Summer 2017 Reading List

When you’re signed off work for 6 weeks in the middle of summer (however abstract a term that is in Northern Ireland!) you really need to find something to do.  I have always loved reading and find a special kind of comfort in reading when going through difficult or uncertain times: my choices here reflect this. It’s like the authors are in your living room, teaching you what they know like older brothers and sisters. Making you laugh with their stories, and lulling you into peace with their reassuring voices. They’ve been here: so can you be.

I made it through 20 books during my down-time. (Yes, I am frustrated that number is not divisible by 6.) My top 5 are highlighted below, followed by the rest. Only one would I not recommend. Read on to find out which!

1. Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”

2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a s***** first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

3. In The Shelter by Padraig O’Tuama

“To greet sorrow today does not mean that sorrow will be there tomorrow. Happiness comes too, and grief, and tiredness, disappointment, surprise and energy. Chaos and fulfilment will be named as well as delight and despair. This is the truth of being here, wherever here is today. It may not be permanent but it is here. I will probably leave here, and I will probably return. To deny here is to harrow the heart. Hello to here.”

4. Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner

“Sometimes the most holy thing we can do is to be still. To sit down and twirl the fork and eat the pasta we’re given.”

5. Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

“Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. It comes from gratitude for what’s good in our lives and from leaning in to the suck. It comes from analyzing how we process grief and from simply accepting that grief. Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more. I learned that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”

Other reads (in no particular order):

Travelling Mercies – Anne Lamott

The insightful story of Lamott’s spiritual journey.

Cranky Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz Weber

A gorgeous collection of stories and reflections on faith in the real world.

Soul Bare – various

A collection of essays on the authors’ most poignant moments.

For the Love – Jen Hatmaker

Thoughtful and challenging. Hatmaker will have you laughing one minute and bawling your eyes out the next.

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi

Anyone seeking to understand feminism – or seeking to help other understand it – should read this and pass it on.

Scary Close – Don Miller 

A compelling tale of learning to be vulnerable and seen.

The Active Life – Parker J Palmer

I’m a Palmer fan: this is a fascinating reflection on the overlap between contemplative and active life.

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed 

An agony aunt shares some of her most complex and profound correspondence.

Bossypants – Tina Fey 

Read this in one bath sitting. Enough said.

My name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Sad, interesting, easy-to-read.

Gifts of Imperfection – Brene Brown

A thoughtful and practical guide to accepting imperfection and allowing it to teach us to grow.

Jesus Feminist – Sarah Bessey

The story of Bessey’s own path into believing in equality of the sexes and why it has become an intrinsic part of her faith.

Big Magic – Liz Gilbert 

I was a fan of the podcast. The book, not so much.

Interrupted – Jen Hatmaker

Essential read for anyone seeking to understand how the Church can exist outside of its own four walls.

The Enneagram in Love and Work – Helen Palmer 

A helpful guide on how each number behaves in love and work, and how you can relate to them in both contexts. Great for anyone with colleagues or friends. So, most of us.

I’d love to hear about what you have been reading recently. Please send me your recommendations! I’ve just finished Bob Goff’s Love Does this week: another one I’d recommend! 

PS: I don’t know why I hadn’t explored this before, but Amazon’s used books section is INCREDIBLE. Just FYI. And local friends, let me know if you’d like to borrow any of the above titles!

#Pregnancy (on being pregnant in the digital age)

Pregnancy in a digital society is a new-ish phenomenon that we’re all still learning to navigate. Not only is pregnancy a rollercoaster of terrific and terrifying things that happen at lightening speed ahead of one of the biggest changes in your life, being pregnant and online means that we are the recipients of a whirlwind of resources and information – some good, some not-so-good, opinion and comparison. Phew!

As I reach the 6-month milestone, I’ve put together my favourite digital offerings, as well as a couple I’d recommend avoiding. Ready? Let’s go!

The Good Bits

1. Pregnancy apps

Oh my life. There are SO many. Ovia is by far my favourite. It is user-friendly, helps you to track doctor’s appointments, symptoms, milestones and everything in between. It also features helpful articles and videos on common symptoms for your time of pregnancy and how your baby is doing. I love it! Ovia’s best feature, though? Each week, it will update you on your baby’s development – and you can choose to know how big it is in terms of fruit/vegetables, cute animals or (my firm favourite) Parisian bakery items! This week, Baby Brown is the size of a ‘Buche de Noel’. 

Sprout is another app worth a mention – its 3D imagery links to fascinating information about your baby’s growth each week. I find it really comforting to see what my baby would look like if I could peak in, and watch it grow from a funny little alien-child to now, a fully-proportioned baby!

2. Channelmum weekly videos  

Now, this one comes with a word of caution: online videos, especially on YouTube, are a mixed bag. There is a lot of very personal opinion, some scare-mongering, and some downright rubbish. However, Channelmum’s fabulous series of weekly pregnancy videos have become a lovely part of my journey. I look forward, every Thursday, to checking in. Their weekly videos talk you through baby’s development, common symptoms and stories from other mums-to-be. All presented by the lovely Charlotte Taylor.

3. First 1000 days 

Nutrition in pregnancy and early life is so important, and this is a wonderful guide to how to get it right during baby’s first 3 years of life – including its 9 months in utero. You can check into the website, and/or receive helpful emails with delicious recipes and easy-to-digest (ha ha!) information. 

4. Pea in the Podcast 

This isn’t an active podcast anymore, but its archive of episodes helpfully and warmly cover everything from your wildest pregnancy symptoms to a guide to early newborn days, dads-to-be to cholic. I like to dip in and out when something pops into my mind and have a feeling I’ll be coming back once Baby Brown is here, too!

5. Faraway friends

This one may seem obvious, but as someone who has lived in a few different places, some of my best friends are very far away – so it’s been wonderful to be able to connect over social media…doing things like sharing photos with Switzerland, laughing over bizarre symptoms with Edingurgh and gleaning sleeping tips from the Dominican Republic! 

The Bad Bits

1. Google (or other search engines…)

With a wealth of information at our fingertips, we can (especially in uncertain times) feel an urgent need for reassurance or treatment tips for everything from strange pains to pregnancy zits. I write this the week the BBC published an article about ‘cyber-chondria’! It’s hard to apply a reasonable filter to what comes up in a quick search: we get a mix of professional information, personal experience and opinion, absolute lies (I’m pretty sure…) and worst-case scenarios. I speak from experience: the best thing to do is to turn to your midwife or friends who have been pregnant…and avoid Google! 

2. Forums aka pits of gloom

I mentioned worse-case scenarios above: but it’s worth driving this point home. Friend, pregnancy forums are evil. They are pits of gloom and spirals of misinformation. (If your experience is different, praise the Lord and may your bubble never burst!) People who frequent these forums and share their stories are (mostly) those who are worried and have experienced horrible things. These things do happen, but they are the minority. The problem is they appear to be the majority as you scroll through…so, my recommendation is to stay away and get to know other mums and mums-to-be! 

I’d love to hear how you have found the mix of being pregnant and being online. What other positive sources would you recommend? What else would you stay away from? Let me know! 

Keep your hope up 

Hope is a tricky, tricky thing. 

I think we sometimes take it for granted – I know I do. It’s easy when things are running smoothly. 

But some days, it takes work to keep hope alive. I’ve met more doctors and nurses this summer than ever in my life (genuinely, thank the Lord for the NHS!) and they often remind me to “keep my fluids up”. Really, I think we should encourage each other to “keep our fluids AND OUR HOPE up”. 

Some days, I feel like I have to work much harder than I’d like to keep my hope up. 

But at whatever height our eyes find themselves – whether it’s just above water or flying sky-high – that further shore is still there. Maybe some days we just have to squint a little harder. 

Keep your hope up. (And also, get yourself a basil plant. It’s lovely.)

Halfway there (and definitely living on a prayer)

There they were: those little purple lines on my tummy. I didn’t know what kind of preggo lady I was going to be, but I certainly had some ideas: and they’ve been totally quashed. I actually got excited when I saw my stretch marks (do Stretch Mark Parties exist?) because they mean growth, and progress, and life. I have a complicated relationship with my body at the best of times and it’s been pushed to the limit as we have fought, sometimes on what feels like the line between life and death, to keep two hearts beating, but it hasn’t let me down through the roughest patch we’ve walked so far. So stretch marks and newfound dislike for jeans, crazy midnight raspberry cravings and strange wee moods, you can stay. You remind me of two truths: that I’m growing a human that is fearfully and wonderfully made…and that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, too. 

Yesterday, we had our 20-week Big Scan. Because of the last 8 weeks, I was terrified we’d find that little Baby Brown was feeling the impact. But as the sonographer journeyed over that tiny little body, everything was in its place and growing beautifully. My favourite thing was when the sonographer said “lovely” after she’d seen each part. Lovely. It seems apt.

Baby Brown, you might be the most prayed for and cared for (just wait til you meet your awesome tribe!) baby on the planet. And we might not be through the woods just yet, but we’re over halfway – and I’m so proud of you. 


“And she said gently – that they believe when a lot of things start to go wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born – and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.”

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Confession: I hate being interrupted. If I’m in the middle of a book or a bath or the tricky butternut squash risotto recipe I have planned for tonight, I like a clear, smooth, solitary run to the horizon ahead. If I’m ‘in full flow’ at work, I plug my headphones in. And if I have a thought to finish? Honey bun, you better let me finish it because my attention ain’t big enough for the both of us.

So it goes without saying that Interruption is a tricky thing for me. But recently, I was interrupted by something beyond my control and it’s unsurprisingly surprised me into thinking about how Interruption is a friend to welcome…rather than a foe that I should slaughter animals and paint my door frames in order to avoid.

Tomorrow’s the big day: sixth form pupils in the UK will receive their A-level results. When mine disastrously came back several grades lower than expected 11 (ELEVENOHMYLIFE!!!) years ago, I experienced Interruption. It was the result of an unfortunate new school, new curriculum error and it changed the course of my life. Instead of sailing my way through my final year and heading off to study English at a top university, I had to recalculate my journey and work my tush off to get somewhere. And get somewhere I did. It didn’t involve studying English or studying at that top university, but that change brought with it an incredible life since – life-long friends, the experience living in NI (and of course meeting and marrying a handsome man here), some terrible and some brilliant jobs…and the list goes on. All thanks, it would seem, to Interruption. (Read more on this Interruption here).

Interruption can also be planned…but that doesn’t mean that we necessarily welcome it more. I met it again earlier this year. It was deep winter, when the festivities are over but your laugh still crystallises in the air as you rub your gloved hands together and everyone is still making warming pots of carrot and coriander soup and the sun still sets early and catches us all by surprise even though it’s been this way for weeks. But I was switching my cosy slippers for my practical but-let’s-be-honest hideous ‘development sandals’, heading to Rwanda on my first trip in my current job. Of course I was excited to be going, and absolutely privileged to have the chance. Honestly, though? While I hate to admit it, collecting vaccines and mosquito nets, planning an intense schedule for each day, getting ready to meet people I didn’t know and being thrust into an unknown context for 8 days…well, it did feel like Interruption was rudely crashing into my midwinter dream. But the thing is – and I’m sure you know where this is going – it was truly one of the best weeks of my life. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked, met some truly inspiring people who have marked me forever, made fabulous friends, and was enriched in a way that I just wasn’t picturing when I was embarking on the bus to Dublin on a freezing cold February morning. Honestly, if this particular Interruption was to come back into my life tomorrow, I would KISS it! (Listen to me tell Consolata’s story here.)

I mentioned a recent interruption. It came at a very awkward time: I was days away from heading off on a dream holiday with Dan to Geneva, having just announced our pregnancy (YES! We are pregnant! More on that later…) and clocked off work for two weeks. I’ll not bore you with the details, but the series of events went a little like chest pain, A&E, admission, every cardiac test under the sun, discharged, and signed off work. Needless to say, this was NOT the plan, and for someone who loves a good plan (and hates being interrupted – have I mentioned that?) it was not good news. I’ve now been off for a month and my life has changed a lot in that time. My dreams of being that glowy, productive pregnant lady have been exchanged for lots of rest and more tests, and some days, energy reserves akin to those of a weathered – yet spunky – 93 year old.

I whisper this to you: this particular visit from Interruption has been really difficult. It’s left me feeling like I’m wedged between life and death. Some days I’ve wondered who on earth is in charge here and how the heck I’m going to face the future.

And far from wanting to gloss over this with a couple of nice platitudes just in time for bed, dear reader, I hope I can bring this truth to you with honesty and transparency: it would remiss of me to bemoan my season of Interruption without telling you that it has also brought me treasure. Perhaps I’ll explore more of this in further pieces. I’m reluctant to draw conclusions on something I am still living (I think most of us are better at that with some distance) but I have had to fight for hope and faith and in doing so, have a new sense of appreciation for both their fragility and their power. I have been led to be more comfortable with stillness and vulnerability. And my goodness, I have experienced tremendous kindness from those around me that will stoke my fire for a long while to come.

Had Interruption not come knocking on my door, I don’t think I’d have gathered this bounty. And I hope this chance to reflect on Interruption makes me less fearful of it next time it comes knocking – because it will do just that. I’m willing to bet it’s paid you a few visits, too.

I have no interest in becoming Interruption’s spokesperson, but next time it comes to you? Let it in. Acknowledge that it is here, that you are here.

“What I do know is that it can help to find the words of the truth of where you are now. If you can fin the courage to name ‘here’ – especially in the place where you do not wish to be – it can help you be there.”

Padraig O’Tuama, In The Shelter

And just like those good friends who show up to your door with flowers or granola or a good book when they visit, my prayer for you is that Interruption brings you something that enriches you. You won’t expect it – or maybe even want it at the time. But if my experience is anything to go by, sometimes Interruption brings you exactly what you need.

*Some interruptions include suffering, but I don’t wish to equate interruption to suffering here. Some suffering is unexplainable and does not bring any good with it. This post is not about encouraging anyone to find ‘hidden treasures’ in deep darkness or making light of the unspeakable trauma some dear to me are going through.

Thought for the Day: it takes time 

Drawing inspiration from William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks and the Suffragettes, here are some thoughts on progress…

Listen here. 

Thought for the Day: bananas 

Today, I’m on BBC’s Thought for the Day for the very first time! I really enjoyed the experience of jotting down and recording these thoughts which you can listen to on BBC Good Morning Ulster each Monday in June. I’ll also be sharing them here over the coming weeks.

Up first, one of the most vivid memories from my trip to Rwanda in February…

Listen here. 

Staying Safe Online

A couple of weeks ago, I started a discussion on internet safety over on my Instagram feed. It reminded me of some things I’d rather forget, and renewed my conviction that staying safe while enjoying the Internet is a difficult yet oh-so-necessary task to get right.

I’ve never publicly shared either of my experiences of being stalked. Both times were traumatic in different ways, and both have left their mark on me. I’m pleased to have turned these marks into good, now knowing important things about how to stay safe and being able to share these with others.

Both incidents lasted several months. Both involved physical stalking and online harassment. They have meant that certain places or words still make me nervous. (I won’t go further than this in public: neither individual needs any more of my time or space. But if you are worried about a situation or have experienced something you need to process, please feel free to reach out.)

But what, amazingly, joins these two cases together is that neither was successful in breaking into my personal life. My safety has never been jeopardised. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.

So, because I love what the Internet has brought us but also recognise that it can make us more vulnerable, I am sharing my top three tips for staying safe while enjoying online activities. Social media, in particular, has brought with it new ways for people to develop unhealthy (and criminal) habits or to exploit vulnerability.  So just as boundaries are healthy and expected in the ‘physical world’, so they are in your online life.

  1. Location, location, location. Never share details about where you are – your address, a picture of your front door, your workplace in some cases, your neighbourhood, your number plate, your child’s school uniform. Don’t be traceable. When I was stalked, I was incredibly relieved to know that I had never shared online where I lived.
  2. Don’t share patterns. Don’t talk online about where you go every Thursday or your favourite Saturday brunch spot. If you use public transport, don’t share the usual route or time of your journey. This may seem arbitrary, but it is precious to have your ‘places’ and keeping them private means you won’t have to change them if something does go wrong. Similarly, don’t post in real time, especially if you are somewhere alone. Instagram can wait: your safety can’t. 
  3. Be mindful of other people. I look like Gemma No Mates on my social channels – because my friends haven’t chosen to be followed by the people who follow me, I don’t think it’s fair to expose them. If I do want to share something, I will ask permission. When it comes to children, be extra mindful. A good test is to ask yourself if you’d be happy for the content you’re sharing that involves your kids to be broadcast on the evening news (and always underestimate your privacy settings). Another helpful thing is to consider, regardless of safety, what they will think in 15 years: will they want a photo of their bare bum to be online?*

Rather than scare you, I hope these simple tricks will empower you to use social media with confidence. I love what the Internet has brought us. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy its benefits.

Stay safe!

Further reading: my Top Ten Twitter Tips and Happy Birthday Instagram

*Recent studies, which examine the new phenomenon of parents who’ve grown up on social media, suggest children want to feature less on their parents’ channels.