When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask

Pumpkins

When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask.
It just walks in where it left you last.
You never know when it starts
until there’s fog inside the glass
around your summer heart.

“Something’s Missing,”
John Mayer

What reminds you of fall?

For me, it’s John Mayer’s “Heavier Things.” Buying the album on CD that first fall of my freshman year with cash from my first job. Watching the fog clear on the windshield of my old Corolla — the one before the one I’m currently selling, now that the minivan life has taken its hold. Listening to “Clarity” while I felt both too young and too old at college.

It’s dinner in the slow cooker — stews, chili. Chicken and wild rice soup.

Warm quilts. Sweatpants. Candy corn.

Stowing away flip-flops, digging out boots. Warm, sunny afternoons and crisp evenings.

Mums on porches. Mornings thick with dew. Finding last season’s jackets and slipping little arms into their sleeves, wondering if anything still fits.

This year, it’s also my son pointing out each crispy leaf, asking if we’re any closer to Halloween. Excitedly announcing that “it’s fall time!” with a commitment to giving a home to any lonely pumpkin we see … just like his mama.

My heart is not a summer heart. I adore spring, when my babies were born, and winter has its cozy charms.

But fall is still my favorite. Let’s get started.

 

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Skeletons outside the closet

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Four-year-old Oliver has an unusual new interest — one I did not predict . . . and don’t quite know what to do with.

Skeletons.

This is the kid that, apropos of nothing, will try to catch my eye in the minivan mirror with questions like, “Mommy, how did I get here?”

Get . . . here?

“Yes. Here on Earth. On our planet. Where did I come from?”

Ah. Here we go.

I have always been a philosophical mess, so these “big picture” questions don’t really surprise me. In elementary school, I can remember turning to my little sister and asking something like, “Isn’t it weird how we’re humans?” 

But I haven’t been ready for all the questions we’re suddenly getting — especially since I don’t often know the answers, either. (That’s where Alexa comes in. Or Wikipedia. Or, you know, books.)

Many of the recent inquiries have been about bodies. Nothing too awkward, thankfully, but we’ve definitely entered the age of awareness. Ollie thought skeletons were just spooky figures in “Scooby Doo” — Halloween props, or creepy artwork. I nearly blew his mind when I told him that everyone has a skeleton. 

“Where?” he asked.

Under our skin, I said. Bones make up our bodies, and that’s our skeleton.

“But why do I have a body?”

See? So my kid.

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I recently pulled up a diagram to highlight the basics of the skeletal system. I didn’t know what most of those bones were called — except for the phalanges, that is. (Every middle-schooler goes through an absolutely hilarious “Hey, Linda, I can see your phalanges!” phase, right?)

He studied it with me, pointing out familiar parts like the feet and hands. We found a kids’ YouTube video that walked us through the topic, too.

Spence and I have been doing our best to answer Ollie’s increasingly deep questions without stressing the kid out. He has a sensitive heart — and an inquisitive mind. I love his curiosity, but I’m also having a tough time coming up with matter-of-fact responses to some of his bigger questions.

And a few have broken my heart a little.

“Mommy,” he whispered one night, when we have our most heartfelt conversations. Ollie shot straight up in bed like a wild thought had just occurred to him. And, you know, maybe it had. “I’m going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger?”

Well, yes, bud, I whispered back. I certainly hope so.

This was brought on by needing to retire his John Deere T-shirt — a longtime favorite. It’s a 4T, and the kid has moved several sizes beyond . . . plus it’s so thin from constant wash and wear that it’s fraying at the edges. Small holes dot the neckline.

I’d tried to tuck it away without him noticing, feeling sad myself. It was his go-to outfit for more than a year. You know those “I Really Love My . . .” features in People, with a celebrity wearing the same scarf or hat or boots in a million settings? That’s Ollie’s John Deere shirt. So many of my favorite pictures include him wearing it.

I’d been quietly pulling a few worn tops from his bin to add to the closet collection. Oliver saw me packing it up because, of course, he misses nothing — and he was despondent. I wound up putting it back, though it’s since been gently stored.

“I’m going to get big like Uncle Eric?” Ollie continued, thinking of his six-foot-tall buddy.

Maybe. You’ll get taller, though we don’t know how tall. We’ll see when you’re a grown-up.

“But I don’t want to get bigger,” he suddenly wailed, and the way his tears came on really took me aback. “I want to stay little.”

Ugh. Gutted, I tell you.

I wish I could say I had an eloquent response — something that soothed my son, profound and memorable. I didn’t. I struggle, too. Though I do feel decidedly “mom-ish” these days, my adult skin — and parent skin — didn’t quite seem to fit for a long, long stretch. I always wonder if I’m doing this right. “This” being, you know . . . everything.

I do feel a lightening lately, though . . . like my eyes are readjusting after exiting the cave of maternal exhaustion, anxiety, worry. I find joy in little moments. I’m not so tense. I trust my instincts more. I’m less easily phased by spilled milk or thrown toys. I have my moments, don’t get me wrong — but I also feel like maybe I’m doing OK.

And I hope that, in time, I’ll be able to cobble together responses to the many big questions my children will ask of me.

I might not have “answers,” but I hope I’ll have honest and thoughtful words to share.

And when in doubt? Well, I’ll look for the diagram.

My kids’ favorite books — and my favorite kids’ books

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When I daydreamed about becoming a mom, the vision of reading to my curly-haired children (who do, in fact, have curly hair!) often included a book in my hands. I did the whole “read to your belly” thing when pregnant, even though that felt awkward. And I started collecting children’s books long before I had the children themselves.

It’s taken a little while, but for the most part? I think we’re raising readers, which makes me so happy. My daughter, in particular, loves to share stories; she’s always schlepping into our “library” (now more of a giant toy box, let’s just be honest) to grab a book and plop into my lap. Oh, the joy. Alllllll the heart-eye emojis.

Hadley is now two and a half, and Oliver is four. Both have Fire tablets (I know, I know!), which tend to occupy their attention … but my husband and I have been pretty diligent about controlling their time spent in front of screens, even though it’s just so dang easy to let them zone out while I do … well, anything. Like cook dinner. Or go to the bathroom. Or answer the group text that’s gotten out of hand.

But I don’t want glassy-eyed zombie kids sprawled out in the living room. The tablets have their time and place — but we read to the kids nightly, and try not to reserve stories simply for bedtime. I say this not to be smug, but to really say that we’re making an effort! I think that’s my mom motto: making an effort. Trying. Striving.

So here’s what they’re loving lately . . . and what I’m loving, too. Because let’s be honest: there’s nothing fun about re-reading PAW Patrol: To the Lookout for the 97th time!

Just try telling that to my son.

 

Hadley’s Faves

I Love You Just Like This by Sesame Workshop: The “Sesame Street” love is still going strong at our house, and this sweet story about how much Elmo’s mom loves him has great illustrations and all those beloved characters. I will totally own that I tear up at the end, too.

Five Little PumpkinsFive Little Pumpkins by Tiger Tales and Ben Mantle: OK, how adorable is this? I have such fond memories of this story told in song form when my sister and I were in elementary school. I bought this book for Ollie as a baby and can’t resist its charms. Neither can Haddie.

Pop-Up Surprise Haunted House by Roger Priddy: Cute rhymes, captivating (and spooky!) pop-up characters — Hadley can’t get enough of this one. Our record is fives times in a row.

 

Oliver’s Faves

The Little School Bus by Margery Cuyler and Bob Kolar: Driver Bob picks up students en route to school, and I love how inclusive and sweet this story is. (Also, Bob drinks coffee faithfully — I feel you, Bob.) Ollie just loves all the vehicles and enjoys finding kids who “look like Uncle Eric.” The whole series is really fun!

Oliver book.jpegOliver Who Would Not Sleep by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland: Ohhh, the irony. Not terribly surprising that my son loves a book spearheaded by a little boy named Oliver who refuses to go to bed, preferring his adventures in outer space. We read this nightly, and the cadence of the story is soothing.

Goodnight Tractor by Michelle Robinson and Nick East: This book is a total snoozefest — and I mean that in the best way. It’s like a drug. I barely get to the halfway point when my rambunctious guy will pass out cold. It’s melodic, fun to read (and listen to), and definitely perfect for tractor lovers.

 

My Faves

truffula treesI’ve been trying valiantly to get the kids into Dr. Seuss, pulling out all my childhood favorites in the process. I had some success with The Lorax after they watched the recent version of the film with its candy-colored Truffula trees. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is next on my list! Man, that book captured my imagination as a kid.

I’m guessing this will be surprising to exactly no one, but I can still barely through through On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman without breaking down into tears born of love, fear, and everything in between. Reading it to Ollie takes me back to the night he was born, finally coming into the world at almost 10 p.m. Phew — read at your own risk.

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What books are you sharing with the little ones in your life? 

Do you have a favorite Seuss classic?

Are you weirdly surprised to see me posting on a random day in September?

I swear I’m still chugging along, though I do find myself spending less time on social media and being more thoughtful about what and how I’m sharing online. Not out of fear, per say … but an awareness that I’ve been putting my life out there for a long time, and sometimes it feels right to reserve a little something for my family … and myself.

Does that make sense? I don’t know. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still tired and drinking way too much coffee. But I’m home with a stomach-sick Hadley boo today, so it felt like the right time to check in. I’m still here, and you can also catch me on Instagram. Hi!

Love and restraint: Thoughts on ‘Five Feet Apart’

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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?

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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.

 

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.