Books Worth Reading

A Book Worth Reading: Gold by Chris Cleave

I read Chris Cleave’s book Little Bee about a year ago.  It was beautifully written, touching, and haunting.  After updating it on my goodreads account, I added Cleave’s other books to my “To-Read” list.  When I came across Gold at the library, I recognized the cover and immediately added it to my checkout pile.

GoldThe book opens as Zoe is about to complete in her first Olympics in track cycling. Meanwhile, her good friend and rival, Kate is home with her infant daughter Sophie.  The story caught my attention at first but then I had a bizarre experience.  The second chapter heading is futuristic and the characters are obviously involved in some sort of Star Wars reenactment.  I kept trying to read this part of the book while dozing off in bed.  After a couple tries, I was downright confused about the plot of the book.  I’m not much for science fiction, so I put it aside for awhile and read other books.  Finally, I decided to try Gold again, but this time I read this sci-fi section while wide awake one morning. After a brief chapter, the storyline returns to what I expected.  Whew!

I’m so glad that I pushed through and gave this book it’s due, because it was great!  The descripter I used most often as I flew through the book was “riveting!”

Most of the story takes place eight years after the initial Olympic scene.  Zoe and Kate are preparing for their last Olympics and are each others’ greatest competition.  Kate and Jack (her cycling Olympic gold medalist husband) are balancing the demands of training and their daughter’s cancer treatments, the best they can.  These circumstances create scenes with strong emotional depth and interesting juxtapositions between the highs and lows of life.

The characters are extremely well developed and intriguing.  I love books that introduce me to a world that I’d previously known nothing about.  The setting of Olympic track cycling taught me a whole new set of athletic culture and vocabulary!  Also, the race scenes were exciting and suspenseful.

I’m looking forward to reading more by this captivating author!

The Happiness Trap

Exploring Connection

Have you ever been part of a conversation and tuned out? You got distracted by your thoughts and then realized you’d missed a significant portion of what the other person said? The worst is when you get caught and have to admit you weren’t listening and need them to repeat them-selves. Other examples of this type of mental distraction include arriving at a destination without having any memory of driving there (this always happens to me when I’m on the phone!) or reading a page of text and realizing you haven’t taken in any of the content.

happiness trapWhat’s this all about? Dr. Harris explains that these are all instances where our observing self is distracted by our thinking self. The thinking self is like a time machine – constantly pulling us into the future by planning, worrying, and dreaming or into the past by rehashing events or remembering when times were better. When we do actually think about the present our mind typically judges, critics, and struggles against reality. “And this constant mental activity is an enormous distraction. For a huge part of each day, the thinking self completely diverts our attention from what we’re doing” Harris states.

This section of The Happiness Trap helped me to understand an odd phenomenon I used to experience pretty routinely, often while checking out at the grocery store but also at the office. Man, this is hard to explain. It felt like I was in a daze, of sorts. Like I was listening and trying to engage another person but my mind was cloudy and my thoughts and words weren’t coming as quickly as usual. After several instances of this, I noted that it occurred after a long stretch of being “in my head” and then trying to switch gears to communicate with someone else. Now I can recognize that “being in the moment” had actually started to feel strange because I spent so much time absorbed in my thoughts. Or, to use Harris’s terms, I was simply disconnected.

Connection is the third core principle of ACT. What is connection? It means “being fully aware of your here-and-now experience, fully in touch with what’s happening in the moment.”   And why is it important to be in touch with the present? Because “to create a meaningful life, we need to take action. And the power to act exists only in this moment.”

040When I think about being connected to the moment and primarily experiencing life through the observing self more than the thinking self, it reminds me of that quote by John Stuart Mill: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Once your mind starts commentating on what is happening, you are pulled from the pure experience of the moment (that may help you live a meaningful life) and engage in judging, evaluating, or critiquing your feelings.

So, practicing connection simply means letting your observing self take over. Harris says, “it involves bringing our full attention to what is happening here and now without getting distracted or influenced by the thinking self.”   There are several exercises that Harris outlines; the first few all involving awareness of your surroundings, such as being aware of your body, your breath, and sounds. While doing all of these simple exercises, Harris notes that thoughts will continually pop up and advises:

  • Let those thoughts and feelings come and go, and stay connected.
  • When your attention wanders, the moment you realize it, acknowledge it.
  • Silently say to yourself, “Thanks, Mind.” Then gently bring your attention back to the exercise.

Building on thesebasic exercises, he describes the “Notice Five Things” exercise:

  1. Pause for a moment.
  2. Look around and notice five objects you can see.
  3. Listen carefully and notice five sounds you can hear.
  4. Notice five things you can feel against the surface of your body.

These exercises are simple, but they really helped me to realize how disconnected I’d been from my present, here-and-now experience. Harris uses the expression “half awake” to describe a life lived with the thinking self running the show. Maybe that’s the best description of the odd feeling I tried to express above!

The way Harris describes the observing self as registering “everything it observes with openness and interest” is very appealing to me. Curiosity is great! Therefore Harris explains:

“The fascinating thing is that when, with an attitude of openness and interest, we bring our full attention to an unpleasant experience, the thing we dreaded often seems much less bothersome than before. Likewise, when we truly connect with even the most familiar or mundane experience, we often see it in a new and interesting light.”

Can you guys relate to feeling the distinction between being disconnect or connected to the moment?  I’d love to hear others thoughts on this idea!


Take Your Child to Work Day!

I’m been looking forward to having Sienna participate in my office’s “Take Your Child to Work Day” event for quite some time.  Today was the day!  We had a whole day full of activities, present-ations, and fun planned for the kids.  Sienna, at 6 years old, was the youngest. I’d say the average age of the ten kids was about 9 years old.

Sienna comes to the office fairly often so I figured she’d be in her element.  However, I forgot how shy she tends to get in new situations.  Typically she’s just hanging out with my team or sitting in my office drawing.  Today was a much more structured event and she got really clingy when it was time for me to leave her with the group in the conference room. So, I got to join the group!

003It was cool to watch her gradually warm up.  After some coaxing she finally sat in one of the big executive chairs around the conference table.  She participated in the activities, and concentrated really hard on the 100 point connect-the-dot puzzle the Auditors handed out during their presentation.  Mid morning the kids headed out for a bit of exercise with our resident fitness coach.  She loved running around, playing “Red Light, Green Light” and trying to stand on one foot while stretching.

Before lunch she was in my office for an hour.  I had some scheduling to do and it was an easy thing for her to help with.  I’d tell her what names to type or how many hours to enter and she could search for the letters and numbers on the keyboard. Kind of perfect for a kindergartener!  We then headed to Rubio’s to lunch.  Later when I asked her what she liked best during the day, she replied, “Having lunch out with my mom. That was really fun!”  I agreed.

008When we returned to the office, she told me “I don’t need you to stay with me, Mom.”  She was officially warmed up to her environment.  So, she got to engage in a marketing project and learn about HR, while I got some work done.

It’s always fun and fulfilling to have my work friends tell me how sweet my children are.  Sienna had her share of silliness today, but she was very respectful and attentive.  Also, as the littlest one there, she was pretty adorable!

What a good day.

My Awakening

Staying Within Myself

Learning to be comfortably in the moment instead of trying to control my thoughts in order to avoid feelings other than “happiness” has literally changed everything for me. One of the areas I can really see and feel the difference is with my athletic activities: swimming and running.

SwimmerBefore the anxiety started last summer, I’d been swimming regularly with the Masters Swim group at the YMCA in my neighborhood. It was so fun to be coached and learn how to improve my strokes! I’d gradually gained speed and had moved up from the “slow lane” to the next lane over. Suddenly, it wasn’t as much fun as I felt pressure to keep up with the faster swimmers. I started having to bail out of more challenging sets and would agonize about the workout (which was printed on a whiteboard) in anticipation of not being able to keep up the pace. For some reason, a set of repeating 100s was much more intimidating to me than an equal distance of repeating 50s. I was completely over thinking and trying to control how I’d feel during future laps or sets.

Being in the moment makes is so much easier for me to tackle swimming workouts because I’m no longer looking forward and being anxious about an upcoming set. I just swim each lap as it comes. It reminds me of that phrase “staying within yourself.” It’s athletic performance psychology 101.

Similarly with running, if I began a run and didn’t feel strong, I’d start thinking, “I’ll never be able to make it 5 miles!” or whatever distance I’d planned to run. Being “in my head” while running was so normal to me that I’d often run the 5 mile loop around Lake Miramar and realize I’d barely looked out at the water, even once! Now, I enjoy longer runs because I look around, take in the scenery, feel the wind, and am more in touch with my body and my surroundings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother change related to running is my choice of music. Previously I’d select a Pandora station that would ensure upbeat songs to motivate me and consciously avoided songs that were too emotional. Green Day, Pink, and AC/DC were my go-to stations. In the last several months, I’ve really enjoyed putting Pandora on Shuffle and just listening to whatever song it plays. It’s fun to be surprised! Plus, I’m now okay with a song that’s slow paced, melancholy, or downright depressing playing while I run. Not being afraid of how a song will impact both my running performance and my emotional state is very freeing. During a run last week, I listened to everything from Bruce Springsteen (which will always remind me of Dennis!) and Sara Barellies to the Rent Soundtrack, Clay Walker, and Eartha Kitt. Then, in the last mile and a half, “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky came on – it couldn’t have been more perfect timing!

Running is actually a great metaphor for emotions. While on a long run, there will be stretches where I feel kind of rotten and wonder how I’ll make it, and then I’ll begin to feel better and stronger. I’ll typically enjoy several moments where I think, “Man, I could run forever!” That cycle may repeat itself once or twice, depending on the run. Emotions are really similar. They’re always changing. This has been such a revelation because I used to feel and act like whatever emotion I currently had would last forever. Being able to push through the crummy feeling during a run is like practice for enduring emotional distress. This experiences also teaches that I shouldn’t become too attached to the euphoric feelings that arise. I can (and should!) enjoy feeling good but running isn’t only worthwhile if it feels good. Whatever the feeling, if I just keep running (or living) my feelings will inevitably change again and again.


Easter Delights!

040We had a delightful Easter weekend!  We enjoyed time as a family, had festive fun with friends, and kept the real reason for the holiday at the forefront: celebrating Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection.

Saturday morning, Sienna and I finished up the Easter cutout cookies we’d started Friday afternoon.  After frosting several pink, blue, yellow, and green bunnies, butterflies, and geese, we were inspired to mix the pink and yellow frosting to make pale orange.  Then we frosted the carrots in a very pleasing and lifelike color scheme.

041To continue our lesson in color mixing, we created lavendar frosting.  Our springtime, pastel colored cookies were complete! I LOVE making cutout cookies for holidays!  It’s a lot of work but so worth it.  The recipe for both the cookie and frosting were handed down from my mom and they’re amazing!  I’ll post the recipe as we get closer to Christmas.

This batch of cookies was our family’s contribution to an Easter Egg coloring party at our friends’ house that afternoon.  Several families got together to enjoy food, drinks, and each others’ company as the kids colored easter eggs outside at two big tables draped with plastic tablecloths. Such wise hosts!  Sienna patiently colored her eggs like a big six-year-old.  Whereas Mateo was burning through his supply of eggs – dropping one after the other into blue dye and then retrieving them within a minute.  I asked him to leave the eggs in a little longer so they’d become darker blue.  He replied, “They are dark blue!” as he lined his fifth, very pale blue egg in the drying carton.  Anyway, he had fun.

063We came home with about 18 eggs and made egg salad for lunch after church on Sunday.  Yum!

A wonderful surprise to our Easter weekend was having one of Sienna’s school friends and her mom join us as church!  I’d gotten a text on Thursday asking if we were going to church Sunday since the mom wanted to take her daughter and they didn’t know where to go.  I’m constantly mentioning our church involvement to the moms I’m getting to know through Sienna’s school.  I wasn’t doing it as an evangelical effort, per se.  It’s just that we’re always planning or doing something related to our church and preschool.  It felt pretty awesome that this mom felt comfortable to ask about coming to our church!

057After a backyard Easter egg hunt for the kids (seriously, what’s more fun than an Easter egg hunt?!) we read the kids a terrific book: The Very First Easter.  It’s written directly from the biblical narrative and provides an amazing amount of theological information in a very assessible way.  The author, Paul Maier is a Lutheran scholar; he was the speaker at our churches’ 100th anniversary gala and is pretty incredible.

first easterThe kids love this book!  Teo had me read it to him four times over within five nights awhile back.  It’s not a short book but the illustrations and content keep his attention.  There’s a picture of Jesus after he’s taken down from the cross.  There’s a small, red gash on his side that Mateo stops at each time – “What happened to Jesus there?” he asks.  I always reply, “The soldier stabbed him.” “Why?” he asks.  “Because they wanted to make sure he was dead.” “Oh.” he knowingly nods.

This book was just a joy to receive.  I’d gotten jaded over the years by “Easter” books for kids that were all about eggs, candy, and spring.  The Berenstein Bears are a favorite of mine, but the Easter book drove me nuts!  The “real meaning of Easter” is not about finding baby chick eggs in a nest.  If you’re interested in teaching your children the true story of Jesus’ ministry and the events of Holy Week, I really encourage you to check out this book.

064As we drove home from church on Sunday, I reflected on the sense of rebirth that Easter, the resurrection, and springtime all collaborate to create on this day.  The new life in Christ that we enjoy because of his death and resurrection is fresh, bright, and pure.

Martin Luther said, “Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring-time.”


The Fruit and Power of Christ’s Resurrection

This passage is from Martin Luther’s sermon “The Fruit and Power of Christ’s Resurrection” originally written in 1525.

“As we heard while explaining the meaning of Christ’s passion, that it was not enough to know its mere narrative and history; so it is not enough to learn only how and when Christ our Lord arose from the dead; we must also preach and understand the benefit and use both of the sufferings and the resurrection of Christ, namely, what he thereby acquired for us. For if we preach only its history, it is an unprofitable sermon, which Satan and the godless know, read and understand as well as true Christians; but when we preach to what end it serves it becomes profitable, wholesome and comforting.

martin lutherChrist himself pointed out the benefit of his sufferings and resurrection when he said to the women in Mt 28, 10 – “Fear not: go tell my brethren that they depart into Galilee, and there shall they see me.” These are the very first words they heard from Christ after his resurrection from the dead, by which he confirmed all the former utterances and loving deeds he showed them, namely, that his resurrection avails in our behalf who believe, so that he therefore anticipates and calls Christians his brethren, who believe it, and yet they do not, like the apostles, witness his resurrection.

The risen Christ waits not until we ask or call on him to become his brethren. Do we here speak of merit, by which we deserve anything? What did the apostles merit? Peter denied his Lord three times; the other disciples all fled from him; they tarried with him like a rabbit does with its young. He should have called them deserters, yea, betrayers, reprobates, anything but brethren. Therefore this word is sent to them through the women out of pure grace and mercy, as the apostles at the time keenly experienced, and we experience also, when we are mired fast in our sins, temptations and condemnation.”

Today I’m resting in the simple knowledge that Christ accomplished all that’s required for the salvation of the world when he left the tomb.  He is risen!  This is most certainly true.

Home and Family

Love Grows Best…

Love Grows Best in Little HousesWhoever staged our house must have had a background in marketing. In the entryway hung a sign that read “Love grows best in little houses.” We saw that sign and an emotional connection between us and this small house began. We could feel that, indeed, love would grow for our little family in this place.

As I’m writing this at our large dining table, Dennis is assembling a puzzle on the other end of the table. Sienna and Mateo are playing together, running between their adjacent bedrooms, paying make believe, and giggling. The sound of their joyful noises makes Dennis and I look up and exchange smiles. We just commented that last Saturday morning when we wanted to watch some recorded episodes of “Rehab Addict” (the HGTV show about old houses being refurbished) we tried in vain to get the kids to play in their rooms. Today, when they could have the run of the living room, they’re happily playing by themselves. The irony is funny.

kids cuddledI love our cozy house. It’s charming to hear Dennis and Teo talking in the morning while I’m waking up. From the kitchen and living room, I can see the backyard and watch the kids play. Some of the sweetest conversations have occurred at our patio table while I eavesdrop through the kitchen window.

This past Sunday afternoon, after returning from church and eating lunch, we were all engaged in quiet activities in the living/dining area. Suddenly Sienna remarked, “We’re all doing something. I’m doing rainbow loom, Daddy’s working on a puzzle, Mommy is reading, and Teo is playing. It’s so much nicer than having the TV on.” I giggled. She surely has heard me voice my desire to have the TV on less.

She was right. It was delightful to all be together yet fulfilling our own needs for leisure and recreation.

Teo puzzleAs the kids get bigger, the idea of family is growing richer in my mind. It’s awesome to be in our little house where we all have space to do our own thing, but can easily transition into togetherness, communication, and spontaneous interactions between each of us and all of us.




Good Friday

Mateo is sitting on my lap right now and wants to help me write about Good Friday.   I asked him, “What should we write?” He replied, “About Jesus.” He’s three but he knows how to cut to the heart of the matter.

The kids and I have been talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection all week. It’s pretty much the sweetest thing to hear them say the word resurrection. They understand Good Friday in light of Easter Sunday. Once they declared that Easter was when Jesus rose from the dead, I prompted them, “Then what happened two days before he rose?”

img012“He died on the cross!” they exclaimed, with perhaps an inappropriate level of excitement.

Good Friday is a sacred day for Christians and also special in that it hasn’t been distorted by secular society into a non-religious holiday like Easter and Christmas have. There’s no way to celebrate Good Friday if you don’t believe that Jesus dying on the cross was momentous.

There’s a stillness and sorrow to this day. The feeling is best captured in the poignant moment at the end of each Good Friday service when the mass ends and there’s no jubilant recessional hymn. Instead, everyone just leaves in a quiet and sorrowful atmosphere. Jesus has died and we wait with the knowledge that his suffering and death was as a propitiation for our sins. I can’t imagine anything more humbling and awe-inspiring.

The passion story from the Book of Luke is precious. Christ only speaks a few short sentences, but they teach us so much about his love and coming Kingdom.

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out in a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Luke 23: 32-46


Having it All

Working at an accounting firm for the past nine years, I’ve grown accustomed to the seasonal cycle of busy seasons and off-seasons. With the passing of the April 15th tax deadline, right now I’m excited to enjoy the rest of spring, start planning summer fun, and have a better work/life balance for awhile. I tend to think of all the responsibilities in my life like a pendulum; sometimes it swings way over to work, other times it’s fully on the family and home end (like during the holidays!). Usually it’s somewhere in between.

I once heard the phrase, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” As a working mom, this has become my mantra!

appleOf course I’d always prefer to be home with my family instead of putting in extra hours at work. But, I also know that to do my job well, I have to be flexible and willing to work more when the need arises. I’m lucky to have a lot of flexibility in my job, but that can also be a challenge to manage. I used to have days where I’d work from home while the kids were home with me. I quickly learned that was not a wise use of time. I would end up feeling like I didn’t work enough nor was I present with the kids. Now I’m more mindful of whether a chunk of time is “work time” or “family time” and try not to combine them.

Sometimes even family time can be “imbalanced”. For example, this weekend I had a lot of Sienna focused activities. She and I saw a play together on Friday evening and then had a Daisy scouts “Fairy Garden Party” on Sunday afternoon. All four of us had a relaxing Saturday and were together at church on Sunday, but still I felt like I didn’t have enough one-on-one time with Mateo. Then I remembered that he and I were going to be home together, just the two of us, on Friday. Knowing that his turn for focused mommy time was coming up soon made me feel better.

imagesTrying to keep things “balanced” on a daily basis is not only impossible but also incredibly anxiety producing! I’m sure that the weight of all the tasks and responsibilities on my plate helped to push me into a hyper planning and controlling mindset. This idea of “having it all, just not all at once” also aligns well with my attempts to be in the moment, surrender planning, and depend on God. I can rest assured that, as long as I continue to focus on the things I value in life – faith in Christ, my family, friends, health, and working hard – everything will be taken care of, without having to intensely control everything.

What do you think of the idea of “having it all”? Is it possible? How do you find “balance”?