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:
- No more pregnancy for meeeeee! On a related note, without the burdens of pregnancy and recovery + nursing and caring for young children, I’m kinda in shape now huzzah.
- My kids sleep through the night and are independent in the bathroom (it took years of zombie living–in Pootown for Pete’s sake–to achieve this miracle, and I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to be here).
- I’m not physically falling apart yet and we are less broke than in days of yore, yippee!
- I know what I like, who I am, what I’m not, what I’m capable of, and what’s really important (whoa! wow!) But It’s true. This is something you can’t catch hold of as a twenty-year-old. It is the reward of agedness and living through difficulty.
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.
Listen, you guys. Here’s the thing.
Books are my sanity. They just are and ever will be.
I’ve realized (and embraced) this, particularly as I live in and consider our social media-saturated culture. When I am in the thick of a book, I am less restless, and more curious. I am actively participating in a story, rather than blandly consuming a random stream of posts. I’m simply happier when I’m reading and thinking and making connections, instead of passively scrolling. Which leads me to:
My Recent Reads: a list.
Yet Another World War II Story
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
Most of this book takes place after WWII, but it’s set basically at ground zero in rural Germany, so the war is both an ever-present character AND landscape. It follows three women, wives of Nazi resisters, who are left to pick up the pieces of their families lives once the war ends. I struggled with getting into this book for the first hundred pages, and considered not finishing it. After the hundred page mark, I was invested. I could see the weaving of the storylines creating patterns, as well as a compelling outcome. Like all war stories, it’s really sad. Marianne, Ania, and Benita are extremely flawed and realistic characters. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this read.
I’ll Tell You What by Ann Cannon
You all know I am powerless to resist memoir/personal essays/creative nonfiction, and you may know that Ann Cannon is my writing mentor and hero. I love her dearly. If you enjoy humor, relatability, honesty, and wisdom, you will relish Ann’s collected Trib columns about family, pets, change, parenting, losing a parent, and a host of other subjects. This book is delightful and makes me want to be a better person.
Model Mormon by Rosemary Card
I’ve followed Rosemary on social media for some time now, and have delighted in her refreshing, inspiring voice as a young Mormon woman. She writes about her unique childhood, which spanned New York City and Sandy, Utah. At age sixteen, a series of events prompted her to pursue a modeling career in NYC, so with her parents support, she signed with an agency and left home for the Big Apple, Milan, Singapore, Tokyo, and Thailand. She writes about maintaining her relationship with God during this time of independence, while also having to fight daily to maintain her standards. Rosie writes about her college years, her mission, and her job working in the Church broadcasting department, all of which led to her starting her own business–a temple dress company. I raced through this book. It was fascinating to little old Utah resident me. Also, her testimony inspires me and she’s an amazing person.
Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh
Set in 1950’s colonial Kenya, this book tells the story of a girl named Rachel who returns to Africa after six years (following her mother’s death) at a boarding school in England. She’s eager to return to the idyllic farm life of her childhood, but finds that nothing is the same as it was before. Her father has an unabashed live-in mistress, who is at odds with Rachel. Most significantly, there is great unrest in Kenya as the Mau Mau rebels begin to rise up against white farmers and essentially the whole colonial system. There is a fair amount of violence in this engaging story, which is also really beautiful in places. It’s not unlike Africa itself, which is both unforgiving and harsh, yet also exquisitely beautiful. Rachel’s perspective of life in Kenya evolves from a binary sense of right and wrong to a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of the politics and culture in British colonized Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
*Frances MacDormand “Raising Arizona” voice* “I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUUUUUUCH!” I do. I absolutely love it. It’s reminiscent of A Man Called Ove, which everyone everywhere adores (as they should), meaning it is hilarious, poignant, human, and ALSO HILARIOUS. Eleanor is an unlikely protagonist, a grumpy thirty-year-old woman whose life is ruled by routine and predictability. I don’t want to give anything away in this perfectly wonderful story, so I’ll just say it’s set in Glasgow, Scotland, features a main female character with literal scars on her face and some serious opinions, and the personalities and relationships in this book will endear you to humanity. You will have hope in people and see them with love. At least I did, after racing through this story.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Ng (pronounced “ing”) crafts a compelling story about two families in the luxurious Shaker Heights neighborhood of suburban Cleveland. The Richardsons and Warrens are as completely different as two families can be, yet their teenage children develop a bond which connects the families. It also creates a schism when members of the two families take opposing sides on an unfolding legal custody drama involving a little Asian baby, her adoptive white parents (fellow Shaker Heights residents), and her single Chinese immigrant birth mother. I’m still in the middle of this book, so I can’t tell you how it resolves (not that I would do that to you anyway, sheesh!), but I’m intrigued and am eager to see how the threads of this story play out.
As always, send me your book picks. What are you reading?
Once a week this summer I get to hang out and play with my cousin’s three little kids. It’s super fun for my two younger boys, and for me. I have an excuse to do things like make chocolate chip cookies at 9:30 in the morning, watch The Muppets (is there a better musical number than Life’s a Happy Song?), and sit in the morning shade in my backyard watching little people bounce, climb, dig, and slide. We have a good time.
I find myself getting introspective watching the seven, five, and one-year-old play on the same playset where I pushed Jack eight million times on the tire swing and jumped with him daily on the trampoline, which actually looked like him sitting and allowing me to bounce him. He’s an unabashed slacker.
When we moved to this house, Henry was three and Jack was one. They were tiny and I was young and quite stupid, or at least naive and untested. I remember my constant anxiety, about all the projects I wanted to do on our house, about Jack’s development, about his public temper tantrums, about trying to project a sense of calm collected-ness, though inside I felt anything but calm.
Those days were challenging because we hadn’t figured out the extent of Jack’s disabilities and differences (or recognized and treated my own anxiety). I was still trying to maintain “regular family” expectations, with not great results. I had not yet learned that acceptance of all of it, even the dross, really is the quickest way to peace and progress.
I recognized two things today, while chilling in peaceful backyard with the kiddos:
- So much of my young parent angst resulted from fearing for Jack’s future, and my future.
As I watched my cousin’s little boy today, who also has a rare syndrome, climb and run around, I thought about how his path is special but not impossible. God has a plan for him, just like he always has for Jack, even when I couldn’t see it. It will be unique and different. Special, because he is. Which leads to the second realization…
2. My life changed when I figured out that God will always help us find a way.
I hadn’t really believed it prior to my non-ironic spiritual journey during the spring of 2016. But that journey turned out to be life-changing, particularly as it taught me that God isn’t watching me with disappointment, shaking his head and impatiently tapping his feet as he waits for me to figure out life. He is watching me with love, waiting for me to humble myself, believe, and ask for help, which he wants to give me. My life got really good once I learned this. I feel like the previous sentence should be written in blinking neon lights. I put Jack and my despondency and our hopeless family dynamic on the altar and gave it all to Jesus. And he took it, and turned (as my bosom friend Marla says) “rocks into gold.” He made the boulders of my life’s hardships into pure gold. He did this for me, and it still blows me away.
Allow me to update you on Jack and his felony assault charges.
After meeting with the probation officer and communicating with the public defender, we provided both people with Jack’s treatment plan as outlined by his caregivers, with a psychological evaluation done by the state a few years ago, and with a letter from his psychiatrist. The probation officer and the attorney sent these documents, which thoroughly detail Jack’s cognitive state, to the prosecutor and the judge.
The prosecutor then filed a motion to dismiss the charges “in the interest of justice,” which the judge, thankfully, did. The four people who worked on Jack’s case demonstrated a reasonable and refreshing sense of common sense, and they worked together as a team to make this happen. So nobody has to go to court and, based on this experience, I have renewed faith in the judiciary.
We visited Jack earlier this week where we saw his new house (it’s actually brand new and so lovely), his beautiful backyard which abuts a golf course, and a couple of his caregivers. Jack was exceedingly glad to dig into the bag of treats and backyard toys we brought him. He did not want to pose for pictures (ugh, teens). We learned that Jack eats things like oranges as a snack these days (whoa, yay!) and enjoys cat-calling the golfers who tee off just over the low fence from his grassy perch. This image is my favorite.
Jeff and I once again felt a deep-seated feeling of peace and gratitude for the gifts that God has given Jack. He is in such a perfect place and is making steady progress. Since moving to the new house a month ago, his destructive acts and toileting problems have virtually gone away. This is big.
Jack clearly loves one caregiver, his house manager Josh, a great deal. Josh adores Jack and says he makes his job so much fun. According to Josh, the female staffers in the company like to stop by and talk about how stinking cute Jack is. He has a fan club. It is true, though, that Jack is adorable. One of his summer program directors from years past put it this way, “Jack is a model, and he knows it.”
It wasn’t hard to leave Jack this time. He was happy. He was calm. He is in good hands and fulfilling his life’s mission, and I am utterly grateful.
Is it possible to truly be in control of one’s life?
This is the fundamental question asked by two books–memoirs–I’ve recently inhaled.
Of course, the short answer (according to me) is that it’s an illusion to think that life is controllable. But it is easy, when things are going swimmingly, to get caught up in the idea that we are responsible for our successes.
Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved details her diagnosis with Stage IV colon cancer at age 35, with a husband and a baby son. She’s an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and has recently published her first book, a history of the concept of the prosperity gospel, or the notion that righteousness breeds wealth, health, and all manner of wordly protection from suffering.
It’s a concept she herself unwittingly subscribed to before becoming ill. She worked hard, made careful choices, and was achieving exactly what she wanted in life. As her health unravelled, she faced the reality that she was the same person, saying the same prayers, yet many began to view her as having brought the disease on herself. Or, at the very least, if she wasn’t being healed, then she had clearly failed at calling down God’s favor upon herself–a personification of faithlessness.
I read this book in a single day. I found Bowler’s writing style mesmerizing, and the trajectory of her life the actual polar opposite of failure. But I was most intrigued by this weird prosperity gospel idea that when we struggle in life, it is proof of God’s disdain for us, or his abandonment of us, all based on our inadequacy as persons of faith.
That was my life for many of Jack’s early years, guys. And Bowler wrote the literal book on it. There was a time when I thought God was utterly disappointed in me, and that’s why I was struggling through my parenting hardships without reprieve.
My own non-ironic spiritual journey richly revealed to me that struggling isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s simply a sign that we are alive in mortality. Not all hardships are brought on by poor choices or sin. Much of what we suffer through is a result of living in a fallen world. It’s just part of the deal. And we grow from it. If you believe Hebrews where it says, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” then the prosperity gospel notion falls flat. Reading this book, I again felt validated as a woman whose life was bombed by raising a special needs child with the most severe behaviors. Challenges do not equal disappointing/faithless.
Kate Bowler is now living in that liminal state of having two months remaining of life, unless each periodic scan tells her otherwise. I wish her health and longevity and peace in the unknowing. Life is beautiful and hard and fragile. Who knows if everything happens for a reason? True faith doesn’t demand results from God, yet it believes unequivocally in the love of God. It accepts his will and seeks his help in learning from the sorrow and slogging through it.
This leads to the other mind-blowing memoir I’ve recently read: The Burning Point by Tracy McKay. The story begins when she is a thirty-something mother of three young children and her opioid addict husband has relapsed (again) and is passed out upstairs in their bedroom. The spirit tells Tracey, with an audible voice, that she can go now, meaning it’s time to leave the marriage and protect her children.
What follows is a detailed account of the next couple of years, wherein McKay is a single mother of a couple of typically developing children, as well as a son with autism; a nontraditional student returning to university; and the only functioning adult remaining in her nuclear family.
Several things stick out to me after reading and pondering this story:
- McKay loves her husband. She sees him as a person, even when his choices are destroying her life. She speaks of him generously. This is so very humanizing and beautiful.
- Her story features her brothers and sisters in the gospel coming to the rescue, over and over, and doing it willingly. I found it incredibly moving that McKay dedicated the book to the women of her two Relief Society congregations who saw her through her divorce and new fledgling life. There is so much beauty in charity. It echoes Jesus Christ and his regard for each of us.
- Women are amazingly resilient. The end.
I’m fascinated by all stories, everywhere, but especially of stories of people facing the worst types of heartache and hardship. Will they emerge victorious and unscathed? The prosperity gospel says they must, in order to be valued and idolized. But I don’t care about that.
None of us emerge unscathed from life, yet because of Jesus, all of us already are victorious.