My Favorite Books of 2023

Every year, I’ve found great joy in sharing my favorite books with others. Here are my favorites from this year. Hopefully, you can find something you might enjoy from this list too.

Non-Fiction

The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones

If I could only recommend one book for you to read this year, it is this one. You don’t have to even try to find someone who is struggling with addiction these days. Walk down the street, and there they are. And if you are like me, your life has already been drastically changed by loved ones struggling with drug-addiction or who’ve lost that battle.  This book helped me to understand not only my own family with a lens of greater compassion, but the monster that is facing our nation. 

It asks the monumental questions, how did we get here and what can we do about it?  And through masterfully interwoven personal stories of heartbreak and triumph, Quinones is able to give answers. He gives the overarching history of how we got where we are today, the science behind why these drugs are far worse than those of the past, and shares poignant personal stories filled with darkness, hope, and compassion.  You are guaranteed to cry at some point while reading this book, either from the sheer beauty of the heroic people he writes about, or from the devastation that addiction has caused.  So let’s stop looking away or pretending the problem doesn’t exist.  Reading this book is a great first step in finding solutions.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Having read “The Warmth of Other Sons,” and having loved it, I didn’t even read what this was about.  I trust her authorship. In her other book, I loved her in-depth historical research and ability to find personal stories to tell the story for her.  She does the same in this book, but this book is based on a thesis: racism in America is really casteism by a different name. 

Wilkerson makes a great case for this throughout the book.  And as always, her research is excellent and her writing, lovely.  For some readers, this book will make you uncomfortable and rethink long-held ideas.  And that’s a good thing.    

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrass Tyson

Do you want to simultaneously be amazed by the universe, humbled, and feel downright dumb?  Then is the book for you.  I just can’t help but love Tyson’s ability to write about such enormous and complex subjects with such humor, while breaking it down for little simpletons like me.

Memoir

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

This is at the top of the list because it’s terrific.  This was a must-read, funny, delightful, whirlwind of a book.  I loved how creatively he told his story.  He and his Persian family immigrated to America when he was a child and the way tells his story is much like the Persian rugs (with all of its intricacies) he writes about, being blown around in a tornado.  It’s a marvelously told story that you won’t want to miss out on.

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins

This book surprised the heck outa me. This is not one that I thought would ever be on my list because it’s not the best or the most beautifully written, but it is important.  I thought it was a self-help book and I try to avoid that genre in general because I find them trite and not for people who’ve lived a lot of life (and spoiler alert: this book is both a memoir and a self-help book).  So why did I read it? Well, you can thank Ethan for that.  He read another of Goggin’s books and said that I should read one because I was so eerily similar to Goggins.  This intrigued me because here’s what I knew about the author: he’s a former Navy Seal, who, outside of his military accomplishments, has performed many ridiculously crazy physical feats over the years and he swears like a sailor (which is appropriate, LOL).  So what in the world could I have in common with this übermensch?  

It didn’t take me long to find out.  And the more chapters I read, the more I couldn’t believe that there was someone in the world so much like me.  Goggins had a very rough upbringing and even though, on the surface, our stories seem different in the obvious details (he’s an African-American man from the Midwest, I’m a white female from the South), we had many similarities and have both taken away many of the same ideas, strategies, and reflections from life.  He overcame many of the same obstacles that I did and he figured out the same strategies to get through hard things that I also figured out long ago.  The difference being, he gave his strategies nifty little names in order to share them with others.  In many places the book was uncomfortable because we have many shared faults, but I appreciate his honesty and vulnerability in sharing them with his readers.  Yes, I feel weird saying this because it feels strangely self-promoting, but I do think these are really important concepts and tools.

Disclaimer: if you can handle the cursing, it’s a great book.  

Here are a few more memoirs I recommend:

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jenette McCurdy

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Beautiful Country by Julie Qian Wang

Fiction

Silence by Endo Shusaku 

Deep.  Thought-provoking.  And the best fiction book that I read this year.  The forward of the audiobook, written by Martin Scorsese is a wonderful entry to the story itself.  As it happens, I had already seen the movie made by Scorsese based on the book and it’s one of my favorite movies of all time.  Super dark, because hey, the subject matter is martyrdom, but it is so beautiful and redemptive and although it’s fiction, it is based on historically true events.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Unlike all of the other novels in this category, this book is a compilation of short stories.  Ethan and the kids bought me this as a gift and what an amazing gift.  Each story, with its starkly differing narration, is fully engrossing.  Not only was I always left with a desire to know how the rest of the character’s life played out, I found that I was unable to go directly to the next short story without some time in-between to digest.  I had to let one go before I could move on to the next.  All that to say, if you are like me and have only short blocks of time to devote to reading at each sitting, this might be a great choice for you.  The stories are all very different from each other, but all are truly wonderful. 

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

“I stopped our trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phuong, ‘Go in and find a table. I had better look after Pyle.’ That was my first instinct – to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we should be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm…”

His words speak for themselves.  I love Greene’s subtle way of disguising important concepts with seemingly simplistic story-telling.  It’s a short book, but a good one and you should read it.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

This was a beautiful read.  I loved how the house in the story is portrayed as its own character: at once beautiful and a point of envy and pride for some characters while being repulsive, and too ostentatious for others.  The house is the center around which all of the characters are pulled in its gravitational wake.  The book is about bitterness, grief, forgiveness, and understanding.  

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Sometimes you just need to laugh and the absurd humor in this book will do it for you.

Other terrific Fictional reads:

Emily Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (this pairs well with the non-fiction “The Worst Hard Times… by Timothy Egan) 

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (pairs well with the non-fiction “Call Me Indian” by Fred Sasakamoose)

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Everything I Never Told you by Celeste Ng 

Children’s Literature

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

“‘You were wrong,” he said.  “All of you.  You asked me to renounce my sins; I ask you to renounce yours.  You wronged me.  Repent.”[…] Despereaux stood before the Mouse Council , and he realized that he was a different mouse than he had been the last time he faced them.  He had been in the dungeon and back up out of it.  He knew things that they would never know; what they thought of him, he realized, did not matter, not at all.”

This is probably my all-time favorite children’s book.  One of the greatest joys of my life is reading some of my favorite books to my kids. This one, in particular, holds a special place in my heart.

Long ago, my 7 year-old brother Daniel told me all about this book that his teacher had helped him check it out from the school library. He was obsessed. It was the first book that inspired him to be brave and made him cry with hope. He identified strongly with Despereaux (even though he had no idea how to pronounce his name). Years later, I stumbled upon this book at the library and remembered how much he’d loved it, and decided I needed to know why he’d loved it so much. It didn’t take long to understand. There are few other children’s books that hold so much beauty, hard truths, depth, and complexity while still holding the young reader spell-bound.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynn Jones

This was an author that was recommended by Neil Gaiman in his memoir, so I thought I’d give it a try.  DELIGHTFUL!  I can’t wait until my kids are just a bit older so that they can enjoy them with me.  Magical, funny, and with unexpected plot twists.  Mainly though, I love the messaging within the two books I’ve read so far: learning to trust the right people.

On this, the Anniversary of Your Death

When you died so many years ago, I felt that I cheated you and myself because my grief robbed me of the capacity to say the true but unacceptable words at your funeral. You can’t speak ill of the dead at a Southern Christian funeral. And so, the words remained buried because the majority of my memories of you were not good. They were not kind, but they were true.

The poor bewildered pastor. He didn’t know you at all and we, in our grief and with minds clouded and overcome with hosts of negative experiences, could not offer insights of good that weren’t tainted with bad. Only Lydia could bravely tell her truth at the time and I loved her for it. Her eulogy was the only real part of your funeral, and the rest felt like a dark joke.

Those first few weeks, I felt numb to all but my anger, loss, and relief. Anger that you’d finally gotten what you’d tried to achieve for years: to be done with life. Anger that you didn’t care that you left behind your younger children. And relief that there would be no more late night phone calls from young children 12 hours away asking me what to do when you slept through your days, rendering you unable to care for your children still left at home. None of us called it addiction back then, but that’s exactly what it was. I was relieved to no longer be living on the edge. I did not like being the one to constantly confront you, knowing you were lying to me, knowing you couldn’t stop yourself.

But time and distance have helped me to heal and to feel your absence. Those random moments that I wanted to call you and tell you something but remembered you weren’t there. Wishes that you could meet your grandchildren because I know you would adore them and they, you. And time has helped me to remember the good. Yes, for me at least, the bad is the majority, but there are good memories and the good was really good.

So on this 14th anniversary of your death, I want to thank you for the many ways that you loved me. Even though nearly all of these have their tainted edges, I want to remember the good today. I want to say the things that I could not at your funeral.

You knew my love of music from very early on. I do believe that you understood my heart. You also understood that although I struggled (as I did with everything), I should keep at it. You made me practice and didn’t allow me to quit. And when I composed my first little piece (and stole half of it from Bach), you were proud of me.

I truly believe that in the moments that I shared my heart as a child, you truly cared. You listened, you felt deep, loving empathy. I do not believe that it was ever your intention to turn nearly all of my vulnerable moments into shame; that was part of your illness, your long ago corrupted self-defenses.

You liked to hear me sing and play the piano (most of the time).

You raced us once in the driveway and beat us, and you told us about your high school track career, and we loved that you did that with us.

You helped me get my first job at the doctor’s office when I was 11. And coincidentally, I learned the invaluable lesson that I will try to always avoid working in an all-female environment (Lol).

You made me feel special and loved as we took our fast-paced nightly walks together. You told me things that were probably unhealthy for me to know, but they made me feel close to you. And during those times, I could share some of myself with you.

You advocated like a bear when you wanted us to have things for which there was no money: piano lessons, homeschool co-op classes, etc…

The one time that I loved having you as my teacher was when you taught us what we called anatomy, but it was really nursing 101. You taught us with enthusiasm and passion and I’ll never forgot how much I learned. I still use much of that information to figure out the weird stuff with my kiddos and they are convinced that I’m basically a nurse (hahaha!).

You taught me how to work hard. It may not have been in a healthy way, but I learned how to work hard nonetheless.

You made me feel special when I was old enough to stay up late and watch your favorite shows with you: I Love Lucy, ER, and Mr. Bean were many of our favorites. Sometimes, we even ate ice cream with maraschino cherries and coconut.

Once we discovered the 99 cent section of the old movie rental place, you and I shared a special love of black-and-white movies that no one else seemed to share. I accidentally introduced us both to some pretty amazing classics that are still amongst my favorites: Rebecca, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Bringing Up Baby. This led to the hilarious problem that my few teenage crushes were either very advanced in age or dead. We also got a few duds we laughed about later, like The Grass Harp…oh my gosh nothing happens…

You believed me when the unnerving incident occurred at our church. You stood by me when the church leaders accused me of being “on a witch hunt” and that the particular “Godly man” would never do what he did and because you believed me, we left that church.

You showed up to one of my home school high school tennis matches, with all the little kids in tow.

You knew how I loved to be in plays and always encouraged me to do it.

That time we were in the store and you wet your pants because we kept dropping the celery—or was it broccoli?—because there was no bottom to the plastic bag we were trying to put it in. Thank you for your laughter and mischievous sense of humor.

You wrote in your journal after I left home that you “missed the music and happiness that [I] brought to the house.” You said it wasn’t the same once I left.

You came to visit me at college. The one time, you were on your biggest Bipolar high and charming as hell and not at all yourself, but you came and that meant something.

I built up a wall as a teenager, wise to your ways. It was nearly impenetrable, and over the years, I nearly lost a large part of my empathetic self. But I didn’t because I let others in. Some forced their way in, others were patient enough to wait for me to allow them entrance. But you put us with people and in places where there were good people surrounding us.

You kindly offered to buy me a wedding gift that I knew you couldn’t afford: a George Foreman grill. Not because I wanted it, but because you wanted it, and you had trouble with being able to tell the difference. I thought it was generous of you, but I’m glad you didn’t give me anything as I asked.

And when I began to show you loving but impenetrable boundaries as a newly-wed, although you hated me for it at first, you eventually grew accustomed to them. In time, I was able to share with you the small vulnerable things. Things that I knew wouldn’t hurt me much if used against me. I shared with you the shallow “tidal pools” of my heart, to borrow the phrase of a wise friend. But I could never share with you the depths of the ocean within myself because I might not ever fully recover myself from your impending vengeance. But I am thankful for those shallow tidal pools that we shared in safety together.

I hope that you are healed, better, content now in Christ’s loving embrace. I can’t claim to miss you, but I do love you and I look forward to one day seeing you again—this time for the real you, not the one drenched in so much sadness and trauma and propped up by drugs.

My Favorite Books of 2022

Fiction

The Buried Giant and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

There is a handful of authors that I trust to always tell me a unique, beautiful, and creative story.  Kazuo Ishiguro is at the top of my list.  His books are always creative, but what is most fascinating in the heart of all of his story-telling (and he dabbles across fantastical, realistic, or science fiction genres), it is always about the people and relationships within the story.  And in both of these books, he certainly does tell a beautiful, unique, and human story.  Although I won’t give you any hints as to the plots (I believe his books are read much better that way), you will not be disappointed.

The Stand by Stephen King

 *This is not for the sensitive reader and contains all of the things—and I mean ALL the things—you don’t want your kids to read*  In fact, I probably wouldn’t recommend this to most of the people who read this blog unless you have a dark sense of humor, read a lot of books, and are okay with evil characters doing evil things…because they are E-V-I-L.

Years ago, I read King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” and enjoyed it immensely and learned a good deal.  But I’m not a horror genre person.  Horror movies and books generally bore me.  However, this particular book kept popping up as a must-read on an NPR fiction book list where I’d read 90% of the other books recommended and loved most of them.  So this year, when I saw it pop up as a free audiobook available at the library, I thought, why not?  I’ve always wanted to see his advice on writing in action.  

On the aspect of writing, I am impressed to say the least.  He masterfully sets scenes in relatively few words, creates memorable characters with unique speech and consistent thought patterns, tells a multi-faceted story with a broad overarching theme and interesting spiritual undercurrents.  In his tiny asides, it’s easy to see that he’s experienced much of life, held various jobs, has lots of hands-on knowledge, and what he doesn’t know, he makes up with excellent research and a unique imagination.

As to the actual story, I couldn’t help but smirk darkly at what he imagined the world to be like during the book’s pandemic.  The book was written in 1978 and after having experienced the COVID lockdown and seeing the news out of China, it was hard not to see some similarities.   He imagined a militaristic reaction and a poorly executed containment.  But that is just the first part of the book.  The rest is all about the fight of good against evil.  And the evil is very evil and the good is somewhat good, but mostly just human.

Non-Fiction

Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete Authoritative Guide for Parents by Russell Barkley 

This book is just what I needed and is on my bedside bookshelf for quick reference.  My husband and 4 children have ADHD.  Most of the reminders and consistency falls to me and that can be very difficult to maintain if I had, say, a Chronic illness based on diminished energy levels (haha…).  It’s pretty tough to be everyone else’s brains, and even though I had routines set up, I needed just a little more help in helping my little people.  Enter this book.

The first part of the book is building the scientifically historical case of why ADHD isn’t just made up, what research actually shows about the ADHD brain (yes, it’s mostly genetic—with percentages of likelihood and everything!), and why it’s important to understand it. The book goes on to give ideas for how to better parent kids with ADHD.  Some of it is applicable to our situation, much of it we already do, and some of it isn’t.  Overall though, the complex reward system for chores was a game-changer.  It’s more work for me in some ways, but the trade-off for not having to remind each child every step of the way, is worth it.  It goes on to have advice for the teenage years because teens with ADHD tend to participate in more risky behaviors than those without.  Lastly, it goes into both non-medicinal ways to help those with ADHD (CBT therapy, exercise, etc…), and medications currently available.  It goes into great detail about what the drug is, how the drug works, and its pros and cons.  I greatly appreciated this list so that I could speak knowledgeably to the doctor on behalf of my kiddos.  We do as much as we can for our kiddos that is non-medicinal, but we’ve seen how much easier things are for them when their brains are functioning better–even when it means medication.  If you have ADHD or have a child who has it, please read this book. You’ll be doing both of yourselves a favor.

Imperfect Harmony: Singing Through Life’s Sharps and Flats by Stacy Horn

This was a delightful book that was recommended to me by my Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary was a librarian for much of her life and also loves to sing in choirs.  Any book that she recommends, I will always read because I know it will be good.  And this book hit all the right notes (see what I did there?).  If you love music, or love singing in a choir, this is the geek-out book for you.  Not only does Horn make you love the music you already love even more by telling you the history behind it, she writes with a delightful sense of humor.  It really was the one book that made me smile every time I picked it up.

Memoir

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale Books 1-2 by Art Spiegelman 

These two books were on the banned books list (of which I read a few this year).  Some of the others I read, probably shouldn’t be read before college, but I don’t really believe in banning books.   These two books are about Spiegelman’s dad who was a holocaust survivor.  Not only is it an extremely creative way to write a memoir, it was powerful in this graphic novel format.  This was my first graphic novel and it took me a bit to get used to, but I really appreciated his story-telling in his father’s voice.  When my kids are older, I want them to read these two books because I think that these stories are important.

Fantasy/Sci-Fi

The Alloy of Law Series by Brandon Sanderson

The whole series was delightful!  I love anything that Brandon Sanderson writes, and this one was especially genre-bending.  However, the best review on the first book in the series comes from Patrick Rothfuss, one of the genres most equally talented authors. If you’re on Goodreads, you need to check it out—it’s hilarious and the highest praise one author can give another.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 

This is the very last book in the Wheel of Time series.  It took me many years to read through the 14 volumes that make up this series.  And after an Israel-wandering-in-the-desert kind of slog that went on from books 7-12, Brandon Sanderson, after the death of Robert Jordan, was given the Herculean task to finish/salvage the series.  And boy did he ever.  It was more action-packed than all but the first Wheel of Time books.  Was the whole 14 volumes series worth it?  I’m still not sure. But this last one was great.

Most Disappointing 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

I never thought I’d EVER say this, but I think the Disney version was better. *Gasp* That makes this even more shocking because Les Miserables (also by Victor Hugo) is one of my all-time favorite books…so I had high expectations.  I slogged through, waiting for it to grab me.  I waited for myself to like one or any of the characters.  And although there are sparkling moments of beauty, and snarky bits of social commentary throughout, I was sorely disappointed by this book.  Spoiler alert: everybody dies (okay, almost everybody).  If you wade through this tome, just know that the ending is dark.  Some are given over as lambs to the slaughter, others given over to their vices.  No one remains unscathed by the whimsical malevolence of fate.  There is no hero, no antihero.  There are just people being people.  And in a way, I kind of liked the haunting ending.

If nothing in this year’s lists interests you, I’ve got plenty more lists from other years (2021, 2020, 2019 & 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013) or you can find me on Goodreads.

A Tale of Two Stories

Preface:

I’ve been trying to write the story of our adopted kids and how that came about, but I’ve found it to be an impossible task to separate their story from the parallel story of our former foster sons.  In my heart, their stories are not only parallel, but strongly interwoven and nearly inseparable.  It is a two-sided coin: love and joy on one side and sorrow and longing on the other.   But it is a beautiful story that I want to tell you, so I will try my best.

During the height of the Covid lockdown, a few months after the three boys were reunified, I went on a walk with a friend.  At the end of the walk, she asked me what it felt like when the boys left. 

“It feels like the same grief as when someone dies—perhaps a little like a miscarriage.  Everything that you’d imagined and hoped for them is erased and there is a yawning absence.”  But it’s also different.  With a miscarriage, you don’t know the child’s personality.  You haven’t had to look into their eyes and share with them devastating truths that you know most adults couldn’t handle and then hold them as they sob for an hour processing it.  There is no intimate history between you.  You are not sending them back into a potential lion’s den.  The miscarried babe will be perfectly safe in the arms of their loving Creator.  And this, to me, was the worst part.  Against my will, and with my knowledge, they were going back because they’d become too much of a long-term financial burden to the county. It was that simple.  

That day we drove them home, they read farewell notes from their friends at school, cried, and silently stared out the window, their eyes unfocused.  When we arrived, there were balloons and Welcome Home banners and cake.  I had a knot in my throat as we unloaded their things and walked them inside.  They looked like zombies.  They gave us the secret “I love you” signal—three squeezes of the hand—and didn’t watch us leave.  

Earlier this summer, as I sat across from Valerie, our adopted children’s first Mom, she asked me, “I know it was really hard for you when the boys left, so how did you know when you were ready to foster again?”  This is a typical kind of question from her.  She’s an empathetic person who doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions and I appreciate that, as I also have a penchant for asking hard questions.  So when she asked this, knowing even more than I do the pain of giving up children you love to someone else (in her case, that someone being me), I rambled, not really knowing my answer.  After thinking it over later, the most honest answer would be that I didn’t feel ready.

But then, I never feel ready.  I just take a breath and leap. “You never look nervous,” people have told me so many times, when I’m doing something they find terrifying: rock climbing, repelling, or singing in front of people.  They assume I’m not afraid, but that’s never true.  I simply know myself well enough to know that I can’t give myself time to overthink it.  I just have to do it.  It’s going to be imperfect, messy, but it is going to happen.  So it was the same with this decision.  I wasn’t ready, but I don’t know that I would ever would be ready for what might be ahead: more potential heartbreak, sleepless nights, chaos and rages for 6 months, complete mental and physical exhaustion, and calming kids whose nervous systems are constantly telling them they’re in danger and that I am the enemy while also their safe place.  It’s one of the hardest things you could choose to do.  That stepping into the unknown with just enough historical knowledge to know how hard it could be.  

In September of 2020, we reopened our home for potential placements.  This time around though, a few things were different.  

No Girls Allowed

When we first discussed fostering, I’d said no girls ever.  Girls are too much drama, too much unbridled emotion, just too much complication (I wasn’t wrong).   And, although I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time, part of my desire for boys-only was so that I wouldn’t have to confront some of my oldest trauma that our girls might one day potentially face.  Besides, I’d raised mostly boys and was basically a professional boy-mom at this point.  But midway through 2020, as we prepared for our next kiddos to darken our doorstep, I began to think how much my selfish preference for boys was depriving Ethan of a potential father-daughter relationship.  And that can be very special and different than a father-son relationship.  So, I reached out to our family caseworker Sharon, and said, “Here are our parameters: IF there is a girl in the sibling group, the girl must either be a parentified oldest or the youngest.”  We were approved for up to three children ages 2-10 (ish) and that now included girls.

The Premonition

On September 30th, 2020, I awoke, knowing that later that afternoon, our family worker who happened to be stopping by to do our annual home safety inspection, would also be bringing files with her for new kids…THE kids…whoever they were.  Of course, no one had said anything like this, and the likelihood of a caseworker having files in hand for kids we had never discussed, were zero.  But when I know, I know.  Sometimes it sucks, but this wasn’t one of those times.

So I set out on a run with the dog, refreshing my e-mail every few minutes because in every fiber of my being, I knew that today would be the day to take a breath and leap.  Sure enough, midway through my run, I received an e-mail from Sharon.  

“Ethan and Anna,” it read.  “I know this is a sib group of four………however, I wanted to send them your way and see if you might be interested in exploring the possibility of these children.  I did mention briefly your family to this worker as I was describing the families that I have who are potentially open to sibling groups this size and she expressed interest in hearing more about your family. I know I will see you guys this afternoon, but let me know if a sib group of 4 is something you are open to………..”

I opened the flyer attachment and read:

“These FAB FOUR are one of a kind! George and Faye (6) are adorable twins!

Faye lets you know she is the older of the two! Ben (5) and Renee (3) will also

keep you on your toes! This sibling group loves being outside, riding bikes,

climbing on monkey bars and running through the sprinkler. George loves Paw

Patrol, Tweety Bird cartoons and the Superhero Squad. He is a kind and sensitive

boy. Faye loves the Superhero Squad like her twin brother. She enjoys coloring,

doing puzzles and working with Playdough. She is always smiling and is super-sweet.

Ben loves to build things and is very imaginative. He is a cutie and has a charming

smile! Renee loves spending time with her older siblings and likes to be in charge!

She is adorable, loving and has a mind of her own! All of these kids are good

eaters and good sleepers. They are all very verbal, friendly and enjoy the attention

of others. George and Faye are going into Kindergarten this Fall. Ben is in the

Headstart program and is doing very well. He receives speech services but has

made major progress! Fun Fact about these 4…they are learning sign language!

They love learning new things and are adventurous. We are looking for a family

open to birth family contact post adoption, as this sibling group has positive

connections with their birthmother, older half-siblings and extended family. The

County will pursue termination of parental rights once these beautiful children find their forever family.”

The names were changed, and because this was not my first rodeo, I knew to look for the coded red flags.  There were no big ones, just potential smaller ones and it sounded like a great fit for us.  I texted Ethan to check his e-mail and I finished up my run and headed home.  When I got home, he was outside his newly renovated workshop with a grin on his face.  

“Did you see the email?” I asked. “What did you think?”  I could hardly contain myself.

“We should ask for more info,” he said with a smile.

“Am I crazy for thinking this might work?”  I asked.

“Then we’re both crazy because I was thinking the same thing.”  We both laughed and looked at each other like, yeah, we’re 100% cray-cray.

I e-mailed Sharon back and she said she’d try to get their files sent over, but that usually took weeks or months.  When Sharon came for her scheduled visit late that afternoon, she was astounded that they’d gotten her all of the files that same day and in time for scheduled visit.  

“That never happens,” she said.  “It must be God.”  

I just smiled and told her about my premonition upon awakening and she laughed delightedly, perhaps because this wasn’t the first premonition/dream that had happened since I’d known her.  She reminded me of another one I’d told her about the year before when we had the last set of boys.

As we read through the files, I felt strongly that these were THE kids.  Fiona, with her sweet bespectacled face, Giovani and his deep dark eyes, Bo and his mischievous smile, and Revi with her cute chubby cheeks and fiercely stubborn expression.  

Ethan and I didn’t need to look at one another.  After 45 minutes of reading about each child, we simply said, “We’re in” and Sharon set to work.

That night, I dreamed of myself arguing with a 14 year-old Fiona about what she was going to play on piano for a recital.  And because of how that dream felt compared to normal dreams, I knew it was a true one—we would adopt these kids.  Also, now that I know Fiona, that dream might also be super accurate, hahaha.

The Interview

The next step to the process was an interview with the children’s caseworker, the caseworker’s boss, and the state adoption specialist who had written the flyer and all the files for the kids.  This team of people selected several families to interview and needed to decide which family they thought would be the best fit for the kids and their situation. It took several weeks for them to locate all of the candidates and schedule interviews.  

I want to take a moment and remark upon how strange it is—this concept of matching kids with families, reading their files, and interviews to see if you are right for the children.  It feels like a business deal and it’s strange.  

Foster Care Lesson #1: Waiting. I’m going to diverge for a moment longer here and tell you that the most difficult part of foster care is the waiting.  The year before, we waited in dread for the final verdict on the three boys.  Oddly enough, my most free days to pray the rosary back then were Tuesdays and Fridays—the days of the Sorrowful Mysteries.  I seemed to be stuck in the Mystery of the Garden of Gethsemane, praying alongside Jesus, “May this cup be taken from me if it is Thy will.”  And yet this time around, as God would have it, I was stuck now in the Joyful Mysteries (Mondays and Saturdays).  I tried not to think too much on it, but the natural rhythms of life that seemed to be tied to the Rosary were hard to miss.

But I didn’t want to get my hopes up.  Hope mostly leads to pain.  Each time we’d gotten our hopes up before that someone, anyone, would do the right thing for the boys, they chose not to.  They all chose short-term convenience and to uphold the bureaucratic financial status-quo.  So it was better not to hope.

Finally, our interview day arrived.   I was so nervous.  Ethan always interviews well.  Heck, he’s been in podcasts, TV, radio, newspapers.  But me?  What if I come off as the weird, awkward person that I am?

It didn’t take long in the interview before we got into a groove.  We shared our previous experience with our last foster sons, their special needs and how we cared for them, our experiences with Nicolas, and our love for the outdoors and physical activity and our philosophy of the importance of outdoor play for foster kids.  We also talked about how we worked hard at being able to keep them connected to their extended family throughout.  As long as the children are safe, we both strongly believe that keeping kids connected with their biological family (first family) is very important.  We later learned that this was one of the deciding factors that made us standout from the other families interviewed.  We had a track-record of a good relationships with biological family members.  

It became abundantly clear that had we not experienced the things that we did (the good and the bad), it would be unlikely we’d be considered this time around as candidates. God’s plan isn’t always clear, but when we see small glimpses, it’s astounding.

At the end of the interview, one the caseworkers asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”

I don’t remember if Ethan had any questions, but if he did, I’m sure they were astute.  But for once, I had one.  

“Do the kids have a say of whether or not someone is right for them?”  They all looked at one another for a moment.

“No one’s ever asked that before,” one of them said. “Yes, I guess they do.  I mean, if they really didn’t like you, we’d take it under consideration, but it would just depend.”

“Okay, thank you.” I said. “I was just curious.”

The interview ended and more waiting ensued.  But this time, we only had to wait a few days.  We got the call that we were chosen as the best fit for these children.  Afterwards, one of the caseworker’s said that they were impressed with how relaxed and genuine we were.  I wasn’t relaxed, but I have a good poker face when it comes to hiding my anxiety apparently…and both of us are too lazy to put in the work to be disingenuous, so you get what you get.  If you like us, great.  If not, join the club.

Our First Meeting

As we prepared to meet the kids for the first time, I was so nervous.  We drove the hour and forty minutes to the group home that they’d lived in since May, 2019, me feeling the excited jitters the entire time.  We first saw them out on their scooters and bikes.  They were all very tiny and the cutest kids we’d ever seen.  And even though I love kids, I’ve never been one to think that kids are cute.  I know, super weird, right?  But these kids were adorable—even to me.  

We went inside where they were playing in what was called the “Sensory Room.”  It had monkey bars, padded floors, a swing, a small rock wall, large building blocks, and coloring books: a kid paradise.  I don’t remember too many details except that we all had to wear masks and the kids had tons of energy.  I also remember they were puzzled and believed us to be slightly magical by the fact we knew their names already.  I also remember Bo doing dangerous leaps off of high places and miraculously not breaking his neck.  I would soon learn, from tales of his group home dad, that this was typical Bo.  And lastly, I remember Revi trying to con me right away into taking her to get water from the water fountain down the hall.  I checked with her group home dad, Tom, and he confirmed that nope, she wasn’t going anywhere.  Haha, nice try mini-me!  She didn’t care for being told no, so she ignored me after that and batted her cute little eyes at Ethan.  It didn’t work then either.  She was going to have a frustrating existence with adults that communicate.

After the two hours were done, their Adoption Specialist and caseworker Caroline spoke with us in the parking lot.  “What do you think?  Are you interested in pursuing this?  You can go home and think it over and let us know.”

Ethan and I smiled at each other.  “We’re all in.  It’s a yes.”

Caroline raised her eyebrows like we were so weird and gave a kind but befuddled smile. “Well okay then.  Onto the next step.” 

Meeting Their Mom

“You’re gonna love this woman,” the Adoption specialist Megan informed me.  “She talks fast when she’s nervous, so just try to keep up.”  I have some auditory processing issues, so I have a hard time keeping up with fast talkers and especially if they have any type of accent.  There were many times that I didn’t understand what she said and felt stupid having to ask her to say it time and again, but she was very gracious.  What astounded me was the fact that we had so much in common.  She grew up in a dysfunctional family of 11, knows from experience what a personality disorder is, knows herself well, has a quirky sense of humor, and is an empathetic realist.  As I later told her, she is a chimera parent in the foster care world.  Many parents whose kids are in foster care are unrealistic with themselves and are grappling with denial about their own problems.  But Valerie was not like that. She knows herself and makes no bones about how she had arrived at this point. I really do feel for the parents and find that I have a great deal of compassion toward them all.  Yes, their own actions brought them to this point, but they usually have no support system for one reason or another. I really wish that our social support system was more proactive to help families before they get to the point of desperation.

“You know, Anna,” Valerie said in her thick Philly accent, “Megan told me all about you and Ethan and now that I’ve met you, well, I just have a good feeling about youse guys.”  

Not long after that, she did something unimaginably difficult: she signed away her rights as their mom.  I try daily to honor her sacrifice by loving her kids and being the most present mom as I can be for them.  It’s humbling.

Home

On January 29, 2021 the kids came to live with us.  They had visited us each weekend since November, and we had been waiting to get the stamp of approval from the judge for them to move in more permanently.  In typical foster care fashion, we drove out to have what we thought would be a two hour visit, and 2 minutes before we arrived, we received the call telling us they’d be moving in today.  Their group home parents threw things together and we stuffed every possible thing into the car, knowing we’d have to drive back to pick up the rest another time.  And that’s Foster Care Lesson #2—Nothing ever goes according to plan.  Prepare to have your life constantly upended.

This time around, things were different.  Different kids, different life, different needs.  I don’t love the relearning period because it’s hard.  Although I tried very hard not to compare these four sweet kids to our three former foster sons, there were some things that took me a long time to get used to.  First, my parenting style has to be much more direct and firm for these kids to feel safe and loved.  If I use my normal gentle voice, it doesn’t seem to register for them that I’m serious.  They have to have even more structure and routine than our previous foster sons.  But the most stark difference was that these children were naive and innocent.  They were the closest to being typical children that we’d ever had in our home.  Their Mom had loved them and had done what she could for them.  Then, they lived in a group home with group home parents that loved them dearly.  They were not severely neglected nor were they abused.  They were inexperienced and sheltered in many ways.  It was endearing, but I found myself unable to connect deeply and quickly as I had before.  

I struggled within myself because I missed the depth that trauma had hollowed out in the hearts and minds of our former foster sons.  We had experienced similar enough trauma that we intuitively knew each other’s hearts, many times speaking volumes with our eyes.  When some of my brothers met our former foster sons, they all commented that the boys seemed just like more of our siblings.  It was true.  Throughout the day and night, we would have conversations about loss, grief, forgiving the unforgivable, God, miracles, prayers that weren’t answered, and things that no kid should have to dwell upon…and that was our normal.  

Ethan, however, was able to relate much more to these kids and was immediately comfortable and fully in love.  For the most part, they were happy kids.  I found myself so happy for these children, that they did not have to carry around these heavy burdens of trauma, but it was so difficult for me not to be able to relate.  I knew it was my problem and I had to work it out.  I was still deeply grieving the fate of our former foster sons and I returned to therapy as soon as things began to open up.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully give my heart to these kids while needing to finish grieving.  And they deserved a whole-hearted parent.

And no matter how healthy children are, if you are separated from your first family, that is trauma enough.  And the one that bears the brunt of those feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, and separation, is the mother figure.  It’s always difficult, especially with young children to whom you cannot yet share with them the truth.   Much of their fury and fear and feelings of betrayal are heaped upon the new mom and it’s so difficult at times; especially those first 6 months, where there is no trust built up, and no subconscious expectation of your consistency.  Did they have a bad day at school?  Your fault.  They couldn’t find that thing they misplaced?  You stole it and threw it in the trash because you’re evil.  You get the idea.  You, as the mom, are both the enemy and—thanks to evolutionary biology—the safe one.  

Now, thanks to time and consistency, we’re no longer there as often.  But life is cyclical and those furies spiral back, but thankfully, with less power and frequency each successive reiteration.  

Another difference was time.  We didn’t have to try and squeeze everything into this small amount of time, knowing that at any moment, they might be returning.  This time, we could take our time and if these kids needed extra therapies, we didn’t have to do it immediately, knowing that it would be discontinued the moment they returned home. 

Lesson #3 of Foster Care: you have to play by their (Child Services) rules. And if you do, you probably will only get a fraction of services your kids need.  Your job is to both fight for your foster children and be willing to play the game.  And if the kids get too financially unwieldy because they need too many services, the kids could be removed at any moment.

After the year mark, the kids started to really settle in.  I began to see glimpses of our new norm and it was lovely.  There was now a deep love between us and it was showing in all of us.   We felt happy.  And as we drew closer to our adoption date and everything looked like it might really happen, my jaded self just waited for the other shoe to drop.  

And that’s when we got a phone call about the plight of our last foster sons.  Things had gone very badly for them and a family member stepped in and took them.  And would we be willing to take on the legal fight to become permanent guardians in the future should anything happen to their current caregiver?  This, this was the worst-case-scenario that had been lurking in the back of my mind since they left our home.  Every part of me, says that this is the definition of an IMPOSSIBLE ask.  I can’t do this.  Physically, I can’t.  Mentally and emotionally, I can’t even imagine it.

And yet.  And yet, we can’t say no.  We love them and they love us and tell us so every time we see them.  They say things like, “You’re the most like a mom and a dad that we ever had.  And is it okay if we think of you like that?”  They tell us about how they wept every night for months and still dream about living at our house with us.  And they have no one else.  So we pray for the continued health of their current caregiver and see them whenever we can.  We agreed to take them on if anything ever happened to their caregiver. On a side note, they get along pretty well with our kids too, so that’s good.

Lesson #4 of Foster Care: An exercise in futility. Sometimes foster care is about being stabbed in the heart repeatedly with sewing needles: not enough to kill you, just enough to drain you of the will to keep fighting while being asked to document everything…and that careful documentation will likely remain in an unopened folder on someone’s dust-laden desk.

But enough of that.  This is a happy story with the parallel story that’s getting me off-track.

The moments leading up to the adoption, Ethan and I remained skeptical that it would really happen.  And then it did happen and it was most ethereal set of moments.  But this joy also had pain attached to it.  I couldn’t help but think of Valerie and her sacrifice.  I couldn’t help but think of the last court date with our former foster sons, and how it had gone so badly.

So here we are right now, the kids are adopted, and we are falling more and more deeply in love with the kids.  I can be whole with them, no longer having to withhold parts of myself.  They give me so much joy.  They like my weirdness and think I’m funny. I love calling them my kids. They are starting to call me “Mom”–something I’ve never asked of them but presented as an option if they chose. They want hugs and kisses and snuggles now.  They know how to play and are able to use their imaginations.  I look back at how far they’ve come and I know the purposeful cultivation it took to get where we are. 

I do not regret for a moment that I said yes to girls because they are delightful and two bright treasures for sure.  They are also dramatic and complicated and really, too much like me (aka extremely stubborn), but truly wonderful. And yes, they’ve made me a better person.  And good grief are they fierce!

The boys are sensitive and full of life.  They are the first to express their feelings and keep us on our toes.  Giovani is very much like me in that he’s cautious, sensitive, a slow and steady person, and loves the idea of routine.  Bo is very much like Ethan: sensitive, adventurous, and passion incarnate.

They have three older half siblings who love them and are very kind. Their mom is a friend to me. I know this is not always possible for some adoptive families, but we are so grateful for the kindness of their first family and the trust that they have placed in us to care for their siblings/children.

Last night, we went to church and the kids sang up in the choir loft, while I prayed the rosary down below.  Their sweet little voices filled the church and brought tears to my eyes because they seem truly happy and content.  And I love to watch them out the window while I cook dinner and see them building forts, running around in their little super hero capes and masks, while someone else pretends to be a horse pulling a sled and another is creating new dances and composing songs with the neighbor.  And I feel, for the first time in a very long time, that all feels right with the world.  I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

And I try to keep my mind and heart on the here and now.

5 Years Later: On My Catholic Conversion

Never for one second have I regretted my decision to become Catholic.  Within its theology, I have found more challenge, more vastness, more embrace of the whole of me.  And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the last five years have been the most challenging of my life and if I had not become Catholic, I don’t know how I could’ve made it through. 

The Challenge of Purgatory

Before you understand what I’m about to say, you must know what purgatory is and what it is not.  It is not hell.  If you are familiar with the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) where many are invited but no one comes, and then everyone from the streets is invited, except each must “wash and put on a new garment” before joining the wedding feast.  That is purgatory.  It is the place where, before we enter heaven, we must be purified, putting on the new garment in order to join the feast.  It is a time of purification. But purification is never easy nor is it desirable.  

Knowing that then, I’m going to tell you something very personal.  For the first three years of being Catholic, I kept telling myself that I didn’t know what to pray for those in purgatory.  I wasn’t even sure how sold I was on the idea of purgatory.  And specifically, I didn’t know what to pray for my mom.  

For awhile, I believed my own excuses until I really asked myself why.  Why was I so hesitant to pray for her soul? Was it really that I didn’t know what to say?  But no, the truth was simpler than that.  The truth was, I didn’t want to pray for her.  I had forgiven her over and over while she was alive, but that final step of praying for her while she was suffering for her sins, seemed to be a step too far.  There was a deeply buried part of me, that thought it fitting that she suffer for the things that she did while she was alive.  This praying for her in purgatory was one step further than forgiveness.  It was wanting and praying for her full redemption and it took me 4 years of being Catholic to finally do it.

I know how horrible that sounds because it is horrible.  I am a sinner and I’ve got a front-row seat to knowing how dark the crevices of my heart can be.  Which leads me to the next beautiful and much needed part of Catholicism.

Reconciliation (aka Confession)

“I’m going in for spiritual my tune up,” our wonderfully eccentric friend Sam once said, while waiting in the confessional line.

As a child, before I knew God, I became very aware of my sins.  I went around to my siblings asking forgiveness for all of the things I could think of that I’d done: lying, stealing, bossing, etc…I confessed to the adults around me that would listen.  Particularly, my friend and my Dad’s friend and coworker, Larry.  I got in trouble one particular evening because I skipped choir to confess my sins to him.  For a little while, I would feel relief for having voiced these things.  And this need to have a physical confession to someone else and not just to God is still within me.  

Although I get nervous before every confession, it is so freeing.  I know that I am forgiven by God and that it doesn’t require a priest, but you know what?  I think that people are created for physical confession.  Protestants have accountability partners, and it’s very similar.  For me, to hear the priest say, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Is a beautiful thing.  Not only that, but to be given a penance and knowing that the priest is also doing a penance on my behalf is so comforting.

Mind, Spirit, Body

Speaking of physical acts, I love this aspect of the Catholic church.  Whether crossing ourselves, kneeling, confessing, bowing, standing, the smell of incense, or something larger like a pilgrimage, the physical body is an integral part of worship.  Each physical act has a meaning and a purpose and I appreciate that.

Suffering 

“It sucks that I pray ‘Thy will be done’ and mean it,” I told my priest not long ago, “because then he goes and asks something even harder of me every single time.  And good grief, it’s been such a hard last few years.”

“Jesus wouldn’t speak of taking up crosses if it was easy,” he gave his small smile.  This particular priest is one of my favorite confessors.  He has personally been through so much suffering himself and he takes his own faith very seriously in his quiet way.

During some of the hardest times in our lives, we felt fully loved and fully embraced by our church family.  This is not to say that we haven’t felt loved by those in other churches, but many times, it was only in the parts with which they could personally identify.  In our church now, they wept with us in our grief—sometimes weeping for us when our numbness was too great–and rejoiced with us in the good things.

One dear man, who has battled cancer for many years, and who is still in the throes of cancer treatment, hobbled over to me one day, tears in his eyes.  “I offered up my cancer suffering for you, Ethan, and your boys.”  I stammered my way through a thanks, my chest feeling hit by a brick, but at the time, I was too numb to cry.  The idea of offering up your own suffering on behalf of another is such a beautiful and humbling thing.  

But joy and suffering go hand-in-hand.  They are inseparable.  The deeper our grief, the more expansive our joy. And just as we grieved together the boy’s leaving (and what has turned out to be further trauma for them as we’d feared), our church family celebrated with us every step along the way of meeting our now adopted kids and supporting us.

Adoration

Spending time in the same room with Jesus is pretty much exactly what I need every week.  Early on Saturday mornings, me and Jesus hang out.  I pray, I try my best to listen, and I tell him things.  He’s a great listener, and as hard as I can be on myself, Jesus never is.  He asks things of me, hard things sometimes, sure, but he always offers to be there with me.  I’m so thankful for this dedicated alone time with Jesus.  This cherished time to adore him.

The Acceptance of the Body of Christ

I love that within just our parish, we have the pentecostal types, the lace head coverings, and starched-suit types, the hangover late-to-Mass-college types, the large Catholic family types, the families who never have it together and whose kids have never seen a hairbrush, the families who always have it together, the guy who brings his homemade wine to choir practice, the ladies who spend their lives as caregivers to disabled family members.  There are blue collar workers, white collar workers, stay-at-home moms, farmers, migrant workers, and refugees.  There are CEO’s, entrepreneurs, politicians, and teachers.  And they all bring their own beautiful uniqueness to form the church.  

One of my favorite things I’ve witnessed over and over and somehow, it still surprises me every time, is radical acceptance.  A few years ago, a girl came in wearing short shorts, and a tank top and sat down in the pew two rows in front of me.  The older lady in front of me leaned over to the woman next to her and I fully expected the usual judgment I’ve heard so often in churches.  Instead, I heard, “Look at that.  That’s Helen’s daughter.  I’m so glad to see she’s here.”  No judgment in her voice, only joy.

Not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s a beautiful, imperfect, fully-embraced mess of people and I’m thankful to have found it.

My Favorite Books of 2021

As always, these are not books published in 2021, they are just my favorites that I read this year. This is in no way exhaustive and if I had more time, I would’ve added a few more…

Fiction

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This was a delightfully magical read.  I couldn’t put it down.  If you only pick up one fictional book this year, make it this one—you’ll be very glad you did. 

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

I’m the least romantic person I know and unfortunately, my exposure to this story was to see the 80’s movie.  Anne’s annoying penchant for romanticizing everything and her love story with Gilbert Blithe seemed dumb to me (I know, hate me all you want). But being slightly more mature in my ability to stomach romanticism (at the ripe old age of 38), I tried it out.  It was delightful.  Not because of Anne–she was still pretty annoying–but because of Marilla Cuthbert. I identify with her in both the best and the worst ways.  Like her, I’m practical, a lover of cleanliness and efficiency, sarcastic, and if left to my sin-nature without God’s gracious mitigation, I can be cold and self-righteously unmerciful like her.  And yet, just as in the book, Anne is able to soften Marilla’s heart over time, and just as Anne does for her, so I find that I’ve surrounded myself with many Anne’s throughout the years and they have helped to make my heart more tender. It’s a classic for a reason and I’m glad I got over myself and read it.

My only caveat to the reader is, if this makes you feel inspired to go out and adopt an Anne of your own, just know it will be nothing like this (see parenting book review below).

Biographical Fiction

Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady

I was not expecting this.  I borrowed this from the library without knowing hardly anything about it and I’m so glad that was the case.  This is one powerful and poignant narrative based on a real-life event.  I don’t want to give much away, but the title could not have been more fitting.  It makes me want to read more of Eady’s works.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

As with the above book, I love how Saunders blurs the lines of fact and fiction.  He weaves so inventively both factual historical accounts of the life and times of Abraham Lincoln with his own fantastical narratives.  If you delight in encountering literary novelties, you will enjoy this book.  However, I would not recommend this to readers unable to tolerate divergent moral/theological ideas and perspectives.  It also tends toward the crass in various places.

Non-Fiction and Memoir

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta by Brian Kolodiejchuk

This book has somehow stuck with me the entire year—like an ear-worm for the soul.  It was not beautifully written, it was tedious and repetitive, and points were belabored.  BUT it was powerfully inspiring and showed the deepest, darkest, and most intimate portrait of this saint. Her love for God and her great longing for Him is amazing.  I don’t think I could ever be a saint.  Although I try to do what God asks of me, there are few things that put dread into my heart more than what Mother Teresa encountered.  Saints like Mother Teresa, desire so much to be like Christ and to partake in his suffering, that they sometimes experience what is called the “long night of the soul.”  It is that complete silence, darkness, and feeling of separation from God like what Jesus experienced on the Cross when he cried, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  So many times, as I read her words, “I cannot refuse anything God asks of me,” I was convicted and challenged. Could I do that?  Could I still be obedient to Him like she was for 55 years, if I no longer felt his presence?  Could I have the faith to remain steadfast?  

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker  

This book was riveting, heart-breaking and also, the MOST triggering book I’ve ever read. This is about a large family of 12 children, six of whom end up schizophrenic. If you have lived with a violent schizophrenic, or even a non-violent one (I’ve lived with both), this book will hit far too close to home in all of the worst ways. I couldn’t put it down, and yet, it was so painfully and intensely accurate to my own experience, that I would find myself shaking with adrenaline and had to set it down for several days at a time to move out of my own dark experiences and back into a healthy state of mind before continuing.  I understand far too well the different reactions of the siblings who escaped: one sister became the caregiver and advocate for her (safer) affected siblings, one brother moved far away, having little contact and creating his own life. And one sister, after years of emotional avoidance and self-sabotage, received therapy and started trying to reconnect with her brothers before their early deaths (an all-too common occurrence for those taking anti-psychotics for long periods of time).

This family and the sad improbability of half of their children developing the disease, is an important part in helping researchers understand schizophrenia better. Aside from the memoir aspect of the book, there is the thread of scientific study woven throughout the narrative and I found that both interesting and heartening.

If you know anyone with a family member or family members with schizophrenia, do them a favor and read this book. It will give you a good glimpse into how hard and sometimes, impossible it is for them every day to care for someone with this diagnosis.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

I knew nothing about horse-racing and frankly, didn’t care about it.  But because there are two authors that I implicitly trust to make me love something I know nothing about (and the other is the next listed), I knew that I would love it.  And I did.  It’s about so much more than a little knock-kneed horse winning horse races.  It’s about the amazing and eccentric people who cared for this horse and how all of what they did changed them and changed many.  Read it.  You will be so glad you did.

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown

“Lord have mercy,” was the prayer that kept forming on my lips as I read this book.  This is not the first time that I’ve read about the American concentration camps for Japanese-Americans (more gently called Japanese Internment camps). I did not know that immigrated Japanese (and Chinese for that matter) were denied the rights to become American citizens. This book delves into the personal stories of those that came from those concentration camps in order to fight for the country that had wrongfully bankrupted, imprisoned, and in some cases, killed their family members.  What heroism. And what tragedy based on racist paranoia. Most sadly though, some things don’t seem to have changed all that much in America for those who look different.

Know my Name by Chanel Miller

I didn’t know much about her story other than that she was the nameless girl that Brock Turner had sexually assaulted.  She tells such an intimate and raw story, leaving out nothing.  Her honesty, forgiveness and her courage are unrelenting.  It is an important story and it is an all-too common story that most people are too afraid to tell. It was special to listen to the author read her own story.  In places, her voice shook and cracked where she felt deep shame, or grief. It became defiant and incredulous when unbelievably unjust things were said and done to her, the victim. The terrible miscarriage of justice in her case has become the sounding alarm that America’s treatment of victims of sexual assault must change.

Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

This book is written by a girl who was brought up in foster care.  Her story is well-written and if you’ve experienced any part of the foster care world, you know that her story is like that of many others.  Although this book mostly took place in the 1990’s, at least in my experience, not much has changed. What makes this story stand out is that it is written by an author who found a way to move through her years of trauma.  Most kids who go through so much trauma from a young age, cannot and may not ever be able to tell their stories in a cohesive way. I’m thankful for this book as it gives voice to so many. 

As a foster parent, I cannot recommend this book enough and I think it should be required reading for those looking to foster and adopt (and for anyone in social work), as many of the behavioral/attachment challenges faced by prospective foster/adoptive parents are shown. The author does a wonderful job of showing her own thinking, behaviors, and struggles with attaching–and she is a mild norm. She also witnesses the extreme behaviors of other children she encounters along the way–and it’s those things that are so hard to explain to everyone except other foster parents.

Parenting Books

Dancing with a Porcupine: Parenting Wounded Children without Losing Yourself by Jennie Lynn Owens

This is the story of Jennie Owens and her adopted children.  It is the story of many if not most foster and adoptive parents and really pairs well with “Three Little Words.”  It is sometimes nearly impossible to describe what it’s like being a parent to wounded children, but Owens does it well through using the example of her own life and parenting.  It’s many times difficult, non-stop, and exhausting.  It’s far too easy for parents to lose track of their own selves amidst the sea of their kid’s needs.  If you know an adoptive family, this might be a good read for you (to understand how to best support them) and them (so they have more resources and know they’re not alone).

Rejoicing and Mourning: Rambling Reflections on 2020

Sometimes you just need to grab a hand and leap through the flames.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  In so many ways, this seemed to be 2020’s tagline.  I witnessed those thriving more than ever before, and those struggling more than ever to survive.  It was a both/and kind of year.  And as it drew to a close, I thought back with deep gratitude, realizing that for me, it was a deeply healing year.  But it began by emerging from survival mode.

My Mom always told me the story about how, not long after my second birthday, I turned in my pink security blanket and told her I wouldn’t need it anymore because I was grown up now and to prove how much of a big girl I was, I would stop sucking my thumb too. Mom kept the blanket at the ready for when I changed my mind.  But as days turned to weeks and then months, and I never again mentioned my blanket and never again sucked my thumb, she reluctantly accepted that her little girl had indeed grown up.  This iron resolve of mine, or if I’m being honest in my labelling, my stubbornness, has never flagged. And, as my favorite neurotic detective (Monk) is known to say, “It’s a blessing and a curse.”  

During 2018 and 2019, my stubbornness was a blessing and essential.  It was two years of white-knuckle resolve for survival.  2018 had also been stressful, but 2019 made 2018 look like a frolic in the meadow.  But—and here’s where it’s a curse—my stubbornness that was imperative for those years suddenly became a hindrance in 2020.  I couldn’t seem to relax from my constant vigilance and ridiculous amounts of stress.  

There were no more late night paranoid phone calls about hallucinatory homeless people trying to break in.  No more meetings with lawyers. No more filing endless reports and paperwork in every spare moment.  No more driving all over the face of the earth to and from therapy appointments.  No more counting the minutes until bedtime.  No more steady stream of kid-noise or making silly faces to get easy laughs. No more pretending that the newly conjured knock-knock jokes made sense and were TOTALLY funny.  The end of January 2020 (which was the conclusion of 2019) was a jolt, a falling-into-frigid-water shock. I was caregiver to 3 young kids and one young adult, and then suddenly, I wasn’t.  The quiet I had yearned for so long now just felt like an empty void.  And yet, I couldn’t enjoy the stillness because my body was stuck in stubborn-resolve mode.  

So I kept myself busy with home renovations and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I thought to myself, if only the world would just stop for a minute so that I would be forced to catch my breath. And then exactly that happened.  The world ground to a halt and overnight, became a place barely recognizable.  That was not what I was hoping for, but it did strip away the distractions, and that helped me to begin healing.  

For me, healing usually looks like getting sick, which is exactly what happened.  First it was a several month CFS flare up then something else happened.  Although there are still no definite answers, the best guess is that I had appendicitis and something else unknown.  And much to the shock of my gastroenterologist, after my colonoscopy, my IBS seems to be completely gone. I’ve had it for most of my life and I’ve had no problems for nearly 7 months.  I wrote about praying for miracles back in June, and although this was not an option on my radar, I’ll take it!  Thank you, Lord.  There is still one unsolved painful mystery, but that requires surgery that is deemed “elective” and no hospitals are doing those, so I’ll just wait.  

I was able to take time to grieve when and how I needed to.  I hiked often and I started learning Spanish.  I read a lot.  I composed.  I wrote. I helped Ethan with tons of renovations/construction.  I tended our lovely garden and I was conscripted to work for our church’s streaming/audio/visual team that Ethan spear-headed (because Catholic churches are operating in the dark-ages, technologically speaking).  I spent a couple days a month getting my mind off of me and onto others (this is something I’ve found is really important for me to help me stay grounded) by packing and delivering food to needy families in rougher sections of town, and making bi-weekly phone calls to elderly shut-ins.  But by far, the most healing and wonderful part of 2020 was spending Thursday’s with God in the perpetual adoration chapel. For my non-Catholic friends, perpetual adoration is where the Host (the literal body of Christ) is placed upon the alter, and as the name implies, people sign up for 1 hour time slots to sit in the literal presence of Christ and adore Him so that prayers are being offered 24 hours of every day.  There a several things that I wanted to share with you from some of those times.

At some point during the summer, as we grew closer to opening up our home once more to children, and I sat telling Jesus about my fear of fostering again, Jesus brought to mind Peter.  “You’re like him sometimes, you know.”  

“Ew, no thanks,” I thought.  Of all the disciples, I wanted to be like the beloved John or the practical James, not Peter.  Peter was always shooting his mouth off in an ignorant and brash kind of way.  He was ridiculously stubborn.  Okay, okay, I can see that one.  And Peter also took more risks than anyone else, thinking he was ready when he clearly wasn’t.  

“Yes,” Jesus reminded me, “but he was the only one willing to step out of the boat into the storm.  You can’t always feel ready for that first step onto the water. You just have to trust me that I’ll pick you up as I did Peter, when your strength is used up and you’re sinking.”

I looked over at a picture that hangs to one side of the altar, and realized for the first time, the artist probably had that very moment in mind when he painted Hippie Jesus. I call it Hippie Jesus because he’s got a feathery 70’s Fara Fawcett hairdo.  He is smiling compassionately and extending his nailed-scarred hands toward the viewer. It’s the same look that a parent gives their child when they’ve told them it’s a bad idea because they’re not ready, but allows it because said child is stubborn and going to do it anyway, and then when the child inevitably hurts himself, the parent compassionately smiles with a hint of I-told-you-so, but picks the child up anyway and encourages him to try again.  “You trusted me last year to hold you up when you were drowning in what seemed like an impossible task. I was there for you then and will be always.  Trust me.  I have good things for you.”  And I saw myself as a scared child reaching out a tentative hand.  I felt deeply the Psalm that says, “I will give thanks to your name because of your kindness and your truth. When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me.” 

At another time, as I prayed about all of the hatred that seems to be so pervasive right now, I had to own up to some anger I was holding onto.  And then I sat, trying to still myself enough to listen.  “It’s hard to hate up close,” Jesus gently reminded me.  “Get closer.”  And Jesus, as always, was right.  So, I went and spent some time with the people that had hurt me (don’t worry, outside and properly distanced), and you know what?  It’s true.  I’ve never been able to stay mad when I’m looking someone in the eye and they’re sharing their hardships with me.  And then it hit me. 

The collective behavior I’ve seen during 2020 brings me back to the greatest challenge of foster-parenting.  Each moment of my day is spent calming children’s central nervous systems so that they are no longer living in a constant primal state of fight/flight/freeze.  It’s hard sometimes too because these fearful kids just seem angry, have control issues and temper tantrums.  They live in a perpetual state of victimhood because they feel out of control.  And victimhood is the ultimate empathy killer.

But it’s not kids acting that way.  In 2020, it’s all of us adults.  It’s been shocking to observe the many smart, rational people become these angry, completely unrecognizable and irrational people.  It is a natural, physiological response for us to act angry and irrational when we are living in fearful, out-of-control survival mode.  The problem is, that state of being makes it completely impossible for us to have empathy for others.  And empathy is what we need most right now; that ability to rejoice with those rejoicing, while simultaneously mourning with those who mourn.  

These realizations helped me to look at people differently and instead of desiring a verbal sparring match on social media or getting frustrated, it helped me realize I need to pray more for others, and perhaps pass on some of the things I’ve learned as a foster parent, as a reader of holocaust memoirs, and as one who has spent plenty of time in survival mode. So here goes…

  1. Own your feelings and actions, name your fears, and work to stop being the victim in your own mind.  When you are able to verbalize your fears, they lose their power over you, and you don’t have to keep being the victim. Remember: you are responsible for your reactions and choices. No one else.
  2. Narrow your focus to right here, right now.  Not the past, not the future, not others, just you.here.now.  I picture all of the times I was so sick and had to focus on one step at a time and that’s it.
  3. Find something that gives you a sense of control.  Whether it’s taking control of your inner thought life (praying or meditating), or an outward physical action (gardening, cleaning, working out, turning off the news or social media), find something that gives you a sense of contribution.  It can be tiny.  On my worst days, I write a to-do list filled with things I wouldn’t think of not doing, just so I can cross it off and feel productive: wake up, make coffee, etc…  
  4. Find something to be grateful for each day.  Most people in survival mode struggle with this because they are always on the lookout for the bad and have trained their brain’s receptive pathways to be alert for the bad, so practicing gratitude is really important to retrain your brain.  Being grateful also makes you happier.
  5. Find a purpose or a way to feel useful or to give back. Again, even tiny things can make a HUGE difference.
  6. Find something/someone to hope in or for.  Every Holocaust survivor has someone or something that they said helped them stay alive, no matter how bad things became. Whether it was their belief in God, the importance of their work, or a loved one.
  7. Remember that now is not forever and this is not normal.  One thing that gave me inestimable comfort and joy was being able to go outside where life was “normal.”  The birds still sang, the trees still gave their shade, and the flowers still bloomed.  Holocaust survivors also mention how strange and yet comforting it was that the earth continued along its normal seasonal path, despite their feeling that their personal world was ending.  
  8. If you can’t feel empathy for someone, then go through the motions of it.  That’s right, fake it ’til you make it.  With our foster kids, we taught them to consider how someone else feels, knowing that they’d be parroting this behavior for years before internalizing any of it.  And that’s okay because the practice of it is what matters.  Feelings are fickle, it’s your mind that you’re training. And with enough time and practice, maybe you’ll be able to actually feel empathy as well.

So as 2020 closed out, and 2021 has begun, I encourage you to keep on keeping on and give a little more grace as you can, because frankly, we’re all just a bunch of scared children desiring some measure of control.

The Best Books I read in 2020

Reading is like an open door to a new world
Books: an open door to a different world.

This year, I hit my goal of 50 books and beyond, and lucky me, most of them were terrific books, but that made this list very hard to pair down.  So here goes…

Nonfiction

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

If you choose one non-fiction book to read on this list, this should be it.  Not only is it important, it’s also written in a compelling and personal way, with a perfect balance of compassion and lawyerly matter-of-factness.  

I saw the movie first, and although it wasn’t bad, it only covers one of the many stories in the book of those wrongfully convicted and on death row.  If you have a heart for troubled kids or those with disabilities you may ugly-cry your way through this book as I did.  You may also come away from this book with fire in your veins and newly-refreshed hope in your heart.

The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander

Alexander did a terrific job delving into the research for this book and I felt like I learned so much about the history of the racist “War on Drugs.”  There were some things that surprised me—like her research and views on the pros and cons of affirmative action and the lip-service but opposite actions of President Obama regarding “The War on Drugs.”  Depending on the reader, it has the potential to be eye-opening, uncomfortable, but very needed.  White friends, please read this book and understand the problem more fully.  If you want to change America for the better, reading this book is a great place to start.

The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog: And other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook by Dr. Bruce Perry

This was a fascinating and encouraging read.  Each chapter is a story about a child/children that Dr. Perry helped.  Several are extreme cases, some are unfortunately typical for children coming into foster care.  I love his compassionate, atypical approach to therapy (which is actually very intuitive and instinctual).  Here is one of the fascinating take-aways I gleaned. 

You may have heard “children are so resilient.”  In reality, children are far less resilient than teens/adults because their brains are in the midst of developing when the trauma is occurring.  The younger they are when the trauma occurs, the more development is derailed.  If the trauma continues without some sort of abatement, the outlook is bleak.  If the child has a healthy attachment, even for the first year of life, and then horrible circumstances after that, that year of attachment gives that child a much higher chance for resilience later on.  (This is HUGE).

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk  

This book, like Dr. Perry’s book was eye-opening, fascinating and encouraging.  The one concept that I loved in this book was, when replaying trauma, if you can find a way to feel control, no longer being the completely helpless victim, you can slowly start to change your trauma response to those memories.  Trauma affects every system of your body, so, as Dr. van der Kolk points out, there are many methods now that patients have found ways to move through their trauma (both literally and figuratively).

The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting: Strategies and Solutions by Sarah Naish

There is a term that the author uses that I love.  As foster or adoptive parents, we are “re-parenting” our kids.  That means that what many parents are able to do on a daily basis are not options for us.  Times that most kids love and anticipate, like birthdays and holidays, might be absolute hell for us. It’s many times an opposite world. Anyway, this is a wonderful and practical index of ideas to implement.  The larger half of the book really is laid out A-Z with descriptions of what behaviors are occurring, why they might be occurring, what to do in the moment, and what to do afterward.  Great ideas for parenting kids with attachment issues.

Memoir/Biography

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie  

This is one of the best and most inspiring books I have read in years. I loved this book. Elie does an incredible job in his research and helps one feel connected on a personal level, with each of the four famous writers: Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. He weaves their spiritual journeys with how it corresponds to their writings at the time. It’s truly beautiful. And, in all transparency, I am the target audience because…

  1. I’m a Catholic convert
  2. a wanna-be writer
  3. a lover of southern fiction (particularly these authors)
  4. and I have an insatiable desire to understand the “why” of people.

Hope’s Boy: A Memoir by Andrew Bridge

I found this while browsing at my library and wow, what a beautiful surprise.  This is the true story of a boy named Andy and his life’s journey through foster care.  There are so many things that he believes and thinks as a kid in care that anyone who is connected with fostering/adopting should know (social workers, foster/adoptive parents).  I highly recommend this book whether or not you are connected with foster kids, but especially if you are.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

I’ve never been disappointed with an Erik Larson book.  If you enjoy history but need it to be not dry and boring, Larson is the author for you.  I really loved this book in particular because of the heroism, stubbornness, wittiness and eccentricities of the Churchill family.  Perhaps it’s also because I see many parallels between Ethan and Winston Churchill; especially in their ability to lead during a crisis, and to do what is right in the face of criticism. Thankfully though, Ethan doesn’t have Churchill’s moodiness.

An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir by Ariel Lev

I appreciated Lev’s ability to tell her strange story.  It’s very difficult to convey all of the complexity of being the child of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, but I think she does it well.  If you have a dark sense of humor as I do, you might find yourself chuckling and saying, “Yep, been there, done that” under your breath.  If you have no experience with this, you might find it disturbing or off-putting.  Warning: If you were raised by a parent with BPD, this book might be very triggering unless you’re in a healthy enough place to read it.

Fiction

Kristin Lavrensdatter by Sigrid Undset

If you choose one fictional book to read from this list, this one is by far the best.  It is written by a famous Norwegian author and is set in the 1300’s Norway.  The historical aspects are so well done and fascinating.  Undset really makes you feel as if you are watching lives unfold during that time. This book follows the life of Kristen Lavrensdatter from childhood through adulthood.  It is a very rich, spiritual and profound story.  However, I feel it my duty to warn you that the book is sectioned into 3 parts and totals over 1600 pages (with helpful historical footnotes) and when it is over, you will be sad it’s over. Part 1, although very good and beautifully written, is the weakest and a little slow.  Also, this is the part where Kristin falls in love and romance, as a general rule, no matter how well-done, makes me queasy.  Part 2 picks up speed and throws in quite a few surprises. I’m rarely surprised (a curse of being a voracious reader who’s also seen a lot of life), so the ability to surprise is a hallmark of good story-telling. Part 3 can’t be read fast or slow enough.  Okay, I’m done gushing over it, but do yourself a favor and read it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This was an absolutely delightful book with a lovely twist at the end.  That’s all I will tell you because it’s just a beautiful book with lovely characters.  Be forewarned: this book may make you long to try some of the foods mentioned in the book.

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

After reading many heavy books early in the year, I asked my well-read Facebook friends to give me some happy light-reading ideas.  This series was hands-down the favorite for laughs, so I tried it out.  And laugh I did!  How have I lived my life without this particular joy in it?  As I laughed along, I couldn’t help but see Hugh Laurie (a favorite actor/jazz pianist of mine) as Bertie Wooster.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Being the morbid person that I am, I’ve always said that if anything ever happened to Ethan, I’d pack up and move to Alaska.  I love Alaska.  I love its harshness, wildness, and beauty.  So when I read the description of the book…Vietnam vet with PTSD takes his family to Alaska, I was already hooked.  I appreciated Hannah’s realistic portrayal of a vet with PTSD, the brutality and beauty of Alaska, and the unity and dependence on community that is required to survive.

Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman

Backman has become a favorite author of mine.  His characters always sparkle with quirks and good hearts underneath eccentric exteriors.  This one is about a delightfully persnickety woman who solves every problem with bicarbonate of soda and has herself an unexpected little heart-warming adventure.  It’s such a fun read.

A few more noteworthy reads to consider:

  • Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
  • The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
  • The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
  • Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
  • I am Malala: The Story of the Girl who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
  • The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

The Best Hikes in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

One of the greatest “blessings of COVID” is seeing so many new hikers out enjoying trails that before, I used to have mostly to myself.  For the first time ever, I’m sharing the trails with families who are looking around like they’ve never done this before, their kids voices are filled with excited discovery, sometimes whining, and I’ve answered more questions than ever before while on the trail.  I think it’s terrific.  But I also must admit that my selfish side isn’t thrilled with having to share MY trails with so many loud newbs.  Kidding…mostly.  Seriously though, I’d like to share some of these gems with you too.

The other day, while I was getting an adjustment from my chiropractor (who’s an avid cyclist/hiker), we were discussing hikes around the area.  I mentioned my favorite hike in Lancaster and after describing its most stunning features, I was shocked to learn that she’d never heard of it.  And as I was leaving, a woman in her 50’s who’d been sitting across the room while I was being adjusted, ran out after me.

“Excuse me,” she panted, the door slamming shut behind her. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but what is the name of that place you were talking about?  I’m bored of always walking in the same places and that one sounds so interesting.”

“Kelly’s Run.”

This is the fourth time since the start of COVID that I’ve been asked for a list of hikes around Lancaster and well, I’ll just share my list with you.  They’re not advertised, not always the easiest to locate, and if you aren’t an AllTrails junky (or married to Ethan, my intrepid explorer), you might not know what to look for. 

So here are some lovely hikes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania you might want to try out, starting with my absolute favorite!

(As a side note, the difficulty rating is based on other Eastern PA hikes.  I learned the hard way, that if you’re from any place with real mountains, the difficulty level is going to be a 1/5 for you).

Kelly’s Run Nature Preserve  (4 mile loop, difficulty 3.5/5)

Address: T397, Holtwood, PA 17532

This is my favorite because of it’s length, difficulty, and its diversity.  It’s got open fields, rhododendron woods, lush undergrowth, a few long/steep hills, large rock faces, waterfalls, a winding stream with multiple traverses, and an overlook of the dam.  What more could you ask for?  

Some pictures to prove how right I am 😉 

Shiprock Woods Nature Preserve (1.5 Mile loop trail, difficulty 2/5)

Address: 2628 Shiprock Rd, Willow Street, PA 17584

This is the hike that we’ve taken every foster child who’s come through our home (even if just for respite care)…I guess that makes 7 at this point.  The mileage is accessible for most kids, it has lots of rolling hills, a little stream to find crawdads and skip rocks, and is just so dang pretty. It also makes for a great run.

Pictures:

Landis Woods Nature Preserve (1.3-?, difficulty 1.5/5)

Address: 2369 Lititz Pike, Lancaster, PA 17601

This can be as long or as short as you want.  The woods are beautiful, and in the distance, you can hear children playing and if you’re lucky enough to be walking there at the top of the hour, you can hear the church bells of St. John Nuemann Catholic Church tolling in the distance. The sounds of church bells and children playing, makes me feel as if I’m hiking in France. Within the scope of the woods, there are many intersecting little loops that run through the woods and eventually lead to a stream and multi-use path.  This path winds through fields and in the fall, with the type of home architecture in the background, I’m suddenly transported to Iceland. I walked about 8 miles with a friend a few months back, but we made a nice long detour up past Westminster Church and through Lancaster Bible College over to a park.  The point in saying that, is that this trail connects to all kinds of other trails/sidewalks if you want to go further. 

Pictures:

(This is the part that reminds me of Iceland)

Trout’s Run Nature Preserve (2.3 miles, difficulty 1/5)/Steinman Run Nature Preserve (2.6 mile loop, difficulty 2.5/5)

Address: Stump Rd, Pequea, PA 17565 

Trout Run is a fun, easy hike along a stream.  It’s quite lovely.  You might get your feet wet as it traverses through the stream a few times.  Steinman Run is just up the road from Trout Run and it’s also nice but has hills that Trout Run does not.  Both make great running trails.

Susquehannock State Park (1.5-14.3 miles, difficulty 1/5-5/5)

Address: 1880 Park Dr, Drumore, PA 17518)  

This one is as short/long/hard/easy as you want it to be.  Some of the trails that run along the river are tough (hence the 5/5 difficulty rating above), with lots of straight up and down, but other trails that go back into the woods closer to the overlook, are easy and short.  This is also a lovely place to picnic or view the gorgeous overlook of the Susquehanna River.  It’s very scenic.

Turkey Hill Overlook Trail  (6 miles-ish, difficulty 4/5)

Address: 2501 River Rd, Conestoga, PA 17516

This one is fun and a bit longer.  It’s up a large hill at the beginning and goes to the windmills to an overlook.  From there, you can go longer (up to 12 miles), or turn back for a shorter hike.  It’s got all of the diversity that you can want from a hike.

There are still a few hikes that I’ll keep close to the vest for now, but this is enough to get you hooked on hiking.

2020: Praying for Miracles

Miracle is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in this way.  1 : an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs (the healing miracles described in the Gospels). 2 : an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment (The bridge is a miracle of engineering).

This year has been filled with the unexpected.  On a global, national, and personal level.  It has left me praying for miracles—for others.  Not for me.  Never for me.  But we’ll return to that in a moment.

In March, I found myself struggling with constant GI pain that began a week before everything shut down.  The timing was unfortunate, to say the least.  

“We’ll send you for an ultrasound, but you’ll have to wait for the hospital to call you,” was what the doctor told me.

A month passed by and the pain grew much worse—I was barely eating or sleeping.  The hospital never called, so I called the hospital.  They scheduled the ultrasound, but it was 2 weeks out.  I called my doctor, and all of the doctors were out on vacation, but at the end of Friday, the Physician’s Assistant called me and said, “It sounds like appendicitis, so I’m going to call you in some antibiotics and see if that works.  If your pain gets worse or your fever gets any higher, get to the hospital right away.”

A week later, I finally got in to see the doctor who ran blood tests and sent me for a CT scan.  But by then, the antibiotics had done their work and the massive swelling had gone down, some pain was gone, and my fever had lessened.  “You definitely had tons of inflammation and infection,” she confirmed after looking at the blood tests.  Yeah, I know.  I was there.  “We just don’t know what was infected or why.”

So, she sent me to another doctor who in turn, finally sent me to a GI specialist.  After regaling him with the details of my annoying saga, he gave a befuddled laugh and said, “You have a very strange body.”  Yeah.  I’ve been informed of that for most of my life.  He ran a few more blood tests and told me to come back in a few weeks if the pain didn’t magically resolve.

So, it’s almost July and I still have no answers and am still in pain.  To use the current buzzword, it’s a little triggering as I’ve been through all of this before.  The endless frustration of waiting for 3 1/2 years, and finally receiving a diagnosis of a little understood incurable, chronic illness.  That was disappointing.

So, when I found myself in the garden, and praying fervently for others in our broken world, God asked, “Why haven’t you asked me for a miracle for yourself yet?”

I came up short.  I thought back and had to admit to myself that I have avoided praying for myself or anything that I want.  But why?  And then, as I found myself yanking up weeds with ferocity, I admitted it: I felt duped.  And then, laughing at my own foolishness, I thought of how, alongside those past prayers for miracles I’d also prayed “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” just as fervently, secretly hoping that God’s will was aligned with mine (not the other way around).  The irony doesn’t escape me.

And if anyone had driven by right then, they’d see a crazy person, talking to herself and crying, like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, because her dad didn’t give her what she wanted.  I listed my litany of grievances to God because asking for miracles shouldn’t be so freakin’ complicated.  

“I asked you for a miracle when I was so sick last time,” I started.  “I asked for healing.  And what did you do?  You gave me a sickness that I can’t fix, that no one can.  You gave me something that slows me down, forces me to face my inabilities and weaknesses daily.  I have to do less, ask for more from you and others.  That’s not the miracle I wanted.

“If I ask for a miracle this time with my sickness, what should I expect?

“Last year, I begged you for a miracle for the boys.  My heart was—still is—broken, and what did you give me?  A dream.  Before I ever even met them or knew who they were, you told me that I could never call them mine.  So I asked you for that to be untrue, for that dream to be just a dream…but I knew it wasn’t.  I told no one.  I asked for you to let us keep them.  And what miracle did you give me then?  You helped me to find love for the people who hurt them time and again.  You helped me understand and love them in their broken humanity because their brokenness called to mine.  You changed my heart to want them to be successful caregivers, to know that they are cared about by others.  That’s not the miracle I wanted.  

“I begged for your help in teaching Nick to make better choices.  But he’s in jail, and has suffered so much there.  He is starting to change, but does it have to be like this?  I prayed for miracles, but this is not how I’d envisioned them.  

“And then there’s Jeremy.  I don’t even know where he is right now.  Is he in jail, homeless, in a mental hospital, or has Charmaine found him once more, and like a guardian angel, taken him into her halfway house again until he wanders off once more when his meds stop working? She is not the miracle that I imagined, but her love for the most broken certainly is.

“And then there’s Mom. I prayed for you to heal Mom from her depression my entire life, but she remained depressed and suicidal until the moment she died.  She’s healed with you, I know, but that was not the miracle I’d wanted.”  

And there it was, some of my deepest griefs and fears laid bare.  And as I considered what God had done, I realized that he did do miracles and they were beautiful, but they took massive amounts of pain and sometimes sacrifice.  He changed me, not necessarily the things around me.  

I prayed for the first time this year, for miracles for me, whatever that means.  I prayed that God will prepare my heart for the next set of kiddos that darken our doorway, whether they are here forever or for just a short time. I prayed for a doctor who could figure me out.  I pray that I’ll have the energy to fight for our next kiddos as hard as I did for the last, that I won’t instinctively guard my heart from them, that I will love them through their pain.  

As the time draws near for us to open our home once more to new children, I’m excited and nervous for that next phone call when our lives will completely change once more.  There will be the hard period where we relearn these next kids, their traumas, their likes, their dislikes, and start to help them trust, one moment at a time, perhaps for the first time.  Maybe they’ll have been starved, abused, or abandoned. Perhaps they’ll act out violently or hoard food.  But I’m praying for strength.  

And as I think about myself and my own need for miracles, I think of everyone else enduring this profound year of 2020.  I see the turmoil as a hopeful and redemptive phase; birth-pangs of the miracles that are to come.  Some say the end of the world is near, and they throw up their hands and wait.  I say, what does that change for me?  Nothing.  I’m still going to hope, to do, to pray that others hope and that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves (hopes, dreams, time, whatever else) for the love of God and others. 

It is our duty as Christ-followers to be those who hope and pray for redemption by being actively redeemed.  But many times, our own self-righteousness, fear, and anger cause “even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion…we have to be stonecatchers.”—Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

2020 might not be the year we want, but maybe it’s the year we need. Now is the time for compassion.  Shall we pray for miracles and be the stonecatchers together?