What I’m Into – November 2015 Edition

what i'm into

November was a beautiful month — in that stripped down, bare branches kind of way that is so often is in Minnesota.

If you read this post about my attempts at making peace with my inner-cynic, then you know I’ve started seeing a spiritual director.

A spiritual director is a person whose role it is to listen, discern, ask questions and walk with others as they seek to deepen their relationships with God. My spiritual director is also a licensed therapist, and we’ve spent a lot of time sifting through all the old super-evangelical crap that I thought I’d be over by now.

In many ways, the starkness of this month has been a perfect mirror for what’s going on with my internal life. I’m doing a lot of listening and thinking, and I’m being honest and out loud about the things that make me feel cynical in my spiritual life. Oddly, in the midst of all this, I’ve found myself moving toward God without trying to — like how you can supposedly turn your car in a given direction by momentarily steering the other way.

It’s November, and I’m countersteering toward my cynic past…and I can’t believe how beautiful the world looks, how close God feels.

What I’m Reading

book 1 - the expatsThe Expats, Chris Pavone: I read this because I’d heard good things about it and because I liked his second book The Accident. Plus I was feeling a thriller…but this one ended up being sort of underwhelming to me. I think I must have been in a funky mood when I read it because it’s won all kids of awards and is a NYT Bestseller…but I could not bring myself to care about the characters or the story. It was polished and well-written…and I finished it…but I had to push through to the end. Odd.


book 2 - ripperRipper, Isabel Allende: I spotted this one on one of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Kindle Deal emails and was hooked by the description of one of the main character: “Brilliant and introverted, the MIT-bound high school senior is a natural-born sleuth addicted to crime novels and Ripper, the online mystery game she plays with her beloved grandfather and friends around the world. When a string of strange murders occurs across the city, Amanda plunges into her own investigation, discovering, before the police do, that the deaths may be connected.” Ring a bell Veronica Mars fans? The book was good — my first Allende. Did not guess the twist, which was weird, but good.


book 3 - comfort and joyComfort & Joy, Kristin Hannah: This is another one from Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Daily Kindle Deals email. I downloaded it on Thanksgiving because everyone was watching football and no one would let me watch a Hallmark movie…and because it was $1.99. The beginning was so over-the-top cliche and schluppy that I almost quit, but Part 2 changed everything and made it 100 times better. Worth the two bucks for a bit of Christmasy whimsy.



book 4 - still lifeStill Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression, Gillian Marchenko – I had the chance to read an early copy of Gillian’s new book on motherhood and depression. What I loved about this book was the precision with which she describes clinical depression, which, when you have it, seems to exist almost outside of language. I also appreciated the vulnerability with which she described her work toward managing this disease. If you or someone you love has depression and you’re having a tough time understanding it, this is a great one to read. It doesn’t come out until May, but you can preorder now.

What I’m Watching

So many Hallmark movies you guys. So many. This is our first full Christmas season with the Hallmark channel, and they started with the Christmas movies on October 30th. OCTOBER 30th!!

I held out as long as I could, but by the second week of November, I was toast. I plan to highlight some of my so-bad-they’re-good favorites later this month, so we can all look forward to that.

Regular shows (Grey’s, Scandal, Nashville and Jane the Virgin) are all down for the winter break. I also added Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the list because Micha and Leigh swore it was amazing. And it kind of is. Especially the musical numbers.

What I’m Listening To

I resurrected my Jack’s Mannequin CDs this month. I can sing the first one front to back, but I haven’t spent a ton of time with either of the other efforts. I love his lyrics, and I ended up listening to “Platform Fire” off of People and Things at least thirty times in a row one evening when I was stuck in traffic. I guess it just struck a nerve.

Other Things I’ve Been Into:

The last gasp of beautiful weather in Minnesota.

end of fall

Picking up the remains of Liam’s “artwork.”

cutting paper

Thanksgiving. I was able to host this year, which I think is fun. I get a weird amount of delight over setting a pretty table, and I mostly avoided cooking catastrophe…except for that one close call where I put the green bean casserole into the oven with the pink plastic lid still on. Whoops.

thanksgiving 4

Our first trip to the Christmas tree farm. Usually we just pick up a tree at Lowe’s or Home Depot, but this year, we went out to a little cut-down-you-own place and cut down the biggest tree in the world. Bonus — free pony rides, a petting zoo with bunnies, and the world’s creepiest Santa Claus.

tree farm 1

Life lesson: if it looks huge at the Christmas tree farm, it’s going to look enormous in your home. We are now embracing our inner Griswolds.

our griswold tree

Blog and Book News

I announced my new book this month — finally — and you were all so gracious. You’ll hear more about it after the holidays, but for now, thanks for the love.

And speaking of weird, new, kind of scary things, Off the Page launched a new advice column — which I am authoring in response to your questions. Yikes. Look for the first installment over there later this month!

My favorite post of the month was about Learning to Love my Cynic Voice…but I also wrote about the beginning of the Dark Season (goodbye Daylight Savings), the unusual ways that we give and receive hope, and about my favorite advent tradition — the Junk Journal. 

I finally bit the bullet and added a newsletter signup to the blog. If you haven’t put your email in there, you should probably do it. I’m going to be sending out the first installment soon! If newsletters aren’t your thing, you can always follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!

Giving Tuesday!

detailsOne final thing — today is World Vision’s Giving Tuesday campaign. Thirty-One Gifts will match with a donation made to World Vision today (December 1) only with a donation of product up to $1,000,000. These donated products, including blankets and clothing, will be used to support families in need all around the world.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I had the opportunity to go to Armenia with World Vision earlier this year. I have seen the work that they do and am such a fan of the way that they use their resources to make entire communities better. One of the things that I learned while I was there is that you don’t have to care about everything. It was such a freeing thing for me — to see the passion and creativity of the local people who are already working there. It was such a moment of empowering grace, to know that I could just give a little. That this could be enough.

I’ll be giving to World Vision today, and I hope you’ll join me!


As usual, I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer for her monthly “What I’m Into” linkup. What have you been into this month?

Advent Junk Journal

advent junk journal - inside

Advent is coming, and I am ready.

I’m always ready for the Advent season — but this year, it feels like it can’t get here soon enough, like I need the sacred space that it has to offer.

If you’ve read much here, you know that I am one of those people who is always so aware of the gap — that emptiness that exists in life whether you are a person of faith or not. I don’t know if it’s the depression or just my artistic leaning, but I feel it all the time like a gaping hole in my side.

And much of my faith angst comes from the cliches and formulas and bumper stickers that we slap over that gap in order to pretend it doesn’t exist.

God will not give you more than you can handle.

Let go, let God.

If you feel far away from God, guess who moved?

That hole in your life is God-shaped…and only He can make you feel whole!

But the songs and scriptures and of Advent aren’t like that.

They’re songs of longing and need and desperation. The hymns that are reimagined by a hundred different artists this time of year — O Come O Come Emmanuel and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus and Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming and all those others — recognize the darkness while also holding a space for the coming light.

Sit in the dark, but leave the Christmas lights on, Advent says.

See the beauty in the darkness. Light is coming, light is coming, light is coming.

Light. Is. Come.

And I need this season. I need this validation of both darkness and light…particularly as we begin another long, dark winter in Minnesota.

There is something important, vital, beautiful, essential that I find when I take the time to sit in this tension…

But it’s Advent in America, and so there are Hallmark movies and Christmas Light Shows and Big Giant Sales and Christmas parties and cookie exchanges, and so Advent requires a kind of intentionality.

It requires us to find a sustainable way to choose it all over again, year after year after year.


Because I love the Advent season so much, I’m annually tempted to do every possible Advent related thing. (And there are so many beautiful ideas. A couple of years ago, I crowd-sourced with my readers, and we came up with a pretty exhaustive and amazing list. And my friend Tanya Marlow has cultivated a great list for 2015 here.)

But his year, I’ve decided to just pick just a couple of things. (Sometime in the next week or so, I’ll tell you what I’m planning to do with the kiddos to help them to learn to make space in their hearts this season. But today’s post is just about my own personal engagement with Advent.)

Enter my Advent Junk Journal.

simple advent junk journal

A few years ago, at my church women’s group’s Christmas session, there was a table filled with all sorts of paper scraps. There was cardboard and envelopes and scrapbook pages and notebook paper. Anything you could think to write on was there. Old teacher logs. Calendar pages. Pizza boxes. Vellum. They even brought in a couple of old typewriters.

After we’d talked around our tables about Christmas and intentionality and noticing, we were invited to get up, to take whatever we wanted, to create our own space.

I was, to use the old cliche, like a kid in a candy store.

But that year, that Advent season, something weird happened. I actually wrote things down. 

That junky journal with its helter-skelter pages — all of which were different widths and lengths, all of which were shoved into a sort of messy, beautiful pile — gave me exactly the space I needed to capture the skittering thoughts and insights that I found coming my way that season.

Now I make one every year.

I don’t have quite the same variety of papers available to me, but I can always find random stuff around the house. Scrapbook paper I forgot I had. A notebook with lines that are too wide-ruled for regular use. That grocery list pad from the fridge. That stack of paper that Liam colored on and then decided he hated.

I cobble them together into one book with just the smallest space for writing. And then I keep it around when I’m reading through my motley collection of advent books. When I’m sitting in front of my sun lamp in the morning. When we have the Christmas music on in the evening. And so if some old hymn stops me in my tracks, the book is there. And I have just enough room to write it down.


I have a rotation of favorite Advent books that I read here-and-there throughout the month of December. They are the best — guides and voices as I try my best to sit still in the mystery.

I like having a few different ones because it gives me options depending on my mood. My favorite go-to’s are:

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas – If you get just one, make it this one. It is such a well put-together compilation of great voices; you won’t be disappointed.

Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation, by Luci Shaw – The poet’s eye on Advent is a crucial one, and I love Shaw’s particular take. Gorgeous and haunting.

God is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I just got this one last year and didn’t get a chance to read much of it. Still – there is something powerful about the advent prayers written in prison cell, and I’m looking forward to engaging with this one more this year.

I’m constantly going back to the Advent section of the Henri Nouwen reader Seeds of Hope, but I imagine that these same bits — plus more — are compiled in Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers together with Nouwen’s Own Words.

Advent with St. Franics, Diane M. Houdek – This is not, strictly speaking, a series of writings from St. Francis, but Houdek does a nice job of integrating his quotes, insights, and life to deepen the advent experience. It’s also the tiniest book I’ve ever seen, so it’s easy to keep in my bag and read when I find myself out and about and with a minute of boredom.

Preparing for Christmas, Richard Rohr – I’ve gotten in the bad (awesome?) habit of ordering myself a new advent reader at the beginning of each season, and I just bought this one for my 2015 read. I’ll keep you posted on that one, but it’s come highly recommended and I’m looking forward to checking it out!

advent required reading

But here’s the great thing about the Advent Junk Journal. There is only the tiniest space to write. There is no daily scripture reading with study questions and fill-in-the-blanks that mock you if you don’t have time to do them.

I make a point of never including much more writing space than a small notecard or post-it…and then I write down one thing.

One line or quote or insight or metaphor that struck me in my reading…

One verse…

A line of a hymn or a Christmas song that keeps running through my head…

A moment of transcendence with my children…

One unexpected thing that happened today…

One glimpse of a slant of light as it falls over the icy pond…

There are a thousand ways to encounter God, to experience the hard beauty of Advent, and what I’ve discovered is that more than spending hours reading and praying and journaling — it’s just catching one minute. Capturing one small incandescent bit of beauty falling like a snowflake. To jot it down before it disappears.

advent journal inside 3

What you need to make an Advent Junk Journal:

  • Random papers of any types/sizes. Envelopes. Grocery lists. Graph paper. Computer paper. Notebook paper. I had a bunch of unused Christmas scrapbook paper at the bottom of a drawer, so I used a bunch of that, along with cut-up dictionary pages, ripped up notecards, Post-it Notes and
  • Cardboard for the cover (Literally just rip the top off of some cardboard box. It looks even cooler if you rip it a little to reveal the corrugated inside.)
  • Book binding rings. The ones at the Dollar Tree are too small. Go with the bigger ones. (You want to have space to be able to add photos, cards, a random church bulletin, flier, or newspaper article)

That’s it. It’s the easiest craft project ever because it looks even better if you don’t line up everything perfectly. (This is perfect for Christmastime when the pressure to be PERFECT seems to reach its boiling point.)

Not crafty? There is no shame in that. You can still have your own version of an Advent Junk Journal. Get one of those tiny moleskin notebooks with just enough space on each page for one small thought. A stack of post-its. A handful of notecards. You could even just use the space in your daily planner to jot things down.

You can do this project however you like. Do whatever helps you mark the days. Whatever centers your heart toward beauty.

Whatever helps you to wait and watch for the light.

advent journal inside 2

What about you? How do you make space for intentionality at Advent?

In Which I Become an Unlikely Advice Columnist


This fall, at a weird little “resort” in the Wisconsin Dells that had two goats and a wasp-infested outdoor pool, I cracked open Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and I learned the phrase radical empathy, and my world tilted off its axis a little.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote during her time as “Sugar” at the literary website The RumpusWhile at The Rumpus, she vaulted the standard “advice column” into uncharted territory: instead of giving barebones advice, Strayed gave her stories. She gave empathy. She gave herself.

I sat next to a patch of sugarcane my kids were feeding to the penned-up goats, and I read and read and read. I read people’s most fragile, terrifying questions. I read Sugar’s answers, which were so often rooted in her own moments of pain, grief, and confusion.

To the one whose friends don’t like his girlfriend, Sugar wrote, “The complicated thing about friends is that sometimes they are totally wrong about us and sometimes they are totally right and it’s almost always only in retrospect that we know which is which.”

To the woman who’s worried about whether she’s attractive: “There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.”

To the envious writer (who could be me most days of the week), Sugar said, “There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.”

People wrote their barest questions to Sugar, and she answered with the most wonderful cocktail of compassion and candidness. More often than not, she responded to the letter writer’s story with a story of her own—a memory, a confession, a distinctive vulnerability—and it was in that place where Sugar’s experience met her readers’ that radical empathy was born.

The advice she offered was not from above and beyond the problem, but from the complex middle of it. And because of that, it was searingly beautiful.

As I read the book, the thought that kept scrolling along the marquee of my mind was,

The church NEEDS this.

[Continue reading at Off the Page]

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark {Official Book Reveal!}

3D Book Image smallOnce upon a time, I was on fire for Jesus, and that meant, more than anything else, that I felt my faith. It was palpable, tactile, tied inextricably into my emotions, making me weep openly in church on any given Sunday.

“How do you know God is real?” the impassioned speaker at the yearly Acquire the Fire conference asked. And we knew the answer before he said it: “Because you’ve FELT him.”

And I did. Faith was something that burned in my heart and in my veins. It made me stand up and raise my hands up high in worship. It made me passionate. It made me sure.

I FELT God like the bright morning sunrise on my face, like the strobe of a fluorescent light pounding against my closed eyelids

Until I didn’t.


In February 2014 – fifteen years after boiling point of my own on fire youth – I buckled my sons (ages four and two at the time) into our old, clunky minivan and set out on a 3000-mile road trip south. There was minimal thought or planning involved.

The North Polar Vortex was shifting oddly down into the United States, plunging us all into record lows. Flights canceled all along the East coast! Snowstorms in Georgia! The numbing winter darkness was spreading ink-like around me, into me, and I was pouring red wine into my own ravenous emptiness, trying to feel something. Anything.

My only thought was escape. My only thought was anywhere but here.

“It’s my chance to do something special with the boys before they start school,” I told my husband when I showed him the planning spreadsheet that I’d labeled Epic Winter Road Trip??? The spreadsheet listed the names of old friends, distant relatives, and Internet-strangers – anyone I could think of en route to Florida who might be able to give us an air mattress to crash on for a night.

“It’s a great way to promote my new book!” I told my Mama friends in the preschool parking lot as I waved goodbye, pulled away from the school, away from Minnesota, away from my life.

To my sons, blinking at me from their car seats, I said, “It’s an adventure! It’s going to be an adventure.

But of course, really, the trip was not about any of those things as much as it was a desperate attempt to get to the Light. It was gas station coffee and strangers’ houses and the mile markers ticking by as I made one last-ditch effort to find a faith I could feel.

It was a disappointment.

It was a revelation.


My first memoir, When We Were on Fire, was the story of untangling myself from a faith that was consuming, fiery, passionate, dangerous.

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark is about the blank space after that, the gap between the faith you used to have and the dimness of reality. It’s about learning to make peace with the darkness – both around you and inside of your own heart.

It is the most terrifyingly personal thing I’ve ever written, but I’ve always believed that telling the truth of our darkness is the way that we heal, move forward, feel less alone.

And I think that maybe this story is a lot more universal than a girl in a minivan bulleting south toward the coast. It’s the story of all of us who are trying to move forward, trying to find God, trying to get to the Light.

Here we are, scraping always at our own emptiness, trying to make a spark.

Here we are, running away from the cold, looking for someplace sunnier, someplace warmer, someplace where all of this is easy.

Here we are, learning to survive the winter.

Night Driving is a book for anyone who has ever felt far away from God. For anyone who has felt far from themselves. For anyone groping for faith in the dark.

For you.

Night Driving - road pic

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark officially releases on March 15, 2016 with Convergent, but you can pre-order it now on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, and IndieBound (support your local bookseller!)

In the meantime, you can sign up for my newsletter to keep updated on Night Driving and my upcoming events…and to get unique content delivered right to your inbox.

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Thank you for your support, encouragement, comments, emails and patience as I’ve worked through the long, beautiful, excruciating process of writing this book.

I can’t wait to share it with you.