I did it. I really did it. At the start of 2021, I set a variety of resolutions, goals really. These goals ranged from physical fitness to travel to books, yes books. For people who know me, they probably would not think that setting a resolution for reading is necessary for me, since I am never without a book on a typical day anyway. But, I was not setting a resolution to read, or even simply to read more, but rather I was setting an actual numerical goal when it comes to reading. Because yes, I read a lot. That is just part of my personality. But in all of my 30 years of living and reading to that point, I had never tracked my reading or kept count of how many books I had read. People would ask me from time to time how many books I thought I had read in my life or even in a set amount of time, and I couldn’t give them anything more than a guess.
Well, that all changed last year because one of my 2021 goals was to read 50 books from January to December. And you know what, I did it! I not only accomplished this goal, but I exceeded it…by one. That’s right, in the year 2021 I read 51 books! Now, I am not going to sit here and say that completing this task led me to a revelation that I love literature; I kind of already knew that. I am not going to say that it made me realize that I never want to leave the house without a book in my purse ever again. I kind of already do that. But what I will say is that in my year of reading, I did take-away a couple of reminders, small nuggets of wisdom that I already knew about reading, and some exciting new revelations about books that impacted my year of 2021 and beyond immensely. Here are just a few of those “novel” 😉 take-aways:
I know, I know. This is an elementary truth that we learn from our earliest days in kindergarten and Reading Rainbow. But, it is amazing to me how much I learn, even from reading fiction. From reviewing my list of books read in 2021, very few of them were nonfiction. But even from all of the fiction books I have read, I learn so much about geography, culture, relationships, and even the act of writing itself. There are countless times when I will be watching Jeopardy!,The Chase, or any number of other trivia shows with my husband, I will get an answer right, and he will be perplexed as to how I knew that random tid-bit of information. Without fail, I look at him and say, “I know things. I read.” As a non-reader himself, he will usually roll his eyes and chuckle, but he knows it’s the truth. Even after all of these years of reading, it still amazes me how much you can learn from reading.
2. I have a wide-variety of reading interests, and that is a good thing!
When people ask me what my favorite book is or who my favorite author is, I always ask a million follow-up questions. Classic or contemporary? Fiction or nonfiction? Novel or poetry? On and on. It is so hard for me to pinpoint an all-time favorite book or author because so much of that depends on the season of life I am in, the literal season of the year we are in (classic, British novels are better in the winter, they just are!), or what mood I am in. Admittedly, 2021 was filled with a plethora of contemporary suspense/thriller novels because I was trying to meet my 50-book quota (haha)!, but there is still a wide-variety of writers and genres in the mix. Everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” to Reese Witherspoon book club picks like Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me to Lisa Jewell’s The Night She Disappeared. There were A LOT of Lisa Jewell books read this year! I think that is what keeps a reader’s reading life from going stale: mixing it up with a little of the old and a little of the new, a little of the suspense and a little of the slow-paced, a little of the known and a little of the unknown. Plus, something revolutionary happened to me in 2021: I became a frequent visitor of our town’s public library. For an avid reader, the library is not a resource I utilize often, but oh that has changed now! Hardly a week goes by without a visit to pick up a couple of new reads. If I was going to give suggestions to someone wanting to start reading (other than get a library card) it would be, start off with a book on a topic you know you are going to like, but from there, branch out! You never know what you might like, and learn, along the way.
3. Finally, my own universal truth, I do not feel complete if I am not in-between the pages of a book.
This is not to say that I must be reading every hour of the day, but if I do not have a title to say I am currently reading if someone asks, it doesn’t feel right. I know many readers can relate to this sentiment. If I travel, I have to have multiple books with me in case I finish one and need another. Once I finish a book, I immediately have to get another one to start on once my mind has returned from the world of the previous one. Even when I am sitting around the house doing something other than reading, you can more likely than not find my current book somewhere in physical proximity to me, just because I never know when I might want to read a page or two in the middle of the day. I find so much joy in reading that I sometimes find myself feeling badly for people who don’t know the comfort that books can bring to your life.
Like I said, this year of reading reminded me of truths I already knew about literature and also brought to light some new revelations and love for new writers that I did not have before. While I may not always set out to read 50 books from this year on, I will always look back on 2021 with fond memories, reminiscing on all of the many books, plots, and characters I was enthralled with for those 12 months. Now, here’s to many more days, months, and years of learning and growing with books. Happy Reading!
If you live in the south-eastern region of the US, one of the BEST places for a quick, weekend vacation is the Savannah, Georgia/Hilton Head Island (HHI), South Carolina area. Even though there is plenty to experience in Savannah and HHI, enough undoubtedly to fill an entire week’s long vacation, you can still experience so many amazing parts of this area in just a short, weekend trip. I spent this past Memorial Day weekend in Savannah & Hilton Head with my family and want to share just a few suggestions of places to eat, things to do, and sights to see for a couple-day stay in the area.
Flying into Savannah on Saturday morning, we wasted no time before going straight to the beach. There are several beach options in the Savannah area, some even as close as 20 minutes outside of the city, like Tybee Island. But, I am always partial to Hilton Head, even though it is about a 45-minute drive outside of the city. The public beach access on the island is located at Coligny Plaza. Even though this is a public beach, it depends on what time of the year you are traveling as to how crowded it will be. Since it was Memorial Day weekend, the beach was quite packed, but I have also been to Coligny in early October and there were no crowds at all.
After a day at the beach, we headed to the Sea Pines area of the island, specifically Harbor Town. To enter this area of the island, you do pay for a day pass, but Harbor Town is worth it! Walking around the harbor, listening to live music, seeing the sunset off the pier, and looking up at the beautiful red and white candy-striped Harbor Town lighthouse is a perfect way to end a lazy beach day.
While at Harbor Town, one of the staples we always try to hit for food is the Crazy Crab…their seafood (and especially the complimentary hush puppies) is never short of delicious! And, it wouldn’t be a vacation night in Harbor Town if we didn’t end the evening with some after-dinner ice cream while sitting and looking out at the boats docked in the harbor.
After spending some time in Harbor Town, we left the island to head back to Savannah for the night. Instead of traveling through main highways to get back to Savannah, we drove through a cute, quaint town called Bluffton. It was a lively Saturday night in town, so we decided to walk around for a bit. Since we had just eaten, we did not stop in any restaurant or shop, but Bluffton is a definite must for the next time we travel to the area. You could spend an entire day on their main drag of road between the restaurants, stores, and little park area to rest in.
Sunday morning began with a visit to a local church that has a few satellite campuses in Savannah: Compassion Christian Church. We visited their Downtown campus on Jones Street. If you are in Savannah on a Sunday and are interested in visiting a local church, I would highly recommend Compassion Downtown. Their greeting team was so inviting, the worship was powerful, and the message was impactful.
Now, if you have never been to Savannah before, there are a few experiences I would highly recommend such as taking a trolley tour of the city to learn about its history and spending some time on River Street by the Savannah River. But, if you are familiar with the city and have had some of those more tourist-y experiences before, then Savannah is a perfect city to just wander around and get lost in for a day, which is what Sunday became for us.
After church, we drove further into the historic district to park the car for the day, and walked a few streets down from Liberty Street to one of the largest parks that the city is famous for: Forsyth Park. Pictures in front of the gorgeous fountain located here make for a great keep-sake from the trip. The fact that this fountain is located at the end of a walkway lined with mature trees complete with branches covered in Spanish moss is an added bonus for your viewing pleasure.
From Forsyth, I would suggest taking your time exploring the city and the various smaller parks laid out in the squares that make up the historic district of Savannah. There are so many boutiques, outdoor shops, and art galleries perfect for any area of interest. One of my favorite places to frequent in Savannah is the bookstore, E. Shaver’s Booksellers, located on Bull Street. This book store is so unique in its layout, decor, and patrons, featuring a few in-house cats that you may stumble upon as they lounge in oversized chairs or windowsills.
Coffee shops in Savannah are not in short supply, and I have been to some great ones. But, this weekend, we visited one we had not before: Gallery Espresso, also on Bull Street. As soon as you walk into this shop, you are greeted with an eclectic mix of music, mismatched furniture, and a sense of welcome. As we waited in line to order, we saw one group of guys playing chess to our left and a few individuals reading and studying on their own to our right. We were able to snag a window table which was perfect for people watching and seeing the park square while we snacked. Speaking of which, the food and drink here were phenomenal! Our group had a mixture of iced coffees, root beer floats, baklava, bagels, and chicken salad sandwiches, all of which hit the spot perfectly after a couple of hours of walking and shopping.
A few hours of resting were necessary after a day full of walking and exploring around the city. But, after recuperating from our busy day, we had dinner outside of the historic district at a restaurant called Pearl’s Saltwater Grille. Here we had our final AMAZING seafood meal of the weekend with a beautiful view of the Herb River. The entire back wall of the restaurant was made up of windows, and there was also a wrap-around walkway and deck to make it easier to see the tide come in around the marshes while waiting for our food.
Like I mentioned earlier, there is so much to do in Savannah and the surrounding areas, from learning about the history to shopping at modern boutiques to spending a lazy afternoon in a coffee shop. While it may be considered a shame to only have 48 hours in a place this magical, there is also something to be said about getting just a taste of a city so beautiful that it keeps you wanting to return soon with Georgia undoubtedly on your mind.
As I walked onto the grounds of the cathedral, I have to admit, I was not as “in awe” as the moment warranted. Having been to Europe before, I had seen my share of old churches. Now, I am not saying they all weren’t absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous in their own unique ways, but after touring so many of them, the grandeur was starting to fade. On this particular European excursion, I was acting as a chaperone for a school/community trip in connection with the high school where I was, at the time, teaching sophomore English.
On this specific day of the trip, we were touring the Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, England. Another beautiful cathedral, another solemn, reverent amble around and within the building, when something happened that dramatically changed my day and my mindset. Walking around inside the church, I stumbled upon a beautiful golden plaque on which these words were inscribed: “Jane Austen: known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by Christian faith and piety…buried in this cathedral…”
I could not believe it! My English-major heart was bursting! Literature has always been one of my greatest passions, and Jane Austen has always ranked as one of my favorite writers. But, even with my deep admiration for her writing, I never in my studies learned where her final resting place was, and it just so happened that I had unintentionally stumbled upon it as a chaperone on a school trip of all things! This literary great was buried here, right at the church where I was standing, and I am not ashamed to say I was stunned into silence for a few moments, just staring at the placard while others on the trip made their ways around me to continue the tour.
My whole life I have defended my love of reading, specifically classical reading, to those in my life who do not share my passion for the written word. While an Austen novel is not everyone’s choice for a beach read, I believe there is much that can be learned, especially for a Christian woman in 2021, from classic literature and the women who are responsible for some of the greatest stories in history.
Austen’s short life, one of faith, is one I have admired for years. Like many writers, she did not get the recognition she deserved for her work in her lifetime, but she did spend her years on earth devoted to her family and passionate about pursuing the talents God had blessed her with. In a time when women were not seen as equal, she fervently continued to pen her stories showcasing women in their imperfect forms, but with good ultimately prevailing over evil in each of her plots.
When I think of Austen’s novels, there is humanity: love, loss, contempt, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She was not in the business of writing salacious works to shock the masses. She is even quoted as saying, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everyone to comfort and a happy ending.” Some may argue that this is not indicative of real life, in which happy endings do not always occur. But, is it not indicative of how we should live our lives as Christians?
As we walk through the daily struggles, yes, we experience guilt, misery, sadness, hurt, sickness – in short, all of the terribleness that comes from living in a sin-filled world. Undoubtedly, Austen experienced these as well: losing her father at a young age, never marrying the man she loved, being poor for portions of her adult life; the specific hardships she endured that she could have dwelt upon are numerous. But as Christ-followers, like Austen, we have the hope to believe that one day we will all be restored to the “happy ending” waiting for us when we are reunited with Christ.
In a time when it is so easy to dwell on the negatives, when the news floods our hearts and minds with what is wrong with the world, I think we could all learn from the wisdom of Austen. We can choose to not dwell on the misery, but rather impatiently work to restore ourselves, and those around us, to a more uplifting life, one where we work together to share the Good News of Christ with as many as we can before meeting Him again!
If we can do this, if we can live our lives, not in denial of the hurt and sadness surrounding us, but in choosing to walk with Christ through it to the happy ending, then we can wake up each morning with a renewed sense of purpose and joy for life. If I can do this, then I hope one day, others will be able to quote the same Proverb about me that was written for Jane Austen on her memorial in Winchester Cathedral: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (Proverbs 31:26 KJV).
Leading up to February 2020, going on an out-of-country mission trip had been something I had wanted to do for many years. I remember the very first mission trip to Haiti that members of my home church went on several years prior. I had wrestled with the idea of going, but had decided ultimately against it. After that trip, every time a group from church went somewhere, I felt a desire to join but never like it was the right time.
Then, once Adam and I got married in 2016, he agreed that a mission trip was something he wanted to do, as well. So, we made a plan to go on a mission trip with our church when the time seemed right.
A few years later in 2019, our church’s first mission group to Guatemala returned home and spoke so enthusiastically about their experiences staying at Catalyst Resources International (CRI) and working with the team there to serve the people of Guatemala. Hearing the stories from my mother and younger sister who had gone on the trip about how much they loved it especially made Adam and me really start to consider going the next time our church went.
So, a few months later, once a trip was determined for 2020, it was like God had planned for us to go. We were able to work out the logistics of time away from work, so many from our small group at church were going (which we were so excited about), and it truly felt like God orchestrated this specific trip for us to take.
Now, on the year anniversary of our trip, it still stands as one of the most impactful experiences of my life.
Being with the Guatemalan people was such a gift of joy – whether we were playing basketball with kids at Mimi’s House – a local orphanage, spending time with the family my team built a house for, or just interacting with people in town. The gratitude and genuine happiness that exuded from the people I met was overwhelming.
I remember a ten-year-old girl named Kaylee at Mimi’s House: a child old enough to realize her situation, who could have acted angry or blamed others. Instead, she got off the school bus at the orphanage, kissed & hugged the little kids, and then changed out of her school uniform to come outside and play with us. She was the last child in the yard waving goodbye as we left that afternoon.
I remember the family of seven whose house my team built. The children and mother were all so excited all week, but the father was expressionless much of the time. However, on the day we dedicated their completed house, he was unable to fully express his thanks because of his emotions. The love that he and his family showed our team that day is a memory I will not soon forget.
The Guatemalan people made such an immense impact on me, but so did the missionaries at CRI: Fontaine and Paula Greene. My church family has supported long-term missionaries for as long as I can remember, and we have even had some of the missionaries we support visit and give us updates on their work from time to time. But, this trip was my first personal experience with a long-term mission.
To see the entire Greene family: Fontaine, Paula, & their daughters and their families all devoting their lives to sharing Jesus with the people of Guatemala was one of the most beautiful acts of service I had ever witnessed. They have given up the comforts and familiarities of life in America to live and work and fellowship in a less fortunate country in the name of Christ. To say the least, their love and dedication to others was convicting, and I am so grateful that they open their lives to hosting teams to partner with them in their mission to show God’s love.
Now, after a long twelve months (especially considering what the twelve months from February 2020 to February 2021 have brought the world), I feel even more blessed that I was able to be a part of this mission trip. From the specific team members who were on the trip to the experiences of the week itself, I know God ordained the entire thing. It has been my hope for the past year, and still now a full 365 days after touching back down in America, that in my daily life I can live with a greater sense of joy, thankfulness, and dedication to serving others – to live more in the Jesus-style each moment of each day.
As a book lover, I have always been enthralled with fiction. I start a new novel and instantly become enamored by the worlds that authors create filled with breath-taking settings, captivating characters, and gripping plot lines. For so many years, I believed that fiction was the only genre for me, scoffing at the evil idea of “nonfiction,” which in my mind equated to a list of facts similar to reading an encyclopedia.
But thankfully, and to be frank, I’m not sure exactly how or when it happened during my literary maturity, at some point over the years I have found my gateway genre to nonfiction, and I am so happy I did. In a word: memoirs. Memoirs, while very much based in reality, have just enough creative writing elements (setting, characters, plot, etc.) to still draw me in. And what’s more, these stories are even better, in some aspects, than my beloved novels because they are real humans connecting with their real readers about their real lives –the victories, the agonies, and everything in between. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of “Big-L” Literature? To showcase humanity through stories?
So, if you are like my former self, stuck in your Team-Fiction ways, not wanting to give nonfiction a try, I would like to present to you three of my absolute favorite memoirs as recommendations to help you see the light and ease your way into the satisfying waters that are creative nonfiction.
Educated by: Tara Westover
Published in 2018, Educated follows Westover’s story from childhood all the way to her Cambridge education. Westover’s story gripped me from the start and would not let me go. Raised in rural Idaho, Westover was isolated from many outside of her immediate family and didn’t have typical childhood experiences such as going to school. Her family was an entanglement of love, violence, fear, and determination: determination by some to stay secluded, determination by others (like Westover’s older brother and eventually Westover herself) to see what the world beyond her family’s mountain had to offer. Her story is one of life-long struggles to love her family and make them proud while also discovering who she is apart from the tumultuous upbringing she survived. One piece of that discovery was seeking an education beyond the subpar homeschooling she received from her family. As a lover of learning, I was captivated by Westover’s desire to earn an education and felt as if I was walking onto the campuses of Brigham Young University, Harvard, & Cambridge alongside her in her later years. This is a story of turmoil and triumph and will likely not leave you for a long time after turning the final page.
“When I was a child, I waited for my mind to grow, for my experiences to accumulate and my choices to solidify, taking shape into the likeness of a person. That person, or that likeness of one, had belonged. I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me. It was only as I grew older that I wondered if how I had started is how I would end–if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.”
Tara westover, Educated
Hillbilly Elegy by: J.D. Vance
As a life-long Kentuckian, this book feels a little closer to home than that of Westover’s Idaho mountains. Vance’s memoir, subtitled, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” relays his family’s history, including tracing their roots to their native Jackson, Kentucky and following their move to Middletown, Ohio. His story, published in 2016, shines a light on his family struggles, and in turn makes a bigger commentary on the people in his community and their socio-economic status–in his words “a culture in crisis.” From his mother’s drug abuse to his difficulty in school, he recounts what life was like for him and how a few people along the way inspired him to strive for better. His journey, leading him out of Middletown, to enlist in the military, go to college, and attend Yale Law School, is nothing if not awe-inspiring. Now a movie on Netflix starring Glen Close and Amy Adams, this story will infuriate you one moment and inspire you the next. It highlights some brutal truths about realities in our country, but reinforces the mindset that anything is attainable if a person is willing to put in the work.
“And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way–both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.
J.D. Vance, hillbilly elegy
The Glass Castle by: Jeannette Walls
I have, in my opinion, saved the best for last. I’m not sure if I have the adequate words to describe how deeply I love The Glass Castle. I first read this book a few years ago after my younger sister told me about it, she having had read it for a class assignment. I was immediately in love, but it is an admiration that has grown even deeper over the years. As an English teacher, I have also taught this book to my students as part of a memoir study over the past several years. With each passing year, my beloved copy of the book becomes a bit more worn and annotated, and I feel just a bit closer to the Walls family.
Published in 2005, this is the story of Jeannette and her unconventional family: her father Rex, her mother Rose Mary, older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen. Jeannette’s childhood was, in a word, nomadic. With Rex’s drinking problem and Rose Mary’s apathy toward being a parent, money, food, and stability were scarce. This resulted in Jeannette and her siblings being more responsible than their parents and essentially learning to fend for themselves. This story is so paradoxical in that the behavior of the parents is infuriating, but there is an evident bond of love between them all at the same time. For instance, in a drunken rage, Rex burns down the family Christmas tree one year, but then later helps Jeannette pay for a semester of college when she thought she would have to drop out due to expenses.
The way that Jeannette recounts the unfathomable experiences of her life (many that would make most people bitter for life) and yet is able to draw out of those difficult times lessons, strengths, and love for her family is unparalleled. The fact that she had such an unstable life and is now in a loving marriage and is a successful writer is a testament to her resiliency and determination. Her memoir has been transformed into a beautiful film starring Brie Larson as Jeannette and Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as Rex & Rose Mary. While there are some creative liberties taken in the film, it is still a fascinating portrayal of Jeannette’s life. Each time I finish reading The Glass Castle, named after the home Rex promised to build his family for years but never did, I feel as if I am a distant cousin visiting with her family, hearing the same familiar tales that are repeated at every family reunion, but never tiring of experiencing them all over again.
“We raised our glasses. I could almost hear Dad chuckling at Mom’s comment in the way he always did when he was truly enjoying something. It had grown dark outside. A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.
Confession time: I am a perfectionist. Type-A personality. A textbook Type One on the Enneagram scale. However you want to phrase it, no matter how many personality tests I take, my results remain constant. I am a rule-following, order-imposing, organizational-loving gal. Anyone who knows me, knows this about me. While I am well-aware of the dangers of never “letting loose” and having too high of standards for myself, I embrace my personality, and my family has too. Just this year for Christmas, I was gifted two different 2021 wall calendars by two different family members, as well as a 2021 planner (more on this later). I love making to-do lists, setting goals for myself, and having a schedule.
And, as someone who thoroughly enjoys planning, you can only imagine my excitement at the start of each new year, when it’s time to fill in my planner for the next year and set goals for what I hope to accomplish over the upcoming twelve months.
So, as I sat down one morning during the time vortex that is the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I had my coffee in tow, music playing on Pandora, and I cracked open my newly obtained planner to, of course, start planning for 2021. Now, this is no ordinary planner. I asked specifically for this particular planner (again, Type One coming out in full form). This planner is the 2021 Goal Planner by Christy Wright, a Dave Ramsey personality.
As a Ramsey-ite, I had heard on multiple podcasts Dave and Christy endorse this planner in the months leading up to Christmas, and I knew, having read Christy’s previous book and hearing her on the show, that it was going to encompass planning, goal setting, inspirational quotes…all the things I love. What I wasn’t expecting was to be shaken awake, stopped in my tracks, put in my place by this inanimate object, as if Christy was talking to me right in my office.
Opening the cover of the planner, before ever even reaching the January 2021 calendar page, I was presented with a “2021 Goal Worksheet.” In these introductory pages of the planner, Christy outlines several reflective questions regarding goals and plans for the upcoming year, but, before even answering these questions, she prompts the reader to first consider where God may be leading her this year. She writes, “Carve out some time to pray and journal without being interrupted,” then proceed to answer the questions.
As a Christian, this immediately convicted me. Why was I so taken aback by the idea to pray for God’s guidance before filling out this planner? Maybe because I get so used to being the orchestrator of my daily to-do lists that I forget to ask for His guidance in my ordinary, minute tasks, these daily and weekly tasks that seem irrelevant, but are actually the details that make up how I spend my life.
So, I did what Christy asked: I put the planner to the side, grabbed my prayer journal, and spent a few quiet moments asking for God to guide my completing of this planner and also my moment by moment life for the next twelve months and beyond.
It was in these contemplative moments that I was reminded of something I had read the night before. Every winter, I try and read at least a few classic British novels (I know, I’m a book nerd as well as a perfectionist!), and I had just finished Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre. In the story, a secondary character, St. John, is giving Jane advice on how she should spend her time. While St. John is not necessarily the most popular character in the story, his advice to Jane struck me as I read these lines: “…To the end of turning to profit the talents which God has committed to your keeping; and of which he will surely one day demand strict account…Don’t cling so tenaciously to ties of the flesh; save your constancy and ardour for an adequate cause…”
These lines were filling my mind as I was journaling and praying. How much of the past year had I wasted not using the talents God has gifted me? How many minutes of the past 365 days had I “clung to ties of the flesh” – earthly tasks I thought were important, and not used my ardor for the cause of Christ and His Kingdom?
With these questions convicting me, I returned to the Goal Worksheet in the Christy Wright planner, thinking not just of the goals and plans I had prepared for myself, but more so considering how the days, weeks, & months of 2021 could be used for God. Considering how I can use my time, talents & gifts to better serve Him and others in this new year.
After spending hours thinking, reflecting, and goal-planning, it is my hope and prayer that I will continue to look to God for guidance as I make my plans and to-do lists for 2021. If being organized is your passion or if you are more of a go-with-the-flow type, I invite you to join me in seeking God’s guidance for your goals and plans this year. Grab Christy Wright’s Goal Planner, or even just a piece of scrap paper. Reflect and pray for God to reveal how you can use the talents He has given you for others. Let’s plan on 2021 not being a year we focus our time and attention on ourselves, but rather on how we can better serve our neighbors, communities, and the world. If we can do this, then I believe the next twelve months can be the most transformative and fulfilling ones we have ever experienced. Cheers to 2021!
Some might say the best part about growing up in a small town is that everyone knows everyone. Depending on who you talk to, others might say this is the worst part about growing up in a small town. Being one of many small-town natives myself, I can understand both sentiments. My hometown has about 300 residents within the city limits; I could make it to my elementary school, the park, post office, the only gas station, and my church within a 5-minute drive (that is truly not an exaggeration)! Not to mention, I lived within five miles of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, too!
This may seem oppressive to those on the outside. As a matter of fact, when we first got together, my husband used to jokingly ask me what everyone’s Social Security Numbers were when we would pass people on the street! But, I found growing up in this type of Walnut Grove, Little House on the Prairie setting to be comforting. My best friends and cousins were also my peers at school, teammates on summer softball leagues and in my youth group at church. Being around the same girls at school Monday-Friday, in church on Sundays & Wednesdays, and at my grandparents’ house for holidays solidified my group of friends in an unshakeable way. Now that we are all grown up, some married, some single, some with babies, some expecting them soon, we have all remained close, choosing to put down roots in the same church family we grew up in, choosing to “do life” together as friends, family, and sisters in Christ.
I understand that my situation is quite unique. Not everyone stays close with the same friends from birth into adulthood, and not everyone has family members double as their next door neighbors and closest friends. But, if you are a Christ-follower, you have probably heard the church phrase before: “accountability partners.” This is what my group of girls is for me. Although, I never really think of them as accountability partners in my mind. Really I see them as simply a core group of friends I can lean on for encouragement and to hold me to the high standards I strive for as I walk through life. These girls have seen me in all stages of life–the good, bad, and ugly.
Whether you have a core group of girls who have seen you from your hideous bang phase in elementary school to your current fabulous version of yourself today ;), or if you are surrounded by an awesomely supportive cast of new friends, life is so much sweeter when walking alongside sisters.
This became even more evident to me when one of my girls (a cousin/friend) and I led a small-group study at my church entitled, “We Saved You a Seat.” Written by Lisa-Jo Baker, manager of the (in)courage community, this study is a deep-dive into what it takes to be a true, Christian friend for the long-haul of life, to not simply say you’re “fine” all of the time, but to let your friends come into your life, to grab a seat at the table, and walk through your joys and struggles with you.
As I mentioned, I have been so blessed with the same core group of girlfriends & family most of my life, and I THOUGHT we were doing life together. Don’t get me wrong, we were definitely close; but after going through this study with the girls, it became so clear just how crucial it is to let people in–into your messy house, into your inner struggles, into your out-of-this world dreams for your future.
There are an innumerable amount of reasons why having a group of Christian sisters, accountability partners, whatever you want to call them, around you is necessary to life, but after years of walking with my girls and going through the aforementioned Bible study, I think all of the reasons can be summed up into three major benefits of having Christian friends on your day-to-day walk.
1. You need someone you can share your mess with.
This is a tough one for me. As a definition Type-A perfectionist, it is difficult for me to let others see my messy, unkempt side. I’m sure there are some of you out there who feel the same way-even writing this now, the thought of someone randomly stopping by the house when I haven’t dusted and swept in a few days makes my chest tighten a bit. And that’s just the literal messiness of life, not even taking into account the Spiritual, emotional distress that can plague us all from time to time. But, as difficult as it is for me to share the dirt and grime of my life with others, doing so brings such a sense of freedom and release that is hard to describe.
In the study, Baker describes this ability of letting others into our lives and allowing them to see our messiness as being willing to be interrupted. She writes, “…being willing to be interrupted isn’t about the state of our houses. It’s about the state of our hearts. Women aren’t hungry for perfection; they’re hungry for connection.” I have found this to be true in my life. As much as my personality at times longs for everything both in my house and in my spirit to be perfect, I know that if I wait until the day perfection comes to invite people into my life, it will be a lonely road I travel. In the past, I would be wary of judgement from others if they saw the not-so-glamorous sides of me, but, as the Proverb reads, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Friends, true friends, loving friends, are in our lives for just exactly the messy, disruptive, ugly times when we most desperately long for someone to lean on. If we don’t let those close to us be a part of our lives fully, then we won’t have friends-we will merely have acquaintances. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think God created us as beautiful, complex humans to simply acquaint ourselves with those around us. No, that doesn’t sound right to me at all.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity”
2. Encouragement & Daily Prayers are so sweet when coming from friends.
I’m sure we have all been guilty of this before. If someone we know is going through a hardship, we might respond with an automatic, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” With the best of intentions, we say this, but as the days and weeks progress, that person falls to the wayside of our minds, and the prayer never gets uttered. I know I’ve done this before. But, when relationships are built and established among friends, prayer requests can be shared, cried over, and prayed about TOGETHER, not in isolation. Even if I do not have a specific prayer request in a given week, there is nothing more sweeter to my soul than getting an out-of-the blue text from one of my girls just letting me know they lifted up a prayer for me or are wishing me a good day! This type of encouragement and prayer is invaluable.
In the Bible study, Baker devotes an entire chapter to the role of encouragement in Godly friendships. She writes about the blessings God grants us: “Blessings are not for hoarding; they’re for forwarding. Because that is how we reflect God’s glory back to Him.” What better blessing is there than someone being encouraged and encouraging someone else in return? This deep encouragement can be found in a strong, loving group of friends. As Christians, we are explicitly commanded to uplift those around us. In I Thessalonians 5:11, it is written, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
“Blessings are not for hoarding; they’re for forwarding. Because that is how we reflect God’s glory back to Him.”
Lisa-jo baker, “We saved you a seat”
3. Showing your messiness to those you’re close with and encouraging one another through prayer are staples to strong friendships, but just as important is simply having those people to go to who are constant, positive safe havens for you to commune with when the world just gets to be too much.
Let’s be honest, this world is not always the best. Don’t get me wrong–there are so many beautiful blessings to life on this earth, but, as a Christian, I see this world as a flawed place, a temporary residence while my sights are set on a more eternal home. With that being said, sometimes it is so easy to feel broken down by the evil that surrounds us daily. You don’t have to go far past your own driveway or or even your TV screen to see the presence of sin in our world. While we are called to be light to the darkness, that is easier said than done. Even the most positive spirit has down days, and that is why my small group of friends has been so crucial to me over the years.
When my spirit feels especially burdened by this world, my gals are a place for me to go to for a positive reminder that I am not walking alone. We don’t even have to talk about what’s weighing me down. I’m sure there have been many times when I’ve been sad and my friends didn’t even realize it, but just being around them, knowing that they share the same outlook and beliefs as me when it comes to this world, is enough for me to have a renewed spirit. I love the way Baker writes this: “Friendship isn’t something we passively receive. Friendships is something we actively do.” As Jesus commanded, “…Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). On my days when the world and it’s darkness is overwhelming, my girls actively love me the way Jesus tells us–in a way that reminds me we have so much more to look forward to!
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Friend, this life is not meant to be done alone, and I can truly say that having Christian sisters is one of the most joy-filled experiences I have been blessed with. It is my prayer that every woman walking through this life has a group of ladies that she can rely on and join with on this journey. If not, come to our table! We are happy to have you!
Hilton Head Island is hands-down my favorite beach vacation spot to frequent. Don’t get me wrong; for most vacations, I do love exploring new places, but sometimes it’s relaxing to just put it on cruise control, literally and figuratively, and go to a place I am familiar with that I know I am going to love and enjoy. Living in Kentucky, Hilton Head Island (HHI) is an easy day drive: just leave in the morning, and by late afternoon (even with a few pit stops), you’re on the island. While I love the changing of the seasons and everything that comes along with cooler weather and the holidays, some particularly cold and rainy October mornings have me daydreaming about the island life. This is definitely one of those times when I am reminiscing on warmer times on the island.
One of the best aspects of vacationing in Hilton Head is the close proximity to other AMAZING locations and cities to visit. From the island, you can take a day trip to any of these beautiful cities: Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Tybee Island Georgia; and Beaufort, South Carolina. Having been to HHI numerous times over the years (the first time being a family vacation in 2006!), I have also visited all of the lovely towns I just mentioned.
On top of these cities being utterly breathtaking with their classic, Southern history & charm, they have also been the locations for some of my absolute favorite books. And being the travel & book lover I am, I’ve compiled a list of book suggestions that coincide with these Southern cities, if ever you find yourself in the South Carolina/Georgia area. Or, if you are simply sitting under a blanket on a crisp fall evening, anxiously awaiting warmer weather and an escape to the beach.
1. The Town: Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is one of the most magical cities to visit. The streets are brimming with charm from the colorful houses on Rainbow Row to the Battery Row Mansions to the Joe Riley Waterfront Park. This city can be enjoyed by guided tour via horse-drawn carriage or aimlessly walking and getting lost on the cobblestone streets (And I would recommend both). With the drive from HHI being only a little over two hours, this city is definitely worth the day-trip away from the beach! If you are in the mood for some good eats while in the city, stop by Hyman’s Seafood. Hyman’s is a staple in Charleston, has rave reviews on their food and service, AND has some of the most out-of-this-world Cajun mayonnaise you will ever have. If for no other reason, at least stop by for the Cajun mayo…trust me on that.
1. The Book: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
If you are a fan of historical fiction AND Charleston, then you MUST read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. The plot begins in Charleston in 1803, and the story follows the lives of two girls throughout childhood into their adult years. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a prominent Charleston couple, is gifted Hetty (Handful), a young African American girl whose mother is a slave for the Grimke household. Sarah, who doesn’t agree with her family’s practice of owning slaves, is resistant to having Handful as a human present. What follows their initial, rocky first interaction with one another is the development of a complex relationship between two very different women. With each chapter alternating narrators between Sarah and Handful, you find yourself becoming immersed in their worlds, the one they share together and the two they live apart from one another. The novel is partly inspired by Sarah Grimke, an historic abolitionist and suffragette, whose family house is still standing in Charleston today.
2. The Town: Savannah, Georgia
Even though it’s in the neighboring state of Georgia, Savannah is an easy 45-minute drive from Hilton Head, making it an ideal spot to visit for a day away from the beach. Savannah and Charleston are so similar; they are even referred to as sister cities. Both are full of history and quintessential Southern sights such as trees dripping with Spanish moss lining the streets. Savannah, however, is unique from Charleston in it’s layout; the city is laid out in squares with historic statues and green, grassy areas peppering the town. You can also amble idly down River Street, the cobblestone road lined with restaurants and shops with a view of the Savannah River right at your side. Savannah is such a fun place to get lost in for a day: beautiful sights, coffee shops to relax in, and plenty of stores and restaurants to keep you busy!
If you are looking particularly for some eclectic, artsy, unique items that are specific to Savannah, I would suggest shopSCAD on Bull Street, a retail store featuring original work from the Savannah College of Art and Design community. After a full morning of shopping and touring, if you are ready for a rest from all of the walking, I would highly recommend finding your way to Savannah Coffee Roasters on W Liberty Street. Complete with over-sized, comfy chairs to relax in and the intoxicating aroma of fresh coffee and baked goods, this quaint coffee shop is an AWESOME place to stop and rest for a while before getting back out to discover all that Savannah has to offer.
2. The Book: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
This book is a nonfiction novel, following the events of a murder that takes place in Savannah, specifically in one of Savannah’s beautiful homes: the Mercer House. You would be hard-pressed to visit Savannah and not see some sign, store, or product referencing this novel. On trolley tours of the city, the Mercer House is even one of the stops on the path. And be sure before you leave the city to try and spot a replica “bird girl” statue, which is the focal point of the cover art of the novel. The statue can be found around town in various spots! Even though the novel focuses on a murder trial, it features an interesting mix of somber moments and hilarious high-points from some of Savannah’s more unique individuals…characters you will just have to read about when you pick up this book.
3. The Town: Tybee Island, Georgia
Located just down the road from Savannah, this eclectic, quaint beach getaway is another Southern specialty in driving range from HHI. While you probably wouldn’t leave one beach on HHI to go to another on Tybee, this is a fun place to visit, especially if you are already spending time in Savannah.
3. The Book: The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
This recommendation is a little off-kilter as the book doesn’t technically take place on the island…the movie does. The Last Song is actually set in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, but the film adaptation was filmed on Tybee Island. The book follows Veronica (Ronnie) Miller, a seventeen-year-old full of angst, who is in town visiting her father for the summer. Even though Ronnie is hesitant to open up at first, the reader goes on a journey with her as she draws closer to her father as well as to a local guy who helps her let go of her anger at her parents’ divorce and her own unhappiness with life. If you make the trip to Tybee, it is worth it to bring this book along so you can imagine the scenes playing out before you as you wander around the island.
4. The Town: Beaufort, South Carolina
Beaufort was actually an accidental stop, but one I was so happy happened. Beaufort is the quintessential, picturesque, sea-side hamlet that you could peacefully stroll through for an entire day. We made the drive to Beaufort thinking it was the setting for another Spark’s novel, A Walk to Remember. It wasn’t until we were already on the road that someone in the car had the brilliant idea to look it up to make sure we were right. Turns out, there is also a Beaufort, NORTH CAROLINA, as well, which is where the novel and movie adaptation actually took place!! Alas, when we made this revelation, we were already on the road and decided to keep trucking, and were we ever so glad we did! After we parked and began walking around, we were taken in by the swings lining the river side, gorgeous waterfront homes, and small side roads with shops and restaurants to explore (not to mention a great indie bookstore or two)! With just a 45 minute commute from HHI, I was pleasantly surprised by how charming this town turned out to be!
4. The Book: A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
As far as the book, I would still strongly recommend it, even if it is set in the OTHER Carolina (ha)! Focused on the unlikely pair of high schoolers: popular Landon and reserved Jamie, the plot takes you through the progression of their relationship from acquaintances to friends to even more, all while they are faced with trials many teens do not have to withstand. I also can never get enough of the film adaptation starring Shane West and Mandy Moore. Check both versions out, then visit Beaufort, SC (just imagine you’re in the correct state)! 🙂
5. The Destination: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
While all of these cities and towns are wonderful, they all revolve around the focal point of many of my trips to South Carolina: HHI. Like I’ve already mentioned, Hilton Head is my all-time favorite beach to visit. It feels more residential than commercial. It has strict restrictions for advertisements to keep the “touristy” feel at bay. And it does an excellent job of blending in with the natural habitat of the island’s landscape. People who have been to HHI joke that if you don’t already know where a store or restaurant is, you’re going to miss it from the road because the buildings are so intentionally incorporated within nature. For goodness sake, the island doesn’t even allow street lights at night so that the baby sea turtles won’t confuse the lights with the moon and walk away from the ocean instead of toward it! As far as what to do on the island, there is so much. You can use the public beach access at Coligny Park, rent bikes and go for a ride along the many paths on the island, eat some great pizza at the Frosty Frog, grab dessert at Frozen Moo Ice Cream, check out the boats at Harbor Town, and so much more. With such a stunning island and gorgeous beaches, this island keeps calling me back year after year!
5. The Books: Too many to count!
I cannot even begin to remember all of the books I have read on the beach during my various trips to HHI. The first time I visited, I read a Mary Higgins Clark novel, although the precise one escapes me. Then a few years later, I remember reading Water for Elephants by Sara Green. And just a few short years ago, I was reading novels off of my grad class book lists for Dystopian & Gothic Literature. While I cannot remember ALL of the books I have read while on the island, I will give you three recommendations of books I read on my most recent trip to HHI this past summer. While they cover a wide range of both genre and content, they were all perfect “beach reads” to me.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: It’s written by Jane Austen. Need I say more?
The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell: A suspenseful read of a utopia-like neighborhood, community garden that becomes the scene of a wicked deed.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: A tale of one of the most unique characters I have read in a while with a plot line that moves seamlessly from laugh-out-loud humorous to incredibly dark to crying-happy-tears uplifting.
So, whether you can take some time to visit each of these gorgeous getaway spots, or if you have to daydream about them in your house this winter, I hope you at least find some joy reading the books that always keep South Carolina (and sometimes Georgia, too) on my mind.
Growing up with a deep love of books, it was always such an overwhelming experience to meet and listen to an author in-person. I can remember authors of children’s books visiting my elementary school and being thrilled to wait in line in the school gym to get them to sign my copies of their books. Later on in life, I can recall the nervous energy I felt when Nicholas Sparks came to my college town to speak and sign books, or when my college roommate visited another campus and snagged me a signed copy of Jodi Picoult’s Salem Falls. All of these are wonderful memories that the book lover I am cherishes.
But, there is one specific author Meet & Greet that stands out in my mind. Not because I had to wait in line for hours to meet her or because she visited my college campus, but because of her message and authenticity.
In the fall of 2019, I attended an event, The Ladies Retreat, at a local Christian Camp that I have either been a camper or camp counselor at since I was five years old: Camp Calvary, located in the hills of Central Kentucky. At this annual event, there is always a keynote speaker who delivers the main message on Friday evenings and then leads workshops the following Saturday. At this particular Ladies Retreat, that speaker was Sarah Mae, author of the book, The Complicated Heart.
Just a few weeks ago the 2020 Ladies Retreat took place. It was still a wonderful event, but given the current circumstances, the event looked a bit different with women live-streaming the worship and message from remote locations instead of gathering together at Camp. While it was still amazing, it did make me reflect back on the retreat from the year prior and the experience of hearing from and meeting Sarah Mae.
Sarah shared her personal testimony at the retreat in front of hundreds of women who were complete strangers to her. She divulged some of the most intimate details of her life with us as a glimpse of what she reveals in her book, as well as to offer support to other women who may have gone through similar hardships.
Without giving away the content of her book (because it is so moving you need to read it for yourself!), the premise follows her strained relationship with her mother from childhood to adulthood. She details the emotional distraught she felt, how she recovered, advice from therapists, as well as her mother’s perspective. As the cover of her book reveals, her message is truly focused on “loving even when it hurts.” While every woman longs for a seamless relationship with their mother, that is not always the case. Nor is it so simple to totally cut-off a parent from your life if they have wronged you. It is this messy back-and-forth limbo that Sarah focuses on in her story: how to offer love and compassion, even if you have been truly wronged by those who are meant to protect you the most.
After hearing Sarah speak and reading her book myself, I would recommend it to anyone, whether you have a strained relationship with a parent or not. We all can struggle with showing love to those who have wronged us, but that is one of the hallmarks of a person who loves as Christ loves. As He commanded in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 44-45).
There were times when Sarah’s mother definitely seemed like her enemy, but in her book Sarah walks her reader through how she learned to love her mother in spite of the way she was treated. A message that people need to hear now more than ever.
When I met Sarah after her talk and she signed my copy of her book, she was radiating positivity and was genuinely so happy to share her story with us. She signed my book with a simple statement that I hope will be inspiration for you to go out and purchase your own copy of The Complicated Heart. She wrote the date (9/20/19), Psalm 40: 1-3, and left these words: “Light always finds a way in!” With such a positive message and uplifting spirit interwoven throughout her story, if you take the time to read it, there is no doubt light will pour from the pages and find a way into your life, too.
Visit every national park in the United States. This is one of the more exceptional items on my bucket list. I know this is a lofty goal–some of these parks are so difficult to reach you have to book excursions 50 years in advance–but there it is. My husband and I want to visit ALL of the parks…or at least as many as we can!
Since the parks have become one of our favorite past times, they have also permeated their way into other areas of our lives, such as gifts. Whether we are on the giving or the receiving end, the National Parks have been a theme for Christmas and birthday gifts for us over the last several years. Because of this, I have a few pointers I can share and suggestions for the nature-loving, park enthusiast in your life for any gift-giving occasion. If you can’t buy them a plane ticket to jet-set to the next park on their travel list, these gifts are the next best thing.
National Parks Desk Calendar
This quaint calendar is perfect for any office desk or surface in your home in general. We were gifted one last Christmas, and ours sits on the back of our piano in the dining room. It is a fun, new surprise to see which park will be featured each month. And, as you being to tick more parks off of your travel list, it is fun to realize how many of the 12 parks featured in the calendar are ones you have visited. Purchase the 2021 Calendar here.
National Parks Coffee Table Book
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a big, beautiful coffee table book? They add the perfect finishing touch to a living space AND make for great conversation starters when guests are over. This coffee table book is one of the best! This book, 59 Illustrated National Parks is by Joel Anderson & Nathan Anderson featuring “Original Poster Art by Anderson Design Group.” It provides details about each of the nation’s National Parks–including historical backgrounds, which animals inhabit which parks, and the best season of the year to visit each park, not to mention some Pinterest-worthy quotes about the beauty of nature sprinkled throughout. John Muir is calling, and I must go! 🙂
This book is also full of vivid photographs and artistic prints of the parks which makes for a pleasure to flip through! We have used this book as entertainment to learn about the parks, but also as an informative resource when planning trips. Purchase your own here.
National Parks Poster Prints
There are so many wonderful ways to document which parks you have visited, but one of my favorites would be framed prints. These beautiful pieces of art highlight a breathtaking view of each unique landscape that the parks have to offer, as well as a title specifying which park they are depicting. I actually gave this as a gift to my husband for two of the parks we have been to: Zion National Park in Utah and Acadia National Park in Maine. It’s our goal to totally cover our office wall with these framed prints. Purchase a Zion National Park print here and an Acadia National Park print here.
If you have a park enthusiast in your circle of family or friends, I would check out these three ideas for your next gift-giving occasion. It will be a nostalgic reminder of places they’ve visited as well as inspire a thrill of wanderlust for those national wonders not yet seen.