The Beanstalk

Record of a writer, a family & an adventure.

Magic in the raw.

I swear I heard you on the roof one year, clomping around in those heavy boots. It surprised me you made as much noise as you did, that you hadn’t figured out how to tip toe, carry your weight like a ballerina. But then of course I was listening for you, anxiously holding my eyes open. I was nervous too, knowing I wasn’t supposed to hear, knowing my mom and dad said you wouldn’t land until I was asleep. What could I do? Staring at the ceiling. A child torn between wonder and responsibility.

What’s the cutoff for asking you for things? I’ll be thirty in June. I need rain boots because every time I take the kids to the park in the rain my feet get wet and cold, so my toes turn that deathly translucent. If they’re stylish, it would be a bonus. Between you and me, I really want someone to detail my car because it’s filthy with crumbs and receipts, books with torn pages, single baby socks, pine straw, dried clay and a fifty pens. When I climb in it makes me feel ashamed! One more thing I can’t keep up with. If I wake up to a detailed car on Christmas I’ll be really impressed, but don’t worry, it’s not a make-or-break. I understand you’re on a tight schedule.

Some people don’t believe you exist. I can understand that. Some people believe you camp out in the chilly arctic all year in a candied-Swiss-Alps kind of village.  I can also understand that. I’ve never seen you so I have no idea, but isn’t it faith to believe when we can’t see? When it seems like an impossibility you could really be what they all say you are?

I’m grown now, and the subject of my belief has changed. As I get older I cherish the things I’ve learned believing in you. You’ve taught me a lot about love, that the glory of life is in friendship, and that there is a great treasure in knowing and being known. It always felt like you knew me, saw me, dropped in on Christmas Eve with joy in your heart because you were proud of me, enchanted by me.

You’ve also taught me about having hope for the whole world, for every boy and girl who become every man and woman.  I’m sure glad you love each one, that there are minutes enough on Christmas Eve to visit the home of all the children. You don’t forget a single one, and your gifts are sometimes so precious they can’t even be seen, like magic dust.

I have to tell you, now that I have these babies entrusted to me, passing on the wonder of Christmas feels like a very large responsibility. I’m afraid of messing it up. But then I think it wasn’t very long ago that I was a child, and maybe the line between child and not is a little hazy with no actual division. Perhaps we’re all dappled on a long spectrum of childhood, and you’re still charmed with each of us even when we’re old and have gnarly toes and gray hairs at our temples. I hope it’s true, because I still need to be visited on Christmas Eve, to wake up the morning after and feel the faint presence of you, smell that lingering scent of hay and winter air, that you came and peeked in on me, smiled at me, touched my forehead. Delighted in me, and left a little something under the tree with my name.

Besides rain boots and a clean car, would you please bring me a little extra magic this year? Just some Christmas magic in the raw. Would you wrap it up for me and leave it where I can’t miss it? I do believe and experience intense joy, and I cling to the memories of my childhood, but sometimes everything feels hard and tiresome and painful, and it seems like so many hearts are breaking. I come face to face with my inadequacy, and I want everything to be just perfect, but it’s not. And it can’t be. I feel the heaviness in my neck and want to hang my head and walk over to the camp of the unbelieving.

A little magic, please, so I don’t.

Have I ever said thank you? For existing, for returning again and again, Christmas after Christmas, day after day, minute after minute, to me. I’m certainly glad you are the way you are, you do the way you do.

Merry Christmas to you, too.  After all, you’ve always wished it to me.

Beginning again.

Can we all take a collective deep breath? Right now, just stop.

Breathe in.

Let it out slowly.

One more time.

Feel better?

 
I started over. It’s been a long time since I started a brand new writing project, stared at an empty notebook with a pen poised for less than sentences. Names, locations, footholds for the beginning of a story that has never been written, though every story is merely a reflection of one that’s been told before. It feels strange to meet these people for the first time, knowing I get to create them in a way, while they simultaneously create themselves, and also me.

All the literature I’ve read on writing fiction in the past few years says you don’t begin with an outline, you simply begin and the story writes itself. I have never written this way. Each of my four manuscripts were outlined in vague detail on pages of notebooks. “Here’s what happens in Chapter four,” etc. It is satisfying work to write an outline, and it is certainly helpful to begin a roadtrip with a map in hand, but the problem with outlines is they confine. Outlines, which can be drawn up without a shred of the beauty of the craft, are ultimately limiting. And it certainly seems counter-creativity to enter a project with scaffolding enclosing it. Perhaps your scaffolding is fit for a country house when your work was meant to become a castle.

I wrote Within the Walled City from an outline, and while I don’t have regrets about the book, I do think it was much more painstaking to bring the story from mediocre to good because the outline had constrained me to a line of plot which I was unable to see past. Does it make sense? A storyline I laid out in an afternoon contained a saga which took me YEARS to write. So when it became clear the the original track was actually wrong, not the destiny of the characters, missing great swaths of information, drama, conflict, romance and passion, making the changes was agony. I didn’t know how, I couldn’t see the people for who they were meant to be. I was like a veteran pressing pieces of shrapnel to the surface of my skin in a gas station bathroom under dim lights.

Now my bulletin board is empty. I have a fresh notebook, even a new computer! Gwyneth! (Moment of silence for Dora, old faithful. RIP)

November is National Novel Writing Month, and I can’t let that sort of opportunity pass me by, so I dedicated myself to writing for 45 minutes a day, which is significantly more difficult now with the added baby in the house. Starting at the beginning is refreshingly exhilerating, but also terrifying. I keep finding myself staring at Gwyneth without a single worthwhile thought. I feel afraid that nothing in my brain is good enough for a story. My mind is encased in plastic or something, non-functioning the way my tongue goes slack after sucking on an ice cube.

But then I remember these things:

Every single life is a good story. Every one.

Writing is a discipline and showing up is the requirement.

There’s nothing I’d rather do.

So I return again to the writing desk. Once every few days I hit my stride, feel the whisper of the muse in my ear, the rush of wind in my fingers, and produce beautiful lines. Very rarely I am in stride with the elite, invigorated. This is rare, however, and usually I am returning for the drudgery of stringing words together to form sentences that will likely be edited at best, cut at worst.

There’s another new beginning around here. Mae Connelly is two months old now, quite literally seeing for the first time. What is it, to see for the first time? I cannot fathom. As I look into those glowing, blue marbles darting around the room I cannot help but wonder that she is a blank slate, a white page. The pen is poised, what will be written? She’s always moving, laughing a little, usually set with an intense stare, a crease in between her eyes. Here is a story over which I have no power and a great deal of influence. Here so much more is at stake. Mae is inspiring me to write, in a way. I believe stories are, right down at the roots, life. This is my contribution.

Returning to the beach.

We went to the beach for a few days this week. We packed up the car with an absurd quantity of clothes, books, DIAPERS, toys, food, entertainment and drove four hours east to stay in a gigantic house right on the ocean with Mark’s entire family. The beach is my heaven on earth, so I was equal parts wary of traveling with a three-week-old baby + two-and-a-half year old and thrilled to be escaping from my land-locked city for a healthy dose of listening to the sea crash into the shore without end for three days.

I wasn’t prepared for what having two kids would be. When Jack was born, I was under-whelmed, if that can be a word, with stress. He was easy all the way around, didn’t keep me up too much at night, never got sick, sort of allowed me to have a pretty nice life while working from home, writing, and keeping him full-time myself.

When Mae came to live with us, I must have assigned that experience to the “would-be” of her. I must have thought it would feel the same. Or maybe, in my brain-dead existence of pregnancy, I simply failed to consider what it would mean. In any case, I.WAS.NOT.PREPARED.

It is insanity in my house at all times, except when Jack is asleep for his nap… and even sometimes then. Mom, I’m awake–can I have a snack–crying infant–feeding infant–strapping infant to my body–cue sweating–mom, can we go outside?to the dinosaur park?to Target?to the book store?I don’t want to go to school!–(tears)–crying infant–walking to the park–feeding infant at the park–telling Jack not to steal toys from other children–forgetting bugspray–slapping mosquitos off his face because he’s allergic–forgetting sunscreen–picking up–putting down–running upstairs–running downstairs–running to the car–the market–the bank–the drugstore–crying (me, Jack or Mae.)

That’s usually before 11:30am. Sometimes I have forgotten to brush my teeth. I usually put mascara on, and I often make time to shower (I don’t know if it’s because I feel gross, or if it’s because I just want to be alone for five minutes), and I usually put down at least a half cup of coffee… it’s holy chaos. I had no idea. I can honestly say I didn’t see it coming.

The irony is that I have many friends and family with multiple kids, and I’ve seen their lives, the way the increase in quantity of children directly correlates to the quantity of mess, alcohol consumption and hours paid out to babysitters, but I just didn’t think it would be true for me. I am an optimistic, prideful little thing, and proud of my optimism on top of it, and I simply thought it wouldn’t happen to me.

Well, I was wrong. It did.

Tim Keller described joy as “buoyancy.” I’ll never forget that. A buoy gets pushed under water, then springs right back up. He said that true joy is having the capacity for that response to life. I keep thinking about that with these kids, because as strange as it sounds, I feel it. I have these moments (hours, sometimes) of crazed madness, frustration, even anger. But any time I take one small step back and survey this life we’ve been dealt, I am joyful! Thankful, joyful. They are beautiful, intelligent, wondrous tiny creatures, and they’re teaching me to learn my older ways, and they’re softening me. We are all refining one another. Is this the definition of family?

The beach came through, as it has a habit of doing. This is the divinity of the beach–its ability to restore. We slept with the door open so we could hear the waves all night, so when I was up nursing Mae it was by the light of the moon and the rhythm of the steady ocean tide. I read there, prayed there, wrote slowly, slept in, drank coffee and wine, and walked on the beach. I stepped back, took a serious audit of what is in front of me, and gave thanks.

A family of four.

August was a banner month. The very last day, just when we thought it was going to roll over into September, Mae Connelly was born. Her birth didn’t pan out quite like I had imagined, but she came fast, and in an instant my heart turned inside out all over again. This wild miracle of new people suddenly appearing, replenishing the earth again in a moment that’s both gentle as a dove and as violent as a storm.

This morning, as Jack is gone for his first day of pre-school, I’ve sat for a long time with Mae in the quiet of my bedroom. In our new house, our room is upstairs and outside the three windows there are great, beautiful Japanese Maples and oak trees. From my bed, it feels like we live in a treehouse. We painted the walls a lovely sea glass color, there is good natural light and the soft glow of a lamp by the bed. When Jack was born, I didn’t feel entitled to sit still, so I tried to keep up with laundry and errands, which ended up making my recovery more difficult. I read an article a few weeks ago about the importance of taking the first few days after having a baby to simply sit around, lounge, be lazy, take advantage of the husband and parents who have set aside a few days off to come be with you and help. I failed at this last time, and I was determined not to do the same thing again. So, here I sit, my new laptop (not yet named) and lukewarm coffee as company.

Before Mae was born I was so tired of pregnancy it felt like my personality was a pool that had been drained so all that’s left was a deep, cement ditch. Smooth, and dry, baking in the heat of the sun. The book was finished, so I was working on getting it shipped out and delivered to people who had ordered, busy, busy. Trying to set up everything for work, to be prepared for my maternity leave. Distracted by everything, anxious to have the baby, trying to be the same mom to Jack, but feeling so depleted there were many afternoons spent in front of television, waiting minute by minute for Mark to get home.

Her arrival was like MAGIC. Like meeting her face to face was a stroke of some great wand that brought me back to life! Mark said in the hospital, the morning after a brutally exhausting night of labor and delivery, “You seem happy again. I think you’re back.”

I was so happy to hold her, and so happy when Jack showed up to meet her in the morning and we all piled into the hospital bed like puppies, sniffing and pawing at the soft, new little bean in our family.

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Mae’s arrival brought me back to life! Again, a miracle.

It has been strange returning home, where my other baby is. He suddenly feels and seems older, bigger, stronger than he ever did, and I’m fighting not to oust him from the “baby” slot. It’s not his fault she was born, and although he will have to adjust and grow in new ways, he is still my little boy. I am always trying, as a mom, to know my child(ren) intimately, and to be sensitive to his (their) specific personality(ies). This is a challenge for me, because I don’t come by that sensitivity easily. I’ve noticed Jack seems emotional in a hidden way, sort of coy and a little jumpy, shockingly tender to Mae, a little wary of me, more attached to dad. “Mommy, your tummy is GONE!” is something he has repeated over and over, which is sweet because it shows me that he sees me.  I know I’m emotional too, feeling protective of the tiny baby moments with my new one, knowing how fast they are gone, feeling guilty that I don’t have all the time for Jack anymore, feeling torn between the two, all the while knowing all of this is for the best for ALL of us. We are learning to stretch and bend, learning each other, becoming a family all over again. It’s the best, and I am tired.

I knew it would be different, and I’m learning just what that means. It’s something like thickening a soup, adding strands to the rope to make it stronger, bolstering. Feeling God’s incredible kindness.

Welcome to our little corner of the world, Maebie.

What it feels like.

Friday, August 7, 2015 was publication day, when my first completed novel Within the Walled City became a published book with a real ISBN number, a real record in the world, a tangible story available to readers on this planet. It was a strange day because the temperature dropped to a tolerable seventy-nine, I was home alone, and Jack was asleep when the finalized proof came in the mail. Sidney was snoring in her bed, disinterested and lethargic, when I found the package at the open front door, tore it open to reveal the awaited contents, and stood barefoot on the porch staring at it. My name in hollyhock. The cover we spent months perfecting. The photo on the back, bottom corner. The dedication page. The whole story.

I looked at out at our street, unmoving at three o’clock, the wind is rustling in the trees. I could hear cars passing by steadily on the busier cross road, the motion of cicadas in the trees. No fanfare. Why should there be? No parade of little people coming to cheer me at the end of the marathon, to whistle as I strove across the finish line.

Every book I’ve ever read on writing has offered the same warning: the day your book arrives in the mail in print will be strangely unremarkable. Dani Shapiro says, “Most published writers will tell you that the moment they hold the book […]—the moment is curiously hollow. It can’t live up to the sweat, the solitude, the bloody battle that it represents.” I feel intensely grateful to have read those words, along with the words of many great writers, which prepared me for this strange paradox of finishing—the glorious end—and finding myself quieted, of all things. Well, here it is, I thought. And really, that was it.

So in truth, this post, this written tribute, this composition dedicated to finishing my project, I realized, ought really be more of a dedication to the process than the end.

“Writing fiction,” Stephen King says, “especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”

I remember reading those words years ago when I was working on a different project, one that was tabled after six drafts or so, and sitting up straight, feeling an electric current of agreement. The powerful YES, EXACTLY barreling out of the deepest part of me. It is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. All those mornings before light, every day, dragging my body to my desk, opening the laptop, waiting for the coffee to drip enough into the pot so I could pour a cup. Cold feet on the hardwoods. Sweater wrapped around my body. Welcome pre-dawn. Lonely dark. The tick of the baby grandfather clock. The silence of the boys sleeping, the dog shifting in her crate, knowing I was awake. The returning. Returning. Returning. Returning to the story over and over again, shifting, fixing, deleting (Lord, there has been so much deleting), adding, hating, loving, questioning. The first draft was so long ago I can’t even remember what it felt like the first time the story came out—that was almost seven years ago. All the drafts since, re-working, changing, growing the characters, the scenery, the images, the feelings, the humanity.

“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird) This miracle, that what appears so plain, so mundane, so ordinary—small black text on white pages—is really a new universe! This miracle!

Toward the end of the creating process, between drafts, I had editors. The first was done by a dear friend with incisive skills. It cut the story down, pared it, like a gardener with shears at the beginning of spring. And it cut me down to the quick, but without that edit I wouldn’t have ever finished. I couldn’t have grown this story to what it became without her vision for what it could be. She’s the first person I acknowledge with credit as a contributor. The second was a different kind of help, when the story was pretty much set. This editor’s attention to detail and plain old praise of the story pushed me to the end. The final drafts. A copyeditor fixed my errors, and said the story is too sad for me. My answer to that (after a night of a lot of self-doubt!) was that really, isn’t life too sad? But don’t we continue to seek out its promised sweet marrow anyway? And isn’t sadness a key player in every life? And isn’t that why we tell stories? And isn’t hope, the redemption of sadness, at the heart of every good story?

The writing was finished. Friends came around me to illustrate and design the cover, format the text, walk me through the process of self-publication, ask me over and over, When will it be done? When can I read it?

In the past few days, people have asked how it feels. What do I do now?

Isn’t it strange, but as I waited for the proofs to arrive in the mail, I opened a fresh notebook and began jotting down ideas for the next novel. The next universe. In the past few months, pregnant, tired, working on the logistics of Within the Walled City, I have not been writing. Early mornings have found me tossing in unsettled sleep, sore, as big as a whale. That good work of writing, the thing I feel certain I was made for, has been in hibernation, but Mae’s birth is right around the corner and all I can think is I can’t wait to get back to the drawing board. I can’t wait to write a first draft again. I can’t wait to be up in the dark, alone, unfolding the world.

“After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)

This is how it feels. It feels like there are millions of unwritten sentences waiting to come together just on the inside of my skull. It feels like I am twenty-nine and I might only have sixty good years of brain power left. It feels like a treasure, a great gift. It feels like I want to narrate the world. It feels like I want my children to experience what it feels like to have passion for something. It feels like taking part in a tradition many thousands of years old. It feels like being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and striving, always, forward.

“And so I dip my toe into the stream. I feel the rush of words there. Words that are like a thousand silvery minnows, below the surface, rushing by. If I don’t capture them they will be lost.” (Dani Shapiro, Still Writing)

Thankfulness, and our tribe.

It’s just that there’s been so much going on these past few months. This is the excuse for this long interlude, once again, between posts. It’s the truth, so much has been happening around here. The other half of the truth is that while I find myself to be a moderately good candidate for motherhood, I am a terrible candidate for pregnancy. I handle it about as well as a home school mom at a motorcycle rally. I blame my body–maybe I have a weak constitution when compromised with a baby? I’m willing to accept that.

We moved.

Moving is a despicable, distressing, exhausting, reduction process in and of itself. Moving from one house you own to another house you own is worse, because you’ve acquired a house-full of stuff. Moving with a toddler is really dumb, albeit sometimes necessary. Moving on a day with a high of ninety-one degrees and ninety-five percent humidity is torture. Moving pregnant is hell. Moving under all of those circumstances, on a Friday when most of your friends are working, without professional help is enough to lay a person to rest permanently. It was nightmarish, truly, between this Middle East climate we’ve had this summer and the nausea. Mark came home for forty nights in a row to an angry Ginny, which is something I do feel bad about. But we did it, on May twenty-ninth, which means we’ve lived in the new house for almost two months! It is starting to feel like home, AKA, I have family photos on the walls, we’ve painted over the ugly colors, my books are on shelves, but we still can’t find extra bed sheets, there are gallon ziplocks full of medicine on the floor in the guest bathroom and I can’t locate the kitchen shears. And now we live in this great, big beautiful house with windows everywhere, and tall ceilings downstairs, and a walk-in pantry, and a wrap-around back deck. It’s dreamy, in a Big Fish kind of way, and I’ve only accidentally driven to the old house one time.

We went on a family trip to the beach.

Mark’s been crazy busy with work.

Our baby is due in five weeks.

I finished my novel. Meaning: it’s in the printing process right.this.very.minute. And that, something that took every extra iota of attention I had for the past several months, is an entirely different story, a post for another day–hopefully one less than two months away.

But the point of all this is that I am sitting here in the living room. My wee babe is asleep in his bed. Mark is spending the night at a homeless shelter. The television is off. The house is astoundingly still. The sound is cicadas and crickets outside. And I am thankful.

For the past two months whenever the thought of blogging occurred to me, there were these thoughts, which fly around like heedless, homeless bats, seeming elusive and too small for an entire article. But when I finally combined everything I’ve been thinking it boiled down to thankfulness, and our tribe.

These people! These members of my family! These friends! We would have combusted by now.

The month of May, when I was pressed to my limit just existing, my sisters. My local sisters. They took Jack from me as often as they possibly could. These sisters that live in the same town as me called me and texted me every day. “Want me to take Jack to the pool?” “Why don’t I take Jack so you can nap?” “I’d love to have Jack spend the night.” I think one of them texted me every day begging for a chance to drive to my house, pick up, care for, feed, nap and bathe my toddler. It wasn’t just when I was at the end of my rope. It was so often, unsolicited, without expectation of repayment.

Moving day, we had friends that took the day off work! One dear couple moved with us from nine in the morning until the last hockey stick came off the truck after ten at night. (We didn’t hear from them the next day).

My in-laws came for three days and painted two rooms, then took us out to dinner. My folks came and in a whirlwind, unpacked about a hundred boxes, helped hang pictures, clean, organize, cook and build train tracks in Jack’s room. My mom painted the new girl nursery.

And then there are these friends. These local people we’ve stumbled upon like stones underfoot. Friends who helped me unpack my kitchen because it was immobilizing. Friends who carried rugs all over the house. Friends who babysat free. Friends who swept my porch and painted flowers for me instead of buying ones that would only disintegrate with time. Friends who threw us a huge taco party to celebrate all of this ABSOLUTE CHAOS, which is also the great beauty of life.

This doesn’t even delve into the emotional thankfulness I have for the friends who have helped me reach the end of the book process—again, another post…

But where I’m going with this is that even though there have been a lot of days this summer when I, regrettably, neglected to realize these gifts, I am looking back and paying my respects to them now.

So thanks, tribe, for helping us through the first half of this year. And thanks, Lord, for carrying us since the beginning.

Goodbye to this sweet, old house.

When we saw this square brick bungalow for the first time, from the window of the Jetta, I couldn’t believe how pretty it was, stuck in between a host of not-as-pretty houses. The two-tiered lawn, divided by the cobblestone wall; the big, covered front porch. We went inside and it was empty, so the rooms felt spacious and tall. There was a dead cockroach in the corner of the living room, which made me nervous, but otherwise it was charming. Old, a little crooked, but lovely. We bought it a month later.  That was five years ago. On Friday, we’ll move out.

I have been tip-toeing around the inevitability of processing this for a month, afraid of the emotional energy it would take. I am a homebody—in the sense that I grow deeply attached to home. Every move as a child unearthed and unsettled me deeply, and though this month has been busy, exhausting, stressful and unpredictable, and though I am an adult now with children of my own, and though we aren’t leaving town, I have avoided mentally confronting the ‘move’ because I know deep down inside myself I will be unearthed and unsettled again, which is a combination of feelings I despise.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think back on the ways this house has let us down. There have been the infestations – rats, black widows, ants, mice, carpenter bees. There was the time the main pipe from the street water to our house cracked like glass and we had to pay to have someone dig a trench through our lawn, break down the wall, destroy the grass. There was the leak in the roof to the living room. The leak in the roof to the attic. The leak in the roof to the dining room. There was the fact that we could set the temperature to sixty-eight all winter, and never see the thermostat rise above sixty-three. There was the tree that dropped limbs weighing hundreds of pounds in the back yard. There was that first neighbor with five junk yard dogs who howled all night long outside our window. There was the fact that we could never seem to grow grass on the west side of the front lawn. There was the day last winter when the high was eight degrees, and the heat went out.

But, glory. How this house has loved us. There was the streaming sunshine through the kitchen window shining on the original, glossy hardwood floors in the morning, the afternoon sun in our bedroom on the duvet, making the whole room a soft, heavenly white. Those hardwoods in every single room, creaky like something from a Victorian romance. The tall ceilings that allowed us to buy a bigger tree in December. The thick, white molding around every window, door, and inch of floor. There was the porch, the two white rocking chairs, where we sat for at least a thousand hours. Mornings with coffee, afternoons with lemonade, evenings with wine. There was the window in the shower, which you could open at the top so the breeze would come down fresh while you got clean. There was the dining room wall full of photographs of people we love. The back room, which was ugly and abused for a few years, but which became a nursery.

There was the way Sidney couldn’t walk on the floors when she was a puppy, so she’d slide around on her belly like a snake, always trying to gain traction. There was the morning we found out – after a sad, sad year of no’s – that we’d have a baby, and I ran in and jumped on top of Mark at 5:30 in the morning, hurling him out of dead sleep, into joy! The afternoon, on the porch, we found out it was a boy. The day we brought Jack to the house – the coldest mid-March I can remember, and he met Sidney. There were hundreds of early mornings at my desk, working on the book, staring out the window searching for vocabulary. There were dinners on dinners with dear friends, and a handful of special parties, when we strung up lights and lit candles, made fancy appetizers and drank bourbon, toasting to birthdays and friendship and family. There were evenings I stood dressed up in front of the full-length mirror, evaluating heels, dangly earrings and dresses; and evenings I stood in that same spot with my hands on my stomach, wondering how big it would get in forty weeks, if my feet would go back to normal, if my profile would ever be the same again. There were mornings we drank coffee quietly together, mornings we woke up to Jack singing in his crib. There was so much happy here.

And there were sad, fearful, lonely, long, trying, angry days, too. A good number of them. It wouldn’t be fair to pretend there weren’t.

It wasn’t just five years, it was these five years, our five years, for which this house was home base, and in leaving, we are saying goodbye to a fabulous era. Oddly, one thing keeps returning to me. The fact that this house was built in 1938, that there were perhaps a dozen families or more who had their five years here, or ten, or twenty. Maybe that’s what has made the house so kind and warm, it had a lot of practice being a home before we got here.

We’re moving on! There is a season for everything, and I guess it’s a fit time for us to leave this house. Time for a new house to make home, for the next years. But I’m taking this time, right now in the midst of the chaos, to make a promise to this sweet, old house – and to myself – that I won’t ever forget the simplicity and joy of our life here.

A recurring dream.

When I was a child, I had a recurring dream. I am sitting in the front seat of the Beverly Hillbillies pickup truck, looking out at the open sky, the empty road ahead. We are bouncing along the road, shoulders loose with the bumps in the road. The road is near where I grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It is flat, and the landscape to the right is a wide cornfield. In this dream it’s sunny and I feel comfortable, normal, and content. For years I’ve wondered about it—why this dream? I didn’t watch the Beverly Hillbillies habiltually. No matter, I have probably dreamed that same dream, just a small snippet of a scene, at least two hundred times. It started when I was five or six. I don’t dream it anymore though, as far as I know. I think the last time I was about eighteen. But waking up from that dream always left me feeling the same way: OK. Opening my eyes after that trip down the skinny road, I was OK.

I have a new recurring dream. It isn’t actually the same scene over and over, but it has this same element: I am trying to run, but I can’t make my legs move. I’m telling myself, RUN, but I can’t pick up my damn feet! Sometimes they only move very slowly, a plod. Sometimes it’s as if they’re cemented to the ground. Last time I dreamed this I was trying to catch a flight, out on the tarmac, the plane only fifty yards away. Telling myself to Run! I can surely catch it, but then my feet aren’t connected to the firing synapses in my brain. My body disobeys. I have no control, and I think, I might as well be a corpse.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer, and I remember dreams. The next day, days later, I can recall details about where I was, who was alongside me, what we said, what the problem was. I can remember some dreams from before my brother was born, and he is twenty-three. I like to think it’s one of the features God gave my brain to help me as a writer. The book I’m about to publish came to me in a dream at the end of my senior year of college. I’ve had so many dreams that feel like gifts—alternate realities, short films in sleep.

But the dream where I can’t run is disturbing. I wake up from nights including that dream feeling terrified, full of anxiety, like my heart has been pumping extra hard. I wiggle my toes to be sure my legs work. I fade back into my room, look at the ceiling. I’m where I should be.

I begin to unfold my mind like the petals of a flower. Real life floods into my conscious like light, I tick through all the things I was mentally juggling before I fell asleep, and the dream makes perfect sense. The list is overwhelming. Too often I find that when I allow myself to remember and acknowledge all factors, the anxiety overwhelms me! When did I become this person? It’s not every morning, but it’s often enough I can recognize where my heart has become heavier over time.

We are selling the house. The sign in the yard is cute, and bittersweet, but the reality is a high level tension dully vibrating at all times. Keep it clean – will it sell? – where will we go? – do we have time – do we stay here? – hurry! someone is coming in five minutes, get out! In the moments at night, when I sit in my bed and look at the three photos hanging above my dresser, I also feel sadness! This is our home! This is where we became a family. This is where we have gone through all the great joys and griefs of our life together. I lovingly picked the paint colors, the mirror above the mantle; sewed the curtains above the window over my desk.

We are having another baby. How will I work? – where will I find the time? – what does one do with a girl? – how can I endure feeling sick for 17 more weeks? – back to sleepless nights – what about our friends who want babies?

I am publishing the book, FINALLY. JOY! Then what will I write next? – what if the muse leaves me and I have nothing? – how will I sell it? – am I writing the right things? – will this take me to new places? – will I be good enough?

Mark’s career. PA School isn’t happening, what’s next? – what will give him joy? – will we need to move? – should we be buying a new house if we’re open to moving? – most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them, said Thoreau. – is that true? – God, don’t let that be so!

When can we go on a vacation? – do we spend too much? – how can we serve our community? – how can we make a difference in the world? – are we working excellently? – is our marriage doing ok? – I haven’t cooked dinner for my family in 10 days. – is the 11th day the day I need to go to the store and cook?

And that’s just my universe. What about my family and friends who are hurting? Who have needs? Unmet desires? It feels like too much.

HUSH!

In the mornings, laying in bed, this is the waking manifestation of trying to run when my feet won’t lift.

So here’s what I’ve been doing.

I get up, place my heavy feet on the cold, hardwood floor. I put a sweatshirt on, leave my sleeping husband in bed, and walk to the kitchen. Turn on the kettle. Make a single coffee. Sit on the paisley chair in my writing nook – Mark’s gift to me – and pull my feet up under me, lay the cable knit blanket over my lap. I sit and I stare out the window at the large trees, now vibrantly green, in the yard beyond ours. The window is high, so it feels like being in a treehouse. Sometimes I sit there for a long time, just staring. Breathing myself down from the height at which I woke.

Then I open my journal, or my Bible, or this book of sermons I’m reading, and slowly let truth wash over me. I pray.

A teacher said, “We return to the Bible to remember who we are, and who God is.” In the simple discipline of returning and remembering, I find peace. It’s not that simple.

But it is, also, that simple.

This morning, I read this:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

In the sermon based on this passage, Beuchner says God prepares the table in the presence of our enemies because it’s “the only option.” We are always, forever surrounded by our enemies. Specifically, the enemies from within – our anxiety, fear, doubt, sadness, anger, guilt, disquiet, unrest. But He prepares the feast of peace, forgiveness, joy, surety and grace for us there, anyway.

This morning it is sunny and cool. The sky is blue, the clouds are thin like stretched cotton. I am by myself in a café with a pain au chocolat and a latté. It feels like the same kind of morning as when I was bouncing along the road beside the cornfield in the Beverly Hillbillies pickup truck.

A letter to Jack, on your second birthday

Dear Jack,

Today we were in the car discussing the possibility of moving. We drove by a house for sale over in another corner of our neighborhood and you observed it from all angles as I drove by slowly, made a U-turn, drove by again, turned down a side street to check out the backyard. I said What do you think, bud? Should we buy it?

You just looked out the window.

Guess we probably have to talk to daddy. Daddy’s the boss.

Mommy boss? you said.

Nope, daddy’s the boss. Mommy’s the tresurer. Actually, that’s not true. Daddy’s also the treasurer. Rambling, thinking about who deals with mail, and the secretary. Mommy’s the… um. Vice President of Marketing.

And you laughed. Right then, like you had been listening to everything I was saying, the whole time. That made me laugh so hard, so then we were both laughing like a couple of old men telling dumb jokes. Nobody makes me laugh like you do.

I used to go into your room at night and pick you up when you were sleeping. You’d wriggle a bit, nestle back down in my arms, and then I’d rock you for ten minutes or so, just watching your little face do nothing but sleep. I hadn’t done that in a while, you’re so long now you hardly fit in my arms! But I don’t want to miss the chances I have left. So a few nights ago I went in there and sat in the rocker. Daddy scooped you up and set you in my arms and we sat there for a while. It was heaven for me because you’re my baby.

That night I felt sort of helpless at the hands of the enormous love I feel for you, like it’s drowning me and I can’t help it. Sometimes when you’re angry and ornery I have momentary lapses of forgetting, but pretty much any time I see you it feels like a light goes on inside of me. You’re mine! I realized that it took having you, Jack, for me to begin to understand how my heavenly Father loves me. This is something like a shadow of that kind of love. This raw affection. This unquenchable desire to be with you. I’m thankful to have you, to learn a little bit about what that is. Whatever that is.

You’re going to be a big brother this summer, so I’m soaking up these sunny days when it’s just you and me, something I’ll never have with another kid. I know you’re going to be a great brother – kind, teaching, serious, loving, protective. I know it’ll be hard in some ways, but I have all the faith of the world in you.

I’m proud of you Jack, because you’re mine. I love you, and happiest of birthdays to you.

Love,

Mama

photo (2)

Twenty in twenty-fourteen.

Oh, hello.

I had such gusto going into 2015. I mean I was practically riding a white horse out of the old year and into the new. I had enormous intentions for productivity in my house, my personal life, my novel-writing, my cooking ingenuity, my dietary habits, my musical knowledge (I was going to start learning to play harmonica).

And then we found out I was pregnant. I am pregnant! Growing this little bump, growing this little family…

And I got sick. Really sick. So sick I slept every day past nine, went to bed before evening television even commences, stopped seeing any of my friends, stopped making plans, stopped attending Bible Study and church, stopped reading, stopped editing, stopped exercising (except when I had to show up to teach a class at the Y), stopped cooking, stopped talking on the telephone, stopped smiling at my husband. This pregnancy has wrung me out like a kitchen rag, feeling like throwing up at every and any second. Then I got a stomach bug or food poisoning and about quit it all. But all the time, treasuring the knowledge that it’s a gift, what comes at the end of this.

However, I think the difficulty is passing now. One of the reasons I think it is because I started wanting to read and write again. Those two pastimes, which have always felt as common to me as breathing, disappeared for almost two months, but then suddenly last week I felt myself thinking about reading, and then picking up a book, and then, last night, standing in line at Chipotle with a paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in hand, moving slowly to the place in line where you finally say “Burrito bowl, please. With chicken and pinto beans.”

There is so much I want to blog about, but today I’m going to honor my promise to release my book list from 2014 with brief reviews, in order of date completed. Let’s get to it.

I read twenty, which was my goal. Made it by the skin of my teeth.

1. No Country for Old Men (auth: Cormac McCarthy) Bone-chilling, haunting, bare-bones story in the southern part of the country bordering Mexico. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s a startlingly well-done rendition of McCarthy’s story. I was baffled by the uniqueness of the protagonist/murderer Anton Chigurh, who is sort of mechanical and animal, with a strange streak of human. It’s this detachment from his crimes which makes the story bearable, in a way. Can’t explain it, read it. McCarthy writes in a minimalist way. Recommend? YES.

2. A Catalog of Step-Fathers (auth: Jessamyn Kirkwood) Fantastic Young-adult novel not yet in publication, author is my personal friend and editor! I read to edit. The young female lead character is hilarious and honest, a bit snarky, intelligent, dealing with somewhat odd family dynamics resulting from her upbringing with several different step-fathers. Explores the uniqueness of kids raised in and around the Silicon Valley, the perspective of children raised by multiple parent-figures over time. Can’t wait to see this one in print! Recommend? YES.

3. The Luminaries (auth: Eleanor Catton) I was really excited to read this one, a different back drop (New Zealand), a story I’d never heard (the gold rush in NZ following America’s own rush to the west coast), a chilling murder mystery with layers and layers of characters. It would have been great if not for its length (something around 800 pages – seemed to go on forever!) which caused me to lose track of who belonged to which storyline, name, plot point, etc. Would be good for a long winter vacation. Beautifully written. Recommend? NO, unless you’ve got lots of time.

4. The Fault in Our Stars (auth: John Green) Another Young-adult novel. Two high school kids battling cancer, also falling in love. This book has gained incredible acclaim this year, especially after being made into a movie. It’s a good story, but very emotions-driven. Recommend: NO.

5. The Shadow of the Wind (auth: Carlos Ruiz Zafon) This is a fantastic story. Set in Spain with a plot circling a great mystery surrounding an old book, it’s like getting sucked into a long, thrilling movie. Book is translated from orig. publication language (Spanish) which at times seems obvious. It’s something like a cross between Zorro and Wuthering Heights. Recommend: YES.

6. The Girl You Left Behind (auth: Jojo Moyes) First half is about a woman in a small French (?) village during WW2, second half about a woman in modern-day London. The connector is a painting by the same name of the book. Fast read, interesting, intriguing story. Wouldn’t say it’s terribly thought-provoking, but I enjoyed it. Good beach read. I’ve heard some of her other books are good. Recommend? YES.

7. Half-Broke Horses (auth: Jeanette Walls) This is the second book by the woman who penned her memoir, The Glass Castle, which I devoured and enjoyed tremendously. This is a biographical novel about the author’s grandmother (a smart, self-sufficient wonder woman) and her life in the west. The chapters are short and read like anecdotes. Interesting story, not nearly as good as the first. Recommend: YES, if you liked The Glass Castle.

8. The Interestings (auth: Meg Wolitzer) I couldn’t get enough of this one, but it’s a different flavor. A group of high school kids meets at a summer camp for the arts and stays friends for life. The narration jumps around over years, between people, the intricacies of their friendships, the brokenness that people hide, the unmatched value of loyal relationships, the agony of loving and losing. It’s value is not in sweeping events or twists, it’s in the steady flow of the story. It’s not PG. Recommend: YES, but not to everyone.

9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (auth: Maria Semple) Yes, yes, a hundred times YES! Favorite book of 2014. Takes place in Seattle, narrated through the eyes of a teenage girl who’s mother, Bernadette, has gone missing. E-mails, phone calls, letters, newspaper articles, etc. form the skeleton of the story, which is quirky and hilarious and so moving I just stared at the window for about forty minutes when I finished. I love a book that makes me laugh out loud, cry, surprises me, and leaves me thinking about it for days and weeks after. I never wanted it to end and I walked away feeling so GLAD I’m quirky. Recommend: Obviously YES.

10. The Cuckoo’s Calling (auth: Robert Galbraith / i.e. JK Rowling) Rowling’s first publication under her male pseudonym, a modern mystery takes place in London. It reads relevant, progressive, reminded me of the era in which we find ourselves. A model is murdered in her London flat, a beat-up detective takes the case. Kept me reading. Recommend: YES.

11. Secret Daughter (auth: Shilpi Somaya Gowda) Chose this because of the setting in India, which is a place I don’t feel I know much about. Writing felt juvenile and basic, and dialogue was not great (my number one deal-breaker) but the story was interesting – an adopted child in America and the connected family in India. Deals with infertility, the effects of it on marriage, adoption, cultural clash and other very pertinent themes. Can’t take the writing, felt younger than it should. Recommend: NO.

12. The Light Between Oceans (auth: M.L. Stedman) This is a hard one. Beautiful writing, fascinating story, unique (story is based on an island with a lighthouse and the family that keeps it up), compelling. However, it’s one of those stories that, from the very beginning, you know it can’t end well. I just need good people to have a happy ending, or at least some redemption, so I spent the whole book dreading the end. I think objectively this is probably a great story. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend. NOPE.

13. What Alice Forgot (auth: Liane Moriarty) This was another one, much like Bernadette, I just loved. I love the way she writes, I love how much I can relate to the way the characters think and feel, I love the way I thought about my life differently afterward. A 39-year-old mother of 3 wakes up after a fall and has amnesia for the past ten years. As she learns about her “new” life, she has a completely fresh perspective, seeing her faults, the ways she has made the bed in which she doesn’t want to lay. So refreshing, so thought-provoking as I think about the future for my family. Thankful for this book. Recommend? YES.

14. The Time Traveler’s Wife (auth: Audrey Niffenegger) It’s virtually impossible to communicate the processes of time travel without confusing your audience. That said, this was a minimally confusing rendition and a tragically beautiful story to go with. Makes time seem even more terrifying than it already is, without worrying about having to repeat, or skip ahead. I spent the first two hundred pages thinking I didn’t like it, and the last fifty thinking it was wonderful. Recommend? Undecided! Still.

15. Gone Girl (auth: Gillian Flynn) The book is sensational, which you know even if you haven’t read it because it was the cover of every book you saw on the bus, on the beach, at the gym last year. It’s this horrific murder mystery with a savage twist half-way through. The rest was, to me, a slow denouemont. I kept turning and turning the pages, flying through, for THIS ending, and what I got was THAT ending. Sheesh. I mean, I have to recommend because it’s really well done. It’s also pretty gruesome and twisted. Recommend? YES.

16. Interrupted (auth: Jen Hatmaker) One of the only non-fiction on the list. This one rocked my world upside down – fresh perspective on what believing the teaching of Jesus means in the world we live in right here, today. Challenged me on the depth of my beliefs in a great way. Recommend? YES.

17. Travels with Charley (auth: John Steinbeck) Discovering you’re favorite author, who is dead, published a book you never knew about is the most glorious happiness, this frantic giddy joy. THIS BOOK – a memoir of a trip Steinbeck took with his dog, Charley, around the country for the sake of his writing (understanding American people as a whole, not just those from the Northeast, specifically New York City) and his musings on this journey. It is about the people, the places (his favorite state? Montana. I’ve got to go), yes, but it is most of all a story about him. Who he discovered himself to be after months spent alone, on the road. The end – he pulls back into his street in New York – had me unraveled. Recommend? Can’t highly enough.

18. The Gate at the Stairs (auth: Lorrie Moore) Strange, bizarre story about a girl during one specific year. The story is sort of dull with some alarming plot twists, and the narration is over-indulgent but lovely, like overgrown azaleas. It was alright, but Recommend? NO.

19. Stones Under the Sky. (auth: VLE) I read it three times last year, ripping it to shreds from the get-go. It’s working it’s way, God love it. Recommend? YES, please! When it’s finally done.

20. The Old Man and the Sea (auth: Ernest Hemingway) Tucked this one in the last week of 2014 to make it to 20. First time I’ve ever read it, which is frankly embarrassing. It was a stunning piece of work. Like No Country for Old Men, the simplicity, the bare-bones narration, makes the images even more harrowing, the intensity of the scenes even sharper. I felt thankful for this classic work, reminding me the basic rules of the writing life.

I love fiction – I think I’m going to stop trying to read a balanced variety of writing and just read what I love. You really have to be a reader if you want to be a writer. However, anyone can be a reader! Anyone at all. So let’s read good literature this year, and share. Please, comment with book recommendations for ME for 2015.