Nothing but the Good Stuff

1. A prelude to summer: The whir of lawnmowers, and the scent of fresh-cut grass wafting through my open windows.

2. I’m convinced that The Glenn Beck Program, my go-to for real news, should always be enjoyed while washing dishes or vacuuming. (Monday’s broadcast was especially laugh-inducing, by the way.)

3. Whole wheat maple syrup banana oatmeal muffins. Nothing but the good stuff, plus chocolate chips and cinnamon for garnish. They’re rising in the oven as I type… and they’re better than a candle for good smells!

4. Exceptional stories, the kind that cause laughter and tears all in the same sitting.  I don’t typically cry over a paperback, but goodness, I nearly did with this one.

5. A baby garden to water. This “chore” has become the best part of my post-work routine.

What are you thankful for today?

The Acute Desire for Approval

“Evil is the greatest explanation for God.”

Perhaps it’s the rain. It feels especially unwelcome after such a sunny weekend. Or maybe it’s the quietness that fills a space after guests leave. (Those silences make me realize that my home should always be used for hospitality, and often.) In any case, my thoughts are doing a remarkable interpretation of laundry churning in the dryer.

So today’s post is from my sermon notes, because at least those were ordered and cohesive.

The Acute Desire for Approval

I’ll admit it. At my core, I crave approval. I think everyone does. We all want to be significant, we want to matter. In the words of my pastor, we have an acute addiction to approval. What do we forgo when we let it control our lives?

A Distraction from Our Calling

Although not inherently wrong, my very human desire for approval is most certainly a distraction. When I spend my life seeking the approval of others, I fail to relish the approval of God. More importantly, I sail straight by His calling for my life. Rather than dwell on truth, I press “replay” on the thoughtless words someone said, or the situations my foolishness left me in.

Put that way, it seems incredibly stupid, doesn’t it? I’m probably the only person who does this: I cooperate with negative thoughts! My failures don’t define me, but I tend to believe that they do. It’s an awful slope to slide down.

But evil is indeed the greatest explanation for God. When I slip towards self-loathing, the only and best solution is to immerse myself in what God says is true. I’m incapable of manufacturing lasting approval for myself. It must come from the One who created me and knows what will happen tomorrow.

Created for Freedom

The truth is that we were created for much more than a life defined by mistakes. We were created for freedom, and to live in that freedom each day. That’s a key tenant of the Gospel.  As per my pastor, here are a few ways to live in freedom:

1. Repent. When lies begin to fill your mind, do a mental (or perhaps a physical) about-face. Immediately remind yourself of the truth.

2. Lean. Choose to rely on God’s power rather than your own. Stop fixing yourself.

3. Stand. Ground yourself on God’s promises, and realize your craving for approval is an echo of a much deeper desire for relationship with God.

4. Stop. Quit trying to earn the approval of people! You’re wearing yourself out. Forgo people-pleasing in favor of honoring God with your life.

Speak truth to yourselves, friends. God is greater; believe it, whether you’re filled with hope or overwhelmed by churning thoughts.

Blueberry Coconut Scones

The lady who did announcements at church called it “Narnia.” And I would tend to agree. Although the thermostat has once again dipped below 32, the winter wonderland outside my kitchen window is truly beautiful.  Our town has cloaked itself in white, completely disregarding the fact that it’s February and cardinals and finches are singing.

So what better to do on a snowy (SUPERBOWLGOEAGLES) Sunday afternoon than perfect my scone-making skills?

I’m particular when it comes to scones: They must be buttery, almost-airy, have layers, be sweet-but-not-too-sweet. I’ve been trying out recipes for several weeks. One dough was too dense, another too dry, a third to heavy on the baking powder. No matter what I tweaked, nothing ended up quite right.

My quest ended this afternoon. I have struck baking gold.

These beauties originated from Sarah Kieffer at the Vanilla Bean Blog. Her recipe is a real winner as-is. And it’s still a winner, even after I adapted it to fit my pantry! (Keep scrolling to see the version I devised.) Buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, with just the right touch of sweetness. Did I mention they’re also photogenic? Nailed it.

I highly recommend you give these a try! I sprinkled coconut shavings on mine, but that’s entirely optional. You can also substitute the blueberries for most other fruit. Or, if you prefer a savory scone, fold in thinly sliced jalapenos and fresh cilantro. Top with cheddar cheese before baking.

Taken from Sarah Kieffer at the Vanilla Bean Blog

2 ¼ cups (320g) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
½ teaspoon each: salt and cinnamon
1/2 cup coconut milk (you can also use crème fraîche or sour cream)
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks; 170 g) unsalted butter (I used margarine), cold and cut into ½ -inch pieces
Egg white (or heavy cream) for brushing

Adjust an oven rack to the lower middle position. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Stack two baking sheets on top of each other and line the top sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, 2 tablespoons sugar, and salt. In a medium bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk the crème fraîche, vanilla, and egg.

Add the butter to the dry ingredients and use a pastry cutter to cut it into the mixture until the flour-coated pieces are the size of peas. Add the wet ingredients and fold with a spatula until just combined.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until it comes together, 4 to 6 times, adding flour as necessary, as the dough will be sticky. Pat the dough gently into a square and roll it into a 12-inch square (again, using flour as necessary). Fold the dough in thirds, similar to a business letter. Fold the dough into thirds again, making a square. Transfer it to a floured sheet pan or plate and put it in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Return the dough to the floured surface, roll it into a 12-inch square, and fold it business letter style. Place the dough seam side down and gently roll it into a 12 by 4-inch rectangle. With a sharp knife, cut it crosswise into 4 equal rectangles, then cut each rectangle diagonally into 2 triangles. Transfer the triangles to the prepared baking sheet.

Brush the tops with a little heavy cream, making sure it doesn’t drip down the sides and sprinkle the tops generously with sugar. Bake 18 to 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the tops and bottoms are light golden brown. Transfer the sheet pan to a wire rack and let the scones cool 10 minutes before serving.

At the Intersection of Passion & Purpose

“Passion is not a plan. Passion is a feeling, and feelings change.”

Terri Trespicio

When we seek “God’s calling,” are we seeking what we’re passionate about… or what we’re made for?

Every freshman at my college is required to take the “freshman core.” It’s comprised of four classes, one per every eight weeks, for the duration of the school year. The second in  the series is essentials of behavioral science, more commonly referred to as “Essentials.”

That class sticks out in my memory for many reasons. My break out group (a cohort of maybe eight opinionated freshmen guided by a laid-back upperclassman) was particularly vocal. Our discussion time regularly dissolved into debate, and Essentials provided plenty of material.

One of the people who lectured, a professional counselor or something similar, spoke about self-actualization. In short, each person has two versions of themselves: the current version and an idealized version. The two circles slowly overlap as we grow and mature and all the rest. In the end, we should strive to have them overlap completely, so that our current self is identical to the idealized version.

Our professor meant no harm. She was simply sharing a key concept as it pertained to our subject. She never touted it as gospel.

But self-actualization unsettled me. It seemed so self-centered, so driven by personal gain. I was repulsed by it; and believe me, so was my break out group. We were all happy to share our thoughts on the subject, post-lecture.

At its root, self-actualization is the desire to attain full potential. It’s also a common first-world approach to life. “Are we really seeking God’s calling? Or are we desperately seeking importance and fulfillment?” asks Julie Roys, author of “Redeeming the Feminine Soul.” Passion is self and pleasure-oriented, but purpose is quite the opposite. It looks outward. It is others-oriented. And it tends to be long-term. It “gives more weight to meaning that pleasure,” one author noted.

Although passion can inform and fuel purpose, it cannot be its replacement. Although it’s often the inspiration for positive growth, passion is fickle; it “is a feeling, and feelings change.” For instance, I’m passionate about ending human trafficking. But what good would I do if I charged into Wellspring International and demanded that I be sent to the worst red light district in India? That decision would be driven by self-gratification… and the sense that I can end trafficking faster and more effectively than someone who is trained to do so. The people at Wellspring would tell me to go home and support them in a different way. A way that allows purpose to command and capitalize on passion, and direct both to the desired outcome.

Passion is healthy. Care about what matters, and care deeply. But purpose is what we all should invest careful time and thought into: Purpose that’s acted upon changes our world and the people in it. It’s Kingdom-building. In fact, I believe our purpose is identical to God’s calling; passion only fans that flame into a voracious, powerful fire.

Warning: No Temporary Fixes Found

Note: This post marks the advent of a new style of blogging, a style I hope is more true to my mindset and lifestyle. Alongside my usual photo session sneak peeks, I’ll post musings about life as a young adult in the professional world. I’m glad you’re along for the ride.

Scrambled weather. Lightning forecast. Earthbound way to start the day: buttered oatmeal, fresh berries, river of thick cream. So soothed.

Ruth Reichl (@ruthreichl)

I hesitate to type my thoughts into existence. My degree and career are tied to connection and communication; I know how many people can access and judge what I write. Simultaneously, writing (even to an unknown audience) is my best practice, my outlet, my balm. I must write, or else cease to think in a straight line.

I can guess what sort of people will read this: my parents, grandparents, cousins, friends and acquaintances from high school. I welcome each of you. Maybe my lessons-learned will help you along your own journey.

Developing a Voice

My name is Abby,  and I’m a young professional. I manage all outbound and internal communication for a small-but-growing non-profit.  In my spare time, I read books, take pictures, help lead a young adults ministry at church and feed home-cooked meals to my friends.

At least that’s the go-to bio. The one I recite when new people invariably ask. That’s what I do. But who I am is another matter.

For some time, I’ve felt disconnected from my own voice. You could’ve hung an “Under Construction” sign around my neck for years. I wrote first for my mom, then for professors, now for my boss and the public at large. But writers are artists and they are known in the same manner as photographers and painters: by their style. Their voice. My voice.

This isn’t another self-help blog to make you feel better about your situation or find a temporary fix. There are no quick cures for a broken heart or rerouted plans, no time-turners to mend the past, no TARDIS to manage the future. Here, you will only find real stories.  Real stories from a real person who is fed up with social constructs and misplaced priorities and empty promises.

I draw inspiration from Kristen Morris, Hannah Martin, Ellie B and more… these ladies are truly special. They know what it means to be genuine.  And that’s what I’m reaching for, too: A Jane Eyre complex, if you will.

So let’s get started. Hello, friend; welcome to my corner of the internet, where truth isn’t relative and kindness is a premium.

The Mind of an Actor (2/3)

This is part two; read the first post here.

There are layers of complexity in “Measure for Measure” that require an incredible amount of effort. For instance, because there are only five AFTLS members, each is required to play three-to-four characters. Gerrard plays Duke Vincentio, Froth, Barnadine and a friar. “It’s really fun,” Gerrard said. “You have your major roles- mine is the Duke. We discovered that 30 percent of the play is the Duke talking.”

Sometimes these characters overlap in a scene. The actors are, in effect, talking to themselves. And yet, the audience is entirely convinced there is more than one person on stage. This happy trick is played on the mind throughout the whole of “Measure for Measure.”

But the overlapping roles are not a handicap. In fact, it is a welcome reprieve and challenge. “I swap from the Duke to the friar and Froth,” Gerrard explained. This style of acting is difficult but satisfying: He gets to play more than one character. “But it’s the audience that makes it work,” Gerrard added. “The Duke and the friar are the same person, and you want the audience to know that.” When these characters overlap within a scene, the audience must imagine that they are, in fact, different people; otherwise, the scene falls flat.

Gerrard paused in his explanation to smile and wave cheerfully at someone over my shoulder. “It’s Peter,” he said. “Here he comes! You can interview both of us.”

Peter Bray is tall and broad-shouldered. His smooth, chiseled face, wiry hair and dark eyes are a striking combination. He also wears a polo, though his is dark grey. Like Gerrard, Bray’s eyes communicate an abiding, although more reserved, passion for theatre. I ask him the question I had posed to Gerrard: What is it like to play more than one character, especially when they overlap in a scene?

“It’s really exciting,” Bray said, animation in his deep voice. “There’s extreme demand. At the drop of a hat — literally — you have to have rapid access to a different character; you have to step into a mask.”

Before “Measure for Measure,” neither Bray nor Gerrard had assumed several characters within the same scene. Drama school prepared them to access the level of required ability, but it was never directly addressed. Both agreed that there is a level of mystery involved. They get to “let the audience in” on the secret. The audience feels as though they understand something about the characters and the actors themselves; that is what makes “Measure for Measure” so compelling.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Gerrard continued. He leaned forward, eager for me to understand. “We’re still getting better. You never really finish it, and nothing really prepares you.”

“It takes more than time,” Bray nodded. “It takes extreme attention and brain fuel.” After even an hour of practice, Bray said, the team is exhausted.

But what role is the audience play in a performance? Much more than you might assume; it goes beyond laughter and facial expressions. The third and final installment will be this Friday!

Mikel Family | The Steadiest Love

“There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened, and maintained.” – Winston Churchill

I’ve known Betsy for years. She was my first friend in college and remains one of my closest. Today, I got to photograph her beautiful family.

The Mikel family is steady and calm. They’re gentle with each other, and deeply loving. (The littlest one is especially treasured.) And yet, there’s an undercurrent of humor: Mr. Mikel jogging to stay warm, Mrs. Mikel playing peek-a-boo with the baby, Nate and Abe sandwiching Betsy in a hug and making faces.

Family is such a gift!

Stillman Family | A Foray into Photographing Huskies

“There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.” – Jane Eyre

Dylan and Megan arrived for our session in full autumn garb, and they’re as sweetly genuine as they look! They share deep admiration and love; neither would be quite right without the other.

I quickly discovered that photographing huskies is no mean feat… but oh, just gaze into those mismatched eyes! No wonder Megan and Dylan chose to adopt both pups.

Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Today, I get to share the first of a long-anticipated series. It’s been days in the making. (What better way to launch back into a season of blogging!) But before I do, let me explain something…

For those who don’t know, photography is only part of what I do. The majority of my life is bound up in words: reading and writing them.

The thing is, I’m surrounded by people who have incredible stories. So, during the next few weeks, the face of this blog will change. Fewer images; more words. Powerful words. Hopeful words. Words that will inspire and challenge you.

In the meantime, here is the first of three exciting posts. No other introduction is needed; grab a cup of coffee (or Earl Grey tea) and enjoy the read.

The Mind of an Actor (1/3)

It was a lovely Saturday morning. I slammed my car door and walked across the parking lot, double-checking to make sure I had a pen; two pens, actually. Just in case.

The hotel lobby, modestly sized, was busy. I blinked as my eyes adjusted, noting breakfast foods on the sidebar and hotel guests with rumpled hair and sleepy eyes. I was immediately greeted by an unassuming gentleman with a familiar face. “I’m Dom,” he said, and held out his hand for a perfunctory handshake before leading me across the lobby. “Is this table okay?”

Dominic Gerrard stands maybe five-foot-eight, round-shouldered, wearing a maroon polo with the collar flipped up. His ernest hazel gaze betrays a lifetime of professional theatre. I am the most recent of countless interviews he has given; yet he speaks with such giddy enthusiasm, it is as though he has never talked about his profession before.

We dive into my questions after a brief introduction. He uses words like “term” instead of “semester,” “whiz around” instead of “travel.” His vocabulary is much wider than the average person’s, and my shorthand grows progressively messier as I race to record every English-accented syllable. Around us, conversation ebbs; everyone there has chosen the right hour to eat breakfast.

Gerrard started acting early in life. As a pre-teen, he auditioned for a role in “Les Miserables” in London’s West End. He got the part and was immediately hooked. “Acting was all I wanted to do,” Gerrard said. In the following years, he continued a normal education until he was old enough “to attend university,” at which point he applied to many prestigious drama schools. Ultimately, he decided to attend the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

But what brought this talented Londoner to the heart of Hooiser country? Gerrard, and four other professionals, are a part of Actors From The London Stage (AFTLS). This is Gerrard’s first time touring with world-renowned troupe. “It’s really fun to whiz around,” Gerrard said. The unique format used by AFTLS appeals to him. “It’s our job to try and hook the audience into the play,” he explained. “Americans seem to really like Shakespeare. There’s a lot of positive energy when we perform.” He also enjoys visiting college campuses and “crashing classrooms” with workshops.

Every year, AFTLS travels the United States to visit colleges. With each new location, the troupe must reorient themselves with the play they are scheduled to perform. Sometimes, there is a four-day gap between performances. “Upon arrival,” Gerrard said, “We usually practice for about four hours.” They bring only what can be easily transported by plane: a single suitcase of simple props. Beyond that, the team requires only five chairs. “We turn that into an advantage,” Gerrard said.  “We ask the audience to imagine, and fill in the gaps. It’s abnormal.” Especially when Gerrard must play two characters within the same scene…

There’s much more to this story! The next installment will be posted on Wednesday, Nov. 1.

The Eiffel Tower, Pt. 2

Read part one first!

My team’s entire time in Paris was riddled with moments of awe. It’s one thing to see the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre in a book; it’s an entirely different experience to stand inches from them and look up. History becomes tangible in aged cities like Paris. Every cobblestone, cafe and curving alleyway tells a story.

When I stood beneath the Eiffel Tower on that warm Wednesday afternoon, I was overwhelmed by its stark beauty. Mr. Eiffel managed to capture the stately beauty of Paris in a single, upright, towering piece of metal. No wonder it was the crown jewel of the World’s Fair; no wonder Chicago felt the need to build the world’s first Ferris wheel. (For all you history lovers, read this to learn more!)

I immediately started snapping pictures. Just a few images in, a young man approached me with a cautious, “Bonjour!” I was taken aback; in France, it’s uncommon to be approached by a stranger. But I smiled and nodded like a polite American. He rattled off a string of French words, miming taking a photograph with his phone. I understood: He wanted me to take a picture of him in front of the tower.

When I returned the phone, I tried to explain that the tower was too big, I couldn’t get the whole thing in the frame. He nodded vaguely, grasping only part of what I was saying. Then, clearly on sudden inspiration, he rattled off another string of words. I understood only one: selfie. After an embarrassed pause, I agreed.

So, on some Frenchman’s phone, there is a picture of me with the Eiffel Tower looming in the background. As if being at one of the most well-known structures in the world wasn’t enough, I also got to have a sweet interaction with the country it symbolizes.

That wasn’t end of the adventure, though. Check the blog for more stories this week!