2014: A Big Year

Yes, this is a recap post. 🙂 2014 has been such a huge year for me, personally, academically, and in the world of literature. Instead of summarizing my summary, I’ll get right to it.


Winter

January Wedding

In January, I became Mrs. Vander Ark and moved all the way up to Southwest Michigan, during one of the snowiest winters they’d had in years! Our wedding was largely DIY, and it was a huge relief to be done planning for it.

Shortly after we moved into our cozy basement apartment, I received my first online publication (independent from my undergraduate school’s journal) from TWJMagazine.

In February I started working at the Bridgman Public Library, where I do children’s programming and order picture books through middle grade books – which increased the number of books I read quite a lot!

Notable Reads

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
  • Fortunately, the Milk – Neil Gaiman
  • Bats at the Library – Brian Lies

Spring

Left Bed

My MFA in creative writing at Spalding University began at the end of May, and the week I spend surrounded by other writers in Louisville, KY, was probably the most inspiring time of my life. It came just after the official closure of my undergraduate degree when we walked with our classmates in the early May graduation ceremony at University of the Cumberlands.

After Memorial Day, I also began writing for the Infusco Coffee Roasters blog… and spending a lot of time in the shop!

Caleb and I also tried our hand at raised-bed gardening for the first time and were far more successful than we anticipated.

Notable Reads

  • Wonder – R. J. Palacio
  • The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap – Wendy Welch
  • Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers – Frank Walker

Summer

Brick House

We bought a house! And proceeded to spend an entire month renovating. We refinished the floors, painted ceilings, walls, and cabinets, and moved in to our first house.

My CNF story “There Are No Buffalo Here” appeared in print via Garbanzo Literary Journal this summer. I couldn’t have picked a better place for it!

Notable Reads

  • Norman, Speak! – Caroline Adderson
  • Young House Love – the Petersiks
  • This Moose Belongs to Me – Oliver Jeffers

Fall

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As if we hadn’t been blessed enough by the rest of the year, September brought us our beloved beagle/foxhound puppy, Juliet. She is smart, loving, playful, and generally pleasant, and we love her to pieces.

We hosted our first Halloween Party and Thanksgiving dinner in our new home, and settled in for the rest of the holiday season.

I switched my concentration at Spalding from CNF to writing for children and young adults, and so far I’m loving it!

Notable Reads

  • Landline – Rainbow Rowell
  • Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  • We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

If you’re interested, you can see everything that I read in 2014 (200+ books) through this link. If you’d rather just know which books I had a lot to say about, check here, here, here, or here.

Here’s to a great 2015! Anyone want to share your resolutions? Mine are to start running again, have a more successful garden, and read more than I did this year. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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Comfort AND Joy

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The Christmas season is a time of peace that passes understanding, tidings of comfort and joy, good cheer, and general happiness for many.

I love looking around and seeing the twinkling lights on pine trees and rooftops, wreaths hung up on doors and garlands on fences, Christmas carols playing on the radio, on tv, in the mall. Generosity makes an anuall field day during this time; strangers buy gifts for those they don’t know and go out of their way to provide for those in need. Shoppers pause in silence out of respect for a seven year old who focuses on playing his piano carol. Bells jingle and laughter peaks through the air.

Christmas has got to be the most wonderful time of the year.

But it’s not that, for everyone. Some need comfort before they can have joy.

A few weeks ago as I scrolled through my news feed I saw the news that some friends had lost their premature baby girl. The pregnancy had been fine until a few days before, when doctors recommend a c-section at 23 weeks and delivered the tiny girl. She didn’t live long, and her parents have been both devastated and doing their best to rely on God’s healing, joy and peace.

The very next post as I scrolled down was a photo of my 2 month old niece and her beaming mother beside their Christmas tree.

This struck me as so true of this season. I encourage you to look around and choose to see , yes, the baby by the Christmas tree, but also the tree with an empty cradle beside it. This sentiment doesn’t only apply to babies and which ones are healthy and which ones are not. Many people struggle to enjoy all the wonder if this season for all kinds of reasons. This is a simple reminder not to let your gaze cloud when you see them, not to walk by pushing thoughts of them far from your mind.

Focus your mind on them instead, and do what you can give them even a tiny reason to celebrate the Christmas season. It might just make your season a little brighter, too.

Just Jules

Hi! My name is Juliet, but sometimes my parents call me Jules. My mom is letting me write her blog this week because she’s too busy playing with me to do her “very important work.” I am eight weeks old and mostly a beagle dog, but nobody knows who my dad was so they call me a “mix.” My mom and my brothers and sisters were all saved from a bad shelter in Hazard, Kentucky by the Animal Rescue Project of Kalamazoo, Michigan. My dad saw my picture online and fell in love with me, so he brought me home to surprise my mom! She was so happy to see me that she cried! They named me Juliet because the love me so much (and I have soft cheeks). There’s something called Shakespeare that this name is from, but my mom and dad really like a show called Psych, so they call me Jules because of Psych’s Juliet. (When Grandpa heard this he said he’ll call me Verene.) This is how I spend my days now that my parents brought me to their house to live with them! (I like our house, it looks really nice and kind of new.)

First I get up at seven and don’t go back to sleep, so mom snuggles on the couch with me until dad gets up for work.

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Before my parents leave me alone, they take me outside! I love outside! Outside is the best!

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Mom puts me in my crate before she leaves for the day, but dad comes home and feeds me lunch, and we go outside again! Outside is the best!

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When mom gets home, we go outside AGAIN! And I play with leaves in the jungle grass.

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Mom tries to get me to sleep on the couch again so she can work, but I mostly want to play.

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Sometimes Grandpa comes over to do stuff in our walls and I watch to see what happens.

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Then we go outside! These tall weeds are fun to chew on. You should try it.

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Why does mom have this hard cold thing in her lap instead of me?

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Guess I’ll watch a movie with dad instead!

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Time for bed! I sleep a lot, but sometimes I wake up to make sure my parents are still there. They’re the best! (I’m house trained, but they don’t take any chances.)

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I love my new home! You should come see me soon!

 

Shiny! (The floors, that is…)

Well, we did it! And I’m so glad we did. Hard work can pay off in a big way! Here are some photos of the living room, a bedroom, and the main hall way of our house as it looked when we did our walkthrough with the realtor. Note nasty, ugly, cat hairy carpets. (In the living room, they have a rug over the carpet. I guess it was too nasty even for them!)

Living Room

Bedroom

We rented a drum sander and an edge sander from a nearby company and borrowed a shop vacuum and a hand sander from friends. Each room took six passes with a sander – edge sander with 20 grit paper, drum sander with 20 grit paper, then both with 80 grit paper, then both with 120 grit paper – and we vacuumed everything after teach pass. This was a long two-day process with a definite learning curve. Once we got the hang of it, it was super fun to see the quality of the floor improve before our eyes with each pass. Word to the wise, though – do not attempt to use an edge sander if you have a history of back problems. When all this sanding  was finished, we vacuumed twice more and  used a damp rag to wipe the floors down. (The vacuum misses so much!)

Minwax has a floor product called a sanding sealer which dies in two hours and takes the place of the first coat of polyurethane, so we opted for that as out first coat. This was followed by using a pole sander with 320 grit paper on all the floors (yes, sanding again) and vacuuming (again). Finally, we put down two coats (8 hours apart) of Minwax “super fast drying” polyurethane. The can says it “provides a traditional amber glow.” We used a roller to apply it all.

Finally, we are still waiting for these floor to be ready for everyday foot traffic, but they are super duper beautiful and totally worth all the hard work. I can’t wait to live in this house!Shiny living room!

Shiny bedroom!Next up: those walls, though…

 

There are a lot of things out there that you can’t change. But there are some you can.

I’ve been in a little bit of shock lately. It seems like these past few weeks everything in the news has been so much worse than usual. Times like this have a way of making you and me feel pretty helpless. Who are we? I’m not a soldier, or a doctor, or a politician. There’s not much I can do to really, physically change most of the things that are happening. You and I, by ourselves, cannot stop ISIS. We can’t cure Ebola. We can’t make two small countries stop blowing things up. We can’t stop people from getting shot. But can we save a life?

Some people are complaining about how much attention the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams has received in light of everything else that is going on. And they are right. One man’s story might not be as important as nations’ and religions’.

But here’s the thing – you and I are pretty helpless when it comes to those huge, important stories. But you and I are not helpless when it comes to our friends.

Robin Williams had a Grammy invented for him. He was everything from Aladdin‘s silly Genie to Dead Poet Society‘s dramatic Professor Keating, Hook‘s inspiring Peter Pan, and laughable doctor Patch Adams. He won multiple Oscars and made a living by making countless people laugh.

He did more than just make movies, though. He performed comedy for troops in Iraq with USO. He would tell jokes on Steven Spielberg’s speakerphone during the filming of Schindler’s List. He was a friend to the Saint Jude Children’s Hospital, the nation of Israel, and the charity efforts of Comic Relief.

He was possibly the funniest, most joyful man of our time.

And he was killed by depression.

Maybe part of the reason Robin’s death is getting so much attention is because this is something you and I can help! If you have a friend you know is struggling, don’t let this be their story. If you are struggling, get help! Let’s do as much as we can to make sure others are saved from this terrible condition, and remember Robin like this. Bangarang.

Robin-Williams

One of These is Not the Same

Not the Same

Dear Internet,

I’ve been a little confused lately when I observe the things in the media that Christians decide to rally against, the things they latch onto believing are wrong, and the things they seem to let slip under the radar. Here’s a quick summary of my observations.

I was a teen when Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was coming out, and I remember all of my friends and everyone on the internet rushing to buy the new books when they came out. I only read the books myself in order to satisfy a friend who thought I would like them. I didn’t, but unlike most people who don’t like things, since I have read them I know why. Many people replaced the names of their previous favorite books with those of Meyer’s. This occurred equally within Christian circles as it did outside them. Very few families saw anything wrong with the books, and some even encouraged their daughters to read them.  One pastor who did speak out against the series was Mark Driscoll, who was then attacked by many who did not share his view. One observation he made, correctly, was that “many [young girls] will be driven by their parents, including some cougar moms encouraging and joining their daughters’ obsession with handsome young males” to get the newest books and see the newest movies.

Lets just think for a second. In the words of Stephen King, Twilight is “about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” The entire second book revolves around whether Bella will kill herself because her boyfriend – who thinks her blood smells tastier than anyone else’s and is approximately 100 years older than her – isn’t around. She spends the third book trying to convince him to bite her so that she can become a vampire, too, and they can live forever in perfect harmony. All of this was written by a woman who is a proclaimed and observant Mormon and who got the idea for the pivotal scene in the first book from a dream. I will be the first to say that most writers get some ideas from dreams, but in light of all these facts, isn’t it a little odd that a pastor would be so attacked for arguing that Christians should be worried about their daughters reading these books?

Moving on to the adult realm, the reactions of Christian circles get even more odd. I have much less experience with these two series because I haven’t read them. There are facts, however, that cannot escape even the uninitiated such as me. A massive series of books that has enjoyed new popularity with the release of an HBO series, the medieval fantasy drama Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, has captured audiences that grew up watching the Lord of the Rings and reading Eragon. The show, as evidenced by the costumes, set props, and cast is well made, and based on fan reactions to season finales suspenseful and well told. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, however, there’s one big difference between this story and the fantasy stories that came before: sex.

I love a good fantasy, and when more and more of my Facebook friends and relatives began posting about how much they loved the show, I gave it a try. And I couldn’t even make it through the first episode. Nudity, nudity, nudity, sex is what this show is about – and I couldn’t look at some of those friends the same way. Even more shocking to me, when I thought about it, was that even the small outcry that came from Driscoll and few others against the Twilight books seems nonexistent when it comes to this show. Christians watch this show without thinking, and no one is there to make them think twice. There is an article from Desiring God that addresses Game of Thrones directly, but it hasn’t been widely spread.

Finally, lets look at what Hollywood hopes will be the next big draw – E. L. James’ Fifty Shades series. Described by many as soft porn, these books enjoy the popularity they do because they were originally available only in e-book form. Anyone could read then on an e-reader or tablet without worrying that someone might see what they were reading. Additionally, the original manuscripts of the books were blatant fan-fiction of the Twilight series, using even the same character names. Thus, the middle-age women who were delving into their daughter’s vampire books now had a book of their own to read. This “love story” is insultingly slated to release on Valentines Day. Before you go to see it, read this blog about why shouldn’t. But before you judge too harshly, read this, too, and realize that the percentage of practicing Christians who have read these books is the same as the percentage of all Americans. Then feel free to ask why there aren’t more Christians speaking out against these books. Could it be because they have read and enjoyed them, themselves?

These three stories have a lot in common, not just when it comes to content, but also when it comes to criticism (or lack thereof). But lets think of an example of something Christians have latched onto and spoken out against – for more than a decade.

The Harry Potter series took the world by storm and encouraged an entire new generation of young readers. With these books, J. K. Rowling instilled the concepts and values of chivalry, bravery, friendship, loyalty, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, social justice, equality, reading, learning, justice, standing up for what is right, sacrifice, and love – specifically and incredibly platonic love… I could go on. Over and over again characters in these books put their friends – and even their enemies – before themselves. They choose to do what is right instead of what is easy. They choose to fight back against evil even at the cost of their lives. They choose to do what is right instead of what they want. They choose to do what is right instead of being with a significant other. These are incredible decisions that are not present in much of today’s entertainment.

In spite of all this, unwitting Christians have vilified this series for years. They banned their kids from reading it. They tried to persuade as many other parents as they could to do the same. They railed against this story more strongly than perhaps any other entertainment in the past half-century. The attack on Harry Potter has died down as of late, but I still see comments such as “Have your kids read the Chronicles of Narnia? Better a story with a Christian message than one about demonic spirits,” and “Do you have the Narnia movies? Need Christian shows for kids.” Anyone familiar with the books knows that there are no demonic spirits in Harry Potter. Anyone familiar with the Narnia books knows that there is magic in them, too.

Most baffling of all, anyone who has read Harry Potter can tell you that the most powerful magic in that world is love. Platonic love. The love of a mother for her child, the love of a friend for a friend, the love of a man for everyone. Hm… does that sound familiar? A great theme in the seventh book is what Harry finds carved into his parents’ gravestone: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” That sounds familiar, too? That’s because it’s 1 Corinthians 15:26. And Harry, for all of his human flaws, is as much a literary symbol for Christ as Aslan, or Gandalf, or many others. I could go on and on about how wonderful I think these books are, and the valuable beliefs they have instilled in many children from my generation – whatever their faith. As a Christian reading with a Christian perspective, I find in each reading some new way in which these books point to truth.

So why? Why are many Christians so adamantly opposed to something that, in dozens of different ways, illustrates their Gospel? And silent on so many others that don’t – or even participating in them?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Sincerely,

A Confused Christian

Growing (Garden Update)

Remember those tiny little seedlings I shared some pictures of back in April and May? Here’s a look at them now!

Left Bed

Right Bed

After living in dorms for so long, far away from anything that grows or tastes good, Caleb and I were super excited to plant our first vegetable garden this summer. Although we are currently living in a basement, the library where I work has a lovely community garden with plots available to rent for the season. We took full advantage – with no idea what we were doing or how to do it! Our garden has, from left to right, green and purple beans, cucumbers, summer squash, mixed green lettuce, a watermelon plant, a cantaloupe plant, and potatoes. There are carrots running along the back edge.

The one thing we planted that didn’t come to life were strawberries. We bought the kind that already have roots and should sprout new leaves when planted, but we saw no signs of life from them, despite giving them a ton of space in our second plot. So, we placed our herb pots there instead, and they love the good sun they get there. Our melons probably won’t produce this year – I think it’s been too cool for them. But we think having one plant not come up and 2 plants not produce out of everything we planted is not too shabby for our first try!

As far as harvesting goes, we have an inexhaustible supply of lettuce. (I mean that quite literally.) Which is great, because I love a good summer salad! I pick the beans about every other day, and usually have close to a full quart-size bag of them each time. The purple beans were our biggest surprise – if you have never had them I highly recommend it! They have a great, sweet flavor raw, and turn green when cooked. I’ve also enjoyed a few squash so far (Caleb doesn’t like them.)

Lettuce

Beans

 

Squash

Please don’t begrudge us our lack of tomatoes – neither of us are big eaters of them.

The garden doesn’t directly affect my writing, of course, but I’ve found that the excuse to be and work outside everyday – even for just a little bit – settles me in an area where I can’t climb a mountain to do the same. There’s a lot of satisfaction in gardening, and I think that allows me to be satisfied with my work in other areas, too.

We can’t wait to plan out our garden for next year at home! I’m glad we had this experience with the community garden – we’ve made some mistakes, but learned a lot, and next year will be even better!

PS – the bees are safe in this all organic garden! I couldn’t get one to sit for a photo, though, so here’s a butterfly.

Butterfly