"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage."
--Martin Luther

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Last Name Project

I promised something new and different today, and here it is:  Today I have a guest post over at From Two To One

I found Danielle at From Two To One and noticed a series of articles called "The Last Name Project".  This is a series in which women write about why the decided to keep, change, or hyphenate their last names upon marriage.  I found my self spending hours reading all of these women's stories and thinking over my own decision.

Changing your name is a very personal choice.  While for my mom's generation in English Canada, it was expected that a woman would change her name, this is not so for my generation, and certainly not for women in other parts of the world.  In my own family, one of sister-in-law hyphenated her name, while the other is using her maiden name professionally, and my step-sister has taken her husband's name.  I didn't really feel any pressure to take Gil's name, but I decided to do it anyway.  I knowingly did this realizing it will mean some confusion meeting people who know me by name first, who will in all likelihood assume I am Chinese.  (For any new readers:  I'm not.  I am a mix of Belgian and English-Canadian.)  You can find my post about my decision to change my name here

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On How Making Friends Is Kind Of Like Dating

"So, there's this woman around my age that I see around church.  She's always friendly and in our brief conversations, it seems like we have some things in common.  Can I ask her to go for coffee with me, or I seem creepy?"

If you read the above sentence with no context, you'd think it was a guy hoping to go out on a date with this lady, right?  Except it's not.  It's about me.  And no, I'm not trying to get myself a girlfriend!  The hard truth is that after a year living here, I'm still finding it hard to make friends. Now that I work at our church, there are a lot more people that I'm friendly with, and colleagues that I like talking to, but no one who I could call out of the blue or with whom I hang out outside of the church.  I didn't even realize this until a friend of mine was in town last weekend and said she wished she could attend our church with us to meet my friends.  My first reaction was, "Oh, I don't have friends."  And then I realized that was true.

In my "old life" in Ottawa, it seemed like I didn't have to put in a lot of effort to make friends.  I was involved with several ministries and served on missions trips, so I just naturally met people and got close to them.  Here in Toronto, however, I try to stay home in the evening to have time with my husband, and that's meant that my main interaction is with the retired crowd at prayer meeting.  They are lovely and inspiring ladies, but I crave friendships with people closer to my age too.

I'm coming to realize that it's time for me to be a little more active in forming friendships.  Those "let's all go for wings after fellowship" nights are probably less likely to happen now that people my age have spouses and kids (and, speaking for myself, lower energy levels), but that just means I may have to go a little out of my comfort zone to make friends.

So that brings me to my first question:  Is it creepy to ask this woman out to coffee??  Any suggestions or advice?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

On Reading: Biographies, Politics, History, Cultural Studies, etc.

This is the final entry in the my reading series, and it's going to be a bit of a catch-all for the categories not discussed thus far. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it includes the books I read most often. I haven't touched on topics like children's books, travelogues, or humour books because I don't read enough of them to have any insights.

Historical Books:  I actually read more history books than any other category after fiction. I guess that's what comes from being a history major in university. Because of my background, I'm fairly picky about the quality of history books: I'd prefer they be written by an academic (rather than a journalist), and I'll generally check the bibliography and avoid books without a lot of footnoting. Yes, I'm a big nerd. If you have any recommendations for books of this type, feel free to let me know!

Biographies and Memoirs:  I love biographies. In fact, I've been reading biographies since I was in grade school. One of my first was called Kelly: At Home on Third (you can find a photo here; your respect for me just went through the roof, didn't it? :-D) I typically read biographies of historical figures, political actors, and well-known Christians, rather than musicians or actors. As with history books, I prefer to read biographies that are well-researched and footnoted. I also am sometimes picky when reading Christian biographies: Christian subjects are often of interest to biographers who admire them, but this they may be tempted to skim over the more unpleasant aspects in the lives of prominent Christians (at least after they had come to personal faith). Personally, I feel that people like Luther and Bonhoeffer were conscious of their own flaws and would have preferred to have them documented so as to better show the grace of God in using imperfect people. Of course, there are also lots of great Christian biographies out there, so I'd encourage believers to read about people who went before us in the faith.

Politics and Cultural Studies:  I don't read a lot of books about politics, partly because a lot of them seem a bit like “preaching to the choir”; people don't tend to read Ann Coulter unless they already agree with her... If I do pick up something political, it will tend to be about the development of nationalism or something equally nerdy.

Cultural Studies is a more broad term, which could encompass politics, but also books that look at other aspects of society. I'd include here works like Fast Food Nation, Freakonomics, and a lot of the stuff you'll find on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction. I read from this category from time to time, usually books that ask questions about where our society is going and challenge me on how I live my life (for example, I have enjoyed Neil Postman in the past), and things related to the role of women. One of my favourites in this category would be Wendy Shalit's Return to Modesty.

Thanks for stopping by to check out this series on reading. I've enjoyed the chance to ruminate on why I read what I read, and have been challenged to be more intentional choosing books in the future. I'll be back to “regularly scheduled programming” for now, but check back in for something exciting and different on Thursday.

Friday, 23 November 2012

On Reading: Marriage, Family, and Other Lifestyle Books

This category would include books about marriage and raising a family, but also others geared to your real life right now: books about dating or engagement, books about living the single life, books about womanhood or manhood, books about aging gracefully. It's kind of a catch-all category, but I'm thinking of books that you read to help you in the stage you're in right now, or to prepare you for what's ahead. They may be Christian in nature, but tend to the more practical side, whereas yesterday we talked about literature that is applicable to all Christians.

My aim in this series was to talk about books, reading, and my own reading habits, but also to have some application to the reading habits of others. When I read other blogs of women around my age who discuss books from time to time, it seems the top three book categories mentioned are fiction, Christian lit, and “lifestyle” (although probably more family-oriented since I'm old most people my age seem to have kids.) Hence, I included today's category, even though I don't read these books very often, or at least I don't finish them often. (Hmmm, there seems to be a theme here...)

Nevertheless, I see the value in reading these kinds of books. Marriage is hard sometimes, and unless you have really solid, honest friendships and mentors you interact with regularly, it's difficult to get input and advice that will strengthen your marriage (rather than just give you an outlet to complain). On the other hand, reading only this kind of literature can give you a kind of “information overload”, where you may feel stressed about which advice to follow or so full of new information that you can't take it in. Of course, as with yesterday's category, Christians should carefully examine marriage (or other lifestyle books) in light of the Bible.

I have a few marriage-related books that I've always intended to read, but honestly the only one that I actually finished was obligatory reading for our pre-marital counseling sessions. I started Love and Respect, but only got a third of the way through, and have high hopes of reading Sacred Marriage and The Five Love Languages one of these days. I think my downfall is that I want to really engage with these books by journalling while reading, but that makes the process fairly slow so it doesn't get done at all.

Whenever we start our family, reading parenting books will probably come a bit more naturally, since there are so many decisions and habits to put in place with little ones and neither Gil, nor I have much experience. Until then, I'd love your input: Do you read books on marriage, dating, family-raising, etc.? Which marriage books are the most helpful or insightful? What should we plan on reading when we have children?

Thursday, 22 November 2012

On Reading: Christian Literature

You could possibly re-title this post “Christian books: a plea for help”. While the first few entries in this series involved me saying a lot, here I would love to listen to you, because, friends, I stink at reading Christian books. I'm talking books about theology, about living the Christian life, books that encourage you to grow in your faith. Yes, I stink at reading these books.

Firstly, though, let's get clear that the most important Christian book to be read is the Bible. Christians ought not to read a lot of John Piper or Tim Keller or Max Lucado, but neglect the Bible. Knowing the Bible is what helps us know God, and also to discern whether a Christian writer is worth reading in the first place. Personally, I'm not big on reading daily devotionals or going through study books; instead, I try to read the Bible every day, and I know that's more important than reading classics of Christian theology.

If one is reading the Bible, however, there is real merit in also reading across the broad spectrum of Christian literature. My problem is that I am great at starting these kinds of books, and lousy at finishing them. I've got C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Randy Alcorn sitting in my to-read pile, and while I've opened all of these works, I have yet to get through any. Sometimes I think it will help to read a one or two of chaptersof such works a week, while keeping another book on the go for when I want to read to relax, but it still doesn't happen.

So readers, help me to read better! What Christian books do you recommend? What has changed your life? How do you get through heavy books and balance the need for something with more of a story? Are you judging me right now? :-)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

On Reading: My Love for Fiction

Of all genres, fiction is hands-down my favourite. Of the 29 books I've finished this year, 23 were works of fiction. To me, there is no greater pleasure than getting lost in a good novel, the kind where I am tempted to stay up into the wee hours of the night just to find out what happens next.

There are people who look down on fiction because, of course, it's not true. They see it as “fluff” and would advocate reading biographies, cultural studies, and history instead. This is a false dichotomy; there certainly are heavy works of fiction (Crime and Punishment, anyone?) and lots of non-fiction that is light on substance. Nevertheless, it is true that there is some “fluff” in the fiction world. Our culture is self-centred and pleasure-seeking, and in general, the fiction genre tends to be female-oriented, so it's easy to find books that are all about finding love and finding oneself but with little of substance. That said, there is so much more to fiction than the latest “chick lit” title.

What I love most about fiction is the ability to fall into a story and experience a different time, place, and culture through the characters. Biographies also tell someone's story, but it can feel like the reader is at a distance because the writer him/herself has not been through the experiences (unless it's an autobiography, obviously); in a work of fiction, however, you have the opportunity to put yourself in the action. This means that you can learn while you're reading, and you may not even realize it. I recently read Moby Dick, and in addition to enjoying the story, I learned so much about whales and the history of whale hunting. Of course, I could have gotten that information elsewhere, but I am unlikely to ever research the subject, and articles about whale biology would probably put me to sleep. Likewise, it's great to read about contemporary Afghanistan, but The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini make the experience of Afghans during the 1980s and 1990s real in a way that a history book cannot do without sacrificing some objectivity.

In the second place, a good work of fiction is often not just about the story. Many writers use fiction to discuss societal problems, human nature, etc. I am a huge fan of Jane Austen, and it pains me when her work is described as “romance” because if you read her more carefully, she has so much to say about the place of women in society, and about the development of character. Although I love the end of Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourite scenes is in the middle when Elizabeth reproves herself for believing Mr. Wickham's account of Mr. Darcy, and admits that she believed Wickham because he appealed to her vanity. She may not be a real person, but Elizabeth's willingness to search her own conduct and mind for where she went wrong has been a real example for me.

If you hadn't gathered it already, I love reading “the classics”; many of my favourite books are from 19th century England, although I also read classics from other areas. Part of my interest stems from my background as a history major in university, and part of it from a desire to read works that have impacted society. In addition, I find that while many of the classics are not specifically shelved under “Christian fiction”, most pre-20th century works were written with a Christian worldview in mind and I know I won't have to sift through any explicit sex scenes. This fall, I read Quo Vadis, a late-19th century book by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, which is an engaging account of Rome under Nero's reign and of the Church during this period. Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905; it's hard to imagine a Nobel Prize winner today providing such a compassionate picture of the Apostles Peter and Paul and portraying the idea that the New Testament is actually true.

Christians often wonder about the merits of reading secular fiction. It's sometimes difficult to tell whether a work of secular fiction will have objectional content or is written from a secular worldview. Should we limit ourselves to the fiction section of Christian bookstores? How do we engage with novels that proclaim ideas contrary to our faith? Personally, I think this is one of those Romans 14-type gray areas. There are obviously books that I think are unwise for believers to read. Any genres with illicit sex scenes (e.g., erotic fiction and often the romance section of a bookstore) will not help to follow the guidelines of Philippians 4:8 or to keep your heart from lust. Other than that, rely on prayer and the Bible for guidance, and consider your own weak areas. A person struggling with a violent or abusive past may want to skip a lot of contemporary murder mystires or thrillers, for example. Personally, I am not interested in horror or romance novels,* nor do I tend to read books that are overly violent or deal with the occult/demonic elements unless they it is in a specific Christian context. If I'm reading a book and encounter unexpected elements, I try to remember that I have the power to skim or skip passages or even to stop reading if the book will violate my Christian conscience.

The other side of the coin is that if you are strong in your convictions, it can be beneficial to read books with which you disagree. I wouldn't hand The Da Vinci Code to a brand-new Christian, but a person strong in their faith should be able to enjoy the engaging story AND also understand enough of Dan Brown's arguments to be able to discuss them with friends. In the past, I have read books that were popular in my youth group so that I'd have some idea of what kids were obsessing about and be able to have more meaningful discussions. My Dad and I both enjoy books by Robert Sawyer, a Canadian sci-fi writer whose works have a strongly atheist leaning. I don't agree with his worldview, but his books are interesting and thoughtful, and while reading them, I engage with some of the atheist movement's argument. Sure, I could read Richard Dawkins, but Sawyer's writings are much more enjoyable. I know when I open one that he is writing with an atheist viewpoint, but don't have to fear that because I know in Whom I have believed. In sum, I don't think we need to avoid all books that do not agree with the Christian viewpoint, so long as we are strong in our beliefs and prepared to think through things that counter the tenets of our faith.

Readers, what do you think? Do you read modern secular fiction? What's your favourite novel?


*Meaning the “romance novel” genre, which are normally has its own section within a bookstore and typically involves simple plots and a lot of sexual scenes, rather than merely novels with romantic themes (which could fall into many categories)

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

On Reading: Tips on How to Get Going

You could say that I was born to love books. We keep a log in our family cottage, and this past summer I started reading the entries from when I was a child. I had to smile at my Grandpa's words from August, 1981: “Margaret is a budding bookworm.” I was 11 months old, so it's funny to see that even then I was interested in books. It's probably in my blood, as my mom and dad both love to read, and actually my father is one of the most prolific readers I know.

On the other hand, many people don't grow up with readers in their family, and struggle to find time to read. When they do pick up a book, they may feel discouraged at their pace, or else just have trouble getting motivated or deciding what to read next. Even born-readers like me sometimes need encouragement to branch out into different categories, or to read books that are complicated or hard to get through. While I certainly don't have the answers, below are some of my best tips to get reading and to increase the depth and breadth of your reading. I would be remiss, however, if I neglected to pass on some advice from a person who reads (much) more than I do. Tim Challies is a well-known Christian blogger and a fellow GTA-resident, and you should probably check out his tips for reading before reading mine!

Maggie's Reading Tips

Befriend your local library
Many cities (Toronto and Ottawa included) have excellent public library systems. You can find almost anything if you are willing to put books on hold and wait a while for them to come in. Otherwise, just take a walk over to your local branch and browse around for a while. Take time to look at any titles or covers that catch your eye. You're sure to find a writer or subject you've never tried before.

Join a book club
I tend to be a “lone wolf” reader, because I don't need the motivation of others to get me going; however, a book club is a great way to meet new friends AND get introduced to some new books. If you don't know where to start, try your local library. Many libraries hold monthly book clubs. You could also check the bulletin board at a local coffee shop or even look at Craigslist or Kijiji. No luck finding one? Consider starting your own with some friends or colleagues who also enjoy reading. In fact, this fall, a group of friends and I started a book club and I've already been introduced to some books that I never would have picked up otherwise.

Keep lists of the books you want to read
I do this on my iPhone and have a more extensive list on my computer (with both books that I have and those that I aim to get at the library or elsewhere). Keeping a list means that when I finish a book, I already know what I want to pick up next. (The challenge, of course, is choosing just one!) It also helps when reading something that's feeling dry or slow-paced, because I know that when I'm done, there's an inviting book waiting for me. This also means that if I get a gift card from Chapters, I have an idea of what I want rather than going into the store and buying the first thing that catches my eye (which could end up gathering dust).

Check out other peoples' lists
You don't need to be indiscriminate and read books off of “RandomDude's 15 best zombie novels” list on Amazon just because, but it is worthwhile checking out the to-read lists of other readers. About five years ago, I discovered this extensive list online. I copied it onto a Word document and periodically read books from this list, not because I want to pat myself on the book for being well-read, but because many of these books have impacted our society and culture. I've also been introduced to amazing works through this list... Sure, there have been others that I could take or leave, but they have so far been the minority.

Keep lists of the books you read
You know how they tell dieters that writing down all of the food they eat motivates them to eat less? This works kind of the opposite way. For a couple of years now, I've kept track of the books I finished. It helps me to be able to see the breakdown of what I'm reading (fiction/biographies/etc.), and it also prompts me to be somewhat discriminating in what I read because it'll all go on the record. In fact, while writing this series, I took a look at this year's list and realized it was heavy on fiction, so I've decided to balance things out a bit to the end of the year. Keeping a list also helps when you're trying to remember the name of that book about _____ you read two winters ago.

Set personal goals
Setting goals can be anything from “I will read 25 pages of this book each day” to “I will read 6 books this summer”. Setting a number of pages or minimal time limit per day can help when you're trying to get through a slow-moving or dry book, or when you need to have something finished by a hard deadline.

Find books relevant to you (right now)
Before we went to Poland on vacation, I picked out two WW2 spy novels, one set in Warsaw and another featuring a Polish military officer. They weren't great works of literature, but they were an enjoyable accompaniment to our trip. There is no rule that to be well-read, you need to read long tomes that bear no relevance to your actual life. If you're having trouble getting into books, maybe you're not reading the right books. If you're into soccer, check out fictional books about soccer players, or books on the history of great soccer clubs, or books on how to improve your physical strength and stamina to improve your game. If you're going on a trip to France, there are a plethora of books on French cuisine, French lifestyle, French history, etc.. For traveling, I find the “travel literature” section especially enjoyable, like most of Bill Bryson's works and A Year in Provence and its sequels. You may find that reading on certain subject gets you into the habit of reading more in general.

Look around your home
I'm willing to bet that many of our homes are an abundance of riches when it comes to books. We get books as gifts, pick up books on sale, buy books with a birthday gift card that we really did want to read one day. Sometimes jump starting your reading habit is as easy as picking out a few books off your shelf that you've never actually tried reading. I mean, you did buy them for a reason, right? Bonus: This can double as de-cluttering; you may realize that you are unlikely to read them again, so you can give them away to others.

Now I need your input, friends: What are your tips on how to read more? Do you keep track of what you read? What good books have you read lately?

Monday, 19 November 2012

On Reading: An Introduction

In case you weren't aware, November is NaNoWriMo which means that people all across the world – and all over cyberspace – are trying to write a book in one month. I love this concept! It's always been a dream of mine to write a book. I'd like to try NaNoWriMo one of these years, but since I procrastinated this year, I'm going to focus on writing's equally wonderful counterpoint: Reading.

If you know me at all, you must be aware that I am a total bookworm. There are few things that I would consider more enjoyable than curling up with a book (and a mug of hot chocolate). There are certainly people out there who do not read books at all, and who have no plans to do so. On the other hand, there are other people who enjoy reading as much as I do, and some who wish they could get geared up to read more books or just read more broadly.

I conceived this coming series as a bit of a mishmash of purposes: I'll ruminate about on why I like reading specific types of books, and I'll also add tips for those who are trying to read more or just looking to branch out in their reading. In addition, I'd love for some of my bookworm-y readers to give their own advice, recommendations, etc., on reading. It's kind of like meeting up at Chapters or Barnes and Noble to discuss books while holding warm mugs of tea... except on the Internet.

In case you're asking yourself, “Why is this lady qualified to tell me how to read more?”, let me tell you that I am certainly not the most prolific reader out there, but I DO love books and consider myself a fairly well-read person. According to some sources,* the average American reads 17 books a year, and I typically read double that amount. (For the record, as of Nov. 18, I have read 29 books in 2012.) I also consider myself a fairly across-the-board reader. While I don't cover every existing category of books, I do read classical fiction, more modern fiction, biographies, history books, and books on spirituality/Christian issues.

For this coming series, I will start with a blog entry on how to get reading more, and then look at some specific categories of books. This next week will look a little something like this:

Wednesday:  Reading Fiction



That said, I'm sure to be missing some of your favourite categories, so please let me know if you have anything else you'd like me to add. And don't forget to get yourself some cocoa and let me know some of your favourite books!


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Why I Love My Job

For about four months now, I have worked as a part-time church receptionist.  It's not glamorous or exciting.  Many people have expressed surprise that I am working at a job so "beneath" my education and work experience, but in general I like my job and find that it has its own challenges.

The past few days have been really hectic.  I was transitioning back after a fantastic week of relaxing, and we have been busy with Christmas concert ticket sales, not to mention IT issues.  It is easy to get bogged down with these little headaches and forget what I love about this job, but the past 24 hours have reminded me.

Last evening I had a great conversation with a woman who had basically walked in off the street to ask some spiritual questions.  I don't want to share her personal details, but it was soooo interesting how even though we are very different, through my education I understood a lot about where she was coming from, and I was able to use some of what I learned in university to relate to her.

Yesterday a couple came into the church in preparation for their wedding today.  They wanted to set up decorations, but were short of ideas on what things should look like.  It was beautiful to see two of our employees take some time out of their busy workday to give suggestions.  The decorations could not go up yesterday, so my colleague and I came in to assist this afternoon.  I got to spend a few hours of my Saturday chatting with the couple's two friends, practicing my Mandarin (they are from China), and helping make a multipurpose room look pretty for the wedding.  Even though I don't have much of an eye for decor, it was fun and I never would have had this opportunity if I hadn't been on the reception desk.

In sum, it's easy to look at education as an X --> Y result, like if you study engineering, you become an engineer, etc.; in my experience, however, the things that you learn in school come back to help you in ways you'd never expect, and even if you don't work "in your field", you'll find ways to use your education and be stretched!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Refreshed

We got back late Saturday night from our trip to the sunny south.  What a great vacation!  We enjoyed perfect warm, sunny weather and hours of poolside lounging.  More importantly, Gil and I were able to really spend time together, rather than just grabbing an hour or two after a long work day.


I've noticed since being married that my concept of downtime has changed.  When I was on my own, I never craved a beach vacation.  Even though my life was busier, I had no desire to go away just so I could sit and read poolside; after all, I could read on my own at home.  When I did travel, I subscribed to a "go big or go home" philosophy. With Gil, however, his free time is so limited that it is worth it to fly far away just so that both of us can relax together and we don't have to field incessant work-related calls.  We do still enjoy active vacations with cultural sites, etc., but I'm finding it's important to find time to get away and just zone out sometimes.

The one downside to our trip was that my camera took a nosedive into the Caribbean Sea on day 3, only to drift onto the beach covered in sand and seaweed.  Its prognosis does not look too good.  Thankfully, the memory card is fine, so I didn't lose the photos from our first few days away, so here are some shots of our wonderful trip.

My favourite way to relax!
Welcome to Mexico!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Heading South

I'll be out of commission for the next week or so as we are off to Mexico to celebrate our anniversary, or as my sister-in-law says, to "hold Gil hostage from the hospital" for a few days. I hope to be back relaxed and tanned in 7 days. In the meantime, have a great week friends!