The Beanstalk

Record of a writer, a family & an adventure.

a birthday letter to Mae.

August 31, 2017

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Beloved Mae,

Last night you had an awful night terror. At 10:45, just when I was getting in bed, I heard that shrill cry from your room and ran in to find you rigid in the corner of your crib, your fingers stretched out, hollering. I picked you up and carried you into my room and cuddled you up to me, rocked you, spoke to you, trying to break through whatever terror plagues you. You know, I hope when you’re reading this letter one day that you don’t drop whatever digital reading device you use and call your psychiatrist to say, “they woke me up from night terrors! This explains everything!” I know I’m just supposed to let you work it out, but I can’t. I just can’t leave you there, so I pick you up, hold you, blow in your face, tell you true and good things to try to break into that imagined world that frightens you. Sometimes I do the same with Jack too, knowing he has nightmares, I’ll go into his room when he’s sleeping and say softly, I’m here, I’m right beside you, just in case he’s in the midst of something rotten, and my voice can somehow enter that fictional, dream universe and save him. I used to have nightmares, I know what it takes to be drawn out of them.

I hate you had a night terror on the eve of your birthday, mostly because I’d hoped you would be beyond that by now, but if there’s one thing you have showed me this year, is that you will do everything in your own time. It was so many months that I was dying for you to walk, but you were determined to crawl! I admit, with babies, as with children, as with life, we’ve got these expectations written in our minds in a theoretical check list, and we sit with that pen hovering over those small boxes so we can feel like we’re moving forward. Admittedly, part of my longing for you to transition to the biped lifestyle was because I was developing a permanent pain in the right side of my neck from carrying you all over the green earth, but there was a large part that was based in needless worry and pointless fixation on progress.

There was one time I remember when you were still in the crawling phase, but I walked into the living room when Jack was at school, looking for you because you’d gone silent, and there you were taking steps! I said, “MAE!” and you immediately dropped to your bum and looked at me with a blank stare, and I realized, she is holding out on me. Similarly, a couple weeks ago, you were running down the hallway carrying your sneakers saying with pride, “shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes” and I made the same blunder, catching you, saying, “MAE! Say ‘shoes.'” And there you stood, lips pressed together, holding your shoes. You turned around and walked away. I am ceaselessly amazed by how different you are from your brother.

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There is a beautiful sunrise outside my writing room window, the whole world celebrating your day.

For all your dogged independence, you are a tender soul. You want to hug, and be close, and hold hands, and lean in, and occupy laps, and love, and that is something I can relate to, something I remember from when I was a child, and as an adult that manifests in the way I crave deep, meaningful friendships. I hope that’s true for you, too, my girl! Your tenderness to me, to Jack, to the dog, to people who win you over, is a balm. When you wrap those baby arms around my legs and press your face into the backs of my knees, it holds the power over even my dark moments.

You are a beautiful child, and that blonde hair! I can’t get enough of staring at you, of seeing all those Evans features in you, of that incredible smile flanked by those perfect dimples. Real beauty is inside the heart, but you are a picture. You are heaven to me! The girl of my dreams.

You have changed me. I am a different woman than I was before this day in 2015, and one day I will sit down and explain this further, but not today because it’s YOUR birthday, not mine.

I love you with the strength of the sun,

Mama

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Mid-year update (+half my book list).

The first of July means the humidity of a North Carolina summer is in full effect, the weeds grow an inch per day, we are all tanned enough to relax a bit on the SPF, and everyone is sufficiently ready for a diversion. For us, that diversion comes in the form of my brother’s wedding the second Saturday of July, followed by one blessed week at the beach. It can’t be here too soon!

I returned to my post at New Year’s to revisit (and remember) my resolutions. I was surprised! I had forgotten them.

  1. Manage the closets in my house.
  2. Ditch the phone.
  3. Do my best to find an agent, or, cause an agent to find me.
  4. Read, read, read, read. (Nothing new there.)

The closets are coming along. It’s good to be reminded I made that resolution for the second time in two years. I have 6 more months to make good on it. The phone thing is a work in progress, but I have read some helpful and damning articles that reiterate my feelings on the dark side of too much iPhone and screens. This is always going to be a work in progress, as modern times press us toward technology as the pressure of a swift current has the power to carry, but we are trying, trying to put our feet down, grab at the shore, hold onto a stationary root and be present in the tangible world before us. I am deep in the pit of agent-querying, which is a topic for another time when I have more heart and stamina to narrate it. The process can be summed up as mysterious, unsettling, discouraging and long. I read an excerpt from T. Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” the excerpt more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena,” which is framed beside my desk, each day.

I’ve been reading a lot this year, and not just any old reading. My reading list, so far, has been so utterly, wholly satisfying — I can’t believe my luck. It is luck, isn’t it? Because so many times I have picked up books, made it halfway to the end on a measure of faith and hope, and come to the conclusion disappointed. It’s not such a horrible thing to be left wanting, but it does seem that there are so many great, perfect, exquisite books in the library of the world, it’s a waste to spend time reading anything which is not.

Below you’ll find the 19 books I’ve read this year, and a short blurb on each. I’ve categorized the books into seasons, which may seem strange, but allow me to explain. These are NOT the seasons in which I read the books, but they’re the seasons I believe I would have best read the books. Classics and intense literary fiction I read in winter. Fast-paced, delightful, plot-driven fiction I read in summer. Warm, generous, lovely fiction I read in fall and spring. I rarely read non-fiction, so it’s peppered throughout. Sometimes I put a book in a season because the book took place in a warm period, or there were instances of snow, and it just has to be dealt with appropriately. The seasonal categorization method might seem useless to many people, obviously a good book is a good book and should be read any time! However, I did this for you, because it’s summer, and I was trying to help you pick books for the beach. You’re welcome.

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Summer

  1. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a what-if science principled thriller following the idea of multiple universes or realities. Very out-of-the-ordinary for me, but I read it in three days (three days including my children and work). ***
  2. The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood reminded me of the stories by Fredrik Backman (Ove, Britt-Marie) A warm and funny story about a couple of misfits befriending an elderly woman in the wake of the tragic death of a young boy. ***
  3. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson reads like a classic, which was refreshing, reminded me a little of Downton Abbey with a greater focus on the people “outside the manor.” The first half took some commitment, but in the second half I couldn’t stop. ****
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is tied for favorite book of 2017 so far. It strikes me as literary genius that Towles could tell a story over thirty or forty years taking place inside the walls of a single hotel and keep us enthralled. Alexander Rostov is one of the most lovable characters I’ve come across. ***** and I wish I could read it again for the first time.
  5. The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a fictional take on the true events in the life of Truman Capote, Babe Paley and their tribe of socialites in the 1960s. All events are true, characterizations are out of Benjamin’s imagination. This book is a peep hole into the way the upper tier lives, and I enjoyed it very much. ****
  6. Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is hanging out at the top of the charts, a little bit the way Nightingale did last year. It’s a WW2 drama with the flip narration style of each chapter in the perspective of one of three central women. It’s all about plot driving forward here, and a very raw study of some of the sickening experiments conducted at Ravensbruck concentration camp. The facts presented are likely very accurate, but something about the telling struck me as somewhat sensational. ** for me.
  7. Columbine by Dave Cullen is a piece of journalistic excellence. This complete 360 degree picture of the tragedy of the massacre at Columbine high school in 1999 is incredibly well-researched and beautifully woven together to give a remarkable picture of the perpetrators, what led them to commit their crimes against the school, the ways the media and police forces failed in a myriad of ways, and small glimpses into the lives of many of the victims. This one is a summer read for me because I couldn’t put it down. *****
  8. Beartown by Fredrik Backman blew me away. It is unlike any of his previous novels in that it lacks the whimsy and fantastical elements. It’s the story of a back woods hockey town in Sweden and all the intensity that can fill even the most inconsequential of places, which is my favorite kind of tale. Think Friday Night Lights, hockey style. *****

Fall

  1. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is the other first place book for me this year. Hard to sum up, but think of a sweeping narrative of one man’s exceptional life as a citizen/prisoner of North Korea under Kim Jong Il. ***** (Maybe 6)
  2. In the Woods by Tana French is a murder mystery! A rare choice for me, but so refreshing. This is part of a series The Dublin Murder Squad, but the books are not sequential. The writing has a literary quality rarely found in mystery/thrillers, which I enjoyed. Takes place in rainy Ireland, thus fall rather than summer. ***
  3. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead’s reputation precedes it, but I am personally recommending as well. If the Underground Railroad had really been set on tracks and in boxcars, Whitehead imagines, here is a story of one young woman who braves those subterranean rails. Of all the narratives of the American slavery era, this one hit me the hardest. *****

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Winter

  1. The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy is a small collection of short stories. The title is misleading because the stories felt more centered on the idea of the loss and sadness that inevitably surrounds love on this earth. Gorgeous, gorgeous writing and unforgettable images. ***
  2. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout was a simple and lean story of a woman and the sum of her life. Bewitching, compelling because of her character. Love anything by E.S. The sequel, or perhaps “sister” novel just came out this summer. ****
  3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel takes place when the world’s population has dwindled drastically because of a rampant virus that kills the majority of the population. Page-turning, or no-pausing (I listened on audio). Not my favorite type of novel, more like watching a movie than reading a book, but it had great reviews. ***

Spring

  1. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is the darling of book lists this year, but I did not care for it. Sort of the wealthy upper class crashing into the lowest class of refugees and immigrants in New York City. Plenty of people loved this book, so don’t take my word for it. **
  2. Run by Ann Patchett, and anything by Ann Patchett, I recommend with a full heart. An in-depth glimpse into the intricacies of a hodge podge family. I couldn’t put it down. *****
  3. The Arsonist by Sue Miller was not my favorite Sue Miller book. I have loved each of her others unabashedly, but this one plodded a bit too much. I wish it would have been more about the arsonist! Still, the writing takes my breath away. ***
  4. Someone by Alice McDermott reminded me of a mix of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and My Brilliant Friend, which makes it just my favorite sort of book, but I can’t rave about it because I didn’t find myself pulling for any of the characters. Great story-telling, though. I enjoyed it. ***
  5. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is fitting for spring because it is a heart-wrenching book about death and, ultimately, about hope. True story, very short. I dare you to read it through without crying. *****

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Some books I’ve got on my night stand include: The Dry by Jane Harper and A Million Junes by Emily Henry.

Happy summer reading to you! Don’t forget to check back in on your New Year’s Resolutions too.

 

 

 

4th birthday letter to Jack

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Dear Jack,

Happy birthday, my little love bug. You are going to wake up and fling your door open and yell, ‘TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY!’ I know this because for the past four mornings you’ve given the morning countdown broadcast, waking your sister and your dad; your enthusiasm can’t be stifled. This intensity of feeling is something you’ve come by honestly—Aunt Hannah and I used to talk about our summer birthdays late into the night beginning just after Christmas.

Today, at age four, you have officially closed the door on your toddler self. It has been a quick change, in the last few months, but you have all of sudden turned into this sort of complete little person. You have every word and you form sentences perfectly. You have a sense of humor. You know all the words to songs we love by Taylor Swift, Adele, The Killers and Needtobreathe. You can operate the television without assistance, deal with all your personal bathroom needs, get dressed, take care of Mae, get your own snack and sit quietly for long periods of time looking at books.

You can almost read, and you have taught yourself. You’ve started adding and subtracting figures in your head without instruction. You’re so smart it’s freaking me out.

Last week you were in the living room watching Planet Earth II, probably the one where the leopard gets the alligator, and Mae was asleep for the night. Dad and I were in the kitchen having a conversation that made me start to cry. I was not crying very loud, but somehow (I don’t know how, because when you watch these nature shows you’re usually locked in) you heard me. You paused the TV and wandered into the kitchen. You asked me why I was crying. I told you sometimes there are just hard, overwhelming things in life that make me cry. You hugged me so tight and said, ‘I love you, mom.’ Jack, how did you already figure out that this is the best thing to do when someone is crying?! You didn’t panic, you didn’t try to fix my situation or get all the details or run away because seeing me cry was uncomfortable. You dove right in. I believe this is evidence of your kindness and your sense of compassion.

You have always been really easy to have around because you’re agreeable and a little introspective and funny and curious and comfortable with everyone. I took that for granted I guess, because this year when more sides of your personality began to shine through, I was taken off guard. You have a strong reaction when something isn’t fair, and I’m trying to teach you that in life there will be a thousand things that don’t balance out but that, at the end of the game, what matters is the people and not the result. However, I am so thankful that you desire justice with such resolve. I hope you always, always maintain this conviction.

You also test me with your mind, trying to out-smart me and find ways around my parameters. It’s so tricky! I am having a hard time helping you grasp the concept of ‘truth’ and why it is the most important thing that can exist between us. This, in particular, makes my heart ache because my biggest biggest hope is that we can we can trust each other. I know we both have to earn each others’ trust, and I can’t make you perform, I can only do my best to be honest with you.

The last thing I want to tell you is how proud I am of your courage. You used to be more timid, but then Santa brought you that scooter and son, you’re a maniac! I would never take a hill that steep at that speed, not in a hundred million years. You are fearless.

I used to say ‘I love you,’ and you would smile. Sometime in the last several months you started saying, ‘I love you too, mom.’ Thank you for this, and for the millions of other ways you consider my feelings even though I’m the mom and your the kid.

Still, every night, I sneak into your room and lay beside you on your bed so I can watch you sleep. In sleep you are peaceful and your face looks the most like it used to when you were just a baby. I usually whisper I’m sorrys to you when you’re asleep because it’s then, in the quiet dark, when I can see you for what you are – a little boy – that I realize the ways I’ve been too hard on you or put myself first. Usually when I whisper to you, you roll into me and press your nose into my arm.

Jack, I love you as big as the ocean. Happy fourth birthday.

Mom

Teaching my daughter.

Today many millions of men and women all over the world marched en masse for many millions of reasons which fall under the umbrella of the rights of all people, which include the fifty percent of whom are female. Some marched for respect. Some for fear. Some for zeal. Some for the sake of another. Some for anger. Some for political agenda. Some for true stories and personal history. Some for hope.

Today I thought a great deal about my daughter who is less than two years old but already showing signs of a fierce and determined disposition, and the millions of things I want to teach and demonstrate to her.

There are many places where women (and men) are treated as animals, or property, or worse; where women are the possessions of men or even other women; where people are stripped of their humanity and told they are not worthy of citizenship on earth. I believe this not only happens around the world, but also in our own cities and towns, and in more ways than one. But today I thought of raising my daughter in a place like North Korea, or Syria, or Uganda, and the thought alone brought me to my knees. I thought of my daughter in the future, in high school and college, when she will require a deep sense of truth to fight for others and to fight for herself in the face of this cruel and tricky and wild and mysterious and adventuresome and often terrifying world.

Who will teach Mae

that power is loving the least appealing people

that every human being should be looked in the eye

that nothing about her outward appearance determines the woman she is

that she deserves dignity, fairness, tenderness and justice

that she doesn’t have to be quiet

that she shouldn’t apologize for her big feelings

that she’s been her perfect self since before I laid eyes on her

that her mind is full and deep and capable of unique and unconquerable creativity

that she can pursue any goal and have courage to stand back up when she fails

that there are people in this world who objectify, hate, destroy and humiliate others, but    that she won’t be one of them?

I will teach her those things, when there are voices screaming the opposite. I will teach her that she is a universe of joy and potential and intelligence and kindness and fortitude and capacity for great things. It is my job, and although I mourn over the condition of so many of our institutions and leaders and churches and schools and communities and cities and families, ultimately I know that I am Mae’s mother. I’m a woman, I’m a girl, and I will teach her what that means.

2017 Resolutions & my 2016 book review

If you’ve followed this blog for even a little while, you might recall how much I love when we turn over to a new year. Starting fresh, setting goals, isolating new ways of simplifying, tidying, growing, challenging — I like the way January sounds. I set three goals for last year, and made good on two. I read 30 books and I returned to the discipline of waking early each day to write. As a result my writing life was very rich in 2016; another manuscript is well underway. Unfortunately, I bombed on untethering from my cell phone.

My three resolutions for 2017 are:

Organize my closets. We moved in and threw our stuff in all the corners of this old house, and we never went back to make sense of it all. I’ve got to get a handle on that this year. Thank the good Lord we have neither an attic nor a basement.

Ditch the phone. A few months ago we sat Jack down and apologized for showing him an example of treating our phones like a member of the family, and started putting them away when we were around the kids. I want to continue with this, so it becomes our lifestyle, not just around the kids but with each other and even in the silences. I’d like to make room for silence.

Try, really try my hardest, to find an agent for my new book.

My reading goal is 31, but that’s not really a resolution.

I’ve tried to be brief so I could include my reading list from 2016 (!!) Ratings are on a scale of 5; these are not in any particular order. I promised my 2015 list last year, but never made good on that. I will say, from my 2015 list, you should read All the Light We Cannot See, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Rosie Project, The English Patient, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Bird by Bird and Still Writing.

So here you go, my thirty books of last year. Fives are best, fours are really good, threes are also good. I wouldn’t bother with twos. I might not bother with threes.

  1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle {a book I enjoyed, read too fast and probably missed many nuances; surprised I hadn’t read previously, though the reception of this novel was mixed throughout the past fifty years due to references to magic, fantasy, etc.}  Rating: 4, would recommend.
  2. City of Thieves by David Benioff {I’ll read anything set in Russia, and I gravitate to WW2, but this story, though compelling, was overwrought with violence and felt excessively ‘masculine’} Rating: 2, would recommend for men, action gluts.
  3. The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan {an exhausting story set in old communist China, largely hopeless, but beautifully written; and the garlic theme is so potent, coming to the precipice of the right balance—I’ll never forget this story} Rating: 4, would recommend but it’s not easy.
  4. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King {this is a re-read, it gets better every time; SK is an intelligent, witty weirdo, but his thoughts on writing are my buoys} Rating: 5, would recommend to anyone, even if you don’t write.
  5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling {ha! too funny, laughed a lot; sometimes the humor got tired} Rating: 3/4, would recommend for a long flight
  6. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson {fascinating historical expose on the cluster that came to a climaxx with this tragedy; slightly long-winded} Rating: 3/4, would recommend
  7. The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key {yes, yes, yes! pick up THIS book and read it NOW, to laugh and cry and laugh and laugh and cry; exploration of a quirky father/son relationship with such incredible humor} Rating: 5, would recommend to literally anyone.
  8. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal {unique story, obviously food-focused (anyone know what lutefisk is?), told through several speakers and witnesses with a focus on the midwest, which I found charming / you do sort of lose track of Eva, Stradal’s main character, which creates a deficit in the story} Rating: 3, no strong feelings
  9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra {one of my books of the year – a gorgeous, thoughtful, lovely, poetic, concrete novel set during the 1990s war in Chechnya with a story that somehow manages to explain the situation of an entire nation while following the small scale of a handful of fascinating people} Rating: 5, can’t recommend more emphatically.
  10. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain {the sterilization movement in our very own NC is shocking, and the greatest value of this book was in drawing this local history to my attention} Rating: 2, can’t really recommend.
  11. The World Below by Sue Miller {everything by Sue Miller is beautifully written, which is my kryptonite; the story is simple, contains no great twists, but is still somehow moving; the first few chapters weren’t necessary} Rating: 4, but not sure if I’d recommend to everyman.
  12. Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home by Amber C. Haines {this memoir was interesting, honest, somewhat sensational, but by the end I was rooting for Amber to find some comfortability in her own skin} Rating: 3, would recommend to anyone who likes a woman’s personal story
  13. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline {this book is about video games—I wish I’d realized that before reading; it doesn’t have gaming themes, the entire thing is based on gaming *now I know about gaming*  alright, the story got sort of interesting eventually} Rating: 3, would recommend to gamers!
  14. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah {multiple 2016 lists have put this at the top for good reason—it’s beautiful and absolutely compelling; this is a story story, driven by events; wee complaint – some things ‘fell in line’ i.e. predictable? I didn’t mind} Rating: 5, would recommend to anyone.
  15. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman {took me by complete surprise! FB is a surly looking Swedish man, but he wrote this hilarious, complex and meaningful story that moved me; a grouchy widower becoming the heartthrob—that’s not something I read every day} Rating: 5, READ IT
  16. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout {ES has a similar effect on me as Sue Miller, that narrative voice is hypnosis; a sepia-toned story about siblings, all grown, and the misery they shoulder, all returning to their hometown in Maine} Rating: 4, would recommend, but prep for consternation
  17. The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin {love learning new things; I didn’t know much about the Lindberghs, but this got me started on a trail of researching them} Rating: 3, would not much recommend
  18. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh {book came to me at the right moment, so meaningful to me as a woman, as a mother, as a friend and as a wife, addressing each of those roles specifically, in short but dense sections} Rating: 5, would recommend to every gal
  19. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates {words escape me; how refreshing, how surprising, how unsettling to see unknown stories and suffering through someone else’s eyes —the most thought-provoking book of the year, on the subject of racism in America} Rating: 4, would recommend, but it is a very specific flavor.
  20. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell {did you love Bernadette? I did! step right up. celebrity mystery meets interesting landscapes meets a few pages with drawings and photos — loved this book.} Rating: 5, would recommend, esp on vacation.
  21. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren {what do you get when a tree scientist writes her memoirs using tree growth and life as a metaphor woven throughout? this book has been incredibly well-received by critics and as a reading pauper, I have to agree—unlike anything I’ve read before} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  22. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett {the best book I’ve read in at least five years, a masterful take on my belief that the simplest lives of people are the most fascinating stories – beautiful beautiful beautiful in so many ways} Rating: 5, READ IT.
  23. White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse {set in Botswana, which is where my in-laws were on safari, my reason for reading; story was odd and meandering with a sense of ‘how did we get here?’ — and when it was over, i missed it} Rating: 3/4, wouldn’t necessarily recommend.
  24. The Dream Life of Astronauts: Stories by Patrick Ryan {short stories, the first collection I’ve read in years, on the recommendation of my fave Ann Patchett; the writing was stunning, some of the stories were good, others I could have done without; the collection as a whole did create a comprehensive flavor of a region and brand of people} Rating: 3 for material, 4 for the telling, would not recommend liberally
  25. Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani {the predictability of this story was its greatest flaw; people fitting into stereotypes} Rating: 2, wouldn’t really recommend
  26. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini {Kite Runner blew me away, this one falls in line, but behind; worth the read, but buckle up for the a big does of sad} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  27. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman {only author I read twice this year, very similar feel to Ove, similar relational plays between children and the older generation, humor as a cloak for sorrow, and warm fuzzy throughout; this one was a bit fantastical} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  28. A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot {a WW1 era mystery, heavily French, with a web of names and dates that make it a bit tricky to follow; overall I was enthralled, and loved it, but had to focus focus} Rating: 4, would recommend in winter.
  29. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd {American slavery-era story based on the life of one of the first female abolitionists; told alternatively through the eyes of that upper-class woman, and her personal slave – one of the best books I’ve read on the topic; toward the end brilliant story-telling gives way to an effort to get the facts straight, but that’s only a slight detraction} Rating: 4, would recommend.
  30. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante {look up the story of this author, fascinating! Loved the story telling, loved the picture of Naples and life there in the fifties; narration is dark, and the story offers little resolution because it’s #1 of 4 in the Neapolitan Series} Rating: 5, would recommend.

This year, hoping to read The Orphan Master’s Son, A Gentleman in Moscow, & Underground Airlines. If I ever have as good a year reading as I did in 2016, I’ll count myself lucky.


Happy New Year, friends!

A birthday letter to my girl.

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Dear Mae,

I’m writing this on the eve of your first birthday. We are going to celebrate you with flamingo yard ornaments and a pink tutu (which your Aunt Kaili got you in Seoul the day I found out you were a girl); this is all really more for me than it is for you. My girl, my girl. Still, sometimes I can’t believe you’re here, and you’re ours.

You were born into a hard, hard time. I know there have been plenty of years in history where women thought, similarly, how could I have brought such a precious innocent into such a wild, desperate, sad, terrifying time? The solidarity of knowing how other mothers have shared this sentiment helps me, because their babies have grown up and turned into the brave, brilliant, world-changing people of the next generation, and the cycle turns over. I wonder what you will learn about twenty-fifteen in history class — or if twenty-fifteen and sixteen are just stepping stones to other times. I wonder who you will be. I often pray for you to have strength and courage, to be unafraid, the same prayer with which God covered Joshua as he put his head down and moved forward into Israel before it was Israel. It wasn’t easy, but it was the promised land. Some day you will be old enough to talk about the things you hear on the news, from your friends, out in public, and I hope you do. I hope you talk to dad and me. I will try to have listening ears, and not give you all my answers. I hope you come up with your own answers. I’m so fascinated by you, I can’t wait to hear what you think.

I wasn’t trying to have a natural birth with you, but it worked out that way because the meds didn’t take. That’s what the doctor said to me, when you were about to make your debut. “Well, there’s nothing I can do at this point.” So we battled it out, and there you were, with a head of black hair. Imagine my surprise! There were two days where we sat together in the hospital absolutely still in this private little hideaway, clinging to each other, wrapping ourselves together, and then we went home.

The first couple months with you, we were all figuring it out. I think you were very uncomfortable being ‘on the outside,’ so you screamed a lot. Mae, I’m talking, you screamed most of your waking hours for nine months. I’m telling you this so we don’t forget, and maybe when you have your own child some day, who has similar vitriole toward the planet we call home, you can take heart reading this, because now you are delightful and very rarely scream at us. People warned me that having a second child would be a challenge, but I was not prepared for the demands of two kids, a husband, a job, a house—and, truth be told, the expectations I put on myself to be all things, in all situations, to all people. I had a hard time, your dad had a hard time. I want you to know that your brother loved you with every shred of his little heart from the moment he saw you in my lap at the hospital. He was probably having a hard time too, but he handled it best. He speaks to you with more tenderness than I could drum up in a lifetime. He’s got your back, little one. I pray it’s always that way.

It’s possible you had colic. It’s possible your digestive systems were very painful. It’s possible you are very obstinate and vocal with your frustrations, which will serve you beautifully as an adult. Whatever the reason, it was very challenging for all of us, likely most of all I can say now, for you. A flood of tears we couldn’t stem. So we clawed our way through the months, and prayed over you, and walked around like zombies. Again, I say this to you in part because some day, when you read this letter, you might be considering having a baby, or a second baby, and by then I will be older and removed from this stage of life, and I’ll probably try to make you see the gift of having babies, the joy that it is. But in reading this I hope you can see that I also understand the day-to-day battle it can be.

Hear this: having you and your brother is the best part of my life with daddy. I pray you know that as you grow up, that you always know that for me, being your mother towers over every other role. And I loved you with a ferocious love from the moment I felt you move inside me, a polar bear love, tough and warm in the cold winter.

You finally got past whatever was ailing you. Phew! And what can I say about you? You’ve got a sense of humor! You are always making me laugh. That big, big smile, the way you scrunch up your nose and show off your teeth. How do you already know that’s funny? You’re also very affectionate, and often lean your head into the crook of my shoulder when I’m holding you. I don’t know what you’re feeling in those moments, but I imagine you pressing in just to make sure I’m still there, to re-connect, to get back to those first two days when we were meeting without anyone or anything else around. If I could bottle that affection I would, it fills me up. You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. You look so much like your daddy and his side of the family, which I love because it feels new to me. Your straight, strawberry-blonde hair is the hair I dreamed of as a child, and your eyes! Everyone comments on them. Tiny little feet (mine were always huge!), perfect button features on that wide, adoring face. It makes me ache, how much I love you. I can’t get you close enough, I can’t squeeze you tight enough.

There were many years when I thought I should only have sons, if I could have children at all, because I wasn’t sure I would be soft or kind enough for a daughter. I was afraid of not knowing the right things to teach her, or the balance of loving-kindness and discipline. But then, like a shock of electricity in my mid-twenties, I wanted a girl so terribly. I asked God all along the way we were trying to get pregnant with you if he would give us a girl. And then, the day we found out about you, I stopped asking for that because I knew you were what you were. Well, we cried in that ultrasound seeing your little face, when Doctor Valaoras told us you were a little girl. It was a sense of disbelief in that kind of goodness. How could it be?

Mae Connelly, you’re named after your daddy – Mark Andrew Evans – and I hope you identify yourself with his initials proudly. I pray you inherit a heaping portion of his humility, his kindness, and his unique eyes which always see past the surface of a man and straight into his heart. And you’re named after your grandmother Claire Connelly, and I pray you have a dose of her grit and determination as you grow up and face the world.

I will sign this letter with a quote by the author Frederick Beuchner which hangs above your crib, a print your godmother gave you when you were born:

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Happy birthday, goose.

Love,
Mama

The last days of summer.

 

August is the laziest of the months, it reminds me of a big golden retriever laying on the hardwood floor after a long walk. August is tired of the heat, it lacks the luster of the earlier summer months because though it does include summer, it also includes the beginning of school in most cases. It’s the end, it’s worn down, it’s sun-tanned. August is almost, dare the admission, ready for fall. And I have always loved August for this reason, because it doesn’t have a pressure about it. It lacks that speed, that lust, that expectation of June and July. It’s just lazing around on the dock, drinking wine on the porch, blowing off bedtimes, hanging around with your parents instead of your friends.

Even though this summer in North Carolina about did us in, I mean it literally cooked us when we didn’t have air conditioning in the house for six weeks, I loved it. None of us are in real school anymore, but you can’t grow up in America and grow out of that yearly cycle which deems that for three months, you get to chill.

In another week Jack will go back to preschool. He only goes three days a week, but it feels like a lot of time without him. I’m going to miss having him around, and the ease of playing in the backyard, having water fights, practicing yoga on the deck together, watching the British cartoon series we’ve come to love so much, walking the neighborhood in search of construction. Last year every day he came home from preschool he had a few new words, new knowledge and I wanted to grab his teacher and say, STOP, LADY. HE’S THREE. But she’s an educator, and I do want him to succeed in life, so I can’t fault her.

Alas, with that small puff of August solidarity, I say this: Summer, I love you, I have always loved you and embraced you, but goodbye because I am tired of sweating, so tired of smelling like bug spray, tired of walking into the hot yoga studio without any noticeable temperature gradient. Thank you for the beach, for many hours sitting on the porch, and for clarifying I do still have blonde hair, but BYE. (For now)

On turning thirty.

I was writing a scene for my new project, and found myself in tears yesterday. It’s a glorious job, writing fiction. A truly enjoyable endeavor creating worlds and worlds on pages.

Today is my thirtieth birthday.

This morning, while the kids miraculously slept in, I sat in the blue chair with the big arms and thought about my twenties, all that it was and all that it wasn’t; all that I became and all that I shed. There are so many things that came to mind but one thing rose to the top as all else settled down at the bottom.

I guess I finally became friends with myself. I spent many years of my life joyful in my element but uncomfortable before the audience of the world, half wishing I was different and half wishing I could find a place where what I was was “normal.” As a child I was involved in music rather than sports, and that made me feel uncool and corralled into a group of kids who were somehow second or third tier. Although I was happy singing instead of running sprints, the second I found myself out of the practice room with the piano and in a crowd of other ten-year-olds, I was embarrassed and tried to hide that I sang with a group which I drove an hour to practice for twice a week (The Children’s Chorus of Maryland) because music wasn’t in vogue in the fourth grade.

In high school I was embarassed to identify as a Christian because church and faith were another category of things that felt uncool.

In college I wanted to be someone who loved to go out to parties, to dance, to drink, to thirst for adventure and lust for adrenaline, but I wasn’t. Turns out the thing I miss about college is going to class. The library. Writing workshops and Irish Lit classes. I could discuss Roddy Doyle all day long. I wore low top Chuck Taylor all stars almost every day of college, which I think is the first sign that I was beginning a pivotal shift. I liked the people in the English department building the best. I wanted to sit in those halls all day long. I could wear overalls in the English department and nobody would give me a sideways glance. My best friends from college were much cooler than me, but they started to encourage me to hang out in the library if I wanted to. Who cares? they would ask.

The day I graduated from college, my whole family packed my stuff into a couple cars and drove to my sister’s house a few hours away. An hour outside JMU I started to feel ill. By the time we arrived at Hannah’s, I was as hot as fire and felt sicker than I ever had in my life. We had plans for a big dinner, a party with cake and gifts, but my dad and Mark carried me inside to a bed and I fell asleep with my shoes on. I slept hard for six hours. We were certain I had been hit with the flu.

I woke up and heard voices in the living room, rolled over. My fever was gone and I felt absolutely fine. I stood up, looked in the mirror trying to decide if it had been a dream. Lighter than air I walked out to the living room where everyone was drinking and eating my cake.

I think it was my body’s expression of something that had happened inside me. It was the dramatic expulsion of the tension I had carried for that time of life, of trying to keep head up and gaze steady when my body really just wanted to hide away sometimes. I was never good at hiding away, being alone, taking time, listening, recuperating. Always trying to be one thing for them and one thing for me. Always trying to be normal, as if normal even exists.

I was twenty-two.

That is when I began to get to know myself. I started to think about what I liked, who I wanted to be around, what I wanted to do with my free time, what made me happy, what didn’t. That is when I really started to work on fiction.

Writing fiction, it turns out, is exactly what I was wired to do. The ongoing observation of the world, the intrigue with the lives of people around me. The jotting down of ideas and notes. The quiet space, fingers tapping away on the keys. The moments of clarity.

Stephen King says, and perhaps I’ve quoted him on this before, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all your managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” (*On Writing* 78)

There is that too, that perserverance when it feels like a sitting-shit-shoveling, but even that sort of drudgery gives me a sense of solidarity with those doing the same thing all over this planet. And I do think this rule applies in anything for a which a person feels passion, but right now I’m talking about writing, which is the one with which I’m familiar.

My twenties included much more than writing fiction. I got married, had two children, made new friends, nursed  that marriage in heart sickness and health, moved to a new city, traveled, explored, mourned, ached for myself and for many others who are close to me.

When I turned twenty I thought, “Here I come! Look out, I’m going to kick ass.” When I woke up this morning, thirty, I thought, “How nice the sun is out today and my children are sleeping past six-thirty. I think I’ll go downstairs and sit in quiet for a bit.” The pressure has alleviated, and myself and I are friends.

Once more to the cabin

Once more to the cabin.

It is spring, but only just, and though the sky is blue and there is the sound of birds all around, the trees are still bare, tremendous in height but bare, like the verticle stripes of a neverending barcode, filtering the light in pillars. The driveway, which He has driven thousands of times, is a quarter of a mile with a slight decline and a few very subtle curves. I have only been driving it for ten years, but it feels like an era which expanses a great portion of my life. The pavement, laid long ago, is cracked and shifting from the roots laying there beneath. We let the old dog out the back of the car at the top, and she is running behind us, her ears flopping back, her open mouth like a smile. She is the laziest of beasts when we are at home in town, but when we come to the cabin she is as playful and lithe as a puppy. There is something rejuvenating in the air around the woods, rising up from the ground.

At once, rounding the last curve, the friendly log cabin, the home of my husband’s family, sits at the back of a perfectly manicured lawn. Large and square, flat sides, a long front porch. Still as a stone, plain as the year. This is my final approach. There is no cardboard sign, but realtors have been bringing in couples from down in Pittsburgh, couples from California, couples from Canada. The right one will step from their car and feel the purity of the air, observe the stillness of the land, the sway of the trees. They will look up into that pond of sky overhead and buy this place my father-in-law spent years tenderly growing, perfecting, maintaining. They and their people will build a life here, too.

The first time He brought me here it was spring, but later, and the trees were blanketed with lush green leaves. A deer stood in the center of the driveway when we approached, unafraid, as if we were coming to visit her.

“It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere,” He’d said. “It’s a log cabin.” And I, a city girl, could not have fathomed what he meant. We were so young, falling in love, feigning complete self-assurance when all we really felt was doubt. He was simple and needed a little help to dress well; He was kind and humble. He possessed no airs. I don’t know exactly where I expected him to be from, but I certainly didn’t expect this.

The first time I rode that quarter mile in his old Jetta, when Pittsburgh was miles behind us and we’d passed several real farms with silos and heards of cattle, I was confused by the whole thing. Then cabin grew up before us, and a different reality dawned on me. Like waking up and realizing the dream you had was only a dream, and you didn’t fly to the White House, you merely watched the State of the Union on television. Only the opposite. When I saw his house for the first time is when I believe I truly began to understand him.

There is an old, wooden wagon in the front yard, off to the side, and lovely yellow daffodils grow from beneath the wheels. Behind the fence to the right of the house is a pool, still covered from winter, full of murkey green water which will clarify when the chemicals are administered. The slide is dry, bleached a very pale blue from years of sun.

His mother has planted flowers all along the front walk; red, purple, yellow, orange, white, violet. They accent the cabin, which is all varying shades of brown. Little friends of a great sleeping bear.

The original house was built sometime just after the United States constitution was signed into governance by our country’s founding fathers. I imagine a man, not unlike my husband’s father, laying the logs with the help of his sons and friends, one great tree trunk after another. His wife standing by, specifying she wanted a long common room for a table to fit the whole family; a loft big enough for everyone to sleep upstairs. This portion of the house has not been changed, really, except for a bigger door with a screen, some electrical outlets and air ducts.

At some point, many decades later, someone had the idea that this eastern Pennsylvania cabin would be better suited further west, and took it upon himself to draw up a diagram of the house, numbering the logs on the paper like the legend to a map, tacking small tin numbers to match all over the inside of the house, and dissembling the structure, respectfully undoing the work of the first man. He piled those pieces on a wagon or a train and sent the whole lot to a little spot north of Pittsburgh tucked away in the quiet woods, away from the noise of a deeply disturbed nation, and put the house back together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Inside the cabin, the tin numbers still hang in odd places all over. 57 just above the toilet upstairs. 73 across from the fireplace in the dining room. 15 up the steps. Evidence of one man’s bright idea.

The front of the house is the original architecture, and it is something out of a history book. The rest of the house was added later, after his father bought the place as a summer getaway. He was a doctor, always weary, always pinched for time with the kids. He’d dreamed of having a tennis court right out back, where they wouldn’t have to wait for a turn. He’d always hated to waste time, never knowing when his beeper would sound and he’d be off to the city. He knows better than most that time is precious, so he wanted an open tennis court. When they pulled up to the small cabin in nineteen-ninety it was surrounded by twelve acres of dense woods, but they had a vision.

The backyard is lovely and wide, and the clay court sits at the back, just beside the vegetables his mother collects all summer for fresh salads and kebabs. Woods surround the yard, which his father created, felling trees, carrying away stumps, planting grass. He was young then, working full time, on call. This was hard labor, which felt good in a different way, a respite from a career of theories, images, scans, lawsuits, unknowns. He could touch the dirt and know its color, its density. He could see the grass take, sprout up like a baby’s first hair. There was satisfaction in that. She came behind him and turned it from a practical thing to a beautiful thing, with flowers and trees, benches, feeders and baths for the birds. They spent years, and when they had at last turned it from the cabin in the woods to a practical home in which they could live as well as love, they moved in.

I woke that Saturday morning at the first spreading light through the window of his sister’s bedroom, and spent a moment trying to remember where I was. I tiptoed down the stairs in bare feet looking for coffee. His father was on the front porch, and I brazenly joined him. I was nineteen, it was our first meeting.

His father is the quietest man I’ve ever known, but that morning we sat and talked for an hour as the morning grew brighter. His mother kept coming to check on us, likely to make sure we were getting along, and we were. He told me the history of the cabin, his journey through two specialties in medicine, growing up in the hills outside the city. I kept asking, and he kept answering. It is my favorite memory on the porch.

The study is dark, thousands of books lining the shelves. The bathrooms are small. The bedrooms are lofted. Great wood beams meet below the knotted ceiling paneling. The kitchen smells like real food – bacon, onion, garlic, bread, pie. His mother, a small woman, most often found there behind the half island, her head and shoulders just visible, has spent years demonstrating the latticing of pie crusts, turkey stuffing in a pillow case, gravy, roasted cauliflower and brussel sprouts to me. Her footprints are depressed into the ground in front of the stove.

My husbands parents have grown dear to me over the decade I’ve known them, settling into a place inside me it seems was meant for them. In the demonstration of their life I have learned volumes about the value of humble, hard work, the importance of family, and the truth that if you want to see something happen, you have get up and get going.

They say it is the people that make a place, which is true in part, but the concept is incomplete. New cities found on holiday hold the power of magic. Places of work often posess the ability to control and produce fear. Water and mountains are soothing; a park is a reminder of the past; a middle school cafeteria dredges up intense insecurity. These are the powers of a place.

And home. A good home – a place you have loved and been given love, where you have felt safe, where you’ve felt a sense of ownership, even as a child – builds its way into into you so you have not only lived within it, but it has somehow begun to live within you.

 

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To Jack, on your birthday.

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Happy third birthday, my curly-head wonder boy.

Jack, TWO was incredible. And just like that, *poof* , it’s gone.

All day yesterday I thought “he’ll never be two again.” I loved that age, and I think you did too. You went from baby to boy, and now we have essentially the same vocabulary, though your usage and grammar still need a little work (but not much!) This morning when you wake up, you’ll hold up three little fingers when I ask you how old you are, your mess of hair all pushed up on one side, your cheeks red, that little smirk on your face, eyes squinting against the morning sunlight.

Although you’ve changed and grown a lot in the past year, you’ve maintained that sense of humor that surprises me every day and makes me laugh out loud. You still smirk. You still look like me, maybe now more than ever. You still have the roundest little face. You still have the cutest legs in the neighborhood.

You are a pretty good athlete, which gives me such joy because it will be something you can share with daddy. You can sing, and you’re always asking me to “do it again,” to learn the words. I recall your Grandy saying that I used to do the exact same thing to her, so it’s possible there’s music in you as well. I think I’ll probably make you try to learn an instrument, which you’re likely to hate, but it’s one of those things you’d thank me for later. You love to read. You’re kind. You dress well. You like to watch movies. You always offer to get me water or a snack when you’re getting them for yourself. You’re pretty much the ideal guy.

Jack, this wasn’t an easy year for us. When I was pregnant with Mae I wasn’t the mama you were used to. We spent so much time sitting on the couch, and our routines of adventure and being outside in all weather, and playing together at your level were seriously interrupted because I felt so terrible. And then when she was born, your world turned upside down. Buddy, mine did too. We love that little Goose so much, don’t we? But bringing in another treasure to our family has been tough in a lot of ways. I know sometimes it probably feels frustrating that you have to share me with her, and that most of the time she seems like my top priority. Trust me baby, she is not. I love you both the MOST. You are my two favorites.

I want to tell you that this year you taught me, more than any other thing, about forgiveness. For lots of reasons you’ll understand one day, God willing, I’ve been quicker to anger and frustration this year, and it breaks my heart to say I’ve taken it out mostly on you. You’re my wingman in life, and just because you’re always right there, and because you are my most consistent relationship in the day-to-day, you see the very worst of me. I try always to ask for your forgiveness, and Jack, you always give it liberally. And you know, you usually follow “It’s OK mommy” with “I love you.” It’s the most I could ask for. You love me with enormous generosity and grace.

It’s dark out and you are just waking up. Usually I’m working on fiction at this early hour, but today is a special day. Three years ago today you were born, my little leprechaun, and you made me a mother. I have asked God over and over to make the time pass slowly so I can savor it, and you know what? He has.

Happy birthday, my darling love bug. I love you with this strange love that makes my heart feel like it’s going to explode, like the way the Grinch’s heart grows so big in his chest it almost pops through.

I’m the luckiest mom in the world because I’ve got you.