Top Reads of 2020

We’re a month into 2021. I have a new reading goal set (the same as last year, because I didn’t meet it) and my stacks of books to read are starting to look dangerous thanks to the abundance of Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood. It takes some serious self-discipline to walk past one and not look inside—self-discipline I usually don’t have.

Somehow, despite the fact that Denver Public Library was completely shutdown for several months of last year (thank you, Rona), more than half of my top reads from 2020 were borrowed from DPL, not LFLs. But I continue to be pleasantly surprised by what turns up in those little boxes by the sidewalk.

So in the spirit of the New Year, 31 days late, here are my top reads from 2020 in no particular order. (And if you’re looking for reading recommendations specifically for Black History Month, I’ve got you covered.)

An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina with Tom Zoellner

If you’ve watched Hotel Rwanda, you have some familiarity with this man’s story. Rusesabagina is the hotel manager the movie is based on, and An Ordinary Man is his memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide in the 90s and saving the lives of others by taking advantage of his position as a manager of a foreign-run hotel.

Every time I read about the genocide, I start to wonder who I would be in such a situation. Would I turn against my neighbors and friends? Or would I hold to the principles I profess, that all human life is sacred and the only acceptable way to treat an enemy is to love them?

I tweeted a few excerpts from the book when I was reading it in the fall, and through a series of interactions with random Rwandans who started engaging with the tweet, I found out that Rusesabagina had recently been kidnapped by the Rwandan government (he hasn’t lived in the country for years due to beefs with the political administration; President Kagame has been in power since the end of the genocide). He’s now facing a so-called terrorism trial.

The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright

I don’t remember when I was first exposed to N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, but over the last year, I started listening to the “Ask N.T. Wright Anything” podcast on a fairly regular basis. He puts into words a lot of the thoughts and ideas I’ve come to on my own through studying Scripture in more depth over the last several years. On one episode of his podcast, he mentioned this particular title so I ordered it through the public library system (was shocked by how many N.T. Wright titles they actually have) and spent probably three months reading it from cover to cover.

It’s wild to me that this title is a “popular” theology book, meaning it’s written for the masses, not scholars, because it’s so deep, dense, and challenging. I had to make sure my brain was awake and energized in order to engage with it fully, and there were still plenty of things that went straight over my head.

The Day the Revolution Began is all about understanding the crucifixion the way the early Christians did. What actually happened when Jesus died? What work was “finished,” as he said on the cross? How did Paul and the other apostles understand the death of Jesus? (The context of the resurrection is a given.)

Something I particularly appreciated about this book is how Wright tackles the Platonization of Christianity, which is to say: The generally held concepts of Heaven and Hell that most of us assume to be biblical don’t really come from the Bible; they come from Plato. (If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus didn’t talk about heaven and hell that much, this is probably why.) The Day the Revolution Began puts the New Testament, particularly the crucifixion, in its Jewish context, drawing out deeper meanings from Jesus’s work on the cross. I’m planning on re-reading this book in a year or so.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

In case anyone’s wondering whether or not I avoid controversial books, apparently I don’t. But to be honest, I don’t understand why The Feminine Mystique was ever controversial. The whole book is based on this notion that women have more to offer than their ability to be wives and mothers, and that if they’re restricted to only caring for the needs of other people without room to express their unique identities and use their specific gifts, they’ll be miserable. To me, that’s a duh.

When I signed this book out, I was bracing myself for something shocking and controversial, but instead (with the exception of a few things regarding mental health and homosexuality that place the book firmly in its era) I found myself nodding along and taking copious notes. I’ve read some critiques of the book—that it only speaks about the experience of mid- to upperclass white women and so on—but I think the book’s central idea still holds true. And I think more women (particularly of the Christian variety) would be well-served to read it.

Beautiful Resistance by Jon Tyson

I wrote a whole review of this book for Christianity Today, so I’m not going to rehash it here, but this book provides an important check for believers regarding the outworking of our faith. It’s specifically written to Christians in the U.S. in a polarized era.

A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of America by Ronald Takaki

This was the best unexpected Little Free Library find of 2020. I think I picked it up in June, when protests in response to the murder of George Floyd were taking place across the country and the globe, and it was exactly what my brain needed at a time when I was looking for more information about the legacy of the United States. I did a lot of learning from 2013-2016 on these topics, but most of that was through reading reported articles, not books or histories.

A Different Mirror is exactly what its subtitle describes: a multicultural history of America. Starting in the colonial era, it follows the experiences of African-American, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jewish Americans—people groups we don’t typically learn about from their perspective. I marked this book up like crazy and decided to keep it as a reference. I highly recommend finding a copy and reading it for yourself. It would make a great text for high school students or anyone looking for a survey of American history that isn’t centered on the experiences of white folks.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nifisi

I read this book in March so I don’t remember too much specifically about it other than that it was deep and eye-opening, and it engaged me with a Middle Eastern culture I’m not familiar with at all. Nafisi was an English literature professor in Tehran, Iran, over a period of time when the country was seeing drastic change, going from a more liberal (some would say, Westernized) society to a much more conservative one, where women were policed on their attire and lost freedoms they’d formerly held. Reading Lolita in Tehran follows Nafisi as she leads a private class of young women in her home while their country exerts more control on their lives outside. Each section focuses on a different literary work that they read and uses that work to prod at and try to understand their own experiences.

Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe

Dovey Johnson Roundtree was an attorney before Martin Luther King Jr. ever made a splash in terms of the fight for civil rights. She passed away in 2018 at 104 years old, before this book released. Mighty Justice tells her life story, from her growing up to when she served as one of the first African-American women in the military during WWII, to her career in law. She played a crucial role during the civil rights era, working on a lot of cases involving segregation in transportation (think: when trains passed the Mason-Dixon Line and suddenly black people couldn’t sit where they’d been sitting the whole trip). This was a Denver Public Library book so it’s now on my list to buy, because I need some Dovey Johnson Roundtree in my personal women’s history library.

Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season by Bernd Brunner

Not so much literature and story as a tribute to the coldest, darkest time of the year, this was one of the first books I read last year, perhaps the snowiest winter since I moved to Colorado. It touches on all different aspects of winter and how it’s survived and enjoyed in different places. Winterlust was a random book I picked up in the library, and it was a delicious read for someone who loves the sparkle of snow, would rather be cold than warm, and likes layering up in scarves and hats and mittens.

12 Things I’m Taking from 2020

Normally, at the end of the year, I take the time to reflect and set new goals/intentions for the new year. I did that, but what I wrote was pretty depressing and I think we could all use more light in our lives — so instead of that post, I offer you this: a list of things I started doing in earnest this year while the world was upside-down.

Think of it as a gratitude list and recommendations for your own life. There’s beauty and joy in the everyday and mundane. And the good things deserve more attention.

12 Things I’m Taking from 2020

1. Homemade masks with built-in jokes.

We’re all going to be wearing masks while we’re out and about for the foreseeable future. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, I made a few of my own, including this one which I think is hilarious.

I had a pile of fabric on hand for embroidery projects and the social distancing / space joke occurred to me almost right away (notice the celestial bodies in the background). Some people get it; other people don’t and I’m convinced just judge me, but the times I’ve gotten cashiers to laugh or smile from beneath their own masks have been worthwhile. Even if no one else notices, I’m smirking most of the time I wear this one.

2. A quick way of making homemade scalloped potatoes for one person.

Over the last couple months, I’ve had some inspiration to try different things in the kitchen. I roasted a chicken in November and then used the carcass to make broth for a couple soups. I also, for the first time in my life, made homemade scalloped potatoes. I love scalloped potatoes, along with just about everything involving potatoes, milk, and cheese, but they always seemed too labor-intensive to make for one person. Wrong. After making them the traditional way (in the oven), I started making them a faster way on the stove. Here’s my made-up recipe if you want to try:

  • Peel potato(es) and slice into thin ovals.
  • Put in a pot with water and boil until soft.
  • Drain water. Add milk to cover the bottom of the pot. Turn on low heat.
  • Mix flour with water in a measuring cup (2:1) and add to pot with garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper. Add shredded cheese and parmesan (if desired).
  • Stir together, aiming to blend the sauce and cover the potatoes without breaking them apart. (Add more milk if needed.)
  • Once the sauce has thickened and smells/tastes right, remove from heat and serve.

I usually do this recipe with one large potato. It’s enough for two servings (I just had some this week).

3. Snowshoeing.

One time last winter, before coronavirus was on the radar, my roommate and I went snowshoeing together on a Saturday morning. It was cold and beautiful. I wore borrowed snowshoes and easily could have stayed out there until sunset.

Almost a year later, I crunched some numbers, rounded up my Christmas money, and ordered my own snowshoes so I can go again as much as I want (staying away from avalanche territory, of course). Bad news: My pair is backordered and probably won’t be restocked until the end of January. But they’ll arrive with plenty of winter left to get in some freezing cold, snow-sparkled walks in the woods.

Also, in case you didn’t know, I like winter. A lot.

4. Embroidery.

If one thing from this year should get the award for Most Valuable Player, it’s embroidery. I decided at the beginning of 2020 that I wanted to make it my new hobby (I’ve actually wanted to embroider since I was a little kid), so in January, I went to Michael’s and JoAnn Fabrics and stocked up on embroidery floss, hoops, and fabric. I also signed out a couple books from the library for a refresher course on the craft, as well as inspiration. All clocked in (not counting my mask), I’ve completed ten projects of varying difficulty. My biggest project to date is about halfway done.

5. Studying books of the Bible in their full context.

One of my Christmas gifts last year was Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin, which is about how to study the Bible (and is as useful to men as it is to women). One of Wilkin’s key pieces of advice for studying scripture is to read whatever book you’re studying — say, Mark, Exodus, or the letter to the Galatians — in its entirety multiple times before going through it slower. The idea is if the book is a narrative, you’ll get a sense of its narrative arc/structure; if the book is a letter, you’ll see the progression of thought …. Regardless of genre, you’ll get a grasp of the book as a whole, and that will help you understand and interpret it better.

I’ve read single books of the Bible in one go before (in 2014 or 2015, I spent a Saturday afternoon reading all of Romans) and it’s true that they a) hold together and b) read differently — and, indeed, make more sense — when read as one complete piece rather than as random mashups of chapters and verses. At this point, I’m pretty much convinced the only way you can accurately interpret a New Testament letter is to read it all together. (This also has to do with the fact that I’m a writer and wouldn’t want someone to read one paragraph of my own work on its own, apart from the greater work, and then start making claims about what I think.)

Right now, I’m studying the gospel of Matthew with this approach. I read through the whole gospel three times before starting to go through more slowly — and I might do myself a favor and read through all of it again before picking up where I left off a few weeks ago during Advent. I’m also going to apply this approach on smaller scale to the teachings of Jesus, so when I get to the Sermon on the Mount in a few weeks, I’ll read all of it together several times before studying and dissecting the smaller sections.

6. My book idea (!!!).

If we’re friends, I’ve probably already told you about this. If we’re not, it’s too early to share. Let’s just say: I have a nonfiction book idea that’s big and kind of complicated and involves something that’s really important to me and that I think more women should embrace. Right now, I’m doing broad reading on different topic areas that relate to it, with the plan of drafting a book proposal midway through 2021. I have a lot of reading to do.

7. Browsing Little Free Libraries.

My neighborhood has a Little Free Library on every other block, it seems. The first few months of the pandemic, while Denver Public Library was completely shut down, I turned to these for reading material (despite the fact that I haven’t read more than half of the books on my own shelf). A couple unexpected faves: A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, The Invisible Garden by Dorothy Sucher, Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl, and An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina.

8. This Is Us.

A couple years ago, a previous roommate introduced me to this show. I’m not a big TV show person because I prefer entertainment with deep characters, meaningful story arcs, and resolution — but This Is Us seemed to have at least two of those three characteristics. When I found out that the show is on Hulu, I decided to get the lowest level of subscription so I could start watching it. I’m currently in the middle of season two.

One downside of this show: I’m already super analytical about people and relationships, and This Is Us just might make me more analytical. I need to keep an eye on that.

9. New friends.

Last winter, and last year, really, was one of the loneliest seasons of my life. I haven’t written much about it because some of the things it brought up, honestly, scare me, but since then, I’ve seen God provide in tangible ways — namely, through new friendships I couldn’t have picked better myself. I made a friend the weekend before Denver shut down, and that friend is now one of a few consistent people in my life whom I hardly knew before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, I was just coming out of the darkness of an isolated season, and somehow, I ended up having more meaningful time with friends (virtually, over phone calls, outdoors) during stay-at-home orders and since, than I did in the probably eight or nine months before the pandemic arrived.

10. Walks around my neighborhood.

My normal pre-pandemic weekday routine consisted of working from home in the morning, then driving to the library and working from there in the afternoon, then driving to the gym and working out, coming home for dinner, staying up another couple of hours, and going to bed. As much as I miss the gym and the library and being able to work somewhere other than my apartment, the inability to go to those places and the physical need to get out and about on my feet sent me on walks (and until I hurt my knee, runs) around my neighborhood.

I stumbled upon tiny fairy gardens that I haven’t been able to find again; funny houses with shrubs on the front walk that are so overgrown, they just chopped a doorway through the middle. Random, rundown shacks far back from the street that look ready to be demolished — on the same block as overgrown monstrosities with more room than my 11-child family of origin ever had.

Houses and front lawns with personality spark my imagination. I’m not necessarily interested in talking to the people inside, but I want to imagine them and what they’re up to, why they purchased gargoyles for their front porch and decided to dress them up as elves for Christmas.

11. My first (unfinished) knitted sweater.

This fall, the slow, slow process of embroidering made knitting a sweater seem more doable, so October 30, I sat down and knit some swatches of yarn I’ve had since I lived in Indiana. I found a pattern for knitting a topdown sweater online and got to work.

I’m still working on it, or rather, avoiding working on it because I’m convinced I’ll run out of yarn and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find the same colors/weight/material. I’m maybe halfway done with the torso (maybe a little less), but I still have the sleeves to do. It’s three colors, striped, and pretty hideous — but if I ever finish it (which I should), it’ll be really soft and cozy and the pride of my knitting needles. And then I’ll be able to knit a sweater that I actually like.

12. Video calls with my family.

Pre-pandemic, my whole family rarely spent time together outside of holidays and college graduations, which only a few of us could make, and weddings. But when everyone was under stay-at-home orders or pandemic restrictions of some sort, someone smart (not me, but I don’t remember who) suggested we do a video call and for a few months, every Monday evening, the siblings would get on another call.

I’ve talked to my siblings more in this one year than I think I had in the previous three (maybe more). With that has come more tension at certain points, but it’s also been really good. Being one of eleven kids is hard. It’s impossible to stay in touch with everyone one-on-one, which is my preferred mode, so having a more frequent touchpoint (to put it in weird marketing terms) has been good.

The calls have become more infrequent now, especially during the holiday season, but now we know that’s an option for everyone. And, I mean, what else do you have to do on a Monday night?

So there you go. 2020 wasn’t a waste. Parts have definitely felt like a dumpster fire, but there are things to salvage from the ashes. What will you take with you into 2021?

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Philippians 4:8

A lesson from history and the story of Ida B. Wells

In school, we typically learn about the Civil War and emancipation, but Reconstruction—and the period following Reconstruction, when Jim Crow laws passed throughout the South—are typically overlooked. We don’t think about black Americans again until the Civil Rights Era, nearly a century after the Civil War.

The true story of Ida B. Wells takes place over that middle period.

Last night, I listened to this podcast episode about the “Life and Work of Ida B. Wells”. I found quite a few things fascinating, which I talk about below. If you have a spare 30 minutes, the podcast is worth your time. If not, here are a few takeaways and thoughts of my own:

To start, who was Ida B. Wells?

IdaIda B. Wells was born enslaved but grew up free during Reconstruction. She became a reporter and is known for her tireless work reporting on lynchings of African-Americans during a time when the idealism of Reconstruction fell under the shadow of Jim Crow laws and militant white supremacy.

One of the fascinating things drawn out in this podcast is how she was reporting at the same time that women across the U.S. (especially white women) were campaigning for the right to vote.

There was this cultural notion at the time, called the Cult of True Womanhood, that women were more devout and virtuous than men—and some suffragists were using this idea to support their campaign. Basically, they said politics needed the greater virtue of women to decrease corruption. (Meanwhile, some who were opposed to women’s suffrage used the same idea to say women were too virtuous to be exposed to the corruption and moral degradation of the voting polls; in Colorado, for example, voting was often done at saloonsnot an acceptable setting for women of good character.)

Because of this particular place in time, Wells’ reporting on lynching wasn’t well-received by white women who might have otherwise been fairly progressive.

Why wasn’t Wells’ reporting well-received by white women?

The typical excuse given by lynch mobs as to why they were torturing and making public displays of black men was that the black men had raped white women—but as Wells reported out these incidents, she repeatedly discovered that the black men (and white women) in question had been having consensual relations.

Wells reported these findings frankly, but because of the Cult of True Womanhood, which viewed women as inherently chaste and pure, white suffragists couldn’t embrace her work—and certainly didn’t want to draw attention to it. White women having consensual sex outside of the bonds of marriage would have been damaging to the fight for women’s suffrage.

Also likely at play: Many white suffragists made the point that since black men could now vote, it was in the interest of white people to extend the vote to white women and thus outweigh or negate the votes of black men. But if white women were in romantic relationships with black men, this point wouldn’t stand: It contradicted the idea that white people were united against black people.

These insights are relevant to our present moment. Here’s what I’ll say:

There are always multiple forces at work, but we can’t always see them.

Taking an in-depth look at history, seeing how various movements overlapped and helped/hindered each other, should help us look at our present moment and start identifying what forces might be at work in us.

For example: I grew up in rural upstate New York, which is much more conservative than downstate NY, especially NYC. In response to coronavirus restrictions, I’ve been seeing a lot of complaints about the government limiting liberty that hearken back to words of the Founding Fathers and safety as no legitimate reason for government interference.

It’s not just this current moment that is influencing those sentiments.

Upstate, especially in Central New York (CNY) which is where I grew up, there’s a general low-key resentment toward the New York State government because people feel like downstate concerns—particularly those of NYC—dominate the workings of the government, to the exclusion or the detriment of Upstate’s concerns. The pandemic has only amplified those resentments.

On top of that, much of Upstate New York is economically depressed. A few tourist hotspots (shoutout to Cooperstown) alleviate some of that depression on a seasonal basis, but they’re not enough to actually change the fact that a lot of people are living at or below poverty level with very limited opportunities for economic advancement. (At the same time, the opioid epidemic has taken hold in a lot of locales.)

I think it’s fair to say that the economic depression influences people’s views of the New York State government (which may or may not be responsible for some of that hardship). Both the economic state of things—plus the near certainty that continued shutdown will exacerbate those problems—and the low-lying resentment of the state government are influencing upstaters’ reactions to current pandemic restrictions.

Now, this is not to say that the conclusions people are coming to are completely off-base. I’m not living there right now, and I don’t know enough to have a fully developed opinion. But I think it’s helpful to evaluate what forces might be at work in driving us to our current perspectives/opinions. If we can identify and think through those things, we should be able to come to better informed, more nuanced and thoughtful conclusions, rather than just following our emotions through the most convenient logic.

History is a valuable teacher, but only if we study closely enough.

I know for myself, I’ve never really understood the Civil Rights Era, because I don’t understand when/how/why Jim Crow came to be. We as a nation don’t understand our current state of race relations for the exact same reason.

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor should be disturbing to us, but if we look at history (not to mention the last several years), we’ll understand they are not random events. Those murders are part of a lineage of violence against black Americans that stretches back centuries—and came nowhere near ending with the emancipation of slaves.

This is why we need to delve into the stories of people like Ida B. Wells, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, and other pre-MLK figures who were on the front lines recording injustice, calling it by name, and seeking to right the wrongs of a nation that claims to offer “liberty and justice for all!”

Not Abandoned

I will not leave you comfortless, Jesus says in John 14:18, in his last words to his disciples before his crucifixion. I will come to you

Another translation says orphaned, instead of comfortless. I think you could also read it as abandoned.

Over the last seven months, I’ve wrestled hard with isolation and loneliness. There’s a narrative of abandonment that runs through my head anytime a friend seems to forget me or leaves me behind, and last year, that happened twice, leaving me feeling hollow and expendable. I sunk deeper into darkness than I ever remember going, arguing with myself the whole way down. Help me was my one consistent prayer. My shame-filled eyes wouldn’t dare look up.

I reached a breaking point toward the beginning of this month. Sick of the gloom I was living in, I started developing a hatred for my own sinful patterns that put me there. 

It’s a hard truth to swallow that we are often the source of our own pain. Not that others never hurt us or are absolved of all responsibility. But our own evil hearts—my own evil heart—try to salve the wounds inflicted by others with ointments that can only cause infection. 

My loneliness, my isolation, my sense of abandonment, is painful and in some sense real. But how do I respond to that pain? Do I run to distractions, to temporary pleasures that only leave me feeling more alone? Or do I seek connection? Bring myself to people I can trust, communicate my needs honestly, and seek to be a giver, not just a taker, in relationships?

The idea—in fact, the promise—that Jesus himself will not leave me comfortless, orphaned, or abandoned enables me to rest. Take a breath, ask God to help my unbelief, and lean in to the terrifying possibility of new friendship, new depths of relationship, that though painful at times could lead to fuller healing of myself and a sharpening of God’s image in me.

What could this promise mean for us now, in the time of coronavirus?

First of all, welcome to that work-from-home life. I’ve been working from home since I started freelancing in 2017 (with a break last year during my internship). Working from home is hard and it can be lonely. The fact that this home life isn’t just for work, but for play and everything else in between, just makes it harder. 

What we’re living through is unprecedented and it remains to be seen exactly what it will be. We are living through history and it’s not glamorous. 

Coronavirus is raising a lot of worthwhile questions about: 

  • who we should value as a society (healthcare workers, teachers, grocery store staff)
  • what is crucial for survival (toilet paper, obviously)
  • what the heck corporate responsibility is (foreign idea for Americans)

and on the spiritual side, the age-old question of how a good God could allow horrible suffering.

I won’t attempt to answer that question here, but in the face of pain and confusion, I offer John 14:18:

I will not leave you comfortless [orphaned, abandoned]: I will come to you.

These are the words of Jesus before he goes to the cross, before the God of the universe embraces our suffering in his undeserved death. 

God is good and suffering is real, but God does not hold us or our pain at arm’s length. He’s not distant. He enters in, takes the weight of both our sin and our suffering upon himself. He’s come to us. And perhaps now he is closer than before.

2020: A Year of Intention

I didn’t set any goals last year. After previous years of massive, unrealistic lists, I stepped into 2019 with no goals other than to apply myself to what opportunities came my way.

The first eight months of 2019 found me juggling 25+ hours a week as an intern at 5280 Magazine, while maintaining my freelance business. Most days, I’d get up early and work on my laptop in bed before making breakfast and taking the bus downtown to 5280’s office, where I worked at least five hours each weekday. Then, I’d take the bus home and work some more, sometimes taking a break to go to the gym. More often than not, my eyes were still glued to my laptop at 10 p.m. 

What freelance work I couldn’t complete during the week I tackled on Saturdays, planting myself at the library while my friends skied or hiked or did who knows what else that the average person does on a day off.

I said yes to a lot of things, no to a few, and got much more than a healthy dose of blue light.

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During the month of March, I spent my limited spare time working on an application for a fellowship. I didn’t land the fellowship (or even interview for it), but I enjoyed working on the application and that process stirred a desire to pursue more independent projects. The question now is what idea to pursue.

When my internship ended on August 30, I was dazed and somewhat in shock. My experience at 5280 was overwhelmingly positive (and I wrote a lot, more than 30 articles over eight months). Though I was ready for a less jam-packed schedule, I wasn’t quite ready to return to the isolation of full-time freelancing.

That’s the hardest part of freelancing: Being alone. Almost all the time.

I’m an introvert and do well with a lot of time alone, but there is such a thing as too much. Since returning to my own desk on a full-time basis, I’ve tried to offset this by arranging in-person, daytime meetings—sometimes personal, sometimes professional—throughout the week. It’s helped, but I still miss that office culture. I’ve always loved working and part of the reason is because I love working with other people (which gets me thinking, maybe I should pursue a few collaborative projects this year).

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I returned to full-time freelancing with a few assignments for 5280 lined up and enough other work to keep me busy and, you know, clothed, housed, and fed. Now, as I look at a new year, I’m trying to decide what my new goals should be. 

Here’s what I have so far:

Writing Projects

Children’s books: I started realizing this summer that my imagination lights up around little furry animals and fairy tales the way other people’s imaginations light up for conspiracy theories. Maybe not the best parallel, but I’ve decided that this year, I’m going to lean into that imaginative, fun-loving side. I don’t need to be so serious all the time and neither does my writing.

Pitching & Rejections

I would like to land 1–3 feature pitches this year ( doesn’t count because I’ve worked with them so much, but 5280‘s print magazine does, as does any other publication I haven’t worked with). I’m also trying to decide whether or not 50 rejections is a realistic goal based on the kind of stories that I want to be pitching, or if I should drop it down to 30 total rejections.

Freelance Business

  • I’m not at the point yet where I’m comfortable sharing my income goals (I live on pretty meager means because I’m cheap and never actually use my overpriced health insurance), but I would like to swap some of my less engaging ongoing work for more interesting, better paid work. If you’re in the market for a freelance editor or copywriter, let’s talk.
  • Connect with two new people each month, whether potential clients, media relations folks, or fellow freelancers or creatives.
  • Utilize the batching technique for ongoing content work in order to improve efficiency and make more time for creative projects. With this method, I would receive my assignments from content writing clients and schedule a few successive work sessions to complete the bulk of those assignments. This way, I’m not bouncing between projects and clients and having to reorganize my brain as often as I do now.


Thanks to GoodReads, this was the one area where I did set a specific goal in 2019. This year, I’m increasing my goal from 30 to 35 books (these are my favorite books from 2019) and aiming to read more classic literature, more women’s biographies (of course), and more diverse authors in general. Suggestions welcome.


  • Practice gratitude daily (a minimum of three points per day).
  • Add coffee and lunch/dinner date funds to my budget. This is necessary with how many meetings and get-togethers I’m planning to keep myself socially healthy.

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I have other goals in the physical, spiritual, and mental health categories, but I’m not sharing them here because my whole life doesn’t need to be online. Overall, I’m seeking balance and a fresh excitement for the work I have the privilege and time to do. Freelancing is hard, but I had a colleague recently remind me that I am succeeding: I’m making a living off of just editing and writing. That’s a big deal. And something to be thankful for.

2020 is going to be a year of intention. After setting no goals for 2019 and returning to full-time freelancing without any set goals, I’ve felt the need for specific targets and checkboxes to help guide my daily efforts. I want to live this year—both in and out of my apartment, er, office—on purpose. Let’s find out what happens when I do.

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Top Reads of 2019

As the year (and decade) draws to a close, I’m looking back with satisfaction at the books I’ve checked off my list or stumbled upon at the library or thrift store. I’m an incredibly picky reader, especially when it comes to fiction, and I’m selfish with my time. If a book isn’t interesting in the first chapter, I almost always scrap it. And if the writing style is annoying or plain weak, I leave the tome behind—unless the subject matter is interesting enough to make up for it.

This year, I predominantly read nonfiction, and the list below reflects that. These six books are my top reads from the year—and my top recommendations for your 2020 reading list.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming'The first book I read in 2019, Becoming was a Christmas gift from my grandmother. I didn’t grow up in an Obama-supporting household, so it was interesting to read about Michelle from her own perspective, as opposed to the interpretations of her by talking heads on the radio that I heard all through high school. The book is long but incredibly well-written so it flows quickly. Michelle writes about her childhood growing up in Chicago, her pursuit of higher education (she has two Ivy League degrees), her struggle to find a career that fit her values, and of course, her relationship with Barack and the experience of becoming First Lady.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

QuietQuiet has been on my list for several years, and I finally got my hands on a copy (thank you, Denver Public Library). Deeply researched and well structured, the book has the grounding of an academic treatise with the writing of a storyteller. Cain dives into introversion from a variety of angles, including high sensitivity that can be witnessed in infants who grow up to become introverts, the difficulty introverts may face in certain religious settings, and what it’s like to be an introvert in an intimate relationship with an extrovert. A lot of what she writes are things I’ve learned about myself over the years, so it was interesting to see research back up my own self-understanding.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

No ImportanceThis may be my favorite book from all year. A Woman of No Importance follows the journey of Virginia Hall, an American woman who served as a spy for Britain during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Hall partnered with nuns and prostitutes (among others) to undermine Nazi rule before the Allies ever landed in France, and when a double agent discovered her, she escaped on foot and her wooden leg over the mountains and out of France. Later, she returned on a new mission to recruit French resistance members, coordinate supply drops with Britain, and sabotage the Nazis.

Sonia Purnell is a masterful storyteller. She takes countless historical details and weaves a story that drives forward without ever slowing down.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

GraceThis book should be required reading for pastors everywhere. An intimate, sensitive recounting of the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, where a white supremacist murdered African-American Christians at a Bible study, and its ensuing aftermath, Grace Will Lead Us Home introduces readers to the victims and their surviving loved ones. The book serves as a case study of a church failing to properly care for its people in the wake of a horrific tragedy that gained national attention. The narrative drives contemplation of the hard work of forgiveness, not sugarcoating the survivors’ thoughts or experiences.

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco

TalkThings We Didn’t Talk About… is not a fun or entertaining read. Fourteen years after she was sexually assaulted by a close friend, Jeannie Vanasco reached out to the assailant to try to understand what happened that night from his perspective. Her memoir shares the resulting conversations, while also delving into questions like why supposedly good people do terrible things, what forgiveness means and entails, and if it’s possible to move on from horrific acts—whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator. I read this book in just a few days but was (and continue to be) challenged by the questions and thoughts Vanasco raises on its pages.

On Forgiveness and Revenge: Lessons from an Iranian Prison by Ramin Jahanbegloo

ForgivenessIt looks like the theme of this year’s reading was forgiveness, a value that is necessary to practice if you want to live in this world free of bitterness and resentment. This little book is less about Jahanbegloo’s prison stay in Iran, and more about the thoughts and reflections his experience produced. He draws from the works of philosophers the world over to present a case for the value and necessity of forgiveness, explaining how forgiveness does not ignore or excuse wrongs, but refuses to let wrongs have the final say.

One of many quotes I wrote down:

“Forgiveness…is a commitment to memory and truth. It is a project of reconciliation through moral repair. It is the promise of a new beginning without forgetfulness. Finally, forgiveness is the recognition of our ‘shared fallibility.'”

I’m aiming to read more classic literature and women’s biographies in 2020. Have a suggestion? Leave a comment.

Book Review: An Important Book with a Horrible Name about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceTell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Should psychiatrists speak out about what they were seeing to discourage cannabis use, I asked? Simpson said that in Colorado, psychiatrists had tried and failed. ‘We’ve put it out there, and the community is not receptive.’ At this point, his job as a physician was to try to deal with the wreckage, ‘treat what comes in the door.’

“What did he think would happen in five years, I asked? What would the Denver Health emergency room be like, especially if cannabis continued to grow in popularity?

“Simpson had a three-word answer: ‘It’ll be busier.'” (page 139)

This passage comes a little more than halfway through the narrative of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, a poorly named book that should nonetheless be required reading for lawmakers considering full legalization of recreational marijuana and parents who think their kids smoking weed is no big deal. The book makes its case primarily with data and studies from around the world that evidence a tie between marijuana use and psychosis, and between psychosis and nightmarish violence. The author, a former New York Times reporter, doesn’t avoid stepping on toes or burning sacred cows, and that’s because he’s convinced of the connection between marijuana, psychosis, and violence. The evidence he presents is both convincing and alarming.

“Based on his data and later findings, Andreasson says he believes that cannabis is responsible for between 10 percent and 15 percent of schizophrenia cases. Few people develop schizophrenia solely because of smoking, he thinks. But many who would not have become sick do so because marijuana pushes their vulnerable brains over the edge.

“‘Without cannabis, few people would develop the disorder,’ he says.” (page 56)

Before going any further, it’s important to understand where Alex Berenson is coming from in writing this book. In the introduction, he tells us how he has always held a more liberal stance on marijuana, didn’t think of it as a dangerous substance—if you want to use it, go ahead. But then he had a conversation with his wife, a psychiatrist, about a frightening case of violence and she commented on the fact that the perpetrator was “of course” high and had been smoking pot for much of his life. This comment caught Berenson off-guard, and the subsequent conversation led him to start digging into the scholarship around marijuana use and mental health. He didn’t set out to write a book. What he found in the process of research convinced him to write a book.

It turns out that the connection between marijuana use (especially if started young or done frequently over years) and psychosis has been well-documented—to the point that ethical standards prevent researchers from testing the effects of cannabis on people with a history of psychotic disorders because of “the known link between the drug and psychosis” (page 171).

There is a lot of information in this book. Berenson goes through study after study, many of them from Europe. He points out the work that has been done in the UK, where marijuana is hardly used compared to in the US and Canada. He touches on the chemical and brain science aspects, the distinction between CBD (non-psychoactive) and THC (what gets you high), and explains the problem with the term “medical marijuana”. He points out that the concentration of THC in today’s marijuana is much higher than it was in the 60s or 70s, and that through other cannabis products like edibles, users are often consuming straight THC, so they’re getting even higher doses of the chemical than they would from smoking it.

Most of the book is data reporting and science, but in the last few chapters, he focuses primarily on examples of horrifying violence carried out by people in some state of psychosis who either had a history of near constant marijuana use or had just ingested more THC than they ever had before. He waits until the end of the book to tell those stories, because he knows the typical response would be something like, “That’s a freak case. That’s not typical.” Berenson is convinced if marijuana use continues to increase, this sort of violence will become typical.

Whether or not he’s entirely right, I think he’s onto something. I’ve always had philosophical and theological problems with getting high (1 Corinthians 6:19–20), and with my base-level understanding of brain science, I’ve also thought: if something gets you high, that’s probably because a chemical is getting past the blood-brain barrier that isn’t supposed to, so you’re probably doing damage to your brain.

I read about half of this book on my daily commute through Denver, on a bus where the stench of weed is almost constant and it’s common to encounter people who couldn’t exactly be described as lucid. I know at least two people personally who have had psychotic breaks while using, though none to the extremes described in this book (thank God). A lot of what Berenson wrote rings true and makes logical sense.

I gave the book five stars because I really do think it should be required reading—maybe for everyone. It’s a necessary check against the “marijuana is harmless” message that we hear all the time. But this book really, really, really needs a bibliography and the title is terrible. If they republish it under a new name (which they should), they need to go with something like “Seeing Through the Smoke.”

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Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neuroscience, the psychology of social conditioning, cultural paradigms, groupthink, the makings of successful businesspeople and leaders—all of these things come together in Susan Cain’s ultra-deep dive into introversion. Cain digs into studies, conducts her own on-the-ground research, and delves into her own experience as a consultant and, wait for it, introvert to expose what might be/probably is happening inside introverts’ brains in those contexts where they seem withdrawn and the others where they seem on fire.

As an introvert, I found this book both fascinating and confirming. Cain’s discussion of high-reactivity, elevated sensitivity, and sensory overload matched up with my own experience. A lot of the observations she shares in terms of balancing commitments with your available social energy are things I’ve learned on my own, particularly over the last few years.

Although the title may lead you to think this book is a constant slam on extroversion, it’s not. Cain points out the ways that modern Western society elevates extroversion and the blind spots that come with it (just because someone is the loudest person in the room—and thus, has everyone’s ear—doesn’t mean they have the best ideas), and she shows how making room for quiet people to contribute in a way that suits their temperament is beneficial for all. She also delves into how introverts can pass for extroverts and how sometimes that’s necessary, whether to get ideas into the world or accomplish a particular goal.

Quiet is a medium-length book as nonfiction goes and it’s rich with information, but it’s not dense and boring. Cain’s writing pairs a wealth of anecdotes with insightful information that frequently sparked my neural lightbulbs. And she writes to the everyday reader. Anyone who’s an introvert or extrovert or ambivert (i.e., everyone) and wants to better understand how they operate in the world—and how others of different temperaments operate—should pick up a copy.

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Book Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far FieldThe Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quietly devastating. That’s how I would sum up The Far Field. Vijay’s prose isn’t flowery or ornate. It tells the story simply, going back and forth in time as we follow the main character, as a child always close by her mother who doesn’t fit in the world she occupies and as a young woman after her mother’s suicide, trying and failing to find her own place in the world. She leaves home on a search for a man who used to tell stories to her and her mother, and the closer she gets to finding him, the more complex, ugly, she finds the world to be.

How do you know who you can trust? How do you know whose words you can believe? What is the actual truth and who has the power to decide whether the truth is declared as such or covered up with a stench of lies?

When you leave home and have a life-changing journey, can you ever fully share it with those you left behind? Why do people willfully leave everything they know?

The Far Field doesn’t blatantly ask these questions, but it pokes at them through the actions and observations of its characters. It’s not a fast-moving novel; it’s not plot-driven, but it flows steadily and just when you start to feel like nothing is happening, the story takes a jarring turn.

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Book Review: A Woman’s Place by Katelyn Beaty

A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the WorldA Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Katelyn Beaty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t want to feel like a burden. Try to imagine a man saying this—especially about his career—and it’s almost humorous. Try to imagine a woman saying it, and it seems like a mantra of femininity (page 215).

If you’re a working Christian woman, you’ve probably felt the tension. I know I have. There’s a sense in many Christian circles that for women, work is just a temporary thing you do until you get married and start having babies. Last fall, in a mostly good conversation with my older brother, he challenged my super-single self by telling me that being a wife was a calling, so if I had a strong sense of calling in another arena, that might be an obstacle to having a relationship. While I know his intentions were good in telling me that, the underlying assumption of his statement—that being a career-oriented woman is inherently incompatible with being in a marital relationship—is a symptom of a cultural paradigm that devalues the work of women out in the world and limits women to work within the home and family.

Enter Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place. This book has been on my list since it came out in 2016. I follow Beaty on Twitter and I found the book’s premise compelling. The premise: That God calls all women to work in some way and that work is a way of embodying the image of God.

A Woman’s Place tackles the cultural and historical factors that influence how we in the church see women and work in today’s western society. Key to her discussion are the Industrial Revolution, which separated work from the home (previously, men and women performed their trades out of their houses), and various philosophers and theologians who’ve reinforced the idea that women are somehow less than men. She also makes the point that the ability for a woman to not work for pay and instead just stay at home, keep house, and raise children is dependent on a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege. If you’re poor, you do what you have to do to survive; poor women have always worked.

At the same time that she elevates and supports the work of women outside the home, Beaty also affirms the work of wives and mothers within the home. Work is not just what we do to make a living. “Work happens whenever we interact with the created world, laboring to make it fruitful and beneficial to ourselves and others,” Beaty writes on page 89.

I love to work. I always have. Since my first summer job as a teenager, I’ve enjoyed going to a workplace (or my computer) to accomplish specific tasks. I’m the rare person who doesn’t light up about the weekend and dread Mondays. I look forward to getting back to the office or wherever it is I’m working. Ambition could easily be my middle name, and it has nothing to do with the paycheck. It’s the sense of purpose and the ability to look back at a job well done and say, “I did that.”

Because I enjoy working, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, though not necessarily what it means as a woman—that question comes more into play within the context of the church (Beaty touches on this phenomenon). Beaty’s book wasn’t groundbreaking for me, but it put many of my thoughts into words while highlighting a lot of different people, groups, and initiatives that have done or are doing good work in the arena of faith and work for women Christians.

If you’re a working Christian woman, I highly recommend that you read this book. If you’re a Christian man who wants to better understand your own call in the workplace or the different obstacles that working Christian women face in the church, you should read this book. If you’re a church leader who wants to better serve women, you need to read this book.

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