May 21, 2015

Another Tomorrow


It is one of my most vivid memories of Alisa.

Mike and I were sitting in the back seat of her car. Being poor, car-less college students, she had picked us up so we could babysit her boys. We had been dating for all of three months, and Alisa used the 30-minute drive to probe into our relationship.

Alisa: So . . . summer break is coming up. [I had plans to go home to Colorado for the summer.]

Us: Mmm-hmm.

Alisa: What are your plans as far as your relationship goes? Are you going to date other people? Stay exclusive? What?

Mike [casting a nervous glance at me]: We haven't really talked about it.

Alisa: Well maybe now would be a good time.

That little exchange has stayed with me for eleven years, not only because it made Mike and me look at the seriousness of our relationship (but not at that moment with Alisa listening in!), but because it is Alisa in a nutshell: blunt, concerned, opinionated. (Looking back, I'm also almost certain that Sonja, who is 17 months older than Alisa and was far away in Ohio at the time, had probably put her up to it: "How serious is their relationship? You need to find out and report back to me.")

I think that initial intimidation I felt in the backseat of her car never quite left. At the time, I was so impressed by what a talented, capable person Alisa was, so far beyond what I was doing and accomplishing. Just 25 years old, she'd been married for almost four years and had two little boys. She and her husband had recently purchased their first home. She was a Registered Nurse and also had a successful photography business (she was the one who took our wedding photos). She had an eye for beauty, and it showed in the way she dressed and decorated and lived.

I'm not trying in any way to summarize Alisa's life, so I'll cut right to the point. In 2007, Alisa was diagnosed with melanoma. Eight years later, on May 19, 2015, at the mere age of 36, she passed away. It was the morning of her 15th wedding anniversary.

My heart is so sad.

As with everything else, Alisa put her all into fighting cancer. Sometimes it took my breath away--her energy and determination and strength. (For example, this, from her husband, Josh, when she was doing IL2: "Alisa never ceases to amaze. After her 7th dose (and about 20 pounds of water) she decided to do one more.  A last ditch effort to kill the cancer with this treatment.  The doctors gave her a chance to be done, but she just kept on going.") She suffered through some pretty horrendous treatments in search of a permanent cure. And because she had a gift with words, she took family, friends, and even complete strangers on that journey with her.

There are a lot of things that don't make sense to me in this life, and this--this is one of them. I'm sure many of you have known similar people who still had so much life left in them and who desperately wanted to continue to brighten the world but didn't get the chance.

Over the last few weeks, my mind has been careening in opposite directions. Sometimes it goes the way of, "Cancer is a mean disease. I hate it." It is, and I do. It leads you on by a flaxen cord, giving you little glimpses of hope while tightening its grasp. Each little disappointment is a jolt, an unwanted surprise, a small tragedy. We've been experiencing a type of grief for the last eight years. We measured life in six-month or three-month, or even two-week, chunks of time. If only we could have one more year . . . And I realized it would never have been enough. We would never have had our fill of Alisa.

with Clark last summer

But sometimes, but not as often as I'd like, my mind takes a more hopeful turn, and I think about all the little (and even big) miracles that came along the way and that I was privileged to be able to witness. They came with a price (like I said, Alisa was willing to endure just about anything if it meant more time), but they were miracles nonetheless.

I'll never forget Alisa's post from almost three years ago. It was the one that stopped all of us in our tracks: "What's worse than a brain tumor?  How about TWENTY FIVE brain tumors?!  I didn't even know that was an option.  It seems very extreme, and the Dr. says not common." It just goes to show how weak my faith is that my reaction was, This must be it. She probably only has three months left.

But then three months later, we were all floored again. The brain tumors were gone.

Over the years, she was there for her three boys' baptisms, birthdays, recitals, and sports games. She was there for the farewells and homecomings of siblings who went on missions. She was there for family reunions and parties. She was there for the weddings of all eight of her siblings (Kirsten, the youngest, was married just three weeks ago, and Alisa was not only able to attend but also help.)

Alisa with all of her siblings (except Kirsten) at Mark's wedding last May (Kirsten was on a mission)

So the miracles, I know they're there, and I know they're continuing to happen even now (the white peonies--they're blooming right on time . . . ), but sometimes they're hard to focus on when my heart feels so heavy for her husband, Josh, and their three boys.

Last Friday, Mike and I went to their home to say good-bye. Josh was incredibly kind and gracious to the whole family and seemed to be so sensitive to family members' needs for closure. I'll admit, I was nervous to go. By that time, Alisa was no longer talking and in a peaceful state of rest for most of the time. Her room was still and quiet and felt almost sacred. I had a few minutes alone with her, during which time I planned on telling her a few of my thoughts and why I was so grateful for her. But the words were hard to get out. Eleven years later, in a completely different situation, I still felt shy around Alisa.

Alisa's blog has always been an inspiration to me. She knew how to say things in such a raw, honest, and beautiful way. I love this analogy of hers about the phases of life,
"When you plan a garden, . . .  you create 'rooms' with a little teaser entrance into the next space.  An opening that intrigues and lures you to another place, with a different design and feeling.  So behind the door that is tomorrow is just another place that I get to enjoy after loving the space I left behind."
When she wrote the post, she was referring mainly to the space of time granted to her in between scans. But I know it applies to this most recent transition as well: She went through the door to another tomorrow. She loved the space she left behind, but I believe she's enjoying the new space as well.

I know that for the most part, I have been a mere spectator to the last eight years. I know nothing of the grief that Josh or their kids or Alisa's parents or sisters are feeling right now. I don't even pretend to compare my grief with theirs. But I've still been searching for comfort and for answers to some of life's biggest questions, and this poem, by President Gordon B. Hinckley, has soothed my troubled spirit and brought me a measure of peace:
What is this thing that men call death
This quiet passing in the night?
’Tis not the end but genesis
Of better worlds and greater light.
O God, touch Thou my aching heart
And calm my troubled, haunting fears.
Let hope and faith, transcendent, pure,
Give strength and peace beyond my tears.
There is no death, but only change,
With recompense for vict’ry won.
The gift of Him who loved all men,
The Son of God, the Holy One.
This week, I've been reading The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. It's about a little boy who is raised by his Cherokee grandparents. At the end, as Little Tree's Granpa lays dying, his parting words are, "It was good, Little Tree. Next time, it will be better. I'll be seein' ye."

It was good, Alisa. Next time, it will be better. I'll be seeing you.


P.S. If you want to be inspired by Alisa's journey, you can read the first half (2007-2009) here or the second half (2011-2015) here.

May 18, 2015

Snack Report #1



As promised, I'm back to report on how my more intentional snack planning worked out. It was a good experiment for sure, but it needs some tweaking. There are some parts I want to keep, some I want to modify, and some that I plan to abandon altogether.

First, I loved having a set time each day. Out of habit, my kids would beg for food around the clock, and it was so nice (and liberating!) to be able to say, "Sorry, it's not time for a snack yet" or, "We already ate. Now you'll have to wait for dinner." For the most part, we stuck to the 9:30 am snack time, but we had to make the afternoon time a little more flexible. I found that if the younger ones could hold out, I preferred waiting until 4:00 when Aaron got home so I could feed them all at the same time. (Can you blame me?)

My kids quickly caught on to the pre-planned snack. I met with very little complaining when I pointed to the calendar and said, "Looks like celery and peanut butter today." If it was written down, they just went with it (and I admit to changing it on the spot a couple of times but still consulting the calendar for show--that's allowed). They got so used to it, in fact, that on Saturday (which was empty on the calendar), Bradley came up to me and said, "Write something on the calendar so we can have a snack!"

However, even though I liked writing the snacks down, I found that I didn't like writing them on the calendar. After a couple of weeks, it started to look so cluttered and messy, and the important things like appointments and reminders got lost amidst the grapes and bananas.

So I made up a generic outline that I just stuck in a plastic sheet protector so I can just use a dry erase marker on it. This will be our first week using it rather than the calendar, so I'll let you know if it's a better fit for us.


And now about the snacks themselves.

I loved the variety, and I loved having a plan. However, I did not love writing out a new plan every week. I'm a creature of habit, and I realized that, for the most part, I prefer consistently having the same snack schedule week after week after week and eliminate the need for decision. Gretchen Rubin said the "real key to habits is . . . the lack of decision making." I don't mind if we have bananas and peanut butter every Tuesday, but if I have to decide to have bananas and peanut butter every Tuesday, then it's probably not going to happen.

The snack planning wasn't all in vain however. As I sat down and planned out our snacks for several weeks, some go-to, favorite snacks emerged (bananas/pb, celery/pb/raisins, and, unfortunately, goldfish crackers. Turns out, we eat a lot of goldfish). This was really helpful and eye-opening for me, and, you can be sure, I'm turning to that data as I plan out our more permanent snacks. With my new outline, I wrote in the snacks we liked the most, and now I'll just change them out here and there as we want/need, but for the most part, they'll stay the same from week to week.


The one bit of variety I liked (and that I'm holding onto) was making a new recipe every Monday and freezing half of it. The freezing part didn't always work out because sometimes we liked whatever it was so much that we gobbled it up in record time, but I loved eating something new and different each week and enjoyed the chance to try out some new recipes I've found. Over the last four weeks, we made Savory Waffles (I love these, and they freeze really well, but unfortunately, they are not my kids' favorite),  Lemon Yogurt Bread (thumbs up--I could make this every week and be happy), Glazed Strawberry Bread (thumbs down; soggy texture = nasty), and Chocolate Zucchini Muffins (I didn't get to freeze any of these, we liked them so much).
 

So . . . I made some significant progress in the last few weeks, but I need to keep up my momentum because snack time is still far from effortless. I know I'm especially going to need to do some tweaking once school gets out. We just bought a share in our little neighborhood pool, so I'm definitely going to need some good portable ideas since we'll probably be spending most afternoons camped out by the water. Consider this the first snack report of many.

What are your favorite summer snacks? Do you have any good snack containers you like to use? (I'd prefer not to single-handedly fill up the landfill with Ziploc bags.) Also, any small coolers you especially like? Share your snacking successes (and failures, if you'd like)!

May 15, 2015

Origami: The Hobby of a Six-Year-Old

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old

It started innocently enough. At church, no less.

Aaron's teacher showed him how to fold a paper airplane. He came home and made fifty of them.

The paper airplanes gradually transformed. He started making so many different kinds of airplanes (I grew up under the false impression that a paper airplane was just a paper airplane--wrong!) that he ended up studying the effect of the dihedral angle of wings for his science fair project.

From there, he went to origami. One day, he came home from school with a book of very easy projects, and he made them all in an hour.

I have pushed a lot of things on my kids (reading, piano, chores...), but this is a hobby I've done almost nothing to encourage. (After he'd been doing it for months, I finally bought him a pack of real origami paper, and that's been about the extent of it.)

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old

It has been so fun to watch him discover something he really loves and pursue it all on his own. When we go to the library, he parks himself in the crafts section and pores over instruction books before deciding what he wants to bring home.

At home, he uses the coffee table as a workspace and can be found there most afternoons after school (I think it is a great de-stresser for him.) One of the things I've loved about origami is that, for the most part, he can teach himself through books and videos. Occasionally, he will ask for clarification on a step, but most of the time, he figures it out all on his own.

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old

Two of his favorite books (found by him, not by me) have been Make Your Own Art: Origami and Not-Quite-So-Easy Origami. They have taught him how to make (among other things) a crane, bird, pinwheel, and fortune teller. (The fortune teller especially has brought back a lot of childhood memories for me. It's been so entertaining to see the fortunes Aaron comes up with: "You will have 100 people in your family." "You will be an amazing Lego Builder." Or, my personal favorite, "You will read 2600 minutes in one day.")

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old
Although, like I said, I haven't done anything to cultivate Aaron's hobby, I have used it to my advantage. If you have a boy with origami skills, you might as well use them, I say.

My dad's 60th birthday was earlier this month, and since that's a bigger birthday than, say, 59, I wanted to do something special. I thought it would be nice if my siblings and I wrote sixty things about him that we love, but then I decided to extend the invitation to extended family and friends. After a few days, we had a great little collection of notes.

Growing up, my dad always made banners for us when it was our birthdays, so I thought it would be fun to make him a banner out of the sixty notes. At first, I was just going to cut out sixty hearts and write the notes directly onto them. But then I thought, Why not make sixty origami hearts and tuck each note into the pocket at the back of it? Then it would be like opening a little letter each time.

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old

Turns out, sixty is a lot more than I realized, but I had just the boy for the job. Up to that point, he'd never made a heart (I guess six-year-old boys think ninja stars are more exciting than hearts), but he quickly learned, and then he just pumped them out. I kind of expected him to get bored after fifteen of them, but he didn't. Then Max wanted to help, and even though his folds weren't as sharp or as accurate as Aaron's, he did a great job. Together, they cranked them out in no time with very little effort on my part (although I admit to making a few hearts myself, just for the fun of it).

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old

Then I punched holes in the side and strung them together. I printed off all the messages from family and friends, cut them apart, and tucked them into the little pockets on the hearts. By the time I was done, the banner was quite long. We stuffed the whole thing into an oversized envelope and shipped it off to Colorado where my dad opened it on his birthday and then spent the rest of the day unfolding the little notes and reading them.


This has been such a great hobby for Aaron. It's relatively mess-free (although if you saw his room stuffed with airplanes, cranes, and ninja stars, I think you'd disagree), quiet, and creative. Aaron has always loved math, and I think origami is great introduction to geometry with all its angles and shapes. It has taught me that sometimes my kids don't need me to come up with activities or interests for them. Sometimes what they come up with on their own is just perfect.

Origami is a great hobby for a six-year-old

May 14, 2015

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

Book review of Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin - What a fascinating look at forming habits and how they shape our lives.
Every night, I open my journal and write in it. I have done this every night for the last fifteen years (except for January 11, 2014 when, for some mystical reason unknown to man, I forgot).

That habit is as secure as getting dressed in the morning or brushing my teeth at night. And I've often wondered, Why? Why did that habit stick when a million other habits haven't? Why can I get myself to write every night even when I'm so exhausted my writing is illegible, but I can't get myself to consistently fold the clothes as soon as they come out of the dryer?

I read Better Than Before, hoping it would answer this question.

And it did. (Answer: I guess I used the Strategies of Lightning Bolt, Don't-Break-the-Train (which is encompassed in First Steps), and Pairing. Who knew?)

This whole book was an absolutely fascinating look at habits. When Gretchen Rubin first began her research for it, she discovered that most books about habit-formation gave readers a precise formula for how to create a habit. (People often say that it takes three weeks to form a habit, but from personal experience (and backed up by Gretchen's research), I can tell you that doing something for 21 days doesn't guarantee in any way that I'll do it on the 22nd day. In fact, telling myself that I only have to do something for three weeks gives myself a finish line, which Gretchen declares is a very bad idea.) Gretchen realized that only a small percentage of people were actually wired to be able to successfully follow a prescribed set of steps like that.

This makes sense, right? We know that people handle learning, parenting, friendship, and work in a million different ways. Why would we expect habit formation to be any different?

Gretchen Rubin uses the question "How does a person respond to an expectation?" to divide the general population into four different groups, or Tendencies. You have the Upholders (who are very self-motivated and responsible), the Questioners (if they can figure out why they should do something, they'll do it), the Obligers (they need external accountability for success) and the Rebels (they resist anything that feels the least bit restrictive).

When I talked last month about being an Overbuyer, I said I was pretty sure I was an Obliger who leaned heavily towards Upholding. But the more I read, the more I realized it was just the opposite: I'm an Upholder who follows through on external responsibilities first.

I love making personal goals and mapping out exactly how I'm going to achieve them. However, reading this book helped me realize that my goals will almost always come second to what other people expect of me, and so if I want to be more successful with forming a habit, I should tell someone else about it because then I feel very accountable. Gretchen Rubin quoted one of her readers, who said, "'When I tell people my goals, I feel 'uber' committed to them. I'm very careful about any commitment I make out loud, because it's almost as if I feel there's no way out of the commitment after I own it."

After Gretchen describes the Four Tendencies, she devotes the rest of the book to various Strategies for habit formation. There's the Strategy of Monitoring (as Gretchen says, "If we want something to count in our lives, we should figure out a way to count it."), the Strategy of Inconvenience (if you put the chocolate on the highest shelf in the kitchen, you're less likely to mindlessly eat it), and the Strategy of Pairing (a personal favorite of mine--if you tie one habit to another, it's more likely that both will occur). I counted them up, and I think Gretchen goes over nineteen different strategies (and within those nineteen, she breaks it down even further). That's a lot of tools; so many, in fact, that no matter what your natural Tendency, you can probably find something that will work for you.

I use the Strategy of Accountability to my advantage all the time, and this blog has provided a great forum for it. For the last three years, I've made reading goals, which have made me read all kinds of things I wouldn't have made time for otherwise. I also wrote a post about how I was managing my time online (and then felt super guilty every time I looked at my phone before lunch). And most recently, I wrote about how I wanted to make snack time more intentional and healthy (a follow-up post is coming soon, I promise). Once I write it down, it's like the law to me even if no one else reads it. It feels public, and so I have to follow through.

When I recognized what I was doing, I thought for sure it meant I must be an Obliger. But then I realized that the Strategy of Accountability works for all Tendencies, and the way I was employing it was actually like something an Upholder, not an Obliger, would do.

One of the other parts of the book that made a deep impression on me was the importance of beginnings and (a lack of) endings. A goal has a definite beginning and ending (I will plan, write, and publish this blog post). Conversely, a habit is a way of life (I will write three blog posts every week). The problem comes up when we confuse goals and habits--specifically, when we try to make a habit into a goal. When we have an end in sight, we go right back to our old ways after we feel like we've accomplished what we set out to do. When we form a habit, we leave the old way behind in favor of a new (and hopefully improved) one.

Ironically, just a couple of weeks before I started this book, Mike and I started a diet with a weight goal in mind. Right from the start, I was bothered with my mindset, which was something along the lines of, I can't wait to lose these last eight pounds. I can suffer through eating salad for lunch for a few weeks, and then I'm going to gorge myself on chocolate chip cookies. A habit is a lifestyle change, and too often I hope that the healthy eating habit will kick in if I'm working on a goal for six weeks. But in many ways, it's not the length of time that matters but the mindset of, I am someone who makes healthy choices.

I have to say that now that I've read three of Gretchen Rubin's books, I've become very familiar with her personal tastes, interests, and priorities. One of the reasons I love her books is because they feel very personal. She shares her own struggles and triumphs and likes and dislikes. However, sometimes her personal bias shined through just a little too much for me. I don't remember thinking this with the other two books, so it could just be that I've heard about her strength training and low-carb eating a few too many times, but sometimes her authoritative tone annoyed me (like when she concisely shut down the thirst-can-be-mistaken-for-hunger theory, and I happened to disagree with her). Even with those few annoyances though, I would never want to change her writing style. Her books would lose so much appeal for me if she cut out all the parts that were distinctly Gretchen.

Just a fair warning: you have not heard the last of this book. I have so many more things I want to discuss, but I can't fit them all into one review, nor can I do justice to them if I don't give them their own blog posts. So stay tuned for many more habit-themed blog posts in the future.

At the beginning of the book, Gretchen attempts to define what a habit is and why good habits are so beneficial. That definition stayed with me because it rang so true. She said, "Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self control."

That's it! That's why I am so interested in harnessing the potential energy of habits. I don't want to decide to eat an apple for a snack. I don't want to choose between washing the dishes immediately after eating or going outside with my kids. I don't want to wonder if I should help Aaron with his homework now or wait until tomorrow. Decision-making stresses me out and drains all my energy. I want as many things to happen automatically as possible so that I can focus all my attention on the things I really care about.

That's the power of habits. (Now excuse me while I go write in my journal.)

What are your most effortless habits? What are your Strategies?

May 11, 2015

How I Use Goodreads to Organize My Books

A few days ago, I was listening to the most recent episode of the Read-Aloud Revival. Sarah Mackenzie and Allison Burr were answering reader/listener questions, one of which was, "How do you organize your books?" I have to admit, I was stunned to find out that neither of them use Goodreads as a way to keep track of which books they've read, want to read, etc. It might sound silly, but for me, reading and using Goodreads go hand in hand.

I joined Goodreads in 2008, and during the last seven years, it has been an indispensable tool for organizing my books. I don't know what I'd do without it (I guess I wouldn't be reading as many books, that's what). I'm not going to claim that Goodreads is for everyone (obviously, Sarah and Allison have found some other ways that work for them), but if you are already using Goodreads or are thinking of trying it out, I thought I'd share a few of the ways I use it to help me keep track of everything I've read and want to read.

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool


Use the to-read, currently-reading, and read shelves

When you join Goodreads, they give you three shelves: a "to-read" shelf for books you want to read, a "currently-reading" shelf for books you're in the middle of, and a "read" shelf for books you've finished. These shelves are exclusive, which means that a book can only be on one of them at any given time. I love watching my reading progression, so I use all three shelves pretty diligently, and most of the books I read do the full migration from "to-read" to "currently-reading" to "read." Unless you're up to my level of nerdiness, you might not feel it necessary to use the currently-reading shelf, but the other two are really wonderful tools.

I used to spend a lot of time wondering, "What should I read next?" and I often ended up with poorly written, disappointing books that I had haphazardly grabbed off the library shelf. I never could remember my friends' recommendations when it was time to choose a new book. But Goodreads has solved that problem. Now, as soon as I hear about a book that sounds like something I would like, I add it to my "to-read" list. 337 books later, the only problem I have now is deciding which of all those great choices to read next. And that is a problem. (I know some of you limit how long you let your to-read list get, but I can't seem to do that.)

I also keep my "read" shelf up-to-date with all the books I've finished. Have you ever had someone ask you if you've read any good books lately, and you know you have, but for the life of you, you can't think of a single one? My "read" shelf helps my faulty memory. Also, I get an inordinate amount of pleasure in transferring a book from "currently-reading" to "read." It feels like I've accomplished something.

Add more exclusive shelves

One of the best things I ever did was add more exclusive shelves to my bookshelves. For a long time, I couldn't figure out how to keep track of all the pictures books we were reading or wanting to read. I didn't want to put them on my "read" shelf because that skewed my book count, but I also didn't want to forget about them.

For awhile, I considered just creating a separate account (or making a Word document for those books), but that seemed like so much hassle. Plus, there were other books I didn't know how to shelve, like ones I'd left unfinished for one reason or another. Which shelf should I put those books on? Or should I just delete them from my account completely? If I couldn't use Goodreads for all my books, then why bother with it at all?

And then I realized I could add more exclusive shelves. In an instant, my life changed for the better. It's really easy. Here's how:

On the home page, click on My Books.

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

Then go over to the left-hand side where your bookshelves are listed and click on "edit."

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

Type in the name of your new shelf, and add it.

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

Find the new shelf and go over to the column labeled "exclusive." Make sure it is check-marked.

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

And that's it! Now that shelf will be listed with your other exclusive shelves. When you find a book you want to add, simply go over to the book icon under the picture of the cover, and a little drop down list will appear. Select your new shelf from the list!

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

Categorize books

Besides exclusive shelves, I also add a lot of other non-exclusive shelves that help me organize and label all the books I've saved. Since these shelves are not exclusive, you can have as many of them checked at a time as you want. So, for example, if I wanted to add Neighborhood Sharks, I would first put it on my exclusive "picture book read" shelf, and then I would also click a few of the other shelves I've already created, like "animals," "educational," and "nonfiction picture books," so that in a few months when I'm looking for some great nonfiction picture books that we've already read and loved, I can go right to that shelf and find all the books I've labeled like that with one click.

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

It's extremely easy to add more shelves. Sometimes when I'm adding a new book, I might think, I want to remember that this was a great book about the seasons. If I don't already have a seasons shelf, then I hover over the book icon under the cover image and go to the bottom of it where it says, "Add shelf."

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

I click on it and then type in a new label. Then I save it so I can use it both right then and in the future.

Keep track of the books I own and the books I want to buy

Two of my shelves that I really love are labeled, "current home library" and "future home library." If we read a particularly good picture book that I would love to own someday, then I check "future home library" when I'm categorizing it. It takes all of half a second, and it saves me so much time when Christmas and birthdays roll around. I don't have to wrack my brain trying to remember which picture books I want to purchase for our collection. I simply click on "future home library," and they're all right there. (I also love having it for those times when my mom says, "Is there a book your kids would like for Easter?" Why yes, take your pick.)

How to Use Goodreads as a Book-Organizing Tool

The current home library shelf helps me remember what we have so we don't end up with duplicate books. It's also a great shelf for seeing which books we liked so much we decided to give them a coveted spot in our home library. These are our favorite-favorite-favorite books.

Are you a Goodreads fan? If so, do you have any great tips or tricks for organizing your books? I'd love to hear about them!

May 8, 2015

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Book review of Middlemarch by George EliotI had no intention of reading Middlemarch.

Several years ago, I remember Mike telling me that I should read it. Apparently, it was a casual acquaintance's favorite book. That wasn't much of a trusted recommendation, but I briefly considered it. However, when I saw the length, I tucked it away indefinitely. I love to read, but long books are still daunting because I know I'm going to give up weeks, maybe even months, when I could be reading something else.

So really, I had no plans to read Middlemarch.

But then at the beginning of the year, I made the goal to "Read two classics by female authors." I was thinking of Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf or Anne Brontë, but then one of my friends reminded me that George Eliot was actually a pen name for Mary Ann Evans. This same friend also said that if I read Middlemarch, then she would read it too, and then we could discuss it afterwards.

I just can't resist checking off a goal and having someone to discuss a book with. So without quite realizing what I was getting myself into, I checked out the audio from the library.

That was three and a half months ago. This book consumed nearly a third of this year. And was it worth it? Well, read on and decide for yourself.

The story is set in Middlemarch, a fictional town in central England. Although the cast of characters is quite large, the plot mainly focuses on two people: Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Interestingly, the two of them actually have very little interaction with each other until the end of the novel. Dorothea is intelligent, pious, and even a little self-righteous (provoking Will Ladislaw to say at one point, "I believe that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery"). All she really wants is to make a little bit of a difference in the world. So when Reverend Edward Casaubon (who is something like 20 years older than she is) asks her to marry him, she accepts (even though at the age of 18, she is not even close to desperate, plus she already has another offer from the dashing Sir James Chettam). Her younger sister, Celia, can't imagine what would drive her to such a decision, which leads to one of my favorite conversations in the whole book (between Celia and Mrs. Cadwallader):
"I am so sorry for Dorothea."
"Sorry! It is her doing, I suppose."
"Yes. She says Mr. Casaubon has a great soul."
"With all my heart!"
"Oh, Mrs. Cadwallader. I don't think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul."
"Well, my dear, take warning. You know the look of one now. When the next comes and wants to marry you, don't you accept him."
"I'm sure I never should."
"No. One such in a family is enough."
Anyway, true to Celia's fears, that marriage proves to be a disaster from the start, but meanwhile, Dr. Tertius Lydgate moves to Middlemarch. He is a young doctor and just getting started in his practice. He is similar to Dorothea in that he has high ambitions for his life, feels a strong loyalty to his profession, and intends to improve the world, even if it means rocking Middlemarch's hierarchy and politics just a little bit.

A wrench is thrown into his plans, however, when local beauty, Rosamond Vincy, falls for him. Before long, they are married, but Rosamond is unprepared to accept the meager salary of a young, struggling doctor, and their marriage is soon on shaky ground as well.

That little summary introduces you to the main characters, but it does not even begin to scratch the surface of what this novel is about (nor does it introduce you to my favorite couple, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth). I don't think it's possible for me to condense an epic novel into a few paragraphs, and I don't think that's what you came here for anyway.

If you've read Middlemarch, first of all, congrats, and second, let's go out for lunch and discuss it.

And if you haven't read it, well then, you're probably wondering if you should read it. Is this a classic that should be required reading for every single person on the planet?

Hmmmm . . . I'm going to say, no.

That's not because I didn't like it, and it's not because I didn't find a great deal of value in it. It's just that it took three and a half months to finish, and I'm not sure it was worth the sacrifice. A few weeks ago, I was at book club with the same friend who had agreed to read it with me. I told her I was on disc 18, and "it was finally picking up." And then I thought, Did you hear what you just said?! You've listened to over twenty hours, and it's just now becoming interesting?! There's something wrong with that.

That assessment wasn't entirely true. I hadn't found the whole thing up to that point uninteresting, but enough that it was feeling like a bit of a slog to get through. The question that I kept asking myself was, "If the ending is amazing, will the rest of the book have been worth it?"

George Eliot was a contemporary to Charles Dickens (the first installment of Middlemarch was published just a year after his death), and their novels follow similar structures. I've learned from the Dickens' novels I've read that the set up is worth it. You invest the time to get to know the characters and their secrets and then the ending brings everything together in a miraculous sort of way.

So that's what I was expecting to have happen in Middlemarch. And to a certain extent, that's what did happen. It was easy for me to finish the book. The tension between Rosamond and Lydgate was palpable. Their arguments were so real, I felt like someone could lift them straight out of the story and drop them into a modern novel and no one would guess they were written in 1870. And then there were Bulstrode's secrets (the most Dickenish part of the story for sure--you can't convince me Raffles wasn't actually one of Dickens' creations). And of course, how could I not love Will Ladislaw's tumultuous, but yet tender, passion?

So I'm torn. It is brilliant. I can see why it is on so many people's favorite lists, but . . . I don't think it will go on mine. I loved the characters and the commentary on marriage (so insightful!). And I found many of the passages to be worthy of being written down and remembered. But the middle was unforgivably tedious for me, and I'm just realizing that if I ever wanted to reread this book (and I believe if a book is a "favorite,"then of course you will want to reread it), I'd have to go through that again, and I don't think it would be worth it. One time, yes. A second time, probably not.

My experience reminded me of something that was said about Ladislaw's and Dorothea's relationship: "But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope." Sometimes listening to this book felt like despair (usually when I was trying to listen to it when my kids were awake--always a big mistake), but really that despair was only the "painful eagerness of unfed hope." I hoped it was going to get interesting. I hoped the ending was going to be amazing. I hoped things were going to work out for the best for all of the characters.

And, for the most part, all my hopes were fulfilled.

Tell me: Have you read Middlemarch? Are you glad you did? Who is your favorite character(s)? And what was the hardest part for you to get through (mine was when Mr. Brooke was running for a position in Parliament)?

May 6, 2015

KidPages: Five Guilt-Free Picture Books for Mother's Day

Most of the picture book reviews I write are for, as you might expect, kids. That's not to say you won't enjoy them too, but I'm sharing them because, first and foremost, my kids liked them.

But today it's just the opposite. Sure, your children might like these books (my kids love them), but I'm sharing them for all you moms out there.

However, if you're looking for sugary-sweet books about the loving relationships between mothers and children, this is not the right list. Just head on over to the bookstore--those are the books that will have their own display table.

For the rest of you, here are five picture books that help me feel better about being a mom. They feature authentic scenarios and believable dialogue, and they bear an uncanny resemblance to real life . . . at least, my real life.

Here are five picture books that won't make you feel guilty about the stress and drama that accompany motherhood.
  
1. Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, Mem Fox, illus. Marla Frazee
Confession: It's only spilled milk, but sometimes I lose my cool over spilled milk. If you do too, then you'll be able to relate to Harriet's mom.

Harriet is a pretty typical three-year-old (it never expressly says anywhere that she's three, but from her looks and the activities she's engaging in, she's three). She doesn't necessarily try to make messes, they just seem to follow her around. At breakfast, she turns upside down in her chair and knocks over her juice, which dribbles onto the dog. Later in the day, she paints a picture and doesn't wait for it to dry before she runs to show it to her mom--and consequently, paint runs all over the carpet.

You can tell that Harriet's mom starts out the day with the best of intentions. She doesn't like to yell, and so with each mess, she tries her hardest to stay calm and patient: "Harriet, my darling child . . ." But her patience gets a little thinner each time until finally, when Harriet rips open a feather pillow during nap time, she completely loses it. She yells and yells and yells.

Here are five picture books that won't make you feel guilty about the stress and drama that accompany motherhood.

And oh, how I can relate! I'm convinced that I begin the day with a prescribed amount of patience. Sometimes it can stretch until five o'clock, but if too many things drain it, or I don't get my hour or two of quiet time in the afternoon to replenish it, then I act very similarly to Harriet's mom.

I'll give you an example: Monday was fairly typical - Clark clung to my legs and whined, Bradley jerked his bowl off the table (one of those suction cup bowls--great in theory, horrible in practice) and spilled milk and cereal all over, the boys bickered and fought, etc. I felt little twinges of irritation but stayed calm. Then, during quiet time, I heard the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. I walked into Maxwell's room and found that he'd thrown a pillow at his light (apparently, he was trying to get a ladybug off of it), and it had broken into hundreds of shards and pieces. But still, I didn't lose it (mostly because I was just so incredibly grateful he hadn't gotten hurt). It wasn't until it was time to pick up Aaron from school and we were running just a couple of minutes late. I hurried the kids out to the van and found it in a complete state of chaos. Every carseat was unbuckled and turned over, the driver's seat was completely reclined, and the mirror was totally skiwampis. And then I lost it. I knew, of course, that Max and Bradley had been pretending it was a rocketship earlier in the day, but I had completely forgotten to go put it back in order. Now I was up against the clock, and I can't stand being late. Like Harriet's mom, my patience was gone.

The wonderful thing about this book though is that it shows the explosion but then the resolution. After Harriet's mom gets through yelling, she takes a deep breath, hugs Harriet tight, and says she's sorry. This is a good book for my kids to read because it reassures them that moms have hard days, too.

And on the drive over to school (we were late), I said I was sorry, too.

2. Llama, Llama, Red Pajama, Anna Dewdney
I've loved the Llama, Llama series for many years, but this one strikes a particular chord with me. Mama Llama puts Baby Llama to bed. She reads him a story, snuggles with him, and gives him a kiss on her way out. Then she begins to get some much-needed work done.

Within minutes, Baby Llama feels alone and wants the never-fail request: a drink. He calls down to Mama, she calls back that she'll be up soon. But of course "soon" for an adult is not the same as "soon" for a child, and pretty soon, Baby Llama is weeping and wailing, shrieking and screaming for his mama to run to him.

I've had this exact same experience dozens of times. My five-year-old, Maxwell, is the #1 culprit of the "ceaseless shrieking method." Invariably, he always employs it when I'm putting Clark to sleep or on the phone or otherwise occupied and unable to call back to him without further damage. My favorite is when he does it in the middle of the night, and his shrieks pierce the quiet stillness.

Mama Llama's response? With hands on her hips, she scolds, "Baby Llama, what a tizzy! Sometimes Mama's very busy." She admonishes him to be more patient and then tells him that she loves him. It ends on a very sweet note, and as with Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild, I love the conflict and resolution that's portrayed.

Here are five picture books that won't make you feel guilty about the stress and drama that accompany motherhood.

(If you like this one, Llama, Llama, Mad at Mama is equally good. In the midst of a colossal tantrum in the store, Mama Llama firmly says, "Llama, llama, that's enough." (And she means it.))

3. Love You Forever, Robert Munsch, illus. Sheila McGraw
Are you surprised that this one is on the list? This is probably considered one of the "classic" Mother's Day picture books and falls into the sappy category (either that, or disturbingly creepy--you decide).

But I'm not including it for either of those reasons but because I am this mother. During the day, my kids sometimes drive me a little crazy (that picture of the little boy in the bathroom with toilet paper stretching across the floor, getting ready to chuck his mom's watch down the toilet? That is Clark to a T right now). But for all the craziness, I fiercely cling to my kids' childhoods. I resent their birthdays because they're growing up too fast.

And every night, without fail, I go into their dark bedrooms and kiss their soft cheeks and put my hand on their backs to feel their slowly rising breaths. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I have to go give all four of them a quick check before I can go back to sleep.

Here are five picture books that won't make you feel guilty about the stress and drama that accompany motherhood.

That's all fine and normal (right? I don't think I'm alone with wanting to see their peaceful sleeping faces before I go to bed), but I don't like to admit how much I'm already dreading the day when each of them leaves home and lives on his own. It's going to be hard to give them up, and I'm just a little worried I might be tempted to strap a ladder to my car and drive across town in the middle of the night. Luckily, we still have many years ahead of us, and I think the transition will be gradual enough that I'll be ready for it when it comes. But I'm just a little worried . . .

4. Betty Bunny Wants Everything, Michael B. Kaplan, illus. Stéphane Jorisch
I've talked about Betty Bunny before (in Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake), but there I focused more on Betty Bunny herself and also her older brother, Bill. This time I want to talk about Betty Bunny's mother.

In this story, she takes her four children to the store and tells them that, as a special treat, they may each choose one toy. (Bill's response is priceless: "I'll just take the cash.") Betty Bunny is overcome by all of the amazing toys she sees, and she starts piling the cart with them. Even though Henry and Kate and Bill and their mom all try to stop her, she won't listen (which leads Bill to say, "Keep acting crazy. It makes the rest of us look good").

Finally Betty Bunny's mother says that if she can't decide on one toy, then she won't get any toys. She sticks to her guns, and picks up a screaming, crying Betty Bunny and marches out of the store. I can empathize with her, to be sure, but I'm also so inspired by her. She doesn't pay attention to the looks being thrown her way from the other customers. She knows this is something she has to nip in the bud, right then and there, or this will be a problem every time they go to the store. She remains unflustered when Betty Bunny calls her the "meanest mommy in the whole world," and she and Betty Bunny's dad come up with a wise and calm solution.

Here are five picture books that won't make you feel guilty about the stress and drama that accompany motherhood.

I love Betty Bunny's mother's quick discipline; I love the way she turns an unpleasant (even embarrassing) situation into a teaching moment; and I love the teamwork and unity between her and Betty Bunny's father. This book makes me feel better about being a mom--not because I'm always as calm and collected as this mom in the face of tantrums but because I believe that with practice, I can be.

5. The Seven Silly Eaters, Mary Ann Hoberman, illus. Marla Frazee
This might well be my favorite picture book of all time. It makes me a little nervous to make such a declaration, but I honestly can't think of another book that tops it. I like it so much that I bought it for myself, not for my kids (although I do let them look at it on occasion).

And the reason I love it so much? Well, I love the text (MaryAnn Hoberman's rhymes are gold), I love the illustrations (I've said before that Marla Frazee is my favorite illustrator), and I love the story.

But mostly, I love Mrs. Peters.

Here she is with her seven children, trying her hardest to please each one. She is like a short-order chef giving Peter his perfectly warm milk, Lucy her homemade lemonade, Jack his applesauce, Mac is smooth and creamy oatmeal, Mary Lou her soft and squishy bread, Flo her poached eggs, and Fran her fried eggs. And do they appreciate it? Not a bit.

And finally, finally, Mrs. Peters can't stand it anymore. She is overworked and overwhelmed. There are dishes in the sink, bread is spilling out of the oven, the counters are crowded with eggs and milk,  the cupboard doors are open, there's laundry (some of it folded, some in a basket) by the kitchen table, and Mrs. Peters is standing in the middle feeling like she has no control over anything.

Here are five picture books that won't make you feel guilty about the stress and drama that accompany motherhood.

I have been there.

I don't have seven children, but I have four, and sometimes I feel exactly like that picture. I look around me at my disaster of a house, and I feel like I'm drowning. There's no way for me to get on top of the mess and meet the constant flow of demands. I know what it feels like to be so overwhelmed, the only thing I can do is go to bed and hope that things will be better tomorrow.

And guess what? Just like when Mrs. Peters wakes up and finds that her children have not only remembered her birthday but made her a beautiful birthday cake, things often seem brighter in the morning for me, too.

Who is your favorite picture book mother? Who do you relate to? Who inspires you? Please share in the comments!
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