Lenten thoughts on striving.



If you want your house to be bleach clean, I’m just not your girl. If you need your closet cleaned out, your pantry organized, or general home systems streamlined, I’ll be at your house faster than you can say "the container store."  But cleaning baseboards, mopping, dusting just doesn’t appeal. If feels like so much work for about 30 minutes of cleanliness that is quickly destroyed by kids, dogs, and husbands everywhere. So at the end of 2019 when our budget allowed, my husband finally turned to me and said those magic words, “I think we can hire someone to clean the house.” I was so excited but also immediately ashamed. Like, maybe I should try harder or commit to a cleaning schedule. Should we really be spending money on this? The answer was and is yes.  But there was and is a sense in which I didn’t want to let go of something that I didn’t even want to do because that also meant giving up control and admitting to my own shortcomings.

So after a bit of a search the day arrived and my new best friend Anita and her team of gals came to clean. She came well recommended but it still felt weird to leave four women at your house alone the first time you meet them. So I stayed. With my 3 year old. I realize this was dumb. But as I tried to keep me and my daughter out of their hair I realized there wasn’t much I could do. I had to sit there and let them clean. Reese and I went outside, we watched tv, and generally just moved form room to room to let them do what only they could do. When it was finished, my house was spotless. And I couldn’t take credit for it.

I love a good "atta girl," especially when it’s for something I either didn’t want to do or something I know is important to other people I love. I was so excited for my husband to come home and see how clean the house was but was letdown by the fact it had nothing to do with me.

In that moment I was struck by how similar this is to my own striving in relation to Christ. He died on a cross, taking away my sin, making me spotless. And now, as I walk in that freedom, I can take no credit for it. There’s nothing I can do to add to or subtract from that, I just have to sit in it. And no matter how hard I work to prove my worth to the world, I can’t make myself better, or cleaner in the sight of God. That is a job only Jesus can do. I can’t help and I can’t take credit.

As I reflect on my own brokeness this Lenten season is it helpful to remember cleaning myself up and checking boxes on a spiritual to-do list will never bring me closer to Jesus. But giving Him credit for my righteousness and recognizing the work only He can do, absolutely will.



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My Top 12 Books of 2019



In 2019 I read 48 books. My goal for the year was 40 but at the start of 2019, I had no idea I would be co-editing an online book club for most of the year. This afforded me the opportunity to make reading more of a priority, necessitated learning to love audiobooks, and gave me the chance to get my hands on advanced reading copies of some of the year's best books. When reading becomes part of your job it does change your reading life. I find myself saving up "my books" for those times of the year when I'm not on deadline for a reading guide or monthly selection. While I love the books we read for book club (you'll see a few on my best of list) I also have tastes outside our typical genre and I find myself seeking those out for those in between times and considering them for our reading guides which typically have a wider reach of selections.

As I culled my list of 48 down to 12 (+ 2 honorable mentions) I thought about the books that stuck with me the longest--which ones was I still thinking about weeks or months later? I thought about the books I pressed into the hands of my friends and family--which ones have I recommended over and over again? And then I thought about my reading experience--which ones were enjoyable to read?

The answer to those questions are found in this list. I hope if you haven't read any of them or maybe if you've been meaning to this will give you a little push to check them out of your library or mosey into your local bookstore.





Becoming by Michelle Obama: This book came out in 2018 but I finished the audio book the first week of January 2019. The narration was fantastic and I loved hearing about Michelle's life before Barack and before the white house.

The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain: I'm going to tell you what my friend Kristin told me about this book: Don't read anything about it, just get it and start reading. The writing on display in this book is masterful.

The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman: You guys, if you aren't following Emily what are you doing with your life? Her gentle guidance and wise advice are a gift.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl: Finished this book on the beach on my birthday and it is just as delightful as the day and place it was finished.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes: Ashley Brooke Book Club pick for August. Such a lovely and tender book. Chick lit with a soul and a story to tell.

I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpot: The memoir for every woman. This book made me feel like I have stories to tell from the car pool line and the grocery store checkout. Celebrity and influence not required.

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore: A ROMP in the best way. Open door romance paired perfectly with historical fiction and feminism.

Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly: Beth Ann says so much with as few words as possible which I really think is the mark of brilliant writing.

Poppy Redfern & The Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen: If Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were solving crimes during the Blitz. *Chef's kiss*

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: My first Ann Patchett. Brilliant character development. I want to know everything about Maeve and Danny.

84 Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff: I can't believe I went 32 years without knowing about Helene Hanff. This book chronicles her letters with Frank Doel and the staff at Marks & Co., a rare bookstore. They're funny and poignant and the relationships created by letters alone are inspiring.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall: As brilliant as advertised. Maybe one of the best books I've ever read. The dialogue about faith and struggle and triumph is extraordinary.

*Honorable Mentions
Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman: Ashley Brooke Book Club pick for April. We got to interview Elinor and she is the most delightful human being.

We Met in December by Rosie Curtis: Ashley Brooke Book Club for December. A sweet, realistic romance set against a Noting Hill townhouse over the course of a year. The audiobook is perfection.

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Calendars



Happy New Year!

One of my favorite activities is always setting up a new calendar or planner at the start of a new year. For years I saved old planners and the like but my sentimental heart has moved on from this practice because who has the room? But I do like to take the time at the start of the year to flip through, remembering what the outgoing year brought with it.

This morning I sat on the floor of my office with last year's calendar, filled with birthdays and trips and appointments, and began transferring anniversaries and birthdays to a new calendar, empty, but  full of fresh spaces waiting to be filled.

So much of our 2020 is mapped out already. We have some trips and events that we are already committed to. Visits with friends, weddings, big birthdays,  a family reunion.  There are only a handful of months whose squares aren't already filling up in some way or another. I'm really excited for these things already planned. They act like little anchors on a 12 month timeline. Things to look forward to when regular life drags on. I don't know that I've entered a year with so many things already on the table.  If I'm excited by these pre-planned engagements, then I am bursting with curiosity at what will take place in the squares in between. What spontaneous fun, what heartbreak. What discoveries and decisions and growth. I'm sure there will be one where our kids do something adorable and one where I yell too much. One with unexpected news and one with predictable regularity. One where I crush the to-do list and one where I feel crushed. Because that's what the squares are there for. The good and the bad, the exciting and the mundane.

While I'm grateful for these big weekends to come I know that our life will be made in the squares in between. In the drives to dance class and walks to the bus stop. In the after-work debriefing and the brainstorming session. And just when I think I can't do one more load of laundry there will be a wedding to attend or a birthday to celebrate and with it a chance to reset my compass, live big for a minute, realizing that the small living squares are how we build a life. 
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Summer Menu Staples


Back at the beginning of summer I spent some time thinking about how to make some things simpler in this season. Specifically what kinds of dinners would be easy and delicious. Sometimes the summer feels like one long buffet table. With the kids home all day I feel like I'm constantly cooking and foraging for snacks so I wanted some go-to dinners that would be quick and not too heavy.

There have been 3 meals that I've had in heavy rotation and when I don't know what to make, I go with one of these and it helps fill in the gaps of my weekly meal plan.

1. Quiche! Now, if you live with a boy who may not be impressed by quiche for dinner, call it an egg casserole and thank me later. I use a pre-made pie crust or no crust at all if I want to trim some carbs. I whisk together 8 eggs, some veggies, sausage or bacon and bake at 350 for about an hour. Tips: I like to pre cook whatever goes in the quiche but make sure you let it cool off a little before adding it to your eggs. Sides: perfect with a salad or roasted potatoes.

2. Charcuterie board! This is SO easy and so good. Buy your favorite cheese, meats, nuts, and fruit and put it all on a cutting board. What could be easier? Also this is deceptively filling. Every time I'm worried it won't fill us up and we always end up leaving things on the board. Tips: Aldi is a great place to get affordable charcuterie components. You can make a kid friendly version of this by filling muffin tins with snacks your kids will enjoy Sides: Wine.

3. Salads! This is fun because there are endless possibilities here. Sometimes it's a cobb salad with bacon, hard boiled eggs, and veggies. Sometimes it's a taco salad with a base of chips, followed by lettuce, and then meat, peppers, and beans. It can even be a pre-made bagged salad with some rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. The salad is low effort and you feel great about yourself because you had a salad for dinner. Tips: This is my favorite salad kit. Literally love it so much.
Sides: Soup (if you live somewhere where the idea of soup in July doesn't seem wholly unreasonable)
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An Ode to Summer Reading


It was the summer of 1995. I was newly 8 and we had just moved from the panhandle of Florida to suburban Baltimore, MD. Ours was the second family to move into a new neighborhood and my sister and I were the only kids on our street. At some point after we got settled we did what would become my first priority every time my husband and I would move decades later--we got library cards.

Because it was summer, my sister and I signed up for the summer reading program at the local library which boasted activities designed to promote reading and prizes for reading certain numbers of books. Read 5 books, get a bookmark. Read 10 books and get a coupon for free ice cream. Years later I would wish one of those prizes had been fine forgiveness but alas that wasn't one of the offerings.

I was going in to 3rd grade and this was the first year I remember really having agency over my own reading life. I was at an age where my mom would turn me loose in the stacks and I could pick out whatever interested me and take it home to read. I didn't need help selecting titles and I wasn't counting on whatever books had been chosen for me.

I should mention we had no cable that summer. Our new neighborhood had yet to be outfitted with it and my mom called the cable company with weekly regularity, informing them they would not want to trifle with her if she had no cable come college football season. I believe they made an honest woman out of her by Labor Day but not a moment before. Thus the summer of 1995 was the summer of books and of The Orioles.

You know what you can watch with great regularity in the summer with no cable? Baseball. A lot of baseball. Being a sports family in the south means your only baseball team is the Braves and living far from Atlanta we were lukewarm on them at best. So the summer of '95 when Cal Ripken was chasing Lou Gerig's most consecutive games streak we became Orioles fans and despite having not lived in Maryland for 18 years, we still are.

When you move in the summer to a neighborhood with no kids, making friends takes time. We made friends with our newlywed neighbors who lucky for us loved baking and Disney movies but mostly, we lived in a sweet bubble just the four of us: mom, dad, my sister, and me. My mom stayed home with us so the summer was taken up with trips to the library, parks, running errands, and playing outside. We ended most nights at the local snowball stand or out back on the swing set all four of us built together at the start of that summer.

Our weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) library trips resulted in dozens of books read that summer. One after the other recorded on my summer reading log. I read about Felicity in the American Girl series. I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge by Judy Blume. I read Nancy Drew (I've always loved Nancy) and the Cam Jansen series of mysteries. All total I read 54 books that Summer, from June - August. I still remember the disbelief on the librarian's face when I turned in my logs.

I can't remember the prize I got for reading well above any of the goals set by the program. But I do remember that magical summer. The one that made me fall in love with reading, the Orioles, and the wonders of the library.

Nearly 25 years later, I still make almost weekly trips to my own library. This time I'm the mom and while I can't turn my girls loose in the stacks just yet, you can bet we're all signed up for summer reading. Because one of these summers they'll have their own love affair with books and words, libraries and baseball teams, and I can't wait.
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Dear Preschool Teachers



Dear Preschool Teachers,

You've done it! You've made it to the end of the school year once again. Congratulations! I seriously don't know how you do it, as I specifically send my children to you to avoid being with them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (I kid, I kid...maybe.)

Next week my oldest daughter will leave your classroom for the last time. She's off to the great big world of public school Kindergarten and, God love her, she is excited. But like her momma she is tender and I'd be lying if I said we haven't each shed a few tears over this milestone.

When you send your first child to preschool you have no idea what to expect. You hope it will be fun for her and educational, provide you a with a little break, and maybe you'll each make some friends.
The reality of what happened over the last three years is so much more than I could have hoped for.

Oh if it hasn't been all kinds of fun! Class parties, water days, basket nights, mother's day teas, and so much more. And you know what the best part was? All the fun was simple. It was never over-produced or expensive or technological. It was imaginative, simple, good old days kind of fun.  And in having all the fun she learned all the things. She learned letters and numbers and sounds but she also learned how to get along, how to share, how to be kind (side note, my youngest child has been completely potty-trained by her preschool teacher, bless her.).

One of the great underrated services preschool teachers provide is giving moms everywhere a break, be it for their sanity or their career. Thank for you the hours you provided so I could clean my house, nurse my newborn, and eventually think fully formed thoughts and find time for things that make me feel a little bit more like myself.

I'm a feeler of all the feelings so the social component of anything is, well, everything. I couldn't wait for my tiny girl to make her first friends and in turn befriend their mommas. I love the friends we've both made and realizing we are all headed different places next year has been hard to swallow. It's been precious to see my girl learn about what it looks like to be a friend and for the two of us to greet kids and parents alike every morning on our way in to school.

But nothing has meant more to me than the teachers and staff who created a safe place to leave my first baby every day of preschool. They have loved her like their own, they have discovered what makes her special and affirmed her in all the best ways.  They let her be a kid and managed to instill lessons and values in her along the way. They were silly and flexible and showed us both boundless grace. In the end, they are who I will remember from this sweet, sweet season because they have made all the difference.

So thank you preschool teachers for the patience, the love, and all the handprint crafts I will never be able to throw away.

Love,
Betsy





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What I've Been Reading Lately



Summer is for reading, am I right?! Here's what I've read in the last month or so and what is on my immediate TBR list.



Tangerine: A twisty, toxic relationship between two college friends unravels in mid-century Morocco. The setting here is the star.  Morocco is a fully fleshed out character in the story and really enriches the plot. A good psychological thriller. If you need likable characters or hopeful endings, this may not be for you.

Crazy Rich Asians: SO. MUCH. FUN. A great book to pick up before seeing the move, out August 15. This book is told from several points of view of various wings of an indescribably wealthy family based in Singapore. This is the first of three books in a series and I definitely plan on picking up the next two.

The Last Time I Lied: Best thriller I've read in a long time! I love the mystery/thriller genre but I'm particular about the ones I read: they can't be too dark, I don't want to feel like it's something that could happen to me, no gross murder-y stuff with kids, etc. This was perfect summer mystery reading. Emma goes to camp at 13 and the 3 other girls in her cabin disappear one night and they have to shut down the camp. Now an accomplished artist, Emma is invited back to the re-opening of the camp to teach art to the campers. Shenanigans ensue.

If You Only Knew: I listened to this on audio and I loved that it was read by the author, Jamie Ivey, whose podcast, the Happy Hour is also a great listen. This is the story of Jamie's growing up years and the shame she carried from some of the decisions she made and how she came to find freedom in Christ. It was a great listen.

I'd Rather Be Reading: This may be the book I am most excited to read next! Anne Bogel is one of my favorite podcasters and bloggers and she has a new book coming out September 4 all about what it means to be a reader and love books. You can pre-order the book and no matter where you pre-order it, you can submit your order info and get some fabulous bonuses from Anne and her team. You can read all about them here.  As part of Anne's launch team, I am excited to receive a copy of this book to read and review for all of you ahead of the publication date so stay tuned for that!
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