16 Things I Learned in 2016

Over the last week, and then again today while on a run, I sorted through 2016 and whittled down a collection of lessons I’ve learned in the last year. I’ve never been keen on setting resolutions, but in recent years I’ve worked hard to be mindful of my mistakes and efforted not to repeat them. I look critically at myself, at how I’ve behaved, at things I’ve said, and resolved, in a way, not to repeat them when they’ve not been helpful. I fail, of course, like we all do, but I endeavor to be better anyway.

2016 was a mostly good year for our family. Last night during dinner we went around naming the things we loved – from the boys turning 10 and 13, to Jeremy getting his first deer, to our anniversary trip to Key West and the unmatched experience at Lambeau Field. In 2016, I started teaching at the homeschool co-op, and I ran a relay race in April and got my 15th medal at a half marathon in December. I spent a long, pensive weekend at a monastery in July and had photo sessions in the double digits. Jeremy saved up his own money to buy an iPod, rode roller coasters with his brother at Hershey Park, and Jackson saw firsthand what it might be like to be a sports statistician.  Chuck has excelled in his job too, though I cannot disclose those details here. Just know that he continues to be amazing.

So yeah, 2016 was mostly very good. I am thankful, but I am also watchful. There are always areas in which to improve and grow. With that, here are 16 things I learned in 2016:

No. 1 Parenting evolves. We have a teenager in the house now. A baby teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. We are now in constant negotiations with Jeremy over what we allow, what we don’t, what will benefit him, what won’t. Chuck and I talk regularly about how things are changing with our oldest son, comparing how it was when we were 13, comparing how it is with other teenagers we know. We are doing our best, I am sure, but long gone are the days of nap times and lessons about sharing.

No. 2 But it also stays the same. Regardless of the boys’ age and stage, the Miller House Rules are the same as ever: Family first, be kind to everyone, work hard, do your best, tell the truth. Obey Mom and Dad, and remember that privileges are earned, not freely given. There is nothing you can do to lose our love, but you will probably never know the WiFi password.

No. 3 Faith evolves. It is good to have your faith challenged, even when the process is painful and seemingly unending. Read books that challenge your ideas and be in conversation with others who believe differently than you. I have never lost my faith, but it has evolved a dozen times. Each time I’m stretched and twisted, and even when I’ve recoiled, I settle into a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Christ.

No. 4 But God stays the same. It is humbling and reassuring to know that God sees me, hears me, knows me, and still loves me. If I know nothing else, then this must be enough.

No. 5 We are not promised time. Death is a curious, cruel thing, and when those we love pass on from this world, death seems to linger and take up space where it is not wanted. Several friends have lost parents, siblings, and children in the last few years, reminding me again and again that we are not promised a single moment beyond right now. When we live like we have endless time we deceive ourselves. Better to look at the truth of our mortality and make decisions accordingly. For example…

No. 6 Don’t waste time. Don’t waste time on bad television, bad company, and bad food. Read good books, and drink good coffee. Choose friendships that have reciprocal benefits and strive to keep those friendships thriving. Work hard and play harder. Take care of yourself. Take care of your kids. Take care of your spouse. Travel and exercise and get enough sleep. These things are time well spent.

No. 7 It’s okay to say no. The older I get, the more emboldened I feel to say no. Saying no means several things, such as “If I say yes, then I’m overcommitted and I can’t keep doing that anymore,” and “I don’t feel the way you do about this thing, so I need to say no,” and “This doesn’t align with my priorities, so I’m saying no.” Saying no doesn’t mean you’re a curmudgeon or that you’re selfish or that you think your time is more important than someone else’s. It just means you are careful with your time, that you don’t have endless talents and efforts to spread around thinly. Invest your whole self where you can, where you desire to, and say no to the rest. IT’S OKAY.

No. 8 My body is different now. For someone who’s struggled with body dysmorphia for more than 20 years, this is a hard truth to swallow. I still run, lift, stretch, and sweat, and I am thankful that I can still do these things, but my body is not what it was even five years ago. It is more important than ever that I’m careful, watchful. It is essential that I eat well, that I rest when my body begs for it, that I remain thankful for all of my abilities, even though I’m not as fast as I want to be, as skinny as I want to be, as strong as I want to be. Health is a multi-faceted thing, and today, I am healthy.

No. 9 Yoga is amazing. Once I finally committed to a regular yoga practice and was over the hump of it being “too hard,” I fell in love. I love yoga. I LOVE YOGA. I am thankful for the online resources that afford me a variety of practices so I never get bored. I am also glad that I finally bought a mat. Yoga on a mat is better than yoga on carpet. But yoga on carpet is better than no yoga at all. You heard it here first.

No. 10 I don’t want to give up on being published. There is much to say on this matter, but this isn’t the place. I am still writing. I am still working. The dream is a plan. I covet your support.

No. 11 I love teaching. This is one of the surprising realizations of 2016. When I submitted an idea to teach creative writing at our homeschool co-op, it was done with grandiose ideas and a tiny bit of confidence. Now, a full semester later, heading into the next semester with two classes instead of one, I am pleased as punch to say that I love teaching. It’s an unexpected treasure to discover you enjoy something.

No. 12 I do not value my skills as much as I should, and I’m primarily referencing photography. I am the queen of underpricing and overdelivering. Oh, how I wish I could set rates that reflect what I provide! If the money didn’t matter, I’d do it all for free. But the money does matter, so it’s something I need to fix. If any of these are actual resolutions, then this is one.

No. 13 Personal relationships are more important than politics. More surprising that Donald Trump’s presidential win was the splitting and fracturing of personal relationships in the brutal aftermath. While my family is still in tact, I know families and friendships that aren’t. It grieves me deeply, and while some may argue “principles over people,” I believe the greatest principle is to love one another. After all, when we are struggling, we don’t call Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. We call our people. So yeah, don’t break up with your people.

No. 14 My husband really loves me. If you know us in real life, then you are shaking your head. Silly girl, of course he loves you! This isn’t a realization I came to suddenly, nor did it only materialize this year. We have more than 20 years in the books, which means I’ve been on the receiving end of many gifts, gestures, and many more I love yous. Still, there’ve been a dozen times in 2016 alone where I saw my husband as more than a spouse. We really are friends. Best friends. We love being together. As introverts, we love our time alone, but when we’re ready for conversation, we often choose each other. We love to travel together, to daydream and make plans. I am immensely grateful.

No. 15 Teaching my boys to serve is worthwhile. Regular volunteer work is as important as school. Maybe more important. Do it, do it, do it.

No. 16 No matter what happens in 2017, life is good as long as we choose to find the good. We do well to remember that.

Top Ten Favorite Books of 2016

In 2015, I read 53 books, verifying to myself that I could, indeed, read 50 books in a year. For 2016, I gave myself a break and set a goal of 40. If all pans out by New Year’s Eve, I will have finished 46 books (45 on paper, one audio).

Of those, I chose ten favorites with ease. Numbering them 3-10 was even easier, but depending on the day, my top two choices could be swapped. It could go either way. That’s what happens when a book reaches Ken Follett and Khaled Hosseini levels. Those books have their very own shelves.

To be on my Top Ten, the book has to be all-consuming. Not only does the writing have to be fluid and paced, the plot has to be imaginative and addictive. The book has to take over my whole brain so that I’m thinking about it while I’m driving and running and I must ten minutes here and there to read. It has to hit me in the gut or keep me up at night or break my heart. I want to feel it.

The genre doesn’t matter. On this list are thrillers, post-apocalyptic stories, fantasy and contemporary narratives, well-known authors, not-so-well-known authors, and subject matters that range from fashion and terrorism and murder to historically and culturally specific events. Each book is linked to my original review. Enjoy, and Happy Reading in 2017!

10. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Funny, quirky, and strangely troubling as it pertains to our national security. All Boy Hernandez wants to be is a fashion designed. How unfortunate to be mistaken for a terrorist! Be careful who you trust!

9. Station Eleven. This was the first book I read in 2016 and it was such a great choice! Though I’m not usually into post-apocalyptic fiction, I found Station Eleven to be endearing and unique in its focus on a traveling symphony in a post-apocalyptic reality. When there is no electricity, no means of transportation, and no way to communicate with one another, you must whittle humanity down to its very basic form and see what survives.

8. Long Man. Set over the course of three days in 1936, Annie Clyde Dodson refuses to surrender her property to the government and the TVA. It doesn’t matter that it will all be under water soon anyway. She won’t do it. But just when her resolve reaches fever pitch, her three-year-old daughter Gracie goes missing. With all her might, Annie Clyde must keep the government at bay and find her daughter alive. The pacing of this book is so steady, so even. It was hard to put down.

7. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay lands himself a job at a bookstore and immediately knows the place is super weird. The contents, the layout, the patrons. All weird. But he needs the job so he can’t be picky. It isn’t long before Clay is swept into a centuries-long adventure that feels like an Indiana Jones movie. This book gets extra points for its attention to detail in typography. Design nerds will love it.

6. You. Before this one, I’d never read a book written in second person, but now that I have, my standards are very high. We read You from the point of view of Joe, a sick, twisted, vulgar young man who is transfixed by Beck, a girl who is cute and oblivious to so much attention. Readers are in Joe’s mind so deep that it’s hard to crawl out. And actually, I didn’t really want to. (The sequel, Hidden Bodies, is on my must-read list.)

5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Having just read this one, it is still fresh and tender in my mind. It is 1987 and June Elbus has just lost her uncle to AIDS, a confusing and troubling disease that the 14-year-old doesn’t understand. Finn was a renowned artist and also June’s godfather and closest confidant. While her family just wants to move on with their lives, June is unable to, especially after Toby, Finn’s partner, who is also dying, extends an invite to grieve together. The two develop a secret, sympathetic friendship that teaches June about life and love in more ways than she imagined.

4. The Winter People. This one had me on the edge. Unable to read it at night, I hurried to The Winter People first thing in the morning and read it over the stove top while cooking dinner. When it got dark outside, I put it down. Set in West Hall, Vermont, over two time periods, it focuses on the murder of Sara Shea (1908) and Alice (Present Day), who lives in Sara’s old house and has gone missing. Sara’s old diary has been unearthed, and there are things that happen in the woods behind the house. And then there’s that closet that’s been boarded up, and the strange passageways inside the house that only a few people know about. There are a dozen little mysteries that form one big crazy equation, and Ruthie, Alice’s daughter, sets out to solve them all. IT IS SCARY GOOD.

3. The Snow Child. Having just finished this one a couple of days ago, I’ve pinpointed a new reason why it moved me so. Beyond its magnificent style and elegance, more than its magical setting, The Snow Child tugged on a part of my heart that has long since healed. Infertility is a wretched beast, and the loss one feels when she’s told she cannot bear children is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. When Jack and Mabel, painfully childless, build a girl out of snow, it’s done in fun, with imagination, with a nod to what might’ve been in another lifetime had things worked differently. And yet, when a girl appears in the Alaskan wilderness, the couple doesn’t know what to do with her. Call out to her? Bring her inside? Is she even real? The Snow Child is beautiful in so many ways. If you’re going to read it, make sure you read it in wintertime.

2. The Devil of Nanking. Grey is a 23-year-old Brit who’s traveled to Tokyo to find a survivor of the 1937 Nanking Massacre. She’s spent a decade trying to prove something she believes to be true, and this survivor supposedly has footage of some kind that confirms it. This story is nail-biting and brutal. Like The Winter People, I read it at every free moment. The author is vivid in her details, even the most horrific ones. I’ve never read another thriller like it. It is perfect.

1. The Secret History. Donna Tartt is good writer. A damn good writer. The Goldfinch proved it, but The Secret History solidified it. Though it’s nearly 600 pages, you don’t even notice it because the pacing is lightning fast. You don’t have time to sit around and wish the book would end already. Richard Papen is our narrator who tells the story of how he and his college classmates killed Edmund, nicknamed “Bunny.” Richard is troubled by what they did and by how they managed it after the fact. We’re all a little mad, but some, I believe, are more mad than others.

Summer Road Trip 2016

We got home last night from what felt like a long and short family vacation. Long in the car, short with the family. The usual.

Sunset on Friday June 24

This is how it is when you don’t live near family, or when any of your family members live near each other. My side is sprinkled across the country, primarily on the east coast, but still. Seeing my people includes long-distance travel almost every time.

But it’s worth it, you know?

Me and Mom at Hershey Park

Most of our time was spent in Philadelphia with my parents. We went horseback riding, spent an evening at Hershey Park, and Chuck and I were able to spend a whole day alone. We wandered around not knowing what to do with ourselves!

Date night in Philly

We’re home now, happy to be reunited with our home and beds and space. I missed my pets, missed my routine, and missed eating my own home-cooked meals. Vacation is always fun, but so is coming home.

Nearly home from family vacation

These are just a few photos from my phone. Sit tight for the ones from my camera. They are fabulous.

Jackson turns 10

For Jackson’s birthday, we kept it simple but special. Three dear families joined us for a light dinner followed by cake and presents. The kids played, the adults talked, and Major was mostly well-behaved.

Make a wish

The thing most of you might not grasp about Jackson is that he doesn’t fully understand the reciprocity of friendship. Relationships in general are hard for him. He doesn’t understand inference or sarcasm; he doesn’t know when someone is being genuine or fake. He doesn’t always know how to relay his own emotions effectively. Jackson takes everything and everyone at face value, which means he lacks discernment in almost every area.

Big 10 helmetsAnd yet, he is happy, happy, happy most the time. Blissful oblivion is a real thing. Jackson is always the first to smile and hug someone and be a friend, whatever that means in his world.

Jimmy's football cards

We work on it with him – trying to teach him what it means to care about someone, how to show love and receive love, and always be ready to forgive. Jackson has a temper, a rage that can be disconcerting at times, but we’ve come to understand that it’s because he’s always on high alert. Temperament-wise, Jackson hovers at a 9, so it doesn’t take much to reach 10 and then tumble right over the edge.

Four square

In the above photo our guests were playing a game they created while Jackson sat on the concrete to sort his miniature football helmets. He was content not to be included because sorting the helmets was far more interesting than interacting with everyone else.

The same goes for reading sports encyclopedias.

Encyclopedias and helmets

And yet, he loves these people. He gets excited to see them. He misses them when it’s been a while. Jackson craves real connection just like the rest of us, though he processes it and perceives it in a unique way. I am grateful to have folks in the fold who understand him.

At ten years old, Jackson is a gem. He puts a smile on my face everyday with his optimism, his infectious laugh, and his love for life. I tell him all the time, “You are exactly the one I wanted.”

Happy Jack at 10

Happy Tenth Birthday, Jack Rabbit. We love you loads.

(Sidebar: Major never looks at the camera. What a turd.)

Major won't look at the camera