Read Your Strengths: Books that Reflect Context

Whenever I am frustrated by politics or policies or when I feel like the general population’s opinion about something is a bit off, I turn to books. I love finding the answers and delving a bit deeper. Of course, the books I choose reflect my own political leanings and ideas because, unless it’s a heavy scholarly tome, most books written for the masses have some sort of bias.

People who have the strength of Context also tend to lean toward biography. I’d love to have more time to read biographies, and even set a goal of reading one per year. I like the idea of reading a book about someone written by someone else. Memoir is insightful but biography really helps me understand certain people in history.

These are books that have helped me recently. They may or may not reflect my own views. Some I picked because I wanted to know more about a different point of view.

Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
Nostalgia for Ronald Reagan began about an hour after his death. He seems to have become the battle cry for better times and the good old days. Reagan was already president when I was born so I have no memory of his time in office. This 800 page book delves deeply into Reagan’s presidency and foreign policy. I wish more had been said about his domestic policies, but by the end, I felt I had a better understanding to the man behind the myth.

The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman
The older I get the more anti-gun I am. But a lot of people feel vehemently opposed to my views. I wanted to know how we shifted from needing guns for hunting and protection to collecting them, needing assault rifles, and living in an age where it’s easier to own a gun than a car. This book focused on the shift in language and meaning when the National Rifle Association moved from being a hunting club to being one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC.

We the Living by Ayn Rand
This is my one fiction book on this list. Ayn Rand is a polarizing figure – people love or loathe her. I’ve also read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead so am familiar with her better known pieces. What I most liked about We the Living is its autobiographical nature. Based on Rand’s own experience in the Soviet Union, it gives a glimpse into how her beliefs became so extreme.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
I fell in love with the BBC series based on this memoir but the books are incredible. Jennifer Worth’s experience as a midwife in postwar London is powerful – things we take for granted in today’s modern medical world were new and scary just sixty years ago. The book in this three part series that most impacted me was Shadows of the Workhouse, about the poor, the mentally ill, and single mothers. It’s hard to believe we treated people in such an abominable way just a short time ago, and is a reminder that we need to be vigilant against repeating these errors.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
I love “history” books like this – ones where a fun theme is picked and we learn little snippets about our world. This one takes us through the history of modern culture following popular drinks – beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coke. It’s a book that has stood out as fun, easy, and taught me a lot about how we view certain beverages as a society and why they’re of greater importance than simply party drinks.

What about you? What are your favorite history books or biographies? Where do you turn when you want to learn about a new perspective?


This post is Day 27 of the Write 31 Day Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the StrengthsFinder test. You can find the entire series over at Live Your Strengths page.

Planning for Spontaneity

When we’re visiting family, it’s a week of cousins, and hard playing, and schedules that aren’t followed. We do really fun things and a lot of car naps and later bedtimes. Usually, sometime in our visit, we need a quiet day. One to rest and just chill. It keeps the girls going strong for all the fun, but they do reach a limit.

At the beach during naptime

Because of our at-home structure, these weeks seem a bit chaotic. But because of our at-home structure, I’m also surprised at how adaptable the girls are to a whirlwind schedule. They adjust and go with the flow and I know that, even though we may have a few more meltdowns than usual, a week of short naps and later bedtimes is worth the beautiful memories being made with family we don’t see often enough.

According to StrengthsFinder, people who have the strength of Context make better decisions because of their daily structure. They organize their lives in such a way that, when a decision needs to be made, it’s not too difficult a process.

Even though our daily life is quiet and structured, it reminds me a bit of this strength of Context. When we can live within a routine and structure, we do. It makes those moments when we need to be flexible and free possible.

Frank and I are both pretty thoughtful and methodical when it comes to family decisions. We have spreadsheets (when I say we, I of course mean Frank) and goals. We talk a lot about our budget and how we’ll wisely spend our money. Because of all this planning and sorting, we are able to make spontaneous decisions with our time and resources, as well. Because unexpected things occasionally arise and because we’re in good communication about expected events, we’re able to make quick decisions when we need to.

Sometimes I feel boring, being so rigid. I envy people who seem to live life on the fly, not thinking too much about both big and small decisions. They seem so free! And, certainly, when they are living within their own strengths, that works incredibly well.

What I’m learning is that, because my strengths include thoughtful planning, I can be free because of the planning. I am more relaxed and have more fun when the rest of my life is structured. When my foundation is solid, I am more confident to be flexible.

When I first read about Context, I felt like such a dud. I wanted something happier, prettier, more fun. As I learn to embrace my strengths, I’m seeing that happiness and fun are attainable, but the details look different. And that’s the beauty, isn’t it? That we all experience the fun and crazy of life, but we all structure it in different ways.

How do you best experience fun and spontaneity – when you have a plan for the rest of your days or because that’s how you best function?


This post is Day 26 of the Write 31 Day Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the StrengthsFinder test. You can find the entire series over at Live Your Strengths page.

My Favorite Era

I was listening to a podcast the other day and one of the hosts mentioned how young America is – that it’s hard to find a home more than a hundred years old. Comments like this make me cringe. Yes, we’re a young country if you’re looking at a European-controlled population. But if you’re looking at humanity living on this land, America is quite old.

img_0667One of our family’s places to go and just breathe is Moab, Utah. The red rocks, the hiking, the dry climate (especially in spring, when it’s still temperate), and the fact that it’s relatively “undiscovered” makes it one of my favorite places to visit. When we’re hiking, we’ve come across petroglyphs and pictographs from the Pueblo and Navajo tribes that populated the area. These etchings are a reminder that people have inhabited this country for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

I love living in an area where such history is easily accessible. We’re looking forward to taking the girls to Mesa Verde and other spots where we can see the remnants of ancient civilizations. We want them to recognize our own history – not just of the European immigrants that form our own family, but of our land and region.

One of my favorite parts about living in Paris were the plaques put up around the city, creating a history lesson. Churches, apartments, cafes, random alleys and corners have these short paragraphs about what happened in that particular spot. It’s amazing to be reminded of all that happened in that place, over the span of centuries.

I think it can be easy to romanticize ancient cultures. To long for the “old days” when life was easier and simpler and, subsequently, to downplay our own current era. When we see these ruins and read the plaques, we are reminded that big things happened long ago. But small things happened, too. Small moments filled those day-to-day lives, just like ours. People worked and played, just like we do.

Frank and I were talking about when we would have wanted to live in the past. He often imagines life as a pioneer in the wild west. I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and, now as a mom, can only see the transient lifestyle. The fact that there was often little or no community support. The harsh winters and the stress of living in undeveloped territories. No, thank you.

Because I have an appreciation for historical context, I am quite happy living in this era. Middle class America is luxurious, with our single family homes and running water. With so many choices and opportunities. I sometimes wonder if a love of history can lead to a longing of the past. But for me, my love of history gives me a greater appreciation for the life we’re living today.

What about you? Which era would you most like to live in? Are you nostalgic for older times or do you like today?


This post is Day 25 of the Write 31 Day Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the StrengthsFinder test. You can find the entire series over at Live Your Strengths page.

Sometimes the Witch Gets the Prince

While looking for something in the storage room the other day, Bea and I found one last box of books from my teaching days. This one was filled with fairy tales, books on character building and feelings, and books that taught specific idioms used in the curriculum. It’s been fun rereading these favorites and watching Bea latch on to new books.

One of her favorites is The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. We’ve read it so much this past week that she already has it nearly memorized. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – two other favorites are a more traditional (though whimsical) telling of The Three Little Pigs by Steven Kellogg and The Three Little Dassies by Jan Brett. The teacher in me loves that she’s making these text-to-text connections and starting to understand the concept of retelling a story.

img_1587On Bea’s first day of preschool, she wore a shell necklace, given to her for her birthday. She wanted to look like Saoirse from Song of the Sea. When she showed her teacher, she exclaimed, Oh, I love your necklace! It reminds me of Ariel from the Little Mermaid!

Bea tried to explain that no, this was like Saoirse’s, but the teacher had no context and there were a dozen other kids wanting to show her their special outfits.

We read a lot of fairy tales in our home and we own several Disney versions of them. But we also read and talk about other versions. I want Bea to know that Cinderella is a universal tale, told in many ways, in many languages, reflecting many cultures. That the Disney version isn’t wrong, it’s just one version.

Of course, fairy tales are part of childhood. But, I read them for so many other reasons. The original versions teach empathy and bravery in ways that prepare kid for real life giants and problems. They remind us of the threads that run through a common human experience. They prepare our children for the world outside our home and our curated friendships.

As an adult, reading fairy tales has grounded my view of our world today. Frank gave me Hans Christian Andersen’s complete collection last year and I’ve been slowly reading one or two tales every night before bed. Andersen is most known for The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Little Match Girl, but this 700 page book is filled with so many more stories – stories of life and death and good and evil and morality.

Andersen’s stories remind me that life hasn’t changed all that much, when you look at the core of humanity. Powerful kings can do good or they can be evil. Working people, just living their lives, can take big risks and go on great adventures or they can contentedly stay home. Love doesn’t always win and the witch sometimes gets the prince in the end.

They’re a reminder that magic doesn’t always go the way we hope and that happy endings aren’t real life. (Or even fairy tale life, if we go by the original versions.) I find this hopeful in so many ways. To always look for the happy ending is a futile quest – sometimes life doesn’t go the way we hope and it’s disappointing. I think these fairy tales remind me of that reality and that it’s not just me.

As Bea and Elle grow, I want to make sure we read these other versions – the ones in which the Little Mermaid turns to sea foam, or the little match girl is unsuccessful and freezes on a cold night. These stories open doors to conversations of kindness and generosity and how we view our neighbor. They help us see the world as a whole, rather than as one driven by the American dream of happily ever after.

What is your favorite fairy tale? Do you like reading different versions of it?


This post is Day 24 of the Write 31 Day Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the StrengthsFinder test. You can find the entire series over at Live Your Strengths page.

Remembering the Past and Learning from Experience

We were talking last week at MOPS about which strengths make us better parents. Which ones really feed into our parenting styles and/or how we connect with our kids. My top strength is Context – the need to look back to understand the present, to take a moment to orient myself in the moment.

The controversial exersaucer

One of the best parenting books I read was Baby Meets World by Nicholas Day. It’s pretty much the history of parenting – how we’ve evolved as a society to this age of paci or not; breast is best; swaddles and back sleeping. Essentially, it says that we’re doing a good job in this era of information and that we’re all good parents. (Outside of extreme cases, of course.)

It reminded me not to overthink parenting, to trust my instinct, and to remember that not too long ago formula consisted of beer and honey.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that my favorite adolescent books were historical fiction, that I majored in art history, and that I continue to lean primarily toward books that draw from history to make points about today. If we don’t remember the past, we’re bound to repeat it.

Knowing history gives me a sense of stability in what seem like these crazy times. History keeps me grounded in a heated election year, in a time when the church is experiencing growing pains, and when it seems like we’re a doomed culture.

Being grounded in history helps me in my daily life, too. I know from experience that we need to leave around 11:30 to get home for lunch. That both girls just do better when we eat at home, with little stimulus, in preparation for a quiet afternoon. This certainly doesn’t mean there are exceptions – because, life. But, it means I plan our days around what I’ve tried and know what works.

This is the hardest thing about tax season and kids. Each year is so different. I can’t learn from the past because what worked last year most likely won’t work this year. Part of my survival as someone who thrives on context is also learning adaptability. It’s a reminder that, while we should focus on our top strengths, remembering to balance with other “lesser” strengths is important, too.

If you’ve done StrengthsFinder, what’s your top strength? How do you balance your strengths with reality?


This post is Day 23 of the Write 31 Day Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the StrengthsFinder test. You can find the entire series over at Live Your Strengths page.

Review: Assimilate or Go Home by D.L. Mayfield

Unlike D.L. Mayfield, I always knew I wouldn’t make a good missionary. I never felt “called” to participate in a short-term trip in high school or college and I was often uncomfortable with certain practices of experience trips. Friends who are lifelong missionaries reminded me that not all are asked to live their lives on a mission field – many are needed to have regular jobs, to write checks of support for missionaries, to pray for them and have guest rooms for respite. Missions doesn’t look the same for everyone.

_200_360_book-2009-coverIn her debut book, Assimilate or Go Home, D.L. Mayfield chronicles her journey of young zealous missionary to a life of gracious missional living. This is a memoir done well. Mayfield’s essays are cohesive and a good balance of personal insights, observations from the field, and constructive critique of the church’s view of missions.

Mayfield always knew she wanted to be a missionary and assumed that some foreign, impoverished country is where she would end up living. Surprisingly, she ended up ministering to her neighbors in low income apartments on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Her idealism fades as the reality of poverty hits: Most refugees have made somewhat of a lateral move when coming to the United States, just barely surviving. The systemic cycle of poverty is much more complex than any overarching government program can fix. Even foster care, when you know the families of the children being removed, becomes a deeper question than simply giving kids a “better” home.

Mayfield grapples with hard questions – ones she lives with on a daily basis. Her honesty is refreshing. She is living out idealism that most of us can’t fathom and she doesn’t sugar-coat the experience. But she doesn’t quit, either. She and her family are committed to living this life among the poor, of being good neighbors, of practicing the ministries of cake and video games and showing up.

I appreciated her thoughtful, gracious examination of life as a missionary. Her essays told an overarching story and I felt like I learned a lot about the lives of people right here in my own country that I never really thought much about. I would recommend this book to anyone who has worked as a missionary – at home or abroad – and anyone working with those who live on the margins.

What’s your view of missions and missional living? Have you ever been a missionary – either short or longterm?

(I decided to include this review as part of my Write 31 Days challenge of Live Your Strengths, as it seemed to fit so well into this past week of Connectedness.)

I review for BookLook Bloggers
I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.


Read Your Strengths: Books that Reflect Connectedness

I could fill pages and pages of books that reflect Connectedness. Pretty much any piece of fiction will foster a new understanding of someone’s story. Well written fiction opens doors, not only to other worlds, but to very real events in our own world. The empathy created by reading these stories connects us to a bigger picture.

But, nonfiction can do the same. Many lines between my choices and my world have first been started through a well-researched book. So, this roundup is a bit of a mix. Some fiction, some nonfiction. All these books helped me see the world around me in new ways. They created empathy and even changed the choices I was making.

Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline
I’ve written about this one before, but it is such an interesting read. Cline delves into the world of fast fashion and the social, economic, and environmental impact a $5.00 t-shirt has on our society. The idea of disposable fashion is filling our landfills and contributing to slave-like conditions in developing nations. What I most appreciated about this book is that Cline gives a practical, doable action plan at the end.

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano
This was perhaps my favorite book of 2015. A collection of short stories, Galeano takes us through mythology from cultures around the world. He fictionalizes true events and reports others with accuracy. If finding connections is not your first instinct, this book draws those lines clearly, eloquently, and with grace. Galeano reminds us that our stories are interwoven, since the beginning.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
This book was a powerful argument against eating meat. What I loved most about it is that Foer wants us to convert to vegetarianism and he isn’t subtle about that argument in his book. He is brutally honest and well-researched about where our meat comes from and the agony we inflict on creatures to feed a habit. This book made me relook at what it really means to steward this earth and what God meant when he put humans as caretakers of animals.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
This collection of letters to Dear Sugar, Strayed’s advice column for The Rumpus, is filled with stories from people of all backgrounds. What I love most is Strayed’s grace-filled advice to her readers. Even the ones who get tough love get it with a heavy dose of humanity. Her responses are also a reminder of the power of storytelling and how, if used well, can be a connector. This book brings out the grittiness of humanity but also restores my faith in human goodness.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Written as a letter to his son, this is a powerful, intimate look at what it means to be a black man in America. This book helped me understand the underlying frustration to so many of my neighbors. Frustration that has, in the past few years, reached a boiling point. This book is a reminder of why we want to keep those feelings boiling – until something changes, this systemic problem isn’t going away. Regardless of how you feel about the handling of current situations, this book will help create empathy and remind those of us with the privilege of not experiencing daily racism why things must change.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I just have one book left to read by Adichie, I love her writing so much. Adichie uses the power of fiction to draw the reader into other cultures, to teach history and sociology, while creating a safe distance for processing. This book particularly, helps the reader understand immigration a bit more. We follow Ifemelu from America back to Nigeria and all of the reverse culture shock that happens as a result. It was a reminder of the difficulties of leaving a home country, but also of the complex situation of returning. Adichie also drives home that immigrating to a new country is deeply complex, more so than anything seen on the surface.

What are some of your favorite books that have helped you connect to a different belief or way of thinking?


This post is Day 21 of the Write 31 Day Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the StrengthsFinder test. You can find the entire series over at Live Your Strengths page.