August 2022 Circle Time

Because my daughter was in a classroom setting for preschool, she learned this daily routine as “circle time.” I’ve kept the name despite the fact that, as it is usually just the two of us, we hardly qualify as a circle.

The specifics of circle time change each month, so I’m going to try to post a monthly update.

composer of the month

This month our composer is Ottorino Respighi. I was obsessed with Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2, Movement IV as a kid, and I figured she might like it too. (I believe there exists footage of me “conducting” said piece. I was 12. It was not cute. I would pay to have it destroyed.) While we listen to our composer, I might fix her hair for the day or look over my planner. I try to keep it under five minutes.

Calendar time

My beloved $7.99 Aldi planner (this is the third year I’ve used one, which has got to be some sort of personal record) comes with a few pages of calendar stickers. She picks one an appropriate one for the day (today it was “Don’t forget” because we have a grocery order to pick up), places it on the day’s square and says the day and date. “Today is Monday, August 8th, 2022.”

I also use this time to record the previous day’s events in our 10 Year Journal.

Psalm of the month

If you need to be convinced, listen to our friend Brian Moats.

We picked Psalm 2 because she was already familiar with it from music camp. We’re chanting because we’re weird/cool like that.


We review our current prayer requests, and she picks a few that she wants to pray for, usually including one about more playdates with her friend.

I start with this prayer from the BCP.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

hymn of the month

It would be reasonable to pick a hymn we often sing at church so she’ll be able to participate more fully in worship, but alas, I am often unreasonable. My thought process is that she’ll pick up those hymns just by singing them Sunday after Sunday. This is a chance to teach her those hymns we never sing. When she’s old enough to watch her mother’s beloved The Night of the Hunter, she’s gotta recognize Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

This month, we’re singing “To God Be the Glory” by Fanny Crosby. We often sing the hymn of the month at family worship and/or bedtime. Little Brother gets in on the fun too. If you’re anything like me, a crying baby makes you forget literally every song or lullaby you’ve ever known. Hymn of the month to the rescue.

Poet of the month

We own this collection of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, so I started there, perhaps unwisely. Millay’s rhythm is appealing, but the subject matter is probably not appropriate for a five year old. Oh well. Luckily, she tends to gravitate toward the least problematic ones. The other night, we had candles at dinner and she recited “First Fig.”

Anyway, I read three a day, adding a new one each day and dropping the oldest. We often read the new one twice, because does anyone understand a poem the first time through?

Folk song of the month

We love Elizabeth Mitchell.

Fairy tale / nursery rhyme

I found a copy of The Riverside Anthology of Children’s Literature at a Goodwill Outlet. It’s beautiful, but it’s also massive. I read her a few pages each day.

Scripture Memory

Nothing complicated here. We say our verse. Pretty soon, I need to work on a system to review previous months’ verses.

This month it’s Psalm 119:30. “I have chosen the way of truth; your judgments I have laid before me.”

wisdom and the millers

I grew up with these books and am mostly reading them for nostalgia’s sake. I need to start pre-reading them though, because our values do not always line up with the Millers. When we’ve read all the Miller books we have, we might add in some other kind of virtue/character training. I’m open to suggestions.

Bible Story

We’re still working our way through a children’s storybook Bible. When possible, we act it out with props and my pipe-cleaner figures that I should probably trademark and make millions off of. I also try to have her re-tell the story to C at some point during the day to help solidify it in her brain.

If I can only do one thing with her a day, it’s usually circle time. We don’t worry too much about kindergarten academics in this household.

Unwanted by Jay Stringer, Pt. 3 (continued)

Well, my library app informs me that this book will auto-return in four hours, and that I have used up all my borrows for this month, so here we go. Bullet points, favorite quotes & tangential rants to follow.

  • Healthy relationships are marked by both attunement and containment.
  • Attunement = seeing and validating the other person. Containment = setting boundaries
  • Parenting is all about moderating attunement and containment. Example: “Drawing with chalk would be really fun but it’s bedtime right now. Maybe we can do chalk tomorrow.”
    • Dan Allender (one of Stringer’s influences) says that children are always asking two questions of their parents. 1) Do you love me? 2) Will I get my own way?
  • Healthy individuals learn to self-attune and self-contain. Example: “My desire for sex is good, but I’m alone in a hotel room on a business trip. Rather than look at porn, I will call my family.”
  • In order to practice attunement and containment, you need to live in community.

“You need others to help you know who you are. When you allow your emotions to be seen, you will be less dependent on your need to escape them.”

  • Because many of Stringer’s clients do not understand what healthy relationships look like, he spends some time spelling out how to connect with people. (Share your emotions, listen to your body, ask your spouse and friends about their lives, reflect on your week, forecast potential problems, don’t stonewall when you’re in conflict, pursue activities with friends)
  • Attunement and containment are how we give and receive care. Most of Stringer’s clients do not recognize that they have any needs except sexual ones.
  • ***Tara Rant*** And popular Christian marriage books often normalize and perpetuate this shallow view of men’s needs. According to these books, men have two needs: sex and respect…and the best way to show him respect is to have sex. These books usually also downplay female sexual desire. The end result? What God describes as “one flesh” is fragmented into a dehumanizing system of exchange. Husbands are told to emotionally connect with their wives in order that their wives will have sex with them (not because it is healthy and good to emotionally connect with your spouse). Likewise, wives are told to have sex with their husbands, not because it is healthy and good to have sex with your spouse, but because if you don’t, your husband will not engage with your emotions.

Conflict & Repair

  • All healthy relationships have cycles of generative conflict and mature repair.
  • Admitting sexual sin to a spouse is going to create conflict. It is important that repair be mature, not shallow.
  • ***Tara Rant*** Some pastors/leaders will encourage husbands to shield details about sexual sin from their wives. I suppose this ties in with the belief that women are emotional, not sexual. They won’t understand, and they’ll just cry. I think this advice is terrible and much prefer Stringer’s view, which is…
  • Refrain from telling your spouse the details of your unwanted sexual behavior until they have adequate levels of support around them. (In other words, tell her the gist, that you’re getting help, and encourage her to find a therapist or trusted friend to help her through the full disclosure yet to come)

In the last section of the book, Stringer focuses on the importance of community.

Community helps us

  1. experience structure and accountability
  2. learn to have our story held by others
  3. offer empathy and curiosity for the stories of others
  4. discover purpose

What does healthy accountability look like? It doesn’t look like a weekly bro-fest where everyone sticks a dollar in a jar for each lustful thought they had that week. It isn’t a time to feel better about your sin because everyone else is doing just as badly as you are.

When Stringer’s clients report good experiences with accountability groups, generally these two factors are at play. 1) Rather than policing bad behavior, the group emphasizes the past and present circumstances that influence unwanted sexual behavior. 2) The group emphasizes personal growth rather than dwelling on their powerlessness.

Because lack of purpose can increase a man’s involvement with porn by a factor of seven, it might actually be more profitable to meet with a friend for accountability about your goals and dreams.

“The joy set before you is to heal the wounds of your sexual brokenness, recognize they do not have the final word in your life, and open a new map to travel to the places you’ve always wanted to go. Paradoxically, you will find that your wounds and struggles are the very things that have most prepared you for the journey ahead. The ultimate defeat of evil is not the ability to bury your past; it is to allow wisdom to form within your wounds in order to guide you to a land you have yet to find. In God’s economy, nothing is lost. Everything, even your sexual brokenness, belongs.”

Alright, library app. You can make this digital book disappear from my phone now.

Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing by Jay Stringer, Pt. 3

Part 3 looks toward the future. Stringer does not outline ten simple steps, nor does he promise results. Instead, he reminds the reader that transformation is possible and suggests a number of possible strategies that have been helpful to his clients.

Stringer also gives realistic estimates for the journey toward healing. It generally takes at least 2-3 years before his clients feel as if they’re in a stable place.

Transformation of self

Disarm Shame

Shame – not pleasure – is the impetus behind unwanted sexual behaviors. It allows us to wallow in shame rather than face it head-on. Healing begins with disarming shame. Talk to a therapist or pastor and work through some personal stories where shame plays a starring role, even if it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with sex.

This is me here. By the time I was a teenager, my primary understanding of Christ’s atonement was that it was a legal declaration of innocence. It removed my guilt on what felt like, frankly, a technicality. It was like God still wanted to condemn us but Jesus took away his legal grounds to do so. I never thought about Jesus defeating the powers of darkness that keep us in bondage to shame, nor did I see how Christ’s death formed a new community in which we are beloved heirs.

Pursue Delight

Delight is the antidote to deprivation. Pursue joy and delight, even when you don’t feel like you deserve it. Engage your senses. If your body wants to nap, hike, exercise, or create something, don’t be too quick to convince yourself that it’s impossible because your family needs you or you should be volunteering or you should cover that shift for your coworker, etc.

Daily/Weekly Ideas: going the gym, practicing yoga, getting at least 7.5 hours of sleep, using a nice pair of headphones to listen to beautiful music.

Monthly/Yearly Ideas: plan 4-5 things per month that bring you delight (vacation, movie, concert, hike, new restaurant, museum, national park) and PUT THEM ON THE CALENDAR. Anticipation of something enjoyable is itself enjoyable.

If financially possible, book yourself some kind of relaxing experience like a massage every other month. Make all the appointments at once and put them on the calendar so you have no excuse not to go.

Schedule a physical and dental appointment if you don’t remember the last time you went.

Be careful not to replace one unhealthy behavior with another. Watch your relationship to food, alcohol, and tobacco.

Develop Integrity

“Integrity” particularly when used to describe sexual behavior, can be a triggering term if it has only been used to push you into further deprivation and suppression of desire. But the concept of integrity refers to wholeness and unity. It is what happens when all parts of your life cohere. Integrity is something that characterizes a life (or not), not something that only exists in discrete moments that require sexual discipline. Integrity requires the courage to have hard conversations instead of avoiding conflict. Integrity requires us to face our feelings of futility and anxiety, rather than retreating into unhealthy coping mechanisms. Viewing porn is not itself a loss of integrity — it is the natural result of a life that is fragmented.

Notice Patterns

People are predictable. Common themes associated with unwanted sexual behavior: loneliness, frustration, futility, and boredom. Common times: early afternoon and just before bed. Common places: hotel rooms. Rather than being afraid of these moments or trying to avoid them (impossible anyway), choose to pursue rest and delight in precisely those situations.

A new sexual story

Healing emotional harm doesn’t have as clear a road map as healing a physical injury, but there are four main components.

1. Reclaiming your body

Many of Stringer’s clients hate their bodies. Work with a therapist or pastor can be beneficial here.

When we do not practice being kind to our bodies, we become flippant with the behavior they participate in.”

Ch. 12

2. Leave sexual sin

Make a deliberate choice to tackle this problem. Depending on the severity of the issue, this may involve completing an addiction recovery program.

Me here, not Stringer. In most of the Christian resources I’ve come across, this is where the discussion begins and usually ends. Install Covenant Eyes. Get into an accountability group. And above all, just STOP IT. It’s not that “stopping it” isn’t important — I mean, it’s kinda the point, right? — but we need to look at the issue more holistically.

3. Forgive yourself and others

Me again still. You can only forgive people to the extent that you acknowledge the harm they did to you. Too often, Christians start with easy forgiveness and unwittingly shut themselves out from further healing. Once they’ve forgiven someone, they feel like they can’t explore the matter any further. To do so would be bitterness. And thus we heal our wounds lightly.

Forgiveness is not a onetime event but a continual process where we remember, feel, and turn our shame, pain, and anger over to God.

Ch. 12

4. End generational curses and soul ties

Oftentimes there is generational component to addictive behaviors and sexual sin. It can be extremely motivating to be the one to break the cycle.

I’m not sure where the term “soul tie” came from, though I’ve heard others besides Stringer use it. It seems to refer to a deep attachment a person may develop to someone/something harmful, like an abusive spouse, a past sexual partner, or a past abuser. They can still hold power over you, even if they are out of your life.

Sometimes people talk about the person who abused them as “my abuser,” and I am always struck by the use of the possessive. I wonder if it is healthier to use distancing language as a way to encourage breaking unhealthy bonds.

Nurture, sensuality, & eroticism

“Just say no” didn’t work for drugs, and it doesn’t work for sex. True healing involves the transformation of sexuality, not just the repression of it.


Nurture is about connection with others. While sex is one way we can meet this need for connection, it can’t bear the weight of being the only way. We need friendships where we can give and receive nurture in order to be a mature, healthy adult.


Stringer means this very literally. Pay attention to your body’s five senses. God’s world is full of things for us to enjoy. It is a good gift to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Many of Stringer’s clients do not know how to be sensual without also being erotic.


God doesn’t want us to ignore or repress our desire. Doing so may result in a cessation of unwanted behaviors (at least for a time), but it will not lead to the abundant life.

I love Stringer’s definition of eros.

“Eros is discovered each time your body experiences the dovetailing of desire and gratitude…eroticism, properly understood, is always unifying you to your body, your lover, and seemingly all of creation.”

Ch. 12

final thoughts

Part 3 is pretty long, so I’ll end here for now. The remaining chapters deal with transforming your close relationships and engaging your broader community.

One more quote that I think is telling. Stringer interviewed the founder of an internet monitoring service similar to Covenant Eyes. The founder told Stringer, “users want surveillance on all their app usage, such as Tinder, and even GPS tracking on their cars to discourage them from going to strip clubs…what people often want is restriction, but that’s not freedom.”

Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing by Jay Stringer: Part 2

Part 1 covered how childhood experiences influence adult sexuality. Part 2 looks at current factors that keep people trapped in unhealthy patterns.

present-day difficulties

Rather than simply trying to stop unwanted sexual behavior (the Bob Newhart sketch comes to mind), it’s worthwhile to consider how these behaviors are serving you. Maladaptive sexuality is usually a coping mechanism for some combination of the following experiences:

  • Deprivation
  • Dissociation
  • Unconscious arousal templates
  • Futility
  • Lust
  • Anger


At first glance, unhealthy sexual behavior appears to be the epitome of self-indulgence but under the surface is a deep sense of deprivation. This is a vicious cycle. People with unmet needs act out sexually. The more they act out, the more they deprive themselves of life-giving friendships and compassionate self-care.

Unmet needs are not an excuse. You are responsible for getting enough sleep, setting boundaries, managing stress levels, and forming and maintaining relationships. 73% of Stringer’s respondents did not consistently exercise, eat well, or spend time with friends.

Particularly in the Christian world, deprivation can easily masquerade as virtue. It looks like always saying yes to a volunteering opportunity or constantly deferring to others’ desires even about simple decisions like what to have for dinner.

In my corner of the evangelical world, there is one particularly influential figure who bashes self-care on a regular basis, preferring to speak of Sabbath and obedience. The battle seems to be more about language than the reality behind it. I think the term “self-care” is a useful shorthand for a principle derived from scripture, and I find it wearisome that so much energy is being directed to fight that particular battle. Even if you choose not to use the term “self-care,” please do not assume the worst about other believers who do use the term. And please be aware that when mental health professionals use the term, they are likely not referring to memes you’ve seen on Pinterest. (For example, the whole “mommy wine culture” thing? That’s not self-care.)


Dissociation is a deliberate attempt to escape reality. Thanks to smartphones, it has never been easier to dissociate, whether it’s binging Netflix, playing video games for hours on end, or obsessively scrolling through Instagram. When older pastors are counseling those from the Millennial and Gen Z generations about pornography, they should consider the fact that these age groups have been using screens to self-soothe since childhood.

unconscious arousal Templates

“Your…fantasies may be revealing portions of your story. Many people continue to act out in similar ways over a lifetime because they have never taken time to think about the symbols and stories inherent within their arousal and fantasies. These sexual reenactments must be named if you have any hope to find freedom” (Ch. 8)


Stringer’s research showed that men who lacked purpose and meaningful work were seven times more likely to escalate their use of porn. When life feels pointless, it is easier to consume than create.

Lust & Anger

“I have never met someone who struggles deeply with lust who is not also battling with unaddressed anger…rarely do I meet men who are consciously aware of their eroticized anger.” (Ch. 8)

The most common sexual fantasy in Stringer’s research was the desire for power over women. These individuals’ pornographic search terms revealed a preference for younger, smaller women, often from a different race. There were three main factors men with this fantasy had in common: high levels of shame, lack of purpose, and having had a strict father. Porn gives these men an opportunity not merely to satisfy their desire (lust), but also to exact revenge.

Most treatment paradigms in the church focus on curtailing lust through internet filters and accountability groups but fail to address the underlying anger fueling lust.

Final thought from me — feminism is the bogeyman of the moment in my circles, but many feminist scholars have done important work on the problem of male violence against women. Don’t be afraid to learn from them.

Part 3 is where it gets practical…

Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing by Jay Stringer: Part 1

Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted is a book the church desperately needs. I am grateful for his research and wisdom.

I am a millennial. I do remember life before we had internet access in our home, but only vaguely. I have attended weekly services in theologically conservative Protestant churches my entire life. I was homeschooled and though my parents were discerning and avoided certain leaders (*cough* Bill Gothard *cough*), I was still influenced by the homeschool culture of the 90’s in a pretty significant way. 

My peers and I got the message loud and clear that porn was bad and dangerous. It wasn’t like no one was talking about it. We understood what internet filters were for. The radio shows our parents listened to warned about the dangers of porn and advertised products like Covenant Eyes and ClearPlay. 

I’d venture to guess that such openness about the dangers of pornography was somewhat new for our baby boomer parents. I’m glad they were willing to shed light on the topic. But it’s been decades now and porn use has only increased even in the church. Maybe let’s try a few new tactics, hey? 

If I had to sum up Stringer’s book with one quote, it would be “unwanted sexual behavior is never accidental. There is always a reason” (Ch. 2). Certain forms of “biblical counseling” teach that because sin is irrational, it is pointless to try to understand the reasons behind our behavior. It is hard to grow and mature in systems where self-knowledge is demonized.

In Part 1, Stringer argues that our past experiences have an extraordinary amount of influence on our sexuality. We must engage our past if we want to experience change.

Many believers, especially those raised in a Christian home, are deeply uncomfortable at the thought of examining their family dynamics. They often feel it would be dishonoring to say anything negative about their parents. But honor and honesty are not mutually exclusive. This deep commitment to the fifth commandment may be genuine, but it may also be a cover for a self-protective strategy. If you don’t acknowledge the harm you experienced, you don’t have to deal with it. 

Stringer is clear that the point of examining your past is not to make excuses for unwanted sexual behavior in the present. Instead, it reveals what you actually need to be healed from.

Stringer’s book is based on his experience as a therapist and on a research project which looked at how childhood experiences contribute to maladaptive sexuality in adulthood. He surveyed almost 4,000 people sourced from organizations for people struggling with unwanted sexual behaviors. Most of these participants were white heterosexual men. 

His research uncovered five key childhood drivers behind unwanted sexual behaviors. 

  • Rigid or disengaged family systems
  • Abandonment
  • Triangulation and enmeshment
  • History of trauma
  • Sexual abuse

Rigid and Disengaged Family Systems

In a rigid home, at least one parent rules the family with an iron fist. There are many, many rules, and children are expected to obey them unquestioningly. Children in this environment usually take on the identity of a golden child or a black sheep. There is a lot of suppressed anger in these families. Pornography provides a way to deal with this anger and sense of powerlessness.

Stringer’s research showed that men with strict fathers were more likely to develop sexual fantasies of dominating others. Women with strict mothers were more likely to develop sexual fantasies of having harm done to them. 

In a disengaged home, parents are not emotionally available to their children. They avoid difficult conversations and negative emotions. Children who grow up in these homes are hungry for an abundant life of attention and care, and because they do not receive it from home, they look for it elsewhere. Children of disengaged parents–particularly the daughters of such parents– are incredibly susceptible to sexual abuse. 


Parental abandonment can be a parent literally leaving the family home, but it also encompasses extremely disengaged parents and parents who show strong favoritism to one particular child while ignoring the other(s). 

Of Stringer’s survey respondents, almost half couldn’t identify even one adult from their childhood they could talk to about something difficult. When it comes to matters of sexuality, 50% did not have their mothers talk to them about sex at all and 60% did not have their fathers talk to them about sex at all. Yikes.

Triangulation and Enmeshment

This occurs when there is a breakdown in the marital relationship and the child is brought in as a surrogate spouse. Usually the parent and child who are enmeshed are an opposite sex pairing — father/daugher or mother/son. (This dynamic usually destroys the child’s relationship with their same-sex parent due to parental jealousy at being replaced.) These children feel enormous amounts of guilt when they pursue independence even when it is developmentally appropriate.

Though these parents may not sexually abuse their children, this dynamic impacts a child’s sexuality. Porn offers an experience of freedom from the stifling burden of emotionally supporting a parent. These individuals are often drawn toward sexual fantasy in which they are the sole receiver of pleasure. 

Childhood enmeshment can cause problems in adulthood, particularly in a marriage. Some spouses continue in old patterns of enmeshment with their parent — a form of emotional unfaithfulness. Others resist providing their spouse with emotional support because they are so afraid of filling that role again, even though now it is their responsibility.


This chapter seems to be mainly focuses on trauma that is a) not sexual abuse (that’s the next chapter) and b) intentionally perpetrated by someone (as opposed to, say, the trauma caused by a natural disaster or witnessing a murder). 

Pornography eroticizes trauma. Common themes are abuse of power, violence, and humiliation, giving the traumatized a chance to engage with significant themes of their life. Some may choose to reverse the roles, looking for porn where they can identify with the abuser. Others are aroused by identifying themselves with the abused, likely because “choosing” to be humiliated gives them some modicum of power. 

Sexual Abuse

This was the biggest driver of unwanted sexual behavior in Stringer’s research. (And remember that many of his respondents were men.) Sexual abusers offer children perverse forms of what they truly need: attention, touch, and delight. People with childhood sexual abuse in their past usually hate themselves and despise their body for responding the way it was designed to. These people often seek out porn that features secretive or illicit relationships and older sexual partners. 

Stringer ends this section by reminding his readers that “knowing the origins of your behavior is not the cure, but it is a necessary step.”

There’s a lot more good stuff in Part 2 and Part 3, but it’s bedtime. More later.

Final thought — protecting your child from porn is about so much more than the right internet filter. We need healthy families and we need systems in which truth is more important than image.


The following is heavily inspired by a similar poem in Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s book Motherprayer: A Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion.
I highly recommend this exercise. Trace your mother-line. Remember their sacrifices, their mistakes, their love.


I am Tara.
daughter of Marie,
teacher, planner, pianist,
mother of four.
Marie is daughter of Rose,
organist, volunteer, friend
mother of three,
grandmother of ten.
Rose is daughter of Laura,
a maker with busy hands,
mother of two.

I am Tara,
daughter of Eve,
curious, guileless
mother of pain,
mother of hope,
mother of life.

Daughter of Sarah,
barren wife turned ancient mother.
God spoke to her,
chastised her,
agreed with her.
Mother of laughter,
mother of jealousy,
mother of promise.

Daughter of Rebekah,
who traveled to a land unknown,
returned laughter to a grieving son.
When she asked why,
God answered her.
Mother of courage,
mother of joy,
mother of trickery.

Daughter of Leah,
a gift unwanted,
a pawn in her father’s game.
God saw her.
Because she was hated,
he blessed her.
It is not from Rachel
that the Messiah comes.
Leah, mother of many,
Mother of rivalry.
Mother of the royal line.

Daughter of Hannah and Mary,
whose songs we still sing.
One who begged for a child,
one who received one unasked.
Two mothers who waited and pondered,
who gave up their sons for the work of the Lord.

Marie, Rose, Laura,
Eve, Sarah, Rebekah,
Leah, Hannah, Mary,
my mothers of flesh and spirit.
Women God noticed,
women God chose.

I am Tara,
mother of Phoebe
and a child yet unknown.
Mothers of the past,
teach me.
Help me become
mother of tomorrow.

2020 Recap

Long time, no blog. WordPress looks different. Wonder how long it’s been like this.

I didn’t intentionally stop blogging. It just stopped being a priority. Here is what was keeping me busy instead.

  • C was recruited to work at a different school and decided to take the new job.
  • I unexpectedly added a second part-time job. (Fun fact: my new job is Christian’s old job.)
  • Our daughter switched preschools.
  • We bought our first house. I want to live here forever. Very thankful for my friend who patched all the holes in our living room wall and convinced me to paint the bookshelves green.
  • C had a tonic-clonic seizure in May. His driving privileges were restored in November. The gift of that seizure is that I had the wherewithal to film it. My hope was that it would help the doctors by giving some objective data. But I found that it actually helped me. Witnessing a seizure can easily send me into Trauma Land where there is no linear thinking, just vivid snatches of events. It was helpful to watch the footage later and re-live the experience from a place of safety and calm.
  • He also had a number of partial seizures (auras) throughout the year. He is currently trying out a new medication. His neurologist always hopes to double the interval between her patients’ seizures. His longest stretch is 18 months, so we’re hoping for at least 3 years without any kind of seizure activity.
  • On the same day we closed on our house, we were in a bad car accident which totaled our only car with A/C. My therapist guided me through some art therapy with my daughter to help her process. She told me “I don’t like it when cars smash into us” and she wanted us to draw me holding her while she cried. I am so thankful for my friend who picked us up from the side of the road and helped to comfort my daughter.
  • Speaking of our daughter, we got a diagnosis for her this year. We had genetic testing done at the end of November 2019. I only went through with it because one of my favorite doctors referred us. I didn’t think they’d find anything, especially because the geneticist herself told me she’d be surprised if we found anything. Then one day two months later, I saw I had a missed call + voicemail from a genetic counselor. I had to wait an excruciating hour or so before we finally got in touch. I’ll never forget that conversation. When the woman said they had a positive test result for a genetic condition, my legs turned into rubber. By the end of the call, I was crying. And as strange as it may sound to someone who hasn’t been in this kind of situation, they were happy tears. I was so glad to have an answer. What’s so crazy is that her genetic condition wasn’t even recognized in the OMIM database at the time she was born. I don’t think a single paper had been published on it until around her 1st birthday. The doctor who is currently researching the condition has emailed me. The *ONE* online community for this condition had about 60 members worldwide when I joined; now we are approaching 100 members. It is obvious from comparison with other children in the group that our daughter has a mild case. But virtually all of these children have feeding difficulties. Sometimes I screenshot posts from the group and send them to my husband with a message that just says “!!!!!!!!!!!” which he knows means “Oh my goodness, someone else experienced this too. We weren’t crazy.”


Now onto the books! I bolded my faves in each category.


Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart
Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Hyponotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
The Dilemma by B.A. Paris
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
The Trespasser by Tana French
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Verity by Colleen Hoover
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Juvenile Fiction/YA

Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Ruby Redfort (#1, and #2) by Lauren Child
The Simple Art of Flying by Cory Leonardo
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart
Small Steps by Louis Sachar
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor Undivided (Unwind, #4) by Neal Shusterman
New Kid by Jerry Craft

Memoirs about Leaving Cults

Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall
Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther


Deathtrap by Ira Levin

Adult Fiction

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Today Will be Different by Maria Semple
The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain
Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch
The Man in the Dark by Doug Wilson

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
East of Eden by John Steinbeck


The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Megan Mullaly
Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi

More later…maybe December 2021?

December 2019 Books

JF Fiction


The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

Mason Buttle is an orphaned middle-schooler with synesthesia, a handful of learning disabilities, and a propensity to sweat profusely. (This sounds an awful lot like a game of MadLibs) Prior to the start of the novel, Mason’s best friend falls to his death in the Buttles’ apple orchard, and the police are sure that Mason knows more than he’s letting on.

I didn’t love this one but now that two months have passed, I can’t remember exactly why. There are a lot of quirky characters in this book but not much humor, which makes for an odd reading experience. It has a lot of similar themes to All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook which I enjoyed much more than this one. If you really love Perry T. Cook, you can circle back to this one.



Mystical Paths (Starbridge #5) by Susan Howatch

I described the first book in this novel (Glittering Images) as a Gothic novel. This one could be classified as a murder mystery, which is definitely more my speed.

In this book, the action begins to shift to the next generation of families (Ashworths, Aysgarths, and Darrows). The narrator is Jon Darrow’s son, Nick, who shares his father’s psychic abilities. Nick is following in his father’s footsteps and is awaiting ordination as a priest, but inwardly, he is a deeply tortured soul. He often uses his psychic powers to manipulate people and succumbs to sexual temptation on a regular basis (a sin he is unwilling to confess because of how it will hinder his career and how it reflect on his famous dad). He is stumbling along in his own crisis when he becomes obsessed in the mystery of Christian Aysgarth’s death.

This book introduces one of my favorite characters in the series (yay Lewis Hall!), and I loved the psychological themes in this novel. It’s primarily about fathers and sons. Jon Darrow is such a hero, but we see in this book how deeply he has failed the ones closest to him. Even though this book is a paranormal thriller, the psychological drama is painfully realistic.


Absolute Truths (Starbridge #6) by Susan Howatch

The last book in the Starbridge series. This was a beautiful end to an incredible series, but so much of what makes this book good depends on having read the previous five books.

This book takes us back to the events of Glittering Images. It has been over thirty years since Charles Ashworth had his big showdown with Alex Jardine, but this book shows us how Charles is still grappling with the same issues he faced as a young man. I love how Howatch shows us that the journey of maturity and sanctification is never over.

It is hard to provide a summary without spoiling the plot. I’ll just say there is so much loss, suffering, and grief in this book. It is primarily about a pastor realizing that the truths he’s preached his whole career are not comforting when he faces his own dark night of the soul.

I consider Charles’ wife Lyle to be the real hero of this book. Charles takes great pride in his theological training, so Lyle thinks of herself as spiritually inferior. But Lyle’s relationship with God is so much more vibrant than Charles’ because she is willing to bring herself fully before God. Charles’ theological training can become a hindrance, because he’s so focused on making sure his prayers are orthodox in every respect. It is Lyle’s small faith that God uses to heal the entire community.

I was so sad to leave behind these characters that I’ve come to love. I will almost certainly read these books again.


The High Flyer (St. Benet #2) by Susan Howatch

Immediately after finishing the Starbridge series, I jumped back into the St. Benet trilogy, which is set in the same world as Starbridge but focuses on a healing ministry in London. The ministry is run by Nick Darrow and Lewis Hall from Mystical Paths. The first book in the St. Benet trilogy (The Wonder Worker) was the first Susan Howatch I ever read. After that one, I switched over the Starbridge and then came back to the trilogy. I recommend just starting with Starbridge in the first place.

The narrator of this book is a woman named Carter Graham. Her masculine name is no accident. She is a successful career woman who has to project masculine energy to earn respect in the business world. It’s the 90’s. I’m imagining a lot of pantsuits. Carter recently married the love of her life, a man named Kim. Everything is ticking along wonderfully until her husband’s ex-wife shows up and warns Carter that Kim is not what he seems. Kim says his ex-wife is crazy. Who is telling the truth?

This book is super creepy and introduces a villain whose arc continues into the last book in the trilogy. I really enjoyed this one, but it didn’t affect me deeply like the Starbridge books.


Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

This was a book club pick, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Low expectations helped. I have read most of the creepy-husband thrillers of the last five years and have gotten mega burned out on unreliable female narrators and cheap twists. This book feels fresh.  It is suspenseful and twisted without being gory or lurid. (It also has a fantastic side character with Down Syndrome!) Easy to read in one sitting — would make a great summer/traveling pick.


The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

Because I liked Behind Closed Doors so much, I immediately reserved the author’s other two novels. The Breakdown was more like The Letdown. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) It is fairly obvious to everyone except the narrator who is behind the crime, which makes for a frustrating reading experience. Nothing heinous about this book, just wasn’t great.


Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

I liked this one better than The Breakdown but less than Behind Closed Doors. The set-up is a little odd, and I found the resolution really depressing. Very noir feel to it. Most of the action of the novel could have been resolved if the protagonist had called the police when any normal person would have done so.


And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

C and I read this aloud on a car trip. I had seen the movie before, but the book has a completely different (and more depressing) ending. It is pretty bleak, but Christie is such a legend. Not my personal favorite, but I can see why it is considered one of Christie’s best.



An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler

One of the best books I read all year! This collection of essays about food has changed both my beliefs *and* my practices regarding food preparation. I had never willingly boiled a vegetable in my life before reading the first chapter. She cites Robert Capon’s Supper of the Lamb more than once, but I have to say that in my opinion, hers is the better book. That is probably heresy to some of my friends, but there you go. If you do the majority of food preparation in your household, buy this book.

November 2019

In November I read four books, none of which I particularly enjoyed. Three were for a book club that I haven’t been able to attend yet. Le sigh. The fourth book was, as you might expect, a Susan Howatch.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko

When Deming is eleven years old, his undocumented immigrant mother goes to work and never comes home. He is cared for by his mother’s boyfriend and later the boyfriend’s sister, both of whom also abandon him without warning. After this, he is adopted by a WASP-y academic couple who re-name him Daniel. As Deming/Daniel grows up, his adoptive parents pressure him to follow in their footsteps. This is a parenting mistake older than the hills, but the adoption issue makes it all the more fraught. Deming feels torn between following his own path and towing the line to ensure his adopted family’s approval. The book is well-written and manages to touch on many different complex themes — immigration, cultural identity, interracial adoption, and motherhood–in under 350 pages.

Some slight spoilers follow. This was a hard book for me to read — one I might not have finished if it weren’t for a book club. I have a visceral reaction to parental abandonment, and my heart couldn’t find room for Deming’s mom. Though I could see how she was also a victim, some of her choices were incredibly selfish, and I wasn’t able to forgive her the way Deming is able to. Even though Daniel’s adoptive parents were making an utter hash of things, my sympathies were ultimately with them because they were at least doing the bare minimum.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Another book club pick. Actually, the first pick – one I was supposed to read months ago. Interesting how this book shared so many themes with the later book club selections. Issues of identity, parental abandonment, and love of nature are at the forefront, just as in Washington Black and The Leavers. Unlike the other two, this one also bled into the genres of romance, murder mystery, and legal drama.

I didn’t have strong feelings about this book either way. I found it difficult to connect with Kya, but it was beautifully written and helped me appreciate the marshy Outer Banks.  I found the failures of her parents/community really depressing, as with the other two books. The ending was not what I expected, and I have to admit that I prefer the ending I imagined. (What cheek!)


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This was a book club pick, too — and a much quicker read than the other two. I think I read it in one sitting. This summer, I read and enjoyed Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six. As with Daisy Jones, this book mockuments (we can make that a verb, right?) a fictionalized celebrity’s rise to fame and wraps up tidily with a few twists. Jenkins Reid does a great job of making these characters seem real.

In Seven Husbands, a young reporter is contacted by Evelyn Hugo, a reclusive old Hollywood film star and inexplicably given the rights to her life story. (This set-up is reminiscent of–if not entirely stolen from—Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale). Why Evelyn chose her is a mystery that isn’t resolved until the very last chapters.

This ended up being my least favorite book club pick, even though it was the easiest to read. I felt like this book was a little too obvious in what it was trying to do. The intersectionality theme is underscored too strongly, as if she didn’t trust her readers to figure out what she was doing. The character of Evelyn Hugo represents a feminism whose only defense against male exploitation and abuse is to respond in kind. Virtually all of the relationships depicted here — even/especially the LGBTQ+ relationship that is *supposed* to stand in stark contrast to the others — are unhealthy. The twist at the end is a little far-fetched. Not the book for me.


Scandalous Risks (Starbridge #4) by Susan Howatch

My least favorite Susan Howatch of the series. This is the only book in the series narrated by a woman and the only one narrated by a layperson. Set in the Swinging Sixties, the plot centers on an affair between clergyman Neville Aysgarth* and a young woman, Venetia Flaxton. (I found out later that this is loosely based on the relationship between British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and a socialite thirty-five years younger named Venetia Stanley.) What makes this affair worse is that Aysgarth is best friends with Venetia’s father, and Venetia is best friends with Aysgarth’s daughter. Blech.

While the book doesn’t condone the affair at all, it didn’t give me the satisfaction of seeing Neville pay for his crime. (Which, I’m sure, is intentional. Nobody in Susan Howatch is written off as unredeemable.) The book portrays accurately what it is like when a clergyman takes advantage of a young girl. Even more sinister is the fact that Venetia is a seeker, not a fellow believer. Their relationship begins when he offers to explain modern theology to her. Neville brings Venetia close to God, but he is also the one who ruins her life. The ending is realistically tragic, with only the tiniest bit of hope.

Venetia plays a part in the St. Benet’s trilogy that follows the Starbridge Quartet. I read the first book in the St. Benet’s trilogy (The Wonder Worker) before reading the Starbridge series, and I wish I hadn’t if only for the character of Venetia. I really needed to understand her backstory to appreciate where she’s at in The Wonder Worker.

One thing Scandalous Risks did spectacularly well is show how well-meaning Christians lack imagination when it comes to how God rescues people. They know how God rescued them, so they woodenly apply the same logic to everyone around them. One character, an otherwise wonderful Christian woman, strongly pressures Venetia into a “solution” that worked for a young girl in a similar situation in the first book. It is a disaster for poor Venetia, because it was hasty counsel based on past experience, not tailored to Venetia and her specific situation. This happens all the time in the church, but I’d never seen it represented quite so well in fiction before.


2019 Media Memorables (Because I Don’t Want to Pick Favorites)


A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 3. (Netflix) 

I had mixed feelings about Seasons 1 and 2 and was mainly watching it for a) nostalgic reasons and b) Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Season 3 covers the books where the story gets dark, and the TV show nailed it, especially the last episode (“The End”). It was deeply satisfying to me in a way the last book wasn’t when I first read it, though I’m not sure how much of that is due to my own internal growth. Casting is perfection — Max Greenfield is a delight in “The Penultimate Peril” and the girl who plays Carmelita Spats was made for that role. 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 4 (Netflix)

Kimmy Schmidt is a weird show, one that is almost too weird for me. It starts off weird — in 8th grade, Kimmy was kidnapped and forced to live in an underground bunker with a doomsday cult leader (played by the incredible Jon Hamm). The pilot begins with Kimmy, now 29, being freed from the bunker and attempting to integrate back into society. I love Tina Fey (the creator of the show), so I watched all four seasons, even though each season felt like they were still trying to figure out where this show was going. Seasons 2 and 3 were also full of cultural references that I just didn’t get, at least not well enough to appreciate them. I was so glad they wrapped up the series instead of dragging it out indefinitely, and I almost always find TV finales satisfying. This was no exception, but the real winner here was Season 4, Episode 9, entitled “Sliding Van Doors.” 

In this episode, we get an alternate timeline, one in which Kimmy escaped being kidnapped in 8th grade. The episode shows us the life of the Kimmy-that-would-have-been. This episode is genius, because it gives the viewer what would otherwise be impossible: the ability to differentiate between what is inherent in Kimmy’s personality and what was created through the trauma of being kidnapped for fifteen years. Without romanticizing Kimmy’s trauma, the show lands on a surprisingly Christian note: Kimmy’s painful experience made her better. She is a deeper, more loving person for having been kidnapped than she would have been otherwise. It was beautiful, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterward. It was the fictional outworking of Stephen Colbert’s comment in his interview with Anderson Cooper: “I love the thing I most wish had not happened.” (If you haven’t watched that interview yet, do it!) 

Russian Doll (Netflix)

My absolute favorite TV I saw this year. It’s short, just eight 30-minute episodes. I’ve watched it twice and just writing this makes me want to watch it a third time. Spoilers about the pilot, but nothing further. The main character Nadia is a “cockroach” (which she charmingly but inexplicably pronounces “cock-a-roach”). By this, she means that she’s a survivor. She’s tough, not delicate. She’s never met a drug she won’t try. She constantly engages in risky behavior, but it’s always worked out for her. But on the night of her 36th birthday, Nadia gets hit by a car and dies. What follows is a time-loop a la Groundhog Day in which she keeps dying and returning to the night of her 36th birthday party. This show is hilarious, sad, and achingly beautiful. This show was created start-to-finish by women, and they are women who understand trauma. Nadia’s unwillingness to own her painful past doesn’t mean that she can escape it. It will come find her. Nadia’s polar opposite is the character of Alan, a man whose coping mechanisms are repression and an obsession with order. Russian Doll shows us how both of these paths are, literally, inescapable loops. Neither path provides a way out. 

 I don’t want to say too much, because I want you to experience this for yourself. Content Warning: lots of swearing, lots of drug use, some sexual references and a one quick scene you may want to fast-forward because of butts. This is the only time I’ve ever played the “It’s still worth it” card. The show has been picked up for a second season in 2020, but I’m nervous about watching it. When something is satisfyingly perfect, you don’t really want more, y’know? 


I really didn’t watch too many movies this year. Correction: I didn’t stay awake for many movies this year. The movie I probably enjoyed the most was the 1985 movie Clue. My favorite movie I saw in the theater (and the only movie I saw in the theater in 2019) was Knives Out. Together, they make a nice movie flight of comedic murder mysteries. 

Album / Song

My most-listened-to song was “I Want to Be Delivered” from the musical The Unusual Tale of Joseph and Mary’s Baby.

In the stage performance, this song is what “causes” the Annunciation. After Joseph returns home from work having been beat up by the Romans, Mary is spurred to action. She climbs up onto a box and demands that God fulfill his promises to Israel. She half-jokingly says, “What do you need, God? You need someone to volunteer? I’ll do it.” Throughout this scene, Mary’s arms are spread wide, cruciform, one of the many times in this musical that you see a whole lot of Jesus in his mother (and then wonder if it may be the other way around). 

I want to be delivered.
I want to be set free.
I want to get across those waters;
That’s what was promised to me.
Wandering the desert,
A wilderness of shame,
Drunk on worries of everyday life,
We’ve almost forgotten our name.
I’m half afraid this is the story
Someone will tell
Of how we fell ill, but our former glory
Would not make us well.

Don’t make me wait ‘til after I’m gone.
If you won’t deliver us, let us leave.
If you chose another people, and you’re moving on,
Just save us all the trouble of trying to believe,
And let your people go.

What does it take to wake you,
To see you raise your hand?
To hear your justice roll,
Your thundering command?
‘Cause hoping and never receiving,
It wears a heart out.
I used to feel full of believing;
Now I’m emptied by doubt.

Don’t make me wait ‘til after I’m gone.
If you won’t deliver us, let us leave.
If you chose another people, and you’re moving on,
Just save us all the trouble of trying to believe,
And let your people go.
Let your people go.
Just let your people go,
And say goodbye.

One thing I love about this song is how jam-packed it is with allusions to the Hebrew Bible. Mary is a good Hebrew. She knows the stories. She knows what God did for Moses. She knows what happens to God’s reputation when He doesn’t come through. She knows what God did for Naomi when she was “emptied by doubt.” She sounds like Amos, asking for justice to roll down like waters. I got chills the first time I heard her telling God to “let your people go,” this time not meaning “free us from Pharoah,” but “let us depart from you, God, unless you’re planning to fulfill your promises.” 

And then, of course, there’s the delightful pun on “deliverance.” Mary delivers the deliverer. SO GOOD. 

Stage Musical


As a fellow early reader (though sadly lacking in telekinetic powers), I loved Roald Dahls book Matilda from a young age. I heard about the musical when it came out in 2013 but I had never listened to it prior to watching the show this year when we realized it was our anniversary and quickly Googled things to do in our town. It was a total last-minute decision, but it was an incredible production. The girl who played Matilda, the woman who played Miss Honey,  and the man (yes, man) who played Mrs. Trunchbull were astounding. It was Broadway quality but in Birmingham, Alabama for ~$30 a ticket.

I was amused to realize that this time through, I related to Miss Honey far more than Matilda. The musical highlights her psychological growth, especially through reprises of songs like “When I Grow Up.” In a strange twist, it is really Miss Honey that is the stereotypical abused, neglected child. Matilda still has the spunk to fight back. She is the one who rescues Miss Honey.

The opening song “Miracle” is hilarious, showing two kinds of bad parenting — the neglectful Wormwoods and their smothering, overprotective, my-child-can-do-no-wrong neighbors. Also hysterical is Mr. Wormwood’s song “Telly” about why TV is better than books. “Somewhere on a show I heard / That a picture tells a thousand words / So telly, if you bothered to take a look / Is the equivalent of, like, lots of books!

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

I already gushed about this earlier, but seeing this stage production was really a dream come true for me. I cried through the entire first act. The actors who played Mary and Joseph were even better than the ones on the recorded album. The show only shows in Knoxville, TN, so if you’re ever there around Christmastime, I highly recommend it. Unlike most Nativity scenes you’ll experience, this one places the birth of Jesus not at the end but in the middle, right before the intermission. The second half of the musical is about the flight to Egypt. I move that we all include that part of the story in our Nativity scenes from now on.



The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Rethinking School by Susan Wise Bauer

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry

What is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler


The Dry by Jane Harper

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Mystical Paths, and Absolute Truths, all by Susan Howatch

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie