We can make it if we take it slow

Can we climb this mountain? I don’t know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let’s take it easy. Easy now, watch it go
—The Killers, “When You Were Young”

As we all grapple with a new reality (and isolation — ’cause social distancing), I’ve been trying to manage my anxiety with … chocolate? Well, yes. But that’s not ideal. With reading. Breathing. Walking outside. Writing. If I thought it would help, I would totally chew up a few extra anxiety pills.

Spring dayDaycare has closed. My work schedule has changed but there is still much to be done, which is also true for my husband. We are staying home as much as possible — especially challenging with a 3- and 4-year-old used to weekend adventures. Shenanigans in the park, at the very least. I’ve explained all this to Oliver as “many people are sick right now,” so schools, restaurants and stores are closed. So far, at least, they don’t seem to mind.

We haven’t seen my parents “in person” since Hadley’s birthday, now almost two weeks ago. I haven’t seen my sister, brother-in-law and niece in nearly as long. Their new baby is due in mid-April. After a week with us, my mother- and father-in-law departed for New York this morning. Like all of us, they’re not quite sure what they’ll find when they get there.

After more than 10 years, I wrote my final newspaper column today. I don’t think it’s actually occurred to me that it’s done. I haven’t had a chance to breathe or process … and haven’t wanted to, really. I’m worried that if I start to really think about how scary all this is, it’ll get ugly.

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Sometimes I’m OK. Sometimes I’m not. I try to just sit with that and accept it. There is no playbook right now.

Spencer created a daily schedule for all of us this morning (two adults trying to work from home — or checking in, at the very least; two kids who need structure). I think it’s helping. It’s giving me a sense of control, at least, and that’s nearly as important.

I’ve started a folder of screengrabs with positive thoughts, quotes, and ideas to remember when I get overwhelmed (which is often) — that’s helping, too. And I saw this T-shirt and legitimately laughed. I thought about when I was really in a bad place, mental health-wise, and I used to repeat my mantra — be here now — over and over again.

I can’t obsess about the future. Too much is unknown. But I can embrace this moment for all its imperfections, breathe, and be here now.

Here’s a small collection of stories and ideas that are keeping me from “losing heart and courage,” too.

What’s getting you through? Any great and hopeful links to share? I’m alllll ears.

Happy Monday, friends. ❤

 

Every tremor, every pulse

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The work truck was parked on the shoulder, door ajar.

I saw it long before I actually reached Allens Fresh — a stretch of marsh off the Wicomico. My commute takes me straight through this lowland daily. I might not have noticed the vehicle on a “normal day,” when fishermen crowd this strip and drop their skiffs. But this wasn’t a normal day. This is life in the time of COVID-19.

The roads haven’t been empty this week, but traffic has certainly been lighter. I’ve continued to report to the county hospital where drive-through COVID testing is now set up, working on communications. I’ve had a low-grade headache since Monday. Adrenaline has temporarily replaced caffeine. Sleep rushes up at me hard every night, thick and dreamless. Everything is surreal.

I noticed the truck because our vehicles were the only ones on this stretch of road. He’d pulled over just by the bridge — the one wiped out in the back-to-back tropical storms of 2011, the floodwaters erasing everything in their path.

I noticed the truck because, these days, I notice everything. Daily life has halted. Routines are totally disrupted. I’m hyper-aware of every sea change, every tremor, every pulse. Like all of us, I am waiting.

The sun was just cresting the horizon, painting Allens Fresh with warm orange light. Everything felt still. I was listening to The Killers — my current COVID coping mechanism — and trying to tune my brain to only white noise.

At first I thought the man was sick. He was so hastily stopped, not bothering with hazard lights. Not bothering to close the driver’s door. His work van was crookedly parked on the shoulder, like he’d skidded to a halt just in time. He couldn’t wait another second.

He was taking a picture.

On that strange morning, he’d hopped out to catch the sunrise. He was still.

I slowed as I passed, looking over to see the clear morning as he saw it. Miles later, I stopped to take a different picture: the tractor, the message … a reminder in strange times. Maybe a hopeful one, too. If everyone sees it, will they listen?

I got back to work.

And yes, I washed my hands.

Life in the time of corona

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What a week.

Has it only been a week?

Sort of. It’s really been longer. But only a week since what was once a distant, abstract concern sharpened into a serious concern that has dwarfed everyday life … making “everyday life” here in Maryland seem quaint.

It’s like a natural disaster is unfolding, only it’s a beautiful spring day. Like prepping for a blizzard, but without radar to monitor … and no obvious way to know when the danger will be over. At least after a hurricane, the sun can be counted on to guide us out of the gloom.

This is love and life in the time of COVID-19. Never have I felt so unsettled about what lies ahead. My human neighbors and I are all in the same boat. And I can’t distract myself or get away from it — not at home, certainly, where the kids are camped out. And not at work, where I’m still reporting to our hospital. The front of my office building has been turned into triage. Marketing, too, is needed on the front lines.

Even in my mid-thirties, I fight the urge in challenging times to run “home.” Back where my dad has a plan and a fridge full of food. Where my mom has crafts, People magazines, and a backlog of Hallmark movies on the DVR. Back where I am not in charge. Where I don’t need to worry about making the wrong decisions.

Despite the mounting concern and media frenzy, I’ve been trying to keep it together. For now, at least, I’m still needed and expected at work, and so is my husband. We have the relief of knowing the kids are taken care of, tucked at home while we wait to see what the rest of this surreal time brings.

When my mother- and father-in-law arrived, I thought I was going to cry.

“I can breathe now,” I told Spencer’s mom. “I feel like the grown-ups are here.”

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At home, I try to stay “normal.” We have been cleaning like crazy, finally cracking into some of the cleaning products we’ve had for ages because I keep dragging in more after forgetting we own them.

Though I don’t want pandemic anxiety seeping into the kids’ lives, there’s no way they aren’t picking up on it. Day care is still open but, with Spencer’s parents in town, we’re keeping them home in the name of social distancing. Hadley and Oliver are both old enough to understand the departure from routine; my son especially struggles with change. Still, with their grandparents visiting (thank god), Hadley and Oliver have company and novelty to distract them.

They have walks in the woods. Coloring books. Easter crafts. They have snacks and “Peppa Pig” and LEGO blocks for days. They have Play-Doh and puzzles. When desperate, they have tablets. And if I were home, too, I’d have my books.

Like parenthood, there’s a great lesson of life in the time of corona: so much is out of our control. Things that would have seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago — closing schools; shutting down restaurants and bars; postponing elections — have already happened. These are strange times, friends. 

I fluctuate between “everything will be fine!” and “wow this is bad,” and I’m learning to be OK with that. One day at a time. We can only stay calm, scrub up, and carry on. Give our phones a break. Pause the newscast.

No one knows what will happen, but we can hold on and help each other through a turbulent ride. So wherever you are and however you’re reading this, I’ve got a light on for you. For all of us.

May we see ourselves swiftly through to the other side.

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

IMG_4040Our marriage survived IKEA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess we’ll be going online after all.

 

Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was hooked.

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

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

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

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

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.

5/5

See more on Goodreads

write meg!’s reading honors for 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about balance. And coffee.

And reading with coffee.

… Now we’re talking.

Perfectly-imperfect holidays

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It took forever, but it’s back.

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

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

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

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

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

And I did.

I got better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to all a good night.