Thursday, December 19, 2019

Merry Christmas, to all waiting.

This morning I woke up at 4:45 to bake the appetizer Brian had to bring to his holiday party at work. As I was brushing maple syrup onto the bacon-wrapped stuffed dates I'd assembled the day before, I heard William call for me feebly from upstairs. "I don't feel good," he told me, and sure enough, the fever he'd had at bedtime was still burning. I carried him downstairs, thankful that I still can carry my big boy, when he vomited over my shoulder onto the wood floor behind me. I arched my back and held very still until he was done. Poor Will; of all our family members, he is disproportionately afflicted with these bouts of stomach flu.

I was supposed to make a trip to the grocery store last night for more baking ingredients. The day's mess in the kitchen, however, was so overwhelming that I figured I'd tackle it first, and of course I didn't finish in time to head to the store. Really, I would've been too exhausted anyway. Now I find myself with a sick little boy stuck on the couch and no ingredients to finish my baking and you know what? This is a gift. I get a day to take care of my boy, a day that tethers us home and makes us read those Christmas books that have been piled in the book nook. (Let's hope he can rally in time to enjoy them.)

Maybe today will finally bring us those peaceful moments I've been wanting.

My parents gave us the warmest, most wonderful Christmases I can imagine. They are some of my most vivid childhood memories. My mom told me, when I'd become an adult, that since there wasn't much money, they wanted to make Christmas more about the traditions than the gifts. There were always both, of course, but maybe their emphasis on tradition really made it magical.

December was the most dilatory month of the year, offering in exchange for its agonizing crawl excitement like church caroling, candy houses with the Missionettes, and the school Christmas play. When Christmas Break finally began, it was just the six of us- my parents, my brothers, my sister, and me. Christmas Eve was my favorite day of the year, eclipsing Christmas Day only barely, by its added luster of anticipation. At Christmas Eve dinner, we ate artichokes and cheese fondue, with cookies for dessert brought over by various friends and neighbors. For many years, until we were too cool for it, we'd film our own little version of the nativity story in Luke. My dad would be the innkeeper; Erin and Matthew would be Mary and Joseph, Joel was a shepherd and I the attention-hogging angel. My mom filled in the undesirable roles - the donkey, an extra shepherd. We'd tape it with the camcorder and watch it together afterward. Then there were family devotions, and: "Okay, you guys can open just ONE present!" Then there were snacks- pigs in a blanket, nachos. We'd stay up late, playing video games together. One year- I must have been older- twelve?- we opened a Playmobil Nativity, and Erin and I played for hours.

Finally in bed, I'd lie awake, watching the pattern of headlights play on my ceiling, listening to my parents wrap gift together in the basement. I could not possibly wait until morning. How could it be so far away?

My siblings and I grew up with an intense love of Christmas, though I think we've all struggled with the transition from "childhood Christmas" to "adult Christmas." I'm thirty-two years old now, and each year I find myself farther (not in time, but in experience) from that magical holiday feeling. The hustle of this time of year is completely antithetical to what Christmas used to feel like, what Christmas should be. What it has become for me, and for many, I think, is a time of hectic frenzy: late nights, long lists, days that fly by, traditions cast to the wayside. (I don't really know how to change this. I think it would involve breaking a lot of the expectations required by the ties we share with our supportive community, and I don't believe my selfish desire for tranquility is worth that.)

Anyway, Christmas is, and should be, a time of waiting.

The Jews were waiting, had been waiting, for their Messiah. For over four hundred years, not a single prophet had entered the scene. I wonder if the Jews, suffering under Roman rule, suspected God had forgotten them.

And then, unexpectedly, a baby, born of poverty and shame. A beginning. No deliverance yet: just a promise. Christ was The Word, a physical embodiment of the intentional, spoken order that brings the chaos and uncertainty of our lives into submission.

That uncertainty lingers. Millenia later, we are all still waiting now. Waiting for something. Change, maybe, or resolution. An end to something, or a beginning. We are all waiting. And just as the Jews could not make their Messiah happen by strength of will, most of us cannot bring about that change for which we wait. Despite all the mastery and discipline capable of the human spirit, in some way we are all nevertheless, unavoidably, in "the fell clutch of circumstance." Christmas is the time for us to recognize that wait, the time of year we hallow it, hold it in our hands, and make our peace with it. Christmas is waiting, distilled.

When I become overwhelmed by the minutiae of the Christmas season, as I do each day, I close my eyes and find myself alone, at night, in the snow. I can feel myself there almost tangibly, surrounded by blue spruce trees and gazing upward at stars so brilliant they outshine the moon. It is perfectly still and quiet. I don't know what I'm doing there, but I know that I'm waiting, and it feels like Christmas.

I won't be alone in the snow at midnight, today, but I'll be in the living room with my children, in front of the fire, with something warm in the oven and the Polar Express playing, experiencing their impatience for Christmas Day. That will be enough.

Friday, December 13, 2019

"I'm him."

This is a post about Barrett.

Right now, Barrett is at his very first Royal Ranger Lock-In with his daddy and his big brother. It's a junk-food-fueled, all-night Nerf battle for all the church boys ages 6-12. I asked him and William to pack their things - "Just something to sleep in, and something to wear in the morning-" and he descended with seven pairs of underwear and a pile of clothes. "I got three pairs of shorts, just in case."

He disappeared again, then returned with an armful of stuffed animals. "I can't sleep without these."

"Also, I need to bring this toy bull."

"Do you think the boys will want to play Frisbee?"

"I should bring my school stuff, in case we do school."

"I should bring my Bible."

"We need our walkie-talkies!"

(Suffice to say he left with much less than he packed. I did send the walkie-talkies, with fresh batteries.)

So now they're gone, and I'm baking, and listening to my book, and working out, and taking a minute here to dedicate a post to Barrett, my number-two, little five-year-old guy with the massive heart of gold.

-------------

Barrett is always some creature. "Mom, see this chameleon? I'm him."

"Mom, you know that blue turtle shell from Mario? I'm him, but with a turtle inside."

"Mom, you know that fire lizard from Frozen? I'm him."

"Mom, you know that kind of fish? With the spikes that blows up like a ball? I'm him, but I have long spikes on my fins and they shoot in and out."

(Of course, no matter what fearsome creature he is at the moment, I'm always his caretaker, whom he adores and would never hurt.)

-------------

Every night at bedtime, he requests a variation of his old favorite, "It is Night-Time," which I came up with on the fly four years ago, unaware I'd be singing it hundreds of times over the next few years. At some point, Barrett began asking to change it to "It Is Green Iguana Time" or "Tomato Frog Time" or "Pig Time" or "Fire Lizard Time," and now, every night, it's something new. A few months ago he asked for "Ninja Frog Time," which Mac and Neva loved so much that they ditched their own songs and adopted "Ninja Toad" as their favorite, so I literally sing this same tune three times every night, once for Barrett, with on-the-fly lyrics about the Creature of the Minute, and then twice for Mac and Neva:

It is toad time, ninja toad time,
Hi-YA, kick, and punch
You are such a tough amphibian,
You eat bad guys for lunch (crunch!)
You jump and you flip,
You save animals from the road,
All the forest creatures love you,
You're the sweet Ninja Toad.

I digress. Anything unusual that moves, fascinates and inspires Barrett. He covers our walls with art, mostly pictures of animals, monsters, and aliens, fierce and friendly. He is fascinated with Pokemon. He just loves CREATURES.

-------------

He is full of love. He gives in in heaping measure to anyone who needs it. Today, in an email to his mentor, he had to answer a question from her about what made him special and unique. He thought for a minute and then dictated to me, "I am special because I can try to juggle. And I am good at drawing and writing and art. And I am good at making friends with babies and kids and being nice to kids that are hurt or sad."

He really is. He possesses remarkable empathy for someone his age. He is the best friend of everyone in the family, playing alternately with William and Neva and Mac, bridging the gap beautifully. Mac loves him dearly. "Bunnett!"

-------------

Sometimes, I think, the stress of being everyone's playmate gets to him a bit. The other day, in a burst of Home Alone-inspired independence, he yelled down the stairs, "When I grow up and get married, I'm livin' ALONE!"

-------------

On my way upstairs one evening, I met him traveling down to the first-floor bathroom with an armful of Consumer Reports magazines. "I have to poop," he explained, "and I gotta see what's going on in the news." Quite a while later, he emerged with a handful of promotional cardboard coupons he'd torn out of the magazines as he'd sat there on the toilet. "Mom, is this money??"

-------------

Whenever Barrett is naughty, I breathe a little sigh of relief. It's refreshing to know he's not, after all, a perfect child. Because sometimes he's pretty darn close. I sometimes think about the miscarriage I had before him. I wouldn't have had Barrett without that bump in the road. At the time, it seemed purely awful. Now, I would live it again ten times over, if that's what it took to get my Barrett boy.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Flu Shot Friday

Where else can I brag on my kids, but here?

On Wednesday, a few hours before the kids and I were supposed to pick Brian up from work to take him to the airport, he called and asked me to leave early to pick up a package that had been delayed by the gross winter weather. The pickup easily added an extra 50 minutes to the trip. On the way home, we were stopped by unusual, heavy traffic. All told, the kids ended up sitting in the car for four hours straight without one complaint

My kids are just plain awesome. Plainly, awesome. So that’s what I’m dealing with here. 

Friday was our second annual Flu Shot Friday, when we  collectively get our flu shots, then go do fun things together. I told them that the one who won Toughest Kid Award would be able to pick the movie for that night. The top three rose to the challenge (Mac oblivious to both movie night and impending inoculation). Will and Neva both expressed nervousness, but when the moment came they took it like a BOSS. Barrett won, however, for taking it like a boss AND for not once complaining (“I can’t WAIT to get my flu shot!”). Mac cried a bit but was sunny again in a minute. We all marched out of there with suckers in hands and smiles on faces. I tell you, there’s nothing you can give someone that’s quite like the gift of self-confidence. 


Before their shot: “Show me your toughest faces!”


After their shots- “Mom, that was like nothin’!” (Will)

Their reward was a simple lunch at the Burger King playplace next door. “I’ve been wanting to go here for years,” said Will. “Ever since I was a kid.” They played there for three hours. When other kids left, they sat forlorn for a bit- then kept playing. Even after three hours, they would have stayed, but it was time to meet Grandma at Five Below. 

On the way to Five Below, I reminded the kids that we weren’t going there to shop for ourselves. We were supposed to be buying toys and supplies for our Operation Christmas Child boxes. And guess what? Besides Mac, who was oblivious to everything I said, I didn’t get a single complaint about not leaving with a toy. On top of that, I didn’t even get a single request for a toy. They really just wanted to find cool things for their shoebox kids. Will kept approaching me: “Can I get this for him, too, please?” Barrett was upset about not having enough for his boy. When I reminded him of some extra things he had at home that he could contribute, his face brightened. “Hey, thanks, Mom!”


Trying on superhero masks with Grandma 

At home, we heated up the leftover Burger King and watched Zootopia. I just kept staring at their faces while they ate their popcorn. They hobbled up to bed on their little legs, sore from the shots, and I kept telling them how proud they’d made me. 

This was one of those effortlessly happy days. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Teratoma

It's October 23 at 8 AM, and I'm having an ultrasound. I tell the tech that I'm there for irregular bleeding, some minor symptoms - that I'm worried my IUD might have shifted. I've put this off for too long - for one reason or another, it's been months since I decided to make an appointment.

A squirt of warm lubricant on my stomach, and there we go. It's strange, experiencing this without a baby on board. Things look different.

“What’s that big white blob?” I ask. “Is that my uterus?”

“No,” she replied. “Your uterus is right here."

"Can you see the IUD?"

"Yep, I can. It looks fine."

"So what is that big, white blob?"

"Oh - it’s all just part of your pelvis; the doctor will go over it with you. I’m not allowed.”

Within fifteen minutes, I'm back in the waiting room, reading my book. The doctor won't be in until 9 AM for the follow-up. I'm feeling very grateful Brian is able to watch the kids and guilty that I unexpectedly have this huge block of time to do nothing but relax.

A stream of easy-listening hits plays through the exam room speakers. The Band Perry sings, “If I die young, bury me in satin...” Two songs later, Joey and Rory: “But you’ll be okay on that first day when I’m gone...” Jeepers

Finally, at 9:25, the doctor enters, shakes my hand, and gets right down to business.

“You’ve got a ten centimeter mass,” he says. “That’s the size of a baby’s head.”

My mouth drops open. I hold my hands together to form the size of a grapefruit. “This is in my body?”

He's a young guy, long hair, casually dressed, and his demeanor is something between astonishment and amusement. “Yeah,” he replies with a smile. “It’s most likely a dermoid cyst- they’re full of hair and teeth and stuff like that.”

I am still slackjawed. "Whaaa-?"

He explains they'll do blood work today for cancer markers, then schedule surgery as soon as possible. “Because of its size, we won’t be able to remove it laparoscopically,” he says. “We'll make the incision at your bikini line. You’ll be in the hospital for two days.”

My facial expression has not changed. I cannot believe I have a mass of body parts sitting in my pelvis- completely invisible externally- and now to spend two days in the hospital? “What?” I must sound like an idiot.

“Some people get out sooner.”

“How did I not feel this in my body?” I hold out my imaginary grapefruit. 

He shrugs. “You must have a high pain tolerance.”

He shows me pictures of dermoid cysts. Disgustingly fascinating. Their alternate name is teratoma, from the Greek word teras, which appropriately means “monster.” Apparently, when I was just a plum-sized developing fetus, a germ cell (one of those delightfully versatile cells that can become any type of tissue as the fetus grows) attached itself to the wrong place- in my case, my ovary- and has been riding along ever since. And as ovarian dermoid cysts do, mine had begun growing in earnest during my reproductive years- though later, it occurs to me that it must have put on all its size since Mac’s birth.

I ask more questions:
What other symptoms can this type of tumor cause? Bleeding, cramping, bloating, weight gain, nausea, localized pain. (I suppose I have had most of those.)
Will my health improve after its removal? Laughing- Yes. (This feels like good news, since I haven't even been feeling that bad. Maybe I'll emerge from this with more energy in general.)
Who will do the surgery? I will- unless it’s cancer, and then we’ll send you to a specialist. 
How long do I have to wait to have it removed? As soon as the bloodwork indicates it’s benign, I’ll get you in my books; you’re looking at about two weeks. 
Can I have a tubal ligation at the same time? Sure. 
Will you be able to save my ovary? We are having a hard time getting a good image of it. I won’t know until I’m in there. 
You really don’t think it’s cancerous? I really don’t. 

I thought of more later:
Will I experience other health issues if you have to remove the ovary?
Will I be able to see the cyst after the surgery?
Should I not be exercising? What is the likelihood of torsion? Of rupture?

Driving home, I feel astonishment and bewilderment, as well as relief, horror, and amusement. Everybody laughs about the aunt in My Big Fat Greek Wedding- “Inside the lump he found teeth and a spinal cord.” I feel confident that the cyst will be benign; still, the idea of it is so disgusting. I want it out.

This doesn't have to be a big deal, I tell myself. I've been carrying on normally. Nothing has to change. But after the appointment, true to the power of suggestion, I discover I can very much feel the mass inside me whenever I move, and it makes me positively squeamish.

-------------

Two days later, after Googling my head off, I am in a more sober headspace. The stupid mass is all I can think about. I've told my parents and Elisabeth, but I don't feel like talking about it to anyone else. I'm now aware that a dermoid cyst grows relatively slowly, less than 2 mm per year, and I find myself focused on the same stupid deduction: this doesn’t add up and it’s probably cancer. The math isn't reassuring: I didn't have this mass less than three years ago, and now it's 10 cm.

I want those blood work results something fierce.

The office is working with me to schedule the surgery. Meanwhile, I recognize how much this ordeal is throwing off everyone’s busy lives. My parents, Brian, and Brian’s parents are all figuring out how to take time off. November isn’t exactly a great time for this.  We settle on November 19th for the surgery.
Thanksgiving is November 28th. When will I get ready for everyone?
Dad turns 60 on November 17th. What are we going to do for him?
This is totally derailing Brian's hunting season. 

I want those results. 

On Friday, I’m packing to leave for a church women’s weekend retreat. I’ve been looking forward to this for months, but today, I do not feel like going. Everything in me just wants to stay home, cuddled on the couch with my kids. I walk down to the barn to close the doors on Brian’s cooling buck, and I find myself crouched down on the concrete floor, crying. I can’t leave. My kids need me. I can’t leave them.

Saturday, October 26 - I'm at the women's weekend retreat. It's the first time our church has planned one of these, and it's amazing. Robyn is teaching us about inductive Bible study when my phone lights up quietly. I grab it and run out the door and up the stairs to the lobby. It’s my doctor. 

“You sound nervous,” he remarks when I answer the phone. “Don’t be. Your tumor markers came back low risk.” I know this test is not conclusive, but he explains it’s the best result I could hope for, until they can conclusively test the mass itself. He seems genuinely relieved for me. “So you’re good to go for the nineteenth,” he says. “Take it easy until then, and call or text me if you have any questions.” 

I feel like dancing. I text Brian. I head back down to catch the end of the teaching. As soon as it’s over, I beeline for my mom. When I tell her the test results are good, I'm surprised to find that I'm crying again, relieved tears this time. I don’t deserve good results, I think. Other friends are fighting cancer, and their families need them, too. But I am so very happy

Time to get comfortable with my monster baby on board. It’s gonna be a few short weeks until he comes out. I find that the word teratoma brings to mind the musical Oklahoma! and I discover myself frequently singing that theme song without realizing it.

Initially, I expect that the mass will constantly be on my mind, but as it turns out, I often forget it's there. I keep working out - Erin, Bayda, and I are completing the Morning Meltdown 100 challenge together - but no powerlifting, per the doctor's orders. Honestly, life seems so hectic and heavy that fitness has taken a backseat in general. I'm thankful for the challenge; without their accountability, I probably wouldn't be working out at all right now. The doctor told me no lifting anything heavier than 20 pounds - he surely doesn't realize I have a needy thug two year old who lives in my arms. I keep wearing Mac around, especially when he's sick and cranky. Life goes on, and people need you. It's reassuring.




Other life issues have a friendly little way of popping up during the wait for my surgery, so my mind isn't really on it. Frankly, I find myself looking forward to a good, long, anesthetically-induced sleep. Nana and Papa are coming all the way down from Charlevoix to help with the kids for a few days, and everyone is excited to see them- although last week Barrett spontaneously burst into sobs and, when pressed, explained that he was crying because: "I don't want you to leave - Nana and Papa aren't the same as you."

Brian's taking several days back in Montana to try to fill his tag, and while he's gone, it's prep time. I need to get my to-do list checked off, and it's about as long as my arm. (I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the recovery will be shorter than predicted because man, these days are busy enough when I'm quick on my feet.) He'll be back just in time for the surgery, and I'm planning for him to find the house immaculate, the laundry - shockingly - 100% done, the boys' school lessons printed and prepped, and everyone's extracurricular bags packed.

I'm excited to deliver this little monster. 

On Sunday morning, the kids and I drive down to Royal Oak for my blood type and screen at the lab. What an adventure! We park in the second level of the parking deck (cool), take the elevator down to the tunnel (double cool) and find our way to the Imaging Center, where the phlebotomist good-naturedly lines up four extra chairs so that the kids can watch the blood draw. William and Barrett are transfixed and disgusted as they watch the tube fill up with blood. “What are they going to do with that?” William asks. The phlebotomist answers, “Oh, we’re vampires. We eat it like a snack.” He laughs at William’s dubious expression. Barrett throws his head back. “I’m never gonna, ever gonna, EVER gonna do that!”

With my hospital bracelet double-checked and snapped on for Tuesday’s surgery, we leave the hospital to get ready for Grandpa’s 60th birthday lunch. It’s a great day, to celebrate the best guy ever. 

Monday, the day before the surgery, is a very hectic day. There’s so much to do. My in-laws arrive around 7 PM bringing a car full of groceries and presents for the kids. Brian’s dad and I go over the dropoff/pickup/dropoff/pickup instructions- he’ll be handling taking the kids to school and picking Brian up from the airport while I’m in surgery. I fall into bed that night and have restless dreams- dreams that I have to bring the kids with me to the OR, that no one is there to watch them, that I’m barking instructions at them while they’re administering the gas. I dream that the surgeon tells me he can’t perform the procedure after all. I dream that I’m unexpectedly pregnant. 

On Tuesday, my mom and I drive separate cars to the hospital. We check in at 11, and it’s not long before they take me back to pre-op. My heart is beating a bit more rapidly than usual, but I feel happy to be there and excited to get fixed up. The surgeon greets me and says he’s been looking forward to this case. I imagine that pulling this cyst out is going to be immensely satisfying. 




He confirms that I’d like to do the tubal. This, surprisingly, has not been a difficult decision. There was a brief period this summer/fall when I wanted another child. Brian wasn’t sure, and he suggested we wait until the 1st of the year to decide. Then life swooped in and school started and I realized that, for a hundred reasons, our family simply couldn’t handle another member. And then I found out about this tumor, and knew it was the perfect opportunity to take care of the sterilization discussion we’d been having about who/when/why. We are all here; I’m confident of this. I’m looking ahead to experiences I’ll be able to share with the kids, untethered by nap schedules and breastfeeding. I’ve been extremely lucky to have four healthy pregnancies and four rockstar kids. So I tell my surgeon that yes, I’d like to do the tubal. The nurse reads off to me the procedure at hand: exploratory laparotomy, left cystectomy, possible left oopherectomy, bilateral salpingectomy. My mom and Becca come back to say goodbye. My mom, in true mom fashion, asks the surgeon to please make sure that the incision is nice and smooth and does not leave me with a pucker of fat. She asks the anesthesiologist if I can choose a flavor of gas. “Mom,” I groan. She prays for me, and they say goodbye. They wheel me into the operating room and we chat about children, until they give me the gas. Six or seven breaths, and I’m out.  

I wake up in post-op around 2 PM with a scratchy throat. My nurse’s name is Brian, but unfortunately my Brian hasn’t made it back from the airport yet. My first question: “Did they have to remove the ovary?” Yep. My surgeon shows up soon. Everything went well. The cyst, which ended up measuring 12 cm, came out without bursting, but since it was enveloping my ovary, they had to remove it. My tubes are gone and so is the IUD. I feel like I’ve done 100 abdominal workouts in a row. 



It takes several hours for them to procure a room for me. Brian makes it in and we chat for a while before he heads home. My mom is determined to stay with me until I get settled into my room; she doesn’t end up leaving until after 9:30. That first night is rough. Walking from the postop bed to the bed in my room is extremely painful, and it’s hard to control the pain after I get situated. Thankfully, the catheter is still in place, so I stay put all night. 

At midday on Wednesday, they remove the catheter and get me up and moving again. I’m feeling better every hour. Becca and Brian come to visit in the afternoon, and my mom comes in the evening to stay for a few hours. At that point, even though I’ve had no solid food for two days, I’m very bloated and uncomfortable. We walk, walk, walk- more of a shuffle at first, but I get stronger. That night, I sleep wonderfully, the nurses keeping my medications consistent.

Though I was hoping to be home in one day, I’m so grateful to stay for two. By Thursday afternoon, I feel prepared to go home- although a bit apprehensive about how it’ll be to manage the chaos. I’m hoping that the weekend will see me feeling ready for Monday- and I’ve learned that there’s no school Thanksgiving week, so that will be a nice break, too. My mom and dad plan to bring over a simple Thanksgiving meal; my siblings will be celebrating elsewhere. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad time for this. I’m so relieved it’s done. 



On the way home, Brian and I talk. We talk about hard things and future plans. Somehow, this feels like a new beginning, a resolution of sorts. We sit in the parking lot of the pharmacy and hold hands, expressing ourselves in quiet voices, listening to each other, pausing to get the words right. At this moment, this whole experience feels like a gift.

A couple days later, on Saturday, I'm not feeling so euphoric. My abdomen is unrecognizable. I can't hold my stomach in; my abdominal muscles are pooling below my belly button, straining at the incision. Standing, sitting, walking hurts. It's all I can do to avoid texting the doctor: "Tell me this gets better!"

Monday is my postop visit. To say I’m still feeling rough is an understatement. Brian offers to drive me to my appointment, and I take him up on it. The surgeon had said I would be able to drive by Monday, but I can hardly climb into the truck. In the exam room, I tell him that I thought I would bounce back faster than this, and he says he surprised I’m not feeling better. He checks me out and, according to him, everything looks good, and my pathology came back “beautiful.” He tells me to wean off the Norco and gives me the go ahead to start working out- “nothing over 35 pounds.” I look at him askance. Jumping jacks? Squats? “Oh yeah, you can do all that,” he says. There’s absolutely no way, I think. “The more you move, the faster you’ll recover,” he insists. 

After that, I don’t take any more Norco. Throughout that night, Mac is awake and out of bed eight times. Remembering the doctor’s advice, I am up and down the stairs with him all night long. The next day - Tuesday - sees a huge improvement. I don’t know if I was having an adverse reaction to the Norco, or if it’s simply a psychological effect of hearing that everything is fine and I need to move more, but I feel markedly better. I even do a little stretching workout at the end of the day. It feels like working out with someone else’s body. My stomach looks completely different than it did before, and I can’t hold a plank for more than 30 seconds. Still, I feel triumphant. I’m back!

On Wednesday, I try a cardio workout. It goes great! Burpees and plank-based movements are quite painful so I substitute with jump squats or other moves. 

Thursday, I work out upper body. No problem! It’s Thanksgiving and I find myself in a wistful mood. I miss people. I decide to make cornbread dressing to take to my parents’ that night, just for the smells in the kitchen to make it really feel like Thanksgiving Day. I’m hopping around the kitchen just fine. That night, I set up my phone for a family picture, time the shot, and run into the pose quickly. Ouch! I pull something pretty hard and hobble home. 

On Friday, I’m still hobbling. It’s so uncomfortable to walk. Brian pulls out our Christmas tree and it sits in three disconnected dark green lumps in the corner while the kids beg me to decorate it. I look around at the messy house and the laundry and dishes and all that needs to be decluttered before decorating that tree and I cry in frustration. So much to do and I just want to sit very still and be left alone. So I compromise. I turn on a movie at 10 AM and I sit and watch it with the kids. After that, I feel a bit better, and somehow, we get through that busy, busy day. We even decorate the tree! 

In my frustration, however, I begin a water fast to accelerate healing. I fast through the weekend and up until Monday night (80 hours). Who knows if it helped, but the placebo effect is all I need to tackle Monday and everything that needs to be done. I’m truly feeling better every day. 

The incision still hurts and the skin around it is painful, but finally I’m able to move around just fine and do what I need to do. My abdomen is still pretty puffy, and I can’t wear much more than very soft leggings or the skin above the incision becomes very irritated. Honestly, that’s been one thing that’s thrown me a bit- my puffy stomach. Brian insists it’s swelling, and I hope he’s right! I hate to be vain, but if it’s not, my stomach has drastically changed and I was not expecting that. When I find myself worried about that, I remind myself that this is likely something that would have killed me within the next 5-10 years, if I lived a century ago or lived somewhere where I did not have access to medicine. How many of our friends, I wonder, would be gone right now, without modern medical intervention? I can easily think of a few. We are so, so lucky.

Three weeks post-op, I can truly say I feel like myself again. I can work out just fine, I can run around the house as usual, and the puffiness and sensitivity is almost gone. My stomach is almost back to its normal appearance, with things settling in nicely without the monster grapefruit pushing them around. I can even wear a pair of jeans for the first time. I feel amazing. I'm still waiting for my final post-op visit at the beginning of January, to get clearance to lift heavy again, but I truly feel like I’m through this. 

William at night

As I always do, I went up to check on William again before going to sleep. I turned off the story he was listening to and kissed him good night. Apparently, he had been doing some thinking, and needed to talk- we ended up talking for at least 25 minutes. I wrote down as much of the conversation as I could remember. (There was much more, and I get so frustrated at my memory that can remember lyrics to rap songs I learned in high school and not the random cute things I hear in present day.) When I finally came downstairs, Brian was like, “What the heck were you doing?” Talking to Will. “You should tell him you can talk in the morning!” 

But these things never come up in the day. There’s playtime and school and chores and chaos. There’s no chance to sit and spend half an hour talking to a little boy in the quiet darkness. And really, these nighttime conversations don’t happen often. I usually kiss him goodnight, reassure him that “it’s nowhere close to midnight,” and leave. So when he starts in like this, I pay attention. 

So, in short:

Mom, I’m a little bit afraid of God.

Why, buddy?

Because you know Mom, He could blow up the world with a snap of His fingers.

Well, He could, but we know He won’t, because the Bible tells us how the world will end. But it’s good to have a bit of the fear of God. It’s good to remember He watches and weighs the things we do. We obey Him because we know He’s watching us, and we love Him, and we want to do the right thing because we love Him. That’s called the fear of God. Do you member when I accidentally stole those donuts from Meijer? I really didn’t want to haul you guys all the way back into the store to pay for them.

But if you hadn’t, you would’ve gotten into huge, big trouble! The police would’ve come!

No, William, nobody even knew. Nobody would’ve even done anything at all. But I knew that God was watching and I knew it was the right thing to do to go back into the store and pay for the donuts. Even if no one else sees what we do, God sees it. And we need to do the right thing if only for the love of God. 

Mom, could God make our house fall down? Could He make my bunkbed lift up off the floor? Could He make the sun explode?

Yes He could, but he won’t do any of that. God gave us order and scientific laws. The changing of the seasons, the rotation of the earth, these things are predictable and orderly. God is not a little kid like you, you goofball. He’s not going to do crazy things on a whim.

But God sent his Son. And sons are little kids!

Oh Will! Jesus grew up, honey, into a man. He was around my age when he died.

Mom, why would God send people to hell who don’t know they’re supposed to believe in Jesus?

Will, I don’t think that’s true. I believe that everyone who wants to spend eternity with God will have that choice. The Bible says that God desires that no one should perish, and that God is rich in mercy. We don’t know much about hell. We just know it’s separation from God. And probably some people wouldn’t want to be with God. 

Mom - (referencing a weeks-old conversation) - how can you say that everyone is bad? We are good people! We don’t steal things! And there are really bad people who steal things! How can you say that everyone is bad?

Well buddy, we all have the potential for evil in our hearts. For some people, one little bad choice leads to another one, and then one even bigger, and before you know it, you’re doing all the wrong things. Other people were never taught how to do the right thing. What if you were born into a family where there was fighting and drugs and violence? And you didn’t have a daddy or mommy to teach you the right thing to do? This is why we need to fear God, and do the right thing ourselves, and have mercy on other people, and show them the love of Jesus because maybe they’ve never seen it before. You and I are no better than anyone else.

Mom, everyone says that the Bible is worth more than diamonds. A Bible costs like twenty bucks. How could anyone say it’s worth more than diamonds? Why don’t you wear a Bible on your finger instead?

Honey, it’s not the paper it’s printed on, it’s the words inside. They are precious and special. They show us the character of God and they help us to know the right thing to do. If I was in a jail cell - remember we read about Corrie ten Boom today? - if I was in jail like her, and I could either have my diamond ring or a Bible, I would pick the Bible. That would bring me a lot more comfort. The Bible tells us what God is like. That makes it really precious.

Mom, you know God could crush a rock like nothin’- He could even crush a diamond. Mom, can God do anything?

Nope. He can’t sin- He can’t lie- He can’t change. 

Mom, when did God make the world? 

I don’t know, Will. The Bible indicates that the Earth existed in the beginning. I don’t know when He made it. We can look at rocks to figure out how old they are. 

Mom, rocks are so cool. Is my crystal rock worth a TON of money? 

It’s probably worth some money, yeah - I don’t know about a TON, though. Maybe you’ll be a geologist someday, Will - a scientist who studies rocks. 

Mom, I think I know what instrument I want to play. The clarinet.

That would be really awesome, Will. But first you have to learn how to play the piano. 

I already know how to play the piano! 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans Day

Today the kids were reminded of their family heritage of military service and the gratitude they owe to all those who have sacrificed for our freedom. I’d had bigger plans for the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day- I wanted to take my grandpa out to lunch - but Mac had a fever and Neva was coming down with it, too. It was, as Barrett put it, “pouring snow,” and swimming lessons were canceled, so we hunkered down, rescheduled with Grandpa for Friday, and celebrated at home.

The kids are learning about monuments and famous American landmarks. In a moment of exhaustion, after spending the night awake with Mac, I asked the boys to build some Duplo monuments to honor our veterans while I napped with the sick younger two upstairs. They were proud of the result. Barrett built two flags- one flag to represent the veterans who had died, and the American flag for the ones still living, and William (for lack of military figures) used two construction workers to represent “the ones who are separated from their families.” That’s all of them, buddy.

It’s so hard to convey these things to children. I try my best. I asked the boys if they would want to be soldiers when they grow up. “No,” said Barrett, as he chewed his taco. “Actually, yes.” 










Friday, November 8, 2019

This girl!

This morning, Neva came down into the bathroom, where I was getting ready for the day, and asked me to do her hair. I unbraided it and asked her how she would like it styled. 

“Two big braids! Like Auntie did!” I love braiding her hair. We sat on the floor and talked while I put her hair into two French braids. 

While I was finishing up the second braid, I remembered that the style Auntie had given her had been different. She’s not gonna like it, I thought. I braced myself for confrontation. 

“You look so cute,” I told her. She really did. “Check it out,“ I said, turning her toward the mirror. 

She looked at her hairdo, turning her head from side to side. She regarded me with disappointment. “I really don’t like it at all, mom.” She paused for a good measure, and smiled. “I love it.” Oh, you stinker! I laughed so hard. 



We are working on declining food more respectfully. She often comes to the table for a meal and promptly declares, “I am NOT eating that.” The other day, I was plain floored. “How did it ever become okay to say that, Neva?” Oh man. Last night, after picking tiny pieces of tomato out of her Spanish rice, she gave up. “Mom, I’m just not eating this rice. It’s too potatoey.” Nevertheless, she’s my best eater. (Ha! What does that tell you about my kids’ eating?)

Lately, every day, when I’m working in the kitchen, she asks me, “Mom, do you wanna play house?” Up until this week, I’ve usually said, “I’m sorry honey- mommy’s getting dinner ready, and I can’t play.” But the other day I thought, what the heck. “Sure.”

“Okay,” she replied happily. “You be the mom, and I’ll be the kid.” Oh my goodness. Apparently, playing house simply involves me working around the kitchen as per usual, talking to her in a more exaggerated “grown-up” voice. One of her baby dolls is her pretend little sister, and she takes care of her while I work. Her pretend dad is a mailman. And that’s all that is required to make Neva happy! 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Today

Yesterday at lunch, Neva looked in disgust at her plate. Among the different foods I’d given her was a small serving of raw cauliflower. “Mom, I’m never gonna eat that white broccoli.”

——

On the way home from church last night Will asked me, “What instrument would you want to play?”

“The violin,” I told him. “What about you?”

“I can’t decide,” he lamented after a few minutes. I described the different types of orchestra instruments to him, and all the non-orchestra instruments I could think of, but no bites. Finally, I said, “I could see you playing the trombone, Will!” 

“Okay, I’ll play the trombone,” he agreed happily. He was quiet for a while, then said, “Mom, when I grow up I’m gonna invent an invention with a bunch of horns on top and the strings on the bottom and big cymbals on the sides and I’m gonna call it a zingey. And it will play whatever music I want!” 

I laughed. “It sounds like you’ve been reading some Dr. Seuss.”

——

Mac is lately saying, “Sank-oo, Mom.” Very clearly, very enthusiastically, for everything I do for him. It’s plainly adorable. 


I love these kids so much. I love their kind hearts, their good intentions, their curiosity, their innocence. They are playful, inventive, forgiving, and thoughtful. Yesterday William kept singing a worship song: “Even when I don’t see it, You’re working. Even when I don’t feel it, You’re working- You never stop, You never stop working.” Every time I’d hear it, I’d lift my head a little higher. These are the kids I dreamed of having, and on homeschool days that run fairly smoothly I find myself imagining what we will be able to do with all the time we have ahead together. Barrett wants to see the Statue of Liberty; William wants to visit California. And I think, well, there’s no reason we can’t do that together. Let’s go. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Eight extra hands

About a month into the school year, Barrett’s teacher told me that Barrett and another little boy, Garrison, had become good friends. “Garrison is very quiet,” she said, “but they have been inseparable.”

When I got home, I asked Barrett, “So, you and Garrison are friends?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “He was all alone and no one was playing with him, so I asked him if he wanted to be my friend.”

I got down onto my knees and hugged Barrett, tears in my eyes. “That was so kind, buddy,” I said. “That was like Jesus.” His eyes reflected my pride and happiness. 

I have felt bursts of impatience, wishing I could do more to help others. I want to get out of my cozy home - away from my homeschool-mom-angst - and grapple with true need and despair. But my place is here. 

And that day, it was demonstrated more powerfully than ever before that my time is not being wasted. I couldn’t have impacted that little boy, but my son could. And he did. I am (oh God, I hope I am) training - striving to train - four more people to work hard, to be kind, and to follow Jesus in such a committed way that they are willing to live their lives for him and not for themselves.

One day, God permitting, I will be able to help out there. Oh, there is so much need. But when I feel that frustrated longing, I remind myself that on that future day, I will hopefully know that four others are doing the same, in other parts of the world. My eight extra hands. 

Friday, November 1, 2019

“these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be”

Oh November, here you are. 

I am succumbing more readily than ever to the season’s insistence to hunker down and disappear. Time used to be that I would blast the Christmas carols come October first, quickened with new energy for the coming season. That’s not me, this year. That girl has vanished. Someone similar to Robert Frost’s “November Guest” has replaced her. I do not like the switch. 

There was no harvest party or fun activity last night for the kids. We stayed in while the snow blew. I could tell they were disappointed; that seems to be the reaction I elicit from them routinely now. 
What are we doing today? 
School, chores, playtime. 
Oh, mannnn.

I have such a fervent desire to focus solely on the positive. I can so easily find it. I can shove away the negative, bury it for later, tell myself I’m crazy, and remind myself to be grateful, for heaven’s sake. And yet, when I find myself cracking more than mending, and someone else confesses that they are struggling, just like me, it is comforting. Maybe someone would like to hear that same reassurance from me?

Oh, I know that no kind person would wish their struggle upon a friend. I suppose I am simply justifying my impulse to complain this morning. I’m currently making my way through Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; his pragmatic acknowledgement of the struggle of human existence is appropriate for these days of wading through a routine I cannot manage. 

Let’s pull out of this dive, shall we? This November is going to be markedly different than prior years’. I have a single goal for this month, and that is to finish our family’s photo book. 

Okay, I have a thousand other goals- AS ALWAYS- but that is primary. 

Secondarily: patience and joy. 

But the photo book is definitely more important. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

My tiny girl

Yesterday, on the way to pick the boys up from school, Neva told me that she had watched a Netflix show, a show that I had prohibited after viewing about ten minutes and finding the main character to be really unpleasant. “The ladybug girl isn’t bad,” she declared. “She just doesn’t want to be friends with that other girl.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, she’s not bad, Mom. I watched the whole show.”

“With whom?!”

“Yeah!”

I think she might have suckered Brian into playing it for her. 

And last night, when Brian came home with a beautiful ten-point buck, she ran outside to see, then came back to tell me, “MOM. Daddy caught a deer!”

——

The other day:

Neva: “Mom, I really hate to tell you this, but-”

Mac: “Mom!”

Neva: “Mac! I’m trying to talk to Mommy! Ok, Mom. Mom, I know you’re not going to like this, but-”

Mac: “Mom!”

Neva: “MAC! Please stop! I’m trying to tell Mommy something! Mom, I really hate to tell you this, but-”

Mac, now smirking with mischief: “Mom.”

Neva: “Mac! You’ve got to stop distrupting me! I’m trying to talk to Mommy! Mom, I know you’re not going to like this, but-”

Mac: “Mom!”

Neva: “MAC!”

Me: “Neva, ignore him! For goodness’ sake! What do you need to tell me?”

Neva (grinning impishly, looking out at the sunshine, grasping for something to say): “Ummm, it’s probably going to rain.”

——

Today, while wiping her after going potty:

Neva: Mom, I HATE bears.

Me: What? You don't hate bears, Neva.

Neva: I don't hate the Berenstain Bears. I hate real bears. I HATE them.

Me: Oh, honey, bears are really important. Without bears, there would be TOO many elk and TOO many deer. They'd eat too many resources and they'd get sick.

Neva: I HATE bears. They want to EAT me.

Me: Neva, you don't need to worry about bears. They don't live anywhere near here.

Neva: No, Mom! The panda bears! They are SO dangerous.

Me: Neva, panda bears eat plants! And they don't live anywhere near here!

Neva: Mom! they don't live in Africa space! They live right next to our HOUSE!

——

She has this cute little valley girl way of talking. The other day I heard her express decidedly, in the tone of voice you might hear a teenager using to describe her manicure, “I LOVE Jesus. I LOVE the Lord.” And can this girl TALK. She talks pretty much nonstop, and it’s delightful to listen in. She intersperses her observations with nonsense words and phrases, just to keep a steady stream going. I can hear exactly what she’s thinking at every moment. And a lot of the commentary takes place in front of- or passing- a mirror. She acts like she’s talking to someone, but what she’s really doing is verifying that she is successfully pulling off an imitation of a big girl

She mothers Mac and dotes on him, except for the times when she gets a mischievous gleam in her eyes and decides its time to reestablish the pecking order. Overall, she’s a wonderful big sister and often remarks, “This is my baby brother. He’s SO cute. I just LOVE him. I’m just going to KEEP him.”

She literally sings my praises. I often hear her singing,
My mommy is the best,
The best there ever was,
My mommy is the best, 
And I love her just because
She takes care of me and loves me and [insert extra reasons]
She’s the greatest mommy that I have ever seen!
She’s the greatest mommy that I have ever seen-
(Repeat refrain indefinitely)

I certainly don’t deserve that, but do I love it?! I do. 

The little bit of love I pour into Neva returns one-hundredfold. She, unfortunately, does not get a lot of attention from me. Between Mac’s constant shenanigans and homeschooling the oldest two, she has to entertain herself much of the day. And she really does a wonderful job of it, even though she would love to spend hours playing with ME. She’s such a good girl, and I’m so thankful for her. 


Back in Montana, in our “sister shirts” from Aunt Kathleen

Monday, October 21, 2019

Big Girls Don’t Cry

At the end of last week, I was flying around the kitchen, pulling dinner together for the instant pot, and went to thaw a quart of frozen chicken stock. I threw it into the microwave and hurriedly entered “666” (for seven minutes and six seconds) and that number literally broke the microwave. The light went on, the timer began counting down, but it just stopped heating.

As I write this, I confess to hiding in a corner of the house for a moment’s peace. It’s lunchtime, and I hear Mac screaming in displeasure, a bite of turkey sitting unchewed in his cheek. The past couple of weeks have been a bit of a struggle… a string of those days that you look around and think, my life’s work is cooking food people don’t want to eat, teaching people who don’t want to learn, and cleaning a house that never looks clean. Sometime after returning from Montana, I began an ambitious list of five and ten-year goals, items like learning new languages, attaining new fitness goals, being involved in new ministries, and single-handedly accomplishing renovation projects. The days that followed were so laughably frenzied, culminating in arm-length lists of “bare minimum tasks” I had not accomplished, that I have not returned to even view that list of goals. Furthermore, I honestly don’t even know if “shoot-for-the-moon-to-land-among-the-stars” is the right approach for my next ten years, or if I should just set the bar low enough so that I feel like a smashing success if everyone gets their flu shots before Christmas and no one starves. 

I am learning when to press on, and when to let go. It’s not easy. 

Nevertheless, there are always victories. Always. Even when for every victory you can count four shortcomings, failures, or tasks undone… There are always victories. So here are mine:

1. I saw Neva standing in the mirror, whispering to herself, ”You are perfect just the way you are.”
2. William wanted a bedtime snack of leftover turkey last night. This is huge, for my picky big boy. In fact, since our return, I’ve tightened up our diet enough that all the kids are happily eating healthy food they’d normally resist. 
3. I took the kids to the park two times last week. We collected brilliant leaves, made new friends, and raced each other up slides. It was less than fifty degrees and all of us were so warm from running that we ditched our coats. 
4. I worked out almost every day. Strength training? Not much of that, but I did something. I was considering my lack of lifting a failure, until I realized that the workouts I had done would’ve been incomprehensibly strenuous for me five years ago.
5. I beat Brian in chess!
6. Will is reading so well. Mac and Neva are playing together so nicely. Barrett is obsessed with porgs and snapping shrimp. At night the kids are asking for a made-up song called “Porg Time,” about fictitious Star Wars birds who befriend Chewbacca. 
7. Little by little, I’m tackling the overdue deep cleaning projects that have been under my skin. The basement is mopped and reorganized, the homeschool room has been purged and re-sorted, and the bathroom floor is finally looking new again since I discovered the right product for the weird, white, pebbly plastic tile that was looking so grungy. The Honda upholstery looks fresh, the pantry has been resorted, and I think we are over the post-vacation laundry hump. There is still so much to be done. One bite at a time. 
8. We are in Week 9 of school. I haven’t quit yet. 

See? In five years, when I read back over this post, I’ll laugh about the microwave, smile at our successes, and wonder what on earth could’ve possibly been wrong this month. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Breaking out the big guns.

“Mom!” Neva wails, running into the bathroom, where I’m putting away laundry, getting ready for the day. “Barrett’s not sharing his mints! He’s not letting me eat them!”

“Where are YOUR mints?” I ask her, knowing the answer. 

“I ate them already! I ate them one-at-a-time!” HER mints, which were distributed as equally as those of her brothers, have been gone for weeks. It took two days for hers to disappear. 

“Honey, Barrett is saving his.”

“He’s not! He’s not, Mom! He won’t give me ANY!”

“That’s because HE wants to eat his own mints, Neva. He’s saving them so HE can enjoy them.”

“No! He’s NOT, Mom! He hasn’t eaten any in a WEEK!” To Barrett and Neva, a “week” is the greatest conceivable measure of time. It’s longer than a year. (Definable lengths of time have no basis in their reality. I often hear phrases like, “It hasn’t been my birthday in a WEEK.” “Ten minutes to put away all these clothes? That’s like, one second!” “Forty-five minutes?! That’s like an hour!”)

“Honey, he doesn’t have to share them if he doesn’t want to. YOU got your own mints; you ate yours. He wants to eat his.”

“Well, fine,” she concedes rather maturely. She shrugs, tosses her hair over her shoulder, and then continues in three-year old babble. “But I think it’s inappropriate. And if you don’t care about me—” another pause— “well then, I’m not going to be on the girls’ team anymore. I’m on the boys’ team.” She blinks and looks at me defiantly. 

I give her my most exaggerated shocked-high-school-girl chin-drop gasp. “No. You’re not going to be on the girls’ team anymore, Neva?!”

She breaks into a big, little-girl smile. “I’m just kidding. I’m on your team, Mom.”

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Mister Mac




Talking to Mac, who’s cranky after a bath:
“Can I hug you?” 
No!” 
“Can I kiss you?” 
No!” 
“Can I tickle you?” 
No!” 
“Can I squeeze you?” 
No!” 
“Can I love you? 
“No— yeah.”

Mac can make the d sound only at the beginning of a word, not at the end. So if he’s not hot, he’s “coln,” and when he greets Brian at the door, he says, “Hey, Dan.” When he’s impressed, he says, slowly, “Oh my wern.” When he’s tired, he asks, “Go t’ ben, Mom?”

Somehow, he knows Michael Jackson’s song Bad and sings it often, making up his own words to suit his mood. Because he can’t pronounce the final consonant in “bad,” and doesn’t know any other words (so they come out in an indistinguishable stream), it can be hard to catch. 
For “more bread:”
“More bren, more bren, no lo lo bren.”
For “I’m mad:”
“I’m man, I’m man, no lo lo man.” 
Etc. 

He calls Neva, girl, and William and Barrett are “guys.” (He never calls Neva by her name. Only “girl.”) “Tell Neva ‘thank you,’ Mac.” “K’ou, girl.”

He loves to sing. He’ll mouth the words to songs in the car, after telling me to ‘watch this’- “Mom, ah dis!”
He sings “Twinkle Little Star” like this:
“Keno, keno, keno tar
Up buh buh buh buh buh high.”

At night, he asks for the “Neva Mae” song: “Ah Mae?”  He wants the same thing Neva has, wants to do the same thing she does. Sometimes he requests the alphabet song first: “C-D-D?”

He’s in the thick of learning how to speak English, and I am holding onto this phase tightly with both hands. I am going to miss it with all my heart. 
“Broke-it, this, mama.”
“Have-it, this?”
“Eat-it, this?”
“Hold-you, me?”
“Oh, ‘licious!” (delicious)
“Oh, shoes!”
“Oh, un-wear!” (underwear)
“Lap!”
“Hand!”

He replaces the w at the beginning of words with l
After potty: “Mom, I lipe?”
In the car: “Down, lindow?”

In August, he took to potty training like a fish to water. He’s had the fewest accidents of any of the kids, which I didn’t expect. (This is probably because anything his siblings do, he wants to do, too, and just as expertly.) He quickly- almost magically- transitioned, upon turning two, from being a pretty cranky guy, to such a pleasant little fellow. He trucks along at a good jog to keep up with everyone, climbing and jumping when they do, swinging his fat arms as he runs. 

He loves to be a big helper. After he picks up toys or puts food into Bo’s bowl, I gush over him: “Mac! That was so nice of you!” “Nice-you,” he repeats. Sometimes, he praises himself before anyone else does. “Nice-you!”

We have played this game over the past month, but I think it’s ended. He doesn’t seem to like it anymore. I’d tell him, “I kiss!” And then I’d kiss his cheek. He’d reply in his husky little voice, “No, I kiss!” He’d wrap his arms around my head and pull my face in to kiss my cheek. We’d go back-and-forth like that seven or eight times: “I kiss!” “No, I kiss!” Can you imagine a better game? I’m so glad I just wrote it down. I never want to forget it. 

Finally, I never want to forget how each night, in the dark, I hear him tell me I love you: “Luh loo, Mom.”

My big boy

William, at seven-and-a-half, is a lot like me as a kid. A LOT. Right down to the poor eyesight and bumpy knees. I am right on his wavelength. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not baffled by his random fears and eccentricities at times (as I’m sure my parents were baffled by mine). Recently he’s developed a fear of midnight. “Is it midnight?” - he’ll ask, as soon as the sky is dark. “Is it midnight?” - he’ll persist, when I check in him after bedtime. I’ve sat down with him numerous times to analyze and neutralize this fear. I’ve drawn pictures, gotten out the classroom clock, and had him unknowingly stay up until midnight having fun with friends, only to say, “See? Midnight won’t hurt you.” It persists. The other day he sat bolt upright over his Cheerios. “Is there a midday?!” And riding home the other night commented that the worst part of a storm was “probably the midstorm.” 

I remember laying in bed at night as a kid, afraid my parents would go to sleep and I would be the only one in the house awake. William struggles with the same fear. For some reason, he can’t fall asleep for at least an hour and a half after I put him to bed. I give him a flashlight and books, and play children’s audio dramas for him. I keep promising I’ll be back to check on him once more. He wants to know I’ll check on him when he is sleeping. He is such a good little boy to lay there, holding his blanket to his face, looking up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep. 

He sees the world in black and white. He likes knowing the rules, following the rules, enforcing the rules. He asks me several times before doing something he’s patently allowed to do, wanting the reassurance that YES, you can go upstairs to put socks on. He hates crying; he seems to consider it shameful. When he sets his jaw and blinks hard, I know it’s time for a quiet talk.

He loves Bo deeply. He pets him every day, and when Bo presses against him for more affection, William laughs and says, “Bo, I’ve been petting you all day long!” But Will always obliges. He likes to rub my back and play with my hair too, because he knows I love it. At night, when I go to check on him, I sit on the edge of the bed and talk to him, and he reaches over to rub my back, “so you’ll stay with me and you won’t be able to leave!”

He loves tickle fights. He loves to initiate them, usually at the most inopportune moments. I’ll be holding a cup of coffee, or cutting an apple, or deep in thought and focus, when I feel fingertips abruptly shoved into my armpit. Cue deep annoyance (which, to be fair, is a reaction he loves to elicit from all of us). One day I’ll look back on this and laugh (okay, I’m laughing to myself now), and I’ll think, I should’ve been a little more lighthearted and fun-loving, but as it is, I don’t handle being tickled very well, and I usually respond with, “Gah! William! that’s enough!” I keep a mental tally of how many times I rebuff his tickling advances and how many times I laugh and try to tickle him back… I try to keep the tally fairly even.

He has his Shelf of Treasures. This is an important aspect of William. These treasures are broken toys, interesting pieces of debris found in parking lots, spent gift cards, shiny objects, rocks and shells. He is the proud curator of a museum of things saved from the garbage can. He doesn’t really ever look at the objects; he just enjoys knowing they’re there. Mixed among all of this are some truly cool things, like a geode he found in Montana and a Petoskey stone he got from Uncle Mike. He often approaches me with a communal object - Neva’s necklace, a Star Wars book – “Mom, makes me want to put this on my shelf.”

He loves saving his money more than he likes spending it. He was in the habit of promising his siblings a certain amount of money to do favors for him – bribing Barrett to wrestle with him or Neva to let him play with her toy- then he would, for the rest of the day, threaten to withhold the payment if they did not continue doing other things for him. I put a stop to that.

The other day, halfway through a game of Long Cow: “Hey! Is this a CARD game?!”

He made me laugh so hard a few weeks ago. We had just picked out our Halloween/harvest party costumes from Goodwill, and he was so intrigued that his Revvit costume covered up his face so effectively. He began concocting a plan to go to his school harvest party as a new, different student. “Mom,” he said excitedly, “I’ll go in with my costume on, and you’ll say, ‘This is Dan. We just moved to town and we go to this school now.’” He paused considerably. “Oh, you’ll have to say, ‘We just visited William, and he’s sick, so he won’t be here, and this is Dan.’” Another pause. “And Mom, you can wear your sunglasses- and different earrings- and your rocketship shirt” (a t-shirt from my Dearborn 10k with Hannah) “and you can tell them that your name is Kelly. And no one will recognize you. And you can tell them that our last name is Slaze.......dird.” The last name was devised so arbitrarily that I could not stop laughing, even later when I related the story to some friends. 

Today we were slogging through some online discussion board work (“slogging” is being generous- it was an exercise in patience- Will does not love making his virtual academy contributions) and after at least an hour, we were on the very last question. “Okay, Will. One more. Stay with me. ‘What is subtraction, in your own words? Give an example using apples.’” His eyes were already viewing distant planets before I’d reached the end of the question. I rephrased it, helping him define subtraction, then said, “Now, tell me a story to illustrate subtraction, using apples.” (Every other kid had entered something like: “Four apples take away two is two apples.”) William instantly perked up. “Okay,” he said, “four apples walk into a haunted castle. Suddenly, a live skeleton jumps out and grabs two and eats them! Now there are two left. They run down a dark passageway, but it’s not a passageway! It’s a monster’s mouth! He eats them! CHOMP! Now there are zero.” 

When he was very little- three years old- he decided he was afraid of swings. “I don’t want one to break,” he told me. 

“Honey,” I assured him, “swings are strong. They won’t break underneath you.” 

“Well,” he replied, “I saw a broken one, once. SOMEBODY was swinging on it when it broke.” I was dumbfounded. Since then, he has not wanted to swing- until this year. Now, we swing side by side at the park, and I’m so proud of him for moving past that. I know that he will continue to conquer each and every fear he faces- in his own time. You can’t rush a William (or a Maegan). You just encourage, and wait. 

Will’s favorite things to do are: reading in the book nook, playing LEGOs, eating chips, watching football with Daddy, helping Daddy work outside, wrestling with Barrett, playing Beyblades and checkers with anyone who will join him, watching movies, talking to me, and playing VIDEO GAMES. He lives for video games. 

He is just like me, in so many ways, and I’m so delighted to be able to understand and relate to his quirks. I’m so curious to discover what he will do and become. It’s such a profound privilege to be his mom- his, and Barrett’s, and Neva’s, and Mac’s mom. Will, if you read this someday, I hope you know that you are- and have always been- and always will be- very much loved. 


His favorite horse at the Shelby carousel, named “Ben”


Target practice


Being my teammate for “Oregon Trail” board game


His most faithful friend


Do you see Dan Slayzdird back there???

Monday, October 7, 2019

Currently-

Four hours to go, on our return drive from Montana. We’ve driven under North Dakota stars, into a foggy Wisconsin sunrise, and through the hubbub of Chicago. At one point, when I was the only soul awake, struggling a bit to stay alert as I drove through Wisconsin, a large bird flew out of the timber and kept pace with the truck. Wondering if it might be a loon, I peered closer and saw a bald eagle- flying alongside the truck! I’ve never seen one in the wild before today. That was exciting; that put a pep in my step, so to speak. 

The last seven hours of this drive pass the most slowly. After almost twenty hours, you think, “Seven hours is nothing!” Over the seven hours, however, the antsiness grows, the entertainment loses its luster, and the conversation becomes terse. But somehow, we always make it home. 

I’m currently reading... everything. After my stringent “media fast” ended on September 18, I’ve been a sponge. I’m reading (alternately) A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Primal Blueprint, and listening to All the Light We Cannot See. I was also listening to The Power of Habit in Life and Business, but my loan ended... and the book won’t be available for another sixteen weeks. Ha! I’ll have to start over. I should’ve known I wouldn’t be able to finish an audiobook during our time in MT. I’m really enjoying Owen Meany, but I’m 80% done and fear it’s going to get pretty sad. The Primal Blueprint is an effort to psyche myself up again to get back on my “moron diet,” but the book is not really striking a chord- I know I need to get my nutrition back in line, but it’s hard to swallow the extreme diet dogma. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. And All the Light, I like so far. I wanted something to listen to during my driving stint, it’s been recommended to me by many friends, and it was available on Libby, but after four hours of diligently trying to follow what seemed like a very disjointed story, I was not a fan. I lifted up my phone to see that I had somehow been periodically skipping my way ten hours in, without realizing it, and decided to start over. Now, Brian’s at the wheel again, so I’m finishing Owen Meany.

I’m currently looking forward to getting back into a routine at home with the kids and school. Homeschooling seems to be going so well with this new program. I still feel like I’m in over my head most days, but at least I know that I’m not dropping the education ball. I’m also looking forward to getting my nutrition and exercise back on track. I’ll post my diet/fitness notes another time- but I’m excited about that.

I’m currently pondering my conflicted feelings about having another child. My time with Erin was more restorative than I can describe. I already miss her very much. Being with someone who loves and accepts you, makes you laugh, loves your kids, and with whom you have so much in common- is such a rare and wonderful experience. We had so much fun. It was a really precious time. What in the world would I do without my sister? I’m coming away even more despondent than usual about the fact that Neva will never have this experience. I’ve always felt sad about not giving her a sister. Do I want another baby? Frankly, no. With all my heart, I do not want to deprive my kids of a mom for another 2-3 years (which is how it feels, when pregnancy and infancy take so much energy), BUT if I knew I’d have another girl, I’d do it. I know that sounds awful, but truthfully- I could easily convince myself to have another child- girl OR boy- even two or THREE more- I couldn’t imagine life without any one of my four, and I know I’d say the same if I had double that number. But I recognize very practically that I can’t be the mom my kids need if I have eight, or seven, or six kiddos (because let’s admit it- I’m not the mom to FOUR that I wish I were). And then there’s Brian, who is not at all on board to add another. I could maaaaaybe convince him if I were certain, myself. But I am not. I feel sad to think that one day I’ll say, “I should have had one more. I should have tried for a sister for Neva.” Yes, there are a hundred arguments to be made for accepting that she isn’t meant to have a sister. I repeat them to myself often (and try to ignore the mental counterattacks). Yet, my relationship with my sister feels so vital to me, that it’s hard not to feel I’m depriving Neva of one of life’s crucial joys. 

This, ultimately, is not in my hands. I have to find peace in letting go. 

I’m currently watching... nothing. Brian and I are all caught up with Stranger Things, which we started in July and is actually the first show we’ve watched together in years. I liked it a LOT- it’s a good thing we had the Montana trip to distract me from grieving that it was over :). Erin and I finally finished up all the Harry Potter movies (having started them together last year!), which felt a bit “meh,” since film adaptations rarely measure up to the books, then moved onto the Fantastic Beasts movies, which we watched twice, and which I loved. I love when films so convincingly create such a beautiful fantasy world. Those are lovely movies, plot holes and inconsistencies notwithstanding. 

Finally, I’m currently LOVING:
Mac’s way of saying “another”- “nawr-one, book! Nawr-one, star! Nawr-one, plane!” 
Neva’s fervent mama-love. And how her latest favorite words are “paranoid” and “inappropriate,” which she uses completely out of context. 
Barrett’s constantly-changing favorite reptile or amphibian. Madagascar tomato frog (real), American spadefoot toad (real), “slobber dragon” (fictional), “freezing breath dragon” (ditto), have been his recent (within the past two days) favorites. And how he earnestly insists, “Mom, I really don’t need a coat- I’m cold blooded!”
William’s very serious approach to life. Midnight is very scary, boys should NEVER go into the women’s restroom, toy guns need to be strapped on in multiples, “FREEZE OR I’LL SHOOT!” needs to be loud and fervent, and Long Cow is the BEST GAME EVER (and he’s serious about winning). He’s still very much a little boy. I am really trying to not let the other kids’ needs constantly eclipse his quiet, serious little heart. 

Current favorite quote: 
“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn't try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn't need others' approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” Lao Tzu 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Fifty Books in Five Years (or Less)

Reading fifty new books in the next five years is a goal I've set during this period of my life in which I keenly feel my brain shrinking. I'm shooting for roughly 60% nonfiction, and plan to briefly review them here. I began this goal in October 2019.

1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
4/5 - Finished 10/8/19
Very well written characters, compelling story. I pictured Owen Meany as a kid I once knew well; it made the story feel more personal. I enjoyed reading a story set in the Vietnam War and (alternately) Reagan administration. Drawbacks- The narrator conveys a sort of apathy about his own existence (compared to his passion for Owen Meany) that kind of impacted my interest in his outcome; also, it’s divulged early on that the ending will be grim, and I think that (maybe intentionally?) distorts the lighter, amusing parts of the story. 

Favorite quotes:
1. “Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”

2. “‘I want to go on being a student,’ I told him. ‘I want to be a teacher. I'm just a reader,’ I said.

‘DON'T SOUND SO ASHAMED,’ he said. ‘READING IS A GIFT.’

‘I learned it from you,’ I told him.

‘IT DOESN'T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT- IT'S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT. IF YOU'RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.’”

2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
4/5 - Finished listening 10/17/19
Beautifully descriptive. Just really lovely prose- the author is a poet. I really enjoyed this; I love historical fiction, and this book provided a unique perspective of World War II. What would it be like to be a blind girl in France? To be a protector of a priceless national treasure? To be a brilliant orphan boy with a conscience, growing up in the Reich? While exquisitely written, this book was downgraded from “LOVED It” to “Really Liked It” because the plot, though interesting, was kind of slow. I suppose that’s what happens when you write about a blind girl and a young teenage boy during World War II; they‘re not going to be involved in a lot of exciting action. So I admit that there were days that I felt less than compelled to keep listening. (Zach Appelman does an excellent job narrating.)

Standout quotes:
1. “Werner wonders in the dead of night, isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and life sets in upon it. Taking things from it, stuffing things into it.”

2. “It is the obliviousness of our children that saves us.” (True; and ruins us, too, no doubt.)

3. “The sky seems high and far away. Somewhere, someone is figuring out how to push back the hood of grief, but Marie-Laure cannot. Not yet.”

4. “The others who wait at the gare d'austerlitz whisper that one out of every hundred will come back, that you can loop your thumb and forefinger around their necks, that when they take off their shirts, you can see their lungs moving inside their chests. Every bite of food she takes is a betrayal.  Even those who have returned, she can tell, have returned different, older than they should be, as though they have been on another planet, where years pass more quickly.”

3. After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
3/5 - Finished 10/20/19

This is an incredibly imaginative approach to the post-apocalyptic novel, but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not. The beginning, like an undercurrent, sucked me right in. (Sorry- groan- I know.) The premise, one hundred years in the future, is a world completely flooded, the tops of our mountain ranges now the only land upon which to settle. The human race is attempting to rebuild itself, its existence having been reduced to basic impulse and need. The main character is a mother of two- one child with her, the other having been kidnapped from her by her husband years before. Her quest is to find her lost daughter (and to take revenge upon her husband). The book contains vivid descriptions of a life lived largely on the water, and includes some powerful thoughts about the nature of loss and parenting in an uncertain world. I found myself copying several passages that struck a chord. What I did not like about this book were the characters. None of them, from the little girl to the rugged, mysterious navigator/love interest, were particularly likable or even multi-dimensional. The action scenes were often over-the-top unrealistic, and the main character was so intensely hypocritical that I didn’t find myself really caring what happened to her (so much as wanting to know what would happen at the end). I usually choose my books based on what's available in the library database, and I've often been rewarded with some incredible reads. All I can say of this one, however, is that I don't regret reading it- though my time could’ve been spent on something I liked better. 

Memorable passages:
1. "Sometimes you could see shadows darkening the water where the mountains rose up to meet the sky, and when you sailed over them, you could look down and see the rocky peaks like ancient faces floating in the deep, looking back up at you. The ocean churned above them, its currents eddying among the rocks, coral springing up anew, new sea creatures adapting and forming in the dark. I wouldn’t be here for whatever new things would grow out of this new world; I’d be ash before they sprouted fully formed. But I wondered about them, wondering what Pearl would live to see and hoping they’d be good things."

2. "knew it was sometimes easier to love ghosts than the people who were around you. Ghosts could be perfect, frozen beyond time, beyond reality, the crystal form they’d never been before, the person you needed them to be. Sometimes I wanted only the good moments to surface in my memory."

4. You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier
5/5 - Finished listening 10/23/19

I stumbled upon this book in Libby; something about its description snagged my attention and I put it on hold. It was my first (unintentional) foray into modern technological philosophy, and I LOVED it. As soon as it ended, I began listening to it a second time. Rob Shapiro does an excellent job narrating the author's meandering, astute observations of the myriad ways the internet has influenced modern culture in ways both positive and negative. My only drawback is that it's been ten years since it was written; I'd love to know what Lanier would think about internet culture a decade later (though I believe his predictions have been largely verified). While I didn't agree with everything he postulated, I found myself nodding along to several opinions I had always instinctively held but lacked the knowledge to articulate. I've always considered myself a bit of a resistant Luddite - a dinosaur, I guess - less interested in interacting with social media than culture suggests is necessary, and intimidated by the threat to human interaction that I've believed technology poses. Not only was it extremely gratifying to hear my opinions verbalized and verified by someone who has been immersed in computer science and instrumental in developing web technology/virtual reality, I also felt refreshingly hopeful about the potential for these technologies. I plan to read Lanier's other works - as soon as I'm done with this one (which might not be anytime soon).

Notable quotes:
(One problem with audiobooks is that I find it difficult to take down ear-catching quotes. It's time-consuming to transcribe a passage. I captured a few, but if I had the book in hand, I'd likely take up an inordinate amount of space on this page for quotes from You Are Not a Gadget.)

(Discussing how Facebook is like "No Child Left Behind"): "What computerized analysis of all the country's school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do. (Whether one expects computers to improve in the future is a different issue.)"

"If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and content-less. The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments, to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

"It’s easy to break into physical cars and houses, for instance, and yet few people do so. Locks are only amulets of inconvenience that remind us of a social contract we ultimately benefit from. It is only human choice that makes the human world function. Technology can motivate human choice, but not replace it. I had an epiphany once that I wish I could stimulate in everyone else. The plausibility of our human world - the fact that the buildings don’t all fall down, and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew - is immediate palpable evidence of an ocean of goodwill and good behavior from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what can be called love. And yet that love shows itself best through the constraints of civilization, because those constraints compensate for the flaws of human nature. We must see ourselves honestly, and engage ourselves realistically, in order to become better.”

5. Daemon by Daniel Suarez
4/5 - Finished 10/24/19
This book demonstrates why I really can't be reading fiction these days. Daemon was so engrossing that my productivity in the real world undoubtedly suffered. Unfortunately (meant tongue-in-cheek, of course) there's a sequel, so I'll be thoroughly distracted for another week while I read that. Afterward, however, I must promise to be very good, and swear off exciting fiction - at least until Christmas break. The plot of Daemon reminded me of what Jaron Lanier (in the book mentioned above) termed an "Ideology of Violation" - the idea that people who are ignorant of the power of technology to harm or destroy in some way deserve to reap the consequences of their obliviousness. But while Lanier demonstrates this ideology with several sobering and disturbing real-life examples, Suarez sets his events so firmly in fiction (and delivers these consequences to corrupt, deserving entities) that it's easy to suspend concern and enjoy the story - knowing, however, in the background of your consciousness, that the potentialities of Daemon aren't all that inconceivable! The writing is snappy, the plot well-paced, and the imagery is wonderfully evocative - I really felt like I'd been watching a film. Even those "plot twists" I saw coming felt satisfying, when they unfolded, rather than disappointing.

Funny quotes:
"Her new boss was an undead automaton from hell, true. But, no job is perfect."

"In all, his outfit required nearly two thousand man-years of research and development, eight barrels of oil, and sixteen patent and trademark infringement lawsuits. All so he could possess casual style. A style that, in logistical requirements, was comparable to fielding a nineteenth-century military brigade.
But he looked good. Casual."

6. Freedom by Daniel Suarez (Daemon series)
Spoiler alert!
3/5 - Finished 11/5/19
This sequel to Daemon makes an about-face, assuming the reader will accept that the Daemon, so convincingly established as a villain in Daemon, was actually all along intended to be a force for good. That required (what I felt was) a gracious concession on my part- yes, most revolutions involve a violent beginning, but we're not discussing centuries of history here - I just read Daemon two weeks ago! Freedom posits that the same network of hacktivists that used the darknet to brutally execute all spammers, for example, is within a year forming a utopian augmented-reality democracy flourishing with human goodwill. The book itself was as equally engaging as its frontrunner - the plot well-paced, the socio-economic commentary insightful, the characters witty and memorable (or, at least the handful that Suarez bothered to stick with for any length of time - I especially loved Laney Price). There were a few loose ends that felt like a result of Suarez cutting the story short too quickly- for example, Sebeck's quest should have gotten more page-time, and who was the Major? (I thought he might turn out to be Fossen's son, honestly - but the question was never answered.) Are we supposed to accept that Boerner is now eternally roving D-space as a symbol of persistent evil - the anti-Merritt? There was a LOT crammed into this sequel; I think the Daemon series would have been better developed as a trilogy. I know I would have read book three.

7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
5/5 - Finished 11/21/19
Life is struggle; death is inevitable- yet we all must find meaning in the face of this. That contrast is made especially vivid in this memoir by neurosurgeon/neurologist Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer on the cusp of completing his residency. His tone humble, the reader can nevertheless discern that Kalanithi was a brilliant, compassionate mind who would have undoubtedly made enormous contributions to his field, and would have been an empathetic, talented surgeon for countless patients experiencing the terror of brain cancer. The natural question to ask is, Why him? But he does not live there. Instead, he wades through his diagnosis with purpose, seeking meaning, concluding that “Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.” When he is ultimately unable to continue performing neurosurgery, he directs his final efforts to writing this book. I would recommend it to anyone who has pondered how to live and die well, or how to find meaning in the face of abject, arbitrary suffering - which is probably everyone. Secondarily, I found his firsthand account of practicing medicine extremely fascinating. This book is short and very well-written- just read it. 

A quote from his wife’s epilogue: 
“Paul’s decision not to avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death-avoidant culture. His strength was defined by ambition and effort, but also by softness, the opposite of bitterness. He spent much of his life wrestling with the question of how to live a meaningful life, and his book explores that essential territory. ‘Always the seer is a sayer,’ Emerson wrote. ‘Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy.’ Writing this book was a chance for this courageous seer to be a sayer, to teach us to face death with integrity.”

8. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson 
5/5 - Finished listening 11/21/19

This book is a scalpel! It slices deep into the psyche and, like a talented surgeon, removes the infection of excuses and delivers the antibiotic of conviction with keen philosophical and psychological insight. Where in your life - in my life - have we allowed chaos to breed, allowed unarticulated fear to thrive? We lack the courage to face the monster under the bed, and it grows- and that is no one’s fault but our own. Speak precisely- confront chaos- seek to be better- do not make excuses. Live honestly and intentionally with integrity, or you will undoubtedly find yourself living in a hell of chaos of your own making. The author claims no religious affiliation and instead employs mythology, philosophy, ancient and modern history, and biblical symbolism to convincingly establish his twelve rules. I’ve made this book sound heavy-handed, I know, but Peterson’s continual acknowledgment of struggle and suffering as an unavoidable part of the human life is oddly inspiring and reassuring. Peterson narrates his own work for the audiobook, and though I typically always prefer reading a book myself, I suspect in this case I actually would prefer listening to the audiobook. Hearing his emphasis and emotion feels essential to absorbing the material.

[I noted certain points in the recording that were particularly memorable. At this point, I haven't yet had time to transcribe them.]

9. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
3/5 - Finished 11/23/19

After a couple of weightier books, I felt like some light chick-lit while I recuperated from my laparotomy. This was a quick read. I had very high expectations for it; it came very highly recommended by everyone in Brian's family. Sitting here at my keyboard, trying to formulate an opinion about this book, my fingers are just... hovering. What I did like: it was definitely a page-turner; it contained beautiful descriptions of the marsh; its characters were vivid and multi-dimensional. What it lacked was believability. It demanded too many concessions on my part; too many details required my suspension of disbelief. A six-year-old girl is abandoned by her entire family in the backwoods, shunned collectively by an entire community, yet manages to grow into a healthy, attractive, brilliant young woman who becomes a.) involved in a love triangle with the town's two finest young men, b.) a nationally renowned biologist, and c.) enmeshed in a pretty farcical legal tangle. This would be a book, had I a copy in hand, that I'd hand to my friend and say, "Read this; let me know what you think. Am I silly for not loving this?" Even a fairytale needs to carry its own weight.

10. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
4/5 - Finished listening 12/13/19

I really enjoyed listening to this. The author heavily employed the use of anecdotes to illustrate his analysis, and I find that made the material more memorable and relatable. Besides being entertaining, however, Duhigg's book was also instructive and illuminating. It helped me understand how irritating habits of mine have hung on, despite repeated attempts to curb them. I also became aware of how simple (not easy) it can be to instill a new habit. Though this is a secular book, I appreciated how the author explained the role of faith in helping new habits stick. When he focused on habits in business culture, I found myself thinking about how these patterns relate to my family and marriage. It's so very important, I've learned, to recognize the routines you've settled into out of habit, and to proactively change them if they are not working. I realized this earlier this year, and have to some degree been in this headspace for a while, and to that end, The Power of Habit was a pleasantly clarifying and very encouraging read. 

11. Educated by Tara Westover
5/5 - Finished listening 12/17/19

I absolutely loved this book. It was positively riveting. I didn't know much about it when I put it on hold. (Sometimes I go on wild, unrestrained borrowing sprees from the library database. Click, click, click.) All I knew of Educated was that it was the memoir of a woman who grew up as the youngest of seven children in a rural, religiously extremist family and, denied any formal education, still went on to enroll in college and eventually earn her Ph.D. I didn't realize that it was as much a book about domestic abuse and the highly complex family dynamics that contribute so greatly to who we all become. Typically it takes me a couple weeks to finish an audiobook that's ten hours long, but I was glued to this one. Westover relates her vivid childhood recollections with exceptional storytelling talent, unfolding the eventual abuse with insight and compassion - for herself and for her abusers. I hoped for a satisfying resolution until I realized that this woman is my age, and her family is still very much alive and embedded in violence and manipulation. Nevertheless, the conclusion felt as resounding as possible under such circumstances. (The topics of herbalism, homebirthing, natural healing, essential oils, homeopathy, and energy healing were also of particular interest to me, as many in my circle are proponents of these approaches, and the author's family lived exclusively by these methods.) Westover’s conservative religious upbringing was also very slightly similar to mine, which added interest. 

Memorable quotes:
"Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me."

"The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones [the author's former self] would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education."

"To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s."

12. Armada by Ernest Cline
2/5 - Finished 12/20/19

I read Ready Player One some time ago and really liked it, so when I saw that Armada was available on Libby, I was excited. And I really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, it's not Ready Player One, and I spent half the time wishing I were reading that instead. This book had elements I really enjoyed - a fun premise, themes of reunification and longing, and... an ending, which I was happy to see after putting this down too many times. The story of gamers being the salvation of humanity is not particularly original, but it was interesting to think about how humanity would experience an alien invasion having seen them happen hundreds of times in pop culture. Still... there was too much pop culture in Armada. I appreciate when a story high-fives the reader every now and then with a reference, but there were several on every page. It got old. And overall, this story just did not flow well for me. Granted, I chose to pick it up during a very busy time of year, but I thought a quick, fun read would be perfect for those few minutes here and there (those five-minute breaks that get sucked up by Instagram). But guess how often I felt like opening Kindle up to read Armada? I did truly want to know what was going to happen in this end-of-the-world invasion scenario, but it was so broken up by long descriptions of locations and devices, characters performing highly complex yet uninteresting programming hacks during crucial moments, and nods to stockpiled snacks, weed, and detailed playlists compiled by the government (what?) in what I assume (as a complete non-gamer) would be a gamer's dream come true. I hope Cline keeps writing, but I hope he leaves behind the sci-fi + 80s-pop-culture formula for his next book.

13. Deep Work by Cal Newport
4.5/5 - Finished listening 1/18/2020

This book has been pivotal for me. The only reason it lacked a bit in my rating was that it was just not a riveting read. It took me a long time and a couple renewals to finish listening. Perhaps that's not quite fair; I'm actually listening again, because Newport packed a lot of content into a fairly short book that's obviously not marketed as a page-turner. The timing of this read couldn't have been better for me. I have spent much of the last couple of years in a bit of a frantic mental headspace, constantly distracted by various pursuits, discouraged, and certain I was consistently falling short and ill-suited for my role as a wife, homeschooling mother, and a Christian. When I began listening to Deep Work, it was quickly apparent that I was not the author's target audience, which is what he calls "knowledge workers" - professors, journalists, programmers - people whose roles are not easily automated and whose jobs rely on a consistent output of quality contributions their fields. I continued listening, however, because I was drawn to the author's assertion that we as a culture have collectively become "addicted to distraction" and this is me, especially since becoming a mom of many small children. I also realized that even though I am not what Newport would consider a knowledge worker, my role is not easily automated. Deep Work was a powerful reminder to simplify, focus, and excel. It encouraged me to view staying focused on a difficult task as a necessary mental workout and to eschew the ever-present distractions of social media and internet lures, as well as to determine which schedule obligations simply don't suit your goals and to minimize them as much as possible. 

This particular quote really struck a chord:
"Knowledge workers, I am arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness, because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value. Let's give this tendency a name: "busyness as proxy for productivity." In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner." This has been me. I have accepted that my role will not generate very many clear indicators of productivity and value. A lot of the work I do feels unseen. And yet that is not an argument in favor of adopting "busyness as proxy for productivity," which I have most certainly done. Rejecting this approach means coming to an internal acceptance of my choices, my role, my value, and my efforts, and identifying how I can be the best wife, mom, and homeschooler I can be.

Another hard-hitting concept:
"To summarize, the motivation for this strategy is the recognition that a "deep work" habit requires you to treat your time with respect. A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: 1. Decide in advance what you're going to do with every minute of your workday. It's natural at first to resist this idea, as it's undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external request to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter. 2. Quantify the depth of every activity. An advantage of scheduling your day is that you can determine how much time you're actually spending in shallow activities. Extracting this insight from your schedules, however, can become tricky in practice, as it's not always clear exactly how shallow you should consider a given task. To expand on this challenge, let's start by reminding ourselves of the formal definition of "shallow work" that I introduced in the introduction: shallow work: non-cognitively-demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate."

I recognize that most of my day's work involves this type of work. I have to be okay with that! "We cannot all do great things," said Mother Teresa. "But we can do small things with great love." And Christ, of course, said in Matthew, "Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant." I don't want to "become great," but I want to leave a wonderful legacy. So I interpret the above for myself as such: the efforts that create new value in the world (eg: four (eventual) adults who will contribute great value to the world) are the parenting, character-building, and educating efforts that are absolutely invisible to everyone but me and God. And I am rededicated to focusing on those efforts.

14. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
4/5 - Finished listening 2/3/2020

I love a good psychological thriller! Some of the highly-rated ones I've picked up haven't done it for me (Sharp Objects and Girl on the Train, for example), but this one did. Not that anyone is reading this speck of cyberspace, but I don't want to spoil the book in case you've stumbled upon this review. In summary, Alicia Berenson is a kind, successful artist who inexplicably, unpredictably, and brutally murders her husband, then never utters a word henceforth. She is found not guilty by reason of insanity and is committed, still silent, to The Grove, a psychiatric hospital where she is eventually treated by Dr. Theo Faber. I would recommend picking it up at the library (because why read the same thriller twice?) and giving it a quick read. (I took off a star because some parts dragged slowly; a five-star book needs to keep me glued to it entirely.) Jack Hawkins and Louise Brealey do a great job narrating.

15. A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
5/5 Finished 2/27/20

Powerful. Absolutely riveting. I read this book entirely on our flight to Las Vegas. I suspect anyone who has ever felt compelled into a life-role of any kind would identify with parts of this novel, although I must not minimize the utter despair undoubtedly experienced by women born into a culture of such oppression. Etaf Rum is a very gifted writer, leaping from storyline to storyline deftly, weaving narratives of three generations of women into a story of tragedy, mystery, motherhood, and hope. I heard an interview with Rum on a podcast some time ago, and waited for a long time for the book to become available from the library. It then sat on my shelf for six weeks while life whirled around me. I am so glad to have stashed it in my bag; I guess I only needed a few hours to devour it. I WANTED to savor this story; I couldn’t put it down. I loved Rum’s descriptions of Middle Eastern dishes, her complex characters connecting over the rituals of meal preparation. I loved her way of invoking the longing a parent has to be better, to provide a better future for her children. I loved her sympathetic approach to those who perpetuate the oppression. I loved having a window into a culture as far from my own experience as if it were in Palestine and not in my own backyard. As a mother, as a woman, as a human - I absolutely loved this book. Highly, highly recommend. 

"'Tell me,' Sarah said, sitting up in her chair. 'Why can't you stand up to my parents?'
Deya fixed her eyes on the window.
'You can tell me,' Sarah said. 'Be honest with me, with yourself. What are you so afraid of?'
'Everything!' Deya heard the sound of her voice before she knew she was speaking. 'I'm afraid of everything! I'm afraid of letting down my family and culture, only to find out that they were right in the end. I'm afraid of what people will think of me if I don't do what I'm supposed to do. But I'm also afraid of listening to them and coming to regret it. I'm afraid of getting married, but I'm even more afraid of being alone. There's a thousand voices in my head, and I don't know which one to listen to! The rest of my life is staring me in the face, and I don't know what to do!'"

16. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly 
4.5/5 Finished listening 3/4/20

It took me a very long time to listen to this book. I started listening around July 2019 and only wrapped it up this March... eight months later. I'm not sure how many times I renewed the loan. I give the material five stars, but the book itself, the story - it dragged a bit. I was never excited to get to my chores and listen to Hidden Figures. That said, I wanted to know the information - I really did - and I did enjoy the stories of the many women Shetterly highlighted. Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Christene Darden, and Katherine Coleman are at least four names that are wedged firmly in my recollection, and the details of the lives and families of these brilliant, patient women were portrayed memorably. As I read, I was inspired by their drive and talent and maddened by the obstacles they faced. I will forever be awed by and grateful to anyone who willingly sacrifices so much to be a rung on a ladder that others will someday climb to greater opportunity and equality. I also really enjoyed reading about the space race itself, which Shetterly describes in detail. I learned not only about black female mathematicians but also more about NACA/NASA than I'd ever known before. Hidden Figures has done me and the world a great favor in shedding light on these important American heroes.

"What I wanted was for them to have a grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic."

17. Becoming by Michelle Obama
5/5 - Finished 3/5/20

I read this in a couple of days. (I think there's nothing better than a well-written memoir. One of my foundational beliefs is that if we all took the time to listen to and truly understand each other's stories, we would be able to easily identify our common humanity and the longings that we all share. The movie The Joker made people uncomfortable because it humanized a character we'd rather comfortably villainize. And while I don't believe that human nature is basically good, I do believe that we should let compassion and empathy be our default view when meeting someone who is different than we are. There but for the grace of God, and all that.) Anyway, after that digression - Michelle Obama has always been the person I've picked when faced with the hypothetical fantasy question: Which person presently living would you choose, if you could sit down and have dinner with anyone in the world? Reading her memoir was the second-best thing.

18. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
5/5 - Finished listening 3/7/20

19. The Woman Who Wasn't There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J Guglielmo Jr.
4.5/5 - Finished 3/6/20

19.5. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
4/5 - Finished 3/8/20

20. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
4/5 - Finished listening 3/12/20

21. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
4.5/5 - Finished 3/14/20