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A post for the new year, five days late, but better than never!  I had such great intentions for drafting a Thanksgiving post, which then turned into a Christmas post, and has now inevitably turned into a late New Year’s post.  2012 was a momentous year, with several huge milestones.  We settled into a new life in the suburbs, transitioning from our urban rental right outside of downtown Austin to a single-family home south of the city.  I left my job and transitioned into the role of stay-at-home- mom.  But most notably, of course, was that March of 2012 gave me my two precious miracle babies. (I’d like to point out here that I still refer to them as “precious” even as I sit here watching Cameron on the baby monitor sitting in his crib and screaming at the camera with indignant fury at being told it is nap-time).  We spent the rest of 2012 transitioning from the DINK (double-income-no-kids) lifestyle to the new-parents-single-income lifestyle.  A shock to the system to say the least!  I am convinced this transition will last until our boys are grown and gone and the next transition begins.

Last night we had dinner with a couple we just met who moved to Austin a month or so ago and is expecting twin boys in February.  Talking with them and hearing their questions made me reflect on this past year.  All of a sudden, I realized that WE are now the experienced ones, as crazy as that sounds.  Because on a daily basis, my husband and I are pretty darn sure we have no clue what we are doing.  But after a little more than nine months, I have given up the obsessive book and internet research that was making me crazy and we have adopted a system of child-raising (at least in this early stage) that can be summed up by asking, “Is anyone choking? sick? covered in poop? pee? vomit? no? OK, we’re good.”

Our conversation with this couple allowed me to reflect back on the last nine months of our lives.  I remember the day Aidan and Cameron were born, how nervous, excited and overwhelmed I was.  After over a year of tests, surgeries, fertility treatments and repeated disappointments, the moment hadn’t seemed possible.  I remember seeing them for the first time, so very little, and not believing that they were both actually inside me just moments before!  That week in the hospital, I felt so protective of these tiny beings that were entirely dependent on me for survival and I didn’t see how I could possibly love anything any more than I loved them.  But nine months later, I think that, if possible, I love them even more than I did during that first week.  And it feels like that love grows every day.  If it keeps up on this exponential scale, I worry that my heart might possibly burst at the seams.

Me and the boys

Then

Me and the boys xmas

Now

I am so excited about 2013.  I look forward to spending time with my new little family and my wonderful friends, the boy’s first birthday, beginning several projects and working on several in progress.  I know that 2013 will have rocky parts, just like 2012 did, but we made it through, survived and thrived.  So bring it on 2013!

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“That is part of the beauty of all literature.  You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone.  You belong.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

I am what you would call a bibliophile.  I love books– I mean, I really, really love them. (My husband can attest to this as the number of book boxes he has had to pack and move increases each time at what he feels is an alarming rate).  And I’ve loved them as long as I can remember.  I recognize now that I owe my parents a great deal of gratitude for introducing me to books at an early age and for encouraging me to read when I was younger.  I remember my dad reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to my brother and I when we were little, along with selections from Edgar Allen Poe including “The Raven,” in which he would croak the word “nevermore” in his best impression of what a creepy talking raven would sound like.  I remember devouring the Nancy Drew mysteries, wondering how I could lead such an adventurous and exciting life.  I also remember when my third grade teacher read us Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and I would listen in amazement, think about the characters for the rest of the day and night, and anxiously await the next chapter.  My mother would take my brother and I to the library and we would cram all the books we could in the bag she brought to take home.  I still have that kid in a candy shop feeling when I walk into a library.  Rows and rows of books on any subject you could imagine and thousands of different stories just waiting for you to lose yourself in them – I want to stay for hours.  (I thought I should be a librarian for awhile until I realized that the job description did not include sitting in the library and reading the books).  I miss having the time that I had when I was a kid, and even when I was in college, to read a book for hours.  Still, I do try to read at every opportunity and usually can’t wait until I can climb into my bed and pick up that book on the nightstand.

My husband doesn’t know it yet, but this is the design for our den…

Every summer there are various “Summer Reading lists” put forth by everyone from Barnes and Noble to the New York Times Book Review.  Since we are almost midway through August, I thought I would share my own summer reading recommendations.  (As a side note, I feel a duty to mention that yes, I did read Shades of Grey because the trilogy was numbers one, two and three on the NYT Bestseller list and I was curious.  No, I did not read the sequels as the first was so poorly written –and I mean grammatical errors galore not to mention just bad prose–and the plot so flimsy that I found myself wondering just how exactly the author was going to fill up two more books.  Oh right, more completely ridiculous sex scenes. But she is laughing all the way to the bank so what does she care and how can I blame her!)

What follows are some of the best books I have read in the past year or two.  They have terrific story lines, amazing characters, and give a GREAT summer escape.

1. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon.

This book was originally published in 1991, and I had never heard of it until my mother-in-law, a fellow bibliophile, gave it to me for Christmas.  It was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.  I feel like I should warn you that actually, this is the first book in a series.  Book eight is scheduled for publication sometime in 2013.  And once you start reading Outlander, you will have to read the rest of the series.  The books tell the story of Claire Randall, a nurse during WWII who travels to Scotland with her husband after the war is over.  After stumbling upon some ancient stone ruins,  she finds herself transported back to Scotland in  1743.  There she meets James Fraser, a Scottish Highland warrior (who you will absolutely fall in love with) and you will have to read the book and the rest of the series because I am not spoiling it with any more description.  Diana Gabaldon is a former professor and she researches her books so well that the level of detail in this historical fiction is fascinating.  She also has a great sense of humor that comes across in her writing.  Definitely some of the best character development I have ever seen, I envy her talent.  You will forget these people aren’t real.

 

Dark brown book cover saying "The HISTORIAN"; then "A Novel" in a shiny gold stripe, then "ELIZABETH KOSTOVA". A few thin reddish streaks stretch from the top almost to the bottom.

2. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Again, my mother-in-law gave me this book and when I started to read it, I had no idea it was about vampires.  And no, it is nothing like Twilight. There aren’t any vampires falling in love, driving fancy sports cars  or sucking peoples blood.  This author has obviously painstakingly researched this book and it reads like a really creepy history book about eastern Europe.  I could not put it down.  It opens with a young woman who finds a stack of letters in her father’s library addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor…”  She begins to track down secrets of her father’s past which lead to some very dark places.  The book is actually like one of those scary movies where nothing outwardly scary is happening, but you are holding your breath and have adrenaline surging in your veins and can’t point to exactly why.  Let’s just say I did want to sleep with my light on a few times.

 


3. A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Okay, so this one also has a vampire in it, and a witch, and daemons… but before you think I am a nut, this book was very surprisingly good!  Again, nothing at all like the Twilight, etc. phenomenon.  The author is a history professor.  On her website, she says she thought one day, “if there really are vampires, what do they do for a living?”  This is the story of Diana Bishop, a PhD student who is a witch but does not actually want to be one and has spent her entire life fighting her identity.  One day, when she is researching in an Oxford library, she finds a book which causes all sorts of attention to come to her from the world of creatures (i.e. witches, vampires, daemons, etc.)  This includes attention from Matthew Clairmont, a 1500-year-old vampire who is a geneticist and DNA researcher.  I love the storyline of this book and I love how the author weaves all of these mythical and magical elements into society in a way that seems so real.  The book is the first in a trilogy and I just finished reading the second book, Shadow of Night.  That book also reads like a history of Elizabethan England (another subject that fascinates me) and I couldn’t put it down.

The Book Thief,9780375842207

4. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

This is an amazingly creative story about a young girl during World War II in Nazi Germany related to the reader by the narrator, Death.  This is a young adult book, but is one of those books that is so powerful, I think every adult should read it.  As you can imagine from the description, it is sad subject material, but the writing is beautiful and the story and characters extremely moving.  I recommended this to my book club and everyone loved it. (Caution: You will need a box of Kleenex).

5. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.

This book is all about the politics, lies, sex, and intrigue of King Henry the VIII’s court told from the vantage point of Thomas Cromwell.  Such a great book and and interesting take on historical fiction.  I liked the portrayal of Cromwell as a sympathetic figure– it comes across as almost a “rags-to-riches” story of his survival and eventual appointment as one of King Henry’s advisers.  Again a fantastically researched historical fiction book.  This book ends with the execution of Thomas More and the sequel entitled Bring up the Bodies was just released, which details the rise and ultimate fall of Anne Boleyn.

 

 
ENJOY!  I am about to start Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.  I hope it’s as good as it sounds!

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A Balancing Act

“Desire urges me on, as fear bridles me.”

– Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600)

I came across this quote in a book I was reading recently and the truth of it struck me.  It seems to describe almost every aspect of my life (and I’m betting I’m not the only one, although perhaps this is misplaced hope that I’m not the only one stuck in the mire).  Whether in my work, relationship, or personal ambitions, I always seem to be engaged in a constant back and forth dance between the desire for something I want to have, be, or create, and the fear that inhibits action.

My twenty-month-old niece came to visit recently and I spent the whole weekend watching her explore her world, envious of her unbridled zest for life and desire to do and discover whatever was in front of her.  At one point, in the pool in my neighborhood, my sister-in-law put her waist deep into the one- foot baby pool.  Instead of crying or cowering in fear at the new experience, she squealed with delight and began to walk, then run, through the water.  Even after she went headfirst under the water a few times because she got in front of her feet, she merely coughed, blinked the water from her eyes, and then begged to be put back into the water to continue her explorations.  When I lifted her out of the water and splashed her back in, she threw back her head in mid-air and screeched with what can only be described as the purest joy. 

Compare this to adult life, where, when one has fallen headfirst quite a few times into deep water (as I most certainly have), the tendency is to withdraw into yourself out of a fear of falling again rather than letting yourself experience life’s challenges with relish.  I wish I could bottle and sell some of the simple joy that radiated out of my niece all weekend over every new event or thing put in front of her — I’d be a rich woman.  Don’t get me wrong, there are most definitely moments in the life of a twenty-month-old that I would not describe as “radiating simple joy” and that in fact may be more accurately described using words like “exorcism.”  However, those moments are fodder for another post entirely.

I think my new mission will be to constantly remind myself to experience and live life like a twenty-month old; I’ll try to look at everything I see with wonder and attempt to let go of the fear to follow every one of my desires.  Then perhaps someday I’ll be able to master this life-long balancing act between desire and fear. I just might leave out the back to back episodes of Dora the Explorer.

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Today marks the summer solstice.  A quick Google search reveals that in purely astronomical terms, this means the sun will be at its highest point in the sky for the whole year at noon today and that this is the longest day (and conversely the shortest night) of the year.  It also marks a turning point of sorts.  The days from this point on will grow shorter and the dark hours longer until the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day and the longest  night. 

Pondering this today (a girl can’t write legal memos all day long– honestly), I found the cyclical nature of this astronomical occurrence somewhat comforting.  No matter what is going on around you, whether it be in your personal life or things observed in the world at large, this sun cycle stays constant. Just as it has for thousands of years.  A reminder that days, even years, go on one after the other — each one marking a new beginning and reminding us that we (and especially our perceived problems) are a very small part of a larger force in the universe. 

A quick Google search also reveals that I am certainly not the first to ponder the deeper meanings of this cycle.  In fact, different religions and cultures across the world have ascribed important meaning to this day and the cycle on a grander scheme for thousands of years.  One of the more notable examples is at Stonehenge, whose main axis was designed to line up perfectly with the sun rising on summer solstice (I told you, it really is impossible to write legal memos all day…thank you Wikipedia).  In any case, I think I will take my camera out tonight and attempt to capture this solstice sun on its way out.  Until then, a poem in honor of the solstice. 

The Summer Day

– Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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The Guest House

The Guest House
– Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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“I came across a fallen tree,

I felt the branches of it looking at me.

Is this the place we used to love?

Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

Oh simple thing, where have you gone?

I’m getting old and I need something

To rely on….”

KEANE, “Somewhere Only We Know,” Hopes and Fears, 2004.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with forts.  Not the kind constructed out of the sofa cushions – although my brother and I fashioned our fair share out of blankets and his bunk beds—but the outdoor variety.  We lived in several different places when I was growing up because my father was in the Navy, and in each place I have a memory of some small space I created for myself outdoors.  Sometimes it was mine alone, a private place where I escaped, and sometimes it was shared, a group undertaking.

In Maryland, my first “fort” was in reality a small clearing behind a large pine tree by the fence on the side of our backyard.  I would push back the dense, sticky, fragrant branches of the pine and there it was, waiting for me.  A place only I knew about (or so I imagined).  There I would store priceless artifacts: small rocks I found, interesting leaves, or trinkets collected at school.  Sometimes I would read there.  And sometimes I would just be there – when my eight-year-old self had to escape some humiliation or complication of life.

In third grade, we moved to Oakland, California where we had the run of the Naval Base.  My mother would let us out in the morning and we wouldn’t come back until we heard her walking around and calling our names to eat.  The freedom was intoxicating and I spent the summer between third and fourth grade entirely out-of-doors, most of it in the undeveloped area that bordered the housing on the base.  This was of course the one area where we were explicitly forbidden to go.  It was filled with brush, trees, rocks, small animals, and the occasional poison ivy plant—the reason it was theoretically off-limits.  In other words, it was a fort connoisseur’s paradise, and I went there daily; except, of course, when the occasional outbreak of poison ivy would betray this fact and I would be quarantined indoors.  (It was quite difficult to deny where I’d been when my eyes had swollen shut due to my unfortunately telling poison ivy allergy—but that didn’t prevent me from trying).

During that summer, I and a motley crew of neighborhood officer’s kids constructed– out of the surrounding trees, sticks, branches, twigs and whatever else we could scavenge– a magnificent structure that became the backdrop for whatever game of make-believe we dreamt up for the day. I oversaw its construction, and I remember most fondly the times I was able to escape there alone, without the crew.  I took great satisfaction in adding this or that to the structure, “sweeping” the dirt floor with branches, and sitting there in its shelter, seemingly undetected by the outside world.

There were others, of course.  A rickety lean-to in my grandparent’s backyard in the forests of North Carolina, or various sites among the new housing construction the summer we moved to Midland, Texas.   What was it about being outdoors, alone and in a world of my creation that was so appealing to me as a child?  Perhaps I was wise enough to sense, if not consciously realize, that solitude is a “desired condition,” as Maya Angelou so adeptly describes:  “It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves.  In the silence we listen to ourselves.  Then we ask questions of ourselves.  We describe ourselves to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.”

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