thought and reasoning. Additionally, the insights into Lewis’ books on pain and grief in later chapters are deeply thought provoking. Knowing Lewis’ work well, McGrath supplies the reader with fantastic comparative readings of The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, notably different books for and from different parts of Lewis’ life.

One additional thing this book did, other than making me want to re-read everything Lewis wrote, was to spark the desire to engage in the community of writers, readers and thinkers. Lewis found great value in learning from others, in debating and critiquing creative ideas. McGrath might hold that company in the same high regard. For a creative type who has an office job One might feel her soul drying up by week’s end from lack of inspired engagement, but this book, as well as the subsequent desire to find a discussion or reading group of my own, was a lovely spring of theology, creativity and criticism moistening the dryness of my imagination.

McGrath doesn't attempt to hide his loyalty as a “Lewis man” by drawing unnecessary comparisons between friends and fellow writers Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. His criticism of Tolkien is shallow at best and distracting throughout his chapters on the development of Narnia. I actually ended up feeling quite sore about this point, leaning towards defending Tolkien. As the book wasn't about Tolkien, and as far as I’m aware McGrath is not a Tolkien scholar, he seemed too forward in his categorization of this great writer. The world over people have been deeply attached to and affected by the stories of his imagination and he deserved better than what McGrath gave him here. McGrath is immaturely flippant about other scholars’ criticism of Lewis’ “loose ends” in his story writing (among other things) and Tolkien’s “sensitivity” about apparent plagiarism of his work by Lewis. Apparently, not only can Lewis do no wrong, but he’s above reproach and criticism according to McGrath. I like Lewis’ work and have been deeply affected and challenged by his writings, but he’s still just a man, prone to imperfection, and people are entitled to their criticism of him. If I got this impression of McGrath wrong, his editor should have done him a better service.

Another unfortunate casualty of most writers who are Lewis devotees is his brother Warnie. Warren Lewis is spoken of little and when he is everyone makes the point that he was an alcoholic. Why do writers think that Lewis would have approved of his “best friend” and co-founder of the Inklings to be a footnote to his life? How disrespectful to his devoted brother can these critics be to continue to use Warnie’s unfortunate troubles with alcohol as the only notable part of his life? I hesitate to mention it now, except that it’s worthy of criticism. Why must this be Warnie’s legacy: alcoholic brother of CS Lewis? Lewis found his brother valuable – do writers about Lewis ever lead into their notes about Warnie with that in mind?

It’s a short and mostly enjoyable work, but one unfortunate creative absence on McGrath’s part was inviting us to a place at the table, in such-and-such pub, with these particular young people… I imagine there would have been a change in luncheoning venue from time to time, different items on the menu, sounds, smells, regretted dining choices perhaps. It would have been charming to have been in the scene with them as they ate and discussed these particular great ideas. The closest he gets is mentioning the overcast conditions of their last meal together, but it was as benign as any note about the weather could be.

Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Me Interviewing Me (1)

  1. What was the happiest time of your life? Every day with my daughter & husband, so it's really been my happiest 15 month streak.
  2. What was the saddest part of your life? The day my dad died (and most of the days after that).
  3. What are your top 3 regrets? Trusting people I shouldn't have out of loneliness, not saving more money when I had the chance, not treating people more kindly when I had the opportunity (tons of faces and names still haunt me and cause a well of shame to wash over me)
  4. What are your top 3 aspirations? To raise a healthy and caring daughter, to have a happy marriage every day, to hear God say to me 'well-done'. 
  5. What is your favorite sound? tie between my daughter's laugh, sigh and babbling and my husband saying "I love you"
  6. What is your favorite book? I love lots of books, but one I cannot ever not say is my favorite is "Pride and Prejudice" 
  7. What are you most afraid of? Dying and leaving my baby girl and husband to fend for themselves. Either one of them dying. Or not spending my whole life with God
  8. What are you un-afraid of? Telling my husband when I fail. Asking for his forgiveness. Telling my daughter how much I adore her. 
  9. What is one thing you can change today? I can change my attitude about how much I've obsessed about negative situations lately. Things just stick to me for far too long. 
  10. What is one thing you know you can't change today? Making more time in my life for resting.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Share the Good

I've been reading a fair amount on the internet lately and have attended a couple of semniars through work in the past couple of weeks and have stumbled upon my disatisfaction with how often people are willing to share what they hate, why they hate it and how much of an idiot the person they hate really is.

Whether it's the latest celebrity break up where the comments section of the announcing articile is flooded with negative things to say about committment to marriage, commenters calling each other mornons, or even revelry at a couple's demise (by the way to most of the reading public these people are strangers so it's funny to me to be so invested in them in the first place, but to have a public opinion on a marriage breaking up where you have never spoken to either party seems almost psychologically imbalanced), the latest tragedy of violence in the news, or a seminar at work, everyone seems willing to share their negative thoughts.

I find it concerning for a few reasons:

One, it's really no fun at the end of the day to listen to people talk about what they don't like. Somtimes it feels good to do it to blow off steam, but since it's not really productive, it doesn't actually get you anywhere. Complaining wears you out and, at least at work, it can get you a reputation for being an essentially negative person. Criticial thinking is something I really appreciate, but criticism doesn't seek to destroy, it seeks to examine.

Second, it limits openness and encouragement with others. I noticed this particularly at work events where the first person to chime in during a discussion after a speaker presented put down the ideas being shared, everyone else at the table kind of slowly jumped in on the criticism. Occassionally you run into people who are willing to be contradictory to negativity, but mostly people just follow the leader. Once the speaker has been deemed an idiot or a special case then no one else is permitted the opportunity to liken themselves to the speaker's experiences, to applaud what was said or even bring critical thinking into play. It's just a bash session and we're done. Again, not productive, not encouraging.

Lastly, it just really sets my mind on the wrong course for the day. I know the world is full of hateful people, but is it really neccessary that I see them on twitter, articles on the internet and have discussions with them at work? I avoid the comments sections as much as possible. I try to just get information I want/need as cleanly as possible, but it's tough. It bothers me to see people fight, to watch as people rage about religion, families, children, politics, money... without regard that there is a person on the other end of that device, taking it in. Damage really is being done. It makes us hard, suspicious, angry... is that really what we need more of? This blog isn't open for comments and its not out of cowardice, it's really just because the intent of this is for me to have a space to write, not for me to collect fans or haters. I don't need to know if someone agrees with me or not to know my own mind on something. Whether I sound old or out of touch, young or immature, matters little to me when I don't share my whole life here. I listen to my family and friends who know me deeply. Those are the comments that matter - critical or not.

I wish there were a way to turn things around, but these things feel like runaway trains in the world. So, here I will keep the comments closed, keep my eyes on how I can be effectively critical in situations around me, but remembering there are people with families, concerns, joys, passions... people like me and unlike me who want things to be better, if just in their little part of the world.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Blue Bookends

I was really excited to get an advance copy of Notes From A Blue Bike to review. I care deeply about these topics on organization and intentional living and from the start I was excited to hear what this writer had to say. Unfortunately, while it’s a nice read, I didn't feel like there was a lot of information shared that I didn't already know, apart from the author’s personal life experiences.  But if I ever had something published I wouldn't want someone to chuck a flame-thrower at my work and walk away, I'd want to know what I got right first.

I'm not familiar with the author, so I'm sure I'm not one of the hundreds of people from her blog who will write a glowing review just because she wrote something. The tone of the book vacillates between thoughtful journaling and being a bit of a snob. Not being a regular reader of Oxenreider’s blog I'm sure I'm missing some context for her perspective and experience. In the middle of some of these “notes” I began to wonder if these were just recycled blog posts that were tossed together under thematic banners, but I digress…

We’ll start with the positive: It’s a readable, accessible book. People who write blogs and then become book-writers don't often lose any of their blogger voice. That can work for the reader when there’s a how-to element to the book. If it sounds like a friend sharing, or instructing then it’s much more likely you’ll stay attached to the text and maybe even adopt some of the recommendations. There were drawbacks to her tone at time, but more about that later, I'm staying positive.

Another positive is that there are actually good recommendations for categorizing your goals (hers were Food, Work, Education, Travel and Entertainment). I think trying to tackle something as large as all of the loose ends of your life would be overly labor-intensive. Big picture first, then nitty gritty details. The big areas of our life would be Finances, Health, Education and Outreach. I think we can pretty much file all of our day to day cares, hopes, goals, and work under those. So, readers can find their own big topics and start brainstorming what they care about and how they want to live. I also appreciated the trial and error honesty in the Education section. Trying something new with conviction is good. Just as good is to know when to stop. The room to fail is an important thing in families and children need to know that even with big decisions there is room to switch gears most of the time. There are also a fair amount of suggestions to consider for your food journey (we'd already explored options, so it wasn't a revelation to me to look at local delivery or farmer's market options, but it might be for someone else just starting this journey). 

Finally, I love the idea of topics like this being a conversation, whether with your spouse, children or friends, these things are great to talk through so you’re not working in a silo. You're going to find successes and failures in others’ experiences and that can be really helpful when you're not trying to waste time re-inventing the wheel. It’s also nice, as things fall into place and as you feel more intentional about your life, to be able to help others get there, too. No one has to sign off on what your family is intentional about, except your family, so discussion is great, but commitment is a different thing. Good to keep that in mind if this becomes a round table discussion with friends. I felt myself being judge-y about some of Oxenreider's choices, but since I don't have to make the commitment myself, I shouldn't care. Admittedly, I didn't read every discussion question, but the one’s I did read were good.

So, here are my reservations about this particular book: If you're a Tsh devotee you may just want to skip to the last paragraph to avoid getting royally ticked off over any criticism of this work at all.

Tone: When you're trying to share your experiences and what you've learned there’s a fine line between sharing and snobbery, between recommendations and accusation. Overlooking how many times she mentioned she was an "expat", I was completely with her in the Food section, our family having asked and answered many of the same questions of food source, quality and cooking ourselves. But I had to bristle at remarking about the “insipid grocery store eggs”. Grocery stores all over the US sell organic, free-range eggs from chickens that are treated well, live locally and are not injected with hormones. I didn't want to over-react, but man, she sounded like a jerk there. Yep, not everyone can raise chickens or hit the farmer’s market, but responsible eggs can be found at the grocery store, too. There were several other examples of where she slipped over into being way too opinionated about what was “right”, since I don't think she meant “just for her family”. It’s just a rude way to deliver a message. The complication of the memoir-ish tone is that it wasn't just “here’s what we did”, she instructs as well, which means you have to be more thoughtful about who is receiving that instruction. Maybe she assumes everyone who picks up her book is just like her, but I would have been more cautious about my adjectives.

Celebrity and Autonomy: In my favorite section on Education she felt the need to mention her readership in her decision-making, and place herself in a position of notoriety or celebrity: being on the fence of the homeschoolers and traditional education folks. I think it’s a ridiculous thing to call out even if it felt like a true part of her life. It’s not relatable, so I think it should have been omitted for the sake of all of us who were in that car with her, crying as moms over the things we want, but cannot make happen… then she has to squawk about her readership? You lost me. 

Finally, where the heck is the bike? I think it’s a little strange to use a bike as your banner to readers:  eco-friendly, healthy, local and then spend 99% of the book on planes, in cars and not on the bike. As far as I could tell the bike was bookending the whole thing, but not much else.  For all of the analyzing Oxenreider does, she doesn't document one minute of scrutinizing whether the money spent on travel to visit her “Compassion” child in another country would have been better off given directly to the family whose circumstances were so dire. Was it worth the pollution and gas too? Such is the position of people who love to travel: I love the earth, I’m eco-friendly, I care about where I buy my eggs, but don’t think about the gazillion gallons of gas I consume going to the Philippines or to Australia for a week.

Anyway, if you can get past the issues on tone, you're half-way there. There is good stuff here to consider and talk about. Even starting the conversation is intentional, so you'd be on the right track. I'd read this book lightly and then dig in with folks you know and trust and look at changes that you want to make. It's worth the time too, if you're a Christian, to go through scripture with other Christians to consider whether they way you want to live aligns with serving others the way Jesus calls us to. 

This post is part of the Blue Bike Blog Tour. I do not know Tsh Oxenreider personally, nor am I being compensated for this review. To learn more and join the journey, head here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best Beef Stew (no lie)


  • 4 pounds bottom round, well trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 large onions, diced 
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 pound potatoes, cut into 2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 1/2 pound carrots (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 bay leaf

  • Directions
  1. Coat the beef in the flour. Heat a few tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the meat, a few pieces at a time, adding more oil as necessary. Transfer to a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker.
  2. Add the onions to the skillet and cook over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and coat the onions; transfer to the cooker.
  3. Pour the wine into the skillet and scrape up any browned bits; add to the cooker. Stir in the potatoes, carrots, broth, salt, thyme, and bay leaf.
  4. Cover and cook on low heat for 7 1/2 hours, or on high for 4 hours. (I do the 4 hour method, it's perfect). 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wondering About Calling

In a search for new books I have come across several recommendations. I am pleased to dive into Notes from a Blue Bike soon and have peeked in on a few other recommendations... while searching I noticed a theme of books about purpose, calling and dreaming/living the dream. I read some descriptions (most of which start off with 'ever wonder why you feel restless/distant/dis-satisfied..." The women who write these books are Christians, mothers, writers probably with loads to do in their lives. So they write about women needing to find purpose in their lives - God's purpose.

I heard a sermon once where the pastor said, "I get young people coming to me all the time asking what their purpose is, afraid they can't figure out their calling. I tell them, start with what God has called all of us to do - serve, love, give, forgive... They don't like that response - they want something special and unique."

"Special and unique" may be the unspoken criteria to which we ask God about our purpose and calling. Maybe that leads to the restlessness... we don't like what we've been called to so we don't put our whole heart in it, we do things half-way, always wanting the special calling, the thing that will make us stand out. In a sense we want a calling that is going to make others look at us with admiration, respect...envy?

I admit I spend time thinking about that, too. Wondering if the time to do something special has passed. But as my husband and I were talking last night I really started to see roots form in the things we listed were really good about our lives. We live in a very small apartment the three of us, but it's a nice place, well maintained (mostly) and it meets our needs. I have to work full-time, but I get flexibility in my schedule and work with some good people. Hubby is in school and has to take care of our little one which means he has to shoehorn in study time most days, but he's doing well and our daughter is happy at home... I've thought of our time while he's been in school as "transition" until he graduates and works, but it's not true. This is it. This is our life. Breathe deeply, this is it. It's not some future state or future calling. It's now. We are not more than what we are, but we aren't less either.

We are not missionaries, world leaders, famous writers, but we are a family, teachers to our daughter... maybe not special and unique, but specific and real. I don't think God needs to call me to something really outrageous or even "special". Being a mommy is special, being a wife is special. It's not unique, but it is impactful. It's where I teach and learn and grow. It's where I can glorify God. Why would I want to trade that in for something else?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Best Carrot Berry Nut Muffins (no lie)

Carrot Berry Nut Muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup mixed dried fruit from Trader Joe's (contains golden raisins, blueberries, cranberries and cherries). No need to re-hydrate as the moisture from the cooking process will plump up the fruit.
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 c. pistachio meat (sold without the shell at Trader Joe's)
2 tsp baking soda
2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp salt
3 c peeled and grated carrots
3 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup applesauce

1. Preheat 350 degrees. Line and grease muffin pan lightly. Make sure the pan gets some spray, too as these are big muffins and you don't want the tops to rip off when you take them out just because they stick to the pan around the muffin liner.

2. Combine fruit, nuts and dry ingredients in a large bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs then stir in carrots and oil. Add to dry ingredients all at once, stirring just until moistened. Then add your applesauce. It will look a little thick, you'll want to add water. Don't. They'll be all right.

4. Bake for 20-25 minutes until tops spring back when touched. Let them cool in the pan for a few minutes, then pop them out to finish cooling on a rack. But do yourself a favor and eat one while it's warm. And then eat another.