Defining Motherhood

One Mom Finds Meaning in the Madness

Another Letter Nobody Asked For

ADVICE: an opinion or suggestion about what someone should do

I am a guest blogger over on Sassypiehole sharing my advice to moms-to-be.

It’s one of those open letters to unsuspecting recipients who didn’t ask for mail. Check it out.

Motherhood May Cause Drowsiness

MMCD

SPINE: the part of a book to which the pages are attached and on the cover of which usually appear the title and author’s and publisher’s names

It’s a major milestone here at Defining Motherhood: I’m in a book! Motherhood May Cause Drowsiness (Second Edition). It’s an anthology from Monkey Star Press, and you should check it out.

I’m allowed to brag about the book without feeling awkward because it’s really only 1/50th mine. Plus, the risk is low. If my essay doesn’t do it for you, chances are that one of the other ones will. Fifty writers and perspectives for you to enjoy. That’s the beauty of an anthology.

And, with chapter titles like The Family Bedlam and The Five Stages of Exhausted Cooking, you are bound to find something that more than justifies the cost of a book.

This may sound shallow, but I’m ridiculously excited about being part of something with a spine. I have been gazing at the spine, admiring how it looks horizontal on my coffee table, running a finger down its smooth surface as it stands on my bookshelf.

So, if for no other reason, buy it for the spine. Unlike mine, there are absolutely no signs of scoliosis. It’s an excellent spine.

April Reads

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

we were liars

We Were Liars by e. lockhart

This is a tale about lies – the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we tell others. This was my auction recovery book: The day after the event I hid in my room, away from people and expectations, and read this book in one sitting. Most of the reviews and hype around this book focuses on the plot twist/ending, but I haven’t yet decided whether I thought the twist was surprising or predictable. What I have decided is that I like Lockhart’s writing. Her prose is poetic and varied in style. She effectively uses a narrative voice full of imagery with doses of magical realism.

martian

The Martian by Andy Weir

This was my book club’s pick this month. I don’t think I would have selected this book on my own but was glad to have this “too nerdy” read forced on me. Turns out, I dig nerdy. After a dust storm and an unfortunate accident, astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead and his crew evacuates Mars without him. His epic battle for survival is peppered with real science and more math than I’ve ever encountered in a novel. The narrative broadened beyond the stranded astronaut’s storyline just in time for me – adding much needed diversity in perspective and variety in characters. I recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction and wants to try a book that is heavy on the science without losing the joys of a great novel.

lets pretend

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson, also known as The Bloggess, is funny and irreverent. She wrote this book. Ergo, this book is funny and irreverent. Funny in small doses. Reading just a chapter at a time, I was able to give myself over to the joys of this book: I could embrace the rambling writing style, allow myself to laugh (hard) at things I shouldn’t, enjoy the reveal of quirks and accept that things that were funny or quirky would be proceeded by Lawson telling me to brace myself for something funny or quirky.

pardonable lies

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Loaned by a friend, I enjoyed this book in the Maisie Dobbs series. I love mysteries but had to reframe my expectations part way into the book. It’s more novel than mystery. What it lacks in thrill it makes up for in a plucky heroine and charming between-the-wars historical settings.

family fang

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

If your parents embarrassed you, you’ll feel better after meeting Caleb and Camille Fang. This story alternates between the past for of a family of performance artists and the modern day lives of the children trying to overcome the residue of their strange upbringing. The book is well written and entertaining. It kept me turning pages, even when it took sharp detours into a-little-weird-for-my-taste territory. In the end, I found it to be a delightful tour of quirky.

mountain meets moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

A story of desire, fortune, fortitude and gratitude, this Chinese folktale won a Newberry Honor Award and my heart. I read this book aloud to Son. We were both captivated by this enchanting story with a strong heroine and enduring lessons. Imaginative and powerful, this will be the book we measure all others by for a while. Son loved it so much he wanted to spend his allowance on a copy for a friend who had not read it yet.

First Drafts and Other Loves

first draft

DRAFT: to make a version of something that will need more work in order to be finished

I came home today to the jarring reality that always follows a relaxing vacation. There was laundry to wash, groceries to purchase, emails to scan, mail to sort, and homework to complete.

I was especially dreading the homework because…well, because it’s called homework and old habits die hard. Pavlov’s dogs salivated when the bell rang; I resist when something is mandatory. It’s science. In this case, the homework involved reviewing five essays from five writers in my memoir class.

Once I got started, I was reminded how much I love reading. I love the power of the written word in all forms. I love books, magazines, and blogs. Heck, I’m a sucker for a text-filled napkin. But there is something extra special about being trusted with early drafts from other writers.

Drafts are where hesitant voices clear their throats. Drafts are where words like perhaps and maybe get crossed out to make room for boldness.

Drafts are where risks are taken. Drafts are where writers dare to say something imperfectly rather than remaining silent. Drafts are where writers find the right term and the courage to use it. Rape. Doubt. Shame. Ambivalence.

Drafts are where writers try to make readers understand and sometimes help themselves do the same.

Drafts are where gems are unearthed so that they can be polished. Drafts are where side notes become the story.

Drafts are where an imperfect word is a placeholder for the perfect one that will come but hasn’t yet.

Drafts are where we let things go not because they don’t matter but because they don’t matter to this story.

Drafts are where the work of writing gets done.

March Reads

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

graveyard book

The Graveyard book by Neil Gaiman

This story of Nobody Owens, a child raised by a cemetery full of ghosts, is delightful. I’ve been meaning to read another of Neil Gaiman’s books ever since The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I finally got to it. The way Gaiman creates such plausible fantasies – situations that are purely imagined but filled with vivid and real characters – totally captivates me as a reader.

us

Us by David Nicolls

Douglas is trying to save his collapsing marriage and connect with his teenage son during a family tour of Europe. Douglas isn’t doing so well. I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. I chortled my way through the short chapters; half-way through, I knew I would rave about the book regardless of if I liked the second half because the first half was good enough to make up for anything that came after.  Thankfully, the book satisfied all the way to the end. I was sad to learn that I was the only woman in my book club that felt this way. Apparently, I take more joy in family dysfunction than the average Jane.

girl on train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

A troubled alcoholic watches out the window of the train and creates lives for the people in the houses she passes. Then, she becomes involved when one of them goes missing. This was the monthly pick for one of my book clubs. I was curious enough about what would happen next that I kept turning the pages, but it didn’t have the kind of suspense that makes a book impossible to put down. I found myself shaking my head at many of the characters and their choices but was mostly wiling to suspend my frustration in the service of curiosity. If you despise unreliable narrators you will despise this book.

tao of martha

The Tao of Martha by Jen Lancaster

Jen Lancaster is funny. This book about trying to be like Martha Stewart is funny, but forced. There are chuckles and places where her voice shines through but not as many as in her other books. As far as “did it for a year and wrote about it” books go, this certainly didn’t knock A.J. Jacobs’ A Year of Living Biblically out of first place for me.

HOles

Holes by Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelnats blames his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather for his bad luck, including his unjust sentencing to a boys’ detention center where he spends all day digging holes. I read this Newberry Honor book aloud to Son (age 8) in anticipation of an upcoming stage production of this play at his school. He liked it. I liked it. There is enough mystery to keep you turning the pages and enough tying up of loose ends to make the end – where Stanley eventually digs up the truth – satisfying.

magicians elephant

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

A fortuneteller, an orphan with a missing sister, and an elephant all come together is this beautiful tale of longing and belonging. This was a fantastic read aloud and another winner from Kate DiCamillo – further enhancing my writer crush. A lovely blend of whimsy and enduring truth.

Swimsuits and shoes: A tale of two purchases

swimsuit

SWIMSUIT: a garment worn for swimming

Sales Lady: May I help you?

Me: Yes. I’m looking for a swimsuit.

Sales Lady: What kind?

Me: Something highly engineered.

Sales Lady: Right this way. Anything in particular you are trying to hide?

Me: My c-section surgeon’s optimism … and the cascade of reality that spills over the misguided tummy tuck.

Sales Lady: Try this one.

***

The list of things I want to do more than swimsuit shop is long, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. The Sales Lady was unflappable and incredibly patient. Plus, eavesdropping on my fellow patrons provided a novel’s worth of fabulous dialogue and banter that I plan to put to good use.

The lady in the room next to me brought the kind of friend we all say we want but few of us can actually handle: The kind of friend who does not shy away from the term “back fat,” or avoid commenting on the condition of your bikini line, or pretend that you can pull off stripes.

I peaked my head out of my dressing room and offered to rent the friend. She offered her services for free so I asked for her candid assessment of one of my top three swimsuit finalists. She made overly familiar comments about my breasts and thighs and I decided she was more friend than I could handle. I retreated to my dressing room and allowed the tie breaker to be the price tag.

I am the proud owner of an expensive – but not the most expensive – swimsuit. A swimsuit I hunted for over an hour to find and will go to great lengths to avoid wearing.

The cowboy boots I bought right afterward, on the other hand, took me ten minutes to purchase and will be on my feet tomorrow.

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.

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