There’s a reason IKEA sells ice cream at the exit.

IMG_4040Our marriage survived IKEA.

I say that half-jokingly, because … well. It’s is basically my version of a nightmare. Huge store, hordes of people, tons of decisions to make in a chaotic environment, maze-like twists with no clear exits … claustrophobia, thy name is IKEA.

I’m not at my best in those situations. The anxiety spikes until I’m snappy, hyper, eager to just … escape. Thankfully, my husband knows all about my quirks and has a high degree of tolerance for them.

Still, by the time we reached the check-out (for the second time … long story), I was definitely ready to eat my feelings. Magical IKEA ice cream, here I come!

I didn’t always feel this way. I, too, was young once. In my early twenties, I had a boyfriend with an apartment dangerously close to an IKEA. Many dates were spent admiring inexpensive art and furniture while wandering the cavernous store. Though we rarely purchased anything but dessert, it was fun to debate different pillows and wicker baskets (he was, I remember, quite anti-wicker).

I lived at home until I later married, so these trips were a glimpse into another world: one of furnishings and color, style and modernity. An adult world.

My boyfriend at the time lived in an inauspicious rental, just passing through; I was still in my childhood bedroom. We debated tables we’d never dine on, cups we’d never drink from, beds in which we’d never sleep. We were in transition, as we all seem to be at 20 or 22. Our relationship was always one of “someday,” though it took years for me to see it that way.

Almost decade later, I’m married to Spencer, handiest and kindest of souls, and we purchased our first home in 2014. I shook uncontrollably when we learned our house offer had been accepted, wondering if we’d made a huge mistake. Not because I didn’t love the place — I still do! — but … well, let’s just say adulthood caught up to me quickly. That level of commitment was terrifying.

I made a single trip to IKEA with friends after we closed on the house, suddenly feeling like I needed to Buy All the Things to prepare for this new phase of life. In the span of six months, I moved out of my childhood home, got married, and schlepped my earthly belongings to my husband’s condo. Then we bought a house and, after not moving at all for 25-plus years, I moved again.

I don’t remember buying much on that post-settlement IKEA run. I was then, as I am now, totally overwhelmed in that store. I’m a woman who buys mattresses on Amazon and has “PAW Patrol” mac and cheese shipped in bulk to her front door. Walking around an honest-to-goodness business is … exhausting.

But we needed to go. The cabinets my husband was after were available in-store — or very expensively online, or elsewhere. Like so little now thanks to our digital world, this required an in-person trip. Spence and I seized the opportunity to make it a “date,” and the kids hung back with my parents. We set off.

IMG_4023Walking the showrooms, I was transported through time — back imagining my life in this tidy world with its splashes of color. I could prepare tea in my black-and-white kitchen, then read comfortably in a velvet armchair. I could create an urban oasis with a bistro table and faux greenery wall. I could relax.

There were no tiny LEGO pieces scattered like confetti. No half-eaten yogurt pouches jammed in a couch cushion. No dirty socks balled up in every room of the house. 

On the rare moments my husband and I are shopping alone, we inevitably play a game: “What chaos would the kids be creating right now?” In the lighting area, for example, Ollie would be unboxing all the lightbulbs. Up in kitchens, Hadley would be scaling barstools and announcing herself as “the winner” from her sky-high perch. They would be obsessed with the giant staircase leading down to the marketplace. And I would be in a dead sweat, fretting.

Instead, Spence and I were sweaty just walking around. We came with a shopping list. Doing his research, Spence had a detailed plan for the cabinets he’s going to install in our basement. We’re creating a “project area” for the family — an eventual homework/craft spot for everyone to use without fear of getting paint on the carpet. (There is, in fact, no more carpet.)

The basement has basically been a dumping ground since we moved in almost six years ago. Spence has been really motivated to clean lately, and I ain’t stopping him. While I admire his energy, I … haven’t contributed much beyond picking paint colors.

IMG_4025I brought any strength I had to IKEA, though, and gave it my all. While Spence worked with an overwhelmed but eager young associate to track down everything needed for these cabinets, I wandered. And daydreamed. I snapped iPhone photos of armchairs and stools, rugs and planters, artwork and bowls. Tons of things we could then go find in the massive warehouse — practically a whole new house.

Thankfully, Spence caught me before I could do anything impulsive. After purchasing most everything online for years, taking me out to a physical store is dangerous. I have a mom van, after all — I know how to fill it.

But I behaved … or, more accurately, couldn’t get my thoughts together enough to commit to something even as benign as a new end table. The beautiful armchair, geometric rug and gorgeous valet stand will all have to wait. We did walk out with a trio of fake succulents and colorful snack bowls for the kids. (The bowls — and other kids’ tableware — are pretty great, actually.)

And, you know, we got the cabinets! Our trip was not in vain. Spence has been painting the basement and crafting a countertop to prepare for installation. I’m hoping to be able to write down there, too, when we get everything polished up. There are so few places to experience any semblance of quiet in our house … I’ll try anything.

So our IKEA run was successful. I enjoyed just walking around with my guy, though we were often inadvertently separated. And we did get home and realize yes, we had remembered to purchase handles for the cabinets … but accidentally grabbed two different finishes. 

Guess we’ll be going online after all.

 

Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.

5/5

See more on Goodreads

write meg!’s reading honors for 2019

Since becoming a mom, I’ve struggled to read and write the way I once did (see Exhibit A: this entire blog). But as my kids get older, I feel little pieces of myself — my “old” self — bubbling up to the surface.

And almost without warning this fall, I … started reading again.

I was nervous at first. Could I keep this up? Was it a fluke? But after I cracked open my Kindle day after day, night after night, I felt it: that intoxicating pull of a good story … a draw much stronger than playing the 418th level of Candy Crush on my phone. My reading mojo had returned. I’m back.

While I don’t make new year’s resolutions, per say, I’m definitely trying to be more intentional with my time and attention. And I’ve realized something that was missing through my exhausting days (months, years …) as a new mom: the ability to tune out, even for a little while.

For me, like many of you, that portal comes through reading. It centers me.

Though my official count for 2019 only comes to 25 books, I’m proud to have read so much just in the last few months. I’ve lost touch with what’s buzz-worthy here in the book blogosphere, so my recent favorites are not necessarily … recent.

Still, here’s what I loved most in 2019:

how to walk awayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center, who creates characters that are so relatable you look for them in Target. As usual, this novel was gripping and addictive — impossible to quit, with a well-built and believable love story set in a hospital during the main character’s rehabilitation after a plane crash.

Sounds … well, really over-the-top to write it out like that, but I swear Center is a magician! She is such a beautiful, heartfelt writer, and I’ll be coming for Things You Save in a Fire in 2020.

girl you leftThe Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, transitioning between time and place with a haunting refrain. Loved the angle of art and the providence of works, which dovetailed nicely with my newfound interest in the Gardner Museum heist (have you listened to the Last Seen podcast yet?!).

Moyes’ historical tale isn’t as beloved as the blockbuster Me Before You and its follow-ups, but I still think she’s hugely talented with some truly memorable passages here.

Overdue LifeThe Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms — like reading a transcript of my own life. It was almost too much sometimes … like Harms had peeked behind the curtain that is my overly-caffeinated exterior to share private pieces of my soul.

Single mom Amy, long saddled with the responsibilities of her household after her husband unceremoniously flees their family, is a character most (all?) of us can relate to. She’s tired. She’s trying. I loved the redemptive transformation here. Read it in a few sittings and couldn’t wait to return between breaks.

I'm FineI’m Fine and Neither are You by Camille Pagán, with its ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The whole story was absolutely painful to read at points … so painful that, at 2 a.m., I had to force myself to put it down lest I read until morning and do nothing about the terrible ache in my best.

Still, it was life-affirming, too: powerful and relatable. As with Amy Byler above, there’s plenty of Penny in all of us. And pretending to be fine doesn’t mean we are fine. Accepting that is the first step to real change. I dig it, man.

Raising Your SpiritedRaising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, which has changed the way I parent our four-year-old son: totally a spirited child. Just having that moniker — “spirited” — changed how I think about and relate to my son. Not wild. Not difficult. Not stubborn. Just … different. Spirited.

Kurcinka’s compassion and practical advice have helped me to examine my own impatience as a parent so I can be my best self for my intense son. It also helped me see that I’m not, in fact, a bad or lazy mother … one who would rather give in to have peace than fight to be “right.” 

Basically, parenting is freakin’ hard. But the suggestions provided here have helped restore a measure of peace to my house. I definitely view my relationship with Oliver differently now, and have been able to take a step back and get myself together many times thanks to the practical examples in this book. If anyone out there thinks they might have a spirited child (you’ll know if you do…), highly recommend this one. Thanks for the recommendation, Mom!

So what’s up in 2020? I’m not sure, but I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom. And plenty of fun ones, too! (I’m reading American Royals now, for example — escapism to the max.)

It’s all about balance. And coffee.

And reading with coffee.

… Now we’re talking.

Perfectly-imperfect holidays

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It took forever, but it’s back.

For the first time since becoming a parent almost five years ago (!), I’m looking forward to this holiday with a sense of excitement. Anticipation.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas … only the expectation and exhaustion that can come with Dec. 25. After getting married and welcoming our first child, the mounting pressure of the holidays — throwing the perfect holiday! choosing the best gifts! making the happiest memories! — was too much for my already-overloaded brain to handle.

Grappling with postpartum anxiety, the pressure of the Year of Firsts — baby’s first everything, all needing to be commemorated lest the memories disappear into the sands of time — felt like another way I was failing as a mom.

Also, I was exhausted. All new parents are tired, but I was not prepared for the way that would impact every aspect of my life. Ollie woke constantly, on the hour, and I didn’t feel like a human being for years after this birth.

I didn’t think I was doing things “right.” Not for a long time. But when I learned I was expecting my second child, I knew I had to pull it together. I didn’t want to focus more on documenting the moment than actually living in it … and I wanted to enjoy Hadley’s first year in a way that I couldn’t with Ollie.

And I did.

I got better.

Medication helped. Talking helped. The passage of time helped. Also: sleep helped. For the love of snow-covered pinecones, our children finally sleep through the night ( … mostly, but we’ll take it).

So this year? I’m ready. Ready to embrace that holiday spirit. The kids are at great ages — 2 ½, 4 ½ — to peer into the darkness searching for the neighbors’ Christmas lights and eagerly anticipate Santa’s arrival. We decorated right after Thanksgiving, pulling everything out after I got home from work on Black Friday.

And that’s also how I knew I was better: I was too excited to wait any longer.

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So here it is: my Christmas spirit blowing through the front door on a gusty winter breeze — with advent calendars and elves on shelves, matching pajamas, hot cocoa . . . every jinglin’ thing.

As we dragged holiday box after box up from the basement, another surprising thing happened: the little hands reaching for fragile things did not bother me much.

Hadley and Ollie were so excited to start hanging ornaments that, within reason, I just … let it be.

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A year ago, my compulsive need to make everything “just so” would have meant plucking those delicate bulbs to place on a top branch, far from tiny fingers.

I would have been more preoccupied with making something “perfect” than creating so much that is pleasantly imperfect.

I’ve found lots of resources on what it means to be the child of a parent with OCD, but I’ve been a little too scared to delve deeply into what it means to be the mother herself. (I do relate deeply to articles like this one.)

I’m making progress … I know I am. I wouldn’t let any of the ornaments get purposefully broken, but I wanted the kids to enjoy the decorating process. Heck — I wanted to enjoy the process. When Hadley hung a third ornament on one scraggly branch, I didn’t interfere. And as Ollie collected all the red ones into a clump, I praised his creativity. I did not tidy.

Sometimes the OCD loosens its grip and I’m fine. Most of my need to “fix” seems to revolve around right angles, of all things: if I see a book or a box, for example, I need it to be flush against another surface, never askew. (Straightening a business card-sized calendar on my desk is a particular obsession.)

The tree has few angles, so I’m happy to let it reflect the kids’ creativity. I want our family tree to be an explosion of color and memories. I love the handprints on canvas, the popsicle art, the painted preschool creations. Some of the pieces are my own handiwork (circa 1989), while others are Spencer’s from childhood. Even more precious are the pieces passed down from my great-grandmother: hand-crocheted trees with lots of memories.

That’s Christmas to me: family and festivities. Tinsel-covered bits of holiday magic.

Plus, you know … the cookies. Joyfully eaten with my kids by our lopsided Christmas tree while the Elf on the Shelf looks on.

And to all a good night.

Circling like it’s 1996

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It would appear overnight: rows and rows of paperbacks, “chapter books” and illustrated classics. When the Scholastic Book Fair rolled into my middle school, setting up shop amidst the short stacks in the library, I didn’t even try to act cool. Who can act cool in the face of a veritable literary buffet?

Having some of my parents’ cash in my pocket and the autonomy to choose any book I wanted was intoxicating. I remember obsessing over the flyer sent home, tallying up the costs for stories I wanted to share with Mom and Dad (I always went overboard — imagine). I’d come home clutching a new purchase like Walk Two Moons, an all-time favorite. Then I’d collapse on my grandparents’ couch after school and get lost in another world until dinnertime.

My husband casually dropped the first Scholastic flyer sent home from the kids’ preschool on the kitchen counter with all the other mail and detritus, like it was just another piece of paper.

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I wasn’t ready for the buoyant whoosh of emotion that hit me when I saw it. I’m talking serious, legitimate excitement … I mean, as excited as a frazzled 34-year-old mom with a pinched nerve in her back can get, anyway. I sat down with this thing like it was a particularly juicy bit of gossip I wanted to absorb in great detail.

And absorb I did. I started circling books like it was 1996, y’all. Curious GeorgeLittle Owl’s SnowDinosaurs Don’t Have Bedtimes! Few stories were safe from my Sharpie.

Never mind that we have stacks and stacks of children’s books already — some I began collecting long before Oliver and Hadley were even born. But as my sister correctly pointed out, the collection we have now features baby-approved or extremely “young” stories. As we get closer to Ollie learning to read himself, I’m investigating the early readers and beyond.

I chose two new stories to add into the bedtime rotation, placing our order online (hello, 2019!). I’m definitely more excited than they could possibly be.

And now, the hardest part … the wait.

Out of the Cookie crew

Cookie hat

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss “Sesame Street.”

Hadley has branched beyond Elmo & Co., which should be a relief … but feels bittersweet instead. It’s been weeks — months? — since she requested to watch her monster pals, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my baby has moved on from her first great love.

For the last two years, our living room has been a battle ground between Hadley’s obsession with Cookie Monster and Ollie’s love of “PAW Patrol.” Unlike the pesky pups, Hadley’s pick is educational and positive, teaching about acceptance, love, kindness … and the ABCs. There’s a reason it’s been on the air for 50 years. Of all the shows the kids have liked, “Sesame Street” is one I’ve never minded watching as well.

Hadley’s love ran deep. Two themed birthday parties. At least 20 episodes in the queue at any time. One family pilgrimage to “Sesame Street Live,” which I think we enjoyed as much as the kids. T-shirts, books and toys galore. Elmo’s face on everything, and everywhere.

The kids’ dueling interests helped us introduce the concept of “taking turns” from a young age. We talk often about fairness and patience. One kid’s pick is followed by the other’s, and I try hard to balance their interests. They don’t like it, but they’re learning. … Hopefully.

I remember feeling strangely sad and even unmoored as Oliver left his “Muppets” phase. These characters become fixtures in our home; their presence is routine and comforting. I’ll always remember some of the classic songs that wrote themselves into our family’s code for the first few years of parenthood, and Spence and I can still quote entire scenes from the 2015 iteration of “The Muppets” that lasted a season on ABC.

It’s so harddddd to say goodbyeeeee to yesterdayyyyyy.

This isn’t to say that Hadley might not return to “Sesame Street” sometime … Ollie’s Kermit love made a brief comeback. But never again will we have 24/7 requests from a little girl who expands her interests and knowledge of the world every day.

As the Johnson kids move forward, Spence and I press on as well. Remember the good times while still clearing some space on the DVR.

And always strive to be more of an Abby than an Oscar, creating a little sparkle wherever we go.