Thursday, November 20, 2014

let's talk about books, baby

I was about to write an extensive Instagram post about these books but then I remembered I have a blog. And blogs are for people who can't edit themselves to a few lines on Instagram. So I will happily write as many words as I want over here without anyone rolling their eyes at my inability to be concise.
I just finished the top two. I'm usually reading one "fun" book and one "spiritual" book at a time. A friend loaned me Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. I don't usually get through the spiritual books very quickly, if at all. But I couldn't put this one down most days. I loved the stories of the people who have walked through the doors of the Brooklyn Tabernacle and have been transformed by the power of God's love and His Holy Spirit. A lot of the book is emphasizing the power of prayer and what can (and should) happen when we cry out to God. It was a life-changing perspective for me. I highly recommend it and also think it's a must-read if you're in any type of ministry. 
"The devil is not terribly frightened of our human efforts and credentials. But he knows his kingdom will be damaged when we begin to lift up our hearts to God."

Anne Lamott. Do we need words for Anne? Probably not. This is actually the first of hers I'd ever read because a friend loaned it to me. I was liking it but not loving it for the first half. Several chapters left me a little confused by the abrupt ending, seemingly with no real point. But I think I had to get used to her voice, like your first few bites of dark chocolate...bitter at first, but then sweeter until all you want is the bitter stuff. I absolutely loved the last half of the book and couldn't put it down. I laughed out loud at several things. (Her thighs as beloved elderly aunties, the kind who did embarrassing things, but whom she was proud of because they were so great in every real and important way?? I died. That chapter alone is worth the book.) Other lines I had to re-read one or two more times to soak them in properly and I would inwardly sigh at her ability to make us feel so precisely what she felt and what so many of us have felt ourselves but couldn't put a name on it. Words that make you want to rip the page out and carry it around in your pocket just to feel their warm company. A few of my favorites: 

Again and again I tell God I need help, and God says, "Well isn't that fabulous? Because I need help too. So you go get that old woman over there some water, and I'll figure out what we're going to do about your stuff."
The world  sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people. You bring them juice and graham crackers. 
 Courage is fear that has said its prayers.
There were a couple more less...ahem...reverential ones that made me laugh out loud but I won't share them here. Don't read the book if other people's irreverence and a few cuss words gets your panties in a knot.  

The rest of the stack is next on my to-read list. I haven't read rich sweeping fiction in a while so Swan Thieves is next on my list. A dear and generous friend sent it to me and she assured me I will love it. The Storyline team mailed me an advanced copy of Donald Miller's yet-to-be-released book, Scary Close, ("dropping the act and finding true intimacy") which sounds completely appropriate and relatable for this season of my life. I was beyond grateful and more than a little giddy that they wanted to mail me a copy and I can't wait to dig in. I'm equally excited to read the other two too. I love that I got to hear Glennon speak before I read her book because now I'll hear her voice in my head while I'm reading and pretend even more that she's my best friend, curled up on the other end of my couch, talking to me. 

So now it's your turn. Let's discuss. (Leave your email in the comments so I can reply back!) Have you read any of these? What are your recent books you've loved? 

P.S. I keep a running list on the right side of my blog of any books I've given 5 stars to. I'm very picky about what goes on that list. I want them to be one I could recommend to anyone without hesitation, knowing they'd love it. If you want to see everything I read, find me on!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

fall photography

I apologize if these posts are annoying. Skip right on past if they are. But here are the last three photo sessions I did in October. I decided I was ready for a lens upgrade. I got some advice from a few photographer friends on what my first upgrade should be and I found a used one on Craigslist that I could afford. (A 50mm 1.4, if you speak the lingo.) I was kind of on the fence about it still when I showed up to a family session and discovered my lens was busted. I remembered Bennett carrying my camera in the case and dropping it (yeah...not a smart move, letting my accident-prone seven year old go anywhere near the thing.) I hadn't even thought to look at it. I figured it was fine inside the case.
We were about 10 or 15 minutes away at a park and I just felt sick and started panicking when I realized it wasn't focusing correctly. But they happened to have a DSLR in their car (Phew! Crisis averted.) and so I did my best on theirs. It still felt like a disaster. Theirs was a Nikon instead of a Canon and I just couldn't figure out all the settings. It felt like I was reading a foreign language. So I just shot everything in Auto and did the best I could. Their baby wasn't in a photogenic mood either, so there was a lot of frustration all around. (Also. One year olds? Officially THE most difficult age to shoot.) We still got a few cute shots though. These were the best of the bunch.

We scheduled a reshoot after I got my new lens so we could get some good ones for her one year pictures. I was so incredibly happy with how they turned out. And sweet baby girl was in a much better mood. We shot for at least an hour and she did great. 
This next one was one of the first shoots I went to with my new lens. I thought it was going great but realized so many of the shots weren't in focus when I got back home and saw them big on the computer. It was extremely frustrating and I still don't know why it was happening. But thankfully they were still usable. So much trial and error in this process that leads to panic and mild heart attacks and cold sweats. Starting something new like this and jumping in with both feet is equally exhilarating when it goes well and humiliating when it doesn't and I have to admit to so many mistakes along the way. 
I've known this next family for 17 years! Heather was my very first friend who showed me the ropes and let me hang out with her and her friends when we moved to Iowa and I started school here in 11th grade. It was all awkward new friendships and wearing masks and building walls for self protection and preservation back then. Now we have a beautiful, authentic friendship with raw, open hearts that build up and encourage. Barely a trace of who we once were.  
They were all playful in front of the camera and it was fun to shoot them. 
 These two pictures are my favorite of the session. That kiss on his cheek!
(I really wish I had Photoshop for things like the hair blowing behind her face. That bugged me. The cloning tool in Lightroom just can't handle details like that. I know there are some professional photographers who just use Lightroom, am I right? What do you do about stuff like that? I wish I had a face and eye brightener too. I use the paint brush a lot to lighten exposure on faces and occasionally add some vibrancy. Anything else I should be doing to enhance faces? I should watch some more Youtube tutorials now that I've been using it for a while. Any tips are always welcome!)
Another one year old in the mix who was ok with being held for exactly 1.4 seconds before she started screaming made it extremely challenging to get a family shot. So we did a lot of walking. ;) I love how this one turned out though.
And the last shoot I did with another long time friend. It's the strangest thing shooting families that don't run away and who smile on command. I usually feel like I'm a circus clown juggling puppies. This was way too easy. (But so fun. I'm not a very good clown or juggler.) 
And one of my Dawson at the park when I was practicing with my lens. I miss those gorgeous leaves and warm sun already. But there are so many great things about this time of year and I'm resolving to look on the sunny side when it comes to the weather (pun intended). I started muttering complaints under my breath the other day and caught myself. Is it possible to make it through a Midwest winter, polar vortex and all, without complaining? I'm not exactly sure it is. But I'm going to give it a shot. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to go all Elsa on you. The cold DOES bother me. A heckuva lot. But there are enough reasons to be blue lately without involving the weather. If I speak the positives, my heart seems to follow suit. So if you hear me uttering expletives regarding my eyeballs freezing in their sockets, kindly redirect me. My heart will thank you later. After it's had a chance to warm up. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Your story matters.

"What will the world miss if you do not tell your story?" 

I went to the Storyline Conference in Chicago last weekend. My dearest friend in Des Moines told me she was going come hell or high water and I could join her if I wanted. It was very affordable (they offered a "pay what you want" price.) and I had transportation and lodging provided so uh, yeah. No-brainer. (And I also have a husband who travels a lot for work removing any guilt associated with leaving him alone with the kids for a weekend.) 

I didn't really know what I was in for. The web site was kind of vague-ish. The lineup of speakers was incredible, though, so I had pretty high hopes that I was in for an inspiring weekend. 

Donald Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame) led three of the main sessions. I've only read half of one of his books but I now want to read ALL of all of them. I was laughing through all of his talks,(LOUDLY. Why do I always feel like I'm the loudest laugher in my section?? This is a warning if you ever come to a comedy show with me. I will laugh embarrassingly loud through the whole thing.) while voraciously taking in everything he was saying. I'm not usually a note-taker but I couldn't write fast enough. 

He talked a lot about taking ownership of our story, not to just react to things happening to us but to be co-creators of a meaningful life. And most importantly, not to fear conflict but be willing to engage it. There were so many great tidbits, I'll try to narrow it down to a few: 

  • When someone doesn't feel like they have meaning, they numb themselves with pleasure. (I think this is especially true for teenagers but obviously carries through into adulthood.)
  • What do I want? If somoene asked those closest to me and they couldn't answer, we're not living a strong story. 
  • Narrative is the most powerful tool to compel a human being and change someone's world view. (I love this one. It's why churches use testimonies so often. It's one thing to hear the gospel. It's another thing entirely to hear how the gospel has changed someone's life.) 
  • What if your kids learned from your story what was worth living and sacrificing for? 
  • Forgiveness is accepting the burden somebody has given you while no longer holding it against them.
  • The Christian life has become so easy and comfortable and non-revolutionary--far different than any story in the Bible. The Christian life is an invitation into a very difficult story. (Phew. That one is so convicting to me.)
We also heard powerful talks from Glennon Melton-Doyle, Shauna Niequist, Scott Hamilton, Michael Hyatt and Bob Goff, along with four spoken word pieces by Propaganda. (Can we talk about Bob Goff for a minute? I don't have words to describe what it's like to listen to him. You don't just sit and listen to him. You experience him. I could have sat there for eight more hours to listen to his stories. The man has a gift and it's changing the world.) I just sat there, like a dry sponge, soaking it all in. I loved God's timing of this conference in my life. I heard another person say, "That conference was for me. Everyone else just showed up." I felt the exact same way. Turns out, there are a lot of people out there on the cusp of living out great stories. I wished I could have connected with each one just to find out what story they were co-authoring with God. 
That's the thing we, as believers, need to let wash over us and then let sink in. God knows every detail of our story. But He didn't write it for us. I do believe He is completely sovereign and directs people's paths with gentle nudges (or sometimes a swift kick in the butt) but He is absolutely not a puppeteer. He placed that pen in each of our hands. He sends us off with great responsibility on our shoulders to live lives worthy of our namesake as His children. Thankfully He's there with us every step of the way. Sometimes we get it right, often times we get it wrong, but His safety net of grace is always big enough to catch us when we trip and fall, no matter how hard or far. And the beauty of walking in step with our co-author is that when we take those bruises and bloodied knees from a fall to Him in prayer, He uses them to shape our character to become more like Christ every time. 
Bob Goff used an example of hiking up a mountain behind a guide. "If you have a guide you can trust, you don't have to worry about the path you're on." 

Principles of decision making by Garry Friesen. The Way of Wisdom:
1. Where God commands, we must obey. 
2. Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose.
3. Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose. 
4. When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.
So what does this mean for me in my life right now? For one thing, I know my voice is needed. Sure, there are people with similar stories, some who are far better writers or communicators than I will ever be, but there is no one with MY story and MY voice. And so I will keep sharing my story of a heart restored; of my shame and sin and lies and addictions being replaced with the fullness of the grace and love of Jesus. I don't know if my story has a happy ending on this earth. I don't know if my marriage will ever be restored. I don't know if my kids will ever see their mom and dad living under the same roof again. There are so many promises in the Bible of God working things together for good but as far as my limited Bible knowledge goes, there aren't any promises that God's going to replace our current trials and suffering with a happily-ever-after here on earth. Sometimes we mistake the word "blessing" with "easy" or "happy". 
I admit, I've let my current trial--a husband who doesn't want to be married to me anymore because of the pain I inflicted on him a handful of years ago through emotional infidelity--weigh me down. Over the last couple of months I've felt so defeated by depression and loneliness and sheer exhaustion that single-parenting three boys brings. I'm "doing" all the right things, so God should turn this ship around and restore our marriage, right? Gosh, I wish I could claim that part as a promise but it's not. Do I have hope that He can? Absolutely. Until the bitter end. But I CANNOT assume that's what God is saying when He says things are going to work together for good. 
I had some time alone this morning and I read Hebrews. I think the last time I sat and eagerly read through an entire book of the Bible was....never? I'm being honest here. I remember being about 18, in college and wondering if I'd ever really want to read the Bible. Like, really want to. This is the beauty of walking through a desert season- as the difficulties of our circumstances increase, so does our need for Jesus. 

If you're walking through your own personal desert, read Hebrews 11 and 12. Let's get our expectations straight. Chapter 11 talks about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah. 
Verse 13 (from The Message): 
"Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that--heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them."

I want to type out all of Chapter 12 here but I won't. Just go read it. (Read it in The Message version if you haven't before.)

This is the kind of hope I want rising deep from within my soul. Not a hope in my marriage or my own happiness here on earth but a hope that comes from knowing that one day I'll be in the presence of God for eternity and I want Him to be proud of me. I want to speak boldly what He's done in my heart. And I really want to love others well along the way. 

Donald Miller said, "God is so much more concerned about our character than our comfort." I don't want to squirm and writhe through the uncomfortable times. I want to lean into it. I want a huge perspective shift to happen down to my core, where I wake up in the morning and ask God, like Don said, "where is my pain bringing me today?" I think it's possible. I'm not there yet. I probably have a long way to go. But I don't doubt for a second that He can and will use my story in some small way. 

"I've learned to live my scars out loud because those are the fingerprints of the Lord."

(For more posts about my desert season, click on the "broken made beautiful" label below. If you're on a smart phone, you'll have to go to the full web version in order to do this.)       

Sunday, October 26, 2014

still waters

Sometimes I get the itch to write. It comes on suddenly I can't do anything until I scratch it. My mind starts forming thoughts into words and they must be spilled out onto a page in order for them all to make sense.
If you're wondering if there's been progress on the marriage front, (because I would be too if I were you) there hasn't. At least in human terms. It feels like a stalemate. It feels like a stagnant pond that's starting to dry up. But I believe that under those still waters, there is a current I cannot feel or see with my human senses. I choose to believe that there is a battle, not of flesh and blood, but on a spiritual level for our marriage. (Eph 6:12) I can feel the enemy fighting hard for my heart, whispering lies, so many lies. That it's hopeless. That it's too far gone. That there's nothing left. That you'll be happier if you cut your losses and move on. So many people have done it too, it's not the end of the world.

And some days I feel myself believing those lies.

Tears come easily. Sleep does not. I haven't known a sadness like this. I haven't known suffering like this. It is hard and heavy and the ache sometimes recedes but it does not go away. The housework as a single mom threatens to bury me alive and the loneliness feels like it will engulf me at times. But most days I stop. I speak the name of my Jesus. The restorer of broken things. The redeemer of our ugly pasts. The gentle Savior who scoops me up out of my self-dug pit of pity time and time again. He whispers. Because He's so close to me, He doesn't have to shout. He whispers that He's not done. That those still waters run deep. And knowing that the God of the Universe is fighting for me, helps me walk, limp, drag my bruised and broken spirit forward another day, eyes wide open to see the blessings sprinkled along the way. There is always manna, enough for each day, a wise friend reminded me, as long as we're not too busy grumbling and complaining to see it. He provides cool streams in the middle of my desert.

My friend, Shannan, posted some incredible words the other day (well, she posts some incredible words almost every day but these were extra incredible this day) that applied so well to my circumstances. She heard these God breathed words during her own marriage impasse:

"See how hard the enemy is fighting to destroy you two? Just imagine what he's scared of. Just imagine the good you'll do with me, together."

And this is the part Shannan wrote that I feel like I'm just beginning to grasp:

God defies gravity, friends.He laughs at our foolish "logic" and our made-up psychobabble. He holds our world at a scary-sharp angle and says it's level.What feels real to us often isn't, and only when we take a hard look at His unbending love for us, His endless mercy for us, only when we're so desperate that we actually listen, can we begin to see straight.

There's not a lot that makes sense in my life right now. It feels like I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at a dead end far from Easy Street, where I was supposed to be cruising along. But I muster up enough trust somehow to believe that God has me here for a purpose far greater than my eyes can see. And that it's not a dead end after all but a road that's just covered in fog and as long as I keep my eyes on the Light, I'll make it out just fine in the end and with far more blessings than one could ever hope to collect on Easy Street.

If you're reading here for the first time, you can click here to read more of my story: Kelli & Vanessa- My Everyday Moms or you can also click the label at the bottom of this post.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Trial and Error

Sorry for the silence around here. I'm using up every last ounce of my resources these days. So come 9pm, I am in a vegetative state. I've had the opportunity to do several photo sessions the last couple of weeks so for lack of a better blog post, I'll post some of my work. It's been an incredible blessing and somewhat of a lifeline for me. Getting out of the house alone, for an hour and a half or so, to do something creative breathes so much life into my days. The learning curve is so so high with this and some shoots have gone MUCH better than others. I kinda wish I could just shoot family sessions with my iPhone but I'm pretty sure no one would pay for that. So I keep fumbling around and doing my best and thankfully my friends are all very patient with me.
This first one is my very favorite shoot I've done. The lighting was perfect (which I actually stumbled upon by accident. I had two shoots back to back and I thought the second shoot would have better lighting. It didn't. I learned a lot on this particular night.) and it was also easy because they were older kids who would stay in one spot and smile on command!
My favorite shot of the night. The slightest tweaks in body posture make for such better photos but its hard to get people to feel relaxed in front of the camera:
This was the shoot I did right afterwards and I wasn't very happy with it. I made a lot of mistakes, with the light and composition. I love shooting these boys though. They're just like my own. Ornery as heck. ;) 
 I did still get a few shots that I love, I just wasn't very successful with the whole family.
 Little boys just want to run.
Shoots like these make it clear why many photographers use an assistant. It was nearly impossible to get all of these boys looking at the camera and smiling and making sure I had a good shot lined up! I should get a pet monkey that will sit on my head or something. 
This was the third year I've shot this next family, a dear friend of mine. Her oldest son brought me a little note this time that made my day. 
Isn't that the sweetest?? Sheesh, I like this job. 

Their youngest was the most serious little boy I've ever tried to photograph. He would just stare at the camera completely deadpan. I was pulling out every single trick I had to get him to crack a smile, short of the monkey on my head. But I really like hanging out with this crew.

 I cheered after I got this shot:

I was bummed we didn't have any sunshine for this shoot. I also had a harder time editing it because of the bright orange shirt. Photographers, do you ever tell clients not to wear bright orange or red? Just curious.

You can see the difference having the sunlight makes on this next shoot. This was one of the easiest shoots I've done. They wanted it quick and their kids were super calm so we were in and out and got some great shots because of the gorgeous light. 
I love these natural shots but it's so funny how unnatural it feels for people to not look at the camera and smile!
Another four boy mama! And twins, no less. Tough as nails, this woman. And hello, most gorgeous little boys. This was another tough one, but that probably goes without saying ;) 
 They were so proud of their wacky socks. I love a little added flair.
I'm finally getting a new lens tomorrow! I'm excited to give it a try. Perfect timing too since I showed up to a shoot today and my old one is busted. I would have cried if I wasn't already planning on getting a new one, so I was thanking God for that perfect timing!