Countdown to 2014: top 10 books read in 2013, part 3

If you’re just now joining in, this is the final part of my “top 10” countdown. Click on the links for part 1 and part 2.

#4 The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (2011)

I blogged a good bit about this one already during the summer, so it will come as no surprise that this made my top 10 list. I found Rubin’s suggestions and reflections based on her “happiness research” to be intriguing to read about and formative to practicing happiness in daily life. She reminds us that happiness is found not in the all-inclusive week at a Caribbean island, but that it awaits us around each quite ordinary corner of our own homes. Happiness is a practice and a mentality more than it is a set of ideal circumstances. As one who can be overly critical of my own life, always waiting for “better” around the corner, I appreciated the push to stop and engage in looking for happiness here and now. One of the best take-aways was to begin blogging more regularly (daily at first in June), refusing to wait for “perfect” to attempt something I’ve wanted to do for awhile.

#3 The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (2010)

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a few months will find this to be no surprise either. I am a huge Brene Brown fan. Her work has shaped and influenced other writers and bloggers I enjoy, notably Glennon (and her book I reviewed yesterday). I read Daring Greatly after this one, and I have to say that I prefer The Gifts of Imperfection for its concise and practical summary of all of her shame/vulnerability/empathy research. She condenses it into “10 practices of Wholehearted people,” and each chapter spells this out along with suggestions to put it into practice. The one that’s stayed with me the most is the need to cultivate creativity. Hence my desire to embrace the messiness that IS art with my preschoolers, like the 15 minute finger-painting session yesterday which left red, yellow, green, and blue paint everywhere. And, yes, it was only 15 minutes. Long enough to do about 4-5 “paintings” each and to empty each of their 4 jars of paint to 15% or less. Astounding …

#2 What It Is Is Beautiful by Sarah Dunning Park (2013)

I received an autographed copy from the author of these beautiful poems about motherhood, and she is one of those truly filled-with-beauty women whose poetry pours forth onto the page as a balm for the soul. My soul as a mother has often needed to stop and savor and read these poems which put words to my own experience of the tender and excruciating journey of motherhood. I cannot recommend her book highly enough, and I have given at least half a dozen (if not more?) copies to friends this year as gifts. Love these poems, love the author, love this book. It’s part of the beauty and creativity we need for our souls to thrive.

Drumroll, please?? And #1 book read in 2013 was … 

photo credit:

Grace for the Good Girl by Emily Freeman (2011)

Have you ever read a book that’s your story, put into book form? This is it for me. I have my whole life been the quintessential “good girl” (with a few covert “rebellious” breaks that included slamming my door in high school after yelling at my parents and listening to Nirvana on full blast). My first deep encounter with grace the summer after my sophomore year in college transformed me – for I realized for the first time in my life how much I, Heather Elizabeth Davis, goody-two-shoes, needed grace. I couldn’t be good enough, no matter how many hour-long devotions I had or small groups I led or people I shared my faith with. In fact, some of these endeavors were actually in fact ways I sought to hide from my need for God. I would feel self-sufficient after a “good” quiet time and wouldn’t turn to him throughout the day. I would feel superior and self-righteous to others who weren’t as “holy” and judge them. For I was out of touch with my own neediness and I was blind to my own blindness. Even our goodness is worth nothing to God – no one can be good enough for a 100% holy God. Yikes. But he has made a way to bridge the gap. Jesus! Grace, mercy, clothed in Christ’s righteousness so that I can stop hiding behind my own attempts to be good. I can receive help from others instead of having to be the helper always. I can be honest about being hurt and weak and vulnerable and shame-filled. There is always grace. All is grace. Emily writes beautifully about these truths through the lens of her own story. What a good place to end for 2013, and what a good place to begin in 2014!

ordinary happiness, Saint Therese, and faith

In continuing to read through The Happiness Project, I’ve come to the chapter about happiness and faith. I was particularly curious to read Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts on this since she writes from a perspective that’s not necessarily Christian. Imagine my surprise when she begins talking about “imitating a spiritual master,” and then chooses Saint Therese. A lesser known saint who lived a relatively quiet life, dying at age 24 from tuberculosis. How did such a woman become a saint? And then capture Gretchen Rubin’s attention?

It was her ordinary happiness. Meaning that Rubin was impressed that her achievement of sainthood happened “through the perfection of small, ordinary acts.” She quotes Therese’s famous spiritual memoir Story of a Soul as follows:

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by … every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.

Rubin says, “Therese’s example shows that ordinary life, too, is full of opportunities for worthy, if inconspicuous virtue.” And the theme of Therese’s life is a happiness motto Rubin’s sought to adopt for herself: 

I take care to appear happy and especially to be so.

If Rubin, who by all accounts is a wonderful woman and writer and person but seems to be without a saving faith in Jesus Christ, can make her life happier by imitating this quiet saint, how much more can we who have THE source of happiness that Therese herself knew? One particularly striking story Rubin shares is of a nun whom Therese disliked and was annoyed by, yet made an especially strong effort to appear happy around. It worked to the point that this nun thought that she was closest to Therese of all the nuns! Little did she know …

I’m not advocating being fake. A “pick yourself up by the bootstraps and paste a happy face on” kind of happiness. But perhaps there is something for us to consider – that we should ask God for the grace to choose happiness, and kindness, and love, even when we don’t feel any of those things. That we could choose to be happy, dwell on what’s positive about our situation, instead of always focusing on the negative. I am so guilty of this as a “natural pessimist” and one who as a counselor by profession has witnessed some very hard realities of life in a fallen world.

Another point Rubin makes is that when “the call” comes – meaning the one that will change our lives forever, because it’s the cancer diagnosis or the bad news or the fill-in-the-blank – we then appreciate what we had. She quotes William Edward Hartpole Lecky:

There are times in the lives of most of us when we would have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed.

And so we are to live as though we’re dying. Because, well, we are. And this doesn’t bring pessimism but a greater appreciation for each day and what’s precious about now. We will not always have today, nor what we take for granted today. 

A moment happened today to bring this all into focus. One of my daughters unexpectedly tumbled out of the back of our SUV onto hard pavement. A friend “happened” to break her fall a bit, but she still got a pretty large bump on her head. It could have been so much worse. And in that instant I forgot about my petty complaints about how whiny she can be or how hard it is to get her to stay in bed. I was simply thankful to wrap my arms around her and give her the comfort she longed for as she repeated over and over again, “Mommy, I love you so much!” in between sobs. That’s a moment that makes me happy, though mixed in with a minor catastrophe. Have you had a moment like this recently? How did it change your perspective – and even your happiness?

The work of having fun

As I have been working my way through The Happiness Project, one chapter (or portion of a chapter) at a time, I’ve arrived at chapter 5: “Be Serious About Play.” What a delicious oxymoron! I was immediately hooked. Gretchen Rubin begins her discussion about the work of having fun with the following definition of play, as supported through research:

an activity that’s very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn’t create social harm, and doesn’t necessarily lead to praise or recognition.

She adds to this her own caveat for how to personally determine what is fun and what isn’t by saying, “just because something was fun for someone else didn’t mean it was fun for me.” How liberating is that! When was the last time you tried to talk yourself into what sounded like a fun activity and then discovered that it was anything but? I think about the day I spent in the Natural History Museum with my husband and younger brother when he came up to visit us several years ago when we were living in Philly. I thought that on our day trip to New York City that heading to this museum should be very fun. The same way that a few years later on a trip to D.C. with my husband, we planned to visit several Smithsonian museums. Museums are supposed to be enjoyable activities with an educational twist. Truth be told, I don’t enjoy museums. At. All. Just ask my husband and my younger brother who had to endure my obvious boredom about one hour into the Natural History Museum. I eventually found a comfortable bench and waited for them to finish perusing the place. I wasn’t having fun (and forgot about this when planning for the aforementioned D.C. getaway with my husband).

So much of my life has been spent trying to force myself to enjoy activities that I don’t like because I feel like I should. Included in this category for me are:

  • Roller coasters/adventure parks
  • Museums (see above)
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Sewing (yep, tried that when I was younger and still am a bit envious of all of you who can do this and then Pinterest your beautiful projects)
  • Knitting (attempted and failed miserably)
  • Crafts with my kids

I’m not saying that there’s not a place for doing an activity you don’t enjoy out of love for the person who invites you to join them in their fun activity. But you should go into it expecting that you’re not doing this for pure enjoyment but rather for pure love. How I could have saved myself some major frustration and disappointment along the way had I known this!

So how do I discover fun that works for me? Gretchen has another suggestion – ask yourself the question, “What did you like to do when you were a child?” And when I think about this, it’s quite similar to the activities I enjoy the most now:

  • Reading fiction
  • Playing with friends
  • Legos (well, truth be told I don’t do this much, except for assembling IKEA furniture which my husband and I affectionately refer to as “adult Legos”)
  • Scrapbooks (my modernized digital equivalent is designing  Shutterfly photo books)
  • Enjoying the outdoors – while sitting down or walking (not hiking – see list above*)
  • Going to the beach

Let me put that all together what should be my best afternoon of enjoyment: Head to the beach with a few friends who will all read books together, and then come home to assemble a desk from IKEA at which I will sit and design a photo book of our fun day. Ha! What would your fun day include?

On my bookshelf

20130610-062659.jpgI am an avid reader. I always have been, and in fact as a child I would often stay up way past bedtime reading by the light of my nightlight or a flashlight under my covers. I was such a rebellious bookworm. (Yes, I agree that’s a bit of an oxymoron.)

Since I’m seeking to write more regular posts, I thought a weekly or monthly “On my bookshelf” would give me something to work with (and something for you to look forward to). You’ll notice that I always have one fiction book, which I usually read just before bedtime and/or at the beach or stolen precious minutes of naptime. Right now I’m reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. It’s a murder mystery, a favorite genre of mine ever since Nancy Drew, and so far so good. A little hard to get into the story, but I love the writing.

Next in the stack is a nonfiction cultural read, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’ve written a little bit about this book already, and you will be hearing more from me on this topic in the future. One quote that resonated with me from Chapter 4 – “Parenthood”:

In many ways, the happiness of having children falls into the kind of happiness that could be called fog happiness. Fog is elusive. Fog surrounds you and transforms the atmosphere, but when you try to examine it, it vanishes. Fog happiness is the kind of happiness you get from activities that, closely examined, don’t really seem to bring much happiness at all — yet somehow they do. … the experience of having children gives me tremendous fog happiness. It surrounds me, I see it everywhere, despite the fact that when I zoom in on any particular moment, it can be hard to identify.

And then I like to be reading some sort of Christian book which will help to strengthen my faith and understanding of the Christian life. I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage for, well, several months now. Not because it’s not good but precisely because it is so good that I can only digest small portions at a time. I’ll leave you today with this quote from Chapter 3, “The Essence of Marriage”:

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life throws at us.

Waiting for Perfect

I am going to try an experiment suggested by Gretchen Rubin in her book The Happiness Project, which I picked up for a good summer read last week. (Who wouldn’t want to read a book about happiness, right?) She talked about launching her blog, and that someone advised her that if she did so, she should write daily. Hmm… Something I certainly haven’t done here. But why not?

I say I don’t have time. (But I probably do.)

I am afraid I won’t have things to write about. (But I’m always thinking about something.)

I think you won’t want to read it. (But you’ve proven you will – thank you!)

I want it to be perfect. Perfectly expressed, polished, magazine-worthy article that will move your heart and your soul and change your life and get me lots of re-posts and “likes.” There, it’s out there.

I want it to be perfect because I want to be perfect, or at least for you to think I’m perfect. That’s the allure of the internet. I’ll only Instagram what I want you to see about my life – the happy smiles, the weddings enjoyed, the perfect-looking family moments of strawberry picking and visiting local restaurants and overall having a fabulous time in life. I tend to Facebook days when life’s going well. And when it’s not going well, and life is less than perfect, and I don’t have words to say and I feel like an awful mom and wife and friend, I hide. It’s easy to do in virtual reality, because there’s not usually people saying, “Hey! I haven’t seen you on Instagram lately. What’s your life been up to?” “No Facebook statuses lately, Heather – are you doing ok?” “No blogs in a month – everything going all right for you?”

This post said it well and got me thinking. Enjoy it. And I’ll (hopefully) be back tomorrow for another perhaps less-than-profound post.