Friday, 28 February 2014

Reading in February

It's been a good month overall.

Christian books

Ann Voskamp: A Thousand Gifts
Inspiring and poetic. And sometimes, for this non-native reader of English, a bit hard to understand. Will be going back to it at some point to refresh my memory and get my thoughts together, because I find it very hard to write a short comment on this...

Rachel Marie Stone: Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food

Gary Chapman (ed): Rakkauden tekoja (Love is a Verb)
The Finnish name is "acts of love". In this book, ordinary people tell what happened in their life when they chose to act lovingly. Stories vary, from disagreements between spouses to loving the initially tiresome neighbour next door. Gary Chapman has written a short reflection on each story.
The feeling I got of this book is like reading a collection of articles from Reader's Digest or The Guideposts magazine. Human interest, mostly uplifting, with a moral that often has a practical application for my life, too.

Kim & Krickitt Carpenter: The Vow
Practiced borrowing e-books from our library system and found this gem of a story.
Short version: after an accident and a severe head injury, the newlywed wife does not remember anything about the courtship and marriage. Despite difficulties, the Carpenters stick to their vows, stay married and re-build their relationship. The book is practically all Kim's narration, and I would have loved to hear more from Krickitt's point of view. In any case, the story is an inspirational example of commitment.

Other Non-Fiction

Noreen Riols: The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish

Malcom Gladwell: Outliers
An interesting look at factors behind success stories. Circumstances, culture and lucky breaks matter a lot - but you also need a lot of hard work to benefit from them.

Hanna Jensen: 940 päivää isäni muistina
It was a surprise for Hanna Jensen - a successful freelance journalist - when her father was diagnosed with middle-stage Alzheimer's disease. As her parents had divorced many years earlier, Hanna and her brother became the people most involved in their father's care, as the father moved to an assisted living facility. Being a journalist, Hanna Jensen found a natural outlet in writing about her experiences. She has also collected a lot of basic facts about the disease and other issues related to it into the book.

For me, it was poignant that Hanna considered herself lucky after all. As the disease progressed, there were plenty of embarrassing and difficult moments, but her father became more mellow and gentle, not aggressive. Hanna felt she was able to get to know her father in a new way: to see her father's personality as he had been before he became 'hardened' by the competitive business world of his adulthood. They became closer than ever, before the disease rapidly progressed and her father passed away.

Gretchen Rubin: Happier at Home
Another happiness project from Rubin. Some parts resonated with me - for example the thoughts on guarding our children's free time - and other parts not so much.
I understand the desire to try to be a better person, to behave better, to have more self-control in annoying situations etc. Yes, I'm working on the same issues, too.
I just think that the element that really makes a difference there is the grace of God: accepting it for yourself, giving it to others. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; they're all things that Rubin is looking for, and guess what - according to the Bible, they're fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22) They're not just personality traits or fruit of our own labours only. We need the Holy Spirit to really get there.


Marilynne Robinson: Gilead
What a beautiful novel. It's slow, it's gentle, it's seeing the earthly life with the appreciation of someone who is going to leave it soon, and it's seeing spiritual truths with the perceptiveness of someone who has lived long enough to learn them. I don't remember when I last finished a novel and thought "this is so good I'll want to read it again, I might even want to buy this."

I'm sure I got this into my reading list from Modern Mrs Darcy's Favourite books of 2013 link-up, but I can't remember whose list it was. Since there are now 106 lists in the link-up, I won't even try to look for the one where I found this... Thank you for the recommendation, whoever you are.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Loving Stockholm

I have not always loved Stockholm the way I do now. My love affair with Stockholm has grown over the last four-five years, as I have travelled there with my family and sometimes with friends, too.

It's fairly inexpensive to go there on a 'day cruise' from here. Actually, it's two nights on the ship and you get about six hours in Stockholm. Six hours, though, is plenty of time for visiting a museum, going for a coffee and perhaps even popping into a shop or two. And walking and enjoying the city.

Stockholm, Old Town
When we arrived on our last trip, the skies over Stockholm were gray and damp. Sharp gusts of wind felt cold. No problem; we're used to this weather. At least it didn't rain (much).

We walked through the Old City. We stopped for coffee and cinnamon rolls at a nice café. We walked some more, looked into a second-hand shop, visited a museum. And walked back to the ship.

I was teary-eyed for the sheer joy of being able to walk all those distances. (Like, six kilometres altogether. For our family, it's not that much. But it feels like a lot when coming out of an injury.)

I love Stockholm at any time of the year.  The autumn and the winter are the times when cruises are at their cheapest, especially with a club card and special offers. So that's the time of year when we get to go most often. My son loves those cruises. He's still young enough to enjoy the children's programmes (sweets bingo!) and old enough to relax on his bunk bed with a good book when there's nothing special on the programme. Stockholm has wonderful museums with hands-on activities and other interesting exhibits for children, too - fantastic field trips for homeschoolers, who can take advantage of travelling outside the peak seasons. *)

But summertime in Stockholm is wonderful, too.

The summer starts with the Stockholm Marathon (usually end of May or first weekend in June), which my darling Ultra Runner has ran a couple of times. Yes, they were some of those "romantic getaway for an ultra runner" type of holidays for us two. Just you and me, honey - and thousands of runners...

At a café in Skansen. So, what do you want to have with your coffee?
There's Skansen. Open-air museum, zoo, just a wonderful place to spend a summer day.

There are lots and lots of cafés, outdoors and indoors.
Swedes know how to have a coffee break. They call it "fika": a coffee break, a good cup of coffee and a sweet, with friendship-fellowship on the side.

And the water everywhere. Just imagine what this will look like in the summer, blue water reflecting the blue skies.

And the Swedes can have a quirky sense of humour, too...

God willing, we'll be back. Sooner or later. 
If not for the Marathon, then perhaps for the Ultra...

*) I'm not saying that Helsinki does not have good museums. At some point or another, I'll write my love songs to it, as well as other places I love to go.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Food, Free to Enjoy

It's wonderful to find books where the author has found words for thoughts that I've also had - and better than I could have done.

Rachel Marie Stone's Eat With Joy is one of those.

This is not so much a book review as a collection of thoughts I had while and after reading Eat With Joy. Such a lot of what she has written struck a chord with me. It touched some almost-healed sore spots in my soul and brought up a load of memories: 

Trying to drown my anxieties in a box of chocolates.
Counting calories and feeling the more virtuous the less I ate.
Eating mindlessly, just because the food is there, neither enjoying it nor really needing it.
Feeling guilt and shame about my eating, my body and my weight (as Stone put it: "public salad-eating and private cake-snarfing").

From what I can gather, Rachel Marie Stone has not been actually overweight at any point, though she has plenty of personal experience of food-related anxiety. My story is a little different from hers. At my heaviest, I was more than 20 kilos (more than 50 lbs) overweight. My weight is within normal BMI range now and has stayed there for a few years already, so you might call me a successful loser... but my weight loss has not always been in the most sensible and healthy manner possible. And the way I gained those extra kilos had nothing to do with healthy, sensible or joyful eating.

In my relationship with food, I can say I'm healing, but I can't claim I'm above temptation. I still wonder, sometimes, what my weight and my food choices imply about me: is someone looking and judging what's on my tray?

The big question that I have learned to ask myself is: what am I using food for? Am I trying to use food for a need that would be better served by something else?
If I'm tired, a bar of chocolate does less good than sleeping.
If I'm anxious or sad, I will feel better if I have a good chat with someone (prayer = having a good chat with God).
If something annoys me, I'll feel better if I put that energy into a vigorous activity like going for a jog/walk or furiously cleaning the toilet.
In any case, I actually need to face my feelings, not sweep them under a rug of comfort food.

Food, however, is not an enemy. It's God's good gift, something to enjoy. And that's exactly where my comfort eating goes wrong: if I'm using food when I actually need something else, I don't really enjoy the food. If I stuff myself with a load of sweets, only the first few taste good. After that, the pleasure diminishes and eating is just an empty motion.

Stone writes beautifully about the ways food is a gift: for enjoyment, for sharing, for caring, for connecting with God and other people. My 'comfort eating' habits did not give food the credit of being a good gift from a good God, nor did they bring me into fellowship with other people. And, of course, the same problems persisted when I went into the other ditch of excessive calorie-counting and 'dieting': little gratitude, not much fellowship, persistent guilt and shame. 

Finally, after all these years, I have found for myself how genuine enjoyment of food goes well with moderation. When I give myself permission to enjoy what I'm eating and to eat what I enjoy, a reasonable portion satisfies. When I appreciate food for what it is, I can eat it with genuine gratitude, too. I can enjoy a cinnamon roll without guilt and shame, when it's a proper occasion to eat one. 
Besides, I genuinely enjoy those salads, too.

The chapter on Creative Eating reminded me of something I had lost over the last couple of years. Strangely, I was a more adventurous and creative cook when I was working on losing weight: I was constantly looking for and testing new recipes and ingredients. Maybe it had something to do with being obsessed by food when I was denying myself? Or trying to find yet another way to make a tasty meal out of cabbage and other low-calorie ingredients? Stone's description of her "healthy" mac-and-cheese made me laugh, because it sounded like something I might have tried... I don't want or need to go back to calorie-counting or food-obsession, but I want to find the joy of cooking and baking again. To discover even more God's gifts to love, enjoy and share.

Stone brings up many other important issues in her book, too: eating together with others, ethics, justice, sustainability... Those are significant for me, too, though I'm not going to write about them in this post. No need for me to write another book here in response to Stone's...

Cinnamon rolls, Stockholm style.

All in all, I'm glad I read this book. Will be going back to it . (For the recipes, too. Going to get my creativity back!)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish

In 1943, 18-year-old Noreen Riols was recruited to the F-section (F for France) of the Special Operations Executive - also called "Churchill's Secret Army". She first worked at the French section's office, so she was present at the debriefing meetings with agents who returned from 'the field' (i.e. from enemy-occupied France).

Later, Noreen was sent to Beaulieu, where prospective agents were trained, and her part in the training was to act as a decoy: sometimes the agents were to try to 'shadow' her, or they would 'practice' passing secret messages to her or receiving messages from her. Another aspect of her work was putting some men's integrity to test: will they talk of their secret assignments to a pretty girl on a romantic moonlight terrace, or can they keep their mouths shut? As the commandant in charge of training said to Noreen: "If he can't resist talking to a pretty face over here, he most certainly won't once he's over there. And it won't be only his own life he'll be risking, but the lives of many others as well."

Noreen Riols has written her memoirs, but it's not only her story. She also recounts a lot of stories about the agents she had met and known. I sometimes felt that the book was rambling - as if she was writing things in the order they occurred to her, not in the chronological order they had happened. One agent's story reminds her of another, and so on. Some people are mentioned many times, and if you need a memory aid, there's a list of F Section's circuits and agents at the end of the book.

Many of the stories are tragic, not only of those who died or disappeared during the war. Life was not easy for former agents after the war, either. Since their operations had been secret and they had to remain quiet about what they had done, many people's heroism was not recognized for decades. Riols also talks about the enmity that the official intelligence agency, MI6, as well as the French leader General de Gaulle showed towards SOE.

Sometimes, Riols pauses to wonder how this life, filled with anxiety, stress, 'no questions asked' and endless lies to protect the operations affected the people involved in it. Some seemed to cope very well, some had more problems. "Trauma doesn't suddenly go away, it lives with you, maybe even colours the rest of your life," Riols writes. Also: "I realized that it is the way a person reacts to suffering which shapes them and forms their character. I could either let the pain dominate me and make me bitter, or I could use the pain to my advantage, learn from the experience, albeit a painful lesson, but through it grow and become a more rounded, more mature person."

I definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in World War 2, and/or agents and espionage.