Middle school: The purgatory of parenting

January is really the most un-wonderful time of the year.  The weather stinks, I’m still tired from the holidays, AND it’s that very awkward and terrible time when all of the Reese’s peanut butter trees are no longer in the store, but it’s too early for the Reese’s peanut butter eggs to come out.  I sat in the parking lot outside of a Five Below last week and wondered–where do all the trees go?  Because all of my local chocolate peanut butter tree selling retailers seemed like they had an abundant supply of them the week before Christmas.  Now there are none.  I can’t figure out the math on that.  Why no leftovers, Five Below?  You didn’t put them back in the stock room for next Christmas, did you?  ‘Cause that’s not fair.  I’m not sure how I will live until the retail stores decide it’s almost Easter.

Speaking of things I may not live through, it occurred to me just this week that in approximately 8 months, I will have two middle schoolers in my home.  TWO MIDDLE SCHOOLERS.  Can’t. Breathe. Must. Eat. Reese’s. Peanut. Butter. Chocolate. Trees.

I know some of you have younger kids, and aren’t there yet.  You are still in the thick of diapers and preschool and early morning wake up calls, and can’t imagine a day when you will sleep past 6 am on a weekend.  Or some of you more experienced parents are far enough away from it that you forget what it’s like, and the pain has dulled with time.  Some things are difficult to fully convey in words, but let me see if I can paint you a picture of these special, special years.

Having a middle schooler is like picking up your mail, casually opening it just like every other day, and then realizing that one of the envelopes had white powder with anthrax in it and now you have a huge crisis on your hands and also probably you are going to die.  And then 10 minutes later everything’s “fine” and the person who laced the envelope with anthrax is sitting on your couch with a headset on, happily playing a video game, while you continue working on your newest hobby which happens to be deep breathing and growing new grey hairs.

Having a middle schooler means that there are lots of tall-ish people with long limbs, big shoes, and questionable hygiene in your house, and you have to feed them pancakes a lot.  And they eat your pancakes but they don’t make eye contact with you.  And they wear a hood for extra protection indoors in case of leaking ceilings or splattering pancake syrup, I am assuming.

Having a middle schooler means that you are no longer funny.  You used to be very funny, maybe let’s say, just last year or the year before.   In fact, you used to be able to make certain people laugh hysterically just by playing peek-a-boo!  But now you’re not funny.  And every time you try to use any humor of any kind, someone in a hoodie yells, “STOP!”.

Having a middle schooler means that you question the very foundations of your education, as you stare mutely at your 7th-grader’s homework on algebraic expressions or some such, hoping to forestall the meltdown that will inevitably ensue should you be unable to not only figure out how to do it, but also figure out how to show your work using a simple 13 step process that, in your day, was a two step process.

Having a middle schooler means that you will sometimes have your sweet baby, who now weighs 100+ lbs instead of 10 lbs, come over to snuggle with you like a fully grown St. Bernard who thinks he is a lap dog.  And you love every second of it, even if his knee is in your spleen.  You don’t even care about your spleen right now, because you know that once the magic passes, your sweet, oversized baby will disappear underneath his hoodie for an indeterminate amount of time.

Having a middle schooler means that you have lots of toys, but no one plays with them.  But they also won’t let you get rid of them yet.  And they are unfortunately old enough that they notice when you try to sneak the toys out of the house to take to Goodwill.  Ah, how you miss the days when they didn’t have object permanence, or even those good times when you could trick them into thinking that if they couldn’t find a certain toy it was because they probably lost it, so maybe they should take better care of their stuff next time.

Having a middle schooler means that instead of dealing with diapers, field trips, potty training, preschool, and playdates, you now must face “crushes”, sex talks, friend drama, eye rolling, snarky comments, and poorly developed sarcasm skills.  You may really want to help them with this sarcasm piece since you know that you are so much better at it, but this is not advisable.

Having a middle schooler means that all important problems, questions, and/or feelings will absolutely need to be discussed at 9:30 PM, when you really thought you were crossing the finish line for the day.

Having a middle schooler means that your child will come home and tell you the things that happened at school, and you realize you have to relive all of the horrible things that happened to you in middle school.  Except now it’s worse, because it is happening to your tall-ish, constantly hungry, hoodie-clad baby.

Having a middle schooler means that you kind of want to call your mom and dad to complain, but you don’t because you’re pretty sure that they will laugh maniacally at you.

Having a middle schooler means that all of the above can happen to you in the span of one day, and just when you feel completely beaten down, you still get to be the soft place to land.

Having a middle schooler means that as bad as it seems for you, you know it’s worse for them.

Having a middle schooler means that you will need lots of Reese’s chocolate peanut butter trees.

 

 

All the books I read in my sweats in 2018

It is that time of the year again! The time of year when I tell you my honest review on all of the books that I read this year.  I have to be honest, this has been my favorite post to write every year.  Even though this is only the third year.  Whatever.  As always, the books are listed in the order that I read them, because to do otherwise would be to surrender to complete anarchy and I might as well not write anything and we all go home and go to bed, goodnight.

Unfortunately, I had a few books this year that I really disliked for one reason or another.  Usually when I don’t like a book, I abandon it after 50 pages or so.   But there were a couple that I read to the end, either hoping they would get better or too lazy to go to the library for something else, or both.  In response to this situation, I have added a poop emoji to my five-star scoring system.  Because I couldn’t warrant giving even one star.  Not even one.  Just poop.

Let me know if you have read any of these picks, and what’s on your list for next year!

Claire of the Sea Light–Edwidge Danticat ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Ever since I went to Haiti, I have been so interested in reading Danticat’s works (who is a Haitian-American author).  As I mentioned in my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory last year, this author excels at painting a picture of the culture that the characters inhabit, which is of great interest to me..  The story is interesting in that it introduces many different characters of different classes, and weaves their individual stories together in a way that leads back to Claire.  The story starts and ends with her, on her birthday, and the conflicting joy and pain that is present on that yearly anniversary.    However, at the end of the book I felt a little unsatisfied.  Just as I was getting to know each character, the story ended.  I felt like the opportunity for a deep dive was lost because there were so many characters who needed attention.  I did like it, and I still want to read more of Danticat’s works, as her voice is unique.

 Little Fires Everywhere–Celeste Ng ⭐️⭐️

This is the story of a mysterious single mother and her teenage daughter who move into an idyllic neighborhood, disrupting the seemingly perfect facade of a family with whom they become friends. I give this one a “meh”.  I could take it or leave it.  I know that there are many who would like this book, and there isn’t necessarily something majorly wrong with it, it’s just not my taste.  Maybe a beach read for someone who enjoys this type of fiction.

 

 

 

 

Goodbye Lupus: How a medical doctor healed herself naturally with supermarket foods — Dr. Brooke Goldner ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I read this book very early in the year and I am glad that I did!  This book is written by a doctor (yes, she is a real doctor) who was diagnosed with severe lupus in her teens.  She was on chemo and in and out of the hospital for many years.  She was able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, despite suffering several mini-strokes during her residency, among other things.  She met the love of her life during her residency who happened to be a personal trainer, and they decided to get married, even though her doctors told her that she probably wouldn’t live past the age of thirty due to the severity of her illness.  She asked her fiancé to help her get in shape for their wedding, and he put her on a whole food plant based diet with tons of greens.  She had previously been a vegetarian but he had her cut out all processed foods and animal products (she described herself as a “cheesetarian” prior to that).  Several months in, she was not only looking great but her lupus markers had disappeared when she visited her doctor for routine followup and blood work.  They had stumbled upon something that actually has put her into full remission and given her excellent health.  She now has been able to help many people with a variety of autoimmune disorders (lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) greatly improve or completely heal their conditions.  I have psoriasis (which is autoimmune) and have had a smattering of strange autoimmune things come and go over my lifetime (iritis when I was in elementary school, anti-thyroid and anti-cardiolipin antibodies when I was pregnant) and a family history of multiple sclerosis. I have always been concerned about developing psoriatic arthritis.  I decided to give her program a try.  I was already on a plant-based diet so I added the green smoothies and omega-3’s as she suggested (and tried to eliminate my cheats–tortilla chips, chocolate–still working on that!), and my psoriasis is 80% clear!  Sure, I am now the weird crunchy granola hippie that everyone likes to make fun of, and I get a few looks when I carry my huge green smoothie into work, but I don’t care.  For me, it’s better than the alternative.  If you have any kind of autoimmune disease, you may want to check it out!  She is not selling any gimmicks, just using ordinary supermarket foods.  Shout out to the Ian Cramer podcast, which is where I first learned about Dr. Goldner.  You can listen to that episode here.

Lilac Girls–Martha Hall Kelly  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book is insanely popular for good reason.  There are so many  novels written around the events of WWII that this specific brand of historical fiction has almost become a genre unto itself.   I almost did not want to read it for this reason.  But I saw it in the library before I went on vacation, and it was a really thick book.  I love really thick books.  I feel so accomplished after reading them!  Anyhow, I am so glad I did read it.  Set within the context of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939,  the author tells the stories of three women–a young Polish girl sent to a German concentration camp after being caught assisting the Polish underground resistance, an ambitious German doctor who ends up working in the same concentration camp, and a French socialite living in New York City who finds her own personal and professional life forever altered after the Germans move through Poland and invade France.  The story is beautifully written, each character well developed, and the weaving together of their stories is thoughtful while also appearing to be organic.  Highly recommend.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness–Michelle Alexander  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The New Jim Crow is an incredibly insightful, well researched, and important book for our time that I think should be required reading.  It discusses in great detail the evolution of civil rights in America, and argues quite effectively that we have not come as far as a society as some would like to think we have in regard to racial equality.  The author looks at the history of segregation in America, and how African Americans have gone from being sold as slaves, to experiencing segregation in the era of Jim Crow laws, to our current time where the criminal justice system perpetuates racial caste by with its disproportionate incarceration of African Americans.   She discusses how so many of our systems are set up to target and discriminate against people of color, and how the “War on Drugs” declared in the 1980’s has facilitated the mass incarceration of African Americans and the school to prison pipeline.  Eye-opening.  It reads like a text book, so though the info is excellent, it’s not a huge page turner in the way a novel would be. So while it is a must-read, do not read when drowsy.

Behind Closed Doors–B.A. Paris  💩

I don’t like to be too harsh with my criticism toward any book, because I imagine that behind every book is an author who labored to bring the story into the world.  However, with no disrespect toward the author, I really hated this book.  I’m not even sure why I finished it.  I guess I was hoping it would redeem itself toward the end with some sort of interesting twist.  (Spoiler alert–it didn’t).  The story is about a woman who unsuspectingly marries a sociopath after he swiftly works his way into her heart by showering both her and her special needs sister with affection.  The moment they say “I do”, he flips his sociopath switch on and locks her away, abuses her in various ways, and keeps her isolated from the outside world, threatening harm to her sister if she tries to tell anyone or escape.  There was absolutely no mystery or nuance in this book.  The antagonist just blurts out his motives when explaining to his wife/captive the reasons for his new behavior (He likes the smell of fear.  Eyeroll!).  He turns out to be a completely one-dimensional and predictable character.  The plot and resolution were also predictable and, at times, just too cheesy for words.  It was like one of those melodramatic movies on the Lifetime channel that you are not enjoying but also can’t look away from.  I half expected Valerie Bertinelli to jump out of the pages as the protagonist.  Thumbs down.

My Name is Lucy Barton–Elizabeth Strout  ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is an interesting book in that it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot.  The book centers around a series of conversations between Lucy Barton and her estranged mother, who comes to visit her when Lucy is stuck in the hospital for an extended period of time.  Watching their relationship shift through these conversations within the context of her illness was interesting.  Moves kind of slow.  I give it a so-so.

 

 

 

 

The Polygamist’s Daughter–Anna LeBaron  ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is a memoir written by Anna LeBaron, the daughter of the infamous polygamist Ervil Lebaron.  She details the horrors of her life growing up in a polygamist cult and her subsequent escape at the age of thirteen.  It is a haunting to read, but also an eye-opening look into the world of a radical Mormon cult.  Interesting factoid–Anna is related to Ruth Wariner, the author of  The Sound of Gravel, which was one of my favorite books from last year.  But they never met each other until after they both published books about their lives in the same cult!  Their fathers were brothers, and Ervil, Anna’s father, ordered the hit the lead to the subsequent murder of his brother, who was Ruth’s father.

 

This is How it Always Is –Laurie Frankel  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!  This is my pick of the year!  The story is about an absolutely normal and completely endearing family with three boys.  Their youngest son, Claude, identifies as a transgender female very early in his childhood.  The story follows the family as they learn to love, accept, and navigate the complications and family dynamics that come about as Claude grows up.  This book is beautiful, funny, smart, sensitive, and I loved it.  A must read!

 

 

 

 

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir–Reyna Grande ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is a fascinating memoir about family, poverty, illegal immigration, and generational trauma.  The author, who grew up in Mexico, recounts in vivid detail the instability and poverty of her childhood.  Her father crosses the border illegally to make money so that he can build his family their dream home, promising to come back soon.  Reyna is left with her cruel and abusive extended family, sustained by the hope of her father’s promises that he will return.  When she finally does get the opportunity to cross the border into the U.S. (illegally), she faces a whole new set of challenges, a different kind of poverty, and the continuation of a painfully abusive legacy in her family.  This is a difficult yet beautifully written and timely memoir.  Required reading for our time.

 

The Alice Network –Kate Quinn  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I almost didn’t want to read this one because it was a Reese Witherspoon book pick.  No offense, Reese, but it just seemed to me like you stole that whole idea from Oprah and I’m not down with that.  Anyhow, this was again another situation in which I had nothing to read and this book was lying around, another hand-me-down from my mom.  I really liked it, so it turns out Reese has good taste and now maybe I will cautiously trust her judgement with future book recommendations.  Anyhow, The Alice Network has two story lines, the first of which is based on a true story of a network of female spies who were instrumental in providing intelligence about the Germans during WWI.  The other story line, set in England in 1947, revolves around Charley, a young woman from a wealthy and reputable family who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is sent away to London to “take care of her little problem”.  In an act of rebellion she skips out on her “appointment” and romps around to try to find her missing cousin, Rose.  As she begins to uncover what happened to Rose, she crosses paths with Eve, one of the former members of the Alice Network.  As the truth about Rose emerges, Eve has to come to terms with her painful history as a spy in WWI.  I loved Eve’s story line from the WWI era.  Charley’s story seemed like more of a filler that served to advance Eve’s story.  Overall a good book, though I didn’t care for the Charley story line as much.

An American Marriage–Tayari Jones ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book could be considered the fictional equivalent of The New Jim Crow, reviewed above.  A successful, professional African-American man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, is accused for a crime he did not commit and subsequently goes to prison.  His wife is left behind to deal with the emotional turmoil and loneliness left in the wake of his conviction.  Years pass, and he gets out of prison to find that not only has life has gone on without him, but he has suffered loss upon loss.  Loss of his old life, of his reputation, his friends, even the ones he thought would be most faithful.  This book is about racial injustice in America, but also about marriage, loyalty, and love.  Not an uplifting story, as you can imagine, but an important one.  Very well done.

Stay With Me–Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀  ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book is about Akin and Yejide, a young, educated, married Nigerian couple who are very much in love.  When they have a difficult time conceiving a child, they not only suffer all of the heartbreak that comes from infertility, but they also have to deal with Akin’s meddling family, who are very invested in Akin producing an heir.  Akin gets strong-armed into taking a second wife (or, you could argue that he just needed to grow a pair and stand up to his mother), in spite of the fact that the couple had previously agreed that they would not practice polygamy, a common practice in their culture.  What ensues is a series of lies, deceptions, and tragedies.  Lots of twists, but pretty dark.  Even for me.  Stay with Me got a lot of five-star reviews on Goodreads, but I’m not sure I agree.  It wasn’t my favorite.

There There–Tommy Orange  ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I have never read a book like this before.  This is a story the revolves around multiple characters within a Native American community.  As their individual stories intersect, culminating in a tragic event at a local Powwow, the author weaves for us a bleak picture of the social and relational issues that plague this community.  This was the third book in a row of very bleak, sad, dark books that I read over the summer.  So though I appreciated the issues that the book addressed, I felt utterly depressed afterward (though I think that may have been the point of the book).  I do not recommend reading this trio of books (An American Marriage, Stay with Me, and There There) in succession as I did.  I was so bummed out at the end that I was almost ready to pick up something by Nicholas Sparks just to lighten the mood.  Luckily, I came to my senses and stopped myself.  Phew!

The Flight Attendant–Chris Bohjalian  💩

My mom read this one first and passed it along to me.  I had nothing to read one day, so I picked it up.  The time I spent reading this book– I will never get back.  If I was in prison and this is the only book that was available to read, I would rather do endless push-ups or accept solitary confinement.  In brief, this book is about a woman who is a binge-drinking alcoholic who works as a flight attendant (comforting thought!).  She wakes up one day with a dead man in her bed, but can’t remember much from the night before because she blacked out after drinking.  In an attempt at self-preservation, she flees the scene and tries to piece together what happened, while simultaneously trying to weave together a series of lies about her whereabouts that night.  I have enjoyed this author’s other works in the past, namely Midwives, which I read in 1999 and loved.  This one, not so much.

The Sacred Enneagram–Christopher L. Heuertz  ⭐️⭐️

I really wanted to like this book, since I am a little obsessed with the Enneagram. I had high hopes, based on the title and description, that this book would enhance my understanding of Enneagram principles and discuss practical application in the areas of spiritual growth and personal development.  However, I found this book really difficult to slog through (read: boring).  Usually I am fascinated by this stuff, so I am not sure if it was the organization of the book or the writing itself–it just didn’t hold my attention.  There were some gems of wisdom here and there, but the book was also really heavy on the history of the Enneagram, with lots of name dropping.  I have heard this author speak on a podcast in the past and was completely transfixed by his knowledge and depth of insight.  I think he comes off better as a speaker than as a writer.  If you are interested in the Enneagram, I suggest starting with The Road Back to You by Suzanne Stabile and Ian Cron.

Small Great ThingsJodi Picoult  ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book that explores the subject of racial injustice and privilege in America.  This seemed to be the theme for the books I read this year, though it was unplanned.  The main character, Ruth, is an experienced labor and delivery nurse who is good at what she does and takes pride in her work.  She also happens to be the only African American in her workplace.  On a seemingly routine shift, Ruth finds herself taking care of a white supremacist and his wife, who promptly speak to her supervisor to request that she not be allowed to care for them or touch their baby for the duration of their stay.  When a tragedy ensues, Ruth finds herself facing a court trial and possible jail sentence.  I enjoyed this book.  It was well paced and kept me engaged the whole time.  Ruth is a character who is easy to sympathize with.  Interestingly, the author was able to make the white supremacist in the book very human as well.  In spite of the serious subject matter, this has a little bit more of a chick-lit feel than a literary one.   However, it was a page turner and I would recommend it if you are keen on this genre.

The Middle Place –Kelly Corrigan  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Middle Place is a smart, funny, and beautifully written memoir which is at once a tribute to the author’s beloved father, and a chronicle through her diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in her late 30’s.  Kelly shares childhood memories and lets us in on her special relationship with her dad, who also happens to be an unfailing optimist, her biggest cheerleader, and her soft place to land.  As Kelly is in the thick of her cancer treatment, her father is diagnosed with cancer as well.  She subsequently struggles with the possibility that her father won’t always be there for her, and the strangeness of being in “the middle place”–the middle of life where she is at once a daughter and a wife/mother, a patient and a caretaker, both grieving and grasping on to joy where it presents itself.  I loved this book.  It is honest and raw, and Kelly unapologetically says all of the things that I have felt in times of pain and suffering, without any of the platitudes, cheesy advice, or false assurances.  Just her honest journey.  She is also wickedly funny with a little bit of an edge, which just made me love her more.  Highly recommend.

 Half of a Yellow Sun–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book is a very interesting historical fiction novel set in the late 1960’s in Africa during Nigeria’s Biafran war.  If you are like me, you perhaps have never heard of the State of Biafra, which was birthed in 1967 when the minority Igbo people (who were significantly outnumbered by the Hausa people) declared independence from Nigeria.  What ensued was a bloody 2.5 year war that left the country devastated and completely obliterated Biafra.  The story is set around fraternal twin sisters from a wealthy family who, for various reasons, have never been terribly close.  Olanna (the pretty one) is attached (but not married) to a University professor and Biafran revolutionary, Odenigbo.  Her twin sister Kainene (the gritty, cynical one) is involved with Richard, a white British author who moves to Nigeria to write a book.  The cast of characters seems to be held together by Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, who comes of age as the political conflict escalates and progresses through the war.  I liked this book in that it brought my attention to a time in history that I would not have known about otherwise.  The first two-thirds of the book really dragged for me, and I had trouble slogging through.  However, in the last third the pace picked up and the pieces started to come together.  Not an uplifting tale.  A few of the characters irritated me, particularly Olanna, who we were told over and over was beautiful, smart, and kind, and yet didn’t seem to have enough self-respect to leave her cheating, lying, live-in boyfriend.  Don’t get me started on that.  Really the only likable character for me was Ugwu.  Cast of characters aside, it gets 3 stars, mainly for the historical subject matter.

Sharp Objects–Gillian Flynn ⭐️⭐️

I closed out the year with this psychological thriller by Gillian Flynn.  I read Gone Girl a few years back and it blew. my. mind.   Sharp Objects was her first novel, and it was a decent escape from reality for a few days and kept me turning the pages.  It didn’t have the same kind of unexpected twists, turns, and breath holding moments like Gone Girl, and I was able to guess the ending about half-way through the book.  I have heard that the HBO series is really good, so I am a little interested in seeing that, but I give the book a “meh”.

 

 

 

So what’s on my list for next year? Here are a few I have my eye on.  Let me know what you plan to read, or any of your favorites from this year that you recommend!

Pachinko–Min Jin Lee

Educated: A memoir–Tara Westover

Becoming–Michelle Obama

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas–John Boyne

The Heart’s Invisible Furies–John Boyne

The Orphan’s Tale–Pam Jenoff

The Tattooist of Auschwitz–Heather Morris

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma–Bessel A. van der Kolk

Braving the Wilderness–Brene Brown

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith–Barbara Brown Taylor

The Boat People–Sharon Bala

Thanks to my sister who filled me in on her favorite books from last year so that I could compile some of my 2019 list. I have about 50+ books that I have gradually collected on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and I get lost in indecision every time I look at it!

Ok, your turn! Tell me your hits and misses, and happy reading in 2019!

Decorating the darkness

It’s Christmas day.  Here in the Northeast there is a soft blanket of snow which arrived last evening, just enough to cover the ground, just in time for a white Christmas.  The sun, which we rarely see here from November through April, is out and blinds me every time I look through the window.

My kids have finally settled down after the morning excitement, and I am resting in the quiet, thinking of this day and all that it is, or at least all we say it is supposed to be.  So many expectations for one little day.  What a burden to place on twenty-four hours.

And yet those twenty-four hours have so much power.  A day when we feel all the feels.  We are told that it is a day to feel merry and bright, happy and grateful and blessed, joyous and reflective.  There are no Christmas songs that talk about how hard the holidays can be sometimes, how there are seasons in everyone’s lives where we’re just not feeling it for one reason or another.  During time of loss, fatigue, illness, divorce, unemployment, depression, or whatever your struggle, there doesn’t seem to be much room under the tree for the human condition.

I was listening to Rob Bell’s podcast last week.  His guest on the show was Alexander Shaia, who spoke about how many of our Christmas traditions, things we typically consider as uniquely Christian, actually have roots in pagan Celtic rituals*.   He went on to describe how during the months of November and December, as the days got shorter, the Celts would celebrate the coming winter solstice.  As the darkness bled slowly into the days, they honored and celebrated the natural rhythm of nature.  They felt the slowing of their bodies, the desire to do less, to rest, and to settle down.   They observed their forest friends preparing to hibernate, and prepared the land to lie fallow over the winter.  And as they succumbed to this rhythm, they waited in anticipation of the winter solstice, when the light would slowly return to them at the end of December.  In celebration, they would adorn the bare branches of oak trees, and decorate their homes with lights.  The lights that they used not only symbolized the expectation and hope of the coming light, but also were meant to decorate the darkness.  There is a difference between using light to drive out the darkness–like when we flip a switch to light up a whole room–and using lights to decorate the darkness.  Think of how you sit in front of your Christmas tree, admiring the soft glow of the lights.  The corners of the room are still dark, and it’s not enough light to read a book or complete a task, but that’s not really the point of your Christmas lights.  The Celts weren’t afraid of the darkness leading up to the solstice.  They recognized that the darkness itself was as sacred as the coming light.  As they surrendered to it, they honored it.  They didn’t chase it away.  They decorated it, until such time that the light slowly came back to them, days still gray but slowly, quietly, and sometimes imperceptibly lengthening.

Later, Christians adapted some of these traditions to symbolize their belief of the incarnation–light entering into the world in the form of Jesus.

While I found this history lesson captivating, I can’t stop thinking about that phrase, “decorating the darkness”.  Christmas is not easy for many.  There are memories and grief triggers, difficult relationships, and loss.  Some are going through the motions, wanting it to be over.  Wishes of “Merry Christmas” are, to some, salt rubbed in wounds that feel so wide open and raw this time of year.  While gratitude for what is here now is always in order, urging someone with  an amputated arm to just be grateful that they at least have another arm is neither sensitive nor effective.

In the times that my world has been dark, it is rare to find someone who will sit there in the darkness with me.  Usually people want to pull you out of it–to flip the lights on, so to speak.  Perhaps there is a time and place for that.  But I think there is also a time to sit quietly in another’s darkness, to honor its sanctity and keep vigil, the soft light of the candle in your hand lighting things up just enough to decorate the darkness.

Though the solstice has passed and Christmas morning has turned to afternoon, consider honoring the darkness, either in your own life or someone else’s.  It’s not so scary to sit there if you know that someone else is with you, holding a candle and keeping vigil for as long as necessary.  Some darkness comes and goes, some passes more quickly than others, and some darkness shows up predictably at a certain time or place.  You can honor it as a natural rhythm and hold it sacred, but you can’t force the solstice.

IMG_3951

*I am not certain regarding the accuracy of the Celtic traditions that Mr. Shaia mentioned, as this is not something I have researched.  So if you are a Celtic tradition expert, please accept my apologies for any inaccuracies, and take it up with Alexander Shaia, not with me.

Another holiday gift guide (almost as cool as Oprah’s)

The holidays are upon us!  Which means it’s time to increase your dose of Wellbutrin!  Kidding not kidding.  Aside from taking all major psychiatric precautions to steel yourself for the all awkward office cocktail parties, family togetherness, and billions of festive activities your kids simply must attend, we need to get our shopping done.   For just as the three wise men got some amazing doorbuster deals and then went to the manger bearing lavish gifts, so must we celebrate one another by trying to surprise our loved ones with something special and unique and then giving up and just getting them a candle or a picture frame.  Yankee candles if you’re fancy.

In this spirit, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite things.  I am not giving away any free gifts, because I am not Oprah (though there is some resemblance around the eyes, don’t you think?)  My blog is not sponsored so I do not get any kind of financial kick back.  I share this with you out of pure love.  Consider it frankincense.

The Ridge wallet

Image result for ridge wallet

I do not take any credit for finding this sleek little wallet.  My brother in law had one, and I liked it so much I got one for my husband last year, who HATES carrying a wallet due to the bulk.  This one is definitely the most compact wallet you can get, especially considering how many cards you can get in there.  You can get ones with a money clip on one side, if you’re the kind of person that carries cash.  Priced from $72- $115, depending on style and metal.

A mug for your favorite feminist

If you have never visited Emily McDowell’s website, I highly recommend that you do!  You will find all kinds of fun, giftable items and cards.  All made with a little dash of snark.  My favorite!  Though I am generally against gifting mugs, this one is perfect for your office.  Be sure to bring to your next male dominated staff meeting and position yourself strategically.  $15.

large version of product image

Wrist inspiration

I got one of these for myself last year, and I wear it almost every day.  I think it makes a thoughtful and very affordable gift.  Some of them are a little cheesy, so be mindful of your recipient’s cheese tolerance.  Mine says “warrior”, if you’re wondering.  From $25- $35, depending on which metal you choose.

Image result for mantra band

My favorite dainty necklace

Noonday Collection is a really awesome socially conscious fashion brand that partners with artisans around the world, providing dignified work and creating a marketplace for artisans to sell their goods.  They create fair-trade, living wage jobs in vulnerable communities, and the results are a beautiful collection of handmade items.  I love all of the jewelry from Noonday Collection, but this one is the piece that I wear the most.  It is light, pretty, and goes with everything.  It is made in Ethiopia from upcycled metal and artillery.  Can you believe?  They collect artillery shells from the ugliness of war and violence, and use it to make something so beautiful.  Each piece of jewelry has a story.  You can even shop by country or origin.

Socially conscious accessories

Leather and Inner tube Messenger Bag, Asphalt

These are some items from another socially conscious fashion brand, Deux Mains, located in Haiti.   These sandals (currently on sale for $31.50), are so unique, because the soles are made from upcycled tires!  I had the privilege of visiting the factory and store front when I visited Haiti, and can attest to the beauty and craftsmanship of their pieces.  The sandals are super comfortable too (I have a pair of flip flops with a gorgeous cobalt blue leather upper).  Deux mains empowers people in Haiti by creating jobs that pay a living wage, with the mission of breaking the poverty cycle.  That means every purchase promotes economic growth in addition to creating local jobs.  The use of upcycled tires in all of their shoes and many of their other pieces also means that their products are environmentally friendly.  Every item is made in Haiti, but they do have a warehouse in Miami, making shipping within the US affordable.  If you are looking to spend a little more,  this messenger bag (on sale for $122.50) made from locally sourced leather and inner tubes is a unique and useful piece for the laptop carrier in your life.

Snarky little sticky notes

These hilarious sticky notes make awesome stocking stuffers or a little something fun for your colleagues.  They are sold separately or in bundles, and many of them are available on Amazon if you want to take advantage of your Prime shipping.  There is something for everyone–from your industrious friend who makes a ton of lists, to your potty mouth family member who likes their sticky notes a little swear-y.

A Classic Clutch

Not every girl is the type to carry a clutch, but it is such a nice classic thing to have in your wardrobe for a night out.  This one is simple, inexpensive, and will go with most everything.  $39.95 with free shipping.

Marlena Faux Leather Foldover Clutch, Main, color, JET BLACK

The most comfortable pants on the continent

Perhaps you are shopping for someone who would appreciate a pair of comfy pants more than a handbag (raises hand).  I just bought these for myself and I wish I never ever ever had to take them off.  Also this site almost always has a sale, so wait for one instead of paying full price ($69.50, but there is usually some kind of sale going on where you can save 25-40%).  If you need some guidance regarding how and when to wear your comfy pants, see my previous post about this important matter.

For someone you won’t offend by pointing out their seasonal affective mood changes

Winter is long here in the northeast.  Some of us work long days under fluorescent lights with no windows, which doesn’t help.  This little light looks like a tablet and is supposed to help ward off the winter blues.  The “personal light therapy” claims to help regulate mood and sleep patterns, and improve energy and focus.  I bought one two weeks ago and have been using it at my desk for 15-20 minutes after I arrive at work.  It creates quite a spectacle for people passing by my office.  So, look out world!  I’m going to be sooooo perky this winter, you won’t even recognize me!  I figure if it doesn’t work, I’m only out $44.95.

Verilux HappyLight Lucent 10,000 Lux LED Bright White Light Therapy Lamp

For people who like to stay organized

Oh man, could I every use one of these!  Every time we go on a trip as a family, everyone has charging cords EVERYWHERE.    Brilliant.  And very affordable at $20.Travel Cord Roll

In addition to holiday consumerism, you may wish to give to some charitable causes.  There are so many out there.  But here are a few that I love:

Heartline Ministries Haiti – A fantastic organization in Haiti committed to supporting Haitian families.  They have a birth center in Port-au-Prince where women can enter their maternity program, which gives them prenatal care, a safe place to give birth, and parenting support to help prevent economic orphans and decrease maternal-infant mortality.  They also have some wonderful educational programs that empower women, teaching them English and valuable job skills so that they can help support their families.

International Child Care Ministries  – You can sponsor a child for as little as $30 per month, which helps support that child’s education, among other things.  We have one child in India and one in Rwanda, and oh, how I love to watch them grow.

Together Rising – This is a wonderful organization that sponsors various causes as a community– each person giving a small gift to make big beautiful things happen.  The general rule is that people give no more than $25 toward a cause,  “small things with great love”.  This ensures that everyone feels included, and that everyone can know that they can make a huge difference, even if they can only give a little.  The love flash mobs are the BEST.  The call for help toward a cause will come, and the “flash mob” tries to raise as much as they can in a 24 hour period, with the $25 rule.   Watching millions of dollars come in from Love Warriors around the world in that short time is totally awesome and restores your faith in humanity.

The Ugandan Water Project – This is an organization based close to where I live.  I actually went to college with one of the guys who founded it, so that’s pretty cool.  The UWP works in partnership with different communities in Uganda to help provide safe water, hygiene, and sanitation solutions.  They do excellent work.

If you have a charitable cause that you love, tell me about it!

Goals

IMG_3633

I have a few goals for the summer.  I tried not to make too many, so as not to set myself up for failure.  My main goal this summer is to be more present.  Everyone seems to talk about the joy, peace, and fulfillment that comes from being present–my yoga teacher, the Dalai Lama, Oprah.  It sounded like a noble goal.  So I said to myself, “Self, let’s spend less time on the smartphone, and less with the obsessive email and Facebook checking.  Let us notice our surroundings.  Let us be in the moment.  Let us soak up this beautiful summer with our beautiful family.”  Apparently when I talk to myself it is in the first person plural.

Being present in the moment is not natural for me.  I live in this whole other world in my head.  Unfortunately it is not a lively, creative, inner world.  I am not like Anne of Green Gables.  I have heard the description of a woman’s mind being like a browser with  dozens of tabs open, and this is exactly how I would describe it.  An endless stream of consciousness that would bore the average person to tears.  A rushing river of pragmatic thoughts.  Picture with me, if you will, me in my pajamas this morning with a thought bubble reflecting my current inner dialogue:

My head hurts.  Why do I always get so many headaches?  Maybe it’s a brain tumor.  No, I had an MRI two years ago, they would have seen it.  I’ll just go grab some ibuprofen.  Do I have to take chicken out of the freezer for dinner?  Where’s Leah?  Has she gone over her screen time limit?  When was the last time she pooped?  Should I send that medicine to overnight camp with her so she doesn’t get backed up?  I would have to get the doctor to sign the stupid form–I don’t have time for that.  Why can’t I sign the form, for heaven’s sake?  Crap, we’re out of trash bags.  I was just at the store yesterday.  Why do I always forget one thing?  Wait–did we miss garbage day?  Oh, we’re ok, it’s delayed a day because of the holiday.  Maybe we should hire an exterminator to spray for bees.  There have been so many wasps around the pool this year.  I bet that’s not cheap.  We have to have the driveway sealed too.  Maybe I should go to yoga today to see if that helps my headache.  Wait, wasn’t I going to go grab some ibuprofen?   

You get the idea.

So being present means what, exactly?  That I flick some kind of inner switch that turns off the cacophony in my brain?   Where is that switch located?  My yoga teacher suggested that I take notice of each thought as it comes, without judgement, and just let it float away like a bubble.  So now I have this internal bubble machine cranking out rapid fire bubbles, which doesn’t really help me be to be present, but instead gives me the vague impression of a bathtub overflowing after your toddler empties out an entire bottle of Mr. Bubble.

So, here are a few real life examples of what being present looks like in my life. A few weeks ago I took the kids to church in the morning.  The hubby was out of town so it was just the three of us on a rainy, dreary Sunday morning.  When we were leaving the kids asked me to pull up the car, since it was raining and we only had one umbrella.  So I walked out to the car, plugged in my phone, quickly checked my email and messages, fired up the windshield wipers, and buckled my seat belt.  As I was pulling out of the parking lot onto the street, I thought, “Wow, the kids are pretty quiet this morning,” and stole a glance in the rearview mirror.  And…. I had forgotten my children.  Apparently I had driven right past them, while they watched in confusion as their mother abandoned them at a house of worship.  It’s OK though, because I turned around and got them.  They won’t need therapy for that, right?  It will probably help them to straighten up and fly right.

Then last week I went to yoga on the lake with my friend Mary.  She just finished yoga instructor school, so she is extremely present.  I felt the sunshine on my downward dog, and listened to the waves as they lapped gently against the dock.  I set my drishti on a beautiful, majestic tree as my bubble machine released all thoughts of trash bags and driveway sealing.  After we finished, Mary and I agreed to meet at a little cafe for an iced tea so we could catch up.  I got in my car and, lo and behold, my gas light was on.  Why don’t I ever notice that I’m low on gas until my gas light comes on?  I don’t know why.  Because I’m an oblivious airhead, apparently.  So my gas light is on, and I’m in an unfamiliar part of town, and, oh–look at that, I forgot my wallet.  Hmmm.  What a pickle I have gotten myself into, once again.  So I find a gas station nearby, hoping I can pay wth the app on my phone, but no, the gas station I found doesn’t do that.  There’s another gas station several miles away, but at this point the gas light has been on for a while and I don’t know how far I can make it.  So I drive toward the next gas station in a panicky state (which really killed my yoga buzz, by the way), praying that they will let me pay with my phone and that I won’t run out of gas on the way there.  (Don’t worry, mom, I made it and I was able to pay with my phone!). Mary sat in the cafe, patiently waiting for me, probably being extremely present as she received my anxious texts about my latest predicament.  She was not surprised, I am sure.  And after I got there, she bought me an iced tea.  Because I forgot my wallet.

So in regard to my goal of being more present, it’s going pretty well, as you can see.  Today I said to myself, “Self, perhaps we should lower our expectations about being present, and work on just keeping the car filled with gas.”

My new summer goal is to keep the car filled with gas.

P.S.-I wrote this post this morning, and then this afternoon I went to the library, and instead of discarding my snack wrapper I threw my keys in the trash. Then of course I couldn’t find my keys, so my daughter and I, along with three concerned librarians, searched high and low until I remembered that there was a big garbage can at the entrance to the library and that sometimes I throw important things away by accident.