I’m on a Shakespeare high from seeing a bunch of amazing plays this week, but I did manage to write this piece for Segullah. Cheers, everyone xo
This week, I cleaned out Jack’s old room, which is now a storage room. The good news is, the camping gear, Halloween costumes, snow pants and boots, my dad’s old golf clubs, and my wedding dress are now organized and easily accessible (side note: I do not need easy access to my wedding dress). The part that took me by surprise was the wave of emotion I experienced in going through remnants of Jack’s early childhood. Baby blankets, photographs, his PECS binder, ABA therapy file folders–there was just so much that brought the most difficult years of my life back, and it was amplified by my separation from Jack in space and time.
Who weeps when cleaning out an explosively disorganized room? Me, apparently.
Jeff and I went to Costco later that day and I told him on the way home how profoundly affected I felt going through items reminiscent of Jack’s toddler and elementary school years. “I didn’t miss Jack at that moment,” I told him. “I am confident and happy in where Jack is right now. I’m not sad as much as I am traumatized remembering how brutally hard those years were.”
And then Jeff said exactly the right thing, which was this: “You did that. You went through it.”
Validation. It’s pretty powerful.
Those days were brutal, and are, fortunately, in the past.
I also drove to southern Utah this week and spent much of the drive contemplating Jack. He lives far away. We don’t get to see him much. When we do see him, he can’t talk to me. The good parts are that Jack’s needs are being met by excellent caregivers who love him. The hard parts are that we miss out on the moments of sweetness that come from being with Jack all the time.
Its a weird trade off and I don’t know that it will ever feel normal to me.
Because of this separation, I have acutely felt the need to have a family photo in Jack’s town so he can be there. I need to have an updated image of all of us together, not from bygone days when Jack lived at home, but current and reflective of our present life as a family. So that’s happening this trip, too. Someone asked me if Jack will cooperate with the photo shoot, and I told them that all he has to do is exist in our general vicinity and it will work out great. No posing or smiling at the camera necessary, just lots of candid togetherness.
Even though I’m waxing a bit glum (or at least conflicted) about The Way Things Are For Us, the reality is that Jack’s life is a miracle.
Our ability to function as a family has been restored, which is a miracle.
Jack’s perfect placement and lovely home and amazing caregivers are a miracle.
The fact that our lives changed so dramatically and so quickly and so positively are miracles.
My life felt like wall-to-wall failure Before, and Now it is straight up a testament to God’s ability to intervene and change the worst circumstances to something remarkable and beautiful.
And feeling comfort in knowing Jack’s life is charmed and blessed? Miraculous.
I have been reading a metric ton this summer–fiction plus memoir, my two favorite genres, in hardbacks and paperbacks exclusively. I haven’t liked looking at screens to read, of late. Not that anybody asked, but I clearly like to overshare when it comes to my reading habits.
I don’t have the mental bandwidth what with the all-kids-all-the-time tableau at my house this summer, so these really are going to be little/possibly not very thorough reviews of:
Books I Have Enjoyed to Varying Degrees. Beginning with…
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
I no longer have to hide my face in shame over not having read The Great American Read or whatever. I read it. I found it pretty avant garde for the time in which it was written. I do not feel about it the way much of the world seems to feel, which is that it is the one book that most deeply touched them. Holden Caulfield as a character has a big, memorable voice. His narration is the best part of this funny, yet essentially sad story. I value this book and what it has to offer. It is an important book. But I’m not in love with it. There. I said it.
The Summer Before War by Helen Simonsen
I found this book delightful. It felt like Downton Abbey set in Sussex solely before and during The Great War. Beatrice and Hugh as central characters are lovely and real and just what I always want in a good book, which are people I can really SEE and believe in. There is a lot of humor in this story of a small English town and its quirky residents as they come up against the brutality of a war. Because it’s also a war story, it’s not all garden parties and happy endings. I loved it.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Hoffman is a prolific (seriously so prolific) and excellent writer who favors magic, witchery, and dark themes in her stories about people who have a different set of gifts, yet who still must cope with the vicissitudes of life. This book follows the three teenage Owens siblings in New York City, who have been forbidden by their mother from dabbling in anything relating to magic, yet who seemingly can’t keep the development of their proclivity for these powers away. They are schooled in becoming who they are by their aunt Isabelle, who lives in the family’s ancestral home in Massachusetts, of Salem Witch Trials fame. I did not expect this book to follow the sibs through their entire lives, but it does and I found that it was more than a fantasy with lush imagery. It was a solidly written, tender story of a family, which does tend toward dark outcomes.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
This book reminded me a bit of Station Eleven, which scared me to death, yet which I enjoyed nonetheless. But The Dog Stars was much better imho. So much better. The narrator, Hig, is one of few people left after a flu decimates the world’s population. He is a gentle soul, yet somehow manages to survive in the brutal aftermath, where people will kill each other to take each others’ supplies, even if it’s just a bunch of cans of soda. There is also so much beauty–so much awareness for what life is and what makes it worthwhile. I don’t even know how to summarize this story in order to do it justice. It is sad, hopeful, inventive, human, and beautiful. I loved this book and felt that it changed me.
The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty
I have liked everything I’ve read by Moriarty, whose stories are set in Australia. This is one of her earlier books and it felt a little less polished to me than What Alice Forgot and The Hypnotist’s Love Story. I still enjoyed it, but felt that the story had some pretty implausibly big gaps. It’s about a mystery surrounding a family living on Scribbly Gum island near Sydney, involving a baby, a possible double murder, and multiple story lines which eventually do find resolution. It’s light-hearted chick lit. A beach read, basically.
Young Adult Lit
Thief of Happy Endings by Kristen Chandler
Chandler is a Utah writer (yay locals!) whose story follows a teen girl whose parents are divorcing. Cassidy spends the summer away from her family on a troubled youth horse ranch in Wyoming, where she struggles not only with getting on a horse and being constantly dirty, but with understanding who she is. This book could have felt really predictable, but it wasn’t. There’s a bit of romance and a hefty dose of coming to terms with difficult family situations in this introspective coming-of-age tale.
The Remnant Chronicles by Mary E. Pearson
Pearson’s three books in this fantasy series have really sappy titles (The Kiss of Deception, The Heart of Betrayal, and The Beauty of Darkness), but that didn’t stop me from diving in and immersing myself happily in the story of a runaway princess avoiding an arranged marriage. Lia, the protagonist, has a firecracker personality and spends the trilogy realizing she is destined to save a country far to the east, but historically connected with her own land. Because this is kind of epic, world-building stuff, there is A LOT that happens. So much. I can’t do it justice here. I read all three books in a matter of days. They were a delightful escape, as books in summer should be.
I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall
The blurb on the cover of this book describes it as “Hatchet meet The Revenant” with a big dose of fierce female resilience, which is pretty spot on. It’s the story of a young woman who ends up stranded, injured, and alone in the remote Canadian wilderness for six months. She writes the book in the first person, in a journal form, which skips between her life before and the stark reality of survival which comes after the events which placed her in this situation. It is scary, raw, and exciting, but would benefit from more exploration of Jess’s emotional journey.
Reader, what are you reading? Or better yet, what are the three best books you’ve read in the past year? Comment and give me and each other some good recommendations xoxo.
I am going to write about two separate epiphanies I’ve had in the last week, but first let me tell you that I am sitting on a quiet spot in Deer Valley, Utah looking at the aspen- and pine-covered mountains around me. I’m embellishing your mental picture, readers. You’re welcome. Please note that the sky is clear and blue, with dollops of clouds lazing by the skyline. It’s a pleasant 70-ish degrees outside, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony is piping beauty directly into my brain.
I’m here with mom and my four sisters having a girls’ trip, which was our Mother’s Day gift to Shirley. The last time we did this was seven years ago, when Sarah had her firstborn newborn along for the ride and I was recovering from pneumonia while in my first trimester with Truman. Basically, we needed a re-do. This is the trip that last time wasn’t. Also, seven years is too long to go between this sort of bonding/restorative trip.
So while we have been here living our best lives, I’ve been thinking about Hagar, from the Book of Genesis, and (oddly) the characters of Les Miserables.
I’ve been rereading the story of Abraham and Sarah, who are clearly the stars of this Old Testament show because they produce Isaac and are the lynchpins in the Abrahamic Covenant. On this reading, though, Sarah’s handmaid stands out to me instead.
Hagar, the unfortunately named Egyptian handmaid, is compelled by her mistress to lie with Abraham and have a child, Ishmael. Then when Sarah has her own child, she fears for Isaac’s inheritance and wishes Hagar and Ishmael to be banished. Abraham unhappily complies with Sarah’s request, and sends the bondwoman and her son into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
“And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.
And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.
And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.
Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water, and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.”
Before, this story seemed ancillary to the trajectory of the main players. Now, I am moved by Hagar’s distress and God’s response to it. She didn’t ask to be drawn into this family drama. It was Sarah who wanted Hagar to have a child for Abraham. Until she didn’t. Hagar was kind of a pawn, used by Sarah for her purposes, then cast off when Sarah saw her and her son as a threat.
But to God, Hagar wasn’t a pawn. She was a person. He saw her anguish. He heard her cries, comforted her, and directed her to water for the son who, God promised, would found a nation.
This vignette shows me that there are no minor characters in mortality. God is aware of each regular, unsung person, and has a plan and a purpose for all of us. I’m touched by the indiscriminate love our Heavenly Parents have for each person, no matter our status or lifestyle or background. They know us. They care about the things we care about.
The second story that pierced me of late is Les Miserable. I’ve been listening to it (again) because I’m suuuuper Mormon-y I guess, and I find both the music and the story brimming with truth and hope. My favorite characters are Fantine, Eponine, and Jean Val Jean (duh) because they project a kind of self-reflection in suffering that speaks to me. Who hasn’t at some point felt like the unloved Eponine? Who hasn’t identified with Fantine, whose life plays out tragically and in opposition to her youthful hopes? And Val Jean, for Pete’s sake, straight up personifies the type of highly moral person I respect and long to be.
The finale of Les Miz does me in every time. When Fantine’s spirit comes to accompany Val Jean’s spirit to heaven, and they are all whole and well with Eponine, then the three of them sing, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” I am overflowing with emotion. Fantine, driven to prostitution by horrible circumstances; Eponine, deprived of tenderness and love; and Val Jean, who reforms his life into one defined by charity and forgiveness are all projections of resounding, exquisite humanity–what we all inevitably experience and what we yearn for.
Seeing these three enter into their heavenly reward strikes a chord in me that vibrates with gratitude for the chance we all have to reform, improve, and continue living within the embrace of our Heavenly Parents’ mercy and love.
Is there anything more beautiful than this?
I took the 16 Personalities test last week at my hair appointment because my hair stylist, Mallory, told me to. We were talking about these kinds of things and she said, “Go online and take it right now, so I can see what you are.” So I did. Turns out she and I are both “Protagonists,” which is crazy, since according to this test, less than 2% of the world’s population fall into this category.
Me and Mallory: two weirdo peas in a pod. By the way, for the sake of your mental picture, Mallory has luscious fuschia mermaid hair, is hilarious, and is one of my favorite people.
Anyway, the protagonist. I read things about myself that I don’t talk about with anyone, and it was all spot on. So fascinating. It described the inner me with bizarre accuracy. Whether or not you subscribe to such personality theories, this one was quite revealing. In particular, I learned that I struggle to separate my own emotions from other people’s. This is great when you are trying to be empathetic and compassionate. It’s less great when you can’t shut off a deluge of somebody else’s grief, depression, or toxicity.
This concept has played out in a very real way for me. My desire to help people, particularly when I feel that I understand a portion of their emotional pain, frequently lands me in a state of prolonged sadness at a) their sadness, and b) my inability to rescue them from said sadness.
So for some time, I’ve been carrying around this considerable weight of not being able to fix hard things in people’s lives while also feeling all of the negativity or pain or whatever that’s happening to them. Yay, for being intuitive. Buckets of fun.
I asked myself, how does one construct a barrier wall of sorts while still listening to, helping, and loving people who are slogging through (and putting out) lots of crazy stuff? And how does this all jive with Jesus’ admonition to give both your coat AND your cloak to someone who asks for it, and to go not just one mile but TWAIN with someone who needs a friend? Where do you draw the line? How can an (apparently) hypersensitive empath like myself be both giving yet also protective of my own mental and emotional health? What would Jesus do? But seriously, WWJD???
Jeff and I spent my birthday lunch discussing this concept at length. He is both compassionate, yet able to be reserved. He is analytical where I am vastly more emotional. If he had any insights, I REALLY wanted to hear them.
Guys, he totes had insights, the most profound of which was this: if I want to know what God wants me to do, I just need to put myself in a position to hear the Holy Spirit, who WILL tell me what I specifically need to know.
Of course this is correct. I know it is. This isn’t something new. I’ve experienced it many times, the notion that God doesn’t use cookie cutters to create people or offer them solutions.
When Truman was a baby, Jack was a hyperactive poo machine, and Charlie was feral and recently diagnosed, I was in an emotional chasm. There was no specific answer to my esoteric problems in the scriptures or in the lessons and sermons I heard at church. There was no one I knew who was suffering in the same way that I was. No experts (and we consulted so many) could fix our troubles. There were no easy or quick solutions that would change my family’s impossible dynamic.
But that’s when I had the dream. It was one of my vivid, heart-pounding dreams that are some kind of direct line from the Holy Ghost to my brain. I’ve written about this one before, but I’ll describe it again.
In the dream, I was sitting at a music performance. One of my neighbors, someone who is wise and insightful, sat beside me. As the performance played out, she leaned in close, put her hand on my knee, and said low in my ear, “You don’t need to worry about the challenges you have raising your children. You’re doing a good job.”
I woke up engulfed in peace. So much peace. I hadn’t felt this kind of peace in ages. My heart swelled with happiness (such a cliched description, but it is accurate!) I knew that it wasn’t my neighbor speaking to me in the dream. It was my Heavenly Parents. They used my neighbor to convey the message because I love and trust her. They knew I would listen to what she said.
More importantly, they knew how I felt. They KNEW. They knew how awful those summer days were with a baby, Jack literally smearing poop all over my life, and crazed, irrational preschooler Charlie running away and hopping six-foot fences through the neighborhood.
They knew and they understood. They wanted me to know they approved of my efforts, which is really all I desired to hear. I felt like I was failing by every metric, and their validation swept that away and gave me peace.
I considered that experience going to the source.
I needed to go to the source. The source of true peace and real answers. My answer was to go to the true source of those things.
So in the last week I’ve been doing what I do, which is listening to scripture, studying inspired talks, and praying for wisdom. But now I’ve been doing it with a bit more focus.
Tell me how to be compassionate without everyone’s emotions and problems killing me.
My answers didn’t come this time in a dream. They came in the scriptures and the talks and a Relief Society discussion plus a Sunday School class. I went to the source, meaning my Heavenly Parents, and they obliged. They sent the Holy Spirit who distinctly told me this:
You can’t rescue everyone. Or anyone, even. Only Jesus can do that. You can’t fix people’s lives.
And then this:
You can only love them. It’s enough to lift where you can.
The peace is back. I got my answer.
Segullah asked me to read and review a newly-released memoir, published through By Common Consent Press and written by Keira Shae. It was a tour de force, I tell you what. I read it in a single day, feeling all the feels during that period and staying up past midnight to finish it. You can check out my review here:
My birthday is coming up, which has me thinking existentially, as one does.
Lo, a few birthday thoughts:
1. Entering my forties last year taught me that it’s a truly underrated decade that humankind should be praising all the time. Let me repeat for the people in the back: “Being in one’s forties is THE ABSOLUTE BEST.” Allow me to cite my reasons:
2. It seems that my forties are proving to be a sort of lovely transitional time from the exhaustion of raising tiny neurotic children and the mental fatigue of stay-at-home disabilities parenting, into a new world where things are possible. So many things. So much possibility. The universe is my oyster.
3. Being a legit stodgy old grown-up has revealed to me that life doesn’t stay the same. For the hundred thousand years of my early special-needs-momhood, I felt nothing was ever going to change. It just seemed eternal, and blistering, and heavy, and relentless. But time has shown me that despite the trauma and endlessness of certain periods of my life, things inevitably do change–sometimes in painful ways, sometimes in lovely ways, sometimes in (ultimately perfect) ways which are a combination of both painful and lovely.
4. I have a different relationship with physical appearance. I’m less critical of my outward quirks. I’m more accepting of my physical self, and man it feels good. I’ve also learned the incalculable value of taking care of myself physically and emotionally. Drinking water and moving and consuming fresh produce is pretty flipping fantastic for one’s sense of personhood, as well as ye olde mental health. So are anti-anxiety/anti-depressant meds #betterlivingthroughchemistry and counseling. I let myself take naps when I’m tired. I let myself feel sad when I’m sad. And I’m going to be bold here and say that my annual shopping excursion to the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale (always the week of my birthday, because I’m the luckiest person alive) may be considered a most excellent emotional gift to myself. I’m a wee bit high on life because I just shopped for my own birthday presents. Is this self care? I daresay it is.
5. I’ve been around the parenting block enough times to know that most things are just phases, that kids can and will pass through phases where they are complete jerks, and that they will thankfully outgrow these phases. I can better see the big-picture process of growing up. It’s an evolution. Understanding this is crucial to a parent’s sanity while buried in the thick of it.
6. Shakespeare was smart (duh) to write a play about midsummer because it’s beautiful and a little big magical. I secretly love that my birthday marks the middle of the summer months. It makes me feel like summertime and I have a mutually adoring relationship.
Once many years ago, I watched on TV as a woman accepted an Oscar for a documentary about Jews in Nazi Germany. In her speech, she talked about how her life has been shaped by the fact that she survived the war, when so many of her family members and compatriots perished.
She referenced all the television viewers at home and said (I’m paraphrasing because it was a super long time ago) that of all the joys the world has to offer, we really ought to value that of, “A quiet evening at home. It is a luxury and a gift that so many never lived beyond the horror of the Second World War to see. Enjoy and appreciate the beauty of your quiet evening at home.”
I’ve never been subjected to imprisonment in a concentration camp. I cannot even pretend to know that degree of suffering. But I’m realizing that the trauma I experienced raising Jack, at first with zero help and in later (more violent) years with increasing levels of outside support, was actual trauma.
It negatively affected my physical health. It subjected my mental health to a fiery furnace. Emotionally, I have grown stronger, not weaker from these experiences. I think I have an inkling of what PTSD feels like. But that’s not what this post is about.
I’ve been turning the phrase “a quiet evening at home” over and over in my mind. It is beautiful and the concept is startling and refreshing in its simplicity. Perhaps I see it this way because when Jacky lived here, there just were no quiet evenings at home.
It wasn’t Jack’s fault. It was simply the nature of his disability, that he was mostly agitated by the activity/noise/chaos/unpredictability of his family. Even when our activities revolved around Jack’s needs, our very presence, combined with our inability to provide 24/7 completely predictable, calming, and unvaryingly structured routines stressed Jack and increased his problem behaviors.
Jack still has the occasional outburst at his group home. But overall, he is calmer, less agitated, and more relaxed in his current placement than I have seen him in many years. Jack has peaceful evenings at home. It’s simply a different home.
I, meanwhile, am savoring the new-to-me phenomenon of a quiet evening at home.
For so long, home wasn’t restful. I did not experience a sense of “it’s good to be home,” when returning from being away. Home was a minefield, my own personal tornado alley, the wilderness of my afflictions where, it turned out, I literally lived. My respite happened when I left home to see a movie, shop alone, or eat out. All of these activities, I found, featured me walking around with a giant case of Imposter Syndrome. “I don’t really live a normal life,” I felt I should admit to random strangers, who saw me without my child-rearing circus in tow. “My life is actually quite unusual. Bizarre, even. Have a nice day. Cheers.”
Now here I am, enjoying the quietest evening at home that ever was. And this isn’t rare for us anymore. It’s the norm. It’s the delicious, miraculous every day (and night) for me and mine.
I will never not be astonished at the beauty God has wrought in my life, in both the travail, and now the quiet.
Dear People of the Earth,
I am irritable regarding many things. Please give me a wide margin, or better yet, just leave me alone for the time being. It’s not you, it’s me.
Withdrawing to my hermitage now, k bye.
When did our house become the Hotel California? (Answer: this and every summer)
Does no one ever leave???
Please retreat to your corners of the house and we will reconvene when everyone can be a little more chill.
Dear My Back,
You know you’re not helping things when you spaz out like this, right? When you flare up with the perma-pain at night, I lose sleep and get even grumpier. Boo and also hiss, my back. I shake my fist at you.
Dear Fourth of July,
What with the grilled tri-tip and the salads for days and the oh-so-refreshing homemade lemon ice cream, you were really something else. Perfect food plus a swimming pool plus an evening in the canyon equalled just what I needed.
Happy birthday, imperfect America, whom I still love and for whom I still have (some) hope.
Dear Social Media,
You are being jettisoned, in all your various platforms (except maybe Twitter, because I think Twitter humor may manage to see me through this fugue state) until my mood improves, and maybe even then some as you seem to contribute to my overall ennui.
I’m lowering the expectations for our own good, alright sis? Watch them sink down and even farther down. Deep breath in. Exhale. See, that’s not so bad. Sit with it. Keep breathing. That’s right, we’re doing great.
Dear Engineer Husband,
Is there a way to disconnect the doorbell, all cell phones, my brain, and the garage door button, while simultaneously installing an invisible electrified wall around our property, just you know until I feel moderately sane again? Thanks babe. You always have my back.
Dear This Blog,
It’s a funny thing that I’m withdrawing from the world for a time to rest and slowly shed my angsty state (or not) and yet I am also literally putting this on the Internet. But does anything really make sense anymore?
I am, apparently, someone who tends to inhabit two opposing lands.
One of these spots is the place I’m in when I pray and ask, “Tell me what you want me to do today and help me be brave enough to do it,” because I want to listen and be inspired and be brave. And then I try to do those pretty specific (usually not very fancy) things that He points me toward. And I’m enthused. And ready. Go me.
The other place is a place of meh. It’s the Land of Not Enough–not enough success, not enough energy, not enough productivity, not enough of all the things I feel I ought to be doing and that I would like to be doing. It’s a place of weariness, which disappoints me. It’s a sucking swamp place that holds onto me, once I’m there.
This weird fugue has descended on me in the last few months. It’s like I’m straddling the space between “listening and being open” and “feeling like a weakling.”
How does one live in two places? Seriously though, how?
Maybe they aren’t two mutually exclusive places as much as they are states of being that can coexist peacefully. But don’t ask me how to reconcile two opposites at this moment in time. I’m currently in the sucking swampland of no energy.
I realize that I’m speaking in generalities and this possibly all feels very abstract and conceptual to someone reading it. It’s the sort of thing my students sometimes do that I loathe. I know, I know! But I don’t wish to share all my deepest insecurities so you’re stuck with this bizarro, decidedly not specific little post. Perhaps I’ll crack open another la Croix and mull it over some more.