The Gospel at Work: Writing Without Fear

Every month or two, I try to designate a blog post to pausing and exploring the current state-of-the-union in my writing journey: how it’s going, what I’m learning, what I’m struggling with, and what concepts are at the forefront of my thoughts. I do this largely for myself and for the insights revealed in the process of creating such an update, but I also do this for other writers that might be tuning in. Often, these posts are narrow in focus, and the content is primarily relevant for people who call themselves writers.

Today’s post is an exception, and I believe the subject is relevant whether you call yourself a writer or not. Why? Because we all get scared sometimes, and the concept that I’ve been wrestling with and mulling over in my writing journey is fear

The more I look, the more I see fear at the root of problems in my writing and personal life. Technically speaking, my writing process is fantastic in the present season, and that’s how I generally respond when people ask how it’s going. My work-in-progress is somewhere around 30,000 words, the discovery approach continues to provide creative freedom and space, and I’m getting words on the page consistently. The story is fun, I like how the characters and plot are developing, and I’m having a good time watching it unfold.

But my complete writing journey is so much broader and complex than a work-in-progress status. The big picture encompasses the why of writing, the purpose in sitting down and stringing words together, and the vehicles through which those words are shared. More and more, I find myself feeling compelled to write non-fiction, to tell personal stories that are vulnerable and challenging, and to tell those stories honestly. When I explore these subjects as writing exercises, I dive into them with such intense focus that I lose track of time as well as my basic human needs, like water and bathroom breaks. I reach a stopping point, shake my head a little, and look around with a dazed look on my face, having entirely forgotten my surroundings for an hour or two. Sometimes I’m even a little winded, like I forgot to breathe often enough while I was writing.

For those of you who don’t write, it’s worth noting that this sort of head space is pure writing gold. The work is fueled by intuition, and it produces an uninterrupted stream of thought that is untainted by tandem concerns or distractions. Most importantly, perhaps, the intense focus drives out any and all fear that is often present in writing. 

As fearless as the writing itself can be, the compulsion to write more non-fiction is absolutely terrifying. The thought ignites a long list of anxiety-ridden questions, all rooted in various fears:

What happens to my work-in-progress if I spend more time on non-fiction?

Will I ever finish a novel?

Am I hurting my marketability by pursuing multiple genres? How will I get an agent?

What if I make a full switch to non-fiction? Am I being fickle, or is this the right move?

How will my loved ones respond if I continue to explore challenging topics like abuse?

Will the non-fiction topics that I’m compelled to explore require too much courage, beyond my capacity to be vulnerable?

And so it continues. When I see laundry lists of questions forming as above, I try to stop, take a step back, and breathe. What am I freaking out about, and what question do I need to resolve? 

In this case, that leads me to the following conclusion: I’m freaking out because I don’t know what I should write. So why, exactly, do I write?

This is the point in the conversation where God steps in. If the thread of faith irritates you as you keep up with my blog, I understand—trust me. When I was in college, I lived with three Christian roommates, but wasn’t a Christian myself yet. I was super turned off and frustrated by the fact that every single conversation with my roomies always ended up coming back to God. The books scattered around the apartment were the most obvious sign of the problem: on every coffee table or available horizontal space, I saw titles like “Jesus and Dating,” “Jesus and Friendship,” and “Jesus and Work.” It was like living in a Christian bookstore, and as a non-Christian, that was frustrating as hell. I told my roommates how I felt, and asked them to consolidate into piles, at least, for my sake. It was my apartment too, and I didn’t appreciate the visual and conversational nudges suggesting that I was a heathen in my own home!

So I totally get it if you’re throwing your hands up in the air and thinking to yourself, “Man, she’s talking about God again? Why do I even read this blog?” I don’t blame you for feeling that way, and I know from experience how isolating the mention of God or Jesus can be in conversation. But I invite you to read anyway, to take away what works for you, and explore the ideas even if they’re foreign or frustrating. If you hate the mention of God, reach out and let’s have a conversation about it instead of allowing our differences to put space between us. My goal is never to isolate or alienate non-Christians, but simply to write truthfully, without filters or fear. I’d wager that it’s about as uncomfortable for me as it is for the listener when I know I’m talking about God with someone who doesn’t believe in God. (More on that particular fear in a minute!) 

The truth is that the radical impact of the gospel on my life is so pervasive that I physically cannot separate it from my professional endeavors—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are interwoven into every aspect of my life, whether that reality is convenient or not.

That brings me back to my previous question—why do I write? There are a bunch of reasons that could motivate someone to write: to make a living, to sell books, to share stories, to inspire, to explore concepts, to learn, to grow, to observe, to comment, to challenge, to heal. As I write, many of these options are motivating factors. But as a Christian, I have to constantly align my own choices and direction in life with the Word of God. According to the Bible, everything that I say, think, or do should be directed toward the glory and praise of God. My writing is no exception. So every time I write, no matter what I write about, the act of writing is an invitation to worship, and to give all of the glory and praise to God. 

Of course, that can be achieved through fiction or non-fiction. C.S. Lewis certainly glorified God in The Chronicles of Narnia, just as much as Brennan Manning did in Ruthless Trust and The Ragamuffin Gospel. There are many more subtle examples, too, but the genre or vehicle for praise is not the problem. The problem, in my case, is fear

There is a great deal of fear involved in writing at all, and in tossing one’s thoughts out into the digital abyss for all to see. But the fear increases as the writing gets more exposing, or countercultural. So writing about hard issues like anxiety, spiritual abuse, loneliness, and sexual assault in the context of Christianity is about as scary as it gets. 

Somewhere in a previous blog post, I made a passing comment about the moment that I became a believer, and said something like “I’ll never be able to do that story justice.” That’s a bunch of crap, of course. God will use my story no matter how poorly I tell it! The reality is that I’m absolutely terrified to make the attempt, and to put the story out in the open. In addition to worrying about the responses from my friends and family, I find myself worrying about the responses of the general public, and especially my non-Christian friends.

What if I alienate my non-Christian friends, whom I love and want to stay in relationship with?

What if I lose clients because they’re turned off by the spiritual-lean of my blog content?

What if my stories and experiences are lost in the sea of false-Christianity running rampant in our culture today, especially in light of the political climate and the regular (false) Biblical claims from the alt-right?

Fear, fear, and more fear

What do I do with that mountain of anxiety? Fortunately, the Bible has a few things to say on the subject of fear. The word ‘fear’ itself appears more than 500 times in the KJV, and depending on how you count ‘em and which translation you use, the command “do not fear,” “fear not,” or “do not be afraid” appears between 112 and 365+ times. Great, fine, thanks God. But letting go of fear is easier said than done!

However, that’s exactly what the gospel achieves for us—the ability to cast out fear and trust fully in the sacrifice of Jesus, through the love of God the Father. There is no fear or worry that stands up in the face of the gospel, because Jesus has conquered everything from shame to death itself. 

My favorite reference for this is Matthew 6:25-34, mostly because I think Jesus is being hilarious. When I read those verses, I translate them in my mind to something like, “Yo! The Father feeds the birds, and they’re smart enough not to worry about whether or not he’ll follow through. Chill out. God’s got you.” 

In my long list of “What ifs” and fears about writing, there is no single concern that can stand up in light of the gospel. Yes, I’m afraid of what people will think. Yes, I’m afraid of being put to shame. Yes, I’m afraid of losing friends and alienating neighbors. Yes, I’m afraid that I will hurt someone’s feelings. But none of these negate the promises of God, or the sacrifice of Jesus.

So as I feel compelled to write more non-fiction, I’m going to write more non-fiction and let God worry about the rest. I’m going to write vulnerably, as honestly as I can, and share my experiences. I’m going to talk about hard subjects like anxiety, loneliness, and abuse, because they are relevant to so many hurting people out there, and they resonate in the deep, hidden centers of our selves. I’m going to talk about these things, because these topics need to be discussed more often in the name of healing and hope. I will share, because it is Biblical to name our failings, our weaknesses, and our fears, and to learn to rely more fully on the power and person of Jesus. 

This is where I am in my journey. I don’t know exactly where it all leads, and I don’t plan to set my fiction work down altogether; my compulsion is simply to invite other topics and projects into the mix. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m learning to lean on the promises of God, to be fearless as I share the full truth of what He has done—and is currently doing—in my life, for His glory and my good. God’s glory is more important than my comfort, no matter how exposed I feel in the process. 

In this blog, you can expect to see more mention of my relationship with God, and issues of spirituality explored. If that bothers you, I’ll remind you once more that my writing is completely intertwined with my faith; they are inseparable, forever blended together to create the ‘new me’ that lives in the power of Christ (Colossions 3). Let’s get together and talk about it, and above all, let’s not let our differences get in the way of our relationships. There’s quite enough divisiveness and “us vs. them” in our world already. I invite you to dig into the icky awkward stuff with me, and to see what happens when we don’t run away from the hard topics—an honest look at faith and spirituality included! 

The #1 Most Important Fix for Your Resume

Between my work as a Career Communication Coach and previous roles in executive recruiting and HR, I've seen a whole lot of resumes.

Today, I'm going to let you in on a little secret and share the #1 resume problem that I regularly encounter with clients, along with a few easy steps you can follow in order to address the problem in your own resume.

The Problem: Emphasis on Responsibilities

Most people that I work with for resume writing don't demonstrate a lot of confidence in their work experience. In fact, a lot of the comments that they make are downright apologetic:

"Oh, I know I haven't done a lot in that area. I should've done more." 

"Yeah, I guess I did that, but it wasn't a big deal."

"I don't really think I'm good enough for the positions I'm interested in."

I've mentioned before that one of the best parts of my job is the client reaction--that moment when a client sees his or her professional identity written out accurately, clearly, and confidently for the very first time, whether it be on a resume, a new website, or a grant proposal. Most clients are startled, and they read over the content a few times before saying, "Wow, did I really do all of this?" 

I generally laugh a little, and say, "You tell me. Is anything inaccurate, or even exaggerated?"

They hungrily pore over the details, and are confused when the answer is "No! I actually did all of that, didn't I?"

The resume issue in this scenario is almost always an overemphasis on responsibilities, duties, or tasks. Many people approach their resume as if it were a job description -- they try to capture all of the check-list items they're responsible for, and list those as resume bullet points. 

The problem with this approach is that every single person with a similar role and/or job title has exactly the same list of responsibilities. There's nothing in that list of tasks that sets a candidate apart from other applicants, or leaves any sort of impression on the reader.

Quite frankly, this approach is 100% ineffective. The recruiter or hiring manager reviewing your resume is going to be bored out of his or her mind, and will likely move on to another candidate immediately. On average, recruiters will only spend 6 seconds looking at your resume. While other factors like formatting are definitely part of the solution, responsibility-heavy content is definitely not helping you stand out from the crowd. 

The Solution: Emphasis on Results

The fix for responsibility-focused resumes is a perspective shift toward results.

When I'm chatting with clients about their job history and achievements, a lot of them groan when I ask about results, or just look at me with desperation and shrug. Many people aren't accustomed to thinking about their professional achievements as results, so at first glance, it's hard to come up with anything to share.

But that doesn't mean there's an absence of results.

Many clients shy away from the results question because they're not in a traditional, numbers-driven role like sales. The word 'results' carries with it an expectation of hard numerical data: percentages, dollar signs, you name it. Some of those figures are obvious, as they can be in sales, but they don't have to be. If you're not consistently thinking about measurable definitions of success, then you're bound to be caught of guard by the request for proof of your success.

So how do we solve the problem?

Step 1: Define Measurable Success

Let's say you're considering a role where you're responsible for managing volunteers. Great--you manage volunteers, but so do a lot of other people. How can you measure and demonstrate that you managed those volunteers successfully?

Think about all of the potential measurable components that are involved with managing volunteers. Here are the ones that come to mind right away:

  • Number of volunteers you work with on a regular basis
  • Volunteer retention over time 
  • Volunteer engagement, or the rate at which volunteers choose to donate their time
  • Average monthly hours of volunteer time from the beginning of your tenure, versus the present
  • Increase in the number of volunteers over time
  • Increase in engagement over time
  • Volunteer satisfaction data collected from feedback surveys

As you can see, an area of responsibility that doesn't inherently lend itself to measurable results can definitely be measured. That said, if you're not actively measuring these areas, then there's no way to demonstrate that you've succeeded. 

This leads us right into Step 2.

Step 2: Start Measuring with Intention, and Do it Now!

Imagine looking at a resume that hasn't been touched in 15 years. As much as we wish we could, it often isn't possible to dig up the data retroactively. Think of all the achievements and professional highlights that could be lost over time!

Most of what you're able to measure in order to demonstrate success needs to be measured with intention, on purpose, while you're working on the given project. Take some time to define measurable success metrics at the beginning of each project, measure as you go, and record the results.

Your efforts will spare you a lot of professional regret down the road during your next job transition, and will also help you identify professional wins that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

Step 3: Look for Ripple-Effect Results

Sometimes the most significant results of your work aren't directly numerical. In some cases, they might be entirely anecdotal. On top of that, something great can happen in response to your work that you didn't intend to happen at all! Should we bury these situations or neglect them as professional achievements, simply because they aren't traditional, direct measurements? Absolutely not!

Perhaps you planned and oversaw an event for your non-profit organization. It wasn't a fundraising event specifically, but one of the attendees was so impressed that they decided to make a significant contribution to the organization. You didn't directly solicit the donation--you're not even on the development team, perhaps!--but your work still resulted in a major win for the organization.

Or, let's say you work for a youth development organization, and you've been investing a lot of time and effort in community outreach. Your main goal was to increase visibility, and make sure the community is aware of your programming. During your outreach efforts, you happened to develop community partnerships with a few local businesses. Those partnerships led to unexpected enrichment opportunities for the children in your programs, creating new, fun ways for them to learn and grow. 

I like to call these sorts of results ripple effects. Because of your actions, something unexpected or indirect happened, and there was a positive outcome. There might not be numbers involved, but that doesn't change the fact that something good happened! You should absolutely keep track of these ripple effect results, even if the result is purely anecdotal. Results are results, intentional or not! 

Responsibility vs. Results in Your Resume

In today's job market, it isn't enough to just write down what you do every day and call it a resume. As much as we don't like to do so, you have to take this opportunity to brag a little! Your resume is designed for this--it isn't arrogant to accurately and confidently convey your professional achievements.

It's a good and rewarding experience to be proud of your work, and to communicate your results effectively. I invite you to consider your own achievements today, and how you might better present those career highlights in your current resume. You never know--those examples will very likely come in handy some day!

The Problem of Presence

I wish there was a better word for 'presence.'

The New Age movement has done some serious damage to concepts like presence, mindfulness, peace, and meditation. Some people are automatically turned off by the mention of these words, because the concepts are preached non-stop (with a complete lack of substance) through social media. On the other hand, at the mention of these concepts, followers of the New Age movement dive into rehearsed mantras about their 'true selves' that they are likely parroting verbatim from their yoga teacher. 

I find myself standing somewhere in the balance of these two extremes--I practice yoga at home, and believe that there is a tremendous amount of value in being in the present moment. But I also balk at the overuse, and the surface-level social-media-slathering approach to the idea of just 'being.'

There has to be a sensible middle-ground approach in there somewhere, right?

This tension has snuck up on me a lot recently. Two recent occurrences happened at the Botanical Gardens...a magnificent place to just 'be'! But on both occasions, Andrew and I were there for special events, and I was grieved by the example of our culture's growing inability to just sit back and enjoy a moment.

The first occasion was during the Japanese Festival, a fun annual event at MOBOT featuring performances, cultural demonstrations, traditional Japanese food and goods, and much more. It's a great event, but increasingly busy each year. 

One of the most meaningful traditions that is demonstrated annually at the Japanese Festival is the tōrō nagashi, a lantern ceremony that is meant to assist departed souls in finding their way to the spirit world. People collect and light lanterns in honor of their lost loved ones, and these lanterns are set adrift on the lake in the Japanese Garden in the evening after the sun has set. 

We tried to attend this ceremony at the festival, but the solemnity of the experience was completely ruined by the thousands and thousands of flashing cell phone cameras blinding us at random. 

This was a ceremony meant to honor and guide the dead, and the vast majority of people in attendance were obsessively trying to capture the perfect cell-phone shot. Can you imagine seeing someone doing that at, say, a funeral?

We found ourselves back at the Botanical Gardens a few weeks ago to enjoy the annual Garden Glow. A holiday event, the gardens are lit with a spectacular amount of Christmas lights designed in themed sections along a walking path. I've attended the glow several times now, and this year was by far the worst experience.

Crowds aside (seriously though, they are letting way too many people in at a time in the name of profit!), we didn't even elect to walk through my favorite part of the glow, the tunnel of lights.

A few years ago, I went to the glow with some friends on a super cold night. There were so few people there that we were able to literally lie down in the tunnel, and just stare up at the lights all around us for several minutes. It was magical, and one of my favorite St. Louis memories!

This year, the line leading into the tunnel was so extensive that we didn't even bother. Part of the reason for that line was immediately obvious--from a distance, we could see people inside the tunnel holding their cell phones up and adjusting their settings to capture the perfect photo. And it wasn't a quick process.

We moved on, and vowed to return to the glow next year only on the coldest, most unappealing night of the year, maybe an hour before closing. We'll bundle up and deal with it, and we'll probably have a better time as a result.

Or maybe we'll just walk through Candy Cane Lane instead, and simply enjoy being together during the holidays, sans selfies.

***

A few weeks ago, I was again confronted with this idea of presence when I was creating my professional schedule and goals for 2018. I went into my Goodreads account to look something up, and there it was, smacking me right in the face:

"Goodreads Reading Challenge 2018! Push yourself--how many books will you read this year?"

For those of you who don't use Goodreads, it's a social media site for readers that also has some great tools for tracking books you've read, and books you want to read. Each year, they add this little tool to the side of your homepage that allows you to track what you're currently reading, and also to keep track of how many books you've read for the year. At the beginning of each year, they encourage you to set a nice, ambitious number of books to read, and display that publicly for your friends to see.

In general, I love Goodreads. It's helpful as I collect books for my reading list, and for reminding me of books I haven't read in years. The reviews are also pretty good, and helpful in determining whether or not I want to read something new.

But why must we measure success so quantitatively, especially for an activity as personal as reading? Why not celebrate any opportunity to sit down, read, and savor a story, as quickly or as slowly as we want? Reading has intrinsic value, and that value isn't compromised by a certain pace. What's the rush?

A while back, I stopped measuring both my writing and my reading goals by words or books -- instead, I measure time. Am I spending time reading and writing, no matter how much I 'achieve' in that window? Reading, writing, or just sitting and thinking about what I'm going to write can be considered independently productive, with no qualifiers or caveats. 

As a result of this perspective shift, I've seen a dramatic improvement in how much I enjoy time spent reading and writing. Maybe because I'm not dealing with the tick-box at the back of my mind, or the bar that I have to meet.

Maybe I can just enjoy what I'm doing, and learn from it...on some days, at least!

***

Not too long ago, my parents had some of our home movies digitized. I offered to help get the files stored in the cloud while they stored them on an external hard drive, so I spent a good amount of time going through those home movies, and making sure they were labeled accurately.

Most of our home movies are videos of special events, like birthdays, Christmas gatherings, soccer games, and piano recitals. I was watching the video labeled "Hannah's 2nd Birthday" when the scene changed, and I saw tiny little two-year-old me running around in the yard with my dad. It took me a few minutes to realize it wasn't a birthday video or anything I was used to seeing previously--this was just a video of me playing with my parents on a normal, not-so-special day.

I'm pretty sure I'd never seen the video before, either.

I watched, mesmerized as I asked to climb into the back of a pick-up truck I have absolutely no memories of. Dad sat with me in the back of the truck and sang "If You're Happy and You Know It" with me -- I enthusiastically rubbed my eyes and cried "Boo Hoo!" when the sad verse came around each time. It's an ironic, innocent, hilarious catch.

Dad defends me from a spider that has appeared in the back of the truck, and we watch airplanes flying overhead.

At some point, the camera changes, and my mom is holding me on her hip, singing a song with me--that I again have no memory of--called "We're Going to the Zoo." Google tells me that this is a Raffi song, which makes more sense; we listened and sang along with a whole lot of Raffi growing up, but I must have preferred some of his other hits like "Banana Phone" and "Baby Beluga" that I can still recall today. 

Dad is filming while we sing verses with a repeating chorus:

Going to the zoo, zoo, zoo! 
How about you, you, you?
You can come too, too, too!

We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!

When we say "you," we point, because kid songs. In the middle of a chorus, I realize mid-phrase that I'm pointing at dad holding the video camera, and stop to say "Daddy come to the zoo too?"

Mom laughs and reassures me that yes, Daddy can also come to the zoo in this fictional scenario where we're singing about going to the zoo, but not actually going to the zoo.

We can all be together, and there is nothing in the world to worry about at all.

The scene cuts again to a different part of the yard on the same day. I'm sitting on the front porch with dad admiring our pumpkins. Mom is holding the camera, and asks what I'm going to be for Halloween--with a little help, I eventually remember and state that I'm going to be a ninja turtle for Halloween. My parents were awesome Halloween influences, obviously.

I'm in tears by the time the video cuts to my 3rd birthday party, another special, present-filled day with cake all over my face, and family and friends gathered in the living room.

Suddenly, I realize that my own kids will never have this experience. It will never again be this precious for them to see video of themselves, or to be emotionally overwhelmed watching the magic of their parents loving them on a normal, just-because day. They will have mountains of video of themselves, and will be used to being posed and prodded just so for the ideal, Instagram-worthy photo. 

What will that do to them, I wonder?

I don't know. But as I watch this precious video of my parents playing with me in the yard, I vow not to constantly put my phone in my kids' faces, when that day comes. 

No matter how stinking cute they are, I vow to be with them.

***

Our culture is constantly screaming at us and pushing us to do more, participate according to the rules, tick off the boxes, and blend in.

Everyone is taking pictures and photos constantly, so take pictures constantly.  
Everyone is setting an ambitious reading goal, so read more books and keep up.
Everyone is binge-watching TV and movies on Netflix, so definitely do that and stay "in-the-know" on the latest hit shows.

The problem is that while everyone is taking pictures and video, sharing all the juicy details on social media, reading ferociously fast, and binge-watching TV, their friends and loved ones sitting right next to them are watching.

We manage to see each other, somehow, as we ignore each other.
We see the passing moments, and the missed opportunities to really connect.

In today's world, that is the problem of presence. Though the word itself--and perhaps even the concept--is trendy and "in," the practice of sitting back and enjoying moments together is definitely not. 

I'm no exception. I fight the temptation to go with the flow and not really see my husband, or spend intentional, sweet time with him. I fail to see every moment with family or loved ones as the gift that it is. But that doesn't mean that those moments are any less precious, or that I shouldn't try to be present in those moments with the people I love. 

I don't know where you stand on this subject. Maybe you are a social media advocate and think I'm a behind-the-times traditionalist with no vision. Maybe you think it's super important to set ambitious quantitative reading goals, and you swear by your decision to binge-watch TV regularly. That's fine! You do you. 

But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of response regarding the concept of presence, I invite you to be with your loved ones. It was my grandma's dying advice to us when I saw her last, and I happen to think she might have been wiser than me: 

Spend as much time with your family and loved ones as you can. 

Now, Mamaw didn't add "And stay off your phone," because she didn't need to. Mamaw and Papaw were never distracted when we visited--they were always 100% with us, and the memories are sweeter as a result. 

But since 2018 is what it is, and none of us are as awesome or as wise as my Mamaw, I'll put the pieces together and bring her advice fully into our modern culture:

Spend time with your families and loved ones, and maybe sometimes be with them 100%.
Put the phone away.
And most of all, don't worry about losing the photo opp--worry about losing the memory, and a sweet, once-in-a-lifetime moment to connect with the people you love most.

Looking Back and Dreaming Forward: Year-End Musings

Happy New Year, friends! Hopefully your end-of-year festivities and holiday celebrations were full of good food and awesome people. Andrew and I celebrated the change of year by binge-watching TV and blowing through record-breaking amounts of Kleenex. Pretty sure we were in bed by 10:30. 

Germs aside, I love the end of the year. The close of a year and beginning of the next year is this wonderful, natural transition point in life, and a gift-wrapped opportunity to reflect and dream. I totally nerd out over this stuff...poor Andrew has to go through similar conversations with me at any major milestone like birthdays, our wedding anniversary, the anniversary of our first date, etc. He's a trooper.

The close of the calendar year though...that's the ultimate transition point, a literal page turn. I love an excuse to look back and dream forward, and have spent a lot of time already thinking about my personal and professional 2017, and dreams for the upcoming year. 

Looking Back: Celebrating 2017

When I look back on 2017, there is a lot to celebrate, and that's 1) surprising and 2) awesome. The good stuff is surprising because 2016 was so shoddy, and I'm still sort of in awe of the contrast between the two years. In my reflections, I came out with a few big points:

#1 - I started a business that I love.

That's not a small thing, now that I think about it! It's tempting to get bogged down in the "weirdness" of what I do, and the super negative and unhelpful comments that people often give in response to my work. But in hindsight, it's easy to see what a blessing my profession is.

Writing fiction for me is still a joy, and adding the client-facing side of my work has really brought a beautiful balance to my professional life. I served lots of awesome people in 2017, and have a 100% satisfaction rate with my clients. That's definitely something worth celebrating!

All year, though, it was a constant battle to believe in my work and trust that I was doing the right thing. Even though I was actively serving people and making a difference in their professional and personal lives, I struggled to fight off the messages of the world regarding 'traditional success.' 

Fortunately, I have a rockstar husband who encourages and supports me with persistence and patience.

For Christmas each year, Andrew and I theme our gifts for each other. It's fun and helps us with ideas, so we've made it a tradition. The themes are secret, so I didn't know what Andrew was up to until Christmas morning. He started by giving me a card he made with little layered notes, each note corresponding to a gift.

Every single note was an affirmation or encouragement about my professional pursuits, and the impact of my work.

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Yes, I cried like a baby. Yes, my husband is freaking incredible. To top it all off, the trunk of the tree pulled out to reveal the words "Change Their Minds and Change the World." That note corresponded with a Wonder Woman that Andrew cross-stitched for me.

By hand.

I didn't even know he knew how to cross-stitch. 

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Andrew reminded me of something that is super easy to forget -- my work is valuable, it suits me, and it is worth celebrating. Also, apparently I'm Wonder Woman in his eyes, which is freaking incredible!

Which leads me to my next big win from 2017.

#2 - My husband is a selfless, patient, compassionate superhero.

I mean, see above, but also a lot of other great stuff happened!

Blogging in 2017 was a little annoying because I SO BADLY wanted to write openly about Andrew's professional situation. He was my ever-present pro-bono client that desperately needed to move into a different work environment, but couldn't even start looking for a new opportunity until July. He endured a rough culture and exhausting job for about a year so that 1) I could continue to do what I love and 2) we would have a steady income to purchase a house and qualify for financing. 

In July, he kicked his job search into high gear, and we both worked hard to get him into a better situation. He finally started at an awesome new company in November, but all year he continued to be patient, selfless, and committed to leading our family well. In addition, in looking back on 2017 I get to celebrate the incredible lift in his spirit that occurred immediately with the job change. Now in addition to having a selfless, patient, loving man, I also have a super happy man, and that is definitely worth celebrating! 

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Even in the midst of our germs and exhaustion over the holiday season, we've had a lot of fun because so many aspects of our circumstances are simply better. I'm thankful to have a partner to walk through life with, and someone to laugh a lot with when the pressure finally eases up. 

#3 - I healed spiritually.

Again, 2016 was a pretty stupid year, and a lot of that had to do with spiritual abuse and the aftermath of those experiences. With time, spiritual direction, and the merciful, gentle leading of God, 2017 brought a lot of healing, and a desire to turn back to my loving Father. 

For the first time in ages, I'm picking up my Bible consistently and seeing the fruit that comes from the Word of God. I have a right image of God, which was pretty messed up from the previous year. As He leads me, I find that I am more confident in who He is, the plans He has for my life, and my identity in Jesus. Above all, this is the 2017 "win" most worth celebrating. It is transformational, and I could not be more grateful that I am so far from where I was at the end of 2016. Praise God!

Dreaming Forward: Anticipating 2018

I tend to be super type-A and productivity-focused when I think about goal-setting. It's tempting to approach this "resolution season" in such a way--to focus on what needs to change, and how to get it done efficiently and effective. That's good, of course! I have professional goals that fall into that category and aren't listed below.

But I think it's also important to pause and dream

Here's where I landed for 2018, with both personal and professional implications.

#1 - Prioritize my relationship with God over literally everything else.

After seeing the fruit of this recent season, what I desire the most for 2018 is to stay in the Word and learn to lean fully on God. This influences how I plan my day, design my schedule, and make decisions, and it's honestly pretty different from how I've operated previously. I have no doubt that this will have a huge impact on my life, and on my capacity and desire to serve others. 

On top of that, I have a feeling that God will continue to speak into my professional identity, and to affirm that I'm on the right track. I am definitely on board with a more accurate foundation for my identity in 2018!

#2 - Get in a groove.

Andrew and I had a pretty chaotic 2016, and still a lot of changes in 2017 with job transitions and the new house. One of our mutual goals for 2018 is to get in a groove, settle in to some normalcy, and hopefully even get bored on occasion. 

Initially, I thought I was biologically allergic to routine. The constraints of a schedule felt restrictive and automatically made me want to rebel (human nature, anyone?). "I need my freedom! I'm a creative! Impulse is life, yo!"

But as I've developed a schedule and routine out of necessity for self-employment, I've seen how beneficial it is to have rhythms in my daily life. My best days are the 'typical' days with a normal schedule--I get up, I eat, I do yoga, plan the day, and am generally joyfully productive. Routine, it turns out, can be freeing, and also really good medicine for my anxiety. I hope to foster more of these rhythms in 2018. 

The same goes for life outside of work. Andrew and I both find we can breathe easier when we have some planned date nights, and rhythms in our weekly routines. We literally are aiming for a rotating monthly date night schedule this year--he plans one, I plan one, we go out for a good meal, and we stay in and cook together. Repeat, repeat, repeat. There is still space for spontaneity, but also a lot of pressure relieved by not starting from scratch each week. 

#3 - Have a lot of fun.

Not your average resolution, huh? Honestly, I love this goal for 2018--I love the idea of intentionally playing, and making the most out of the time we have.

This was initially kicked off by plans for our next big international trip. Back in December, we tinkered around with our credit card rewards and loyalty points, and were shocked to find that we could get round-trip tickets for next fall for just $100 in fees. WHOA. AWESOME!!! We just returned from our European river cruise in November, so I had no idea we'd be able to plan something again so soon. Because of that, France/Switzerland is already in the works, along with a few other small domestic trips.

I hope 2018 is like the honeymoon year we never had. In many ways, I feel like we've gotten some of that back in 2017, but I have no problem stretching the good times out into a second year now that we're finally feeling settled! 

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If you've gotten to this point, kudos. I appreciate you giving a darn about my 2017 and 2018 musings, and I hope you have some things to celebrate in your own lives, too. If you feel yourself getting overly legalistic or to-do-listy about your 2018 plans, I invite you to step back and dream a little with me. What do you hope for this year? What desires do you have for the next 12 months? Go ahead, I won't tell anyone...dream forward!

Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis

Happy Tuesday, my sweet friends.

First of all, I want to take a moment and acknowledge the overwhelming responses to the recent post about my history of abuse. Your words of encouragement and support have been a balm to my soul, and your stories of similar treatment and pain have moved me to tears. It is good to celebrate healing and to challenge abuse in all of its forms--thank you for walking that path alongside me, and for being a part of the conversation.

As the holidays are upon us and I find myself frequently indulging in seasonal treats, food has been on the brain (and in the belly) a lot. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a lighter post about exploring the dining scene in St. Louis.

The love language of my marriage is literally eating together--a specialized category of quality time, in my opinion. We can consistently be observed in the middle of a fantastic meal, when I take a bite of something delicious, make eye contact with Andrew mid-bite, and tearfully exclaim, "I just love you so MUCH!" 

Weird? Probably. But we love our personal brand of weird.  

Because of our great love of food and dining, Andrew and I have surveyed many of the wonderful culinary establishments in the area, and frequently find ourselves in a position where we are delivering dining recommendations to others.

Even though we're self-declared experts of eating in our city, this was a difficult guide to approach. Should I organize it by neighborhood, each with its own colorful personality and emphasis, or by type of cuisine? In the interest of time and in an effort to avoid writing a full-fledged St. Louis dining guidebook, there are good restaurants missing, and attributes that I've failed to list. Nonetheless, for locals and out-of-town visitors alike, my hope is that this guide will introduce you to a new gem in the St. Louis dining world, and that you will enjoy a bite of something scrumptious with a friend, family member, or foxy date. 

A few disclaimers:

  1. I do not claim to be the definitive expert on dining in St. Louis -- the guide below is purely opinion and experience-based. There are still many great St. Louis restaurants we have yet to visit. No need to get saucy about your neglected favorites or despised inclusions!
  2. I do not eat everything. You will find no steakhouses on this list, nor will you find many meat-centric options. 
  3. I value ambiance, service, and experience in addition to the quality of food offered. For example, especially in the fine dining category, if the service is overly stuffy, I generally don't remember the experience fondly. I appreciate it when servers are willing to smile, or heaven forbid laugh. Some fancier restaurants are not listed as a result.

Now that those warnings are taken care of...

Move over, Ian Froeb! Without further ado, I am proud to present...

The Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis

Here it is, my friends. My St. Louis favorites are below, divided into the following categories:

  • Sweets and Beverages -- there may be "real" food, but the treats are best
  • Ultra-Casual -- sweatpants permitted without substantial judgment
  • Casual-Classy -- no-fuss date night, jeans-friendly
  • Special Occasion -- get fancy and celebrate
     

Sweets and Beverages

Clementine's Naughty & Nice Creamery

Neighborhood: Lafayette Square and DeMun
Claim to fame: All-natural homemade ice cream, in boozy and regular varieties

Hannah's Take: Clementine's brings some seriously delicious competition to the ice cream scene in St. Louis. The creative concoctions--boozy ("naughty") and regular ("nice")--are made with the best ingredients, and no artificial crap, including dyes. In addition to their ice cream, they make their own whipped cream and waffle cones/bowls in house. Ice cream lovers, rejoice!

Nathaniel Reid Bakery

Neighborhood: East Kirkwood
Claim to fame: Internationally-acclaimed croissants, pastries, and happiness.

Hannah's Take: If you don't know who Nathaniel Reid is, you're going to thank me soon. This award-winning pastry chef won some serious accolades for his delectable, gorgeous treats, then decided to open an unassuming little strip-mall bakery in East Kirkwood. Go for literally anything that screams your name from the irresistibly gorgeous counter case, but don't miss the croissants. 

The London Tea Room

Neighborhood: Tower Grove South
Claim to fame: A rockin' loose-leaf tea selection in a decidedly English setting. 

Hannah's Take: An accessible, bright English tea shop actually owned and operated by honest-to-goodness Brits. The loose leaf tea selection is unparalleled in St. Louis--visit for a casual pot of tea in the storefront seating area, or book a reservation for high tea in the more formal dining room. Pastries, quiche, and lighter fare available. 

Gelateria Del Leone

Neighborhood: South Grand
Claim to fame: Thoughtful hot beverages and the creamiest gelato on earth.

Hannah's Take: Don't be fooled by the name--the Gelateria offers much more than delicious, creamy gelato. In addition to an impressive pastry selection, be sure to try a hot beverage. My order is always a London Fog--steamed milk, Earl Gray tea from the nearby London Tea Room, and a hint of vanilla. In good weather, the patio is divine.

The Cup

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Great cupcakes, and the world's best buttercream frosting

Hannah's Take: Seriously, the buttercream frosting is to die for. There are seasonal, rotating, and standard cupcake flavors available, and none will disappoint. The Cup has even been crowned as the official cupcake of the St. Louis Cardinals--what more do you need to know? They've even added delivery service. You don't even have to leave the house, so your excuses not to try The Cup are down to zero. 

Handcrafted by Bissinger's

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Handmade chocolates including caramels, truffles, and creams--oh my!

Hannah's Take: Though they've recently expanded to a full cafe menu in the Central West End, the chocolate is still what shines the most. Try a truffle, caramel, and cream for a good sampling, and don't miss the more expansive dine-in dessert menu offered exclusively in the evening.

Vincent Van Donut

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Inventive, delicious donuts

Hannah's Take: Only Clayton could house a donut shop with such flair. These uniquely square treats are ultra-decadent, and not for the feint of heart. Rumor has it that they also make homemade poptarts, but you have to get there crazy early to snag them! I have yet to try one. Instead, we go for regular donut varieties like the cookies and cream, or blueberry cheesecake.

Pint Size Bakery

Neighborhood: Northampton
Claim to fame: Seriously delicious, inventive, gorgeous baked goods.

Hannah's Take: Pint Size is a recent discovery for us, and Andrew and I are both obsessed. After reviewing their holiday goodies menu, we immediately texted Andrew's mom and said, "Umm, can we please bring dessert for Christmas?" So far, I'm convinced you can't go wrong here, but try the salted caramel croissant or a hand pie for a delectable treat!

Ultra-Casual

Andrew's Pizza Pick: Pi Pizzeria

Neighborhood: Multiple including The Loop, Kirkwood, Downtown, Central West End
Claim to fame: Pizza nested in a deep-dish cornmeal crust.

Hannah's Take: I don't really understand everyone's obsession with Pi. That might have something to do with the fact that it took me several years to try it out, and people raved about it constantly until I finally tried it. I was underwhelmed, but Andrew still insists that Pi is his favorite pizza in town. Give it a try and decide for yourself!

Hannah's Pizza Pick: Blackthorn Pub

Neighborhood: Tower Gove South
Claim to fame: A pizza on top of a pizza, with the city's best sauce.

Hannah's Take: Blackthorn Pub is definitely the weird uncle of the STL pizza scene. It's a dive bar in Tower Grove South, with dollar bills taped all over the walls and ceilings. They have one oven, limited pizza toppings, and less-than-awesome customer service. But the pizza sauce is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of heat, and the pie is essentially a pizza on top of another pizza--double cheese, double toppings. Call ahead--wait times can exceed an hour, but the pizza is worth the effort. 

Pho Long

Neighborhood: Olivette
Claim to fame: Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup you never knew you needed.

Hannah's Take: If you've never tried pho, you are missing out! Enjoy a warm, flavorful, satisfying noodle soup with varieties for every diet. If you're like us and tend to be more flexible in your restrictions, try our personal favorite: the vegetarian pho with tofu, swapping in the beef broth from the classic house pho. 

Colleen's Cookies

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Baked goodies and an impressive menu in a neighborhood cafe setting.

Hannah's Take: Colleen's is an absolute gem. Their baked goods selection is overwhelming, but you can't go wrong no matter what you choose. The cafe menu has expanded over the years, offering a great--albeit random--selection of breakfast and lunch items, including some wonderful homemade biscuits. There's some patio seating out front, and the staff are all warm and welcoming. You'll feel right at home!

Salt + Smoke

Neighborhood: The Loop and Southhampton
Claim to fame: Texas-style BBQ and thoughtful sides.

Hannah's Take: The trashed wings alone are worth a stop at Salt + Smoke. I can't attest to many of the center stage meat options, but this BBQ joint definitely knows its stuff. Don't miss the surprisingly inventive side dishes, like the white cheddar cracker mac. 

Sweet Art

Neighborhood: Shaw
Claim to fame: Vegetarian and vegan fare, including bakery goodies.

Hannah's Take: I'm 150,000% certain that Sweet Art makes the most flavorful, amazing veggie burger that I will ever eat in my life. Try the "Make it Funky" for an extra good survey of what they have to offer. The kale salad is a worthy and surprising compliment to the main entrees, and no stop is complete without a cupcake--vegan or regular. Breakfast is good, too. Everything is good. Just go. 

Like Home

Neighborhood: Grand Center/SLU
Claim to fame: French cuisine made by actual French people!

Hannah's Take: If you aren't charmed by this place, there is simply no hope for you. Run by a young French woman and her mother, this cafe offers fresh, quality French dishes and pastries in an adorably homey corner cafe. Mind the operating hours--the schedule can change seasonally. 

Zen Thai & Japanese Cuisine

Neighborhood: Crestwood
Claim to fame: Cheap, authentic Thai food with bonus sushi.

Hannah's Take: Tucked back in a strip mall with Aldi, this hole-in-the-wall restaurant is easy to miss. During my undergrad, a Thai professor brought our class to this restaurant for an authentic Thai food experience. You simply will not believe how good the lunch deals are on weekdays, but even outside of those times, the food is reasonably priced and well-prepared. 

The Mud House

Neighborhood: Cherokee
Claim to fame: Hipster-friendly cafe fare that doesn't disappoint.

Hannah's Take: The Mud House is bittersweet for me because it's so excruciatingly busy on the weekends, but still absolutely worth a visit. Go during the week if your schedule allows. Breakfast and lunch dishes are consistently fantastic, as are the beverages and baked goods. If you can snag a table in nice weather, the back patio is glorious. Don't miss the chocolate chip cookie, my favorite in the entire city (thus far)!

Seoul Taco

Neighborhood: The Loop, and wherever the food truck is
Claim to fame: Korean-Mexican fusion, on the cheap.

Hannah's Take: My first experience with Seoul Taco was their food truck--I had a taco, and it was not super noteworthy. I later visited and ordered a chicken burrito, and I have been singing the praises of Seoul Taco ever since. Don't underestimate the heat, or overlook the restaurant for the simplicity of the menu. A cheap, delicious burrito awaits! 

Benton Park Cafe

Neighborhood: Benton Park (duh)
Claim to fame: All-day breakfast and diner-style fare, except way better.

Hannah's Take: Also excruciatingly busy on the weekends--especially in the AM--Benton Park Cafe offers diner-style American fare that is a step-up from your average diner. The food maintains the fatty-indulgence of a traditional diner (ie: the McGrittl This, a pancake sandwich with eggs and sausage in the middle), but with some quality alternatives and good ingredients. Don't miss the breakfast potatoes, best enjoyed with a little sriracha or hot sauce.

Kounter Kulture

Neighborhood: Northampton
Claim to fame: Carry-out spot with incredible Asian-inspired fare. 

Hannah's Take: Another recent find for us, Kounter Kulture is a delightful surprise. They offer no indoor seating, but what they do offer is an outrageously yummy take on sweet buns--basically a gigantic taco wrapped in a massive sweet bun, filled to the brim with slow-roasted pork, tofu, or spiced catfish. There's other stuff on the menu, but why would you not order a sweet bun taco?!? The service is incredible, especially given that this is just a carry-out joint. You will not be disappointed. 

Casual-Classy

Taste

Neighborhood: Central West End
Claim to fame: Craft cocktails and delectable small bites.

Hannah's Take: When you mostly want a craft cocktail but also want some quality small plates, Taste is the place for you. Everything that Gerard Craft touches turns to culinary gold, so have no fear--for the non-locals, just take my word on this one. 

The Fountain on Locust

Neighborhood: Midtown/Grand Center
Claim to fame: Ice cream and soda fountain in a hand-painted art deco setting. 

Hannah's Take: The specialty ice creams desserts are well-known, but the food is just as delicious at this Midtown gem. Try the dill pickle soup for something unique and, frankly, magical. Obviously don't skip dessert--the ice cream is sourced from a dairy in Wisconsin, the only one known to age their ice cream. All toppings and sauces are made in-house.

Element

Neighborhood: Lafayette Square
Claim to fame: New American fare with a killer view of downtown.

Hannah's Take: We've visited Element several times, and the food seems to improve with every visit. The setting, of course, is impossible to beat--enjoy a rooftop bar overlooking downtown St. Louis. While you're there, check out the view of Climb So Ill, the city's go-to rock climbing gym housed in the same building. 

Prasino

Neighborhood: St. Charles
Claim to fame: Actually delicious food, west of 270. 

Hannah's Take: If you suddenly find yourself west of 270 and surrounded by fast-casual chain restaurants, don't panic! Prasino in St. Charles provides a welcome relief from the tragic, far-west county dining scene. Offering "craft New American cuisine," lunch and dinner at Prasino are great, but brunch is the real standout. Don't miss the truffled potatoes!

Russell's on Macklind

Neighborhood: Southhampton
Claim to fame: Neighborhood favorite with stellar local fare. 

Hannah's Take: Whether it's a breakfast pizza, gooey butter cake, pulled pork sandwich, or a simple salad and sandwich combo, Russell's knows how to dish out good food. They get crazy on the weekends, and the patio fills up fast in good weather, but this neighborhood favorite is still well worth your time. 

Cafe Osage

Neighborhood: Central West End/Fountain Park
Claim to fame: Farm-to-table fare, right in the heart of the city.

Hannah's Take: Hungry for some home-grown goodness in the midst of the city? Look no further than Cafe Osage, a combination garden store and cafe. They grow many of their ingredients on site, and the freshness is evident in both the breakfast and lunch menus. For the best experience, come when the weather is nice and enjoy a thoughtfully prepared meal al fresco. 

Small Batch

Neighborhood: Grand Center
Claim to fame: All-vegetarian fare, and a massive whiskey selection. 

Hannah's Take: Vegetarians rejoice! You can eat everything on this menu, and the flavors are anything but bland. Known for an impressive whiskey selection, this member of the Bailey's family is also a welcome addition to the St. Louis food scene. Small Batch is a great stop for a pre-show dinner in Grand Center. 

Whitebox Eatery

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: Counter-service cafe with a pinch of sophistication.

Hannah's Take: Every time my mom is in town, she says, "Oh, maybe just a soup/salad/sandwich place?" And every time she asks, I rack my brain trying to come up with a place. Fortunately, I can turn to this surprising little cafe in downtown Clayton. Order at the counter, and enjoy quality food with refreshing service attention. Brunch is especially good. 

Avenue

Neighborhood: Clayton
Claim to fame: European cafe with a rock-star staff.

Hannah's Take: A little piece of Europe tucked away in downtown Clayton, Avenue is the stop for anyone used to the quality food and service found in overseas dining. Weekend brunch is excellent, and they've managed to hire the best servers in town for an enjoyable experience at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or brunch. Ask to sit in Becky's section, and visit John behind the bar. 
 

Special Occasion

Bar Les Freres

Neighborhood: Clayton
Reservations: Probably a good idea.
Claim to fame: The best French restaurant in STL.

Hannah's Take: If you've got a pretty lady you're looking to impress, this is the all-around best date stop in the city. Start to finish, the experience is exquisite--excellent cocktails, incredible French food, attentive service, and a quiet, romantic setting. If you're calling for a reservation and get persistent busy signals, keep trying--they often leave the phone off the hook on accident. Don't worry, they'll make up for the minor annoyance at dinner!

Stone Soup Cottage

Neighborhood: Cottleville, MO (40 minutes northwest)
Reservations: Definitely, probably a month or more in advance.
Claim to fame: Incredible farm-sourced tasting menu in a charming setting.

Hannah's Take: Not for the feint of heart, Stone Soup Cottage offers the ultimate fine dining experience in the St. Louis area. Dinners are hosted on a farm in Cottleville about 40 minutes northwest of the city, in the romantic dining room of a charming farmhouse. The service is exquisite, and the tasting menu is an experience you don't want to miss. The worst part is driving back to the city afterward--consider booking a nearby room for the night instead!

Claverach Farms

Neighborhood: 20 miles west of STL
Reservations: Definitely, probably a month or more in advance.
Claim to fame: Farm-sourced, family-style experience in an open-air barn.

Hannah's Take: I like to think of Claverach as a less-intimidating, family-style Stone Soup. Dinners are held in an open-air barn on the farm about twenty miles west of St. Louis. Best experienced with a group, enjoy a seated dinner at long picnic tables featuring the freshest seasonal ingredients from the farm. 

Sidney Street Cafe

Neighborhood: Benton Park
Reservations: Probably a good idea, but drop-ins have a fighting chance.
Claim to fame: Inventive New American in the ideal date-night setting.

Hannah's Take: The exposed brick and street lamps in the main dining room of Sidney Street Cafe combine beautifully to create a charming, romantic, laid-back date night setting. Ask to be seating in that main room, and enjoy a fantastic meal with someone special!

Brasserie

Neighborhood: Central West End
Reservations: Probably a good idea, but drop-ins have a fighting chance.
Claim to fame: Excellent French fare, and a procrastination-friendly brunch.

Hannah's Take: Another of Gerard Craft's victories, Brasserie is a French stop in the Central West End, now offering lunch during the week in addition to dinner, and brunch on the weekends. The patio is spacious, and if dinner is a little too intimidating for you, go for brunch. The croque madame and benedict are both marvelous, as are the breakfast potatoes. Unlike many of the area brunch stops, you have a chance for a table if you show up sans reservation around 10:00 AM.

Herbie's

Neighborhood: Clayton (formerly Central West End)
Reservations: They have gobs of space--you're probably fine without one.
Claim to fame: French-inspired American fare with quality service. 

Hannah's Take: The recent move from the Central West End to downtown Clayton makes sense for Herbie's. This fine dining spot now boasts a massive patio, and the neighborhood suits the sophistication of the menu, service, and ambiance. While arguably less inventive and more traditional, the food is well prepared, and the service is excellent. 


Honorable Mentions

Vicia

Neighborhood: The Cortex
Reservations: Definitely, though not too far in advance.
Claim to fame: Vegetable-forward fare that is turning heads on a national level. 

Hannah's Take: I had to include Vicia, because absolutely everyone is talking about it! We have yet to visit, but are excited to give it a go in January. For a preview of a similar philosophy, watch the Chef's Table episode about Blue Hill. The team behind Vicia spent several years with Blue Hill, and the philosophy is noticeably similar.

Pieces Board Game Bar & Cafe

Neighborhood: Soulard
Claim to fame: Super fun board game cafe with better-than-expected fare. 

Hannah's Take: Go for the games, stay for the food! This innovative board game bar and cafe is thriving, right next to the farmer's market in Soulard. For a $5 game fee, play as many games as you like for as long as you'd like. For every food or beverage item you order, they'll deduct $1 off your game fee. The food is better than expected, and the service is fantastic. Basically, Pieces is heaven for foodie nerds. Get your geek on!

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And that's a wrap! I'll try to update this guide and re-post it periodically, when we've visited new favorites. In the meantime, I hope I've left you drooling for something listed above. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you try any of these places out, and if there is something not listed that you think I should try, drop a suggestion in the comments below.

Updated: January 22, 2018

Capturing Your Professional 2017: End-of-Year Reflection

There are less than 3 weeks remaining in 2017 -- can you believe it? Before you let your mind race ahead to your personal holiday festivities, Christmas shopping, and the inevitable feasting to uncomfortable fullness, I invite you to take a moment and reflect.

Sure, you have personal goals that you want to identify based on the previous year, and resolutions that you want to set for 2018. 

But friends, don't miss this opportunity to reflect on your professional 2017. 

What are you most proud of in your work this year? What have you achieved? Perhaps you'd rather skip all of that and dig into the holidays with your families--understandably so! Sit tight for a minute and allow me to present an argument for professional reflection and proactive resume updates as we celebrate the close of another calendar year. 

End-of-Year Resume Updates

Though December is always busy and chaotic, this is absolutely the best time to sit down and document your professional achievements for your resume. Whether you are an active job seeker or 100% content in your current role, periodic resume updates will serve you in the long run. 

Why now?

There are 3 primary arguments in favor of end-of-year resume updates, regardless of your job status:

  • Fresh perspective on the closing year's activities
  • Availability of metrics and specific results
  • Avoided frenzy and effort in the event of a future job application

We've all been there. For years, you never expect to leave a job, and all of a sudden you realize it's time to move on. You happen to run across your dream job in a listing on LinkedIn, and you realize that the application deadline is tomorrow.

Frantically, you dig through your computer files and an eternity later, you locate your most recent resume draft. You groan as you review it--you haven't updated it at all since you accepted your current position! You rack your brain, trying to come up with some impressive-sounding bullets for your current role, with the clock ticking down in the back of your mind.

That doesn't sound fun, does it? On top of the experience factor, the resume points that you develop in a pinch will not be as compelling or accurate as they would have been if you'd done them periodically throughout your tenure. 

Although keeping a pulse on your achievements throughout the year is ideal, end-of-year is a great time to consider your professional highlights and to document them thoroughly. Look back on the previous year, referencing your calendar, documents, and other materials as needed, and consider the following questions as they relate to your professional 2017:

  • What are you most proud of this year?
  • Where did you grow professionally this year, and what efforts are evidence of that growth?
  • What projects stretched your skills this year?
  • Where did you see the most noticeable and satisfying results, such as an extremely satisfied customer, major financial savings, etc.?
  • Are there any efforts for which you received formal or informal recognition? Don't overlook 'less significant' recognition, such as a heartfelt thank you note, or a particularly thoughtful comment from a coworker, supervisor, or client.
  • What were your most significant projects this year, in terms of both effort and impact

Reviewing this list, it's easy to see that you are best equipped to answer these questions and identify the relevant metrics now, as opposed to months or years down the road when you find yourself ready to apply for a new opportunity with a fast-approaching deadline. Keep your resume fresh, and capture the best details by reflecting on your achievements in a timely, proactive fashion.

How do I document my professional 2017?

So you're sold on the idea--you're ready to sit down and capture your year. How exactly do you go about doing so in an effective way?

Take a look at those reflection questions above--take some informal notes electronically or by hand according to your preference. Don't worry about getting the language 'resume ready,' or stating your achievements as spectacularly as possible. Just get a good sense of your 2017 highlights.

When you've got a good list of your major projects and 'wins' for the year, sit down and answer the following questions for each project:

  • What was the context? What was the major problem you needed to solve?
  • What obstacles did you face, and how did you achieve your goals?
  • What results did you achieve? Consider measurable data points such as financial savings, increased sales, or event attendance. Also consider 'ripple effects' that occurred as a direct result of your work--perhaps a donor was impressed with a project, and decided to make a significant contribution as a result. 

Your goal in answering these questions now is to 1) get all of the results documented while the data is fresh and available and 2) capture all of the details you might need for future interviews. The STAR method is an approach to behavioral interview questions ("Tell me about a time when...") that highlights the Situation, Task, Action, and Result of any given project. As you look over your details, be sure you've touched on each of these categories for your project summary. 

At this point, you've got a big, messy list of notes related to your professional year. That's great! I highly recommend storing that original note document in addition to your working resume--throw it in a file folder with your professional documents, or keep a digital copy stored in the cloud. 

Finally, it's time to add a few bullet points to your resume. Focus on the highlights of the year, and create a bullet point on your resume for each of your major projects. As a guide, the following fill-in-the-blank format is a good starting point:

"Led the team to (ACTION), resulting in (MOST SIGNIFICANT RESULTS)."

For example: "Led the creation and execution of the special event series, leading to 50 new community partners and $1,000 increased annual sales." Don't forget to include any formal recognition or awards you may have received for your efforts.

---

That's all there is to it--you're done! Save your draft, save your notes, and take a moment to sit back and celebrate. It's so easy to get bogged down in your to-do list, the frenzied pace of the holidays, or the upcoming year. But take a few minutes for yourself, and acknowledge what you've achieved in 2017. It's a beautiful thing to feel proud of your work, my friends. 

If you have any questions or thoughts about the resume update process, I'd love to hear them in the comments below! 

The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Travel Review: Viking Rhine River Getaway

Back in March, Andrew and I were in the middle of the inspection period for the sale of our condo. My parents were gushing about their recently-booked Viking River Cruise for mid-November, and we were completely jealous.

On a Tuesday evening, our condo buyers demanded a third radon test--yes, third--for our basement. 

Needless to say, we were a little fed up.

We were sitting at the dining room table feeling a bizarre mix of rage and apathy when we looked at each other and said, "Why don't we call Viking? We can just get information. We don't need to book anything, of course."

Half an hour later, we'd booked a Rhine Getaway river cruise for late October. Impulsive? Probably. Worth it? Definitely. Oh, what a blessing it is to have something to look forward to! 

The pre-trip icing on the cake was Andrew's recent offer and acceptance of a new job, a much-needed change for him professionally. He wrapped up at his previous position two days before we flew away to Europe, and was thus completely detached from work on our trip...also known as the perfect vacation scenario!

Now, I know what you're thinking. Trust me, we got the question about a zillion times on the boat--actual quotes from our fellow passengers were as follows: 

"Aren't you a little young to be on a Viking river cruise?"
"Were you aware that you'd be surrounded by senior citizens?"
"So... why exactly did you decide to book this cruise?" 

The wisest and most polite passengers, in my humble opinion, said something like this:

"Good for you! Travel as much as you can while you're young. We waited too long, and regret not traveling more before having kids." 

The rest of this post is an in-depth review of our cruise, covering the itinerary, onboard accommodations, food, service, pros/cons of a river cruise, my recommendations for those considering Viking, and yes, a description of our experience as young people onboard. I hope that my comments prove to be helpful for you as you consider your own future adventures. 

Itinerary: The Rhine Getaway

Day 1: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Day 2: Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
Day 3: Cologne, Germany
Day 4: Koblenz, Germany
Day 5: Heidelberg, Germany
Day 6: Strasbourg, France
Day 7: Breisach, Germany
Day 8: Basel, Switzerland

The Rhine Getaway can be experienced in either direction: from Amsterdam to Basel, or Basel to Amsterdam. At the recommendation of the Viking representative we spoke with at booking, we began in Amsterdam and gradually traveled south into warmer weather. 

Day 1: Amsterdam

We arrived in Amsterdam around 8:30 AM local time, and were met by Viking representatives just outside of baggage claim. They cheerfully ushered us outside to a comfortable charter bus, which whisked us--and probably 10 other passengers--away to the docking location. 

Our room was not available upon arrival, because we arrived so early and the previous cruise was wrapping up that day. However, the staff greeted us warmly, offered to store our bags for direct delivery to our rooms, and invited us to rest in the lounge if desired. We were given a helpful, detailed map of Amsterdam, and opted to explore the city on our own for the morning. Viking provided regular shuttles to and from the city center, and distributed paper shuttle schedules from the reception desk. 

Based on some prior research, we ate lunch at a local establishment, and visited a gorgeous local chocolate shop. Conveniently, the chocolate shop was directly across from a cheese shop which offered complimentary tastings. Nonetheless, we were jet-lagged and I was travel-cranky, so we headed back to the boat around 2:00 PM to check in to our stateroom.

Though we were unaware of the option prior to arriving, Viking did offer multiple walking tours of Amsterdam that afternoon. They provided shuttles into the city and local guides for the tour. Again, we were pooped, so we did not attend. However, for those worried about 'missing out' on the Day 1 stop, you may be able to go out on a guided tour depending on your arrival time.

Our Stateroom

A member of the staff escorted us down to our stateroom, located just at the bottom of the stairs near reception. We traveled aboard the Viking Hlin, and booked the cheapest stateroom they had to offer--a standard room, room #100. The friendly staff member pointed out some of the basic features of our room, though he failed to indicate the dial in the bathroom that heats the floor. Don't miss the heated bathroom floor feature, my friends. The dial is located right next to the bathroom outlet, and the result is absolutely glorious

Our stateroom was clean and comfortable, and we immediately unpacked, one of the perks of traveling via river cruise--there was no need to re-pack or move our belongings between destinations. The room included a decent amount of hanging closet space, a safe, shelves in the closet, drawers, and a hidden mini fridge. The TV was loaded with dated but functional Viking applications, including a weather report for upcoming destinations, pre-loaded movies and television shows, itinerary information, and some super-creepy spy cams that allow you to view programming in the Lounge, or to see the view from the bow of the ship. 

The bed was fairly firm, but that's not uncommon in Europe. We tried to research the size of the bed and found that it was not a standard size, but somewhere between a queen and king. We have a king at home, and were perfectly comfortable during our trip. One item worth noting is that there is no clock in the room--the TV has the time on it if you turn it on, but in the middle of the night, there is no other way to check the time. Bring a watch, and plan to use your phone or other device for morning alarms.

Arguably the most important item waiting for us in our stateroom was a copy of the Viking Daily, a printed newsletter that is the bible of daily activities each day. Beginning in the evening on Day 1, the Daily is delivered to each stateroom during dinner, waiting for you upon your return to your room. 

Day 1: Evening Activities and Dinner

We took a nap and completely slept through the afternoon programming, which included a wine and cheese tasting in the Aquavit Terrace, a lovely, bright space adjacent to the Lounge on the 3rd level of the ship. Later on, we made our way to the Lounge during the standard 5:30-7:00 PM cocktail hour and were present for the Welcome Briefing at 6:30 PM.

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During this briefing, we met our Program Director Daniel and were given some basic information about what to expect onboard. In addition, we were informed that there was a mandatory safety video loaded on our TVs that we were required to view within the first 24 hours onboard. If we did not view it, the other TV programming would be "frozen" until the safety video was observed. This was a quick video and not a nuisance at all. 

From there, the Program Director proceeded to give his Port Talk, a brief 10-15 minute presentation about the following day's activities, recommendations, and tips. I expected these talks to be boring and unhelpful, but they were actually quite informative as we considered what we might like to see and do the following day. I recommend attending the port talks, or creeping on them via your TV Lounge Spycam.

For dinner, we opted to dine in the restaurant on the 2nd level of the ship, the more formal of the two dining options. The menu in the Aquavit Terrace is much more limited, and as a result we never opted to have dinner in that setting. We did, however, enjoy lunch on the Aquavit Terrace once or twice for a change of pace. 

Dinner was less formal than I anticipated, and I breathed a sigh of relief over that--I'd refused to pack multiple fancy outfits in the interest of space, and crossed my fingers that I would not be out of place as a result. There were mixed attire choices, but most people were in jeans or trousers and a nice sweater or blouse. Very few men opted for ties or jackets, on any occasion. "Dressed up jeans" is a perfectly acceptable attire choice at dinner time, if that is your jam. 

The meal itself was lovely. We're pretty critical about food, and selected Viking largely because of their reputation for quality food and service. Fortunately, we were not disappointed, though I would argue that the effort and attention to meal preparation varied throughout the trip. The first and last meals were the best by far.

At both dinner and lunch in the restaurant, we were presented with a printed menu outlining multiple options for a first course, entree, and dessert. In addition, there were always a few boring standards available for the less adventurous eater, like a caesar salad and chicken breast. Be adventurous, my friends! Options generally included a more interesting salad, soup, fish, and plenty of red meat. Vegetarian options were less common, though I'm 100% confident the ship's kitchen staff would be able and thrilled to accommodate dietary restrictions.

For our first meal, we enjoyed a cheese souffle with sour cream sauce. I opted for a cod with poppy seed cream sauce, pureed peas, cauliflower, and baby corn for my entree. Andrew enjoyed the vegetable quiche with saffron sauce. And for dessert, we shared a "chocoholic" plate as well as a cheese selection. Each evening's menu included cheese as a dessert option, presenting two new cheeses each day. We found everything to be well-prepared, and the service was absolutely marvelous. More on the staff and service later on.

After dinner, the schedule indicated a 9:00 PM program in the Lounge: "Suited: A Nostalgic Music Trio." We were not interested, but heard good things about this Amsterdam-based cover band performing musical selections from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Day 2: Breakfast and Kinderdijk

Ah, breakfast in Europe. There are few things as enjoyable, in my opinion, as an exquisitely varied, massive European breakfast spread. On the Viking Hlin, we were given the option to have a continental breakfast in the Aquavit Terrace from 6:00-11:00 AM, or have a full breakfast in the restaurant available from 7:00-9:30 AM. We always opted for the restaurant, which had a better spread, and was still primarily served buffet-style. 

In addition to the generous breakfast buffet, the daily breakfast menu gave diners the option of ordering french toast, eggs benedict, and other basic dishes. We never opted for these, as we found the buffet to be more than sufficient. Behind the buffet bar, a member of the kitchen staff manned the omelet station, and also was available to cook eggs according to preference.

After breakfast, we left for the included excursion to the Kiderdijk Windmills. The optional excursion--Dutch Cheese Making--occurred early in the morning, leaving those individuals time to explore the windmills also upon their return. 

While interesting and lovely to behold, the windmills were a bit of a 'dud' for us. Unless you're really interested in flood-management systems and the history surrounding them, this might not be your favorite day. That said, our tour guide was solid, and we definitely learned a few things about windmills, including the fact that they are often used as residences for the person caring for the windmill.

We returned to the ship for lunch, again enjoyed in the restaurant, and the ship cast off around lunch time. We spent the afternoon sailing, and as a result, the Daily included multiple afternoon activities onboard to keep everyone entertained.

We skipped the wheelhouse tours on the sun deck--an opportunity to interact with the captain and learn about the ship's navigation features. Later, we attended a Dutch teatime from 4:00-5:00 PM in the Lounge, which was mostly an excuse to eat pastries, desserts, and tiny sandwiches. We did not object.

At 6:15 PM, the captain and staff officially welcomed us on board and handed out various bubbly beverages for a toast. Both the captain and hotel manager individually went around the room to clink glasses with all attendees, something like 175 people. They also entered to the Star Wars theme, which we respected.

We enjoyed the official Welcome Dinner in the restaurant, savoring our two fish options: salmon with corn sauce and caviar, and seared halibut with mashed potatoes and melted leeks. Dessert was chocolate and peanut butter crunch with yoghurt ice cream, an interesting and surprisingly tasty combination.

Curious, we briefly visited the Lounge for the 9:00 PM programming, featuring the regular onboard musician, a pianist and vocalist named Gigi. During lunch in the Lounge, cocktail hour, dinner in the Lounge, and post-dinner in the Lounge, Gigi entertained guests with covers of well-known hits, backed by some sort of digital tracks that were synced with his keyboard. While endearing, we were not terribly impressed by this entertainment, but others absolutely seemed to enjoy Gigi's performances. Many people jumped up to hit the dance floor by the bar.

Day 3: Cologne, Germany

Day 3 was our first example of an unexpected inconvenience with the itinerary--itinerary cities do not necessarily equate to port cities. The ship docked in Zons at 9:00 AM, where passengers interested in the Cologne tour were invited to board buses into the city center. The ship itself did not reach Cologne until 12:30 PM. We had planned to explore Cologne on our own, so this was a little irritating for us. However, we were invited to take the bus into the city with the rest of the passengers, and were reassured that we were welcome to explore on our own and part ways with the rest of the tour groups. 

That we did! Again, we were given detailed maps of the city, including the docking location of our ship. We explored the gorgeous Cologne cathedral on our own, had a pre-lunch treat at the Schokolademuseum cafe, and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Fruh am Dom brauhaus, a recommended stop from a few friends, as well as Viking.

In the afternoon, many passengers opted for the paid excursion to the Bruhl UNESCO Palaces. We opted to enjoy a more leisurely afternoon, but heard nothing but good things about both the morning tour and the afternoon palace excursion. The ship presented an 'Enrichment Lecture' at 5:00 PM entitled "Germany Today," which we also skipped. 

Per our request the night before, we left the ship again for dinner at a staff-recommended restaurant on the river, Fischmarkt. Dinner was fine, but not our favorite experience. It was difficult to tell if we simply ordered the wrong dishes, or if the restaurant was a poor recommendation. Either way, we still enjoyed a lovely evening outside under the heaters, and took a night walk across the love locks bridge to peruse a permanent fair on the far side of the river.

We returned to the ship in time for the evening program, "Classical Music Journey" featuring a cellist and pianist from the Cologne Symphony Orchestra. This was a lovely program, tainted only by the rude behavior of a few select passengers who were apparently bored--and even offended--by classical music. Perhaps it had something to with the fact that bar service was suspended during the program out of respect for the musicians.

During the program, we enjoyed a bottle of champagne and strawberries that were gifted to us in honor of our wedding anniversary. Our actual wedding anniversary was in September, but upon booking our cruise, the Viking representative told us that our 'new' anniversary would be in Cologne, and we would be celebrated accordingly. We did not object!

Day 4: Koblenz, Braubach, and Rudesheim

We were warned in advance that Day 4 was a good day to stick with the group, so we ate breakfast and disembarked for the included excursion to Marksburg Castle. Viking transported us to Braubach by bus, where our ship later met us. The bus ride was comfortable and not too long.

Marksburg Castle was probably our favorite excursion on the cruise. Our tour guide was excellent, and the castle itself was fascinating. Even the gift shop proved interesting, and there was a small cafe onsite for anyone who was ready for a mid-morning treat after the tour. This was probably the most demanding excursion, and the terrain within the castle was reasonably difficult to manage for anyone with mobility limitations. The guide, however, was quite helpful in identifying alternate routes for anyone who needed them.

After the castle, we were bused down through Braubach to meet our ship. We opted to have lunch on the Aquavit Terrace for two reasons: 1) the weather was absolutely magnificent, and 2) the afternoon program was scenic sailing along the Middle Rhine with commentary from our Program Director. The terrace and sun deck provided the best viewing opportunities for this scenic sailing.

The staff provided print maps of the Middle Rhine, identifying villages and castles that we would be passing. Program Director Daniel provided commentary over the PA system, available to anyone in the Lounge, Aquavit Terrace, or sun deck. There were absolutely many beautiful castles and villages, and it was a relaxing afternoon spent on the terrace.

The commentary ended a bit early to allow time for the Rudesheim Coffee Demonstration and Teatime, where the staff showed us how to make traditional Rudesheim coffee and served it along with tea, sandwiches, and various treats. Afterward, Daniel presented a program in the Lounge about other Viking cruise opportunities, which we skipped.

At 5:00 PM, we arrived in Rudesheim and left at 6:30 PM with a group for the "Dine in Rudesheim am Rhine" paid excursion. We boarded a multi-car tram dubbed a "mini train" and endured a chilly, bumpy ride into the heart of Rudesheim.

The town itself was charming, but the excursion was a bust. Dinner was a set menu with mediocre food, offered in a boisterous, Americanized setting. The obviously talented band was wasted on cover songs clearly directed at the cruise crowd, and we were pulled from our seats regularly to participate in activities like Schnapps shots or a cowbell performance. 

I would not recommend the excursion for future sailers, but do think Rudesheim is worth exploring in the evening. We walked back to the ship, winding our way around the town, and were charmed by the sights. 

When we returned to the ship, Andrew went up to the desk to make a request that warmed my heart. While we were eating our mediocre dinner on our excursion, the menu in the restaurant on the ship included a white and milk chocolate mousse for dessert--one of my absolute favorites. Around 10:00 PM, Andrew inquired as to whether or not we might be able to have some leftover mousse from dinner. The staff member at the desk left immediately to the kitchen, and return with a fully-plated dessert for us to enjoy in our room.

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This was one of many examples to highlight the exceptional service on board, and the willingness of the staff to move mountains for any and all passenger requests. 

Day 5: Heidelberg and Speyer

During the previous evening's port talk, Andrew and I absolutely groaned over the Heidelberg schedule. The bus would depart from Mannheim at 9:30 AM for a 30 minute bus-ride into Heidelberg. From there, the walking tour would move through various parts of town, including a bus ride midway to a different part of town. There would be some free time, but all in all the excursion would take nearly 6 hours, and most of that would be guided or on the bus.

We opted for Speyer.

After breakfast, a leisurely morning on board, and lunch with probably a handful of other passengers who stayed behind, we docked in Speyer around 1:00 PM. The staff provided walking maps and recommended the Technik Museum, which we decided to explore. My oh my, what a find!

Though this was definitely more Andrew's thing than my own, I was still impressed and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Technik Museum's collection. There were two giant hangers filled with cars, planes, firetrucks, and motorcycles. In addition, the surrounding grounds were packed with planes, ships, submarines, and helicopters that you could climb into. The piece de resistance, of course, was the giant Lufthansa 747 suspended high above the ground that we could climb in and on. Children and adults alike squealed as they flew down the enclosed spiral slide, an optional exit.

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After the museum, we walked to Speyer's cathedral and enjoyed a fantastic piece of cherry something in a local cafe.

Dinner on board that evening included a mesclun salad with figs, shrimp egg rolls with ginger sauce, honey bbq salmon with leeks, and a porcini mushroom ravioli. 

Day 6: Strasbourg, France

Ah, Strasbourg. I smile just thinking of you!

One of the reasons we booked this particular Viking itinerary was to explore the Alsace region of France. We wanted to determine whether or not we should return to this region for our next international trip, an in-depth exploration of France.

We learned the we are quite fond of the region, and of Strasbourg in particular. This is a good city to explore on your own, if you find yourself tired of guided tours by this point in the itinerary.

Once again, the ship (unexpectedly) did not dock in Strasbourg. Instead, we were across the river in the German town of Kehl. The included tour bus ride was going well out of the way into the city, taking a one hour scenic tour "on the way". As an alternative, the staff told us how to take Kehl's tram into Strasbourg, a 5-minute walk away and a 20-minute ride into the heart of Strasbourg. I believe the tram cost something like €1,70 per person. 

Upon arriving in Strasbourg, we quickly noticed that every two storefronts or so were home to a boulanger, or French bakery. We immediately found one that looked promising and walked out with some pain au chocolat and another pastry that we could not identify. Neither disappointed--the French know what they're doing with breads and pastries. On top of that, everywhere you turn in Strasbourg is postcard-worthy. 

We wandered Strasbourg, and eventually found our way to our pre-determined lunch choice for the day, Au Petit Tonnelier. Based on our research, we selected this particular restaurant because of their menu, reviews, and proximity to both the Cathedral and Palais Rohan. 

Our meal was lovely, and included a regional pinot blanc, goat cheese salad with bacon from some sort of small bird, vegetable gratin featuring an unknown autumn variety, and a filet of fish with cream sauce. The English translations were a bit vague, so we weren't entirely sure what we were eating, but everything was delicious!

After lunch, we headed back to the Cathedral, the highest medieval building in Europe. Both the interior and exterior of the Cathedral were breathtaking--I could not help but feel that someone knew my exact preference for design and built it accordingly. Photos do not begin to do it any sort of justice. Worth noting: the Cathedral was closed for lunch, and reopened at 2:00 PM.

When we left the Cathedral, we walked to a nearby tea room that we identified in our research of Strasbourg: Au Fond du Jardin. Intimate and floral, they did not have any available reservations for afternoon tea, or speak much English. But the tea house is known for its madelines, delicate, edible works of art. We purchased two to sample, as well as two homemade marshmallows. Many of the treats are infused with various types of flowers, which can be a bit disorienting for the unaccustomed palate--AKA most people.

By mid-afternoon, we felt that we had enjoyed a nice overview of the city, and met a Viking guide at a pre-determined location to walk us back to the shuttles, offered periodically throughout the afternoon.

We skipped two afternoon onboard programs: a cooking demonstration, and an enrichment lecture on Alsace during WWII. 

In the evening, we enjoyed the "Taste of Germany" dinner in the restaurant, which was essentially a giant buffet of German meats complemented by Kolsch beer. There were pretzels, meats, and cheeses on our tables when we arrived, and we were entertained by a violinist and accordionist who wandered the ship playing traditional German tunes. Many of the ship's staff were decked out in their Octoberfest costumes, and they gave a short little chat about lederhosen just before dinner.

The evening program was an International Music Trivia contest in the Lounge, which we again opted not to attend.

Day 7: Breisach and Colmar

Day 7 has very little to do with Breisach, and much more to do with the included and optional excursions available: the Black Forest, Colmar Village, and the World War II Tour of Colmar featuring the Colmar Pocket Museum.

Based on web reviews, we decided not to participate in the Black Forest tour. This included four hours mostly on a bus, touring the Black Forest and stopping at a cuckoo shop. I believe black forest cake was involved, at some point. Our acquaintances who went on the excursion had a good time, but I think they were all seriously interested in purchasing cuckoo clocks, which may have had something to do with it.

Instead, we decided to explore more of Alsace and went on the paid excursion into the Village of Colmar. It took about 30 minutes to get there by bus, but our guide was with us on the way there and provided some commentary along the way. We semi-reluctantly went on the included walking tour, then wandered Colmar on our own for an hour or so before we had to leave. 

The village is lovely and full of history. Its major claim to fame is that it was home to Frederic Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. There are tiny plates on the sidewalks throughout town to remind you that this is Bartholdi's home town, in case you forget.

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But the rest of the village is quite charming, and lovely to walk through. We enjoyed several shops, including a bakery stop for pastries and a biscuit shop that our guide pointed out on our tour. 

We returned to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon on board, then reluctantly attended the Farewell Dinner, sad to see the trip coming to an end. 

The meal was a wonderful send off, and was stretched to four courses to mark the occasion. Courses 1, 3, and 4 still included options, while the 2nd course was set. We immensely enjoyed everything that was presented to us, including salmon tartar, roasted forest mushroom veloute (soup) with mushroom chips and truffle sabayon, pumpkin mousse ravioli with lamb loin, grilled marinated perch with couscous and balsamic brown butter, a crisp dark valrhona chocolate tart with mango salad, and apple strudel with vanilla sauce. 

Gigi played in the Lounge after dinner, but we opted to pack our bags and relax before departing the next morning. 

Day 8: Basel, Switzerland

I'm sure Basel is lovely, but we did not see much of it due to our 10:40 AM flight. In the morning, we set our bags out according to the schedule Viking provided and enjoyed one last breakfast in the restaurant. The Aquavit continental breakfast was open extra early for the unlucky few departing between 4:00 and 6:00 AM; fortunately we were not among them!

Just as we arrived, we were bused to the airport and accompanied by a Viking representative to the ticket counter. The airport in Basel is small, and was mostly deserted. It was a smooth trip home, though our connection in Frankfurt--including a pass through customs--was definitely tight. We were half-running to get to our gate in time, but did make it with a little room to spare. 

 

Pros and Cons of a River Cruise

Pros

We booked our cruise because we have been extremely busy and stressed for the last year or two, and wanted someone else to do all of the worrying for us on vacation. The Viking staff, ever attentive and proactive, certainly did that marvelously. It was luxurious to be treated so well, and to be driven around without a care in the world. The staff provided helpful tips about interacting with the local culture, and any warnings that might be relevant, such as pickpocketing on tours near the major sites.

The food was good, the accommodations were comfortable, and I would argue that the service was as good as it can possibly be. By mid-week, staff members were learning our names and greeting us as friends. They went well out of their way to make our trip as good as it could be--Andrew even overheard a staff member on the phone trying to arrange a horseback riding excursion on behalf of a passenger. 

Unlike an ocean cruise, the river cruise allows the boat to get much closer to the port cities. Though we did have to endure a bus ride or two, we were rarely on the bus for more than 15 minutes, and were still much closer to our destinations than an ocean cruise can offer. Because of the size of the boat and the number of passengers, the staff were extremely attentive, and the amenities were a bit more luxurious. From what we've heard, the food on board was significantly better than the food offered on ocean cruises, probably for the same reasons. 

Cons

The two biggest hangups for us were 1) the forced socialization at meals and 2) the lack of introvert space. In the restaurants, tables are laid for 6 or 8. If you want the good food, you have to sit with other people. For people traveling as a group of 4 or more, this was no problem at all. But for us, we often found ourselves sitting with new people, and going through the small talk routine over and over. Yes, most of the people we met were absolutely lovely! But it would have been nice to enjoy a good meal alone on occasion.

By Day 5 or so, we finally caved and migrated toward the other young people. Yes--there were other young people on board! We were as surprised to see them as they were to see us, I think. There were two young couples on board for their honeymoon, another couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary, and a sibling pair traveling together. We found meals with this group to be much less exhausting, as they spent more time laughing and joking, and less time going through the small talk routine.

The boat was on the smaller side, for sure, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to be on our own. The river cruise really is more about what happens off the boat, as opposed to ocean cruises which offer more extravagant performances and productions. This is all a matter of preference, in my opinion, and not really a con so much as a heads up.

Even though we didn't care much about onboard programming, we still felt that the programming was oriented strongly toward the older crowd. Many of the other young people on board were content to have drinks in the Lounge after dinner, but that just isn't our scene--we're not 'partyers' in the traditional sense. It didn't really prove to disrupt our experience much, but the onboard entertainment left much to be desired, especially as younger people. 

As I mentioned above, if you want to explore on your own there can be some hangups in doing so. We planned to do our own thing in Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Colmar, but were sometimes forced into group transportation at the least, and sometimes into a tour. The logistics were not given in advance, so it wasn't easy to plan our own activities. The staff was extremely helpful in making every effort for us to explore independently, but the trip certainly isn't designed for that kind of independent exploration. 

Recommendations

So who should go on a Viking river cruise? 

For their target demographic, Viking does an excellent job of exceeding expectations. Individuals, couples, and groups in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s (yes, 90s!) will be delighted by the quality of service and the programming that is tailored for their preferences. Several times on board I thought to myself, "Man, my parents are going to have a blast!"

For young people, there are a few reasons that one might choose to go on a cruise. For us, it did prove to be a relaxing, low-stress way to see places we probably wouldn't see on our own independent international vacations. The world is big, after all, and you can only see so many places. The cruise provides a nice way to 'knock out' multiple destinations in a short amount of time.

For others that we encountered on board--both young and old--the cruise provided a way to "practice" traveling internationally for the novices, or a safe space for anyone anxious about interacting with non-English cultures. Many passengers seemed anxious about attempting to speak the local language, or offending the locals out of ignorance. Other passengers could have benefited from being more concerned about these cultural interactions. We were a little embarrassed on behalf of our country on multiple occasions, but that is to be expected, I suppose.

For anyone into tours, architecture, history, and educational insights in combination with your international travels, you will probably have a marvelous time. The value for the cruise is maximized by anyone who dives in for every included excursion, eats most or all meals on board, and drinks all the free wine they can stand during meal times. 

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In summary, we found our time on the Viking Hlin to be relaxing, rejuvenating, and fun. We were certainly reluctant to return home, and would have happily stayed put for another week or two. If you have any additional questions or are curious about aspects not mentioned in my review above, drop me a note in the comment section below! 

How I Learned--and Unlearned--to Submit to Abusive Men

The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 15 years old. 

The attack occurred at a party, largely attended by co-workers and friends from my first part-time job. The young man who assaulted me was someone I considered to be a friend at the time, a co-worker who generally treated me kindly. I was shocked, humiliated, and confused by his behavior.

Most alarming, however, was what happened the next day.

Suspicious that what I'd experienced was wrong, I confided in some friends at work. Because he was so approachable, I even told my boss. Every single person I spoke to--male or female--offered one of the following responses:

  • "You'll only stir up trouble if you keep talking about it--just let it go."
  • "You're making a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be. Let it go."
  • *shrug* -- "It could've been worse. I wouldn't fuss about it. Let it go."
  • "Do you honestly want to get him fired, just to prove a point? Let it go."

Let it go, let it go, let it go. 

I was 15. And thanks to those friends, co-workers, and my supervisor at the time, I learned my first lesson:

"It is better to submit to abuse than to stir up trouble by challenging it. Just let it go."

That was a lesson that stuck, and one that was consistently and adamantly reinforced for the next decade of my life. 

***

For more than a decade, during my most formative years, I dated constantly; if one relationship wasn't working out, I'd find the next man in line before breaking up with the first. I was terrified of being alone, unsure of who I was if I wasn't defined by a relationship, or the interest of a man. At the time, I thought I just needed to find the right person, and to be the perfect, indisputably right girlfriend to suit him. The origin of this fear is impossible to pinpoint, but was probably influenced by too many Disney movies, unhelpful messaging from our culture, and my own inherent romantic tendency.

In hindsight, it's easy to see that I was searching for something none of those men could ever supply; but regardless, I still spent a lot of time dating and interacting with men, and as a result, I have a decently large pool of experience to draw upon. 

When I was 16, I dated a guy for a longer period of time--that guy turned out to be the most physically abusive of them all. Looking back, I think I excused a lot of his behavior because he came from a broken, abusive home. How else could I expect him to behave, coming from a home like that? His parents screamed and swore at him, and their marriage was obviously in crisis. I had two loving parents, happily married for decades; how could I judge him? I directed my anger and frustration at his parents, and continued to date him anyway.

With the voices from the year prior ringing in my mind, I let it go.

In that relationship, I endured both sexual and emotional abuse--it was my job as his girlfriend to submit to the requests of my boyfriend, no matter how uncomfortable I was with the situation. Even if I was crying, begging, scared, or simply unwilling, a job was a job, and I had no right to neglect my responsibility. It was unfair and wrong of me to object. 

Through this boyfriend's comments and lectures riddled with messages of shame, obligation, and his absolute authority, I learned my second lesson:

"Especially in a committed relationship, a man has the right to tell me what to do with my body."

In the end, I didn't break up with that boyfriend because he was abusive--I broke up with him because I liked someone else more. Hard to believe, isn't it? These lessons of abuse weren't evident to me at the time; I didn't arrive at a place of naming that experience as abusive for many, many years. So I moved on, and invested in the next guy, oblivious to the dangerously low bar that was set for my dating relationships. 

As I transitioned into college, I dated someone new, and different. He was 'less experienced' than I was, more permission-based, and the perfect man on paper--we even graduated at the same class rank, which was obviously a divine indication of our destined union. Compared with the men I'd known before, he was a saint.

I was unmovable in my determination that this young man deserved to be at the center of my world, and did everything in my power to keep him there. That was a trend in my relationships that I have since unearthed: "I'd rather accommodate you than risk losing you." At the time, I didn't realize what I was doing, or how harmful that posture could be. 

While this sweetheart of mine was not physically abusive, he did not treat me well. Part of this was a result of his own immaturity, I think, but not entirely. Whatever his true motives may have been, he taught me my third lesson: 

"My thoughts and feelings are irrelevant."

We dated for several years, and throughout our relationship, I was consistently dismissed and disregarded when I raised a concern. Whether I communicated that his friends were rude to me, his actions hurt my feelings, I was afraid of something, or even that I simply wanted him to be more open with me, the message that I consistently heard was that my feelings did not matter. He shrugged me off, told me I was overly-emotional or dramatic, and sighed audibly if I mentioned a topic more than once. My feelings were an annoyance to him, like a fly he could never quite swat to death. 

Perhaps the best example of this was when he told me that he and his roommates had ranked their girlfriends according to who cried the most--I didn't cry as much as Joe's girlfriend, but I definitely cried more than Bob's girlfriend. So with the evidence at hand, it is scientifically possible to cry less; perhaps I should give that a try, he said.

Evidently, it would've made life easier for him if I was less emotional. Less "me". 

To be fair, he wasn't the first person I'd learned this lesson from. But I cared about him the most of any of my previous relationships, so this message was really driven home. I learned to be ashamed of my tears, to be embarrassed by my feelings, and to distrust emotion as something unpredictable and volatile.

After that relationship ended in the typical back-and-forth fashion, I was absolutely wrecked. By then I was in my third year of my undergrad, and I had been with him for so long that I had no idea who I was. I was depressed, uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life, and lonely. 

Let's take a moment to reflect on what I'd learned so far:

1. It is best to submit to abuse.
2. Men have a right to my body.
3. My thoughts and feelings are irrelevant. 

***

In my youth, I spent a lot of time watching Disney movies: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast. There are some common threads there, along with the dangerous message that culture--and often the church--sends about a woman simply "waiting" for her life to begin, for her prince charming to arrive and make her existence worth something.

My life was a wreck, and I had a lot of problems--in fact, I was convinced that I was the problem, and that a man was the answer. So I dated at a frenetic pace, throwing myself out into the world of men recklessly. I treated some good guys poorly, and also dated a few who reinforced the lessons above. 

One guy in particular comes to mind. On several occasions, I remember him saying that my disinterest in getting physical was my fault, possibly even a medical issue that I should consider looking into. Let me restate that one: I didn't want to participate in certain physical acts with him, and as a result, he told me I might be broken. He never asked "why?" or entered into the conversation with me; he was too self-absorbed to admit that the problem could be related to him--his behavior, his desirability, or his responsibility in the relationship. A disconnect between us was automatically my fault, every time. 

It was about a year before my next long-term relationship, a record-setting "break" for me. My new boyfriend seemed nice enough; he was always saying things like, "We never have to do anything you're not comfortable with," or "You don't have to do XYZ until you're ready." I told him about my previous abuse, and he seemed to take an interest and be somewhat sympathetic. 

That would've been great, except for the fact that he was simultaneously expressing dissatisfaction in our physical relationship, and suggesting that he might break up with me because of it. That, my friends, is what we call manipulation; mixed messages cleverly applied to control my behavior and leave me feeling guilty, and to make me feel personally responsible for his dissatisfaction. 

Looking back, the other red flag in that relationship was that he genuinely believed that respect and treatment of women should be conditional: "Some women deserve to be treated well, like you. Others don't, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that." Yes, he literally said that. And I don't doubt at all that he meant it.

By then it was 2011, and I was at the lowest point in my life; I was depressed, my self-worth was deep into the negatives, and I had no idea who I was. I had graduated college earlier that year, and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally. 

In the midst of that pain, Jesus spoke grace, love, and gentleness to me in a way that changed my life forever. For me, this is essential to my story, but let me be clear: whether or not you are a Christian, I believe that every woman is capable of unlearning harmful lessons and challenging abuse. You do not need Jesus to stop being abused. Yes, Jesus offers a beautiful, restorative, life-changing love along with earth-shattering freedom, but that is not the point of why I'm writing today, and I want to be very clear on that before proceeding. Every woman, regardless of her faith, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

***

My experience of meeting God--expecting condemnation but receiving grace--was a turning point in my life. I broke up with my boyfriend for ambiguous reasons; I just knew that I wasn't meant to be with him, and that my life was turning in another direction. I started going to church, and took a break from dating anyone, at all. Gently and patiently, God started to show me that I am valued and cherished independent of men; I am not defined by men, but have a beautiful, unique identity of my own that He designed.

Armed with the love and affirmation of Jesus, I eventually started dating in the Christian world. I read Josh Harris's books, and came away somewhat unscathed; mostly I was energized by the idea that there were men out there who would be bound by Christian doctrine, and inherently respectful as a result. Ready to dive in to this new world, I sat back and waited to be pursued according to the 'standard practices' of Christian dating. 

Unfortunately, my experience left me disappointed, and wounded in new ways. The only variation in the Christian dating experience versus the secular dating experience was the type of abuse, and the convenient blanketing of mistreatment in Jesus's name. 

To be fair, not all of my experiences in the church were bad--I'm getting to that. But I think it's important to highlight that abuse inside the church does happen, and I believe there should be a major effort by the church to champion accurate, healthy messages about respecting women, and to educate men about how to behave according to Jesus's example. 

The most harmful Christian dating relationship was one that was never fully defined, because the guy could not decide whether or not I was worthy of dating him. He openly questioned whether or not I was "Christian enough" to fit into his lifestyle, and his ministry. In the meantime, while he measured me spiritually, he made excessive physical advances, and pressured me to participate while also touting my "responsibility for my own boundaries" -- restated, "I get to do what I want, and it's your job to stop me if you don't like it." This is a distorted and inappropriate understanding of consent, one that is being exposed and challenged in the conversations surrounding Harvey Weinstein today.

***

In the midst of all this disappointment, I met a guy named Andrew; we're not sure how we met. Probably serving in the children's ministry together, while I was busy flirting with someone louder, and more aggressive. 

We started hanging in overlapping social circles, and he gave me a ride home from the airport on my birthday in August 2013. A few days later, he called to ask me out, and we went on our first date the following weekend. We went out for sushi, and laughed a lot more than I expected to.

Andrew was a mystery to me; he was quiet, respectful, patient, and easily the best listener I'd ever known. He made strange jokes about himself that sounded arrogant, but everything else about him and his behavior suggested humility and selflessness. We dated for awhile, and I marveled over the small ways he showed his affection: throwing out the "dad arm" in a near-miss traffic incident. Bringing me a jar of spices he thought I would like. Sitting with me at Kaldis and letting me talk his ear off, for hours, about whatever was on my mind. 

In the end, his kindness scared me--I felt uncomfortable because he was nice. Yes, you read that right. I couldn't stand how well Andrew treated me, so I broke up with him a few months after we started dating.

And I ran back to men who treated me like crap.

The thing about learning a lesson is that the concept becomes a part of you--we learn to ride a bicycle, and have a hard time forgetting how to do so successfully. Muscle memory takes over, and we respond according to patterns and historical experience. I learned to accept abuse, so I was most comfortable when I was being abused. This was an ugly, sad lesson for me to learn, and it took a long time for me to even identify the gravity and implications.

***

Months after Andrew, I had just finished dating someone else who treated me so-so. At the time, I was interning at the church; part of my responsibility included shadowing a pastor in various types of meetings, to understand how pastors care for the members of the church. 

In this meeting, a woman was upset because she wasn't sure whether or not she should be dating the person she was with. To help her walk through that conversation, the pastor asked her a series of questions:

  • "Do you respect him?"
  • "Could you respect him for 50 years?"
  • "Does he respect you?"
  • "Does he cherish you?"
  • "Do you think he'll cherish you for 50 years?

As I was sitting there in the corner, taking notes and sworn to silent observation, lightbulbs and trumpets started going off in my brain: Why didn't my most recent boyfriend treat me the way Andrew used to? I respect Andrew. I have no doubt that I could respect Andrew for 50 years. He respects me, and you know what? I think he might cherish me, too.

A lesson that I had been slowly learning for months--years, arguably--came into focus in my mind and heart: Through years of abuse, I learned the wrong definition of love, and I'm beginning to see what the right one looks like. In fact, I'm beginning to believe that this new "true" love is a lot better than the false "love" I knew before. 

After that moment, I sought counsel with some trusted mentors and friends. I talked through my revelation, the damage that had accumulated over the years, and my desire to apply the new definition of love to my life. I talked about Andrew, and how I felt about him.

All of those counselors and friends encouraged me to tell Andrew what I learned. It was a humbling, vulnerable, brave experience, but I did just that. I told Andrew that I broke up with him because he showed me a good kind of love, when I'd only known a false love before him. I told him I respected him, and wanted to try again, if he would give me the chance. As always, he listened well, asked thoughtful questions, and carefully considered his response.

The next day, we stood in a parking lot in Clayton. "I wanted to take a day to pray about it, and seek some counsel." He paused, and grinned. "Of course I'll be with you again! I can't believe we get another chance. I can't believe you want to be with me." (I can't believe you want to be with me either, man of mine. It is a lovely mystery that I sit with every day, a beautiful gift that I take for granted far too often.)

We dated for a couple more months, and in that time, something extraordinary happened--Andrew kept listening to me. He was concerned when I was sad or afraid, and attentive when I said anything at all. His kindness wasn't a charismatic mask carefully adorned to lure me in; he was consistently, genuinely kind. And I'd never known anyone like that before. 

One day, I made a passing comment to Andrew about an incident related to my previous sexual assault. His eyes got wide, and he started crying. If you know Andrew, you know that he doesn't cry much. Obviously deeply affected by what I'd divulged, he communicated deep sadness, shock, and anger over what I'd experienced. 

And I had barely skimmed the surface of my past.

I sat with him, stunned by the realization that he was the first person to respond appropriately to my abuseever. He did not blame me, but grieved for the pain that I received, and burned with anger for the inappropriate behavior of those men. That was one of the milestones in our relationship, a moment when I felt seen, heard, known, and cared for in a way that changed my life. 

Slowly, I began to learn that romantic abuse was not something I should ever endure, or be silent about. I learned how to be treated well as a girlfriend, then as a fiancee, and now as a wife. Andrew calls me beloved--his promised love, one who is cherished, treasured, admired, esteemed, and adored. And his actions only serve to support his words--he loves me with a selfless, sacrificial love that puts my own needs ahead of his own. When he messes up, he apologizes, and he consistently takes responsibility for his mistakes. 

Even writing about it now, two years into our marriage, I have to choke down tears. It is astonishing to see how much different my life is now, and I am stunned by the magnitude of that merciful, magnificent transformation.

***

As incredible as it was to know the beauty and freedom of a healthy, respectful relationship, that was only part of the battle. I'd only learned to challenge romantic abuse, and I had very little reason to fear that anymore, since I was engaged to a wonderful, genuinely respectful man.

During the seasons of our engagement and early marriage, I experienced a dangerous, different kind of abuse--abuse from a trusted mentor and friend, with no romantic associations whatsoever. This man lured me--and others--in with messages of my own worthiness and value, then slowly and skillfully changed his messages to degrade and shame me. When I questioned his words, he found a way to blame me and make me feel responsible, and often guilty. When I saw him treat others in questionable ways, he twisted the words of the Bible to keep me from challenging his actions.

He was really, really good at what he did. He could spin webs of lies like no one I've ever seen before, and discredit anyone who would challenge him before they got a chance to do anything about it. I submitted to his authority--at least to some degree--for more than a year before I finally got away from him. When I had space to process my experience and time to seek wise counsel, I began to name and see his actions for what they were: manipulative, spiritually abusive, and very, very wrong. 

It took a solid year of counseling, spiritual direction, and support from friends and family to begin to recover from that experience. But during that process, I got angry. I got angry because this man was able to hurt me (and others) with no ramifications. I wrestled with what I'd learned about him, and as scared as I was to do so, I spoke out about his behavior. 

This is one of the most important lessons I've learned, friends. Abusive individuals seek to rob us of our voices--getting that power back, affirming that our voices and our words are valuable, is crucial. This is why I write posts like this, and talk about my history. This is why I give details about experiences that are extraordinarily painful--and somewhat embarrassing. I continue to affirm my right to speak out, to name abuse, to challenge it, and to see that abusive individuals are held accountable for their actions.

***

I have been fortunate to have many wise, compassionate people speak into my circumstances, both distant and recent, to listen and to correct the lessons I learned in my past. Jesus and Andrew continue to be a team, in a way, that gradually heals my wounds and helps me unlearn those harmful, deeply-ingrained lessons. It is a process--I still get angry with Andrew for being nice to me, on occasion. But between his daily, gentle example, the gospel of Jesus, and the support and counsel I've received from friends and professionals, I've completely thrown off the harmful lessons of abuse.

In their place, I've learned some new lessons:

All women--all people--are worthy of respect.

No person--including my husband--has control over my body, except me.

My thoughts and feelings are valid, valuable, and deserve to be considered. 

Fear and shame are red flags--I should never feel afraid in a relationship, romantic or not. 

Abuse of any kind needs to be named, challenged, and answered for. It should NEVER be brushed aside or minimized.

***

In recent years, people have had varying responses to my story, and I've seen surprising and concerning responses to stories that have similarities to mine. It might be tempting to ask some of the following questions, or make the following statements:

  • "You were foolish and boy crazy! I would never put up with that kind of treatment."
  • "So there are some bad guys out there. Not all of them are like that--you just had a bad sample and picked the wrong ones." 
  • "Do you realize how brainwashed you were? I mean, you totally let him control you."

The problem with these types of statements is that they continue to place the burden of responsibility on me--the victim of abuse. It is true that we are responsible for our actions and choices; trust me, I know. But that is not a valid reason to minimize or excuse the abhorrent, abusive behavior that is widely accepted in our culture. I'm talking about these experiences more than 10 years after they happened, in some cases, and to some degree, I'm talking about them en masse for the first time. What does it say about our culture if it's taken me this long to speak up, and to name this behavior as wrong? 

If you are tempted to say something like the statements above when a friend is confiding in you regarding an experience of abuse, I would strongly urge you to reconsider and appropriately align your perspective. Challenge the definition of acceptable behavior that our culture has applied to men. Dare to hold individuals accountable for their behavior, especially men, who are currently given the benefit of the doubt in an outrageously unbalanced fashion. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. I don't have the answers for how to solve the problems we face in our culture, but taking accusations of abuse seriously seems like a good place to start. As a victim, there are a few things that I wish people would know about the experience of being abused:

  • Being abused is not an indication of weakness or gullibility. Never, ever suggest that.
  • Being abused is confusing. There are a lot of mixed messages coming in from the abuser, in combination with messages from the past. It's difficult to name what is happening in the midst of the abuse. 
  • Being abused is isolating. Skilled abusers and manipulators know how to make their victims feel alone. This makes it all the more important for others to pay attention, and intervene.
  • Being afraid of someone is never acceptable, and always a red flag. Period. If someone comes to you and says that they are afraid of someone else, something is wrong with that individual's behavior, and the victim needs protection and defense. 

Pay attention, friends. Value the words of the women around you, and stand up for people who are in the midst of abusive situations. Challenge your friends who use derogatory language about women, or catcall women on the sidewalk. (I didn't even touch on catcalling, or the neck-craning drive-by stares! Do you see how big the issue is, if these are 'minor' in the conversation?) Examine your present understanding of consent, and the definition of respect. Support community leaders, politicians, and organizations who serve victims of abuse, or who push legislation that holds abusive individuals accountable. 

Everyone deserves to be heard.

#metoo

Recent Read: The Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon

Read on without fear, my friends! Recent Read reviews do not contain spoilers unless otherwise indicated in big, bold, impossible-to-miss fonts. 

A few weeks ago, I offered my thoughts on the first installment of this trilogy by Elizabeth Moon. Typically, I would wait to review a series until I finished the final book, but in this case, I was in a low period of productivity and inspiration, and thus wildly reaching for anything and everything I could feasibly write about. Mercifully, life is starting to swing back toward normal, and I'm off to a good start this week. I mean, it's only Tuesday, and I'm already blogging! Huzzah!  

If you've read that initial review from a few weeks ago of book one, titled Sheepfarmer's Daughter, you know that this is an epic fantasy trilogy written by a woman, about a woman--this was my main reason for diving into the story. Prior to a couple of months ago, I'd never heard of this series, or of Elizabeth Moon. Andrew ran across the series title in an article somewhere, and it was being held up as one of the great epic fantasy triumphs, alongside Tolkien and Rothfuss. 

Hunting down this series can be a bit confusing--originally, the story was published as three separate (and much more digestable) volumes in 1988 and 1989: Sheepfarmer's DaughterDivided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold. In the late 1990s, Baen published a combined version of the series, titled The Deed of Paksennarion. This gargantuan compiled version is the one most readily available in our local library systems, and thus might be the best place to start if you go hunting for the series. 

Deed_of_Paksenarrion.JPG

As I mentioned in my initial review, the first book was slow, cumbersome, and too distant for my taste. The level of world-building detail was astonishing, and an obvious nod to Tolkien, but I felt too removed from the characters, including our title heroine Paksennarion--Paks for short. 

Friends, this is somewhat embarrassing, but I have to give it to you straight: my initial impression could not have been more wrong about the series as a whole. 

Now that I have read the entirety of The Deed of Paksennarion (three books often presented together in one published volume), I can say that it is a brilliant and worthy addition to the classic rockstars of the epic fantasy genre. Moon creates a world clearly inspired by Middle Earth, but also entirely distinct. And in her heroine, Moon develops a fresh and surprisingly complex woman, a heroine worthy of the reader's admiration and respect.

If you're a regular on my blog, you can imagine what a fantastic surprise this was for me. I have been tremendously disappointed with the garbage heroines being written--by women--especially in modern young adult speculative fiction. This comic by author and illustrator Adam Ellis sums it up nicely:

 Credit  Adam Ellis , @adamtots. 

Credit Adam Ellis, @adamtots. 

In addition to Adam's observations about young adult heroines, I would add that they tend to be bitter, vengeful, violent, and romance-obsessed. Anger is lifted up as their most redeeming quality, and ironically, this makes me want to punch some people in the face. Is this what we want to promote in our culture, and for our young women? Do we really want our friends and nieces and daughters to admire these heroines who are obnoxiously broody and selfish? 

This is one of my primary goals as an author--to write flawed heroines who can still be admired and respected for the right reasons: heroines who inspire young women to be brave, kind, independent, intelligent, and thoughtful. 

So you can imagine my delight when I got deep into Paksennarion's story, and completely fell in love with her. Is she my ideal heroine? No. Her behavior is more passive and meek than I might hope to promote in my own work, but even so, one could argue that her choices are context-appropriate, and the best decisions she could make in the world that she lives in. 

One particularly compelling aspect of Moon's story is spirituality, and the interaction between various characters and the gods they choose to serve. Paks' journey is certainly spiritual, and takes her to a place of open-handed obedience and faith in her path and decisions. This, in my opinion, is a woman worth admiring--a woman whose faith leads her to do good, who acts according to the leading of her god, and who does not respond with selfish ambition, but instead with selfless sacrifice and tireless commitment to do what is right. 

My only surviving complaint from my initial impressions is that the character development for secondary characters is so sparse. There are many, many characters that Paks encounters on her journey, and they are given very little attention in the way of development. Even Moon, whose character development is so subtle and effective, has left me feeling that I don't really know many of those characters beyond Paks. By the end of the series, I still had trouble visualizing other characters and keeping their names straight. But perhaps this was intentional--perhaps the reader is meant to feel the fleeting moments with these individuals as Paks walks a lonely road. Regardless of intent, this left me feeling a little cheated as a reader, and hungry for more information.

That said, The Deed of Paksennarion is a magnificent, fresh take on an epic fantasy, centered on a well-developed heroine. Paks' journey feels new and unusual because she is so different from the women who are elevated in our culture. If you are looking for a surprising and patient read, I strongly recommend picking up this series.