At the beginning of February, we celebrated our oldest son turning five years old. We have commemorated his birthday with this chocolate cake recipe each of the last five years (except his 3rd birthday for which he inexplicably requested lemon cake, which I made. It was tart and delicious, but we haven’t eaten it again since). It is amazing to think that our son is already and only five, seeing as he was just a newborn, his head covered with long dark hair, his eyes wide with wonder. And seeing as he is pondering all sorts of thoughts about mortality, seeing as he and I share daily side glances as though we are kindred spirits from a lifetime ago. I love him more than I can express.
I’ve been working my way through In Bibi’s Kitchen, mulling over the interviews and regional facts woven throughout the book, marking recipes to try. This week, we are making Mukimo (potatoes, onions, greens, hominy, etc). Last week, we made an Eritrean flatbread called Kicha, which was toothsome and so very tasty despite (because of?) its simplicity. We are adding it to our bread canon alongside favorite tortillas and naan. We didn’t have leftovers, but when we do, we will try Kicha Fit Fit.
Dear reader, we have spent the last four weeks unpacking from a big move. Here is a brief collection of notes that hint at settling in.
So here is something that has helped me, something to recommend, and something I have returned to.
I am adjusting to new systems in every area, including how I plan and source ingredients for dinners (this has taken a tremendous amount of energy). Two things have helped: 1. making family favorites (so, Alexandra’s pizza and Kendra’s chicken) and 2. quick pantry meals (so spaghetti with jarred marinara and Trader Joe’s potstickers). These meals have been familiar and comforting in a new place.
Something to recommend for salads. About a year ago I began eating nearly the same thing for lunch each day: salad with leftovers on top (or just beans or cheese if leftovers don’t make sense on the salad). Something different I’ve started doing however has been shaking Everything Bagel Seasoning on top. This product does not need another cheerleader, but I can’t deny that it elevates my salad every day.
Here’s a food habit I just returned to: the soft boiled egg. I used Molly’s article as my guide a few years back and loved the results. I dropped off making eggs this way in favor of scrambling them in butter, a more forgiving technique, and one my children preferred. But out of nostalgia, I think, I have returned to soft boiling eggs once or twice a week. It has taken a few tries to get the timing right and the eggs peeled in time to enjoy them in their golden yolk glory. But even with their fussiness, they are worth it. I like to sprinkle them with kosher salt and halved grape tomatoes and eat them alongside buttered toast, and sometimes these beans.
I want to share ten of the books I enjoyed reading the most this last year. I realized that my nonfiction books far outnumbered my fiction (something I think I will balance out in the coming year). All of my favorites from 2020 are nonfiction. These books moved me and stuck with me long after I finished them. In no particular order, here they are.
This is not the most profound book I have read, but its message was so timely and immediately impactful to me that it is a top book from 2020. Just before I started it, I was intensely aware of the noisiness of my everyday life. Between the sounds outside me (3 energetic children under age 5) and the sounds inside me (my mind’s constant adding or offloading of ideas/tasks/anxieties/possibilities), I felt overstimulated or, as Barton writes, “entrenched in noise and words.” In this book she shares her personal experience of learning to establish habits of silence and solitude and how she has used that knowledge to help others cultivate an inner calm so they can meet with God in a deeper way. This book encouraged me to start practicing silence — for my own well-being, to open myself up to the Lord’s sustaining Word, and to set myself up to be more present to those around me. I started this practice in the mornings before reading Scripture. It took a few months of jitters and distractedness for me to settle into stillness, but over time, I’ve been able to work up to ten minutes of silence. Even though I don’t do it every single day, on the mornings I do, I can feel how grounding it is for the rest of the day.
In this book, Reeves argues (in a joyful, self-effacing, and earnest way) the centrality of God’s nature as three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He shows how this reality is foundational to understanding God and living the Christian life. He helps by framing the Trinity in simple, insightful ways, with biblical support. For example, he says, “The Father is never without the Son but, like a lamp, it is the very nature of the Father to shine out his Son.” He notes, “The Spirit is the one through whom the Father loves, blesses, and empowers His Son.” He then supports these arguments with Scripture passages and insights from Christian theologians. Here is a lovely summary from the last pages of the book: “Jesus [is] the bright lane to knowledge of the true God. As the glorious, Spirit-anointed Son, he reveals his Father. He reveals God to be Father, Son and Spirit–and thus he reveals the only God who is love, and he shows us the true glory of that love on the cross. In him we see a God far beyond the bores and tyrants we all rush to reject. In him we see the good God.” Delighting in the Trinity moved me towards a deeper affection for God.
Here Jacobs develops an argument for reading old books. He trains readers to thoughtfully engage with worldviews of authors who have profoundly different perspectives and experiences. In an interview with The Trinity Forum, Jacobs talks about how reading books from the past can act as “training for encountering difference.” He addresses the way we live much of our life online and can feel we need to perform “informational triage” on all of the data coming at us. We are in a “frenetic standstill,” he says, in which we are both inundated with information and feel frozen in inaction. He explains that this is why we often are quick to discount something we view as offensive. But he says, “We need to be able to discern the difference between ideas that are truly offensive and ideas that only seem to be offensive because we actually haven’t understood them yet.” In this book, Jacobs (a professor of English) walks through old works from people like Henrik Ibsen, Frederick Douglass, Simone Weil, and Italo Calvino in an engaging and accessible way. He shows how to interact with texts that seem strange to our modern sensibilities. I loved engaging with the ideas he writes about and finished the book with renewed vigor to read and think about older books. Breaking Bread with the Dead seemed like an important book but also so enjoyable to read.
Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd by Thomas Chatterton Williams. This book is a memoir that includes some cultural commentary on the hip-hop culture of the 90s, a time when Williams came of age. I enjoyed Williams’ excellent storytelling and the way he takes the reader along through is own evolution in thought. Williams seems genuinely interested in understanding and empathizing with others in his community who have stayed on a trajectory he believes is limiting or harmful. Meanwhile, he is committed to taking a different path, not out of arrogance, but rather a genuine desire to live more freely. In 2019 Williams published a memoir called Self-Portrait in Black and White: Family, Fatherhood, and Rethinking Race, which further chronicles the way he has thought about race. In the beginning of that book, he writes, “We are at the same time obsessed with race and wholly confounded by it.” Williams shares personal stories and insights and offers pointed critiques. While I differ from him in some of his assumptions and solutions, he still gave me a lot to consider as I learn how to engage with various viewpoints on race and racism today.
Originally published in the 1980s, this book seems just as relevant today, while many Americans seek to understand the roots of racism, the nature of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and dignity, and how to work towards justice and peace. Ellis, an African American man, lays out a historical and cultural timeline and uses his Christian faith to understand cultural movements over time. He helps the reader understand the forces behind various movements throughout history (especially focusing on the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X). There is an extensive glossary of terms, people, and events in the back of the book to aid a student of American history or cultural studies. This book is a thoroughly researched, clearly written guide that I expect to refer to often. Learn more about the author here. Two others books I read recently that have helped me gain more understanding in this area include Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey, and Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson.
McLaughlin writes in a scholarly style, using research, Biblical text, cultural commentary, literature, and more. She makes compelling arguments for the truths of Christianity in a personal and winsome way. She encouraged me to consider several of the controversial claims of Christianity and strengthened me with research and conclusions that are thorough and intellectually honest. After reading the book, I feel emboldened to invite skeptics or those of other faiths to join me in open discussion about challenging topics rather than gloss over or avoid them. I’m looking forward to reading whatever she writes in the future.
Part memoir, part guidebook for creative artists, this book resonated with my heart. I appreciated hearing Peterson talk about his own struggles and thought processes in his career as a musician and author. His self-deprecating storytelling was disarming, and the openness about some of his fears and dreams inspired me to share my own vulnerabilities with others. I’m looking forward to reading his fantasy series with my boys when they are a little bit older. Also, I listen to Peterson’s beautiful collaborative album each Advent season.
After reading this beautiful book, I immediately gave it to a friend. Lore articulates with candor and warmth some of the pitfalls of physical touch in the church. She shares how a faith community can harmfully range from not touching at all to touching abusively. Touch is a powerful form of acceptance and affection and Wilbert shares how its loving manifestation in the church is especially important for those who do not live day-to-day with a spouse or family. She shares from her own experience and makes a case for how Jesus used touch in his ministry on earth to bring about life and healing. We can, in turn, learn to live as people who redeem the power of touch for good. Read more of Lore’s thoughtful writing here and here.
This book is compelling and eloquent. I wish I had read it in my twenties, when I was even more prone to strive to earn God’s love rather than simply rest in it. Ortlund supports his arguments for receiving Christ’s love with biblical texts and writings from early church thinkers. His tone is compassionate and inviting, pointing towards the subject of this book: Jesus Christ. You can read the first chapter here.
Vroegop’s book is both personal and pastoral. He shares his story of heartache and bewilderment when his baby dies. He offers guidance from God’s Word about how to lament–how to cry out to the Lord and find hope in Christ. I have read several books on grief and this is one of the most moving, perhaps because of the way he lays out his own struggle so plainly. His tone is humble and hopeful, and this book is a beautiful example of how to offer those who suffer ways to express sorrow and find solace in the Lord. His recent book Weep with Me about how lament and racial reconciliation connect is a thought-provoking read.
My children are ages 1, 3, and almost 5, so our family Advent and Christmas traditions are still pretty green. But we have settled into a few rhythms the last couple of years, including the start of a music library. Here I’ll share some resources we use during this season.
We own and listen to these albums:
I like that this album follows the traditional English Lessons and Carols pattern, weaves Scripture readings throughout, and has introduced our family to new carols.
These Maestro Classics are excellent (more about this another time). This engaging version of The Nutcracker holds my kids’ attention and we listen to it over and over. Excellent production quality too.
My husband and I went to one of Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God concerts several years ago. His work here continues to move and encourage me. And for the last two Advent seasons, I’ve also read the beautiful companion book by Russ Ramsey for my personal study.
Every track on the G.T. and the Halo Express CDs features a Bible verse set to music. I memorized many verses this way as a child and I am glad my boys are able to learn them too. The storylines acted out between the songs are sometimes cheesy to my adult ears, but the songs are catchy and help the boys learn scripture, so these CDs are valuable additions to our library. This album centers on the Christmas story.
Spotify is an indispensable tool for me. It lets me test out music before purchasing it. I use it regularly to curate playlists or find ones already made by others. Here is my playlist of some Christmas Favorites that we listen to around the house or in the car.
Some parenting books stress me out and leave my mind abuzz with new anxieties. Reading these books, however, felt like listening to the measured wisdom of an older aunt or uncle. I finished each book intrigued, inspired, and eager to grow. The authors draw from long careers working with children—as a literacy expert (Mem Fox), family consultant (Kim John Payne), and educator (Dr. Karyn Purvis). Research is clearly presented and practical applications abound.
It seems everyone these days has a must-read book list. Seeing so many book recommendations can feel overwhelming to me–a natural rule-follower (give me the syllabus!). This is especially the case with nonfiction books, which are what I mostly read this last year. Here are fifteen must-reads on X topic! You’d better dive in. You’re already behind! It can feel paralyzing. How do I vet which books are worth my time? How can I possibly read them all? The short answers would be–don’t read so many lists in the first place, consider what you are trying to experience or learn from a book then choose it, recognize you can’t read everything, then just start reading.
With my limited time, I usually choose books from my growing to-read list. I take screenshots of books that sound interesting, transfer them to a Pinterest board, then browse the list when I’m ready to start a new book. I also add new titles and displace old ones at any time, so the list feels less like a looming assignment and more like a spontaneous buffet. I typically read a few books at a time, both in print and audiobook form. If I am in a reading slump, I read something short: a middle grade novel or a short story or essay collection. The high I get from finishing a book helps to grease the cylinders for more reading. I have also begun abandoning books at times, a practice I used to think somehow shameful but which doesn’t bother me now (some exceptions are books that I choose to slog through because a. I’m trying to develop reading stamina, b. I am working towards some goal, or c. I am reading it alongside someone else).
One place I like to go for new books ideas is a blog series called On My Shelf, which includes brief interviews with people about books that have formed them. Here are some posts I have drawn from: Jarvis Williams, Karen Ellis, and Thabiti Anyabwile.
These books were a comfort to me this year. In Handle With Care, Lore Ferguson Wilbert articulated many of my own thoughts on physical touch and writes with candor and warmth. Fred Rogers’ words in You Are Special were like the quiet encouragements of a patient counselor. In An Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton was my personal counselor, allowing me see my need for a rhythm of silence. Anne Bogel’s book, Don’t Overthink It, made me feel less alone in my tendency towards decision fatigue and anxious spiraling. In Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund makes a compelling case for Jesus’ profound tenderness towards His children. These books were restorative and calming to me this year and I highly recommend them.
Several years ago, when I was grieving the losses of babies through miscarriage and wading through a season of unexplained infertility, I sought out resources to help guide me through my pain. Alongside the Bible, I read as many books and I could find on infertility, loss, and the meaning of suffering. Three books became pivotal to me during those years: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (his wife died), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller (cancer diagnosis), and The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippetts (terminal cancer). In the last year, I read two more books that I think would have also benefitted me back then, and that I would now add to the list: Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop (baby died) and Suffering is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot (widowed three times). In all five of these books, the authors do not shy away from the reality of their personal suffering. The way they render their pain gave me permission to acknowledge my own. They also describe how they coped, not with a quick, triumphal pivot but with humility and hope. Were I to write my own book on suffering, I would try to emulate these.