Monday, October 12, 2015

Fiction to keep you busy for a long time

Sometimes (often) I love reading gritty books, wrestling through issues like race and reconciliation and history. I love a good non-fiction or Bible study. But fiction is my first love, the one I snuggled with under covers by the light of a flashlight well past bedtime. Because sometimes the best way to find the pretty in the gritty is to escape into a great story. To slip away to a different world is especially enticing when the dishes are piled and the kids wont stop fighting.

A couple people have asked me lately about my favorite books, or about how I find good books to read. So I thought perhaps I would take a few minutes to point you in the direction of some good fiction to lose yourself in.

One of my favorite destinations for book recommendations is Modern Mrs. Darcy. Every once in a while, she shares Kindle deals on books she recommends, which is how I happened to pick up Still Life (the first book in the Inspector Gamache series) for less than two dollars. I loved it so much, that I blew threw the entire series (all eleven books!) in the first two months of Isaiah's life (nursing = lots of reading time).

Recommendations from writers or bloggers I love also leads me to books I love (and occasionally to ones I dont), for example Elizabeth Gilbert recommended Girl Waits with Gun.

Another way I find books is by reading more books by authors I've enjoyed in the past. For example, I loved The Language of Flowers by Veronica Diffenbaugh, so I read We Never Asked for Wings.
I liked Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, so I picked up At the Water's Edge when I went to our new library last week.

Other authors whose books are fun, easy reads: Liane Moriarty (I especially loved What Alice Forgot) and Jojo Moyes (especially Me Before You).

More fiction books I've enjoyed and consider some of my favorites (these are mostly newer favorites rather than ones I love that I read a long time ago, because it's hard for me to remember things).
Where'd You Go Bernadette?
All the Light We Cannot See
The Rosie Project
The Beautiful Daughters
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
These is my Words

What's your favorite book? Maybe I'll find a new one, since I finished my beloved Inspector Gamache series (sob). 

This is part of my 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day (well approximately) this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Upward Mobility of a Neighborhood

Five years ago, we bought a house. The shell of a house we bought then bears little resemblance to the cozy home we inhabit today. Plywood nailed haphazardly over broken windows trapped darkness and potent odors inside. Everytime we visited, Adam brought a drill to unscrew his way into our one-day-home. A recent raid by the police had emptied it of occupants, but left behind the detritus of their lives. And so we step over sleeping bags and used condoms, my belly just beginning to round with Caden, and Jayci trapped firmly in my arms despite her protests. We bring Zack and Sabo to visit, excited about living so close to them. Their reaction proves far less enthusiastic than our own: Why would you guys move out of your nice neighborhood to live here? They ask with wide eyes, and we respond with laughs and the truth: we wanted to live closer to you guys. They shrug and roll their eyes a little, declaring us crazy in the particular manner of adolescent boys.

Most of the houses around ours sit abandoned, a street neatly hollowed by years of neglect. Adam and his dad spend long days and nights gutting and leveling and making straight what leans crooked. Nine months later, we move in for good, our world upended completely by Caden’s birth and diagnosis, nipping at the heels of the closing on our new home on an empty street.
We quickly jump headlong into a life of hospital trips and feeding tubes, alongside drug deals and stolen lawn-mowers. At 2:45am, we kneel to peek out windows from behind bamboo blinds, watching two men run past with guns and voices raised. And we build relationships, slowly but surely. Talking to our neighbors, working in the garden, eliciting help to fence in our back-yard. Not to keep anyone out so much as to ineffectively keep our annoying dog in. Days slip into months and eventually years, and suddenly I realize that we have landed upon something real. I’m surprised to discover we’ve built the kind of relationships where the guy across the street comes by when Adam goes out of town to make sure I dont need anything from the store, and to tell me his mom is happy to watch the kids. We exchange pleasantries and he blows the smoke from his joint in the opposite direction. I am brought to tears by the ones who stop by with diapers in big walmart bags as my belly swells big again with our third. Another neighbor brings over a check and tells me to buy the baby something cute, even though their own family dances right along the shaky edges of eviction.

But the neighborhood has changed, almost imperceptibly at first. We hear fewer gunshots, and mostly attribute the popping we do hear to fireworks from the nearby Braves stadium. Long-abandoned houses begin to be rehabbed, occupied first by renters and then, surprisingly, homebuyers who look a lot like we do. Friends move in, and we are equal-parts excited to share life, and worried as one-by-one the kiddos move out, victims of a complicated mixture of transience, rising rent costs, and landlords choosing to sell. At least once a month or so, I listen to my voicemails and delete the now-familiar spiel from investors who hope we might be looking to sell.
And it’s all a tangled and confusing mixture of possibly-racist facebook posts on the neighborhood watch page, and well-meaning neighbors calling the police unncessarily. Of prostitutes in the house behind us, while young couples push jogging strollers to the park. Of festivals in the park, and boys who get robbed at gunpoint even when all they have is fifty cent juice from the corner store. It seems the only kids who still live nearby and knock on our door live with grandma, whose families have been in the neighborhood since long before its rise and fall and rise again.

Glowing articles, crowd-funded renovations, and town meetings feel like clambering up a ladder to somehow find or create the American Dream, right in the very place we thought we had left it behind. I find myself torn, yanked by both arms by warring factions of myself. The investor who bought the house next to the corner store tells us his plan to get it torn down, in violation of every health code. Maybe, he laughs, they could turn it into a coffee shop. I’m ashamed to admit how nice this sounds. To pop up the street and savor the smell of fresh-roasted coffee (fair-trade of course) instead of grease and cigarettes. I envision myself writing and eating pastries, reading a good book or chatting with a friend. But I’ve seen our neighbor carrying her baby in her arms with another on her back, walking to the corner store at 8pm for dinner after work. I doubt they would pay for four dollar coffee instead of one dollar chicken.
I find myself caught somewhere in the middle. Hyper-aware of all the ways I’m complicit in this process of gentrification, a snowball rolling down the hill with little signs of stopping. If only we could just level the ground right now, freeze the neighborhood in its awkward adolescent phase of diversity and growing pains. Where neighbors might reap the benefits of more stability, of lessened crime, and of fewer abandoned spaces where unseemly behavior festers in the shadows. The problem, however, is that I cant see the tide stopping here. Inertia and human nature promises the continued movement upwards. Because we all want more, better, best. And the truth is, of course, we wanted (and want) better too. For ourselves, for our children, for our neighbors. We just wanted it without displacement, without eviction, without simply sweeping problems from our corner onto another one.

The problem, I suppose, lies in how we define success. In the ways we frame and then build a thriving neighborhood. Whose voices are at the table when these choices are being made? Because of course I dont want more gunshots. I dont want the gangs to come back, and I can only hope that our ever-failing school might finally clamber up the ladder at least a couple of rungs from the bottom. I’m not against change, not decrying “progress.” So what do I want? What does it look like to eschew the values of American Dreams in favor of the Kingdom? To call a neighborhood valuable because all of the different people who live there are valuable, not simply because the property values creep ever-higher.

It feels like we are wobbling on a tipping point. And I wonder which way our weight makes the whole thing lean.

This is day six in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Less Gritty and More Ordinary

Some days there's no time for writing. Though really, I suppose, it all comes down to priorities. Because some days it's fall break, and the kids run amok after a particularly long night. The kind of late night that somehow never translates to sleeping in when you have kids. One of the great mysteries of parenting, the ways that sleep begets sleep instead of really-tired-from-being-up-so-late begetting sleep.

So instead we romp at the park with friends, then take over the chickfila play place for lunch. I gulp lemonade while Isaiah sleeps because early morning chills evolved into a toasty afternoon. Adam gathers camping gear, before heading two hours north into the wilderness with a few neighborhood boys and a friend to camp and hike. When Jayci sees them leaving she exclaims: oh so that's why we are going to nana and poppop's house, because daddy is leaving and you can't handle all three of us on your own. Busted.
The very hungry caterpillar.
The very hungry caterpillar
I drive the kids to nana, then spend time with a friend over cheese dip and margaritas. Again, Isaiah sleeps obligingly while we chat and browse books at Barnes and Noble. I picked up this one, and I'm about to climb into bed with a glass of wine to start it.

And so the day runs less gritty and more ordinary. Less fights and more obedience. A normal day with three kiddos and a neighborhood full of friends.

I may not have prioritized writing today, but I did put Isaiah into tiny costumes. He was mostly unimpressed, but I'm calling it (and today) a win.

This is day four (or five, I've lost count) in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sunshine and Libraries

Just down the street from us, they tore down an old church and built a new library. I'd like to be mad about the cool old building being demolished, but instead I am grateful. Rows of gleaming new books fill me with something akin to glee. I drag Caden there as soon as it opens, and insist he narrows his book selection down to seven. I am hoping this will cut down on the number of books we lose, and even make our inevitable late fees easier to manage.

I've decided this gorgeous new library will be my new happy place. Although I already have a stack of books too high to read, I add a few more each time I peruse the shelves. A case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach, or rather bigger than the amount of time I have to read.

Since deciding to write every day this month, 30 minutes butt in chair, I inevitably need someplace to go where my children aren't clambering all over me and begging me to watch them perform something or another (not that I don't love that, obviously). And the library is perfect, seeing as it's approximately two minutes away. I'm satisfied to see most of the computer work stations filled with folks from the neighborhood, gratified they have a place to look for jobs, pay bills, or just enjoy the simple pleasures and time-suck of the world-wide-web.

I am distracted by the titles I can see from my desk, rows and rows of books shiny and unbent. And the librarian tells me gleefully that it's just the beginning, more and more new books will be arriving every day. We share an excited glance, one only book-lovers could understand. I wander through the new teen room, wondering why the kids tucked into chairs here aren't in school. The children's section is colorful and hosts more books than anyone could ever read. Caden grabs Curious George by the handful, and a princess treasury for Jayci. I try to steer him towards more literary choices, ones with shiny medals on their covers, but he is uninterested unless it involves superheroes (who he calls "mean guys" because of the expression on their faces), or cartoon characters. I sigh, and think to myself that next time I should bring Jayci. She needs more books to read under her covers at night anyways.

The sun came out today and already everything feels infinitely brighter. Like all the pretty has come out to play. Caden and his bff Jay tromp through the mud, and Isaiah babbles while staring up at the tree leaves waving against bright blue sky. I grin and snap pictures, certain my baby is the cutest in all the land, even though he was up from 3am-4am last night, which is not ideal.

If finding the pretty in the gritty means counting blessings, today my numbers are high. Sunshine and time to sneak away alone. Wise friends and carpools so I don't have to drive to school. New libraries and book stacks. Gymnastics for Jayci and finally finding a basketball team that lets four year olds play for Caden. Naps with cute babies and open windows, a latte on the front porch while middle schoolers wait for the bus.
I list them in my journal too, scrawling by hand the things I'm grateful for. The things I'm bound to forget when bedtime rolls around and the children refuse to stay quiet in their bunks.

Kids start trickling into the library with school uniforms, hooded sweatshirts, and backpacks dragging behind. The noise level rises significantly, and I smile because I love being a part of my vibrant neighborhood, even (or maybe especially) when it's loud.

This is day four in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Gray Days and Sleepless Nights

I'm posting pictures of sunshine because it has been raining for what feels like forever. Grey stretches across the horizon in striations, and stretches back across my memory for an endless string of days. I think it doesn't matter all that much, until the sun peeks through for a few hours and I feel my spirits lift. It doesn't even so much rain as mist. Less of a downpour than a spitting on the back of your neck. It's irritating and I find myself settling into a near-continuous state of exasperation.

I feel cheated. Fall, after all, is my favorite season in Atlanta. Crisp temperatures and no humidity under deep blue skies and gentle breezes. I try not to tumble into stereotypes, but oh how I love a scarf and some boots with a pumpkin spice latte. Apple picking, pumpkin patches, and warm apple cider spiked with something special. Don't mind if I do.

Instead, everything is damp and we left the door open on the van until it smells vaguely like the laundry we left overnight in the wash. My hair curls too much in the gentle mist, and the backyard never moves away from mostly mud.

The best parenting advice anyone every gave me was this: it's all a phase.

Which means, of course, that I better enjoy rocking my crib-adverse little one at night and nap time, instead of wishing for more time to get-things-done. Because before I know it, he'll be climbing up onto the top bunk and reading under the covers long after lights-out. Come to think of it, I better enjoy that phase too. Because soon enough my little girl might not want to read under the covers (unless she's as much like me as she seems, because then that phase isn't going anywhere).

This sounds a little hard to pull off, enjoying all-the-phases. But for me it's less carpe diem and more letting-go. Recognizing that I can enjoy the good stuff (because who knows how long it will last), and not stress myself out too completely about the bad. Because with my first baby, when she didn't sleep "on schedule" or how/when I thought she should, I found myself quickly falling into despair. Sleep deprivation has added horror when it carries with it the thought that perhaps I will never sleep again. Waiting so long to have baby number three (Caden is, after, four years old and solidly no-longer-a-baby), reminded me that I will, in fact, sleep one day. So the nights when Isaiah is up all of the times, and when he insists on sleeping in my arms rather than the crib, those nights feel less daunting and more special.

Perhaps this is the key to finding the joy, or the pretty in the gritty if you will. Remembering the fleeting wisps that comprise a life. But a breath, the Word says. And remembering too that even seemingly endless days of grey won't, actually, last forever. The sun will rise. Seasons will change. And so will we. 

This is day three in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

All the days of his life

Isaiah's full name is Isaiah Andrew Stanley. The Andrew is for my grandfather on my mom's side (we call him opa). So when, two weeks ago, opa was moved to hospice care, Isaiah and I made a trip to Michigan for the two to meet.

On the plane ride, I sit between a man wearing a large African dress that spills brilliant purple into my lap, and an elderly lady who needs helping getting her snacks from her bag under the seat. She drops her ziplock bag of grapes, and I juggle a sleeping Isaiah to pick them up, then escort her to the bathroom when she admits she cant walk without help. She tells me she has only known one other Isaiah in her life: her great-nephew, who had a heart transplant at three years old. I sit wedged as the plane dips towards Chicago, thinking about life, about death, about coincidences, and about the unexpected trip Isaiah and I are taking together.

After landing in Chicago, my sister (Emma) and I drive the three hours (four and half with traffic) to Grand Rapids, where we collapse exhausted in a hotel. We go out for breakfast while my mom meets with the hospice nurses, mapping end-of-life plans. She calls us and says opa can see us now, but only for a few minutes: he is tired.

The hallway to opa's room stretches long, smelling vaguely of french fries and apple juice. I am nervous, unsure what to except. The whole trip feels like a flash of deja vu from when we brought tiny Jayci to meet opa's wife (oma) when she was moved to hospice in this very space seven years ago. His apartment is the last one at the end of the long hall. Most of the doors are festooned in fall wreaths, but opa's remains unadorned aside from a gray plate announcing his name.

His room hasn't changed much. There's a hospital bed in his bedroom. A large whirring oxygen tank and cannula in his nose, reminding me of the days after Caden's surgery. My sister has to keep reminding me not to step on the small oxygen tube snaking across the room. Piles of books top every surface, mostly serious and spiritual. I notice one by Nouwen on the top of the stack on the coffee table.

The room is warm, and Isaiah fusses so I make him a bottle, while opa points out that I'm much more relaxed with this baby than I was with my last two. We laugh and lean down for hugs, and I'm unsure of the right protocol for talking to someone on the fringes between this life and the next.

I think of the thin places at the beginning and end of a life. When the room seems both astonishingly ordinary and somehow holy. Those first anguished moments of Isaiah's life, pushed and pulled from me with sobs while Adam presses an icy washcloth to my forehead and feeds me ice chips. And these moments here in this room, when the end is perhaps not imminent, but never far.

I am not afraid, opa says, but I am curious.

I finish feeding Isaiah and burp him softly before settling him into opa's arms. He stares up at his great-grandfather with wide unblinking eyes. My sister and I settle ourselves cross-legged on the floor at opa's feet. We watch as he lays his hand across Isaiah's forehead and prays in a wobbly voice that the Lord would bless his life. I cry, of course, trying to contain myself so tears dribble quietly down my cheek rather than dissolving into sniffles or sobs.

Emma tells him about her new job in Chicago, where she works at a bakery. And one day a week she mills wheat into flour to make bread. When he was a boy in Holland during the war, opa tells us haltingly between gulped breaths, his dad bought a bag of wheat for an exorbitant amount. When his mom expressed her disbelief and disapproval, his father said: you can't eat money. He and his brother were tasked with milling the wheat into flour using a coffee grinder.

He asks about Emma's boyfriend, a butcher, and tells us about the various jobs he had at meat packing plants. I take Isaiah back when he squirms, and my mom cuts up one of Emma's croissants and lays the bowl of tiny pieces in opa's lap. I sweat a little in the warm room, and opa closes his eyes until I wonder if he's fallen asleep. But then he opens them again and asks me about the boys - about Zack, whom he has met: Zack told me opa reminded him of the old man from the movie Up. I catch him up to date, and he says in a breathy whisper: you wonder if even God can save them.

I shake my head, though I've thought the same thing myself before of course.
I stretch my sore legs out on the floor, wondering about this life, the things opa has seen and done. The ways that life has stretched and surprised him, and the ways he has been hurt and alternately surprised by the joy of unexpectedly staring into the eyes of another great-grandson. And I hope that my littlest one, who sleeps contented in my arms at opa's feet, might know the grace and curiosity of a life well-lived. That he will have the kind of faith that holds enough space for doubt without fear. And that, like his namesake, he might faithfully follow and seek the Lord for all the days of his life.

This is day two in a 31 day series Finding the Pretty in the Gritty. Each day this month, I'll be writing on how I am finding pretty, even when things are gritty. Click here for a list of all the posts in the series. Or if you want to make sure you don't miss a day, feel free to subscribe (link on the right).

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Not-Shiny Life

I am, of course, the kind of tired that feels the ever-present pull of gravity deep in my belly. My legs ache to lay down, my eyes long to shut. Thus goes life with a newborn. I knew it would, as I vaguely remember this exhaustion from early days and nights with my other two babies. Yet, somehow, this kind of tired begs forgetting, and I am surprised anew by weariness. I carry Isaiah in my arms and try to recall how to do things one-handed: make toast, brew coffee, brush my teeth, type an email, vacuum the floor. I fumble through most of it, clumsy and anxiously avoiding thoughts of dropping the baby, images dancing never far from the edges of my mind.
The things I discover about God are deep in this place; or perhaps not deep but instinctual. Without the brain capacity for profound thought, I finally devote myself to single-minded purpose: caring for Isaiah, and doing my best to meet his needs without completely neglecting my own. I set aside my high hopes for writing, or figuring out what I want to do with my life. I try to journal one-handed while I nurse, and instead close my eyes and pray. But mostly my prayer consists of a quieting of my mind, a stillness found in matching my breath to his tiny gulps. I breathe in baby scent and rock gentle under soft evening light filtered through bamboo blinds.

Slowly, finally, I feel pressure lift from my shoulders one brick at a time. Released from obligations, I slip away from the crowd time and again to nurse and rock in a quiet nursery. I stop telling myself all the things I should do, and focus instead on what I can do.

I stay off Pinterest, and unfollow anyone on Instagram who makes me feel anxiety about myself. Life as a mom today, even compared to when Jayci was a baby seven years ago (sob), presents vast opportunities for comparison, for piling on weighty bricks of false expectations. Suddenly I recognize social media not just for the foolishness it can be, but for all the dangerous ways it can present a shiny perfect life that makes all us not-shiny feel the weight of shame.

Not enough the enemy whispers, as he always has. But now he has megaphones, and his whisper can feel a whole lot like a shout when I notice the pretty meal she made. Or the cute outfit she threw together with her perfectly curled hair #nofilter. How much weight she lost. How many miles she ran dear MyFitnessTracker, please stop notifying me of how much exercise everyone else does. How well her kids play together. How clean her house is. On and on and on my feed scrolls. This isn't my first rodeo, and still I doubt my methods, stacking myself up against everything I read and see. I can't help but wonder about how desperately crushing this weight would have felt my first time around. Through the thick velvet fog of hormones and sleeplessness, to discover that other moms were in fact changing out of their pajamas occasionally, at least long enough to post a picture.

So in solidarity I admit that yes, we got out of the house today (without showers or makeup). I wrapped Isaiah cozy in my SollyWrap, only to have him spit up all down my front. Determined to visit the new library down the street, I soldier on, ignoring the sweet smell of sour baby-barf, and wipe it off with a dirty t-shirt I found on the floor of my car.

Because these days don't have to be perfect to be beautiful. Gummy grins, spit up shirts, Caden whispering "I love you Isaiah" without crushing him in a hug. Dates to Barnes and Noble where Jayci and I read side by side, sipping chocolate milk and pumpkin spice lattes respectively. The tiny pieces that together make up the whole of a life. All the ways that small acts of beauty and kindness and justice are still acts of beauty and kindness and justice. And so we keep doing them, one small act at a time, until we have built something bigger (or smaller) than we imagined. A life that means something in the quiet of the night just as surely as it does when I post on Facebook.

(this is day 3 of 31 days of Finding the Pretty in the Gritty


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