Monday, April 27, 2015

Current Playlist

Over the years, I've learned something about myself: I tend to get stuck on new music that I like. I think the reason for that is that it's more enjoyable for me to listen to a song or album once I am familiar with it (for me, that means knowing all the lyrics.) Sometimes that's a good thing but sometimes it means I get sick of an album by the time I've listened to it enough to memorize the words. HOWEVER, these songs/albums are ones I've had on repeat for months now and haven't even come close to tiring of, which means they must be pretty great.

If you need help spending money in iTunes, here you go:

1. Travis Cottrell's "I'm Living Proof": this is pretty much by favorite Christian music I've bought in the last year. Just about every song is wonderful, but my favorite is "Awesome"; I've had many worshipful times in the car with that one. =) And if you want to feel like an amazing, Lauryn Hill-type Gospel singer, try belting along with "Take Me to the King." (That's Amy's favorite... new lip-sync video, perhaps, Little Sister?) Oh, and if you want to cry, "Never Once" is your best bet. =)

2. "Into the Woods" soundtrack: I know, I know... some people (a lot of people?) really hated the movie, for two reasons, I think. Number one: it's a LOT of singing. When Jonathan and I watched it the first time, I said, "Um... do they talk at ALL?" (Not that I minded.) If you're not really a fan of musicals, or are only like a fringe fan, then this movie is probably over the top for you. Also the second half is a lot darker and has some twists that are sad and blah blah...  I won't give it away but it's definitely not a typical fairy-tale ending and I know that bummed a lot of people out. HOWEVER... I am not one of those people and I bought the soundtrack about two days after seeing the movie because I absolutely loved it. I snagged it at Target for $9.99 and because I'm a loser who needs to know all the words I was thrilled to have the physical CD with lyric pages included. Anyway, Stephen Sondheim is a clever, clever genius and these songs are beautiful, clever (yes, it merits a third use) and really different from anything I've heard before. I've listened to this a LOT in the past three months (so much so that I catch Jonathan singing along, much to my delight.)

3. Gold: Carpenters 35th Anniversary Edition: I've been a Carpenters fan from birth, I suppose, since I can't remember a Christmas without their glorious music. (Christmas isn't Christmas without Carpenters music, okay?) But in my childish ignorance, I didn't realize that they actually sang, you know, non-holiday stuff. I'll never forget my parents coming home from Costco with this album when I was in 9th grade. All of a sudden a whole new world of music opened up. These songs were fun! And beautiful! And haunting! And cheesy! And all with Karen's magical alto and Richard's phenomenal arrangements... ah! Overload for my 15-year-old music-loving self. Anyway, I've known and loved these songs for over a decade now but only recently purchased the entire album on iTunes for myself and it has brought me a lot of joy ever since. I guess these songs aren't for everyone (I mean, if you hate the most amazingly mellow voice imaginable...) but if you like the Carpenters or "oldies" check this out.

4. I preordered Josh Groban's new album, "Stages", which included a few pre-lease singles and I. coudn't. stop. listening. to. them. I've loved Josh Groban for a loooong time now- since his very first CD- but some of his post-David Foster stuff has been a little odd for my taste. However, when I saw that his new album would be all Broadway songs, I nearly fainted. Josh Groban singing my favorite genre? OKAY! The singles, "What I Did for Love," "Bring Him Home." (tears!) and "Pure Imagination" (yes, from Willy Wonka!) are golden.... GOLDEN I tell you. And since they were released on iTunes, he's also allowed "sneak peeks" at a few others, including a duet with Kelly Clarkson that may very well blow your mind. That girl can sing like nobody's business. BUT the album was released today and you better believe I'll be listening to it exclusively for the time being (no offense to anything else on this list.) 

5. "Pray" by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir: I love choir music, I think now more than ever because I don't actually have to listen to it in preparation for church, and of course Brooklyn Tab is best of the best. (Visiting the actual church last year was awesome!) That being said, sometimes choir music is a little much when you want to listen to something soothing (and 100+ voices are all but yelling at you). But this album is so great... uplifting, beautiful, worshipful... and sometimes you WANT to belt it out with dozens of your closest NYC friends. (Maybe that's just me.) Anyway, I love these songs but my favorites are "Worth It All," "Come to Jesus," and "He Loved Me." If I had to recommend just one song, it would be "Worth It All" since I've probably listened to that one alone about 50 times.

Oh, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I would also have to add the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella album, which I've had playing on Spotify constantly. Laura Osnes is the modern-day Julie Andrews, folks. Youtube her and hear the magic. ANd I'd have to add the new James and the Giant Peach album... I read the book for the first time (I know!) a few months ago and I love the story. These songs and the voices are awesome, and you can actually download the album FOR FREE right here

There you go... lots of good music! Go download it ALL... or at least the Josh Groban album unless you're not a fan of beauty and pure joy. 


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Bigger, Better Plan

This time exactly one year ago, we were strolling around New York City and having a generally wonderful time. And if you remember (okay, you probably don't), this very night last year was when I went to Newsies on Broadway and posted several times about how it was the best night ever.

Given my huge grin and over-the-top gushing about my excitement (which was completely genuine, I promise!), no one would have guessed that right before heading to the city for dinner and the show, I had cried in the bathroom of our hotel room after taking another negative pregnancy test.

I can't and won't act like I dealt with infertility because I know a lot of women who have and it's not something I would pretend to have struggled with in order to gain sympathy or head pats or whatever. But I think a lot of women, even those who have since had children, can relate to the sadness that accompanies "trying," especially when it takes longer than you would have chosen. (And I also recognize that, given all the circumstances, it didn't take me long at all to get pregnant. Others have waited much longer for it to happen, and for some it never did. I can't even imagine how difficult that is; I'm just speaking from my own experience.) 

So, wanting to be pregnant and waiting for it to happen was a hard thing, and at times I wondered why it wasn't happening on my timetable. But, as always, God's plans were much, much better. If I had gotten pregnant when I first wanted to be, then the last several months of transition, traveling, decision-making, and moving would have been that much more complicated, for sure. There's no way I would have been able to go on (or at least enjoy) deputation with Jonathan if I'd been sick like I was for the first trimester, I would have had to change doctors, etc. Or we'd have been making huge, scary life changes with a newborn- which is a huge, scary life change! =)

My friend (and former coworker) Phyllis has said more than once since she heard our news, "God's timing is so funny!" and by funny I think she means perfect. =) I spent close to a year wishing for a baby but slowly realizing how much smarter (you know, omniscient!) the Lord is than I am. 

Tiny little bump!

So, a year later, after months and months of learning to trust and seeing Isaiah 55:9 in action, I'm 15 weeks pregnant with our little person and amazed at the timing of it all. I shouldn't be, but I still am. Even with all the sickness and fatigue (which has mostly passed!) I've tried to remind myself to be grateful for every moment since there were times I wasn't sure I would experience this at all. 

So far it's been the most exciting thing to happen to me... even better than seeing Newsies, which is saying a lot! =) If you're wondering why something in your life isn't working out like you want it to, just wait... there's probably a bigger and better plan in the works! 


Monday, April 20, 2015

Soundtrack of My Life

Sometimes, at the Baines house, we would have Amanda make up and play what we called the "Soundtrack of Our Lives." This would include ominous music to represent a breakup, love songs to represent a boyfriend, etc. (These are the things you do when you're big dorks and have a ridiculously talented pianist for a sister.) As I turn 26 (?!) I've thought a lot about that little game and what on earth the different songs on my soundtrack would be at this point, especially to represent the last year. (Maybe "Strange Things Are Happening to Me" from Toy Story?)

My childhood songs would have to be a combination of something ridiculously light and happy (maybe "Jolly Holiday" from Mary Poppins), something sporty and spunky ("Follow Me Boys"?) and something slightly poignant, like the reprise of "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast (because I was a daydreaming nerd as well as a tomboy.) And also the Anne of Green Gables soundtrack by Hagood Hardy will always remind me of my childhood and my mom, for some reason. But it's beautiful and melancholy and I love it.

Junior high... yikes. Is there a song that sums up the ugly stage of a seventh grader with the social awkwardness that accompanies a strange sense of confidence at that age? Hmm... well, that was the time I discovered Newsies so really any of those songs would at least remind me of that time, even if they don't quite encapsulate the weirdness of it. 

Ah, high school. Actually part of junior high would apply here too, but at least the first half of high school would have to be one or more Taylor Swift songs... I remember when I first heard her music that I thought, "It's a good thing these songs weren't around when I was in 9th grade. How pathetic would I have been?" Probably "Teardrops on My Guitar" but more likely "You Belong with Me" would have been my anthem. (I'm not proud of that.)

Moving across the country when I was 15 (and what started off as "In My Own Little Corner" and something depressing- maybe "Rainy Days and Mondays"?) was a crazy thing... but it also put me in the middle of a lot of people I didn't know (and more importantly, who didn't know me... or my older sisters) so I kind of became this new, confident version of myself. I don't remember feeling terribly confident, but I remember having a lot of new friends and new experiences (playing softball (badly), singing my first solo (not quite as badly) that were so far removed from everything I knew on the West Coast that I felt like a different person. So, how about "I Have Confidence" (with the qualifier "sometimes) and "O, What A Beautiful Mornin'"? (That's how I felt about living in North Carolina by the end of it all.)

Ah! But then to move again! Just when I had gotten used to my great new life. Back to "In My Own Little Corner" (or, if I had been a typical teenager, maybe something angry by Avril Lavigne. Ha!) Of course, Georgia charmed me pretty quickly and I fell in love with living there, too. (It didn't hurt that that summer of '05 included a trip to Disney World/Universal Studios and several Braves games.) I'd have to say that summer and the next couple years would be represented by "Georgia on My Mind," "Tim McGraw" (yes, Taylor again... but only because the summer that song came out it was EVERYWHERE), and really any country music... I had never heard so much in my life until we moved to Georgia. (Braves games are represented by "Thank God I'm a Country Boy.") And I think all teenagers can be characterized by "The Age of Not Believing" from Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

My college experience is far too varied and would require an entire soundtrack of its own but starting with getting dropped off as a freshman, I'd have to go with the "Goodbye" song from Fox and the Hound (along with the weeping), then the rest would have to be represented by choir music because that's pretty much all there was (other than singing German and Italian for voice lessons which I'd rather not commemorate.) 

Backing up a little to the summer after I turned 16, I fell in love with a skinny, blue-eyed boy from Goldsboro (he didn't fall quite as quickly, strangely enough!) but I felt lucky, very lucky, to eventually be dating him (still do!) and it would be impossible to narrow down a list of songs for him. Maybe start with "Impossible" from Cinderella, then "Puppy Love" by Damian McGinty, then probably some dramatic country song I liked at the time, then "You Are the Music in Me" from High School Musical 2 (again, I didn't say I was proud of all of these.) I'm sure we had what we considered "our song" at the time but am I a terrible person if I say I can't remember? Then maybe "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" by Michael Buble (scandalous!), "When God Made You" (one of our wedding songs) and "I Won't Last a Day Without You" by The Carpenters. And "We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters to represent our first year as clueless newlyweds.

Man... there have been so many crazy times since we've been married. (Mostly good crazy... and I don't mean constant fighting over whatever most newlyweds fight over. I was in school and Jonathan was teaching for the first time... we were too tired to fight! Those first couple years would be "The Bare Necessities" from The Jungle Book. =) I'd say change has kind of been a theme along the way, and dreaming, and coming up with new plans (that later changed, as is our way.) Again, I'd have to say "Strange Things" from Toy Story, "What's This?" from Nightmare before Christmas (ha!), and even though I wish I could say, "Hakuna Matata," it would probably something a little less relaxed. I'd throw in "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables if it's not too excessive.

But more recently... the Broadway Aladdin soundtrack ("A Million Miles Away" and "Proud of Your Boy"), "Santa Fe" from Newsies, "Houston" by Dean Martin =), "Glorious Unfolding" by Steven Curtis Chapman, "Baby Mine" from Dumbo, and really any other Disney lullaby there is (in anticipation of Baby M.) Also, overarching for the soundtrack of year 25, would probably be "Let It Go"... but then, isn't that on the soundtrack for all of America at this point? Oh, and through it all (at least the last five years), it's been Disney on Pandora, Michael Buble, Selah, Casting Crowns, and, always, the Psych theme song (a mood-lifter on even the worst days.)

You got all that, Amanda? (That's a long soundtrack.) For everyone else... now go play the game yourself. (If you don't have a talented pianist in the family it won't be as fun but just try.)

I don't know what the "song of year 26" will be but I'm anxious to find out! (Is there a song about growing old and forgetful? I'm thinking that might be a winner.)


Thursday, April 16, 2015

TimeHop Motivation

So, in case I haven't mentioned it a time or two (I have!), I haven't exactly been the picture of productivity for the past few months. It's the strangest thing, but I thought that once I wasn't working and had a lot of free time that I would be able to get all kinds of stuff done- starting my book, writing a new play, blogging regularly, etc.

Clearly, that hasn't happened. One excuse explanation, at least when it comes to blogging, is that I feel like I don't have a whole lot of interesting news to share given that I don't do much of anything during the week. Now, could that be remedied in one way or another? Oh, sure. But that would require actual thought and effort on my part, and who's got the time? (I do. I have all the time in the world.) So what's my problem?

In my defense, I guess I should mention that it's only been in the last couple weeks that I haven't felt exhausted and queasy the vast majority of the time due to this pregnancy, so it's not like I would or could have been as productive as possible during the first trimester. (My threshold for discomfort is quite low; can you tell? In fact, my doctor- who's only met me twice- told me this week that given my pain tolerance she would highly recommend an epidural. Good call, doc.) Anyway, it's a weird thing, but apparently (at least for me) it's easier to get things done, even things that don't have to get done like blogging, when I'm already busy and productive in other areas (like teaching.)

Back in the fall, I was really upset about not teaching- borderline depressed- but I survived those first few months and then the hustle and bustle of the holidays, traveling for deputation, finding out I was pregnant, packing, moving, and getting adjusted here in Texas all served as a distraction from that. Now that we've been here for close to two months and have gotten settled, those feelings of dissatisfaction and, yes, sadness at times threaten to overwhelm me all over again. I've been out of the classroom for almost a whole school year now and I can say definitively that being a teacher, in some form, is who I am. I need to teach, somehow. (I'm teaching Sunday school starting next month and I'm thrilled about it!) Beyond that, I need to do something productive that gets me out of the house and around people at least occasionally.

A baby appointment day... dressed in real clothes, hair curled... productivity!

Before we moved,  I had every intention of tutoring locally through a program I've used in the past. But then I was pregnant and sick and often quite miserable, so I ignored any inquiries that came to my email. Since I've been feeling better, I've thought a lot about actually jumping in and starting, but so far... nothing.

Why do I- we- do this? We know something is a good idea- responding to a job inquiry, for me, or maybe it's working out or cooking more or scheduling lunch with a friend. We know something would be enjoyable or beneficial (or even both) but we delay starting it... usually for no good reason.

I'm reading Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (fantastic- highly recommend!) and the whole idea is about habits but really any tasks we need to perform but resist for whatever reason. She says that often just starting a habit or task is actually much more difficult than maintaining it. That's so true! Tutoring would not be hard for me... but why can't I sit down and order the books I need from Amazon? I'm loving having lots of time to read right now, but it's so much more fun to discuss books with other people who are interested in them (and not poor Jonathan)... so why don't I find a local book club?

A good example of this is making plans with friends. I have a friend in Georgia, Ellen, who is adorable, witty, and a truly gifted writer (just one of her many talents.) For the past several years, I've wanted to get together with her when I'm in town, but I've never taken the time to really make concrete plans. Finally, with a cross-country move looming in the near future, I asked her to have lunch with me when I was home in February and that hour and a half was as delightful as I could have imagined. I could have had a great little meet-up several times over the past five years of visiting home, but never did. I'm thrilled we finally made it happen but it made me wonder... why haven't I done this before?

Gretchen also reminds us that the best time to start something- a project, a routine, a task- is right now... not January 1 or next Monday or after I lose 10 pounds. (Ha! That would be at least several months away for me. =) So TODAY I'm ordering the books I need for tutoring. Will that schedule all my students and get the whole process finished? Of course not, but it's a start, which is sometimes most half (or more!) of the battle.

And as for writing... TODAY I've drafted a few other blog posts because if writing only gets harder the longer I don't do it, well, who can I blame but myself? I don't have to write a whole play today, but I can brainstorm some ideas and make a list of potential plots, can't I?

What really got all this started for me, other than Gretchen's book, was looking at TimeHop this morning. In case you ignore a lot of Facebook posts and aren't aware of what it is, TimeHop is an app that allows you to see what you posted on this exact date one, two, however many years ago. (I guess as many years as you've used your social media account.) I never share it (mostly because some people share theirs nearly every day, not seeming to realize that their TimeHop is just going to be become one big loop of TimeHops!) but I like looking at mine. I also rarely/never read old blog posts but since one was in my TimeHop this morning I clicked on it. It was all about the things I needed to do at school that week- bulletin boards, grading, lesson plans, etc.

Part of me felt a tiny bit of relief that I don't have to do all that anymore, part of me felt like crying because I genuinely miss that part of my life, and the rest of me was disgusted with myself because I was blogging- fairly regularly- in the middle of all that busyness and chaos. I literally don't have any demands on my time during the day, yet I'm not doing the things I know I want to do and should do. That, my friends, is just dumb. So, I'm calling myself out. I don't have to self-publish a novel in the next month, but I do have to take steps to be more productive. For the first time in my life, I can't claim to have too many things going on.

One other thing that really made sense in Better Than Before was the four Tendencies that describe how we meet (or don't meet) expectations. I am clearly an Obliger, meaning I easily meet outer expectations- lesson plans, grading, play practice, Sunday school preparation, anything where others are relying on me or requiring my presence- but resist inner expectations- order the books, write a blog post, brainstorm script ideas. No one but me is affected by whether or not I do these tasks, so I usually fail to do them. (This also may be why I have never stuck to a soda fast or workout routine. Hmm.) The best solution for an Obliger is to create lots of accountability for those inner expectations, so that's part of the purpose of this post. Hold me accountable, people! Demand new blog posts! It's good for me! =) (Also if you're interested in knowing which type you are, take this quiz.)

Well, there you have it. I wouldn't say to expect a masterpiece play out of me anytime soon, but at least you can know I'm not just lounging by the pool with a stack of books. (I'm still totally going to be doing that, but in addition to working on real stuff, too. No worries... the pool and I are very good friends and I couldn't possibly desert it now.)


Thursday, April 2, 2015

"But What If I Write a Memoir?"

I may have mentioned it before, but I am a hopeless, incurable packrat. This started when I was a kid and I hate to admit it but I have probably only grown into a bigger hoarder as an adult. At this point, I could fully wallpaper an entire room in my house (at least one room) with all my cards, notes, to-do lists (why?) and more. And unlike some type of collection that might actually be worth money some day (or, you know, Beanie Babies), or something useful like coffee mugs or decorative plates or something, I have, instead, every note Jonathan wrote me in college (sentimental but hardly useful except to point out his apparent hatred for punctuation back then), birthday cards and graduation cards dating back nearly a decade, sermon notes, programs, and truly random items like choir tour schedules and memory verse cards from Systematic Theology (shudder!). 

So why, WHY am I holding onto this stuff? Some of it I couldn't bear to part with, like Jonathan's notes or Christmas cards from Miles and Meghan when they were tiny and could barely write their names (tears!) or engagement cards from my best friends. But MOST of it, if I'm being honest, isn't that remarkable. So while part of my reason is my sappy sentimentality, I'm also plenty irrational about the whole thing... which would explain why I was sitting surrounded by papers this morning trying to make a throw-away pile and literally thinking, "...but what if I write a memoir?" 

Number one, I doubt I'll ever write a memoir. (What would the title be? Tales of a Twenty-Five-Year-Old Unemployed Former Teacher with a Soda Addiction?) Number two, if I were to write a memoir, I seriously doubt anyone would be interested in knowing my homework to-do list from November 2009 (although just looking at all the studying and writing and (academic) reading I did back then makes me exhausted) or my New Year's Resolutions from 2010 (none of which were kept.) If I got hit by a bus tomorrow (morbid), I would pity the poor person responsible for sifting through my mounds of stuff.

A smattering of my endless collection...

Every note from two years of college...

I guess these are enough to make up for the rest of my lifetime... neither of us are big note-writers anymore. =)

The sad thing is that what I have now is only a fraction of what I wish (yes, wish) I still had... my middle/high school and even some college stuff has been lost at my parents' house (although, granted, it could be somewhere in the labyrinth of boxes that is their garage.) I guess losing some of that stuff is just a sign of God's mercy since there's no doubt anything I wrote from the ages of 12-17 would be truly horrifying. (Reading my early cards and notes to Jonathan makes me want to go back in time and slap myself repeatedly.) But pictures, especially, from high school are something I'd love to unearth someday. 

Anyway, my college/beyond paraphernalia is more than enough to fill a few shoe boxes and other random storage spaces. Here's what I've determined the common factors to be in what I've held onto (trust me, the parameters are not narrow): 

-It represents a place I've been. Rocks from Myrtle Beach on our first ensemble weekend? Newsies playbill? (You can't have it for a million dollars!) Program from the (unbeknownst to us) CHILD performance of Cinderella that Sara and I saw (and died laughing throughout) last year? My MetroCard from New York? Playbill from the performance of A Christmas Carol, a field trip I planned for 40+ kids? (Maybe I don't want to remember that... I get cold chills thinking about it.) I want these things, even if only to know in the back of my mind, that I possess them and can look at them when I want to (which, granted, is rare, but still.)

-It says something nice to/about me. Narcissistic? Probably, but I can get a pick-me-up really fast from reading a sweet note from a friend, even if it was written six years ago. Someone, somewhere, said something like "You can live on a sincere compliment for a month," and I agree. In my case, apparently, it lasts much longer. That probably says pathetic things about my self-esteem but eh. It's true. You know, there's a reason I have probably 25 notes from my first year of teaching that are all basically identical: "MRS. MCNEESE! YOU ARE THE BEST TEACHER EVER! I LOVE YOU!" For one thing, I read and re-read them in my second year when I felt like a big fat failure. Now they just make me feel good. And I have letters, notes, essays, and more from all three years in the classroom that I will never get rid of for the same reason I won't get rid of notes from my own child (I mean, when they actually mean something. Scribbles will mostly be trashed because #meanmom.) 

-It brings back fond memories. That's kind of "duh" that applies to any of these, but I like using my cards and notes as a kind of physical TimeHop that reminds me of what was going on this many years ago at this time. For example, I went through birthday cards today from my 20th and 21st birthdays. Since my birthday is coming up (26! Noooooooo) I enjoyed looking back to age 20 (when leaving my teens seemed like a huge, huge thing), or 21 (when the Next Big Thing in my life was getting married.) Those weren't too terribly long ago but feel like a lifetime and I most certainly look back on that Ashley as a child. Or finding a "welcome back from Christmas break" note from the Fergusons, who lived in our dorm at the time and now happen to be our pastor's family. Fun little things, you know? 

-It's just something I would never, ever get rid of. Notes from Jonathan. My wedding poem from my dad. (Just seeing it can bring me to tears, let alone reading it.) My last birthday card from Mamaw and Papaw. My Newsies playbill. (Worth mentioning twice? Yep!) It's funny to read our notes to each other from that spring of 2010 and remember that literally our wedding, to us, was the be-all-end-all Ultimate Event that was the most important thing in the world (you know, besides acing our finals.) There wasn't a whole lot of thinking beyond July 23rd that year, at least for me. Or seeing my choir tour schedule from that same spring and remembering the terrifying night that Brook, Jennifer, and I spent huddled in one room with a single, bare light bulb (think prison), all squished in one bed because the bunk beds didn't have sheets. (All while a scary lady named Margaret played questionable computer games in the next room. Cue Twilight Zone music.) 

Could I have these memories without tangible reminders? Sure, but as I get older I feel my memory getting duller all the time (thank you, three years of teaching.) So having a stack of "stuff," even if it feels silly or superfluous, helps me conjure up good times, bad times, hard times, busy times, different times, and be thankful for all of them and for the time I'm having now (which, considering I spend at least part of my time at the pool every day, I'd say is a pretty good time.) 

Are you a packrat? Any advice for practical storage (besides "throw it away")? No room for naysayers here. Literally, no room. It's all taken up by my collection of 2,347 church bulletins.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

First Quarter Reading (and the All-Stars)

My goal for this quarter (that's January-March, not nine weeks if you're conditioned to think in terms of school like I am) was to read 30 books. I read over 100 books last year, mostly from the summer on, so I didn't think 30 books for these three months was a huge stretch considering all my free time. If anything put a damper on my reading, it was sleeping many hours a day and feeling too nauseated to concentrate on anything. Nevertheless, I persevered and came in at 37. A few of these were re-reads, but hey, that counts, right? (Of course it does.) 

I am too lazy considerate of your time to include every book, some because I just wouldn't recommend them and others because they were just kinda eh. But I will tell you about the best ones of the list so that you don't waste your time with anything less than awesome reading. (Fair warning- I was on a bit of a nonfiction kick this time around.)

In no particular order, here are my favorites:

-Don't Give Up, Don't Give In by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin. This memoir is the perfect follow-up to Unbroken and gives a personal look at Louie's life straight from the source. Reading it made me sad all over again that Louie passed away last summer (in fact, only about two weeks after this book went to the publisher.) It's full of stories- some funny, some inspirational- and is further proof that this was one extraordinary American hero. It's amazing to me how many obstacles the man faced and still ended up decades later with a positive attitude. And hearing about his conversion and desire to share his faith in his own words made it even more special. (Also, when he talks about meeting his tormentors from the POW camp and contacting the Bird, I cried.) It's a quick read and totally worth your time. 

-Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. This was the first book I read in January and it was the perfect start to my year of reading. Good grief, I loved this book. When it was over, I just kept saying, "That was SO good," over and over (to anyone who would listen.) Some people aren't wild about a diary format, but this is told in letters written from Samantha, an orphan whose grad school sponsorship hinges on her willingness to write letters to her anonymous benefactor. Since he knows of her borderline obsessive love for Jane Austen, he requests that she address the letters to (you guessed it!) Mr. Knightley. Her letters chronicle her difficulty in grad school (one professor is particularly hard on her), her attempts to reach out to another boy from her group home, her first taste of love and dating, and more. If you are an Austen fan, you'll appreciate all the references, but it's just stellar regardless. (Bonus: the Kindle edition is on sale for $2.99 right now!)

-Lizzie and Jane by Katherine Reay. This woman is so talented, for real! Her second book is about two sisters who have been estranged since they lost their mom to cancer, but now the older sister has cancer herself and the younger sister goes to visit and try to help out during chemo. At heart, it's a sister story, which of course I love, but it's also a love story and gives what seems like a really realistic look at dealing with cancer from the perspective of several different patients (not just Jane.) I love how Katherine Reay uses different aspects of her characters' lives to bring so much richness to the story; for example, Lizzie is a chef and uses food throughout the book not only to cope with her only issues but also to reach out and help others, mainly her sister's family. This one was a little sadder than Dear Mr. Knightley but just as great. 

-Belles on Their Toes by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Cheaper by the Dozen is one of my favorites (woe to those of you who have only seen the Steve Martin movie which has NOTHING in common with the classic other than the twelve kids) and I've been hunting down the sequel for years. When I saw this at the library I may have squealed for joy. =) Anyway, it picks up right after Mr. Gilbreth's death (tears!) and mostly tells about how the family worked hard to stay together and run things smoothly so that Mrs. Gilbreth could continue the business of motion study. Seriously, these books are hilarious. I love, love, love them and you should check them out. When I teach high school English again (someday) I think I'll read them aloud to my students. Also, Frank, Jr. wrote a third book called Time Out for Happiness that, in addition to small biographies on each of his parents, contains a great deal of detail about their work in motion study and the breakthroughs they made in that field. They really were remarkable people and the whole Gilbreth family is just the best. 

-Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly. I love reading about this era and what's most fascinating to me about the whole thing is, honestly, how Lincoln wasn't assassinated sooner. Considering the lack of security around the President during that time, it was relatively easy to get close enough to harm him. In fact, the Secret Service was brand new and wasn't even assigned to the President; it was a branch of the Treasury Department. Anyway, this is a super in-depth look at the conspiracy behind the assassination- more widespread than I realized- and really delves into John Wilkes Booth's obsession with Lincoln and hatred of the North. (Seriously, the guy was messed up.) What also stood out to me was how quickly (relatively speaking) the military and police were able to catch Booth, considering how little opportunity there was back then for instant communication. (It's not like the guy was leaving a paper trail with a credit card or something.) It's a must-read for any Civil War or history buff for sure.

-What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. If the mark of a great author is that I want to read everything he's written, then Malcolm Gladwell falls into that category. I've read all his books in the last few months (except his newest, David and Goliath, which I just checked out this weekend. Yay!) and this one was my favorite. It's a series of essays he wrote for the New Yorker and the topics range from birth control to hair dye to dog training to ketchup (yes, ketchup!) and they are all fascinating. He just has this knack (actually enormous talent- knack is an understatement) for sharing what seems like a random story or collection of facts and bring it all around to make a really interesting point or tie everything together with a perspective I would never have considered. This is one of those books that I enjoy because it makes me feel smarter =) and it gives you a pretty good knowledge of a wide range of subjects which is always an enjoyable feeling, especially if the history of hair dye comes up, which it very well may. =)

-Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson. The subtitle is "A Proper Romance" and that could not be more accurate. It's not a very long book- I read it in an afternoon- but it was just a delight. Marianne is a young girl on the brink of adulthood who is more interested in riding and books than in securing a wealthy husband (her twin sister's obsession.) But since her mother has died and her father has taken off in his grief, she's been stuck in "town" with her grandmother (who isn't very comforting) and jumps at the chance to visit some old family friends in the country. On her way there, some conflict arises (of course!) and a dashing gentleman appears (naturally!) and the romance ensues from there. There isn't a lot of other "fluff" to get in the way of the love story. There's definitely a place for that in a lot of books, but sometimes you just want to read a good, "proper romance." 

-Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West. Janssen recommended this one a while back and when I checked the library's online catalog, it was actually there (always a pleasant surprise!) AND available so woohoo! This was one of my favorites of the bunch, since it combines my love of history with my love of "behind the scenes" type stories. The author worked in the White House for 28 years and for 12 of those years he was the Chief Usher (who basically runs the entire place.) He worked closely with all the First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Pat Nixon. (My favorite chapter was on Jackie Kennedy.) Mr. West was amazing- extremely organized, incredibly patient, endlessly respectful to each First Lady, and always prepared to deal with the variety of crises- major and minor- that arose throughout his tenure. (Apparently changing Lyndon Johnson's shower heads to suit his need for just the right water pressure was a process that lasted his entire administration.) Also, as Janssen pointed out, "behind the scenes" doesn't really mean "dirt" on anyone (ahem, JFK.) He really is respectful of each administration regardless of their political stance. As he states several times, White House staff is loyal to the White House, not necessarily the President. The Presidents change; the House doesn't. Anyway, I loved this one. Ten stars!

-As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales of the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. Um, bonus features in book form of one of my favorite movies? Yes, please! And my love for Cary Elwes was only reinforced when he guest starred on Psych, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on this. He tells about getting the part, filming, etc. from his own perspective, of course, but each chapter also has little inserts from the Rob Reiner (the director), Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, and the rest of the cast. Some stuff I knew from watching the 25th Anniversary DVD edition (nerd alert, perhaps) but a lot of it was brand new information and fascinating. For example, I knew that Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin had done all their own stunts for "the greatest sword fight in modern times," but I didn't know that Cary Elwes had been riding around on Andre the Giant's four-wheeler (he was too big for a car on set) and broke his toe a few weeks before they shot the sword fight. So, all that fancy footwork he's doing is with a painfully broken toe. (Also that explains why he limps his way through the Fire Swamp... the guy could barely walk!) I just love this movie and and the book made me love it even more. ("This is true love. You think this happens every day?") I mean, it's written by Wesley. Come on!

-Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Wow. This one took me a while to get through (nonfiction is always slower for me than fiction) but it was totally worth it. I had planned on reading this for a while and in fact read a shorter biography of Bonhoeffer in January to familiarize myself with his life in preparation for this one. (Again, maybe that's nerdy.) Also, the first biography I read was from the Heroes of the Faith series which I highly recommend for kids and teenagers (and adults, obviously, but they're geared toward younger readers- not too hard for a 4th or 5th grader- without dumbing anything down.) ANYWAY, I started this one on the Kindle but it was just too much for me to read on my phone (somehow knowing there are a million pages left is too daunting in that format) so when I could get the physical copy I jumped at the chance. I can't recommend this enough. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian hero, plain and simple. The work that he did for the Resistance on behalf of the Jews in Germany during the Holocaust was amazing enough (and ultimately cost him his life) but his writings and work on theology, discipleship, and just Christian faith in general is monumental even to this day. What struck me throughout the book was that so much of what he said about being willing to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel and to speak out against evil is SO relevant to our culture today. (Our churches may not be being silenced like they were in Nazi Germany, but the days of speaking freely in our country are numbered for sure.) Bonhoeffer was incredibly devout but also fun-loving, very close to his family, and loved the arts and music. He was a brilliant scholar, talented musician, and loyal friend. But most of all, he was willing to put his own plans, talents, and safety aside for the good of his fellow Germans and Christians. This book will challenge your faith in a huge way. (Also, given the length of this description it may have warranted its own post. Oops.)

There you go! (And I said it wouldn't be too long... imagine if I'd included the whole list!) I really loved these books... if you read any of them let me know and we'll have a virtual book club! I'll bring the cookies. =)

Happy reading!


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Baby, Etc. (11 Weeks)

So, one reason for the radio silence around here (you know, besides my constant fatigue and nausea- yay!) is that it seemed hard/impossible to describe anything going on in my life without putting it in the context of, "And, oh yeah, I'm pregnant!" The whole traveling/packing/moving across the country process was slightly altered by that little fact.

BUT finding out about it was a great time so let's start with that.

So, I've really wanted to have a baby for a while now but it's been a kind of stressful year(ish) so I figured it wasn't going to happen under the circumstances (the circumstances being figuring out where to move, moving to Goldsboro, new jobs, deputation: aka "life changes difficult for Ashley") and I figured once we moved, got settled, and life slowed down a little bit maybe it would be the right time.

And naturally, since my life responds to my plans with a raucous laugh (that's for you, Amanda!) it didn't happen that way at all.

We had been on the road for about ten days and ended our little Tour de Southeast in Georgia at my parents' church, then Jonathan headed home on Monday but I stayed for a few extra days. By Thursday, I was getting a liiiittle suspicious that I might be pregnant but I really didn't want to get my hopes up or see another negative test or be sad. In fact, I told my mom NOT to let me buy a pregnancy test because I was probably NOT pregnant and I didn't want it to be depressing. But I bought a test (actually two) and took them home.

After the first one was positive I said, "What??", grabbed the box to be sure (yep, two lines) and then because Gigi was lurking waiting in the next room I went to show her. (She says she wishes she had a picture of my face because shocked doesn't even begin to describe it!) I was saying, "It's probably wrong; it's probably wrong!" and she was like, "Um, probably not," and told me to take the other one. (What can I say? I'm thorough.) And I did and of course it was positive. (Gigi cried. I, in my shock and hard-heartedness, did not.)

And of COURSE Jonathan was 400+ miles away! Ah! Of all the big moments to be apart, this one was not ideal. And he didn't get off work for another 45 minutes which felt like an eteeeeerrrrnity. (I was saying eternity like this. You're welcome.) In the meantime, Amy came home from school and I had to pretend that all was well (and that my whole body wasn't shaking) while waiting for Jonathan to call so I could tell him first.

Amy wanted to go get free coffee (bless you, Chick-fil-A and your generosity) but I had to hold her off with a pack of lies until Jonathan fiiiinally called and I told him the happy news. I think he was a little excited:

Ignore my stupid face. 

Then we stopped at the church so my mom could be there when I told Amy (who thought the pregnancy tests in my hand were candy... baha) and a little while later went to April's house and told her (she screamed) and then FaceTimed Amanda (who also screamed and then cried.) I laughed at them both because I was still in shock/semi-denial (not that I wanted it to not be true, I just couldn't believe it was.) 

My dad's super-sappy reaction was that he couldn't believe I was having a baby in Texas. Good one, Dad. 

Jonathan told his parents and when I got home that weekend we told Ryan and Rebecca and then Mamaw and then Aunt Peggy and Uncle Walter and slowly but surely, the rest of the family. We also told a few friends but I wanted to wait for the "big announcement" until after our first appointment. (Holding off on that was a lot harder after I found that Disney announcement! Wasn't it the cutest??) 

The next few weeks were spent either being completely paranoid that something would go wrong or being completely exhausted and thus unable to pack or do anything productive, which was inconvenient given all that there was to be done. I wasn't sick at the time (glory, hallelujah) but I was just so.very.tired. All the time. When I did get teeny little bursts of energy I would pack as much as I could before the fatigue slapped me down again. (It goes without saying that Jonathan was a huge help during this time. And also my mother-in-law packed way more than I did, and so did Mamaw for that matter. I'm a lucky girl.)

By the time Moving Week rolled around, I was tired and sick (yay!) but with lots of help I made it. THEN when we got here, Jamie and Mrs. Karen were a HUGE help since I couldn't lift anything (more limiting than it sounded at first, trust me). They arranged the furniture, hung the pictures, put things away, and did everything possible to make us "at home" as quickly as possible. I would probably still be wandering around in boxes if it weren't for them. 

SO other than lots of nausea, the past few weeks have not been terrible in the pregnancy department. And finally last week it was time for our first appointment. I was more than a little nervous (stupid worst-case-scenario mind of mine!) but everything went, according to the doctor, "just right." Sounds great to me! (I was also nervous about my doctor but I loved her and sensed that she would never make me feel stupid for asking something, well, stupid.) 

On the way to the appointment! (My fear was actually more about driving than the exam.)

Little alien baby!

McNeese family of three!

Other than keeping up with the size of the baby and his basic development every week, I have read pretty much nothing so far. Most of my friends/family have said that there's no reason to read about all the things that COULD go wrong. (Again, I do just fine at conjuring up worst-case-scenarios on my own.) I'm aware of what I shouldn't be eating, etc. but other than that why torture myself with horror stories? No thanks. 

Overall, I'm still a little in shock (even 11 weeks in) that this is finally happening. For what felt like forever I was really sad every time I saw yet another pregnancy announcement and felt like it would never happen for me (even though I knew why it wasn't, if that makes sense.) But, as many friends who knew of my desire for all those months have reminded me, God's timing is perfect! I was able to tell my family and most of my friends about the pregnancy in person before we moved, I didn't have to switch doctors, I wasn't terribly sick during our move, etc. One of my favorite comments was from my friend Ellen, who simply said, "God knew!" He definitely did! 

So, these days I'm just trying to maintain some semblance of productivity (and by productivity I mean going to the pool "for exercise" and reading a lot.) There have been a few emotional days (pregnancy hormones  + a cross-country move. To quote a favorite movie, "Draw your own conclusions." =) But overall I'm just very, very thankful to be growing this little person (boy, fingers crossed! Jonathan wants a girl, so who knows?) and even more thankful that, once again, God has proven that He is infinitely better at His job than I am. 

Expect updates along the way (you're lucky I haven't chronicled a play-by-play of my sickness but no one deserves that. Maybe I'll write about the way pregnancy has you eating theee most random foods because they're all you can handle. Meanwhile, I haven't wanted coffee pretty much since the day I found all this out, so that's a shame.) 

Thanks again for all the congratulations, sweet comments, etc. Yall are the bomb! I like to think that you're genuinely rooting for me, as opposed to my older sisters who are gleefully waiting with evil grins to watch me experience pain and discomfort along with a crippling lack of sleep. That's my support system, folks. Be jealous! =)


P.S. I would post a "bump" picture but there's really nothing but "oh look she's eaten a lot lately" type stuff to see so maybe soon? Working on it. =)