EDUCATED by Tara Westover

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

I casually started reading this book but it quickly took over my life, completely captivating me. 

I am an easy fan of memoirs. I love a good story. Hearing how other people have lived is a reminder to me that we are all so very different – and in many ways, very much the same.

Tara was the youngest of six siblings, born to survivalist parents on a mountainside in Idaho. Her father was a fundamentalist Mormon who lived in fear that the ‘Feds’ were going to come surround their home in gunfire. He instilled a disturbing amount of fear into each of his children. Westover’s mother was an herbalist healer that concocted tinctures in the kitchen of their home (and sold them as an alternative to Obamacare.) The father didn’t want to register anything with the government so none of the children went to school or had birth certificates until much later in life. Their cars weren’t registered or insured for fear of having documentation filed with The Government. Tara explains many horrific accidents when her father refused to take any of them to the hospital, believing God would heal them with the help of their mother. They buried rifles around their property and had years and years of food supply in their basement should they need to survive inside their home for an extended amount of time. Should they have to run, each child had a Run For The Hills backpack at the ready.

The mind manipulation in this book is profound. As a reader I found myself wanting to reach inside the book and grab the shoulders of so many of the Westover family members: ‘Can’t you see what’s happening?! How can you believe what you’re being told?!’

Eventually Tara stepped out of that world in order to attend college. She studied to take the ACT test and was admitted to Brigham-Young University which eventually led to fellowships at Cambridge University and Harvard. She stepped into a world previously unknown to her…

The tables were set with more knives, forks and goblets than I’d ever seen; the paintings on the wall seemed ghostly in the candlelight. I felt exposed by the elegance and yet somehow made invisible by it.

Her educational journey was stunning. In one of her first classes in college she asked a question about a word she didn’t know. The teacher and her fellow students shunned her disapprovingly believing she was making an insensitive joke. After later looking up the word in the library she couldn’t stop reading about the ‘holocaust’ – an event she knew nothing about.

Admittedly, the extremes in this book made me question their validity at times. Many experiences seem so completely out of the ‘norm’ that it was difficult to believe people actually live this way. It’s not a story about decades ago but a story that has played out in the past few years. As with any memoir, this is primarily a one-sided story. I am certain Tara’s parents and siblings would have their own story that would most likely greatly differ from hers.

I finished the book within just a few days. The characters lived with me the entire time. I thought about them as if they were people I actually knew, Tara’s writing so deeply entrenched them in my life. I highly recommend this book. It is a wonderful reminder that we each live within a reality that might be different than those around us. It is not until we learn about others’ lives that we are able to more fully understand and empathize with our fellow humans. We all need a greater education.

M Y  R A T I N G : 4.5/5

A U T H O R : Tara Westover

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : February 2018

P U B L I S H E R : Penguin Random House


the oncoming rain

I was just happy to be near them. They talked about things I didn’t quite understand but I tried to temper my responses appropriately so that they might think for just a few moments that I was cool enough to be in their presence.

All of my cousins are older than me. My younger sister and I were the last of our generation. There was a mix of boy cousins and girl cousins and just by being older than us, they were automatically cool and hip and examples of what we desperately wanted to be at their age. At some level I thought I would catch up to them someday – that we would eventually be equals. So when they asked us if we wanted to go with them as they walked to the nearby grocery store, I had no choice but to say yes.

We were all gathered at our aunt and uncle’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana from our disparate home states. As our parents sat around and reminisced and laughed and talked, all the cousins went outside to explore and do ‘cool things’. I couldn’t even be certain what it was that we were doing, only that I wanted to be nearby for their teenager-ness to rub off on me somehow.

At their invitation to walk to the little grocery store in the middle of residential Shreveport in the 1970’s, I followed without hesitation. It wasn’t until halfway through the walk that I began to worry about my choice. I was at that liminal age of being too young to make my own decisions, needing to get parental permission for stepping outside my parent’s watchful eye and yet also on the verge of being old enough to handle small decision-making on my own. As we walked further and further away from my aunt’s house, I began to get more and more worried about whether I was doing the right thing or not. Would Mom and Dad be mad if they came outside and I wasn’t there? Would they worry about where I had taken my little sister, Anna? Would they be sad? Concerned? My thoughts raced with pending doom as each step took us further and further away from my parents’ watchful eye.

Having arrived at the market we were just about ready to go inside when my older cousin, McKy, shouted for everyone to look. He was pointing up the street at the oddity of seeing a sheet of rain coming right toward us down the street. I can still so clearly see the sight in my mind’s eye, some 40+ years later. The rain was compact and ominous looking and it was headed straight toward us like a biblical swarm of locusts, ready to devour and conquer. Everyone ooo’d and ahh’d as we started running as fast as we could, quickly ducking into Samson’s Market to take cover.

country store

It was a heady convergence of feelings and sounds. As we all sighed for relief that we had made it inside, the rain began to beat steadily on the roof overhead. I was certain my parents would be worried now. What had they done that I would inadvertently cause them such misery and concern?? Why had I chosen to leave their periphery and take my little sister with me?? I was selfish and never once considered their feelings as I tried to ‘keep up’ with the freedom and confidence I saw in my cousins.

To my knowledge, my parents never even knew we were gone. And had they come outside to check on us, I feel certain they would not have worried, knowing we were safe with our older cousins. But of course that reasoning only makes sense to me now as an adult. As a child I was certain I was causing them irreparable mental anguish.

As the rain beat harder and harder on the roof above us, the adrenaline was kicking in for everyone. My cousins wondered out loud to each other how we were going to get home and whether or not this was a quick southern rainstorm or if it would be sticking around awhile. Should we wait it out or take our chances running back in the downpour? WAIT IT OUT?!, I wondered to myself. How LONG would we be waiting?! My snap decision to tag along was quickly spinning out of my control.

Inside the small market with its smoothly worn wooden planked floors that creaked with each step and it’s rows of neatly, albeit slightly dusty, cans of vegetables and peach wedges, the rain beat down on us as if absolutely no insulation existed in the corrugated roof above us. Anna stood silently, holding my hand, looking to me as if under the same spell I was experiencing with my cousins. I was looking to them for answers as she looked up to me for direction in this confusing situation.

Suddenly I couldn’t take it any longer. The pressure to be perceived as cool enough to hang out with these paragons of hip-ness. The internal conflict of upsetting my parents. The grave responsibility of making sure my younger sister was safe. The pounding rain, the running and ducking for cover as the sheets of doom barreled toward us. I began to cry.

Carol Jeanne saw me first and came straight over to see if I was okay. I couldn’t articulate a reason as to why I was crying. I hadn’t figured it out for myself, much less be able to express it to anyone else. I just knew everything seemed wrong and overwhelming and I didn’t know what to do. I felt stymied and incapable of making a right decision. She valiantly tried to calm me down as we made our escape plan while the rain outside began to lighten up its onslaught of doom.

We ran most of the way home. In retrospect I am sure Greg didn’t want his perfectly feathered hair to get messed up and Tricia was probably concerned that her hot curlers would have to be plugged in again to remedy whatever the rain was taking away. Make-up would have to be reapplied and dresses would have to be changed. But I ran with all my might toward the safety that my parents would offer, if not also the retribution for my decision to leave without their permission in the first place. I didn’t care, I’d take the discipline, as long as they knew Anna and I were okay and they could stop wringing their hands with worry. (Exaggeration seemed to be an early trait of mine that has never left me.)

In the end, no one was hurt. No one got in trouble. Talk of seeing the oncoming rain was bantered around from circle to circle, teenagers animatedly describing the scene to our listening parents. Absolutely nothing bad came from the whole ordeal.

And yet.

As an adult, that oncoming rain shower has lurked in the darker places of my mind. When choices are too many and a decision needs to be reached… When I am responsible for the care of someone and the task ahead seems too large, I am suddenly grounded in the middle of that dirty Louisiana road, frozen still in terror as I weigh the choice to turn and run back to the safety of my parents, or to continue to run straight ahead with the crowd. When the paralysis of choices makes me inexplicably cry out, I have learned to turn to someone older, wiser, who will calm my fears, help me work through my feelings and perform the holy act of telling me everything will be okay. I can then run to safety or spread my wings and push the limits all the while knowing that there are those around me that love me more than I can understand in my moment of initial panic. It is in facing those pivotal moments of doom that we learn that there is within us the ability to choose correctly. Sometimes the decision can be made in an instant. Other times it takes some internal processing, prayerful discernment and seeking outside counsel. There are times in life that we do not know how to do This Thing, but there is something within us that does. The older we get, the more we trust that internal voice.

When faced with the choice to run from the oncoming rain or to stand and dance within it, no one can make the decision for you but thankfully there are those around us that model the correct behavior and ultimately there is a voice within us, telling us to high tail it and run or to throw our head back and let the rain wash over us. Trusting that voice is what makes aging so exciting and fun. Practicing the elegance of kindness to ourselves and to others is what unites us as a human race that is motivated by unrelenting, bountiful and an all-encompassing laugh-in-the-face-of-looming-rain impermeable grace.

PLENTY LADYLIKE by Claire McCaskill

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

One of my favorite apps on my phone is the Hoopla app through the Kansas City Public Library. At any given time I am usually reading one physical book and listening to one audio book through either Audible or Hoopla. I just finished a book that I have listened to in the car, while working around our home or at any open opportunity where I can multi-task by listening while also doing something mundane with my hands. I was a late comer to audio books, but I’ve become a big fan of them for some genres – memoirs being my favorite audio book.

Claire McCaskill is a state senator for Missouri. aka: a home girl. Her influence in the Senate has been one of strength as a moderate voice. In particular she has worked hard to eliminate earmarks and financial waste spending due to her previous role as state auditor.

Admittedly, this was particularly interesting to someone from Claire’s homestate of Missouri. She spent a significant amount of time in Kansas City, so it was fun to read of places she mentioned and to know exactly where she was talking about. But overall, it was thrilling to read of the rise and success of a woman. I like to refer to myself as a feminist who also enjoys letting her husband put the gas in her car. That’s to say that I believe there is a balance between feminism and femininity – of which we should not need to apologize for either. So the title ‘Plenty Ladylike’ piqued my interest. I do not believe men and women are ‘equal’ in the most crude definition of the word. But I strongly believe the combination of men and women on any project makes for the most successful and well-rounded outcome.

You can’t use your clout to change the things you’re passionate about unless you have the clout.

In other words, there is no need to feel apologetic about rising to a powerful position when you are working for a greater voice to accomplish the things for which you feel a strong pull. This is how things get done. Whether it’s a local election, a local school position or a community committee – position yourself to do the most good and have the most effective voice for your cause.

I enjoyed reading about the relationship between the female members of the Senate. They regularly meet for dinner – no press or staff allowed. Just a safe place to discuss the unique position they find themselves in: as mothers, wives, senators and all the competing forces that surround those roles. Periodically, the female Supreme Court justices also meet with them. Oh to be a fly on the wall…

While women in high offices is becoming more and more acceptable, and blatant gender bias aren’t as prevalent, there are still passively used phrases that are unique to women in the political arena. McCaskill has been accused from male opponents as not being ladylike enough or that her actions were unbecoming of a woman. While less abrasive than the time in her early political career when a male legislator asked her if she brought her knee pads (?!!!?), these passive phrases are still a way to keep a woman in her place.

Other obstacles women are in the unique position to combat: what their hair looks like, whether they have bags under their eyes or how well their clothes fit. Claire talked of a female colleague who the press pointed out she had worn the same dress in the same month. (Yes, there were times when I also shrieked out-loud in my car at the craziness of our society!Would we even know if a man had re-worn a navy suit twice in one month?! ugh.

McCaskill wrapped up her book with a somewhat new challenge to women, an area where women have not been historically known to participate in. McCaskill wrote of the bargains and security nets women build for themselves and for their future. However, women also need to look at the ways in which we invest in our future by donating our money to charities and political campaigns. This is also a way in which we can make our voices known about the areas in which our souls are stirred and our compassion is awoken.

The term ‘ladylike’ is not a label we need to shirk off or eliminate, but rather to redefine. Standing strong in adversity, being brave enough to speak against a wrong way of thinking, and maintaining the core of who we are (be it in 2″ heels or manure-laden boots) – THAT is what it’s like to be a lady.

I recommend this book to all persons interested in the political trajectory of any candidate – the local elections that lead to national elections, with a few failures and mistakes along the way. In particular, I recommend this book to my local Missourians as they will find even more tidbits of interest throughout the book.

I’ve never met a political candidate I agree with 100%. Such is the case with Claire McCaskill. But I am proud she is representing Missouri and our moderate political ideals. As with McCaskill, Missourians are often more willing to cross party lines when it means coming to an equitable solution.

M Y  R A T I N G : 4.5/5

A U T H O R : Claire McCaskill

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : August 2016

P U B L I S H E R : Simon & Schuster

THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett


I was in a bad temper and talking ill of folk and she turns around to me and says ‘Thou doesn’t like this one and thou doesn’t like that one. How does thou like thyself?’

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

A part of my reading goals for 2018 is to read more classics. When I find myself thinking, ‘Have I read this already? I can’t remember.’ Those are the books I want to intermix with my other readings this year.

The weather has been unusually warm here in Kansas City these past few days. Spring is teasing us. Taunting us into believing that perhaps winter might be over. (Our experience tells us we still have much more winter to go.) These days are what turn my mind to garden planning. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to this classic of English children’s literature. What I did not expect is that it would speak to some of my deepest fears.

[sidenote: There are many English and Scottish phrasings in this book. If that makes it more difficult to read, I highly suggest getting an audio recording of this book. It was the perfect way to listen to this classic.]

*image below found online without authorship

My initial (modern day) reflex to this book was that there was some very sketchy parenting going on! Children being forgotten or left to fend for themselves. If I were a child reading this, however, I’m sure I would think that was super cool!!

Mary Lennox is a sickly, unwanted 10-year-old that is left orphaned after both her wealthy parents died from cholera. Even before their death, however, her parents didn’t want to mess with her, so they left her to be raised by servants who did whatever she asked – leaving her a very spoiled and unlovable child.

Mary is sent to live with her wealthy uncle who is, himself, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. Archibald Craven travels frequently, leaving Mary on her own once again. Living in Yorkshire, England now, Mary wanders the property – initially hating the moor near which her uncle’s grand home was built. In the process of looking at the gardens (and hearing of a secret garden that no one knows how to get into!), she befriends a robin who daringly follows her on her walks and quickly becomes her first friend ever.

Mary’s world begins to drastically change as spring begins to show in the gardens – and especially after the robin leads her to the buried key that unlocks the secret garden.

One of the characters of this book is a weak and ill-tempered hypochondriac little boy named Colin who has overheard all his life that he was going to die soon. He lies in bed, afraid to walk, afraid to be seen by others, afraid to go outside his room – until he meets Mary and her secret garden. Just as being out in nature made a dramatic difference to Mary, Colin also begins to trust in others and believe in his own future of health.

I don’t know that I am a hypochondriac (does one ever know when they’re a hypochondriac??), but after a lifetime of good health, I have encountered some discouraging years of illness lately. After a VERY surprising heart attack and surgeries in my 40’s, l often struggle with the idea that my heart could give out at any moment. This isn’t something I talk about to anyone; it’s something I ruminate over in the dark places of my mind. Catching the flu scares me. Strange aches and pains scare me. Exercising scares me and not exercising scares me. I definitely overthink health now – something I took for granted for so long.

Colin frustrated me and encouraged me at the same time. Initially I thought: HOW could anyone lie in bed worrying about dying just because they overheard someone talking about the possibility someday? But my oh my what a metaphor that was for me. I don’t physically lie in bed worrying, but I am certainly ‘laid up‘ in my mind when the fears overcome the day. Anyone who has struggled with any level of anxiety can understand that. All the ‘logical talk’ only makes sense in the daylight of rational thinking. When the clouds settle in, reasoning doesn’t always make sense.

Amazingly descriptive detail was given to the garden and surrounding English countryside. The temper tantrums and kids-as-bosses added lots of flair in creating the images of the central children of the story. Once these initially spoiled children began thinking about others and how to bring their secret garden back to life, their minds were filled with things other than their own fears and wants. What a beautiful book for a child to read.

But truly, what an important book for an adult to revisit. Are you living your fullest life? Are you being brave when others around you are doubting your strength? Even more difficult, are you being brave when you doubt your own endurance? What treasures are out there, waiting for us to discover if we’d only step outside our self-built boxes and walk into the fresh air of new possibilities.

Give this book a try, friends. You might be searching for A Secret Garden in this stage of your life. A garden you didn’t even know you needed.

M Y  R A T I N G : 5/5

A U T H O R : Frances Hodgson Burnett

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : 1911

P U B L I S H E R : Barnes and Noble Classics Series

she’s got good bones

Trees get too much credit in the spring and summer. We applaud their grand show in the fall. But there is something magical and majestic about their winter bones. In winter we can see discarded birds nests, inhabitants who have moved on to larger spaces. In winter we can look through groves of trees and see beyond the usual limitations of summer’s thick foliage.

As I pass another birthday and am becoming better friends with this ‘new’ face I see in the mirror each day, I wonder what it would be like to have just a little plastic surgery. I mean, even a sow’s ear can be lovely with enough surgery and make-up; a little addition here, a little subtraction there. I feel far too exposed, at times, as my face and body become less and less easy to identify as my own.

However, the trees in winter are no less significant even if their summer beauty isn’t as easily seen. Instead we see straight through to their souls. There is no hiding in winter. Everything is laid bare and open. And yet they stand there bravely. Unashamed. Still protecting. Still holding their place. Waiting.

Of winter’s lifeless world each tree
Now seems a perfect part;
Yet each one holds summer’s secret
Deep down within its heart.
– Charles G. Stater

Sure, we remember the flexibility and smooth surface of our youth, holding summer’s secret deep within our memory. But lifeless we are not. We still desire to be used for a great purpose. We still desire to love with our whole heart. There is still a great task to be done.

Do not misunderstand our purpose, waiting here in winter. We are regrouping and redefining and once we catch our winter’s breath, we will bloom yet again in the spring.