Defining Motherhood

One Mom Finds Meaning in the Madness

February Reads

READ: to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc.

Racing in the rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

This was the monthly selection for Book Club 1 and my “best of” this month. I loved it. As you might have heard, I’m not a pet person. Narrated by a dog, this story doesn’t seem like my kind of thing. But Garth Stein uses the dog to provide great insights on relationships and loss and the courage to carry on.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This was the monthly selection for Book Club 2. It had been raved about by friends, so it suffered a bit from my unrealistically high expectations. I liked, but didn’t love, this book about the end of the world as we know it after a pandemic kills 99% of the world’s population and sets technology back several decades. Certain characters – and a renewed dedication to hand washing – stuck with me long after the final page.

One More Thing

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by BJ Novak

This collection of 50+ short stories, ranging from super short to modestly long, is delightful. Read it! But, be warned: the essays in this book are like potato chips. You only plan to indulge in a few but then you “just one more” your way through more than you intended. Not every story was a win for me but there were far more winners than losers. Novak has that thing all great comics have – the ability to draw humor and truth and insight out of a scene in equal measure.

The real boy

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

I read this book aloud to Son (8 years old) and his love for this artfully written story was contagious. I love any book that has my kid asking to squeeze in a chapter during every free moment. I was surprised how much he liked it since the plot was slow to develop and complex in parts. But, Oscar and Callie are lovable characters that carry the weight during the slow parts.

Brothers and Keepers

Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman

Assigned reading for my memoir class, this book alternates between the author’s voice and his incarcerated brother’s voice to tell a powerful story of a family, a crime, and the system we call “justice.” There is lots to celebrate in this book but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the typeface in which this impressive book is printed is brutal to read.

Refuge

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

An exploration of people and place, and the physical damage inflicted on both. While I preferred the people sections to the bird sections, Terry Tempest Williams’ prose is beautiful in all sections.

So Long, Sammy

female beta

PET: a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility

I am a bundle of recessive genes. I have straight, red hair. I have nearsighted, blue eyes. I have no affection for pets of any kind.

When I was young I received a fish tank. It was fun for a while. But then, I wanted to reconfigure the furniture in my room and the fish tank didn’t have a home in my new vision. So, I flushed the little guys down the toilet. Problem solved.

My father would not allow us to get a dog, so on the first Father’s Day after his departure my brother brought home an energetic black lab puppy who loved to chew and dig. After every screwdriver handle in our house had been chewed, we bought the dog a one-way airline ticket to California to live with my dog-loving aunt. I don’t remember any tears.

Then, we inherited a cat from a friend who worked at the local fire station. The cat’s name was Aidcar and her cry sounded eerily like a siren. I remember my mom calling me in college to tell me that she had to put Aidcar down at the vet. The decision made sense to me. The cat was old and sick. I was surprised to hear my mom sniffling on the other end of the phone.

I’m not cruel to animals – I’ve never picked the wings off an insect, used a magnifying glass to fry an ant or kicked a puppy – I just don’t particularly like them. The feed and care of something in exchange for slobber, poop and loyalty is just not a bargain that appeals to me. I enjoyed having chickens for a while, but those were more like livestock than pets. I fed them and they fed me. The exchange made sense. And, when the poop to egg ratio inverted, I found them a new home on Criagslist.

So, when Son said he wanted a pet, I cringed. I put it off as long as possible. I told him to make a list of all the pets he was interested in. Then, I had him read a book about each pet on the list. He navigated all my delay tactics and settled on wanting a fish. Easy enough.

For Christmas, we bought Son and Daughter fish bowls and recently took them to the pet store to get Bettas. Things went well for a couple of weeks. But, this weekend, we found Daughter’s fish dead.

With all the emotional intelligence of a non-pet-lover, I hollered, “Hey, Daughter. Come look at this. Your fish died.” I thought she’d be curious, as I was, about why the fish was dead at the bottom of the bowl instead of floating at the top like expected.

Husband, standing next to me, swung to stare at me with his mouth agape.

“What?” I asked.

He opened his mouth to try to explain to his heartless wife just how inappropriate her reaction was, but before he could get the words out I began to understand my error. The wailing from the other room reminded me that I’m the exception to the rule. The wailing continued long enough for me to feel truly terrible. While I am missing the pet love gene, I do love my kids and hate to cause them pain. In fact, I love them so much that when I asked Daughter what would make her feel better and she said, “A cat” I gave it serious consideration for almost two whole minutes.

Wordy Wednesday

WORDY: using or containing many (usually too many) words

I embrace Wednesdays in my own way. In lieu of a photo, I offer you this random collection of other people’s words that impacted me this week as well as a handful of new words I added to my vocabulary.

Other People’s Words


This week, I’m reading Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. Her writing is poetic and insightful. Here’s just one example of a passage I loved:

…denial lies. It protects us from the potency of a truth we cannot yet bear to accept. It takes our hands and leads us to places of comfort. Denial flourishes in the familiar. It seduces us with our own desires and cleverly constructs walls around us to keep us safe….

Ever since I read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, I’ve been returning again and again to this passage:

…We do not write out of the incoherent flame. Nor do we write out of the smoke. We wait until the ash is cool. It contains much of the matter within it that caused the flame, the smoke. Only now we can touch it. We can stick our finger into it. We can mold it at will. Now we can observe it. Now it is ours…

Words I Had to Ask Webster About


  • Fey: marked by an otherworldly air or attitude
  • Precocial: capable of a high degree of independent activity from birth

January Reads

READ: to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc.

Kitchen House

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

I highly recommend this page-turning story of the antebellum south told through the eyes of a white indentured servant and a black slave that captures the complexities of relationships in all their forms. It is a remarkable piece of historical fiction that will lodge a pit in your stomach. You will want to look away but won’t be able to.

state of wonderState of Wonder by Ann Patchett

In this work, Patchett creates the most vivid sense of place I’ve encountered in a novel. I could hear the buzzing insects of the Amazon. I felt the oppressive jungle heat despite reading this book in a drafty old house on a cold January day.  My nose wrinkled with the stench of snake on my skin and I fought back a gag as I watched the scalpel’s first cut. At its heart, this is an adventure story. Though it requires some overlooking of technical questions and forgiving of exaggerated character traits, it is an adventure story well told and the only one I’ve read that gave me mosquito bites.

all the light

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This story uses the voices of alternating characters – a blind French girl and a German orphan – to tell a story that is so fresh, beautiful, and layered that it stands out from the World War II fiction crowd. I suspect this will be one of my best reads of 2015.  Please read it and then call me to talk about it.  great and terrible beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Historical fiction (1895 English boarding school) paired with fantasy (mystical orders and entrance into other spiritual realms) and romance (bodices ripped). This book has flaws – unlikable and unbelievable characters, plot developments that feel forced, heavy handedness where subtlety may have worked better – but in the end I couldn’t help but enjoy my escape into the world Bray created. I won’t be reading the rest of the trilogy but enjoyed losing myself in this book for a weekend.

still writing

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

A mostly memoir about the writing life, this book focuses more on showing up than on showing how. Full of big truths in tiny chapters, this book is like a long chat with the kind of friend who knows how to meet you where you are while simultaneously helping you move forward. Early in the book, Shapiro includes an Emerson quote about how “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself and all things.” Shapiro passes the good writer test with flying colors – telling her story in a way that helps others understand theirs.

Checkmate, Mr. Darcy

Mr Darcy

STANDPOINT: a way in which something is thought about or considered

Our family got the barfs last week. Well, the girls did; the boys managed to just get nausea.

In our house, being sick entitles kids and grown-ups alike to pajamas all day and unlimited screen time. In our house, the sicker person controls the screen.

That is how I found myself curled up on the couch watching Pride and Prejudice (the Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen version) with an eight-year-old boy last Tuesday.

There was some explaining required (e.g. the mom’s obsession with finding husbands for her daughters, Mr. Wickham’s duplicity) but other things (e.g. Mr. Collins being a fool) were evident to my second grader.

While Son was tracking the plot reasonably well, the emotional undercurrents and subtle shifts in mood were lost on him. For example, when Elizabeth entered Pemberley for the first time, I could feel her regret as she took in the splendor and heard the housekeeper’s devotion to Mr. Darcy. My Son felt something different: envy.

“Mr. Darcy can play life-sized chess on his floor!”

Of all the things I’ve imagined doing with Mr. Darcy, playing chess was never on the list.

front hall

Mommy (and the Seahawks) For The Win!

seahawks

FOOTBALL: an American game played between two teams of 11 players each in which the ball is in possession of one side at a time and is advanced by running or passing

Today I will spend time sitting on the couch watching football.  Not because I’m one of the Seahawks’ faithful fans but because everyone else is doing it and jumping on the bandwagon gives me an excuse to eat my weight in appetizers and refill our growler at the local brewery.

But, kettle corn, seven layer dip, and hoppy IPA are not enough to distract me from the fact that watching football involves a lot of cheering over the relatively small accomplishments of grown men.

They run forward three feet.  Hooray!  They knock the other grown-ups down.  Hooray!  They throw and catch a ball.  Standing ovation!

I can’t think of a female equivalent.

I’ve never heard anyone applaud for a lady walking on cobblestones in heels.  Eleven ankle-busting cracks averted! I’ve never seen a standing ovation for a woman who makes it through the grocery store with kids.  Three out of ten items on list procured!

Can you imagine if motherhood was a televised sport?

Mommy is up and out of bed before the sun.  A gain of two yards on the play. 

Floors swept.  Laundry sorted.  A gain of three. 

Quick shower.  Hair brushed.  Make-up on. 

It’s a Mommy first down!  

There’s stirring in the backfield.  Kids are awake.  Mommy makes a healthy-enough breakfast followed by efficient teeth brushing.  Clothes are on with minimal complaining. 

Mommy is within field goal distance. 

Oh, no!  More food is on the floor than in the bellies and an important to do list has been turned into confetti – a loss of ten yards. 

Mommy attempts to regain good field position by raising her voice and using “the look.”  It doesn’t work nearly as well as she had hoped.  Penalty marker on the play. 

Impatience results in turnover to Kids.  This could be a game changer.

Kids come back strong with toy messes and whining.  Mommy effectively uses screen time as a distraction and forces Kids to punt. 

Mommy returns for forty yards.  Lunches packed.  Shoes tied.  Coats zipped.  Keys found.   

Mommy pulls off an on-time school arrival. 

TOUCHDOWN MOMMY!

With espresso shots on the offensive line Mommy continues to play strong through the first half.  Calls are returned.  Emails answered.  Complete sentences spoken. 

Mommy enters half-time commute with a slight lead. 

In the second half, Kids come out rested and strong.   Mommy struggles to fix dinner while fending off complaints and toy disputes.  Mommy’s running game is losing steam. 

Late in the fourth quarter both Mommy and Kids show signs of exhaustion.  Kids are becoming less coordinated.  Minor injuries and penalty markers on the field.   

Reading, pajamas, potty breaks and stalling tactics take the game into overtime. 

The game is called when Mommy and Kids realize nobody knows the score.

Today I will clap and holler for the incremental progress of grown men down a green rectangle.  But, tomorrow I’m going to want some clapping and hollering over my small victories.

And if some scantily clad pool boys want to waive feather dusters around, that’s okay with me too.

Go Seahawks!

Wordy Wednesday

words

WORDY: using or containing many (usually too many) words

I embrace Wednesdays in my own way. In lieu of a photo, I offer you this random collection of other people’s words that impacted me this week as well as a handful of new words I added to my vocabulary.

Other People’s Words


This week, I’m reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon.  I’m about 70 pages in but not sure that I’ll finish the book.  The story hasn’t hooked me the way I hoped it would.  The book is based on an interesting and intriguing version of the future, but just doesn’t fit my reading mood right now.  I want a book with a faster pace that gives me a sense of progress over my morning coffee.  Frankly, I need a book with shorter chapters.  Shallow, but true.  I like Graedon’s writing and hope to try the book again when life has more space for long periods of reading.

Here’s a great passage from the opening chapter:

…Words, I’ve come to learn, are pulleys through time.  Portals into other minds.  Without words, what remains? Indecipherable customs.  Strange rites.  Blighted hearts.  Without words, we’re history’s orphans.  Our lives and thoughts erased….

Words I Had to Ask Webster About


  • Ennui: a lack of spirit, enthusiasm, or interest
  • Perspicacity: of acute mental vision or discernment, keen
  • Ribald: characterized by or using coarse indecent humor

 

Happy New Year

2015

RESOLVE: to make a definite and serious decision to do something

I resolve to make 2015 a Happy New Year.

HAPPY: feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life


There is much pleasure and enjoyment to be had in my life.  I have beautiful coffee mugs that fit my hands just right and a loving husband who brews the magic elixir that fills them each morning.  I have a charming house and joyful children who fill it with the noises and chaos that transform it into a home.  I have pens that work and notebooks waiting to be filled.  I have cute shoes, worn jeans, and comfortable bras.  I choose to be grateful for and, by extension, happy about the gifts that surround me each day.

NEW: not old; not used by anyone else previously; recent; modern; made fresh


I will not chase newness for the sake of newness, snub ideas because they have been tried before, or insist on being the first user.  However, I will be mindful of when things need freshening – my sock supply, my weekly routines, my friendships – and work to breathe new vitality into the areas of my life that feel stale or are beginning to show signs of decay.

YEAR: the 3651/4 solar days required for one revolution of the earth around the sun


I will remember that there are many days, weeks, and months ahead.  I will pace myself.  I will leave room for the variations in the seasons – times for productivity and times for rest; times for giving and times for taking.  I will accept that some things –revolving around the sun, making lasting changes in behaviors, and writing book manuscripts – take time.  I will give things the time they need but make sure I’m doing the daily work of spinning a little further in the right direction.

You Were (Mostly) Right

EULOGIZE: say or write good things about someone who has died

I remember the doorbell ringing long after dark. I remember standing at the top of the stairs as you pitched a late night trip to the theater. I remember thinking you’d wasted gas on a fool’s errand. I remember gawking as you argued in favor of spontaneity, joy and fun to my mother – the antithesis of all those things. I remember my jaw dropping when she told me to grab my coat.

I grabbed my coat today with no illusions that this outing would be fun.

I remember your fascination with MacGuyver and duct tape. Duct tape on your binder. Duct tape on your wallet. Duct tape on everything. You claimed duct tape could fix anything.

I think of you and your optimism each time I open our toolbox.

I remember you walking high school hallways in Hawaiian shirts almost bright enough to match your smile. I remember rifling through department store racks and holding up several respectable choices for our upcoming matching shirt dance debut and having you shoot them all down as too predictable or plain. You countered with a bright white shirt trimmed in red that prominently featured the Trix cereal bunny. I protested. You insisted on spontaneity, joy and fun. You won again.

I wore a predictable and plain black dress to your and Emily’s funeral but inside my boots I wore brightly striped socks. I thought you would approve.

I remember the email exchanges where we attempted a virtual high school reunion – paragraphs exchanged to try to cover the years between then and now.  You shared a little about work and a lot about Emily, Annabella, and Marcus.  Your joy and pride and contentment were nearly tangible.  You were reaping the kindness and joy and good you’d sown and loving every minute of it.

You were right about the merits of spontaneity, joy and fun.  

But, you were wrong about duct tape.

It can’t fix this.

***

Please consider a contribution to the Derek and Emily Ramos Children Fund.

My Favorite Reads of 2014

FAVORITE: a thing that is liked more than others : a favorite person or thing

In no particular order because choosing ten favorites from the 70 books I read this year was hard enough…

invention of wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I loved every minute of this inspiring, engaging and sorrowful story set in South Carolina and based loosely on the real-life story of Sarah Grimke.  I haven’t read anything else by Sue Monk Kidd but plan to remedy that promptly.

this is where i leave you

This is Where I leave You by Jonathan Tropper

The back of the book makes the following claims: Outrageous.  Smart.  Winning.  Moving.  Utterly magnificent.  Genius. Heartfelt.  Darkly Comic.  Hilarious.  Emotion-packed.  Deft. Sweet. Superb. Warm.  Graceful.  Wickedly observant.  Witty.  Tender.  Brutally honest.  Pageturning.  Engaging.  Brilliant.  This book did not disappoint.  All of the claims were true.  I loved Tropper’s writing and would be willing to read his description of making a sandwich or selecting a paint color at Home Depot.

The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially inept professor of genetics who believes a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey is the best way to avoid wasting time with smokers and the perpetually late on his quest to find a wife.  Rosie Jarman is not wife material according to the questionnaire.  This book is joyful and poignant and insightful.  It showcases the beauty and charm of a mind that is wired in a non-neuro-typical manner.  You can’t help but fall in love with Don and the way he sees the world.

Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

As I was devouring page after page of this book, I would try to convince myself to slow down and savor it – knowing I would be disappointed when I finished.  But, I couldn’t help myself and in the end reached the final page too quickly.  So many books bounce between past and present, but this one uses that format with great artistry.  Diffenbaugh portrays a range of human emotions and experiences with such ease that this book feels at once life-changing and light-hearted.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Another winner from Rainbow Rowell.  This book gave me an excuse to spend an entire lazy weekend being nostalgic about the ‘80s, feeling heightened fondness for all my geeky friends, and remembering the sweetness of first love and teenage lust.  This delightful book is full of the author’s trademark banter and charming characters.

orphan train

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

This was a beautiful story of the entwined lives of seventeen year old Molly and old lady Vivian who turn out to have more in common than they expect.  The Vivian character is especially compelling.  I didn’t want the book to end.  A lovely piece of historical fiction.

tell the wolves

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka

This novel was deeply moving.  I had to re-apply my mascara when I was done reading.  I imagine this will be assigned reading for future generations.

Glass Castle

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

There were plenty of times I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and shake the parents.  But there were also times where I could forget the neglect and be awed by the meaningful lessons and inspired insights the parents gave their children.  As the reader, I was compelled to ride the roller coaster of emotions so common in dysfunctional families.  High highs.  Low lows.  Walls captured the beauty and zest that so often accompany dysfunction in a vivid and authentic way.  This book is a thing of beauty.  Flawed, painful, messy beauty.

ocean at the end of the lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This was my first Neil Gaiman book but will not be my last.  I loved it and was sad when it ended.  If I’d known the plot or content of the book ahead of time, I would have dismissed it as not my kind of book.  Gaiman’s writing won me over early on and proved that a good storyteller makes any story a good story.

dept of speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This is a short book densely packed with snippets of truth and insight about marriage and motherhood.  The writing style is haiku-like in its deceptive brevity – short sections that pack a punch when you take time to unpack them.

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