Love and restraint: Thoughts on ‘Five Feet Apart’

Five Feet Apart - pool scene

Eh, so I don’t get out much. And I definitely don’t get to the movies often. But something about the previews for “Five Feet Apart” inspired me to request babysitting for two squirrelly toddlers and arrange a date night for us to get out on a Friday night to see this film.

It’s been a week, and I just keep thinking about it.

On the surface, at least, “Five Feet Apart” looks like another riff on “The Fault In Our Stars,” which I liked but don’t remember loving. (At least, I think that’s the case? Straight-up had to re-read my review, because that was 2014, friends. The ol’ brain ain’t the same post-kids.)

Given I’m prone to anxiety on a normal day, I definitely don’t need to throw existential characters with life-threatening diseases into the mix. But this movie — focused on Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse), teens who meet in the hospital as they grapple with complications of cystic fibrosis — was not depressing. I mean, it certainly had its heart-tugging moments . . . and I was ugly-sniffling, for sure.

But after the lights came up, I was only a mini-disaster. I looked at my husband and thought, I’m a human. I’m alive. I have time.

What am I doing with it?

Five Feet Apart snow scene

In many ways, “Five Feet Apart” is about restraint. Will shouldn’t fall in love with Stella, but he does. Stella wants to let herself fall back, but it isn’t that simple. Their illness requires the pair to stay physically apart, lest they risk life-threatening cross infection.

Six feet (later: five feet, per Stella’s request). No holding hands. No hugging. No kissing. Absolutely no intimacy.

Think about it: two 17-year-olds who are all mixed up under that crazy, amazing, whacky first-love spell . . . and they cannot touch. Stella and Will’s relationship is carried out from a safe, respectable distance or through the modern marvels of FaceTime, though their hospital rooms are just a few doors apart.

Five Feet Apart chatting

There is electricity in the waiting. In the wondering. In the hoping-against-hope — though as an audience, we know this cannot happen. They don’t have the luxury of indulging their feelings. There is no sharp exhale of relief when their lips finally meet. Loose ends cannot be tied.

But man, I wanted them to tie.

Our on-demand, two-day-free-Prime-shipping lifestyles today don’t lend themselves to the restraint and sacrifice required of Will and Stella. That’s what stood out to me: we’re all told to go for what we want and make it happen!, but sometimes we can only be brave in the face of hard choices.

“Five Feet Apart” isn’t perfect; few movies are. The ending felt rushed and over-the-top after such a steady, sweet progression. But that ruined nothing. Sprouse does dark and broody so well, and his character is jaded and vulnerable with an innate goodness that hurts. Richardson’s Stella is nuanced, realistic, sweet and strong. I loved the two together. And I loved this movie.

The film has sparked conversation and controversy in and out of the cystic fibrosis community, and it’s not for me to weigh in. But I will say that I left the theater with a better, if imperfect understanding of a disease I’d known very little about (even working in healthcare marketing, where we pride ourselves on amassing medical knowledge). More than 30,000 Americans have CF, and funding is needed for ongoing research to find a cure.

The moral of the story is one we’ve heard a hundred, maybe a thousand times: life is short. Reach out. Take a chance. Be bold. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

But “Five Feet Apart” stood apart for me because of the ache in my chest and feel-feel-feelings it stirred up, both while watching and thinking about it again. And again. And again. I often reached over to press my fingers into my husband’s arm, the two of us trading glances that said wow this is good and so sad and man I love you. 

It’s haunting. It broke my heart . . . and healed it, too.

Can’t ask too much more of date night.

 

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Bottled-up emotions

Bottles

After four years of faithful service, we have said goodbye to Dr. Brown.

The bottle rack that took up real estate next to our sink has been scrubbed clean, along with the dozens of bottle parts and vents and unused scrub brushes and … well, all the accoutrements. And I do mean all of them.

The kitchen counter looks naked now. We hadn’t even lived in our house a year when Oliver was born. The sudden appearance of baby bottles — bottles on tables; bottles in bags; bottles always, always, always in the sink — was a reminder of how different our lives had become overnight.

When Ollie had been home a month or so, I remember standing bleary-eyed in front of the sink. We have a bank of windows in that sunny corner of the kitchen, and the day looked beautiful. Everything was green. Lush. Early summer. And I could barely absorb any of it, as trapped as I felt indoors.

Is this my life now? I thought.

I was still hand-washing baby bottles then. That seemed like what I “should” be doing. I was so screwed up, so weighed down with exhaustion and anxiety … but for some reason, I was adamant — obsessive, even — about cleaning these bottles by hand, as if that time-consuming process was penance for not feeling all the sparkly-glowy feelings of new motherhood.

It got better, of course. Mostly because I got better. It’s hard to talk about postpartum anxiety, even though I feel like I’ve told a million women before and since that they should never be afraid to ask for help. I was afraid to ask for help. I couldn’t find the words, even with my own husband. Our story had the added complication of preeclampsia and prematurity, and I felt so guilty for feeling anything but grateful that we were both frickin’ alive that it really … just complicated things. Everything.

A stigma remains around mental health — around the raw vulnerability of saying you are struggling, especially as a new parent. It’s supposed to be *~the HaPPieSt time of your LiFe*~ and to admit that taking care of a baby 24/7 can really suck isn’t a popular opinion.

Still, it’s true. I love my children dearly, it goes without saying, but I have struggled. The newborn years have been hard. But in time, sunshine began to filter through the fog … and here we are, almost four years later, and there’s nothing I look forward to more than coming home each day to the pounding of toddler feet running to meet me at the door. (Except maybe a piece of chocolate cake after they go to bed, but that’s another story.)

Hadley is sassy and wild and hilarious, learning so much every day. Oliver is opinionated and observant and incredibly smart, and I love our morning chats and bedtime stories and the way he tucks his head onto my shoulder at the end of a busy day.

With Hadley now fully transitioned to a cup, the “babas” had to go. Spencer was the one to make that executive decision. I was very wistful as I packed up the last of her 24-month bodysuits, neatly sorting our daughter’s new 2T shirts into piles in the top drawer of her dresser, but I could do it.

The bottles were another story, though. They have literally been with us from day one. I felt very tender toward Dr. Brown and his special bottles as we prepped everything to pass along. For as much as my husband and I have dreaded washing all the individual parts, they have served us well. Seen us through hard times. Been entrenched in the very origin story of the Johnson family of three, then four.

It’s the end of an era. But that “naked” corner of the kitchen is already filling with hair ties used to wrangle Hadley’s wild curls, boxes of cookies, Ollie’s PJ Masks toothbrush. New treasures seem to filter in every day.

Hadley’s Minnie Mouse cup is the new mainstay, and I have zero qualms about putting that baby in the dishwasher.

The relentless march of time does have its advantages.

The hush of a snowy Sunday

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Winter is my least favorite season, but even I will admit there is something magical about watching children as they watch snow.

We got about eight inches last week — unusual for Maryland. Generally the weather is mild here, and we’ve gotten spoiled by some exceptionally warm winters. It’s almost like we get to skip that season entirely.

Every now and then, though, Mother Nature rears up and reminds us who is really in charge here. Our snowfall came last Saturday into Sunday and, though we had lingering closures and commuting chaos into Monday, it wasn’t too stressful.

I welcomed the reminder to slow down. The holidays were so stressful this year. Much of that was self-imposed, I know, but I have struggled terribly with the sickness that is trying to make holidays “perfect” since my first child was born.

I have a hard time just letting things . . . be what they are. To accept that I don’t have to do All the Things, and my children would be just as happy with cardboard boxes as toys. We’re trying to raise them to be kind, empathetic, generous people, and mountains of presents aren’t in keeping with that goal. They’re not in keeping with anything I want to be about these days, actually.

Still: the pressure. Commercial. Societal. I work in marketing; it’s not like I’m unaware of advertising and messaging. I know how important it is to surround ourselves with positive energy that keeps us feeling strong and confident in our choices.

But when I looked at the small-ish pile of gifts under the tree — gifts my husband and I had carefully chosen for our son and daughter; ones we thought they would really enjoy, not just “stuff” to check the box of “Lots of Stuff for Christmas” — I had this pang of . . . not-doing-enough-ness. A sense that somehow I hadn’t delivered.

That is ridiculous, of course. I do know that. I spent hours planning for, decorating, baking and organizing for Christmas, because everyone knows mothers make the magic happen. And I have very acutely felt the sense of needing to measure up. And that, somehow, I’m not.

I’ve been sitting with these feelings lately, wondering where they come from. What I can do about them. Basically I’m a giant stress ball, and that doesn’t make me a good . . . anything. Partner, parent, employee. So many roles and responsibilities.

My anxiety is usually the root cause, but I actually feel like I have a decent handle on that lately. This is less the panicky fight-or-flight feeling I’m used to, and more just a general unease that I’m not keeping all the plates spinning. That a few are about to fall.

I’ve been reading Breathe, Mama, Breathe by Shonda Moralis — one of approximately 2,000 parenting self-help books I own, but have never made the time to crack open. It’s quick and helpful. I actually meditated for the first time this morning, sitting in our bedroom closet — the only place I can guarantee I will have five minutes to myself — and sat on the floor, emptying my mind until I was just a breathing person. A real living, breathing person.

What a miraculous thing that is.

It felt a little silly at first, but it wasn’t as hard to clear my thoughts as I expected. I’ve been needing a way to take a broom to the ol’ cobwebs in my mind, clearing away much of the useless clutter and trying to focus more on living in the moment.

Oliver will be four this spring, and Hadley almost two. They change so much every day and seem to grow overnight.

I need to be present. Present so I can enjoy it.

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Spence and I took them out into the snow last Sunday, tying on boots and knotting scarves and stuffing hats over curls. It was cold and wet and I hate both of those things, but I pulled on my long coat and joined them.

Hadley was delighted, sticking out her little paws to feel the cold flakes on her fingers and blinking as they dusted her face. Oliver tromped around in his Columbia boots, looking for all the world like an explorer who had recently discovered a new land.

And it occurred to me then, as it occurs to me now, that I have spent so much time standing behind them — arms outstretched in case they fall. But both my son and daughter walk more confidently now. I was amazed at how quickly they took off on uneven ground.

I was grateful for that simple, quiet moment: one that involved nothing but happy kids and heavy coats, a hushed afternoon and warm home to reenter when we were ready.

I haven’t felt sad that a soft January has followed sparkly, edgy, frenetic December.

I know how to appreciate quiet these days.

Why I quit making reading lists — and why I’m back

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I didn’t keep track of a single book I read in 2018.

Given how immersed I was in cataloging everything I read up until my kids arrived, that felt strange. Even after I found myself with little energy and less desire to keep up with full-blown reviews, I was updating Goodreads with the audiobooks I’d listened to, at least.

But for 2018? Cold turkey. I was tired. Reading had become less a pleasurable pursuit than a strange struggle to “keep up,” both in the book blogging world and outside it. I felt like I’d created something with write meg! and I needed to crank out content to appease … someone.

Publishers? Readers? Myself?

So I stopped. If it doesn’t give you joy, why do it? And, to be honest, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open until 9 p.m. Once the kids were in bed, I was right behind them. My job is very busy. The house is always a mess. So many responsibilities tug at me day in and day out, and I needed to loosen the hold of those that I could.

Here’s the thing, though: being a reader is part of my identity. I don’t feel like myself without my books. Novels are a vacation. A trip from reality. A chance to escape, to punch out, to be “someone else” for a while.

Without books, I’m … me. Exhausted mom of two.

I wanted to find my way back to reading … but without the self-imposed pressure I’d come to put on myself as a blogger and reviewer. There had to be a better way.

So I rediscovered books in 2018 — just for myself. The kids were sleeping more. Our household was less disrupted. I returned to novels like reconnecting with a best friend — just without the requirement that I evaluate every single one. I was tired of my obsession with counting everything.

Life was stressful enough. I just wanted to read.

So I did. But I didn’t review or catalog. I didn’t set reading goals, nor did I keep a running list of what I’d purchased or finished or borrowed.

2018 became the year of the lost book.

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Turns out … well, I miss my lists.

I am lists. Lists are me.

When I don’t have them? There’s … nothing. A total blank where my favorite reads from 2018 should be.

Did I not read anything compelling last year? Nothing memorable, influential, worthwhile? This can’t be true, especially knowing I give most books the 10-page test — if it doesn’t hold my attention after 10 pages, I quit.

Yet without my trusty spreadsheets and up-to-date Goodreads account, I struggle to think of a single title I loved in the last 12 months.

That just won’t do.

So I’m back. Last week I flipped on the lights of my dormant Goodreads account, shaking the dust from every surface. I’ve finished three audio books since January 1, and absolutely loved Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away. I’m thick in the middle of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and love it so much, I don’t want it to end.

And, of course, there’s my kids’ bedtime reading. The rhyming undercurrents of my daily life.

For Hadley, it’s Five Little Pumpkins. For Oliver, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?

I mean, where do they sleep at night?

Do they dream of holes they dug?

Do their moms reach front to backhoe when they give a good night hug?

These are the questions of our era, friends.

And with little readers in the making (and much more reading for me!), I look forward to answering them.

Not clean eating: Peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough balls

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I know, I know — it’s the New Year and everyone is like, “Let’s join a gym! Let’s get back on Weight Watchers! Let’s start eating clean!”

And I’m like . . . here are some fake cookie dough balls. Enjoy?

I say “fake” because they contain no egg, so it’s safe to eat them straight out of the fridge. Or the mixing bowl. They really do taste like cookie dough, but with none of the residual guilt/rebellion I usually feel from eating the real stuff against medical orders.

If you also enjoy eating your feelings, these are portable and very pop-able. With the kids and I dealing with back-to-back illnesses since November, I definitely need sugar therapy.

And so, behold: peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough balls from Mary Younkin of Barefeet in the Kitchen, who is my recipe guru. I live by her cookbooks, which are the basis for my weekly meal plans. Seriously: Mary is it.

This has been adapted just slightly to add peanut butter chips, because … why not?

Also: hi! Miss you guys. Think about you often. Try to scrape together energy to blog again and usually come up empty, but always plan to return.

 

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip
Cookie Dough Balls

Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup quick oats
2 tbsp milk, as needed (I used half and half)
1 cup mini chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter chips

In a bowl, beat the butter, peanut butter, brown sugar, and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Add the baking soda, flour, and oats. Stir to combine. If the mixture is too dry to roll into balls, add the milk. Stir in chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

Scoop out the dough and roll with hands into 1-inch balls. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Will keep three days in the fridge, or up to two months in the freezer.

 

 

The best part of getting pink eye

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Whenever I get sick (which happens all too frequently, with two kiddos in the house), I’m forced to sloooooow dooooown.

To realize that all those can’t-miss, urgent projects can wait.

That the chores I “must” keep up can wait as well.

The harried pace of life is just … life. Most of the time, anyway. But getting sick reminds me of being off after having my babies: when the days extend and stretch in entirely different ways, casting my obsessive email-checking self into shadow. Whittling my world down inside the walls of my own home. Setting my schedule to the daytime court shows I used to love growing up.

The “good” thing about getting pink eye this week? It’s highly contagious, but not debilitating … like, say, the flu. I can’t leave, but I can actually tackle projects around the house!

And with the kids at day care and my husband at work, I’ve been home … by myself.

For two days.

(Insert joke about You Know You’re a Parent When … getting pink eye is exciting. But that’s where I am.)

With my unexpected break, I’ve scrubbed most surfaces with Clorox wipes; done several loads of laundry, including all bedding; vacuumed; organized the kids’ toy bins; cleaned the fridge of all its leftovers; loaded the dishwasher twice, and actually emptied it. No more grabbing mugs and cereal bowls until my husband and I start squinting to assess whether it’s even clean or dirty anymore.

I’ve also watched a lot of “90 Day Fiance” and “Married at First Sight,” because the TV is mine and no one is here to judge me. I wrote a column in my living room with both eyes open, because it wasn’t 11 p.m. on a work night. I’m writing this post, too.

With two prescriptions putting a dent in both the pink eye and upper respiratory infection, I also went to the library today. I was able to switch out the long-ago-listened-to audiobooks I’ve been renewing out of laziness, because it’s been weeks since I made time to stop for new reads. And I had lunch with my dad — something we haven’t been able to do since I took a new job last summer. I really miss that.

I can’t tell you the last time I went out in public wearing my glasses, rather than contacts — or when I chose to forego makeup completely. I haven’t thought about what I’m wearing and how I look in it, or whether it’s covered in chocolate pudding after my three-year-old used the leg of my pants as a napkin.

The pace is slow over here. I started cooking chicken for a tamale casserole I’m putting together for dinner. It’s easy, but has multiple steps — not something I would normally attempt on a weeknight. But I have time.

It’s not that “normal” life — life as a working mom of two young kids, a busy wife, an anxious human — isn’t great. But it can be tough. Full, but with little space for me to collect myself. Rarely any time alone, aside from my long drives back and forth to the hospital where I work.

It’s easy to forget who I was … you know, before. Before I was so needed by two little people with darling faces and wide eyes.

What I used to like to … do.
Hobbies I enjoyed.
Projects I attempted.

This break was unplanned. It didn’t include daiquiris or tropical waters. I got freakin’ pink eye! It was gross.

But tomorrow, I’ll get up and return to work and our family routines feeling much more refreshed. Put-together. Caught up. Ready to tackle it all again — with coffee.

Feels kind of like cheating, though, with it being Friday and all.

Still. Little victories.