2018 Year in Review: Books

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Every time I put on the Rent soundtrack, one of the ways I consistently answer the question “how do you measure a year?” is “In books I read!”  Naturally, there are plenty of others, but books are a marvelously quantifiable answer.

Fiction:

Two Dark Reigns – Kendare Blake

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

Kingdom of the Blind – Louise Penny

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Rapid Falls – Amber Cowie

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey – Alison Weir

Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror – (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg

Three Dark Crowns – Kendare Blake

One Dark Throne – Kendare Blake

The Young Queens – Kendare Blake

Origin – Dan Brown

The Family Next Door – Sally Hepworth

The Long Drop – Denise Mina

Small Great Things – Jodie Picoult

Nonfiction:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up – John Carreyrou

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa – Adam Hochschild

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson

Year of No Clutter: A Memoir – Eve Schaub

Between the World and Me: Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter – Margareta Magnusson

Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men – Harold Schechter

Siblings Without Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too – Adele Faber

In Bloom: Trading Restless Insecurity for Abiding Confidence – Kayla Aimee

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark – Addie Zierman

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy – Sheryl Sandburg

Life in a Medieval City – Frances Gies

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock – Lucy Worsley

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith – Barbara Brown Taylor

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – Mindy Kaling

The Blood of Emmett Till – Timothy B. Tyson

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again – Rachel Held Evans

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings – Alison Weir

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America – Alissa Quart

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster – Sarah Krasnostein

You’ve Been So Lucky Already – Alethea Black

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century – Peter Graham

Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident – Donnie Eicher

Infreakinfertility: How to Survive When Getting Pregnant Gets Hard – Melanie Dale

The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James H. Cone

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith – Addie Zierman

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess – Rachel Hoffman

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game – Mary Pilon

More Than Halfway Through, and Still Reading:

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down: Colin Woodard

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made: Irving Howe

Reread:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande

Ready For Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood – Kate Hopper

Juniper: The Girl Who was Born Too Soon – Kelley Benham French, Thomas French

I’m looking forward to reviewing a few of the highlights on the list and looking forward to more books in 2019!

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want more, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

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Meditations on Moving

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One of the few authors I’ll spring for straight up (instead of waiting at the library or until I find it on sale) is Louise Penny.  I’ve written a few (okay, okay, probably more than a few) times about how much I love Penny’s mystery novels here.  She’s one of the authors writing today that I really want to meet, though I’ll admit that I’m a little terrified that if I did, in fact, meet her, I’d just fan-girl all over the place and embarrass myself.

In any case, Penny’s latest, Kingdom of the Blind came out last week and I’ve spent the last few days reading.  Yet again, I’m struck by Penny’s ability to get to the heart of life, living, and human emotions.  One of my favorite parts of the books are the author’s note at the end, where Penny writes so evocatively about her own life and struggles.  For a number of years, Penny’s husband Michael suffered from dementia and died in 2016.  Penny has also been open about being a recovering alcoholic and the incredible loneliness, anger, and sadness she felt for so long as well as many wonderful things she values in her life now.

“A funny thing happened on my way to not writing this book,” Penny notes, “I started writing.”

“How could I go on when half of me was missing?  I could barely get out of bed.” She continues.  “But then, a few months later, I found myself sitting at the long pine dining table where I always wrote.  Laptop open.”

I relate to that in such a big way.  While I’ve never lost a spouse, I have lost loved ones, as well as other, less tangible bits and pieces along the way.

It’s hard, losing, whatever that loss comprises.  Especially at this time of the year, when everything seems suffused with traditions and the place at the table seems all the more empty than usual.  When it’s impossible not to remember and the commercials and pictures and expectations are designed to evoke emotions that often I’d rather leave in the background or unexamined.

Sometimes living, moving, feels a bit like a betrayal.  With an ache that has the sharpness of a gunshot echoing from 2015 and holes that rend the threads to keep weaving it all together, it feels impossible to tie the knots and work to keep creating.  To set the empty place and also hold the feast.

That’s been a struggle for me lately, even though my grief isn’t new.  I’ve reached that sort of half-mourning stage, where the sadness doesn’t seep into every moment or corner, but comes out at both expected and unexpected times with a startling strength.

I’m grateful to Penny for not denying the darkness, but also for the joy she takes in how moving forward encompasses her loss: “Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books.  All the things we had together came together in Three Pines.  Love, companionship, friendship.  His integrity.  His courage.  Laughter.”

In so many ways, that’s what I’m seeking.  Not to leave behind, but to hold the love and live.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Bittersweet

When E was about six months old, I organized and decorated her room.  It was, literally, the only room in the house at that time I’d managed to do anything in remotely resembling organization.  The whole project had gotten kicked off with me wailing at Arthur one day about how I “hadn’t even gotten to put together the nursery” before I’d gone into the hospital and then had been too busy in NICU to even try to deal with it.  From there, we’d had oxygen equipment for months (even after E had stopped needing oxygen, our doctors had us keep the equipment a bit longer just in case) and needed a place to put the apnea monitor.  All this meant that the room was beautifully arranged to fit the monitor and oxygen equipment, but not really optimally for living without them.  We’d recently gotten rid of both the oxygen compressor and the apnea monitor, but the room was, like the rest of the house, a mess.

To placate me, Arthur told me that I should let the rest of the house go for the time being and see if I could work up a way to make E’s room nice.  He’d help with as much as he could and also with the lifting/arranging of furniture.  We decided to make a little bit of room in our budget to get a few things to decorate the room as well.

One day, I found a neat collage frame at a store.  It held six photos, organized around a central photo.  It was a little more expensive than we wanted, but I couldn’t resist.  I bought it and eventually put a photo of E in the center with a picture of us, one of my parents, one of Arthur’s family, one of the twin cousins once they were born, and one of my brother and his girlfriend in the outside frames.  It’s one of my favorite parts of E’s room.

As E has learned to talk and recognize people, Arthur started explaining who the people were in the frames when he was getting E dressed in the mornings.  Or so I found out when E startled me one morning by pointing up at the picture of my brother and announcing, “Unca E-!”

It wasn’t that I minded at all, in fact, it was lovely and I am really glad that Arthur is teaching E who the people in the frames are to her.  It was more that I wasn’t expecting it and it took me off guard for a moment.  I treasured the moment and didn’t think about it again for awhile.

A few weeks ago, I got some photos from my mother that I asked her for and downloaded from her phone, a whole mishmash starting at the beginning of E’s life.  As I was going through them, I found one that made me stop and stare, one I hadn’t been entirely certain existed.  E was born about seven months before my brother died.  He saw her once in NICU and then once in September of 2015.  Only during that September visit did he get to hold her.  At the time, it didn’t seem extremely noteworthy.  I didn’t know if anyone had snapped a photo.

There it was, though.  E hurried over, took one look at the photo and went “Unca E-“.  She made me go back to the photo several times as I scrolled through the folder, even trying to use the touchscreen on my laptop to go back to look at it anytime I’d try to move forward.

It was beautiful and so, so d*mn sad at the same time.

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Returning Home

Big time spoilers for The Lord of the Rings – especially the ending – ahead.  

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings.  There aren’t too many things in my life that have stayed constant since age 14, but these books continue to inspire, motivate, and comfort me.  As I’ve grown, aged, and lived, the meanings have changed, the understandings deepened, but every time I pick them up, I find something new.  When I first read the books, I was thrilled by the exciting adventure, the battles, and, oh yeah, Aragorn.  These days, it’s a different part that I keep turning to read.

One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings now is the ending.  The movie version leaves out part of the original ending, and I understand that choice at some level.  The original ending is messy, hard, and complicated in a way that’s difficult to translate to the screen.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book ending, it looks initially like a very traditional storybook ending wrap-up.  Then the movie and book part ways: there is evil waiting in the Shire for the returning hobbits.  They have to fight yet another battle to get the Shire back – their home is ugly and changed by that evil.  The book and the movie return to sync when Frodo departs Middle Earth.

When I initially read The Return of the King, the scouring of the Shire irritated me a bit.  It seemed…unnecessary.  The major task was fulfilled, the ring destroyed, the epic showdown at the gates of Mordor fought, and the hobbits returned home triumphantly.  Then Tolkien throws in this seemingly discordant sadness and destruction.  It’s no wonder Peter Jackson left it out of the movie.  It feels unfair that after everything the hobbits have done and the horror they’ve been through they don’t come home to a hero’s welcome, that there’s still more to do.  This isn’t a Harry Potter ending.

Now, though, I get it.  Tolkien has captured the reality of life after being touched by struggle and tragedy, in whatever form that comes to particular people.  You don’t walk through Mordor and remain untouched.  Even once the main event is over and evil seemingly vanquished or at least survived, it’s coming home to find more work to do and reminder after reminder sitting in your front yard.

We walked through Mordor the days my daughter nearly died.  We walked through Mordor when my brother so inexplicably left us.  The days when nothing made sense.

I hoped when we finally came back, naively, it would still be mostly the same.  I knew better.  But I hoped.

Instead, it’s been the weariness of battling back what those journeys took from us.

It’s no longer the epic battles of life and death.  It’s the bitterness at the bottom of the glass, the sh*ttier stuff, but battles that are no less for their smallness.  It’s fighting those unwelcome triggers and reclaiming home.

It’s knowing when to lay down the swords and begin the peaceful work of planting and bringing green life back to damaged land.  It’s showing mercy.  In some ways, this is almost harder.  It requires vulnerability, patience, honesty, kindness, and diligence.  Qualities that some days are tough to muster.

Tolkien doesn’t give Frodo a beautiful happy ending in his beloved Shire.  The wounds simply go too deep.  I take a lot of heart, though, from Sam’s ending.  Sam, who also bore the Ring, touched evil, who also walked through Mordor.  Sam, who “planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each.  He went up and down the Shire in this labour…”  Sam, who receives these words at the last, painful farewell: “Do not be too sad, Sam.  You cannot be always torn in two.  You will have to be one and whole, for many years.  You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”

That is an ending – or perhaps another beginning – worth all of the work.

Reorganizing

I knew when we started the home organization project that it was going to involve a lot of cleaning out.  I started with my closet and clothing.  I was ready to clean out my clothing, tired of having it spill out across the floor, tired of holding on to aspirational pieces, tired of not being able to find the items I actually wear.  The low hanging fruit as it were, and when I got done I felt an immense sense of relief and accomplishment.

Then our organizer came.

Holy h*ll.  I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that we had been overdue for a clean-out about three or so years before we moved – right about the start of the whole infertility nightmare.  I didn’t want to buy any new furniture because who knew what we’d need if we managed to have a baby or not?  I didn’t want to throw anything away because I couldn’t deal with sorting through boxes or letting go when I was already struggling with treatments, loss, and so much of life seemed up in the air.

Well, the organizer waded right in.  It’s precisely what we needed her to do, because there was no way I could have managed it on my own.  She gave me permission (essentially) to let go of things that I had some sort of warped, misplaced attachment to but really no longer wanted.  She helped keep me on task.  It was definitely an exercise in asking myself over and over again “why?”  Why did I want this or that item?  Why did I feel guilty letting something go?  Why had I acquired it or kept it in the first place?  It was far more difficult than I’d thought it would be and took longer than I wanted.

Our house is now clean and full of things I actually enjoy, things I actually want there.  The clutter, the items I kept storing out of guilt, out of sadness, out of a misplaced sense of ‘value’ are gone.  I can walk around the house without tripping over things.  I can get out the decorating items that only seemed to add to the mess before.  We bought a few new furniture items that fit our lives and are exactly what I eventually want to add to when we buy a house.  I find that the strict “one in, one out” system we’ve adopted helps me buy less on impulse.

I recently read The Next Happy by Tracey Cleantis about letting go of dreams and the notion that “if you try hard enough, you can do anything”.  It’s an apropos book as I’ve let go of various items in the physical world, found freedom in that letting go, and have realized that it’s time to perhaps start the process on some of the things in my head.  I’m a packrat by nature both with physical objects and emotionally, so I knew this was a bit of a step.

When Arthur and I got married, we always talked about having three children.  I planned a huge chunk of my life around that idea, from schooling to the jobs I’ve taken.  Even the fact that we started trying when I was 29, a bit before I was truly ready was done in service of that dream.  I figured I’d get pregnant within six to eight months, have the baby, wait a year, get pregnant again when the first child was about 18 months, and then if we wanted that third child, I could fit in that last pregnancy all by the time I turned 35 or 36. We’d buy a house somewhere in there and then I’d get my master’s degree.

Infertility, high risk pregnancy, and premature birth shattered what our dream family life looked like in my head.  The house?  The down payment was spent on IVF.  The master’s degree?  Probably much later than I’d hoped if at all, and the money for it also spent on IVF.  Three children?  Only if something truly unprecedented (and largely out of my control) happens.  I can’t do anything more beyond a few natural cycles (unlikely to work) and FET of whatever we have left once the two embryos thaw to make that dream come true.  We are out of emotional strength and money to do so.

When my brother died, I wondered why that situation – seemingly so different and separate from infertility – often tended to trigger strong memories of the difficult losses of the infertility and high risk pregnancy and vice versa.  I figured initially that it was because trauma is trauma, perhaps thinking of one made me think of the other.  Recently, I realized that they’re both linked in one very critical area.

I always thought I had an amazing family growing up.  I really do both love and like my parents.  I don’t call them out of a sense of obligation or family, I genuinely enjoy them.  This isn’t to say there weren’t issues or we were the Waltons or anything like that, but I always felt that my parents, my brother and I made a pretty good bunch, especially in the last few years.

That’s a really sh*tty part about suicide as opposed to a different tragic death – it colors and permeates everything for me.  It taints so many of those memories, leaving me wondering: were we really that happy?  Were we okay?  Were the seeds of this tragedy sown somewhere in all of that?  Where? Basically, it completely dynamites everything I believed about my family of origin and leaves me reexamining all the pieces through a completely different lens.

I’ve lost both the dream of the family I planned to create with my husband and the family I grew up in.  No wonder the two things twine together so often.

I’m slowly starting to work on letting go of what I firmly believed my life would look like, particularly in regards to family.  The first step has been reaffirming the decision not to pursue further fresh IVF.  I’d said it over and over again, believed it intellectually, but there’s a sense in which I’m finally truly closing that door emotionally.  It means working to ignore the nagging voice that keeps telling me “just one more round!  You could still make it happen!”  Or the other voice that tells me that I am somehow stopping short although objectively I can see that we went through h*ll and had a couple of extraordinary, unprecedented – and out of our control – breaks in our favor to get where we are today at all.

One of the other steps has been slowly letting go of the residual denial that probably kept me functional for a bit after my brother’s death.  I knew, of course, that he was dead.  At the same time, some part of my mind kept imagining him going out for a run along the city streets, going to work, generally living his life.  We didn’t talk all the time on the phone and lived several hours apart, so reality didn’t intrude constantly.  I went about my day, I imagined him going about his.

Over the last month or so, I’ve done that less and less.  The ache of the loss seeps in more and more as I begin to fully acknowledge that he is not in the city, not living, and that he is really and truly gone from this world.  No matter how hard I try or what I do, I cannot make that fact change.

It’s hard.  Really f*cking hard.

At the same time, the anxiety is a little bit less.  Instead of feeling hugely overloaded emotionally all the time, I’m finding that I’m closer to just being maxed out more often and hope that at some point it will reach a reasonable equilibrium.  There is so much good in my life, but needing uncovered and brought out.  It’s what keeps me moving and working, the idea that this massive and painful letting go will eventually be worth it, allowing me to fully embrace the whole of my life as it actually exists.

Odds and Ends

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Watching the penultimate episode of Downton Abbey, Edith, speaking to her sister Mary, tells Mary that in the end, they will be the only two left who share the memories of their parents, their late sister Sybil, and of growing up together. It put into words a feeling I’ve been trying to articulate since my brother died, a very particular facet of that loss. In the end, I will most likely be the sole keeper of those family memories.

~*~

Listening to Arthur congratulate his brother this week on the birth of wonderful twin niece and nephew, it’s decidedly bittersweet. I’m so excited to be an aunt to these babies. We are glad for a safe birth at 32 weeks and babies in good health for their prematurity. I’m so happy E has cousins, and I know both Arthur and his brother hope to keep our families close. I am grateful for E yet again and the extraordinary circumstances that meant we were able to take her home. We are glad that E will know this uncle and aunt and their little ones.

My brother was surprisingly good with small children, although he would have been the first to deny that. He always took them seriously, listened to what they had to say, and as that’s often a rare quality in adults, they would follow him around chattering, excited to have found someone that heard them. I wonder what E would have told him, this uncle she will never know except in photographs and stories.

~*~

It’s one of the things that’s a bit hard about this birth, it comes as my period starts after the first sort-of two-week-wait I’ve had in a while.  We said we weren’t going to do this, but when my cycles suddenly regulated out on their own, we couldn’t resist. No intervention or fertility treatment, no idea if I actually ovulate, no idea if my left tube is open, just a very long shot on a natural cycle figuring it has been a year since my c-section, I’m not getting any younger, and we’re not doing any more fresh IVF.

Even though I know better, even with plans for a much better shot with an FET in the fall, I found myself half-hoping and with that small disappointment, I find myself counting the losses again: my own sibling, whether or not E will have a sibling, the long five day wait with nothing to do except sit by E’s incubator, watching the monitors alarm, wondering if E’s brain ultrasound would show bleeding before we could even consider holding her, the scariness mingled with her first kangaroo sessions as her oxygen saturation dropped and it took two nurses to get her into position, the twins I lost after the first IVF, the ectopic after my FET. I wonder about those lost babies, if they would have looked like E or her cousins?

I wonder if E will be left as the lone memory keeper for our family.

And I hate that this is what suicide and infertility and extreme prematurity have cost me, at least for now: unadulterated joy and happiness without complexity.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or participate, please head over to Stirrup Queens to check it out. 

And Somehow, We’re Back To December

As a kid, I loved the holidays, December, and Christmas. It always started with going to my grandparents for Thanksgiving. As we got a little older, then it was Black Friday shopping. We would map out the sales on Thanksgiving evening and plan our route, including a donut break in the middle. My great-aunt was game for braving the crowds with us, and it was often a perfect chance to shop for Christmas presents. There was Hanging of the Greens (decorating) at church, nativity pageants, choir, and volunteer work. Our family would get a live tree and we’d spend an afternoon decorating it with my mother’s extensive ornament collection. We’d set out my mother’s Mexican nativity set, the Baby Jesus hidden until Christmas morning when he’d appear in the manger. There were cookies and cranberry sweet rolls and finally, the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church. Arthur proposed to me on December 21, 2002.

Then on Christmas Eve 2003, my grandmother died. I’d never lost a family member before. For the first time, we didn’t go to church. Christmas morning, we all stared at each other, half-heartedly opening gifts. It was never quite the same again, always that little bittersweet tinge of memory intruding.

Once Arthur and I got married in 2005, Christmas and December felt particularly stressful for a few years. We had very little money at the time and presents became a source of difficulty. I remember clearly trying to find gifts that were heartfelt and yet didn’t break the budget. Finally, by around 2008, we were established, life felt more manageable, and I hoped we’d get back to a less complicated celebration.

It wasn’t to happen. Arthur lost his job at Thanksgiving of 2010 and his grandfather died shortly thereafter. In 2012, infertility became the unwelcome specter at the feast. December was when my doctor told me that my case was too complicated for her and I’d need to see an RE. Exactly one year later in 2013, I had a D&C for my first miscarriage. In 2014, I had been told by the perinatologist that I could continue to attempt to carry my then second-trimester pregnancy but that I was in a critical period where my risk of infection and losing the pregnancy was high. I was bleeding every day. I couldn’t do Christmas decorating, cooking, or shopping. Arthur was without a job again and interviewing. We held our breath, wondering which day would give us more bad news.

I’ll confess, I was looking forward to this year and a chance to exorcise a few of those demons. I got excited about E’s first holiday season, starting with plans to dress her up in a cute little “first Thanksgiving” outfit. We had plans to go visit my parents for the week of Thanksgiving, and Saturday Nov. 21, we’d do the big meal with my whole family. I hoped we’d get our house unpacked enough to get at least a small tree put together for E and take some cute photos she wouldn’t remember but that would be fun for us.

Then my brother died. We did have a meal with the whole family on Nov. 21, but it was for the memorial service. I glued a tight half-smile on my face, thanked people for their condolences and presence, and somehow got through it. Thanksgiving was spent having an enormous fight with Arthur about E’s eating issues (a whole post in and of themselves) and driving home so that I could go to work Friday night.

Truth be told, what I want is something that will fill the gaping holes in my life and heart. Something that will take the sting out of all the infertility and loss memories associated with this time of the year. Failing that, I’d just like enough energy to keep advocating for E. It is amazing how much work and patience it takes to coordinate all of her specialists and appointments and keep everyone on the same page. I’d like enough drive to put the effort into navigating the new structure of my family. E’s birth changed things. Life as the only surviving child of my parents is different and I’m not sure how to step into that role or what it even looks like.

I’m bemused, amazed, and at times resentful of the fact that life somehow goes on through all of the losses and sadness and anger. I suppose, however, that in the incredible resilience and endurance of the human spirit there’s some sort of hope for the future. I am grateful for E, my parents, and Arthur.  Even if despite these moments of gratitude, most of what’s keeping me going these days is making rude gestures at fate and the universe at large.

And maybe the fact that I’m still standing tall enough to feel those fleeting moments of gratitude and make those gestures, in and of itself, is a sort of triumph.