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Beneath the Apple Leaves by Harmony Verna

Despite my fears that after having a baby it would be years before I could read again, I was actually able to read a book before the semester started! Beneath the Apples Leaves was my first foray into “genre fiction” in I don’t know how long. Years and years. It was a gift. It was there. And so, during one of the baby’s long naps, I picked it up and started reading.

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image from Amazon

The characters fulfilled the strictest and most obvious gender expectations. The plot lines and their resolutions could be spotted from a mile away. I found myself skimming through the first quarter of the book, getting through the basic (and, again, predictable) background information as quickly as possible.

After that, though, I was surprised at myself when I started to slow down, the details engaging me a bit more. In fact, toward the end, I’d even refer to this book as an enjoyable “page turner”!

So, despite it’s obvious shortcomings as a piece of Literature, it was worth reading for me for the following reasons:

-It took me back to my high school days when I read so many Victoria Holt books, an experience which, I swear, has allowed me to understand, predict, and analyze plot lines like no other. While reading this book, I had a tinge of nostalgia for the time when I was reading Holt’s novels and being immersed in place, a house, a setting.

-Similarly, Beneath the Apple Leaves creates a setting–a quaint, if dilapidated, Pennsylvania farm. Even when the characters fell short, I enjoyed “being” at the farm.

-It’s entertaining. While much of the plot is predictable, there are many twists and turns that kept me reading. It’s similar to watching a romantic comedy in that way. I don’t watch them often, but sometimes they’re entertaining.

-I like to keep my finger on the pulse. I’m not sure why, or if this is necessary, but sometimes it’s seems important to read what the majority of the public is consuming.

I’m not sure what I’ll read next, or when, but this book gave me confidence that some regular easy reading could be possible for me again soon, and that’s just the kind of hope I need right now.

 

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2018 reading list

I’ve kept an ongoing reading log here, but I thought I would make a cumulative post to round them all up. I didn’t read as much as I would’ve liked because buying a house and moving, and gestating, and teaching, and writing, and prepping for baby, and having a baby, and recovering, and caring for my baby all took up a lot of time and energy.

I did most of this reading in the first months of 2018. I love reading and hibernating in the winter months. Sadly, I can’t imagine that I’ll get a chance to read much in the coming year(s). My baby requires a lot of care. He’s still up every 1-2 hours in the night, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. So, all extra time and energy I have goes to frantically caring for my own basic needs and working as much as possible. I hope I can find a way though because reading is vital to my emotional health and creative wellbeing.

So there they are, in the order they were read:

-Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

-Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

-Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham

-Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

-If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende

-Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

-The First Forty Days by Heng Ou

-A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

-Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf

-The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha by Diane Glancy

-And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach

2018: year in review

This year, 2018, was the best year of my life. I’m usually not one for absolutes, but 2018 was the year I finally got to meet my son, which has been the best and most transformative experience of my life. This time last year, I was newly pregnant, just starting to tell people, and blissfully snoozing my days away. I got to spend quite a bit of time in Idaho in the first part of the year reading, hibernating, and gestating. I also got to see the snow sculptures for the first time this year. T and I made a trip to Casper, WY. My pregnancy cravings were really kicking in at that point, and I spent long mornings eating at the hotel’s very decent continental breakfast and watching the news while T was working. I also got a delicious banana milkshake at Dairy Queen (I would eat much more junk like this in the third trimester).

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Instagram 2018 “Best Nine”

I spent the last months in my SLC apartment. For the last time, I watch the daffodil bulbs emerge from the ground (always so early!). I ran my daily laps around the park that I came to know and love so well. (I was able to easily run until I was 23-24 weeks pregnant.) In February, I announced my pregnancy to the world, and the world joined my celebration. I got the 20 week anatomy scan and saw my baby for the first time. I flew to Kansas City, Missouri for a work conference. I was still barely showing then.

After months (years really) of searching, I finally found a house and bought it. Call it nesting, call it what you will, but I knew for sure that this house was right for me and haven’t regretted the purchase for one second. I like being in the house. I love the community. It’s right by Utah Lake. It feels completely idyllic to me and was my necessary “next step.”

Mom came to visit for a week and brought my nephew to Utah for the first time. It was a hectic trip (since I was in the middle of buying and updating a house), but I loved it. Thinking back nostalgically, the trip might’ve included the last time Graysen will ever jumped into my arms. He ran to me, and I lifted him up easily over my bump and into a hug, and my mom wondered out loud if I should be doing so much lifting.

Sadly, my grandma passed away unexpectedly in the spring, and I drove home for her funeral. Now nine months later, her death seems unreal to me. I still feel like I should go over for a visit and show her my new baby.

Following my trip to Oregon, I frantically updated and moved into my new house. T was a saint during this time, doing all of the painting and heavy lifting for me. I officially moved during the first week of my third trimester. Physically, I don’t recommend it. I was nesting and highly motivated in every other way though.

I returned to Oregon for Mother’s Day weekend and the baby shower of my dreams—pink and yellow, lots of flowers, friends, family, and all of the foods and sweet candies that I love. This was also the weekend that I got my maternity photos, and all of my family finally officially met T.

Once I returned to Utah, I put my nose to the ground to teach summer school (which was physically challenging, but a welcome distraction), continued unpacking, prepping the nursery, and lugging by increasingly heavy body around in the warm Utah summer.

I made my last trip to Idaho in early June and then spent most of the following month alone. I ate. I ate tremendous amounts of anything I wanted. I savored my last weeks, days, and hours of alone time—keenly aware that it might be years before I have such solitude again.

I began to relax and become increasingly ready on every level to give birth to my child, who now catapulted around my stomach in waves—comfortably, though. I was incredibly comfortable and deeply relaxed throughout my entire pregnancy.

Once summer school was over, I took long walks daily along the paved path by my house. People stopped and said things like “Any day now.” I felt supported in every way. I watched the birds, the plants, the animals. I walked slowly. It was the one thing I accomplished each day with devotion. Some days I would get too hot. I had mild Braxton Hicks contractions from 14 weeks forward. Some days I would feel strong. I no longer felt I could run. Nothing fit me anymore besides one or two giant shirts over a pair of cheap leggings. It’s possible that I have never been happier, and I certainly have never felt more blissful.

As my due date approached, I felt confident that I would go a week, or even two, past and told everyone to wait. But, much to my surprise, I ended up going into labor the day before my due date and giving birth the day after my due date. (The full details of that story to come.)

After an unexpected week in the hospital (for both me and baby), I spent a few weeks in Utah, with a lot of postpartum help from my mom. Then, I transitioned to Idaho.
In the fall, I returned to teaching and meetings (much of which could be done online and via video chat, thankfully, because I had (am having) a particularly slow and painful recovery and even short trips to campus left me sore, exhausted, and weirdly shaky and shaken.

Those first months were filled with daily urgent challenges, sleep deprivation, pride, love, and experiencing my new self as a mother. It’s a transition I’m still making, and the daily urgent challenges continue, although the pediatrician thinks things will even out soon. (I hope so!) That time included doctor appointments, prescriptions, pain, healing, learning how to eat a new diet—one that didn’t include the top eight allergens, or corn, oats, beans, cruciferous vegetables, and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes), and what else? The list seems to go on. I’ve mostly subsisted on chicken, rice, and mild vegetables, like carrots. The bright side? I’ve lost all the baby weight! Everyone gets to complain about pregnancy and caring for a newborn, but if your baby does not have the colic, reflux, and severe eczema trifecta, and you complain, then I will want to punch you in your throat.

T worked and traveled quite a bit in the last months of the year, and I solo parented.

Mom’s birthday was another highlight. In November, she joined us in Utah for her 60th and my grandpa’s 80th combined birthday party. Being with her and having her support in caring for my baby is such a relief.

We spent Thanksgiving with family friends in Idaho. We made an impromptu trip to Oregon for Christmas, and that brings us up to date.

In 2018, there have been challenges so severe that I honestly think many people would not be able to handle them. But, it’s also been the very best year full of experiences that were deeply wanted and loved. In 2018 everything changed forever, and I was ready.

looking for signs

I’m pregnant, and before I was pregnant, I imagined that I would document the experience thoroughly in writing, since it’s my mode of processing, communicating, and creating. But, I haven’t wanted to write much about the experience, and I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s because I have no words. I’m impressed with women who can write about pregnancy and the journey to motherhood. However, most of what’s written is more matter of fact or medical or humorous. To me, the experience isn’t entirely any of those things–it certainly isn’t medical and it isn’t funny. It’s a completely physical and spiritual thing. It’s so entirely unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced that, like I said, I have no words. I can say that I love being pregnant. I’m one of the lucky ones who actually feels better pregnant–warmer, stronger, more connected. There’s also a delightful and ongoing sense of celebration between me, my family, friends, and even with smiling strangers out in the world. More than that, though, I am awestruck. Constantly. Every day.

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a crop of my bump from my maternity photo shoot

Now that I am nearing the end of my pregnancy, I finally (after a busy move, and travel, and prepping a house and nursery, and work) find myself with long days of solitude. These are perhaps the last days I’ll have to myself for a very long time, and certainly they are the final days as my old self–the self before I am a mother and before I am always and forevermore caring for a child on the outside. I am savoring this time. I’m enjoying long quiet days, where I can indulge my whims moment to moment. And in these moments, I find myself looking for signs. First, what day will the baby arrive? Do I inherently know? I find myself looking at the dates on the calendar, each neutral and blank. One of these days will be the day that I experience childbirth for the first time. One of these days will be my son’s birthday. One of these days will be recognized now for the rest of my life.

I try to walk for a few miles on a beautiful trail that skirts the lake each morning before it gets too hot. Each day, I become more familiar with the route. I watch as new wildflowers bud out and bloom. I see new animals: birds, cows, horses, and deer. I notice plants that I think are sunflowers. After a few more days, I confirm that they are sunflowers. Then, I hope I will be able to see them bloom. I wonder if they will bloom before the baby is born. They begin to bloom. I step out of the shower and rub lotion over my belly. I put on a pair of underwear that I like. Will I be wearing these underwear when I go into labor? Will they be ruined?

Each day, there are more signs and questions. If I am to examine my intuition closely, I would say that I still have time, that birth is not exactly imminent. I still have a “to do” list that I’m working through slowly, but steadily. For now, I am satisfied to remain pregnant. I feel big and hot, but good and vital and very alive and still very comforted to have my son growing safely inside me.

And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach

Ok, I really need to start reading baby and childbirth-related book now. But, before I do, I read And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden. I’ve been a long-time listener of her gardening podcast. The podcast is weird, quirky, nerdy, and good and probably the best gardening podcasts out there. It’s a celebration of plants and gardening, and “how to.” (It’s supposed to have some woo woo, but there’s none of that, really.)

And I Shall Have Some Peace Here is the same way: weird, quirky, nerdy, and good. She’s got this style of writing that’s stream of consciousness, double consciousness. There are always several threads going through each paragraph, sometimes each line. Sometimes it’s funny and intentional. Sometimes it seems that it’s just the way her brain works, and she can’t help herself.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired by Roach to do more gardening, even in my limited and sometimes uncertain space, to propagate hostas, to fertilize my houseplants, and much more. It’s nice to find another person, and even community, who care as much as I do about plants.

However, this book is not as much about gardening as it is about taking big risks and changing one’s life–following one’s calling, even if it means (and it so often does) leaving a life of security for the life you were meant to live.

I liked that about the book. I like that, once Roach leaves the corporate world, she is sedentary and uncertain for a long time before she is able to take meaningful action. The big change might lead immediately to bliss and certainty, but it doesn’t always, and Roach’s story is evidence of that. Oftentimes, big change leads to sitting, and reading, and drinking too much, and eating too much, and staring out the window, and being very alone, but strangely, not really lonely. Your diet falls apart. Your yoga practice falls by the wayside. Until finally you realize you’re doing it. You’re doing the thing. You’re getting healthier, living better, and it all was really worth it. I found her story to be inspiring.

The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha by Diane Glancy

I first heard about Kateri Tekakwitha while reading about her sainthood in Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living Gods. I waded through a few books that reference her in  Erdrich’s latest, but Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwithawas the only one that held my attention.

This is a weird book, and, honestly, even after I’ve finished, I’m not sure if Glancy is being incredibly critical, cynical, or accurate in her depiction of Kateri. It’s a weird fever dream of a book and captivating and poetic on the sentence-level.

Here’s the thing: Kateri almost dies of smallpox. She survives, but is nearly blinded. After that, her life is a series of traumas–constant starvation, constant war, constant torture, murder, and freezing. Her life is a living hell, and then she dies at the young age of 24.

During her short, extremely traumatic life, she converts to Catholicism, following the lead of a few female family members. Christianity is met with skepticism by many members of her tribe, but it is also somewhat tolerated.

As she learns more about the religion, she becomes more zealous. She self flagellates and physically tortures herself in various other ways. She has strange dreams day and night, waking and in sleep. The author, Glancy, paints such a horrific picture of Kateri’s life that the reader can’t help but wonder if Kateri is having a genuine religious experience, or if she is quite predictably experiencing a kind of PTSD-induced psychosis. The latter seems quite reasonable. But, the author doesn’t dismiss Kateri’s experience of God and spirituality either. Religion and Kateri’s mystic experience is at the forefront of the text to the same extent as the torture and trauma.

Like in life, I suppose, the reader is left to wonder what’s real, and what’s spiritual, and what’s an apparition, and which ones are worth believing in.

Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf

For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about pregnancy since I got pregnant, which is a surprise because in the past I’ve enjoyed reading and pregnancy and reading about pregnancy. It might have to do with the fact that I’ve been working on an article that *to a degree* has to do with rhetoric and pregnancy. So, most of my reading in the past few months has been toward that end.

I read Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood by Naomi Wolf, and I loved it! It’s a hefty tome, and I pretty much just sat down one day and read it. I read it for the article, yes, but I’m including it here because it became joy reading as well.

I’ll admit that, throughout the entire reading, I had her confused with Naomi Klein, who’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which I read in 2008, at the beginning of my doctoral program, deeply informed my thinking about political economy. I thought Wolf’s work was more accessible, but I read it voraciously, thinking it would provide the deep intellectual analysis that Klein’s work is known for. I’ll admit that Wolf’s work was far more accessible, less hard hitting, but a nice blend of journalistic blend of smart analysis and storytelling. Wolf’s book is stark and honest, but not so dark that it doesn’t also include the bright side (which I need at this point in my pregnancy).

Wolf’s book is about mourning the previous identity as women change irreversibly to become mothers. The deep estrogenic surge in my body now is physically changing me. I’m aware that I’ll never look the same again. Those hormones are also making more compassionate toward people, toward their stories. I’m aware that this is a biological imperative that will help me have compassion and provide good care for my new infant, even when it is hard. And Wolf says it will be hard. She outright states what I already knew, and what few people can bring themselves to say aloud: that my body will be different, that the hormones will take me to the lowest low, that my love for the baby will be more like an addict’s obsession that any kind of consensual love, that I’ll have less power in my relationship with my partner, that I’ll be less respected as a professional, and that I will spend many sleep deprived months deeply mourning these loses. That sounds about right. And yet, I chose this still. And I’ve enjoyed a beautiful, healthy adult woman’s body for several decades. I’ve earned the highest degree available. I’ve had a professional career that is fulfilling and well-respected. And while I hope I am still able to have a fulfilling professional life, and I hope my body is fit and healthy, I am so ready for something else. For me, the timing feels absolutely perfect. I’ve checked a lot of boxes on my life’s “to do” list. This one’s next.

Here were some lines from the book that I liked:

  • “The medical establishment too often produces a birth experience that is unnecessarily physically and psychologically harmful to the women involved” (6).
  • “[W]omen carrying babies must be nurtured and supported intensively” (114).
  • “I heard comparable ordinary traumas among many women I talked to–what I have come to call “ordinary bad births” (145).
  • A typical sentiment from a woman who recently gave birth: “Nothing happened according to what we had wanted or planned. And we had absolutely no say; the institution just took over” (147).
  • “A number of women who had given birth described a moment at which they felt the medical institution simply took over; oblivious to the mother’s wishes, experience, or concerns” (149).
  • “Midwives working on their own terms do not try to guide births along a path determined by unnecessary medical interventions. Rather, midwives wait, encourage, and prepare the way, successfully keeping medical intervention to a minimum” (151).
  • “I have never yet seen a physician show the respect of informing a woman of waht is required–‘I need to do this procedure’; instead they just cut, often without even telling the woman–sometimes when the baby is just about born; sometimes the husband is shouting for the doctor to stop. Many women find this cut the most traumatic part of the birth. Yet episiotomy is seen in the same light as taking a temperature–it’s that routine,” remarked midwife Elissa March” (193).
  • From Wolf’s doctor during her second pregnancy: “You had to be sectioned last time. You probably have an unusually narrow birth canal. Maybe your body just is not made to have babies.” And, “[M]y doctor wanted to be right about my being in need of his surgical help more than he wanted to heal” (278).

 

The First Forty Days by Heng Ou

When I first found out I was pregnant (yes, pregnant!), The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou was the first book I ordered. Over the years, as part of my doula training, I’ve read many books about childbirth (my favorite probably being Ina May Gaskin’s Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding: From the Nation’s Leading Midwife).

So much is written about the pregnancy and childbirth, and rightly so, but relatively little has been written about the postpartum period, now sometimes referred to as the “fourth trimester.” So, I read this book to learn more about that period, and I’m glad I did.

My only criticism of the book is that it is quite repetitive and the content is better than the writing. Through the first half, and then again at the very end, it reads more like a book proposal, like she’s still trying to sell the reader on the idea, than like reading the body of a book.

However, it’s absolutely still worth reading. In fact, I highly recommend it for pregnant people, new parents, and their caretakers. The highlights of the book are in the information provided about the postpartum period in different cultures, how to care for a new mother in the first 40 days or 6 weeks after a baby is born. The novel recipes are inspiring, and I found the thoughtful commentary that goes along with each recipe to be  interesting. The images of the meals and ingredients are also gorgeous. I’ve been craving so much junk food that seeing lovely pictures of “real” food has helped me out a bit.

Even if I don’t end up making or eating any of the meals from this book, I think just reading about this postpartum philosophy would help new mothers recover, heal, and adjust. At the very least, I think I’ll probably drink broths and soups and try to stay cozy and warm during this time. I’m always cold, and so I loved the emphasis on prioritizing warmth. I felt like the book gave me permission to do so in general, and I appreciated that.

My doula just recommended Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond, which is another one I haven’t read yet. I think I’ll try it next.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (link below) is just a lovely book. When I first heard about it, I knew I wanted to read it. (If you follow me on Instagram, you know this too.) An immersion into plants, poetry, and botany? Yes please!

The second section is my favorite: “Tending Sweetgrass.” This section is more about plants as they relate to humans, relationships, parenting, and home. In this section, she delves into her sense of belonging (or lack thereof) in the different regions she’s lived in. I identified with this section deeply as someone who hasn’t always been able to live in regions that feel like “home” to me.

The author uses metaphor and parable, and it’s beautifully done, but these sections were less powerful to me. Instead, I gained the most from the sections that seem most connected to her own lived experience. I also loved some of the deep descriptions of the kind of spiritual nature of sitting alone in a patch of wild strawberries, harvesting wild nuts, and the life cycle of the salamander (an animal that I’ve encountered in life and in dreams recently).

Parts of this book are dense, and I found myself skipping through. The end is a beautiful, poetic, and urgent , warning, plea, defense against the rampant destruction of Mother Earth. Sometimes I have a hard time reading this kind of difficult material, but she does it so artfully that I was able to understand it in a new way.

If you love plants, animals, people, and Mother Earth, you’ll want to read this book.

Lines I loved:

“[B]ecoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend on it (9).

“Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away” (10).

“[R]estoring habitat, no matter how well intentioned, produces casualties” (92).

“Being a good mother includes the caretaking of water” (94).

“You can smell it before you see it, a sweetgrass meadow on a summer day” (156).

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende

This is basically Alaska’s version of A Prairie Home Companion (the Garrison Keillor version, not this new stuff). More specifically, it’s like the “News from Lake Wobegon” section of the show, which also happens to be my favorite part. (P.S. I thought Sara Watkins was going to take over the show. I love her speaking voice. I think the replacement needed to be a woman who sounds sort of like a church lady.)

Anyway, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town by Heather Lende is full of that same kind of down homey, good timey accounts of a few births, a lot of deaths (Alaska is a dangerous place, and there many of untimely deaths), and some other stories in between.

For whatever reason, this was a slow read for me, even though the short chapters should make it very readable. I also found some of reflection to be cheesy. There are religious overtones, and, in my opinion, those are always difficult to pull off, and this was no exception. By the end, even though these townspeople are clearly beloved, I had a hard time differentiating one old, dying, charismatic local from the next.

That said, it’s still worth the read, but maybe only if you’re a fan (secretly or otherwise, of A Prairie Home Companion), if you’re from Alaska (I’m not), if you’ve visited Alaska (I have), or if you crave to be immersed in an idyllic, close-knit community that has the kind of face-to-face social interactions that some of us may still remember from before the days of social media (I do).