• What I've Been Reading

    I'm not even kidding--she tore the cover off the new Franzen book.

    I have good news and bad news regarding my reading life: the good news is that Margaux has learned to take (very, very short) naps in her crib, which means I don’t have to hold her to sleep every day! The bad news is that I don’t have to hold her to sleep every day, and now I’m reading less than I was. It’s wonderful to have baby-free hands twice a day, but I miss the heaviness of sleeping baby on my chest, and I miss the hours I got to spend reading, trapped under the weight of her.*

    But! I’ve still gotten a few things read. Here’s their power ranking.

    8. Villa America by Liza Klaussman- This novel focuses on Gerald and Sara Murphy, most well-known, for me anyway, for hosting beautiful, boozy weekends for their artist friends, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, still in his first marriage and dipping his toe into the second. This book capitalizes on the glamour and tragedy of the Lost Generation cast who pass through the doors of Villa America, the Murphys’ home in France, and, to me, relies a bit too heavily on their theatrics. But the most effective and affecting part of the book is the complex marriage of Gerald and Sara, two people who love each other in a very real, very pure, very complicated way. They are, for example, fiercely loyal to each other but not faithful. Each admires the other, their affections are real and profound, but their marriage requires each to abandon a part of themselves, and it’s in this exploration of marital give and take that the novel truly shines.

     7. The Wife by Meg Wolitzer- Joan Castleman is the titular wife, the spouse of a charismatic and celebrated novelist, and as the novel opens--and the pair are en route to Helsinki where Joseph will be receiving a prestigious literary award--Joan decides that she will leave him. She relives their courtship and marriage, the disappointments and vitriol and resentment that bloom over the years, the hurt and oppression that brings her to this moment, flying into a foreign country and ready to finally leave. The big reveal of the end is predictable, telegraphed from the early pages of the novel, and thus kind of a letdown, but it’s hard to put down, even if you’re unsurprised at the final turn.

     6. Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont- When I had read about 20% of this book, I stopped and Googled Julia Pierpont because I was jealous of how talented she obviously is…then I got even more jealous (about to reveal how petty I truly am) because Julia Pierpont is my age and got a six figure book deal for this book, her debut novel! One day, a package arrives for Deb Shanley but is intercepted by her children. Inside the box, they discover a letter for their mother and correspondence between their father Jack and his mistress, who has decided to reach out to Deb. The Shanleys’ world shatters, and the book follows the summer in which everything breaks down. I was enthralled by the story and the language for most of the book, but about halfway through, the point of view pulls back, and Pierpont offers us a peek into the family’s future, weeks, months, years past the arrival of the letters, and then she takes us back into the present of the story, where everything moves forward as if there has been no interruption. The glimpse of what’s coming is beautifully spare, but I found I cared less about the present after I got to see the future.

    5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante- Did you get swept up in Ferrante Fever? I had never even heard of her until literary Twitter lost its mind over the release of her final book in the Neapolitan series, which follows the lives of Lila and Elena as they grow up in impoverished Naples. My Brilliant Friend, the first novel of the series, is the story of the girls’ childhood and their complex friendship. The series has gotten attention for, among other things, Ferrante’s depiction of what relationships between girls can truly be like: genuine and competitive and rich and painful all at once. Both Lila and Elena are brilliant—each considers the other her brilliant friend—and banking on that brilliance to get them out of Naples. But the stranglehold her neighborhood has on its residents is strong and real, and the girls learn to fight with whatever weapons fate happens to hand them. It took me awhile to get into it, pretty much from age eight until the girls are teenagers, but the ending stings and is, to steal a word from Ferrante, brilliant.

    Top four coming tomorrow!

    *Guess what! I've had this post written for awhile but haven't had a chance to put it up, aaaaand now, thanks to a marathon stomach virus, teething, and a sleep regression, Margaux is no longer napping by herself. So. There's that. Haha.

  • Ready or not

    Motherhood, for me, has been about not being ready.

    When I found out I was pregnant, I was at school, in Vermont in a dorm bathroom—a long row of sinks and poor lighting and stalls the pale color of a peeled banana. We had been trying for months, and it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. I walked into my room where my roommate was waiting to hear the results. “I’m pregnant,” I said, and we both cried. I called my husband back in Houston, and I cried then too. “Do you feel okay?” he asked. “Are you excited?” Yes, I said. I felt fine, was excited. But then I thought about how there was a tiny, tiny being inside me, and that tiny being would get bigger and bigger and then have to come out. I wouldn’t ever be alone again, not even now, when I shared my body with someone else. I wasn’t ready.

    When my water broke, I was thirty-six weeks pregnant. I had been in the backyard reading The Remains of the Day, and I cried when it was over. I’d pulled up my shirt, and my stomach was pale and strange and round, sun-warmed in the afternoon. I imagined my baby, tight inside me, blinking in the bright light of the day. I went inside, into my closet, stared at the clothes that didn’t fit me—and then there was a gush between my legs. I called my husband, who was across town and carless, my mom, who was out of town, and then my dad, who was almost out of town but not quite, and as I waited for him to pick me up, I waddled to the nursery. We had a chair and a crib and changing table and on the floor piles and piles of baby things I couldn’t even begin to classify. And—even though I hate when this happens in fiction, when a character talks to herself, aloud and alone—I actually said, out loud and alone, “But I’m not ready.”

    When the doctor said we could leave the hospital the day after Margaux was born, healthy and beautiful and perfect—and terrifying, this little baby I felt unqualified to have--I must have looked worried. “Or,” he said, “you can wait another day. Wait for the insurance to kick you out.” He smiled and squeezed my hand, and that’s what we did.

    When we moved Margaux from our room to her own, my husband said I handled it well. “Honestly,” he said, “I thought you might be a wreck about it. But you aren’t! You’ve been really brave.” He meant it kindly, and he was right and wrong because I was a wreck and I was being very brave, and I watched her on the monitor all night long, breathing when she did, the bunnies on her pajamas swelling and shrinking with each inhale, exhale. When she cried a few hours later, I went to her and brought her back to our room.

    When she turned six months, I told everyone I was going to stop breastfeeding her. I said I wanted a milkshake and cheese enchiladas and all the dairy I had given up for her. But her little face, the curl of tiny fingers, the curve of her cheek as she nursed! I stopped at seven.

    When she wouldn’t sleep, I held her. When she woke up crying at two in the morning, I put her on my chest, and we slept til seven—and for naps too, three times a day, her mouth fluttering open and closed, sucking on something that wasn’t there, a memory of a warmth she used to know. But now she sleeps in her own little bed. You’re such a big girl, I tell her every morning and afternoon, each time I lift her from her crib. I’m so proud of you, I say.

    And I am proud of her, of each thing she does, even though every inch forward feels like something I relinquish, something I miss. She turns eight months old in a few days, and while I’ve said hundreds of times that I can’t wait for her to sleep in her own crib, to stop nursing, for her to crawl, to play alone, so far I haven’t really been ready. Growing up is a miracle—there are so many dangers lurking in the world—and of course I know it’s right and good and just lucky that she’s getting to do it, but it feels like a surprise when it happens all the same. One day she’ll be eight and then eighteen, and each year will mark some change that catches me off guard, something I didn’t know I would mourn until it’s replaced with something else I’ll miss. It’s been hard, this growing up we are doing together, but it’s a celebration too, a feast of wonder—and I can be, I must be, ready for that.

  • Gains and losses

    Just a few minutes after Margaux Juliet arrived :)

    Here are the things I knew I was giving up when I had a baby:

    1. My body. That’s an obvious one. For eight months, I watched my body change and change. Everything expanded, my belly, of course, but my legs grew thicker, my hips spread, my rear rounded out until my profile was three undulating curves: my breasts, the bump of my growing baby, my behind. My cheeks reddened, my nails grew fast, a line ran straight down my stomach, perfectly in the middle, so that if you folded me along it, I would be in two precise halves.

    2. Sleep. But I’d learn to live with it, or without it. I got an expensive glider for the nursery—I had saved the picture on my phone no less than three times to show people and had agonized over the material, the color, its placement in the room—and I imagined rocking my tiny, perfect baby in the darkness of 3 A.M. until she drifted back to sleep and I crept to my own room to snuggle up beside my husband, who would rouse just enough to thank me for taking care of our new daughter, who would stumble out of bed and rock her in that same chair just hours later when she woke again. “It will totally be worth the money,” I said firmly to anyone who dared to raise an eyebrow at the price tag. “After all, I bet I’ll end up sleeping in it with her every night!”

    3. My time. Of course I wouldn’t be able to do everything I usually did. But we would have date night, I would carve out time to write, I would wear her in a sling when I cooked dinner. I would be the cute mom with the cute baby at Whole Foods, and everything would be different but manageable, completely doable.

    And I have given up those things, and I’ve given them up in ways I wasn’t prepared for. My body still doesn’t look like the body I had a year and a half ago, and it doesn’t look like the one I had six months ago either. I never slept in that chair because I was too afraid to sleep while I held her, terrified she would stop breathing or slip out of my arms when I closed my eyes. I didn’t rock her in the glider at 3 A.M. I nursed her and nursed her and paced around the house with her and cried theatrically and bitterly when Josh didn’t wake up when Margaux did, and it was only me in the middle of the night trying to figure out what was making this mysterious little creature so unhappy. And my time: no time has belonged to me in months.

    Yeah, we're those idiots who bought the newborn photos they do in the hospital.

    Then there are things I didn’t know I was giving up but did anyway:

    1. My relationship with my husband. I still have one, but it’s different. It’s unfamiliar. When I was pregnant, we used to tell people how glad we were we waited as long as we did to have a baby, but in the very early days of Margaux’s existence, and sometimes now, I wonder if it was a mistake to have taken those five years and spent it wholly on ourselves. We had figured it out in so many ways, had learned how to be married to each other. And so when two of us became three, I delighted in my baby but mourned how much things had changed between Josh and me, how different our life had become. Our life was good and happy and easy, and now it was so hard, and I thought obsessively about the things we had done in the past: lazy brunches, museums, afternoon movies, late dinners, days spent entirely on the couch, hibernating in both the winter and the grueling Texas summer, hiking trips in exotic places. When Margaux was born, the wallpaper on my phone was a picture of Josh and me in Santorini, and on the screen we glowed, tan and unfettered against so much blue: the water, the sky, the roof of a church. It hurt me to look at it. “We’ll never go anywhere again,” I told Josh in the first month after Margaux came. “That was it.”

    “At least it was a good trip,” he said. Now we’re learning all over again how to be with each other, how to be parents as well as husband and wife. It was a good trip, I know, and I think this one can be even better than the last. It’s just that we’re in a different country, one we’ve only heard about and never visited, and the terrain here is at once jagged and beautiful, and this is where we live now.

    2. Friends. Some of my friends didn’t last through pregnancy. Most of my friends did, and I’m so thankful for that. But some of them didn’t. My life was changing, and maybe theirs wasn’t, and that made it hard to relate to one another, or else theirs was, and we were just changing in different directions, turning away from each other, our friendship a circle cleaved in half, each side falling away, turning away so that we were no longer connected. Pregnancy, for me, was a selfish time, so many days, weeks, months devoted to focusing on my body, on my baby growing inside it. I'm willing to accept my culpability here, in the weakening of these friendships. If you're one of these people, I'm sorry. I forgot to look up, I know. I just didn’t know I needed to.

    3. Identity. I’m a Christian, and so I believe my true identity in Christ is greater than any other one I claim. But it’s so hard, going from simply being myself to being the mother version of myself. Nothing I do now is the same as what I used to do before I had a baby, and that’s been a difficult adjustment for me. When I go places, I go with Margaux, and now people see me as a mom. Before, people would see me, and I could have been anyone, could be going anywhere, but now I’m pushing a stroller or bouncing a crying baby up and down and making a shushing noise really loudly in her ear or I’m running out of the store/restaurant/building because she’s wailing, her tiny fists little balls of rage, her perfect cheeks hot and red, and everyone around me knows I’m going home to continue doing mom things there. Here, in this sad Margaux situation, being a mom is my defining characteristic. But even when she’s happy, that’s still true. I’m dying for someone to comment on my baby so that I can talk about her. When I open Google on my phone, all I have to do is type “what” and it fills in a baby-related question. It’s an all-consuming job, and I get tired of being consumed by it. I want to sit and write because I know I’m not just a mom (no one is!), but it’s nearly impossible, and I start to forget what I know is true: I’m more than Margaux’s mother, although that’s certainly important and special, and I’m grateful for that gift.

    Last month, I went to residency in Vermont, my last one, and I was apart from Margaux for five days. I felt split in two—I missed her in an aching kind of way, but at the same time I felt almost giddy because only a few hours into my first day back, I realized I was still who I remembered being after all. I could write and discuss things and tell stories. I could hold a conversation. I could do things besides take care of a baby. When Margaux came with my family up to Montpelier, I cried when I saw her, my most beautiful, wonderful girl. But—and it’s hard to admit it—I found myself grieving the end of the time I had to be myself again.

    My mom told me a story about when I was a baby and she a new mom. She was taking kids to Young Life camp, and I wasn’t there. It was only a few hours into the long bus ride to Colorado, and she realized the same thing I did, nearly thirty years later in the green mountains of Vermont. “I was still me,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

    Every night I have "Baby Bottom Appreciation Time" right before her bath, and this is what that looks like. 

    I’ve given up smaller, much less important things too: dairy, TV, going to the gym, physical books because it’s impossible to hold both a book and baby. But what I’ve gained, though, cannot be contained in a list. It is impossible to name, except for this: for all the things I’ve given up and all that’s been hard—which feels like everything—I have Margaux. I tried for her, I prayed for her, and she’s here, and she’s a miracle. I adore her. I love her more than I could have ever thought. It’s just that it’s a new world for both of us. Sometimes I think about how much Margaux has learned in five months, and it’s pretty incredible. And now that she’s here, learning and growing, I know how much I have to learn and re-learn myself: how to be a mother, of course, but also a wife, a friend, a writer, how to hold onto what is true, how to remember who I am. 

    My first Mother's Day!

    The best.

  • What I'm Reading, Part 2

    Janis Joplin doing the one thing she and I had in common: reading!

    Here is the second half of the books I've read this year! 

    Missoula by Jon Krakauer- Here, inspired in part by this article, Krakauer investigates a string of sexual assaults at the University of Montana in Missoula, a city recently given the moniker of “Rape Capital of America.” He focuses on several trials, two of which involve the prosecution of UM football players, and through this exploration, Krakauer uncovers disturbing trends in the way sexual assault cases in our country are handled—and mishandled. However, if you are a survivor of sexual assault, proceed with caution: there are lots of graphic descriptions and testimonies of rape.

    Night Film by Marisha Pessl- Stanislas Cordova is an enigmatic, reclusive filmmaker whose work—the scarring, scary stuff of nightmares—inspires a rabid cult of followers who meet in abandoned buildings to screen his films. But when his daughter Ashley turns up at dead, Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist who has delved into Cordova’s past before, attempts to lift the dark veil  behind which Cordova dwells and find out what really happened to Ashley.

    We Were Liars by E. Lockhart- Just keeping my hand in the YA game here! Cadence is a member of the wealthy, perfect Sinclair family, who gather every summer on their private island off Cape Cod. One summer everything changes: Cadence suffers a mysterious accident, waking up with severe pain but no memory of the incident, and she decides to fight to uncover the truth about what happened to her.

    Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer- Another YA book! More secrets that must be uncovered! After a serious meltdown following the death of her boyfriend, Jam winds up at a school for sensitive, brilliant teens, where she’s chosen for an exclusive class called Special Topics in English. There, Jam and her classmates will spend the entire semester studying just one text, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and keeping a journal. But the practice of journaling offers them transport to and refuge in another world, one that is massively more tempting than our world and all the pain that comes with it.

    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick- Here, Demick writes about, well, ordinary lives in North Korea in the 1990s, following the stories of several defectors. It’s a completely horrifying and surreal peek into a totalitarian regime.

    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins- AND MORE SECRETS! Actually, now that I’m looking at these last three books, I could pretty much sum them up with SECRETS. Rachel is a sad woman with a drinking problem, mourning her old self and lusting for the life that could have been hers. Everyday she commutes into London, and from the train, everyday, she sees a beautiful, happy couple she calls Jess and Jason and imagines what their beautiful, happy life must be like. But one day she spies Jess kissing another man; the next day, Jess goes missing, and Rachel, believing Jason to be the culprit, begins a dangerous quest for answers.

    Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng- Here, Ng explores issues of race and gender and identity and family dynamics through the mystery of the death of Lydia Lee, a Chinese-American girl in the 1970s Midwest, and her family’s struggle to reconcile their understanding of their daughter and sister and the reality of who she was in her short life. As the new mom to a baby girl, it was a beautiful, painful read, imagining my own little one growing up and having a life completely separate from my own, full of loneliness and desires I may never know.

    Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll- TifAni FaNelli is a cold bitch, but she has it all: killer body, hot fiancée, glamorous job at a glossy magazine. But guess what else she has. Yep, SECRETS. And those secrets, which Knoll reveals slowly but never with the sense of withholding, are devastating. Again, there are some pretty graphic scenes, and if you are someone who does not handle that well, pick up another one of the books on the list instead. :)

    I’m currently reading—and loving—Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche! What other great books am I missing? Or even better: what great books have I missed recently while I've been living under the baby rock?

  • What I'm Reading, Part 1

    Here's how I get all my reading done these days--with a sleeping baby on my lap. It's not bad.

    As it turns out, there are lots of things babies won’t always let you do, including but not limited to: cooking, eating breakfast, cleaning, eating lunch, going to the gym, eating dinner, watching TV, sleeping soundly, showering, having a conversation with your partner when he gets home from work, writing.

    But reading! There is so much more time for reading than I could have ever imagined. Here is part one of what I’ve read recently:

    • Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor- A truly bizarre and brilliant novel about Hazel Motes, a young atheist who begins his own religion: the Church of Christ Without Christ. I read this for my graduate lecture about made-up cults and religions in literature, but if that’s not your thing, read this for the crazy zookeeper, a charlatan street minister, the mummified dwarf, at least one person who willingly blinds himself, and a man in a gorilla costume.
    • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro- Stevens, a butler in post-war England, takes a drive through the countryside—his first holiday in years—and reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall. This sounds incredibly boring, but it isn’t! It’s a heartbreaking portrait of regret and self-denial and the unrelenting quest for dignity. Fun fact: literally ten minutes after I finished this book, my water broke, and eleven hours after that, Margaux was born.
    • Us by David Nicholls- Douglas and Connie, a middle-aged married couple in the suburbs of London, take their seventeen-year-old son Albie on a Grand Tour of Europe. The only problem is that right before they are scheduled to leave, Connie tells Douglas, who narrates the novel, that she isn’t sure she wants to be married to him anymore...but off they go on vacation anyway. This is one of my favorite books I’ve read recently. It’s equally funny and sad, hopeful and painful. It will ignite your wanderlust too, though you won’t want to be on this particular trip.
    • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr- This won the Pulitzer, and probably everyone you know has read it. Here, Doerr tells the story of a blind French girl and a German boy in occupied France during WWII. Read with a pen in hand--to underline all the beautiful sentences--and tissues within arms’ reach.
    • The Secret History by Donna Tartt- This book may not have a mummified dwarf, but this novel about a group of Classics students at a small college in Vermont has lots of other things to recommend it: a murder, a bacchanal, at least one sociopath, and all the Latin and Greek phrases you can translate, you pretentious nerd.
    • The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill- A lyrical, dreamy slip of a book about a marriage and all the things, good and bad, that come with it.
    • California by Eden Lepucki- Another book about marriage! The United States is slowly crumbling, and Frida and Cal have escaped a deteriorating L.A. and established a homestead out in the remote wilderness. When Frida becomes pregnant, they have to make a drastic choice about what they will do, and where they will go, next. But in their years away from civilization, their marriage has changed as much as the world around them, and this next change threatens to undo them entirely.
    • Dare Me by Megan Abbott- With this novel, centered on a cheerleading squad ruled first by Beth, the team’s awesome and awful captain, and then the new coach, whose reign inspires a fanatical devotion from the girls, Abbott takes us into the dark, luscious, devious, and utterly complex corner of the world inhabited by teenage girls.

    And there's more, but I'll wait and make that part two. :) In the meantime, anyone have any good recommendations?

  • So many things!

    Margaux and me post-graduation ceremony

    WELL, I may not have kept this blog up, but I’ve accomplished a few other things in the meantime:

    BABY- She’s here (and has been here for awhile…whoops)! On Valentine’s Day, at 1:43 a.m., almost a month before her due date, we welcomed Margaux Juliet into our little family. She is the most beautiful and cleverest and sweetest baby in the world. So far this has been the hardest five months of my life, but hey, I’m still standing. Although if I’m honest, there are lots of days when I’m still standing only because I have to be. I want to write a separate post about how motherhood has been so far, but in the meantime, here are a few recent Margaux pictures from our trip to Vermont.

    Reunited after five days apart! Margaux looks so beautiful and melancholy. Which would not be an inaccurate description for many of her days.

    Margaux got to dip her pretty toes into this pretty lake. We hiked up here, and Josh wore her in the Baby Bjorn. When he took it off, he had a Baby Bjorn shaped sweat mark taking up his entire torso. #trooper

    Margaux's first Fourth of July

    My two favorite people

    MFA- Which leads me to this! We just returned home this week from my final residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. There, I gave my first reading and my first lecture, attended the lectures and readings of my comrades, participated in the final workshop of my MFA career—and laughed a lot with a group of people I really love. I had no idea what I was getting myself into two years ago, but I’m leaving with so many good things: I’m a better writer—and I expected that, if I expected anything at all—but now I have a tribe, and I didn’t really expect that. I’m a tiny part of an important community. I have friends who will read my work, whose work I will read, who will celebrate with me and listen patiently to my litany of anxieties about writing and motherhood. Thank you, VCFA, for giving these things to me, and thank you for the adventure.

    WRITING- Finishing this last semester with a baby was super hard, but in a way, the timing was a gift. I didn’t even have a chance to take a real break from writing because I was still in the middle of the semester. I was trying to finish a novella. I was putting together my creative thesis. I was writing my lecture. My advisor was wonderful and understanding, but I still had to get all these things done; I had to learn how to write in whatever tiny moments of quiet were awarded to me. Thankfully, Josh and my family have been incredibly supportive, and finishing this semester really became a team effort. It would have been impossible without them. This semester, too, right before I went up to Vermont, I found out that a story of mine will be published in the Winter 2015 issue of Ploughshares!

    READING- In another post—and I feel confident I can actually do this one because it’s a list and how hard is it to write a list?—I’ll make a list of what I’ve read this semester. When your baby will only nap if you hold her, you actually get a lot of reading done. :)

    It really has been an amazing past few months, but I’m afraid this post doesn’t do justice to its hard parts, which have been so hard, so painful. When I realized what it would really be like to be a mom, I made a promise to myself that I would be as honest as I could about what motherhood has been like so far for me, and I hope that I’ll be able to share a little bit of that here, if I get the chance. If Margaux lets me. Haha. 

    Here a few pictures from my last few days at residency!

    Liz and Margaux finally meet!

    Historical swordplay at the talent show because why wouldn't there be?