Sunday, May 01, 2016

Book Log: April 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

19) 4/3: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Here's a book I kept seeing mentioned. I could understand why people were enjoying it. It's a fun read (although the middle third was slower to get through, and the cultural references felt tedious at times).

First off, I need to give the disclaimer that I am not a video game aficionado; we didn't own a console growing up, so my only experience was when I was at friends' houses. I don't play online games, either, but I certainly knew a little about World of Warcraft. However, this lack of information didn't lesson my enjoyment. Also, the summary I give below is introduced quite early to set up the premise of the book - don't feel that these are spoilers, as you'd learn these details in the prologue.

Imagine the world in 2044. Many people are very into playing the massively multi-player online game OASIS. It's quite realistic and allows people to escape the drudgery of their daily lives, all the more important as recession is rampant; the real world's infrastructure is crumbling, so people avoid reality and retreat to OASIS. Interest is increased when the creator dies and, since he has no family, he reveals that he has hidden an Easter egg somewhere in OASIS. The one who discovers it wins his fortune. First, they must discover three keys that lead through three gates, at the end of which is the Easter egg. The creator was a huge 80's fan, so interest is revived in music, culture, and games from that decade, as many suspect they will help discover useful hints.

Five years pass, and no progress is made for the hunt. Then the protagonist, a senior in a virtual high school, discovers the first key. Interest is again revived, and this story covers the hunt for the fortune.

I was pretty good at suspending my disbelief, although periodically I felt like Wade had magical epiphanies to aid in his success that likely would have been found out sooner by the lackeys at IOI, the token evil corporation, with their limitless resources. All the same, the author does a decent job sharing the history of the hunt as well as realistically explaining how the world has changed. Certainly there are questions that arise regarding what is real and could hint at our own tech addictions.

It's not a must read, nor an important read, but it's an entertaining one if you need something light.

20) 4/4: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
I'd read this book when I was young, but I can't recall if I'd ever revisited it as an adult. My interest was revived when I realized how limited my memories of it were when I was reading When You Reach Me last month.

It was pleasant to reread. You get good versus evil, freedom versus conformity. You also see bravery in Meg, the flawed but faithful protagonist, as she travels to rescue her father with her human and otherworldly companions.

I enjoyed it, but I think I was expecting more, perhaps because I've read a lot of good literature influenced by L'Engle's transformative work - it's hard to hold up under such a legacy. Perhaps I expected it to be longer? It's certainly not a bad thing to be able to tell a story succinctly, though.

21) 4/11: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

As a teenager, I once attended a presentation where the speaker shared about different levels of communication: the most general is casual, superficial talk, and at the pinnacle is deeply personal information. He shared how infrequently people spend time at the deepest level; even within marriage, it's easy to get stuck with figuring out practical details, especially when children are present -- transportation logistics, schedules, house upkeep, work and school commitments, extracurricular activities. It's often a luxury to have deeply meaningful conversations.

In Tara Road, we see how the various characters get stuck in their routines and become blind to the reality around them. Binchy examines relationships and the lies we tell ourselves and others.  The focus is on friendships, both platonic and within marriage. If you're not taking the time to reflect or have honest conversations, you settle into believing everything is as you see it. This can lead to misunderstandings that grow into something that can no longer be ignored.

Like the first book of hers I read (in January), this one was a pleasant read; she crafts a good story. I don't often need or want a lot of excitement in my books. This one is a longer read (648 pages), but that allows much to be done with the characters. We get to see what drives them and what their faults are, and then when their world is unsettled, how they respond, either uncovering unknown strength and abilities or losing themselves as they realize they were never truly in control.

22) 4/18: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
A friend's daughter was devouring this audiobook series, so I looked into it. Reviews were strong, and it was a National Book Award winner, so I added it to my list. Such a charming read! It is a sweet and innocent story of four sisters and a widowed father. The father is loving but very much a peripheral character in this book. This book covers their time at a summer home for three weeks and their adventures there; each girl gets some attention from the author (their ages range from 4 to 12, and their personalities are distinct enough to tell them apart). I feel like it won't be much longer before I start reading this aloud to Brennan.

The children aren't perfect (which would make for a boring read), but while they can get into trouble, their hearts are in the right place and there is eventually resolution. Their relationships with each other is sweet as well; the sisters hold family meetings, either emergency or planned, to discuss events and make plans, and they swear each other to secrecy, citing Penderwick Family Honor (unless it seems harm could come to someone, then they are released from their bond).

23) 4/24: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
This was the second in the Penderwicks series. The family lives on Gardam Street, and this book picks up soon after their summer adventures conclude. School is in session and their Aunt Claire delivers a letter to their father that had been written by his wife shortly before her death four years earlier. The contents - that her husband should begin dating again - frame the storyline; the sisters decide to orchestrate horrible partners for him to date so that he will give up on the venture. There are also other plot lines taking place - Jane's deception surrounding a school play is a primary one, but the other sisters have their own issues they wrestle with.

This was published in 2008, but it has a timeless feel to it; I could easily see it becoming a classic. It doesn't quite seem contemporary given the freedom the girls have to wander on their own, but it embodies the innocence of childhood and I can just see my daughter getting caught up in the story and discussing all the details at length.

24) 4/25: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

I taught for two years in Minnesota in a suburb of the Twin Cities, beginning in the fall of 2004. This book, published in 2002, was already part of the curriculum in the ninth-grade class I taught. That was my initial introduction to the book; first I read it that summer to get a feel for it, then I re-read it when the unit came up.

I'm not sure that I had read it since then, but it is a powerful, thoughtful book, and I have found myself revisiting some old favorites again.

One reason I don't go into much plot detail for these accounts is that I worry I won't do the books justice - a list of some of the highlights might take away the power of the actual book, or it may make you avoid reading it if my description isn't your typical reading style. Plus, I'd rather go into a book or movie with little understanding of what to expect. This is one I went into blind, and after more than a decade had passed, the details had dimmed considerably. It was a pleasure to read this one again.

The narrator is Reuben, and the story takes place when he is eleven. It is clear he is reflecting on this account as an adult, but the foreshadowing hints at tragedy to come and uncertainty as to who else reaches adulthood with him. It is well done - Reuben doesn't sugarcoat events, even when the truth paints him in a poor light. My freshmen loved this book, as did I. Seriously a great read with great themes to reflect on.

25) 4/28: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
I first read this as a young student (possibly sixth grade?). It's another Newbery Award winner.

I noticed I've been reading a lot of children's literature this month - I like to read YA lit, but this has been more than normal. It's due to the fact that we've been reading chapter books to our oldest for a while now; as she is growing as a reader and as we work our way through other books, I'm keeping an eye out for what might be on the horizon.

The protagonist is a young boy who writes fan letters to his favorite author. It takes a while for the author to initially respond, but Mr Henshaw, through his responses, pushes Leigh, an aspiring author himself, to develop the skills that would help him to reach that end.

I found myself invested in Leigh. Here's a young boy coming to terms with his parents' divorce and the new home and school that results from it. Through writing (both to Mr Henshaw and the journal he begins to keep), he matures as a writer and as a person. All of the accounts are epistolary, and I'm a sucker for a well-done book in letters (for two great books in that style, see The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Where'd You Go, Bernadette).

Friday, April 01, 2016

Book Log: March 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

11) 3/3: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
I enjoy young adult literature - this interest began in a YA lit class in college, as I was introduced to a lot of the good literature that exists for students, but teaching reinforced my interest, and now as a mother with constantly evolving demands for my time, it is refreshing to complete a book in short order. I will sometimes peruse lists of award-winning books to guide my selections, and while I got this recommendation from an English teacher friend, it also happened to be the recipient of the 2010 Newbery Medal.

I originally read this book in 2012 and recalled really enjoying it, so I revisited it. It held up well. Take a child obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time, add in chapter titles that double as categories for The $20,000 Pyramid (which factors into the storyline of this book set in the late '70s), and a little science-fiction/fantasy dynamic with mysterious notes, and see everything culminate.

This was a favorite passage of mine:

Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.
But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there's a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to.

12) 3/4: The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks
I enjoy short stories. I was reflecting on this, trying to pinpoint a time when my interest in them began. We certainly read them in school growing up, and there were some great ones we read as examples in my fiction writing class. But my love of them grew even more after I started having children. My reading habits changed, as my opportunities to read decreased. There was an uptick in my YA lit and short story consumption, as those genres could be completed in shorter amounts of time.

This collection had some intriguing selections. I think there was only one or two that I had absolutely no interest in and it was a trial to complete, although there were others that were interesting to read but ended up falling flat.

13) 3/7: Rising Strong by Brene Brown
This book came out in 2015, around the time I started seeing Brene's name come up frequently and her TED talks regularly shared on social media.

She champions vulnerability, and in this book, she examines why we need to own our stories instead of living in the shame, real or imagined. She frames her Rising Strong process in the stages of The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution. I particularly enjoyed the stories from her own life and those she has encountered through her workshops.

One useful phrase I appreciated was, "The story I'm telling myself is..." It's not a new concept (I'm familiar with the benefit of saying something akin to "What I'm feeling is..." to try to deflate a situation), but I think it's an effective tool. She also recommends people writing SFDs (the PG version is Stormy First Drafts) to get out what you're feeling. This resonated with me - I process my feelings by writing; if I'm out of sorts, it's best that I find a time to write down the situation, and often when I'm done I've learned something about myself and what is really the issue.

14) 3/8: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
This was a fast, enjoyable read. It centers on a dour bookstore owner. When the story opens, he is a grieving widower. The book shows his transformation as he responds to loss in his personal life and an unusual bequest found in his store. We also see his impact on those around him, often through the lens of related stories and books.

Each chapter includes a story story review from the protagonist's point of view - I found myself making note of the ones that I hadn't read, and when I finished this book, I found several of the short stories online to read. It's clear the author is a bibliophile, so a bookstore protagonist was a natural fit for her.

15) 3/16: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is one I listened to via audiobook; it was yet another recommendation from a friend (clearly my MO is already established - if a friend is excited enough about a book to recommend it, I'll give it at least a glance). I was curious about the book after looking at a sample, and the audiobook version was the only one the Overdrive library had.

Baseball is at the forefront of the book, with several of the primary characters playing on a college team; one is a hotshot shortstop who revives the mediocre team, but his success and his quest for perfection come to a head. There's this sense of everyone trying to find themselves, even if what is fulfilling to them runs contrary to what others would expect/want for them.

This one was back and forth for me - at one point I considered just setting it aside instead of finishing it, but there was just enough curiosity about what would happen to the various characters that I found the time to finish.

16) 3/23: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I encountered it in school. When I learned of this sequel/prequel, I had mixed feelings. Certainly the rumors that the rights to publish it were perhaps secured when Harper Lee wasn't in her right mind are enough to cast a big shadow. Even without that big stumbling block, you have this remarkable debut novel - how can you follow that up?

I held myself a bit aloof from it; I knew it would portray one particularly beloved character in a poor light, and I wasn't sure I was ready for that image to be tarnished.

 Here we find grown-up Jean Louise returning home for a visit, viewing all the changes that have transpired since she last was there. Her childhood home is now an ice-cream shop. The racial mood in town is very tense (her visit to Calpurnia was devastating). She struggles to fit in, feeling that her single life in NYC has made her unsuitable for returning home and making small chat with other women about their young children, husbands, and the like.

How do you respond when you learn people you revere end up being human with human failings? Can you hold yourself above the fray, or do you recognize your own shortcomings as well? What is your responsibility to those you see as wrong?

The flashbacks were often choppy to me. They were interesting, and they helped round out the characters she was crossing paths with, but they lacked some finesse as far as entering and leaving these memories.

17) 3/25: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This was a young adult novel (but as the setting includes a woman being held by the Gestapo, with the torture that one can expect in such a scenario, it would probably be best to wait until high school -- maybe late middle school -- to introduce this to a student, unless you have strong reason to suspect they would be mature enough earlier).

The book covers the relationship of two good friends, one a female pilot and the other a female spy. It's well researched, but I admit that after reading The Nightingale last month, which also covers covert activities in Nazi-occupied France, it pales in comparison. It could be an appropriate introduction to a younger audience, though.

18) 3/28: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I listened to the audiobook of this one; I had a long trip with the girls to and from Iowa this month, so this was my listening when they were sleeping or engaged enough not to need me.

It was an okay listen. I felt like it could have been shortened (the print version comes in at 538 pages). I was most interested to see (hear?) how the author carried out the characters' storylines, since time is linear for Claire and Henry's experience is more fluid. We encounter several scenarios on two occasions, once from each perspective. You often gain some new understanding, but apparently not enough to erase my aforementioned feeling of tediousness.

I'll forever remember this book as being what introduced 5-year-old Brennan to her first swear word (and I was assuming schoolkids would offer that introduction...).  During our car trip, I was listening to the beginning of the story while she was coloring. In the story, six-year-old Claire calls her brother an a**hole with no warning, he calls her one back, and even though I was quickly trying to pause the story, Brennan pipes up, "What does a**hole mean?" The short of it was, I told her she can always ask us the meaning of words without getting into trouble, but using those words against others would result in serious consequences.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Book Log: February 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

6) 2/4: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
My husband read this book a few years ago and recommended it, and now that we activated our Family Sharing Library, it was easy to get access to his Kindle copy and read it.

Wow. This is a detailed account of what led to the financial crisis and the recession that followed. I'm not sure I could accurately explain, without this book in hand, all the nuances (credit default swaps, subprime loans, toxic assets, the credit rating agencies, etc), but trust me that it's a fascinating read and Michael Lewis is thorough. There were a small number of individuals who foresaw the way the markets were going and made out like bandits. Lewis tells the stories of how they figured out what thousands of others missed (in one case, Asperger's helped).

I know hindsight and all that, but it's staggering to read this and learn how the wool was pulled over everyone's eyes; no one even considered the housing industry would lose value nationally at the same time, even though people were buying homes they couldn't afford without being asked to provide income documentation (there's an account of a migrant worker with an annual income of $14,000 given a loan for a house over $700,000).

7) 2/5: Crazy Love by Francis Chan (as well as the accompanying workbook, Living Crazy Love by Francis Chan)
These books were for a book study I did with a handful of friends.

First, a tangential story. In college, a mentor was sharing how he read a book that transformed his life. He bought numerous copies and gave them away to friends and family. A few months later, when he followed up, he was typically faced with two responses: either they hadn't gotten very far into it because it was a bit too academic, or they acknowledged it was a decent read, but not as earth-shattering as it had been for him. That's when he realized he just happened to be in a place where that book could reach him, but for others, it might have no lasting impression, and yet another book might speak to them.

So back to this book. It provided a lot of discussion in our group, which I especially valued, but I feel like I wasn't bowled over by anything I'd read in it - I've encountered similar ideas in other works over the years. I really enjoyed the accompanying videos, though - Chan's intensity and passion come through and they're engaging.

8) 2/6: Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
I don't have much to say about this one - it was a brief read before bedtime after some headier stuff. I read the first one, and this embraces more of the Gothic novel, with a murder mystery.

9) 2/15: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
This book runs about 450 pages. Read on the heels of last month's The Goldfinch (which was nearly 800 pages), as well as some other longer books I am juggling, it appears this year may be the year of lengthy reads. It has over 19,000 reviews on Amazon, and it's at an impressive 4.8 stars. I didn't know those staggering stats when I picked it up (at a friend's recommendation), but I'll add my praise.

It is centered in France during WWII. We focus primarily on two sisters and how they survive the war years. I've read other war literature, but this one struck me with the specific details; the author doesn't try to rush past what daily life would feel like; it might not be new information, but you dwell on it more, so it makes more of an impact. With rationing in effect but goods in short supply, hunger was prevalent. Nazis forced citizens to house them, punishing defiance (whether confirmed or suspected), confiscating radios, crops, furniture, artwork.

It led me to pause and think how quickly everyone's lives changed. How devastating to be raising a child during that time while you are living in fear and compromising so as not to bring attention or harm onto yourself or your family, or working in secret for justice (how to explain to a child why the Jews were the ones singled out in the beginning, friends they lived and played alongside suddenly being taken away?). It's a worthy read.

10) 2/24: A Mystical Heart: 52 Weeks in the Presence of God by Edwina Gateley
This fall, I heard Edwina speak. I didn't know of her or her work before, but it was a moving time. She is passionate and shared how she, as a layperson, was convicted to live her life serving God. Her life story, full of social justice, is powerful. I selected this book for purchase that night (and others in the coming days).

This one is a selection of 52 reflections/poems with a challenge for each week and sometimes an accompanying sketch, but I devoured them much more quickly than that. I set it aside at one point after realizing how quickly it was going (I think unconsciously I didn't want the book to end).

Here is one from Week 10:

Often we anxiously seek the will of God,
as if God had gleefully hidden dreams for us
deep in unfathomable places.
As if it were God's intention
that our whole lives be spent
in endless searching for signs and directions
buried in obscurity.
The will of God is that which brings us
peace and fullness of life.
The will of God is the seed of our dreams
ever gestating with possibility
and longing to leap forward
scattering new and surprising blessings
in our gray reality.

Here is one of the free-form passages, from Week 41, made especially poignant as I read it when the Syrian refugees (and the warring opinions on them) were center stage in the media:

We build walls around our hearts, around our land, around our borders to keep out the strangers, the different, the other; to protect ourselves from getting hurt or from having to share our space with others. We guard our hearts, our land, and our country with great vigilance until the very guarding obsesses us and we become so outwardly focused and defensive that we lose touch with ourselves and our humanity. In our efforts to protect and defend we become disconnected and fragmented.

God, who will have nothing of walls and barriers, is like the Great Illegal Immigrant -- ever looking for cracks in our walls and defenses, seeking vulnerability so that She might slip through our barriers to convert and to transform us. God, in great longing for wholeness, constantly invites us to dismantle all that is exclusive. We cannot be whole until we come to embrace all that God has made and to share all that God has given. In matters and issues of exclusion we may be sure that God is always on the outside with those very people whom we do not accept. We diminish ourselves and we diminish God until we break down our walls. All of them.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Book Log: January 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

1) 1/12: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Yes, I know I'm late to the bandwagon on this one. Some of my interest in reading this one was because of the interest so many others had in it -- when I was teaching, I would try to stay relevant and read the books that were trending (I also watched American Idol then, as did many of my students). While I'm no longer in the classroom, I still find myself checking out popular titles, although if they don't interest me, I have no problem ignoring their existence (I'm looking at you, Stephanie Meyer).

This one was a pleasant surprise in its writing style, although perhaps it shouldn't have been. I knew the premise for the book, but not much about Elizabeth Gilbert, and I wrongly assumed it would be flighty and vacuous. She writes well, is intelligent, and her account of her year of seeking and self examination is easy to read. I read The Signature of All Things last year, which was a thoroughly researched piece of literary fiction (interesting to the end, but not on my must-read recommendation list), and that actually pushed me to finally check this one out.

2) 1/14: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
I hadn't heard of Maeve Binchy's work before she passed in 2012, when a good friend mourned the loss of one of her favorite authors. I made note to read something of hers someday. I somewhat arbitrarily selected this work - I read a lot on my Kindle through Overdrive, and this one was immediately available, but it did not disappoint.

It was a refreshing jaunt through Ireland, as seen through several different characters, all of whom cross paths at a guest house as they struggle with finding acceptance. I'm a sucker for a book of short stories, all tied together by a common thread (you were exceptional at this, Olive Kitteridge - and I see Amazon calls short stories as I mentioned above 'linked tales').

It just so happens that this was Binchy's final work, published posthumously, but I don't anticipate it being the last one of hers that I read.

3) 1/23: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I make note of books that others recommend, and this one had the further bonus of having won the Pulitzer, so I put myself on a long waitlist to see what it was all about. It is not for the faint of heart, coming in at 774 pages, but it was a fast read for me. I love reading classics, the longer the better. The time and attention to character development is what gets me. This is a contemporary book, but the length allows Tartt to delve into several story lines and explore them at length. As I read this, it reminded me of a Dickensian book - the protagonist down on his luck, eventually finding redemption through relationships as he tries to make sense of his circumstances.

The characters haunted me. That is the best compliment I can pay; too often I read a book, but I can't fully enter it because something is off in the writing - maybe the dialogue is forced, maybe everyone runs together in my mind or the reactions to situations aren't natural. But this book has a protagonist who is put in some extreme situations (and makes so many poor decisions I just want to shake him), but the story is believable. One impulsive act can lead to another, poor choices can become destructive habits.

The entire book isn't all doom and gloom, but there's an underlying feeling of suspense throughout (not to the level of Gone Girl  or The Girl on the Train, but even when things are going well, there's still this pulse of his past coming to haunt him).

Theo tries to tie everything together at the end - the meaning of life, the role art plays, how love factors in. Hints of Ecclesiastes come in, with him feeling how meaningless life is. But he finds hope and meaning, and the last pages are some of the most poetic in the whole book. I found myself touched, highlighting them to remember.

4) 1/24 A Week in Summer by Maeve Binchy
I read this short story as a quick palate cleanser after the magnum opus I just finished. It fell flat with me. Binchy can write, and as I saw in the other book of hers, she can do short stories well, but this was too abrupt. It's 25 pages, but I felt like it either needed to be edited down to work better, or fleshed out more. As is, it was a disappointment.

Also, I chose this book thinking it was a companion to her work A Week in Winter, but it is a stand-alone, not tying in the guest house (that didn't factor into my 'meh' impression, but it's worth mentioning).

5) 1/28: The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin
I knew nothing about The Awakening, other than it having a place in Americana (after reading, I wasn't surprised to learn that it met with criticism and has appeared on banned book lists over the years). I thought it was time to add a classic to the mix, so this book was the selection.

The title for the main story is apt. At the start of the book, we meet Edna Pontellier, a married woman and mother of two boys, going through the motions of life. The mood throughout is a relaxed, sleepy feel. We begin on Grand Isle, where the family retreats over the summers, and the lazy days stretch on when she returns to New Orleans.

Edna is detached from her life, feeling quite disconnected when she returns home. Her husband travels often, and she went from a docile wife and disinterested mother to being awakened to a longing to seriously weigh her passions and desires even when they run contrary to society's expectations.

"She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. The year before they had spent part of the summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her."

It's a sobering read. It's not easy to find the freedom Edna seeks without sacrificing the attachments to her spouse and children. I believe there's often this understanding that while there are compromises within marriage and parenthood, they are deemed worthwhile because of what you gain in exchange. But Edna seems to have been pushed along, not having contemplated much of anything before, and when she starts to focus on herself, change doesn't happen without great cost.

There are several short stories to end the book. My favorite was "Silk Stockings" (I enjoyed reading an account of a hard-working, devoted mother coming into a little money, and while she had every intention of spending it wisely, she finds herself indulging in some overdue self-pampering).

Chopin isn't one for tying up loose ends into happy endings, but that need not be a reason to avoid her stories - I can appreciate a realistic ending. Although I do admit the repeated sadnesses and disappointments make me read into Chopin's perspective on life.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Brutiful

Seven years ago, we became parents to Katherine, our first daughter. For six days, we embraced our doctor's "cautious optimism" and celebrated each hurdle she passed, even as my health and vision continued to suffer after her premature birth. But then we were grief-stricken as we had to say goodbye all too suddenly to our precious 19-ounce daughter.

It was the hardest thing I've ever had to face, but it would be incomplete to end there. I have to borrow Glennon Merton Doyle's word and admit it was the most brutiful time in my life, where I experienced the most brutal, raw feelings as well as getting to be present for some amazing, selfless acts of love.

So many comforted us by their words and actions. Friends and family gently surrounded us until we could begin to stand for ourselves, shouldering the burden whenever they could.

Here is just a brief glimpse of what we experienced:
  • As I was leaving the hospital, one of the nurses who had regularly cared for me during my ten-day stay gave me a huge hug and choked out through her tears, "We'll see you in here again." She, too, had recently lost a child and knew that another baby wouldn't replace Katherine or remove our grief, but those words were received like a prophesy, offering a hope that someday we would find ourselves there again, not forgetting Katherine, but welcoming another child into the world. That somehow we would survive this.
  • After I was finally discharged, we had people providing meals every day for over a month, many of whom were previously "just" coworkers
  • Several people shared stories of their own losses, some decades old. This reminded me that I was not alone in grieving the tragic loss of a child, and I could see that they had found joy again. As hard as that season was, it meant much to witness their fortitude. And being entrusted with those stories of loss was a gift. Here was something that shaped who they were years ago, a story so close to their core that they didn't often reveal it, and I was being given a glimpse, often through shared tears, of a pivotal moment in their lives
  • When Katherine's first birthday approached, my ob-gyn office remembered her by sending us a card with many handwritten messages
  • My department regularly sent out packages via Fed-Ex. They congregated in our office, where the Fed-Ex driver would collect them at the close of every day. Some days, he would rush in and out in a hurry, others he might have time to linger for a few minutes. When we held the memorial service in Indiana, he drove to our church before it began to give us hugs and offer his condolences, even though he had a commitment so that he couldn't stay.
  • Every day for weeks, several cards arrived in our mailbox. It was one of the most emotionally exhausting but healing times of the day. We'd read the condolences, often through tears. So many different friends or acquaintances sent messages, flowers, books, even some strangers wrote notes after hearing of our loss
  • One family friend sent a necklace charm as well as the reminder that "You are still parents, even if your arms are empty." 
  • A couple friends quickly knit and crocheted preemie outfits as soon as they heard of our daughter's arrival. They delivered them to the hospital, ready for whenever Katherine would get to wear them. She never got the honor, but those items are so treasured by me.
  • I had bumped into a dear family friend while in Iowa and mentioned my pregnancy. She is a quilter and began asking me about color preferences. When Katherine passed away, she must have worked feverishly to complete the quilt and mail it to us, now to offer us comfort. It's still my favorite quilt, and in my monthly giraffe pictures of the girls, you will notice it draped in the chair behind them.
  • So much anticipation, joy, and love was showered upon us once people learned we were pregnant again.
  • Never did people suggest we should be over our grief once a certain amount of time passed or censure us as we slowly started to find joy again. Instead, friends would share their own times of tears when something would bring us or our daughter to mind. Or they would laugh alongside us.

Collective grief was a gift. Yes, we felt the loss most keenly, but knowing that Katherine's death was sobering and difficult for others meant something. She had not been forgotten. And friends, by coming alongside us as we were, joined us in that grief and affirmed us. I'm sure most of the steps above seemed like such a small thing - a meal by one lab, a card from a former classmate. But collectively, these things helped to heal us.

I wonder what life would have been like, were Katherine still alive. But I know her brief life shaped us as parents. We are different for her having lived, and we are better for it.

This may seem a strange transition, but Stephen Colbert helped to articulate my thoughts as this date neared. I read a recent interview with him, and at the close he shared about the experience of losing his father and two of his brothers when we was ten:

“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.

“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

As I reflect on the hard experiences of my life - my mom's illness, the loss of my brother and my first daughter - Colbert's closing phrase resonates with me: "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened." 

The brutiful.

I would love to restore sanity to my mother, life to my brother and daughter, but in the same breath, I'm grateful to have experienced such outpourings of love in my darkest seasons. And having lived through those experiences means that I have been given opportunity to cry with others as they enter brutiful seasons of their own.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Eleven Months Old

Dear Gretchen,

You are nearly a year old. My aspirations of writing monthly letters from three months to one year quickly disappeared. I think this is due to having two children (before, with your sister, I could compose letters on my laptop while she slept on me, whereas now my attention is often focused on her while you nap). Also, your sleep has been a work in progress, not often allowing for much downtime. Come evening, my ability to coherently string words together can be sketchy at best.

You are clearly a determined and busy child. I joke that you will be the one we need to take to urgent care for stitches or the like, as you are so curious and mobile. You can climb your sister's armchair and you attempt to get on the couch by yourself.

Crawling started early for you, at six months. Then you were pulling yourself up to standing within a week. And that was the last time I felt productive! I'm sort of teasing, but mastery of those skills also led to the deterioration of your napping and sleeping. You would stir and the first thing you would do is pop up on your feet. It was as if you believed your crib was hot lava and to willingly go down would surely lead to your destruction.

This led to some exhausted weeks and months for your parents. Your naps were to the point of lasting around 15-20 minutes, and with sleep, you got to the point where some nights you were waking up every hour to 90 minutes. After Christmas, when you were sleeping much worse than your newborn cousin, we finally addressed it. I didn't think we would ever try crying it out, but what it came down to was that something had to change, and I'd already read and tried several other techniques but got nowhere. I could handle poor napping if you slept well at night, or several night wakeups if I was getting some relief with daytime naps, but we were fighting it on both counts. This meant that when I got sick (which was repeatedly this fall and winter), I would be fighting the illness for weeks, since it was hard to get sufficient rest.

We had a rough night of sleep training in early January. You actually fell asleep standing in your crib, which made me both want to laugh and cry, because you knew how to get down from a standing position whenever you weren't in your crib, but you would stubbornly refuse in your crib to budge. However, after that first night we saw immediate progress. You realized your crib wasn't out to get you and you could safely lay yourself down. This was about the time naps improved in length as well.

Around seven months or so, after your mother regularly whisking you away from the steps whenever you tried to scale the first one or two, I decided to spot you and see what happened if I let you have continue on, as you so clearly wanted to. You made it all the way to the top and were beaming with pride. We quickly abandoned the gate at the foot of the stairs after that. It was more of a nuisance than anything, as your sister couldn't operate it and we still had to keep your distance from it since you could pull it free if you got your hands on it.

You are an adventurous eater. Since you already were accustomed to putting everything possible in your mouth, it was a pleasant change to learn some of it was edible. We retired purees fairly early on, as you were determined to eat anything we were eating, within reason. You have had eight teeth since Christmas, and I can spot somewhere between four and six more trying to break through. Teething has made overnight sleeping ebb and flow. In the last couple weeks, we've had some amazing nights, anywhere from zero to one wakeups, but sometimes there might be a couple when you're pretty miserable. At least we're to the point that after some medicine and/or some milk, you go immediately back down, even if I'm returning you to your crib awake.

One thing that you insist on at bedtime is having your sister in your room. You're like an alarm system - you may be contentedly laying in your crib, nearly asleep, but if she climbs out of her bed and comes to us with a question, you alert us immediately to her pending arrival with your sudden cries.

The two of you are still close. You have equal interest in each other's toys, although she gets to play with far more of your toys than you do of hers (the day you finally get to color with her you may faint from elation).

Around the time you hit nine months, you became a little more content to play quietly with a toy for a season instead of the near-constant ball of movement that had become the norm since you learned to crawl. Now you have specific ideas of what you want from your toy basket, and it's fun to see you dig and emerge victorious.

It is always amusing to have you draw attention to anything we unwittingly left out from the night before. You are quick to spot laptop charging cords, earbuds, remotes, pens. Basically anything you want to get your hands on but we keep away from you during the day because everything goes immediately into your mouth.

One big change is that we are moving to a new home. We expected this on the horizon, likely with a move before the end of the summer. However, we went to an open house on a whim after church one day (not entirely out of the ordinary). What was unusual was that we left the house really excited about it. That began a whirlwind process of contacting our realtor for another visit and placing an offer. The move is actually in less than a week. I think it will be great to give you so much more space to explore. And at least for the time being, you will get to continue sharing a room with your big sister. She wanted this, and as I have fond memories of the late-night conversations and moments with my own sisters in the times we shared rooms, I am happy for this room-sharing to continue for the two of you, at least in the near future.

It is such a gift to see how close you two already are - I wished for enduring friendship between you two, but I thought the emphasis would be on the "enduring" aspect until you were both older. It's a pleasure to see it otherwise.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Brennan: Four Years Old

Note: this was originally drafted six months ago in September even though it's just now being posted, so I'm back-dating it. The delay was in hopes I would gather pictures, but that will have to happen sometime later.

Dear Brennan,

You are now FOUR years old.

Since I last wrote, you became a big sister. You once told me that “everything” would be your favorite when you became a big sister, and I admit I doubted you. However, I couldn’t have guessed how much you would love your sister. Once in a while you might ask, “Mommy, why do you have to do so much for Gretchen?” or “Why do you have to hold her so much?” I answer the questions, often asking for your help to do so, and you end up giggling by the end.

You started school. As expected, you love it. In fact, when I pick you up at lunchtime, you regularly want to continue playing school. The advantage of this is that you don’t ever try to argue with your teacher!

Your adored baby, Close-and-Open-Eyes Baby, has become a frequent topic of conversation. Much like an invisible friend, she has an active life. She’s constantly having birthdays, and you will soberly tell me of when she’s naughty and we are equally mortified by her actions.

You still mispronounce words or have amusing turns of phrase. When you have a cold you regularly search out ‘neenex.’ And you will tell me, “Mommy, we never went for a bike ride in a long time.”

You continue to be creatively driven. You can – and sometimes do – color for hours. You love to roleplay.

Books sometimes keep you distracted for long stretches. We recently gave you one of Daddy’s books from childhood, The Way Things Work. It is a bit beyond you, but it hasn’t been unusual for you to request us to read a couple sections as your bedtime story (I recently read about zippers and planes before tucking you in). I love reading chapter books with you. We only have one chapter left to go in The Little House in the Big Woods, and I can’t wait to move on to the other books in the series that I remember more.

While you are quite artistic and bookish, the athletic gene seems to be missing (don’t worry – you’ve come by this absence honestly!). And during summer swim lessons, while I would try to encourage you to do everything the teacher asked of you, it wasn’t unusual for you to tell me, “I just didn’t want to, Mommy. Maybe tomorrow.”

Daddy and I really wrestled with whether or not to start you in school early. But when we weighed all the factors, it seemed you were more than ready, and the school, as well with many friends or family that knew you, agreed with us. I admit my hesitation was emotional. You have a tender heart and are easily wounded when we have to be firm with you. Add your imaginative streak, and I wondered how you would adjust to a more rigid school day. And I don’t know how you will react to a harsh word from a classmate, or correction from a teacher.

However, these concerns were unfounded. You blossomed at school. You quickly made friends with several of the girls. You are a huge rule follower, so the teacher’s word is law. If she says that when you walk in the halls, you need to pretend to put a bubble in your mouth and give yourself a hug until back in the classroom or outside, you will do it very seriously and be the best at it. You are very empathetic. Some days I would pick you up, and you would be sad. As I would draw you out, you’d admit it was because someone had a necklace break: “Isn’t that sad, Mommy? It was her favorite.”

And now I’m returning to this letter six months later. I’ll end it here for now, as I hope to add an updated one. Just know that, as always, I’m so happy to be your mommy.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Five Months Old

Note: this was originally drafted six months ago in September even though it's just now being posted, so I'm back-dating it. The delay was in hopes I would gather pictures, but that will have to happen sometime later. 


You’re now five months old. It’s been a busy last month.

For a couple weeks now you’ve been quite steady sitting on your own. Whereas I used to sit behind you to catch you as you would suddenly list to the side, I don’t hesitate to leave you playing on a blanket if I need to make your sister a quick lunch, aid her in play, etc.

Napping has improved insofar as location is concerned. I made a concerted effort to transition you to your bed instead of serving as your sleeping surface, and it was a clear success. Sometimes you’ll just coo yourself to sleep, other times I may be needed to rub your back for a couple minutes, but rarely do I have to take you down to the recliner. This has been HUGE for me. I was feeling constricted, limited by what I could do during the day since I was so often holding you and yet feeling overwhelmed by all that I couldn’t do while a baby was in my arms. Now that you nap in the crib, I can wash dishes, do laundry, clean litter, and – probably the biggest for me – get back into my loft. Yes, I am retreating to my loft again, after a very long hiatus, and I’m slowly ramping up production and inventory for my Etsy shop. All of these things combined help me to feel very settled.

A friend asked me last week how I was doing with two, and I honestly answered that it was great, that I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I think much of that has to do with more normalcy and routine to our days.

I remember, with your big sister, hearing how people recommended setting the child in the crib and rubbing their back. This never worked for her. I’ve long wondered if it worked on any babies. Turns out you are the sort of baby that responds to this.  So not only do you transfer relatively well once asleep, if you do come to and start to fuss, I can usually still leave your room baby-free after a couple minutes of rubbing your back.

Of course, all of this can be quite fluid. This week I’ve felt less awesome in the mothering department, seeming to just get by. I started the week with a couple days of illness. I suspect back-to-school germs, although I’ve been the only one to succumb. Then there is that fact that you haven’t napped more than thirty minutes in a stretch since Tuesday. You had been treating me to two long naps a day (around 1.5 - 2.5 hours each), along with a couple thirty-minute naps. Now you barely reach the thirty-minute mark. And instead of only waking once a night (sometimes not until five or six am, like the week previous), you were suddenly waking up to three times a night. I’m not exactly sure why the sudden change, although cognitive leaps and mastery of new skills can often impact sleep. I’m certainly hoping the end is in sight, as I’ve resembled a zombie more than I prefer these recent days.

Speaking of new skills, you are quite the accomplished baby. In addition to your awesome sitting skills, you’re starting to scoot onto your knees when on your belly (note: feel free to delay the whole crawling thing – trust me, it’s overrated. Plus, your big sister loves to feel useful). You are alert when awake and love to return smiles and giggles. This makes you quite popular with strangers, particularly the under-three crowd at school pickup. You are able to grab toys, often preferring to rank them on chewability and gnawability, as you now boast two teeth. You love to bounce in your jumperoo and swivel in your exersaucer.

I really appreciate how mellow you are. It is easy to have you tag along to events. Rarely do you cry, even when due for a nap, particularly if you are snuggled up in a wrap.  We had several new-semester events, and you could just sleep in the carrier whenever you needed to, and watch attentively otherwise.  You were usually riveted with all the people, making your naps much later than normal, but, again, this didn’t impact your happy demeanor.

The one exception has been a couple days we attended evening church. We tried you in the nursery, but you didn’t last long either time. You were nearly inconsolable when Mommy or Daddy retrieved you, so separation anxiety seems to have set in a little early.  We’ve had one babysitter, where you did fine, so I’m hoping it’s not a guarantee every time we need to be gone.

Again, this letter has sat dormant for six months, so I’ll end here and let you wait in anticipation as to all that has transpired since September.

Love you,

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Four Months

Note: This was originally drafted seven months ago in August even though it's just now being posted, so I'm back-dating it. The delay was in hopes I would gather pictures, but that will have to happen sometime later.

Dear Gretchen,

You are now four months old.

You have a full belly laugh that you share with us most often during outfit changes and when your parents are making fools of themselves with silly faces and noises.

The trend of you waking up once or twice a night continues; I suppose the bright side of this is that the four-month sleep regression has not been noticed.

You have rolled over from your stomach to your back once, but repeatedly from your back to your stomach. This makes you a bit happier at night, now that you can sleep on your belly.

You are sitting up in ever so brief stretches on your own.

Favorite toys are softees to chew on as well as the toys that activate music and sounds, like those on your playmat. You also seem intrigued by your mirror and the cute baby therein. And you also enjoy jumping around in the jumperoo.

You are growing so, so fast. You're already solidly in 6-9 month clothing, and you have a number of 12-month clothing items in rotation as well (remember: you're only four months old - you can slow down anytime!). I'm worried you will have outgrown many of your handknit hand-me-downs before the weather cools enough to wear them, but I still live in denial as they all remain stacked up in the closet, not ready to be packed away just yet.

You have been great at being flexible with our schedules. Your older sister had three weeks of swim lessons in July, and you were a champ at napping in a baby carrier every day. This may have helped foster your desire to take naps on a parent, as it's pretty difficult to get you to nap in your crib or in the swing (unless I'm vacuuming, strangely enough, although all naps -- excluding a mid-afternoon one -- only last around 30 minutes). However, you regularly put yourself to sleep at night, as you roll around and coo in your crib until you suddenly drift off. And if I had to choose when you wanted to be sleeping on a parent, I'd choose daytime over nighttime - after all, you'll eventually outgrow naps.

I'm trying to be content with the naptime snuggles. Or, rather, while I certainly don't mind the snuggles, I admit I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that it keeps me from household tasks. It helps when your older sister is easily entertained - I've been known to read piles of books to her as you sleep on me, or she will build elaborate structures or color near us. If your two naps coincide, I try to have some knitting within reach to occupy me (or I also indulge in a power nap). But then there are those days where your older sister is resting in her room, and instead of sleeping, she is emptying her toy box, dress-up bin, the bookcase, and the pretend food and it all ends up strewn over her floor. Add that chaos to a laundry basket (or two) of clean clothes waiting to be folded, laundry needing to be moved over to the dryer, and the dishes on the kitchen counter if the dishwasher needs to be emptied, and I just need to take some deep breaths and remind myself that my value is not determined in how tidy my home is. Sometimes I am allowed opportunity to tackle some of these tasks if you happily play on a blanket or in your Bumbo, but you've been teething this month, making you a bit more needy than before.

I remember learning of the poem "Babies Don't Keep" before, but it bears repeating, especially as I regularly seem to have to delay cleaning; normal tasks that used to take 20 minutes now can take days.

"Babies Don’t Keep"

Mother, O Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.

Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.

Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullabye, rockabye, lullabye loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo

The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo
Look! Aren’t his eyes the most wonderful hue?
Lullabye, rockaby lullabye loo.

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.

Author: Ruth Hulburt Hamilton

I'll leave it at this for now. This letter has been untouched for seven (!) months, so I'll close it here and try to write a new one soon.

Much love,

Friday, July 04, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Three Months Old

Beginning upper right and going clockwise: 1-3 months
Dear Gretchen,

You are now three months old. I had hoped to start these letters to you sooner, but my ability to coherently gather thoughts when I did have spare moments were few and far between until recently.

The day of your arrival was filled with anticipation. The c-section went as expected and when I heard your hearty cries, I couldn't contain my tears. I don't know what it is that makes me sob when I hear a baby's first cry, but it is such an emotional time for me. Perhaps it's the wonder of knowing on one level that a new life was going to enter the world, but it stays surreal on some level until you are born. One moment I'm splayed out on the operating room table with Eric at my shoulder, listening to the various doctors work, and the next, the newest member of our family arrives and I dissolve in happy tears. There you were, so healthy with a robust cry, and suddenly we had another daughter to hold.

Acclimating you to handknits

You were 7 pounds, 11 ounces and 20 inches long. On your APGAR assessments, you scored a 9 and then a 10. I heard your initial cries, but unlike your older sister, who was inconsolable until we left the OR, you quieted as soon as you were swaddled. You were so sleepy and mellow your first day, with hardly any interest in eating until late that afternoon.

Your big sister Brennan has been enamored with you from the beginning. If anything, her fault is that she is overly affectionate. She frequently makes drawings for you, loves to plaster her face up against yours, asks to hold you, even shares her beloved closed-eyes-open-eyes baby with you, and if you're napping in my arms, she will request that I shift you so she can crawl up and join us in the recliner. I've held two napping daughters on several occasions already. She has also discussed on multiple occasions her ideas for future sleepovers when you're bigger.

I noticed early on you were a warm baby. In the hospital, you were overheating in the fleece swaddler. In fact, the first or second day home I took your temperature, convinced you had a fever. The reading was normal, but I discovered that you are quick to heat up and you didn't want (or need) to be as bundled as other newborns.

You didn't cry for the first few weeks of life. Now, you tend to reserve tears for when you're tired and wish you were sleeping. Being held in a baby carrier or rocked in the recliner soon ease your tears and help you drift off to sleep. Your legs are so strong - you were showing off early on how you could straighten them to hold your weight, and when I place you on your play mat, it's not unusual to find you have squirmed several inches away from where you started. I still don't know how you have shifted yourself 90 degrees in your crib on several occasions, even while swaddled.  I predict you will crawl much sooner than your sister did, whether or not we are ready for it.

Your sleep has been a work in progress. One difficulty I was stumped by early on was the fact that while you would take decent naps during the day, there was a season where you ate much more frequently at night, and therefore slept very short stretches. You'd want to eat, but you'd only take a half feeding before drifting off again. Even if we waited to change your diaper until you were half done with a feeding, you would tease me by appearing to be wide awake one moment, and then dropping off into a deep, deep sleep the next. You'd sleep 45-90 minutes, and we'd do it all over again. Those were exhausting days and nights.

Now, though, you tend to limit yourself to one, maybe two, wake-ups a night (the guaranteed tends to be around 4:30 am, but sometimes you might stir around 1 am or so as well). And when we visit family in Iowa, both at two months and at three months, you surprise us with sleeping through until 6:30 am or so. I'm trying to figure out what the variables are so we can recreate them at home more reliably (there are temperature differences, and your room at home faces east, so the early summer sunrise is not on our side either).

Speaking of your room, we have transitioned you from the bassinet in our room to the crib in your sister's room. I didn't expect this change to already have taken place, but as you were settling into your long stretch of sleep, which began mid-evening, we were putting you in the crib and keeping watch on the video monitor. When we turned in, we would leave you there until you woke to eat. And as some of those crib stretches went until 4:30 am or later, it just happened. Plus, with your growth, your arms can reach the sides of the bassinet, which doesn't help in resettling. Now I return you to your crib after the early morning feed, and you grant us about an hour more of sleep before you want one of us to snuggle you in the recliner for a little more shut-eye.

Hospital snuggles

I thought your older sister was a healthy child who steadily climbed to the top of the growth charts, but it appears you want to best her. She may have had three ounces on you at birth, but you didn't let that slow you down. At your one month appointment, you were 11 pounds, 7 ounces (weighing six more ounces than your sister at the same age), and by two months, you left her behind, reaching 14 pounds, 8 ounces to her 13 pounds, 6 ounces (97th percentile vs 92nd percentile).

From your first entry to the world, people commented at how much you resembled your older sister. When you were one month old, I took your first giraffe picture with you wearing the same outfit that Brennan had worn, and I also noticed I'd taken a photo of you in another outfit that was a close match to one I had of your sister.

Gretchen on left, Brennan on right

I created side-by-side comparisons, and not too many friends or family could pick out which pictures were of you and which were of your older sister (and some who succeeded focused on details that seemed to show fading in the outfits to determine the pairings, not your physical characteristics).
Brennan on left, Gretchen on right

Your days are filled with snuggles. I need to start making more of an effort to get you to nap in your crib instead of on mommy, but we'll get there. Knowing you are my last baby helps me to enjoy the contact.

When you're awake, you now love to smile. And really, once a baby smiles, the tired days are just that much improved. Even when you were having me start my day at 5 am and I'd stumble in the kitchen to find coffee and breakfast, it was refreshing to return to you on your play mat and watch you grin widely at me.

You love to kick your toys and bat your arms at them. Very recently you have taken to gripping and shaking toys as well. Tummy time is hit or miss, but you do a good job holding your head up in spite of not wanting to practice. You love to be in a sitting position as you observe everything around you.

We have gotten a few laughs from you. It warmed my heart that your first laughs were directed at your big sister. It is clear that there is great affection between you two already, so it was only fitting that you reward your sister's frequent overtures of hugs and kisses and silly dances by laughing at her.

Every parent is bound to wonder how a baby will change their existing family dynamic. After all, for us, we had already gone through and survived the sleepless nights of one baby, successfully potty trained her, were at a point where we could communicate with her and she with us. She even is off to preschool in the fall. But I was raised with three sisters and one brother, and I continue to be close to my siblings. If possible, I wanted Brennan to have a sibling.  I guess what I want to say is that even with the uncertainty of what the future held and not knowing how all our lives would change, our family didn't feel complete until you arrived.

One moment sticks out to me that I'd like to share, knowing that you may not read these letters until you're an adult yourself. The last night in the hospital, Daddy couldn't stay with me, instead needing to go home to take care of your big sister. You and I had a quiet evening together.

One of my night-shift nurses commented on the knit blanket some dear friends made to welcome the arrival of your big sister, one that I reclaimed for your arrival. The compliment wasn't unusual by any means - nearly everyone who saw the blanket admired it - but the nurse was an accomplished sewer and showed me a picture of a recent project of hers: a spectacular formal dress for her teenage daughter. The nurse began to check my vitals and noticed in my chart that I had experienced repeated nausea and vomiting throughout the day. I had tried to be proactive and warn them of this likelihood, as I experienced the same with your older sister, but apparently I was not clear enough in communicating my history, as they told me it's not uncommon to feel nausea, not understanding mine wouldn't be touched by the normal medications. We went through quite a few treatments and medications before I was finally given an effective dose of medication late in the afternoon (this was quite different from before, when things were resolved within an hour or two of your sister's birth).

The nurse was apologetic that it had taken so long to get things under control, but I admitted that if all I have to go through to get a healthy baby was a surgery that came with some nausea, it was a small price to pay. How fortunate that even though my body wasn't going to be allowed to labor naturally, I could still welcome a new baby to the world. I briefly mentioned Katherine, and how a little nausea is nothing since I got to hold you in my arms at the end of it all. I learned then that she had also lost her first child, and as we talked about what we had learned through our similar circumstances, I kept looking down at you in awe and gratitude.

Life can be so hard sometimes, sweetheart. I so wish I could shield you from every ugly and hurtful thing, but that wouldn't do you any favors. So my wish for you is that, as you encounter the hard parts of life, you find kindred spirits. Find others who will hold you up and support you through dark times, and don't be afraid to look back and remember the painful seasons and reflect on how they have shaped and changed you. You may sometimes feel alone, but those experiences are not unique to you. There is something comforting to me to know that others have faced similar tragedies and come out the other end.

I read Kurt Vonnegut: Letters a year ago and this excerpt, from a letter Vonnegut wrote to his daughter, stood out to me:

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

You have a choice when you encounter hard times. I pray that you will be soft. That you will allow your heart to remain tender and that you will be shaped into someone who can still find joy and beauty around her.

Growing up, I used to be someone who excelled at masking her emotions and bottling everything inside, and yet I can be quite transparent in conversations now. I may cry, but I don't shirk from sharing about your sister Katherine, or my brother's suicide, or my mother's mental illness. These events, while being the most difficult things I have ever faced, have made an impact on me. I want them to matter, to make a difference in me for the better. I know of no better tribute I can pay than to recognize that I am better for having known and loved these people. Their lives have improved mine.

Your daddy and I were told several times in the months after Katherine's death that we impressed friends by how we let God work through us as we relied on Him. We would look at each other in disbelief, thinking we had done no such thing. All we recognized was that we were somehow surviving. But it touched others to see that we weren't shutting people out and that we weren't becoming embittered by our loss. We were genuine and frank when asked how we were doing. And that made a difference to those around us. I can now connect with others on a different level than I could have before due to my circumstances. I've had countless conversations, with friends and strangers, that I would have missed out on had I hardened myself and shut myself away from the outside world.

So, Gretchen, be genuine. And don't be afraid to let others see glimpses of your life's experiences. For you may find that you are not so very alone. There I was, in my hospital room, sharing tears with a nurse I didn't know five minutes earlier, all because I was open to mentioning my first daughter. A nurse who was touched enough by our conversation that, when paged to help another patient, returned after her task was done just to talk some more. Those overtures matter. I don't expect to see that nurse again. In fact, I don't even remember her name. But each step I take to be in the moment and not shirk away from transparency helps me to connect with others and see people as they are. That makes a difference.

The meaning of Gretchen is pearl. The above aside of mine suddenly takes on added significance as I reflect on your name. Pearls are formed in mollusks by irritants. They are valuable and rare and while beautiful, only come about as a defense after prolonged contact with outside forces.

It almost feels wrong to be ending your first letter on such a serious note. But let's focus on the hopeful side: May you, Gretchen Joy, embrace your name. May any difficulties you face in life only shape you to be ever more beautiful in character and spirit. May you draw others to you and may your life impact theirs. Don't be afraid to let others see you as you truly are and don't try to transform into someone you're not, for as the psalmist declares, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well" (Psalm 139:13-14). You, dear daughter, are so very precious.

So much love,