Writing in Pencil

Writing in Pencil

A scene from one of my favorite movies, State Fair:

Mrs. Frake: “I’ve got my whole day planned out.”

Margie: “Don’t you know you can’t plan a whole day? There’s no such thing!” 

I love plans. I plan my outfits, my workouts, when I’m going to wash my hair, and what clothes I need for my girls each season. I’ve dedicated basically all my free time to the hobby of planning what books I’m going to read (and then reading them). I plan my errands and household tasks. I plan around Amy Jane’s eating schedule. I (very loosely) plan our meals. But, as Margie points out, planning your day (or week, or month) is optimistic at best and pointless at worst because there are so many things that are out of our control. (It physically pains me to write that and know it’s true.)

 Hello, puking toddler. 

Hello, flat tire/broken AC/dead battery/plethora of car troubles that have plagued us our entire marriage.  

Hello, hurricane season.

Hello, lost job opportunities. 

Hello, unexpected diagnosis. 


If this year has taught me anything, it’s that the white-knuckle grip I tend to have on my surroundings is a waste of my energy. So many of the plans I’ve made, not just in 2020 but for a long time before that, have needed to be scratched out and rewritten. Backspaced, deleted, whited out. This could be why, although I love to plan, I’m not necessarily a “planner” person, as in one who sits with a physical calendar/planner and fills it out faithfully week to week or month to month. My inability to stick with that particular practice has finally come in handy this year in which lots of more organized people saw their planner-buying dollars go to waste when those plans were wiped out almost in one fell swoop. 

A few months ago, a phrase came to mind when I was thinking about this. Whether it’s for your career, parenthood, education, family, or anything else, I do think we need to make our plans and tell our stories and document our dreams. We can’t just throw in the towel and shake our fists in an ineffectual rage at the forces of the universe keeping us from following through. 

We can plan. We just have to write in pencil. 

I love this idea because you’re still doing the planning. You’re not giving up, giving in, checking out, or going under. You’re planning, dreaming, doing- but it’s not set in stone. It’s not written in pen, which is messy when you try to scribble over it or white it out. Writing in pencil means you have the option, whether by necessity or desire, to flip the pencil over and erase what was there. You know what? I wanted to be a teacher my entire life. Then I taught for three years, had a baby, and now I’m a writer(ish). That plan needed to be written in pencil so I could erase it and start over. 

People change. I showed my mom a picture of us from 2012 today and she said, “That feels like a lifetime ago. I feel like I was a completely different person then.” I stared at my 23-year-old self in the picture and felt the same way. My story of 10 years ago needed to be written in pencil, easily erased so that pieces of it could be changed, moved around, adapted, and upgraded for the person I am becoming. 

Also, the most obvious point to be made about this is that we write in pencil because ultimately we aren’t really holding the pencil or the eraser or the Lisa Frank notebook that these plans go in. God is driving the plot, shaping the narrative, and taking us in directions we never saw coming. Practically nothing about my life, with the exception of being married to Jonathan, is what I thought it would be when I was a young adult making plans for the future. And if I had a journal to look back over from the last 10-15 years, it would be filled with stuff I had to cross out and rewrite as it became clear that those plans were going to change. 

We believe lies about ourselves. We admire or even idolize people who let us down in ways that range from disappointing to devastating. We have imposter syndrome, decision fatigue, and, burn out. We grow and learn and change. We put away childish things and say goodbye to misbegotten dreams. The down-to-the-minute schedule that has us arriving right on time is derailed by a stubborn toddler or spilled coffee. And a lot of these—from the grief of a missed opportunity to a wrongheaded perspective—are written not in pencil but in a big black magic marker on our souls.

Writing in pencil lets us adapt. We don’t have to throw the entire day or month or life away. We erase and start over, dream again, change clothes, talk the toddler down from the meltdown. As Jon Acuff says, we “pivot, don’t panic.” We hold things loosely because what we know is not always what traffic will be like, how an interview will go, that a child will have a developmental delay, or that a gift begins to feel like a burden. 

What we know is this: the God of Heaven is in control. He is sovereign, kind, and always good. With his gentle guidance, I can write the story of my life and the plans for my days knowing that “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” I can give myself grace when I need to erase and also trust that by being fully who I am and who He made me to be, the desires of my heart will lead me in the way He wants me to go because He put them there. I won’t toss my planner, give up on what seems lost, or wave my hand to *gestures vaguely* ALL OF THIS and say “what’s the point?” 

Honestly, I don't know the point right now. But despite the head-spinning changes, the angst, the outrage both sincere and performative, and the genuine confusion that is life in these days, I will write in pencil with strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, knowing that God is not the author of confusion and that the stories He tells are the best ones.

My Save-in-a-Fire Book List

My Save-in-a-Fire Book List

I don’t know why I’d choose this title and set myself up for a nearly impossible task, but I’m going to help myself out by limiting this to books I actually own. (You’d be surprised at how many favorites of mine I don’t own, because that’s what the library is for, but these all made the cut so they’re special by default). 

-A Little Princess by Frances Hogdson Burnett. I own more than one copy, but the hardback one that has my name, age, and address written in it in sparkly green gel pen is obviously the most treasured. (I was very big on writing my name, age, and address inside books. I'm not sure why.) I think I can quote entire passages of this book and it remains a favorite, even though I secretly still prefer (heresy!) the movie ending. Also, I used the passage when Sara first comes to Miss Minchin's to teach my unit on adjectives every year. It's so perfectly written! 

There's just something about holding a book in your hands that you held 20 years ago. To quote Kathleen Kelly, "When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does." It's an irreplaceable feeling.

-My Beverly Cleary box set. So, for many years now, when asked who my favorite author is, I say Beverly Cleary. No caveats about “well, for children’s books, anyway” or whatever. She’s just my favorite. I read and reread the Ramona and Henry Huggins books countless times and one of my most blissful reading memories is finding a 3-book set of her “young adult” novels that my mom got me from Costco when I was thirteen. They were teen romances but the sweetest, most charming stories you can imagine, not the absolute drivel of most YA now. That book was lost at some point which still makes me sad but I do own all three of those on my Kindle. But I’d give a lot for that big heavy set. (Also, I get that it’s kind of contradictory to mention a book I actually lost in a post about books I’d never lose. But I love Beverly Cleary that much.  

-In fact, I love her so much that she gets another mention for a different book. When I was teaching middle and high school English and just rediscovering my love of reading for pleasure (and also beginning to read more widely than I had before, love of Lori Wick notwithstanding), I was with my class at the library and randomly came across a book that became an instant favorite. I wasn’t even aware it existed, but I found her first memoir A Girl from Yamhill. It described, in her delightful way, her childhood in Oregon and the many stories that later inspired her characters, especially Ramona. I think one reason I was drawn to her books is that I was actually reading them as a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and I loved all the references to the rain and the mountains that I knew so well. Anyway, her second memoir, My Own Two Feet, picks up as she’s finishing high school (she spent her senior year in California, which inspired another of her books) and goes on to tell about her college days, her early years as a librarian, and the way she met her husband as well her fraught relationship with her mother. SO GOOD. Also, this woman is 104 years old and I will weep real and bitter tears when she is gone. I seriously considered writing my master’s thesis on her work (I didn’t, but only because I chose a different track and didn’t do a thesis #coward) and I’d love write a full biography about her someday. 

I didn’t intend for this post to turn into a love letter to Beverly Cleary and her books but I’m fine with it. She is a treasure and my love for her knows no bounds. 

-My Bush family collection. I have 6-7 of these biographies and autobiographies now and am always on the lookout when I’m in Goodwill or a used bookstore. When I visited the George H.W. Bush Library in the summer of 2018 after Mrs. Bush died (but before her husband did) I sat and watched footage of her funeral again and sobbed like a baby. (People were staring; it was fine.) I just love them. 

-The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. I had heard of this because Janssen, my reading Jedi, mentioned it as a favorite of hers. But when I finally read it, it was magical. Also, I read a lot of books, so the fact that I remember this particular reading experience so vividly means it really was amazing. We were helping my aunt and uncle move and I found this with my cousin's stuff. I grabbed it, read the first few pages, then promptly threw myself across the bed and didn't move for the next two hours (also, I kinda stopped helping unpack. Sorry, guys). I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. It is my go-to recommendation for pretty much everyone and, as Janssen has said, it's the book I wish I'd written. 

You know that clip at the beginning of the original Miracle on 34th Street that shows the studio trying to find a way to market the movie because it has everything: romance, humor, drama? This book is the Miracle on 34th Street of books in that way. It's absolutely hilarious but also touches on really deep and even dark stories while being just so full of heart and warmth. Ah. I gush. Anyway, you need to read it and if you don't like it please don't tell me because it will actually alter my opinion of you. Love ya, mean it.

-My Harry Potter box set and illustrated versions. So, here's my Harry Potter origin story: I grew up, like so many of us, hearing that these were bad and would make us love the devil (which, you know, seems logical what with the witchcraft and all) but finally I was like, "I'm 25 years old. No one can make me a witch without my knowledge or consent. Let's see what all the fuss is about." I checked these out from the library but this was actually what prompted me to figure out how to borrow Kindle books because it was easier to read them on my phone than to carry them around (and arouse suspicion). I flew through them all in the fall of 2014 and Jonathan bought me the entire set for Christmas that year. 

They're just delightful and last time I checked I'm still not able to do magic, dark or otherwise, which is honestly a bummer because "Accio Chick-fil-A" is basically the only spell I'd really need. The illustrated versions that have been coming out for the last few years are absolutely beautiful and I love displaying them! (And since I am always doing too much when it comes to my pop culture fixations, I'll tell you I'm a Ravenclaw, obviously.)

(P.S. A word on Harry Potter: If you don't let your kids read them, that's totally your choice and I support you, but if you're scared to let your kids read them but haven't read them yourself I'll go ahead and give my endorsement as your friendly neighborhood middle grade fiction connoisseur and say they'll be okay. HOWEVER (I love caveats) I will also say that I read them as an adult and if I'd read them as a kid they probably would have scared me quite a bit because I was a very fearful child (not like now! el oh el) and the last few books especially are fairly dark. But personally I think they teach a number of wonderful lessons and can be enjoyed my your family. The end.) 

-My Puffin in Bloom collection and clothbound Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables collections. Okay, confession time: I have not actually read the entire Anne series. WHAT? I know. Revoke my library card. I had read the first one as a kid and somehow not the others. Last year I was determined to read the series and was delighted to find that there was an audio version narrated by none other than Megan Follows, THE on-screen Anne who is just perfection. I was a little disappointed that they were abridged, but I figured the immersive experience of having them read to me by the person I think of as Anne anyway would be worth it. Well, turns out that she only narrated the first 3 books and that is where my journey ended. I will read the rest, I know I will. I just need to get Megan Follows on board with recording the rest of the audio versions. 

Anyway, back to these picks. I love them all but they're included here for purely aesthetic reasons: they're beautiful and part of my living room decor. Shallow, I know. But I love decorating with books. 

-Our Little Golden Books. Collecting these has been a process and I still add to our stack frequently! MANY of these are from Goodwill and used bookstores because I always look for them (and that distinctive spine makes it so easy!) but I do spring for one now and then from Amazon or Barnes and Noble because they're only $5 brand new anyway. We have over 50 and have no plans to stop getting more. They're actually divided into Disney and non-Disney because I like having some in a basket in the living and others in the playroom and that seemed like the best way to divide them. Seeing these makes me so happy and Alice loves to get a stack of them for me to read at quiet time. 

-Our BabyLit books. I first heard of these when I was pregnant with Alice and bought quite a few before she was born and we've added steadily to our collection ever since and they're just the best. They are beautiful, durable, and look so pretty all lined up together (I had them displayed in the living room for a long time). Alice's current favorites are the holiday alphabet primers and we just got a new one (T is for Thankful). I have so many memories of reading these to her as a little baby and now that she can actually interact with them it's even better. I know I'll love having them for Amy Jane too. 

-My James Herriot books. We had James Herriot's Treasury for Children growing up but it wasn't until the last year and a half that I read his other books (All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, etc.). I listened to these, narrated by Christopher Timothy who played James Herriot in the BBC series based on the books, and they remain my favorite audiobooks ever. But there's just something about owning the physical copies, if only as a tribute to my love of the stories, so when I found the entire series at Goodwill last year I nearly wept happy tears. They are proudly displayed on my shelf and make me happy every time I see them.

Okay, I just went and looked at the bookshelves in my living room and I could actually add indefinitely to this so I'll just stop myself here. I didn't even include any nonfiction besides my Bush biographies, even though there are many nonfiction books I own and love, and I left off even more novels, but much like the difficulty in choosing a favorite child, it is nearly impossible to choose a favorite book. (Actually, choosing a favorite child is easier since I have two children and only one of them has consistently been waking up before 6 AM and it's not the baby.) These are all books I really love and would be heartbroken to be without (hence my beating of the system by choosing mostly sets).

 I don't have many hobbies--let's be honest, I don't really have any hobbies besides reading and managing my five library accounts (don't worry about it)--so just writing about and acknowledging the very real pleasure that these books bring to me is in itself a joyful experience. If something brings you joy right now (as long as it's legal and ethical, you heathen) then lean into it, my friend. These are troubled times and sometimes you just need to lovingly organize your excessive collection of children's literature. You'll be in  good (if slightly crazy) company with me. 

Amy Jane- 8 Months

Amy Jane- 8 Months

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say something no parent has ever said before: I can't believe how fast my baby is growing! (See? Original.) My orientation to time in the context of her life has been weird from the start since she was born right as Covid shutdowns began, so nothing about her lifespan has been "normal," but I still can't believe that eight whole months have gone by. Eight months of Amy Jane? Magical. Eight months of Covid? Not so much. But she has made it all better. =)

Also, I'm ashamed of myself for not 

I'm obsessed with this child.

Weight/Length: As of a few weeks ago, she was 26.75 inches long, but she's gained weight since then (which I'm so thankful for!) so I'm not 100% sure about her weight. One reason I haven't posted her updates in a few months (aside from my own slothfulness) is that I've been worried about her growth and didn't want to talk about it because that would make it real. (I'm a very rational person; why do you ask?) Basically the doctor has been concerned the last few visits because her length and head growth have been on track but her weight kind of plateaued and then barely inched upward. But now she's eating solids on a regular schedule (guess how fast I googled "high calorie baby foods") and has gobbled up literally everything we've given her so it turns out she just wanted to eat, poor thing. Looking back at some of her fussiness and recognizing that she was probably hangry makes me feel a little bad, but she's okay now and is already filling out her clothes more and chunking up in her cheeks! Hooray! 

Nicknames: Still Bean, Little Bean, Small Bean, Dot (my mom got her a Dot plush toy and the resemblance is remarkable), Baby Yoda, Toodles, Sweet Potato, Muffin (various foods/baked goods), Sisert, Sissy, Amy Janie Baby

Sleep: Like her sister before her, she is an excellent night time sleeper but fights naps with all the will her little body can muster. If I can only have one or the other, of course I'll take the nights, but I'm hoping she gives in to the nap thing soon (although I'm definitely not counting on it).

Eating: Like I said, I was basically starving her (I'm SORRY) but now that she's having solids, we are doing a lot of yogurt, banana, avocado, sweet potato, and bites of little things like scrambled eggs. She has yogurt every morning and then something else in the evening. We'll probably try black beans next!

Clothing: She is still wearing mostly 6 month stuff and some 6-9. I'm buying her Christmas things in 6-9 and 9 months because I know she'll need the length even though they'll probably be a little big. Also it just totally depends on the brand. Carter's 6 month stuff is almost too small but she's swimming in Cat and Jack 6-9s. And because she has such long legs but such a tiny waist, separates are problematic in that the pants will literally fall off. So I'm looking for dresses and one-piece outfits these days.

Mood: HAPPY. She is the smiliest thing. She is fussy when she's wet or hungry (or feels ignored, but who isn't?) but in general she is just so sweet and content to watch her sister carry on like the maniac she is. She's also extremely curious and loves to crawl around and find a shoe to put in her mouth. Baby toys are such a racket. You know they just want whatever is closest to them on the floor (and likely the most dangerous... laptop cords! My heart rate has spiked more than once lately. She's fast!).

Loves: A good shoe to chew on (she's part puppy)

Her daddy

Any time Alice screams "happy birthday" or "surprise!" at her as loudly as possible- she thinks it's hysterical

Bath time

Being tickled


Spitting her paci out

Doesn't Love: Being in the car 

Being wet or hungry

Nap time (why?)

Losing her paci (see the problem?)

What I Want to Remember/Milestones: So many things! She started saying "mama" about a month ago and then said "papa" while my dad was here, which of course he loved. (No "dada" yet. Sorry, Jonathan.) She is getting close to sitting up and is working on her balance. Other than feeding her at night, I don't have a lot of time with just her, so I know I'll remember our our time during Alice's speech appointments. Since Amy Jane hates the car, I always dreaded that wait, but about a month ago I finally got smart and started using those 25-30 minutes to walk with her in the stroller around the edge of the elementary school campus. She loves it and we have a sweet little half hour with just us. Also we went to the pumpkin patch that we've gone to since Alice was 3 weeks old and that was really special!

What I'm Looking Forward To: THE HOLIDAYS! It's her first Thanksgiving and Christmas and I am just so excited. Of course I'm spending way too much time looking for matching Christmas outfits and planning all the things... it's going to be different this year for sure and I'm really sad that we won't get to see (I'm assuming) our favorite Santa and Mrs. Claus at Chick-fil-A this year. But we'll be visiting family and having some of the same traditions at church so all that will be fun. Alice is super stoked about "Amy Jane's holidays" and I'm sure she'll have fun helping her open her presents (aka doing it herself).

Me: Aw, thanks for asking (I say to myself, a crazy person). Despite all the angst of this election season, I've been strangely calm about it. (A friend said to me, "That's not normal for you, is it?" and I was like, "NO, no it is not." GROWTH!) I know the world's a dumpster fire but honestly, outside of voting and staying informed and loving my neighbors, I can't change anything. (I know it's hard. Take it up with Jesus. I've rage-tweeted about my neighbors' loud music enough to have lost the authority to tell anyone else how to treat their neighbor.) 

In terms of motherhood, it's been a pretty hard season with Alice that, if I'm being calm and reasonable (so ALL THE TIME) I can recognize is mostly related to her entire world changing in the last few months between a baby sister being born and not being able to go to the usual places we've gone most of the life, like the Y, and not tied to some deeper issue that's going to manifest itself like the little girl in The Bad Seed (whew, that movie'll give you nightmares).  I'm trying to give her and myself grace while also taking the time to teach her about acceptable behavior (licking the salt shaker? Unacceptable. Sneaking books into her bed? Acceptable). It's hard. You get it. About the worst thing Amy Jane does to me these days is whack my face while I'm feeding her and also grab my hair in her sweaty little hands (why is it always those sensitive ones in the back?) so I guess we're on good terms. 

If you made it this far, I'll treat you to a delicious probiotic-filled full-fat yogurt. Crack that baby open... you deserve it. 

Election Eve

Election Eve

Here’s what I know. There’s a presidential election tomorrow and it feels like the entire world is collectively losing its mind. I’m only 31 so the first presidential election I can actually remember is Bush vs. Gore, but I know in my short history of election awareness that it’s never been this crazy. The hyperbole from all sides is staggering (and doing nothing good for my anxiety, I might add). It is just a breathtaking display of anger, fear-mongering, vitriol, and fighting that I’ve never seen before. 

But today as I ran errands, I interacted with all kinds of people. We smiled (behind our masks), spoke pleasantly to each other, and chatted about my girls. Alice asked for stickers pretty much everywhere we went. Amy Jane got a few new fans. I’ve been struck today (and many other times in the last few years) that as people practically foment online over the political division and strife, the conversations I have with people I see on a regular basis (at least pre-covid) like my librarians, Target/Chick-fil-A employees (yes, these are my people) and Y childcare workers are all based in a friendly and open and genuinely caring place because we are humans who share spaces together and are just trying to do the best we can. There is a huge disconnect, at least here in my Texas town, between the rhetoric online and the real-life sense of general goodwill that seems to permeate the average American community. 

It’s so pervasive in the media that it seems like it must be true: we all hate each other! But then I go out into the world and see that actually, we really don’t. Moms exchange sympathetic glances as one or both of our children have a meltdown. A lady stops to ask me my opinion on which Christmas tree she should buy for her elderly mother. I notice a book a man is considering at Costco and tell him it’s a good one and he should get it. The cashier at the mall jokes about needing her coffee. None of these interactions are really more than surface level, but they are friendly, warm, and rooted in a basic goodness and rightness. The Panera employee and I don’t stop to trade political blows before he hands over my bagel. 

I know that some of this is a low bar and just the way people behave in a civilized society. (Hint: Twitter is not real life!) But that’s the point, isn’t it? All of our social constructs are based on a certain expectation of how civilized humans are supposed to treat one another. I won’t try to enumerate the ways that social media has contributed to a breakdown in these social contracts (there are many excellent books on the subject written by people far smarter than I am) but the fact is, the keyboard warriors of today are wielding a pretty powerful weapon that is finally, over a decade into the use of these apps and platforms, is spilling out into the real world in a disturbing and dangerous manner.

I’m not excited about this election. While I am hoping for a particular outcome for the good of our country in some aspects, I think there will be negative consequences no matter who wins. But as believers, Americans, and humans, we can choose to rise above the nasty comments. We have the ability to disengage with or diffuse hateful words. As one writer friend put it today, “Pass on the invitation to the late debate.” I’m all for exchanging ideas, digging into topics with a lot of nuance and grace, and allowing good and godly influences to help shape our thinking on tough issues. But the anger, the battleground mentality, and the deeply unkind spirit has to go if we’re going to get better. Getting back to that level of common human decency seems like a worthy goal at the moment. As Saunders says in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, "You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world."

It’s important in these days to maintain some perspective; division isn’t new here, and never have we been on the brink of it as much as we were just before the Civil War. In his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the goodness of Americans: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, all over this brand land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” It seems often (daily… hourly!) As if our “better angels” have taken flight in search of a resting place less fraught with seemingly irreconcilable differences. But if we are truly going to think on (and speak) things that are “true, honest, just pure, lovely… and of good report," then we are going to have to dig deep into the love of God that dwells in us and pour it out to our neighbors this week and beyond. 

I’m not saying that we can’t speak the truth. There are difficult and important topics being discussed and voted on. We can address problems and stand up for what is right. We are called to do that very thing. But we are called to speak the truth in love. Without love, the truth becomes far less palatable, even when it is necessary. And loving those with whom we vehemently disagree does not come naturally, whether our disagreements are political or not. 

Few things offer a dose of cultural and historical perspective like revisiting the Holocaust. In her wonderful book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom describes the Nazi guards who committed atrocities against her, her sister, and the countless other victims during their time in a concentration camp. Knowing that she is speaking of mass murderers (and not simply political or ideological opponents in our modern sense), her words are even more meaningful:

“When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.” 

I’m trying to keep that in mind in these days. I’m not some saint who never gets worked up about issues or rolls my eyes or huffs and puffs at the absolute insanity going on. But these are people, and I am called to love them. God loves them. He loves Donald Trump and he loves Joe Biden. He loves the candidates you love and the candidates you despise. If you bristled when you read that, you’re not alone. I bristled a little writing it. But it’s true. And the good news is that He doesn’t ask us to love others and also summon up the courage and fortitude and emotional margin to do it. He provides the love. He’s just that good. 

Pray. Breathe. Love. And be good.