September 2018 Reads

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I can't believe it's already the middle of October. This year has gone by impossibly fast, and I'm not sure where all the time has gone. But it's been a wild ride of a season, and I'm definitely ready to find some new rhythms and routines. I start a new job this week and am going to a conference with some lovely friends, which is a perfect way to kick off something new.

All that to say, I haven't written much for the blog in a couple of weeks, and haven't even got around to finishing my September Reads reviews until now. But that's okay. I'm giving myself some grace as I transition into new things.

September was a month full of good books, with several five-star reads and several that weren't far behind. I only gave up on one book: Ok, Mr Field - a little library book I grabbed on my way out because it was short and sounded interesting. I should have known it wasn’t for me from the moment I saw that it didn't use any quotation marks to note conversation. It's one of those little things that drives me crazy… I didn't make it through Alias Grace for the same reason.

I also started a Bookstagram account in September, and have been having all kinds of fun posting about my bookish adventures over at @literary.af. If you're around in the Insta-world, feel free to give me a follow!

But without further ado, here are my thoughts on the things I read in September:

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (4/5)

I've had this one sitting on my shelf for a while, and I'm glad I finally got around to finishing it. It didn't ask too much of me as the reader, so I was able to get through it without too much effort. I read most of the book in one evening, thanks to some cancelled plans that meant I had a few uninterrupted hours. It was also a good one to shift back into reading novels after spending an entire month exclusively reading nonfiction. The characters were lovely, and it was definitely the book I needed mid-month.

 

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Us Against You by Fredrik Backman (5/5)

Somehow I managed to be first on the list for my library's holds on this book, and I am so glad. It's the sequel to Beartown, which I read in July, and it lives up to the hype. I grew up in a small town where the hockey rink was the centre of so many winter weekends and I loved the way Backman uses this setting so effectively. But the characters in this story are truly what make the book, and I laughed and cried several times each over the stories their lives tell in this one. Backman is an incredible storyteller, with a translator that should win all the awards. Seriously. Book translators are the unsung heroes of the literary world.

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (5/5)

I've seen this book everywhere for the last several months, and I just managed to get my hands on a copy a few weeks ago. This book was fantastic. It's a surprising, wonderful mix of funny (I had to set the book down at one point because I was laughing so hard) and deep melancholy with characters that keep you guessing right to the end. By the middle of the book, I thought I had figured it all out, but I was happily proved wrong. This is the kind of fiction that makes me keep reading fiction.

 

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen (5/5)

This was my first Nouwen, and I absolutely loved it. It's a short book put together by some of his students after he died, but it packs a punch. Nouwen's writing is poetic and profound in the way that it talks about contemplative theology and spiritual life, but it is still very readable - which is often a criticism I have of other writers in this field. I'll definitely be looking for more Nouwen in the future.

 

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott (3/5)

This book was alright. I finished it and didn't hate it, but it didn't resonate particularly deeply with me. I'm never quite sure how I feel about Anne Lamott's writing. I like it for its raw honesty, but sometimes the text wanders so far that it seems to lack direction. Maybe I'm just not the right person for this book, and that's okay.

 

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans (3.5/5)

I got the audiobook version of this one at a library book sale a few months ago, and have been listening to it in my car. I enjoyed her reflections on the concept of biblical womanhood, and laughed out loud several times at her descriptions of trying to teach herself to cook. My biggest complaint was that it shifted between scripture, journal excerpts, and the main text quite frequently, which didn't always flow smoothly - though I think most of that was the fact that I was listening to it rather than reading a paper copy. It's not my favorite RHE book, but I'm definitely glad I read (listened to?) it.

What did you read in September? Any thoughts on these books, or other reading recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments below.

Joyfully,
Alice

3 Things I've Learned from the Strong Women in My Life

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In light of the news landscape of this week, I felt compelled to share a little more love today. The world is harsh, and humanity often lacks kind words for one another. It’s taken me a few days to put together my thoughts coherently and there is still so much more that could be said, but here is a little sliver of my heart for you.

I have the privilege of knowing incredible people who have encouraged me, prayed over me, raised me up into the person that I am today, that I am still becoming. They have challenged me to grow and pushed me out of my comfort zone and I am endlessly thankful for the impact they have made in my life.

There are so many I could thank for the role they have played, and continue to play, in my world. But I have been given an incredible legacy in the strong women who have gone before me and who have taught me some of the most important things I know, some of the things that have fundamentally shaped my outlook on the world. It is an incredible blessing to have examples like these. So without further introduction, here for you today is one thing I’ve learned from my mother and each of my grandmothers.

 

There's always room at the table for one (or five) more.

Champion Mennonite woman that she was, my paternal grandmother was the master of feeding an army at a moment's notice. She always told people that she wasn't a 'fancy cook,' which was true. She didn't make fiddly little photo-ready gourmet dishes, but everything she made was hearty and wonderful. It didn't really matter what was going on or if she'd only planned to feed her and my grandpa – if you stopped by her house around mealtime, there would be food for you too. There were always more potatoes and carrots to stretch out the soup into a bigger meal, and you never felt like an inconvenience being there. The only thing you could do was hope that you happened to stumble in on a chicken and carrot gravy day.

Her example reminds me often that our ‘tables’ are often as big as we allow them to be. The number of people at our table might be small, but there are no end of opportunities to grow. Because if we want to have people in our lives, we have to allow them to pull up a chair and stay a while. We have to consciously make space for them, even though at times it means having less room for ourselves to spread out and be comfortable. We must listen to their stories earnestly and with compassion. Real, honest relationships take time. They require supporting one another through good times and hard times; it doesn’t happen through a one-off experience or just when it’s convenient. We must know each other, trust each other, believe each other. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or staged – it just has to be real.

If our words and actions communicate that others are unwelcome, unbelieved, it should come as no surprise when they eventually stop knocking, when they would rather keep their stories to themselves. It becomes an act of self-preservation to avoid the pain that comes from being stepped on in their vulnerability. We do more hurt than we know when we make brash statements about the believability of others simply because their experiences challenge the way we view the world. But when we are conscious to listen more than we speak, to open our doors to those with whom we many not have much in common, we extend love and compassion in ways we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

 

It's okay – and important – to speak up for yourself and others.

My mom taught me from the time I was small that you shouldn’t necessarily agree with someone just because they are in a position of authority. She told me that teachers, leaders, politicians are just as human as anyone else, that they’re capable of making mistakes and that they shouldn’t be allowed to steamroller others just because they have been given a bit of power. She encouraged me to ask questions when people made decisions that appeared strange or concerning. She told me that even if I didn’t receive the answer I had hoped, there was great value in having taken the step at all.

She taught me that you can stand up for yourself without being mean or disregarding the humanity of others, that it’s not an either/or thing: the option is not split between doormat or tyrant. You can say hard things with grace. You can ask others to do better while still being kind. Because we all have blind spots, all need others to hold us to account from time to time, all need to learn to be more sensitive to the needs of others. We don’t always realize how our decisions affect the people around us.

Often, we can’t speak on behalf of other people because it is unwise to assume we know their stories and because they are not our stories to tell. But we can and should use the privilege we have to call out the universally unacceptable, and to work to dismantle the social blind spots that leave power in the hands of those who would disregard the voices of the oppressed. To love one another well is to seek a future where each of our stories can be equally heard and equally valued.

 

Change may take time and may be hard to see in the moment, but that is no excuse for apathy.

From the time I was old enough to string full sentences together, my maternal grandmother and I talked about absolutely everything. We were both avid readers of fiction and news, and would stay up late talking about books and politics and faith and food. We had season passes to the local theatre company for several years, and made regular theatre dates throughout my time in university.

I had the opportunity to interview her for a class I took, in which we were learning the process of using oral histories as a resource. She was a committed member of the Royal Purple for over fifty years, a service organization with a long history in the community. She told me about the ways that things change over time, and how learning to do better for one another is a hard-fought battle. When asked what she hoped would be remembered about the work that had been done by the service organization, she said this: “I’d like it to be remembered that a group of people working together can do a great deal.”

In one of the last big conversations that we had before she died, we talked specifically about how feminism had impacted the world since she was born in 1929. She spoke of how drastically things had changed for women, being able to seek education and careers that would have been unheard of when she was a child. She told me how much hope she had for the future, having seen the changes wrought even just in her lifetime. And she told me not to stop pushing onward into the areas where there is still so much room to grow, that she was convinced that there could be more positive change ahead in my lifetime than she could even imagine. I have to believe she was right.


Know that I see you, that I believe (in) you. When the world seems to simply be too much, remember that you are not alone in the fight. My table is always big enough for you to join in – literally and figuratively. Your story is worth sharing. It matters. Because you matter.

 

Joyfully,

Alice

A Back to School Anthem

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It seems surreal that August has been gone for a few weeks now, that summer has effectively ended and somehow we're in the middle of September. It feels like it went by even faster than usual, like it was just April a couple of days ago. Maybe part of it is that nearly half of the summer was shrouded in smoke from the several hundred wildfires plaguing western Canada, and it was almost impossible to spend any time outside. I wasn't ready for fall to come, was hoping that somehow September would be sunny and warm and we would get to experience the last bits of a summer we didn't really have. But we didn't, and now the leaves have curled up and fallen off earlier than usual, frost already cutting through the morning air.

People have gone back to school, signed on to volunteer in new places, have jumped headlong into the thick of it after the slack schedule of summer. It still seems strange for me not to be going back to school, to have a second September where my life continues on as it has for the last year and I'm not flooded with all the realizations that I have to actually buckle down and get to work on those assignments whose deadlines are worryingly soon. If I'm being honest, I miss it. I miss knowing that each semester would bring something new to the table, that as a student you're never really doing the same things long enough to feel like you're stuck in much of a rut. But it wasn't all sunshine, and I remember that clearly too.

This was about the time every year when the shiny newness of the semester would start to wear off for me. The first week of university classes being mostly introduction and reading through the course syllabus before being sent off again, catching up with the people who have been gone for the past several months and enjoying the last remnants of decent weather. Then the second week full of first 'real' lectures and the false sense of security that comes from believing that midterms are still weeks away, that this time you're going to be a better student, get things done well in advance. But then by the third week, it all starts to come back; you realize that the first round of midterm exams actually starts in a matter of days, and instead of being ahead on your readings, you're actually somehow a full month behind despite the fact that school only just started.

It's when it hits you - this whole student thing is actually just a lot of really hard work. It's a lot less fun than it seemed in theory. And it keeps you up at night, term papers staring you in the face and taunting you until it feels like you're losing your mind. I've been there.

It's terribly un-glamorous. And it's enough to reduce the best of us to an emotional wreck from time to time.

Why do we do this to ourselves, again? Something about career development and life skills, but that seems a bit like a far-off mirage across a desert.

When the brightness dulls, and it will dull, buckle down and keep pushing forward. The days are long, but the weeks are short. And before you know it, the semester will be over and you'll be left wondering where all the time went. Four years (or five, or six) go by faster than you'd imagine. Remember that you can do anything for a limited duration. Keep in mind that this isn't forever, that soon enough it will be Christmas.

Remember that you are not defined by the letter written in red pen at the end of your essay. It's an incredibly false measure of a person's intellect, and we put so much more stock into grades than we should. That's not to say you shouldn't try, but rather that a couple of poor grades say nothing about your worth as a human being. Once you've graduated, no one aside from graduate schools will ever care about the details of your GPA.

Remember that there's no one right way to do this. Find what works for you, and go with it. If it means writing out pages and pages of notes by hand, go for it. If it looks like hauling yourself to a coffee shop early in the morning to get some readings done, great. If being successful looks like taking an extra year or two to get through your program, then do that. Or if it means taking a full course load every semester to make it out in the least amount of time possible, that's cool too. Just don't wreck yourself in the process. When you come out the other side (and you will, eventually. I promise.), you need to be a real functioning human.

Remember that it's not all about you. Don't forget to invest in the people you care about, to support the causes that matter, simply because college is consuming the bulk of your brain. Schoolwork is important, but it's temporary and if you graduate with perfect grades and nothing else - no network or support system, that's not much of a success. You've got people around you who have been through the same things you have, people you can rely on in the hard moments and celebrate the victories with.

It's a part of your life you are exchanging for this education, so don't forget to keep living. Real life doesn't just start when you've got the coveted piece of paper in your hand, so buckle up. Dream big. Get over yourself. It'll be over before you know it.

 

Joyfully,

Alice

PS. I’ve added a little button to my sidebar, and I’m feeling a little self-conscious about it. But I recently started a page on Ko-fi where people can support the work I’m doing here at Joyfully, Alice to help offset some of the costs of doing business and keep this little corner of the internet running. The nice thing about Ko-fi is that 100% of funds go directly to creatives, with no fees taken off the top. If you enjoy this blog and/or the Real Talk Tuesday newsletter and feel so inclined, you can buy me a ‘coffee’ by following the link. As always, I’m endlessly thankful for you all - for your encouragement and enthusiasm for my words. Much love.