Motherhood, No. 1

You’re clambering across the wood floor now, undoubtedly picking up stray hairs and particles of God-knows-what as you slap your hands down and drag your belly forward — the undusted floor beneath a bookcase teetering with stacks of beloved prose beckons you. It’s just you and me, all day every day, and you turn as you hitch your rump to one side and tuck your hips up underneath you, propping yourself up on one arm to look at me with a wry grin before resuming your destructive path to a Not-Play Area.

Two teeth jut up from your lower gums, neat and perfect and unchipped by any sort of toddler disaster, tiny white Chiclets in an otherwise gum-and-tongue world. Slap, swish, slap, swish, slap, swish — this is the music of my days, the thudding bass of your tiny body exploring the corners of our increasingly crowded living room. Peppered in among the thuds and scrapes, the excited pant and grunt of Baby Magellan en route to the Strait of Unclean Floor.

You watch me for a moment, lying on your back in all that filth that accumulates in forgotten corners beneath furniture, your head twisted to stare at me as you gnaw on a big toe with the dexterity of a contortionist. Saliva is pooling on the floor near your soft cheeks, and I think briefly — I should attach my microfiber mop to you, take advantage of this perpetual state of slobbering exploration. My own personal Roomba. I shake my head at the thought, and at you, with your body twisted in some sort of unnatural pretzel-ball while you make the kind of sucking sounds that would drive your father crazy if it were coming from someone at the dinner table.

Eyes still locked on mine — so steely blue, so unlike my chocolate browns — you release the foot from your firm grasp and purse your lips together, the tip of your tongue just barely visible before — pffffthhhhffffft — a raspberry, your favorite. Now I can’t help but laugh aloud, a quick Ha! that only encourages you to blow another and another. In these moments, I cannot deny the thought that you want to bring me joy, that you desire my happiness; and the very generosity of that from a seven-month-old baby is startling to my untrained self.

You turn your attention back to the dust-furred floor for the sparest of moments before the edge of a blanket hanging down from the couch captures your attention and you’re off again, thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. Through the belly of the coffee table, not around — So smart, I think — and in the blink of an eye, you’ve crossed the room and the purple blanket has an eggplant corner, already soaked in your saliva. As you examine the possibilities of this Other Region, I edge closer on my hands and knees, bellying up to you on the floor, placing my face nearby your fattened feet. Di-uh-beet-us feet, your father calls them; swollen and pudgy like mine were when you’d been in my belly for nine months. I know it’s likely I’ll take a foot to the face, but I want to be near. I want to be able to breathe the air that you expel, as if there is some sort of magic in just that — the act of breathing. I suppose there is. I suppose I had a hand in making that magic, now that I think of it.

While you fumble with the yarn in the deep red shag rug, I marvel at the callused pads on the tips of your toes which you maintain with regular intervals of kicking the floor in your belly-down position. At the whorls twisting inward on either side of the crown of your head, forming a spiky peak of silvery blonde. At the fingernails that never seem to be short enough, despite several weekly trims. You emit another string of raspberries, tongue proudly thrust forward as bubbles form and rivulets of spit follow the curve of your chins toward the base of your throat.

I wonder, not for the first time — is it possible that I love you too much?

A Few of My Favorite Things

Some days, I rise at the crack of dawn, knock back my multivitamin with a swig of lukewarm water, and in a blink — the day is over, I’ve survived without incident, Henry is well, there’s somehow dinner hot and awaiting the arrival of my husband, dishes are drying in a neat jumble to the right of the sink, laundry has been folded, and I’ve been wearing something other than pajamas since before noon.

Other days, Zack comes home and I’m like one of those kamikaze goats on the side of a mountain. You know, you’ve seen the memes — tiny hooves perched on tinier jutting cracks, body stretched impossibly wide with all the weight bunched up in his shoulders because his goat-butt is up three feet higher and his eyes are frozen in a combination of paralyzed fear and utter annoyance, as if he’s saying, Really, Frank? Again with the parkour? Fantastic idea.

On those days, I plop a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli or a crinkly packet of Ramen on the countertop, sniff my haven’t-bathed-in-two-days armpits before swiping on a double layer of deodorant, swap out t-shirts so it looks like I haven’t actually been wearing the same thing I wore to bed last night all day long, and shoot a few scathing looks at my screeching seven-month-old who is really friggin’ tired (as much as I am? naw…) but wouldn’t nap for longer than 30 minutes at a time — all just moments before Zack walks through the door smelling of wood shavings and Outside and the sweat of a man who’s just spent a luxurious hour lifting weights in the company of adults.

A Fergie song comes to mind here . . .

But I digress. I wanted to write about some things that help me through those jammies-till-I-die days, beyond the medication I take (which I talked about here because nobody’s got time for taboos anymore). I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite things that I like to have on hand (or available to stream) to pull me through meh-days. I’ve linked some of the items below, but I’m not benefitting from any clicks here (w/ the exception of #1).

  1. My Book of the Month Club subscription. Every month, I get to choose one newly-released hardcover title (out of 5 curated selections) to be shipped to my house for $15. You can sign up for 3, 6, or 12 months at a time (with discounts on the longer subscription services), or you can opt for their new monthly renewal. You can also add up to two other books per month for $9.99 a copy — and you can skip a month at any time with no extra fees or consequences. I typically love the titles each month and have only gotten one or two books in the past 18 months that just weren’t my cup of tea. Frivolous? Yes. Joy-inducing? You betcha. I could check these titles out from the library, but there’s just something purely magical about choosing a book at the first of each month and having something to look forward to in the mail. You can sign up using this link and get your first book for $9.99 (& a free tote bag). (Disclaimer — this is the one link that I will benefit from — if you sign up using this link, I get a book credit.)
  2. Happiness body care products from Bath & Body Works. I absolutely love the aromatherapy line at B&B Works, which is great because compared to other “luxury” skin care products, it’s an affordable option; but it’s also kind of a bummer, because the company rarely has sales on this line of products. My favorite is the Happiness line, which is this glorious fruity fragrance of bergamot and mandarin that inspires, well, happiness. I would probably fill a closet in my house with every product in the aromatherapy line, but since I don’t have an income and my husband would likely lose his bananas, I stick to the shower gel and body cream, occasionally splurging on the sugar scrub. Another favorite: the Stress Relief products, which are this divine combination of eucalyptus and spearmint that just melts my being into this chill, revived lump of existence.
  3. Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. Okay, here’s the deal — I think I might love Adriene a little bit. If I lived in a city, one of the first things I’d be interested in adding to my daily routine would be a yoga class. Alas, SWK doesn’t offer much in the way of yoga (or cities), so I scoured the internet a few months ago in search of an affordable option. Cue Adriene. I started with a 30-day challenge from a couple years ago and loved the diversity of daily practices. I also was amazed at how much my emotional well-being grew with each day I practiced. Sometimes she’s a bit more silly than I like, or a bit more chatty than I’m feeling on a particular day, but for the most part I love the variety of options Adriene’s channel offers and the practices that specifically target an audience (teachers, runners, nurses) or a problem area (back pain, for example).
  4. Essential oil blends, mostly for diffusing. A few of my favorites from DoTerra: Serenity (a great nighttime blend that I use in the diffuser in Henry’s room), Balance (an earthy, calming blend that I diffuse during yoga or extra-tense days), and Cheer (magic in a bottle — super citrusy and uplifting). I also particularly love Thieves, which is a YoungLiving blend that smells like Christmas and basically just makes my heart per happy.
  5. Walks with Henry! There’s very little that some sunshine and fresh air won’t cure; every chance we’ve had this winter, we’ve bundled up and hit the streets of our little town to air off the “house stink” (as my dad calls it). Even just an hour outside is so uplifting — I can’t wait for spring and summer, when walks will be a daily routine and days will last longer!

When I’m really lucky, I get to incorporate all of these things (reading = BOTM) in a day and I end up looking — and feeling — a little less like that mountain goat and a bit more like a Human Being. What are your joy-inducing go-tos?

The Plains: A Vignette

Out here, people are fiercely loyal to a land that has no love for any thing or any man.

The desertlike plains of southwestern Kansas are fiercely unforgiving; on any given day, you can expect to hear the relentless and mournful howl of a wrathful wind, uncorked from some mythical bottle that refuses to be stoppered until all its air has pushed forth. The wind charges furiously across open fields, encouraging earth to rise and seek refuge in every available crevice — the corner of an eyeball, a crease behind the ear, a long-neglected crack beneath a front door, a hole in the wall of a barn. The dust rises like powder into the endless sky and creates a galaxy of its own volition, daring any and all to enter its massive expanse and come out the other side.

It’s a trick, though.

Everybody knows that it is impossible to do such a thing — challenge the earth and emerge unscathed.

The furious wind and living, breathing organism that is dirt in the southwestern plains are maddening on their own; impossible to endure when they join forces. And just when the elements seem powerful enough to rob you of the most human things you are comprised of, the plains layer on another element of abysmal self-destruction: the drought.

One can live for months without a single cleansing drop of rain, it is true. But physical survival is not a close relative to spiritual continuance. As the earth shrivels and withers in the fiery kiln that is southwest Kansas, so, too, does the soul beat a hasty retreat. There is something primitive in our souls that can only be nourished by the pattering of rain upon dirt, and I often find myself wondering if I am the only one that feels mine rattling around within me like a tab in an empty pop can — or if the indigenous peoples have evolved over time to function with just a wisp, nestled securely inside the pinky finger.

I must remember to nurture my pop-tab spirit, to water it with something life-sustaining. It will not find a knuckle to burrow in safely until the sky opens up next; I am not a native. My soul will skitter about until it finds my mouth open at just the right time and whffft! — it will flee east, or north, witching water all the way.

Yes, it IS possible…

When Henry was a few months old, I was on the phone with my husband when I casually remarked in front of an acquaintance that I needed to run by the pharmacy to pick up my antidepressant medication. I will never forget the woman’s quick retort: “What could you possibly need antidepressants for? You have the cutest little boy!” I suppressed a cringe and evacuated the area as quickly as possible, unwilling to explain myself to this woman.

I was quick to leave the conversation behind, but the memory is vivid and lingers at the back of my mind most days. She hadn’t even hesitated to ask a question I’ve been trying to find the answer to my entire adult life.

I’ve struggled with manic depression since my middle school years, often at its worst during times of change. That first year of marriage? Lemme tell ya — they’re not kidding when they say it’s the toughest. You don’t know self-loathing until you’re living in the honeymoon phase and barely holding your head above water, all the while berating yourself for not being over the moon with the joy that is so trademark newlywed. And I never wanted to admit it, either — the vast depths to which my soul would plummet, the dark places I went in my mind; not while I was a teenager, and certainly not when I was newly married to the man of my dreams.

I was embarrassed. And I think, sometimes, so was my husband. As a naturally quite happy individual with limited — if any — exposure to people struggling with depression, he didn’t understand how I could wake up anything other than content. I don’t blame him; often, I’ve wondered the same thing.

But I digress . . . When I discovered I was pregnant, I experienced a pretty typical gamut of emotions: anxiety, anticipation, excitement, fear, joy, etc. As the months trudged by, though, that anxiety sharpened into something much more dangerous for me: I began to feel the darkness creeping up once again. It only got worse the more I thought about the dozens of ways my life was about to change. Try as I might, I couldn’t see past the negative changes barreling down the pipe — sleeplessness; lack of personal time; bills, bills, and more bills — so as our little one’s due date approached, I began to shrink into myself a bit more each day. Since I am manic, my highs are extreme, often bordering on absurd, and my lows are woefully deep. I could spend an evening at boot camp with my girlfriends, rubbing my watermelon-sized gut and laughing enthusiastically alongside them as we pushed through the paces; only to fall into a despairing pit of loneliness and melancholy two hours later, rendering me effectively incapable of moving from the bed or speaking.

So at 8 months pregnant, before we left the doctor’s office, my husband brought up The Subject to our doctor. We’d talked about broaching the topic several times prior to the appointment, and I’d even felt like it was a good idea as we walked through the clinic doors; but as soon as he asked my doctor about medication, I shut down. The doctor assured us it would be safe to take a low dose of something for anxiety/depression, talked about the very minimal risks associated with taking these drugs while pregnant, and then turned to me. Both my husband and the doctor waited, staring at me expectantly — as if I were supposed to just know the right answer, just like that.

What I said: “I’m not sure. Can we wait a few weeks to see if it gets better?”

What I was thinking: What if these drugs screw up my baby? What if they don’t help? What if I end up with debilitating postpartum depression after the baby arrives? What if the meds make it worse? What if . . . 

and here’s the thing I’d been dreading for years, the question I could barely ask of myself:

What if the baby inherits my proclivity for depression?

You guys, I was terrified. Terrified to admit I needed help, terrified to ask for it, terrified to screw up another life . . . I was frozen in time and space, incapable of giving the answer I so desperately needed to deliver: “Yes. Please help me, now.”

Thankfully, that husband of mine — the one who hadn’t understood my inexplicable sadness years prior — put his Converse-bedecked foot down and got bossy with me. (And before any feminists jump on me here and tell me it’s not my place to listen to my husband, you’re missin’ the damn point.) We left the doctor’s office that day with a prescription in hand, and though I was still apprehensive, my husband and doctor were clearly in my corner. Over and over again, they reminded me that given my history, my baby and I would face far greater risks if I didn’t medicate.

So I did the taboo: I took antidepressants while I was pregnant. And I continued to take them afterward. And seven months later, I’m still taking them, because being a mom is really, really freaking hard, as is adjusting to life alone at home. I never experienced postpartum depression (which was, honestly, one of my greatest fears about pregnancy); but I largely attribute that to my consistent use of antidepressants before and after delivery. In fact, I’ve had more happy days than not these past seven months, watching Henry grow. His smile is a salve to soothe even the most glum days.

I wish I could go back in time to that conversation — the one where the woman asked (not intending to be hurtful) how I could possibly be depressed with a beautiful new baby. I’d tell her I wasn’t depressed, not anymore, but I was taking preventative measures. I’d tell her how hard it is to be alone sometimes, at least for me. I’d tell her that for some people, it is possible to experience depression despite having a seemingly perfect or extraordinary life. I’d tell her it is possible to feel inexplicably alone and down in the dumps for no good reason. And I’d tell her that sometimes, people like me struggle because of a chemical imbalance in our brains — not because we aren’t grateful for the great things in our life, or because we cannot find joy in the little things.

And there’s nothing at all wrong with acknowledging you need a little help — because you can’t be everything to everyone if you aren’t whole to begin with.

Goodbye, 2017 — Hello, 2018!

I know this is going to be a bit of an unpopular opinion given the nation’s political and social turmoil, but . . . 2017 was good to me, friends. Scratch that. It was great. Here’s why:

  • I became a mama to a beautiful, healthy baby boy whose smile is the rising and setting of my sun.
  • I spent a great deal of time with family members and even though the circumstances that drew us all together weren’t ideal, the days we had under the same roof were highlights of my year.
  • I celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary with the man who swore to put up with my shenanigans forever in front of God and everyone. (So far, so good.)
  • I started a Bookstagram page and have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the community of bibliophiles that Instagram plays host to.

Last night, as my tiny muggle lay nestled in his crib (and only woke up like, four extra times, ugh), I reminisced on my year as a reader (with the sound of Call of Duty: WWII and my husband’s muttered curses as background music). Overall, most of the books I read were 3.5 stars or greater, which is pretty satisfactory in my opinion. In the past, I’ve always believed in trudging through a novel — no matter how unsatisfactory — because there’s always some sort of remote chance the resolution will redeem any irksome qualities or shortcomings in the body of work. This year, though, I had to learn to let go of some titles after having a baby and discovering that hours of solitude for reading are few and far between. At first, I was reluctant to quit a book . . . but after several sleepless nights and days without even a moment to myself, it became easier to set aside novels that just weren’t doing it for me. Among that list this year: White Fur by Jardine Libaire, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo, and Impossible Views of the World by Lily Ives.

Before I jump into 2018 with both feet, though, I’ve got a Christmas book haul to show off! In addition to the books pictured & listed below, my mother-in-law also purchased a 3-month BOTM club subscription for me and my mom gave me a B&N gift card, so, you know, it’s kinda the Christmas that keeps giving.

Christmas Haul 2017

  1. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (fiction, from my Litsy exchange)
  2. In the Woods by Tana French (mystery, from my Litsy exchange)
  3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (classic/magical realism, from my Litsy exchange)
  4. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (fiction, from my Litsy exchange)
  5. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (historical fiction, gift card purchase)
  6. Caroline by Sarah Miller (historical fiction, from my brother-in-law)
  7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (mystery, from my parents)
  8. Beloved by Toni Morrison (magical realism, from my parents)
  9. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (history/nonfiction, from my in-laws)
  10. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (historical fiction, gift card purchase)
  11. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (fantasy, from my in-laws)

Plus a few BookOutlet purchases (Merry Christmas to myself?):

  1. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (historical fiction)
  2. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (fiction)
  3. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (fiction)
  4. Girl at War by Sara Novic (historical fiction)
  5. Lonesome Dove by Larry Mcmurtry (western)

Whew! What a stack! Needless to say, I’m far more thrilled with these acquisitions than my husband is, which brings me to my next point: 2018 Reading Goals.

I am generally not a fan of reading challenges because I read for enjoyment, and in my experience, challenges lead to feelings of constriction and just . . . general . . . displeasure. That being said, I have decided to participate in one rather open-ended challenge/goal for the year: The Unread Bookshelf Project. As evidenced above (and in this post), I have a bit of a compulsive book-buying habit which has resulted in a pileup of unread titles on my shelves. I usually feel at least a little guilt about spending money on more books, but let’s face it, guys — I have an addiction, and the heart wants what it wants. Which, in my case, is an endless mountain of novels to bask nearby all day, every day. (Is this an appropriate time to insert #sorrynotsorry?)

Anyway — 2018 is the year I’m making it a priority to enjoy the unread titles on my shelves before purchasing any others for myself. The one exception (of course! y’all knew there was going to be an exception, right?) is my BOTM membership. I should probably let it go, but I just can’t. There’s something just completely thrilling about receiving book mail (or really, when you’re my age, any kind of mail that isn’t a bill . . . ). So, without further ado, here’s a quick snap of my January TBR pile.

Now, it’s off to the armchair with a mug of tea and a novel for me! Happy reading, friends — and happy, happy New Year.

A Return from the Depths of Early Motherhood

So, it’s been a minute, friends. Or ten. Or 319,680. But who’s counting, right?

I’ve had every intent of updating my blog since that last book review in late April; truthfully, I still have an unfinished entry in my drafts folder titled “Reading Roundup: April and May.” Woof. Turns out, having a kid is more time consuming than one could possibly anticipate.

Or maybe just more than one very disillusioned reader wanted to admit to herself . . .

Anyway. My little miracle baby was born at the start of June in Kansas, when the sunsets begin their migration toward the later hour of moonrises and take on the vibrant golds and scarlets that only come with the ends of days in the simmering summertime. He became the rising and setting of the sun to me the instant he was carved from my belly, no small token after months of growing inside my burgeoning stomach. He became the very reason for life itself; a reason I didn’t know I needed until I saw his gaping gummy mouth and intent steely eyes beckoning — Hey, You. Blobby thing. Feed me, please. And perhaps nestle me close, yes, like that. Oh, that’s nice. You’re cushy in all the right places! Oh, please, won’t you love me forever?

Challenge accepted, Little One. Forever.

And now, as I type this, my squinty-eyed boy has become a gurgling six-month-old squawking at me to put my toes closer to the jumperoo, please Mama, I need to grab them and — oh — yes, these belong in my mouth . . .

I’ve been thinking often, lately, about those early days of first-time motherhood; in part because I am missing those squishy little baby snuggles, and in part because I have so many friends nearing that milestone (or past it). Man, those first days — weeks, months — are tough. Here’s a few things I discovered about becoming a mother:

  1. You will never feel more inadequate. Ever. In your entire life. I mean, obviously I haven’t lived my entire life yet, but I feel pretty confident that you’re never going to feel more incapable or out of your league than those first several weeks with an infant who’s speaking — jk, screaming — a different language and won’t latch on to your damn boob and fortheloveofGodcan’thesleeplongerthanthirtyminutes? It gets better with time, but I’m not real certain the feeling ever dissipates completely.
  2. You will stop caring who sees your boobs. My first few days in the hospital, I really, really didn’t want my mother-in-law to be around while I was nursing. It felt like some sort of violation of a line that needed to be drawn in the sand. Fast forward a few weeks: I’ve become a pro at nursing in parking lots, church pews, and McDonald’s booths. I’m as discreet as possible, but let’s get real, guys — it’s damn near impossible to finagle the nursing bra while holding the increasingly-squirmy and often-screaming child and trying to lift the shirt while also keeping a blanket over your chest and aforementioned screaming infant. Yeah. It’s been 6 months and I still haven’t mastered the art.
  3. You will feel like you might actually die of exhaustion. Yep. Not an exaggeration.
  4. But you won’t. Just keep drinking that water and eating those granola bars. . . . two at a time . . . or three, that’s fine, too.
  5. You’ll pray to God, Allah, Buddha, Mother Nature, the Abominable Snowman, and the Kool-Aid man for baby to start sleeping through the night yesterdayThis kinda goes back to #3, because let’s face it — really all you can think about in those first few weeks (or months) of baby-rearing is sleep. And how much of it you’re not getting.
  6. But by the time baby is only waking up once a night to feed, you’re going to feel a little sad. . . . because the realization is starting to hit you: he’s not going to need you someday. Yeah, yeah, you’ve got a few years until that’s a reality . . . but it starts with the nighttime feedings and it only goes downhill from there, friends.
  7. You’ll probably be a “bad” wife for a while. Home-cooked meals? Swept floors? Laundered clothes? Unless you’re Wife of the Year, those things probably aren’t going to get done regularly (or at all) for a while. Maybe a couple of months. It’s okay. You’re not a bad wife. You’re a badass who just expelled human life from your loins. Any time someone tries to make you feel guilty about not getting dessert made (or really, for anything in those first several months), simply hoist the fruit of your womb and tell ’em to suck it.
  8. You’ll reminisce on all those times you were a shithead to your own mother and experience deep and lasting remorse. Go ahead, call your mom. Apologize. Cry if you need to. She gets it.
  9. You’ll feel disgusting. Unless you’re one of those weirdos whose body returns to pre-pregnancy form two days later, you’re going to be squishy and quite possibly covered in stretch marks and incapable of turning down anything chocolate or cheeseburger-y. I’d like to say the feeling evaporates by six months postpartum, but it hasn’t for me. That being said, I do take some relief in watching my offspring smile dazzlingly as I whisper to him, You did this to me . . .
  10. You’ll never get these moments back. Already, I’ve forgotten the heft of my boy in his first few days of life as he curled up against my chest. I’ve forgotten the exact sensation of his tiny tuchus nestled in the crook of my arm with his tiny newborn head smooshed against my shoulder as he slept the sleep of the dead. The general memories remain, but I feel an aching remorse in my belly every time I can’t vividly recall a detail from those early weeks. I remember wanting each day to just pass so badly — Please, God, just let me make it through one more day — and now I am desperate to draw out each hour, feeling the impermanence of my station here in life now more than ever.

Like I said: It’s tough becoming a mother. Some women seem to be born with an innate knack for the task, somehow knowing from day one how to soothe and entertain and discipline and nourish. Many, like myself, aren’t born with that knack, and we find ourselves circling the motherhood drain and wishing we could knock a few back, but baby’s still eating every two hours and I’m still a human-milk dispensary, so . . .

Here’s a little secret, though: knack-full or knack-less, we all start our motherhood with equal footing in one capacity. We are born with the instinct to love.

And, you know, it might be a bit naive, but I’m certain that no child can thrive without boundless, unconditional love. So go ahead, mamas — rely on that instinct to love, and a quick Google search for the rest.

A Moment of Truth

This entire year has been a mental struggle — never more so than lately. I find myself wondering more and more frequently why I ever signed up to teach the subject I love so much. Each day feels like a battle to protect my passion for reading & writing, a battle to continue believing in the power of education when my students and the world have so little good to say about my profession and my content area.

On almost a daily basis, I hear students disparage teachers — She doesn’t do her job. Her class is a waste of our time. This isn’t what we really should be learning. I watch friends post articles and memes mocking the shortcomings of public education, the blame for most of which — let’s face it — is ascribed to teachers. I witness other teachers devaluing colleagues’ teaching methods, subject matter, and general place within the curriculum in front of students and parents.

In short, it often feels that most of my days are spent fighting others in an attempt to desperately convince them that writing has the power to save lives; that a good book can transport one from a reality of depression and heartache to worlds of wonder and adventure; that the ability to articulate a fully-formed thought will never, ever go out of style.

Truth be told, I’m tired. I am tired of being told that I am not valuable. I am tired of being told that my job and subject matter are outdated, replaceable, and generally poorly executed. I am tired of being shamed by society and colleagues and students for doing the best that I can — which is never, it would seem, enough.

But some days — I’m reminded of these little humans. Of their joy for good stories, their hunger for learning, their trust in me to do right by them. And I tell myself that one day, things will be different.

Not every year can be a good year.

Not every class will be a good class.

Not every blithering idiot on Facebook has the brains to do my job — despite what they might think.

And maybe — just maybe — not every person deserves a piece of my mind.

I’m not giving anything up for Lent.

Every Ash Wednesday, my social feeds fill with the same tired hubbub: What are you giving up for Lent? I’m giving up soda and sweets. I’m giving up beer. I’m giving up negative thinking. And every year, without fail, the jokes come two days later: Yup, just ate a donut. I’ve already fallen off the wagon!

We’ve all been there — hasty to make Lenten resolutions with sacrifice at the forefront of our minds. However, in true consumer form, we’ve made the season of sacrifice just another season of ill-fated resolutions. (I say we because I, too, am guilty of these same shortcomings.) We laugh off our inability to abstain from chocolate for more than a week, joke about our failure to get through March without a soda, and engage in public self-deprecation when we slip up two weeks in . . . then give up giving something up for the rest of the Lenten season.

For the past few years, the sacrifices my friends and I have made have seemed less and less like True Sacrifices, and increasingly like Good Conversation Starters. I find myself wondering each year — What is the point in giving up Pepsi each Lent, if only to resume drinking it with fervor Easter morning?

Isn’t the point of Lent to sacrifice something that truly causes us discomfort, and in turn, makes us better individuals? More Christlike?

How can we become better individuals if we turn to the same creature comforts, time and again, after a short 40 days of abstinence?

What is the point in sacrificing something we love if we know we won’t take the sacrifice seriously enough to see it through to the end?

Over the past few years, Lent began to lose its significance for me. Not simply because I knew I wasn’t doing a proper job of it, or because I had a few slip-ups here and there; rather, I felt an absence of import. The sacrifices I attempted felt halfhearted and superficial, or geared toward some sort of personal body goal that had little to do with my growth as a Decent Human Being.

* * *

This past week, I jokingly told Zack that I would be giving up worrying for Lent.

With some pretty major life changes coming down the pipe in the next few months — career and family — I’ve been morphed into a whirlwind of ceaseless, furious anxiety. My nights are only partially filled with sleep; most bedtime hours I spend awake, panicking about things well beyond my control: birth defects, breastfeeding, SIDS . . . my Alzheimer’s-stricken grandpa in the wake of his wife’s death . . . my sister and her career struggles . . . the enormous financial stress that is going to be my life for the next many years . . .

Needless to say, this constant state of insecurity and — truthfully — uncontrollable anxiety has not merely worn me to a frazzle; Zack, too, is exhausted with the ceaseless questions and fears I wake him up with at three and four and five in the morning. Of course, he jumped all over my Lenten sacrifice with unrivaled enthusiasm. 😉

The next day, I contemplated my half-sincere offering. How peaceful it would be to give up worrying for forty days. . . . And yet, when I looked deep within myself, I knew that such a task wouldn’t be possible. I would fail a few days into the start of Lent and, frustrated but not surprised, attempt to convince myself I’d made a good run of it.

* * *

Instead, I decided to do what should have seemed obvious in the first place: I’d take something up for Lent. Instead of attempting to stop worrying for forty days (which would be akin to the Hulk giving up fits of rage for forty days), I will do something that actually has an impact on the kind of wife and person I want to be: I will take up a simple prayer to accompany my worries.

I know, I know — some of you are probably thinking What an idiot. Isn’t that something you already do? and I’d love to pretend that yes, I say a prayer every time a worry crosses my mind; but I don’t. (This shortcoming has to be some sort of logic that stems from the idea that we should give thanks as often as we give praise; being a pessimist, I generally find far fewer things to be grateful for on a daily basis, and as such, haven’t been a big fan of bothering the Big Man Upstairs with a rather unbalanced barrage of concerns with a sprinkling of gratitude.)

Instead of spending my 40 days halfheartedly trying to resist carbs and sugary sodas (or tackle the impossible), I will work on forming a habit that contributes to the development of the kind of wife, friend, mother, person I know I am intended to be.

I guess it’s as good a place as any to start, by praying — Lord, help me find peace.

Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

A Letter to My (Disgruntled) Students

To My Students (the Disgruntled Ones):

When I first started teaching four years ago, I was so excited. I relished the idea of sharing my passions — literature and writing — with the minds of the future; I looked forward to having a positive impact on your lives, lives that would touch so many others. I worked diligently to obtain licensure; frenetically worked to meet college deadlines; wearied myself writing a teaching portfolio that was some 50-plus pages filled with data, research, and observations.

I desperately wanted to be good enough for each of you.

The first year was tough. I left for school most mornings before 6:30 and stayed long after 8:00 most evenings. My weekends were consumed with countless hours of lesson planning, and my first year of marriage took a backseat to 67 kids I’d only known for a handful of weeks.

Mornings were for preparing myself, mentally. Mornings were filled with fear and nervous anticipation — Is today’s lesson what they need? Am I helping them to deepen their knowledge?

Evenings were for grading and planning. I saw each of you for 50 minutes daily (when you didn’t have ball games or special masses to attend or school assemblies or confession or bake sales) and was expected to teach grammar, writing, reading, vocabulary, and spelling. Evenings should have been for family and rest and four-mile runs, but they weren’t. They were for work.

The second year was better (I hit some sort of almost-effective stride), but I still stayed up at night wondering: Did I teach them anything of value today? Should I have handled that situation differently? Did I make a mistake that will leave a lasting impression on them?

Last year, I began teaching high school. I thought I would love this. I thought, Finally! I’ll get to teach the novels I cherished as a high schooler! and These students will be much more capable of complex logic and reasoning, and They will be more independent. I thought you would be more like the student that I was: driven, respectful, curious.

And above all, I still desperately wanted to be adequate.

For all of those hours of anxiety and fear and fervent planning, you have gifted me with contempt.

You have told me to f*** off, you have cursed me in the hallways, you have posted hateful remarks about me on Twitter and Facebook and even your locker doors. You have told lies to your parents, who then took to Facebook to further berate me.

You have refused to participate or listen in class. You have refused to attempt reading and writing assignments, to study vocabulary terms, to come in after school to make up missing assignments; then blamed me for your failing grades.

You have lied to me. You have disparaged me in other teachers’ classes. You have criticized my teaching methods, whined about my expectations, and questioned my curriculum choices.

And still, I lie awake at night thinking about all of the ways I have failed you. I stare into the darkness, dreaming of ways that I can become more Enough for each of you.

I cannot accept that I have done all that I can. I cannot accept that this is the best I can do for you, and because of these standards for myself I am miserable.

But that is not all. Here is a list of other things I cannot do:

I cannot make you understand the weight of your choices. I can only foster opportunities for you to learn that your actions have consequences, whether you like those consequences or not; and hold you accountable for those choices, hoping that one day you will appreciate what I have done for you.

I cannot make you realize that when I ask you to read books on or near your ability level (rather than 5 levels below), I’m not doing so as a punishment, but because you will only develop your vocabulary and ability to cognitively reason at a higher level if you read harder. I can only continue to set forth challenges and hope that you will rise to meet them.

I cannot make you want to work hard; I can only encourage you to, and hope that you respect yourself (and your teachers) enough to do so.

I cannot make you appreciate the doors that will open to you when you become fluent writers and speakers; I can only bear your complaints, time and again, as we struggle through essays and blog posts and presentations and classroom discussions, and hope that you someday communicate in a manner that beckons others to bend their heads and listen.

I cannot make you see that the sun does not rise and set from between the cheeks of your arse, despite what you may have been led to believe by your parents or your own egocentrism. I can only hold you to the same intensive standards to which I hold each of my students and hope for the best.

You see, students, teaching is all about hope. There are no certainties, no infallibilities, no Definite Absolutes. When I teach you, I do not do so with the assumption that I know everything or that my methods are the best or perfect or even always okay. When I teach you, I hope that I am doing something right, amid all the wrong.

Teaching is rarely a rewarding gig. The moments of illumination and gratitude that educators talk about? Fleeting and far too sparse. But we trudge onward, arms swinging in a march-like cadence, because we hope.

Please — don’t take that from us.

With a fervent heart,

Your teacher