Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Surprised by Oxford

Source: via Shelly on Pinterest

I finished Carolyn Weber’s book, Surprised by Oxford a few weeks ago, but I’ve put off writing a review of it. I don’t know why.

Busyness, I guess.

Or other posts that needed to be written. (Not really.)

Or laundry. (Hardly. Just ask my family.)

No, if I’m completely honest, what has kept me from writing this review is intimidation—Carolyn Weber has a Ph.D. . . . from Oxford! How do I even begin to sum up the words of a woman like that?

And I also worry that if I finally write this review my experience with this book and that place will be over. I like to let books simmer in my head for a while after I read them. In fact, I never pick up another book in the same day that I finish one book--it just wouldn't seem right. So I guess the fact that I haven't picked up another book in the weeks since I finished this one (aside from all the papers I've been reading) says something. I didn't want my experience to end.

You see, Carolyn Weber took me back to a summer oh-so-long ago. Back to the summer I lived in Oxford, taking classes from great professors and enjoying my first real taste of freedom. Oxford changed me forever, to be sure.

But Oxford changed Carolyn Weber in even more dramatic ways than it did me.

Carolyn Weber went to Oxford pursuing her own dreams, her own passions, her own life, but she left Oxford a changed person who began to pursue the dreams and passions of Another, putting her own life aside for the sake of One greater. For it was at Oxford that God pursued Carolyn and showed her a grace and a life that she had never known nor expected.

Playing off the title of C.S. Lewis (Oxford’s own favorite son) 's famous book, Surprised by Joy, Weber’s Surprised by Oxford tells of her first year in that hallowed city when all was new (to her)—new school, new professors, new friends, new surroundings. She describes so beautifully the manicured lawns of different colleges, nights in hidden-away pubs with her friends discussing all things important, and events to which only the Oxford elite are privy.

She entered Oxford with one goal in mind: pursuing that Ph.D. in Literature. What she found in that first year, though, was that God had other plans, and the Ph.D. became secondary to pursuing Him.

Weber tells her story of growing up in many ways, but also growing into faith. She vividly recounts her struggles through most of that first year—her doubts, her questions, and her studies. Some of my favorite scenes in the book take place in Oxford pubs where Carolyn and her Christian friends hash out some of the most important aspects of faith (over pints of beer, no less!). These conversations are pivotal in Carolyn’s conversion because the people she met in Oxford appear to be real, vulnerable, and accepting of her doubts. It is because of these authentic Christians that Carolyn begins to change her view of Christianity.

Spoiler: she ends up marrying one of them!

This isn’t a happily-ever-after, Christian fluff kind of book, although I’m sure Carolyn Weber would tell you the outcome certainly is happy. She writes with a sincerity of thought and purpose. She is unafraid to tackle the toughest question that any atheist could throw at a Christian, because she was that doubter. This is a thinking person’s book. It’s a book for Christians who have friends who ask those “big” questions. It’s a book for doubters of Christianity. It’s a book for those who just enjoy a great theological debate.

Even after her conversion, Carolyn (or Caro, as her friends call her) continues the questions. I loved this scene at the end of the book:

“Surrounded now in birdsong, I considered how God laid His truth bare when I could do just battle, turning my deepest hurt—the fact that I would have traded every accomplishment for a close relationship with my father—into, miraculously, somehow even deeper healing. I thought about telling Dorian this, but I didn’t. There was no need.
            After a while, Doran spoke. ‘As I’ve discovered, Caro, if you look back on your life, you’ll see His hand in it, and over you. You’ll begin to see with new eyes all the times that were subtle as well as flagrant opportunities to know Him.’
            ‘True, and yet why did I not come to know Him until this year?’ I asked.
            ‘Only God knows.’ Dorian chuckled. ‘But maybe that’s not the question. Maybe the real question at stake is, why did He keep trying?’”

Why does He keep trying? Grace.

And Grace is what is written into every page of this book.

This is a delicious memoir. Get it. Read it. Share it with someone who doubts.

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson Publishers sent me a copy of this book in exchange for my review. The opinions are entirely my own.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Fabulous Friday Food - Pumpkin Pie Dip

Happy first day of Fall!

I have two bins full of fall decorations in my basement that are just dying to jump out and thrill me with all of their orangy- and brown- and yellow-ness. Getting out the fall decorations is, to me, more happy than getting out the Christmas decorations, probably because fall decorations don't expect much of you.

Fall decorations don't expect gifts to accompany them. They don't expect cookies (although Pumpkin Squares are always nice). They don't expect a party either.

Fall decorations are just pretty in and of themselves. They are THE stand-alone decorations, if you ask me.

So this week I went to do the first thing I always do when I decorate for the season--switch out my front door wreath. But as I was taking down the sunny, yellow summer wreath, I couldn't deny it anymore: my front door was looking awfully shabby.

It needed a coat of paint. Badly.

So I ran down to the local hardware store and bought some black paint, semi-gloss for me, and proceeded to get myself into a project. It didn't take long. An hour later I had a shiny, new-looking front door (if you don't notice the tarnished brass kickplate on the bottom).

Alas, time got away from me, and the front door wreath-hanging has not happened yet. But this weekend, the fall decorating festivities will commence!

In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you my favorite fall treat--Pumpkin Pie Dip. I got this recipe from my sister, Jenn, a couple of years ago, and every year at about this time I have to make a batch. It's so easy and so delicious that you might want to make some this weekend too.

Here's what you need:

1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese
2 Cups powdered sugar
1 (15 oz) can of Pumpkin Pie Filling (NOT the plain pumpkin--make sure you get the filling)

[side note: I can never seem to find 15 ounces of the pumpkin pie filling--the cans I find are bigger. Just measure out a little less than 2 cups and you'll have 15 ounces.]

1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground ginger

Beat the cream cheese until it's fluffy and then slowly add the sugar at medium speed (just so the sugar doesn't fly all over you and your kitchen!). Mix that all together until its smooth.

Then add the pumpkin, cinnamon, and ginger.

Beat it all together until everything is mixed well, and transfer it to a pretty bowl. (You already know how I feel about pretty serving dishes, right?)

Cover it and stick it in the refrigerator for 8 hours. Yeah. Right. I tend to dig in right away, and it's just fine. But if you're one of those rule-following types, go ahead and refrigerate it.

Serve this dip with gingersnaps (yum!) or apple slices (meh).

Here's your printable copy, if you'd like.

Now tell me, what are YOU doing to celebrate fall this weekend??

Linking this post to Amanda's Weekend Bloggy Reading Linky Party at Serenity Now.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What I Learned on Sabbatical - Part 3

What would I do without it?

How would I manage?

How would I communicate?

How would I survive?

All these questions plagued me as I prepared to leave house and home for a month last summer.

Was I going to miss my dog?

Sort of.

Not really.

Was I going to miss my daughter?

For sure, but I knew I’d see her a couple of times.

What I really wondered if I could live without, pathetically, was the internet. Because the place we rented didn’t have wi-fi. Can you imagine? And the 3G service up north was spotty at best. In order to check email, read blogs, update Facebook, or read a Twitter stream I’d have to go to an internet café about 15 minutes away.

The inconvenience of it all.

The first week, I went through withdrawal. I think B and I went into town three or four times that week, all under the guise of needing something at the grocery store, but as we were walking to the car we’d throw in our laptops with a comment like, “Well, as long as we’ll be in town, we might as well check email.”

Yeah. Sure.

The second week, I’m pretty sure my eye was twitching, but we probably only went to town a couple of times to check email. And I started to notice that there weren’t that many emails to check.

Popularity has never been a problem in these parts.

By the third week, B had figured out that he could at least look at his emails on his phone, even though he wasn’t answering them. His work phone offers Verizon which, as we quickly learned, has much better coverage up north than AT&T, which my phone uses. So B could just take a quick glance at his emails without having to go to town.

I suppose, if I was desperate, I could have asked him to check my email for me on his phone at the house. But you know what started to happen by week three? I wasn’t that desperate. Oh, sure, I stopped by the café once or twice, but there wasn’t that much of interest waiting for me – either in my in-box or on Facebook. (I’ve never loved Twitter, so that really wasn’t a temptation at all.)

And, you’ve probably guessed by now, that by week four I had completely unplugged. No going to town. No checking email. No updating Facebook. None of it.

You know what the best part was? I stopped caring.

I knew that by the end of our sabbatical, during which I did not update my blog, my readership would have declined from very little to basically nothing, so I didn’t even bother to check to see how many people had visited me. The great thing was, it didn’t matter to me.

We had had an amazing month away from it all—email, Facebook, blogs, work—and I felt refreshed, relaxed, and completely unplugged for the first time in years. And it felt good! For someone who enjoys social media as much as I do, that’s saying something.

I realized that I had been reading a whole lot more than I usually do. Did you see the list of books I read while we were gone?!

And so, the third and most important lesson I learned while on sabbatical is that not only had I become ever-so-slightly addicted to the internet (hush, my family!), but also that it’s really O.K., beneficial even, to unplug every now and then.

I realized that I had become much too tied to the internet and that, for me, I needed to pay attention to my IRL people. I needed to pull myself away from whatever was tying me to the internet (blogs, especially) and allow myself to be freed from it.

It’s a strange addiction, blogging, because there are so many wonderful things about it—I’ve learned so much and grown so much as a Christian as a result of blogging—but there are also some harmful things too. (Comparison trap, anyone?)

For me, unplugging for a month was a wonderful surprise. I learned that I can and should live in the here-and-now more than I do. Yes, it takes discipline to close my computer and not be tied to it all day long, but I’m a much healthier person when I do that.

You’ve probably noticed a little bit of how this has impacted me. I’m not blogging as much as I was before. In fact, it was a little bit hard for me to get back into it. I thought about quitting all together, but I don’t really want to do that. Yet.

For now, I’ve decided that I won’t let the internet rule my life. I’ll blog when I want to, and I’ll read blogs and comment on them when I have time. I’ll maintain the blogging friendships I’ve made because they’re important to me, but I’ll also try to maintain the friendships that I have right here because they’re important too.

Mostly, though, I’ll remind myself that a month went by without the internet and the world still turned. 

Beautifully, I might add.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Getting Back in the Front Seat

Y'all (I don't know why, but this post just seems to need a collective noun at the beginning).

Y'all. I feel so behind on my blog right now that I don't know where to start. Teaching this semester has thrown me completely out of whack (cliche, I would tell my students). My schedule is off--probably because I'm waking up at 5:45 a.m.

Y'all. This is SO not me. Five forty five, indeed.

Everything still feels so new and so strange in my life right now. I scrub together something that resembles a meal most nights. (Very strange.) I throw in a load of laundry when necessity calls, if you know what I mean. (Kinda strange.) I can't even manage a phone call or an email to those closest to me. (Sorta strange.)

I keep waiting for life to seem normal again. Will it? Or is this strangeness the new normal?

Just in case this is the new normal (and I'm kind of figuring it is), I have GOT to figure out where and how blogging fits into it all. Because blogging is not something I am willing to give up in my life. I've made too many wonderful friends and have had too many fantastic opportunities to give up now.

With that in mind, I am just going to start from here. Right now. I'd like to catch you up on what my life has looked like for the past month or so, but I can only remember this past weekend. Let's start there, shall we?

And then let's move on, pretending like this past 6-week hiatus (oh, o.k., 10 week hiatus if you count the sabbatical in there too) didn't really happen.

So, what have I been up to, you ask? Papers. Grading papers. Lots and lots of papers. I know why I signed on to teach two writing classes this semester--it's the only way I could get a half-time position--but let me tell you, common sense was not my strong suit when I said yes. Oh sure, I knew in my head that having two classes of 21 students would mean a potential 42 papers to grade at the same time. (I know what you're thinking . . . I should have majored in math, right?) I knew in my head that I would actually have to GRADE all of those papers. But did it register in my soul? Where it really counts?

No. It did not.

And by last night my soul and my eyes were hurting.

I got pretty crabby this weekend and I took it out on the people I love. Man, I hate it when I do that. 

But here's the good news. Between grading papers on Friday night, going into work on Saturday, and getting over-the-top-stressed-and-crabby, I had fun with my people.

Saturday was a gorgeous, if not slightly chilly, day around these parts. It was a day for doing something we had never done before--something we had always talked about doing but just never pushed "send" and actually went about doing. We went to my favorite city that just happens to be right up the road and pretended we were tourists.

In case you've never heard, Chicago has a pretty sweet architecture river tour. I know! I had heard of it before, too. And I had heard it was really great, but I had never done it. Neither had B. Or Julia. (Caroline had gone on the tour once in 8th grade, so this was old hat for her.)

You know what's funny? Almost everyone I told that we did the tour on Saturday has said to me, "Oh yeah, I've always wanted to do that." That was us, too, until Saturday. Now we can actually say we did it.

And I'm so glad we did. What an amazing tour. What an amazing day. What an amazing time we had just being together, enjoying a beautiful blue sky day in Chicago.

A peek at my new favorite building to grace Chicago's skyline--the Trump Tower.

Yikes! Look at that waddle! Christmas is coming--can anyone say neck lift?

The Merchandise Mart where Glenda and I visited a couple of weeks ago. Isn't she a beautiful building?

My girls and me. *smile*

So what does the week ahead look like for me? Meeting with students. Teaching classes. NOT grading papers (this week, anyway). It's good. It's fulfilling. And it's lots of fun.

And what about here? The blog? What will that look like this week? Well, I'll tell you, because if I tell you here, out loud, that it's going to happen, I'll make pretty darn sure I get it done.

Tuesday - My final "What I Learned on Sabbatical" post.

Thursday - an awesome book review. Can't wait for this one.

Friday - A NEW RECIPE!!! I know! It's been forever. Partly because my camera broke. (Something about a teenager having an unfortunate incident in my basement.) And partly because I don't cook that much anymore. But this one is a yummy fall treat that you won't want to miss.

So there. Blogging is now taking a front seat again. If it kills me.

Won't you join me for the ride?

Photo credits: B. (Thanks, honey!)


Monday, September 12, 2011

What I Learned on Sabbatical – Part 2

I’ll admit, I was a little nervous. All that time . . . alone?

We invited our parents to spend some time with us at the lake for the first two weeks of our sabbatical. Julia was with us too. Kate came up for a few days. The first two weeks kept us busy and happy with family.

But the second two weeks? Everyone had gone home, Julia was at camp across the lake, and we were completely and utterly alone.

Aside from a few vacations, which were wonderful, my husband and I had never spent two, uninterrupted weeks together in almost 20 years. Twenty years! I could hardly remember what it was like to be “just us.”

I wondered what we would talk about for two weeks. Did we even have anything in common besides the kids?

I wondered if he would give me the space and freedom I had become accustomed to, or would he want to spend every minute glued to my side?

And, yes, I wondered if he’d be chasing me around with “that look” in his eyes for two weeks. Help me!

Let me just say that my fears were entirely unfounded, and I learned a valuable lesson: The empty nest is going to be just fine.

Truth be told, the beginning of our time alone was a little quiet. I missed the kids. I missed the noise. I missed the activity.

But we quickly settled into a routine that looked something like this:

6:00 a.m. – B got up and went outside (he just does that). He would either go fishing or for an early-morning bike ride or sometimes just sit on the dock drinking coffee. The guy doesn’t sleep much.

7:30 a.m. – I’d roll out of bed, looking for coffee.

8:00 a.m. – I would start my work—either writing or lesson planning.

9:00 a.m. – B would come in looking for a second breakfast.

9:05 a.m. – Upon finding no breakfast, B would make it himself.

10:00 a.m. – Sick of studying, I’d get up and take a walk or a bike ride. Or maybe a shower.

Noon – lunch, usually on the dock, in the sun.

The afternoon would find us lying on the dock, in the sun, reading until we fell asleep. You should have seen our savage tans.

By around 4:30 or 5:00 we’d get dressed, maybe have a glass of wine (still on the dock), and try to decide where we’d like to eat dinner. Or maybe we'd take a drive to see what kind of crazy-and-unusual Northwoods culture we could find.

I know. Life was rough on sabbatical.

The great thing was, B and I never got tired of each other, probably because we gave each other space to do what we wanted to do. We didn’t have to spend every waking moment together, but the waking moments that we did spend together were fun. Relaxing and fun.

And you know what? We had plenty to talk about. Of course we talked about the girls, but we talked about other stuff too—ministries we’re involved with, our jobs, the future. You know, stuff.

At the end of our “alone time” I realized something really important: after 26 years, I still love hanging out with my husband. He’s just the right guy for me. He puts up with a lot, he listens to my stories (over and over again), and he still likes to be with me. Oh sure, we have our differences; what couple doesn’t? We don’t focus on those—we focus on the things that make us better people.

Our nest will be empty in just five short years, and we’re already starting to think about what that will look like. After these two weeks together I know one thing: it’s going to be just fine.

Because after 26 years (31 by then), we still like each other. And that, in itself, is a gift.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

What I Learned on Sabbatical - Part 1

Yesterday I had a headache all day. I woke up with it, taught two classes with it, and went to bed with it. It could have been hormones, or it could have been a lack of caffeine, I’m not sure, but there it was, my constant companion yesterday. A dull throbbing that reminded me of the obligations and time constraints of this life we’re living right now.

It’s a good life. I’m not complaining. But it’s sure a different life than the one I was living on Long Lake this summer.

Now that our days have returned to “normal” and “routine,” now that the weather is turning and I’m starting to think about fall, and now that our tans are fading (so sad!), it just seems fitting to reflect on our summer a little bit.

Ahhhhh, summer. Ahhhhh, sabbatical. I miss you so.

I learned a thing or two this summer, oh yes I did, and I thought, rather than forgetting these important matters, it might be a good idea to write them down. So over the next few days I’ll be sharing three important lessons I learned this summer.

Let’s start with what should have been obvious to me all along, but what was probably the most glaring lesson that needed to be learned.

Lesson 1: My husband needs outdoor time.

Like I said in a previous post, B was like a little boy, running in and out the door all day long. He was happy this summer in a way I had not seen him in a long time, if ever. And I realized that this, nature, is where he is most in his element, most like himself.

Not sitting around a boardroom table. Not behind his computer. Not behind a desk or running a meeting or meeting with clients. All these things he does on a regular basis, but after this summer I am more and more convinced that he could happily leave those things behind tomorrow.

What really feeds his soul is being outside. Fishing. Paddling. Biking. Anything as long as he doesn’t have to report to anyone or have anyone report to him.

I should have known this about my husband. In the 26 years that we’ve been married, his favorite vacations have been those few (very few, I’m sorry to say) vacations in which he’s had ample opportunity to just be out in nature.

Sadly, we’re different in this. I like cities, villages, towns, highways and byways. I like exploring back alleyways and seeing new things. Nature? I could take it or leave it (especially the bugs!).

But B? He NEEDS it. He’s been a good sport all these years, tagging along on my adventures. But what he really needs is downtime . . . outside.

My biggest takeaway? Get the boy outside more! Especially as his job becomes more demanding and he feels pressure from all sides, he will feel loved and nurtured if I allow him to be where he’s most himself—in nature.

What does that mean? I’m not sure. Maybe it means I’ll just send him outside more, like his mom did when he was little. (ha!) Or maybe we’ll have to be more intentional about taking his kind of vacations more often. Or maybe he will just have to say “yes” a little more often when guys invite him to go hunting.

Whatever the case, it was so good to see him completely unwind while being outdoors this summer.

So I married a Nature Boy. Who knew?