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Best Books (Escapes) of 2016

This past year, I joined a challenge in which I was the only contestant.

Sometimes, when you’re trying something new, it’s good to leave the back door open in case you get bored and need to flee to the Land of Quiet Failures. Ironically, I learned this after a few years of realizing around January 13 that food tastes way too good not to eat and we’re only given this one precious deep-fat-fried life, aren’t we.

That said, this year, I committed (with no real commitment) to reading a book every single week and last week, I completed 52 books. I celebrated like only a nerd can celebrate: by going and sprawling in the aisles of Barnes & Noble and glaring at small children making noise in this sacred space.

Lying there, I struck up a conversation with another human (yes, bookstores are one of the only places I make eye contact with humanity) and after hearing about the 52 books, she asked, “What were your favorites?”

So here goes. I thought maybe after you’re done buying everyone else a present or two this holiday season, you may want to buy yourself the Gift of Escape. These were the only books out of the 52 that I gave five-star reviews. (The links below are commissioned links and help maintain the cost of this website. Thank you in advance.)

Best Books Photo

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

This is a book that you can’t predict the ending and you feel so many feelings that the only way to deal with them is to eat an entire box of Oreos.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Every person, especially medical professionals, need to read this one. It made me a better person. It is written by a neurosurgeon who finds out he is dying of cancer and his wife ends up finishing the book after his death. I ugly-cried through the last pages of this one but it was worth every tear.

Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Be careful with this one. It made my top 10 because I couldn’t get the story out of my head. But it is highly controversial, attacking issues of political injustice and socialism. A fast-paced story on top with deep allegories.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

A lighthearted, endearing story of a grumpy old man. Nothing short of brilliant.

A Little Life by Hanna Yanagihara

If you struggle with a mental illness, please know this book is full of triggers. At 832 pages long, it also takes a huge time commitment. This book tackles issues such as self-mutilation, depression, suicide, racial tensions and equality of life choices. This book has some adverse language in it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

About a Cameroonian family coming to live in New York City. The writer challenges racial bias, issues of immigration and assimilation. When you finish a book and you feel like you now know a family in New York City, you know it has totally captured you.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The writing was what captivated me. Right from the beginning, the words are more poetry than a story.

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

I tried to keep the psychology books I read off this list but this one fought its way out. Thought-provoking. You will walk away with a confidence you didn’t know possible.

Room by Emma Donoghue

This book takes off and it doesn’t settle down until you are completely exhausted from reading. It was one that I read in two days because, well, life sometimes has to wait.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Technically, I read this book in 2015. But then I re-read it in 2016 because it was the best book I have read in years. If you haven’t taken the time to devour this novel, stop what you’re doing, take a mental health day from work, and enjoy.

I would like to make a personal thank you to Book of the Month for the amazing job they do at finding all the good books and making me wait impatiently by my mailbox each month. This was the best club I’ve ever joined and I can successfully say I’ve been one happy, loyal and active member (unlike my dusty gym membership). If you join using the link above, it’s only $10 a month.


how to keep living in this broken world

There’s a sadness weighing the world today… the ache of rain-drenched branches bending low, reaching for this muddy earth, reaching for me, maybe reaching for you. I walk beneath the weeping willow, stretch my face toward their whipping, grasping claws, the rain hitting full on my face.

How do you give thanks here, in this place, where the darkness presses in, where life beats angry against your already broken spirit? How do you peer through the cracked walls of your heart hoping for the storm to abate, just for a while?

I’m asking these questions for myself, for others, especially for the family whose little boy was killed in a farming accident this past weekend because how do you carry on in a world filled with so much sorrow?

But then I see you.

I see the way you cling white-knuckled to joy when it comes past, how you count with ferocious tenacity each and every blessing, how you smile sometimes tired smiles but you smile all the same and I want to be there with you, stand next to you and beat back the darkness with His light… because you’ve taught me this: hope is found in the recognizing each and every God moment.

Maybe all these years I’ve got it wrong.

Maybe hope isn’t a light shining into the cracked walls of our hearts but instead, it’s a light shining out, this flame lit by a faith in a God who works all things together for good.

And when my faith grows weak and the sadness presses in, I can look toward you, toward the Light you exude and together we will walk, together we will love, together we will live and breathe and hope for a better tomorrow.

And maybe the next day, you’ll need to look towards me.

“Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends and His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness.”

 Lamentations 3:21-23, NLT

Our prayers are with the family of Rylan Decker. Hold to the God moments. Hold white-knuckled to every blessing. Hope and faith are a beautiful thing and it’s okay to lean on others for these during this difficult time. Thinking of you.


the long way home (part 3)

“Yet why not say what happened?” – Robert Lowell

There’s two of them, this session, in the room with the couches and their practiced smiles that try to convey this: trust us. Please trust us. We won’t hurt you. Let us help you.

“We’re both in agreement and we’re going to start you on two medications,” the psychiatrist says. “One for depression; the other a mood stabilizer.”

I scan the small room. The windows, four stories high. The door, closed. I imagine sinking into the couch, then, until I am one with it, this inanimate object and I hold my breath, willing myself to stop living, to stop existing but then my chest rises without my consent and I live on in this new reality.

“You’ve been brave, telling us your life story. We know this isn’t easy. There must be some part of you that knows you need to get help,” he continues and I want to hate him, want to but I cannot because I know he’s somebody’s grandfather and he’s being kind to me too and then he asks, “Are you going to take these medications?”

I nod, trying to force the words out I so desperately want to say but cannot, as if my body has been rendered useless in this new world I find myself in and for a horrifying moment, I imagine myself on the coffee-stained floor, then, at my parents, having to learn to crawl again, to form words, to walk and eat non-pureed foods.

“How long…” the words jerk unsteady from of my mouth. The room is silent, then, only the soft shuffling of one of the psychiatrist’s feet against the floor. I give up then and imagine myself as a caged animal, imagine the restless, lazy walk of the bobcat I saw at the zoo, how the front of the cage had a worn path around a small tree, past his food bowl, this trajectory caused by paws going up and down, up and down and how I knelt then, put my hand against the glass and felt only sorrow even as the excited banter around me continued, and I wondered how long he would walk until his spirit longing for freedom was crushed. I wondered how many times his nose had to bump glass before he stopped trying to find home, and I cried then, there in that crowded zoo and I’m crying now too, here in this tight room and I wonder if I, like him, will ever find my way home.

the long way home (part 3) photo
Licensed under CC0.

“How long…” I ask again and the doctor sighs and shakes his head. “Likely all your life but that doesn’t mean you won’t learn to live above it,” he replies and since that day, I’ve wondered if he wasn’t trying to tell me something: acceptance towards today’s trials is not synonymous with giving up hope for tomorrow.

In an instant, I snatch the prescriptions from the doctor and exit quickly, head bent low as if against a bitter wind and all I want is to go home.

But what is home? Does home still exist? Will my wife, when she finds out, stay? I imagine myself buying her a plane ticket, a one-way ticket home and begging her to escape this person, no, this monster I’ve become. I have heard if you love someone, sometimes you have to let them go but our love isn’t like the usual love. It doesn’t sit idle with cliché statements and it breaks down walls that supersede the imagination and if I were to give her the plane ticket home, she would march straight to the shredder and be done with that notion and she would wrap her arms around me and tell me that sometimes, when you love someone, you have to stay and fight.

That night, it’s just us against the world and we find each other while the moon lands in stripes across our bed and eventually, we lay in the gloss-edged darkness listening to the hum of the fan and I say it, trying to whisper the words but they come out loud, as if forced into a world not yet ready for them.

“I’m bipolar.”

“Really,” she whispers.

And then she does the most remarkable thing. She yawns as if bored, curls herself into my arms, tucks her iceberg toes under my legs and falls asleep.

I’m left awake, then, alone and yet not lonely and I know this place, next to her, will always be home.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 38:8-9)

To read part one and two of the “long way home” home series, click here and here.


once upon a time I got lost

“Once upon a time, I got lost in a place.” – Unknown

We’re sitting down to hamburgers, finally, after a day of working and I glance outside, notice the early, darkening sky, how the leaves have become burnt umber overnight before falling silently, recklessly to the earth.

“What happened to summer?” I ask.

“I wish I knew,” she replies.

We sit then, in silence, like an elderly couple though we aren’t and I think…

About a flipped kayak, sunglasses bobbing down the river bed, lost, maybe to me, but maybe they took on another life as a home for two energetic fish named Herman and Geri.

About a campfire, the leap and dance of hypnotizing flames, their warmth against our skin and whispered conversation between lovers, the stars above, the dogs snoring at our feet.

About bike rides and hikes and learning there is never enough butter coating a pie iron. About the clang of a disc hitting the chains. About digging through rotted stumps in the woods to find a geocache. About getting in a fight with a snake and a dog. About lying in the sun with the water gently bumping the dock, a novel in hand. Sleeping late, countless sunsets and not even one sunrise.

once upon a time I got lost photo
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Yes, somehow I got lost. I’ve stepped away from emails, from my phone, from all the extra clambering of this noisy world and I’ve focused on finding peace because peace often looks like mindfulness and mindfulness is only found through quietness.

Peace requires self-reflection, a painfully hard look at all we are, all we want to become, who God wants us to become. The results can be alarming, uncomfortable, daring even because God never lets us sit with a stagnant faith, this dried-up piece of bread we continue trying to nourish ourselves with.

No, I’m learning He more often calls the willing; not always the most capable to step forward into deeper water, asking us to hold onto Him, trusting Him when the water gets choppy and the rocks slippery. He calls and we step with a shaky faith into a plan far bigger than we can see and maybe that’s okay, I think, because so often I realize looking back how very near-sighted my own eyes are.

So we sink the sign reading “For Sale” into the dirt and we trust.

Here’s the catch: people will judge. Getting lost in God’s plan requires a radical faith often resulting in a radical plan and this getting lost in His will and going astray can look the same to the critical heart. I am convinced of this more, this radical faith, when I read about the life of a Carpenter, this man who came to earth and changed everything that was conventional and fought against the idea of Salvation being gained by being traditional, this algorithm of dos and don’ts. He overthrew tables in a church, forgave prostitutes, and dined with politicians. He loved the outcasts. He loved the ones the world loves to hate.

And people judged. So much so, they eventually nailed Him to a cross.

In contrast to what Jesus forgave, the judgments I feel pale in comparison. Knees hit the earth. The words come quietly then, there with head bowed against the bitter chill of an offended heart.

“For he loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” John 12:43

“No,” I whisper. If a Carpenter can forgive those driving nails into His hands, the least I can do is forgive these minor offenses. So I sink the “For Sale” sign deeper. I remember how God sometimes requires more than merely a Sunday meeting with Him. And I chase after a God who leads with confidence and it’s quiet again, in my heart, even though there are house plans, loans to be secured, and new careers. Even though the noise and the busy come back, now that the days are getting shorter and the nights cooler.

But peace isn’t only found away from the chaos of life; the truest peace is found in trusting a God who guides us right through the chaos.

  • What out-of-your-comfort-zone experience is being asked of you today?

for when you can’t quit worrying

You lace up your shoes; tie them tight, double-knotted, like you’re trying to bind up all the loose ends to this day and you wish it were only that easy.

The day has tossed you around from the very beginning, chipped away at your spirit like the thin edges of a sea-shell breaking, tumbling inward, then out, as if the entire ocean washed open your front door this morning and was there all day simply to drown you.

So you do what almost always works: you lace up your shoes and focus your breathing, in and out, in and out, feet hitting pavement, heart pounding in your chest, hundreds of thousands of beats reminding you you’re still alive, that no matter how bad the day has been, you will live through it.

for when you can't quit worrying photo
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But then you run down the street with the old man always tinkering on rusted cars in his garage and there, in front of his dilapidated house lies a cat, dead, flies buzzing, landing on the red and angry bits jutting out amongst its soft, black fur. There’s another cat, maybe its lover, standing on the roadside and he doesn’t move when you run past, just stares at you solemnly as if he’s waiting for the dead to rise again or for the dead to be carried away, as if he’s waiting for someone to tell him how to grieve.

You think about the son, then, how he screamed as you pulled his slumped father from the car onto the ambulance garage floor and started CPR, how the tubes from his recent heart surgery squirted onto your pants. But most of all, you think of how the son buried his face in his father’s almost cold hand fifteen minutes later and begged for a life that had passed.

You think about your friend whose stepdad held a gun to his head the day before Father’s Day and chose that this one precious life wasn’t precious enough.

You think about cancer attacking your wife’s friend and how the husband, when asking “how long do we have”, was told simply to enjoy every remaining day they were given together.

You think and you think.

And then you stop running. The breath comes jagged, sharp in your chest. You double over, panting hard. So you turn around like you want to make this right with the cat because this is the only thing you can do. But when you turn around, you think about how absurd this is, trying to bury the dead and heal the world with your bare hands. So you linger there, bent over just staring at the cracks in the pavement on School Street and Randolph and wondering how you can sink into them forever and one second you’re laughing and the next you’re crying like a mad man dying in a war.

You turn again; turn back toward the open road and your heart beats wild again and you just let the tears and sweat mix and the miles turn into more miles until you find yourself exhausted, on the stairs leading up to an old church with a steeple pointing firm toward the clouds and isn’t this how it always is: you can never truly outrun life’s worries and when you finally stop, everything you were outrunning lies there waiting.

Knees hit the steps. Head bows. Sweat drips from the tip of your nose, a puddle of all this life’s angst growing bolder on that concrete church step.


Sometimes half the battle is won in acknowledging you can’t stand under the weight of this world and the other half of the battle is won in acknowledging someone Who can.

“God, why can’t I let go?”

“Because you don’t believe in the end I’ll get it right,” His reply comes quick.

And there it is.

Worry is what takes over a person, slowly, like the tide of the ocean rising steady and you’re stuck there in the sand, consumed by the fear, unable to move as the waters rise. Yes, worry is what happens when faith in a God who works all things together for good isn’t relied on, when casting all your cares on Him seems impossible because the water is already up around your neck, this noose of life squeezing.

And then it happens.

The water rises more and you’re stuck there, toes stretching for the sandy bottom, pushing yourself up, bobbing, trying to keep your head above water until the ocean floor is gone and it’s just you, out there, floating in the deep, wondering how long until the worry goes away, until this tide of fear flows back into the dark depths where ships will steam over it as if it were nothing at all.

You float and the sensation of not being in control isn’t so bad so you lay your head back, stare straight into the azure sky and the sun is warm on your face and you wonder why it took you so long to let go, why it always takes you nearly drowning before relying on Someone other than yourself to hold you afloat.

And your tears slide silently into the ocean, mixed there, salt joining salt and you think about how not even the oceans could contain the love God has for you and this is what you decide to think about instead; how your tears of regret mix so easily into the vastness of His love… as if every worry and fear you ever had are now forgotten, are now forgiven.

The steeple sways dizzily against the clouds and you’re brought back, lying there on your back on the stairs of a tiny country church so you sit up, tighten your laces again and push toward home. Yes, you push through this scary, messy existence called life: you push toward Home and you remind yourself once again, there’s One to guide you all the way.