Now Read This: Swim Ride Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath

Swim Ride Run BreatheI've been excited for a while about Jennifer Garrison Brownell's book Swim Bike Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath. Jennifer is a member of that strange tribe many of us have: people we've known for years, but only online. As pastor/bloggers, we were both charter members of RevGalBlogPals, and she also was kind enough to visit some friends of mine who found themselves in the hospital out in Portland. I can always count on her for wit and wisdom wrapped up in a beautiful turn of phrase, and she provided abundantly in her book. Triathlons have interested and scared me for years. As a recreational runner I have 33% of the puzzle, but the other two hurdles always seemed insurmountable. I get seasick in the pool--the POOL--without the right food in my stomach. And cycling? I have a heavy hybrid bike and a mental block about the intricacies of shifting. (Growing up in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, gears were for recreational purposes only.) I admired my tri friends but never seriously considered joining their ranks.

Then I got injured, and biking and swimming became my only options. I am learning to make friends with my gear shift. And I can swim more than a mile without dizziness if I scarf down some good protein beforehand.

Meanwhile, Jennifer kindly sent me her book when it came out. I'd intended to contact her and beg for an advanced review copy and never got around to it. But of course, it came at the right time, when I'd just begun to think "Maybe I could do a triathlon." But you don't need to be interested in that event, or even any of the three sub-sports, to be drawn to this book. Because the book is about love and family; it's about our beautiful finite bodies in all their strength and limitation; it's about where we feel alive and where we feel fear, and the intersections between them.

Jennifer's book has three interconnected threads:

  • a memoir of growing up, marrying a "seriously disabled man" (her words--Jeff has a form of muscular dystrophy), caring for him, and raising a son with him
  • a reflection on training for her first sprint triathlon--moving from someone who was never an athlete to taking on the training and mental conditioning required to prepare for a race
  • the experience of the triathlon itself.

Part of what's neat about a triathlon is how different the three sports are. Jennifer exploits these differences by dividing her book into Swim, Ride and Run, weaving in pieces of her story that are connected to the skills required for each. Swim touches on the grace required to move with fluidity and let the water carry you. Ride explores the effort involved in keeping the up and down motion going no matter what--and what it means to coast sometimes. And Run is a practice of pure endurance--but also joy, because the finish line is in sight!

I dog-eared a lot of this book, which is a high compliment. I will often underline and star passages in books, but sometimes when a book feels especially precious to me, I can't bring myself to sully it with a pen. This is one of those books.

Thank you for your words, Jennifer! And thanks in part to your story, I'm doing this on Mother's Day.

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

My friend Ruth Everhart has written a book. Actually, let me be more accurate: she's written hundreds of thousands of lovely, honest and true words over her years as a pastor and writer. But this week, we celebrate a particular achievement, the publication of Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land. Ruth's work is part travel writing, part memoir and part spiritual reflection.

Her book confronts the questions that confront us as we engage in pilgrimage---whether through travel or during our everyday journeys as people of faith--and the unexpected places we land in those journeys. Given recent current events, the book could not be more timely. That said, it is not a political book. It is a personal book, but in that wonderful way that the particular becomes universal.

Ruth is one of my Writing Revs---in fact, she and I are the only two charter members still in the group. (You can read about our group here.) My copy of Chasing is on its way to me, but I've had to joy of reading and digesting the book many times over the months and years. It's gotten better and better through Ruth's hard work and fine craftswomanship (I just made that word up). But what has been there from the beginning is a dogged willingness to ask hard questions of her faith and this land we dare to call Holy---steeped as it is in tradition, religion, conflict and grace.

Author Clyde Edgerton puts it well in his endorsement of Chasing the Divine:

I can think of only two reasons to buy this book: 1. You are not going to the Holy Land. 2. You are going to the Holy Land. In these pages Ruth Everhart writes eloquently about her trip into the dust and beauty of Christianity's cradle -- about her wrestling with her beliefs, her faith, and her past. If all pilgrims were as curious, insightful, introspective, firm, and openhearted as Ruth Everhart, our old world would roll more happily and safely through the universe. In her story you'll find bloodshed, humor, and -- most importantly -- love.


Ruth and I will be at First Presbyterian Church, Arlington, VA this Sunday evening, December 2, at 7 p.m. to read and sign books. Stop by for some nourishment through food and words.

The Wisdom of Stability: A Review

I was recently sent a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. I think I'm supposed to disclose that fact, although his book has been on my wish list for some time now. I'm glad the book found its way to me. Christian spirituality is a crowded field and this one is well worth picking up.

The title gives you a good sense as to where he's going. Wilson-Hartgrove takes on the grass-is-greener mentality that so many of us have---the tendency toward upward mobility (or just mobility). He critiques the idea of a spiritual journey, which is such a central metaphor in the Christian faith, and wonders whether we've taken this metaphor too much to heart:

The trouble for most of us isn't so much that we cannot afford stability as it is that we don't value it. We idealize and aspire to a life on the move, spending what resources we have on acquiring skills that make us more marketable (that is, more mobile*). We want to "move up in the world," which almost always means closer to a highway, an airport, or a shopping mall. I cannot deny that this is why I left the rural farming community where I grew up. But neither can I ignore the fact that this is what has been unraveling the neighborhood where I now live since the late 1960s.

(*Regarding this point, I wonder how technology will change this. Could we not soon reach the point, as people gain more and more skills and value to a company or industry, that they are given the freedom to work from home and/or telecommute, thereby allowing them to stay rooted to a particular community?)

Wilson-Hartgrove tackles biblical texts, the desert fathers and mothers, and monastic tradition and blends it all together with some deft cultural analysis. I loved his discussion of the man called "Legion" whom Jesus heals---and then tells to stay put. Fascinating take on that text.

Each chapter ends with a section called "front porch" in which Wilson-Hartgrove tells a story or vignette from his own life of rootedness in a particular community, a community with its own unique quirks, needs and stories. These beautifully written segments were my favorite part of the book.

The book seems providentially timed. There are so many people who simply can't move right now, even if they'd like to. Their home is underwater and/or they are limited by jobs or lack thereof. Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see these geographical constraints as an unexpected gift.

This business of stability is something that my husband and I have struggled with. The story of how we came to live in our particular house is not all that interesting, but the upshot is that we made a very quick decision by necessity. I had never even set foot in our house until after we already put a contract on it. We like a lot of things about our house and our neighborhood, but also feel out of step with our community's values in certain ways. We'd like to live closer to the city, though we're fortunate to be very convenient to a Metro stop where we are. On the other hand, it feels like a grasp towards simplicity just to decide to stay... to give up trying to manage and optimize the situation and just be content where we are.

I also think about this stability business in terms of my vocation. I'm in a group of clergy that meets yearly, and many of us have accepted new calls since we started meeting. We even experienced the uncomfortable situation of having two people in our group apply for the same position. After that experience, we met with a member of another clergy group that's been meeting for more than 25 years. Since his group has experienced similar situations, he gave us some advice for navigating the "competition thing" and assured us that it will happen again.

I don't doubt that, but as I looked around the room, I saw a great many folks who are embodying stability, whether by choice or not. One person is geographically limited because he is gay and very few presbyteries will receive him into membership. Another person has told me that she expects to spend the rest of her life in the small southern city where she lives, thanks to her spouse's job and a large extended family there. Speaking for myself, it would take a burning bush to move me from the Washington DC area. I'm not sure how many of us are willing to pack it all up and move wherever the biggest and best job is---maybe there won't be as much of the "competition thing" as we fear. Whether that's the wisdom of stability or not, I can't say. There's probably some Gen-X stuff in there about working to live, as opposed to living to work---quality of life matters a lot to folks in my generation.

As you can see, I enjoyed the book and it also sparked some very specific thinking about my own life and values.

By the way, if you're interested in this sort of book, the Englewood Review of Books is a great source for reviews, commentary and excerpts. Check them out in print or online.

Get-It-Done Book Review... and Giveaway!

See below for a chance to get free stuff in the mail! Yay! Free stuff!

Being busy is a form of laziness--lazy thinking and indiscriminate action... Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.

--Timothy Ferris, The Four Hour Workweek

I'm a bit addicted to time-management books, but their quality, usefulness and readability are all over the map. I read Ferris's book and got a couple of things out of it, including the above quote which is brilliant IMO, but overall the book just didn't hit home with me.

I recently found a new book that embodies the quote above and is actually fun to read. Stever Robbins has a personal productivity podcast (say that five times fast) and has put his best stuff into a book, The Get-It-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

Robbins's book blends a lot of high level thinking (what are your goals?) with nitty-gritty techniques for being more productive (here's one: to keep from getting distracted when working a project, make an "interruption list" of things to tend to when you're done with what you're working on). His chapter on procrastination has a lot of practical suggestions and is a great complement to Anne Lamott's angst-ridden meditation on the subject in Bird by Bird. And chapter 1, "Live on Purpose," deals with goal setting in a very intuitive way. I've never really gotten the "vision/ mission/ goal/ objective" distinction, and his stuff on "goal ladders" is simple and makes sense to me.

Robbins also has a great sense of humor. This may be the only time-management book in which zombies play a prominent role. In a section on e-mail, he talks about templates and macros as a way to streamline your communication:

Let's say your boss has you saying no to a dozen different requests each day: a dog show invitation, a request for money, and someone claiming to be a long-lost child, asking to be added to the will.

Those are pretty different. You want to respond to each individually, but your responses can have paragraphs in common. All might start like this: "Mr. Boss appreciates your letter. Your tragic plight is touching." Then you add a paragraph or two crushing that person's hopes and dreams, and you finish up with, "Mr. Boss regrets that he can't do more for your deeply troubling situation."

Some of the latter chapters get more theoretical, and the one on building relationships seemed a little utilitarian. Yes, building a network does help you be more productive, but part of my job is to love people whether they can be useful to me or not. Still, it's worth a read if for no other reason than that he takes that treacly starfish story (you know the one) and gives it a much-needed twist.

This would be a great book for a young person starting out in a career who really wants to get their life together, although others would find it valuable too. (No book of this genre is going to work on people who don't want to change or who can't see the need.) It's a quick read, with several novel suggestions for working smarter.

And! Because I love hearing tips on how other people make their life work, leave your favorite lifehack/best idea in the comments. On Monday I'll choose someone at random and send them a copy of the Get-It-Done Guy book.