Swimming lessons

I’m always telling my children to be brave.

Seeing my own insecurities reflected back on two innocent faces has to be one of the most challenging — and unexpected — parts of parenthood. Wracked by anxiety myself from a young age, I’m often consumed with smoothing life’s sharp edges for my son and daughter. I know I can’t always do that — indeed, that I shouldn’t always do that — but … well, how do I stop?

I don’t want them to worry like I have worried.

I want them, I think, to be normal.

My adult mind knows that “normal” is an illusion. No one is normal. There is no normal. But my heart — that pounding, persistent thing — still feels the old pangs of embarrassment and fear when I see my children challenged in all-too-familiar ways.

On Sunday, the struggle was literal. Oliver and Hadley started swim lessons: Hadley’s first round, and Oliver’s third. The last time, two years ago, was awful. A disaster. At age four, and with his sensory issues, Ollie wasn’t close to ready. He struggled. Refused to follow directions. He couldn’t focus with the other kids around (all perfectly compliant, of course), and only wanted to sit on the steps and kick around.

I tried to force it. I spent a lot of money, I said, like he cared about money. I took off work to be here. I want you to try — please, please, just try.

He wouldn’t. He lost it. And we both cried in the middle of a dingy swim school with a room full of people watching.

Awful.

I just wanted so badly to save him as I haven’t believed I could be saved: from my overwhelming fear of deep water.

I wanted him to swim.

To swim for both of us.

After throwing in the towel (literally) and accepting Oliver just wasn’t ready, we forgot the remaining lessons that summer. I shoved the memories of that struggle — a power struggle; a physical struggle; an emotional struggle — into a box marked “Nope.” I haven’t felt brave enough to try again.

Water just always seems to be there, though — lurking. And despite how silly it feels, I’ve spent my life with the label of a Non-Swimmer. It’s like a party trick, you know? When I’m in mixed company, maybe seated with strangers at a corporate retreat, I can trot it out with gusto. “Fun fact: I cannot swim,” I say, as though I’ve confessed to having never left the state of Maryland. The raised eyebrows seem to express a similar surprise.

I had opportunities to learn, certainly. My parents took my sister and me each summer — weeks that eventually stretched across years. It didn’t matter how much I tried: I was petrified. I still am. And no matter how much I was encouraged or prodded or incentivized, the fear did not move.

While Hadley is already building confidence, giggling and splashing with the instructor, I can actually feel the panic radiating off her older brother. Seeing Oliver struggle makes me feel powerless. Takes me back to the NICU. Dredges up all these old, awful feelings of inadequacy and failure.

But these are my issues, not theirs. I’m slowly learning to separate the two.

My husband is usually sitting next to me in these moments, a hand on my arm. “It’s OK,” he says. “They’re OK! Look. They’re fine!”

He watches me watching our children. I feel him breathing, thinking. Processing.

“I know,” I say quietly, watching Ollie sputter. “I just … I know what that feels like … “

Falling. Plunging. A total loss of control.

Spencer himself swims like a fish.

I have to look away.

Later in the day, we take the kids to a friend’s house. Sandy has invited us to her backyard oasis many times. We visited on the Fourth of July, and I remembered to pack the kids’ swimsuits. They got in with the other adults, all capable swimmers. I checked their life vests, perched on a chair, and watched.

Something snapped Sunday as I watched my kids in the pool, nervous but eager. Something that had been moored, even buried, broke free.

After a lifetime of thinking I can’t, I can’t, I thought of what I often murmur to my children. What I told them that very morning, dabbing sunscreen on the delicate freckles dusting my daughter’s cheeks.

Try.

The kids scamper off with Sandy, helping to unearth potatoes from her garden. It’s quiet. Still.

“OK,” says my husband. “Your turn?”

I can’t, I start.

But for once, the words get all clogged up.

With an arm around his shoulders, Spencer talks me through leaning back and calming my body enough to just … float. Float on my back. I can’t, I start to say, and stop. The hand bracing my back slackens. It takes several tries — and some panicky sputtering — but eventually, amazingly … he lets go. And I stay, bobbing awkwardly at the surface, everything submerged save my eyes, nose, and mouth.

I look up at the sky, solid blue with puffy clouds in the distance. Feel the soft, damp summer air on my face. Hear the voices of my children in the distance, answered by my dear friend in her patient grandmother voice.

I drifted. I existed. I was.

I can’t remember the last time I did something new — something that scared me. Adulthood has helped insulate me from so much that burned me up with anxiety when I was younger.

I can make my own choices. Avoid places I don’t like. Avoid people I don’t like. Avoid conflict.

But I’ll be 36 this week. Mid-thirties. Late thirties?

My husband sees glimmers of possibility that I can’t always spot in myself.

And maybe it’s not too late for me to grow.

I am still capable of trying.

And that? That’s my birthday gift this year.

Seeds in the garden: Heroine Lucy Stone gets her due in new novel

Can women have it all?

In Katherine A. Sherbrooke’s moving Leaving Coy’s Hill, a strong fictional depiction of real-life heroine, abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone, the answer is one we’ve been asking for centuries. For as long as women have been daring to dream of a world beyond their own hearth, that is.

Like Alexander Hamilton, Stone is a prominent American figure who hasn’t been entirely awarded her time in the sun. A prominent speaker at a time when the mere idea of women talking to men in public could be scandalous, Stone took on such lighthearted topics as the abolishment of slavery and voting rights before contemptuous, angry crowds. She swears young that she will never marry, having seen how quickly women become the property of their husbands … and lose all property and autonomy themselves. Yet we know that Leaving Coy’s Hill is, at its heart, a love letter from a mother to her daughter.

Bold, sensitive, intelligent, committed—Lucy Stone was a force dedicated to the building of a better country, a better world. We know the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (if we stayed awake in high school history classes, anyway), but Stone herself? She’s faded into the mists of time.

Lucy Stone was completely unfamiliar to me. Going into the book without any preconceived notions was probably a good thing. It didn’t take long for me to feel like Lucy was a close friend and I, the reader, her confidante. I felt those tugs of sisterhood and solidarity, to be sure.

What amazed me most in Sherbrooke’s powerful story is how so many themes prominent in pre-Civil War America continue to be present today. I certainly related to Lucy: her struggles, fears, perceived failures. As a wife. A mother. A worker. As someone who must find a way to weave all three roles together … sometimes to her own detriment.

I wished I could explain to [my mother] how different I intended my life to be. I didn’t know how to tell her that the awful circumstances she endured had provided much of the inspiration to sculpt my life from different clay. It felt like a cruel compliment. I hoped she had found more happiness than had been obvious to me.

Leaving Coy’s Hill, p. 196 (review copy)

I thought about how each generation of women gains a few inches here, a foot there—enough that, eventually, we’ve walked miles and crossed mountains. I thought about suffragettes marching with hecklers lining the streets. I thought about women forced from their professions when they showed obvious signs of pregnancy. I thought about efforts to offer paid family leave and protections against workplace discrimination. I thought about the joy of witnessing our first female vice president take office. I thought about #MeToo.

I thought of my grandmother, a homemaker, who always had something delicious and comforting simmering on the stove when I bounced in after school. I thought about my mother pursuing one of the narrow career paths—secretary, nurse or teacher—open to her as a young woman, and how she has carved out both a successful career and family life just the same.

I thought of my own history, the new opportunities available to me … the trailblazers and world-shaker-uppers I’ve known, including all the strong women I work with now in health care. And, of course, I thought of my own daughter, hazel eyes flashing, asking me question after question about the planets and declaring she will see them all herself one day. Maybe Comm. Hadley Johnson will call her ol’ mom super, super long-distance from Mars someday. I can only hope.

Lucy Stone is our foremother. If I may paraphrase “Hamilton,” her legacy has meant planting seeds in a garden that she never got to see. But her spirit, determination and bravery begin to get their due in Sherbrooke’s capable hands. Best of all? Sherbrooke paints her as a real, live woman … human.

[My husband] was due home any day now. I reflexively looked around the house. Every surface was covered in dust. I had no fresh food on hand save what little I could pull from the garden and had yet to pick up a new block of ice … Eggs needed to be gathered and cream and bread made. [My daughter] and I could live on oatmeal, syrup, and apples for a few days, but even Harry would expect better than that. The thought brought a new wave of anger. I had spent a lifetime ensuring I would never be judged by such things. And yet, in my rage, I wanted to prove I was capable of doing it all.

Leaving Coy’s Hill, p. 232 (review copy)

This quiet, enveloping novel gains more power by not letting readers feel its tremors immediately. Leaving Coy’s Hill is unassuming, thoughtful, steady, retrospective. I loved the strong female friendships portrayed (and betrayed, if you will). I love the complicated push/pull of “balance” and its ever-elusive nature, even in the 19th century. I loved that I could relate to a story set in a very different time in a way that was simultaneously comforting and inspiring. I loved that it inspired googling … and plenty of soul-searching.

We have Sherbrooke—and Lucy!— to thank for that.

The seeds bloom, indeed.

4.5 stars

Published May 4, 2021, from Pegasus Books
Goodreads | Amazon | Author Website
Review copy provided by publisher for my honest review

Inventing Niagara

“Did you know they drained Niagara once?”

The question popped up during one of my earliest trips to the famous falls — a bit of history, some trivia, as I walked the winding paths near its edge with my future husband. Spencer grew up 85 miles south of the cataract. There aren’t too many folks in Western New York who can’t tell you something about Niagara.

It wasn’t my very first visit. That came in 2004, when I was traveling around the Buffalo area with my parents and sister before the start of another school year. I’ve always been a waterfall fan — a waterfall nut, you might say. And my first glimpse of the Horseshoe Falls, from the landscaped paths on the Canadian side, certainly inspired awe. Taking the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist voyage to the base of Horseshoe Falls, I remember looking up and seeing nothing but violently falling water. We were close to disaster … but safe from it, too. Exhilarating.

I thought of this early trip so often while reading Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Shaped — for good or for ill — by the land and people around it … creating myths, perpetuating others. A site of commerce, conflict and connection for centuries.

Americans call Niagara Falls a natural wonder, but the Falls aren’t very natural anymore. In fact, they are a study in artifice. Water diverted, riverbed reshaped, brink stabilized and landscape redesigned, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength.

Held up as an example of something real, they are hemmed in with fakery — waxworks, haunted houses, IMAX films and ersatz Indian tales. A symbol of American manifest destiny, they are shared politely with Canada. Emblem of nature’s power, they are completely human-controlled. Archetype of natural beauty, they belie an ugly environmental legacy still bubbling up from below. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to how America falsifies nature, reshaping its contours and redirecting its force while claiming to submit to its will.

Publisher description

The first time I saw Niagara, I felt overwhelmed by the urge to photograph it. Today I would pull out my iPhone, experimenting with panoramas, positioning my kids by a rainbow … but 17 years ago, my blocky cell phone and its tiny camera was OK for 10-cent text messages and not much else. I had to remember that first falls experience the old-fashioned way: living in the moment. (Thankfully, my mom had her own ever-present lens to document our adventures.)

The falls are a memorable experience. As Strand beautifully illustrates throughout Inventing Niagara, being there is a physical thing. It’s loud. It’s wet. It’s windy. Things I despise in any other scenario … but, you know, I’m willing to overlook all kinds of discomforts for the sake of waterfalls. Hence that sticky poncho above! And bobbing around on the Maid of the Mist’s open deck feels treacherous … but it’s a sanitized fear. The illusion of danger is part of the fun.

Inventing Niagara examines many aspects of the falls’ history, both real and mythical — everything from Seneca history as keepers of the Western Door to the region’s role in the Underground Railroad. These were all new stories to me, and inspired lots of on-the-side googling to explore more. French tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who understood “the appeal of the morbid to the masses,” using his famed aerial walks as a metaphor for slavery before emancipation? This is some pretty fascinating stuff.

The romance and Hollywood-inspired section was great fun, too. Honestly, I had no idea Niagara featured in so many aspects of pop culture. Marilyn Monroe’s longest walk in cinema offered a different “view” at Niagara in the 1950s, and of course there’s the long history of the falls as a honeymoon capital of yesteryear. (Also, ever wondered how Viagra got its name?)

Of course, it’s not all misty fun. Strand gives equal attention to the environmental impacts on the region in the name of progress: the sad and criminal history of Love Canal, the genesis of the EPA’s Superfund program; power plants and the harnessing of the falls’ power; construction of a soulless parkway straight through town. Dead malls and vacant storefronts in the shadow of landfills. The juxtaposition of the American and Canadian towns, sharing a name … staring each other down from opposite the gorge. If you’ve ever wondered why there is such a stark difference between nations, you’ll definitely learn that and then some here.

What I loved most about Ginger Strand’s accounting of Niagara is her obvious love for the place. I thought the author’s voice featured perfectly within the narrative. It was like going on a road trip with an entertaining but slightly-obsessive friend, who uses the drive to tell you every fun fact about her latest obsession. (Privately … you’re just glad it isn’t drugs.)

She’s a strong, detailed, lyrical writer with a talent for drawing you immediately into a scene and making you feel at home. Strand isn’t analyzing Niagara with a calculated, dispassionate eye; she’s generating the full picture, accounting for its warts and sparkle in equal measure.

While Niagara’s “natural wonder” is now under human control, there remains an otherworldliness to it. It’s still beautiful.

As humans, we just have to decide the degree to which we’re willing to make believe.

I learned so much in Inventing Niagara — and paying attention to the man behind the curtain does nothing to diminish its power. If anything, my interest is stronger now, knowing just how many people have converged in their attempts to admire, own, tame, promote, or protect this thundering strip of land.

I think it ultimately comes back to that very human desire to utter three words — words echoed in the carvings often found on wooden park handrails, encased in lovers’ hearts on redwoods, scribbled into theme-park ride waiting areas … from sea to shining sea.

I was here.

All good things

Parenting in 2021 is a lot of “Are you on mute?!” during midday kindergarten Zoom meetings.

There’s a sentence I could have never made sense of a year ago.

As expected, we’re all being clobbered with “pandemic retrospective” pieces right now. I’m … not here for it. Maybe 10, 20, 50 years from now — when my grandchildren or great-grandchildren ask what it was like to live through COVID-19 (so much searching for toilet paper). But not every March, just when the first tentative buds appear on the pear tree in the yard. Is this going to be an annual thing? Two years since COVID hit. Five years since COVID hit.

I love spring, but it’s also been associated with worry and trauma since my son’s early birth six years ago. It doesn’t take much to put me back into that scary place — though our little family has certainly come a long way since.

My daughter will be four this week. Last year’s birthday party was our last “normal” family gathering for months . . . or longer. I remember our governor pulling together a press conference to address the growing threat of coronavirus, and hearing the earliest murmurs of stay-at-home orders as we prepared for Hadley’s birthday dinner. So much of what seemed unthinkable then has come to pass.

But lately I find my fingers trailing along more and more delicate threads of hope.

Do you feel them, too?

  • A year after I first googling “novel coronavirus,” I’ve been vaccinated against the illness (I work in communications on-site at a hospital). Many family members, including all three grandparents, have also received their first or second doses. Though close relatives did get sick in January, they had mild cases, and somehow we managed to escape getting infected as well. I am truly grateful.
  • The days are getting longer. Sunshine does all good things for the soul. I’ve been listening to vintage John Mayer — as I always seem to do with the changing seasons? — while remembering the hopeful college kid I once was compared to the hopeful minivan-driving mom I am now. Considering it was nothing but the “Hamilton” soundtrack on repeat since last summer, it feels good to return to comforting tunes.
  • My son will be starting in-person kindergarten next month! I didn’t dare hope that he’d have any physical instruction this year. Though Oliver has done as well as could be expected with virtual learning, it’s … well. You all know, I’m sure. While I’m nervous about the transition, particularly given he’ll only have a few months of in-person school before summer break arrives (more changes to routine). But he has amazed me with his adaptability, particularly to face masks, which I assumed would be tough even without sensory sensitivities. He’s a surprising little dude.
  • It’s almost cherry blossom time. Even if we still can’t experience the Tidal Basin as we typically would, I hope I’ll be able to get a glimpse of my favorite trees with my mom and dad.
  • Our house is calmer. I’m actually typing this after dinner, when the kids are still conscious (though ensconced in “Despicable Me,” it’s true). We still have our fights and rough days, for sure. But it’s been months since I ran outside barefoot in the cold to stand alone in the dark night and contemplate life because I just needed five seconds to myself for god’s sake. At nearly four and six, Hadley and Ollie are settling into themselves as little people, and we’re learning how to communicate more effectively. Myself included. Also? They can use the bathroom without much help. Man, a diaper-less world is great.
  • We have summertime plans. Nothing crazy, but two nearby trips are in the works. I’m so excited at the idea of getting away and seeing something new. Like all of us, my daytime views largely consist of my office at work and my toy-cluttered living room at home. Obviously plans will adapt should the COVID situation change, but I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get to pack a suitcase for the first time in a year.
  • I’m writing again! After my newspaper column came to an end last year, I wasn’t sure when or if I’d be settling back here at ye old laptop. I was excited to begin a new bimonthly column for Southern Maryland Woman Magazine (my latest piece, “Making Rainbows Out of Rubbish,” is up now). “The Short Years” comes out every other month, as opposed to twice a week, so the pressure is far less intense than when I’d kept up “Right, Meg?” as a freelancer when I left the paper in 2017.
  • I’m narrating, too. My dad, Rick Snider, wrote and produced The Angel Among Us, a podcast series we cut just before COVID hit last spring. It’s a fictional multi-generational story that is, of course, free to download now. I pop up as Lilith, a demon with dark motives (surprising, no?). And it was really fun to act again, even for just an afternoon! And I’m proud of Dad for doing something outside the box. He has more in the works, too.

So that’s my good list. Capped off by the cup of coffee I’m currently sipping and a few episodes of “90 Day Fiance” stacked up on my DVR as bedtime approaches for two sleepy kids. I’ve got mermaid balloons ready to prep tomorrow night, in anticipation of my girl’s big day, and vanilla cupcakes soon heading into the oven.

Happy Monday, friends. ❤

Diamond trails

On Saturday, the cabin fever set in hard. I thought I was doing quite well with the whole winter/pandemic/straight-outta-quarantine situation for my family, but it was like a tidal creep … rising slowly, slowly, slowly until I felt like I could barely stay above the water line. I just had to get out of the house. Immediately.

Pandemic weariness is familiar to all of us. The last month has been especially brutal. Between a 14-day isolation after a close exposure to COVID (everyone has since recovered, and thankfully Spencer and I stayed well) plus days of bad weather that later forced daycare closures, we’ve been looking for any opportunity for a change in scenery. Companionship. Life.

Of course, it’s 30 degrees. Even “safer” activities — hiking, playgrounds, visiting family masked and outside — are not pleasant to attempt at the moment. We knew it would be a long, dark winter after the desperate but hopeful cheer of Christmas 2020. The post-holiday letdown has definitely been real.

So I’ve tried to be proactive with my mental health. Already prone to anxiety and depression, I could feel my “keeping it together no matter what” shell starting to crack. To be honest? I’m amazed it stayed intact as long as it has. Some of it is the ol’ holding it together for the kids mentality; I don’t want to worry or scare them when so much has already changed. But the truth is that I have hard days, too, and sometimes I just want to curl up with a comfy blanket and hide.

I could feel that struggle taking place on Saturday. The idea of facing another weekend shut in our house, all four of us lost in our tablets and laptops and devices, accomplishing nothing, going nowhere, was just … awful.

“Let’s go somewhere,” I told my husband. “Anywhere. Where can we go?”

We settled on Flag Ponds Nature Park in Lusby, Maryland, just an hour east on the Chesapeake Bay. It was a balmy 32 degrees following last week’s ice storms, but we grabbed hats, scarves, and gloves recently dried from playing in the snow. Even I — nothing close to adventurous — unearthed my heaviest boots for walking muddy trails. We were acting on impulse, crackly with excitement (or maybe that was all the static electricity … either way).

We only saw a handful of other people on the icy trails and boardwalk leading down to the bay. Oliver and Hadley each took a map of the 500-acre property, taking turns “leading” as we set off for the shore. Above us, ice-crusted trees tinkled like wind chimes, sending their branch-shaped casings smashing to the ground. The paths were lined with these crushed diamonds.

Spencer and I had been there before for a sunrise shoot with our photography club, but that was easily a decade ago. It was completely different from anything I could remember in winter. With the temperature barely above freezing, the beach grass and trees dotting the shoreline all glittered and clinked in their wind-chime way. The kids were fascinated by the “ice leaves” their dad placed in their mittened hands.

I thought about how, a few years ago, a day like this would have been impossible. There would have been strollers to pack, formula to pre-portion, bottles to secure in a heavy backpack that would have made hiking feel even more arduous. Diapers, so many diapers — and diapers to change in the woods. Even a little while after, there would have been kids demanding a bathroom as we reached peak isolation in the woods. A bathroom and a snack.

On Saturday, Hadley and Ollie walked a few paces ahead of us — enough to offer the illusion of independence, which is so enticing for a 5- and 3-year-old. I could pull out my phone and photograph the landscape without worrying someone would wander off without my laser-focused attention. Spencer lifted the binoculars around his neck, scanning the horizon for signs of the Antares rocket lifting off from 100 miles away. We could be — just a little bit — alone together.

Salt carried up on a gusty winter breeze. I let it muss and draw out my long, tangled hair, finally recovered from my COVID cut. I felt more like myself again. A stronger self, even.

After the winter of our discontent? I needed this. … And was so grateful for it.

Warm-mug moments

Just before my kids closed their eyes last Saturday night, I broke one of parenting’s Ten Commandments: Though Shalt Not Make Promises For Things Out of One’s Control.

What can I say? I’m a silver-haired, tired mom rebel.

“Guys, it’s going to snow tomorrow!” I blabbed.

My son immediately looked up, eyes shining. “Enough to have a snowball fight?” he asked eagerly.

“Enough to make a snowman?” his sister echoed.

Yes! I boomed. Absolutely!

Like I could control the weather. Though I would if I could for my children, of course.

Oliver and Hadley have been talking about a good snow since Hadley’s interest in “Frozen” began in earnest last year. We were all ecstatic when a dusting fell on Christmas Day, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had magically appeared. No snowballs. No snowmen.

Last weekend’s “storm” — all of three inches — was the most the Washington region had received in two years. And on a weekend! By Monday, I was frowning at the same scene while contemplating my commute. Icy Tuesday was even worse. My second vaccine dose was scheduled for 9:20 a.m., and I had an hour-long drive ahead of me. “Be cautious, but drive with confidence!” encouraged my boss, an Ohio native made of sterner stuff than me. But I took her advice seriously, white-knuckle coasting most of the way south. I arrived for my shot just in time.

But none of that worry was served on my Sunday plate. I was immensely proud that I’d remembered to buy hot chocolate mix, thinking of how my dad always made cocoa with tiny marshmallows after my sister and I “helped” clear the driveway. I can still feel the ice coating the hem of my jeans before I had slipped into sweatpants, bounding downstairs to find that special treat waiting.

I want to create warm-mug moments with my children. At five and three, I’ve already seen how simultaneously fast and slow these years have gone. I’m fascinated by the idea that any of these simple events could actually solidify, proving to be the kids’ earliest memories. How can I make them good ones?

Through the pandemic, I probably join many parents in believing I have not been my best self. While I try to enjoy the little things, day-to-day life cannot be separated from the fear and heaviness of everything else happening in the world. I’ve had so much on my mind lately. We all have.

And yet. Already the boots purchased in anticipation of a day like this were snug on my children’s feet. I’m Mom, not Mommy, and the last of the toddler clothes have all been packed away.

We jumped into the moment. My husband, a New Yorker also made of stern winter stuff, packed snowballs and chased the kids on a gleeful mission. Each time they ducked behind a vehicle or skittered around a corner, Spence found a way to arc the snowball into a hit. Even Ollie, who hates being cold or wet or uncomfortable in any way, tolerated these hijinks. Enjoyed them, even.

After we’d all had our fill, cheeks red and toes chilled, we shuffled inside and shucked wet jackets just inside the door. I wrestled Hadley and Ollie upstairs for warm baths while Spencer got to work over the stove. By the time we returned, the kids’ hair damp and eyes shining, Spence had prepared four mugs of cocoa — with tiny marshmallows. It tasted like simple happiness, with memories settled at the bottom like coarse sugar.

We hadn’t received enough to build a snowman, as I’d naively promised … but we definitely made good on the snowball fight.

And you can’t go wrong with a day ending in chocolate.

write meg!’s 2020 reading honors

It was quite the reading year for me, friends! Not like the old days, exactly, but closer than I’ve been in the five years since welcoming my first child. I read 40 books, surpassing my annual goal of 36. That’s double what I accomplished two years prior, and 15 more than the year before.

On face value, it would be easy to say the pandemic thrust me back into the arms of my beloved books — and that’s partially true. But personally, even more than the virus, my son and daughter are now old enough to entertain themselves for more than 30 seconds — and I was able to get caught up in something for myself every now and then.

As I shared last year, I can feel bits of myself returning as Oliver is now 5 and Hadley is 3. Also? I just made more time for myself, accepting that I cannot pour from an empty cup. Reading is self-care. There were times I shunned the vacuum in favor of my Kindle, and I don’t regret it.

At the end of last year, I made some reading predictions for 2020 — not knowing, of course, that the world would soon come to a stand-still and we’d all be spending more time at home than ever. I wrote, 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.”

I think I accomplished that. In the wake of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustice in 2020, I challenged myself to do more than just escape through books. While of course I read for enjoyment and entertainment, I also read to grow. I’m surprised by how many of my reads were non-fiction — and how much of an impression they had on me.

Maybe they’re ready to make one on you, too.

Katherine Center is an insanely talented writer and a sorceress who makes me lose all track of time. Things You Save in a Fire (2019) was a slow build that erupted into a major burn, leaving me with the malaise that follows a really great read after I closed the final pages. Cassie and the rookie — a love story for the ages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (2019) was an audio, and I can’t honestly imagine loving it as much in print. The performance was incredible. It was so well-acted and realistic that I was often overcome with the urge to google the band, convinced this was a real documentary rather than a fictional account of a band’s ascendence and betrayals. After finishing, I found myself still researching any scraps of truth behind the novel (i.e. Fleetwood Mac). Very well done.

Jennifer Weiner is a stranger to few of us, and Mrs. Everything (2019) was a sweeping novel that introduced two new characters I couldn’t help but love. Jo and Bethie are the stars of this multi-generational storyline. Novels that span decades can feel sprawling and disconnected, but Weiner — talented as ever — made it work beautifully. I shed a few tears, had a few laughs, and finished with much to ponder about family and sisterhood. A full experience as a reader, and one of my favorite Weiner works to date!

Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (2019) was an early audio that captured my imagination. I really felt for each sibling in different ways (OK, each sister — Joe was tougher to empathize with). Lillian felt the most “real” to me: real, human, flawed … as are we all. Alternating viewpoints are read by different narrators, and the sumptuous quality of the language was really on display.

Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order (2020) was my final read of the year. A fresh spin on the time-travel trope, Oona was thought-provoking and entertaining. Though I put the pieces together on several plot points early, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment in the slightest. The familiar moral of the story was a welcome reminder that the cup is already broken — and it is our goal to soak up every bit of happiness we can.

Brantley Hargrove’s The Man Who Caught the Storm (2018) was an instant favorite from last summer. I couldn’t put it down, first of all, and have often thought about storm chaser Tim Samaras since finishing. Compelling writing and a fascinating subject matter combined into one unforgettable story.

Running Away to Home (2011) called out to me from my bookshelves at the height of the pandemic. Jennifer Wilson’s story of moving her young family to her grandparents’ ancestral village in Croatia satisfied both my quarantine-induced wanderlust and the resonant ideas of being happy with the here and now. Jennifer and husband Jim realized the rat-race suburban life was leading to stuff, not satisfaction — and left in search of more. It was published a decade ago, but felt just as relevant today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) needs no introduction. Read by the author, the audio version is powerfully affecting as Coates — in a slim volume that packs an unforgettable wallop — breaks down the construct of race and, in so doing, shakes the Dreamers awake. “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes to his son. As a parent, certain passages — “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered” — were breath-stealers. Required reading for all.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019) is another book so epic in scope, it’s hard to fathom it’s true. As I wrote then, I knew very little about Chernobyl except for its shorthand as a way to describe “an epic disaster,” and this stunning book is anything but. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and detailed to a degree that is truly stunning to behold. I can only stand back in total awe of Higginbotham’s creation: a true story that often reads like poetry, from “the throat of the reactor” to the cold beds of a Moscow hospital. I didn’t want it to end.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016) needs no accolades from the likes of me … but I’ll give them anyway: this book — unbelievable in scope — is, I feel, what all great journalism aspires to be. I have remembered poignant scenes and lessons many times, and find myself talking about it often. In Milwaukee, Desmond follows eight families as they “struggle to keep a roof over their heads,” the description reads. “Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.”

Past reading honors:
2019 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011
2010 | 2009 | 2008