Losing my appetite

I got sick last week. Not sniffles sick, or sore throat sick … I’m talking an off-to-bed-with-you hurricane of nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and exhaustion that struck out of nowhere. I could do little more than cling to my bed for dear life, watching the light change outside, just waiting and waiting and waiting for it to be over.

To complicate matters, my husband quickly became sick, too, though thankfully to a less traumatizing degree. Parenting doesn’t come with sick days, as they say, so our mornings started with Spencer and I playing “Who Feels Worst?” The “winner” had to take the kids to school—a 6-minute drive that might as well have been a transcontinental voyage.

Worse still, this lasted for four solid days. I’m used to the terrible 24-hour stomach bugs that, while awful, quickly release their grip. This? Days in the fetal position, delirious with pain and nausea. Save childbirth, I can’t remember another time in my adult life that I was so incapacitated.

I missed days of work, guzzling up the last dregs of my paid time off, but did manage to crush two seasons of “Emily in Paris.” I knew I was eventually feeling better when Gabriel’s lavish French fare went from stomach-churning to lip-licking. There was no particular moment—I just suddenly felt hungry, and like a veil had been pulled back from my pallid face. I stood up. I took a shower. I ate some soup. And just like that, I returned to the land of the living.

And what’s the first thing everyone asked as I emerged from my puke-hell?

Ooh, that’s awful.

But how much weight did you lose?

/////////////

Family, friends, coworkers. Many people. Were they just making conversation? Empathizing? Sure, of course. Self-criticism and the desire for weight loss does seem to be the great equalizer, doesn’t it?

This isn’t a slight against anyone, trust me. In the depths of my misery, eating nothing, drinking little, I thought it, too.

My throat is burning with acid, but at least I’ll be thinner.

I can’t do more than wave at my worried children, but at least I’ll be thinner.

Daily life has stopped as I know it, but at least I’ll be thinner.

Those thoughts are troublesome enough, but there was another layer. I’ve worked hard to leave diet culture behind after years of mental work following extreme weight loss. I’ve made tremendous progress, but this showed me firsthand how easy to it was to slip on that old skin as soon as my defenses were down.

There’s a reason being “one stomach flu away from my goal weight” is a part of the zeitgeist. Our cultural obsession with weight loss, thinness, and anti-fatness has been discussed by far wiser minds than mine. All I know is that, in the years since having my children, receiving special needs diagnoses, getting through a pandemic, aging, grieving and so much more, my body has changed.

And I love it still. More, even.

Being curled up on my back for days, unable to do more than listen to Emily Cooper wooing French clients and eating pain au chocolat, I am acutely aware of how much I need my body … and how little the extra roll around my stomach matters to my happiness.

/////////////

So how much weight did you lose? isn’t even a question I can answer. I haven’t stood on a home scale in years. As soon as I realized the toll those numbers had on my mental health, I stepped away—literally. I reframed my pursuit of feeling better by giving up the numbers game all together.

Once I stopped counting calories (or “points”) and assigning moral value to foods, something crazy happened: I could actually pick up on and listen to my body’s needs. I haven’t reverted to wild binge behavior, consuming nothing but carbonara and pies; mindful eating is all about balance. When I got rid of the restrictive rules and focused on eating for satisfaction and fullness, physically and emotionally? Well, I was free.

Since then, I’ve lost my appetite. For many, many things, actually! Such as:

  • Caring about VBO.
  • Wasting precious time discussing ways to shave calories off otherwise-satisfying foods.
  • Worrying if I look heavy, or fretting when called fat. It’s not a four-letter word.
  • Bonding sessions over the endless pursuit of a smaller body.
  • Denial of simple pleasures, such as sweet cream in my morning coffee. Life is short, my friends.

I’m not afraid to gain weight. I am afraid to be too tired, weak, or unwell to care for my family. So instead of numbers, I focus on physical movement: walking, getting up and about. I eat in a way that makes me feel nourished and focused. And I work daily on my mental health and resilience, building myself up so I can be stable and leaned on by others.

It’s all a work in progress (clearly). But I make small strides all the time. I recently bought new jeans, for example, and y’all—these are dream pants. Seriously. I feel so good in them. Comfortable. Confident. Put-together.

They’re also the biggest size I’ve worn since … well, maternity wear. Or ever.

Upon realizing her “normal” size no longer worked, previous me would have rejected buying anything else to comfortably clothe her body. I would have tried to use that as fuel to shrink, because that’s what women are expected to do. When I inevitably failed to lose pounds, never again coming close to that mythical 40-pound weight loss back when deprivation was my full-time job, I would have started a blame cycle all over again.

Now? Now I know better. I know they’re just pants. Adorable, well-fitting, nonjudgmental pants.

And I deserve to wear them.

So do you. We all do.

The messy best we can

I’ve never grieved before. Not like this.

I don’t know how to do it.

I don’t know where to start; I don’t know where it ends. We had so little warning. And this road map? It’s full of unnamed roads, dead ends.

We lost Alex in August. It happened so fast. My mother-in-law became sick, then rapidly sicker, and it was only weeks before we were forced to stare at the horrible truth: we had days together, not weeks. Not months. Certainly not years . . . the ones we’d planned to fill with kids’ dance recitals, long conversations, puzzles. Unbroken stretches of beach. Hot tea and cocoa at midnight. Sunshine.

It’s been inky-dark for six weeks now.

Grief has been a strange and unwelcome bedfellow. I’ve never lost someone so close to me—someone loved so dearly by everyone . . . especially my father-in-law, husband, children, and me.

We had no idea she was sick.

She had no idea she was sick.

When we finally heard it—cancer, after months of wrong and incomplete diagnoses, non-answers for her pain—I felt my stomach fall to my summer-scuffed toes. It was late June. And it was in her bones.

I cried for days. In the shower. On my lunch breaks. In my office. And I yelled. I punched my steering wheel alone in my car, after dropping my kids at summer camp, where I wouldn’t alarm my own shell-shocked husband. I stood in the kitchen and stirred pots of boxed mac and cheese with a spoon in one hand, crumpled tissues in the other. I dried my face each time my children ran in, sucking down the panic rising in my chest.

She was gone in just five weeks.

I’ve had time—so much time, really—to think about what made her so special. And the truth is that I couldn’t appreciate so much of what made her an outstanding mother until I became one myself. From the moment Oliver came crashing into the world, upending everything we knew and then some, I had her standing sentry—guiding us, laughing with us, crying with us. And cooking for us. Alex’s love language was gifts, and meals were part of her thoughtfulness. When all else failed (as it sometimes did), she fed us.

Nothing in my brain computes this loss. I’ve fretted endlessly about how to help my husband and children while feeling mired in despair myself. The kids—now 7 and 5—say little, afraid to set off more tears. I do let them see my grief, as all the experts share, but in slivers; I let them cry with me, encouraging them to share. We talk about the good times. We look at pictures.

There’s just so much I want to remember.

Remember her generosity. Her big laugh. Her way of making everyone feel comfortable and important in her presence. The genuine love she had for her family and friends—all of them. The way she took ordinary days and infused them with creativity, patience, and fun.

And she was all about action. I think of the time she painted our bedroom closet. When she rode with me to Spencer’s surgery (plus the realization that I, his wife, would be the one now receiving the surgeon’s call). The time she took the 3 a.m. feeding so Spence and I could sleep, giving us our first unbroken stretch of rest since Oliver came home from the NICU.

We loved all of the same things . . . and the same man. And Alex never seemed to question my presence at the side of her beloved only son. Now the mother of two dear children myself, I have a new appreciation for how hard that could have been.

Alex saw me at my absolute best and my frightening worst. And she never begrudged me any of it. She could absorb my pain, particularly the fear and exhaustion of new parenthood, without taking it personally. Even 360 miles away, Alex was never a guest in our home; she and my father-in-law are part of our home. Hearing her slippered feet on the stairs and whispered bedtime stories was a balm for my soul, too. I breathed easier, slept easier, when she was here.

I’d say I don’t know what we’re going to do without her, but I do: what we must. We’re going to keep moving. Appreciating the little things. Digging deep to feel grateful for the time we had with her—the love she inspired, and the love that continues still.

We’re going to do the messy best we can.

write meg!’s 2021 reading honors

You know how a really great book just sort of … ruins you for others? We’re talking a novel so engrossing, so ingenious, so thought-provoking that you can’t help but feel saddled by that unmistakable book hangover after you’ve closed the last page? These reads inspire the push/pull we live for as readers: too good to put down, but too bittersweet to finish.

I was fortunate to discover several new favorites in 2021 — year of the continuing pandemic. As we all sought escape in different ways, I binge-read into the wee hours or sank into the couch while my kids got lost in Minecraft. After getting very into memoirs in recent years, the vast majority of my books read this year were fiction — and only one non-fic read made my top five this year.

Probably not a ton of surprises in this grouping, but here they are: the best o’ the best in what I happily enjoyed in 2021, in no particular order!

Tia Williams’ Seven Days in June (2021) is as thought-provoking as it is drool-worthy. This story of two successful writers reconnecting after a tumultuous teen romance was riveting. I absolutely loved Eva’s character — strong and flawed … in other words, human. And Shane is a hero truly worthy of the moniker. Williams created a heart-stopping world in which two people revisit the past in order to determine if there is a path for them in the future. As a writer and all-around book nerd myself, I really enjoyed the depictions of Eva’s vampire fic fandom and the crossover of how both leads are processing their past through their writing. Listened to this one on audio, and the production was excellent. Part of me still expects to bump into Williams’ characters on the street — less far-fetched given that part of the plot is set in Washington, D.C. The local flavor for this Marylander was the icing on top.

Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation (2021) needs no introduction from the likes of me, but I found the heaps of praise totally justified. When done well, the friends-to-lovers slow build is so satisfying. And this book? Satisfying. For sure. Couldn’t stop reading until I knew how their feelings would eventually bubble up to the surface, and whew — steamy. Then passed along my copy to relatives, friends, coworkers … everyone, basically. It’s still floating around in Southern Maryland. I’ll eventually try to get it back — it’s one of the few books I could actually see myself re-reading.

Hilarie Burton Morgan’s The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm (2020) was an impulse buy that made me grateful I have zero self-control in Target. I knew little about Hilarie beyond her early fame on “One Tree Hill,” but the cover spoke to me. This book was just fresh. I loved her honesty on universal topics like family, love and marriage — and less relatable (but fascinating!) musings on fame. Its setting in Rhinebeck, New York evoked such a strong sense of place that I found myself idly browsing AirBnBs so I could camp out near Samuel’s Sweet Shop. A tender, memorable memoir that will, I think, make an especially strong impression on mothers. Hilarie just gets it.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising (2021) is a whole mood. This family saga manages to be both epic in scope and uniquely and memorably detailed. Reid doesn’t waste a word. I listened to the story on audio and appreciated the narrator’s impressive ability to coax separate intonations from each character, particularly brothers Hud and Jay. And like the incredible Daisy Jones & the SixMalibu Rising found me again wanting to google Reid’s characters, so convinced was I that the Riva siblings were all actually surfing away their afternoon out there along the California coast. A must-read from a must-read author.

Finally, coming off the heels of my late “Hamilton” obsession, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie’s My Dear Hamilton (2018) started my reading year off with a bang. Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander, is the heroine of a story that follows her from general’s daughter to new bride to mother to famous widow, with passion and devotion and loss running deeply through the narrative. I loved the examinations of early America alongside the stirring romance between Alexander and Eliza. Very engrossing and wonderfully written.

Looking forward to more up-until-2-a.m. reading moments in 2022!

What were your favorite reads this year?
Share your recs in the comments, or join me on Instagram!

Past reading honors:
2020 | 2019 | 2013 | 2012
2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008

Fall reads

We’re all familiar with the summer read — a beach read, if you will … like, say, Beach Read.

Maybe it’s set on Nantucket, filled with colorful locals who despise the “summer people” but still depend on (and even fall in love with) them. Or we meet estranged sisters who return to the old summer cottage to mend fences after the passing of the family matriarch. Or, ooh! College friends who have grown in different directions, but reunite once a year to remember who they used to be before launching their high-powered careers (in PR, natch) with “free time” spent scrubbing at baby spit-up in the back of the minivan. If an old flame happens to show up on the shore, well … all the better.

I’m not putting down summer reads … not at all. Adulthood is fun because there is no syllabus. I read what I want and I don’t feel guilty about it. And a novel being classified as a “summer read” is no statement on its quality or general awesomeness. Take Taylor Jenkins Reid’s popular Malibu Rising, for example. Wow.

Anyway, you know all this. Summer reading is clearly a thing well beyond those mandatory lists in high school. That’s why there are so many lists.

I get it. And as a list enthusiast, I also respect it.

But I think we’re missing a big opportunity here: Fall reads.

The fall read is where the magic truly happens. Trading our piña coladas for pumpkin spice lattes naturally lends itself to all things cozy, including stories … the classics, perhaps. Little Women. Or simply books set in autumn, regardless of subject — books that capture the warmth and anticipation of my favorite time of year.

I took a mental health day last week. After assisting with a family emergency, my husband made it quite clear that I was to actually enjoy my day while the kids were at school … not, you know, fill the hours by scrubbing toilets or reorganizing closets. That’s hard, of course. With Hadley and Oliver occupied, I can actually do the things that need to be done around the house. But much in the way that I once forced myself not to always spend my newborns’ precious nap times doing dishes, I decided I was going to read.

Well — binge-watch “LuLaRich,” the new LuLaRoe documentary on Amazon Prime … which is so nuts it feels like satire. Then read.

That’s how I found myself outdoors with a bag of fancy caramel apple kettle corn (from Target, don’t get too excited for me) with Joanne Rendell’s Crossing Washington Square, which has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a solid decade. That cool Friday afternoon held a whisper of fall with its golden, slanted sunlight. It was basically perfect. Even I, an indoor cat, could not waste it.

So I sat outside for two hours (!), getting swept up in the politics of an elite English program with warring professors in this modern twist on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. We have college! New York City! Pompous MFA students! A budding romance! Fall leaves! It’s not earth-shattering, but it sure has been entertaining for this erstwhile English major.

So now that I’m fully embracing the fall read, I want more. I know some folks are again participating in RIP-XVI, the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge for spooky season — but I get freaked out enough by the nightly news. I did once stay up until 2 a.m. reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, devouring it all at once because I’d mistakenly believed I had another week to finish for a British lit course. But have I read anything creepy since? No. Suspense is OK, but, like … Harry Potter-level suspense. Kid-friendly suspense, basically.

So what’s on your Fall 2021 Reading List?

I’m ready to pounce on all autumnal suggestions.

Just let me grab that latte first.

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.