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Perfectionism and Redemption: A Lenten Reflection

I’ve been working on this essay, making notes on a waterproof notepad in my coat pocket as I walk around the reclaimed quarry, now a wetlands park, near my house in the morning.

On one of my walks, my friend and priest joined me. I tried to explain what I was writing about, how I’ve been drawn to this metaphor of the reclaimed quarry. As a child I grew up near one such project, but always dismissed it. I used to say that when I grew up, I’d live somewhere wilder, more natural. And here I am, raising my three children near just such a place.

It’s perfection versus redemption, she said kindly, and I was floored.

That’s exactly it.

Lately I’ve been more and more struck by the ways in which perfectionism colors so much of what I do, see, think. From conversations I’ve had with other women, I’ve started to think that this is a symptom of living in the toxic sludge of our industrialized, patriarchal culture. I know I’m not alone.

I also know that perfectionism doesn’t define me. That voice that says I just need to be better cannot define me if I turn to God, and away from the destructive voice that tempts me to think I am only deserving of love if I am perfect.

Today, I went for my morning walk and took a minute to read the day’s devotion in Forward Day by Day. The scripture read: “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The devotion writer went on to reflect on the impossibility of those things. No one can do them. Jesus was the only perfect one, and he came to free us from ourselves, simplifying those commandments into these: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

“In our desire to meet these requirements,” the devotion author writes, “God is pleased, even when we fail.” Then he closes with a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The final secret, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise.”

Those last words fell deep this morning as I looked out at the calm water. There was one fisherman on a far bank, the first person I’d seen that day. There were little sparrows zipping in and out of the willows. There was the sound of a leaf blower somewhere, and traffic. There was the tick of my watch, my inner knowing that I had ten minutes before I needed to be home, back into the ongoingness of pandemic parenting, so that Lyle could go to work.

These words calmed me. They unraveled, for just a moment of clarity, the tangled threads of my longings: to hear and know God’s voice, to know God’s will for me, to have a clearer sense of purpose in my writing and mothering, to better serve God in my community and in all my relationships. My longing to know I am serving God well, that I am going to God in prayer not just for myself, but not just for others, either. I came to see how even in my deepest longings, perfectionism keeps me from accepting Grace.

These words today assured me that not only do my efforts please God even when I fail, but that it is God’s promise, it is God’s will that I will love God. Even this God will do for me.

In the space that my longing makes, within its contours, this is where God enters. Maybe I will always feel scattered, tangled, maybe I will always have this sense that if only things were different, or maybe if I tried harder, then I will know God’s will and love God better. But here in that question, Grace appears again. Jesus appears and says, “Even this I will do for you. Even this I have already seen, loved, and covered.”

Things will never be perfect, including my perfectionism, and God says, I want you to live and love anyway. In doing this, you serve me.

Amen.

Written on February 26, 2021

Handmade in 2020/ Make List for 2021

Now that Iris is going to bed and staying asleep for longer stretches, I have started sewing again at night and on Sundays. Lyle put in a tile floor and baseboard in the downstairs office, and it’s now a pleasant place to work, with a baby gate in the doorway to keep tiny hands from getting into sharp or spillable things. It feels good to pick up projects I’d put down in late pregnancy. I’m feeling the pull of spring’s energy and wanting to make a fresh start, so I’m taking stock of the fabric I have and the projects I had planned. I want to finish the projects I like, decide which ones to let go of, and offer the extra fabric in our neighborhood Buy Nothing group. I realized recently that I feel less motivated to sew when I have too many projects in the queue, or unused fabric sitting around with no plan for it. So I’m setting a goal of September 1st to either use it or lose it. For fun and accountability, here’s what I made in 2020 and what I’d like to make in 2021.

Tiny mice in a cigar box house! I absolutely loved making these for my friend’s son Henrik. This pattern is superb. I nested them in a little cigar box with a quilt and pillows made from scrap fabric. They sleep in their little box under his bed. This just delights me.


Cloth napkins in beige calico quilting cotton. I just whipped these up last weekend to add to our basket. We use these every night at dinner and the kids like setting the table.

Flannel cloth wipes. There is something so satisfying about making a stack of these multi-purpose squares! I just cut two squares about 4×4, sew right sides together leaving a gap to turn them back out, then stitch again around all four edges to catch that gap and provide some durability. We keep a basket next to the kids’ sink for drying hands, and a basket on the changing table along with a thermos of warm water for wipes. They go into a lidded 5 gallon bucket in the hallway, and a few times a week I wash them with kitchen rags, on hot with bleach and an extra rinse.


Pink fleece poncho for Sky.
I used this Simplicity 8428 pattern but it didn’t turn out quite how I’d hoped. I originally sewed it as a cover up for before/after ballet class (it even has little ballerina buttons at the collar!) but she only got to wear it a few times before classes were canceled due to Covid. It turned out to be a fun layer for spring weather. (I’m not sure why Robin is so sad in this picture!)

Mermaid dress for Sky. I measured and remeasured and it still came out too large for her! Hoping it fits this summer. This was a pattern we picked out because she wanted to wear a sleeveless dress. We compromised with a “cold shoulder” design.

Rocker Trapper Hats for the family. I thought these were awesome but so far only me and Robin wear them! Sky and Lyle think they are a little too goofy for regular use. I love mine! First time sewing a hat.

Pencil rolls for Sky and her cousin Ella. I loved this tutorial– so easy! Used scraps from the mermaid dress project.

Circle skirts for Sky, Juniper, and Ella. I used this basic pattern and this tutorial to get the sizing right, then this tutorial to learn how to make a round hem using bias tape. Sky loves her two skirts! I made them in a blue print with fairies, and a light blue with popsicles. They used a ton of fabric but since she gets so much wear from them, I don’t mind.


Lots and lots of masks! I used this video tutorial. Originally I intended to make batches of 25 for Sew to Save, but each time I got started on a batch I ended up giving most of them away to friends and neighbors. This design with adjustable ties isn’t for everyone. I’ll admit I usually reach for an easy to wear one with elastic myself, but it was a great option when there was a run on 1/4 inch elastic at the beginning of the pandemic.

Bookmarks. I made monogrammed bookmarks to go with books as gifts for Christmas. I had fun using up my linen scraps and trying out the embroidery stitches on my sewing machine.

Made by Rae Ruby Tunic in linen. I love this so much! I got a lot of wear from this in the summer before my belly got too big. Unfortunately it’s not nursing-friendly, so it will likely sit in my closet this summer. I just love this print.

Projects Planned

  • Butterick/ See & Sew Long nightgown in sparkly unicorn flannel (for Sky). This needs to get done ASAP because it’ll be too hot to wear otherwise. I planned to finish this for Christmas, and almost have the bodice done, but got stuck on the part where I need to attach the shoulders to the bodice.
  • Two Afternoon Dresses by Jennifer Lauren Handmade in quilting cotton prints (for me). I have two pretty prints I bought to make shift dresses last summer, at 2 yds each. I settled on this pattern because it looks relatively simple, and nursing friendly. BUT it calls for more than 2 yards. I’m hoping I can piece the remaining fabric together with some contrasting cottons. If not, it has an option to shorten into blouses. I’d love to finish these by July.
  • Miniature cats and cigar box house using fabric scraps (for Sky). I’d love to get this done in time for her birthday June 3rd! I meant to make them for her in September when I made Henrik’s mice, and then got busy with homeschool and horrible pregnancy nausea.
  • Matchbox car play-and-carry roll using fabric scraps (for Robin). Hoping to finish this by Sky’s birthday, too.
  • Short nightgown in fairy print flannel (for Sky). I’m looking for a super simple (and free!) tutorial or pattern for this print. This could happen later.
  • Diaper covers in blue floral PUL (for Iris). I’m using an out-of-print Babyville pattern. Putting this low on the list, but hoping to get done before end of summer, so I can return the button pliers to my neighbor! I have had them for way too long.
  • Flannel storyboard figures for two stories. I had such lofty ambitions of making a bunch of figures for our little preschool co-op. I checked out a wonderful book from the library with patterns, songs, and stories, but between pregnancy and newborn days, it never happened. It almost hurts to look at the big box of felt I ordered. Setting the bar low will hopefully get me to just make something already.

Rewards for finishing above projects:

Forager Vest by Sew Liberated. Big pockets! I wear my parka with roomy pockets evrey day, and have so many useful things in them like chapstick, tissues, a notebook and pencil, my pocket devotional, masks, etc. I need something similarly utilitarian for the warmer months.

North Country dress from Taproot.

Fabric to use or give away before purchasing any more:

  • Cream sherpa (1.75 yds). I bought this to line the Trapper hats, but had to buy more than I needed to reach minimum purchase.
  • Lemons on blue background (2 yds) quilter’s cotton. I LOVE this Geranium Dress pattern from Made by Rae and haven’t tried it yet.
  • Odds and ends of yellow and white polka dot seersucker. I can’t really tell how much I have here so will try to piece it out with a pattern for a summer tank, or a shift dress in this New Look pattern I’ve sewn before for Sky.
  • White background with red pin dots (1.5 yds) and white background with blue pin dots (2 yds). I have an apron-style dress pattern from Butterick that can also be made into a top and bottom set. The size only goes up to 5T, so it may be something for Iris or for a friend.
  • Blue and pink calico print (2.5 yds). It’s too busy for clothing, so I’ll probably use it to make more cloth napkins for gifts. This is an easy project I can do while listening to a podcast.
  • Navy blue linen blend (1 yd @ 52″ width). Not sure what I could do with this.
  • Botanical linen (1 yd) left from tunic project. I might make an apron.

Going to the Library, Then and Now

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

“I’m going to the library, who wants to come?” I call into the yard, jingling the car keys.

“I do! I do!” my big kids yell, racing to climb into their carseats. 

“I want to get my noodle book!” Sky says excitedly, thinking of the next Noodlehead graphic novel waiting for her on the holds shelf.

“I want anudder race car book,” Robin adds.

I smile at my children’s excitement, even though it makes me a little sad, too. Pre-pandemic, a trip to the library was much more than a quick ten-minute drive to the curbside pickup. We used to spend hours at our local branch a few times a week, chatting with friends at story time and adding books to our bag until it overflowed. Sky loved to choose a few I Can Read books and sit on a stool in the corner by the window, looking at the pictures while I chased Robin through the stacks and retrieved my holds. 

Now they don’t even get out of the car when I park in front of the library. I pull my mask on over my eyes, turning around in my seat to ask if I’ve got it on right. They laugh but tell me to hurry and get their books. At the library window, I try to say my name as clearly as I can through the fabric, and the librarian returns with our stack– the noodle book, the race car book, some books on ballet, an Eye Spy book, and Upstream and Coming Full Circle for me. I try to smile with my eyes as I thank the librarian and say goodbye.

My kids want to hold their books on the drive home, and when we get there they both hurry inside, sit on the couch, and start reading. Like so many other times in this past year of closures and absences, I find a small win to celebrate. 

Sky , age 4, in her happy spot at our local library.

They are still delighted by books. They still love the library enough to want to be in close proximity to it, even if they can’t go inside. We’ve lost the wonderful experience of wandering through the aisles and choosing whatever looks interesting that day, but we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the books we carefully choose, place on hold, and then wait for. We check out fewer books, but we keep them longer and savor them more. It makes me happy to see that books seem to matter to my kids as much as they’ve mattered to me since I was their age.

I remember my mom taking my sister and me to the library before we could read. I remember the way it smelled– a mix of the big eucalyptus trees outside, the ocean air, and that unmistakable book smell all libraries have. There was the crinkling sound of the books in their library jackets, the light pouring through the huge windows in the fiction room where my mom browsed, and the freedom she gave us to wander wherever we wanted as she chose books for herself. I loved gathering my own stack of books for the week.

Reading has always been tied up with the thingness of books, and the place where books are, but during the long stretch of time when there was no hold service, I bought an e-reader so I could check out e-books from the library or buy them from our local booksellers. It’s made it possible for me to read more during these early months with a newborn. It’s small and light enough to hold while nursing Iris or wearing her in the sling as she naps. I can even read in the bathtub. It’s also making it easier for me to take notes as I read, because I can add digital highlights and then transfer them to a word document later. 

As a child and later as a teen and young adult, I read for hours. As a mother, I probably spend more time reading to my children, but I try to make sure they see me reading my own books, too. “Are you reading in your mind, Mama?” Sky asks me. She’s not quite reading on her own yet, and I’m excited for the day when she discovers the pleasure of reading to herself. 

Reading connects me to the world outside the borders of home and children, and the person I am in addition to “Mom.” It keeps me grounded and makes me more receptive to ideas for poems and essays. I read before I could write, and I think it’s part of what made me a writer. I know it’s made me who I am today, and I can’t wait to see what role reading plays in my children’s lives as they grow.

The Wind from the Wings of the Mother

I wrote the essay below over a year ago, at the lowest point in my struggle with undiagnosed Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome, a rare disorder that affects both children and adults. It is thought to be a migraine variant, as many children with CVS later develop migraine headaches; there’s often a family history of migraines in people who develop CVS at any age. Migraines don’t run in my family, and my episodes started at about age 30, for no reason I’ve been able to understand. Much like migraines, however, my episodes have been triggered by certain foods, stress, and lack of sleep.

There is no cure for CVS, but there are ways to manage symptoms. Some people with childhood-onset CVS “grow out” of the disorder. Some people find relief from migraine medications, some from hormonal birth control, and some (like me) from a tricyclic antidepressant. I had been having symptoms for about seven years before diagnosis, and during the fall before I wrote this, they had increased in both intensity and frequency, maybe due to the stress of juggling school and parenting two young children. Just a few weeks after I wrote this, I found a doctor who diagnosed me with CVS and prescribed a preventative low-dose of amitriptyline, which finally made the episodes go away.

Today is CVS Awareness Day. CVSA, the national advocacy and research body, funds research initiatives and provides resources for people who suffer from CVS. Knowing I am not alone, and finally having a name and a treatment for this awful disorder, has made such a difference in my life. Go here to make a donation to join CVSA in the fight for a cure.

I wrote the following essay during a Literary Kitchen workshop. When I couldn’t yet see a way out, writing helped me imagine one.

I hang the hummingbird feeder outside the living room window. My children climb the sofa to watch, all soft round cheeks and tangled hair. Like the tiny birds we hope will visit the feeder, my children are usually a blur of vibrant, lively energy. But focused on the feeder, if just for a moment, they are still.

Hummingbird nectar grows mold easily in our damp climate, and this can make hummingbirds sick. Every few days, I boil fresh water and sugar. I wash the feeder parts with hot water, scrub out the false flower centers with a tiny brush, fill it and hang it again. In winter, I bring the feeder indoors at night and out again in the morning. On the coldest days, the nectar freezes solid again within an hour, and I bring it inside to warm up again.

A hummingbird nest, built by the mother, is a tiny cup woven from plants, spider webs, and sometimes feathers. In it, she will lay one or two eggs per season, each the size of a pea or a bean.

I can’t eat peas or beans. Or any kind of legume. Or any kind of grain, or dairy. I mostly eat chicken and vegetables. So many eggs I grow bored of them. Some mornings I’m so tired of food, so tired of being scared that something I eat will make me sick, that I don’t eat anything, even though I’m hungry.

The episodes started about seven years ago, every month at first. It is always the same. I wake up at the same time, around 3 a.m., completely nauseated. Violently, my body empties itself of everything, until I am dry heaving over the toilet as the sun comes up.

In the first months, I bought pregnancy tests, always negative. I saw specialist after specialist. It was definitely hormonal, and then it wasn’t. It was definitely Celiac, and then it wasn’t. Gluten intolerance, dairy intolerance, legume intolerance, caffeine intolerance. Hiatal hernia. SIBO. Crohn’s. Cancer. All the tests and procedures came back negative, and still I had symptoms.

Even more than other nestlings, baby hummingbirds are dependent on their mothers for the first three weeks of life. They are born featherless and blind, unable to regulate their own body heat. The mother hummingbird must sit on the nest to warm them, leaving only to gather food.

We watch the hummingbirds sip from the feeder, hovering as if by magic, their wings a blur around brilliant, toy-like bodies. My son tucks himself into my side, slips his tiny hands under my shirt, for comfort. At two, he no longer nurses, but he’s hungry for contact, for closeness. In the kitchen, where I am making the third snack of the morning, he cries and pulls on my pant leg– desperate, whenever I’m in sight, to be as close to me as possible. Even then, held in one arm while I spread peanut butter with the other, it’s not enough. I am not enough. He grieves me while I’m still here, cries into a sadness, ancient, about separateness. Aloneness.

Without the ability to see, baby hummingbirds sense their mother’s presence by feeling the wind from her wings in flight. They lift their heads up and open their mouths to receive food.

I am a mother and a student with a wide network of loving friends. I am not supposed to feel alone in this, but I do. I feel abandoned by God, and pitied by those who love me but can do little but shake their heads, perplexed. I don’t know anyone else who experiences this mysterious, unpredictable sickness.

During my pregnancies and early postpartum months, I had a break from episodes. I experienced only normal morning sickness, normal nausea– nausea with purpose, connecting me to the ordinary mystery of carrying another life within me. I felt only what any other pregnant person would feel, and so I felt less alone. With my unknown child in my belly, I was doubled, in company, all hours of the day.

Once my son turned one, the episodes started again. Few and far between at first, random enough that I felt hopeful, and then with increasing frequency. More specialists. It was definitely chocolate, fish sauce, or coconut, and then it wasn’t. Now it’s definitely anxiety. Or a parasite, even though the tests– the expensive kind– are negative.

Negative. To negate an experience. Don’t be so negative. Negative space, the space around the thing and not the thing itself, the constant questioning of everything outside and around my body. Negative capability– to be comfortable in not knowing, as in faith, as in prayer. I try, but I cannot feel the wind from the wings of the Mother, the Father, my God. I can only open my mouth to ask for help, for answers.

Because hummingbirds are so tiny when they are born, they grow rapidly, doubling in size within just a few days. Their beaks begin to darken, and they grow their first pinfeathers.

When I’m away from my kids all day, they seem suddenly bigger at night. My son has new words– “Christmas lights,” Kiss-Muss-Yites— and my daughter has made a family picture in which our heads, arms, and bodies are shockingly recognizable. I find her studying herself in the mirror, placing barrettes this way and that, like a teenager. No more changelings, they slip into fully human bodies, move around in fully human lives.

But they still run to me, at the end of separation. They push and shout at each other, jostling for more of me, for the most real estate on the limited land of my lap and chest. How can I admit how wonderful it feels, being away from them, having my body to myself during the days when I’m at school? How can that be when this– these tiny hands so simultaneously gigantic– also feels fleeting? With their bodies climbing mine, I feel irritation, and parallel to it, the desperation of an hourglass. They are the sand slipping through me.

At nine days old, the hummingbirds are large enough that the mother cannot fit in the nest with them anymore, but she must still feed them around the clock. Once fully grown, they will consume half their body weight in bugs and nectar every day, and will need to eat every 10-15 minutes.

I’ve decided not to eat today. What’s the point? Everything makes me sick, or nothing does. There’s no pattern to when or why my body will roust me from sleep, compel me to the bathroom, and void itself of everything. No logic to why afterward I want to sleep for hours in the middle of the day. I put on Elmo or Mr. Rogers and nestle them around me in a nest of blankets, half dozing while the music of the alphabet slips in and out, my body a sea of nausea and apathy.

At two weeks, true feathers begin to appear on a baby hummingbird’s body. Deep green with a red cap and neck, if it’s an Anna’s hummingbird. Brilliant copper if it’s a Rufous, like a winged penny.

I fill the feeder again, a sippy cup with diluted apple juice, a dish with puffs. I settle my son with his trucks, his snack, his Sesame Street. In the mirror I am inspecting the patch of hair at the back of my head. Sharp, dark hair grows in tufts. At my chest, a bright swath of green, shimmering in the light. Between my shoulder blades, two sharp protrusions. I feel light, nimbler somehow. My heart has begun to race in my chest.

At three weeks, the baby hummingbirds are full-size, ready to leave the nest. My babies, sweet tethers, watch the feeder. For the past few days, a flurry of birds. Sometimes, a tiny battle outside the pane– green and red breasts flashing, beaks wielded as swords. My children laugh and clap their hands.

For a few days after the fledglings leave the nest, the mother still feeds them, teaching them where to catch bugs and find nectar. If the weather is poor, she’ll extend the nesting period by a few days. Then she sends them off toward their independence.

This time, what wakes me at 3 a.m is my new body– green, white, a flecking of red at the breast. My perfect wings rise out from the covers. I leave my husband sleeping. No sounds of retching to wake him, just a quiet hum as I lift out of the room. I fly down the hallway, out into the backyard, pungent with night. My body is quick, precise. My thoughts become color and sound, scent of nectar, shape of the feeder tilting in streetlight. The nectar is clear and bright, and I drink it in like air.

Live Poem-Writing with Ruminate Magazine this Saturday

There’s something magical about a live performance. It’s in the anticipation, the not-knowing what will take shape in the meeting space between performer and viewer. It’s in the expectant hush in a crowd just before the lights go up, and the electricity you can still feel as you leave the venue, noticing all that the performance stirred up inside you. In these endless pandemic days, it feels like another lifetime when Lyle and I would go see live shows regularly. Even with small children at home, we used to make an effort to hire a babysitter, get out of the house, and take in a concert, play, or reading, at least a few times a year. I love being in the audience, participating in the excitement of creative exchange.

But actually getting up on a stage and performing? That’s a tall order for an introvert (albeit a very social one) like me. I am uncomfortable being the center of attention. Growing up, I played small roles in community theater (a fuzzy lamb in Charlotte’s Web, an orphan extra in Annie), and sang soprano in choir. I loved being part of the electric spark of live performances– but only when I could disappear into a crowd.

Fast-forward several decades to college, when I hosted author events at an indie bookstore. I would carefully prepare an introduction, practicing all week before getting behind the mic to tell the audience about the writer and writing they were about to hear. It was a tiny bookstore, a tiny crowd, yet no matter how much I rehearsed or how many pep talks I gave myself, my hands always shook holding my notes as I read. I felt embarrassed by this visible evidence of my nervousness, but also determined to keep putting myself in front of a crowd in the service of something I loved.

And I really love the power of the written word.

This Saturday, I’m participating for the third time in Ruminate Magazine‘s Happenings: a week-long fundraising event in which Ruminate contributors go live on the Internet to create art on-demand for ticket-holders. (Get yours here.)

The first year, I felt simultaneously intimidated and honored by the email invitation then-Poetry Editor Kristin George Bagdanov sent, asking me to show up and offer some “spontaneous ruminations.” I loved and respected her work as a poet and editor, and felt humbled that she would invite me. I thought about all the ways I’d felt supported and inspired by Ruminate in the five years I’d been writing for them, from the personalized way their editors engaged with my work and communicated with me, to the intentional ways they invited me into a deeper conversation with other writers and readers.

And I thought about how good it would be to push myself outside my comfort zone and invite viewers to share in the creative process. I was genuinely curious: what would it be like to write for others, in front of an audience?

Terrifying! said a tiny voice inside. This is a terrible idea!

But a stronger voice said, This is an amazing growth opportunity! DO IT.

I sat with the terrified voice for about 30 seconds before responding, “YES.”

The truth is, as I’ve grown in my craft, it has become less and less important that I feel a little scared about making a fool of myself, when I’m sharing my love for the creative spirit– that thing that makes your hair stand on end when you see a painting, hear a song, or read a poem and feel this sense of, “That’s me. I’m connected to this. I’m part of something bigger.”

I’ve learned that even though I almost always feel anxious before getting up in front of a crowd, whether or not I can see individual faces, as soon as I begin reading a poem, all of that dissolves away. In connecting to the power of poetry, to the compelling magic I’ve been drawn to since childhood, I disconnect from my attachment to this tiny version of myself. And it’s such a relief.

Maybe that sounds grandiose or strange. I’m not even sure I’m very “good” at performance. It doesn’t really matter. What matters to me, and why I’ve continued saying, “YES”– to Ruminate‘s invitation each year, and to other opportunities to grow as a writer– is that there’s always more to discover about the creative spirit, when I choose to use my gifts in the service of something I love.

I still feel scared. I’ve never used Instagram Live, the platform Ruminate has chosen for this year’s Happenings. I now have three children, including an 8-week old, and it’s going to be hard to carve out even one hour away from them this Saturday. As much as I know I’ll enjoy myself during that hour of creating, I’m also really looking forward to 11 am, when it’ll all be behind me, at least for another year.

And, I’m also excited to see what happens this time. To have the experience of showing up in front of a blank page, tapping into poetry-mind, and being surprised by what I find out as I write. Though I don’t know yet what I’ll write, I know the creative spirit will meet me, as it always meets us when we take a risk and just show up.

I hope to see you there!

Home: A Love Story

Once there was a child grown
on the edge of fields where she fell
in love with the smell of chaparral and sage,
gravel-pilfered crater of an old volcano,
lake calming the blight
of quarry, alluvial clay and silt
hardened into trails, in grasses
left unmowed, where the dog
rummaged for rabbits. The houses
came closer, coyote tracks patterned
the yards, remnants of night’s
near howling, and once, a memory:
leaving the sensible
streetlamps, the child went
with flashlight and family
to lake’s edge, searching the beam
for a clutch of mallard ducklings
they’d released that day,
after days of keeping the dog indoors,
watching for mother duck
who never showed, ushering soft
peeping into a fruit crate, mistake,
or was it, sending them out un-
mothered, unwild? Still
now, decades on, the child-not-child
feels the lake settling, rising
in the midst of that dwindling
open space, the stars hemming the place
where streets ended, the clicking of bats
overhead, the crickets
sewing themselves to sleep, the dark
lake-not-lake holding them
somehow at home. To carry that
back in the empty box, thumping
the sides of her mind, its subdivisions
still developing.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “280 Words.”

Top Ten Baby Essentials from a Third Time Mom

We welcomed our third baby, Iris, a few days before the new year. With an active 5-year-old and a busy 3-year-old in the house, the newborn stage isn’t exactly new to us, but it’s so easy to forget about the stage your child just exited as you focus on the new challenges at hand. There have been plenty of things I’d forgotten about pregnancy, birth, and the early post-partum/ teeny-baby weeks.

Aside from “morning sickness remedies that actually work,” my most common string of search words during pregnancy was “third baby essentials.” For some lucky individuals like me, the answer to the first search is pretty much nothing. And the answer to the second varies widely from person to person.

Photo by Al Soot on Unsplash

Somehow, Iris is already one month old. Time is flying, and the days are full, so I wanted to get some notes down before some of these realizations slip away into the blur of our baby’s first year. It can be an intensely stuff-laden time period, so while I’ve mostly linked to stores in this post, it helps your wallet and the environment to check your local consignment store or Buy Nothing group before purchasing something new.

This is my first post experimenting with Amazon affiliate links, a step I’ve been wary about up until now. That means that if you see something you like here and use one of my Amazon links to make a purchase, I will receive a small percentage. Maybe, like me, your Amazon purchasing has sky-rocketed during the pandemic. While I still try to buy locally as much as possible, particularly with books, I’m also trying to give myself a little grace on this front during a challenging season of motherhood.

Below you’ll find my favorites for parents and baby, plus a section at the end for fitting three car seats in a smallish car.

Enjoy!

Photo by Jordan Nix on Unsplash
  1. Invest in a few good pairs of leggings and overalls. For me, most maternity pants with panels just didn’t stay up. Remembering my irritation with all pants in my previous pregnancies, this time I bit the bullet and bought two pairs of Storq leggings. They were worth the extra money because I never had to yank them up, and they haven’t pilled or snagged. I liked them so much I also bought a pair of overalls and a nursing caftan (on sale!), and all four items are working well postpartum.
  2. Maternity jackets are worth it. I love this coat because it has zippers on the side, so it doubles as non-maternity wear. I wore it unzipped during the third trimester, and it’s large enough now to wrap around Iris in the Moby wrap, or zip up the sides for a cozier fit. With my son I wore a vest similar to this, but had given it away thinking he was our last baby. Either way, a roomy outer layer is helpful for fall and winter babes in colder climates!
  3. Look for maternity tops with buttons or flaps. During pregnancy, I bought a bunch of tunics and t-shirts that don’t work for nursing, and so have had to buy additional nursing tops and pajamas. Whoops. In hindsight, I wish I had paid attention to whether the maternity items I bought were nursing-friendly! I love these jammies and these tops. For me, it has been worthwhile to have 6-7 nursing-friendly pajama tops because nursing can be messy, and who has time for more laundry with a newborn in the house?
  4. Yes, you do need slip-on shoes. I was so tired during the third trimester, the thought of buckling or tying my own shoes made me weep. I got the cute Target leopard-print slip-ons on impulse when buying diapers, and I LOVE them. They’re helpful postpartum because I can get them on while baby-wearing without having to bend over.
  5. Opt for gentle postpartum support. Iris was born “military presentation,” (such a weirdly inappropriate name for the position of a baby being born) so I got a referral to a physical therapist. On her advice, I stopped wearing my lovely womb wrap (which is easy to tie too tight, and can also be a bit cumbersome) and instead got a pair of these Target leggings and this gentle belly band. I love both. It can be worthwhile to see a PT early on to get advice tailored to your specific post-birth anatomy. I wish I had done so after my previous births. Apparently the ever-popular Velcro Belly Bandit type supports can be too restrictive in the immediate postpartum for some people, especially if you don’t have much abdominal separation. You want support, but with enough flexibility to let your organs move back into place. (The pregnant body is amazing.)
  6. All the breastfeeding stuff. Some breastfeeding people just tend to be more prone to plugged ducts, and unfortunately I seem to be one of them: by this time postpartum with my son, I’d already developed mastitis. This time around, I am trying to be proactive about prevention. I take Wish Gardens’ Happy Ducts tincture several times a day when I feel a plugged duct developing. Iris is going on two nights sleeping in her Sleep Pea swaddle in the bassinet, but I bring her into our bed around 3 a.m. to co-sleep. I alternate sides of the bed so I don’t squish one breast more than the other. For the early weeks, I am loving these amazing Elvie milk catchers. I tend toward oversupply and leak a lot in the first few months. Nursing pads always ended up being a soggy mess, but these little silicone cups are comfy, discrete, and keep me dry. I’ll also put in a vote for having MANY sleep bras (I like Majamas) and multiple large water bottles and burp cloths. I like this kind of water bottle because you can drink one-handed without tipping your head back. Leave waterbottles and burp cloths all over the house so you’re never far from hydration when you sit down to nurse.
  7. Be flexible and open-minded on sleep. Have multiple options in mind, and don’t be afraid to try again later. With our first baby, we tried swaddling and putting her down in her bassinet for a few nights early on. When she screamed and cried, we figured that was that, and never tried it again. We ended up co-sleeping for far longer than I wanted to, and felt like we had no choice but to sleep train when she hit the dreaded 4-month sleep regression. (I didn’t even know that was a thing. Rookie mom mistake.) The second time around, we got a little braver and tried different things earlier. We even returned to previous strategies before we found something that worked for our son. (A Magic Merlin suit.) This third time, we’ve started introducing her to independent sleep from the get-go. She’s sleeping in her bassinet in the Sleep Pea swaddle as I type this, and I am fairly giddy with hope. TL;DR: Every baby is different, there are lots of different ways to help babies sleep well and safely, and it’s okay to do a mix of things until you find a rhythm.
  8. Pajamas forever. Iris is our second winter babe, and this time I know there’s no reason to change her out of footie pajamas. Except maybe a super cute photo op. That said, I prefer footie jammies with snaps for 0-3 months, and zippers around 4-6 months: zippers are much easier, but they bunch up and hit baby in the chin in small sizes.
  9. Try and use several types of baby carrier. Being able to “wear” Iris means I have more options for getting her the sleep she needs when I need to chase after my little 3-year-old escape artist. I like using a soft wrap carrier like the Moby or Baby K’tan for the first six months, and a more structured carrier when baby is bigger and has better head control. We have an orange woven Chimparoo Trek that we used for our first two babies, and I love its simplicity. Also, different body types feel more comfortable with different carriers. My husband, who has a long torso, really loved the Lillebaby structured carrier with our son, but it was waaaay too long for me. Likewise, he couldn’t fit into the Baby K’tan carrier I loved. This time around, we both love using the Moby wrap. Having multiple carriers can get spendy, so check consignment for used gear. Carriers tend to be used so briefly that most used ones still have a ton of life in them.
  10. Cloth diapering doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Plenty of folks get intimidated by cloth diapers and never try it. There are good reasons for this: it can be expensive to invest in the quantity of diapers needed to cloth diaper full-time, and you need enough bulk in order to launder them effectively. It can be time-consuming. It takes time to find the style you like best. The good news is, you can cloth diaper part-time and still get the benefit of reducing your impact on the environment, and saving money in the long run. (And, babies with fluffy cloth diaper butts are so cute.) Depending on where you live, you can also outsource the laundry! We use Tidee Didee diaper service, which picks up our used pre-folds and drops off a clean stack once a week. We have 6-7 covers in different sizes (these and these are my faves), and we just wipe them out between changes and wash them with our towels once or twice a week. I do a hot wash with bleach and an extra rinse. We use cloth napkins at meals, and rags for cleanups, so we’re used to doing regular towel loads. This time we’re trying out cloth wipes as well, with water from an insulated pump thermos on the changing table. We also use disposable diapers and wipes. No big deal. It doesn’t have to be black and white.
Photo by Laura Ohlman on Unsplash

Bonus: A Word on Carseats and Fitting 3-Across

We have a 2015 Honda CR-V, and figuring out a safe 3-across has taken a lot of effort. During the pandemic, safety events and carseat clinics were canceled, and stores stopped allowing families to try floor models. I read blog posts from the Carseat Lady and Carseats for the Littles, and joined several Facebook groups to get advice. Many posts and commenters insisted that the 2015 CR-V has overlapping seatbelts, and therefore can’t safely accommodate a 3-across. Turns out, this isn’t true for all 2015 models, including ours– but it’s still tricky.

After many emails and phone calls, we found a carseat technician at a hospital safety center who was able to counsel us over email, then follow up with a socially-distanced fit check at the hospital. We settled on two Baby Trend Troopers and our Graco Tranzitions convertible carseat. We put Robin, our 3-year-old, forward-facing in one Trooper on the passenger side, and Iris, our newborn, rear-facing in the second Trooper in the middle seat. Sky, our 5.5-year-old rode in the Graco in harness mode behind the driver. This was technically safe and possible– but in practice it kind of sucked. It was really hard to get the Trooper to adjust down small enough for the baby, and with the seat in the middle, it meant a lot of awkward wrangling– usually in the pouring rain while all three children wailed.

Onward to our next attempt, which is a Chicco Fit2 infant seat for Iris on the passenger side, Robin in the Trooper behind the driver, and Sky in the middle in a RideSafer travel vest. (The vest is great because Sky feels like a parachuter in it, it can be used in cars and planes, and it eliminates the need for a booster. Great for carpooling or two-household families!) This is a little better because I can load Iris into her seat indoors and just click her in– but Sky feels a little cramped in the middle of two car seats.

After all that, three new carseats and one travel vest later, we are somewhat reluctantly looking into buying a used minivan. It’s not that we have anything against minivans, we were just hoping to avoid the expense, and thought we’d save some money by investing in the right car seats. Oh well!


As mentioned above, some of these recommendations include affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission when purchases are made using the affiliate links. I only recommend products I love and think you will, too!

Practice the Way of Love this February

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

My 5-year-old loves Valentine’s Day. What’s not to like? Hearts, cards and coloring, plenty of gluestick and stickers, pink and red, cupcakes, and candy. Pretty much all of her favorite things. Much like Target and Walmart, she has been preparing for this since, oh, the day after Halloween.

It’s too bad her mom is something of a Valentine’s Day scrooge.

In my defense, I think it’s a lot of pressure to put on one day. I love my husband, but planning and getting dressed up for A Romantic Date is just a recipe for disappointment for us. Not because he isn’t romantic, or because we hate flowers and chocolate. I am a huge fan of flowers, chocolate, and said husband. And for the record, at this point in what feels like a decades-long pandemic, we’d love the chance to have a kid-free conversation somewhere clean while wearing unstained clothes. In terms of my marriage, it’s the prescriptive nature of the Valentine’s Day formula that gets to me, because what makes us feel connected as a couple, what leads to feelings of happiness and “being in love” fluctuates so much from day to day and year to year.

I’ve long felt this way about February 14, but I’ve felt it especially keenly this year, when the news has been rife with escalating hate and hostility. Early on in the pandemic, our church began calling the practice of wearing a mask and staying six feet apart compassionate distancing, emphasizing how these seemingly-small habits are about protecting others as much as they’re about protecting ourselves. For me, it’s this shift in terminology that encapsulates the heart-change our country desperately needs.

It’s the narrowness of the Valentine ideal of love that feels woefully inadequate. I need– and maybe as a country, we need– to honor so much more than just romantic love. And I need to honor it for more than the space of a day. So this February, I am going to try to intentionally spend time each day reflecting on and practicing the kind of selfless, active love Jesus came to teach, the love that shows up in the bible as agape: “the love of God for humankind and of humankind for God.” And to keep from taking myself too seriously, I’m inviting my kids to join me, and I’m inviting you, too.

I recently finished reading Bishop Michael Curry’s book Love is the Way, after getting hooked on his “Way of Love” podcast this fall. The Way of Love is a set of practices the Episcopal church developed under Bishop Curry’s guidance, meant to help modern Christians follow Jesus in today’s world. The practices have been incredibly helpful to me, as an Episcopalian who feels like I’m always just starting out, just barely beginning to know Jesus. In this season of sleep deprivation and young children, where it feels like we’re always hovering just on the brink of chaos, I’ve been clinging to a shorthand from Bishop Curry, via Martin Buber.

How can I practice following Jesus– how can I practice agape love– in such a way as to move “from me to we”? How do I move toward I-Thou in an I-It world?

To put this into a framework my 5-year-old and 3-year-old can understand, this month we’ve been talking as a family about “big Love” at the dinner table. Lest you think we’re getting deep over here, let me assure you these are quick conversations. My son eats a few bites of dinner, I get a few words in edge-wise, and then he’s off on his usual, exasperating mid-dinner mad dash around the living room, naked. Sigh. This is why kids are the best spiritual teachers for moms like me who tend to let Pinterest get the best of them.

Nevertheless, here’s what we’ve come up with. Paraphrasing the Great Commandment in Matthew, we’ve talked about how Jesus says the most important thing we can do is to love God with everything we’ve got. And the next most important thing is to love ourselves and other people, plants, and animals as best we can. This includes even people, plants, and animals we don’t like very much. (Jesus doesn’t mention plants and animals but to me the spirit of the verse is there.) Then we asked our kids what kinds of things they’d like to do next month to celebrate that kind of love.

We’ve talked a lot about Mama Earth as a family, to cut the whining about things like using both sides of the paper and walking instead of driving to the library. So my daughter immediately suggested that we pick up trash and make some art out of things in the recycling bin. “And mama, you don’t have to wait for one special day to take care of the earth,” she exclaimed earnestly. “We can do it tomorrow!” (Be still my over-achieving heart, something I said sunk in!) I wrote her ideas on the list, and added a litter-picker to my Amazon cart (something I’ve been meaning to do for a while anyway.)

Here are some of the other ideas we have. A fellow writer recently introduced me to the idea of “floor and ceiling goals,” so I’m dividing this into bare minimum practices and more aspirational ones. (We’ve got three kids under five, I am barely sleeping, and my word for the year is grace. I will be happy if we manage even one of these. ) Please add your own ideas in the comments, and let me know if you decide to practice a whole month of Love, too.

Bare Minimum
Give thanks to God before dinner
Practice using our “reset” buttons when we hurt or yell at each other
Try out a self-compassion meditation for kids with Headspace
Make and mail cards to people we love
Paint rocks with hearts, prayers, and encouraging messages; hide them around the neighborhood.
Share some of our saved sunflower seeds with our neighbors
Read about a plant or animal that scares us and see if we can appreciate something about them
Take a walk at the pond near our house and pick up trash
Learn about a new non-profit and make a donation
Bring food to All Saints for our neighbors who are hungry

More Ideas
Read books, sing songs or learn poems about loving ourselves
Practice one new habit to take better care of our bodies.
Write in our prayer journals together (Sky has this one; I have the “forgiveness” version of this one)
Practice praying for our enemies/ sending them lovingkindness (personally I want to spend some time praying for and learning about folks on the other side of the political divide)
Try to do something kind for someone in our family each day
Leave a chalk message of love on a sidewalk near our house
Set up and fill our Little Free Library with books (we have a kit ready to go, but this feels waaaay ambitious, and I’d be delighted if it happened this month)
Choose and give away some possessions in our Buy Nothing group
With kids in our pandemic pod, make and mail a big thank-you card to Governor Kate Brown
Learn about animals, plants, or people who are struggling and make a list of ways we could help
Send some flowers to friends we know who are sick or sad
Make a map of the garden we want to plant this spring
Practice one new habit to take better care of Mama Earth
Find ways to thank the people who help us– doctors, people who deliver groceries and packages, our priest


Four Weeks

The sunrise is red through the blinds and somehow the baby is four weeks old.

There’s no margin between days. Instead the sound of feet running down the hallway, the door creaking open and two small voices saying good morning in the dark. Someone reaches a hand into the quiet nest of the bed and the baby stirs next to the mother, stretches and curls tiny arms and legs, and someone trips on a twist of clothes on the floor and hits their head on the bed’s edge and now they’re howling. It’s seven in the morning, as loud with need and newness as seven the night before.

The sunrise is red but the day will be dark, low with clouds and the threat of snow. They will all be in the house again together, and now the father is grinding coffee, and the five-year-old is spinning and jumping across the floor, a slept-in tangle of hair at the back of her head. She approximates ballet moves from a video lesson emailed each week– a teacher she’ll never meet, classmates scattered across states–What does échappé mean, mama? Watch me, watch this!

There’s no margin between days and the mother rubs sleep from her eyes, tries to access the part of her brain that once knew French. She holds her third baby to her breast with one hand while the father puts a cup of coffee in the other hand. This is love’s language– a cup of coffee, a look exchanged.

The sunrise is red and the father is tired, but he picks up the middle child so he can see, too, this boy too suddenly big beside the new baby, whose feet move too fast for the rest of him, who says I fell down every night when they recount the day’s roses and thorns. Why it have those poky things, mama? he asks in the yard, little eyebrows furrowed at the one pink bud on the bush. Why does every sweet thing come with some pain, why does sun make shadows, how does the year behind us still trail its weight into this one?

There’s no margin between days or years and the baby was born at the threshold of both. The mother knows her own tendency to will time forward, tries to root herself down into this day, its shapes and sounds.

Somehow the baby is four weeks old and there will never be another first month with a baby again, each first becoming one last time. Soon enough she’ll sleep, and she’ll sleep, and he’ll sleep. They’ll have conversations longer than a minute. He won’t always fall. She won’t always dance in the living room.

The sunrise was red and later the first flurries of winter came down. The kids put on boots and gloves and woke the baby, whooping and shouting in the yard, and it wasn’t enough to be snow, not really. It felt like rain but lighter somehow, and it left little prints in their hands.


I wrote this with Rhythm, a year of weekly writing prompts. See more at #rhythmwriting2021